Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich, a new film directed by Spike Jonze
(recently seen in Three Kings) and produced in part by
Michael Stipe of REM fame, is by far one of the freshest, funniest, and most
satirical films released this year. Never dumbing itself down to the studio
executive mentality, Being is a film that takes dozens of risks and
succeeds with almost all of them. It manages to be simultaneously entertaining
and thought-provoking, and always has a new surprise for the viewer.

The plot is deceptively simple, if bizarre. Craig Schwartz (John
Cusack), a puppeteer who can’t find work in this "wintry economical
climate," decides to use his fast fingers to get a job at a filing company.
Located on the 7 1/2 floor of an office building, Schwartz spends his days
filing and his nights at home with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). But all that
changes the day he discovers a tiny portal in his office – a portal that sends
you into John Malkovich’s mind for 15 minutes. Once it’s over, you’re dumped out
onto a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike.

One typically amusing moment of the film occurs when Schwartz
describes the experience to Maxine (Catherine Keener), a co-worker he hopes to
impress. Essentially summarizing the premise of the film, Schwartz ends with the
statement, "I don’t know how I can go on living my life the same way with
this knowledge." Without missing a beat, the uninterested Maxine offers him
her open window, then leaves the office. 

The rest of the film follows the premise logically to whatever
conclusion it can, however bizarre, from realizations of transgenderism to the
financial exploitation of Malkovich’s portal and even the permanent acquisition
of the actor’s mind. The film keeps the audience constantly confused as to who
the protagonist is – is it the tortured, megalomaniacal Schwartz, the
newly-awakened Lotte, the self-serving Maxine or poor Malkovich himself? Or
could it even be the kindly, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), Schwartz’s sex-obsessed,
105-year-old boss? There are no easy answers, and the focus shifts so constantly
that even by the end, one can’t be entirely sure whose story we just watched –
if anyone’s.

The performances are excellent, especially given the bizarre
material; Cusack and Diaz are nearly unrecognizable in their frumpy clothing and
down-to-earth make-up jobs, their appearances downplayed so the audience won’t
be distracted and Malkovich won’t be upstaged by these admittedly bigger-name
stars. Malkovich himself, playing a grotesque of the persona he portrays in his
better-known films, particularly In the Line of Fire, is just the type of
critically-acclaimed, publicly misunderstood actor the films needs. Keener gives
her Maxine the perfect note of the bitchy beautiful girl, but even she’s given
the chance to show a more tender side.

Charlie Kaufman’s script is outstanding, and the film delivers
as many laughs as dramatic and even disturbing moments. Being John Malkovich

a exceedingly clever, fresh, and funny, and though it’s playing in a rather
limited release, I urge you to see it as soon as you can – even if that’s on
video. The film’s premise is even a metaphor for the film itself – but instead
of 15 minutes, you get to spend two hours inside the head of Kaufman, Jonz, and
the actors themselves.

Fight Club

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, one
of the main characters – a rather two-dimensional member of the displaced
American intelligentsia in Europe after WWI – is challenged to an old-fashioned
duel by another character. Despite his terror, he goes through with it, and the
narrator says that this was "the first thing he ever did." When the
narrator meets the character again, he enjoys him more – feels that the
character is now someone better, whole. 

This scene shows that the themes brought up by David Fincher’s Fight
Club
, themes also explored in the recent American
Beauty
, are nothing new. When Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden starts spouting off
his propaganda about the emasculation of the current male generation due to the
encroachment of offices, computers and IKEA, it’s the same incendiary speeches
that Hitler was tossing out decades ago, and Marx before that.

But as I said, American Beauty explored a similar theme –
though in a less male-centered format – and did it well. Fight Club could
also have done it well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Stylistically, Fight Club is a "cool movie."

It’s got the neat angle shots, the weird metafictional scenes, the clever
subliminal flashes, and guys beating the living shit out of each other. But
there’s a difference between the cartoony violence of action films and the
brutal brutal violence depicted in Fight Club.

In some ways, this may be a good thing. I’ll never look at an action film the
same way again, knowing to what extreme that violence could be carried. That’s
one bit of social commentary that carries off well.

But plot-wise, Fight Club
is a confusing jumble of bizarre characters, unrealistic events, and dried-out
ideas. The plot is relatively simple; Ed Norton’s burned-out yuppie Jack (the
narrator of the story, whose name isn’t actually revealed until near the end of
the film) finds a way to bring significance to his tedious life: he begins
attending support groups for problems he doesn’t have. But when Marla, a fellow
pity-junkie, horns in on the narrator’s racket, he’s forced to find a new
addiction – and discovers it in Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a nutty, archetypal
hedonist who lives in a condemned house on the outskirts of the city’s
industrial park. Moving in with Durden after his apartment accidentally
explodes, the narrator and Durden take out their hatred for their condition by
forming the Fight Club – a group of guys who meet in the basement of a bar every
Saturday Night to beat each other up. 

The fights are something of
an issue. There’s a lot of punching, a lot of
crushing, and much, much too much of heads getting smacked into
concrete.  There’s really only three ways such a scene can be dealt with
when you’re watching it. You can pull yourself out of the movie and just
continually remind yourself that it’s only a movie, those people aren’t really

having their heads bashed into the ground; you can look away, as you would if
you were actually there; or perhaps you’re into that type of thing. If you are,
stay the hell away from me. As I said, I’ll never watch an action movie the same
way again. 

Fight Club‘s plot
also leaves something to be desired. The main problem is that it takes a sharp
left turn about three fourths of the way through the film; suddenly, all the
"angst in the internet age" themes are wiped clean and the plot
abruptly focuses entirely on character. And this isn’t one of those cool
"Sixth Sense" left turns. It’s more like one of those "Arlington
Road" left turns; it just doesn’t work, or at least not well, when you look
back at everything that has gone before. It’s almost like a different movie for
that last fourth.

Despite its flaws – which
I’ve more or less focused on here – Fight Club does have a few merits.
The first act of the film is excellent (basically until Durden shows up), and Ed
Norton, who did a great job in American History X, gives an excellent
performance here as well (though by the end of the film, Norton is playing
nearly the same character as X). I also think the film’s message – the
emotional estrangement of males in our society, or at least the threat of it –
is a valid one. But too often, the style takes over the content. And then
there’s the blood, the punching, the beating, the crashing thud of a skull on
concrete – as a friend of mine (who almost walked out on the movie) said,

"I don’t need those sounds, those images, in my head." I don’t think
anyone does.

Three Kings

Three Kings is a rather strange film. It’s a raucous
blend of style and substance, borrowing from action films, music videos, medical
school educational films, and yes, even the New Testament (just a wee bit). I
think I heard it best described as "subversive." 

The plot, on the surface, seems relatively simple. The Desert
War has just ended, and the American soldiers are celebrating. While bringing in
captured Iraqi soldiers, soldier Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) discovers a map to
a hoard of gold Saddam Hussein stole from Kuwait. After conferring with his
friend, Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), Barlow makes plans to grab a little bit of that
gold himself; they figure, Saddam stole it from Kuwait, why not steal it from
Saddam? But before they can head out, soon-to-retire Special Forces man Archie
Gates (George Clooney) discovers their plan, and threatens his way into their
little group. Along with one of Barlow’s soldiers, a goofy redneck named Conrad
Vig (Spike Jonze), the group heads out to make their fortune.

The gold is discovered rather quickly. But along the way, the
American soldiers become embroiled in the struggle between the Iraqi soldiers
and citizens rebelling against Hussein. It is Clooney’s Gates who is the first
to recognize his duty, even at the expense of avarice, convenience and his own
safety; what was planned as the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme quickly
degenerates into the archetypal flight through the desert, albeit with $23
million in gold tucked away in suitcases.

The performances, for the most part, are nothing spectacular;
nor are they noticeably bad at any point. Clooney still seems to have just one
character that is pulled out of one environment and background and dropped into
another; but it’s a likeable character. Ice Cube’s Elgin is the most religious
of the group, and unfortunately is probably the most static of the three main
characters (well, four actually; Jonze’s Vig is a relatively large part, and he
certainly grows a bit in the course of the film). Wahlberg does a good job as
the soldier just entering manhood as a father, but still young enough to enjoy
partying and to be so unsure as to whether a cease-fire is in effect as to kill
a surrendering Iraqi soldier.

But the plot is indeed subversive. Trying to catch the subtle
nature of the film’s nuances and themes in a single review would be difficult;
it might take something more on the order of an essay. 

Many of the subversive elements come out in the weird style of
the film. Brief theoretical vignettes, including one that graphically shows the
effects of a bullet to the stomach and another showing the bombing of a pleasant
American household,  throw the viewer off; slow-motion is often employed in
a very bizarre and disturbing manner. Greatly funny gags are placed alongside
grim scenes of torture. It’s almost as if there are two films – a military
action movie with a lot of comedy, and a gritty account of a post-war
"Pardoner’s Tale" gone right – and the film firmly chooses an ending
that befits the former, unfortunately causing the viewer to forget about a lot
of the subversive or thought-provoking aspects of the film. 

At the very least, Three Kings is an entertaining film,
and at its best it does a decent and fair job of illustrating how Americans look
to both friends and foes in the Middle East. There is something here to keep
anyone interested, and if you look hard enough, you might find something that
will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater. 

Lost Highway

It’s been a long time since I reviewed a film that wasn’t recently released – Blade is the last one, and actually, the only one, to my knowledge. But the experience of watching Lost Highway was so singular that I find I must write something on it, even if it’s not a proper review.

This is my first David Lynch film. I watched it last night with a group of friends. Only one of them – not myself – was not only inclined to view the film with an open mind, but was experienced enough with such artistic films that he actually predicted a major plot twist that I, suffering from the utter pain the film was inflicting upon me, would probably never have seen coming.

I think that perhaps my lengthy experience with Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the cinematic fare it showcased caused me to immediately see in Lost Highway all the hallmarks of a film that Tom, Mike and Crow would weep bitterly after being exposed to. There is no linear plot, or even linear subplots, with a few exceptions; the actors are rather second-rate (with all due respect, Mr. Bill Pullman, you will always be Lone Star, unless you find another facial expression or two); and the sex scenes are, quite frankly, out of control. I think Patricia Arquette spends at least half her screen time in this film naked and having sex.

But enough about the story, or lack thereof. I want to comment on the style a moment. Mr. Lynch, why the glacially slow dialogue and protracted silences in the beginning of the film? Why the bizarre (but funny) tailgating incident? Why the constant, gratuitous sex? Are there answers to these questions? Do they all have the same answer?

One commentator, found on the Internet Movie Database, noted that the entire film was like a dream. That is one way I can look at this film – someone’s dream caught on celluloid. But the “Pete” section is too cogent for a dream. However, the random, slow, and often jerky imagery of the half-hour “prologue” is extremely dream-like, and even the switch between the Renee character to the Alison character (or is it vice versa?), both played by Arquette, can be seen with some swevenic logic.

I think the primary reason I felt I should memorialize the occasion of watching Lost Highway with this commentary is that I actually went to th Internet afterwards and read reviews and interviews in an effort to make sense of the film. I failed, miserably. Lynch will reveal nothing, leaving this miasma of random images and microscopic plots to the personal interpretation of the viewer. I have come away with a sense that I have either a.) missed the point entirely due to my inability (from a lack of either intelligence or savvy) to “get” the film; or b.) been severely cheated by watching the cinematic equivalent of a Modernist novel without the heart or soul buried within. Lynch expressly called the film a “story,” but to appreciate a story, humans need characters that they care about (in some way, good or bad) and some kind of strong emotional or logical thread throughout the work (and if it is fear of intimacy, as some have suggested, then it is nearly immolated by imagery and randomness). Everything else is just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what happens to stick.

The 13th Warrior

The 13th Warrior was completed over a year ago, with a
budget rumored to have broken the $100 million mark. Directed by John McTiernan
and produced by McTiernan and Michael Crichton, who wrote the novel the film is
based on, the film is a mediocre medieval action film that could have been much,
much more.

Based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead (a much more
provocative title), the film is about an Arab ambassador to the Tartars who gets
mixed up with a bunch of Vikings. Crichton began the novel by translating the
parts of the historical narrative of Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan related to the Vikings;
he then left the boundaries of non-fiction by extrapolating a tale loosely based
on the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.  Actually, Crichton had an
intriguing idea – provide a historical basis for the epic poem, like the
historical Trojan War that inspired Homer’s romanticized Iliad. And Beowulf
is indeed steeped in as much Scandinavian tradition as Anglo-Saxon.
Unfortunately, the film does not explore this idea very much, particularly since
the audience is distracted by the superfluous presence of Fahdlan (Antonio
Banderas). In the end, the film seems more the story of Fahdlan than Buliwyf
(Vladimir Kulich), the "Beowulf" of the story; which would be fine, if
the film didn’t suffer from schizophrenia between the two roles for most of the
movie.

The plot is relatively simple. While journeying to Asia, Fahdlan
and his servant, Melchisidek (Omar Sharif in a well-performed cameo), come
across a group of Vikings. They take some time to relax with the huge men from
the North, giving Fahdlan a chance to be disgusted by their hygenic habits. Then
another Viking vessel arrives, telling their king, Buliwyf, that an ancient evil
is menacing the kingdom of King Hrothgar (a name identical to that of the king
menaced by the monster Grendel in Beowulf). A Norse soothsayer says that
13 warriors must go to fight this menace; but the last must be a foreigner.
Looking rather diminutive against the huge Vikings, Fahdlan reluctantly agrees
to join them.

The rest of the film consists mostly of bloody medieval combat,
with the occasional clever moment of culture shock, such as when Banderas finds
himself unable to wield a gigantic Norse broadsword. He shaves the blade down
into a scimitar, and after displaying his prowess with the weapon, a bemused
Viking asks him, "When you die, can I give that to my daughter?"

 Overall, however, the film seems rather scattershot, and
there are lots of area that could use work, both in production and plot. There
are breathtaking scenes of mountains and valleys in the bright sun which shift
abruptly to deep-orange hues that color the entire scene. There are night and
cavern scenes so dark it’s often difficult to discern what’s going on – who was
killed, who killed them, etc. Fahdlan teaches Buliwyf to write "There is
one God, and Muhammad is his prophet," but Buliwyf makes not comment on
this monotheistic statement, quite different from his own religion’s tenets.
King Hrothgar’s son, a disgruntled prince, tromps about with a seeming intention
to gum up Buliwyf’s efforts, but after the other Vikings teach him a lesson by
killing one of his lackeys, he disappears from the plot. 

In terms of acting, the performances are adequate, though not
outstanding. Banderas doesn’t seem to have as much fun with this role as he has
with other action films – but the sense of seriousness, of a pseudo-historical
epic, that pervades the film may be partly responsible. Kulich, in the only
other role of note as Buliwyf, is decent, but doesn’t seem a strong enough actor
(at least not yet) to anchor a major blockbuster – which causes a problem when
the plot focuses on him rather than Banderas’ Fahdlan.

But is the film entertaining? Yes and no. Whenever Fahdlan is
trying to deal with the strangeness of Viking society, the film has a light tone
that works well with Banderas. But when the Vikings grimly theorize about their
enemies and how to deal with them, the plot drags. Plus, at least two of the
three major battle scenes of the film take place in pitch-black darkness, making
them nothing but a confusing jumble of shadows to the viewer.

Finally, there’s the main question: is Banderas convincing as an
Arab? Not particularly, since he’s barely managed to eliminate the Spanish
accent out of his English. Now he’s trying to speak English with an Arabian
accent. Add the fact that his good looks just aren’t at all Arabian, and you’ve
simply got to suspend your disbelief. It would be forgivable if Sharif wasn’t so
excellent by comparison.

Overall, The 13th Warrior was an intriguing concept gone
rather wrong. While entertaining at points, it’s not something that must be seen
at the theater. If you’re into Vikings or Beowulf, rent it in a few
months.

The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense is a summer blockbuster that has restored
my faith in films. After a rather disappointing crop of studio hits – the
plot-less Phantom Menace, the clever but re-treading Austin Powers 2,
the stylish but unsubstantial Blair Witch Project, the annoying Matrix,
the botched 13th Warrior – along comes The Sixth Sense with an
excellent plot, good acting, and best of all, a sense of pace that is nearly a
lost art in films today.

The film stars Bruce Willis. The Sixth Sense overcomes
this hurdle through its sheer excellence of script and the acting of Haley Joel
Osment, most recently seen as a boy dying of cancer on an episode of Ally
McBeal
. As a child actor, Osment is simply remarkable in his role as the
"gifted" boy who, as all the ads remind you, can "see dead
people."

The plot revolves around the efforts of Willis’ child
psychiatrist, Malcolm Crowe, to help the Osment’s Cole Sear. Cole, who keeps his
special ability a secret from everyone, including his mother Lynn (Toni Collette)
and Crowe for more than half the film, doesn’t think that Crowe can help him.
But Crowe has a special drive to succeed with Cole; at the beginning of the
film, he is confronted by a former patient (Donnie Wahlberg) who claims that
Crowe failed with him, and after shooting Crowe, the patient kills himself. A
year later, a haunted Crowe latches on to Cole’s case, determined not to fail
again.

To be fair, Willis’ performance is fine, though it requires
little interaction with anyone except Osment, who shines so brightly in his role
that he almost eclipses anyone else in the scene. Though it doesn’t show in the
more cheesy roles, such as the Ally McBeal episode, Osment has a gift for
acting that should make him one of the greats, if he survives the switch from
child actor to adult. Regardless of the future, however, Osment deserves to be
nominated for an Oscar for his performance in this film.

 Also excellent is Collette as Osment’s harried,
end-of-her-rope single mother. Though exasperated with her son’s mysterious
behavior, Lynn is always loving and determined to do her best. 

One other thing…yes, the film has an excellent ending, as I’m
sure anyone who’s seen the film has mentioned to you. Perhaps they even goofed
and told it to you. Well, don’t let the deter you from seeing the film. The
ending is just the icing on the cake; actually, it’s just the roses on the cake
icing. 

Credit for the script and the directing goes to 28-year-old M.
Night Shyamalan, whose work I will look for in the future (Shyamalan himself can
be seen in a cameo as a doctor who mistakenly suspects Lynn may be abusing
Cole). Also deserving credit is film editor Andrew Mondshein for helping with
the marvelous pacing of the film, which adds to the creepy, eloquent feel of the
film. One of my favorite touches is the opening credits, which fade in and out,
ghostly against the black background, before a single shot is seen. It gives a
sense of dramatic suspense as well as building anticipation for a good film.
Remember when all films used to be so reserved? Me neither.

Mystery Men

 I walked into the theater to see Mystery Men secure
in the knowledge that, owing to both mixed critic reviews and its admittedly low
opening weekend take, it was not a particularly good film. I admit, now and
forever, that, in my opinion, I was wrong.

Mystery Men, while not a laugh-out-loud comedy, is
nonetheless an amusing trip through superhero-land. Based on a comic book from
Dark Horse Comics, Mystery Men is a parody of superhero films as well
as the comics. Taking a lot from Batman and Superman, especially
in its depiction of the neo-retro Champion City, the film is fun and has heart.

The film begins with three superheroes attempting to make it in
the big city: the fork-hurling Blue Rajah (Hank Azaria), the shovel-wielding, er,
Shoveler (William H. Macy) and the oft-raging Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller). It’s
pretty clear that they’re small potatoes next to Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear),
who’s not only managed to jail nearly every supervillain in Champion City, but
also nab every endorsement known to man.

It’s that very lack of an arch-nemesis that’s causing Amazing to
lose some of his sponsors. This leads the superhero, in his alter-ego as "Lance", to free Casanova von Frankenstein
(Geoffrey Rush), one of his old foes. But the plan
backfires; within hours, Frankenstein captures Amazing and locks him away, with
the very clear intention of killing him at some later date.

Thus, it’s up to Mr. Furious, the Shoveler and Blue Rajah (who,
as his compatriots constantly remind him, has not a shred of blue clothing on
him) to stop Frankenstein. But they need more help; and they find it in the
Spleen (Paul Ruebens, of Pee-Wee Herman fame), Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell, of Keenan
and Kel
fame) and the
Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), not to mention the proverb-spouting Sphinx (Wes Studi). 

The rest of the film centers around this super team attempting
to save Captain Amazing. Watching them deal with their admittedly weak or
situation-specific powers is amusing, especially whenever Mr. Furious gets mad,
thrusting out his fists in a Shatner-like expression of rage before nearly
breaking his arms trying to do any real damage. Of them all, the Bowler seems
the obvious choice for the most powerful; but even her powers are undermined by
the fact that her super-powered ball is controlled entirely by the ghost of her
dead father, whose skull is encased inside the ball.

The entire cast is strong, and give good performances. Stiller
does an excellent job with the average shmo trying to pass himself off as a
superhero, clearly trained entirely from comic books and movies; Macy is the
sensitive hero, with a wife and family, doing what he does from a sense of civic
duty; Azaria’s Blue Rajah has moments with his estranged mother that are also
wonderful; and Garofalo’s Bowler, who argues with her ball-trapped father even
while giving the Blue Rajah advice about his relationship with his mother,
rounds out the group perfectly.

Tom Waits’s crusty old gizmo genius is also worth mentioning;
and Ruebens’s Spleen is appropriately disgusting. Claire Forlani, as Stiller’s
love interest, doesn’t have much to do besides look good, but the character does
a good job playing off Mr. Furious’s blustering false machismo.

The plot is rather predictable, and has been played out in
dozens of comic book films and television shows, but the strength of the cast
overshadows it. The effects are top-notch, as is to be expected in this day and
age. All in all, Mystery Men is a great popcorn movie, and having so many
characters keeps you interested, whereas films like Austin Powers 2

dragged in places. Now, I have only one question: where’s my Mr. Furious action
figure? 

Drop Dead Gorgeous

When my friends suggested we go see Drop Dead Gorgeous, I
agreed only due to the fact that I had a gift certificate and therefore was not
actually paying to see the film. Unfortunately, the Theater Nazis said my gift
certificate could not be used on movies that just opened. Why this is a policy
is beyond me. I could go to the same film with the same certificate a week
later. Where’s the logic?

In any event, I realize that being so biased against a film
ill-suits a self-titled ‘reviewer.’ Therefore, I will assure the reader that I
had no innate bias against the film; I simply was looking more toward
seeing Inspector Gadget or Deep Blue Sea

Drop Dead Gorgeous was curiously similar to Election,
which came out earlier this year. Both are about competition, and both have
heroines with high aspirations and cutthroat tactics. But where Election
combined both the ambition and the ruthlessness into a single character, Drop
Dead Gorgeous
divides it between Denise Richards’s spoiled rich girl and
Kirsten Dunst’s sweet girl next door.

The film is in the format of a documentary, which seemed to me
an odd choice for this film. The documentary is about an annual beauty pageant
in Mount Rose, a small town in Minnesota and apparently the ‘oldest beauty
pageant in America.’ The only entrants are members of the town, and the pageant
is run by former pageant winner Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), whose own
daughter Becky (Richards) is in the pageant this year. Becky’s major rival is
Amber Atkins (Dunst) a poor trailer-park denizen whose mother Annette (Ellen
Barkin) can’t seem to stay away from the bottle (does it mean anything that I
saw the film two nights ago, yet had to go look up all the film names on IMDb?).

The old tradition of ‘bizarre quirky small-town behavior’ is in
full swing here, as Amber practices her tap dancing while working at her
after-school job, putting make-up on corpses at the local funeral
parlor.  Becky, on the other hand, just practices being pretty – and
using her handgun at the school gun club, where she’s vice-president. The
president is yet another pageant candidate, and when she is the victim of an
unfortunate tractor accident – it explodes – the film begins its main plot.
While it’s not difficult to figure out the culprit behind the quenched beauty
queens, there is more than enough for the audience to do in is figuring out who
the next victim will be.

While the performances are fine, none of them are particularly
outstanding. Kirstie Alley does fine as the fading beauty queen using her
daughter to fulfill her dreams, but she never truly rounds out the villainous
feel of the role. Richards has nothing to do in the film except look
disturbingly perfect and happy, though she ends up with one of the funniest (and
twisted) scenes in the film. 

The star is Dunst, who comes across endearingly as the ambitious
girl who seems too nice to push to achieve her dreams, but they end up being
fulfilled anyway. Dunst portrays Amber with as a sweet, intelligent and nice
girl who gets exactly what she deserves.

And so does everyone else. In fact, pretty much everyone in Drop
Dead Gorgeous
ends up with what they deserve. It’s a refreshing film with a
refreshing (if naive) message – everything comes out in the wash. 

Deep Blue Sea

Deep Blue Sea is a JAWS rip-off. Of course, you
might be one to say that about any film with monster sharks eating humans – I
certainly would. But that’s because I’m a big JAWS fan. However, bias
aside, Deep Blue Sea is not shy about letting you know it’s a JAWS

rip-off. It not only acknowledges it, but it plays with it. And guess what? It
pays off in an entertaining, if not original, movie.

The film stars no one except Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a
millionaire entrepreneur financing the whole ‘cure Alzheimer’s disease with
shark brain goo’ project, and LL Cool J, who plays a chef/preacher/alcoholic.
The rest of the main characters are played by actors I’ve never heard of who do
an adequate job of being victims.

What this film will become famous for is the utterly surprising
killing of one of the main characters at a completely surprising moment. No
amount of preparedness can save you from the abrupt chomp on this poor
victim. 

There’s not much to say about the plot. Basically, scientist Susan
McAlester (Saffron Burrows) lost a relative to Alzheimer’s disease, so she
believes that she can cure it with some sort of chemical found in mako shark
brains. So off she goes into an underwater lab once used to build submarines,
with a fleet of computers and a tough-guy shark wrangler (Thomas Jane).
Unfortunately, to get enough liquid to do the job, McAlester had to increase the
brain mass of the shark by at least five times  – making for
super-intelligent sharks. Oddly enough, this also requires that the sharks get
nearly five times larger than your average mako shark.

Anyway, the usual Jurassic Park-style storm shows up,
knocking everything haywire just when the super-makos decide to rebel. Then, we
switch to Alien, with the sharks hunting the humans down the flooded
halls of the complex. Then it’s chomp chomp, chomp chomp, only a few survivors
are left. And lots of homages to JAWS sprinkled about.

As a thriller, however, the film works. The filmmakers get a lot
of mileage out of how hard it is to see a shark in when you’re on the surface
and it’s in the water (although when it’s a 20-foot shark in a 30-foot room, I
have a hard time believing you wouldn’t see it, but anyway). 

LL Cool J’s character is fun, and Jackson is his typical cool
self, but otherwise the actors are just there as fish food. But it’s fun to
watch them fight the sharks or, ultimately, lose the battle. Either way, there
are indeed thrills and chills here, it’s just that we’ve seen them before. 

The Blair Witch Project

My first taste of The Blair Witch Project came from Newsweek,

who ran a combined article on American Pie and Blair Witch. But
where American Pie was standard Hollywood fare – better than much that
comes out of Hollywood, but Hollywood fluff nonetheless – The Blair Witch
Project
is one of the most frightening, elemental, and powerful films I have
ever seen.

First, I must provide the essential premise of the film, as it has
been shown all over the media:

In 1994, three student filmmakers vanished in the woods while
filming a documentary. A year later, their footage was found.

Those words adorn the very beginning of the film. From there on,
everything you see will be tainted by the realization that there can (probably)
be no happing ending to this footage. 

Once the film begins, we are entirely within the world of the
camera, much more tightly than we ever have been before. This is raw footage,
(seemingly) uncut, with a definite sense of someone on the other side of it. Due
to its format, The Blair Witch Project has a sense of realism almost
unheard of in modern cinema.

Back when movies were first made, black-and-white classics like Frankenstein
and Dracula, and especially the very early Nosferatu, were scary
to its audiences because cinema was so new. To those audiences, there was a
realism in seeing people moving on a screen, of seeing an unearthly white
vampire moving toward someone, that is unheard of in our postmodern, jaded
society. That’s why Blair Witch works; we all make films on our own
little videocameras, and they look just like what we see in Blair Witch.
So when the weird noises start in the woods, when the strange voodoo objects
appear, the effect is much more real than – oh, I don’t know, say a
computer-generated cherub opening its eyes and looking at you in the
multi-million dollar special effects extravaganza The Haunting, which
opened last week? 

While Blair Witch does ultimately become very scary, it is
mostly a ‘creepy’ scary, a sense of something being not quite right, of
impossible things actually occurring. The sense of realism is so strong that
innately, we find it hard to believe that these strange sounds and voodoo
objects are really there; such things don’t actually happen in real life.
And of course, in the back of our mind we know it’s simply a fictional motion
picture; regardless, the creepiness remains. There are also scary parts in the
tried and true tradition of modern horror, but they’re wisely spread out through
the film.

One caveat: as the above implies, if you’re going in hoping for
another Scream, don’t even bother going. Much of the film is devoted
simply to the teens being lost in the woods, and in fact, The Blair Witch
Project
is almost as effective a dramatic film about being lost in the woods
as it is a horror film. Also, these are real kids out in the woods without a
script, and half the time they’re a lot funnier than their scripted blockbuster
counterparts.

The film will, of course, become a cult classic, sharing a place
with such preeminent horror as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original Friday
the 13th
, and The Evil Dead. As of right now (the weekend of July
30th), Blair Witch – which was bought by its distributor for $1 million

has been making more per theater per day than it cost to make
($30,000-$60,000, I’m not sure of the exact figure). For a film shot entire with a standard video camera and a Super 8, I
would definitely label that an accomplishment.

In any event, The Blair Witch Project is a very frightening
film, but the key element is imagination. An unimaginative person would not be
scared of strange noises in the night; they’d assume it was an animal, or some
other easily explainable occurrence. But, to quote a character Thomas Harris’s
novel Red Dragon: ‘Fear comes with imagination, it’s the penalty, it’s
the price of imagination.’ When it comes to a film like The Blair Witch
Project
, this is one of the truest statements ever made.

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