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Shanghai Noon

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Jackie Chan. These are the operative words. If you like Jackie Chan, you already have a differing level of standards for evaluating his films. Is he better as a solo act, as in First Strike? Or is it more fun to see him distilled with an American partner, as in Rush Hour? With the latter film, Jackie’s trademark fight scene ballets and personal safety-flaunting stunts were fewer, but his comic ability was used more. With First Strike, it’s death-defiance after death-defiance, with an interesting but secondary plot. Shanghai Noon pairs Jackie with the wildly underappreciated Owen Wilson, who is damn funny, in the Wild West. Shanghai Noon has a lot of sly, modern winks, fish-out-of-water gags, and some pretty cool fight scenes. Upon recent reviewing of Rush Hour, I would have to say that Noon is a more successful blend of American cinema and Jackie’s trademark action.

I must interject that the use of bad modern metal to “punch up” scenes that would have been adequately rendered with pure score left a bad taste in my mouth, but I am grateful to acknowledge that at least it was really only one scene that went flat for that usage. Wilson is a funny guy – and his nice-guy bad guy, cocky and sardonic, is a great role for him. I hope now more people know who he is and cast him more often. He’s a better comic foil to Jackie’s brand of smiling, innocent-savant humor than showboating Chris Tucker was. Oh, did I mention there is more Jackie-style fighting than we have seen in a while?

After the visually impressive but otherwise silly debacle of Wild Wild West, it was nice to see that it was the story and not the setting that can’t be swallowed – Shanghai Noon’s Old West is dusty and deadly and filled with peril. Native Americans get some pretty good presence as well – with some great big scenes of riding and fighting and warring. But the real meat of the movie is Wilson and Chan, friends and foes, fighting to rescue Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) from the bad, bad man who has her. The chemistry was good enough that you leave thinking, “I’d like to see more of them together,” but the basic truth is that a sequel would be a terrible idea. Enough to let us laugh at the anachronistic jokes and gape at Chan’s trademark death-defying stuntwork.

The sad truth of these new American Jackie Chan movies (the first being Rush Hour, NOT Rumble in the Bronx, which was shot in like, Australia or something) is that American studios recognized the wretched dubbing/acting of his native-made forays, and doubt Americans’ ability to forgive the acting just to see Jackie break his ankle for real – so they beef up the story until there is no time to have a sudden, random fisticuffs with shopping carts and jump ropes and pumpkins and so on. Additionally, the USA has some oppressive views about insurance and liability, and just won’t let Jackie get into positions where he might get hurt – although doesn’t it seem we have a lot of stunt people getting killed recently? “Oh but they’re only stunt people.” American’s want to be wowed, and I believe Jackie Chan fans are more wowed by him scrabbling up a glacier with his bare hands than seeing a lookalike dragged on a wire across an abyss with a cushion below him. Knowing just by looking all the safety that was packed around Jackie takes away the magic that is his skill as a performer. Not that I want Jackie to be hurt! Outtakes where he flies through a hole in a ladder and misses by a bit versus outtakes where he cracks up because he can’t pronounce Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity kind of take the edge off his style of entertainment.

Don’t let my regret at the repression of Jackie’s glorious insanity stop you from seeing Shanghai Noon – go and enjoy it and then rent some of his Hong Kong films if you never have and you will see just what I mean.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/26/00
Time in minutes 105
Director Tom Dey
Studio Touchstone

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Mission Impossible 2

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I’ll say right off the bat that despite the played-down Apple presence (compared to the first one), despite the utter lack of motivation that everyone in the movie has, and despite the relative boringness of the supposedly exotic Thandie Newton (seven of you may have seen her in Besieged and/or Beloved), Mission Impossible 2 was a fun, popcorny, silly movie full of impossibly hot men. Yes, my friend, this movie was made for the ladies. I wouldn’t have thought John Woo to have the eye, but he does. So we get the guys in the seats to see some cool, slo-mo airwalking kicks from Tom Cruise and Dougray Scott, and girls along with them to remember why we liked Cruise so much in the first place. You may remember Dougray Scott from his swoony role in Ever After. Cruise has been in a couple of regrettable films, including Eyes Wide Shut, Days of Thunder, and Losin’ It. We love Tom so much, we let him get away with that haircut decade after decade. Why? Sometimes he can just smile in such a way that we scream “show me the boxers!” and forgive him for his past transgressions.

I digress. Don’t get me wrong, both the films in this franchise are Mission Implausible, but I think John Woo (Face/Off) can work the fantasy-testosterone action with more skill than Bonfire of the Vanities’ (and MI 1) Brian De Palma. And mano-a-mano is just plain less silly, even when stylized, than leaping from a helicopter onto a train while both are traveling in a tunnel. Man, that was insulting! But MI2 is no Silence of the Lambs, despite Anthony Hopkins, version 2.0 (post-Merchant Ivory, pre-Amistad). MI2 is good clean fun, lots of violence and danger and implied sexual situations, a little sneaky-snoo spy stuff, cool camera work, and Tom giving us that look that says, “you love me, don’t you?” We do love you Tom, like that bad boyfriend we keep getting back together with. You’re no good for us, you disappoint us on the big screen sometimes (not in Magnolia!) but it’s fun to watch you run around!

The sad truth of movies like this is simply that they feel they have to top each other, and we end up being excited to death – over-stimulated with no emotional connection, no reason to care, no tension, and so no charge. I really couldn’t tell half the time why people were doing what they were doing but I could tell good guy from bad guy (the hats helped) and that was enough to know that that guy shooting at Tom is someone I should enjoy getting kicked in the face. A scene I thought was the end of the movie (premature climax) was loud and broken glass and yelling and rolling and shooting and I was just utterly uninvolved. This is a shame, because, technically speaking, it was nicely shot. Woo has a lot of glass flying around in his movies – it’s tense (remember the broken glass on the bathroom floor in Die Hard? True, not his movie, but great glass!) and it catches the light and it’s a great symbol of chaos. No one gets a scratch on them, no one has to walk barefoot through it, nothing. Nothing in MI2 was as tense as the hanging from a wire cat burglar scene in the first film, either. Yet again, I was far less confused and insulted by the second film. So, make your own call here.

Lalo Schifrin’s legendary dun-dun-daada dun-dun daada theme to Mission Impossible may well be what has kept this franchise going at all. MI gives us precious few James Bond gadgets to arouse the technophiles, one woman at a time for Ethan Hunt, but WOW! What a theme. They could just crank the theme over a scene of 20 people walking peaceably to the park for a picnic and the scene would be riveting…up to a point. That’s where storytelling is supposed to take up the slack and as of yet, the MI franchise is still lacking there. Still, I’d rather see this than the Joel Schumacher Batman crapchise! It’s not great, but it can be fun.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/25/00
Time in minutes 125
Director john Woo
Studio Paramount

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Dinosaur

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I am not going to lie to you. Dinosaur has the simplest, most straightforward story since the dinosaur segment in Fantasia – but MY GOD the computer animation will knock your hair off. If you saw Jurassic Park and Bug’s Life and Toy Story, you might think, ah so what? You play Myst, you’re used to pretty textures and photorealistic landscapes, sure fine whatever. These thunder lizards breathe and shake and their muscles twitch and their wattles wobble and their weight presses them into the ground. The shadows are finally dark, not with that strange disembodied general glowing problem that has pervaded computer animation. The monkeys fur flutters softly, this is not Jumanji. This is freaking real creatures rolling smoothly across stunning landscapes and being alive. I swear, my jaw did not lift off my chest the first 30 minutes.

It’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful. If you saw the 3 minute preview tacked on to the Bug’s Life DVD you might have thought, wow, that looks pretty good. OH MY GOD. If you saw the preview with the unfortunate quote of “you need help from the love monkey” you might have thought “Oh brother,” and crossed it off your list. Well, the Love Monkey’s character is actually pretty nicely developed, and I mean, his fur! The monkeys and dinosaurs do talk, and they talk well, they are funny and they are sincere and it’s all very simple and straightforward. Remember how scary and awful the humans’ faces looked in Toy Story 1; all immobile and puppety? No more – we have some serious face animation and expression and wow oh wow. It’s not a musical, it’s kind of a drama (outlook: dire most of the show) but it’s full of positive messages for kids and some knockout visuals.

There is one scene where it’s raining, and computer animation buffs can appreciate this: it looks utterly real. The rain pattering off and sliding down the scales, splashing the dust, the hazy distance, the trickling moving foreground. Wow. Fire blazing, reflecting everywhere. Dust sticking to slightly moist faces. Muscles shaking from effort, cheeks puffing and flapping from exhaustion. Oh yes the whole thing is amazing to see. I can’t really even fault them for story because there is a story, it’s just (literally) the oldest one ever told and it’s simple and mostly predictable but it serves to get us from point A to B. The voice casting is unobtrusive (I recognized Julianna Margulies partway through but otherwise was not distracted by familiarity) and the score is adequate. I seriously was agog sucking up all the sights. I took almost no notes except to point out Chrone (?), a character of the same species as our lead, had the best face acting of all the characters (hooray for his leads!) and I simply wrote the word “agape,” for that is what I was: an ape agape at what a bunch of ones and zeros can do.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 5/19/00
Time in minutes 82
Director Eric Leighton, Ralph Zondag
Studio Walt Disney

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Small Time Crooks

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I should mention right out that I cannot get into Woody Allen as a rule. I saw a lot of his 70’s movies when I was a kid, and I assumed I was bored because it was “grownup” stuff, even though I followed along most other grownup movies just fine. Now that, aesthete-wise, I guess I am a grown-up, I mostly admire Allen for casting other actors such as Edward Norton or John Cusack in the Woody Allen role, and his skill at making dialogue sound natural and unstaged. That said, I found Small Time Crooks to be a bit of a departure. It still is in love with New York, with intellectualism, and with the idea that a schmuckish Woody can still land a babe as hot as Tracy Ullman. Nice golden hour shot, too, by the way.

The difference is simply this: The leads are idiots. Ullman and Allen are a married couple, poor, trashy, uneducated, with low aspirations and a comfort with the seedier side of life. They squawk and bray at each other, mispronouncing words and blindly attempting capers out of sheer determination to stick to their guns. Their friends are even more useless. Perhaps it was the sheer novelty of seeing Allen’s naturalistic directing applied to such artless creatures; perhaps it was the painfully tacky production design or the bizarre chemistry between these two comedians. Either way, I thought the story to be the most simplistic one he has done in a while, and yet I was completely absorbed in it. Production designer Santo Loquasto and art director Tom Warren (no strangers to Allen) create the gaudiest nouveau-riche palace of tackiness since Graceland.

The supporting cast is full of nitwits, head cases, and gits, as well as the supposedly superior wealthy society-types who look down on them. Notable is frequent simp-character actor Michael Rapaport. Most actors know that some of the hardest roles to play are the unintelligent people, and by far the best person at that in this film is Elaine May as supreme dolt Cousin May. Who is to say who is a good person and who is not? The mishaps that occur in these people’s lives are so inevitable you wince all the way to the bank – but the reaction to them is what is refreshing. Don’t get me wrong, I could have done with less kvetching and more cat burglar activity, but frankly Tracy Ullman deserves a nomination for what she did in this movie.

Not unlike Mira Sorvino (another keenly intelligent actress cast as a dimbulb against Allen), Ullman occupies the skin of her ignoramus character with total conviction, in a way I haven’t seen her do in a long time. Tracy Ullman’s show on Fox, a billion pre-Simpsons years ago, was due to be the next Carol Burnett show, but the self-involved Tracy Takes On… kind of ruined her brilliance for me. Here she is channeling Burnett and Dorothy Lamour and Marilyn Monroe in the Prince and the Showgirl.

Hugh Grant sleepwalks through a Charming Englishman role which we know he could have really done up, but perhaps he had too much conflict with Allen on the set – he is more restrained than I have seen him since his Divine Brown arrest. Quite a bit seems cut out of his end of the story, and perhaps out of the main plot as well – but we forgive, because it does all seem very natural, and, in true Allen style, very old-fashioned. I don’t know if Small Time Crooks would appeal to a regular fan of Woody Allen’s, but it should delight Tracy Ullman fans no matter what.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 5/19/00
Time in minutes 95
Director Woody Allen
Studio Dreamworks

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Center Stage

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Full Price for Dancing; Rental + snacks for Story

I have to split my rating for this movie. We all know that most dance movies tend to have less than original plots, relatively simple characters, and a little show boating. Center Stage, however, has TONS and TONS of dancing, plenty of dancing, great dancing, amazing dancing, and for people who see dance movies to see dancing, this is a Full Price Feature all the way. For people who enjoy dance movies but still want the plot of a “regular” movie, Center Stage can be a wee bit disappointing. The actors are dancers who act, which in my book is great for them – with no prior experience they all carried a movie and didn’t embarrass themselves in any way – oh and did I mention that they are fantastic dancers? The acting is good enough that we care about the characters, we believe what they are saying, and then we enjoy the progression of the story. The real crime is the written dialogue – it’s not these kids’ fault that the screenplay is hackneyed and terrible, but they will be blamed for it, just because they are not all John Gielgud.

Forgive the script, for it serves the movie’s real purpose which is to show a girl’s struggle through the prestigious American Ballet Academy and lots and lots of amazing dancing. Willowy women and leanly powerful men fly and pas-de-bourret across the screen. Handsome people smolder furiously at each other with their bodies instead of their words, and my god does it all look great. The camera work is great – alternating between close-up and wide shot without losing the general feel of the performance – something I have noticed happens too much in dance movies. You have 100 people all doing the same huge move at once, but center on the lead’s triumphant expression, you have just wasted 99 people’s choreography – why have them there? Center Stage clearly had a lot of dancers involved behind the camera, making everything look good. The physical endurance it must have taken for simple shots (late night solo rehearsals, classroom exercises, a big flaming dance-off pissing contest between two men) is astounding.

Director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible, Object of My Affection) made some scary musical choices at times, but he cast some great people as the teachers of the school. I can’t say that he knows how to improve upon weak material, but at least he doesn’t damage what does work. Casting “real” actors in the non dancing roles such as Donna Murphy and Peter Gallagher lent weight to what could have been painfully weak scenes of conflict and plot. Peter Gallagher as the Academy’s dean(thankfully tweezed) was notable – his calmness, his solidity, confidence, strength really shone in this role. Maybe it was the 98 lb. waifs fluttering all around him that made him seem so strong, but he was marvelous and totally believable, even with those awful words coming out of his mouth.

Amanda Schull is our lead and she is really everything we would want in a dance movie lead – she’s beautiful, unselfconscious, and a great dancer – but not too great. You know she was on her toes 12 hours a day for months, but she always seems fresh and ready to go – very impressive. Eithan Steifel has the Leonardo DiCaprio role – cocky sexy guy who may or may not be a jerk but we all have to admit that he sure can twinkle those toes. It’s amusing to go through the IMDB and see that none of these people have been in a movie before – and here they are, carrying one on their toned and sweaty backs. It’s totally worth seeing just for the dancing, and I am certain that those who dream of ballet as their vocation can find more than that to enjoy, but don’t fault the actors for their dialogue. They give us more than we bargain for on stage.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/12/00
Time in minutes 113
Director Nicholas Hytner
Studio Columbia Tristar

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Battlefield Earth

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Stinkaroo! A long-anticipated film (due to the enormous popularity of the 1970’s novel by famed Thetan L. Ron Hubbard), Battlefield Earth is a disappointing mishmash of crap, silliness, unintentional hilarity, and – for goodness’ sake – embarrassing performances. Barry Pepper, a man genetically designed to play an urban cop kind of character, does the best he can with the material he’s given. John Travolta did not surprise me one whit. As a long-time Travolta detractor, even I had to admit that nothing Travolta could have done would have saved this movie – I mean, I could blame almost nothing on him. Except letting it happen! He’s down with Hubbard, he could have stopped it, somehow? Couldn’t he? It must be a testament to the spiritual bandaid of Scientology that the whole cast did not commit suicide after seeing this movie.

But wait! The actors get a script, they read it, they learn it, they perform it in front of a camera. Clearly, at no point did anyone say, “Man, this is a steaming pile of hangover dung – why don’t we fix it?” My fans know well how little I liked Phantom Menace; well, folks, this has just supplanted it as my mockery target of 2000. I struggled, looking for reasons to like the movie. The aliens were totally Klingon knockoffs, complete with butt-cheek print heads, glarf-krox-narf-blag language, and unending double dealing, hostility, and hubris, but without all the code-of-honor business that makes the Klingons more fully two dimensional. Oh did I mention they are called Psychlos? I mean, COME ON! If your 6 year old kid sister put on a play in the living room about evil aliens she would come up with a better name. This is Hubbard’s fault, of course, but couldn’t at least his errors have been glossed over? Heaven knows GOOD books are destroyed by Hollywood, why not BAD ones? I have been told the novel is quite good, actually, but I was also advised it should never be a movie. I could *not* agree more.

The execrable dialogue was pre-Planet of the Apes bad camp. The makeup was all Apes too, actually, not as good. Rubbery hands rest awkwardly on hips and table tops – gestures reduced to a minimum so the wobbling, claw-nailed hands won’t look as obviously fake. The man-animals with whom I saw the film cracked some seriously good jokes and I was in stitches the last half of the movie. If only I could have been in traction, elsewhere! The only real benefit to having seen this movie is to get to mock it, crucify it, murder it! Oh, to think what Charleton Heston could have done in that mountain gorilla suit instead of Forrest Whittaker! I noted that the production crew names flashing in the opening credits were largely unfamiliar to me (and I pay attention to that stuff). I don’t even want to generate a hit to the IMDB site to find out who they are, I am so offended by this movie. You should check out the alternate movie poster in Entertainment Weekly (May 26, 2000, page 9) – it quotes reviewers much in the same way the Saving Private Ryan poster did…oh, but without all those stars and raves. Very funny.

I will grant that the film had cool ships, decent sound design, and there was a nice glass-breaking sequence (FX-wise). Barry Pepper looks pretty good with long hair. I thought the set dressers did a nice job with Earth of the year 3000 (Futurama bubbling away in an alternate universe), but the people on it – oy vey! The simplest things are handled with idiocy – can the man-animals read, or not? If so, keep it that way and don’t let them selectively forget to read when confronted with important information later. If not, then for all that is holy don’t let them learn how in a week! Never mind all the other stuff they learned in a week. Never mind all the other stupid awful terrible things inflicted upon this unsuspecting reporter!

I have to feel sorry for the cast at the big red carpet premiere – of course everyone shows up with their friends and so on, proud and excited about all this work that they did – and then to have to sit there in the audience and pretend they wouldn’t rather be getting a high colonic from Dr. Kevorkian – I mean, poor Kelly Preston! “Oh honey I loved your movie!”

If you see this movie anyway, don’t blame me. I am encouraging you not only to skip this movie, but to knock over tie-in displays in stores. And as a reviewer I deeply admire said, don’t worry about the extended warranty plan on your Harrier jet.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/12/00
Time in minutes 130
Director Roger Christian
Studio Warner Brothers

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Gladiator

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We decry the sensationalistic programming of shows like Fox’s When Romans Attack but really, the impulse to see pounding, horrific acts is older than history. Why? Who knows? Ask a sociologist. All I know is, Gladiator will satisfy that craving better than a Spago’s VIP dinner would feed a Somalian refugee. It’s brutal, it’s gory, it’s got that strange, over-real sped-up feel that Saving Private Ryan had in places. I think it’s that the film is shot at more than 24 frames per second but is still shown at normal speed. The storyline is, sadly, a true classic (in the Classical Roman sense of the word) in its predictable nature – but you know what? Not one human watching it will care. It’s amazing to look at, amazing to imagine that we as humans were ever so openly savage as the Romans were. I say “openly savage” because it’s clear that American (and other western cultures to a lesser extent) tastes run toward the bloodlusty in every aspect. We are freaks and we trip out at the slightest suggestion of sexuality (positive lust) but then we glaze over with glee at a smoothly rendered digital beheading (negative lust). And those who say “kids today” are becoming desensitized to violence are ignoring the fact that we have been desensitized since well before Jesus’ time.

Gladiator is in the same gore camp as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, so if you hate that, just wait until it’s cheaper and still go see it. Anyway, enough with the bloodlust. The story is a nice, heroic manly tale, and what I have noticed lately is the only actors who really can be MEN, really be macho killer warriors with honor and all that good business, are Australians. Enter Russell Crowe, not baring his chest (but yes, he lost the weight from The Insider) but baring his soul to thousands of screaming hordes, and it is good. It is very good. Connie Nielsen is the stately goddess with nothing to do but look regal and fretful, playing the sister of Joaquin Phoenix, and it’s no shock that he becomes Caesar, is it? Joaquin, while pretty much as good as his late brother, is eerie and revolting in this film, as a man and as a face. The audience was verbal in their distaste for him, and he got some unintentional laughs as well. He’s a simpish, whiny, petulant nutjob, which is fortunate for Crowe and the story, but kind of unbearable to watch. Richard Harris gives his last performance as ailing Caesar Marcus Aurelius, and his Arthurian noblesse shines through, highlighting his onscreen son’s failings as a man.

Unlike say, The Phantom Menace, the spectacular visuals really mean something in this film. It’s not creating Rome at the peak of its power just to say, “Look how dense and amazing we can make this look,” it’s to show those of us who know the Coliseum from the cartoons that it was once a mighty architectural wonder; the whole city was a marvel, two thousand years ago! It’s stunning, realistic looking, easily as wondrous to behold as Menace was, but all supporting the story, not replacing or overwhelming it. John Mathieson’s cinematography is lovely, just lovely. Director Ridley Scott knows a couple of things about action and suspense and so forth, as evidenced by his facility here and in such films as Alien and Blade Runner – but he also knows a little about interpersonal drama (Thelma and Louise and Someone To Watch Over Me) – so he can combine humans into his amazing backdrops to make something bigger.

Viscerally, this movie is a kick. Intellectually, it’s no great challenge, but it’s wonderful to see this kind of epic be made, be expensive, and be worth watching. Just to sit and fathom how brutal and primitive the conquerors of the Roman Empire were (never mind the conquered) and still how technologically impressive they are, is worth seeing the movie. Russell Crowe is noble and mighty, and can’t seem to help but attract a huge following no matter where he goes – a true man of the people, a noble and straightforward soul – not at all the thing in the birthplace of Republics. There is much more to say about this film, but it is too large to be encompassed by my pithy blurbs. You must see it for yourself.

A little trivia: SPQR means Senatus Populus Que Romanus (not to be confused with Romanis Eunt Domum), which is the “good guys'” philosophy of how Great and Mighty Rome should be run. The movie does skip over the whole notion of Empiricism being not so good, but the idea was that tyrants = bad, republics and democracies = good. A side definition of SPQR is apparently “small profits, quick returns,” and I hope that Gladiator makes HUGE money (it took two powerful studios, Universal and Dreamworks, to back it) instead. Huge PQR!!!!

MPAA Rating R for intense, graphic combat.
Release date 5/7/2000
Time in minutes 155
Director Ridley Scott
Studio Universal/dreamworks

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Hamlet (2000)

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After Romeo + Juliet (not the Zeffirelli, the DiCaprio one), it seemed as though tough urban moroseness would be a sly way to reinvent the Bard’s classics, or at least not the musical way. I sincerely did not want to see this one, because, I mean, come on, Ethan Hawke? I do believe the real Hamlet would behave much as Hawke does in his private life (minus Uma) – hang out at Lovejoy’s with punk front-men and write superficially deep novels. To his credit, Hawke is the youngest Hamlet on film and therefore (on paper) the most age appropriate to take on the vaunted role of angry youth. But, I mean, come on, Ethan Hawke?

The language is the same, though clearly in its 112 minute brevity has cut some stuff. “Alas poor Yorick” and gravedigger fans, go rent Branagh’s 1996 version (the one with Robin Williams). I have to give this interpretation some credit – I better understood all the relationships and internal goings-on than in any other viewing, filmic or stage (sorry, M.D.). I’ve never been a huge fan of this play, but at least this time I could really follow it. And not a Branagh in sight! The Americans handled the tongue twisting poetry with aplomb, and, in the best cases, made it sound natural. Hold on to your Guatemalan Angst Caps, kids – Bill Murray is a brilliant Polonius. Did I see that coming? Heavens no. He managed to give Ophelia’s dad a while new twist, and I totally got it.

The film is plagued by overly natural camera work – actors blocking each other, etc., and some genuinely kick ass locations. It’s not so sly and artsy as Romeo + Juliet, but it somehow works better with a literal sword fight at the end. Oh, did I give anything away? Liev Schreiber as Laertes gave the role something I’d never noticed before: presence. However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are truly dead. Steve Zahn is hysterically out of place as Rosie and Guidie is Uma Thurman’s heroin-chic brother. Sigh. Imagine Wayne Wayne Wayne, Jr. from Happy, Texas as he quoth: “He does confess he feels himself distracted/But from what cause he will by no means speak.” (It certainly is handy having the screenplay lying around the house.)

So, you’re asking, how did they do the play within the play, The Mouse-trap? This was very funny, worth seeing on its own – perhaps if the whole movie had been made like this, it would have been more mind-blowing. A small, accidental “quote” of the Sixth Sense pervades Hawke’s Hamlet – everything emotionally significant (I presume specifically for Hamlet but it didn’t seem to really be all that precise) is red. Considering the rest of the movie is a chilly Coltrane blue/black, it’s got to be on purpose.

When doing a classic, one must never reveal its tragic flaw – and the tragic flaw of Hamlet is what a big deal everyone makes about Hamlet being upset, when he damn well should be! Unfortunately, in this update, it just seems even more ludicrous that anyone would think the boy certifiable just because he’s depressed – never mind Ophelia drown herself because he’s too bummed to give her a lot of quality time.

Music by Carter Burwell: I noticed the music, but it’s the unfortunate “sucking up to the Academy” Burwell and not the glorious Coen Brothers scoremeister. For another example of this unseemly trend, see Exhibit A: Danny Elfman’s generic-yet-nominated score for Good Will Hunting.

So, why watch it on HBO? The Cliff’s Notes often help you appreciate the full work when you watch it again, so let this film be your Cliff’s Notes to the Branagh film. My companions and I were not in total agreement, but I found the presentation of the famous soliloquies mostly interestingly done – and a great deal of social commentary lurks (perhaps unwittingly) in the staging of “To be or not to be.” One word: “Action.” Cracks me up. Frankly, Bill Murray deserves your viewership, despite his wee role. But Miramax should not be fiscally encouraged to do more work along these lines by you watching it anywhere but in the comfort of your own home. Double feature it with Strange Brew and see if anything looks familiar. Do NOT watch it to avoid watching the full version!

Funny side detail: Hamlet and Ophelia have a Danish beer in one scene. If more of the movie had been like that, I would have really appreciated it.

MPAA Rating R for some violence
Release date 5/2/00
Time in minutes 113
Director Eric Simonson, Campbell Scott, Michael Almereyda
Studio Miramax

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Frequency

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If you have not memorized the trailer yet, STOP WATCHING IT. Just close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears and hum until it’s over. The previews are killing the fun of this movie! Just know it’s got ham radios and father son stuff in it and let the rest come.

Time travel is a tricky subject – and the more we as an audience are scientifically informed, the harder it gets to play with all the paradoxes and not offend our sensibilities. Then of course there is the risk, with a storyline like Frequency, that the idea of a father and son talking over the ham radio over time itself, could fall into a maudlin mess. “Spirit and guts,” his fireman dad Dennis Quaid says, teaching him to ride a bike, and the kid follows in the dad’s best friend’s footsteps to be a cop. Spirit and guts indeed – two positions (besides doctors) most turned into the bad guys when comedy is at stake – never appreciated for what they do, what they risk, and all that. I could go on a treatise about Hug Your Public Servant Day, but I think everyone knows what hard jobs these people have. The best part is how it takes a pair of men like that to pull off the sappier stuff, and to pull off the heroic stuff as well.

I saw U-571 on the same day I saw this, and it was a day for manly heroes let me tell you that! A fine double feature, for the heroism displayed in both films is vastly different – and in Frequency, it is supernaturally aided, somehow. But the deus ex machina is no god or ghost in the machine – it’s explained away by science (sort of) but the real 11th hour push comes from man itself. That is the ultimate satisfaction of this film. Dennis Quaid, poor Dennis, he’s really a great kind of everyman, but apparently seems too smug for audiences to warm up to like they warm up to Tom Hanks. Quaid is utterly believable as a loving husband and father as well as a risk-taking fireman, and the guys’ mutual disbelief at their accidental meeting is tempered with warm realism.

James Caviezel is the older John, and he apparently specializes in being in movies I have never seen, save a bit part in The Rock. John is the heart of the movie – tying the past with the present but also, perhaps, with enough sly Star Trek wisdom to link together the amazing events that unfold as he communicates with his dad. Caviezel is great – sensitive but not gushy, and totally convincing. Daniel Henson plays younger Johnny and I could totally believe that boy could grow up into that man. The past is 1969, the present is 1999 – we forget how far we have come, technologically and sociologically, in so short a time, until a little time crossing movie shows us. 1969 still feels like the 50’s or the 40’s even, compared to today – it wasn’t all the Summer of Love and Hair and LSD.

The tagline for this movie, “What if you could reach back in time? What if you could change the past? What if it changed everything?” has also been addressed a million times (I say also referring to U-571’s general theme) in films, but it’s presented in (dare I say) real time. The metaphorical butterfly flapping its wings in the Precambrian actually makes a breeze on this end of the phone – and that subtle treatment (as compared to the commonly presented POP everything is different) lends a lot of tension and immediacy to the story. During many scenes my heart was racing, lickety split, as I waited for the ripples in time to prove themselves in the present. It’s cool stuff.

One of my companions complained some of sunshine being blown into his colon, and I admit I am certain I have more tolerance for that kind of business than he does, but I felt that they really cut back on the treacle until it had to come out. But I won’t lie to you – there’s an eyeroller or two in the last reel. Nothing to miss the movie for, indeed! It seems like a great father-son movie, except for terrorizing your kid that you will die on the job and then your mother will die and then your house will explode and and and…anyway. I really liked it, and I hope you will see it.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 4/28/00
Time in minutes 121
Director Gregory Hoblit
Studio New Line Cinema

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Cinerina

Time Code

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Time Code is a difficult film to rate. If you don’t know anything about it, it is a film shot on digital video, and we the audience watch four segments of the screen simultaneously as the story (stories) unfolds before us. All 4 segments are one continuous shot, about one hour and 50 minutes or so (one is longer than all the rest) shot at the exact same time as the other three, with no edits or cuts or do-overs or anything, and the story segments converge and diverge. The acting is slice of life, real, by necessity. The director (Leaving Las Vegas’ Mike Figgis) operated one camera and the others were, no doubt, trusted minions. The sound is live in the camera so the crew must be totally silent and do their work unheard. We are able to “tune in” to certain story moments by having the sound mix raised or lowered in the quadrant the director wants us to observe – but sometimes it is simultaneous noise we have to choose from. The cameras meet in rooms and yet we never see a camera. The images contain images of their own – mirrors, projections, handicam monitors, etc. The actors sometimes are just walking or thinking or listening in their quadrant, but sometimes they are having sex or spying or singing or arguing or whatever. As a technical achievement and a truly interesting piece of work, Time Code is a total Full Price Feature.

As a story, it’s difficult to follow, not so much because of the four quadrants, but because the natural, slice of life aspect of it makes it hard to figure out who is whom to each other, how the names and people match up, and keeping up with what is happening in the other 3 quadrants when you are watching the “highlighted” one. For long periods of time, Saffron Burrows is wasted, just walking around, looking pensive, but we don’t really know why she does anything or what purpose she serves, and yet she seems to be really important. Poor Jeanne Tripplehorn spends a good deal of time listening (to what is going on in another segment) and reacting to it – but I would argue that she as an actress uses her “dead time” much more effectively. Everyone else has lots of stuff to do, but eventually it’s hard to concentrate on one story for fear of losing a thread in another story, especially after some camera crossings and red herrings. Is that blonde girl important or is she just atmosphere? Should we watch how that guy reacts with everyone who passes him or should we pay attention to the production meeting over there? It was very relaxing to stare at a blank wall after the film was done – do not operate heavy machinery after viewing.

My recommendation for this DVD release would be to have the soundtrack as released, and then use the “angle” feature to go between the 4 different individual audio tracks so you can get focused on what you might have missed otherwise. And of course the directors’ commentary track would help a lot. I don’t know if I would watch the movie again and again, but I do know I missed a lot and wish I could reclaim it. Maybe then the story will seem more fleshed out and ponderous. As it is, it is a story about nothing (or about a lot of people) that goes nowhere but it does it in the most interesting way possible. The mechanics of the film force you to be alert and interested, but there is not a lot of story payoff. Thinking about the practical aspects maintains interest…”He had to be ready for that to happen the whole time! How did they have simultaneous reactions to earthquakes?” and so forth. Digital Video has opened up the infamous “long shot” concept now to the length of a tape (apparently at least 2 hours) rather than the length of a roll of 35mm film stock (10 minutes). The musings about long opening shots from Hitchcock films or The Player will soon seem as quaint as the family gathering about the wireless to listen to the Mercury Theatre’s presentation of War of the Worlds. Just because Al Jolson spoke in the Jazz Singer doesn’t mean the rest of the movie makes it worth watching, and as they say, there is no substitute for story.

If you are into filmmaking and into cinema verite in particular, do not miss this film. If you prefer to curl up with a good book or to writhe in agony waiting for Niles to tell Daphne how he feels, skip it.

MPAA Rating R -drug use,sexuality, language& scene of violence.
Release date 4/28/00 Limited
Time in minutes 93
Director Mike Figgis
Studio Screen Gems

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