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#109 September 18, 1997
M O V I E S
The Game (R) BUY THE:Poster!
"What do you give the man who has everything?" A few days of living
hell, apparently, and it is exactly that, concentrated into two hours, which
director David Fincher serves moviegoers in The Game, a wonderfully
unsettling and suspenseful thriller that launches PolyGram's new film
distribution wing with a bang.
Michael Douglas is in his element as wealthy businessman Nicholas
van Orton: cold, calculating, and looking out for no one but himself,
Nicholas is exactly the type of sinful-guy-due-for-a-comeuppance Douglas has
built his career on playing, and, predictably, Douglas nails the role
perfectly. When Nicholas's brother Conrad, a.k.a. "Connie" (Sean Penn, in a
role meant for Jodie Foster), gives him an invitation to a mysterious game
as a birthday present, the seeds of Nicholas's destruction are planted.
After extensive testing at the offices of Consumer Recreation Services, the
company in charge of the Game, Nicholas soon finds himself in one
life-threatening situation after another, which leads him to wonder if he is
indeed just playing a game (albeit a really twisted one) or if someone
really wants him dead.
It is that question of illusion versus reality that propels the
intricate, unpredictable, if implausible storyline cooked up by writers John
Brancato and Michael Ferris. Unlike too many mystery-thrillers, the writing
and directing remains one step ahead of the audience; just when one is led
to think one way, something twists our beliefs in the other, creating a
chilling atmosphere of uncertainty. This is not surprising coming from
Fincher, who established himself as a master of mood with the unflinchingly
dark Alien3 and Se7en. However, in those films, mood bogged down the pace,
thus stripping away the necessary urgency; a similarly slow pace would have
been deadly to The Game, whose implausibilities would not hold up if there
were time for close scrutiny. The Game finds Fincher in an
uncharacteristically--and highly effective--faster gear, sweeping the audience
away on an unrelenting rollercoaster of plot twists and paranoia which
always stays true to the material's mean streak.
Apparently not content to be a well-crafted funhouse ride, Brancato
and Ferris throw in a psychological angle to the proceedings which is not
satisfactorily developed. Nicholas's birthday is his 48th, which happens to
be the age when his father took a fatal jump off of the roof of his mansion.
The trauma of witnessing his father's suicide at a young age haunts
Nicholas, and supposedly it shaped him into the man he's become, but it is
never clear in what way. Not that anyone really cares--Nicholas is such an
unsavory character that it's hard to sympathize with him as a person, and
why would we want to? Part of the fun in watching The Game is seeing this
unsympathetic character being dragged through the mud over and over again.
The attempt at audience empathy is at odds with the film's unremittingly
A lesson is supposed to have been learned at the end of The Game,
but I'm not at all sure what exactly that is. But that hardly matters; what
does is that for a little over two hours, David Fincher takes the audience
on a breathless, harrowing ride whose considerable pleasures are measured in
dread and discomfort.
A Thousand Acres (R) BUY THE:Poster!
| Book on Tape!
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The most telling moment of A Thousand Acres is neither an image nor
a scene but a credit: "Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane
Smiley"--not merely based on Smiley's novel, but her
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. This unusually blatant mention of its
award-winning pedigree not only highlights the self-important pretensions of
Jocelyn Moorhouse's overheated melodrama, but also how far from
award-caliber the film is.
Early in the film lifelong Iowa farmer Larry Cook (Jason Robards)
decides to quit the business and split is 1000-acre lot between his three
daughters: loyal, optimistic eldest daughter Ginny (Jessica Lange); sassy,
bitter middle daughter Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer); and the youngest, big city
lawyer Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). This monumental decision causes
major upheaval to what appeared to be a perfect family, bringing
long-simmering tensions to the surface.
What ensues is a tale of betrayal, abuse, adultery, cancer,
repressed memories--a blueprint for a potentially provocative and
Oscar-worthy tale. But for all the hot-button issues screenwriter Laura
Jones packs into A Thousand Acres, the film itself does not pack the
emotional punch it so obviously strives for. With so many serious issues
crammed in (including a fleeting reference to the dangers of contaminated
well water), Moorhouse's direction is often too overtly manipulative to
elicit a genuine emotional response. The viewer is especially aware of the
button-pushing during the overtly "dramatic" confrontation scenes, in
particular one between Ginny, Rose, and Larry during a storm. Melodramatic
music by Richard Hartley peals on the soundtrack as everyone yells at each
other and, for good measure, thunder roars in the background. Everything is
so overblown as to feel processed and synthetic, and as such, the viewer
cannot feel anything authentic.
A Thousand Acres does manage to generate some poignancy, though,
during the intimate scenes between the dazzling Pfeiffer and Lange, who
elevate the film to a higher level than it deserves. Less is definitely
more here; the two have a natural sibling rapport (we feel both their anger
and love for one another), and Moorhouse wisely steps aside and lets that
speak for itself during these quieter moments. Tears are shed, invective is
exchanged, and hearts are broken, but the material isn't overplayed--the
pitches are firm but not shrill, the tears slowly flowing instead of spewing
uncontrollably. The two are magic together, and only in these scenes does
any hint of real emotion shine through. One wishes that the film was solely
focused on their relationship than the business involving their father's land.
But, unfortunately, the film is titled A Thousand Acres, and the
other actors struggle with that less inspired side of the story. Pity the
talented Leigh; while she also plays a Cook sister, she has scant screen
time, and in that time one never gets a satisfactory read on her character.
She starts off as sort of a black sheep and then becomes her father's big
supporter somewhere along the way; I could not figure out what motivated
her. Robards appears to be a perfect fit for the Cook patriarch, but I was
never convinced that he could be seen as anything other than the crabby,
morally questionable man he eventually reveals himself to be. He never
establishes any trace of gentleness or heart that would lead everyone to
believe that he is an upstanding member of the community; from the get-go
there seems to be something sinister lurking underneath.
Propelled by a number of effective Pfeiffer-Lange scenes, the film
builds up some steam as it approaches its sentimental conclusion, but it
isn't quite enough. By that time, any promise the film initially has proven
to be just that, promise, and instead of being profoundly moving, in the end
A Thousand Acres is little more than slightly affecting.
V I D E O
Roadracers (R) BUY THE:Poster!
A year before 1995's Desperado, Salma Hayek and director Robert
Rodriguez first teamed on this highly enjoyable homage to 1950s teen
exploitation movies for Showtime's Rebel Highway series. Hayek plays the
girlfriend of David Arquette's aptly named Dude, a slick, grease-haired
would-be rock 'n roll guitarist engaged in a bitter feud with a crooked
police sergeant (William Sadler) and his son (Jason Wiles). Rodriguez (who
also edited and co-wrote the script with Tommy Nix), has fun twisting some
of the genre's conventions for comedic effect (for instance, to make his
enemies slip on a roller rink, Dude bends over to spread his hair grease all
over the floor), but he also displays a genuine affection for it, from the
authentic-sounding dialogue ("Don't go to the rumble tonight, Dude") and
exuberant chase sequences to the hard-driving rockabilly score by Johnny
Reno and Paul Boll. Roadracers is a trifle, but a fun and engaging one at
that. (Dimension Home Video)
The seemingly idyllic Los Angeles of the early 1950s provides the
glitzy backdrop for the grisly crime that is the focus of the story: a
bloody mass murder in an all-night coffee shop. One of the victims is Dick
Stensland (Graham Beckel), a subpar police officer who was forced into
retirement after a brutality incident not too long before his death.
Heading the investigation into the murders are Stensland's former partner,
Wendell "Bud" White (Russell Crowe); ambitious but naive Edmund Exley (Guy
Pearce); and vice cop Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who soon find out the
case is not as open and shut as it appears to be.
Yes, L.A. Confidential is an uncommonly complex and intelligent
mystery; the ever-twisting plot continually surprises the audience without
insulting its intelligence, and the wry sense of humor Hanson and
co-scripter Brian Helgeland keeps the film from coming off as self-important
and pretentious. But as sturdy as the story is, the film would not have
come to life in such fabulous form without its richly drawn characters,
particularly the All-American pair of Ed and Bud, played in career-making
turns by Aussies Pearce and Crowe. For the most part, the central character
is Ed, a prototype for the "new" officer in the LAPD being introduced at
this time--one who prides himself on high moral principles, seeking justice
and truth without beating it out of a suspect. While the intelligent Ed is
able to negotiate himself into a high position within the department, he
doesn't have the street smarts or toughness that commands respect from his
peers or elicit fear from his enemies; his reliance on eyeglasses only adds
to the problem. On the other hand lies Bud, the "muscle" cop known to take
a brutal stand against perps, especially women beaters. He is what is
perceived as the ideal cop, but as the film progresses, we see how his
hot-tempered style is quickly becoming obsolete, setting up an interesting,
intricate contrast. Ed and Bud are not so much opposites in the manner of
black and white as they are in the yin and yang sense--they contrast, but
neither is clearly right nor wrong, and while they appear flawed and
incomplete on their own, together their qualities make an ideal whole.
Surrounding Ed and Bud are an equally colorful cast of characters,
played to perfection by the impressive ensemble. Spacey is terrific as
Jack, the spotlight-seeking cop who regularly busts showbiz personalities
with gossip rag editor Sid Hudgins, played with the right balance of smarm
and charm by Danny DeVito. Kim Basinger is stunning, dangerous, and
vulnerable as glamorous top-dollar whore Lynn Bracken, even if her character
is one of the least effectively developed in the film. James Cromwell (as
police captain Dudley Smith), Ron Rifkin (as District Attorney Ellis Lowe), and David
Strathairn (as wealthy, shady Pierce Pratchett) also make lasting impressions.
In the end, the reason why L.A. Confidential is such a juicy piece
of pulp fiction is that it is, quite simply, a good story told exceptionally
well. It is superlative Hollywood entertainment--the type of picture that
Tinseltown likes to congratulate itself for making come March.
She's So Lovely (R) BUY THE:Poster!
| Movie Book!
A mere plot synopsis of Nick Cassavetes's film of his late father
John's heretofore unproduced script She's De Lovely does not paint a complete picture of this odd and amusing piece of work. On the most basic level, it tells the story of Maureen (Robin Wright Penn), a boozy, pregnant young woman
madly in love with her volatile husband Eddie (Sean Penn), who is shipped
off to a mental hospital after a run-in with the law. Ten years later, a
bewildered Eddie is released, and Maureen, now married to successful
contractor Joey (John Travolta), still pines for her first and true love.
Plotwise, She's So Lovely operates like two different movies: the
first being the dark tale of a young married couple's troubled romance, the
second being the bright, often comical story in which a suburban housewife's
life is shaken up by the reappearance by her first husband. But that split
structure and the plot in general are actually of little consequence to the
final product. She's So Lovely is more of an acting exercise, and an
intriguing and entertaining one at that, where the performers are called on
by the director to inhabit eccentric characters and chew on some quirky
dialogue and situations. The cast passes the test. Penn, who won the Best
Actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is quite touching as the
romantic yet unstable Eddie; he is solidly matched by real-life wife Wright
Penn, who also accomplishes a convincing character transformation from wild
child to tamer soul between the halves. Travolta surfaces an hour into the
film and makes an indelible impression even if his character never registers
as a serious wedge between the star-crossed Maureen and Eddie. The
resulting film may be a little too far off the beaten path to appeal to many
mainstream moviegoers, but in a season full of cookie cutter "blockbusters,"
a little freshness and eccentricity goes a long way.
Hoodlum (R) BUY THE:Poster!
| Score CD!
Laurence Fishburne is cool, charismatic, and commanding as
gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, who engages in a war with Dutch
Schultz (an engagingly hammy Tim Roth) and Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia,
looking slick) over the numbers racket in 1930s Harlem. But Fishburne's
presence can only take this flat, overlong would-be epic so far.
Director Bill Duke, himself an actor, predictably coaxes commendable work
from his cast, but his overall cold, slack direction dooms the entire
affair. Furthermore, the lack of sparks between Fishburne and love
interest Vanessa L. Williams (looking glamorous, natch) puts a damper on
the attempted emotional dimension. Without anyone or anything to latch
onto emotionally or a sense of energy, drive, or tension, this
slow-going, talky film is in a constant struggle to hold the audience's
Mimic (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Good "creature features" are hard to come by; for every Alien
there are a slew of Relics. Guillermo del Toro's dark, atmospheric
thriller is not in the terrifying league of an Alien, but it delivers
excitement just the same. Mira Sorvino stars as an entomologist who
genetically engineers a insect designed to wipe out a deadly disease
carried by cockroaches. This "Judas breed" is designed to die out within
months, but three years later not only are they still around, they have
evolved into giant creatures that can mimic humans--and prey on them. Of
course, it is up to Sorvino, along with husband/CDC official Jeremy
Northam, to stop them. What follows owes a lot to James Cameron's
Aliens, with its slimy egg nests and icky creatures speedily skulking by
and banging through metal. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing (after
all, Cameron's film is a classic). Though it has some cheesy moments and
lines, and the initial sight of giant flying insects is more ridiculous
than scary, del Toro comes through with an entertaining and tense second
half set in the dank subway tunnels of New York. Preposterous, yes, but
a lot of fun.
Cop Land (R) BUY THE:Poster!
James Mangold's Cop Land is one of those films that looks better on
paper than on screen, a picture that is more fun to anticipate than actually
watch. Despite the presence of a vast array of impressive acting talent, a
provocative premise, and a great deal of pre-release hype, this star-studded
morality tale is a letdown, overblown and undercooked.
Sylvester Stallone makes his much-ballyhooed return to "serious"
acting as Freddy Heflin, sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey, whose population
mainly consists of New York police officers. Serving as law enforcement for
a town inhabited by law enforcement does not come with much true authority,
but it gives Freddy some satisfaction--deaf in one ear and a little slow in
the head, he can never serve as an officer of his much-revered NYPD, but at
the very least he is the closest thing to being a real cop.
Freddy's admiration for the big-city cops is put to the test with
the arrival of Internal Affairs officer Moe Tilden (Robert DeNiro), who
comes to Garrison investigating the secret affairs of the town's
badge-wielding residents after a hotshot young cop (Michael Rapaport) takes
a mysterious dive off of the Brooklyn Bridge. Figuring prominently in his
investigation is Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), a well-connected cop who
spearheaded the police migration into Garrison through some suspect deals.
But there's only so much Moe can do on his own, so it's mainly up to Freddy
to restore some order to the town and the NYPD.
That right there is enough fodder for an interesting film, but
Mangold does not seem to know where to stop, including a number of
additional characters and plotlines. Freddy impaired his hearing years ago
rescuing Liz (Annabella Sciorra), whom he still pines for although she's
married and has a child with blowhard cop Joey Randone (Peter Berg), who, in
turn, is warming the bed of Ray's wife
Rose (Cathy Moriarty). Also on the canvas is Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta), an
undercover officer with a weakness for coke, whose partner's mysterious
death could have something to do with a grander scheme. Then there's
Janeane Garofalo as Cindy Bretts, one of Freddy's two deputies, an
idealistic newcomer to Garrison who doesn't like what she sees. And so on.
The glut of characters and stories would be richness if everything
were explored in some semblance of depth. However, in their existing,
crudely developed form, they just serve as distractions from the main
plot--which in itself, as written, does not equal the sum of its promising
parts. With so many characters and plot threads dangling, let alone its
main story not jelling in the most satisfying of manners, Cop Land would
appear to be better served with a longer running time. Yet I don't think
even that would have helped too much, especially without anyone for the
audience to latch onto emotionally. Freddy is too low-key and distant to
sympathize with or root for. When Freddy gets his day, it's supposed to be
exhilarating, but it's hard to get excited when one does not really care for
Stallone fares well enough in this dramatic role, his star presence
disappearing into the character behind 40 extra pounds of fat, but perhaps
he disappears a bit too much. He does not embarrass himself alongside the
likes of DeNiro and Keitel, but I can't exactly say he holds his own,
either. While it's a relief to see the typically overwrought Sly trade in
histrionics for subtlety, he's so subdued that he cannot help but appear
bland when sharing the screen with the more accomplished actors, who add
color to their roles without overdoing it. Keitel and DeNiro shine in what
are fairly limited roles (Ray is shady; Moe is determined), and Liotta gives
his best performance in a long time as the most interesting character,
straddling the line between right and wrong.
With Cop Land, Stallone proves the point he set out to make--that he
can play a serious role, and fairly well at that. However, I don't know
exactly what writer-director Mangold's point was. Is it that cops can be as
bad as the crooks? If so, I got that message within the first fifteen
minutes, and even then, it's a rather obvious premise (I do, after all, live
in L.A.). Or is it just to turn out an entertaining yarn? If that was the
case, he could have fooled me--with its Oscar-ready cast and pretentions
toward a novel-deep tapestry of rich characters and intricate, interlocking
plotlines, I could have sworn he was striving for something more profound.
Yet even if the latter were so, this overstuffed and shallow film does not
come close to meeting any epic aspirations.
G.I. Jane (R) BUY THE:Poster!
In recent years, Demi Moore has been better suited to promoting her
films than starring in them. Her audacious claim that "not that many people
have read the book" resulted in a lot of press for Roland Joffé's disastrous
The Scarlet Letter, but she seemed out of time and place, to say the least,
on screen as Nathaniel Hawthorne's tortured heroine. Moore seductively
shimmied with Barbara Walters, stripped down for David Letterman, and urged
women everywhere to do a little Striptease for themselves, but her grave
earnestness was completely at odds with the ridiculous goings-on in last
summer's notorious would-be comedy.
However, Moore could not have been more perfectly cast as the
strong-willed heroine in Ridley Scott's surprisingly effective G.I. Jane.
Moore stars as Lt. Jordan O'Neil, a Navy intelligence officer who is chosen
as the first woman to enter the rigorous training for the Navy SEALs. How
rigorous? We are told early on and at various points throughout the film
that the dropout rate is 60%--that statistic, of course, reflecting only
men. Will Jordan beat the odds, overcome the sexism of her commanding
officers, and complete her training?
Yes, the scenario served up by writers David Twohy and Danielle
Alexandra is rather predictable, and one late development where Jordan must
prove her mettle in true combat is contrived, but they manage to throw in a
few wrinkles to make the proceedings consistently interesting. Jordan is
not the prototypical "G.I. Jane" of the title from the get-go; early on, she
struggles as badly as one would expect a woman, and when the men say that
she's in over her head, the statement does hold some water. Naturally,
Jordan does become a stronger soldier, but the changes do not occur
overnight--it is a gradual process, one she is still going through by the
end of the film. Also, there is more to the story than Jordan overcoming
adversity; there is also an interesting subplot about how she is used as a
pawn in a feminist senator's (well-played by Anne Bancroft) political
wheelings and dealings. It's unfortunate that the intelligence evident in
certain parts of the script didn't extend to the dialogue, which at certain
points is fairly laughable (my favorite line is the destined-to-be-quoted
"Get your dick back in here!").
Scott directs G.I. Jane with a quick rhythm and (naturally) a visual
slickness, and he elicits fine performances all around, notably from Viggo
Mortensen as Jordan's iron-fisted master chief. As good as Mortensen is,
the star of the show is clearly Moore; I cannot imagine this film working as
well as it does without her in the lead. One of her most defining
characteristics is her steely determination, and while that same quality
seemed so wrong for The Scarlet Letter and Striptease, it is what is exactly
called for by the role of Jordan. We not only believe that Jordan can
survive the hellish training, we also buy the fact that she actually wants
to go through with it. Moore is also a bit of a revelation during the more
action-oriented sequences; she is convincing in the more physical fight and
combat scenes, showing potential as--if she ever elected to go that
route--an action heroine.
Newsweek caused a stir earlier this year when the magazine published
an article speculating that Moore, who has not had a hit film in years, has
become an audience deterrent. The true test of that theory comes with G.I.
Jane. Unlike her previous solo starring efforts, it is a solid piece of
entertainment, and if its grosses go the way of Striptease, then she really must be box office poison.
Masterminds (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
| Soundtrack! Masterminds's first sign of trouble comes early, when we meet our
protagonist. Presumably, we're supposed to root for Ozzie Paxton (the
charisma-challenged Vincent Kartheiser) because he's one of those "cool"
teen rebel types--but it is that very quality that makes him come off as the
most annoyingly smug smartass. But even if the film weren't already doomed
from the start, director Roger Christian and scripter Floyd Byars do plenty
to make sure this blockheaded action film dies a most agonizing--especially
for the audience--death. A terrorist (a slumming Patrick Stewart, who I
truly hope received a very hefty paycheck for this gig) takes over a ritzy
private school in a ransom scheme, and somehow only delinquent computer
hacker Ozzie can save the day. The mere ability to hack into computers is
obviously no match for the heavily armed terrorists, so somewhere along the
way Christian and Byars make our "hero" into a mini-MacGyver, making bombs
and other gizmos (and playing with the heating and sprinkler systems) to
thwart the bad guys as he skulks his way around the school through air vents
Yes, this is Die Hard for the readers of Teen Beat and Bop, which
means that a number of things have to be dumbed down: the violence (where's
the fun if our "hero"--or even our villain--doesn't kill anyone?), the
humor (raw sewage fuels the climactic "comic" moment), and, above all, the
logic. Case in point: during one chase, Ozzie, only a few steps ahead of
his pursuer, enters a lab--where, within the space of 10 seconds at the
most, he is able to set up a bunsen burner to heat the doorknob so his
pursuer's hand could burn upon touching it. Another case in point: about
midway the stuffy, conservative principal (Brenda Fricker) beats up a bad
guy singlehandedly à la Nomi in Showgirls, and then suddenly morphs into a
foul-mouthed, pistol-packing mama (the sight of the My Left Foot Oscar
winner spewing expletives and brandishing a gun has to be seen to be
believed). The title could not be a more ironic--the people behind this
film don't have a single mind between them, let alone one to master.