Forces of Nature (PG-13)
Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck make one hell of a sickeningly attractive
couple. I saw just how much at the premiere of their romantic comedy,
Forces of Nature, in Westwood last week. In person, Bullock's
slow-simmering sexiness erupts to a mad boil; and Affleck perfectly
complements her by appearing more boyishly handsome (and I mean
boyish--he looks about five years younger) than he does in film. Above even their shared brunet beauty, the pair's innate charm shone through: the
perky Bullock waved and smiled especially at me, and the smooth Affleck
one-upped her by actually winking at me (though I, must say, I would have
rather they "traded" their respective greetings).
It is that charm that carries Forces. Apart from Tom Hanks and Meg
Ryan, have two more effortlessly likable been paired onscreen? When we
first meet Affleck's Ben Holmes, an uptight copywriter days away from his
wedding; and Bullock's Sarah, a veritable firecracker of a young woman he
meets on a plane from New York to Savannah, Georgia, we immediately want
them to get whatever they want. For Sarah, it's to return to Savannah in
time to sell off a bagel shop she co-owns (long story); for Ben, it's
arriving in time for his wedding to one Bridget (Maura Tierney).
Come to think of it, though, the audience will probably not want Ben to
achieve his goal. After a freak but fairly minor plane crash, Ben and
Sarah find themselves on the road, attempting to reach their destination by
train and automobile in addition to plane. Along the way, the duo find
that they're not so mismatched after all, feeling, as Ben says, "a certain
chemistry." And there's no disagreeing with him--Bullock and Affleck's
compatibility lookswise translates into an engaging rapport.
It must be said, though, that Bullock and Affleck click more than combust,
and that sort of makes the force drawing their characters together feel
more like one of script mechanics than that of nature. Still, that's more
than can be said of Affleck's rapport with Tierney, but the weakness there
says more about Marc Lawrence's screenplay than the two actors. He and
director Bronwen Hughes don't develop Ben and Bridget's relationship
satisfactorily enough to make make certain crucial turns of events
As such, while Lawrence and Hughes do come up with some good comic scenes
(a strip club scene is a highlight) and coax good performances from their
Tierney, Steve Zahn (a zany delight as Ben's first man), and their two
wildly appealing leads, Forces of Nature never quite generates enough
power to become sweep up the audience like the long-brewing hurricane that
hits at the film's climax.
In his review of the 1993 cannibalism-for-survival drama Alive,
Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman called the moment when the
plane crash survivors finally decide to eat the remains of the dead
passengers "truly disgusting." In these eyes, it was an undoubtedly
discomfiting but rather tame moment, with most of the grisliness left to
the imagination; it only got as bad as seeing arms moving as if cutting
into something and the slices of, um, meat.
If that's Gleiberman's idea of "truly disgusting," I'm interested in
hearing what he has to say about Ravenous, which opens with a table full
of hungry 19th Century army men voraciously digging into extra-rare slabs
of meat, which leads one soldier, John Boyd (Guy Pearce), to lose his lunch
and just about any other meal he's ever had. OK, so they're not eating
humans--they're eating beef. But it gives one a fair inkling of how
graphic the "food" consumption gets once the cannibalism theme takes over.
After narrowly escaping death in a battle in the Mexican War, Boyd is
assigned to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas manned only by Hart
(Jeffrey Jones), the commanding officer; Toffler (Jeremy Davies, doing the
soft-spoken thing yet again), the religious leader; Knox (Stephen
Spinella), the hard-drinking doctor; no-nonsence Reich (Neal McDonough);
and Cleaves (David Arquette), the over-medicated cook. Entering their fold
one night is the mysterious loner Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who tells a
horrific tale about how his now-dead settling party turned to cannibalism
in the wilds. In due time, the human flesh diet starts to gain popularity
with this group.
Ravenous is definitely not for the squeamish. Director Antonia Bird
pulls no punches as far as gore is concerned; one especially graphic scene
between Pearce and Arquette is certain to send some viewers racing to the
restroom, and a climactic bloodbath of a fight scene really pushes the
limits of an R-rating. But Bird's tongue is often in cheek during the gory
proceedings; the over-the-top nature, while sure to offend many, is
actually the big factor in keeping one from taking it overly seriously.
Screenwriter Ted Griffin is also in on the joke, offering some amusingly
self-aware lines ("It's lonely being a cannibal. It's tough making
friends.") But his script accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of
being overstuffed and undercooked at the same time. He offers a mystical
explanation for all the cannibalism, which then launches into metaphors
about addiction and the quest for eternal youth--this all in addition to
trying to be a down-and-dirty horror film. But then there's the matter of
characterization, which there is little of; with only schematically
developed personalities onscreen, there's no real audience investment as to
who ends up being the diner or dinner.
I cannot say that I was ever bored by Ravenous; the actors and its
deliciously disgusting subject matter always keep it watchable and--dare I
say it--amusing. There's nothing wrong with that, but in attempting to be
something more, Ravenous ends up offering even less to chew on.
The Deep End of the Ocean (PG-13)
Michelle Pfeiffer turns in an impassioned performance of often
gut-wrenching intensity in a film that deserves far less. It's not that
the basic story is without promise. Beth Cappadora (Pfeiffer) loses her
three-year-old son, only to have him resurface on her doorstep nine years
later with no recollection of his former family (Ryan Merriman plays the
now-12-year-old son). It's a setup ripe with psychological and emotional
conflict, and apparently Jacquelyn Mitchard did it justice in her novel of
the same name, which was not only a bestseller but none other than a
selection in Oprah Winfrey's book club.
However, director Ulu Grosbard and scripter Stephen Schiff follow
pedestrian TV-movie-like paces, from the abrupt and overly tidy ending to
the rebelliously-bitter-yet-guilt-ridden older brother, well-played by
Emmy-winning General Hospital star Jonathan Jackson. In fact, all the
characters are well-played by the actors. It's just that the material is
about as shallow as its deeply metaphoric title (the meaning of which, for
the record, is never explained in the film).
The Corruptor (R)
Hong Kong action superstar Chow Yun-Fat is one of the most dynamic, charismatic screen presences to ever hit the screen in any country. Yet for some reason, American filmmakers have yet to figure out how to properly use him. While his stateside debut, last year's The Replacement Killers, was an enjoyable-enough no-brainer with energy to spare, it barely scratched the surface of Chow's talent. The same can be said of his latest, even more disappointing American vehicle, James Foley's talky and slow The Corruptor.
Chow is allowed to smile a bit more in The Corruptor than he did in The Replacement Killers, but the storyline is a bit more dour. Chow plays NYPD officer Nick Chen, who is in charge of policing the Chinatown beat, where he has cemented ties with a dastardly crime boss (Ric Young). When the peace is broken by a turf war, Chen is partnered with an idealistic naïf by the name of Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg).
This sets the stage for a serious exploration of loyalty and honor, which New Line is eager to boast in the publicity materials as being similar to Chow's collaborations with Woo. Thematically that may be the case, but despite the serious underpinnings of his work, Woo has always allowed himself some fun in the execution. The Corruptor, on the other hand, is earnest and sullen all the way through, and progresses at a snail's pace. When the scenes of talking heads give way to action--which does not happen often enough--there's no sense of urgency or excitement to the sequences. Foley and writer Robert Pucci display little to no real interest in the action element of this "action drama." They seem more concerned with the "drama," which is a problem when there are unnecessary, uninteresting plot threads such as a red-herring plot involving dead prostitutes and Wallace's relationship with his compulsive gambler father (Brian Cox).
The presence of Chow should have given The Corruptor a shot of adrenaline, yet it doesn't. Anyone who has seen Chow's Hong Kong vehicles--especially his legendary collaborations with John Woo--can easily see why the man is often revered as a god: he naturally exudes an effortless, awe-inspiring cool. Ironically, I think it's exactly this trait that gets in the way of American filmmakers. They are seemingly so caught up in their awe of him that they tend to take him too seriously. And anyone whose seen Chow's star-making films also knows that his sense of humor--his defiant refusal to take himself completely seriously--is what makes him such an appealing actor.
Take that away, and one is left with a different kind of "cool"--as in the uncharacteristically cold and rather aloof Chow seen in The Replacement Killers and now The Corruptor. In light of that, it's easy to see why Chow has yet to catch on (and, with this film, continue to have trouble catching on) with general American audiences. That's unfortunate not only because Chow and his ardent HK-era fans deserve better, but the stateside masses deserve to see just how magnetic a star--and how talented an actor--Chow Yun-Fat truly is.
Cruel Intentions (R)
Before she found widespread recognition as TV's vampire-slaying heroine Buffy Summers, Sarah Michelle Gellar first made quite a different name for herself on the ABC's All My Children. In her two-and-a-half year, 1993-1995 stint on the daytime drama, the then-teenage Gellar made a striking impression as Kendall Hart Lang, a conniving hellraiser in her mid-20s. Kendall did everything she could to make her mother's (Susan Lucci's Erica Kane)--and just about everyone else's--life miserable: she made numerous attempts to seduce her stepfather; bedded his son, then cried rape at his father's hands; perjured herself on the witness stand and served a jail sentence--and this was all in her first year. In the process, Gellar earned two Emmy nominations, one Emmy win, and a legion of loyal fans--including myself (though not Lucci, whose working relationship with Gellar reportedly mirrored their characters').
Cruel Intentions marks Gellar's big return to the type of role us original fans know and love the best--the no-holds-barred bitch--and the act has only gotten better with age. Now in her 20s herself (though now, ironically, playing a teen), Gellar exudes a captivatingly carniverous carnality as Kathryn Merteuil, a bored, insanely wealthy NY prep school student for whom selfish psychosexual mindgames provide the ultimate thrill. The film is at its tawdry best during her erotically-charged scenes with Ryan Phillippe, who stars as Sebastian Valmont, Kathryn's stepbrother and comrade in sin.
If the characters' surnames sound familiar, they should--writer-director Roger Kumble's film is a high-gloss, ultracontemporary, youth-infused revamp of Choderlo de Laclos's 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, whose most notable film adaptation was Stephen Frears's powerful 1988 Dangerous Liaisons. Despite the '90s setting and adolescent characters, Kumble hews fairly close to his source material in telling the story of how Merteuil and Valmont wager on whether or not he can bed a virtuous girl (here, Reese Witherspoon's Annette Hargrove). Of course, with the change in time and age demographic come new wrinkles: while Sebastian's prize is indeed an encounter with Kathryn, hers is his vintage Jaguar car; and Annette initially catches the attention of Sebastian by writing a virginity manifesto in an issue of none other than Seventeen magazine.
The latter touch is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as is a lot of Cruel Intentions. The film's first hour fits Sony's description of the film as a "wicked comedy," offering some gleefully mean-spirited laughs as Kathryn and Sebastian not only plot Annette's ruin, but that of the innocent and naive (to put it mildly) Cecile (an effectively over-the-top Selma Blair, Zoe of the sitcom Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane), whose boyfriend rejected Kathryn. Kumble gives Gellar some choice catty lines, and one bold scene between her and Blair is bound to make viewers see the two WB stars in a whole new light.
But Kumble ultimately remains faithful to his tragic source material, and as the tale becomes more and more serious, the casting of the dramatically limited Phillippe becomes increasingly problematic. His natural woodenness is an adequate fit for Sebastian's cold detachment, but when the script inevitably has Sebastian fall for Annette, the pathetic Phillippe can't follow. No convincing expression, let alone emotion, registers on his blank face, making Sebastian's purported change wholly unbelievable. With this latest colorless performance (following Playing by Heart and the disastrous 54), former One Life to Live star Phillippe--unlike the ever-impressive Gellar--reinforces the stereotype that actors with a soap pedigree have no discernible acting talent. On the other hand, Witherspoon (Phillippe's real-life fiancée, as it is) holds up her end of the romance, radiating purity, vulnerability, and a crucial underlying strength. But without an at least equally involving match, her efforts are for naught, and the outcome of the story fails to make any profound impression.
Even if the dramatic pretensions of literary fidelity get the better of him in the end, it is Kumble's sense of humor that makes Cruel Intentions a step above recent then-to-now translations such as William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and Great Expectations. While those two films got bogged down with the self-importance of their "radical" artistic ambitions, Kumble has the keen sense to not take himself too seriously, making Cruel Intentions something that those films never were--entertaining.
The Rage: Carrie 2 (R)
Why a sequel to Carrie, and why now? I cannot think of one valid reason except sheer desperation over at beleaguered MGM/UA, for the retarded rehash The Rage: Carrie 2 fails to offer even one compelling reason for its pathetic existence.
What is compelling, however, is newcomer Emily Bergl, who takes center stage as Rachel Lang, another alienated teen at Bates High School who, like one Carrie White some twenty years before her, is blessed (cursed?) with the ability to move objects with her mind, or telekinesis. But this "Carrie" has been given a '90s makeover: this tough-talking Goth chick is no one's victim, unlike her predecessor. (She even gets to lose her virginity.) Sounds like a thankless task, but Bergl, while no Sissy Spacek, holds the audience's attention and interest well, infusing Rachel with the right amount of warmth and vulnerability beneath her rough façade.
But for all the contemporary touches and new plot wrinkles writer Rafael Moreu and director Katt Shea dress The Rage in, there's no hiding the fact that this is just about the same movie that came out in 1976. Telekinetic girl is picked on by peers. Peers humiliate her in big social event (here, a party instead of the prom). Girl takes violent revenge. Even the characters are direct analogues to the original. In addition to the obvious Rachel = Carrie, Jason London (as Rachel's boyfriend Jessie) is William Katt's sensitive Tommy; Nancy Allen's uberbitch Chris has been split into Rachel Blanchard's Monica and Charlotte Ayanna's Tracy; similarly, John Travolta's blowhard Billy is replaced by Dylan Bruno's Mark and Zachery Ty Bryan's Eric; and Rachel's religious, institutionalized mother (J. Smith-Cameron) is an extremely watered-down version of Carrie's frightening, religious fanatic mother (oh so indelibly played by Piper Laurie). Amy Irving, whose Sue Snell was the sole survivor of Carrie's prom night rampage, not only gets to reprise her character (and her character's role in the story) here, she also gets to assume the guidance counselor (read: caring adult) part originally held by Betty Buckley.
With Shea and Moreu so closely following the original, needless to say there are no surprises in The Rage. But even without keeping the original in mind, there's nothing shocking about the film or its climactic explosion of violence--which can be directly attributed to the attitude alteration of the protagonist. Sure, making Rachel far from a meek girl is a very '90s feminist thing to do, but it also robs her eventual bad behavior of any resonance. A lot of the power of Carrie's famous prom scene is that, while some payback is clearly in order, the fury of her vengeance comes as a shock, given how weak she had been throughout the film. With Rachel, such an intense outburst is a foregone conclusion--and, accordingly, Shea ups the gore factor in the big climax. While she comes up with one especially clever domino-effect scene invoving eyeglasses and a spear gun, there's nothing particularly frightening or suspenseful as any given scene in Brian DePalma's original film.
It was undoubtedly the ties to the original Carrie that got The Rage made, but, ironically, it is that connection that makes the film even worse that it already is. Not only does The Rage simply pale in comparison, the links Moreu serves up are ridiculously clunky, especially one ill-kept plot "twist" about the origin of Rachel's powers. Shea even actually goes so far as to include excerpts of the first film as random flashbacks for Sue. Worst of all, though, these ties seem completely arbitrary, serving no real purpose other than to fill time and fulfill the meager promise of the subtitle. Change a line here and there (and Irving's character name), and The Rage: Carrie 2 would be just The Rage--and better for it. However, no script revisions are necessary for the film to simply be The Rage; audiences will feel plenty of that once the closing crawl begins.
Wing Commander (PG-13)
Last week, the sad announcement was made that the hilarious, bad-movie-skewering cult TV hit Mystery Science Theater 3000 was ending its run after its forthcoming tenth season. That announcement is even sadder by the release of Wing Commander, the latest entry in the dubious "based on a video game" film genre--my, what a field day Mike Nelson and his robot pals would have had with this prime piece of sci-fi schlock.
Based on the popular computer game of the same name--and directed by no less than the game's creator, Chris Roberts--Wing Commander takes place during a war between humans and the evil Kilrathi alien race in the year 2564. But that's actually more plot details than anyone really needs. Essentially, the film is about a bunch of guys in spaceships trying to shoot down and/or blow up enemy ships. But someone forgot to tell Roberts that.
I doubt I have read a more pretentious statement than one Roberts gives in the press notes: "Wing Commander is a hard-core war movie set in space. In some ways, it has more in common with Midway and The Battle of Britain than with a science-fiction film.... I wanted to make a film about people under the incredible tension of battle." It's more about actors under the incredible tension of poor writing, direction, and all other facets of filmmaking. Stars Freddie Prinze, Jr., Matthew Lillard, and Saffron Burrows (the latter being the "wing commander" of the title) are all atrocious, but the fact that they've all done acceptable work in other films (yes, even Prinze) puts them at less blame than Roberts.
The story that he and scripter Kevin Droney have come up with is a messy mish-mash of elements of Star Wars (Prinze's metaphysically-gifted character must save the day with The Force, more or less), Star Trek (the gibberish-speaking Kilrathi look like papier-mache mutations of the Klingon race), and bad soap opera, which manifests itself in the form of cornball "emotional" scenes and even more painful dialogue. Among other things, lines such as "My whole life I've taken crap because I'm part Pilgrim!" and "He's a good guy, Angel. There's no reason to hate him" left the preview audience overcome with laughter. (And, no, hearing the lines in context does not help.)
Movies like Wing Commander make me continue to question the logic of the whole video-game-to-film practice. After all, isn't the idea of interactivity what makes a video game popular in the first place? Wouldn't anyone rather sit at home playing the game than pay eight bucks to watch some dreary feature-length commercial, which is essentially what these poor excuses for films are? Then again, in terms of Wing Commander, I'd rather do just about anything than sit through it another time.
To think that we could have actually been spared the agony that is Wing Commander: the film had been languishing on Fox's shelf until the inexplicable success of a certain movie called She's All That brought some luster to Prinze and Lillard's names. Just another reason to thank the general moviegoing public for their exquisite taste.
Just the Ticket (R)
Andy and Andie. Execs at MGM/UA must have been falling all over themselves with self-satisfaction when someone came up with the ever-so-precious idea of pairing the homophonically-named Mr. Garcia and Ms. MacDowell. In the right vehicle, the two could possibly be as cute as the pairing of their perfectly-matched first names. Just the Ticket, however, is not that vehicle.
The fact that writer-director Richard Wenk's basic story is wholly unoriginal is the least of the film's problems. Actually, that fact isn't so much a problem as it is a slight annoyance. It's another one of those ne'er-do-well-straightens-up-for-the-love-of-a-right-woman stories, with ticket scalper Gary Starke (Garcia) attempting one last score--selling tickets to a sold-out papal mass in New York--before settling into an honest living to win the affections of his fed-up true love, aspiring chef Linda Paliski (MacDowell). There wouldn't be a movie without some types of complication, and the ones Wenk comes up with aren't exactly new, either. Among those Gary must contend with: Casino, a hotshot newcomer moving in on his scalping turf; Linda's impending move to France; and, as an added afterthought, Linda's other boyfriend, Alex (Chris Lemmon).
Garcia and MacDowell are likable enough performers that with those elements in place, Just the Ticket could have been a diverting, if formulaic, trifle. Yet it isn't. While the fundamentals of his story are not to blame, Wenk's execution certainly is. Garcia is game, but Wenk's listless direction saps him of all his energy; the film literally plods to a predictable pace, alternating scenes of Gary selling tickets with him wooing Linda. Not helping matters is Wenk's less-than-sparkling dialogue. Not only do the one-liners and Gary-Linda repartee fall flat, so do the straight-faced lines in general--a sure death knell for a film as talky as this one.
The ineffectiveness of Just the Ticket can simply be chalked up to the fact that it's an astonishingly uninteresting piece of work. There's nothing particularly memorable about the story, the characters, or the performances; I just about forgot each image or word as soon as it left the screen. The makers of Just the Ticket undoubtedly set out to make a light entertainment, but instead they've come up with something a bit moreso--a film that's completely inert.
Analyze This (R)
In its first two acts, Harold Ramis's comedy uproariously mines co-scripters Kenneth Lonergan, Peter Tolan's premise for all its comedic worth. Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal make a terrific team as, respectively, a tough mob boss and the shrink who reluctantly treats him for recurring panic attacks. Crystal's effectiveness comes as no surprise (OK, maybe so in light of recent pathetic efforts such as Forget Paris and My Giant), but the true comedic firecracker of the two is DeNiro, who is explosively funny taking a self-deprecating spin on his usual mafia screen persona.
So when DeNiro's character disappears for a good chunk of the home stretch, so does the explosive energy of his performance and presence. Strangely enough, Crystal cannot pick up the comedic slack; the film's climax is his showcase, and his schtick comes off as just that, schtick, in comparison to DeNiro's relaxed comic ease. One performer who could have possibly risen to the challenge is co-star Lisa Kudrow, but she is woefully underused in the equally as undeveloped role of Crystal's fiancee. But even if it does not end quite as well as it begins, Analyze This offers more laughs than any other comedy so far released in 1999.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (R)
Take a dash of Trainspotting's scuzziness and generous helpings of the oeuvre of Tarantino, and you've got an extremely derivative film. But if the film is as entertaining as first-time writer-director Guy Ritchie's fresh and fun Lock, Stock...--a smash in its native Great Britain--the lack of originality hardly matters.
Ritchie takes his time setting up the players in this story about a foursome of inept small-time hoods (Nick Moran, Jason Flemyng, Jason Statham, and Dexter Fletcher) who stage a heist to pay off a gambling debt owed to a crime boss (P.H. Moriarty). The fact that these players are lacking any real depth or substance is actually of little consequence, for Ritchie drops them in a clever, complex, and comic caper that takes its share of unexpected twists and turns. It may not a perfect debut for Ritchie, but the visual flair and ingenious plotting he displays with Lock, Stock... leaves one optimistic about his future efforts.
The Other Sister (PG-13)
A couple of days ago a friend told me about a conversation he had with screenwriter Robin Schiff about a sequel she had written to her fun, frothy Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. In this promising second installment of the bubbleheaded blonde best buddies' adventures, Lisa Kudrow's Michele gets hitched, and she and Mira Sorvino's Romy open up their own restaurant, complete with--yes--a lunch special for businesswomen.
Sadly, Touchstone turned down the script, citing that it would not draw an audience even though the original was a midsize hit. But if Buena Vista's idea of audience-drawing films are projects like The Other Sister, the Mouse is in serious trouble. In this film, Juliette Lewis stars as Carla Tate, a mentally challenged young woman who wants to be treated like an independent adult once she returns home after years at a special school. Her parents, however--especially her overbearing mother (Diane Keaton)--are hesitant to let her go. Carla's romance with Danny McMahon (Giovanni Ribisi), another mentally challenged student at her vocational school (the scenes at which were all filmed at my and Cameron Diaz's alma mater, Long Beach Polytechnic High School), gives Carla's parents more reason to worry.
I could see this story possibly working as a drama; Lewis is particularly effective, delivering an understated and often touching turn as Carla. But director/co-scripter (with Bob Brunner) Garry Marshall play the material for laughs. Cheap laughs. For a film that aims to empower the mentally challenged, almost all the attempted comedy comes at the expense of Carla and Danny. Marshall would probably argue that the audience is laughing with them, but when a scene where Carla loudly yet earnestly describes human reproduction is played for comedy, the audience is clearly supposed to laugh at her. The same thing goes for the entirety of Ribisi's performance, which is over-the-top to the point of mockery. The press notes describe The Other Sister as "uplifting" and "bittersweet"; a more accurate description would be "insulting."