Twelve Monkeys

The more I see this film, the more I’m impressed by it. I love movies that are rich and complex, filled with different layers of reading. At first, you could think that it’s a big studio sci-fi thriller, starring action star Bruce Willis. Well, it is, but it’s so much more. This little time travel story (based on a 1962 French short, La Jetée) is just the framework for a thought-provoking exploration of how alienating our end-of-millennium world can be. It blends notions of the Bible’s Apocalypse, Greek mythology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, anarchist ideologies and ecology into a surprisingly cohesive, exhilarating epic of ideas. Watching it again on a winter 2000 night, I was struck by how ahead of its time it still feels.

In a post-apocalyptic world, we meet convict James Cole (Willis), who has just volunteered to take part in a special mission. Humans are now a species in danger, as a mortal virus has contaminated the air decades ago, killing 5 to 6 billions people, almost the whole world population, and leaving the survivors forced to leave underground. There are a few scientists among the lot, and with plenty of time kill, they managed to invent a time traveling machine. They’ve been sending people back in time to try and make things better. Cole has been picked to give it a try, and so they sent him back to the ’90s with little information that they have so far: around 1996, a deadly virus started spreading from Philadelphia, and they suspect that Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) and his group of radical, anti-establishment environmentalists 12 monkeys might be responsible. Cole is successfully sent back into time, only he arrives 6 years too soon! He tries to talk to people, but his babbling about coming the future to prevent the decimation of the human race leads him straight to a mental hospital. There he meets psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who tries to rationalize it all, and Cole starts wondering if he didn’t imagine it all…

It might look like I’ve summarized a lot of the film, but that’s actually just the set-up, before things really get weird! The film was written by David Peoples, and this is very ambitious work. Peoples explores all the possibilities brought up by the story and keeps adding dimensions to it. There’s interesting things said about the idea of insanity. The mainstream feels uneasy when individuals start predicting that the world is coming to an end, with humans destroying their planet and losing their souls, so they dismiss these scary ideas by deeming them and the people who preach them crazy. If that doesn’t shut em up, we’ve got places for people unable to “fit in” society, right? I’m not saying that all the wackos yelling in the streets are just misunderstood prophets, but you have to admit that a lot of visionaries have been wrongly outcast. Socrates was forced to take poison for his philosophy, Jesus was crucified for preaching love and tolerance, Galilee was persecuted for claiming that the Earth is round and revolves around the sun…

The movie was directed by Terry Gilliam, truly a visionary filmmaker, using his twisted intelligence to create unique worlds into his films. “12 Monkeys” is a wonder of art direction, cinematography and editing. The film is always very stimulating, and when it shifts to tragic romance, it gets oh so wrenching emotionally. Great acting all around, too. You have to have respect and gratitude for Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, who give brave performances as two men losing their grasp of reality. These two are huge Hollywood stars could just keep making easy, reliable blockbusters to please their 12 year old fans. Fortunately, they choose to use their clout to help daring, original and sometimes subversive films get made, most recently with two of the best movies of 1999, “The Sixth Sense” and “Fight Club”. The latter, actually, shares quite a lot with Twelve Monkeys. In both films, Brad Pitt plays the head of an extremist group fed up with the system which stages terrorist acts in hope of raising mass awareness and somehow, have the world return to a more primitive, nature-friendly stage. A lot of the stuff Pitt and the “twelve monkeys” talk about could have been said by Tyler Durden’s “space monkeys”. “12 Monkeys” is truly a masterpiece. It intelligently and originally addresses how alienating and depressing turn-of-the millennium life can be through compelling science-fiction.

The Visit

Ooh! So close, but still so far. Here’s a film that, while never quite being transcending or anything, appears to slowly build through its 107 minutes towards a redemption, both for the characters and the film’s flaws…. And then it BLOWS it. “The Visit” is the first film from Urbanworld, a new independent film company created to “distribute and market minority films”. It was adapted from a Kosmond Russell play by Jordon Walker-Pearlman, who also acts as producer and director. This is obviously a work of love for him and, from what I gathered from the press kit, for the cast.

Hill Harper stars as Alexander Waters, a young black man who really doesn’t have it easy. He’s serving a 25 year sentence for a rape he insists he didn’t commit, he has to face a tough parole board he’s not sure will give him a fair chance, he hasn’t seen his parents since his conviction 5 years ago… And now he has AIDS, after being raped by other inmates. No surprise he’s full of resentment and hostility, so much that he won’t even go in the yard with the other inmates to get a “false sense of freedom”, and when he finally gets a visit, from his successful older brother Tony (Obba Babatundé), all he does is unnerve him. How darn sad can it get?

Yes, but it’s handled not too melodramatically. Harper avoids turning his character into a pathetic soul on “Queen for a Day”. Alex’ condition is pretty desperate, but you wouldn’t know from the way he acts, always tough and unaffected. He visits a psychiatrist (Phylicia Rashad, from “The Cosby Show”) regularly, and she believes he must work not to escape not the penitentiary but the “prison of his mind”. The film is about that journey, as Alex gets back in touch with his family. His brother finally gets their parents to come visit; their mother (Marla Gibbs), who still cares for Alex in spite of it all, and their father (Billy Dee Williams aka “The Empire Strike Back”‘s Lando Calrissian), a hard ass authoritarian who refuses to take his son in pity. He figures he worked hard to give his sons prospects, which enable Tony to get a good job and found a family, so there’s no reason for Alex to have sunk so low besides his own weakness. Also visiting Alex is Felicia McDonald (Rae Dawn Chong, from “Commando”), a childhood friend who’s also been through a lot, having gone through incest, a crippled son, patricide, crack addiction, prostitution… Again, how darn sad, yet here too, the melodramatic aspect of the story is somehow salvaged by good acting, this time on Chong’s part. The flashbacks scenes in which we see her as she hit rock bottom, strung out on crack, are really hard to watch.

Credit must also go to Walker-Pearlman, whose direction is generally effective even though his film still feels more like a filmed play. It nearly all takes place in the same setting, the visitation room, and there is a lot of overwrought dialogue but very little action. Pearlman does try to liven things a bit, by throwing in some fantasy sequences and by displaying some interesting shot composition (for instance, showing two persons talking to each other from across a table in the same shot), and some scenes do come alive and make for strong cinema. I particularly enjoyed the whole sequence in which we see what goes on before, during and after Alex’s parole hearing. The movie also benefits from a great jazz and soul soundtrack, so good actually that the film pales in comparison!

So, basically, even though the film seems a bit amateurish overall (well it IS a first film), it’s rather well put together and involving. Through decent writing and Harper’s compelling performance, we get to know Alex pretty well and we’re interested to see how it will turn out for him. We foresee several possible outcomes, depending on which of his frequent visitors Alex finally responds to. Doctor Coles wants him to let his emotions out, his father wants him to learn some responsibility, Felicia talks to him about faith… You expect some or all of that to lead to an obligatory redemption scene which would jerk a few tears out of the audience, lift their spirits or even make them think. Something that would justify what came before, that would top it off nicely, you know, that would make it memorable.

No such luck. All the ending does is to ruin nearly everything that came behind (SPOILERS AHEAD) You see, for an hour and a half, Alex is hostile to his relatives, denies he did anything wrong, won’t accept any advice… Maybe you do see some progress here and there, but before we’re shown any real change, Alex dies, just like that. And then there’s a speech by the brother about how Alex developed some inner light, how he reinvented himself in the months before his death, how he made his brother a man, how his mom “got her baby back”, his father and his sons have been brought closer than they’ve been in 20 years… We’re also to understand he redeemed himself even more by marrying Felicia and passing for the crippled kid’s father (he’s actually the fruit of Rae’s incestuous relation with her dad, hence the handicap), giving the little dude hope or something… What the %&? indeed. This is an odd resolution for sure, but what’s even weirder is that instead of being developed through the third act, all this is poorly explained in 2 minutes in the brother’s speech at Alex’ funerals. DON’T TELL US, SHOW US! This is a m-o-v-i-e! (END OF SPOILERS)

“The Visit” could have been a really good movie, but it’s not. That excuse for a conclusion really sours the deal. It might still be worth seeing, for the all too rare opportunity to see black actors sink their teeth into interesting roles, but that’s it. Here’s hoping Urbanworld does better next time.

Wild Things

Blue Bay, Florida. A posh town by-the-sea where sex-tingled intrigues abound. Sam Lombardo is a guidance counselor at the local high school. The guy’s a stud, and many believes that he’s a womanizing dog. So when Kelly, a babelicious rich girl with an attitude, accuses him of having raped her, people start talking. Things get worse when another rape accusation is uttered, this time by Suzie, a goth rebel loser who lives in the poor-ass swamps on the wrong side of the Bay. Then there’s a cooky lawyer with a few tricks up his sleeve and a wily, badass cop who doesn’t like to be screwed over.

What am I to do with this film ? Trust me, it’s hard to describe. In a way, it is what The Gazette called a “cheesy thriller at its trashiest”. The basic plot rapidly fucks up in a series of weird twists involving sex, treachery, passion and violence. A good deal of the movie actually feels like “ShowGirls”! You got that whole kinky sex-catfights-lesbos thing that’s so dear to infamous screenwriter Joe Estherzas. It’s often hilariously exploitative. I mean, how many shots of Denise Richards’ wet butt can they give us? Whether she’s washing a jeep, taking a swim or necking a chick in a pool, she’s as wet as it gets! It’s actually pretty sexy, but it smells like soft porn. I mean, what’s hard to get is the filmmakers’ purpose. Do they want to make dough with trash, or are they making a satire of all this? I’d go for the latter. I mean, you can’t cast Bill Murray if you wanna be taken seriously! He’s really cool as the odd lawyer. He brings a fun touch to the movie.

The cast is very good. At first, you think Matt Dillon ain’t much more than a naive hunk, but the numerous plot twist make his character really interesting. Nasty, but interesting. Because that’s one of the film’s lessons: no one is what they seem to be. Is Neve Campbell nothing more than a badlucked, grunged out teenager? Is Kevin Bacon just another misunderstood good cop? Don’t take anything for granted. So, as ridiculously over the top the plot twists may be, you gotta admit that the film is always surprising. I also love John McNaughton’s visuals, heavy on alligator on sunset shots, and the score sure grooves. The performances are solid (I especially dig Bacon’s dry edge), and those wild girls sure are gorgeous. Then again, the film walks dangerously on the line between clever and stupid. I guess everyone will have his take. Personally, even though I think that the film’s too twisted to be believable, I enjoyed it.

The Sweetest Thing

Damn! I get caught every time! Be it “Coyote Ugly” or “Crossroads”, I always succumb to the temptation of patronising lame girlie movies marketed with the promise of sexy jiggling. This flick is obviously tailored around the concept that Cameron Diaz is a perky hottie. It’s as if the filmmakers had watched her oeuvre and decided to do the ultimate Diaz movie, with the premise of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (but with Cameron in the Julia Roberts part), the gross-out gags of “There’s Something Mary” and even more booty shaking than in “Charlie’s Angels”! Couldn’t miss, right? Especially with Roger Kumble directing, in a follow-up to “Cruel Intentions”, one of my favourite guilty pleasures. Well, there’s little pleasure to be had here, guilty or otherwise.

Diaz stars as Christina Walters and, what do you know, there’s something about her. Guys go crazy for her all the time, unfortunately she’s afraid of commitment. But sshh! Her insecurities are hidden behind a “grrl power” facade, which she parades with all she’s got, getting her groove on every night in bars with her roommates Courtney (Christina Applegate) and Jane (Selma Blair). In spite of it all, one evening she stumbles unto this Peter (Thomas Jane) “dick” and something clicks in her, yet she’s too indecisive to do anything about it and he gets away. This could end there, but in a spur of spontaneity, Court and her decide to track him out, as they know he’s gonna be at a wedding this Saturday…

Yeeesh. Am I the only one who’s fed up with these movies which try to make us feel bad for gorgeous women who just can’t seem to find Mr. Right? I actually have nothing against romantic comedies, but only when they’re done with wit and heart, like those of Cameron Crowe or Nora Ephron. “The Sweetest Thing”, on the other hand, doesn’t even own up to its “chick flickitude”. Hey, we gotta get those oh-so-valuable 13-to-35 male asses in theatres, too, so easy with the feelings! Girls can be retarded horn dogs too, right? In with the random profanity, bodily fluids ahoy! Let’s have Courtney pee in an urinal, and Jane bring in a cum stained dress to the dry cleaner, and Christina dive between Court’s thighs to retrieve a lipstick tube, but make it look like she’s going down on her, tee hee! Even worse, the film rips some gags right out of other movies, like having Diaz nostalgically push her breasts up like Madonna in “The Next Best Thing”, or an elaborate but tedious sequence revolving around a penis getting stuck that’s a mirror image from the infamous “There’s Something About Mary” zipper scene. And even if you point out your lack of originality yourself (“Wait a minute, do we have time for a movie montage?”), it doesn’t make it any less of a pile of lazy, unimaginative filler.

“The Sweetest Thing” is too dumb to be romantic, yet too sappy to work as a no holds barred comedy. It feels interminable at 84 minutes, plagued as it is with a predictable by-the-numbers plot balanced on an incredibly contrived pseudo-serendipitous twist, beyond generic direction and an obnoxious near-Muzak soundtrack. I never thought I could get tired of watching Cameron Diaz waving her butt around, but this utterly vapid movie did just that.

Changing Lanes

I can’t explain the sudden critical embrace this movie has received. Sure, it’s not quite the retarded revenge thriller the marketing campaign wanted you to believe it was, and it aims higher than, say, your everyday Jerry Bruckheimer production, but it’s still a not-so-smart, Swiss cheese slice of a morality tale about utterly unlikable people doing dumb and/or despicable things. Who’d want to watch that? A anti-hero is one thing, but these guys are anti-human!

So you’ve got Samuel L. Jackson downplaying the cool (à la “Die Hard with a Vengeance”) as a lower middle class insurance salesman with a drinking problem who wants only one thing: to get his family back. He thinks he has a shot, too, if only he can convince his ex-wife and a judge that he deserves visiting rights. Meanwhile, we’ve got Wall Street lawyer Ben Affleck, a Yuppie who’s really made it, working for one of the biggest New York firms, which just happens to be owned by the father (filmmaker Sidney Pollack) of his gorgeous wife (Amanda Peet). On this fateful morning (Good Friday, no less!), he’s got to present a file to the court which will give the firm power of appointment over a dead client’s 100 million foundation. Unfortunately, these two hurried men on a mission will clash on the FDR highway, as their cars get into a fender-bender. Jackson wishes to exchange insurance information, obviously, but Affleck just wants to get the hell away and just scribbles him a blank check.

Mmm. To me, this could end here. I mean, a blank check ain’t bad, why get insurance companies involved? Then again, Affleck does act like a dick and because of the incident, Jackson is late to his court hearing, arriving only to find that his ex has been awarded full custody. I guess you can understand him for being upset… To even the deck a little, Jackson already has something to get back at Affleck: the oh-so-important file, which was unwittingly dropped on the scene of the accident and picked up by Jackson. And thus begins a primitive and cruel game of cat-and-mouse between the two. I won’t tell you about all the twists and turns, even though the trailer did a good job of spoiling them, but personally I couldn’t buy most of it. First of all, why can’t Affleck just ask for the stupid file? Does he really think that screwing with Jackson’s credit and having him arrested in from of his sons will make the man want to co-operate? To me, all this would do is make me wanna burn the damn file right there!

Jackson is not much better. Initially, he appears to be the innocent victim, but soon we can see that he’s an asshole himself, the kind of impulsive jerk who beats up strangers on the street or throws a bank employee’s computer into a wall in a fit of rage! I don’t know about you, but actions like this make me lose all empathy for the character. And then comes the kicker, which you’ll remember as the money shot from the TV ads, where Jackson drives next to Affleck and waves some bolts and a tire iron at precisely the same time as a wheel on Affleck’s car comes loose. What a psychotic, criminal thing to do! This is not getting even, this is attempted murder! Furthermore, as this takes place on a busy highway, it’s not only Affleck’s life which is at risk. His out of control car could have crashed in a bunch of other vehicles, and lots of innocent family men could have been injured and make their kids orphans. Really smart move there!

Still, through all this madness, there is some attempt by director Roger Michell and screenwriters Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin to discuss matters of ethics and morality, which is certainly more than most Hollywood flicks are concerned with. “Changing Lanes” is also notable for rather solid performances from the leads and the supporting cast but as mentioned above, one central weakness remains: we don’t feel sympathy for either of the protagonists, therefore we’re not much involved or interested in what happens to them. When Jackson’s ex wife threatens to make sure his kids never see him again, I thought ‘Good, keep them far from this violent lunatic!’ And while Affleck’s character sort of redeems himself in time for the half-assed happy end, he commits too many devious, evil acts through the movie to be forgiven that easily. “Changing Lanes” had the potential to be a challenging, thought-provoking film, but it ends up an uneven, contrived picture. Better luck next time…

Y tu mamá también

“It Only Hurts When I Think”, reads the boy’s shirt. Two boys they are, and they don’t think too much, they’re too busy cracking each other up and having fun. Tenoch (Diego Luna) is the smallish, smart-ass teenage son of a rich Mexican business man, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) is poorer but taller and better looking, which doesn’t really matter anyway, as they hardly bother to think about such things. They stick to the essentials: getting drunk, getting stoned, playing football (not the brutish American type), racing each other in the pool and, of course, having sex, or in the absence of willing girls, talking about it and jerking off! As the film begins, each of the young men is having goodbye sex with his girlfriend, whom are both leaving to spend the summer in Italy. They won’t have time to miss them, as they soon befriend Luisa (Maribel Verdu), a gorgeous older Spanish woman who happens to be the wife of Tenoch’s cousin. She finds them kind of silly, but after her husband cheats on her, she thinks “what the hell” and decides to accompany the boys on a ride in Julio’s beat-down car to Boca del Cielo, a heavenly beach…

Here’s a movie which takes on a few of the most familiar motifs of contemporary Hollywood cinema, such as the love triangle, the road movie, the teen sex comedy and the coming of age story, and manages to always feel sincere and refreshing anyway. I never got the impression filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón was going for showy effect or straining to set up a gag or trying to shove a message down the audience’s throat. Ultimately, this is sort of a message picture, one of those Oprah-ready movies about making the most of life, appreciating beauty, carpe diem and all that feel-better pap. Yet this overall theme only comes through clearly in the last five minutes, and even then it’s mentioned in a matter-of-fact way, not as a contrived life affirming message. There’s no big Oscar-friendly, overwhelmingly teary actor moment, no swooning music cue. All you get is the two guys sitting over coffee and chatting, and then Frank Zappa plays over the end credits and you just sit there, unexpectedly moved.

In the meantime, we just casually tag along with the trio through the Mexican countryside, with little or no plot getting in the way. It’s almost like a documentary (down to the sometimes distracting hand-held camerawork), where life happens without following screenplay conventions. It’s sometimes really funny, sometimes more serious… Whichever it is, it’s all very enjoyable, in most part because it all springs out of the characters and their interaction. Maribel Verdu is convincing as the woman caught between two horny young dudes, we can believe how she decides to play a little with them. But the movie truly revolves around the friendship between Julio and Tenoch, who are portrayed wonderfully by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

We really get the impression that these two have spent their lives together and that they have this incredible complicity. They’re close, very close, with apparently nothing off-limits between the two. One will leave the bathroom door open and keep talking to the other while peeing, they tell each other everything (or so they think), they even masturbate next to each other! They’ll get even closer on their vacation, as they lust for the same woman and eventually get to share her… Maybe too close, so much that all they can do is bounce apart. Yet while it lasts, we get to share this friendship through the camera’s voyeuristic, unblinking eye. While we’re spared genital close-ups (this isn’t porno!), the movie does feature a lot of full frontal nudity and sex. I liked how natural these scenes felt. For once, sexuality isn’t used for gross-out humour or highly stylised like most Hollywood love scenes, and it’s not exploitative and disgusting as in the movies of rambling feminist Catherine Breillat (“À Ma Soeur”) or dirty old man Larry Clark (“Bully”) either. This is not love, not rape, just real, lively (if quick!) sex.

“Y tu mamá también” (“And Your Mother Too”) is a real gem, full with the beauty of Mexico and its people, one of these movies where I want to jump in and live in these places with these characters. There’s only one cinematic “gimmick” when once in a while, the sounds fades out and an omniscient narrator gives some insights into the past and the future of places and characters. It’s odd at first, but it grows on you and adds to the overall feel of the movie, giving you a larger understanding of Mexican society and its less glowing aspects. I don’t think the sobering running commentary takes away from how sexy and fun a film this is, in fact it complements it. It makes it so you not only leave the theatre satisfied from having a few laughs, but also thoughtful about the evasive nature of life. “It Only Hurts When You Think”

The Godfather part III

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of the Godfather movies, but I do think that the original is a masterpiece, and there’s plenty to enjoy in the first sequel, despite the somewhat distracting double narrative. But with this third film, a much-afterthought made some twenty years after the others by Coppola when his career was down the sewer and he badly needed a hit, it’s harder to praise the trilogy as a whole. “Part III” is not a bad movie, just an unfocused, uneven one. It has its moments, and the powerful final 20 minutes alone make it worth seeing, but I wish Coppola had been able to use his preferred title of “The Death of Michael Corleone”, which would have identified it as an epilogue separate from its classic predecessors.

So we’re now in 1979, with Michael (Al Pacino) still the Don of the Corleone family but looking to finally severe all his mob allegiances. He’s spent some of the two decades since he ordered his own brother’s murder trying to redeem himself and his family, working to make the Corleone name legitimate. As the film opens, a 100 million dollars donation to the Vatican has bought him one of the highest honours from the Catholic Church, and he’s now looking to move all his business into Immobiliare, a European conglomerate currently overseen by the Vatican. Yet things won’t go that smoothly, of course, as the past keeps coming back to haunt him. Whether it’s crooks like Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) who are unwilling to let him take his chips off the table or dirty Church officials trying to play him for a fool, everything is tempting him to resort to his old violent ways… “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

One of the biggest problems of “part III” is that Coppola and Puzo seem unsure of what story they’re trying to tell, or why these later adventures of the Corleone needed to be recounted at all. The whole Church shenanigans are bit hard to swallow. I do not doubt in the least that the Vatican has seen its share of corruption and fraud, and that it rubbed elbows with the Mafia, but in the context of this series of films, I don’t think it works. It’s a bit late in the game (after some seven hours of narrative!) to introduce a whole new bunch of allies and foes, and the fact that they’re supposed to be servants of God makes the whole thing feel awkward. I’m sure the picture would hold on better if it stuck to the general idea of Michael trying to go legit, with hard-asses like Zasa rocking his boat, even though this is almost all just more of the same we’ve seen before.

Even more than the mob hits, what’s most interesting about the “Godfather” movies is the way it portrays family. While most people don’t have to deal with violence on a daily basis, everyone can relate to the wide array of emotions one goes through with his relatives, as these are people who are around you through your whole life, through good and bad times. “part III” might suffer from occasional bad dialogue, hammy acting and ungraceful direction, but it remains interesting nonetheless because of our investment in these people. They’re almost like relatives of our own, as we’ve followed them for years. When we’re introduced to Vincent Mancini, the illegitimate son of Sonny, there’s a special thrill in seeing how Andy Garcia has the same bad temper and cocksure attitude that James Caan had in the first movie. We’re able to understand Michael’s ambiguous feelings about recognising his late brother in his nephew, as we “know” him from the first movie ourselves.

Less effective is the depiction of Michael’s relationship with his children and their mother Kay (Diane Keaton). There’s some attempt to have Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosia) mirror the young Michael in his unwillingness to enter the family business, but he’s barely developed as a character. He’s just the singing kid, the excuse to bring the whole gang to Sicily to attend his first opera performance. As for Mary (played by Coppola’s daughter Sofia), she doesn’t do much either except engage in a not very convincing romance with Vincent: “I really love him!” “He’s your first cousin!” “Then I love him first!” Whatever. I didn’t buy Michael’s getting chummy with his ex wife either, how she’s all like, “I’ve always loved you Mike.” No you haven’t! You aborted his unborn son because you couldn’t stand what he had become, remember!?

Still, even though it somehow dilutes the impact of the first instalments, “The Godfather part III” retains enough of their qualities to deserve a viewing anyway, notably to watch another strong performance by Al Pacino, the true soul of the trilogy. He’s working with lesser material here than in the previous movies (the Godfather’s got diabetes now, for chrissakes!) but he remains engaging, and his climactic breakdown on the stairs of the opera house is wrenching.

Panic Room

Blah. It’s not that I expected David Fincher to top his “Se7en” or “Fight Club”. I didn’t expect his latest film to be anything else than what it aspires for, namely suspense. But Christ, who knew Fincher had such a pedestrian movie in him! It’s not a bad movie per se; it’s certainly well crafted and it delivers a few thrills here and there, but it’s sadly unmemorable nonetheless. That’s what shocking to me. Even Fincher’s “lesser” movies had things which stuck with you, be it the final twist of “The Game” or Ripley’s unexpected suicide at the end of “Alien³”. “Panic Room”, though, is bound to be remembered only (if at all) for some fancy camerawork.

Jodie Foster stars as Meg Altman, a recently divorced woman who moves to a gigantic Manhattan house with her daughter Sarah (11 year old tomboy Kristen Stewart). A rich, paranoid old man used to live there, and he had a “panic room” installed, i.e. an impossible to open room equipped with security monitors giving a view of every corner of the building where one can hide in case of, say, an intrusion. And what do you know, on the very first night that Meg and Sarah move in, the house is attacked by three robbers! Thus begins a long, tense night the two locked in the panic room, while the thugs put to the test its alleged infallibility…

That’s it, that’s the story. We don’t even get to know the characters, though we do get a extended scene in which the girls take a tour of the house. I guess this is necessary to establish the geography of the premises of the remainder of the film but it also illustrates the film’s main problem: it’s more interested in its set than in its characters. I know this is just a cat-and-mouse thriller, not a psychological study, but by giving us almost no insight into who the characters are, it’s harder to invest ourselves in their ordeal. I didn’t find myself caring much about their well being. And anyway, they’re in an impossible to open room, what’s to fear?

Ok, writer David Koepp does have a few nifty twists in his bag to make things worse, but there are even more really dumb moves on the part of his characters and some rather contrived complications. This is the kind of movie where everything could wrap up in twenty minutes, but sheer bad luck or stupidity always comes in the way! Clueless neighbours, phones which don’t work, gullible cops… If that’s not enough, let’s make the daughter diabetic, that’ll screw things up! It might become ridiculous if it wasn’t for the actors, who generally manage to sell even the most preposterous twists. Foster is wonderful, of course, making the most out of a barely developed character. She looks great too; she was a few months pregnant when the film was shot, and she fills that tank top deliciously! I liked the bad guys too, even though they’re non-specific types. Jared Leto is good as the amusingly manic leader, Dwight Yoakam is appropriately menacing, with or without his ski mask, and Forest Whitaker is compelling as a thief who can’t quite forget his kind nature, which makes him sort of a tragic figure.

The solid cast puts “Panic Room” above the usual straight-to-video thriller fare, as does Fincher’s distinctive visual style, with sombre, gorgeous photography and inventive shot composition. There are a few jaw-dropping seemingly unbroken sequences where the camera travels around the house, passing smoothly through walls and ceilings, zooming into minuscule details and setting up perfectly who is doing what and where. The sound editing is sharp, and the Hermannesque score by Howard Shore is effective. Yet, no matter how technically superb the film can be, it’s oddly devoid of tension. It rarely ignites, and what sparks we get are few and far between. For an average filmmaker, this might be a nice addition to a résumé but for Fincher, this is a disappointment.

Death to Smoochy

There’s a throwaway bit late into Kevin Smith’s “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” in which a wigged out Will Ferrell barges in a taping of a kiddie TV show revolving around a dude in a bright coloured cow suit who does sing-alongs, and he accidentally shoots poor Mooby dead. That little Barney gag wasn’t particularly funny, but at least it was only 30 seconds out of a mostly hilarious picture. Now, imagine blowing up that one not so good joke to feature length and you’ll get an idea of what a bore “Death to Smoochy” is. Here’s a movie of which the extent of the comic output begins and end with its amusing title. See, Smoochy is a pink plush rhino suit who delights children with his silly songs, but it turns out that the kid TV business is a corrupted and ruthless one, and everyone wants him dead. That premise is actually pretty good, but it should be only a starting point, not one general idea which is stretched for 90 minutes with no punch-line.

So you’ve got Ed Norton as Sheldon Mopes, a naïve but overwhelmingly nice guy who sings ditties as Smoochy in methadone clinics until a bitchy TV executive (Catherine Keener) hires him to star in an after-school kid show in replacement of previous host Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams), who was revealed as a crook who took bribes by parents who want their children to go on his program. This doesn’t please Randolph at all, and he vows revenge on the damn dirty rhino who stole his time slot. Meanwhile, Sheldon must also fend off greedy agents, executives and merchants who want to use Smoochy to sell all kinds of junk. But his refusal to sell out pisses off a lot of folks, and he’ll have to be careful if he doesn’t want to get killed! Tee-hee.

From what I can tell, writer Adam Resnick and director Danny De Vito set out to make a black comedy but then they backed out and contented themselves with a lot of tired, harmless humour. Oh, there’s a lot of naughty words sprinkled into every line of dialogue, but all the crude language in the world doesn’t make it the wild, demented comedy it wants to be. And it’s certainly not gonna get laughs from its one-dimensional characters. Some people say that it’s nice to see Robin Williams letting loose again after starring in a string of touchy-feely pictures these last few years. Personally, I’ll take him in “Good Will Hunting” or even “Patch Adams” over this manic crap any day. Williams is extremely grating as the lunatic Randolph, always desperately hamming it up, doing stupid voices and coming up with lame ad-libs, anything for laughs that never come.

Ed Norton can’t make the lousy material funny either, but at least he’s likable enough as the idealist, innocent Smoochy, even though he’s only there as a target of mockery. Oh, he eats healthy food! He doesn’t swear! He’s not interested in money! What a dork, right? The movie seems to think so at first when it wants to be satire, but later it decides out of the blue to be a sappy feel-good flick instead and suddenly Smoochy is a role model, he warms the heart of Keener’s bitchy executive (and gets her into bed) and, worse, he helps Randolph have a change of heart. What a cop-out, black comedy my ass!

De Vito, who also plays a totally unnecessary role in the movie (as does Jon Stewart), does an atrocious job behind the camera. Even on the rare occasion that he stumbles into something remotely amusing, the comic timing is all off. Scenes go on and on long after any potential humour has burnt out. There are countless stupid songs, which culminates with an endless ice show where even the hit-man sent to kill Smoochy falls asleep! And then there’s the Irish retard and his family of thugs. What can I even say that can translate how utterly pointless and dull this stuff is… “Death to Smoochy” is a complete failure. It’s spectacularly unfunny.

Ultimate Fights

At times, we all get a bit of attention deficit disorder. Like you’re not always up to immerse yourself for an hour in a concept album and prefer to just mix a bunch of rockin’ tunes, sometimes you don’t feel like watching a whole movie, you just wanna get the highlights. You’ll have some friends over, and you’ll want to play D.J., but with movies! I like to do that myself, showing off funny scenes, impressive Steady-Cam shots, cool music cues and, of course, kick ass fights! And now, from the people who brought you the “Boogeymen” collection of horror scenes, comes “Ultimate Fights”, which features just that!

Here’s a DVD which promises “nothing but the good stuff” and delivers. It’s basically a succession of 16 fight sequences, mostly from recent Hong Kong or Hollywood movies, inter-cut with video game-style title cards identifying the opponents. You can enhance that “Street Fighter 2” feel by selecting an alternate “Ultimate Rumble Party Mix” audio track which scores the fights with techno beats and guitar fills, and there’s even an option called “My Top 5” to program your favourite sequence of fights. Mine would run as such:

#5 Wesley Snipes’s samurai duel with Stephen Dorff in “Blade”, if only for how refreshing it is to watch Stephen Norrington’s visually sharp and dynamic but almost old fashioned movie, in contrast to Guillermo Del Toro’s frenetic abortion of a sequel.

#4 Michelle Yeoh chasing a masked Zhang Ziyi in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, even though it’s more acrobatics than a fight. But what graceful acrobatics!

#3 The warehouse gang fight in “Rumble in the Bronx”, one of the greatest Jackie Chan action scenes. Watching him fighting all these guys using everything around him (including refrigerators, TV sets, a shopping cart and skis!) is breath-taking.

#2 A fight from my favorite Jackie Chan movie, “Drunken Master 2”, in which he seems to constantly get hurt real bad, as when he falls into burning coals! Sadly, little actual drunken boxing is featured here, but it’s still
amazing kung fu!

#1 The church shoot-out at the end of John Woo’s “The Killer, with Chow Yun-Fat at his best, slow-motion pigeons and the most graceful ultra-violence you’ll ever see!

I also enjoyed the inclusion of one of the bare knuckle fights in “Snatch”, with a bad-ass looking Brad Pitt and wonderfully stylised visuals; Russell Crowe battling tigers in “Gladiator”; Rambo fighting redneck deputies in “First Blood” (complete with Vietnam flashbacks!); Jet Li doing his thing in “Fist of Legend” and “Black Mask” (both choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, of “The Matrix” fame); and the “Say Hello to my little friend” shoot-out which closes Brian De Palma’s “Scarface”. I’m not a big Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, but his half naked “Time Cop” knife fight is kind of cool, as are the wrestling-flavoured street tussle with Rowdy Roddy Piper from John Carpenters’s “They Live”, Liam Neeson in Fight Club mode in “Crossing the Line” and a short but nasty cat fight from “The Players Club”. As for the “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” scene, it’s pretty good, but why oh why not give us the real Bruce Lee instead? Last but not least, there’s an Easter egg which can be found on the third page of the scene selection menu, which has two oiled, topless ebony Amazons in thongs beating the crap out of a big fella in a scene from “Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheik”!

Overall, this a very entertaining DVD, and it offers plenty of special features, from information about the fighting styles and the performers (notably through optional pop-up on-screen trivia) to theatrical trailers to most of the movies, a ‘Name that Frame’ game, two audio commentaries (by Hong Kong producer/director Tsui Hark and “fight master” James Lew) and an interesting featurette on how to stage your own movie fights, with tips from Lew and Van Damme (who happen to fight each other in the “Time Cop” clip). Of course, everyone will have his little disagreements with the roster. Personally, I’m suspicious of any fight collection which fails to include THE ultimate fight, namely Schwarzenegger’s showdown with Vernon Wells at the end of “Commando”. As for the fights that are included, it’s sometimes frustrating how they cut off before they’re over, but I guess you just have to get yourself the actual movies to get the whole deal. Also, I could have done without the cheesy Limp Bizkit intro, complete with the ever-obnoxious “Let’s get ready to ruuuuumbbbleeeeeeeeee!” kick-off. Still, “Ultimate Fights” remains a satisfying one-stop supply of macho thrills that action fans will watch over and over.