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00588 – Films that surprisingly don’t suck

MovieHype00588 – Films that surprisingly don’t suck

In 1995 I worked at a movie theatre, and all summer long we had this cardboard standup for CLUELESS. Now, I’ve long preached the doctrine that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but between staring at Alicia Silverstone every time I swept up popcorn and the vapid previews, with this film I figured you pretty much could. Thus, I made no attempt to see it.

Then one Friday night I got home late from work, and had nothing to do. My sister had rented CLUELESS, and I decided to earn some points by spending quality time with them. To my utter amazement, CLUELESS turned out to be a delightful film, loosely based on Jane Austin’s EMMA, and much fun to watch.

The point of the above heart-warming tale is that we truly cannot tell whether a movie will be good or not before we see it. Of course, if the previews and everything suck, why invest the time in the first place? Unless there is word of mouth. The following are three movies that I was SURE would suck greatly, and ended up being pretty good. If you have a favorite title that most people just trash, write and tell me, and I may watch it, and if I agree, I’ll do a future column reviewing your movie, and give you lots of credit, thus assuring your immortality.

On Tap
WICKER PARK
TAKING LIVES
HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE


WICKER PARK

The question might be asked—and legitimately so—why someone of my movie snobbery would willingly watch a film with Josh Hartnet in it. Good question. The answer lies in the fact that I happened to rewatch TROY on DVD, and I got interested in the women therein. Diane Kruger as Helen isn’t all that, but I enjoyed her immensely in NATIONAL TREASURE. Rose Byrne (who played Achilles’s love interest Briseis), well, I was digging on her. I found out that both of these women were in WICKER PARK. And voila.

I fully fully fully expected WICKER PARK to be a joke. I mean, to start with, it’s based on a French film, L’APPARMENT. Never a good idea to try to copy those crazy Frogs. I have a soft spot for even bad French filmmaking, but it doesn’t duplicate over here. Secondly, it’s a film about obsession. You have to know what you are doing to pull that off. This goes doubly for films without a lot of sex and violence. I know that sounds gratuitous, but why would you have a film about obsession that didn’t center on these two aspects (or at least sex, which usually leads to violence). In fact, the only man I know of who ever pulled off that obsession angle without pushing the sex/violence envelope was Hitchcock, and there’s only one of him. (Some day I fully intend to write a column on VERTIGO, the most underappreciated masterpiece of the 20th Century.) Finally, besides the aforementioned Hartnet, WICKER PARK boasts one Matthew Lillard. Much like Freddy Prinze Jr. (not surprisingly, they are best friends), I cannot figure out how Lillard keeps getting cast in films. At least Hartnet is blandly good looking in that Iowa corn-fed football player sort of way. Lillard looks like the offspring of Billy Ray Cyrus and Jar Jar Binks.

To my shock, WICKER PARK starts off promisingly. There is a film-noir feel as Hartnet’s Matt is about to leave his fiancée for a trip to China. By chance, he overhears someone in a phone booth at a restaurant, and suddenly his life spins out of control. (The kind of out-of-controlness where he doesn’t go on that China trip nor tell his fiancée what’s going on. You know: the kind of out-of-controlness that only occurs in movies or raging alcoholics.)

The first half hour of the film is extraordinarily confusing, and I say that as someone who most often “gets” things. (I mean, for Evil’s sake, I understand teenage girls, which is just short of Sanskrit.) I finally figured out that this was partly on purpose, as the film is attempting to give us the mystery of the plot in pieces, so we don’t ever know what each character is doing, and more importantly, why. To some extent, this is pretty effective, especially at this level of filmmaking.

The other reason, which becomes apparent as the film progresses, is that the “plot” relates to reality the same way cartoons do. You forget for a minute, “Hey! In real life they’d immediately fall into the canyon!”

Unfortunately, WICKER PARK is supposed to take place in the real world, in Chicago in fact, city of 10 million, where the same four people keep running into each other in coincidences that would make Tom Tykwer blush1.

Then half-way into the movie, they decide to reveal the only big surprise left, and I literally was yelling, “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why God, Why?” I assumed from this point on it would be FATAL ATTRACTION, the PG-13 version. (Again, you make a movie like this, you better be prepared to show seamy sex, or it won’t work.)

However, though the twists and turns quit coming at the breakneck pace of earlier, I was still surprised by WICKER PARK, because it turned out the film was not banking on one twist after the next, but rather the emotional quagmire that the characters have gotten themselves into. All four leads are pretty effective at this, especially Rose Byrne, who continues to impress me, and in spite of myself, Matthew Lillard, who showed me he had more range than Shaggy (and variations thereof).

The morality of the movie—such that it is—had gaping, I mean gaping holes. How can you treat your fiancée this way and expect us to like you? This was matched by the chasms in logic. When you get to the airport scene, ask yourself whether any woman in the history of humankind would play it that way. To top it off, the plot holes were big enough to drive trucks through. The movie supposedly takes place in 2004, but nobody has call-waiting? Nobody has Caller ID? Nobody has a doorman? WTF?

Both of these problems stem, I think, from the French translation. Made in ’95, I think the French were behind in technology at the time. And for better or worse, what passes for morality in France would make Bill Clinton blush.

I tried my best not to like WICKER PARK. I went in dubious, and the leaps in logic and credulity were at times absurd. Not to mention that if I ever see the protagonist, I’d kick his ass for his behavior, not something you want in a hero we’re supposed to root for. And yet…and yet. I liked this movie, despite my best intentions. I liked it in spite of the massive flaws, or maybe because of them. It didn’t suck, which I consider a minor miracle.

TAKING LIVES

The story of how I came to watch TAKING LIVES is almost as interesting as the movie: I was in the video store talking to Starla, and somehow the subject of Angelina Jolie came up. Anyone who knows me knows I simply loathe that woman. She just…creeps me out in every movie I ever see her. Well, Starla carries a torch for Angelina, and was quite upset at me, and so to make her happy (Hyperion has a rule to never piss off people who serve me food or get me videos), I rented TAKING LIVES as a peace offering.

The problem with Whodunit Thrillers is that most serious scriptwriters and filmmakers don’t create them, and those who do aren’t inventive, creative, or talented enough to give us genuine twists and turns. Instead, they rely on surprises for surprises’ sake that make no sense, and “Gotcha!” camera work. TAKING LIVES tries a different road.

Watching the “Making Of” documentary, you get the sense that the filmmakers think they have many twists in store for us. Don’t be fooled. It’s fairly obvious early on what’s happening, and the red herrings don’t do much to distract from the obvious. However, the atmosphere and style of TAKING LIVES, as well as the characters, are more important than in most flicks of this genre, so the experience doesn’t suffer. The plot has a few too many holes, a couple of parts are cliché or tacked on, and the ending is preposterous.

All that written, I shocked myself by enjoying TAKING LIVES very much. I did so for the following reasons:

The style and atmosphere are quite cool. There are some genuine jumps, but you know they’re coming (and jump anyway), so that’s playing fair. Some of the camera work was unique in building dread (or false dread), and that impressed me. The ending was crazy, yes, but you almost have to give thrillers (or, hell, movies in general) a pass on this. Creating a great ending is by far the hardest part of making a movie, and for one like this it’s even harder. The best you can ask for is that they don’t go totally cliché, or if they do, at least try to go over the top. In this respect, TAKING LIVES is a notch above ordinary.

The scenery is fresh. Montreal (or in this case Quebec City filling in, but it’s not like any non-BLOQer can tell the difference, so no worries) is a beautiful place, and the city is used effectively so you get the sense they are really there.

The characters are the best part of the film. Oliver Martinez plays a pissed off cop, and gets to do his sexy accent. His part (a police officer who resents having an expert brought in to help with a murder) is a bit by-the-numbers, but with a couple of shocks that made me sit up and take notice. Kiefer Sutherland and Ethan Hawke are both fantastic, inhabiting their characters with menace or vulnerability, or both; as required. In a small part, Gena Rowlands is simply awesome, and I fell in love with her, even though she’s 150 years old. Seriously: this woman needs to be on the A-List for meaty supporting roles.

And then there’s Angelina Jolie.

Dammit—and I hope you respect the tongue-curdlingness it takes for me to write this line—she was so good. From the trailers it looks like Jolie is the tough-genius cop who can play with the big boys and beat them at their own game. However, while there is a touch of that in the script, Jolie gives her Illeana (which just rolls off the tongue sexily) an affect I’d never seen before in this type of role. I don’t even know how to describe it. Illeana is quirky, but not a Johnny Depp quirky for quirky’s sake weirdness; just who she is. She’s tough, but quiet and watchful more than brash. She is a bit obsessive, and does weird things like lying in graves, but it seems okay.

As for her obsessiveness, there is a slight implication that Illeana is enjoying the bloody crime photos more than she should be, if you follow me. Even that is kind of erotic rather than creepy, and this is Angelina Jolie, who freaks me out just standing there!! Also—and this has to be the first and hopefully last time I mention this subject in a review—her makeup is fabulous. This seems like a silly point, but I’ve always found Jolie’s coloring to be off, either trashy-slutty or over-exposed, but here it is soft and flawless, accentuating her features.

Finally—and this is not the first or last time I mention this in a review—the unrated version contains a sex scene worth writing home about (well, maybe not my home, where I’d get an earful from my mother, but somebody’s home). Yeah, yeah; I know: an adult male likes seeing a beautiful woman in a sexy scene; alert the media, but I just can’t iterate enough how Jolie normally makes my skin crawl. That I watched the scene twice (or so) should speak volumes to its effectiveness. (Special note: if you’re in a hurry, this scene appears 1:15 into the movie.)

So, in spite of my best intentions, I enjoyed TAKING LIVES. While not a flawless piece of filmmaking (some day I’m writing a whole column on why crime people don’t turn on lights when entering a room that a suspect used to or might still be in), for a genre piece TAKING LIVES delivered the goods.

And now Starla will never shut up.

HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE

In HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.

Now that we have the plot out of the way, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, even though I didn’t relate to it all that well, for the following reasons: I am not Asian, I do not smoke pot, and I cannot stand White Castle hamburgers (perhaps the pot would help with that). Now, let’s get to the really important part, the questions that arose for me while watching this film. They are:

1 Can Cheetahs actually get high? And if so, why does this never come up on NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER?

2 At one point, Kumar says, “Just because you’re hung like a moose doesn’t mean you have to do porn.” First of all, how is a moose hung? Secondly, if one is hung like one, shouldn’t there be a debt to humanity to at least do some porn? Your thoughts.

3 Are all Asian men as cool as Kumar? And if so, may I bear their children? Kal Penn plays Kumar, and I’ve been waiting for him to break out since his hilarious part in VAN WILDER. Seriously: If this guy were white, he’d have a Top 10 sitcom already. John Cho is Harold, who plays the straight man, and he does well too. (You might remember him as the MILF guy in AMERICAN PIE.) Both of these guys should get more work.

4 What would rank as the greatest “movie montage” of all time? I believe I am on record that all movies should have to have a montage. Off the top of my head, KARATE KID’s training montage (and the All-Valley Tournament “You’re the best around”) come to mind, but I’m willing to discuss.

5 Does pot really make you that hungry?

6 H&K has a Wilson Phillips song in it. At first, the two make fun of it, but then find themselves singing along (and you know you would too). My question: should not all movies include cheesy ‘80s songs? If not the great Wilson Phillips, I at least expect a Foreigner. (Or Winger!)

7 Neil Patrick Harris plays himself (at least, a horny-trippin’-on-X-car-stealing version of himself, though this may not be a stretch) in the film. This brings up a good question: apart from obvious Fantasy like BUFFY or ALF, what is the most unrealistic set up for a show ever? It’s tough to think of one more far-fetched than DOOGIE HOUSER, but again, I’m willing to discuss.

8 Who is the greatest “That Guy” you can see in a movie? I get the phrase “That Guy” from Bill Simmons, who defines it as “familiar character actors you see in movies over and over again, but never know their names.” Frankly, I think there should be an Oscar category for this, or at least a Lifetime Achievement Award. Better yet: That Guy Hall of Fame! Anyway, HAROLD AND KUMAR has a ton of them, including That Guy from ROMEO MUST DIE, you know the really funny fat guy who keeps saying “Dim Sum!” Or That Guy from AMERICAN PIE, the one who sleeps with Stiffler’s mom. Then there’s That Guy from 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. I think he’s in that CBS drama NUM8ERS now. There’s even a That Girl, Rory’s cool friend the Korean Chick in GILMORE GIRLS. There are about 12 others. So, the question is: who’s the best? Right now I put my money on James Rebhorn. I wouldn’t expect you to know his name (the very definition of That Guy), but look at his IMDB page, (http://imdb.com/name/nm0714310/) and I think you’ll see he always brings something to the table. For me his most memorable role was in THE GAME, where he played the guy who gives Michael Douglas’s character all the tests.

9 I thought of more fantastic montages: TOP GUN, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. It’s hard to argue against any of these. Perhaps the ‘80s is the quintessential era for montages.

10 I also thought of some more far-fetched TV shows. Remember THE COSBY SHOW? Did you find it strange that the dad—who was a doctor with a lucrative enough practice to afford that house—virtually never worked? What about FRIENDS? First off, not even Montana is as White as the set of FRIENDS. Also, how do they afford that apartment, especially early on when Monica and Rachel don’t have any money? (Speaking of which, Harold and Kumar have an apartment that is at least the size of New Jersey. But I digress.) Finally, we can’t get away without mentioning THE BRADY BUNCH. Forget the obvious sexual tension between Greg and Marcia; explain to me (I really want to know) how an Architect could allow six kids to live in two bedrooms, and share one bathroom (without an actual toilet)! What’s up with that?

11 Ryan Reynolds shows up in the movie, and even though this part didn’t wow me, I’m still a GIANT Ryan Reynolds fan. I think he is so underrated. So, the question I have is: who is more fun to have around in a movie, Ryan Reynolds, or Stiffler? Your thoughts…

12 Who is the greatest TV character in Asian history? This is tougher than you’d think. The nominees: Detective Yemana on BARNEY MILLER; Sulu on STAR TREK. I think there were two girls on ER, but I didn’t watch the show enough to have an opinion there. I guess that just leaves my vote: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

It occurs to me that many of the questions I came up with would mirror what someone smoking pot while watching the film might come up with too. Add to that the fact that I get hungry a lot, and I think we have a conspiracy on our hands.

Seriously, though, this is a very enjoyable movie. It has some lame parts and some jokes fall flat, but the good stuff more than makes up for it. I’m a little shocked but I have to admit I had one hell of a time.


Hyperion
March 31, 2005

Credits
Thanks to Starla
Thanks to my sister

Notes
1
Tom Tywker a director who revels in coincidence. Check out RUN LOLA RUN, THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR or HEAVEN


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