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Cruel Intentions

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The first thing I have to say is, thank goodness Ryan Phillippe is 4.5 million times better looking than John Malkovich. In this blatant remake of Dangerous Liaisons (not a modern adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses but a modern remake of the delicious Glenn Close/John Malkovich movie), Ryan apes the chilling smoothness of Malkovich with the added bonus of being painfully beautiful. He is also utterly empty, and waxed within an inch of his life. I’ve had my share of smooth operators work on me in my day, some of which as coldly calculating as the original Valmont, but none with such motiveless high school wickedness as our boy Ryan. Even his smiles look artificial. As his wicked stepsister (their prep school’s Marquise de Merteuil), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, er, I mean Sarah Michelle Gellar, is a weird combination of babyfaced popular girl and sociopathic nympho. Her voice is so girlie, so babyfat cheeked and curly somehow, you can’t believe her suave sexual predatory instincts. To quote the Heathers wannabe Jawbreaker, “She’s so evil, and she’s only in high school!” And she looks it, too. Check out her wardrobe! Junior League tramp all the way.

Selma Blair is another young fresh faced star of this romp, (she’s the Uma Thurman/Cecile de Volanges character) but she is extra interesting and funny because, unlike everyone else in the movie, she acts and shows character development and even a little of her own age. “She’ll be my greatest victory,” Phillippe drones about his latest conquest, the Seventeen Magazine virgin played by Reese Witherspoon. Reese is no Michelle Pfeiffer, you know? I would have to say every freaking time I saw the preview (count how many movies I have seen this year, subtract Life is Beautiful, and you’ll get the idea how many times I endured the promotion of Cruel Intentions!) “Your greatest victory since you lost your virginity last year?!” We all promised to see this movie together, we had endured and quoted the silly lines from the preview so many times.

I was relieved that the majority of these goofy lines that made it seem like it was supposed to be this sex thriller were slid in out of order – they are more amusing in context. And like most of the New Teen Movie trend, the preview needs an 80’s song remake to sell the movie to the kids – and to the demographic of the Last Teen Movie trend – me and my friends. Thank goodness we Xers haven’t figured out that we are the establishment yet!

Everyone is acting so coool, like high schoolers do, and sexually confident, but basically Intentions takes the incredible brilliance of de Laclos’s 1782 novel and makes it…a teeny bit dull. The story modernizes so well, I was hoping for something really incisive. With the glut of teen movies that are actually remakes of pre-technological classics, it is the most translatable for teen culture. Oh, sure, the freaky faced Witherspoon (now engaged to and carrying the baby of Phillippe!) has a blouse full of goodies (“Free us!” – thanks MMR!), but you see nothing. Sure, Buffy lays one on a girl, dresses around her decolletage, and wiggles in her step brother’s lap, but for a movie that is almost exclusively about sex and the notions of the repercussions of sex, it was way less steamy than your average Red Shoe Diaries. Even less than a mild Red Shoe Diaries. It still seems ludicrous for these kids (god, listen to me, I *am* the establishment!) to cross their long aerobicized legs and toy with each other like embittered veterans, but I guess that’s the comedy part. It’s beyond my control.

To everyone’s credit, they all look like they are having fun making the movie. The sets are almost as sumptuous as its Oscar-winning counterpart, and Phillippe is actually pretty funny. Swoosie Kurtz, a veteran of the 1988 adaptation, has an amusing bit part as Phillippe’s shrink. An unfortunate production choice of having a running soundtrack under regular dialogue gives the whole movie a comedic feel – kind of weird. Not just the amusing banter right before a punchline or under a funny monologue, but all the time. It reminded me of the music in Heathers, but not as moody. Naturally they all attend Catholic school, a traditional hotbed of sinful rebellious instincts. Almost no “adults” are present, adding to the surreality of these kids as adults – all dressed up like Holly Golightly and working the business of popularity like it was a movie deal. Some of the original plot elements (a swordfight, public humiliation and small-pox) don’t translate to super-chichi Manhattan of 1999, but the screenwriters did a pretty good job working in new resolutions. Oh my god, and that car! Dear Movie Reviewer Fairy – I would LOVE a ’56 Jaguar Roadster in black, I don’t care how crappy it will run. Ooh, can I have that house instead? How about another shot of Ryan Phillippe’s butt?

MPAA Rating R-sexual situations w/teens, language and drugs
Release date 3/17/99
Time in minutes 97
Director Roger Kumble
Studio Columbia Tristar

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Happy, Texas

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Directed by Mark Illsey – what a great, fun, hilarious movie! And, brace yourself – an original premise too! Shot in 26 days in Piru, California (with apologies from the filmmakers), Happy, Texas is a mistaken-identity comedy taken to new levels, and with a battery of names in it as well – it has *got* to get distribution. Actually, I think Miramax is going to be the studio to make some money off this one, and I would like to be the first to recommend that you assist them in their get-rich scheme. Steve Zahn (That Thing You Do) and Jeremy Northam (Emma) are escaped convicts who end up in Happy and, well, I don’t want to give anything away, but Ally “Profiler” Walker and Illeana “Too Cool” Douglas and William H. “Ultimate Badass Actor” Macy are all in it, and it’s just great! OK, the logo and the titles are *horrible* but whatever. Realistic? Probably not. Charming and humorous and original? Oh yeah!

Zahn is a mealy mouthed hick boy, pretty stupid but definitely chock full of conviction. He turns in a hilarious performance, I mean seriously funny! Jeremy Northam’s dialect is a little shaky but it just makes him sexier, I think – he is caught in an interesting bind and they both attempt to keep up their facade and elude their pursuers while also undergoing some serious life and character changes! How many times can you say that about a movie? Also, it’s excessively funny. It mines both homosexuality and homophobia for humor, yet mocks neither perspective. Over-zealous teachers, hicksville naivete, and greedy strangers forced by their situation to really cooperate put on a show in order to succeed as imposters. Small town life, small town obsession with talent and glamour and the whole pageant that these fellers get mixed up in is treated really quite lovingly. Somehow they manage to fit in character development and humor and a moderately complicated plot line in a sharp script and shoot it in no time flat!

Ally Walker seems to have had her face possessed by the acting ghost of Jennifer Love Hewitt, but once you get past that it’s all smooth sailing. Macy, do I have to tell you, was the audience favorite. Everyone was completely caught up with his character’s storyline. Without giving any plot away, my only problem with the movie is a moment of miscommunication that should have been resolved on screen for us so we know everyone comes out OK, but is not dealt with. Considering how great everything else is, it seems a glaring omission, but still it does not mar the general enjoyment of the movie. It was like eating a bunch of sweet nummy grapes and getting just one yicky one in the last third of the bunch.

I took almost no notes because I was really caught up. I hope the filmmakers were there at SXSW to appreciate how much the audience was digging the show. As the credits rolled and nobody moved, a near-universal murmur of “Twenty-six days!” arose from the crowd as the staff thanks the cast and crew in the end titles. It was pretty cool. Go see it when you can.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 3/17/1999 10/1/99 NY/LA
Time in minutes 98
Director Mark Illsey
Studio Miramax

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200 Cigarettes

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There is a lot to like about 200 Cigarettes – but a lot of it has been relegated to your imagination. It seems clear what the filmmakers wanted to do, and it would be an interesting, interwoven slice of 1981, but instead it cuts back and forth between people who only tangentially are related to each other and all end up at this one party. The best part is Courtney Love (who, incidentally, was also the best part of Larry Flynt), who exudes early 80’s glam sexiness and sass and New Year’s Eve emotional vulnerability and depth. And she looks fabulous too!

The whole cast is actually a terrific ensemble, but since only a couple of them are allowed to interact at the same time, the brilliant casting is reduced to an amusing Polaroid montage at the end which encapsulates the climax of the whole evening. That, I admit, is disappointing. Martha Plimpton is throwing a party and throwing a fit. Paul Rudd is dumped and dumber, and Christina Ricci is out past curfew to pick up some boys. Goldie Hawn’s daughter plays a particularly interesting woman determined to have the perfect evening. Chris Rock is a fabulous Greek chorus of a cab driver who drives nearly all these folks around at one point or another, and he could have been used more to tie these crazy party kids together. The screen is filled with names and familiar faces, but not like Sandra Bullock/Harrison Ford faces, just faces familiar enough that by the end of the night, almost everyone is a friend you knew personally who somehow got written into the movie. I did laugh a lot, and genuinely was interested in the various storylines, but I wanted them
to be more interrelated. It’s New Year’s Eve, and everyone in the film has a lot riding on the outcome of the evening.

Naturally, Dec. 31, 1981 has some seriously great soundtrack potential, which is mined pretty well. Everything from Ice Castles to Blondie to Elvis Costello. I appreciated how it doesn’t smack of “BUY ME” like the Wedding Singer soundtrack, so of course now I want to buy it. The dramaturgy of the costume and production design is also much better than the 1982-1987 pastiche of the Wedding Singer. Since all the characters come from a variety of sociological strata, we get a pretty great retrospective cross-section – punkers and high school new wavers and the princess seamed nice girls and the disco Smoove B type, as well as the arty smoking type.

And so I come to the title. 200 cigarettes at least are no doubt smoked on screen in this movie, which naturally will be decried for glamorizingsmoking. The thing is, smokers and non-smokers alike know of the mysterious smokers bond shared by those that inhale the leaf. Yet the bond is only as deep as the habit allows – it is said that cigarette smoking is used by people to keep them from achieving closeness or having to relate more closely. And so it goes, the huge pile of future Nicorette gum chewers talk and talk and relate and relate, but never scratch below the surface. This is not a criticism of the script, but rather praise – it takes some doing to make what is essentially bar and bathroom chatter interesting throughout a full feature length film.

Maybe other people didn’t like it, but I did. Again, Courtney Love vs. Janeane Garafalo equals fabu in my book. It has its flaws, but it’s definitely entertaining, if you like character studies and if you can identify with the vast loneliness of New Year’s Eve and with the weirdness of the walls that people erect between themselves. But it’s not an art film, or anything like that. It’s funny. Keep your eyes open, though – a lot of it is subtle. But man, smoking is so nasty! Even Paul Rudd looks unappealing with a cancer stick sticking out of that pretty mouth of his. Sigh.

MPAA Rating R for strong language and sexual content.
Release date 2/26/99
Time in minutes 97
Director Risa Bramon Garcia
Studio Paramount Pictures

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Jawbreaker

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Watching Jawbreaker was not unlike when I watched She’s All That – I had an impulse to run home and watch one of “my” movies to see if I was correct in my mental comparisons. The closest thing to hand was Heathers, and I have to hand Jawbreaker one thing: it definitely has the same tone, and some singularly great lines, but it’s not a dark comic tour de force by any means. Upon watching the 10 year old Heathers, neither was that film, in some ways. The difference is, some of Heathers is in all mild to severe twisted teen comedies these days. How often in movies do you see the world of the rich depicted as a lyrically perfect little tea party, with the bitchy, popular, hated rulers of the school in unbelievable outfits and ungovernable behavior?

Jawbreaker has some genuinely wicked, genuinely shocking moments, sometimes head to head with fairly predictable ones. Some newer “conventions” were ignored, to my pleasant surprise – the makeover really is a makeover, not just taking the hip, funky-stylish glasses off a gorgeous babe and suddenly she seamlessly fits into the New World of Cool. Someone I know saw three copies of the Jawbreaker soundtrack in the used bin the same weekend the movie opened, and I think I know why – the songs in the movie are perfect for the moments occurring but blend together poorly. I would like to point out that the music you hear while you watch Can’t Hardly Wait is not the music you hear when you pop in the soundtrack – perhaps Jawbreaker suffers from the same malady.

Rose McGowan (previously cast as a devil girl and seen wearing basically a kleenex to an awards show) is the main mega-bitch, and I have to admit, she will inspire a whole new generation of vicious drag queens in a way no woman has since Joan Crawford was revitalized with Mommy Dearest – Rose has pearly skin, blood red lips, raven hair, but she ain’t no Snow White! The teens’ rooms are fabulously decorated and the costumes get weirder and weirder as the movie progresses, way past Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion weird, just totally horrid and awful! Keep a barely covered eye out for McGowan’s powder blue sleeveless turtleneck sweater with chiffon argyle squares down the bosom. Yuck! Rebecca Gayheart (Jerry Falwell, target over here!), formerly a costar of once-cross-dressing Tim Curry of Earth 2, thankfully shares no screen time with the occasional-cross-dressing boyfriend of costar Rose McGowan. Ick! But he’s amusing in his 45 seconds of screen glory. William Katt, Greatest American Skinemax star, relegated to 5 seconds. Tsk tsk.

Anyway, it’s your typical teens screw up big time and go through messy and ever-complicating hoops to cover their butts, but get this – Gayheart actually goes through some genuine character development. None of this false bonding with Martha Dumptruck after the school doesn’t get blown up (Heathers) but real live honest to goodness character development. And it’s not just isolated with her! And the one note ding bat flunky blonde (with crimped hair in her final scene?) actually turns in a pretty cool performance too. There are subtle things that are cool about Jawbreaker.

It helps that I knew NOTHING about this movie going in – I had never seen a preview nor even the poster by the time I had my ticket in hand. So I was not sick to death of it like I already am of Cruel Intentions, nor was I predisposed to hate it by terrible voice over work, nor was I tricked into wanting to see it by a flashy dance number (there is no dance number!). I walked in and the movie just took off as shocking and overall, maintained it pretty well. These chicks with their weird names (Mayo, Fox, etc.) rule like the Pink Ladies but kick ass like the Scorpions/Flaming Dukes. And they are more Christian Slater’s character JD than the Heathers themselves. It’s pretty dang entertaining, but you have to want to see it for what it is, not what you are hoping it will be. It is not Heathers, but what is?

MPAA Rating R for teen sexuality, language and violence
Release date 2/19/99
Time in minutes 87
Director Darren Stein
Studio Columbia Tristar

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Blast from the Past

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My roommate saw this movie before I did, and reported that it was OK, but the dance sequence was worth seeing it for. It looked harmless and pleasant enough, so I went from seeing Virus and raced down the block to catch this latest Brendan Fraser movie. I must preface this review with a reminder to my loyal readers, I love fish out of water comedies. I love culture clash, the whole idea of subjecting someone from an earlier time to what we take for granted today. I eat it up. Num num num! Additionally, I love Dave Foley. Dave made It’s Pat an actual choice for viewing. Dave is my God in the Hall. My expectations were well met in Blast from the Past.

Simple premise: Husband and wife go down in their fallout shelter for 35 years by mistake, only to surface nowish, and wackiness ensues as their son, who has never seen a sky or heard a broadcast of any kind, tries to find a girl. And supplies. In the Valley, or maybe Hollywood. The formula is not original, except for the details. Boy from “past” shows us the virtues and superiority of when things were simpler, girl from “future” shows him that technology and forward thinking has its merits, too. I am giving nothing away, am I? Respect vs. freedom.

Fraser is very funny but not quite hilarious – Dave Foley as Troy is given all the huge laugh lines, and the rest of the movie is carried by situations and great supporting characters. A cult, adult bookstores, the swing craze, and “old money” make for some pleasant amusement. Sure, an obligatory sort of Jane-stop-this-crazy-thing moment is tossed in here and there, but Fraser can make most of these jokes actually work. Troy is Alicia Silverstone’s high tech gay roommate, and he is invaluable to this movie. Yes, I’m biased, but this film with only Fraser and Silverstone would be buff vs. blonde and little else. The support characters make this movie.

For the record, the dance sequence is terrible. Rent Swing Kids (on a digital medium so you can skip all the dull stuff) and watch the dance scenes there. I was much more impressed by the Rockefeller Skank in She’s All That. Sissy Spacek and Christopher Walken as the underground parents have plenty of funny business of their own, and the home Dad has painstakingly prepared for them underground is very amusing as well. Blast is actually better executed than it was written. The romance aspect is a little weak but not really all that surprising given the situations of the characters involved, and the only thing that bothered me was that annoying Baby Boomer conceit that it was better in the old days (even boxing was better then) and sure, we’re all a bunch of hedonistic jerks now, scrambling over each other for a little piece of the pie that these same Boomers insist is theirs alone (I’ve been reading a lot of suck.com lately) but we have come up with some cool stuff too. Troy says it best when he is recanting what he learned from his new, naive friend (I am sorry to do this but it’s too perfect) – “I didn’t know good table manners were a way of showing other people respect. I always thought it was just a way to act superior.” Perhaps we have lost some of that, but it was lost before we ever got here.

It’s fun. Grab a friend and make an afternoon of it.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 2/12/99
Time in minutes 110
Director Hugh Wilson
Studio New Line Cinema

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Rushmore

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Most of the other reviews you probably have seen for this movie take some sub-plot line and try to pass it off as the main story line of the movie – hell, even the preview does that. It’s hard to get a sense of the film based on its own publicity or all the rumors of Academy Award nominations for Bill Murray. True to form, I will not explode the plot for you, Gentle Readers, but I will say it’s the story of a strangely adult, yet sweetly naive kid who must live his own way and follow his heart no matter what the consequence. That doesn’t even sound right. But it is really fascinating. Brought to you by the same people who brought you the tiresome and overrated Bottle Rocket, Rushmore is a unique, funny, interesting movie that (dare I say it) may even defy genre.

Max Fischer (Jonathan Schwartzman) is an overachiever in life but his energies are not directed in a way the private school establishment of Rushmore would prefer. Schwartzman is *this close* to being handsome – like the girl in Welcome to the Dollhouse, like every ugly duckling movie before they take off their glasses – he’s just appealing enough visually to capture that superficial Hollywood-trained part of your heart so no matter what he does, you have to be on his side. It doesn’t hurt that Schwartzman is a terribly good actor and really pulls off the interesting character of Max with maturity and style.

Reviewers have been going bonkers over Bill Murray, and without disagreeing with any of them, I have to say that I don’t think the Oscar will go to poor workhorse Bill for a few reasons, none of which are even good ones, necessarily. Murray is and always has been a strong character actor with a sense of pathos and layers even in the silliest of roles. He is the ’82 Honda Civic of working film comedians. Hit a dumpster 7 times with that puppy and it will look like crap but keep running. The role Murray has in this film, a millionaire donor to Rushmore, is very interesting and completely inhabited by himself. The thing is, it’s tailor made to Murray (perhaps only by luck), and oft times people don’t appreciate a performance that comes for an actor as naturally – that sort of beaten, sad sap guy who also does a lot of thinking. I think he was great, but I also credit some of his greatness (which is always there – re-rent Groundhog Day if you don’t believe me) to the good writing and charismatic casting.

Rushmore is wacky. It’s full of weird, kooky goings-on and stuff you just can’t believe could ever happen, yet somehow feels very natural and possible, for the most part. It targets the pubescent bravado and the genuine worldliness that kids can surprise adults with, and it also captures a different brand of eccentricity pretty dead-on. Several times already people have asked me in person what I think of Rushmore – some were not drawn in by the preview at all, and others have been waiting and waiting for it to finally open wide. I have said, based on who’s asking, that I think it’s good, but then I quantify it with whether I think they will like it or not. Art house people will love it, but it’s not an art-house movie. It’s too slick to be condemned as arty. Hollywood slaves will like it, but wish that some things turned out differently, or that the pacing were more frantic. John Q. Public in Anytown, USA will think it’s weird and comment on how glad they are they don’t have any young men like that in their town. Me, I liked it. Excusing some of the obnoxious “oh my god they’re really letting us make a movie” camera work and histrionics, I have to say that it is a darn enjoyable film. But it is really hard to describe. Just go see it.

MPAA Rating R for language and brief nudity.
Release date 2/5/99
Time in minutes 90
Director Wes Anderson
Studio Touchstone Pictures

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Payback (1999)

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If I were the type to walk out of movies (which I am sure you all have surmised I am not!), and I had walked out in the first 45 minutes, I would have described this movie as a somewhat hokey film noir with a gravelly voiceover by Mel Gibson straight out of any pulp novel you can name, say, The Killer Wore Fishnets. The thing is (and I am ready to dive into my bomb shelter), ** I would have said the same thing about the first 45 minutes of L.A. Confidential.** Payback is not based on the most complex book ever written about Los Angeles, but it is a surprisingly delicious little action/seedy crime world movie with a simple, archetypal beginning and an interesting, whiz bang of an ending. Sure, it’s a little hard to believe that a superhuman like Mel wouldn’t have his limits, but you know what? It’s fun. Take this as you will, but it’s L.A. Confidential meets Conspiracy Theory, without Julia Roberts and with the screen writer of L.A. Confidential. Ah-ha! Hey, Guido, didn’t he win an Oscar that year? Yeah, Joey, I think he did.

It starts with a little twisty confusing timeline; but if you think about it, it works out, and certainly makes for some interesting revelations. After that, it gets going. My companion made me a bet that the music was by Carter Burwell (which is a supreme compliment to the actual composer) – it’s not, but it’s tasty. It’s a gritty Metropolis underworld syndicate kind of tough guy paean, with hookers and thugs, guns and drugs, the whole shebang. Gibson’s cigarette-roughened voiceover sets the tone (which actually, I commented early on that the script sounded like a film student trying to make Pulp Fiction or The Untouchables) and it dropped my expectations – then suddenly I was loving how cool everything was linked together by our man Mel.

First time director Helgeland was replaced in post-production by Gibson (producer) because Mel felt his character wasn’t sympathetic enough. If this is the Disneyfying of what Helgeland had before, I’d be afraid to see the director’s cut! Mel gets messed up worse than Bruce Willis in a Die Hard movie, and if that’s your cup of tea then by all means, line up for Payback! It’s got the goods, boss. Woo, and that foxy Ling broad from dat chick show about dem lawyers, boss!

I was also impressed by the machinations to make the city no city (much like they did in Seven), with no indication that it was anything but a Big City in America with drugs and crooked cops and cool old buildings like in NY but definitely not New York. Even the license plates were magically genericized…impressive, and subtle. Maria Bello, formerly of ER, plays against type as a high class hooker, and the woman we chicks know as Ling from Ally McBeal plays deep into her type as a sadist hooker. Very interesting that not one person in this movie is upstanding or socially redeemable in any way. It kind of forces you to make new moral distinctions between bad and worse. Speaking of Bad and worse, someone please send Kris Kristofferson some lotion before his eyes totally disappear into his weathered face. Warning – some torture scenes are not for the squeamish – they don’t show much but ow ow ow ow!!! “FREEDOM!!!”

It’s fun and it’s a nice little genre movie that doesn’t just lovingly photograph earnest-looking Mel. Buy some popcorn and chomp it happily.

MPAA Rating R-violence, language, and drug and sexual content.
Release date 2/5/99
Time in minutes 104
Director Brian Helgeland
Studio Paramount Pictures

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She's All That

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If you couldn’t figure it out from the preview, this is Pygmalion (My Fair Lady) for the Dawson’s Creek set. It is amazing that they can swipe a classic tale like that and still add nothing but derivative tack-on flava to it. I don’t want to sound like an old fuddy duddy, but they just don’t make teen movies like they used to. On the ride home, my companion and I made endless comparisons to today’s neo-brat-pack and that of our own high school years. Everyone in this stable of actors (Cruel Intentions, I Know What I’m Going To Do Next Summer, Simply Irresistible) is good looking (with no Anthony Michael Hall or Molly Ringwald for balance) and almost all of them are from TV, but none of them so far have any kind of natural chemistry together. They look good, they act fine, they just don’t snap, crackle, or pop, and I’d like to say that is all that is missing, but it’s not. Can’t Hardly Wait is a notable exception, and I want to make it clear that I am *not* lumping that film in with all these WB starlets’ offerings.

I had to pop in The Breakfast Club when I got home just to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. It wasn’t. She’s All That implied all these events and developments without showing us any of them. Maybe its target audience, having seen all my generation’s movies, is thinking, “yeah, yeah, we know she resists being his friend for a while but gradually grows to enjoy his company, you don’t have to show us.” They omit so much of the delightful tension in a slow-to-grow-to-like-each-other relationship that the first 3rd of the movie feels choppy and fake and even a little bad. It’s a shame, too. A glimmer of potential was snuffed out by the leaps and bounds to get past the segments of interesting tension and instead linger on a barfing bitch’s and a pube-prankster’s come-uppances.

She’s All That does have some very appealing qualities – a series of Real World amusements, a great dance number (hinted at in the preview but totally fun in the movie, who cares what a non-sequitur it is! Funk Soul Brotha!), some amusing flashback and dream sequences, but the rest of the movie is just pleasant, diverting fluff. Little character development, huge leaps in plot – mortal enemies to bantering old buds in a space of minutes – and some genuinely unoriginal plot trimming make She’s All That little more than a nice alternative to icing down my foot and watching cable. It’s innocuous. They just don’t make teen movies like John Hughes used to. They make them like he makes movies now. Shudder!

Our star, Rachael Leigh Cook, is, I believe, the one millionth “ugly duckling” made over into a total unapproachable hottie since the dawn of time. When are they going to cast actual ducks as the duckling – Molly Ringwald was quite an object of scorn in our time, but at least she wasn’t this weird plasticene thing like Denise Richards (Wild Things) and we could believe that someone might actually *be* like her. Tell me why the ugly duckling always has glasses, and always has to lose the glasses to be a babe? My former coworker was a total babe and she more clunky glasses but they just made her look cool (only the truly beautiful can get away with Lisa Loeb spectacles). And I find it difficult to believe that someone as shunned and freaky as Cook would have the immediate body-confidence to be so utterly glamorous. Is it me alone, or do these kids look more sophisticated and adult than me? Is it the breasts? Dammit, I’m an adult – I’m a homeowner! I wanna look like that in that fabulous gown!

Freddie Prinze Jr. is cast in his second (after I Still Know…) relatively layered role as a guy who could go either way, be a total bastard or be a total prince, and I for one am looking forward to seeing someone finally cast him in a really good movie. Most of the other roles are too shallow for anyone to do anything new – the evil bitch prom queen, the date-rape-prone jock, the fat nerdy best friend, the Oscar Winning little sister – huh? Was that Anna Paquin? Yes, it was. Looking very Ally Sheedy, I might add. Some of the acting looked like it was only held in check by the tepid screenplay, possibly the worst crime of all.
Take the nice, blue collar single dad from Pretty in Pink, add a charm-free Ducky/Geek, the viciousness of Valley Girl superficiality, the general wager from Pygmalion, and add in Matthew Lillard (Scream) as a very amusing Real World reject lost in his own fame, a few genuinely bright moments, and you have this.

It’s not bad, it’s even worth seeing, but I just don’t think the studios need to be compensated for it. From what I hear, it’s 1000 times better than Varsity Blues (only appealing because I could look for people and locations I know) so at least spend your money wisely.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 1/29/99
Time in minutes 95
Director Robert Iscove
Studio Miramax

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Rabbit in the Moon

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This very personal documentary about the Japanese-American internment during World War II is dotted with newsreel footage, personal testimonies, and composed imagery. It was written, directed, and mostly narrated by Emiko Omori, who was 18 months old when her parents and two older sisters were taken to their camp. The resultant fracture of her family and their individual lives and identities prompted her to speak out about the camps at last, and not a moment too soon. Much has been said about WW II, but almost nothing about the illegal breach of citizens’ rights that went on in the “relocation camps.” A resonant quote which sums up why history has neglected to cover much of the ordeal that these Japanese-Americans were put through is that they “didn’t suffer enough.” Omori acknowledges that the European camps were far worse than those here in the US, but the film is a reminder of the power that governments hold over their disenfranchised as well as their”favored” citizens.

A general history and explanation of the camps is given; we get the political spin as well as the story told to the citizens being relocated, with actual recantations for contrast. It’s morbidly interesting to hear the survivors relate what they experienced and then segue to a Movie Tone newsreel speaking of the tremendous opportunities awaiting their residents. All rights of citizenship were taken away. Homes and businesses that had been built by immigrants and their children were taken away to “protect” those moved to camps, and the propaganda machine is eerily resonant of the lies told the German people as well.

Among the interviewees are Japanese Americans of Japanese birth, American born people of Japanese descent who were educated in Japan, and Japanese-Americans born and educated in the US. Between the first hand accounts are historical legacies of the camps. The tight Japanese family unit was torn asunder by the experience in the camps, the power shifted from the long-respected elders to the American-born young upstarts, and
families splintered under the strain. An insidious effect of the internment which could not be predicted by simply imagining the humiliation and mistreatment and obstacles in the camp, is this greater community disintegration.

The movie is slow, and sometimes drifts away from the sociological to smaller-scale political strife, but it is never dull or anything but heartfelt and moving. Family photos, home movies, stock footage, government documents, and other film is intertwined with contemporary collages of photos and significant items such as water or teeth. The hardships endured were great, but still not greater than those of the ones of the Shoah. Japanese culture does not lend itself to self-centered complaining or indignance, and women in particular are encouraged to suffer quietly in silence. Because of this, many internees are silent about their time in the camps, not wishing to seem petty, says one interviewer. It doesn’t seem petty given the facts, which, although unimaginable, still receive a gentle, sensitive treatment in this documentary.

The title refers to a symbol of Japanese culture. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but just believe me that the writing is very good without seeming Written, if that makes sense. This may be just the kind of movie seen at SXSW and Sundance and then on an Academy screening tape, but I hope more people get the opportunity to see it.

MPAA Rating Not rated
Release date 1/22/99
Time in minutes 87
Director Emiko Omori
Studio Wabi Sabi Productions/PBS

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Cinerina

Hurricane, The (1999)

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With the proliferation of boxing-related movies (including insidious ones like Diamonds) coming out these days, one has to pick and choose which one to attend or one could miss a treasure while getting burned out on the subject matter. So see this one, and stop. I chose this (after initial vague disinterest) due to the sheer charismatic force of Denzel Washington. I hesitate to say this, because it could be misinterpreted as a racist statement, but I am speaking pure Hollywoodese here: Denzel is the black Harrison Ford. He almost always chooses projects worth watching, and he is always the most watchable part of those movies he’s in that might otherwise not be worth watching (Bone Collector, anyone?). He’s what I could call a sure bet. And you can wager on this one. Sidney Poitier, look out.

I am always embarrassed to admit this – it really scrapes at my credibility – but I was blissfully unaware of the existence and plight of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter until watching this movie. I understand why these random Canadians stepped in to help with his case, I understand why the theatre was packed the day I saw the film, and I understand that Washington better get a nomination. Carter describes himself at one point in the movie as a warrior scholar, and who better to play a warrior scholar than Indiana Jones, I mean, Denzel Washington? He has smarts and heart and gravity and solidity and charisma and honor and a rebellious streak – even knowing nothing of the Hurricane, I can see this perfect casting a mile off. Oh and have you seen the photos? He’s quite the ringer too, a supa-buff one! And it is hard to see him fall, hard to see the heroic insanity of his pain and mistrust. It’s…mmm!

I was moved not to tears so much as just feeling my heart thump in my chest – I’m alive! My third movie of the day and I was leaning forward, eyes wide, tension and suspense running through me. It’s a true story, who knows how it will turn out! Perhaps that is the appeal of the true story these days in Hollywood – we don’t know it will end up with the hero and heroine riding off into the sunset by hook or by crook, because it has to go the way it really happened! If it ends in glory, well, triumph of good over evil *does* happen, hooray! If it ends in tragedy, it’s not a gyp because that is what happened and it’s a sensitive biopic instead. I didn’t know how it would end, so I was at the edge of my seat, while unlikely possible hero David Paymer presented the case. And cuddly Dan Hedaya as the slick and wicked bad guy? But it’s great! Nice casting, Avy Kaufman. If you don’t believe how much impact a casting director can have on a movie, go to the IMDB and look up ol’ Avy and see what I am talking about. Wow!

I jotted down that the film was beautifully shot, but not in the way you would think of beauty – I thought privately of the same beauty present in Shawshank Redemption, finding warmth and humanity in cold prison walls – and then the IMDB told me my personal hero, Roger Deakins (lately of Shawshank, Fargo…) was the cinematographer. Am I good, or what? But it is beautiful to look at, and with Denzel being Denzel, well, good lord. It made me want to see Glory again, it did! (Not for Deakins but Washington) But praise for the film would not be complete without the Yin to Carter’s Yang, Lesra (played by Vicellous Reon Shannon. His artless hero worship of Carter blending with his first real steps into realizing himself is…mmm! Only Debbi Morgan as his wife Mae Thelma made me cry, however. Her small part let us feel what we couldn’t feel “out loud.”

MPAA Rating R for language and some violence.
Release date 1/22/1999
Time in minutes 145
Director Norman Jewison
Studio Universal Pictures

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