Category Archives: Review Re-View

S1mone (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released August 23, 2002:

Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit. His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).

Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.

Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.

There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.

When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.

As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?

It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I cannot stand movie titles that try and force numbers into the place of letters. Don’t be Fant4stick, be Fantastic Four. Don’t be Thir13en Ghosts, be Thirteen Ghosts. Don’t be L4yer Cak3, be Layer Cake. Even one of my favorite movies of all time, Se7en, is guilty of this. I hate the implication of how you’re intended to say the new forced titled (Examples: Fant-Four-Stick, L-Four-Yer Cak-Three, Se-Seven-En). I find this all to be annoying, and I refuse to type S1mone as it was originally entitled, with a one replacing the “I” and a zero replacing the “O.” You get one number, that’s it, because it’s all my power to only do that much. End of re-view preface.

I thought going back to 2002’s S1mone could be interesting considering it was about cutting-edge technology possibly replacing actors and revolutionizing the film industry. Around 2001, with advancing special effects starting to touch the possibility of photo realism, this seemed like a possible turning point. Writer/director Andrew Niccol even considered using an all-digital actress for the title role of his industry satire after viewing footage of 2001’s Final Fantasy movie. He eventually decided against it, and we’re all the better for it because imagine re-watching this movie with twenty-year-old technology that fools the entire world into thinking Simone is real (cue teenage snickering). The character was played by model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts and her identity was kept a big secret around the time of the movie to keep the illusion that S1mone was cutting-edge technology. It’s ultimately proof that the real thing, whether that’s practical in-camera effects or even live actors, will always age better and have a place in moviemaking. As I said revisiting Final Fantasy: “Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.” But hey, Roberts and Niccol have been married since 2002 and have two children together, so at least something came out of S1mone besides a title that causes me pain to type.

The big problem I have with S1mone, besides its title spelling, is that its satire with no bite, and its chosen point of view is actually the villain. First, this movie just isn’t funny. I was more charitable when I originally reviewed it back in 2002 but I didn’t laugh once throughout the near two hours. It weirdly feels absent much in the way of social commentary. Simone is an instant star and everyone falls in love with her. There’s a beginning entry into commentary when her creator, Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), attempts to sully her image but only proves to make her more popular, but then that’s it. There’s a goofy, near-farcical quality to Taransky trying to hide the pretend nature of the world’s most desired actor. He even drives a car while operating a mannequin to provide cover. If Niccol wanted to really push this angle, there would be considerably more challenges for Taransky to maintain his illusion, getting more and more outrageous like steam building to a blowup. It’s not that this doesn’t happen but that Niccol’s screenplay makes it so absurdly easy for Taransky. He dictates that Simone wishes for her privacy and occasionally leaves behind some detritus of human life and that’s all it takes to establish a convincing existence. Nobody challenges him, at least not in a serious manner, which negates the conflicts and possible comedy of keeping the farce. Everything comes so easily and it makes the ensuring comedy barely explored if evident.

Another major drawback is that Taransky is the villain but the movie thinks otherwise. He’s sick and tired of the demands of actors. He has his complaints about working within the contradictory Hollywood studio system, but his major gripe is with working with actors. When the possibility of a photo-realistic replacement that will do whatever he says is offered, he snatches it. It’s because Viktor doesn’t view actors as people, and he feels the need to control and not to collaborate. He’s an artist with a capital-A but it’s the actors with their unwieldy egos, of course. It’s even more nefarious when you add an icky layer of misogyny to his actions. He wants a young woman who will do anything and everything he demands for his pictures. When the studio boss questions the extensive level of nudity for his next movie, Taransky says Simone will do it without hesitation because that’s what the role requires to accomplish his true vision. All he wants is a living doll to respond to his button-pushing without reserve or complaint. He wants an actor, and especially a woman of conventional attraction, to do his every selfish bidding.

At no point does the movie present our hero’s actions as being questionable or possessive. For him, all actors should just be replaced with ones and zeroes that will do whatever he wants, even nudity, and his perspective is strangely rewarded given Simone’s instant success within the industry. She literally ties with herself for the Best Actress Oscar. There may be a satirical commentary available about how quickly the public falls in love with their oblivious perception of celebrity, and how little they actually know the person behind the headlines, much like all celebrities of old and new, but the thematic work isn’t there. I kept waiting for Viktor to earn his delayed comeuppance, humility, or at least learn something of value, but through this misadventure he’s able to relaunch his career and even get his ex-wife back, so hooray?

This is also a peculiar outlier for Niccol as both a screenwriter and a director. He favors high-concept sci-fi scenarios, like 1997’s genetic have/have nots allegory, Gattaca, or 1998’s reality TV gone to its extremes drama, The Truman Show. 2005’s Lord of War is a powerful and slickly stylish condemnation on the global impact of arms dealers and gun trafficking and the bloody footprint of capitalism. S1mone is the lightest movie of the man’s career. Maybe he wanted a break from working on high-concept studio releases. 2011’s disappointing In Time likely lead him to a safer studio territory of adapting and directing 2013’s The Host based upon the YA novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. I didn’t even know that Niccol has made two other movies since, 2014’s Good Kill and 2018’s Anon on Netflix. He’s listed as being the screenwriter for a 2027 Monopoly adaptation, so that could be a thing. Niccol is the kind of storyteller I want more often, a man with clear visions and ideas, but S1mone proves that he’s best suited for headier realms. Comedy is not the best fit for this man’s talents (I think we’re supposed to laugh at the very image of Pacino applying lipstick to kiss autograph photos).

Is there anything of entertainment value here? There are ideas that could work with more attention and development. I liked the team of Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as investigators tracking down the pieces that don’t quite add up about Simone. I think there was a real opportunity to deconstruct the star-system of Hollywood and have Taransky finally able to launch his true artistic pursuits that had previously been denied without Simone’s attachment. Perhaps the movie just narrows completely to the window of Taransky making his dream project while maintaining his deep secret. Perhaps even make the movie a mockumentary, like the documentary camera crew has discovered this amazing fact and are promised continued access as long as they can help keep the secret for like two years, enough for the director to see his vision through and then use this as his swan song. Then the movie becomes focused on the mishaps and chaotic complications of getting one project off the ground while having asides that can tweak the egos of actors and producers and studio suits eager to work with the next big thing. I think that would have been an improvement over a movie where an aging director gets his groove back by fooling the world and suffers next to nothing in the process. The climax is low stakes just like the rest of the movie because the protagonist gets everything he desires with minimal effort. S1mone is an intriguing idea of movie that suffers from misapplication, under development, and a bad protagonist to celebrate and reward.

My initial review in 2002 was too kind. There’s too little below these ones and zeroes to count.

Re-View Grade: C-

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released July 19, 2002:

There’s a rule of thumb I’’ve come to find in Hollywood, something so certain you could set your watch to it. No, not the Emmy’s nominating Frasier for everything. I’m talking about man-owl Larry King, who seems to dabble in the land of film reviews. Kindly readers beware, if you see an ad for a film and it has Larry King’’s salivating blurb in it, run away. Run away like the plague, like Pamplona. Just run. The only films I can remember off hand (though this theory has come true every time) are 15 Minutes and Wind Talkers. And now there is the horrifically titled sub-sub movie K-19: The Widowmaker.

K-19 should not be confused with K-9, the Jim Belushi teams up with a dog to fight crime film. No this one takes place in the early 60s in the thicket of the Cold War. An opening title sequence tells us Russia has enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world two times, but the United States has enough to blow up the world six times over. Whoo! U-S-A! The maker of widows is itself a docked submarine in the Russian navy in preparation for combat. Before it even leaves the shore it is said to be cursed, having five men die already from its widow maker-y hands. Liam Neeson is the captain of K-19 and well respected and beloved by his crew. However, Neeson is willing to put the lives of his men ahead of the agenda of the state, so the Communist government places Harrison Ford on the sub and gives him the reigns of command. Ford is a rigorous taskmaster who puts his men through countless drills and does not exactly see eye-to-eye with the more empathetic Neeson.

The story’’s real turn comes about midway in, when after successfully launching a test missile above the arctic ice the nuclear core of the sub springs a leak. If something is not done to slow down the heating core the men could be vaporized in a mushroom cloud. Except that patrolling the waters nearby is a Unites States destroyer and thus would be destroyed as well, surely igniting the start of World War III. Crew members take shifts to enter the radioactive core area to try and do what they can. The situation gets even direr when the men come out looking like something from a George Romero film.

K-19‘s biggest fault is fictionalizing what would have been an interesting hour block on The History Channel. The Neeson and Ford characters feel like two sides of a debate, not exactly characters. The whole movie has been Americanized with heroic proportions. Instead of compelling drama we’re left adrift with what the studio wants as a summer movie with material that should no way be associated with it. I mean, the horribly dishonest marketing campaign actually has a crew member shout “Torpedo headed straight for us!”” then shows a torpedo surging ahead. There was never a torpedo in the entire movie or a scene where they were being attacked! Somewhere in this ho-hum story is an exciting tale of the courage these men were forced into as well as the strain of not being able to tell their friends or family about anything that happened.

Submarine movies have so many limitations to them that’s it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there’ll be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.

Director Kathryn Bigalow (Strange Days) manages to give it the ole college try with the long camera movements inside and the close-ups of men glaring at one another. Although technically able, Bigalow doesn’t do anything to transcend the limitations she has to work with. And while she meets her mark as a director, it is neither spectacular nor worthwhile.

Ford has a horrible Russian accent he likes to flirt around with through the film. I don’t exactly know if people are supposed to like his character, being rigid and pragmatic at the expense of human life. Neeson, on the other hand, is quite capable and shines in his role. The rest of the crew alternates between Russian accents to even some Australian ones I heard.

K-19: The Widowmaker’ tells us that this story could not be told until the fall of communism, except at the end it shows a clip of the Berlin Wall coming down and the crew then gathering to finally remember their fallen comrades. Some people just don’t have their dates right, and some people just don’t know how to take an interesting unknown slice of history and tell it well. Damn you Larry King.

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I just think submarine thrillers aren’t for me. I won’t argue there aren’t good movies based almost entirely in the tight quarters of subs, like Das Boot or Crimson Tide, but I think most of them just blur together into a wash of genre cliches. As I so presciently wrote in 2002 for my review of the submarine drama, K-19: The Widowmaker: “Submarine movies have so many limitations to them that’s it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there will be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.” I’ve grown even more bored by these sub-genre staples. In some ways, submarine movies are a precursor to the Hollywood fascination of the contained thriller, the limited location setting that acts as a pressure cooker of conflict. However, the setting isn’t as important and the people and the conflicts that reside inside those cramped quarters. For Crimson Tide, the reason that movie really worked is because of the feud between its stars, each man fighting for dominance and gaining allies and plotting mutinous moves in the name of security. You could have told that same story in a military base on land and it would succeed. The problem with K-19 is that the true story is more interesting than a rehash of submarine cliches.

Here is a forgotten chapter in history of heroism and sacrifice, and the fact that it’s from a Russian perspective during the height of the Cold War makes it unique, at least as such in an American marketplace. The movie also feels so out of time thanks to the last decade of Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin. But for a time in the early 2000s, Russia opened up its naval shipyards to Hollywood to tell a very Hollywood version of their own history they had, for decades, insisted be kept only as secret. The crew aboard the K-19 avoided an escalation that would have likely triggered World War III. They were victims of their country’s arms race, building Russia’s first nuclear submarine to compete with the Americans but not building it to ship-shape shape, a point Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) cites during an electrical malfunction. For those well-versed in USSR history, or having seen the truly excellent HBO mini-series Chernobyl, this shoddy workmanship is hardly uncommon when the government insists on results through fear and dire repercussions, and so the state meets its quota, though perhaps only on paper to satisfy a bureaucrat who doesn’t want to be shot by his own government. This is one reason why the real story of these men was withheld for 30 years, as it would cheapen the image of the Soviet state during a time where any mistake is viewed as weakness. I would have preferred a movie that opened up more of the men on this submarine, that really dealt with their hopes and fears more in a more personal and intimate way rather than just hand-waving “Cold War destruction” as it’s catch-all for drama and stakes. Let’s also really dwell on the sacrifices of these men taking turns to venture into a highly irradiated nuclear core to stop it from exploding. Let’s let these men feel like people rather than as indistinguishable and plentiful sacrificial offerings.

This could better be accomplished by removing the core of the script by playwright-turned-screenwriter Christopher Kyle (The Way of Water, Alexander), namely the fight for control of the sub between the old captain (Neeson) and the new captain, Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). The mutiny subplot even becomes the focus of the third act, even after the development with the broken reactor, as if settling this command squabble was more entertaining to an audience. Vostrikov is willing to risk the lives of the men for the goals of the state; Plenin is not. It’s an easy setup to root for one man and hiss at another, but their glorified personality clash doesn’t have near the crackle of Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide. The fact that a mutinous conspiracy can outflank the danger of a nuclear accident will only work if the characters are that compelling, and woe they are not. We’re given some fleeting information about their backstories, with Vostrikov’s father having once been a hero of “the Revolution” but ultimately ended up in a gulag like so many one-time heroes for the Soviet state. There just isn’t enough here to really care. We side with Neeson because he’s more loyal to his crew, but this is also benefited with the hindsight that we know this real incident did not trigger a real war. When either actor begins their hard-line posturing, it feels like watching two older dads argue in a parking lot. Both of the actors suffer from their catastrophically bad Russian accents. If I was director Kathryn Bigelow, I would have just given up and said, “All right, forget accents. Everyone just speaks in their native tongue and we’ll just shrug it off.”

A more interesting tangent, at least for me as a film critic, is my opening salvo savaging the film tastes of the late Larry King (1933-2021) and the topic of “blurb whores,” critics who are so easily amused that their excitable, adjective-ready blurbs in the advertisement for a movie can be a bad sign of the movie’s ultimate quality. A website (eFilmCritic) used to track the most egregious examples of “film critics” offering their “takes” on movies in a scathing series called Critic Watch. Neither the series nor the website seem to be active any longer, but I remember every year checking in and taking stock and shaking my head in incredulous disdain. These were usually populated by the same names like Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, Shawn Edwards from the local Kansas City news station, Jeffrey Lyons and then eventually his son Ben Lyons, Pete Hammond for Maxim, and the most curious case was that of Earl Dittman from Wireless, the publication being like one of those little insert pamphlets for oblivious satellite TV subscribers.

Dittman was the king of blurbs on questionable movies, and his verbal ejaculate over Robots might be the best indication. He said of the 2005 animated film, “…Even more spectacular, computer-animated film than The Incredibles … In fact, the term ‘brilliant’ fails to accurately describe how wondrously witty and innovative Robot [sic] really is … If you thought the superheroes of The Incredibles and the ocean-dwellers of Finding Nemo were humorous, you haven’t heard nothing yet. The side-splitting humor of the mechanical beings in Robots is worthy of a capital ‘H’ … Forget The Incredibles, Robots is one heck of a funny animated comedy … Robots is a hilariously awesome and breathlessly inventive work of entertaining animated brilliance… You can’t afford to miss a single frame of this amazing, unforgettable animated classic.” Wow. He gave TEN different paragraph-length blurbs over Robots to the studio, an okay animated movie at best, and surely not one “more spectacular” than The Incredibles. I can even recall seeing a TV ad for Robots that was nothing but wall-to-wall Dittman quotes. With the man’s hyperbolic, effusive praise for even the crappiest of films, like calling Shark Boy and Lava Girl a “masterpiece” and Hostage as “more electrifying than Die Hard” (what????), there was a theory that the elusive Dittman didn’t even exist. Sony had been ridiculed when it was revealed in 2002 that “David Manning” was a fake critic they had created to positive blurb their movies (The Animal: “The producing team of Big Daddy has delivered another winner!”). Sony even had to pay out a modest settlement in a class action suit to any filmgoer having felt duped to see four movies. And then somebody proved Dittman was real, a freelance writer from Houston, and just a guy who seemed to love all movies and wasn’t that interesting. I don’t think he’s blurbed again since 2007. May he enjoy his retirement.

All of this is my way of saying K-19: The Widowmaker is a submarine movie where submarine movie stuff happens. If you can’t get enough of the likes of U-571 and Greyhound, then that would probably be all you would ask for in your nautical storytelling. Everyone attached has done better, though the old age makeup during an epilogue set in 1989 was eerie about what an older Harrison Ford would look like, so well done, makeup team. My review from 2002 rings so true twenty years later that I’ve had to resort to thinking what else can be added in discussion. That’s always nice, to recognize my critical self from twenty years hence was right on the money. K-19 is long, misshapen in its structure and attention, and bogged down with cliches. My initial grade still stands.

Re-View Grade: C

Mr. Deeds (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released June 28, 2002:

Adam Sandler seems like the reason they created the “no shirt no shoes” policy for restaurants. His niche is playing the lovable goodhearted goofball that triumphs over the pretentious jackass and somehow wins the heart of the fawning one-dimensional love interest. Sandler appeals to the masses as our nation’s greatest warm-hearted simpleton. He’s the Jimmy Stewart of slobbery. So why mess with that? Well for starters, if you want entertainment anymore you might want to.

Mr. Deeds, Sandler’s latest idiot opus, is disastrously, even tragically unfunny. In the film Sandler stars as the only known heir of a multi-billionaire media mogul. Longfellow Deeds (Sandler) is a simple New Hampshire pizza delivery boy who treats people with respect and kindness. However, the mantra ““cruel to be kind”” must be alive and well because Sandler mercilessly beats people to about an inch of their life throughout ‘Mr. Deeds’ for brutish comic effect.

Peter Gallagher and his monstrous eyebrows serve as the stand-in villain. He’s a greedy tycoon who wants the Deeds fortune all to himself. Gallagher actually plays his part well and seems to at least have some fun with the broad comedy role. Winona Ryder, on the other hand, does not. Ryder has never proven she can handle any comedy other than black, and slapstick just ain’’t her thing. She painfully goes from scene to scene clueless as a tabloid journalist hiding her identity so she can get the scoop on Deeds, only to fall madly in love with him.

The film has some glimmers of comedy, mostly from its supporting cast including John Turturro as a very sneaky Spanish butler. It’’s nice to see Turturro in something this high profile and get some recognition this journeyman deserves. There’’s also a really funny cameo served up by a former tennis giant himself known for his boorish temperament. Steve Buscemi should be charged with grand theft movie because his three minutes on screen as the “crazy-eyed” local are funnier than anything with Sandler onscreen.

The movie becomes far too redundant of Sandler’’s other comedies to the point where seeing former stars like Rob Schneider in his ‘Big Daddy’ character is somehow supposed to be funny. This kind of stuff is strewn throughout the film. It feels like everyone’’s going through the motions. Now I’’m not a total Sandler basher, because I do believe the man can be funny when worked right. ‘Billy Madison’ is still hysterical to me upon every viewing and I do get some fun watching ‘The Wedding Singer’, but ‘Mr. Deeds’ is sub-par Sandler –even for Sandler.

I’’m sure most of the people buying tickets for this have no idea that the concept is based upon the Frank Capra film starring Gary Cooper. But what good is Gary Cooper? He didn’’t write cutesy greeting cards or save a litter of kittens from a raging inferno like Sandler’’s Deeds. In the end, this mostly laugh-free comedy is short on imagination, energy, and entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Adam Sandler became his own industry. The Saturday Night Live funnyman became a movie favorite starting in 1995’s Billy Madison, still my favorite of the early Sandler era, finding the right balance of stupid, irony, absurdity, and crass humor. His ribald comedy albums were must-owns for any teenager in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, he had accumulated a team of collaborators of directors (Steve Brill, Frank Coraci, Dennis Dugan) and writers (Tim Herlihy, Fred Wolf, Steve Koren) who would churn out comedies on a near yearly basis. From 1998-2015, Sandler starred in 20 movies that can be deemed Sandler vehicles, a soft-spoken schlub with a heart of gold who is prone to explosions of violence and seems endlessly underestimated or misunderstood by a larger world of condescending, out-of-touch elites. There is a wild spectrum of quality during this period, and as the years progressed Sandler began to transform from the slovenly goofball provocateur to the laid-back, wisecracking family man trying to convince non-believers of his righteous old-fashioned wisdom. His once outsider status had calcified into a sentimental, middle-aged “these kids today don’t get it” laziness. Many of his later movies felt like glorified excuses for his family and friends to take extended vacations around the world. Since 2016, Sandler has migrated his slob squad to Netflix and continued his usual schtick to lesser publicity. The only time Sandler seems to have broken through since he hit that late 2000s plateau is his occasional dramatic performance, like 2019’s intense and gritty Uncut Gems. He’ll even star in a basketball drama for Netflix this month (Hustle). The real reason I picked Mr. Deeds to re-watch for this month was so I could better compare and contrast for a later re-watching of 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler’s first dramatic acting revelation thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson. As for Sandler’s take on Frank Capra, it never overcomes his trademark laziness.

The story of Mr. Deeds began as a heartwarming tale about a small-town man whisked away to the big city who provides a little small-town good charm to those in need. 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Actor for Gary Cooper, Best Picture, which it lost to The Great Ziegfeld, and Capra winning the Oscar for Best Director. It’s a well-regarded and wholesome movie that champions many of the major themes prevalent in Capra’s popular filmography. To take this starting point and say, “what if we made Adam Sandler the star and he just assaults people before convincing people to follow their dreams?” The problem with Mr. Deeds is that everything comes at great ease for our protagonist, who is never asked to change or think differently; no, it is the world that needs to change and be a little more like Longfellow Deeds (Sandler). He’s a humble man-of-the-people who will literally carry the elderly on his back to help them cross the street. The New York City natives just view him as a small-town rube but he’ll convince them all that his simple ways are the real way to live. Except if you watch this movie and think, “I need to pattern myself after that guy,” then you are either wholly susceptible to the slightest influence or you’re looking for an excuse to hurt others with impunity. Mr. Deeds regularly beats the crap out of people who he feels have crossed a line. His newfound riches essentially inoculate him from any consequences (as is the American way). I guess the slapstick is supposed to be riotous but it just made me uncomfortable and bored. Apparently, when Sandler tackled Allen Covert to the ground to beat him silly, Covert really did hit his head against the pavement and went unconscious for a minute. The entire concept of the movie rests upon Deeds being a likeable fellow others wish to emulate, but under the guise of Sandler-ification, he comes across as the kind of guy you’d walk across the street to avoid.

Let me use one example to highlight the failure of the Deeds character. He’s in a fancy restaurant and is hailed over by a gathering of rich elites who want to hobnob with the newest moneyman. For whatever reason, their suck-up turns into broad insults, which is confusing considering how many of them are financially dependent on his company. As they yuk it up in sycophantic laughter, Deeds shakes his head and says, “You all invited me here so you could look down on me. Well, let me tell you that here you may all laugh at me, but down in Mandrake Falls we would laugh at you all.” Examine that for just a little bit longer, dear reader. He’s not saying that the good people of his hometown would act better than these big city folk, accepting others for who they are and being welcoming and sincere. No, he’s saying if they were in Mandrake Falls, they would be laughed at and made fun of for being all different. It’s less a declaration that his small-town way of life is better and more wholesome and more a confessed threat if they ever found themselves in the minority. I think Sandler and company thought they had their hero on a moral high ground, but this line proves otherwise, and then he just physically assaults them all too.

The comedy is predictable and lackluster, and the longer the movie went the further I sank into a general state of apathy. The poems by Mr. Deeds are supposed to be lame, so I guess the comedy is just how bad they are? That just sounds like excuse-making, though thankfully it’s just one trifling example and not much is hinged upon Deed’s greeting card dream. Much of the movie revolves around the budding romance with an undercover reporter, Babe (Winona Ryder), who comes to love the man for some reason unknown to anyone observing. It becomes a bit of a screwball comedy with her attempts to keep her cover, but by the end she’s meant to serve as the audience surrogate and convince us that this man was worth our investment. The only parts of Mr. Deeds that made me smile or come close to laughing were the absurd supporting characters getting little moments. I loved Steve Buscemi, who became a Sandler regular, as a crazy-eyed town weirdo spouting bon mots like, “Time heals all wounds… except these crazy eyes.” I enjoyed John Turturro’s commitment to his sneaky yet helpful Spanish butler. I enjoyed the John McEnroe cameo and night on the town indulging their boorish behavior. I enjoyed watching Jared Harris go broad comedy as an obnoxious newsman. The actor has such innate, weathered pathos to him that I cannot even recall ever seeing him in another comedic role. I liked Eric Avari (The Mummy) as the second-in-command guy who chums it up with Deeds. I enjoyed moments that didn’t involve Sandler or Rider, but those are the two main stars, so time away from them was fleeting though appreciated. The general unfunny nature didn’t offend me like some other bad comedies, but it sapped whatever care and energy I had for the movie.

In the realm of Sandler cinema, Mr. Deeds is on the lower end. It’s not among the worst of his worst. It’s passable to watch if you’re just skimming for the occasional comedy nugget. I didn’t feel insulted but I was also coming to this movie with decades of hindsight of the Sandler cinematic universe, able to discern his more prominent themes and cliches and reflexes. I’ve never watched the 1936 Capra movie though I’m curious to do so now for the simple reason of seeing just how far away Sandler’s version veers. They also turned the Mr. Deeds story into one season of a 1970 TV series starring Monte Markham (Captain Don Thorpe on Baywatch!). There’s something inherently engaging about a moral person placed in a new environment and how the environment changes to that person rather than the other way around. It’s essentially the plot of WALL-E, one of my favorite movies. It works. Except with Sandler’s version, the filmmakers were on Sandler autopilot, a condition he rarely broke free from (Drew Barrymore collabs seem to be the exception). From here, the Sandler movies got lazier and stodgier and more sentimental yet also phonier. I haven’t watched a Sandler-lead comedy since 2016’s The Ridiculous Six, his first Netflix release. I genuinely wish he would stick to more dramas. He has real acting strength, first explored in Punch-Drunk Love (you can’t get here soon enough), and I’m hoping I’ll only better appreciate that movie having re-watched a shining example of what Paul Thomas Anderson was aiming to deconstruct.

As for my earlier review in 2002, it’s entirely accurate. Everything I said still applies, even the C-minus grade. You could charitably say Mr. Deeds was where the Sandler formula became fully entrenched. It was a big hit ($170 million worldwide) and vindication after Sandler attempted something truly weird and different that flopped (2001’s Little Nicky). You can see the gears turning, and so the next decade-plus brought us more of the same Sandler schtick. For one of the most dangerous comics, he became safe and sated and all too happy to pack it in for mass appeal. Consider this otherwise forgettable movie a footnote in the arc of Sandler’s comedy oeuvre, and that’s about it. Mr. Deeds is just as shrug-worthy in 2022 as it was back in 2002.

Re-View Grade: C-

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 16, 2002:

Yes, it’s easy to say that Attack of the Clones is better than Phantom Menace, but hey, most anything was better than watching that movie about trade and taxes. The truth of the matter is that for a long while Clones is just as boring as Menace, especially anything involving Anakin onscreen. It’s slow moving, dull, and remarkably poorly written. Lucas cannot write dialogue and someone needs to take away his yellow writing notebooks before he strikes again. The movie only shows life during the last 45 minutes when it finally cooks with a non-stop rush of action. Before then though I would recommend resting up for this period.

Can anyone ever say “no” to the Jedi master in plaid? What Lucas needs desperately is collaboration, writing and directing. Lucas needs to loosen up the reign of his empire before the three Star Wars prequels undermine the original set. He may have the technology to create any manner of CGI creature but he has no power to get his actors to show any of the realistic and animated life. It seems all Lucas cares about is directing blue screens and leaving his actors out to dry.

And that much ballyhooed romance between Anakin and Amidala? Oh ye God, what romance? You could find something more alive in a monastery. Portman and Christensen have as absolutely no chemistry (unlike the romantic pairs in another, huge Hollywood movie out now). Portman has perfected the staring ahead method. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be romantic. Now I like Natalie Portman, I really do. Her performance in The Professional gets me every time, but her acting is stiff and overly serious here.

I thought Anakin could not get any more annoying than Jake Lloyd’s awful “yippee”-filled run in Menace, but I’m starting to reconsider this begrudgingly. It’s easy to see why Christensen was chosen, he looks like the lost N’SYNC member. His acting on the other hand is not with the force. The Clones Anakin mopes around and when he gets upset he whines in a falsetto voice. It’s actually quite funny to see the future Darth Vader, evil master of the Dark Side and much feared, whining like a six year old throwing a tantrum. This Anakin needs a time out and a lolly.

When Anakin returns to become a protector for the senator, upon their first meet in ten years he shoots her the puppy eyes and says, “I see you have grown as well — grown more beautiful.” Subtlety, thy name is not Anakin Skywalker. The very next scene where they’re alone he’s trying to put the moves on her, though he does not try and use the force to undo her bra. Then somewhere along the line his dogged persistence just wears Amidala down and she relents. She says, “I’ve been dying a little bit day by day, ever since you re-entered my life.” Ugh. You’re likely to find more romantic passages in a Harlequin bodice ripper at 7-11.

The romance in Clones is like spontaneous romance. There is no beginning, the nurturing of it is not shown, we don’t see the eventual progress. All that happens is he shows up and then instant romance. It just happens. I don’t think so. It’s like a kid went to a girl’s third grade birthday party, then they meet in high school for the first time since that day and are instantly in love. Do you buy that? Well I certainly don’t.

The scenes revolving around Obi-Wan are the only ones worth opening your eyes for. Ewan McGregor has got the Alec Guiness voice down and proves to be a capable leading hero. His voyage to see the clone army and Jango Fett is the subplot that we want, but the movie keeps skipping back and forth between this and the inept romance. By this time everyone knows that Yoda shows off his fighting mettle with a light saber. This is a great idea and the audience I saw it with was having the time of their life during this moment. It’s the only part of the movie that taps into the feeling of whimsical fun of the original trilogy.

Lucas curtailed the criticism of Menace saying it was the setup for all five other movies. I imagine he’ll say the same thing with this one, except that it was setup for four movies. Yes it’ll make a huge amount of bank. Yes it’s a technical achievement but what good are all the bells and whistles if we as an audience are bored? You’ve got one more Star Wars left George, please do it right.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Something unexpected has happened in the ensuring twenty years since the Star Wars prequels were first released to a generally muted response from the rabid fandom. A generation has grown up with these movies as “their Star Wars.” In my own anecdotal experiences, many teenagers do not just view Episodes I-III as entertaining movies, they even view them as their preferable Star Wars trilogy. After the latest Star Wars movies, Episodes VII-IX, some fans have even been looking back on George Lucas’ much maligned prequels with revised appreciation. “At least there was a cohesive vision,” they’ll say, in comparison to the wild pendulum swings between directors J.J. Abrams (Force Awakens, Rise of Skywalker) and Rian Johnson (Last Jedi). Have we all been too harsh on Lucas and his moribund attempts to inject life into his three-movie arc charting the fall from grace from legendary villain, Darth Vader a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker? The short answer is… no. While I agree that children who grew up with the likes of Jar Jar Binks and CGI overkill will consider Episodes I-III more their style, the flaws of these films are undeniable when compared to the superior storytelling and characterization of the others. Even in comparison to the new Star Wars, these movies still suffer. So please remove your rose-colored glasses, fandom, and accept that even with time, Attack of the Clones is still a lousy adventure.

I think a majority of Star Wars fans experienced the five stages of grief upon the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace, the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. I remember a classmate who wore Star Wars T-shirts every day for weeks in fevered anticipation of the new movie, including T-shirts relating to the new characters and merchandizing opportunities (what the “new characters” were, even Darth Maul). After the movie came out, I remember charting over the last weeks of school his response, going from claiming that, “Of course it was great,” to a more measured, “Well, it wasn’t what the originals were, but it’s still good,” to, “It has its problems but…” and finally the acceptance that it just wasn’t a very good Star Wars movie or even a good movie. He stopped wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Phantom Menace characters.

This was the backdrop for the production of 2002’s Attack of the Clones, a realization that must have spurred Lucas to do better. During the many years of pre-production for Phantom Menace, Lucas was cloistered by yes men agreeing that every new addition was going to be sensational. Lucas was astonished to learn about the volume of hatred against Jar Jar Binks, a character he thought would transcend and become the most popular character in all of Star Wars. The intense negative feedback threw the old Jedi Master in plaid for a loop. Maybe residing in a creative bubble that only reinforces everything you say isn’t the best environment. We were told that Lucas had learned from his mistakes from Phantom Menace. He even brought on another screenwriter to help him, Jonathan Hale (The Young Indiana Jones TV series), something he didn’t do for the concluding Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. At the time, I was among the throng of fandom that wanted to cling to hope, that maybe The Phantom Menace was an aberration, that maybe that same feeling of elation could return of the Star Wars of old. And then I watched Attack of the Clones and it confirmed what I and many feared: Phantom Menace was no fluke; it was merely the way things were going to be from here onward.

The prequels had two major storytelling goals: 1) to explain the transformation of Anakin Skyler into the mighty Darth Vader, and 2) to explain the rise of the evil Empire and its Emperor. To offer some compliments before the onslaught of criticisms is unleashed, I think Lucas does an agreeable job with developing the latter goal. This movie came out around the time of Bush’s War on Terror where the threat of attack was enough to call pre-emptive strikes and where the president was given special war powers that, to this day, and the formal conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, haven’t been fully relinquished. There are several obvious and eerie parallels to the political instability of its initial release but also for today in 2022. We are witnessing one political party lurching toward rampant authoritarianism, a repudiation of democratic norms and ideals, and celebrating personality over principles and winning at any cost. Watching the different alien races of the Republic champion the need for a strong, decisive ruler to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of representative democracy, someone who seems above politics, someone who will protect the people, and someone who sees opponents as enemies of the state, well it’s not hard to make the connections. This is the path of fascism, the rise of dictators, and it was the same brew of nationalism, grievance, fear-mongering, bigotry, scape-goating, and information distortion during the 1930s as it is during the 2020s. For those angry Star Wars fans upset by the diversity of the newer movies, screaming, “Keep politics out of my Star Wars,” you do understand the entire thing has been a metaphor for fighting fascism, right? It’s not even subtle.

However, where the movie pitifully fails is by linking Anakin’s downfall with his romantic relationship with Padme (Natalie Portman). There was potential here with a forbidden romance where Anakin fights against the oath of chastity to the Jedi and both must try their best to subsume their out-of-control feelings. I’m sure that’s what Lucas thought he was making. It didn’t quite work out that way. The romance in Attack of the Clones is laughably bad. The dialogue is cringe-worthy and deeply inauthentic. Every character speaks like a robot. When Anakin starts to finally court Padme, he shares his infamous “I don’t like sand” observation, but he directly pivots toward liking his current location because it’s “soft and smooth,” and it is WITHIN SECONDS of saying this that he stares weirdly at Padme and they share their first kiss. That line worked! Upon meeting Anakin, almost every character remarks how much he’s grown up, as if Lucas is trying to say, “He’s no longer a kid, so it’s okay for him to try and get some.” Padme repeats this observation at several points, and I started to question what exactly was the age difference between these two. Nothing about this romance feels genuine. At one point, they literally roll down a hill like two children rough housing. The romance is so hilarious juvenile and poorly developed. In my original review in 2002, I referred to it as a “spontaneous romance,” and that’s exactly what it feels like. Anakin’s yearning looks more like a child having a temper tantrum. Also, Padme ignores a host of red flags including when Anakin confesses to killing “men, women, and children” in a blind rage upon his mother dying. She also tells him to stop looking at her because it makes her uncomfortable, and does he stop? No.

The other problem is that the actors are clearly bored with one another. Natalie Portman has since become of my favorite actors, but she’s always been an actress that has trouble hiding her boredom with a role she doesn’t connect with. You can feel her eagerness to be done with the franchise in every green screen scene (just keep chanting, “Only one more movie, Natalie”). Her destiny is to be a mother and to be the catalyst for Darth Vader becoming Darth Vader, and she’s never been looked as anything more. Sure, you can argue she’s headstrong and resourceful in a general sense, but then she has to be scraped by an arena monster so she can bare her midriff during the climactic action scuffle. I don’t think any actress can make this clunky dialogue work, like, “I’ve been dying a little every day since you came back into my life.” Is that supposed to be complimentary? Another quick dialogue criticism: EVERYONE is always addressing everyone all the time with titles. “My old friend,” and, “Master,” and, “My Padewan,” and, “Master Jedi,” in case anyone forgets for a moment what the character relationships are.

This was Hayden Christenson’s first movie as Anakin and it’s worth noting that for a time being he was regarded as a hot up and coming actor. He was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for 2001’s My Life as a House, and he’s genuinely fantastic in 2003’s genuinely fantastic Shattered Glass, a film role that takes full advantage of the actor’s whiny, pubescent acting tendencies. Christenson was widely lambasted for his performances in Episodes II and III. His performance is definitely weak, especially compared to the heft of James Earl Jones’ voice. He’s not good as Anakin Skywalker but nobody would have survived this role. It was one thing to find out big bad Darth Vader used to be an annoying little twerp of a kid, and it’s not that much better to also discover that annoying kid matured into an annoying, moody teenager. It’s demystifying one of cinema’s greatest villains and providing so very little in return. Patton Oswalt had a comedy bit about not caring where the stuff you love actually comes from. There was a rash of villain back-stories in 2000s cinema, with Vader and Hannibal Lector and Michael Myers, and none of these stories lived up to providing a satisfying explanation. Christensen has been unable to exit the shadow of the Star Wars series. He has a brief stint as a leading man, most notably in 2008’s Jumper, but has receded into the world of direct-to-DVD offerings, appearing in five movies since 2010. He’ll be reprising Darth Vader in Disney’s upcoming Star Wars TV series, so it will be interesting to see if the brunt of fandom that once rejected him now accepts him.

The other sad aspect of the prequel trilogy is just how meaningless so much of the action feels. I was watching the extended climax on Genosis, which feels clearly inspired by 2000’s Gladiator, and just shrugging at all the onscreen CGI carnage. I just didn’t care. While the prequels have more action and special effects wizardry, and the lightsaber battles are more intense and acrobatic, the emotional stakes are still so absent. Watching a dozen CGI characters kill a different dozen CGI characters is no more exciting than watching dominoes fall unless there is an emotional connection to what is happening. Any emotional connection with the prequels is strictly imported from the prior movies. I find it hard to believe that people can watch Episodes I-III and genuinely care about the conflicts of these characters. The prequels also reveal that Lucas was at his best not just with collaboration but also with restraints. With all the money in the world, the man doubles down on his worst directing and writing impulses, and everything onscreen feels weightless and vapid and intended to sell a new line of toys. The movie takes so long to get going because it divides its time between a romance that does not work and an investigation into a clone army that can only go so far. It’s memorable and a little fun to watch Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) as a mighty Jedi lightsaber warrior, but that’s about all that I found Attack of the Clones had for me as far as intentional entertainment value.

I also want to note that the movie really clears any doubt about the aura and competency of the Jedi. These guys suck at everything. They get killed pretty easily. They are terrible at sensing the encroaching Sith and Dark Side. They are terrible at upholding rules, order, galactic safety. They just suck at everything they do. They carry a cool laser sword and can play mind tricks and that’s about it. Maybe Lucas was intentionally laying a critique at the guardrails of democracy, saying we cannot trust the guardians to stand alone to protect against the rise of fascism, but I think I’m projecting too much thematic clarity onto a man that thought Jar Jar Binks was destined for greatness. Another side note: it’s hilarious to me that Lucas has Jar Jar as the Senator that proposes giving Palpatine the emergency war powers. It’s like Lucas said, “Oh, you don’t like my silly Jamaican rabbit alien? Well, what if I made him an essential footnote to the end of the Republic? You can’t erase him now, unless you’re me, and I’ll tinker however I want!”

My 2002 movie review was right on, which has been something of a rarity for the early part of this re-review. I enjoyed the line about this Anakin needing a “timeout and a lolly.” I would probably lower my rating down to a C. I’d rather watch this or any of the prequels before 2019’s Rise of Skywalker, but that’s because I was more invested in those characters and their stories and thus far more disappointed in how Abrams handled his finale. Maybe that’s to its benefit, that the characters are so poorly written, and poorly acted, and the CGI action is so blandly imagined, that I’d rather watch Attack of the Clones and let my eyes glaze over.

Re-View Grade: C

Spider-Man (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 3, 2002:

Hollywood take note, Spider-Man is the prototype for a summer popcorn movie. It has all the necessary elements. It has exciting action, great effects used effectively, characters an audience can care for, a well toned story that gives shades of humanity to those onscreen, fine acting and proper and expert direction. I recommend movie execs take several note pads and go see Spider-Man (if they can get in one of the many sold out shows). What summer needs are more movies in the same vein as Spider-Man, and less Tomb Raider’s and Planet of the Apes.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a dweebish photographer for his school yearbook clinging to the lowest rung of the popularity ladder. He lives with his loving Aunt and Uncle who treat him like a son. Peter has been smitten with girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) ever since he can remember, but he’s been too timid to say anything.

At a field trip to the genetically altered spider place (there’s one in every town) Peter is snapping pictures when he is bitten by one of the eight-legged creatures. He thinks nothing of it and awakes the next day to a startling change. He has no need for his rimmed glasses anymore and has a physique that diet ads would kill for. He also discovers he can cling to surfaces, jump tall building in a single bound and shoot a sticky rope-like substance from his wrists. Hairs on his palms and shooting a sticky substance from his body? Hello puberty allusion! Peter tries to use his new abilities to win the girl and when that doesn’t work out he turns to profiting from them. He enters a wrestling contest in a homemade costume and proceeds to whup Randy Savage. Following the fight Peter’s Uncle Ben is dying after being involved in a car jacking Peter inadvertently let happen. Haunted by grief Peter becomes Spider-Man and swings from building to building as an amazing arachnid crime stopper.

But every hero needs a villain, and that is personified in the Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), scientist and businessman. Osborn is experimenting with an aerial rocket glider and a dangerous growth serum. When the military threatens to cut his funding and shop elsewhere Osborn haphazardly undergoes the serum himself. What it creates is a duality of personalities; one is Norman, the other is a sinister and pragmatic one. The evil alter ego dons the glider and an exoskeleton suit and calls himself the Green Goblin. The Goblin destroys all that are in his way, and has his yellow eyes set on the pesky Spider-Man.

The casting of mopey-eyed indie actor Tobey Maguire over more commercial names like a DiCaprio or a Prinze Jr. (I shudder to think of a Freddie Prinze Jr. Spider-Man) left some people scratching their heads. Of course the casting of Mr. Mom to portray the Dark Knight likely got the same reaction in the 80s. Maguire plays the nerdish and nervous Peter Parker to a perfected awkwardness with his sensitive passivity. When he explores his new powers with exuberant abandon then begins crime fighting, we as an audience are with him every step of the way pulling for Peter.

Kirsten Dunst was also a surprising casting choice but works out very well. She allows the audience to fall for her along with Peter. Her chemistry with Maguire is great and could be a major reason why rumors have surfaced about the two leads taking the onscreen romance off screen.

Willem Dafoe is one of the creepiest actors in the business (though he made an effective creepy-free Jesus) and delves deliciously headfirst into the cackling menace of Spider-Man’s nemesis. Dafoe, with a face that looks like hardened silly putty and jutting rows of teeth, relishes every maniacal glare and endless evil grin. But instead of being one-note he adds certain amounts of sympathy and understanding as Norman Obsorn. No one could have done this role better than Dafoe.

Director Sam Raimi was most known for his cult splatter house Evil Dead series, but he’s got a new resume topper now. Raimi was chosen over a field of directors because of his passion for the character and story. Raimi brings along integrity but with a joyous gluttony of spectacular action sequences. He expertly handles the action and daring-do all the while smoothly transitioning to the sweet love story. He has created the movie Spidey fans have been dreaming of for 40 years.

Spider-Man swings because of the respect the source material has been given, much like 2000’s X-Men. The story follows the exploits of the comic fairly well but has some stable legs of its own. The multitudes of characters are filled with life and roundness to them, as well as definite elements of humanity. You can feel the sweet romance budding between the two young stars, the tension and affection between Osborn and son, but also the struggle with Norman and his new sinister alter ego.We all know villains are the coolest part anyway. Isn’t that the only reason the last two Batman films were made?

There’s the occasional cheesy dialogue piece but there is that one standard groaner line. In X-Men it was Halle Berry’s query about what happens when lightening hits a toad. In Spider-Manit was the response to the Green Goblin’s offer to join him, to which he asked “Are you in or are you out?” (Obviously channeling George Clooney). The dreaded response: “You’re the one who’s out Goblin. Out of his mind!” Sigh. Maybe a well placed “freaking” before “mind” would have made the line better.

Spider-Man is the best kind of popcorn film: one that leaves me anxiously anticipating the sequel (which will come out two years to the day the first one was released).

Nate’s Grade: A-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Twenty years ago, 2002’s Spider-Man changed the landscape of studio blockbusters. Since swinging into theaters twenty years ago, we’ve gone through three different actors playing three different Spider-Men in three different franchises, plus an Oscar-winning animated movie, and oodles of toys. If X-Men’s success in 2000 made Spider-Man possible, then Spider-Man’s record-breaking success, the first film to earn more than $100 million in a weekend, made the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the defining chain of blockbusters for our age, possible. X-Men provided a template and Spider-Man was the confirmation for those curious bean counters in studio offices. From there, it was a gold rush to secure their own superhero franchise. Universal launched Hulk. Fox launched Daredevil and the Fantastic Four. Warner Brothers started trying to reboot Batman and Superman again. It was an IP scramble and not every property proved worthy (see: 2004’s Catwoman, or better yet don’t see it). For better or worse, 2002’s Spider-Man ushered in the modern era of superhero mega blockbusters. Now with twenty years of hindsight and influence, it’s interesting to go back to the OG Spider-Man, especially after the nostalgic revisit with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, and see why this movie was so successful. 

Created in 1962 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man took a circuitous path toward big screen stardom. He had a popular cartoon in the 1970s, a cheesy U.S. tv show, and Lee even licensed the character into a 1978 television series in Japan that is well and truly insane. The main character is a racer injected with alien blood, from planet Spider no less, who leaps into a giant robot to fight giant monsters (it’s basically Power Rangers before Power Rangers). Legendary genre house Cannon Films bought the film rights and then sold them to Carolco, the studio killed by Cutthroat Island’s bombing in 1995. Carolco reached out to reported king of the (blockbuster) world James Cameron to rewrite an existing draft with Peter in college. He envisioned Edward Furlong as Perter Parker and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus. Later, his new Spider-Man script was reset in high school, brought back in a previously absent Mary Jane, and involved Electro and Sandman as the primary villains, and apparently was going for an R-rating with language and an intended sex scene between Peter and Mary Jane on the Brooklyn Bridge, which brings into further question his organic web-shooting inclusion.

It all fell apart when it was revealed Carolco didn’t actually own the full rights to Spider-Man. After Carolco’s bankruptcy and the ensuing legal wrangling, Sony eventually ended up with the rights for a deal that is absolutely brutal in retrospect: a mere $7 million plus five percent of film grosses and half of merchandising. That’s it. For a character that earns over a literal billion dollars a year in merchandise even when there are no movies being released. As of this writing, No Way Home has made almost two billion dollars world-wide at the box-office.

Sam Raimi was picked as director because he was so passionate for the project, owning over 20,000 comic books and knowing the character and his universe inside and out. It’s not like Raimi was some schlub that Sony just drafted from the street in a contest either. The man was a genre visionary from the beginning with the chaotically kinetic Evil Dead movies. When the studios were unsure about tapping him for comic book movies, Raimi decided to make his own with 1991’s Darkman, a gloriously fun, weird, and gory Phantom of the Opera-esque action movie with Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand. After that, Raimi expanded his style by directing four very different movies in different genres (The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game, The Gift), and by that time the studios had come around to embracing Raimi as their trusted shepherd of coveted comic book IP. Director Chris Columbus also turned down the job first, instead opting for the Harry Potter cinematic universe. I don’t know if Spider-Man would have been as successful with anyone else at the helm. Let’s not pretend that the movie would have been a commercial failure with some other director attached (I’m sure, prior to Cutthroat Island, there was a very real chance of “Renny Harlan’s Spider-Man” – that’s right, the hits just keep on coming, Cutthroat Island). But Sam Raimi perfectly encapsulates the combination that has worked so well for other later superhero directors: passion and peculiarity. 

Raimi is a first-rate visual stylist with the comedy of The Three Stooges, and I don’t mean this as a negative. He has a rare, instinctive sense, much like Cameron and Steven Spielberg, about what will play best on the big screen with a packed crowd, those kinds of blockbuster moments. The one thing you can say about any Raimi feature is that they are exploding with verve and energy. The man nailed a camera to a plank of wood and chased after Bruce Campbell in 1980, and he’s been running wild ever since. That gleeful, childlike sense of entertainment exists in a Raimi picture. His horror instincts and influences are readily apparent in his editing, tone, and setup, across all pictures and genres. Horror is such a precise genre, and Raimi knows the ins and outs of developing scares, tension, and payoffs, and he also knows that editing can make everything sing. A Raimi film might be more self-conscious with its antic camera angles, movements, and editing, but this man is a natural conductor of the chaos of moviemaking. He is a natural for big stages and has only made one movie for less than a hundred million in the last twenty years (2009’s throwback, Drag Me to Hell). It’s also a little disappointing that Raimi has only directed one movie in the last 13 years (2013’s failed franchise-starter, Oz: The Great and Powerful).

Raimi’s movies also have a deep sense of humor, twisted and loony, not afraid to get gross or goofy. When I watched Drag Me to Hell, his first film after leaving Peter Parker’s orbit, I was busting a gut as often as my stomach was churning. Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 sequence where Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) awakens and his cybernetic arms slaughter the doctors has been repeatedly re-evaluated in social media circles as a nigh perfect sequence. Raimi isn’t afraid to veer to the edges of what is considered conventional; he’s not afraid to be goofy just as he’s not afraid to be sincere. This is a director who embraces his peculiarities but also has a reverence for visual storytelling and blockbusters. With the exception of Oz, I cannot recall a Raimi film that just felt like a slapdash work-for-hire job. The man has a signature style. It was what Marvel insisted they wanted when they hired him to direct the Doctor Strange sequel (now in theaters!). Finding auteurs with peculiar sensibilities, zany humor, and new ideas for studio projects is what has allowed directors such as Joss Whedon (Avengers), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), and Jon Watts (the Tom Holland Spidey films) to flourish. 

Revisiting OG Spider-Man, we have two more versions of this universe to compare with, three if you count the animated escapades of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse, so some things just seem a little more quaint, like an old story from your childhood. Part of this is because the character and his lore have become as familiar in popular culture as Batman or Superman. That’s why the Holland version skipped the origin part of how Peter Parker got his super powers and lost his dear old dead Uncle Ben (just like we don’t need to ever see Batman’s parents die onscreen again). The first two Spider-Man films still hold up; I re-watched Spider-Man 2 shortly after 2017’s Homecoming to see which was the overall best Spider-Man film, and it was still very good. They’re earnest and cheesy but easily transporting and you feel the passion for those involved. Raimi clearly loves this character and wants you to love him as well, and we do. There are a few moments that just speak to the dated nature of culture from twenty years hence, like Peter Parker cracking an unfortunate homophobic joke about his wrestling opponent. The special effects are still strong throughout and benefit from Spider-Man’s costume lacking exposed skin. The action sequences are a bit tame and especially lacking compared to even later Spider-Man films.

Maguire might even be regarded as the least favorite Spider-Man actor at this time after the successful revamping of Andrew Garfield’s version from No Way Home. He stands out from Garfield and forever boyish Holland. He was 26 when he began playing Peter the high schooler. His prior indie film roles would make him seem more likely to be cast as a moody school shooter than as a clean-cut superhero (I guess it worked for Ezra Miller), and the fact that he pulled it off is a credit to both Maguire and Raimi. Maguire hasn’t been able to escape the long shadow of Spider-Man and he seems to be fine with that, having only appeared in one movie since 2014. The conniving celebrity poker player that Michael Cera played in Molly’s Game is believed to be Maguire in real life. Dunst was maligned throughout the original trilogy and you can clearly see her disinterest in the character. To her credit, this iteration of Mary Jane is fairly one-dimensional. She’s little more than the object of Peter’s desires and a damsel to be saved. Dunst has become a much more interesting actress after shedding the Spider-Man universe with Melancholia, season 2 of Fargo, and The Power of the Dog, earning her first Oscar nomination. 

Dafoe had to beat out many actors for the role that seems perfected by him. Raimi intended for Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) to be his Norman Osbourn but the producers worried Crudup was too young to portray a middle-aged scientist. Dafoe’s normal face already resembles the Goblin mask. He demanded to do as many of his stunts as possible, and apparently he was a natural learner with the Green Goblin’s winged glider. Dafoe loved the part so much he begged Raimi to find ways to include him again even after his character died. I grew to love him even more after No Way Home reminded everyone of the mental anguish of Norman, a man torn apart by his demons. Dafoe is so maniacal and vulnerable and indispensable in this role. It’s no wonder they even bent space and time to have him generously visit us once more. 

I was worried that my older review from 2002 was going to be overly flattering, gushing about what the filmmakers had gotten right and a little too pleased with results that haven’t aged as well with so many others running with what Raimi and company established. It’s still a solidly enjoyable movie that moves along at a steady pace and still finds time to have important character moments so that the quiet still matters paired with the spectacle. We’ve had a generation grow up with the Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and for many of us these early superhero films have a special place in our hearts. There’s a nostalgic factor. The first Spider-Man was more successful in creating an exciting kickoff than X-Men, though that film had bigger hurdles in adaptation, and it still has a lasting appeal at its core because of the skill and passion of the filmmakers involved. I’m very curious about revisiting 2007’s Spider-Man 3, where it all fell apart and seeing if it’s due some begrudging respect, though I doubt it (I know what I’ll be watching in 2027). Spider-Man is a little dated but still swings mighty high. 

Re-View Grade: B+

Human Nature (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released April 12, 2002:

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman jumped on to Hollywood’s A-list when his feature debut Being John Malkovich was unleashed in 1999. Malkovich was a brilliant original satire on identity, be it celebrity or sexual, and was filled with riotous humor but also blended beautifully with a rich story that bordered on genius that longer it went. Now Kaufman tries his hand expounding at the meaning of civilization versus animal instinct in Human Nature. As one character tells another, “Just remember, don’t do whatever your body is telling you to do and you’ll be fine.”

Lila (Patricia Arquette) is a woman burdened with excessive body hair ever since she was old enough for a training bra (with the younger version played by Disney’s Lizzie McGuire). Lila feels ashamed by her body and morbidly humiliated. She runs away to the forest to enjoy a life free from the critical eyes of other men. Here she can commune with nature and feel that she belongs.

Nathan (Tim Robbins) is an anal retentive scientist obsessed with etiquette. As a young boy Nathan was sent to his room for picking the wrong fork to eat his meal with. He is now trying his best to teach mice table manners so he can prove that if etiquette can be taught to animals it can be ingrained toward humanity. Lila and Nathan become lovers when she ventures back into the city, eliminating her body hair for now, because of something infinitely in human nature – hormones. The two of them find a form of content, as neither had known the intimate touch of another human being.

“Puff” (Rhys Ifans) is a grown man living his life in the woods convinced by his father that he is an ape. One day while walking through the woods, Nathan and Lila discover the ape-man and have differing opinions on what should be done with him. Nathan is convinced that he should be brought into civilization and be taught the rules, etiquette, and things that make us “human.” It would also be his greatest experiment. Lila feels that he should maintain his freedom and live as he does in nature, how he feels he should.

What follows is a bizarre love triangle over the reeducation of “Puff,” as Nathan’s slinky French assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) names him. Lila is torn over the treatment of Puff and also her own society induced shame of her abundant amount of body hair. Nathan feels like he is saving Puff from his wayward primal urges, as he himself becomes a victim of them when he starts having an affair with Gabrielle. Puff, as he tells a congressional committee, was playing their game so he could find some action and “get a piece of that.”

Kaufman has written a movie in the same vein as Being John Malkovich but missing the pathos and, sadly, the humor. Human Nature tries too hard to be funny and isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. Many quirky elements are thrown out but don’t have the same sticking power as Kaufman’s previous film. It’s a fine line between being quirky just for quirky’s sake (like the atrocious Gummo) and turning quirky into something fantastic (like Rushmore or Raising Arizona). Human Nature is too quirky for its own good without having the balance of substance to enhance the weirdness further. There are many interesting parts to this story but as a whole they don’t ever seriously gel.

Debut director Michel Gondry cut his teeth in the realm of MTV making surreal videos for Bjork and others (including the Lego animated one for The White Stripes). He also has done numerous commercials, most infamously the creepy-as-all-hell singing navels Levi ad. Gondry does have a vision, and that vision is “Copy What Spike Jonze Did as Best as Possible.” Gondry’s direction never really registers, except for some attractive time shifts, but feels more like a rehash of Jonze’s work on, yep you guessed it, Being John Malkovich.

Arquette and Robbins do fine jobs in their roles with Arquette given a bit more, dare I say it, humanity. Her Lila is trapped between knowing what is true to herself and fitting into a society that tells her that it’s unhealthy and wrong. Ifans has fun with his character and lets it show. The acting in Human Nature is never really the problem.

While Human Nature is certainly an interesting film (hey it has Arquette singing a song in the buff and Rosie Perez as an electrologist) but the sum of its whole is lacking. It’s unfair to keep comparing it to the earlier Malkovich but the film is trying too hard to emulate what made that movie so successful. Human Nature just doesn’t have the gravity that could turn a quirky film into a brilliant one.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’m at a loss with 2002’s Human Nature. I thought in the ensuing twenty years I would have more to say with coming back to the early burst of brilliant writer Charlie Kaufman in the immediate wake of his successful debut, 1999’s Being John Malkovich. 2002 was a big year for Kaufman; he had three movies released that he wrote, all of them wildly different. His best work was Adaptation, a reteaming with Malkovich’s Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze, that earned Chris Cooper a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Kaufman was close to winning for Best Original Screenplay and sharing the honor with his pretend twin brother, the both of whom were portrayed by Nicolas Cage. It was the most challenging and creative and fulfilling of the three. There was also Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the debut for George Clooney as a director, was a lark of a movie, taking Gong Show host Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography” where he claimed he was doubling as a CIA black ops hitman. I recently re-watched this one months ago and my opinion even lowered because there’s nothing to the movie beyond the central irony of the unexpected reality of this unexpected man being a spy and assassin. There’s no real insight into Barris as a character and he comes across as scummy and unworthy of a big screen examination. It’s a story that only exists to be ironic and missing the messy humanity and pathos of Kaufman’s best.

But Kaufman’s most forgotten movie in his screenwriting career is definitely Human Nature, the debut film for Michel Gondry, one of Kaufman’s other collaborators along with Jonze, both men having gained great acclaim for eclectic and visionary and just plain weird music videos. It follows three main characters, each debriefing their tale to an audience. Lila (Patricia Arquette) is accused of murder and discussing her lifelong malady of growing intense amounts of body hair, enough so that she worked as a gorilla woman in a circus sideshow. Puff (Rhys Ifans) is a man raised in the wild who intended to be an ape and returned to society, been trained in etiquette, and become an example of the transformative power of civilization. Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) is telling his story after death with a bullet hole in the middle of his pasty forehead, as the scientist who found Puff, trained him, and romanced Lila before cheating on her with his French assistant (Miranda Otto). Immediately, the movie presents questions for us to unpack: how did Nathan die? Who was really responsible? What will be the connections between these three very different characters? Then there are assorted kooky side characters that come in and out, but the focus is mostly on this trio, perhaps a foursome with Otto, and the shame is that there is only one really interesting character among them.

Lila is the only protagonist worth following. She feels like a freak, even served in a “freak show,” and must hide her secret from lovers who would object to her untamed mane. She’s vulnerable and hopeful but pressured to conform to be accepted, and her journey to radical self-acceptance would have been an entertaining movie all on its own. However, by fragmenting the narrative with Puff and Nathan, she gets far less attention and her story becomes, for far too long, just her willfully sublimating herself to Nathan’s standards of beauty. Lila frustratingly feels like a character furiously trying to do whatever she can to keep the affections of a bad man. It’s reductive to the movie’s most interesting character. Puff and Nathan, in contrast, just feel like ideas, opposite poles in a discussion over the differences between animal instinct and the ideals of human civilization in all its hypocritical splendor. Even though both men are given comic-tragic back-stories, neither is really a richly defined character. Puff is all impulses and his urges become a tiresome comic device when we watch him hump somebody or something for the eightieth time. Nathan’s preoccupation with social niceties is meant to be absurd (teaching table manners to mice?) and petty, a meaningless articulation of “high culture and values.” I did laugh out loud when Nathan was teaching Puff how to respond at the opera, complete with a constructed box seat. Nathan is a satirical punching bag for a bourgeois sensibility. Neither him nor Puff feel like characters, instead more like conflicting points of view of humanity.
The other disappointing aspect to Human Nature is as I declared in 2002, it feels like quirky for quirky’s sake screenwriting. Kaufman has become a screenwriting legend and he’s able to marry absurd, bizarre, and dangerous elements into meaningful and subversive and satirical masterstrokes, but the man cannot be expected to perform at the highest heights every time. Human Nature is stuffed full of wacky moments and wacky characters and it doesn’t feel like it ever amounts to more than the sum of its transitory parts. In contrast, 2022’s Everything Everywhere All At Once is an example of how one can take the most bizarre ideas and still find ways to tie them back in meaningful ways that braid into the larger theme. However, much of Human Nature feels like a quirk dartboard being hit over and over, a catalog of strange visuals and goofy ideas (Lila breaks out into song!) that fails to coalesce into a larger thesis like an Adaptation or an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the vastly underrated Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut. He’s a master of the idiosyncratic, but Human Nature suffers because ultimately what does it have to say? Puff is set up for ridicule. Nathan is set up for ridicule. Even Lila is set up, though for murder. In the end, when Puff returns to the wild in a public galivanting that feels like a ceremonial bon voyage from the society that came to love him, he then scampers out of the woods and escapes back to the comforts of society with Nathan’s French mistress. In the end, is the point that we’re all rubes and hypocrites?

This was Gondry’s first film and it feels like a training vehicle for what would be his real masterpiece, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite films ever. Gondry’s style is still recognizable, especially reminiscent of his tactile, kitschy, avant garde music videos he directed for Bjork, the queen of weird 1990s music videos. Gondry’s hardscrabble, idiosyncratic style was a natural match with Kaufman’s vivid imagination. It’s surprising that they never reunited after Eternal Sunshine. Gondry had a few movies (2006’s The Science of Sleep, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind) but they felt lacking, trifling without a stronger writer to guide and ground them in human drama. Gondry even tried his hand at studio action to middling results with 2010’s The Green Hornet. He mostly retreated back to music videos and commercials and had a short lived series on Showtime with Jim Carrey as a former children’s TV entertainer whose fantasy is blending with reality. It seemed like a good fit for Gondry, and a nice starring role for Carrey, but it was canceled after two seasons. Even the realm of music videos seems so far removed now, where Hollywood was snatching up every visual virtuoso.

Human Nature has plenty of familiar faces, no doubt eager to attach their names to a daring Kaufman movie. Arquette is winning and the best part of the movie. She would later win an Academy Award for her decade-in-the-making performance in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Now I enjoy her in a chilly, villainous role as the shady corporate boss on Apple TV’s stunning sci-fi satire, Severance. Robbins is officious to a fault here. He too would later win an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River. Poor Ifans, so big after his scene-stealing role in 1999’s Notting Hill, who never seemed to capitalize on his success (even his Spider-Man villain got the weakest treatment in No Way Home). He’s had a long career and prominent TV roles with Berlin Station and the Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon. I did laugh out loud at his “yahoo” after being zapped by his electric shock collar. You’ll also see Rosie Perez, Peter Dinklage, Robert Forster, Toby Huss, Hillary Duff, and Mary Kay Place. As I said in 2002, acting is not the problem with Human Nature. It’s the writing and characterization that lets these people down.

I usually like to devote a paragraph to going back and re-evaluating my initial words from twenty years ago, but I agree with everything I wrote. Everything. That’s initially why I thought this would be a shorter review. What more am I going to say other than my initial opinion of this movie is the same opinion I have upon re-watching? With the distance, it’s even more clear to me that Human Nature is the weakest film of Kaufman’s career. Even a movie I didn’t really gel with, like 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, at least has a lot more ambition I can recognize. It’s a character study obfuscated with too much eccentric clutter but there’s still an artistic vision there, even if it didn’t work for me. Kaufman is too unique a voice to only have made three movies in the last 14 years, and it makes it even more frustrating when I don’t connect with his long-in-the-making projects. Human Nature is too limited in scope and characterization. It’s slightly interesting as a footnote to a great screenwriter but little more.

Re-Review Grade: C

The Time Machine (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released March 8, 2002:

The Time Machine is one of the most famous works of fiction in history. It was writen long long ago by the great H.G. Wells. It presents a fantasy glimpse into our future, but in it Wells also gave readers the opportunity to ponder what would happen if they could go back and change their own lives. People have used the story as a cautionary allegory to our own times, like the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. Now, a bigger budget Hollywood remake attempts to put another spin on the Wells classic.

Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is an absent-minded professor interested in cracking down the physics of time. He’s chided by some of his peers for crackpot theories and his fascination with any new gadget. He’s supposed to meet Emma (Sienna Guillory) at Central Park and tonight’s the big night he plans to propose to her. He eventually catches up to Emma and the two go strolling off into the park. Shortly after popping the question the two become victims of a mugging and in the fray Emma is left dead. The death drives Alex to create his fanciful time machine, which only happens to take four years time.

Alex gives his big brass LA-Z-Boy looking machine a try and travels back to that fateful night to avoid Emma’s death. Alex avoids the mugger all right, but while purchasing flowers his fiancé gets plowed over by a runaway carriage instead. It seems that one cannot change the past. Alex decides to give the future a chance and travels to a very Back to the Future 2 looking 2037. Someone astutely asks Alex if his time traveling machine makes a good cappuccino.

When Alex hops a little further into the future the moon is breaking up because of ill-fated lunar construction. Moon rocks are hurtling toward the surface and disrupting everyone’s day. (It was in this moment that a scene of rocks smashing into the World Trade Center was cut for taste) Alex jumps back into his machine but is konked out by some lunar cheese and falls asleep at the wheel. The next thing you know Alex is in a mysterious future world.

The place where The Time Machine really bogs down is once Alex arrives in 80,000 something or other. The child-like thrills and adventure of Alex zipping between the past and near future are buried underneath the standard post-apocalyptic movie world. The people dress in loin cloths and rags (though some of the female natives wear revealing tops that look like see-through chain mail) but still have perfect teeth. When Alex doesn’t understand the linguistics of 80,000 AD the next words that he hears are English from Mara (pop star Samantha Mumba). It’s amazing that English survived 81,000 years when Latin didn’t last a mere 2,000 and change.

It turns out these people who live in huts resembling hot air balloons along the faces of cliffs are called Eloi. The Eloi don’t have anyone looking old enough to carry an AARP membership and are apprehensive to speak of why. Perhaps it’s because creatures resembling something that would belong in The Mummy Returns pop up from the sand to capture whatever slow moving prey they can and return to for an underground feast.

The creatures, called Morlocks, are the offshoots of evolution. Seems after the whole moon destruction thing (whoops!) those who took refuge below the surface have evolved into dusty hunchbacked cannibals. Their rowdy ranks are controlled by Uber-Morlock (I’m not making up that name) who resembles an albino bassist for Poison or Skid Row. It’s actually acclaimed actor Jeremy Irons under all that pancake makeup and fleshy spine-showing prosthetic. The less said about Irons the better.

It’s during this part that The Time Machine reverts into a half-baked Stargate. Alex encourages the Eloi race to stand up to their oppressors and fight for their freedom. He becomes part of the Eloi community, rallies the troops into rebellion, and also has to save the damsel in distress.

The Time Machine remake isn’t the political statement the 1960 film was on man’s folly with technology, particularly nuclear weapons. What this suped-up version is all about is special effects and plenty of them. The effects are for the most part dazzling, especially the scene where Alex travels to 2037 and we see the development of New York City with skyscrapers assembling themselves.

Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt) directed this remake and is actually the great-grandson of the famous adventure’s author, H. G. Wells. Trivial Pursuit fans everywhere rejoice. Wells had to sit out the last 18 days of shooting due to “exhaustion” and Gore Verbinsky came off the bench to finish the directorial duties. The film clocks in at a scant 90 minutes but there are definite moments of drag.

Pearce (Memento) is a hunky hero and for the most part is admirably gung-ho with the role. Samantha Mumba’s motivation must have been to stand and look pretty the entire film. To think that Mumba might be the most talented of the recent singers-come-actors (Mandy Moore and Britney Spears) is a distressing thought all its own.

As The Time Machine kept dragging into its Mumba-filled period, I began day dreaming of an alternate, darkly comic version. In my head, Pearce’s character keeps traveling back again and again to save his beloved only to lose her a different way each time. I could picture a humorous montage of his girlfriend dying an assortment of colorful deaths and Pearce just getting more frustrated and jaded. I could picture them skating only to have her plunge below the ice. I could picture the couple dining at a fine restaurant only to have her choke and Pearce just throw his napkin onto the table and sigh loudly. I was enjoying my alternate take on The Time Machine so much that I didn’t want to return to the one that was playing.

The Time Machine has its moments of thrills and excitement but they are mostly condensed to the opening third. This remake doesn’t have the political edge or wow-factor the original did. It plays more to the rules of conventional Hollywood than the wide open possibilities Wells wrote about. Pearce tries valiantly and the special effects are really something, but more often than not The Time Machine is not worth your time.

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

The 2002 Time Machine is fanciful schlock on the verge of being populist spectacle. It’s not just another adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells sci-fi novel, it’s also emerging from the shadow of the 1960 movie that broke ground in the realm of special effects. Storytellers will often find new relevant meaning to be mined from the resources of old, and literature with classic stories can still be compelling decades and centuries hence as long as they are served with care and empathy. In theory, another Time Machine movie could be a worthy venture especially in a realm of modern special effects marvels and a more socially conscious viewpoint. If the 1960 film was a cautionary tale about mankind’s impending doom from nuclear arms and technological hubris, you would think a movie born from the ashes of the Cold War would follow a different approach, perhaps something more in line with the colonialism critiques from Wells. It’s surprising then that the 2002 movie also follows the “be careful with your machines, mankind” thematic warning of the earlier version. It made me think of Tim Burton’s maligned 2001 Planet of the Apes remake where they could have gone with ANY ending possible except one, the original’s famous twist ending, one of the most famous endings ever, and what did the new movie do? The same ending. Re-watching the 2002 Time Machine, it’s more fun than it has any right to be and there are aspects worth celebrating, but much like its hero, it’s a victim of unmet potential.

Firstly, this is a pretty entertaining studio movie that blows by quickly at only 96 minutes. The screenplay is by John Logan, the same writer with credits like Gladiator, The Aviator, Rango, Hugo, Skyfall, and other quite successful, quite large studio hits. And yet this movie doesn’t just feel like another paycheck for the man. The opening half of this relatively brief movie definitely feels like the favorite half. It’s here where the movie introduces the protagonist’s personal loss being the motivating force that drives him to make a time machine, something absent from the 1960 original and an exciting and emotional way to separate itself. Watching Alexander (Guy Pearce) go back to save his love has an immediate appeal, and watching him fail again brings forth the idea of being unable to change the past. Even twenty years later, I still think about the darkly comic version of this story, just as I did in my initial review in 2002, where Alexander tries again and again to save his beloved only to lose her to some new calamity. It would have a lighter approach even while dealing with darker humor, and it would certainly contribute to the film’s central thesis that man is unable to change the miscues of the past.

You would think The Time Machine would follow a theme about correcting the mistakes of the past to prevent future danger; many time travel tales follow a hero trying to thwart a terrible future, although sometimes they inadvertently cause that same terrible future in grand ironic tradition. This movie doesn’t really dwell on fixing the past but more so upon learning from it. During its post-apocalyptic second half, the focus isn’t on preventing it or going back to warn mankind of the folly of its ways. It’s about adapting to change, which can be viewed as defeatist or pragmatic. The future world of 800,000 years ahead is messed up because of the actions of mankind’s past, namely the lunar collision thanks to bad condo construction (thanks, capitalism!). It’s none too difficult to place a general ecological/climate change message in place, the exploitation of the present spoiling the future for generations yet to come. However, the movie isn’t about Alexander going back to teach mankind how to avoid its own mistakes. Unlike the 1960 original, he stays put in this uncertain future world with his new Eloi family and Eloi girlfriend (Samantha Mumba). He’s content to remain in this new time and live his life, ignoring the foresight of a time machine. There’s a message there about looking ahead in one’s life, not dwelling on the past at the expense of the future, but it’s also unexpected for a time travel action adventure. It’s usually about preventing the horrible future, not learning to live with it and make a better tomorrow. This also could be read as the present giving up on avoiding the mistakes of contemporary excess.

You can probably tell what kind of person that you are depending upon which half of The Time Machine you prefer. For me, the first half has all the surprises and time jumping and fun, and the second half settles into standard post-apocalyptic rally-the-masses formula. It’s not bad but it honestly feels like an entire second act is missing from the development of the plot. In quick succession, Alexander learns he’s in a far-flung future, the customs of the Eloi, the danger of the Morlocks, their hunting practices, their cannibalistic impulses, what caused them, and then who their leader is, and how there are multiple Eloi-Morlock colonies throughout the world. It’s a lot of absurdly fast exposition that just unfolds to the convenience of our hero, and so little of it occurs from the virtual A.I. figure (Orlando Jones) that seems entirely designed to be an exposition device. It’s during the second half that the playfulness and ideas give way to a grungy future with efficient if unspectacular chase scenes from monsters. I am convinced that the Morlock leader played by Jeremy Irons was originally intended to be the older, more evolved, and more callous ends-justify-the-means version of Alexander. That kind of twist would have brought things back to the personal realm of those first minutes traveling through time. Alas, he’s just another monster with bad hair. It seems like wasted potential for the last twenty minutes of this movie to just be another climax involving blowing up the monsters and rescuing the damsel.

Apparently there was significant contention behind the scenes over the look of the Morlocks. The creatures were designed by the famous Stan Winston studios and then director Simon Wells and the producers wanted to change their look, making them more humanoid and recognizable. This infuriated the effects team who strongly disapproved of this creative direction. I appreciate that the production went to the trouble of expensive prosthetics and costumes rather than just making all of the Morlocks ugly CGI monstrosities. I was worried that twenty-year-old humanoid CGI would not age well, but thankfully I didn’t have to bother with that fear.

This was the first live-action movie for Wells as director. He spent over a decade in the world of animation and helmed An American Tale: Fievel Goes West, Balto, and The Prince of Egypt. After the mediocre reception to The Time Machine, Wells didn’t direct another movie until almost ten years later, 2011’s Mars Needs Moms, a film that reportedly cost the studio over $200 million in losses. It was one of the biggest box-office bombs ever. It’s not much of a surprise then that Wells hasn’t been able to direct another studio movie until just this year, and even that is a small-scale adaptation of a children’s TV show, to the best of my knowledge. The man has directed two movies in the last two decades. On a more fortunate note, Wells has had steady work in his old field of animation as a consultant and storyboard artist for just about every Dreamworks cartoon (Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods, etc).

Re-reading my old review, there’s not much more to extrapolate. I agree with just about every word I wrote back in 2002. It’s fun for me when I watch these films twenty years later and have the same remarks in my head only to discover my younger self had the exact same response.

While not breaking new ground or even attaining its own creative potential, the 2002 Time Machine is a perfectly reasonable genre movie that you could put on and kill 90 minutes. It’s relatively fun, has some bigger ideas, and some surprising moments where it appears on the verge of poignancy. One of those is when the A.I., who has survived 800,000 years of isolation, talks about the misery of remembering every face he ever interacted with, cataloging every detail, and how this is tearing him apart and how valued having a lone friend was for him. It’s such a thoughtful and empathetic moment that seems to come out of nowhere and leave just as fast before you can really dig into it for genuine pathos. The Time Machine feels this way, like whenever it presents something intriguing, intelligent, or emotive, it then it has to veer sharply back to the bigger, dumber lane of blockbuster filmmaking for the masses.

Re-View Grade: C+

Crossroads (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released February 15, 2002:

When informed that her feature film debut was receiving shrieks of laughter during advanced screenings for critics, Britney Spears said she was glad because she never likes the same films the critics do. Well Ms. Not That Innocent, the truth hurts; you’re not a girl, not yet an actress. Crossroads is really the filmic adventures of Britney Spears and her ever-present navel. The navel should get second billing, but alas, we do not live in a society of equality for navels.

The film opens up with three 10-year-old best friends burying a box of wishes and dreams and promising to be bestest friends forever and ever. They make a pact to come back and dig up the box on the night of their high school graduation. Flash to the present and the word “bestest” isn’t what it used to be. Lucy (Britney Spears) has become the virginal nerd preparing to give her speech as valedictorian. Kit (Zoe Saldana) has become the haughty popular snob, obsessed over getting married ever since she got her first Bridal Barbie. Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant and become the trailer trash girl that everyone sees fit to remind her of. Despite their growth apart they all do come together to reopen their box of dreams. Mimi informs the others that she plans to head to California to audition for a record deal in an open contest. Kit decides to use this opportunity to check up on her boyfriend at UCLA who has been strangely evasive. Lucy complains that by having her nose in a book her entire high school experience she never got to go to a football game or even “hang out.” Somewhere a small violin is playing. She decides to jump at this chance and possibly see her mother in Arizona, who ran out on Lucy and her father (Dan Akroyd) when she was only three. The wheels of their adventure are provided by guitar-playing mystery Ben (Anson Mount). He pilots them on their travels to the Pacific coast, though the girls think he might have killed someone, but oh well.

Crossroads is filled to the brim with every imaginable road trip cliché. The girls “open up” after getting drunk, have a scuffle in a bar, reap in the sights of nature, and perhaps create some sparks of romance with their hunky heartthrob of a driver. The car also inevitably breaks down and the girls have to find a way to scrape some quick cash together. They enter in a karaoke contest and Britney proceeds to sing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” with her two gal pals providing backup. But no, this isn’t the last time you’ll hear Ms. Brit sing. In an effort to pad as well as become a showcase for its star, Crossroads gives us many scenes of the girls just singing to the radio. Besides Jett, Shania Twain’s “Man I Feel Like a Woman” and Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” are also on the chopping block. You’ll also be accosted by the movie’s single “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” several times, including one scene where Poet Britney is asked to share her poem and it ends up being the song’s lyrics.

Saldana (Center Stage) is not given much, as the attention is always centered on Britney, so she merely comes off like a token conceited character. Only Taryn Manning (crazy/beautiful) comes away with a little dignity. She gives Mimi a lot more heart than should be there and shows some honest reflections for her character. She also, coincidentally enough, looks like a dead ringer for Joan Jett with her black bangs.

Crossroads is nothing but a star vanity project for Spears, with some not-so-subliminal Pepsi product placement here and there. This was not a script looking for a lead; this was something Britney’s management team suited for her, and Crossroads is perfectly suited for Britney. It allows for many ogling periods of booty shaking. The majority of the film’s drama doesn’t even concern her, and when she does have to act, her scenes are cut short to help her when the real drama unfolds. The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes.

Crossroads moves along on gratuitous skin shots of Spears half-naked body every 20 minutes until it reaches its torture chamber of a final act. In this very melodramatic period we get abandonment, date rape, infidelity, and even a miscarriage in one of the film’s most shameless plot devices. Of course none of these horrors matter, especially a psychologically damaging miscarriage, because Britney has to get to her BIG audition in order to perform, yep you guessed it, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” She also has to wear what looks like kitchen drapes while she sings.

You’ll walk out of the theater wondering many things. Why does Britney wear pink in EVERY single scene she’s in? There’s even one scene where she changes from a pink top to another pink top and is FOLDING a third pink top into a suitcase. Are we to believe that Akroyd and Spears share some kind of genetics? In what high school would Britney be considered a nerd?

Hopefully Crossroads will be the pop princess’ last foray into film, but I strongly doubt this is the last we’ve seen of Britney Spears. Crossroads is a terrible girl-power trip. Only Spears’ target demographic will enjoy this melodramatic mess. Truly, the two largest groups that will see this film are adolescent girls and creepy older men who fawn after adolescent girls. Crossroads is exactly everything you’d expect.

Nate’s Grade: F

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’ve been waiting for this mea culpa for twenty years. In 2002, I saw Britney Spears’ movie debut, Crossroads, opening weekend with some friends with the chief purpose of seeing how bad it would be and tearing it to shreds for my collegiate newspaper. I graded it an F and sharpened my knives to eviscerate the star vanity project and everything it supposedly represented, eventually declaring it the worst film of 2002. Many years later, I have to wonder just exactly what was I so upset about with a middling road trip drama? What made this movie more deserving of a critical take-down than any other movie of that year? Had Spears not been its star, I doubt I would have expelled as much vitriol. So then the big question becomes, what did Britney Spears do to deserve so much ire from the 19-year-old version of myself? After some further reflection, I think I have some answers, and I’m glad I’ve had some significant growing up since then. I think it comes down to a personal animus blinding me as a critic, and this is something I’ve tried to push through and shed as I’ve gotten older and hopefully more experienced at evaluating art.

Flashback to the mid-to-late 1990s, and it was a golden time for fans of alternative rock, such as myself, bands that were cutting edge, audacious, and reaping the commercial rewards as well. MTV was filled with bizarre and exciting music videos from eclectic artists that were given an elevated platform. I grew my sense of self through my burgeoning musical taste, enveloping myself in the sounds of the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Tori Amos, and many more. And then the pop infusion began in 1997 with Hanson and really exploded with the emergence of the boy band craze and young pop stars like Spears and Christina Aguilera and others. Suddenly the music I was accustomed to, the music that to me was built on artistic integrity and depth, was being pushed aside for music that felt shallow and inferior, driven by exploiting the clean-cut physical beauty of the performers as compensation for substance. My younger self felt irritated that the music I considered to be genuine and revelatory was supplanted by bubblegum pop ditties. In my sophomore year of high school, for a Canterbury Tales group assignment, I co-wrote an epic quest for a strange band of characters to go to a Hanson concert and kill the three mop-headed brothers (I also had the collective pre-teen audience rise up and retaliate, killing our band of heroes). Looking back, there’s nothing new about any of this. Music has gone through many spells where pretty pop stars have coasted because of their looks and sex appeal. For whatever reasons, it felt personable, like an attack, and that is such a misplaced assessment on the winds of popularity.

I’ve tried to eliminate anything that feels like a personal attack from my film criticism, because at the end of the day it’s just a movie, and whether or not it works for me, and it may work for others, it’s still only a movie. It’s not like the filmmakers personally robbed me of anything other than my time, and as my friends will often chide me, I chose to watch these movies I knew would be almost certainly dubious entertainment options. I’ve re-read several past film reviews and winced as I found myself resorting to low blows or critiques about body appearance. My review of 2008’s The Hottie and the Nottie (for the record: not a good movie) was a glorified take-down of Paris Hilton and everything she supposedly represented, a prized vapidity. I deleted heavy portions of it, especially those shaming Hilton for her promiscuity. It made me ashamed. As I’ve grown, I’ve tried to focus solely on the art and story of each movie. If the performance was weak, it’s just a reflection of a bad performance and not a bad person deserving of some sort of misplaced score-settling by yet another angry random guy on the Internet.

That brings me back to the star of Crossroads, Britney Spears, who in the ensuing decades had the culture rally to her back as well as re-evaluate the treatment of the paparazzi-heavy targets of the 2000s. She was celebrated for her sexuality and demonized for it as well, again not exactly new in the realm of media. After so many years under the harsh scrutiny of the public spotlight, in 2007, Spears shaved her head, attacked a paparazzi car, and checked in for much-needed mental help, and in doing so essentially signed her life away for the next 14 years to her father, who had the final say over her finances and tour commitments and even whether or not Spears could have an IUD removed. She was finally released from her conservatorship after a groundswell of public support in 2021. She’s released many more albums, had a long-standing residency in Las Vegas, and has even talked about turning her struggle for agency into a big screen movie.

Crossroads is an odd concoction because of how many people went on to have robust careers. Chief among them is the credited screenwriter Shonda Rhimes who would become one of the preeminent TV power producers of the twenty-first century with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Bridgerton. Fans of Rhimes’ adult soaps might find recognizable traces of her plotting with the overly melodramatic third act of Crossroads. This was also one of the earliest movies for Zoe Saldana, an integral part of THREE high-profile, highly successful sci-fi series, Avatar (where she has blue skin), Guardians of the Galaxy (where she has green skin), and the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (natural skin). She was also in the first Pirates of the Caribbean just a year after Crossroads. Then there’s Taryn Manning who found memorable parts in 8 Mile, Hustle and Flow, before redefining her career as the memorable, and dental-deficient, Pensatucky on Orange is the New Black. Anson Mount would later go on to prominence in TV series like Hell on Wheels and Star Trek Discovery (less so Marvel’s Inhumans). Apparently many of the other actors in Crossroads agreed to sign on just to meet Spears, like Dan Akroyd, Kim Catrall, and Justin Long. Even Mount was hesitant until the urging of none other than Robert DeNiro, who read lines with Mount from the Crossroads script during their downtime on 2002’s City by the Sea (DeNiro reed Britney’s lines, which makes me wonder what he could have done in the lead).

Reading back over my original 2002 review, I actually think most if not all the criticisms of the movie still land. The movie is rife with road trip cliches. The third act is indeed a torture chamber that really tilts the drama into overdrive, though smartly places the workload on the abilities of Saldana and Manning. There is definitely an unsettling preoccupation with Spears’ sexuality with the film. I wrote, “The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes,” and I can’t disagree. It’s an uncomfortable watch at points, not because anything on screen is so salacious or ribald (Spears in fact insisted on her character’s use of profanity to be stricken to maintain her image) but because of what it thinks its audience wants. I suppose there were thousands of teenage girls looking to someone famous like Britney Spears for inspiration, and the lesson of waiting until you feel comfortable with a partner, and it’s your choice, is worthy, but the primacy emphasis on Spears’ body feels wrong.

My concluding line in my review was meant to summarize my stance, indicating that Crossroads is “exactly what you expect it to be,” and in 2002 I guess that meant the worst of the worst. In 2022, that just means a familiar, formulaic road trip movie with lots of melodrama. Yes, it’s a star vehicle for Spears’ acting career and there are many opportunities for singing, but that doesn’t make it any worse than any other mediocre drama aimed at a teenage demographic. And in 2022, I can say that I appreciate the pop music of the 90s. There were some real top-notch ear worms there and they still stand up to this day, easily hum-able when they reappear on radio. Spears and her ilk did not get the full credit they deserve during their reign. Crossroads is, to excuse a forced metaphor, a sort of crossroads for myself as a critic, something I’ve tried to improve upon as I got older. Movies are good and bad. Their intentions might even be noble or prurient or purely driven by money, but they’re still only movies and not personal attacks. I’m sorry Ms. Spears for unfairly maligning you, your acting ability, and your movie. Crossroads is easily not the worst movie of 2002. It’s merely mediocre at best and undeserving of antipathy.

Re-View Grade: C

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released January 25, 2002:

Call it swash without the buckle. While The Count of Monte Cristo does an adequate job of telling the Alexander Dumas story (heavily editing chapters and making the leads friends in this version) the whole experience feels very rote. The sword fighting scenes are nowhere what they were billed as and the direction is surprisingly lackluster. Only the actors allow this film to arise mediocrity particularly with a devious turn from Guy Pierce (Memento). Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) directed this film and proves he doesn’t need Kevin Costner to screw something up. Somewhere Costner is laughing. Actually, somewhere Costner is likely crying in his beer wondering what happened to him. “I was the king of the cinema…”

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I think 2002 is going to be my potential apology tour year when it comes to reviewing my initial film criticism of twenty years hence. The Count of Monte Cristo is my first entry for the new year and I already cringe re-reading my initial review. I think some of my early film reviews went overboard on snark, trying to establish a cool, chipper-than-thou attitude, but this was the early 2000s writing default for many. It was better to make quips, take some cheap shots, and sprinkle in some actual film criticism on top, and it’s a style of writing I’ve tried to grow out of as I’ve aged. I began writing film criticism back in 1999 as a means of expressing myself and showcasing my cinephile knowledge, and in many ways it was like learning to crack a puzzle, why a movie worked or didn’t work and what decisions lead to this eventual outcome. In some ways, early on, it was showing off and exploring my evolving writerly abilities, and sometimes that meant prioritizing cleverness over sincerity. I know I’m going to be reliving this with Crossroads but I’m reminded already with my first movie re-examination for the year 2002. So, to the filmmakers of The Count of Monte Cristo, on behalf of my then-19-year-old self, I apologize. Your movie is actually pretty good and, strangely, even makes some deviations from the book for the better.

Based upon the famous novel by Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), it’s a classic tale of vengeance and it’s plenty fun to watch because it feels like a movie that is giving you so many different turns at once. It’s almost structured like 30-minute episodes, and while being deemed “episodic” is usually regarded as a negative for a film story, I think this is an improvement. The beginning segment establishes how Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) gets into trouble, and he might just be the biggest idiot in the world. The opening features him and his best pal, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), seeking assistance for their ailing ship captain on the island of Elba during the time of Napoleon’s exile. Edmond agrees to deliver a letter from the deposed emperor to “an old friend” of his and then Edmond gets charged with treason in France. His shocked, incredulous response is absolutely hilarious (“What? Napoleon… USED me? I’m starting to rethink my whole appraisal of this man who tried to conquer the European continent.”). There’s a conspiracy by a government official to cover up his father being a Napoleon loyalist, the intended recipient of the letter, but it almost feels like Edmond deserves to be in jail for being this naively stupid. The first half hour sets up the villains, Edmond’s BFF betraying him to covet Edmond’s attractive wife, and the starting point for vengeance to be had. It’s economical storytelling and works well, and each thirty minutes feels like they are defined by a “very special guest star” who comes and goes.

The next thirty minutes explores Edmond’s life and routines in prison, lorded over by a cruel warden (Michael Wincott), and where he finds his mentor and salvation with an old priest, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris). Again, screenwriter Jay Wolpet efficiently establishes the routine, the passage of time, the means of how Edmond might escape, and his growing relationship and tutelage under a new unexpected friend. It’s kind of funny to watch old man Richard Harris (Gladiator) teach the considerably younger Caviezel how to sword fight, especially knowing that Harris would pass away later in 2002 at the age of 72. He needs the training because our first impression of this man is not favorable. Once Fernand betrays him, Edmond engages in what might be the most pathetic excuse for sword fighting I have ever seen. I know the classic character arc of starting inexperienced and weak and coming into experience and strength needs to be laid out, but man this guy just sucks. He runs around like a lame animal, crashing into furniture, meekly pushing glasses off a table and flopping like a soccer player trying to score a penalty card. However, the crucible of vengeance will temper this man into a dashing fighting machine. The prison segment establishes rules, develops a central antagonistic and mentor relationship, develops a prison break, and then provides Edmond with his first victory, first villain to topple, and shows his new cunning.

The next thirty minutes is almost a buddy movie between Edmond and Jacopo (Luis Guzman), the “best knife fighter in the world,” a smuggler whose life Edmond saves before joining the gang. Together they seek out the island of Monte Cristo, find a bountiful fortune thanks to Faria’s confiscated treasure map, and then Edmond reinvents himself as a mysterious count. He makes quite a flamboyant entrance, almost like a dapper nineteenth-century Great Gatsby, flaunting his extravagance and theatricality to make his mark with the upper social classes. His calculated social graces reminded me of any number of costume drama series that are predicated on operating within a rigid system of social manners and expectations. It’s about establishing his new reputation and working his way back into a position that he can tear apart whatever advantages Fernand has gotten used to. His former friend has married his wife, though he flaunts his infidelity, and he also is raising a son, Albert (Henry Cavill), that may or may not belong to Edmond. It’s through this son that Edmond sees his way back into the good graces of this family, staging a kidnapping and his rescue that gives him the standing he needs. Naturally, Edmond’s wife recognizes her former husband instantly, though he tries to deny her claims. This segment establishes the new normal, Edmond’s traps being set, and then it heads into its fitting climax.

Much of these plot points are from Dumas’ original novel, which is so tailor-made to make for an engaging adventure with a thirst for blood. It’s such a sturdy structure that provides satisfaction, as revenge stories often will; they are so easy to root for because it’s so utterly primal. There’s a reason there is an entire sub-genre of exploitation films is nothing but revenge (and yes, sadly, too often including rape as the inciting wrong to be avenged). It’s an easy hook for an audience to get onboard and root for. Wolpert’s adaptation makes some smart changes to better transform the story for the visual medium. By making Edmond and Fernand friends, it does make the betrayal feel even more bitter. Also, the means of vengeance is simply more engaging here. In the novel, Fernand’s bad deeds are exposed publicly and he’s humiliated and kills himself. He’s not even the final villain that Edmond gets vengeance upon. The 2002 movie improves a classic novel and makes the ending feel even more climactic. Watching a villain like Fernand just slink away would not be as satisfying as a finale (that’s not even the story’s finale). Wolpert, who is also credited with the screen story for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, died very recently as of this writing, on January 3, 2022.

Director Kevin Reynolds was two movies removed from 1995’s Waterworld, an expensive post-apocalyptic action movie set mainly at sea, and a movie that does not deserve its disastrous reputation. It’s a pretty fun sci-fi action movie with a great Denis Hopper villain and plenty of splashy, big screen spectacle. It was turned into a longstanding and well-received Universal Studios stunt show if it’s any consolation. Reynolds hasn’t really made much of a career after the long shadow of a supposed costly flop (only two movies since Monte Cristo), but if Renny Harlin, he of the also super expensive, studio-killing flop Cutthroat Island, can continue churning out genre dreck, why can’t Reynolds? The man has a natural feel for big screen spectacle, and with 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he’s proven that he can capture traditional settings and make them feel in keeping with modern tastes, and he can capture futuristic settings while making them feel grounded.

I’m sorry, Mr. Reynolds, because you did not “screw something up” with this movie (fun fact: Reynolds was the screenwriter for Red Dawn). However fair or unfair, the man is defined by his relationship to Kevin Costner, most recently with the 2012 Hatfield and McCoys miniseries and beginning with 1985’s Fandango, which began as a student film that Costner lost out on a role for. None other than Steven Spielberg recruited Reynolds to make a feature version of his short.

It’s strange to go back to The Count of Monte Cristo because of Caviezel’s god and martyr complex. I’m speaking of his 2004 portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s biblically successful Passion of the Christ, but he’s gone even further now, fully adopting the QAnon conspiracy of a cabal of liberal elites harvesting the blood of children, possibly while trafficked in Wayfair furniture, for Satanic rituals. His persecution complex was already alive years ago, saying he was made a “pariah” in Hollywood after Passion of the Christ, despite its international success, and ignoring the fact he starred in a TV series on CBS that ran for five seasons. I guess that’s what he means when he stars in QAnon-related biopics that nobody wants to release (Sound of Freedom is slated to have been released in January 2022, but I cannot find any evidence this has happened). It’s just sad to recall an actor before they so thoroughly declared themselves to be dangerous and/or crazy, but I’m sure to those who knew him, these uncomfortable impulses and proclivities and conspiracy leanings were already there.

The best reason to watch The Count of Monte Cristo is the supporting cast. Pearce is delightfully wicked and enjoying himself. Harris has such weathered gravitas to him. Guzman is hilarious and his modern acting approach just does not fit with the overall vibe of the movie, but that disconnect is part of his amusement. Even Cavill is fun to watch, especially since he was only 18 years old at the time (Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays his mother, is only seven years older). You’ll see the early indications of the swagger and presence that will define him as a square-jawed leading man. The Count of Monte Cristo is a well made, exciting, and satisfying revenge thriller, as well as a smart adaptation of a classic work of literature that actively finds ways to improve upon it, insofar as a big screen movie. I’m sorry I was so snide twenty years ago (the Costner jab was an unnecessary cheap shot). It’s certainly swash, with the buckle, and deserves a better grade and better appraisal after all these years apart.

Re-View Grade: B

Monster’s Ball (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 26, 2001:

Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.

Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.

Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.

Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.

Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.

Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.

The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).

All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.

Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.

Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racist or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Monster’s Ball was Lee Daniels’ first movie as a producer and years before his first directing effort, 2005’s Shadowboxer, but it’s clear as ever in 2021 that his influence is all over this movie. The elements that would come to define Daniels’ later movies, like Precious and The Paperboy and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, are here, and that’s the awkward and sometimes jarring discordant elements of the serious and the soapy, of camp and sincerity (the movies are also so unabashedly horny). A Lee Daniels’ movie is trying to say something, sometimes poorly, often too many things and too spread out, and Monster’s Ball is one of those statement movies, or at least it was upon release. It was a screenplay developed in the mid 1990s by actors Milo Aaddica and Will Rokos, and while it attracted talent at points it didn’t really gain traction until Daniels came onboard as its shepherd. You can see what would be so attractive to Daniels, with the mixture of odd elements as its own eclectic brew. It’s a romance that should not work. It’s life lessons about racism that seem heavy-handed. It’s a thrust-heavy sex scene that goes on for four uncomfortable minutes. I think there’s a recognizable argument to be had that this romance doesn’t quite work. It’s more out of necessity than connection, but maybe that’s even the point. These are two wounded people finding solace in one another, and maybe that’s enough in a world of pain and uncertainty, just finding someone who, in Leticia’s words, “makes you feel good.” Monster’s Ball isn’t as wild and campy as other Daniels’ joints, but you can see the DNA of his other movies, the seeds of artistic flowers that would bloom into his style. It’s got a bit more of an arty, indie sheen here, but Monster’s Ball might as well be Lee Daniels’ Monster’s Ball as far as its key influence, certainly more than director Marc Forster.

Re-watching this movie many years later, it’s clear to me that it is not a movie about race relations, though this is an implicit subject as well, but much more an examination on generational toxic masculinity. This makes much more sense for me with the prominence given to Hank’s (Billy Bob Thornton) perspective over Leticia (Halle Berry). It’s about him learning to break free of his racial prejudices, yes, but that’s more one sign of him learning to break free of the tyranny of his father’s influence, and his father (Peter Boyle) is an infirm cartoon of toxic masculinity. This is a man who brags about his wife dying and how many women he cheated on her with. This is a man who calls his grandson Sonny (Heath Ledger) weak because he displayed empathy for an inmate on death row. It’s his close-minded, harmful definition of what constitutes a “real man” that has become the lingering poison infecting the Grotowski family tree. It’s not subtle in the slightest, but Monster’s Ball is effective in communicating cycles of abuse. Hank carries many of his father’s tendencies and views his own son with contempt for not being able to meet these same restrictive definitions of manliness that his father imposed on him. When his son needs him the most, in his cry for help, is where Hank fails him, telling him he does in fact hate him, and that’s when he loses him forever. The rest of the movie is tracing Hank’s journey to breaking free from the vile influence of a decrepit old man.

To that end, the story structure of Monster’s Ball works better. In the span of 110 minutes, Hank has to reflect on what the negative influences of his life are and to break free of them. When he finally decides to put his father in a nursing home, the lady in charge smiles and says, “You must love your father.” Hank is quick to reply, “No, I don’t. But he’s my father.” There is no love between these men because love was most likely viewed as weakness. It’s the last thing Sonny says before killing himself, after his father says he hates him: “Well I’ve always loved you.” When Leticia looks at a picture of Sonny, something that Hank doesn’t share until late in the film, she remarks that Sonny doesn’t look like Hank. He replies that Sonny has his mother in him, implying the things that made him better came from her. This is a character journey that literally culminates in a man performing oral sex on a woman as a sign of his personal growth. Taken by itself, it sounds laughable, but it mostly works in the context of the movie. Surely his father would view the giving of pleasure to another as a waste of energy and time, so his desire to give rather than receive ends up being his character’s defining push away from the negativity of his father.

My issue is that Leticia feels less like a fully-fleshed out person and more like an infantilized victim. She’s a single mother struggling to keep her job, keep her home, and keep her son’s weight in check. Her husband is on death row. She’s got a lot of opportunities to be given dimension and insight. However, the movie never seems to deem her ready for that attention until the very very end, literally the last scene of the movie. Beforehand, she’s more a prop to the development of others, someone to gauge Hank’s personal growth and someone to be inflicted with all manners of indignities and abuses. When she interacts with Hank’s father, and he’s as awful as you would expect, her residual pain and outrage is the final straw for Hank who then moves the old man out. Her entire relationship with her son feels awkwardly handled. Fiction can illuminate the lives of complicated people, people with flaws that don’t always make the best decisions, but her single-minded obsession with her son’s weight, and her subsequent beating of him, feels like another chain of abuse but without the explanation. Otherwise, it’s just a woman in pain berating her son, and then the boy has to die, and it feels excessive. I know that Hank and Leticia bond over their mutual grief over having lost a son, but it feels like Leticia is more a martyr for Hank’s growth. During their protracted sex scene, her voice cracks and sounds uncomfortably childish. At the end, she asks Hank to take care of her because she needs it. She comes across like an infantilized version of a woman who is there to cry and be pretty.

That’s why the final moment of the movie rings so curious for me. After Hank puts his father away, what is the conflict here? Leticia agrees to move in with Hank after being evicted, and it all seems to be going well. Then while he’s out retrieving his favorite ice cream, she discovers that Hank has drawings by her late husband, reshaping her understanding of Hank. But what is that reshaping? Before he was a guy she served at a diner who happened to help her during the most trying time in her life. Does she think he was seeking her out to take advantage of her? How? She got the diner job because she lost her previous job, and it’s not like he sought her out, but she might not be privy to any of that context. It feels like an artificial conflict that’s meant to boil over and possibly spell doom between these two. Can this budding relationship survive this revelation? But I’m still unclear what exactly the revelation is. He worked at the prison? He was involved in the execution of her husband in a way, walking him to the chair? This seems artificially inflated to me. And yet it is only here that the movie gives her the final say, allowing Berry to wordlessly process this new information and whether or not it dramatically changes anything between her and Hank. She never comments to him about it. You just have to study her face, and it’s here where the movie at long last treats Leticia with the courtesy of nuance.

Monster’s Ball was made famous for two reasons: the extended sex scene between Berry and Thornton and her Best Actress Oscar victory, the first ever for a woman of color (and still the only one twenty years later). Let’s start with Berry’s performance, which was definitely a leap above what she had been demonstrating with trashy thrillers and lame comedies. Berry is good here but the Lee Daniels of it all makes it feel like her performance is being pulled into less subtle, more overtly soapy directions against her better judgements. When she gets into a whiny space, I kind of winced, not because her character was undeserving of complaint, but because the movie was shifting her into that infantilized victim box. Berry is good here, but after re-watching Sissy Spacek’s In the Bedroom performance and Nicole Kidman’s Moulin Rouge! performance, I’d rate her third of the chief 2001 Best Actress nominees. Berry is an actress I had mixed feelings about early in my critical career (2004’s Catwoman did not help), but I’ve come around to appreciate her more. I greatly enjoyed her varied performances in 2012’s Cloud Atlas. She recently directed her first movie where she plays a middle-aged kick boxer, and that sounds punishing and possibly eye-opening.

I’m not the only one that seems to come back to the infamous sex scene; it constitutes almost all of the trivia about the film on IMDB (interesting not-sex-scene fact: Wes Bentley was going to play Sonny but mysteriously dropped out –he admitted to struggling with heroin addiction later– and the studio gave the production 48 hours to find a replacement, and that’s how Heath Ledger got it). Also, I had to revise this paragraph several times to remove any phrases that might come across as unintended innuendos. You could argue the sex scene is a turning point. It happens at the halfway point of Monster’s Ball and beforehand Leticia and Hank have expressed no romantic interest. Afterwards, it becomes about their possible odd-couple romance, if that’s what it can even be called. The scene is played raw and desperate, which is why it made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t because I was watching two actors pretend to physically go at it for an extended period, it’s because these characters were so sad and reaching out in desperation to feel anything fleeting. The attention given to the scene just feels thematically wrong. It’s not offensively gross but it feels a little too prurient, a little too salacious for what the characters are going through emotionally. Thornton has even said in interviews that this movie might have contributed to his eventual divorce from Angelina Jolie, which seems strange to me considering she was also filming steamy scenes with Antonio Banderas at about the same time (2001’s Original Sin).

Director Marc Forster has had an interesting career since helming this four-million dollar indie. He’s done Oscar-bait dramas (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) and quirky indies (Stranger Than Fiction, Stay) and big Hollywood action movies (Quantum of Solace, World War Z). He was hand-selected by producer Brad Pitt to direct World War Z. Forster has no distinct, visible style to him but effectively alters to the genre and story he’s directing. In some ways, this is what a director should be, and yet Forster has never gotten credit for his versatility. Nobody is going to say Quantum of Solace is their favorite James Bond movie, or even the best of Daniel Craig’s run, but it’s not really Forster’s fault that movie didn’t work. His last two movies were smaller dramas, 2016’s All I See is You and 2018’s misguided Christopher Robin, and he’s attached to movies about the Holocaust, a downed World War II pilot, the formation of Greenpeace, and Thomas the Tank Engine, so the man’s versatility continues to go undervalued.

This is my final re-review of the 2001 film slate, and my original review I think mostly holds up. I was thinking the same thing about lazy metaphors and lacking substantial racial commentary, but I better appreciated the scope of the movie not on race but on the effects of toxic masculinity. I think I was more dazzled by the photography in 2001 (or 2002 when it was made available to us in central Ohio) than in 2021. Monster’s Ball is a clumsy but well-intentioned movie that has some pristine elements to it but I don’t quite know if it ever coalesces into the important movie it desires. It’s an interesting artifact of Lee Daniels before he became an industry unto himself, and with Berry showcasing just what she was capable of if given the right opportunity. This began a run of “pretty actress goes drab” of Oscar winners (2002’s Nicole Kidman, 2003’s Charlize Theron, 2004’s Hilary Swank), and so the biggest lesson of Monster’s Ball after all might have been providing a successful template for future actresses to follow a path to Oscar gold.

Re-View Grade: B-

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