That Thing You Do! (PG) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Tom Hanks's screenwriting and directorial debut, That Thing You Do!,
has all the qualities you would associate with the most beloved screen actor
of the moment: fun, lively, and oh-so-nice. It is the latter quality,
however, that becomes a hindrance, for this '60s nostalgia trifle is so nice
and sweet that it teeters on becoming bland milquetoast.
That Thing focuses on the Wonders, a teen rock band from Erie,
Pennsylvania that is suddenly thrust into the national spotlight in 1964
when they score a major dance hit called, of course, "That Thing You Do!"
The group's members are, naturally a diverse group: there's brooding lead
singer and songwriter Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech); girl-crazy Lenny (Steve
Zahn), the lead guitarist; a goofy, geeky type known only as The Bass Player
(Ethan Embry); and the film's center, Guy (Tom Everett Scott), the drummer
who has aspirations in jazz. Along for the Wonders' ride to success is
Jimmy's perpetually neglected galpal, Faye (Liv Tyler).
Hanks proves to be a capable writer-director, deftly recreating the
innocent spirit of 1964, which Hanks calls "the last innocent year." The
spirit is not only reflected in the period clothes and settings but also in
the music, which, like the other recent period music film, Grace of My
Heart, was expressly written for the film; Hanks himself had a hand in
writing four of the tunes--but not the infectious title cut by Adam
Schlesinger, which is guaranteed to stay in your head long after the end
credits have rolled (it's still playing in my mind as I write this). It
should come as no surprise that Hanks the director works well with the
actors, eliciting charming, likable work from the entire cast, most notably
Hanks lookalike Scott and Tyler, who is remarkable in delivering the film's
biggest and best dramatic moment. The work of the young ensemble is so
natural that they truly convince as teens of the early '60s; they do not
appear to be '90s grungers playacting "retro."
Yet for all the light, frothy charms of That Thing You Do!, it's
nearly nice to a fault. While this unbridled innocence in film is a
refreshing change from all the sinful cinema around these days, there is not
enough conflict to keep things consistently interesting. Everyone is so
happy, basking in the glow of overnight success, marvelling at it
all--except toward the end, but even then the tone quickly reverts to
sweetness, ending on an appropriately feel-good note. There isn't much of
an edge throughout That Thing--the only thing that is remotely edgy is
Hanks's turn as the Wonders' manager--and thus becomes in danger of being so
nice it's bland.
But a little niceness goes a long way these days, and there's no
denying the entertainment value of That Thing You Do!; it's just about
impossible to hate. It's an inoffensive, enjoyable piece of nostalgia that
is sure to leave audiences smiling and humming, if not singing, "That Thing
You Do!"--quite possibly for days. To paraphrase a passage from the song:
Though I try and try to forget that song
It is just so hard to do
Every time they play "That Thing You Do!"
The Ghost and the Darkness (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
After the inexplicably phenomenal success of the piece of cinematic
sewage known as Congo, it was only a matter of time before Paramount came
out with another "killer-animals-in-the-African-wilderness" adventure. I am
happy to say that Stephen Hopkins's film is nowhere nearly as junky as that
disastrous Michael Crichton adaptation; in fact, it is quite a suspenseful
tale. The story, based on actual events, centers on a British Army engineer
(Val Kilmer) whose railroad bridge building project in 1898 Africa becomes
endangered when two lions (dubbed the Ghost and the Darkness, natch) start
feasting on the work crew. Kilmer then teams with globetrotting hunter
Michael Douglas to hunt down the wild beasts.
Unlike Hopkins's last effort, the abysmal action bore Blown Away, he
creates some exciting and suspenseful moments due in no small part to the
very impressive lion animatronic effects by effects whiz Stan Winston; I
defy anyone to figure out which lions are real and which are not.
Contributing greatly to the atmosphere is Vilmos Zsigmond's stunning
photography. Douglas and Kilmer are also in fine form though they struggle
with accents; Douglas sports an intermittent, inconsistent Southern drawl
while Kilmer boasts a wavering Irish accent, which, coincidentally (?), was
a big problem with Blown Away. The Ghost and the Darkness takes a while to
get going, but when it finally does, it effectively wipes out the lion's
cuddly image from The Lion King and reinstates its rep as the fearsome king
of the jungle.
BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Steven Seagal's latest action opus finds Mr. Ponytail trying to
stretch somewhat... and breaking under the strain. Seagal tries out a few
new martial arts moves (not bad); attempts to become a deadpan comedian à la
Arnold Schwarzenegger (painful); and even makes a stab at conveying emotion
in his face. His labored attempts at sad expressions more closely resemble
severe constipation than sadness. The "plot" is an odd mishmash of a
typical Seagal vehicle, Lethal Weapon, and Se7en, with a wisecracking Keenen
Ivory Wayans teaming up with Seagal to catch a serial killer. The energetic
Wayans keeps this boat from drifting into the waters of boredom; he's so
much more interesting, lively, and fun than Seagal you wish that he were the
star of the film. Director John Gray fails to distinguish himself from the
other music video and commercial vets, relying heavily on what has now
become cliche--rapid edits, a perpetually moving camera, and superslick
visuals. While that is not a problem in itself, it becomes one when the
fight scenes are so heavily edited that it's hard to follow the action.
Glimmer should be just that--a flash in the box office pan that quickly
vanishes without a trace.
Bound (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
On paper, the noir thriller Bound did not seem like the most
promising of cinematic prospects. Writers-directors Larry and Andy
Wachowski's only other major credit was for writing Richard Donner's
entertaining but overblown Assassins; lead Jennifer Tilly has a tendency to be grating, to say the least; and co-star Gina Gershon was just coming off
her overwrought camp bitch turn in Showgirls. But thanks to a clever and
funny script, strong performances, and very accomplished and intelligent
direction, Bound is one of the year's biggest surprises.
I thought my low expectations were being met during the film's first
twenty minutes, in which mafia moll Violet (Tilly) tries to seduce the
lesbian grease monkey ex-con (Gershon) next door. With Tilly delivering her
come-hither lines in an even softer, squeakier voice than usual and
Gershon's Corky keeping one eyebrow perpetually raised, these opening scenes
play like Showgirls 2; in fact, some of the dialogue is reminiscent of the
infamous "tit" discussion scene in Joe Eszterhas's notorious script.
Needless to say, Violet and Corky finally do end up in bed, and the big sex
scene is actually done very discreetly and tastefully though it still
elicited some giggles from the audience.
These opening moments are something of a joke. It's as if the
Wachowskis knew expactly what the audience was expecting--cheesy lesbian
sex--so they delivered it in all its campy glory. But in doing so, it gets
that lesbian angle out of the way quickly, so when the main plot does get
into gear, the audience is not distracted by the anticipation of the big sex
scene. As laughable as the opening minutes are, they are key to
understanding the relationship between the two women, and they take on a
greater dimension in retrospect as the movie unfolds.
After the sex scene, the tone quickly shifts, and the main plot is
set into motion. Violet, fed up with the violent antics of her boyfriend,
mob launderer (figuratively and, in one hilarious scene, literally) Ceasar
(Joe Pantoliano), wants to leave him--but not without absconding with
$2,000,000 of the mob's cash. And who does she enlist to help her in her
scheme? Why, none other than Corky, who cooks up a "foolproof" plan to
steal the cash and frame Ceasar for the theft. However, you know what they
say about the best laid plans of mice and men...
This all sounds fairly formulaic, and, to a certain extent, it is.
But what makes Bound so special is the work of the Wachowski brothers.
Their script piles on twist after twist and close call after close call, and
the developments are very believable and not out of left field. For
example, in a particularly suspenseful scene, a mob figure (John P. Ryan)
breaks out a set of lockpicks to open a locked case, much to the shock of
Ceasar; this revelation does not come off as gimmicky because, earlier, he
nonchalantly unlocked a door without a key. The Wachowskis pay close
attention to those little details, ones that the audience does not typically
pick up on, using them to rattle the audience later on without insulting
Another refreshing aspect of the script is the presence of three
strong and intelligent characters. At first, it appears as if Corky is the
only one with brains, but as the film progresses Violet and especially
Ceasar prove to be not nearly as dumb as they appear, giving just as good as
they get. The casting of Tilly and Pantoliano is perfect; Tilly's squeaky
voice and Pantoliano's New Jersey accent and buffoonish demeanor would make it
easy for someone to underestimate them.
As well-crafted as their script is, the Wachowskis energize it with
a hefty dose of style. The film is always visually interesting, using
varieties of camera angles and movements, occasionally venturing into
slow-mo without overusing it. One of their more interesting touches is
aping certain visual cues from other films and putting their own twisted
spin on them: Jurassic Park's famous image of quivering water is
duplicated--in a toilet bowl; and the bravura opening shot of Krzysztof
Kieslowski's Red, which travels along long-distance telephone lines, is evoked in a creative and witty way. Unlike some directors, who go for the good-looking shot, plot credibility be damned, the Wachowskis come up with some stunners that work well within the story, such as when a person gets shot while standing in a pool of white paint, eventually falling in. It's a great-looking image, with the blood clashing against the white, but the
presence of the paint is explained by the fact that, earlier in the film,
Corky is shown painting her apartment.
Bound has just come off of a tour of various film festivals,
becoming an audience favorite at every one of them. As it embarks on its
run in theatres, I am sure it will become a favorite of anyone fortunate
enough to be sitting in the auditorium.
Curdled (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
| VHS! 2 days in the Valley (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
Those looking for evidence that Quentin Tarantino is the most
influential filmmaker of the moment need look no further than not one, but
two recent releases, the macabre comedy Curdled and the ensemble
comedy-thriller 2 days in the Valley. Pairing black humor with bloody
violence, both attempt to duplicate, to paraphrase the Coens' Barton Fink,
"that Tarantino feeling"... and come up short.
Tarantino himself executive produced Reb Braddock's Curdled, based
on his short of the same name. The film centers on Gabriela (Angela Jones),
a Miami woman who has a had a fixation on death since she was a little girl
in her native Colombia--she even keeps a scrapbook of newspaper articles
about murders, drawing depictions of the crimes next to each article. When
she sees a TV ad recruiting people for a company that cleans up after murder
scenes, she knows she's found her calling and immediately signs up. Of
course, her new job puts her into contact with danger, namely one Paul Guell
(William Baldwin), a.k.a. the Blue Blood killer, who stabs and beheads women
from Miami's upper social echelon. It also just so happens that Paul's
murder spree is Gabriela's latest morbid obsession.
The plot is enough to sustain 28 minutes, which is how long the
original Curdled short lasted. Stretched out to a little over 90, the
thinness of the premise is all too evident; a number of scenes and
characters feel like padding, and the movie doesn't kick into full gear
until the last act, when Gabriela and Paul finally meet. And for a black
comedy, writers Braddock and John Maass are a little too heavy on the
"black" and too light on the "comedy." While the entire package is amusing
and never boring (look out for the connections to From Dusk till Dawn), real laughs are few and far-between; however, the film never skimps in terms of blood, the letting and collection of it. The wallowing in gore is more
sensational and exploitative than anything else, and it is bound to turn off
many a moviegoer. I suppose Braddock was trying to get under people's skin,
but the subtler moments, like Gabriela's haunting
retrace-the-steps-of-the-murder-victim dance, are more disturbing and funny
than, say, the gruesome finale, which comes equipped with a joke that's more
cheesy than hilarious.
The performances are a mixed bag. Jones and her fascinating
character of Gabriela (of which she played a variation in Tarantino's Pulp
Fiction) are by far the best thing the film has going for it. Gabriela is
an interesting paradox--a woman who always wears dresses and speaks in
soft, accented, little girl tones but on the inside is far from an innocent.
Baldwin, on the other hand, picks up where he left off in the awful Fair Game, relying on a single facial expression to convey certain characteristics. In Fair Game, Baldwin made his eyes bulge and gritted his teeth to convey toughness; here, he constantly makes his upper lip curl to signify evil. Mel Gorham is quite good as Gabriela's all-business cleaning partner, and MTV personality Daisy Fuentes makes her acting debut as another co-worker, but her role is so minute that it's still not clear whether she
can really act or not.
Strong performances are about all there is to second-time
writer-director John Herzfeld's 2 days in the Valley, an interesting but
none-too-funny ensemble piece. Herzfeld's knotty scenario has a murder in
California's San Fernando Valley link ten diverse characters: an Olympic
skier (Teri Hatcher); a no-nonsense hitman (James Spader); his icy Swedish
girlfriend (Charlize Theron); a past-his-prime hitman (Danny Aiello) deathly
afraid of dogs; an effete British art dealer (Greg Cruttwell); his put-upon
assistant (Glenne Headly); his nurse half-sister (Marsha Mason); a has-been
TV director (Paul Mazursky); and two vice cops (Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels).
Actually, I should say nine characters, for Daniels's racist cop
disappears midway through the action and thus has really nothing to do with
anything. Aside from his anomalous presence, Herzfeld does find interesting
and creative ways to link these characters. But structure isn't everything
to a picture, especially not a comedy, and 2 days's slapstick farce is more
labored and silly than funny despite some high points (the vicious brawl
between Hatcher and Theron being the highest). With his wide assortment of
oddball characters and flashes of violence, Herzfeld was obviously shooting
for a mix of Tarantino and Robert Altman--Pulp Fiction meets Short Cuts, to use the popular comparison. The film does come off as a Tarantino/Altman hybrid, but it's more like Four Rooms meets Prêt-à-Porter.
So just what does the mediocrity of the Tarantino-inspired Curdled
and 2 days mean? Quentin, get thee back behind the camera--quick.
Extreme Measures (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
In his first Hollywood dramatic role, Hugh Grant plays Dr. Guy
Luthan, an earnest New York E.R. doctor who stumbles upon the surgical
experiments of a brilliant medical researcher (Gene Hackman, in a shockingly
small role) after a homeless patient mysteriously dies on his table.
Michael Apted's film tries to be a both a medical thriller and morality
play, and it doesn't quite deliver in both departments. There is no real
excitement nor suspense to the at times slow piece, and the ethical
arguments it wants to make are only addressed near the end, and even then
the issues are rushed through. Grant proves to be a capable dramatic actor
and likable, intelligent hero, but he's called on to take part in some
preposterous scenes, like wandering through dark tunnels to locate a
community of homeless people that lives underground. Don't ask. Don't see.
V I D E O
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
In adapting a popular television series to the big screen, one must
be careful not to stray too far from the source material so as not to offend
the die hard fans, which is exactly what this past summer's TV-inspired hit
Mission: Impossible managed to do with a single plot twist. Fans of the cult cable series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MSTies, as they are called) need not worry, for in the trip from small screen to big, virtually all of what made the show so smart and funny has emerged unscathed.
For those of you unfamiliar with the basis of the show, the premise
is simple yet brilliant: mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace
Beaulieu) holds average joe temp worker Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson)
captive in a satellite in space and forces him to watch some of the worst
movies imaginable. This thin plot is really just a setup for the heart of
the show, in which Mike and his two robot friends, Crow T. Robot (Beaulieu)
and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) crack wise at the screen, gleefully saving
every awful detail of every awful movie. This time around the target is the
1955 piece of sci-fi cheese This Island Earth, in which an alien race of
creatures with large heads try to take over earth.
MST3K: The Movie is just like any other episode, and that's why it
works so well. The makers of the film--producer-director Jim Mallon,
writers Nelson, Beaulieu, Murphy, Mallon, Mary Jo Pehl, Bridget Jones, and
Paul Chaplin--are also the crew behind the show, and they wisely didn't go
overly big-budget Hollywood with the film. While the sets are more sturdy
and elaborate, and the wires that control the robot puppets have been
digitally erased, as a whole the film retains the low-budget charm of the
source material. The look of the film is fairly irrelevant, since the true
"star" of MST3K has always been the writing, and there are far more than a
few good quips here though the commentary is slightly more crude than usual,
with an occasional profane word here or there (shame on you, Tom Servo).
Some critics have knocked MST3K: TM for cutting away from the movie within a movie for sketches involving the cast, but I like their inclusion here, for
the film wouldn't truly be MST3K without the interludes with Mike, Crow, and Servo on the Satellite of Love.
I do have a couple of bones to pick with MST3K: TM, but this is
mostly due to my being a MSTie (#70623, to be exact). The bouncy opening
theme song, which very succinctly and wittily sets up the story, is sorely
missed, as is the presence of a few players from the television series. Dr.
Forrester is as wacky and fun as ever, but the character works better with
his dimwitted assistant, TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), who left the series
after the sixth season. Michael J. Nelson is a very capable and likable
lead, but I always preferred the more dry, acerbic presence of original host
(and series creator) Joel Hodgson. Gypsy (Mallon), the robot who pilots the
SOL, is thankfully given a greater presence in the film, but it doesn't make
up for the absence of Cambot (which shot the TV show) or the amorphous Magic
Voice. These two never really played a major part of the show, but it just
isn't quite the same without them.
The biggest problem of MST3K: TM, in my opinion, is that This Island
Earth, while certainly cheesy and ripe for ripping, isn't as prime cannon
fodder as some of the true dreck the threesome tackled in the television
series. Mike and the 'bots still have more than enough to work with in This
Island Earth, but since the film isn't that awful, MST3K: TM doesn't measure up with some the funniest episodes of the series, such as ones in
which they rip the so-bad-it's-good 1975 Joe Don Baker action yarn Mitchell
or, my personal favorite, Pod People, a disjointed, laughably inept '80s
The appeal of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie will probably
fly over the heads of a lot of people--after all, watching three guys making
wisecracks about a bad movie may seem like dubious entertainment for
some--but it is a fast (only 74 minutes) and very funny treat that will go a
long way in converting those who do get it into new MSTies.
(MCA/Universal Home Video)
Last Man Standing (R) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
| Soundtrack (1)!
| Soundtrack (2)!
Walter Hill's reworking of Akira Kurosawa's darkly funny 1961
samurai tale Yojimbo is tough film to sit through. While a certain amount
of skill went into the making of this tale of a gun-for-hire (Bruce Willis)
who constantly shifts loyalties with two warring smugglers in
Prohibition-era Texas--notably some well-choreographed gunfights and
respectable performances--the film is so humorless and downbeat that it is
virtually impossible for anyone to enjoy it. There is no relief from the
drab atmosphere: Lloyd Ahern's cinematography is dusty and free of gloss; Ry
Cooder's haunting score is dark and ominous; even Willis's voiceover
narration is spoken in a detached, somnambulist drone. For all the gunplay
and assorted violence in Last Man, there is nothing between the action
scenes to engage the audience; none of the flat background characters make
any impression, and Willis's central character is a cipher. The dark humor
of Kurosawa's original, which made that film so much fun, is sorely missed
in this unremarkable remake.
V I D E O
The Bride with White Hair BUY on Amazon:Poster!
This wildly imaginative 1993 Hong Kong period epic tells the sad
tale of forbidden love between the top martial artist (Leslie Cheung of John
Woo's A Better Tomorrow) of a powerful clan alliance and the wolf-raised
killing machine (Chungking Express's Brigitte Lin in a ferocious, heartbreaking performance) employed by a sinister cult. Unlike most HK actioners, the focus is on the rich characters and moving story. However, this is not to say that Bride falls short in terms of action; director Ronny Yu packs in many electrifying--and bloody--martial arts sequences between
the effective dramatic scenes. Tai Seng Video wisely gave this monster HK
hit a deluxe treatment: the tape includes a "making of" featurette and the
original theatrical trailer, and the feature is letterboxed, with the
subtitles on the bottom black bar so as not to obstruct Peter Pao's
exquisite cinematography. All the better to appreciate this visually
stunning and emotionally satisfying action masterpiece. (Tai Seng Video)
Mr. Wrong (PG-13) BUY on Amazon:Poster!
TV's charming and funny Ellen DeGeneres made her big-screen
leap--make that "dive"--in this most uncharming and unfunny black comedy.
Single, thirtysomething DeGeneres thinks she's found her Mr. Right in Bill
Pullman, but before long he starts showing his ugly, obsessive side--which
is when the film turns ugly and more bizarre and unfunny by the second.
DeGeneres tries her best, but she can't energize the weak material; the
usually understated Pullman, however, is more in line with the rest of the
cast and crew, hamming it up to wretched effect, striving for outrageousness
but coming off amateurish. I'm sure a good comedy can be made with this
premise, but after the one-two punch of this and Martin Lawrence's A Thin Line Between Love & Hate, moviegoers will just have to wait. (Touchstone Home Video)