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.
With four days left before his execution notoriously reticent death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) decides at last to share his story with the press. He chooses as his vessel reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) who's just spent a week in the slammer for refusing to reveal her sources on a kiddie porn cover story. As Gale's story unfolds (and we see it in flashback) Bitsey becomes convinced he's innocent and she and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) begin a race against the clock to discover the truth that will save him. Sound like an overblown blurb from a movie studio's press files? Apologies for that but the best way to talk about this story's climactic points is to resort to hyperbolic clichés of this ilk--the movie's key moments are without exception melodramatic and overblown. Nonetheless most of the movie is suspenseful the story has several interesting (I wouldn't go so far as compelling) twists and there are plenty of reasons to root for Gale's cause especially if like him and admittedly like me you're a political liberal who fancies yourself at least somewhat intellectual.
If there's one thing that defines Kevin Spacey's acting style it's his unparalleled ability to discourse at length on philosophical minutiae a gift that undoubtedly contributed to his getting this role in the first place. But Spacey gets to stretch a bit more playing Gale--the professorial character in his pre-death row life was a loose cannon even by academia's standards: he partied with his students talked about fantasy and desire in class and belonged to Death Watch a liberal advocacy group opposed to the death penalty. Beyond that his personal life was a disaster. His wife was having an affair with a Spaniard Gale was a borderline alcoholic and his ego was the size of a generously proportioned watermelon. So there are plenty of challenges for Spacey in the part--both in the flashbacks and the death row sequences--and he obviously embraces them all; unfortunately sometimes he squeezes the life out of them in the process foregoing for example the tragic nuances of real alcoholism for the stumbling sobriquets of an overblown town-drunk philosopher. The equally gifted Laura Linney as Constance--Gale's stalwart friend fellow professor co-director of Death Watch and alleged murder victim--finds herself in less familiar territory. Her character is complex yet remarkably one-dimensional for most of the movie which leaves the talented actress turning--albeit reluctantly--to melodrama for support. Winslet too is on unfamiliar ground with an American accent (quite well done old chap-ette) a mission and a bitchiness that's too little seen from this pristine young girl.
It's truly unfortunate that director Alan Parker didn't keep a tighter handle on The Life of David Gale's more dramatic moments since had they come off better this would have been a more even and generally more watchable film. As it is each of the talented lead actors has a scene in which they really let loose on the hysterical wailing waterworks--Winslet lucky gal has two. They may not be bad enough to make you cringe necessarily but they're obviously overplayed. The film would have benefited from a wail-o-meter that would have allowed the bawling to go so far and only so far. All that aside though this film is ultimately less melodramatic than its equivalent TV movie version would have (and probably has) been--and that leads me to my final point. The Life of David Gale is about what TV pundits would call a hot-button issue and while the public is intelligent enough not to be emotionally swayed by the hue and cry of activists on either side of the argument we can--and by God we will--be entertained by it. So I just want to say thank you Hollywood for once again one-upping the 6 o'clock news and for showing that even discussions of the most important issues of our time can be squeezed into a two-hour movie and manipulated in the interests of suspense and drama.
December 03, 2002 10:14am EST
Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is asked to investigate the strange behavior of a small group of scientists aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The expedition has stopped all communication with Earth and mission captain Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has committed suicide. Once on board the space station Kelvin discovers two surviving crewmembers who are suffering from extreme stress and paranoia brought on by studying the planetary body. He learns that Solaris can create physical personifications known as "visitors " which are drawn from the crew's subconscious memories. For Kelvin a "visitor" comes in the form of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who committed suicide years earlier. Soon enough he finds himself in the same nutty predicament as the crew and becomes fixated on the possibility he can change the events that lead to Rheya's death. The film based on Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel of the same name is not so much a sci-fi pic as it is a futuristic romance. It's a slow-building story that raises many questions without ever answering them including the planet's motives.
While Clooney delivers a soulful performance as the worrisome Chris Kelvin it might have been more interesting to establish his character without spelling out his past. Kelvin's wife Rheya is supposed to be a character so dark that flowers practically die when she walks into a room. While McElhone's portrayal of Rheya is not bad her morbidity comes more from the character's back story than the actress's performance; Rheya is suicidal and has an abortion hence she is a sinister being. Viola Davis plays Helen Gordon one of the two surviving crewmembers on the space station. Good performance but her character is too inconsistent. At the start of the film for example she is holed up in her quarters and refuses to come out. In the next scene however she divulges everything she knows to Kelvin in a very logical and calm manner. What happened to the paranoia the extreme stress? Jeremy Davies is the second crewmember Snow (perhaps aptly named because he seems almost as though he's actually on coke). Doing his best Crispin Glover Davies is the most irritating thing about the movie.
Solaris was first adapted as a feature film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 in a much longer and truer version of the book. Director/screenwriter Steven Soderbergh decided to delve deeper into Kelvin's relationship with his wife Rheya than necessary. Not a sci-fi director at heart Soderbergh whitewashes many of the book's technical details such as what constellation the space station is orbiting or anything pertinent about Solaris itself. He chooses instead to focus on Kelvin's troubled relationship with Rheya which is established through sappy flashbacks. But what goes on between the couple on the space station is much more compelling than their overly sentimentalized past. Because the new Rheya is created from Kelvin's mind her own memories are actually his; if he remembers they met on a train for example so will she. Eventually she begins to question her own existence and demands answers from Kelvin that he cannot provide. Soderbergh examines religious philosophical and spiritual issues in a not-so-subtle manner but leaves the film open to interpretation. Completely devoid of splashy special effects Soderbergh's Solaris is beautifully shot with a minimalist effect.
A truck carrying hazardous materials accidentally drops one of its containers into a small lake contaminating it and its delicate ecosystem. Trouble arises when the wacky town entomologist feeds his collection of exotic spiders contaminated crickets which act as a sort of spider "steroid." The result is a horde of giant hairy spiders that prey on the town's unsuspecting inhabitants. Sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer) doesn't believe her son Mike (Scott Terra) when he tries to warn her about what's going on but blames his "media-induced paranoid delusional nightmare" on too much boob-tube watching. Then when mining engineer Chris McCormick's (David Arquette) aunt gets spun--literally--into one of the spider's webs he enlists the help of Sheriff Parker and paranoid radio announcer Harlan Griffin (Doug E. Doug) to fight off the eight-legged freaks. Armed only with rakes ski poles and chainsaws the townspeople fight off the spiders in a losing battle before Chris comes up with a master plan that will blow the arachnids to smithereens.
Prankster Arquette (See Spot Run) tones down his funnyman routine in Eight Legged Freaks and takes on the role of the humble hero. It's refreshing to see Arquette playing a more subdued character with less of a slapstick edge although I half expected him to start yelling at people to "dial straight down the center." As the sheriff Wuhrer (Berserker) plays her dual role well as a headstrong single mother of two and the town leader. Sure she looks a little too hot to be a chief law enforcement officer but maybe some sheriffs really do look like that in small-town America. While the laughs may not have been coming from Arquette there were enough to be had thanks to Doug whose most memorable role to date has to be Sanka Coffie from the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings. His radio announcer in this film believes the government is conspiratorial and that the spiders are the alien invasion he has been warning people about for decades. Doug delivers some of the movie's funniest lines.
New Zealander Ellory Elkayem (Larger Than Life) wrote and directed Eight Legged Freaks a sort of homage to mid-1950s B-movie sci-fi thrillers like Tarantula or Earth vs. the Spider. But while these cult films were funny merely by accident--Tarantula director Jack Arnold probably wasn't being intentionally campy--Eight Legged Freaks at times seems to try too hard. Packing in one joke after another takes away from the spiders' scariness making them seem more like a practical joke than a potentially annihilating threat. The special effects are extremely slick however and the spiders are well done with techniques approaching those in the 1997 sci-fi actioner Starship Troopers (but none of the gigantic CGI spiders are as scary as the real-life tarantulas caged up in terrariums at the start of the movie). Although at 99 minutes the film moves quickly the final scene in which the townspeople are being chased through a labyrinth of mining tunnels drags on a bit too long.
Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) has it made. His screenwriting career is on the rise his first movie's just been made and he's got a cute girl. Life is good--until the House Un-American Activities Committee mistakenly fingers him as a Communist and he quickly falls from the A-list to the blacklist. Getting dumped by both his studio and his girl is nothing a little drinking can't remedy but after drowning his sorrows he nearly drowns himself when he decides to drive drunk and his car veers into the river knocking him unconscious. When Peter comes to he can't remember who he is or where he came from so he's taken in by the kindly people of Lawson a burg stuck in time and still mourning the loss of many of its sons in World War II. They mistake him for Luke Trimble one of their long-lost boys who went MIA in World War II and are overjoyed at his return. Luke's father Harry (Martin Landau) whose zest for life had dwindled so much that he let his beloved movie house The Majestic fall to ruin but with "Luke's" return he plans to reopen it. Celebrations abound. Peter-as-Luke even returns to his relationship with fiancée Adele (Laurie Holden). Meanwhile Peter may have forgotten who he was but the Feds haven't and they're on his tail.
When Carrey's given the right material like he was with The Truman Show he can exhibit moments of greatness. The Majestic doesn't give Carrey the leeway to show his quirky sensibilities demanding that he play it straight throughout the movie (there are a few--too few--glances at humor that Carrey doesn't play up). To bring off the kind of schmaltz this movie oozes Carrey had to bring something of an edge to his character. Instead Peter is neither likable nor unlikable coming off as a bland confused schmo until the climactic end which after two hours of his weak personality is wholly unbelievable. Landau is unexciting as a caricature of the sad sentimental old man without hope--you want to sympathize but there's something faintly chilly about him. Holden's liberated-woman lawyer might have played better in a contemporary movie; she looks and acts too much like a modern-day actress trying to portray a woman of the '50s.
Was this some kind of vanity project dreamed up by a director too taken with his own greatness and past success? Was Frank Darabont envisioning an It's a Wonderful Life for the next generation? (Psst…it's likely the majority of the modern moviegoing public doesn't know who Frank Capra is and could care less especially when the movie is as slow and as completely unbelievable as this one.) Apparently Darabont's in love with his own direction because hardly a moment goes by without some lingering reaction shot. Darabont took an intriguing story about amnesia and mistaken identity and slathered it with sap. Old-fashioned period stories can be lots of fun but it's imperative they be able to keep a present-day audience's interest by including a bit of modern wit and pace. Unfortunately this sticks to the straight-and-narrow. Nobody's going to buy the two-dimensional main characters the shiny happy townspeople or especially the schlocky my-country-'tis-of-thee finale. In its favor The Majestic's ultimate message is a nice one. The movie does have its heartfelt moments and its '50s feel is authentic if a little polished.