Saturday, October 25, 2003

Runaway Jury (Gary Fleder, 2003) 

To say that Runaway Jury is far-fetched is to say that Kill Bill is a little violent. Frankly, the entire premise of the film -- that a clandestine "company" can keep tabs on all prospective jurors for a big trial, and charge millions of dollars for their services -- is completely preposterous. Granted, this is Grisham-land, where lawyers lead more action-packed lives than Indiana Jones, and though it might have been fun to enjoy all these shenanigans in a complete fantasy environment, they're a bit harder to take in a film that strains for legitimate social commentary as often as Runaway Jury does. All these silly straight-out-of-sci-fi plot mechanisms feel more than a little offensive when tied to a story about a heated gun-control issue. The film can't have it both ways, trying to make statements about the legitimacy of American justice, while effectively subverting the justice system at every possible turn.

Frankly, even as fantasy, the internal logic breaks down more often than it ought to: the gun companies, apparently, will spend piles and piles of money to rig the jury, but, as far as can be observed, spend almost nothing on actually trying the case (they've got one real lawyer, and he's not presented as a very good one at that). Furthermore, Runaway Jury continues to prove something I've believed for some time: Gary Fleder is a really terrible director. His Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead has some indie cred, though I've no idea why; it's among the worst of the Pulp Fiction knock-offs, lacking any of Tarantino's wit or style, but containing plenty of wisecracking gangsters. Since then, Fleder has directed mediocre studio pictures with as little subtlety as possible, and in Runaway Jury, the trend continues; Fleder's camera spins endlessly and meaninglessly around his actors' heads in a transparently obvious attempt to build Intensity(!) and Confusion.

The cast almost saves it. John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, et al, are good because, well, these guys are never really bad. Sure, it's fun to see Hackman snort and cackle like he's done for years. Yes, Cusack is as effortlessly charismatic as ever. But there's not much to Runaway Jury beyond the performances; the plot twists are predictable, the style is annoying, and the actors' effort is not reciprocated by the writers (count 'em, four). C

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty (Joel Coen, 2003) 

The one thing about Intolerable Cruelty that sent up warning flags in my mind came during the opening credits, and it's not the already-expected "produced by Brian Grazer" credit, as you might think -- it's when the writing credits turn up, and unlike with other Coen efforts, there are other names tossed in there along with Joel and Ethan Coen. Most tellingly, while the brothers share Screenwriting credit with a couple of other fellows, Story credit goes entirely to a bunch of guys I've never heard of.

I bring this up because while Intolerable Cruelty has plenty of merits, it is, unfortunately, the first time I have ever found a Coen film predictable. After the freewheeling comic spirit of The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the twisty noir of The Man Who Wasn't There, it's a bit surprising to realize that the ending of Intolerable Cruelty can, after learning the basic given circumstances of the scenario, pretty much be predicted within the range of a few minor variables. The problem there is that while such a story may be a bit easier to sell to a mass audience (package George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in with that, and Grazer's got a sure-fire moneymaker), it's a mite disappointing to folks (like me) who love the singular weirdness that a Coen film was always sure to deliver. Even the typical Coen style, dialogue, and acting can't jazz up Intolerable Cruelty enough to obscure the inherent simplicity of the story.

Fortunately, all that Coen style, dialogue, and acting are still very much present. Clooney keeps getting ever-better as a film actor; his performance is confident and self-assured in a way that even his mostly-excellent O Brother turn wasn't. Five years ago, I didn't think I'd ever say it, but the fact is, George Clooney now has legitimate movie star power. He doesn't have the kind of romantic chemistry you expect with Zeta-Jones, but I think maybe there's something else going on here -- this is possibly the first time I've seen a film posit that two people could fall in love over their collective inability to care about others. Do the Coens pull it off? Only partially -- while Zeta-Jones captures her character's cold, icy exterior quite well, the inner vulnerability is missing, and Clooney therefore has nothing much to play with on that score. Still, their courtroom and negotiating-table exchanges are pretty exhilarating to watch, or rather, hear -- the rat-a-tat Coen dialogue hits the bullseye several times.

The supporting cast is great fun, with turns from Geoffrey Rush, Edward Herrmann, Billy Bob Thornton (yeah!), and Cedric the Entertainer (double yeah!); one of the great things about Coen movies is that nearly everyone in them looks like he or she was born to be in a Coen movie. Cinematographer Roger Deakins works his usual magic. The soundtrack features typically creative choices, like a Simon & Garfunkel tune played on bagpipes. And Intolerable Cruelty is funny in a way that only the Coens can manage, turning what seem like unimportant details into hilarious running gags (the way Cedric keeps finding new ways to use his signature catch-phrase is the comic highlight). It's also an interesting film to read from the auteurist perspective of the Coens' career overview; this is their most obvious attempt to garner mainstream financial success, but they do it in a way that almost seems like flipping a bird to their critics: creating a romantic comedy about completely ruthless characters (and even titling it as such) as a response to the contention that their previous films have demonstrated cruelty to the people in them.

This might've come off better with a more Coen-esque story structure that allowed us to become comfortable with these characters without using a long-jumping "four weeks/months/years later" title card in the way a film like, say, Seabiscuit does. But even so, playing ball with a studio type like Grazer and a pre-determined story is pretty much imperative to testing such a mainstream-acceptance thesis in the first place, so in the end, that's all moot. The film's not as memorable as I wished it were, but it's a good deal more entertaining than most of what else Grazer has produced. B+

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2002) 

After watching Better Luck Tomorrow, I read that the film had actually been criticized by Asian-American groups for its negative portrayal of Asian characters. My response to that is fairly simple: What? Before we get into a discussion of whether or not the portrayal was negative, let's just pose a question: Can you name any film featuring American-born Asian characters, in all the principal roles, without any question ever raised as to their nation of origin? I thought not. Let's give credit where credit is due: Justin Lin has actually managed to push something through into a national release that has never been seen before. Young Asian-Americans who don't do karate, don't have funny accents, and whose racial background is rarely made an issue -- you can actually find these people in Better Luck Tomorrow.

It's not a perfect film -- the opening is filled with wonderful observational stuff about a group of Southern California teenagers (yes, they're Asian), but the film rapidly loses credibility when Lin sends them into the standard drugs-and-crime spiral in the final hour, accompanied by every "Look Ma, I'm directing!" camera trick in the book -- and I recognize all of that, but seriously, I just have to take a moment to be happy this kind of film finally exists. To protest Better Luck Tomorrow's characters is particularly batty, because if there's one thing Lin gets right, it's making sure his characters exist in three dimensions: This being a no-budget film, Lin and his cast were thankfully spared the rapid-fire process of most studio productions, and allowed to actually (*gasp*) build the characters gradually in rehearsals. The extra effort shows, and the young cast members (undoubtedly glad to finally be playing people with actual histories and conflicts) do themselves proud. Now, let's hope they're given more roles in the future that also don't involve martial arts or funny accents. B

Thursday, October 09, 2003

School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003) 

Against all reason, I love Jack Black. I should hate him -- he's a ham, he's loud, he's obnoxious -- but Black does something with his overacting that resonates with conviction. The best basis for comparison I can think of is Toshiro Mifune (now, bear with me here . . .); there's very little that's natural or subtle about Mifune's samurai performances, but it doesn't matter -- every sound, gesture, and action shoots forward as if it were coming from a raging volcano buried deep inside of this man, and there's no choice but to let it out at full blast. Black, obviously, sends his energy in a wildly different direction from Mifune's, but the principle is the same: By sheer force of will, Jack Black has convinced you that he really had to say that line at top volume, in full over-enunciation, while hopping around on one foot, because there just wasn't any other way to say it. In School of Rock, in which Black (by many plot contrivances) becomes a substitute teacher and winds up making a rock band out of his elementary school students, the entire cast feeds off of the star's energy, and director Richard Linklater's best decision was to simply allow it to happen -- let Black go buck-wild, let the kids be kids, and take it from there.

His second-best decision was simply to plaster the film wall-to-wall with the music Black's character so resolutely worships. It's not just the obvious stuff, either (with frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Randall Poster serving as music supervisor, creative choices can be expected); instead of lazily shooting off The Who's "My Generation," Linklater gives us "Substitute," also a rockin' song, but thematically appropriate to boot. Instead of playing the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" like a car commercial would, he picks out "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," and uses it to score a terrific montage/training sequence in which Black teaches the kids how to properly rock out. By the time the kids' band cranks out a darn good version of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way To the Top (If You Wanna Rock n' Roll)" (yes, "Back in Black" makes its requisite appearance, but kudos to Linklater for also using this Bon Scott-era chestnut), I was completely sold. School of Rock is a rare high-concept fusion movie that works; there is actual respect for the music on display (loved the blackboard chart laying out the various categories of rock -- Metal, Progressive, British Invasion -- while the kids take notes), there are kids who are cute but not cloying (several of them are deliberately bratty, as it should be), and the casting is dead-on (Joan Cusack, as the school's uptight principal, more than holds her own against Black -- I wonder if anyone else can pile on this many layers of repression to such great comic effect).

Has Linklater made a push for commercial success here? Undoubtedly. School of Rock could be viewed as a "sellout" move, but if it is, it's one of the most gleefully unhinged commercial sellouts I've seen. Besides, I think there's something inextricably sublime in making your first mainstream commercial flick all about rebelling against authority -- and making it kid-friendly at the same time. Get 'em while they're young, I say. Rock on. B+

(P.S. -- Linklater and screenwriter Mike White do a good job fleshing out the kids' personalities, especially those who actually play in the band, but they seem to have missed the boat on the girl enlisted to play bass guitar. I'm not sure why it bothered me so much, but it seemed that, in a movie so consistently fair to the kids, it was markedly unfair to make this girl the only one not given a solo over the closing credits. C'mon, guys, bass solos do exist; haven't you ever heard of John Entwistle?)

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The Rundown (Peter Berg, 2003) 

It's official -- The Rock is legit. He's got prospects. He's bonafide. Obviously, he had already accomplished this in the wrestling ring, but The Rundown sees him finally prove himself as a movie star. The best thing about his performance in this film is that he's not phoning it in; you can see him making the effort to create a character, know the circumstances, and engage the audience. I'm impressed by that, because he didn't have to do it -- millions of wrestling fans would've flocked to the film whether The Rock gave a decent performance or not. But thankfully, The Rock, a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson, actually wants to make a good movie, and it's fortunate that he did, because without his efforts, The Rundown is a pretty forgettable action-buddy-comedy.

Johnson is teamed with Seann William Scott, in a story that involves the former trying to retrieve the latter from a Brazilian jungle, while the latter searches for a priceless artifact. The villain is Christopher Walken, who oppresses the local citizens by employing them in a large-scale digging operation and is opposed by rebel leader Rosario Dawson, and blah blah blah, who really cares about the plot anyway? The fun here comes from the cast playing off of each other: The Rock was essentially wasted in The Scorpion King, his last starring vehicle, because the makers of that film wrongfully tried to make him into a stoic hero-type, when anyone who has watched the WWE and examined Johnson's success therein knows that The Rock's strength lies in his ability to play for laughs. He's a natural comic actor, and he gets plenty of mileage from squabbling with Scott, getting his ass kicked by the local rebels, and being attacked by horny monkeys. Walken, meanwhile, has his usual weirdo highlight, stumbling off on a nonsensical story about the Tooth Fairy in an attempt to motivate his troops (who don't understand English, of course).

When The Rundown is funny, it's working. When it tries to get serious, it drags. The action scenes look like they could've been pretty good, if only director Peter Berg had allowed us to actually see them, instead of burying them in a thousand quick cuts and disorienting pans. But even so, the opening sequence is a real blast, from Governor Schwarzenegger's cameo ("Have fun," he tells Rock), to the ass-kicking delivered by The Rock to a football star late on his gambling payments. Is this, perhaps, executive producer Vince McMahon's final kiss-off to his failed XFL effort? Or Johnson's subtextual anger over a failed football career? Shimes? B-

Monday, October 06, 2003

The Big O [TV Series] (Kazuyoshi Katayama, 1999) 

While catching a few episodes of this anime series on Cartoon Network, I was struck by its similarities to Batman: The Animated Series. Not only does The Big O strike a visual resemblance to Batman, it also contains characters clearly inspired by the Dark Knight's entourage: Roger Smith is the hero, a millionaire playboy who moonlights as a crimefighter (he's the "negotiator" for the city, meaning he handles ransom demands from criminals), his closest friend is a wry English butler, and he has an uneasy friendship with the local police sergeant (in case you need clarification, these are Bruce Wayne, Alfred, and Commissioner Gordon, respectively). Thankfully, though, The Big O merely uses Batman as a reference point (and, really, couldn't have chosen a better series to use), a springboard for delving into the kinds of themes anime is good at evoking: the relationship of man to machine, and of man to God.

The series also uses an age-old anime conceit: the giant robot. When negotiations fail, Roger pilots his "megadeus" -- the Big O of the show's title -- and smashes things around a little; naturally, his enemy has usually produced some giant robot or monster of his own, thereby necessitating the O's appearance. I like the design of the Big O; it's drawn to look deliberately bulky, in order to belie the machine's agility. The action scenes are fun, muscular, fist-pounding stuff, but you've probably seen 'em before; what really makes this series fly is an android named Dorothy, modeled after a dead teenage girl (the maker's daughter, natch), who takes up residence in Smith's home after being rescued by the Big O. The interactions between the two are simply priceless: Smith's routine is continually disrupted by the relentlessly logical Dorothy, but he can't bring himself to get angry at a young girl under his protection (android or no). Dorothy's design couldn't be better: she's given an expressionless face and voice (ace work in the English dub by Lia Sargent), but written similarly to Star Trek's Data, striving to discover what it means to be human. She's adorable.

Have these things been done before? No doubt. But The Big O proves something that Roger Ebert once wrote: it's not what it's about, it's how it's about what it's about. This show is deliciously melancholy in its noir stylings (it's even got an icy blonde femme fatale, who works for everyone and no one, and goes by the name of Angel), nicely broken up by humorous character interaction. It had little trouble becoming one of my favorite anime series. The only problem is that it's too short -- 13 episodes were not enough to spend with these characters, and we get very little in the way of explanation for the show's setting, a city in which everyone mysteriously lost their memories approximately 40 years ago. Compounding the problem is that the creators seem a bit unsure of the series' direction in the early episodes; The Big O doesn't really come into its own until around episode four or five. Fortunately, the show's popularity in the U.S. has prompted a second season, for which I can hardly wait. A-

Saturday, October 04, 2003

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez, 2003) 

Let's get it out of the way first: Once Upon a Time in Mexico is silly, overblown, almost entirely incomprehensible, and way too violent for its own (or anyone's) good. It's also, on some level or another, totally fucking awesome. Sure, more a series of hey-isn't-that-cool scenes strung together than an actual movie, but the difference between this and other such movies is that the scenes in question actually are pretty cool; if there's another director who can make off-the-cuff action scenes as fluid and energetic as Robert Rodriguez can, I'd like to see his movie. I don't even care that Rodriguez has done this stuff before in his other movies; I just loved seeing it splashed across a big screen, in all its mariachi-flavored, unhinged comic book excess (the violence is somehow more palatable because of this; you know it's all in good fun when every guy shot with a single bullet flies about ten feet backwards upon impact -- no, really). Takes a sharp turn for the worse with an unexpectedly disturbing bit of sadism in the final reel, but it's obvious the movie's about over at that point, and Rodriguez doesn't try to milk it. Meanwhile, we've got the second out-of-left-field, funny-as-hell Johnny Depp performance in a single year, and that alone must be cause for rejoicing; I absolutely have to enjoy a movie that contains a line like "Are you a Mexican, or a Mexi-can't?" B

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Underworld (Len Wiseman, 2003) 

This should've been a whole heck of a lot better, but it falls into the same trap that a lot of genre exercises do: It's much more enamored of all the incidental cool stuff that comes with its premise (vampires vs. werewolves, in a nutshell) than it is with telling a good story. Underworld seems to assume that we already know exactly what the vampires can do, and why they're fighting werewolves, without actually bothering to tell us. I don't mean that the film establishes just enough to go on and gives us more bits of information as it goes along; I mean that the film establishes nothing, and then expects us to be interested in its first incoherent and contextless fight scene (the first of many, I assure you). The screenplay consistently employs a bizarre storytelling strategy: a presumably charged and dramatic scene followed (sometimes several scenes later) by an explanation of what the heck was going on in said scene.

Needless to say, this doesn't make for compelling drama, though the story being told (a human is found who can accomplish the supposedly impossible task of mixing vampire and werewolf abilities) could very well have accomplished it. As far as I can tell, there were two possible ways of telling this story well: (a) tell it from the perspective of the human (who doesn't know he's got this trait in him), and allow us to learn about vampires and werewolves as we go, or (b) establish the routine the vampires typically follow in hunting werewolves, then throw the unexpected new element into the mix. They try neither, but the latter method probably would've pleased the filmmakers, seeing as how they're apparently enamored of making Kate Beckinsale their strong female lead -- though, personally, when looking for an actress to play a strong female, I doubt that my first choice would be Beckinsale (known, primarily, for her wilting-flower roles in Much Ado About Nothing and Pearl Harbor).

There's an obvious attempt here to recapture the coolness factor of The Matrix, but no one involved seems to realize that when The Matrix came out in 1999, its look was (1) actually original, and (2) it followed storytelling plan (a) to perfection. Meanwhile, in 2003, after four years of slow-motion bullets and gothic, noirish sci-fi, Underworld's style isn't going to strike anyone as "fresh," meaning that the film has little to cover up its numerous screenplay problems. Trying valiantly to raise the material is Bill Nighy, who plays a conflicted vampire elder with scene-stealing aplomb, but his effort is unfortunately contrasted by the howlingly unconvincing line readings of Shane Brolly, as the preening, decadent leader of the vampire clan. Scott Speedman, who plays the put-upon human, is muscular and roguishly handsome enough, I suppose, though frankly, I think Keanu could've done better. C-

(As a side note and further testament to the storytelling ineffectiveness, I honestly didn't realize there were werewolves in the movie until approximately an hour into it, when a character finally refers to them as "werewolves." Up until that point, they're called "Lycans" or some such, but it sounds a lot more like "lichens," which led me to believe the vampires might be fighting a race of malevolent fungus. And, come to think of it, that might've made for a better movie.)

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