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00592 - Why Bother

Movie-Hype00592 – Why Bother?

For the most part, I like to bring good movies to you, films you’d actually want to see. However, being a movie critic ain’t all beer and skittles, and with the good comes the bad. The next few weeks I have so many really cool movie columns lined up (special “theme” columns), that I wanted to go ahead and get these off my plate so I didn’t have to worry about them. The following movies are either in theatres or just on video. They aren’t the worst movies ever, but they could have been so much better.

HOSTAGE

At some point in the future, (you know this will happen), the MPAA will start rating more than just the sexual, violent, language and thematic content they do today. Perhaps they will rate movies with retread plots (PG-BTDT: Been there, done that), or for actors in the wrong parts (PG-WTSCIGIIIMC: We’re Talking Sophia Coppola in Godfather III Mis-Cast).

Well, maybe those are long shots, but I am counting on the day they warn us about the number of clichés. You know: the parts of movies that you have seen almost verbatim before and you know exactly what is going to happen. Some clichés are okay, even tributes, like the ubiquitous dumb girl going upstairs alone at night in a horror film. (Doesn’t she know she’s in a scary movie?) Or the Montage, which I feel is such an American institution, that no movie should be legally released without it.

Then we come to HOSTAGE, starring Bruce Wills.

Actually, Bruce Willis is a cliché in and of himself. You know the words: loner guy, pushed to the edge, who finally fights back, and wipes out all the terrorists by himself with the help of a plucky funny black guy. Ah, memories.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the Bruce. In fact, now that I think about it, I cannot think of a single performance of his I haven’t enjoyed. Hold on a minute while I scope out IMDB to be sure. (Redeem the time while you’re waiting on me; do it too: http://imdb.com/name/nm0000246/)

Even in absolute dreck like MERCURY RISING, THE JACKAL, ARMAGEDDON, and COLOR OF NIGHT Willis is very watchable. Why doesn’t he get more credit for THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE? People go on an on about M. Night Shamaylan, and even Haley Joel Osmont, but without Bruce Willis you never would have believed THE SIXTH SENSE. Think about it for a minute.

In HOSTAGE, Bruce plays a very familiar character, outside of the “system,” pushed beyond the limits of emotional capacity. We start with a wholly unnecessary opening with Willis as a hostage-negotiator. Don’t skin me alive when I say that things don’t go so well. I understand the point is to establish that Willis is a broken man (and he REALLY hates kids in danger), but it still gets the movie off on the wrong foot. Not only have you seen the scene 40 times before, but I promise you will spend the whole time looking at his hairpiece.

I guess this was because I was hoping Bruce was going to actually be a hostage negotiator in the movie. That would have made more sense, and allowed them to get rolling much earlier. To me, the tradeoff of learning the character’s pathos and knowing that he “used” to be the best wasn’t good enough.

But whatever. Moving on, several years later Willis is the Chief of Police in Podunkville. Through a comedy of errors, three kids take a family hostage. The problem is that daddy was into some bad stuff, and daddy has something that the “real” bad guys want. So (I promise I’m not giving away the story. You NEED to know this before deciding whether or not to sit through HOSTAGE, and besides which, previews give away much more, so obviously the studio doesn’t care), anyway, the “real” bad guys take Bruce’s family hostage, to ensure that he will work for them and not to rescue the original family.

I know that’s complicated, but it sounds pretty cool, right? It is a great concept, and I could have lived with the billion and one clichés they throw at us. (My favorite: a house with a security system to rival Fort Knox, but featuring a ventilation shaft big enough NASCAR races and which goes anywhere in the house without any trouble. But I digress.)

The problem isn’t really all the clichés, but that the movie never fleshes out what’s important. For example, in DIE HARD, we get phenomenal bad guys, Hans Gruber and Co., and we cared about John McLain’s wife in peril. Here the kid bad guys are comically stupid, the “real” bad guys are never once shown or explained, and while the original family has a cute little boy (and a high school-chunky-cute teenage girl), we never learn anything about Bruce’s family, which is what motivates him to act in the first place.

I felt like this movie was one rewrite and a better director away from being one of the best action movies in years. All the pieces were there. Ultimately, they pieces don't move much, and when they do, a four year old could counter them.

Which makes HOSTAGE a disappointment. It wasn’t the worst movie ever made, or even the worst movie Bruce has ever made (how could it be?), but it wasn’t up to his standards. I suppose he can take solace, though: at least he gets to date Lindsey Lohan. I just feel like I should get to too, since I sat through it.

TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

I was talking to Koz about the best satires of all time. We found some official list, which was just terrible. I agreed with maybe 4 out of their top 20. Reasonable people can disagree, but there can’t be THAT much dissent in a relatively small genre, can there?

Don’t hold me to this, but after a few minutes of thought my top ten would include DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (has to be #1), YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (a close #2), M*A*S*H*, THE PLAYER, THIS IS SPINAL TAP, CATCH 22, BLAZING SADDLES, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, PLANET OF THE APES (which may be more of an allegory).

I would add to this list SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, AND UNCUT. Rarely have I been more surprised by a movie. (For a full review, check the archives or write and ask for a copy.)

Sadly, the same could not be said for the South Park creator’s latest offering, TEAM AMERICA, WORLD POLICE. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I was hoping they would knock it out of the park, and they didn’t.

The story is about a team of American commandos who go around saving the world. Unfortunately, they aren’t very good at what they do, and frequently cause more damage than the terrorists would. In an opening sequence, we see Team America taking on Middle-Eastern terrorists in Paris. They get their men, but also manage to blow up the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumph and the Louvre along the way.

One other thing: the story is not live action or cartoon: but done with puppets. More on that later.

Strangely, in a movie that you would think would blast the failures of the war on terrorism, the Bush administration largely gets a break. There are some funny zingers about intelligence and America’s superior-than-thou attitude, but mostly the Right gets left alone.

This is because the real targets are Hollywood activists who act as if they know more than the rest of us. There is one hilarious scene with Sean Penn talking about his visit to Iraq, and how it was an idyllic playground until the evil Americans came. This is a slam on Penn and Michael Moore and his ridiculous propaganda movie.

Things like that were great. I wish there had been more of it. Sadly, though, most of the satire was bloodless. Every political actor alive is skewered here, and the acting profession itself is constantly hammered. (The main character is an “actor,” without whose help Team America is powerless.) I wish we could have had more parody of some of their ridiculous positions and comments, rather than just generally making them clueless.

There are also a lot of gay jokes that didn’t have a huge point to me. One part was pretty funny. Alec Baldwin and his Hollywood cronies are part of the Film Actor’s Guild (instead of Screen Actor’s Guild) and the initials F.A.G. are displayed every time one of the actors is talking. This is pretty juvenile, but funny nonetheless. However, there is this whole oral sex gag that just didn’t work for me. Perhaps I didn’t get it.

There is also a “romance” angle between the team members, and this completely slows down the movie, to the point that it was very boring for long stretches of time. I realize they did this for a reason (which I will get to in a minute), but it didn’t work at all.

This brings me to a weird point. The film initially received a NC-17 rating for puppet sex. I’m not sure what the Ratings Board was looking at, but I can’t see how anyone could get up in arms over what I saw. Yes, there were many Kama Sutra positions, but they are still puppets.

There were two aspects of the film that worked quite well. First is the send up of several different films and film genres. You had TOP GUN, RETURN OF THE JEDI, and basically anything the despicable Michael Bay has ever made. This was pretty funny stuff. This is also, I believe, why they had the romance subplot, to parody clichéd action movies that do this. It’s just that particular one didn’t work, but most did.

The best, though, were the songs. So good were the songs that I wish the film had focused far more on them and made this a full-out musical like the South Park movie. At the beginning there is a song called “Everyone Has AIDS,” perfectly nailing Hollywood hypocrites who think they are better because they “care” more. There was also a great song called “Pearl Harbor sucked and I miss you.” Good stuff. We also get a hilarious montage featuring a song called “Montage,” which explains that you can go from beginner to pro in 2 minutes with a montage. Insert your favorite ‘80s movie here. We also get a great song by North Korean dictator called “I’m so Ronery.” You even feel sorry for him. The funniest song, though, is “America, F*** Yeah!” I laughed every time I heard a snippet. The movie was worth it just for the soundtrack.

Overall, there were definitely some laugh-out-loud moments, but just not enough. I suppose hard-core fans of SOUTH PARK, the show or the movie, will want to check this out, but the rest of you shouldn’t bother. If you have an appetite for satire, check out the SOUTH PARK movie. That’s the funniest thing in years. TEAM AMERICA has great aspirations, but cannot pull them off.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISOU

I first came to know and appreciate the whimsical mind of Director Wes Anderson quite by chance. In his first film, BOTTLE ROCKET, the main character, an at-that-time-unknown Owen Wilson, sounded exactly like my Uncle Jerry. So, I watched the movie for that.

And it ruled. The film was funny, but not in a gut-busting way. More, it was kind of quiet and sad, and made me think that this is what a severely depressed person who was nonetheless really funny would produce (last year’s GARDEN STATE also kind of had that affect on me).

Anyway, from then on I was hooked. I absolutely adored RUSHMORE, and told everyone I could find how wonderful it was. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS took me a little longer to vibe into, but once I did I have come to enjoy that work as well.

Which is partly why Anderson’s fourth opus, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISOU, is so disappointing. The film features Anderson’s trademark whimsy, is plenty sad and depressing, and even has characters that are somewhat unlikable, much like the other work.

The differences are, I think, that while the previous films often showed us jerks, they were jerks we rooted for. Not so here. I couldn’t find one character I cared about. Secondly, while Plot has always played second fiddle to quirky character development, at least in the other films there was a plot. In THE LIFE AQUATIC, it felt like the plot was determined from a fierce Dungeons and Dragons game, played while high.

The movie’s main character is Steve Zisou (played by Bill Murray), an over-the-hill Jacques Cousteau wannabe at the tail end of his career. Zisou and his “team” (and I use the word loosely), have encountered a heretofore unknown “jaguar shark” on their latest ocean foray. Oh, yeah: the shark ate Zisou’s best friend. (I promise all of you in BC, I give nothing away here.)

We learn all of this in the beginning, as Zisou presents his latest film, a battle with the Jaguar Shark, (Part I). Zisou’s plan is to go back out and kill the shark in Part II, for the scientific purpose of “revenge.”

Except he doesn’t have any money, and his wife doesn’t love him any more, and there is a rival aquatic researcher with more money, and he just ran into Ned Plimpton, who may or may not be his son. (Again, I give nothing away here).

For those of you familiar with Anderson’s work, most of this might seem awfully familiar. In fact, Angelica Houston plays the out-of-love wife, for my money the exact same character she played in TENENBAUMS. For those who have not seen the other films, all I can say is that this has been done a lot better.

The plot at times is amateurish, as if it were made by some high school kids. There is even a pirate attack that is the worst pirate scene in movie history, and you know how much I love pirates and how it hurts to write that. The special effects seem backyard-army-man corny too.

Most of the talented cast seems wasted. Besides Houston and Owen Wilson, we get Jeff Goldblum mailing it in and Willem Dafoe (a favorite of mine) playing a queer Nazi? I never did figure it out. Even Cate Blanchett left me cold, and those who know me know I don’t say that lightly.

Finally, a word on Bill Murray. Has anyone else noticed how similar to Robin Williams he is? Both are hysterically funny, and both seem to be desperately masking how unbelievably sad they are. Murray’s best work is when he lets the sadness kind of overwhelm him, and doesn’t try to fight it, like LOST IN TRANSLATION, RUSHMORE, and even the quiet parts of GROUNDHOG DAY. (Which isn’t to say that some of his comedies aren’t great. WHAT ABOUT BOB and his most underrated comedy, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE, are favorites in this house.) However, sometimes the sadness doesn’t quite work. In THE LIFE AQUATIC, it fails horribly, and I think that’s because Steve Zisou has so little humanity. He gets some funny lines, but it can’t mask how selfish a guy he is, and the hero-redemption at the end seems hollow.

I won’t lie: there are some great moments in THE LIFE AQUATIC, times where I busted out laughing and had to tip my cap that the zaniness worked. However, they were few and far between. Too often it just seemed like warmed over Anderson, and I’d much rather watch one of his masterpieces for the 20th time than watch this again.


SAW

There are three main types of horror films: gore-fests, things that go BUMP in the night, and psychological thrillers. SAW really really wants to be all three. That’s a lofty goal for any movie. SAW fails miserably.

I just went to imdb.com and noted that 16,246 people have given SAW an average rating of 7.5 (out of 10). How is this possible? This is one of the worst acted, plotted, written and directed movies in some time.

Look: I grant you that the bar is pretty low for horror movies. Most don’t typically have much of a plot, and what plot there is typically is pretty ridiculous. Nevertheless, I expected more of this movie; partly because it came highly recommended, and partly because SAW has one of the coolest ideas in some time.

We open up on a grungy public bathroom. We’re talking horrible sanitary conditions (OCD types would have a coronary). Two men are chained to pipes, not knowing how they got there. There is a dead guy on the floor between them, lying in his own blood.

That’s kind of cool. We quickly learn that “Jigsaw,” the mastermind, never kills anyone, but instead delights in making people kill themselves or kill others. This fits squarely in the psychological thriller category.

It is a given that psycho killers do what they do to make the movie move forward. However, with something this emotionally tortured, one assumes that the killer has quite a pathos working. Anyone who would have come up with this is bound to be the most interesting person in the film. I would have liked to learn more about him, ala Buffalo Bill in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. No such luck. I did like his very creepy masks; although one has to point out that these masks really only serve the purpose of not showing us who the person is. (However, this is par for the course in a horror movie, so we won’t hold SAW to a higher standard).

The film is grainy and gross looking. At first, this works well, in that disgusting bathroom, but the flashback and other scenes were the same, which dulled the impact quite a bit. SAW definitely could have used some post-production work.

However, this is a minor quibble. Let’s talk about the real problem: with an idea this cool, not only would it have been good to delve into Jigsaw a lot more, but also the actual plot should have been more thought out. It wasn’t. Once the structure was revealed, it was incredibly paint-by-numbers, which was disappointing.

We would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the “twists,” not to reveal them, but grading their believability. It’s a given that a horror movie twist will be outlandish, but it should at least work within the movie framework. SAW doesn’t even come close. If you know the three biggest rules of Horror movies, you can figure everything out. It’s so obvious that I won’t even repeat the rules here, because it would immediately give it away the movie away. I didn’t even try to figure it out, and the twists still hit me over the head.

Perhaps SAW’s twists aim at an audience incapable of cognitive thought. At the risk of casting aspersions, I’m guessing this is the same group of people who enjoyed the film.

That’s all for today. Friday is going to be movie day, at least for the time being, so you can look forward to it (and tell your friends). Until then, quit hogging all the popcorn.

Hyperion

April 22, 2005

Credits
Minimal thanks to Koz (he really wasn’t that much help)

Upcoming Chronicle
I’m not entirely sure. I’m open to suggestions. Mondays are going to be something different, but that isn’t for a few weeks. I am working on another Mail Bag, so if you have something there send it in

For the Third and Last Time
Hyperion needs an artist for a project. If you are one, write in

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