Sunday, August 26, 2018

Flight of the Jailbirds: Con Air (1997) starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and John Malkovich

[I was surprised to learn that Con Air made it into the Criterion canon, I guess alongside The Rock (1996). Perhaps, the fine people at Criterion were being a bit ironic in their choice? Perhaps, the 3 Reasons video is a fake. At any rate, here's another time capsule piece from my early days as a newspaper movie reviewer.]

I dreaded watching Con Air, chiefly because it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, half of the team that brought you Top Gun, Bad Boys, Days of Thunder, and the especially loathsome The Rock. The bad boy producers Bruckheimer and Simpson specialized in these hormonal, pumped up, squealing electric guitar machismo movies.

Recently, Simpson died of a drug overdose, and so Con Air constitutes Bruckheimer's attempt to make massive bucks on his own. The results are mixed, but better than I expected. In Hollywood these days, movie stars look to big moneymaking actions flicks to enhance their salaries. Val Kilmer's stock rose with the 3rd Batman. Soon we'll see Winona Ryder as a fighting android in the fourth Alien film for the same reason.

So, given this principle of serious actors turning to pulp fiction for money, Con Air contains a convention of actors one would normally associate with much classier movies. John Cusack plays an intellectual ranger (read wimp in this movie) who tracks the convicts' plane and spends most of his time arguing with a DEA man who only wants to blow the plane out of the sky.

John Malkovich plays a delightful criminal mastermind who gets to strut around the movie using his unusually precise speaking style to celebrate villainy. Steve Buscemi makes a humorous appearance as a Hannibal Lector-esque mass murderer who brags about wearing the head of a little girl as a hat, but otherwise does nothing remarkable. He shows up all zoot-suited up in a mask and a strait jacket just like Anthony Hopkins wore in Silence of the Lambs, but once Malkovich's character sets him free to wander around the plane, you think oh, that's Steve Buscemi. Whoopee.

Con Air begins with Nicolas Cage as a marine (Cameron Poe) killing a man with his fists of steel in a bar brawl. While Poe's in jail (this sequence has a spooky resemblance to the jail scenes of Raising Arizona), we witness Poe writing repeatedly to his ultra-cute daughter and wife. There's a biblical dimension to his cartoonlike character: he MUST survive a criminal takeover of a prison plane in order to get back to his parole and long lost family. Even as the filmmakers pile one challenge on top of another, Poe serenely fights for his little girl. It is really quite affecting in its emotionally manipulative way.

So, criminals hijack a convict plane, fly to a remote desert airstrip to blow up a bunch of rusty cars and trucks, and then eventually fly into the middle of Las Vegas at night. The film has a luscious cinematography full of desert sun, sky, and gleaming weaponry, which, like the acting, seems way too fancy for such a silly plot.

Indeed, the movie often resembles a music video with its pounding electric guitar score, voluptuous slow motion violence, and hallucinatorily clear imagery. In one sequence, Poe drops a corpse off the into Carson City, and we see that corpse fall up close most of the way down, the gorgeous fluttering down of a dead con in the sun, before it lands as a joke on an older couple's car that had just been waxed.

By the time the movie gets around to its multiple climaxes/chase scenes in the colorful world of downtown Las Vegas, I found it difficult to know what to say here. Is the film stupid, fascist, gratuitously violent, and anal-retentively macho? Yes. Is it also beautifully filmed cheesy fun with fine actors who all seem to enjoy having their paycheck increased? Yes again.

Cage becomes so noble, he even finds time to save a diabetic and a female guard threatened with rape on the plane. In his mission to save these people and get his little bunny toy to his daughter, he slaughters numerous bad guys put in the way of his holy mission. As whole army battalions get blown up, Cage's search for a syringe for the diabetic resembles the quixotic quest of a man determined to carry a glass of water through a hurricane. As in the case of the movie as a whole, it may not make sense, it may seem stupid, but you gotta admire the technique.

Three Reasons: Con Air by Criterion?

I'm a bit flummoxed by this Criterion choice. My June 12, 1997 review will follow.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Thud, Thud, Lizard-like Roar: The Lost World starring Jeff Goldblum and a bunch of dinosaurs (1997)

[I'm still indulging in posting very old time capsule reviews from my newspaper days. Good thing that we've gotten beyond cheap rehashes of Jurassic Park (1993).]

Some drink to remember, some drink to forget . . .  I'm still trying to forget The Lost World, Steven Spielberg's sequel to Jurassic Park that I hear just earned over 90 million dollars over its first weekend in the theaters.

For those of you familiar with the first movie, it turns out there was another island that served as a breeding ground for the Jurassic Park dinosaurs. At the beginning of The Lost World, a snooty British family happens to camp out on the beach of this island and their little girl nearly gets devoured by a bunch of foot-tall dinosaurs. Her mother screams, and the film abruptly cuts to the tall, vaguely sinister, and tired-looking post-Independence Day (1996) Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm.

Jeff looks weary starring in this film, and I can scarcely blame him. He's the one character who seems to remember what happened in the first film when a corporation seeks to exploit the new dinosaur-growing technology. Why, he seems to ask, go through it all over again?

Dr. Malcolm finds himself blackmailed by the corporation, Ingen, to go camping on this island to protect, and ultimately save, his dinosaur-happy scientist girlfriend (where she came from is never explained). While on the island, he finds his adopted African-American daughter stowed away in the all-terrain RV for no really clear reason except that Spielberg likes to include children in his dinosaur death-romps.

Soon they all encounter another paramilitary force cruising around in jeeps to collect dinosaurs for an amusement park in San Diego, and then (guess) night falls, thuds are heard in the distance, and everything goes awry.

After this unlikely start, Spielberg serves up a bunch of action set-pieces most involving tyrannosaurus rexes, velociraptors, and those cute, but deadly, one foot dinos called compsognathuses who all munch their way through most of the two groups of explorers. People dangle from cliffs and t-rexes take voluptuous pleasure in drooling outside of tent flaps.

As survivors scramble for safety, I kept thinking of this film's curious resemblance to one sequence in King Kong (1933). Remember when that other expeditionary force wandered around Skull Island and encountered various dinosaurs as well as Kong himself? The Lost World basically repeats the same action formula without the ape.

As before, the main thrust of the film lies in how many different ways a man can get eaten. What is it like to be torn in half like a stick of beef jerky and devoured by two tyrannosaurs? People scream and go silent just before a fountain of blood gushes down. As in Anaconda (1997), you can usually tell by a character's appearance whether or not s/he will get eaten and how soon.

I found such meticulously story-boarded and planned pseudo-spontaneity boring. Except for adding on a few dinosaur species and placing a t-rex in San Diego, The Lost World follows much the same formula of increasing nastiness as we saw in Jurassic Park: the velociraptors come out like the dream team for the grand finale on the island. But aside from the many rainy nights in the jungle where puddles vibrate, the numerous dark warehouses where dinosaurs crash through windows, and the many times Jeff Goldblum looks up at something offscreen in fear and wonder, I found this film plodding, predictable, mechanical, and mostly humorless, a multi-million dollar argument in favor of keeping the dinosaurs extinct. 

Lame Wayne: Austin Powers (1997)

[So long ago, as in May 22, 1997, the Film Doctor was just breaking into print in a newspaper for the first time. He was not a fan of early Austin Powers.]

Often a delight, movie reviewing can be grim work. You learn not to trust critics. Newsweek liked Austin Powers and panned The Fifth Element. I had the opposite reaction.

In Mike Myer's attempts to lampoon James Bond films, The Avengers, and late '60s mod culture, he ends up showing you that he's seen the same movies you have. Remember Spy Hard (1996)? James Bond has been so familiar to us all by now as an institution, a way of life, and a corporate fantasy, satirizing him has become a cliche.

In the Wayne's World of TV and two mega-grossing films, Mike's cheerful Dumb and Dumber act often worked because he was playfully making fun of his own heritage. There was very little transition between the Saturday Night Live skits and his own upbringing in suburban leftover '70s America. It was funny to see Mike's and Dana Carvey's pitiful attempts to live out their rock and roll fantasies, giving the sophomoric humor a human poignancy.

In Austin Powers, we see what happens when a mega-selling young comic gets complacent with success. Myer's attempt to graft himself into British mod culture becomes a mere exercise in adopting a style, some groovy slang, and an accent. Now we've lost Carvey as a sidekick, and Myers replaces him with Elizabeth Hurley, who plays a straight-woman role much like Priscilla Presley's in the Naked Gun series. Hurley is a strikingly beautiful model and for all I know a talented actress, so it's painful to watch her reduce herself to the parameters of this movie.

So what happens? Myers begins the film with some humorous references to Hard Days Night and Blow Up, but pretty soon we get mired in a retread Dr. No plot with the now tired Brady Bunch Movie device of transposing late 60s hip London Austin into the 90's. Myers indulges in bathroom humor, male anatomy jokes, and Airplane-esque sight gags that sometimes look highly improvised. Sometimes the gags go on too long in their self-ironic stupidity; sometimes they don't work at all. Hurley lectures Austin on AIDS, Dr. Evil (played by Myers) threatens world conquest, the audience giggles about every half hour.

Myer's humor is as adolescent as ever, so expect lots of mod bouffant blondes with exploding body parts when the storyline drags.

Some day in the future, as you drift through the new movie section of the video story, bored, wondering what to rent, and you see all those copies of Austin Powers there on the shelf with the hip '60s funkadelic colorful design on the box, you might think the movie might be cute, might be a fun way to wile away a bored afternoon. I don't think so.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Voodoo Child: Eve's Bayou (1997)

[Here's another time capsule review from 21 years ago, during my pre-blogging days.]

What do you do after you've starred in Pulp Fiction and Die Hard: With a Vengeance? If you're Samuel L. Jackson, you help produce and star in a modest $6 million 1950s African American family drama set in the Louisiana bayou.

Told from the vantage point of 10 year old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), Eve's Bayou has dysfunctional family affinities with The Ice Storm and A Thousand Acres. The movie begins at a party of the Batiste's house where we meet Eve's mother Roz (played by Lynn Whitfield in a put-upon wife role much like the one she had in Waiting To Exhale), Eve's rebellious 14 year old sister Cicely (Meagan Good), and Eve's handsome smooth-talking dad Louis (Samuel Jackson). Eve wanders off to crash in the old carriage house only to wake up and discover her dad over by the tool bench smooching with Matte Moreau, a local floozy.

Eve gasps, Louis calms her down by talking of dancing with her at the next party, and sends her off to bed. Later that night, Eve dreams of her drunken uncle getting killed in a car wreck just when the phone rings to announce that fact. In this swampy world where the men tend to be either adulterous, drunken, or dead, the women resort to their psychic abilities and voodoo techniques first to know what's going on behind the scenes, and second to enact revenge. Eve's slow initiation into the duplicitous world of adulthood parallels an increase in her psychic powers that she inherits from her Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan).

In this uneven movie that sometimes sinks into melodrama, Debbi Morgan is the most consistently watchable character. With her '50s beehive hairdos and wide-eyed look, she plays the kind of lovable aunt who can drop by and tell Eve in the parlor about how her second husband got shot by her jealous lover. Mozell's psychic counselling consists of holding another women's hands and flashing onto black and white scenes of the bayou water that leads the person in question--a man injecting heroin, an unfaithful wife in bed with another man--thus deciphering the mystery her client seeks knowledge of. Since Mozelle has used up three husbands who all died in melodramatic ways, her story threatens at times to overwhelm the main plotline. I wondered how responsible she was for her dead husbands. Did she find it convenient to get rid of them? And yet she is one of the most likable characters in the movie.

As signs and portents build up and as Samuel L. Jackson comes home later and later at night, the movie takes on a hysterical tone--too many people crying or raging, too many scenes that have to be intense. There's a big secret that I can't give away that plunges Eve's older sister Cicely into depression. In response, Eve resorts to some voodoo of her own. For instance, some wolfbane in a packet worn around your neck wards off evil. If you want to kill someone, take some of his/her hair and bury it near the family grave site in a snake's mouth.

As in the case of Angel Heart, voodoo and psychic powers give the film unexpected depth, a kind of metaphysic that steers the women through one crisis after another. Even given its problems with plotting and tone, this beautifully photographed and well-acted film stands out like cajun spice amongst the bland offerings of recent studio fare.