The Movie Report
Volume 37

#151 - 153
July 24, 1998 - August 7, 1998

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

#153 August 7, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Snake Eyes poster Snake Eyes (R) ** event pix
Snake Eyes is less a description of the film it titles than the manner in which director Brian DePalma wields his camera--like a serpent, slithering its way through the halls and over the walls of an Atlantic City casino. The title takes its cue from the differences in people's visual perception from what really happens, and DePalma runs with the idea. A seamless 20-minute shot opens the film, following cop Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) through the labyrinthian walkways of the casino's arena before and during a championship boxing match. Later, there's a flashback where a subjective, point-of-view camera suddenly becomes objective without a jarring break. That's just one in a series of instances where DePalma uses a subjective camera to enable the audience to see through characters' eyes, which is a clever gimmick when assuming the fuzzy perspective of a woman who has lost her glasses. Then there's the use of a split screen to document simultaneous action, a trick DePalma used to great effect in Dressed to Kill.

I tend to meet a director's decision to juice up the visuals with a raised eyebrow, for it generally signifies that he or she is trying to distract the audience from a problematic script. And that is certainly the case with Snake Eyes, a pro forma conspiracy whodunit written by David Koepp from a story he devised with DePalma. The U.S. Secretary of Defense is assassinated during a boxing match, and out to solve the crime is Santoro, along with best friend Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise, in a role originally pegged for Will Smith), a Navy commander who was in charge of security. Somehow figuring into the mystery is a mysterious blonde-wigged woman (Carla Gugino) who took a seat in front of the Secretary seconds before the shooting and caught a bullet herself.

DePalma guides the audience through overlapping flashbacks and a flurry of plot points with a rapidly-paced yet clear-eyed finesse. But craftsmanship is all anyone will get a sense of, from the direction to the strong acting by Sinise and especially Cage, who adds another oddball characterization to his resume with the fast-talking, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, morally questionable Santoro. The twists are thoroughly predictable, but even if any tension and suspense were generated, it would all be squandered by the film's contrived fizzle of an anticlimax, which is not only disappointing but makes little sense.

For all its metaphoric meanings, the title Snake Eyes is derived from a line of dialogue. One character tells another, "You have nothing. Snake eyes." With his bottomless bag of stylish visual tricks, DePalma does have "something" to offer in Snake Eyes, but, ironically, it is that "something" that points up just how much "nothing" lies underneath.

In Brief

Jane Austen's Mafia! (PG-13) **
BASEketball (R) zero stars
Pecker (R) ** 1/2
Jane Austen's Mafia! poster The freshness date for the joke-a-second comedy style pioneered by the writing-directing team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker in 1980's Airplane! has just about expired--look no further than Abrahams's latest ZAZ-flavored solo effort, Jane Austen's Mafia! (which is being promoted as just plain Mafia! in spite of the onscreen title prefix). While Abrahams had been able to keep the style, which crams ridiculous sight and verbal gags within single scenes and shots, fresh, and funny in his Hot Shots! films, most of the gags in the film (which he co-wrote with Greg Norberg and Michael McManus) are simply uninspired. A spoof of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Casino (including riffs on The English Patient, Forrest Gump, Child's Play, and even Showgirls), Mafia! packs no big laughs, only a handful of smile-inducing jokes. Not helping matters is the lackluster efforts of the cast, led by a bland Jay Mohr as the Al Pacino stand-in and the late Lloyd Bridges, noticeably frail, as the Marlon Brando-esque don.

BASEketball poster While Abrahams tries to milk the old ZAZ formula for more riches (and coming up mostly dry), one of his former cohorts, David Zucker, tries to modernize it by incorporating the background-gag style into a '90s lowbrow, gross-out comedy. The result, however, is simply disastrous. BASEketball, about two losers (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the cult hit TV series South Park) who create a baseball/basketball hybrid that becomes the national pastime, is a painfully unfunny would-be satire of the commercialization of professional sports--or, rather, it initially sets out to be a satire, with its sharply written prologue about how money became the center of all things athletic. But once that passage is done, Zucker, Robert LoCash, Lewis Friedman, and Jeff Wright's script degenerates into a tedious series of unamusing and rather forced gross-out gags, such as milk squirting from male nipples and the licking of a vibrator. There was only one funny gag, and that was when a familiar buddy-buddy reconciliation scene culminated not in a warm hug, but in a long, wet, tongue-heavy kiss (now that I've given that joke away, there's no reason for you to see the movie). As actors, Parker and Stone are... well, creators of a cult cartoon show. One has to wonder about Universal's marketing campaign that boasts "starring the creators of South Park." I'm a big fan of The Simpsons, but that doesn't mean I'll watch a film starring creator Matt Groening.

Pecker poster As low as Zucker or the modern masters of lowbrow comedy, There's Something About Mary's Farrelly Brothers, go, no one can tap into the uniquely warped wavelength of writer-director John Waters. His latest, Pecker, features more of his singular brand of cinematic dementia. Among the hilariously eccentric pieces of Baltimore white trash featured: a sweets-obsessed young girl named Little Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey), who guzzles Jolt cola and eats sugar straight from the sack; her mother Joyce (Mary Kay Place), a thrift-shop owner who enjoys offering her fashion "expertise" to the homeless; Chrissy's older sister Tina (Martha Plimpton), who works at a gay male strip bar known for "teabagging" (don't ask); and Chrissy's grandmother Memama (Jean Schertler), whose sacred statue of the Virgin Mary not-so-miraculously "speaks" (she makes the voice herself).

Toss in running gags about the pubic hair on lesbian strippers, and what could possibly be wrong? In short, the film doesn't have much of a pecker. The title character (a truly dazed Edward Furlong) is Little Chrissy's perky older brother, who snaps photos of everyone and everything he sees around him. Pecker's photos of his "culturally challenged" family and community come to arouse great interest in the New York art world, building to a rise to fame that causes the inevitable friction with his family; his girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci, wonderfully acid as always), who runs her laundromat with an iron fist; and his gleeful shoplifter of a best friend, Matt (Brendan Sexton III). This main thrust of the film, however, is downright flaccid compared to the comic potency of the fascinating and wildly amusing weirdness of all else. There's quite a bit to laugh at in Pecker, but the sturdy jokes stand up at the periphery of a very limp center.

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#152 July 30, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Ever After poster Halloween H20 poster Ever After (PG-13) ***
Halloween: H20--20 Years Later (R) ***
Say what you will about its banality or the inherent ridiculousness of its messengers, but the Spice Girls' mantra of "Girl Power" seems to have made a profound effect in Hollywood. For proof, look no further than two wildly different films opening within less than a week between them: Ever After and Halloween: H20--20 Years Later, which put effective feminist spins on the normally weak icons of Cinderella and the slasher film scream queen, respectively.

Drew Barrymore's Danielle, the heroine of Ever After, has more than a little in common with the Cinderella of fairy tale lore. After the death of her father (Jeroen Krabbé), Danielle (nicknamed "Cinderella") is treated as a lowly servant girl by her wicked stepmother Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston, wonderfully bitchy). There are two stepsisters, Marguerite (Megan Dodds) and Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet's best friend/lover/partner in crime in Heavenly Creatures); there is a prince, by the name of Henry (Dougray Scott); and there is a lavish ball and even a slipper left behind.

But it is there that the similiarities end and something quite radical begins. For one thing, there is no magic at all in Ever After--no pumpkin carriage, rat horses, not even a fairy godmother, though Danielle has a helper in no less than Leonardo daVinci (Patrick Godfrey). The absence of the fantastic has an empowering and liberating effect on the heroine, who in other Cinderella tales is rather passive and weak. Danielle is far from that, strong in will and body (in one scene, she literally carries the prince) and in total command of her destiny. The prince is nice and strong himself, but she can rescue herself, thank you very much (Danielle could very well be nicknamed "Cinder Spice"). Female empowerment also manifests itself in Ever After's sense of sisterhood, a quality that is missing from other versions of the story. Only Marguerite qualifies as a wicked stepsister; the zaftig Jacqueline is every bit Rodmilla's victim as well, and she is constantly belittled by her mother because of her size. As such, Danielle and Jacqueline recognize themselves as kindred spirits.

This revisionism performed by director Andy Tennant and screenwriters Susannah Grant and Rick Parks is not without a few missteps. There is an awkward, completely superfluous framing story, where a mysterious older woman (Jeanne Moreau) tells the story to the Grimm Brothers; and a subplot involving a sleazy nobleman (Richard O'Brien) with a jones for Danielle is poorly developed. But the freshness of the entire affair and the exuberance of its execution, bolstered by sweet chemistry between Barrymore and Scott, goes a long way in charming the viewer.

Perhaps the most indelible image of John Carpenter's seminal 1978 chiller Halloween was that of 17-year-old babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) cowering in the corner of a crudely locked closet while "the Bogeyman," a.k.a. Michael Myers, stabbed his ways through the doors. Flash forward twenty years, and to the clunkily titled Halloween: H20--20 Years Later (why not just Halloween: 20 Years Later?). The most memorable sight? The same but older Laurie, brandishing an axe, openly inviting--or, rather, daring--her unseen tormentor to show his white-masked face with the piercing wail of "MICHAEL!" Yes, cinema's most famous scream queen is back, louder than ever, but now infused with a strong dose of Girl--make that Grrrl--Power.

This entertaining seventh installment of the series glazes over the events of installments 4-6 (the third film was completely unrelated) and takes a sharp focus on the first two, namely the character and history of Laurie. Since last seen learning that Michael is her brother in Halloween II and witnessing his apparent demise (apparently she didn't hear of his exploits depicted in 4-6), Laurie faked her death and moved from Illinois to California as Keri Tate. Now a divorced single mom of 17-year-old John (Josh Hartnett), Laurie/Keri is the head mistress of a posh private school. But she is still haunted by the memory of her murderous brother, who, of course, locates his long-lost sister and decides to pay her a visit on Halloween night, 1998--twenty years to the night he first terrorized her.

The basic story and script of H20, credited to Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg (working from a treatment by Scream wunderkind Kevin Williamson), doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. Michael bumps off a couple of the libidinous teens at the school as well as a handful of others who get in the way. Laurie finds out he's back and is forced to face her demons (or, rather, demon). That's it. But, then again, the basic story of Carpenter's original didn't exactly hold up under close examination, either. What's important is the effectiveness of the shock and scare scenes, and while director Steve Miner doesn't take the high road that Carpenter took in Halloween (that is, keep blood and gore to a surprising minimum), he pulls off more than a few nailbiters, most notably the extended climactic chases between Laurie and Michael.

The effectiveness of the thrilling final act, and the film as a whole, owes a huge debt to Curtis and the character of Laurie. Though her stress-related alcoholism and pill-popping are never satisfactorily resolved, Laurie undergoes a nice character arc in reference to her previous two films. It is highly believable that she would no longer be scared of Michael so much as angry and, thus, out for blood herself; it would have been less convincing if, after all this time, she was still the girl who cowered in the closet. Although the Scream films' Sydney Prescott is a rather proactive horror heroine, the new Laurie is a step beyond that. The seemingly indestructable Michael may want to kill her, but that is nothing compared to her desire to kill him and free herself from the past, making for an intriguing pas de deux where the two often trade the roles of stalker and stalkee.

Halloween: H20's Laurie Strode may not be given the fairy tale fate met by Danielle in Ever After, which is just the first in an endless list of differences. But one, strong trait unifies them: they use their wits and will to escape and triumph over their victimizers and take control of their lives. Whatever the time, whatever the place, female empowerment makes the same sound--a blistering roar.

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#151 July 24, 1998 by Michael Dequina


Lolita poster Lolita (R) ** 1/2
After seeing Adrian Lyne's much-talked-about screen version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, I can easily see why it's taken the better part of two years for the film to find an American distributor--but it's not for the reasons you might think. Lyne's take on the classic tale of pedophilic lust is just about the opposite of what one would expect from the director of bankable, tawdry zeitgeist-tappers Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. It is nicely composed, careful, tasteful... to the point of frigidity. For all the taboos it covers, Lolita is strangely staid and uninvolving piece of work, a film whose only commercial prospects with in the manufactured controversy surrounding it.

Unlike Stanley Kubrick's blackly comic 1962 version of Nabokov's novel, Lyne and screenwriter Stephen Schiff take a stately approach to the controversial story. This works for the general setup, especially the elegant prologue, in which the sexual proclivities of professor Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) are explained: when he was 14, he was deeply in love with a same-aged girl who eventually fell ill and died; ever since, he has lusted over nyphets. Flash forward to 1947, and Humbert finds his ultimate object of desire in Dolores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita (Dominique Swain), the feisty 14-year-old daughter of Charlotte (Melanie Griffith, her shrillness working for once), the widow in whose home he rents a room. To remain close to Lolita, Humbert impulsively marries Charlotte, which sets off a chain of events that leads to Humbert taking stepdaughter Lolita, now his very willing lover, on a wild road trip across America.

Once Lolita hits the road, Lyne's glacial style keeps the audience at a distance and saps just about all the energy from the film. The film soon settles into a cyclic stop-and-go rhythm where Lolita's naturally childish behavior incenses Humbert, he pines for her, she uses it to her advantage and gets him back, only to anger him again. Lyne is understandably discreet with the sexual encounters between Humbert and Lolita, and his adherence to taste is admirable. However, the most effective moments in Lolita are those where Lyne doesn't play it safe and dares to unsettle the audience, which is what he's built his entire career on. Particularly effective is a disturbing scene where a mad--with lust, and in the literal sense--Humbert tries to fuck a confession out of a hysterically laughing, lipstick-smeared Lolita. It's a creepy scene, one bound to get under moviegoers' skin. But it's likely the only one that will elicit any type of emotional reaction from the audience--not even the inevitable tragic conclusion packs much of a punch, if any.

What makes Lolita all the more disappointing is that it is clearly less than the sum of its parts, which all-too vividly display signs of life the entire film the could have had. Irons gives a beautifully nuanced performance; while the audience is repulsed by his actions, one cannot help but have some understanding for what he feels and why. The then-15-year-old Swain, who went on to co-star as John Travolta's Lolita-ish daughter in Face/Off, more than holds her own, playing Lolita as equal parts victim and vixen. Ennio Morricone's score is hauntingly sensual, as is the soft lensing of cinematographer Howard Atherton. It's unfortunate that their superlative work is in the service of a mediocre vehicle.

With films such as Fatal, Indecent, and 9 1/2 Weeks under his belt, Lyne seems to pride himself on making provocative films about sexuality. Lolita should have been the most provocative of them all; all the individual ingredients were in place for a thoughtful, daring, yet nonexploitative work. Alas, his Lolita, with its distant earnestness and leisurely pace, might as well have been a Merchant Ivory production.

Polish Wedding poster Polish Wedding (PG-13) * 1/2
In this year's summer movie preview issue of Entertainment Weekly, Theresa Connelly described her writing-directing debut, Polish Wedding, as "a child that did not quite become the child I thought it would." One wonders what exactly she originally had in mind for this jumbled film, a comedy-drama that appears doomed at its most basic elements.

The family at the center of Polish Wedding is the Pzoniaks, which consists of mother Jadzia (Lena Olin), father Bolek (Gabriel Byrne), sole daughter Hala (Claire Danes) and four sons of varying degrees of facelessness. It's a large family, but there's not a sympathetic one in the whole bunch, certainly not in the primary trio. Jadzia takes pride in building and maintaining a home and family, but she's kind of a hypocrite since she's carrying on an affair with a businessman Rade Serbedzija). Her excuse for her affair is neglect from Bolek, who is such a passive wimp that one cannot connect with his sadness and frustration. Also, how could he possibly pay so little attention to the saucy, sexy Jadzia? Hala is a spoiled, self-centered high school dropout whose reckless sexual experimentation predictably leads to pregnancy.

With such an unappealing set of characters, it's no surprise that Polish Wedding's plot complications are far from involving. Naturally, Jadzia and Bolek would like Hala to marry the young cop, Russell Schuster (Adam Trese), who fathered the child, but he refuses to make such a commitment. Ho-hum. Another complication, involving the decidedly un-virginal Hala being selected to crown a statue of the Virgin Mary, is first played for laughs and then, inexplicably, as a Profound Statement in the film's climax--which, ironically, is funnier than any of the film's lame attempts at humor, such as a painfully labored slapstick attempt where Jadzia leads her sons in a charge to beat up Russell.

That scene is but one in a number of writing miscues by Connelly. The Jadzia-Bolek conflict is resolved in an overly pat way not unfamiliar to sitcom viewers. The Hala-Russell conflict isn't resolved in as contrived a manner, but their ultimate resolution will leave viewers wondering if they had missed something. And then there's some atrocious dialogue, which I am sure was not supposed to be as ridiculous as they sound: "Look at all these pickles. Just looking at them gives me such great sadness."

As misguided as Polish Wedding is, the affair is something of a letdown, considering the strong performances by Byrne, Danes, and especially the fiery Olin. They obviously believed in Connelly and her material--a faith that audiences will be hard-pressed to share.

Saving Private Ryan poster Saving Private Ryan (R) **** event photos premiere photos
"War is hell." No one questions the veracity this statement--over time, it has become less a saying than a truism--but rarely does anyone ever give serious thought to what exactly it means. The opening 25-minute sequence of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan should change all that. Depicting the invasion of France on D-day, June 6, 1944, as seen through the eyes of Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), this section has a startling visceral intensity that is cheapened by text descriptions. To merely describe the brutal, graphic violence, such as the severed limbs, eviscerations, and the free-flowing and -gushing blood, is to discount its sensory and emotional power; to describe it simply on those latter terms is to diminish the bravery and honesty Spielberg exhibits in not shying away from the raw carnage. This bravura opening set piece is cinema in the purest sense--the melding of audio, visuals, and all other individual aspects of filmmaking into a greater whole: an experience whose effects are not easily shaken, its memory not easily forgotten. After the well-intentioned but stately-to-a-chill Amistad, this explosive opening announces that Spielberg has rebounded in a big way with this World War II drama, a stunning piece of work that aims and hits the audience square in the gut.

The "Private Ryan" that must be "saved" is one James Francis Ryan, the only survivor of four brothers in active duty in the war effort; as some type of humanitarian mission, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) dispatches a squad led by Capt. Miller to find Pvt. Ryan and send him home as comfort to his grieving mother. The mission, of course, is not without its complications, not the least of which is the disinterest of Miller and his squad, who are not terribly keen (to say the least) on risking their lives for that of one man--a man they do not even know.

Not surprisingly, the lives of some Capt. Miller's men are sacrificed before they finally locate Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), but their loss makes only a moderate impact. Private Ryan's main weakness is the rather one-dimensional crew with whom writer Robert Rodat surrounds Miller: Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Pvt. Reiben (Edward Burns), Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), Pvt. Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Pvt. Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Pvt. Jackson (Barry Pepper), and Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). Only the wimpy kid Upham comes off as close to a fully-realized character, but most of personality he exhibits can be attributed to Davies's vivid, anguished performance. The other actors do well, but their roles are more shallowly written and developed, half boiling down to single characteristics: hothead (Reiben), Jew (Mellish), Bible-quoter (Jackson); the remaining are nondescript. Maybe it was a conscious decision by Rodat and Spielberg to objectify the squad much like how most who serve in military combat are seen as walking statistics, but it makes the risk of their lives a gambit curiously low in emotional involvement.

Compensating for the faceless squad members is the squad leader, Capt. Miller, Private Ryan's anchor in every way, ably leading his men and serving as a strong, sympathetic emotional center amid the chaos. Brought to life in a well-modulated turn by Hanks, Miller is a consummate professional and leader, but he is not immune to the psychological ravages of war, which have now manifested themselves in the physical form of hand tremors. There are a couple of haunting wordless sequences where Miller blankly watches the mayhem surrounding him like a lost child, bringing to light a subconscious reason for his carrying out the "rescue" of Pvt. Ryan. It's not so much to follow orders and win a ticket home, as he says, but rather to graft a purpose onto the senseless human toll, to put into tangible human form the nebulous reasons behind the fighting--and his role in all of it.

By the film's end, Saving Private Ryan reveals itself to be a rather ironic title. If he is indeed "saved," he is actually more damned--alive, yes, but living with the burden of the men who sacrificed and were willing to sacrifice themselves for his life, and the lingering doubt that the life he would go on to lead would fully amount to the ones it cost. Ultimately, it's not Pvt. Ryan's salvation that Capt. Miller and his crew are fighting for--it's their own.

In Brief

Disturbing Behavior poster Disturbing Behavior (R) zero stars
To borrow one of David Spade's quips on his old "Hollywood Minute" segment on Saturday Night Live, I liked this movie better the first time I saw it... when it was called The Stepford Wives. In The Cradle Bay Teens--er, Disturbing Behavior, a seemingly idyllic Washington town hides a dark secret: in an effort to make their teens reach their maximum potential, parents and a unscrupulous high school counselor (Bruce Greenwood, a long way from Atom Egoyan's films) conspire in a strange program that turns rebellious adolescents into robotic do-gooders--"Blue Ribbons," as they are called.

There isn't an original moment in Scott Rosenberg's derivative screenplay. When the Stepford allusions tap out, he turns to A Clockwork Orange for a climactic "conversion" sequence. It is also incredibly predictable; plot turns are telegraphed with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He even botches the de rigueur "twist" ending, which is neither surprising nor shocking nor of any real consequence. It's hard to fathom what in the script exactly attracted the involvement of a few X-Files vets--director David Nutter, composer Mark Snow (who wrote a terrifically eerie score that the film doesn't deserve), and, in small roles, X guest star Steve Railsback (Duane Barry, the guy who kidnapped Scully) and recurrent Chris Owens (Agent Jeffrey Spender, Cigarette-Smoking Man's son). As Steve, the hero with the requisite damaged past (he is haunted by the suicide of his older brother), James Marsden has blue eyes and clean-cut looks tailor-made for a Bop pinup--and all the emotional depth and acting range of the page it would be printed on. Katie Holmes, the standout cast member of TV's Dawson's Creek, is wasted as the token tattooed, body-pierced love interest. To paraphrase the theme of her hit show, you don't want to wait for this film to be over. Just leave. Better yet, just don't go in the first place.

The Negotiator poster The Negotiator (R) ***
Even if you've seen the tell-all trailer, which idiotically divulges just about every last plot turn, F. Gary Gray's hostage thriller is a tense, entertaining ride. Writers James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox cook up an interesting central conceit: hostage negotiator as hostage taker himself, so he knows all the little mind games and tricks that negotiators pull. The astray negotiator is Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson), who, after being framed for the murder of his partner and involvement in a laundering scheme, takes the Internal Affairs head (the late J.T. Walsh), among others, hostage; Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey) is the negotiator Danny personally selects to mediate. What makes this talk-heavy actioner (and, yes, there is action) work is the intriguing battle of wits between two formidable, intelligent opponents, expertly played by former A Time to Kill co-stars Jackson and Spacey, and the assured, skillful directorial hand of Gray.

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