From Paris With Love is a volatile hybrid half Hong Kong action flick half American spy thriller fused together in the Dr. Moreau-like laboratory of French filmmakers Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) and Pierre Morel (Taken). As a result of the violent process some parts emerge oddly distorted: Bruce Willis becomes John Travolta Matt Damon becomes Jonathan Rhys Meyers believability becomes an afterthought and plotting becomes irrelevant.
Made up like Ming the Merciless and channeling the hep-cat spirit of Vincent Vega Travolta stars as CIA Agent Charlie Wax a brusque trigger-happy bundle of Yankee hubris summoned to Paris to prevent a potential terrorist plot on a U.N. peace conference. Rhys Meyers plays James Reese an uptight entry-level operative tasked with ferrying Wax around the city to gather the intelligence needed to thwart the conspiracy.
Predictably the two agents quickly settle into the standard buddy cop relationship: Button-down rookie Reese is appalled by coke-snorting hooker-banging Wax’s unorthodox tactics which usually land them in the middle of one huge stunningly choreographed shootout or another; Wax in turn belittles his young sidekick’s naivety and stubborn adherence to protocol.
At times Travolta’s action-hero routine borders on embarrassing — like watching your grandmother try to rap — but his exaggerated bravado is not entirely without its charms. He’s by far the most enjoyable part of the movie skipping merrily through the bullet-strewn Parisian underground spewing politically incorrect aphorisms in between explosions reveling in his role as the obnoxious American. Virtually every line he delivers earns laughs — and often on purpose.
If only he had a more capable sparring partner than Rhys Meyers whose range From Paris With Love sadly reveals extends little beyond his petulant amorous act as young Henry VIII in Showtime’s The Tudors. As much as Travolta enlivens the action the unutterably bland Rhys Meyers deflates it — and he gets the lion’s share of the screen time unfortunately.
Director Morel who cut his teeth as a cinematographer on such kinetic action fare as The Transporter does some virtuoso work with the camera incorporating everyday locales into his exquisitely frenzied set pieces. Dinner at a nondescript Chinese restaurant ends in a massive gunfight; an intimate dinner party launches an extended chase; a routine brothel visit gives way to ... another massive gunfight.
If only he'd put as much care into his casting decisions. After each of From Paris With Love’s violent skirmishes when Reese questions why things went so suddenly — and disastrously — awry Wax angrily shouts “Don’t you get it yet?” to his hopelessly obtuse partner. At times I think Travolta is actually pleading with his fellow castmember to wake up get his act together and stop ruining the movie. It's a doomed effort.
Lonely Hearts is really two stories set in post WWII America. The main story is about Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) a small-time swindler who bilks war widows out of their insurance money and life savings by getting them to fall in love with him. He then marries them and kills them once he has control of their assets. His neat little scam is thrown off kilter when he discovers that one of his targets Martha Beck (Salma Hayek) is penniless. He tries to dump her but she figures out his scheme and they become lethal lovers and partners in crime. The other story is about the detective (John Travolta) who tracks them down. He is picking up the pieces of his own tragic life after his wife commits suicide. His son (Dan Byrd) is a distant and difficult teenager and his girlfriend (Laura Dern) is trying to help him get on with his life. Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream) is excellent as the greasy playboy who seduces and kills lonely women. He plays the sleazy charm and indecisive weakness of Ray Fernandez perfectly. But the standout performance of the film is Salma Hayek. Although Martha Beck on her best day never looked anywhere near as good as Hayek does on her worst the actress makes the cold-blooded character her own doing whatever it takes to get her hands on the ill-gotten gains. The image of a bloody and frustrated Hayek in a frumpy housecoat sucking on a cigarette with a hacksaw in hand complaining about the tenaciousness of one of their victims is priceless. John Travolta is either miscast or misused as the tortured tough guy detective Elmer Robinson. This wasn't a cool character and Travolta is a cool star who seemed to be straight jacketed by a character who is almost completely reactionary. James Gandolfini and Laura Dern do their best in their supporting roles. Writer-director Todd Robinson turns in a serviceable job behind the camera but falls down on the script. Lonely Hearts' main problem seems to be his inability to wiggle away from the facts to create an engaging movie. Robinson is actually the grandson of the real-life detective who brought Fernandez and Beck to justice. Robinson never gets beyond the made-for-TV luridness of the basic story. Gandolfini gets stuck in the role of narrator which would have been much more engaging if Travolta's character would have been the one talking to the audience. Robinson never lets the audience inside the characters long enough to make the film a more emotional experience. This is a problem with true stories; the writers are often not able or willing to be creative with the lives and motivations of the characters who have done extraordinary and well-documented things.
When eccentric writer/director John Waters made the subversive but colorful Hairspray in 1988—about a plus-sized girl and her dreams to dance as she breaks taboos in the early ‘60s—he probably thought it would be chalked up as another of his cult favorites. But here we are reviewing the latest Hairspray incarnation a movie version of the smash hit Broadway musical based on the 1988 offbeat classic. Funny how things work. The story is pretty much the same: The bubbly Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart wants to dance on Baltimore’s TV dance show The Corny Collins Show. Her mother Edna (Travolta) isn’t too keen on her daughter’s aspirations only because she doesn’t want to see Tracy hurt. But against all odds Tracy wows them on and off the TV screen squashing the reigning princess Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) finding love with the local hunk Link (Zac Efron)—and fighting for racial equality on the hippest dance party on TV. Tracy is the cornerstone to making Hairspray zing—and every actress who has played her has nailed it in her own way. Ricki Lake gave us a good start as the original; Marissa Jaret Winokur won a Tony playing her on Broadway. Now we have brilliant newcomer Nikki Blonsky a former ice cream parlor employee who beat out several hundred girls to win the role. Her happy-go-lucky Tracy quite literally lights up the screen every time she appears and you find yourself grinning like a fool the whole time she is shimmying and shaking. Let’s hope she isn’t just a one-trick pony. The supporting cast is also very appealing. Michelle Pfeiffer who once again gets to use those lovely pipes of hers is perfectly unctuous as Velma Von Tussle Amber’s scheming mother and the TV station manager. Queen Latifah adds her certain joie de vivre as Motormouth Maybelle the host of Corny Collins’ “Negro Day.” Also good are Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s lollypop-eating best friend Penny Pingleton and Elijah Kelley as the groovin’ Seaweed Penny’s forbidden love. The one drawback is Travolta as the oversized Edna. He does a fair job as the caring mom who is reticent to let her daughter go out into the big bad world. We can even see the old Travolta we know and love come alive when Edna dances. But because the actor simply looks so very wrong in latex and lipstick it takes away from the performance. No one can really surpass the late Divine the original Hairspray’s Turnblad matriarch who did it au naturel. Directing a movie like Hairspray is basically a no-brainer and choosing Adam Shankman to helm is as good a choice as anyone else. He is certainly not known for his cinematic genius having directed fluff such as Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and The Pacifier but he understands the bubblegum appeal of a bee-bopping musical. Fueled by catchy tunes from the Broadway show plus a few new ones created just for the movie Shankman orchestrates the big song and dance numbers—of which there are plenty—in such a way to get you moving in your seat every time. He also frames his talent in their more personal character-driven songs with a steady hand. I just wonder what John Waters would have done with it. Maybe a little more dog poop? In any event forget about Chicago and Dreamgirls--Hairspray is the perfect popcorn movie musical that will get everyone dancing and singing the way Grease did a generation ago.
The movie tagline sort of sums it up: "Four guys from the suburbs hit the road...and the road hits back." The four middle-aged friends who like to jump on their motorcylces and go riding around once a week are: Doug (Tim Allen) a dentist embarrassed by his job; Bobby (Martin Lawrence) a henpecked husband who wants to break away from being a plumber; Dudley (William H. Macy) a mild-mannered computer programmer and resident geek; and finally Woody (John Travolta) an entrepreneur with seemingly the most going for him. In actuality Woody is about to hit rock bottom but rather than be honest with his friends he convinces them all to hit the open road with him--to feel the wind in their hair so to speak. And as they go looking for adventure they soon find that they’ve embarked on a journey they will never forget. Uh-huh. Who would have thought these four actors would make a movie together? Casting Wild Hogs looked like the best part about making the movie as the producers probably sat around coming up with different variations (wonder who else they considered--Tom Hanks? Steve Carell?) Comedy veterans Allen and Lawrence have fun riffing on one another doing their shtick here and there while Travolta (the only real biker of the bunch) and Macy easily keep up with the antics. For the most part these guys click but I’m sure everyone did this purely for the money—and the Harleys. Ray Liotta gets to play the menacing villain once again as the leader of a motorcycle gang who has it out for our hapless quartet. Of course this time Liotta plays it for laughs and does a nice job with it. Even Marisa Tomei makes an appearance as a small town denizen who falls for Macy’s Dudley as the boys end up defending the town from Liotta and his thugs Magnificent Seven-style. You can see every plot point coming a mile away plus a few director Walt Becker probably didn’t even know were in there. But honestly from the guy who directed Van Wilder what did you expect? Becker is handy with a camera and totally knows where the film’s bread is buttered focusing all his energy and attention on his four stars. Unfortunately in doing so Wild Hogs mostly misses out on the poignancy of say a City Slickers even though it tries real hard to get us to connect with these middle-aged men trying to recapture youth--or whatever. But listen this isn’t supposed to change the world; Wild Hogs is just pure dumb fun about a group of guys wearing leather and riding hogs. Period.
Mobster-turned-movie producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) decides to shift over to yet other creative albeit dangerous terrain: The music industry. He's spurred along by the murder of his friend small-time music maven Tommy (James Woods) who leaves behind a beautiful widow Edie (Uma Thurman) and a massive debt to a dangerous rap music mogul Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer). Chili tells Edie about Linda Moon (Christina Milian) a gifted singer he decides to manage after seeing her perform. With her raw talent Linda has the potential to bail them out. But first they have to get her out of a nasty contract and abusive relationship with her former manager Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) his right-hand man Raji (Vince Vaughn) and his right-hand man a bodyguard with the unfortunate name of Elliot Wilhelm (The Rock). Complicating things are the Russian mob and a bevy of cops keeping Chili in their crosshairs. This all feels tacked on as the nameless accented characters serve the same purpose as robots in a science fiction movie--they can get blown away without sacrificing any stars or feeling any emotion (prioritize those considerations as you wish).
John Travolta who has barely aged in the 10 years since the first film is in top form in Be Cool. He lives up to the title and his character's name. No matter how dire the circumstances no matter how much he's outnumbered and no matter how many gleaming pistols he has aimed at him he never ever loses his even-keeled demeanor. But maybe that's the problem--because if Chili doesn't ever break a sweat then why should we the audience? Thurman isn't exactly showing her years either but has little to do as Edie. Vince Vaughn is the best he's ever been--he's amped up thinks he's black and sports a high-pitched laugh that is instantly annoying and hysterical. As Raji's gay bodyguard the Rock has a great time lampooning himself (at least the raised eyebrow bit) and revealing terrific comic timing. Cedric the Entertainer would have been better off as more of a reluctant menace to play toward his skills instead of against them. Even the young up and comer Milian does a nice job playing the ingénue singer. But have you ever thrown a party and realize that you've actually invited too many of your good friends? And you don't get to spend enough time with any of them? Well adding the following to the list above is: Andre Benjamin of the hip hop grou Outkast plays Dabu--a klutzy overeager trigger man for Cedric the Entertainer; the late Robert Pastorelli as a deli-sandwich eating hit man; Danny DeVito in a cameo reprising his character from the original; and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler playing himself.
Director F. Gary Gray's understated style and clarity is what made a movie like The Italian Job so entertaining. But with Be Cool that style is mostly absent. There is a flatness to the direction; specifically there are a lot of close-ups for one-liners and many scenes go on just a few beats too long (one that comes to mind is an otherwise funny scene where The Rock models impossibly gay threads for himself in a mirror). In some cases jokes are simply repeated instead of building. Those are heavy sins for a comedy. Plus the kind of breezy cinema that Be Cool and its predecessor Pulp Fiction have traded on has now become a little worn out. It's just not enough anymore to have a black-clad Travolta confidently stride across a room toward danger even if he does it better than almost anybody else. Or having charismatic tough guys oozes the cool all while discussing things like the merits of a Burger King sandwich. What's needed in Be Cool is a slightly fresher perspective. The convoluted plot with its meaningless table-turning doesn't help matters. It's a series of entertaining moments rather than a coherent movie.
October 01, 2004 10:40am EST
As Ladder 49 opens Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) gets trapped inside a blazing warehouse while rescuing a trapped civilian. With his escape routes either caved in or burned down Jack has to keep his wits as he waits for Fire Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) and his fellow firefighters to rescue him. Lying in a bed of rubble Jack has rather vivid and detailed flashbacks of pivotal moments in his life including his first day at the firehouse the day he met his wife-to-be at the supermarket their wedding day the birth of their daughter and so on. While these flashbacks provide neat chronological accounts of his life they do very little to shape or build Jack's character because they are focused on his heroic antics rather than the man underneath the uniform. The film also works feverishly to showcase the brotherly bond between the men but doesn't extend beyond silly firehouse pranks including putting a goose in someone's locker or tossing a lit newspaper into an occupied toilette stall. The only thing missing from these tawdry sitcom-like moments is a laugh track. Third Watch the NBC drama following New York City police paramedics and firefighters on the 3-11 p.m. shift offers more character development and intrigue in a one-hour episode than this feature film dishes out in two hours.
Phoenix is both sweet and awkward in the role of Jack a rookie firefighter who can't hide his enthusiasm about his line of work. Jack's charming side is demonstrated in his relationship with his wife particularly in the intensely loving way Phoenix looks at his co-star Jacinda Barrett whether they're at a crowded birthday bash or riding on the back of the fire truck following their humble small-town nuptials. Phoenix's Jack also has a slightly dim-witted side which comes through in the "Aw shucks" way he reacts to being the butt of many firehouse pranks. But there's a third sadly missing dimension missing to Jack: He's a hero with no fire in his belly. Travolta on the other hand just isn't convincing in this blue-collar role of fire chief. Perhaps it's just that these characters are too damn perfect. Post 9/11 firefighters have become more than rescuers they are in the eyes of many Americans heroes and Ladder 49 adopts the biased notion that they are also faultless.
Director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) visually captures the essence of this working class Baltimore neighborhood and its firehouse from Jack's cluttered wood-paneled home to Mike's utilitarian firehouse office. Production designer Tony Burrough paid meticulous attention to set details particularly in how the backdrops age over a decade; Jack's house becomes junkier and his gear gets dingier. The controlled fires on the set look incredibly real and feel equally oppressive--and this is where Russell's direction really shines. A scene in which Jack enters his first burning building for example adds to the film's authenticity: The probie (firefighter lingo for a new guy) runs up the stairs too fast and doesn't aim the hose high enough. These small details remind moviegoers what an exact line of work this really is. But while Ladder 49 effectively demonstrates the risky and altruistic work firefighters do it doesn't delve any deeper than its spectacular rescues. Throughout the film Jack is asked what motivates him to run into a burning building when everyone else is running out--a question scribe Lewis Colick never lets Ladder 49's characters answer.
With its twisty-turning plot and military setting Basic could be the love child of an illicit affair between The Usual Suspects and The General's Daughter; it even borrows the star of the latter. In Basic John Travolta plays Tom Hardy a former Army Ranger and interrogator extraordinaire who's now a DEA agent in Panama suspended from duty on suspicion of bribery. He's hitting the rebellious law enforcement officer's requisite bottle of Jack Daniels heavily--until an old friend on the local army base Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) calls him in to investigate the disappearances and probable deaths of an elite group of trainees and their commander Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L Jackson) during a training session in the Panamanian jungle. Staff investigator Lt. Julia Osbourne (Connie Nielsen) a plucky Southern gal who's none too pleased with Hardy's invasion of her turf is assigned to help Hardy question the unit's surviving members Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). As their stories unfold over a series of flashbacks the interrogators discover a military underworld of drugs murder and coercion--and the mysterious existence of a rogue Ranger unit called "Section 8." Now for an interrogation of our own. Is the plot convoluted? Sir yes sir! Is it too tricky for its own good? Sir yes sir! Thank you soldier. You may stand down.
The trigger-finger pointing winking cluck-clucking "gotcha" persona Travolta (Swordfish Domestic Disturbance) creates in Hardy is as appropriate to the story as it can possibly be; the way he manipulates his subjects under interrogation is much the same way the story manipulates its audience. He leads them--and the observant Lt. Osbourne--to believe one thing then pulls the rug out from under them to prove the old cliché of military movies: that nothing is as it seems. In Nielsen's (The Hunted One Hour Photo) Osbourne we're given a character who could lead us through the jungle of the plot (she discovers the "facts" at the same time as the audience so her reaction is meant I suppose to be ours) but since Hardy spends much of his time making her look and feel like an idiot she comes off as one and frankly so do we. The talented Jackson (Changing Lanes) mostly does the bellowing drill sergeant bit while Ribisi (Heaven) as the homosexual son of a high-ranking general talks like he has cotton wool in his mouth and moves and twitches like he's mildly brain-impaired. (His character's not supposed to be; he only got shot in the leg.) One bright spot in this movie is the featured role for hunky Van Holt (Windtalkers Black Hawk Down) whose chiseled good looks and heroic demeanor make him a shoo-in should anyone ever make a live-action Johnny Bravo movie.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences some heavy-duty action in Die Hard Die Hard With a Vengeance and The Hunt for Red October but he's also the director who brought us such gems as Rollerball and Last Action Hero so it's not surprising that in Basic we get some action and intrigue paired with the out-there story stylings and narrative confusion of some of his less successful work. Here each flashback brings new information that conflicts with what we've been told before and the story never really resolves those conflicts in any satisfying way. The "big twist" at the end instead of bringing it all together creates gaping holes in the plot or at least creates so much doubt in the story we've just spent an hour and a half watching that it's easy to get fed up with trying to figure it out. Naturally no one likes to be spoon-fed plot resolutions but in order for twists to work they have to give the audience something to focus its doubt on--they can't just call the whole kit and caboodle into question. We have to be able eventually to figure it out. But hey maybe we aren't supposed to work out the details; after all this movie with its catchy one-word title and colorful cast of characters is just begging for a sequel: Basic 2: Explaining the First Movie.