Archive for March, 2003

Basic

Monday, March 31st, 2003

2003basic

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A smelly, matted-down shaggy dog story with enough red herring to supply a cannery for a year, “Basic” limps into theatres with little prospect of success. On paper, the movie boasts a strong resume: “Die Hard” director John McTiernan, the first on-screen re-teaming of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson since “Pulp Fiction,” plot threads that allow room for pumped-up action sequences as well as steely interrogations, a supporting cast that includes talented performers like Connie Nielson, Taye Diggs, and Brian Van Holt. The weak link, however, is the tortuous, labyrinthine screenplay by James Vanderbilt, which collapses under the weight of its migraine-inducing convolutions, diversions, and smoke-screens.

Jackson plays the boastful, strutting Army Ranger Sgt. Nathan West, a vicious martinet whose idea of a swell time is to send his trainees on exercises in the Panamanian jungle during a gale-force hurricane. A classic caricature of the military sadist, Jackson verbally abuses his soldiers with the kind of language that echoes R. Lee Ermey’s humiliating rhetoric in “Full Metal Jacket.” The training exercise goes horribly wrong, however, and confusion reigns as some of the soldiers are killed after turning against each other during the storm.

Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly), with only a few hours to sort out the mess before it is turned over to higher-ranking authorities, calls on one of his best, head of base MP Julia Osborne (Nielson) to question the two soldiers who survived the mysterious shootout. One of the survivors, however, refuses to speak to anyone other than a fellow Ranger, which cues the appearance of boozy DEA agent Tom Hardy (Travolta), a former Ranger with seemingly little love for West and his tactics. Before you can cry “re-write,” Osborne and Hardy are sparring like an old married couple as they clash over the best ways to extract info from the tight-lipped murder witnesses/suspects.

With a flair for pacing, McTiernan moves the action along at a brisk rate, but once the interrogation scenes begin (which operate as a back and forth, “Rashomon”-like tennis match between the two surviving soldiers), “Basic” breaks down, piling on conflicting details so quickly that the audience gives up on making any sense of the plot. Giovanni Ribisi, usually outstanding in small roles like the one he plays here, tries on a ridiculous accent and hammy affectation that derails any credibility his character might have had. The film is also not aided by the inclusion of several competing versions of what happened during the exercise – seeing them merely adds to our disorientation.

The plot twists are dispatched with such ferocity that the sexual tension between Osborne and Hardy elicits only laughter when the two finally get into a physical tangle. Like everything else in “Basic,” it seems to come out of nowhere. By the film’s final stages, Vanderbilt’s script has completely disintegrated, making suggestions about what is really going on that serve only to negate literally everything that has transpired thus far. Unlike other movies that play head games with their audience (think about classic film noir or “The Usual Suspects,”), “Basic” forgets the rule that if you are going to deceive your viewers, you still need to respect them in the final outcome.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/31/03.

Dreamcatcher

Monday, March 24th, 2003

dreamcatcher

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like many cinematic translations of the work of Stephen King, “Dreamcatcher” dabbles in so many side-trips and diversions that the result is one rather large, rather sticky mess. Paring down an 800-plus page novel into reasonable feature film length is a challenge no matter how you slice it up, but even the legendary William Goldman (who has already done time on S.K. drive with scripts for “Misery” and “Hearts in Atlantis”) cannot wrap his formidable pen around the sprawl. Goldman, along with director Lawrence Kasdan, never figures out how to unpack King’s behemoth, and the result is alternately tedious and laughable.

With echoes of “Stand By Me,” “Dreamcatcher” begins with a quartet of childhood friends whose adult lives lack the warmth, magic, and wonder they shared as kids. Jonesy (Damian Lewis), Beaver (Jason Lee), Henry (Thomas Jane), and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) once rescued a mentally retarded boy from some sadistic bullies, and were rewarded with the supernatural ability to communicate with each other telepathically and see into the future. Douglas Cavell, the victim of the bullies, has difficulty pronouncing his name, and is affectionately called “Duddits” by his protectors (who begin to recognize that there is something extraordinary about their new friend).

The now grown men don’t have much contact with Duddits anymore, but the powers bestowed upon them all those years ago have not faded with age. The foursome retreats to a rustic getaway in the woods of Maine for an annual hunting trip, but things do not turn out as expected when a bloated, disoriented hunter with a wicked, blistering facial rash shows up. Before you can say “Dumb and Dumber,” the hunter is letting loose with some of the most extensive screen flatulence this side of “Blazing Saddles,” and the audience laughs in spite of itself.

The chuckles rapidly dissipate into disgust, however, when the hunter’s rectum explodes, absurdly shifting the tone of the movie into high sci-fi outer space beastie mode. With more than a nod to “Alien,” “Dreamcatcher” decides about halfway in that it is supposed to be a “bugs on the run” movie. Seems that hunter didn’t just have gas – he was playing intestinal host to a nasty, eel-like extraterrestrial with rows of jagged teeth. Pretty soon the U.S. military is involved, as a “black ops” unit led by veteran alien hunter Colonel Curtis (Morgan Freeman, slumming) descends to quarantine the area.

Most people will have given up on “Dreamcatcher” by this point (the movie jettisons the significance of its own title in favor of set pieces that show off the slimy CG effects shots), but Kasdan and Goldman are just getting warmed up. Inexplicably, Curtis goes completely insane just as the alien invasion problem begins to pick up steam. Kasdan never gets a handle on how to pace such a grab-bag of disparate elements, and the appearance of a grown-up version of Duddits (played by Donnie Wahlberg) in the eleventh hour is predictable down to the outcome of the final confrontation with the uber-alien.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/24/03.

The Hunted

Monday, March 17th, 2003

hunted

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Every now and again, highly respected, laurel-wreathed actors will indulge in some goofy antics that make little sense to paying customers. Even when these sorts of movies are directed by grand old veterans like William Friedkin, who made at least two of the best films of the 1970s in “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection,” the mystery remains: do actors read the script before they sign on to do the movie, or do they simply take their agent’s word for it?

Recently minted Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro, whose performance in “Traffic” was both electrifying and genuinely worthy of its accolades, has not been immune to appearing in questionable fare (see: “Excess Baggage”), but in “The Hunted” he cuts loose with some of the silliest dialogue he is likely to ever encounter, including a speech about the injustices suffered by poultry. Playing a battle-stressed soldier who saw vicious action in Kosovo, Del Toro is Aaron Hallam, a Rambo-esque survivalist who knows exactly how to kill a man with a few quick strokes of a knife, or if need be, his bare hands.

War does strange things to men, and Aaron passes his time tracking down deer and elk hunters who unfairly use huge scopes on high-powered rifles. Aaron sees this as supremely unfair, and pays the hunters back by gutting and dressing them just like their intended prey. Aaron’s bloody activities quickly draw the attention of the FBI, who discover that they are going to need the help of Aaron’s old teacher, L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), a former civilian employee of the U.S. military who is both a preternaturally gifted outdoor tracker and an expert in brutal hand to hand combat. A hilarious flashback featuring a handlebar-mustachioed Jones fills in some of the blanks: this is the kind of guy who makes his recruits literally forge their own knives on the way to becoming killing machines.

Friedkin does not shy away from dishing it out as heavily as possible (i.e. Jones portentously freeing a white wolf from a snare, Johnny Cash’s ominous cover of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” on the soundtrack, etc.) but if “The Hunted” has anything going for it, the taut pacing is the leading candidate. Like “The Fugitive,” “The Hunted” works best when it is locked into the relentless pursuit mode that allows for nimble editing and swift camera moves. Friedkin breathlessly moves the action between urban settings and dense forest locales with ease, greatly abetted by superb cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. And if you can see the faces of the stuntmen standing in for Del Toro and Jones now and then, well, at least the action isn’t computer generated.

In the end, though, there isn’t much movie there, and we never get close to understanding how Aaron strayed so far from rationality. Instead, a thoroughly predictable confrontation, featuring more grunts than a match at Wimbledon, pits the student and the master against one another. The screenplay, by David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, and Art Monterastelli, assumes it is making sound use of some tried and true representative anecdotes, but unfortunately the scribes forget to relate any insight into Aaron’s motivations other than the basic post-traumatic stress disorder that has fueled the plots of so many similar movies.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/17/03.

Tears of the Sun

Monday, March 10th, 2003

tearsofthesun

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Aging action star Bruce Willis’ open support of the current Bush administration’s pro-military philosophy immediately indicates the underlying sensibilities of “Tears of the Sun,” a messy hybrid that attempts to fuse social consciousness with a glorification of gung-ho ass-kicking. Following in the footsteps of ex-wife Demi Moore, Willis plays Navy SEAL Lt. A.K. Waters, a tough, relentless warrior given to smearing camouflage greasepaint into every crag and cranny of his stony, square-jawed face. Short on words but long on muscle, Waters completes his missions with total commitment and zero emotion.

Sent by Captain Bill Rhodes (Tom Skerritt, who must by now have his own personal set of officer uniforms) into civil war-torn Nigeria to extract a humanitarian physician, as well as two nuns and a priest, Waters suffers one of those end-of-the-first-act crises of conscience that stirs him to abandon orders and protocol and risk himself and his loyal team of comrades in order to “do the right thing.” The right thing is embodied in the stubborn platitudes of Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), the “critical personnel” Waters has been assigned to rescue. With injured patients in tow, Kendricks and Waters begin a treacherous hike through the jungle toward Cameroon.

Director Antoine Fuqua, whose “Training Day” really packed a punch, makes the most out of a dire script, alternating between suspenseful nighttime scenes and rain-soaked horrors made worse by the daylight. In fact, the most problematic aspect of “Tears of the Sun” is its bifurcated psychology: the atrocities that attend “ethnic cleansing” are superlatively vile and gruesome, but they only provide an excuse for Waters and his SEALs to rain down hell on the Nigerian baddies. One suspects that American audiences will take satisfaction in the SEAL squad’s superior training and firepower, but the propagandistic fantasia wears thin in short order.

Waters’ elite group of fighters, mostly indistinguishable from one another except for Atkins (Cole Hauser) and Pettigrew (Eamonn Walker), serve the traditional function of grunts in combat films – ripe for the picking off, the inevitability of several deaths is a foregone conclusion. Nobody pulls out a picture of his wife, but anyone who has seen a war movie will get the idea. Composer Hans Zimmer even cribs Barber’s Adagio when a shot eerily reminiscent of “Platoon” sweeps upwards to show hordes of enemies closing in on the outnumbered heroes.

“Tears of the Sun” lacks both depth and credibility when it comes to Kendricks and her throng of beleaguered followers. The Nigerians on both sides of the civil conflict are treated as two-dimensional, and a “surprise” twist that takes place well into the action borders on offensive stereotype. Bellucci, presumably cast as much for her beauty as for any acting ability, is saddled with dialogue in which she constantly barks about her “people” needing to rest, while Waters counters with his own orders to “keep moving.” Once you’ve heard the umpteenth variation on this dialogue, you’ll be as anxious to leave Nigeria as the surviving SEALs.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/10/03.

Dark Blue

Monday, March 3rd, 2003

darkblue

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Ron Shelton’s “Dark Blue” looked good on paper: screenwriter David (“Training Day”) Ayer adapting James Ellroy’story, Kurt Russell and Ving Rhames showing off their chops, the clever premise of setting the action against the 1992 verdict announcement in the trials of the cops who bludgeoned Rodney King. The premise, however, is much sweeter in theory and on paper than it is unspooling on the big screen. “Dark Blue” wallows in the formula it had hoped to transcend, laughably careening well-past plausibility inside its first five minutes. Filled to overflowing with convenience, coincidence, and cliché, “Dark Blue” is obvious, leaden and bordering on nonsensical.

Kurt Russell, as the vile, racist Sgt. Eldon Perry Jr., plays the top half of the tired veteran/rookie team-up endemic to the genre. Goofy Scott Speedman, never able to control his greasy golden mane with the same kind of skill Russell demonstrates with his outrageous conk, slack-jaws it as the wide-eyed innocent hard pressed to keep up with his elder partner and the kind of demented street justice favored by the honchos who run the LAPD’s Special Investigations Squad. At the shooting board hearing that kicks off the movie, Russell sums up the moral ambiguity that is his raison d’etre: “At the end of the day, the bullets are in the bad guys and not us.”

Previews for the film suggested that Ving Rhames would factor as a central figure in the narrative, but his by-the-book Assistant Chief Arthur Holland is such a straight arrow (you never see him out of uniform), the filmmakers seemed to have no idea what to do with the character, opting most of the time to simply ignore him. By the time a last-ditch effort to humanize the chief drops out of the sky in the form of a five-year old extramarital tryst, the Perry plotline has consumed the lion’s share of the movie’s attention, and the audience is impatient to return to Russell’s corrupt gun-slinging.

Director Shelton, who has shown a flair for vibrantly-sketched characters in the past, unfortunately doesn’t have the time to fully explore the relationships Russell and Speedman have with the women in their lives. Lolita Davidovich is excellent as Perry’s fed-up wife – she makes the most of her limited screen time and really delivers the goods in a solid scene where Perry makes her read aloud the letter she had intended him to find once she had already left. More problematically, Speedman’s character is sleeping with Holland’s assistant, Sgt. Beth Williamson (Michael Michele) primarily because it seems to serve the plot by linking the good cops and the bad cops.

Naturally, the movie’s climax corresponds to the rioting and looting that occurred in the wake of the verdicts in the King beating trial being read, and Perry is caught in the eye of the hurricane in South Central. Using his car like a battering ram, he navigates through a surreal tableau of smoke and fire, threatening to use his pistol any time the angry mob gets too close. It is a bravura set-piece, which makes it such a shame that the movie that led up to it amounts to nothing. As visually impressive as it is (a CG wide-shot of the city on fire notwithstanding), “Dark Blue” fails to convince us that it deserves even the kind of guarded praise afforded other recent cop movies like “Training Day” and “Narc.”

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/3/03.