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#104 August 14, 1997
M O V I E S
Money Talks (R) BUY THE:Poster!
A small-time ticket scalper/con man (Chris Tucker) is falsely
accused of masterminding a prison bus escape, and the only one who can help
him clear his name is a stuffy TV news reporter (Charlie Sheen) who wants
the exclusive story. Sound familiar? Money Talks is a very tired, very
tedious formula action comedy, but there is an ounce of truth in it's "This
ain't no buddy movie" tag line. The term "buddy movie" implies the
existence of two characters, and I don't think Sheen's flat role
qualifies--he's merely there to bicker with Tucker from time to time and
serve as Tucker's link to the wealthy family of Sheen's fiancée (Heather
Locklear, wasted), with whom Tucker engages in some uninspired, unoriginal
culture clash gags. The only real character to speak of is Tucker's, and he
is the only performer on board who seems awake; his manic energy is the only
thing keeping the audience from dozing off like the rest of the cast.
First-time feature director Brett Ratner brings none of the visual gloss and
style one would expect from a veteran music video director. This limp film could
have used it.
Conspiracy Theory (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Mel Gibson plays a paranoid, downright crazy New York cab driver
obsessed with the idea of conspiracies. Suddenly, he finds himself the
target of shady government types, apparently because one of his theories is
true. On the run for his life, only a Justice Department investigator
(Julia Roberts) can help him. Sounds like a strange cross between Lethal
Weapon, Taxi Driver, and The Pelican Brief, and, for about half of its running time, Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory does play as such.
However, one wishes that Donner and company had remained on that track, for
the film quickly degenerates into a murky mess that grows more hopelessly
convoluted with each passing minute.
What makes Conspiracy Theory initially interesting--and
promising--is Gibson's wacked-out cabbie, Jerry Fletcher. There are
paranoid people and then there are people like Jerry, who even keeps his
refrigerator and its contents under lock and key (one of the more inspired
sight gags are the combination-locked jugs of coffee and pudding). Gibson,
a proven pro at playing off-kilter characters, is so much fun to watch that
we are interested when the contrived plot surfaces. Jerry voices his wild
theories in a self-published newsletter (which lends the film its title), so
when some government agents led by the mysterious Dr. Jonas (an underused
Patrick Stewart) start chasing him, Jerry, his "friend" Alice Sutton
(Roberts, well-cast), and the audience are led to believe that one of his
wild ideas is indeed true.
Alas, if only it were that simple. Certainly, the scenario
initially set up by writer Brian Helgeland is contrived, but at the very
least it was easy to follow, and Donner directs the proceedings with an
energetic urgency. But, as it turns out, it's nothing more than a red
herring. Midway through a couple of new, complex plot elements are brought
to the forefront: the long-ago murder of Alice's judge father and, most
regrettably, a left-field development involving (yes) mind control. This
twist would not have been as bothersome if it made some sense, but it never
does, nor is everything clearly, satisfactorily explained. The way in which
Conspiracy Theory hooks viewers with its questions (and fascinating
protagonist) and then loses them with its answers more than recalls the
recent thriller Smilla's Sense of Snow, even if the outlandishness of the plot "secrets" is not as awful as that of the half-baked Smilla.
Conspiracy Theory marks Gibson and Donner's fifth collaboration
(following the three Lethal Weapons and Maverick)--and their least
satisfying one. As it is, the film is a mildly diverting piece of popcorn
entertainment, but it would have gone down a lot more smoothly had it not
been too "clever" for its own good.
In the Company of Men (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Feeling weak due to their workplace situation and
less-than-fulfilling love lives, nondescript executives Chad (Aaron Eckhart)
and Howard (Matt Malloy) decide to engage in a sadistic game to help them
reaffirm their power as men. During a six-week stint at an out-of-town
office, the two simultaneously romance a weak-willed wallflower type just
for the thrill of dumping her hard before they head home. Their target?
Cristine (Stacy Edwards, nicely understated), a typist who is not only sweet
and shy, she's also deaf.
Much ink has already been spilled debating whether or not Neil
LaBute's unflinching, fascinating film is misogynistic or, in a roundabout
way, feminist. As for me, I'm not entirely sure if it's either of those
things or just plain anti-human. Mastermind Chad, played with the perfect
mix of sly charm and venom by the terrific Eckhart, certainly hates women,
but that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg--he's a sociopath who
seems to care for little else but himself. The pain he inflicts on Cristine
is considerable but perhaps not as deep as the damage he ultimately does to
his hapless collaborator, Howard. And in one highly unsettling scene, Chad
humiliates an African-American intern (Jason Dixie) by making him expose his
genitals to him. Chad's hateful antics are detestable and at times hard to
watch--but, strangely enough, you cannot take your eyes off of the screen.
The same can be said of In the Company of Men in general--tough to
watch but absolutely riveting. Especially intriguing--and off-putting--is
that a lot of is quite funny in the most pitch black way. I don't what
finding humor in the most unsavory of situations says about me, but in terms
of LaBute, it means that a first-class filmmaker has arrived on the scene.
187 (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Fifteen months after being stabbed by a student in a New York high
school, teacher Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson) returns to the
profession at a Southern California inner-city school a changed man--his
passion is not the same as it used to be; his guard is always up. And he
soon finds out that while he and the setting have changed, everything is the
same as it was in New York--the gangs, the crime, the senseless violence.
And Trevor will no longer be anyone's victim.
187 at times threatens to become another inspirational "teacher who
makes a difference" film à la Dangerous Minds, but scripter Scott Yagemann
(himself a teacher) has a darker agenda. If anything, 187 is about the
impossibility of making a difference, at least a wholesale one. Another
smart move is to not paint Trevor in the most sympathetic of lights; while
he is noble of intention, he at times is certainly not noble in action,
making for a refreshingly human educator instead of the saintly
The film does, however, have a problem at its core, and that is
director Kevin Reynolds. Directing an urban drama is a stretch for the
one-time Waterworld helmer, and it shows. Apparently bored by the
down-to-earth material, he and cinematographer Ericson Core amuse themselves
by juicing up the visuals, but the fancy camera work only serves to
undermine the grit and reality of the story. Is it really necessary, for
example, to have the camera ceaselessly circle two characters having a quiet
dinner at home? Or, in a scene where Trevor and fellow teacher Ellen Henry
(Kelly Rowan) have a discussion in his classroom, to see the oversized
silhouettes of basketball-playing students projected onto the walls behind
them? The visual flourishes are not only unnecessary, but nonsensical--who
wants a gritty drama to look pretty?
What makes the film work, perhaps better than it has any right to
be, is Jackson, who brings a quiet dignity and slow-simmering anger to
Trevor that is fascinating. But this is not to say that he isn't
vulnerable, and its his emotional rapport with the audience that makes the
character of Trevor sympathetic to the audience, even when his actions cross
the line. The other actors, such as Rowan, John Heard (as a burnt-out
teacher), and Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez (as a delinquent student) are able
to hold their own, with the exception of the badly miscast Karina Arroyave
in the pivotal role of Rita, Trevor's star pupil. It is her character's
duty to deliver the film's key closing speech, and Arroyave can't shed a
tear to save her life.
Spawn (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
| Graphic Novel! Todd McFarlane's comic book sensation Spawn is prime fodder for a
big-budget Hollywood movie treatment--there's a extravagantly costumed,
supernaturally powered, sometimes homicidal hero, resurrected from the dead,
whose primary enemy is none other than the devil himself. After years of
topping comic sales charts, Spawn has indeed arrived to conquer the movie
arena, but something is seriously lacking; for all its visual razzle dazzle,
Mark Dippé's film is a mess--a misguided attempt to sanitize a concept whose
most distinctive trait is its darkness.
To Dippé and scripter Alan McElroy's credit, McFarlane's basic
conceit remains intact: Spawn (Michael Jai White) was originally murdered
government agent Al Simmons, who makes a pact with the devil to see beloved
wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) one more time. In return, however, he must use
his newfound supernatural powers to lead Hell's Army in its quest to destroy
Heaven and Earth. Prodding Spawn into serving holding up his end of the
bargain is the Clown (John Leguizamo, having a ball in a fat suit and heavy
makeup), whose short, rotund exterior hides his true, horrific self as the
demonic Violator; urging him to rebel against the dark side is Cogliostro
(Nicol Williamson), a mysterious figure from the distant past.
The above is a fairly accurate distillation of comic's basics, but
the Spawn faithful know there is something deeper and richer behind the plot
fundamentals--an overwhelming sense of despair and anguish. Spawn has a
great costume, some nifty powers, and a killer instinct, but the key to the
character is his emotional torment. Al's passionate love for Wanda is what
drives him and also what cripples him. Merely seeing her is not enough, and
being with her is an impossibility--not only because he's a severely burned
undead hellspawn but because she has gone on with her life. Adding to his
angst is the fact that in the five years that have passed between his death
and rebirth, Wanda is remarried with a daughter, Cyan (Sydni Beaudoin), and
her new husband is none other than Al's best friend, Terry Fitzgerald (D.B.
Sweeney, putting a Caucasian face on a what is originally an
For reasons only known to him, the intense emotional content that
McElroy successfully incorporated into the Spawn HBO animated series (which, I may add, is a much more satisfying translation) is all but completely
absent in his script for the film. The only hints at Spawn's torment are a
couple of anguished cries of "Wanda," and the rest of the time--which is
nearly all of the time--he's merely angry and vengeful, no different from
some heroes in any number of generic action films. The dilution of the
emotion--and, in McElroy's most offensive move, having the normally brooding
Spawn utter a couple of lame one-liners--are obvious attempts to make the
character fit a more traditional mold and hence win an audience-friendly
PG-13 rating. But this decision makes no sense, since it's Spawn's
untraditional, dark, R-rated nature that made him so interesting to begin with.
Dippé, making his feature directorial debut, is a seasoned special
effects creator, so it should come as no surprise that Spawn is most
impressive and imaginative--and most faithful--in the visual arena. The
jarring opening credits, complete with shaky, distorted lettering and nearly
subliminal glimpses of images, is highly reminiscent of Se7en's unsettling main titles (which is a good thing). The creative transitions between
scenes, such as having flames and capes wipe across the frame, effectively
recall the visual style of the comic, as do the characters' appearances.
The Clown and his demonic alter ego, the Violator, are every bit as
repellent in three-dimensions as they are on the page (even if, as part of
the PG-13 compromise, he does not perform any of his trademark heart
extractions), and Spawn is blessed with a wonderfully fluid,
computer-generated cape, which, unfortunately, only materializes from time
to time. McFarlane has said that the cape's sporadic appearance in the film
(Spawn has his cape at all times in the comic and animated series) was a
conscious decision, so Spawn would look less "superhero-y." Ironically,
though, he looks more conventional without it. The true marvel is Dippé and
visual effects supervisor Steve "Spaz" Williams's vision of hell, a
stunningly organic blend of flame and rock--a true technical achievement.
But that's the problem with Dippé's direction as a whole--it's too
technical. Attention was paid to the visuals and little else. The story,
involving a biological weapon developed by Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen, all
clenched teeth), the shady government agent responsible for Al's death, is
weak and doesn't make complete sense; even the action scenes are clumsily
handled, especially the climactic battle in hell, where the heavy editing
makes the action hard to follow. But worst of all, there's no passion--no
real connection to the characters (no fault to White or the other actors,
who aren't really given much to work with in the script), no sense of
urgency to the tale. The film is a feast for the eyes, yes, but there's
In its comic and animated form, Spawn pushes the creative envelope;
in this live-action, big-screen incarnation, Spawn plays it safe--much too
safe; so safe that I'm certain people being introduced to Spawn with this
movie will wonder just what all the fuss is about. At a recent comic book
convention, producer Clint Goldman said with much confidence and certainty,
"There will be a sequel." Here's hoping that next time around the
filmmakers will take a lesson from its hero in the comic and go for the kill.
Operation Condor (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
The latest Jackie Chan vehicle to receive a major stateside release
is this wild and wacky 1991 action comedy (originally titled Armour of God
II: Operation Condor), which Chan also directed. As with all Chan vehicles,
there is not much of a plot: he plays a secret agent who is hired to recover
a cache of Nazi gold hidden in the Sahara Desert; along for the ride are
three women--one Chinese (Carol Cheng), one German (Eva Cobo de Garcia), one
Japanese (Shoko Ikeda)--all of whom are shrill, helpless ninnies. Of
course, plot takes a backseat to action and, here moreso than Chan's other
American-released films, comedy, and Operation Condor delivers all one would hope for. There's an exhilarating chase sequence early in the film, which
begins in the streets and ends at the docks; a raucous and raunchy hotel
scene which seamlessly marries martial-arts derring-do and heavy gunplay
with broad slapstick humor; and an unforgettable climax in a wind tunnel.
Bad dubbing? Of course. Disposable entertainment? Yes. Fun? You betcha.
Air Force One (R) BUY THE:Poster!
If the President's private plane, Air Force One, were hijacked, it's
highly unlikely that President Clinton (or any real-life Chief Executive)
would go mano y mano with the terrorists. But this is Hollywood, where
wimpy presidents just don't sell. So we have Wolfgang Petersen's Air Force
One, an exciting, entertaining variation of the Die Hard formula where our kick-ass hero is none other than the President of the United States.
Right from the get-go, we know Harrison Ford's President James
Marshall is one take-no-crap guy. We first see him at a dinner at the
Kremlin, where he and the Russian president (Alan Woolf) are celebrating the
capture of General Alexander Radek (Jurgen Prochnow), a fascist tyrant whose
brutal tactics wreaked havoc in Kazakhstan. It is during this dinner that
he gives an impassioned speech saying that the United States will no longer
take action against such atrocities at the last minute, striking at the
first signs of trouble. President Marshall gets his chance to back up his
words when, en route to Washington, Air Force One is hijacked by a group of
Radek loyalists, led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman), demanding the
general's release. With his wife (Wendy Crewson), daughter (Liesel
Matthews), and numerous staffers held hostage, it is up to President
Marshall to defeat the baddies and reassert America's reputation as the
leading global power.
The basic conceit is a little far-fetched (then again, what action
movie plot isn't?), and given some of the clunky dialogue by screenwriter
Andrew W. Marlowe, sometimes it sounds ridiculous, too. But while watching
the film, you buy it hook, line, and sinker, due in large part to the acting
talent on board. Ford's commanding presence lends a sense of authenticity
to every project he's in. It is one thing to be a convincing kick-ass
action hero and quite another to be believable as "the leader of the free
world"; not only does he pull off both without a hitch, but he also pulls
off the task fairly seamlessly. When he is wacking a terrorist with a
stool, we also believe that this the president, doing what it takes to
protect his country; similarly, in more sedate presidential mode, we believe
that, when push comes to shove, he is capable of acting in such a violent
way. Another huge acting asset is Glenn Close, serving as the plane's (and
the film's) dramatic anchor to reality as Vice President Kathryn Bennett,
who is the focus of the action in the White House. Oldman is appropriately
restrained as Korshunov, wisely resisting the urge to camp it up as a lot of
action movie villains do these days. Anything too over-the-top and outre,
like Oldman's turns in the Luc Besson films The Professional and The Fifth
Element, would seem too out of place here.
But this is not to say that Air Force One is a gravely serious and
self-important championing of the American presidency. Even though
President Marshall is a combat veteran who can more than hold his own in a
fight, he still is a desk jockey by trade. He's no know-it-all gadget whiz
MacGyver; a lot of times he doesn't know what he's doing or how to do it.
The little comic touches, from little one-liners to scenes such as one where
he reads an instruction manual to a cellular telephone work not so much
because they are funny but because they also ring true (after all, wouldn't
the president have someone make his calls for him?).
Air Force One does not offer as much character nor plot to chew on
as Petersen's last thriller involving the presidency, 1993's terrific Clint
Eastwood starrer In the Line of Fire, but it still delivers the goods--a
brisk pace, explosions, gunplay, fights, lots of airborne action, strong
acting, and, last and certainly not least, the legendary Harrison Ford.
George of the Jungle (PG) BUY THE:Poster!
Hollywood's track record in bringing old television cartoons to real
life in the big screen hasn't exactly been good, to the say the least: in
1980, Popeye came to theatres in Robert Altman's musical oddity; 1994 saw
the heavily hyped but thunderously boring The Flintstones. The track record
doesn't get any better with Sam Weisman's thoroughly unwatchable treatment
of Jay Ward's 1960s animated series.
Brendan Fraser stars as the title character, the wide-eyed king of
the jungle who has a problem with crashing into trees; Leslie Mann is the
love interest, heiress Ursula Stanhope; John Cleese provides the voice of
George's simian sidekick, an ape named Ape; and Thomas Haden Church is the
villainous Lyle Van de Groot, Ursula's fiance. So what is the film about?
Don't ask scripters Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells. Their script is a mess,
heavy on slapstick pratfalls ("when in doubt, have George slam into
something" seems to be their philosophy) and groaner one-liners, light on
anything resembling a plot--and without any dramatic structure, the film
seems to drag on and on and on (and then some) without any rhyme or reason.
Olsen and Wells try to infuse some irony into the proceedings through the
use of an unseen, pompously self-aware narrator (Keith Scott). The attempt
at self-mocking is admirable, but the writers just don't seem to realize
just how bad it all is, from the overly broad performances (Fraser's George
is more of an annoying dimwit than a charming innocent) to the cheap-looking
jungle sets. The one thing one would think the film would at the very least
get right is the nostalgia kick from its bouncy theme song. Alas, even that
is botched--instead of using the original version from the TV show during
the main titles, Weisman serves up an alterna-rock-inflected version by the
Presidents of the United States of America.
At a tick over 90 minutes, the painfully forced, unfunny George
feels three times its actual length, if not more. At the media screening,
the guy sitting behind me could be heard loudly snoring during the third
act. We should all be so lucky.
Contact (PG) BUY THE:Poster!
| Book on Tape!
There's a moment late in Robert Zemeckis's Contact where I was
reminded of why I started writing movie reviews in the first place. We see
a scientist, dressed in a silvery space suit, walking tentatively across a
narrow walkway leading inside a compact, spherical space pod, unaware of
what awaits when the ball literally drops. Anticipation, excitement,
anxiety, fear--the audience experiences it all the emotional tension right
with the character, nervously, breathlessly eager to see what lies ahead.
It is this sense of discovery, the anticipation of which and its
accompanying exhilaration, that makes this adaptation of the Carl Sagan
novel such magical, captivating entertainment.
Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a brilliant astronomer who
dedicates her entire life to searching outer space for extraterrestrial
radio signals. And I mean life--after losing her entire family when she was
young, the only thing occupying Ellie's world is this quest to discover life
beyond this earth. After dealing with much skepticism on the part of
government officials and wealthy financiers, Ellie receives her vindication
when she stumbles upon an incoming radio transmission from the distant star
Vega, which includes instructions on building an interstellar transport.
From this synopsis, Contact does not sound too different to most
films about alien contact, but there is a whole lot more to this intelligent
film than the sci-fi hook. The alien contact angle generates a great amount
of suspense and awe, but perhaps more than anything else, Contact is a
character study of Ellie, whose obsession with empirical, scientific
evidence has erased all belief in a higher power. The irony is that, while
admitting to having no religious faith, she holds onto her belief in
extraterrestrial life with such passion and conviction that it becomes, in a
sense, a religion in its own right. It would be easy for scripters James V.
Hart and Michael Goldenberg, in trying to paint a positive image of the
heroine, to champion her scientific beliefs over religious ones, but they
wisely eschew easy answers, giving equal time to both sides, and in so doing
depict Ellie as not completely sane. In the end, there is no right or
wrong, nor is there one side that comes off more positive in the other, even
slightly so--there are just two very viable points of view, each with their
own merits, each with their own faults.
The complex role of Ellie is an actress's dream, and Foster, a
virtual shoo-in for yet another Best Actress Oscar nomination next year,
more than rises to the challenge. She conveys intelligence, determination,
warmth, and, in a gutsy move, always on edge. We root for Ellie and feel
for her, but we also feel at times that she goes too far. Contact is
clearly Foster's vehicle, but others are given their chance to shine in
smaller roles. Matthew McConaughey, who receives outrageously high billing
for his smallish role, holds his own as the religious counterpoint to Ellie,
spiritual scholar and government adviser Palmer Joss (however, his main
storyline, the tentative Palmer-Ellie romance, is the film's weakest
subplot). John Hurt is effectively creepy as S.R. Hadden, the wealthy
eccentric who provides Ellie with her research funding. Angela Bassett
continues to impress in her bit role as White House aide Rachel Constantine.
Most memorable of all, though, are Tom Skerritt and James Woods, who play
rival scientist Dr. David Drumlin and national security adviser Michael
Litz, respectively; both, especially Skerritt, embody these asshole
characters that the audience hissed just about every single one of their
Zemeckis comes off of his three-year break in top shape. Always
known as a director of effects-laden extravaganzas, it comes as no surprise
that Contact's visual effects are quite stunning. The central space journey
is more than a little reminiscent of the close of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but
with more advanced technology at his disposal, Zemeckis's voyage is even
trippier than Stanley Kubrick's yet more wondrously pure. And Zemeckis
doesn't resist the urge to use the always-interesting
incorporate-actors-into-existing-film-footage effect, which is every bit as
seamless here as it was in Forrest Gump. Effects, however, are confined to
only a few scenes and clearly take a back seat to the drama, emotion, and
pure wonder, which Zemeckis proved to be quite adept at in Gump. It says a
lot that, in a summer science fiction film such as this, it's not so much
the effects that stay with you as it is the drama and the issues that are
The thought-provoking, two-hour-plus Contact is a much-welcome
change of pace from summer no-brainers, but the fact that it is a smart film
does not mean that it also isn't entertaining. For all the interesting
questions it asks, the film is still what it's being sold as--"a journey to
the heart of the universe." And what a fascinating, unforgettable journey
Nothing to Lose (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Pairing funnyman Martin "You so crazy" Lawrence with "serious actor"
Tim Robbins is an inspired idea, and Lawrence's wackiness plays well off of
Robbins's somber stoicism. Less inspired, however, is the entirety of
writer-director Steve Oedekerk's buddy comedy, in which carjacker Terrence
Davidson (Lawrence) teams with his mark, depressed ad exec Nick Beam
(Robbins), to rob money from Nick's boss (Michael McKean), who, in turn, is
suspected of sleeping with Nick's wife (Kelly Preston). There are laughs to
be had here, but for every fresh, funny scene--such as one where Nick,
robbing a sporting goods store with Terrence, asks the elderly cashier if
his hold-up technique is scary--there is another that is incredibly
forced--most notably a bit involving a dancing and lip-synching security
guard (played, in a self-indulgent turn, by Oedekerk himself). Lawrence and
Robbins obviously have fun together, but they can't do too much to enliven
the more run-of-the-mill action comedy elements, like the obligatory car
chases and "comic" fight scenes.