Archive for February, 2004

The Big Bounce

Monday, February 23rd, 2004


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Elmore Leonard’s “The Big Bounce” has been made once before, in 1969 with Ryan O’Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young, and the new version is just as forgettable as the old one. With a great director like George Armitage, who made the fantastic “Miami Blues,” one expects to enjoy clever dialogue, smooth plotting, and sharp performances, but none of these are on display this time around. Instead, the audience suffers through scene after endless scene of model-turned-actress Sara Foster struggling to be taken seriously while comic-savant Owen Wilson struggles to take her seriously.

Even bad caper movies usually yield some kind of satisfying element, but “The Big Bounce” cannot muster a single entertaining moment. The hit-or-miss storyline follows the crooked path of small-time hustler and layabout Jack Ryan (Wilson), an aimless wiseass with a knack for breaking and entering and a penchant for toothsome beach bunnies. While working for unscrupulous real estate developer Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise, snarling), Ryan smacks his foreman (Vinnie Jones) with a baseball bat, which attracts the attention of local justice Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman). Besides presiding over a courtroom, Crewes owns a beachfront resort, and figures he might be able to use Ryan in a plot against rival Ritchie.

Enter Nancy Hayes (Foster) a wicked bombshell with trouble on her mind. While her allegiances are not entirely clear, she manages to be the mistress of Ritchie at the same time she is playing both Ryan and Bob Rogers (Charlie Sheen, sporting impressive facial hair), Ritchie’s toady. Of course, one immediately realizes she is also in cahoots with Crewes, but none of the connections proves terribly important or interesting. Instead, the movie sets up a series of aimless sequences in which Foster can tempt the poor suckers with her barely-clothed body. Despite an abundance of exposed flesh, zero chemistry exists between Wilson and Foster, which makes for a long slog.

By the final act, “The Big Bounce” has descended into slapstick farce, heralded by the arrival of Ritchie’s brittle wife Alison (Bebe Neuwirth), another player who knows much more than she lets on. Double and triple crosses rocket by at lightspeed, but by this time nobody cares. At one point, Walter cryptically explains to Ryan that sometimes, things “are exactly as they appear” – and in “The Big Bounce,” those things are listless, dull and devoid of any energy.

This version of “The Big Bounce” is set in Hawaii, and the stunning locations try to mask the fact that nothing much ever happens. The bulk of Sebastian Gutierrez’s screenplay feels improvised, but the sluggish pace of the action undermines any wit and charm that might otherwise have emerged from the writing. Weirdly enough, Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton are on hand to crack wise and play dominoes with Crewes. Both of these salty veterans seem better suited to the type of characters that populate Leonard’s colorful world, but their fleeting screen time offers only a glimpse at what might have been. Everything else in “The Big Bounce” is so unfocused that the screen looks practically blurry.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/23/04.


Monday, February 9th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Making her feature film directing debut, Patty Jenkins swings for the fences with “Monster,” a fictionalized account of Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who shot and killed several of the men who paid her for sex.  Already the subject of a pair of documentaries by sensationalist Nick Broomfield (the second of which was co-directed by Joan Churchill), Wuornos gained international media attention following her arrest because female serial killers are so rare.  Encouraged by Broomfield, Wuornos claimed that the police allowed her to keep killing in order to be able to sell a juicy story to Hollywood.  Whether or not you believe her, there is something profoundly sad about the fact that Wuornos predicted correctly that her story would end up on the silver screen.

Charlize Theron, already honored with several major awards for her performance as Wuornos, turns in a stunning portrayal.  Physically transforming herself with a combination of significant weight gain, dark contact lenses, prosthetic dental appliances, and elaborate makeup to simulate freckled, damaged skin, Theron pulls off the near impossible: she doesn’t allow the disguise to get in the way of a phenomenal understanding of the subject.  In so many cases, actors who bury themselves under mountains of latex and spirit gum allow the costume to emote for them.  Instead of falling prey to this trap, Theron finds a balance between Wuornos’ desperation to remain optimistic in the face of unspeakable pain and her ability to commit murder after murder.

Jenkins frames her take on the Wuornos story around the relationship shared between Wuornos and Selby Wall (renamed for the film), a seemingly naïve young woman with whom Wuornos developed an intense bond.  Christina Ricci plays Wall, and while her performance is nowhere near as flashy or as dominant as Theron’s, she manages to walk the very fine line that separates Selby’s genuine gullibility from feigned ignorance of her partner’s horrible crimes.  Several major critics have not been kind to Ricci in their assessment of her work in “Monster,” but her acting is as strong as it has ever been, and she continues to demonstrate that she is one of the most interesting faces in cinema.

Because the movie’s acting has received the most critical attention, Jenkins’ direction can sometimes feel like an afterthought.  Despite its tabloid pedigree and the story’s residence on the true crime shelves of America’s bookstores, “Monster” is attentive and observant.  The details of its period setting – most obviously manifested in the thrift store t-shirts, acid-washed jeans, wallet chains, and pleather jackets favored by the characters – feel authentic, and the soundtrack is packed with several memorable tunes from the era, including work by INXS, Duran Duran, REO Speedwagon, and Journey.  Music fans will note the anachronistic inclusion of the haunting Chemical Brothers/Beth Orton collaboration “Where Do I Begin,” which feels slightly out of place.

While Jenkins remains resolutely focused on the Aileen/Selby relationship, the male characters are more often than not well-drawn and compelling, despite their brief screen time.  Solid performances are added to the mix by Bruce Dern, Scott Wilson (who appears in one of the movie’s most wrenching scenes), Lee Tergesen, and Pruitt Taylor Vince.  “Monster” belongs to Theron, however, and her riveting, forceful performance makes the film an absolute must-see.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/9/04.