Monday, December 26, 2005


From the Vault: Hook

Parallels between director Steven Spielberg and the character Peter Pan have circulated for years, stemming from the director's perceived lack of maturity in his work and his admitted desire to film the Pan story himself.

Now comes Hook, which should close the book on both the criticism and Spielberg's tendencies by allowing the director to get Neverland out of his system. Unfortunately, all Spielberg has come up with is an overproduced and underconceived yawner of a movie.

Hook's premise shows promise, especially in the early scenes. Peter Pan has departed the land of the Lost Boys to move to America and grow up into Peter Banning (Robin Williams), a career-obsessed corporate attorney who spends more quality time with his cell phone than his wife (Caroline Goodall) or his children (Charlie Korsmo, Amber Scott).

Fulfilling one of the few promises he ever keeps, Banning takes the family to London to visit his wife's grandmother Wendy (Maggie Smith) — the real Wendy from the Peter Pan stories. She remembers Banning's past, though his memory omits everything that happened before he was 12.

Afraid of heights and open windows, Banning seems apprehensive about the Darling family home and soon sees why when his kids are abducted by a man who signs his note Captain James Hook. Thus, the stage is set for the most tedious, cluttered movie in recent memory.

Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) whisks Banning back to Neverland to reclaim his lost perpetual youth and face off with the vengeful Hook in order to retrieve his children. It's not just Pan's youth that was lost, so was the movie's premise.

The principal idea (What if Peter Pan grew up?") seems to be all there is. No real sense of what that would really mean appears in the film. All that remains is an extremely long setup followed by an extremely boring payoff consisting mainly of an amnesiac Banning running around with the Lost Boys in some Regarding Henry-esque voyage of self-discovery.

Portraying Hook falls on the capable shoulders of Dustin Hoffman, who looks like Terry-Thomas and talks like William F. Buckley Jr. Hoffman, along with Bob Hoskins as his sidekick Smee, seem to be the only ones having fun in this film. Unfortunately, their limited screen time prevents them from sharing that spirit with the audience.

Hook has that glossy Spielberg feel and the requisite bombastic John Williams score, but it's bloated and lacks magic. Spielberg's talent seems to be missing, especially in Hook's poorly choreographed and confusing action scenes.

The sets explode with so many artificial details that at times you want to avert your eyes from the excess. About an hour and 15 minutes into Hook, a youngster a few seats down from me asked his mom, "When will it be over?" Unfortunately, the answer was another hour away and that finally kills Hook.

If all elements had been tightened and the script seemed more like an original than a lukewarm remake, Hook could have been a classic. As it is, this is just a fairly well-made exercise in tedium. One can only hope that Spielberg can now move his talent forward and stop stagnating in Neverland.

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From the Vault: Billy Bathgate

Fans of books often become hypercritical when it comes to screen adaptations and this will likely be the case with Billy Bathgate, which takes a decent stab at filming E.L. Doctorow's best seller but loses its way.

The book is another typical Doctorow blending of fact and fiction. Its cast of characters is much smaller than in Ragtime, but the same intent is there: evoking a time and place in American history. Director Robert Benton and writer Tom Stoppard's film falters on this key point. Instead of visualizing the novel's historical mood, their concentration on the novel's story and structure leads them astray.

The book details the experiences of 15-year-old Billy (Loren Dean in the film). While his age is an issue in the novel, it never comes up in the movie as he finds himself initiated into the world of gangster Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman), whose power is waning. Doctorow used this story to chronicle the fall of the self-made Schultz, who found crime to be a way to pull himself out of the gutter before he fell to the ambition of immigrants who took over his rackets.

Along the way, Doctorow firmly established the time's feel and the influence of other well-known figures such as Thomas Dewey. The film's structure follows that of the novel, beginning with a scene and the flashing back, moving forward, flashing back again and then sprinting to the story's end. That structure though doesn't translate well to the screen.

As the movie starts, Benton establishes everything fairly well, hitting the little points as well as the big ones, but at some point he and Stoppard must have realized that if they followed that course they'd have a four-hour film so they speed toward the conclusion. As a result, plot points get muddied along with the characters, though a couple of good performances survive.

Nicole Kidman is quite alluring as Drew Preston, the girlfriend of one of Dutch's men who becomes lover to both Schultz and Billy. However, the acting standout is Steven Hill as Abbadaba Berman, Dutch's right-hand man and a wizard with numbers. In many ways, the book concentrated more on the relationship between Berman and Billy and the film might have been wise to follow suit.

The usually reliable Hoffman disappoints here. It may stem from the fact that the book is seen entirely through Billy's eyes and Bathgate never quite sees the real person in Dutch, but Hoffman doesn't really create one for the film either. There's a distinct lack of charisma for someone who made such a success of himself, even if was in an illegal field.

Dean plays Billy adequately, but his character observes the action more than he participates in it, so there's little room for a performance. The worst casting belongs to Bruce Willis as Bo Weinberg, Drew's boyfriend whom Dutch murders.

The musical score proves quite good some of the time, but then seems equally awful in other parts, particularly in the scenes between Drew and Billy. Billy Bathgate ends up as lifeless as one of Schultz's victims and the failure to reinvent the story for the screen winds up being fatal.

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From the Vault: Dutch

Wiping sweat from his brow, the young man hesitantly enters his boss's office. "Mr. Hughes," he says meekly. "There's a problem with the Script-O-Matic."

The writer-director-producer-hyphenate king of self-plagiarism, John Hughes, looks up from the magazine he's reading. "Well, what is it?"

"It's the setting. It's not giving us Chicago, it's saying Atlanta," the aspiring screenwriter/lackey gulps as he addresses the writer of Home Alone and The Breakfast Club.

Hughes says nothing and accompanies the young man into the room filled with that electronic wonder, the Script-O-Matic — the machine that Hughes invented following his early successes with films starring Molly Ringwald. To commemorate her contribution to his career, Hughes even named this particular model after her.

"Kid, there's no problem with this machine. This is the Planes, Trains and Automobiles scenario. What do you think the Thanksgiving reference was for? They start in Atlanta, but they drive to Chicago."

Thus, Dutch was about to be born. The beeps and whistles of Molly the Script-O-Matic continue, spewing forth the ingredients of yet another potentially successful yet wholly manufactured product from John Hughes.

Young boys were hot after Home Alone, so Molly advises that a young male be involved, preferably with a blue-collar Uncle Buck-type character. Molly even suggests that the relationship between the hateful older daughter from Uncle Buck be reproduced, only with a young boy instead.

"Mr. Hughes, we've hit another snag. John Candy is unavailable," Hughes' assistant says nervously.

"Even for a cameo?" Hughes replies, discouraged.

"Yes. Perhaps we could get Al Bundy from Married ... With Children instead," the young man suggests.

"Brilliant idea. Call his agent after you finish the story treatment," Hughes orders.

Molly churns on, lifting the clash of classes from The Breakfast Club and the once-enjoyable but now tiresome "ha ha" musical cues that Hughes first used in Sixteen Candles.

"Mr. Hughes," the assistant calls. "Sorry to disturb you again, but Molly wants to know if Dutch should be a heartwarmer or slapstick?"

"Why not both?"

Of course, the above was just a speculative dramatization, make-believe designed to illustrate this review's larger point that once again John Hughes shows diminishing returns by his refusal — or inability — to move to new territory.

In the case of Dutch, a pair of passable performances get undermined by the schizophrenic screenplay. O'Neill does well distancing himself from Al Bundy and Ethan Randall is OK as the snobbish and troubled young man who becomes O'Neill's cross-country traveling companion.

The story, such as it is, concerns Dutch (O'Neill), the kid's mother's boyfriend, taking Doyle (Randall) to his mom's for Thanksgiving. Doyle resents the fact that his mother (a wasted JoBeth Williams) divorced his heel of a father (Christopher McDonald) and Doyle channels his resentment into anger toward the whole world. McDonald, Geena Davis' jerk of a husband in Thelma & Louise, basically plays the same character here, only upgrading him in class from blue collar origins to pampered ones.

This film's particular problem is that it sets out to be both sentimental and uproarious and misses on both counts, failing to elicit laughs from gags about cots and ruining potentially touching moments with an overblown musical score.

The somber and serious score makes things even worse when it is counterbalanced with Hughes' "funny" musical steals as when the soundtrack laughs at Doyle's perusal of nude playing cards before switching to a shot of Dutch looking on approvingly and lovingly. Dutch doesn't particularly insult the audience's sensibilities or intelligence, it's just not funny or touching.

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From the Vault: Homicide

With his third time out as writer and director, David Mamet crafts an eloquent and entertaining film that outdistances most movies released so far this year.

Homicide stars Mamet regular Joe Mantegna as Bobby Gold, a New York homicide detective who sees himself as a "garbage man," an attitude stemming not just from his job but from his Jewish self-loathing as well.

In fact, the two cases Gold works in Homicide function as red herrings for the movie's real intent — Gold investigating himself and determining which of his roles come first: American cop or Jew.

Mamet doesn't preach and infuses this highly compelling film with a visceral power and his gift for spinning profanity into poetry. When the swearing comes from Mantegna's lips, it sounds dead on and necessary, unlike so many films where the vulgarities seem to be there for vulgarity's sake. These characters talk like this and to hear them any other way would be dishonest.

Some argue that New York's lack of a middle class begets many of its problems, where residents either are rich or poor with few living in between. Mamet broaches this subject as well by contrasting the two cases Gold find himself investigating.

As the film starts, the FBI has bungled the apprehension of a major drug dealer and decides to dump the case back in the NYPD's lap. Gold and his partner Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) previously had worked cases involving the fugitive and volunteer to help bring him in. During their investigation, Gold happens upon a second crime, the murder of an elderly Jewish store owner and he finds himself assigned to that case as well, much to his chagrin.

Gold views the string-pulling by the victim's wealthy family as a personal affront and wants to stay on the first case, where he might find glory. The store owner's murder starts to gnaw at Gold, launching his inquiry into hate and his own heritage.

Gold wants to ignore the slaying, but as he becomes more involved in what appears to be a hate crime, his lust for the drug case subsides until, finally, dire results occur on both fronts.

The initial scene with the FBI sets up the film's conflicts perfectly as the detectives only recognize bigotry when it's perpetrated by someone else. Gold feels comfortable hurling epithets about people of his own ethnic background, but he and his Irish partner get up in arms when the black FBI agent uses the same derogatory expression for Jews.

It sounds as if Homicide might be Do the Right Thing from the police point-of-view, but it isn't, though both films are among the best and most provocative works in recent years.

The conflict in Homicide exists basically within Gold himself and after the early scenes, the prejudices battle not individuals or groups but Gold's reassessment of his own loyalties.

Mantegna works well with Mamet, as has been proved both on stage and screen, and his performance here may be the best he's ever given. The supporting cast supports him well, but this is Mantegna's movie, almost a one-man show.

Mamet moves the film along at a good pace, yet he never rushes the audience. He wants to make sure we see what is happening. The police work seems real and the suspense Mamet builds at times makes all the other thrillers this year pale by comparison.

The title implies the aftermath of death, but Homicide really depicts the consequences of confronting life and how one balances different and often conflicting priorities.

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Sunday, December 25, 2005


From the Vault: Baywatch

When someone finds this writer curled up in a fetal ball staring blankly at a TV screen, that person might say, "The sitcoms got him" but it wasn't the sitcoms — 'twas Baywatch killed the critic.

Four new TV shows remain that I have yet to review (Young Rider, Top of the Hill, Booker and Mancuso, FBI). From here on out, our faithful readers will have to fend for themselves.

The saddest part about Baywatch for those who see it is the fact that brain cells do not regenerate and I consider myself fortunate that I'm not lying in a coma after enduring Friday's episode.

Memories of the 1970s flooded my mind as I watched the opening credits, which consist of every wet member of the cast jogging toward the camera in swimwear. Even the 10-year-old son of one of the character charges the TV screen sans shirt. It's a monument to T&A.

In case you don't know, and I pray that you don't, Baywatch is NBC's new "leer and jeer" show about California lifeguards. It stars David Hasselhoff of Knight Rider fame and Parker Stevenson, half of The Hardy Boys. Hasselhoff plays a lieutenant, a career lifeguard. I'm not up on my salaries for lifeguards who make the rank of lieutenant, but his character certainly owns an expensive looking beach house.

Stevenson's character is a lawyer moonlighting as a lifeguard. In Friday's episode, his character says he makes $200 an hour as a lawyer and $12.50 an hour as a lifeguard. His boss at the law firm informs him that a client saw him at the beach and wants his legal fees back and Stevenson had to choose his job of choice —
lawyer or lifeguard.

You know, I think he made the right call by taking a $187.50-an-hour pay cut so he could keep watch over a beach devoid of even one ounce of extra cellulite. Other storylines involved Hasselhoff's friend who kidnapped his son from his ex-wife and a young lifeguard lusting after a beautiful girl on the beach.

My favorite moment came as Stevenson and Hasselhoff, in an effort to save two kids trapped in a drainage ditch, discussed their problems while crawling through a concrete tube. Nothing pleases me more than listening to two men debate whether or not he could keep his locker if he quit his job. Not much more needs to be said about Baywatch unless I go ahead and mention its insipid writing and below-par acting, but this is the last TV show I'm going to review. This critic is retiring his TV and VCR to pursue more worthwhile activities such as making sculptures out of popsicle sticks or standing on a bridge and lobbing mashed potatoes at passers-by.

The 1980s, overall, provided much in the way of quality of television: Cheers, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting, L.A. Law, The Wonder Years, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Newhart, Murphy Brown — the list goes on. However, the new shows premiering for the 1989-90 season indicate that the golden age has ended and we face a return to the horror days of the 1970s when Charlie's Angels, Three's Company, B.J. and the Bear and all of that ilk reigned supreme. In a season filled with spinoffs of Who's the Boss? and Perfect Strangers, can a Return to Supertrain movie be far behind?

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From the Vault: ABC charged with criminal negligence


WASHINGTON (BS) — As ABC prepares to broadcast the third-to-last episode of Twin Peaks tonight, a federal grand jury has indicted the network and its parent company, Capital Cities communications Inc., for crimes against humanity and criminal negligence.

The first charge relates to the seemingly endless stream of idiotic and banal programming the network has unleashed on the public over the years. The second charge accuses the network of negligent treatment of several of its series and conspiring to bring about the programs' premature demise. Because of the statute of limitations, ABC only is criminally liable for series and events that have occurred since 1974.

U.S. Attorney Anthony De Medici believes the government has an iron-clad case.

"With the sitcoms and Aaron Spelling and the obviously criminal mistreatment of Twin Peaks, China Beach, Soap and Anything But Love, there is no doubt in my mind that we will convict," De Medici said.

If convicted, the network could be dissolved. The Fox network already has offered to buy its assets, should Capital Cities be forced to break ABC apart. De Medici indicated that no charges were brought against ABC pertaining to Moonlighting since, "it is fairly evident that the stars and makers of that show killed it, not the network."

De Medici said that there still could be indictments against Bob Saget and Dave Coulier as criminal co-conspirators pertaining to their roles on Full House and as hosts of America's Funniest Home Videos and America's Funniest People, respectively.

The grand jury was called in the wake of last week's decision to pull Twin Peaks off the air with only two original episodes left to air. The ratings for the show had declined steadily in its second season once ABC exiled the series to the dead zone of Saturday night. Demographically, the Twin Peaks audience is younger and tends to go out on Saturday nights.

Despite knowing early in the season that Saturdays were a bad idea, ABC kept the program languishing there while the ratings declined. After 16 episodes, Twin Peaks was yanked abruptly for six weeks before returning for its final six episodes in the killer 8 p.m. Thursday time slot opposite Cheers, the No. 1 show on television.

Last week, ABC announced that following tonight's airing of the fourth of the remaining six episodes, Twin Peaks would again go on hiatus with the final two episodes airing together June 10.

"It is ridiculous. They've screwed the show over. Granted, the ratings sank but with all the weeks it wasn't on, even the fans lost interest," said Robert Owlsby of Missoula, Mont.

Owlsby added that even if anyone watches the final two episodes when they air two months from now, the series will end with a cliffhanger that likely will go unresolved.

"Just give it an ending, a resolution. That's all I ask, Mr. Iger," Owlsby said, addressing Bob Iger, president of ABC Entertainment. "It's your move, Bob." Owlsby then vanished in a bright light.

De Medici also intends to bring up the network's mishandling of the comedy Soap, which aired from 1977-1981. The series was canceled with Jessica before a firing squad, Burt walking into an ambush, Jodie believing he was an old Jewish man and Chester about to kill Danny and Annie.

One of the government's witnesses, Billy Tate, was 18 when Soap was canceled.

"I've been in limbo for the past 10 years. I want to be 28. My cousin has gone from Chachi to Charles, but I'm still in this syndicated alternate plane waiting to age and get new parts," Tate said.

De Medici presented a document that showed part of the evidence against ABC. "The list of offenses is long and damaging, crimes against humanity that will be extremely hard to defend," he said.

The evidence includes: Who's the Boss?, America's Funniest Home Videos, America's Funniest People, Foul Ups, Bleeps and Blunders, That's Incredible, way too damn many Aaron Spelling series, Charlie's Angels, Three's Company/Three's a Crowd, Growing Pains, Full House, Perfect Strangers, Starsky and Hutch, Baby Talk, Hart to Hart and SWAT.

De Medici said that, in addition to the entertainment testimony, the most damning evidence will involve the news division as well which encouraged local affiliates in the 1970s to use "happy talk" on their local newscasts and began the downward spiral of television as a reliable source for actual news.

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Saturday, December 24, 2005


From the Vault: Bonnie Hunt


Working with Robin Williams can go one of two ways: watching a one-man show or joining him at play. Thank goodness actress Bonnie Hunt's similar improvisational background (she started at Chicago's Second City) made her a ready partner for Williams, whether it be entertaining their young co-stars with routines of Jodie Foster's Nell character ordering food at a drive-through window or creating an alternate version of their new film Jumanji starring Mo and Tony, affectionately known as "the trailer park couple."

Hunt, who may be a more familiar face than name, has appeared in the Beethoven movies as well as last year's Only You. She also stars, produces and writes a CBS comedy called The Bonnie Hunt Show, which earned glowing reviews but is currently residing in hiatus land. The series is the second Hunt has attempted on CBS with David Letterman as executive producer.
"Dave's my pal. He's a dear friend of mine, like a brother to me and a wonderful business partner. The one thing we suffer from is the political agenda. It doesn't seem to be our nature."

Currently, Hunt's mind is on a different type of game — Jumanji, a sinister board game that is also the title of her new movie. When Hunt was growing up with her six siblings in Chicago, their games were Chutes and Ladders and Mousetrap, not a game that unleashes stampedes, monkeys and monsoons on a small, unsuspecting New England town.
"When I read the script, it reminded me a lot of The Wizard of Oz. I was so involved in it; my imagination was going crazy reading it. I thought it'd be nice to be involved in a film that's nice for the whole family to see."

Speaking of family, when Hunt briefly referred to her real-life husband, another reporter asked if he was in show business to which she replied, "Oh no — he's a good man." Co-starring with Hunt and Williams are two young performers — 13-year-old Kirsten Dunst (Interview With the Vampire, Little Women) and 10-year-old Bradley Pierce. Dunst was the main audience for the Nell impressions, and Pierce gave Hunt a bit of a realization about being an actress.
"To have children on the set, you realize that if a 10-year-old can do it, who are you kidding? It humbles you."

The playfulness she had with Williams was made evident when Williams interrupted the interview to play Tony to Hunt's Mo. Hunt said there's a different Jumanji that exists with the Tony and Mo characters. In order to keep Williams in character, director Joe Johnston agreed to give him one last take of each scene to go wild. That's where Tony and Mo came from.
"When you walk on a set with Robin, it's like you're at a barbecue in his back yard. He really is a joy."

What also pleased Hunt about Williams was his attitude, or lack thereof.
"Robin makes a lot of money. He's been around a long time, and people are so in awe of him when they see him walk down the street, but he just keeps it humble. You don't have to assume the star position in order to be treated like one."

The process of making Jumanji, as difficult as it could be involving special effects and the two weeks it took to film a storm scene, was relatively stress-free for Hunt.
"I found it probably one of the easiest jobs I've ever had because I love to improvise. To me, it's easier than doing the written word."

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From the Vault: Jackie Chan


Legally, Americans shouldn't have been able to see any of Jackie Chan's Hong Kong films.
"Everybody says I'm the biggest star in the world. I say, 'No.' ... If you say the biggest star in Asia, yes. ... I think Michael Jackson, Stallone — they are bigger stars in the world."

The supposed lack of video availability wasn't a problem for a lot of U.S. viewers, including writer-director Quentin Tarantino who became fascinated with the man and his movies. Tarantino even presented Chan, 41, with a lifetime achievement award at 1995's MTV Movie Awards.
"At that time, I didn't know who (Tarantino) was. He learn a lot of things from Hong Kong movies, but I learned a lot from American movies."

Now, after a failed attempt to conquer the United States market in the early '80s, Chan is returning to these shores with Rumble in the Bronx. When Chan tried to cross the Pacific before with The Big Brawl and The Protector, the experiment didn't take.

U.S. studios couldn't understand the appeal of his action, where fights take a long time and the hero doesn't prove his power with one, quick punch. When the American projects came up originally, Chan moved to Los Angeles, bought a house and began to learn English.

The films failed to catch on and Chan found himself losing out on his Asian audience without gaining an American one. Hoping to harness his comic style, Chan was even inserted into the two Cannonball Run films, but those didn't help his stature here.
"American market is too difficult. I know that if I go into American market, I have to speak very perfect English, but that's my problem."

Chan went back to Hong Kong to regain his Asian audience and to exert the absolute power he'd gained over his films' content. For one thing, he'd be able to continue performing his own dangerous stunts, something no American studio would allow.

While American productions began to increase their prominence in Asian markets, where the higher production values made audiences anxious to get more for their money, Chan still prevailed at the box office. He says it's because he was viewed as a foreigner in Asia since he doesn't film in Hong Kong anymore.

Production costs brought Chan to Vancouver, British Columbia, to film Rumble in the Bronx, though the city isn't a completely convincing double with its mountains.
"Later on, (we thought) forget about Rumble in the Bronx, how about Rumble in Vancouver. Too late because all the dialogue, the graffiti, we do already."

Again, Chan wasn't thinking of the United States and they let the inconsistencies slide. Then New Line approached him about bringing Rumble to America.
"I don't think Asian people know the Bronx. Mostly North American people. In China, nobody knows. I never think this movie can come to America. Totally a dream. If I'd known, no mountains."

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From the Vault: Fargo

Throughout the Coen brothers' career some have criticized their work for being contemptuous of their films' characters. I enjoyed most of their movies (especially Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing) and never felt that their critics were right or that their attitude was a problem until their latest work, Fargo.

Fargo does mark a return to their smaller tales following the wondrous sets of Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy. In a way, it seems like Joel and Ethan Coen have crossed Blood Simple with Raising Arizona without equaling either film's success.

Despite its title, most of Fargo takes place in Minnesota, where debt-plagued car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) has devised a plan to have his own wife kidnapped in order to collect money from her wealthy father. The plan goes way off track as the hired thugs (Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare) have a fatal encounter and Lundegaard botches his own plan to double-cross the crooks.

Their plot begins to come unraveled at the hands of a very pregnant local police chief (Frances McDormand) whose investigation into a roadside slaying leads back to Lundegaard's scheme.

For people unfamiliar with the accents of Minnesota, most of the characters' voices will seem mightily overdone. Coupled with the many dim bulbs, these factors contribute to the feeling that the Coens are just out to make fun of Minnesotans, not tell an interesting story.

The most flagrant example of this attitude is a scene in which the police chief has dinner with an old friend from high school who tells a sad story about his late wife. Unfortunately, the scene is played for laughs. When the punch line comes later, it makes the sequence seem all the more unnecessary.

Only two characters escape this trap. McDormand creates a winning character in Marge Gunderson, but arrives too late in the movie to save it. The other actor is Harve Presnell as Lundegaard's father-in-law, a smart tyrant who cares about his daughter and couldn't care less about his son-in-law.

The technical credits are adequate, including a nice score by Carter Burwell. Fargo is not without its moments of humor and tension, it just doesn't come together cohesively.

The strange thing is that the longer you're away from the movie, the more it lingers in your memory, especially McDormand's great supporting turn. It's worth a second viewing, just to see exactly what it's supposed to be.

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From the Vault: Frances McDormand


One of the most important relationships in actress Frances McDormand's life — on screen and off — concerns filmmaker Joel Coen.

She made her debut in his directing debut, Blood Simple, and the two went on to become husband and wife soon after filming that Texas-set film noir thriller.

Since then, McDormand has earned an Oscar nomination for supporting actress in another director's film, Mississippi Burning, and now she finds herself with one of the best roles of her career in her husband's new film Fargo.

Fargo is the latest collaboration of Joel Coen and his brother Ethan. The Coens take separate credits on their films — Joel is listed as director, Ethan as producer and both as writers — but the relationship is a complete partnership. The relationship between the Coens and McDormand has been present on every one of the brothers' films, though Fargo marks the first time since Blood Simple that McDormand's part has been much more than an extended cameo.

McDormand stars in Fargo as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief of a small Minnesota town who is drawn into a complicated kidnapping plot gone awry. Though Fargo is clearly McDormand's film, she doesn't actually appear until more than 30 minutes into the movie.

While some performers work methodically and research their characters, McDormand doesn't choose that approach, save for making sure she handles her gun like a real law enforcement pro.
"I met this woman, Officer Nancy, in the St. Paul police force. I wanted to get together with someone and go to the shooting range and the local casting woman hooked me up with Officer Nancy who was 7 months pregnant. She took me to the shooting range — she was still working; she was on the vice squad, doing search and seizure."

The lesson was not lost on McDormand, who found the working mother-to-be a true inspiration for the character.
"It's amazing what pregnancy does to people who have never been pregnant or to the outside world. They think of pregnant women as delicate or ill or maybe contagious. ... People do have to be more careful in their condition, but they work."

Marge comes off as a character as placid as the snow-covered Minnesota countryside seems to be, which comes as a bit of a change from the emotionally churning characters McDormand has often played.
"It's not like I really sat down and made a list of Marge's attributes; I learned my lines, I learned the accent. I think Marge is actually at a very, kind of, tumultuous point in her life. She deals with what is right in front of her at the time; that's the best thing about Marge. What I loved about Marge being pregnant, dramaturgically it's interesting for the story because it's about this expectancy and this hope that goes beyond the gruesome events of the film."

However, knowing the Coens as well as she does, she doesn't see Marge's pregnancy as a political point.
"Joel and Ethan are not interested in making political points. (Marge being pregnant) was much more about a visual image."

The working relationship between McDormand and her husband and brother in-law ran as smooth as always on Fargo, except for one scene where the actress was having trouble.
"I had one hard time in the second interrogation scene with Jerry Lundegaard where she comes back asking him for help and then halfway through the interview realizes his behavior is suspicious and she needs to focus on him more as a possible suspect."

McDormand credits the success of her screen work with the Coens, specifically Joel, with the beginnings of their romance.
"Our relationship developed first as an actor-director collaboration. We didn't really hook up romantically until six or seven months after. That's always been a basis of our relationship and I must say it's gotten us through a lot of things."

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From the Vault: Trying to Save Piggy Sneed by John Irving

This collection by the author of The World According to Garp seems to have sneaked into stores quite soon after the release of his most recent novel, A Son of the Circus.

Then again, since most of this new book consists of things written and published elsewhere, there wasn't much of a need for the tremendous wait John Irving subjects his readers to between new works.

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed is divided into three parts: Memoirs, Fiction and Homage. Combined with the author's notes after each piece, this really serves as the closest Irving has ever come to writing his autobiography.

The three parts of the Memoirs section offer insight into the influences that have affected Irving through the course of his life. The longest autobiographical piece, "The Imaginary Girlfriend," tells the most about his growth as a writer, wrestler and man — though this long work does contain a little bit more wrestling recollections than any fan needs.

The short stories of the Fiction section vary in degrees of interest and worth and include "The Pension Grillparzer," best known as the fictional T.S. Garp's first work. Irving includes it here since Garp divides the story up and he wishes it to be read in one sitting. Of the short stories, my personal favorite is "Interior Space," which Irving admits in his notes is his second-favorite short story he's ever finished.

The final section contains two appreciations of Charles Dickens and one on Gunter Grass and these three give as much insight to Irving as it hands to the authors he admires. For fans of Irving, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed is essential reading. For others, only about half of the short stories included here will hold much interest.

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From the Vault: A Son of the Circus by John Irving

The wait between new John Irving novels seems to grow longer and longer. It has taken five years for A Son of the Circus to follow A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Unfortunately, despite plenty of positive aspects, Irving's latest ends up being the most disappointing novel of his post-Garp era.

Circus tells the story of Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, an orthopedic surgeon from Bombay, India, who resides most of the year in Toronto. No matter where he is, Daruwalla always feels as if he's a foreigner, but during his yearly trips back to Bombay, he gets involved in intrigue worthy of the detective screenplays he secretly writes.

Unlike most Irving works, Circus starts out very slowly. In the early going, as it flashes between different time periods, it bogs the reader down. About 80 pages in though, the novel's central mystery takes over and the reader's pace increases.

Later, the novel moves in more fits and starts as it digresses into points-of-views not belonging to Daruwalla and delves deeper into subplots which, for the first time in an Irving novel, don't really enhance the entire book. The other thing that separates A Son of the Circus from other Irving novels is that the characters fail to spring to life as they usually do.

Though the writing style differs a bit from his preceding novels, plenty of common themes survive ranging from faith to writing, orphans to transsexuals. A particularly amusing moment occurs when it's mentioned that Daruwalla hates Charles Dickens when any Irving fan knows what a disciple Irving is of the late, great author.

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From the Vault: U and I by Nicholson Baker

For anyone who aspires to be a writer or who reads avidly, mutually inclusive attributes that they are, U and I is a must read.

Following Nicholson Baker's wonderful novels The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, Baker turns to autobiography, but it resembles no autobiography you're likely to have read for it concerns the "imagined friendship" Baker shares with John Updike, arguably America's best living prose stylist.

The entire book, which closely resembles an essay, explores the influence the words that people read have on their whole, a point made all the more ironic since Baker admits to having read only eight of Updike's books in their entirety.

U and I functions as both criticism and hero worship, showing Baker appalled both by Updike's description of a fictional wife and the fact that an author Baker knows personally gets to play golf with Updike instead of Baker himself. The most interesting aspect of the book, which overflows with interesting aspects, is Baker's idea that how and what we remember from the books we read are just as important as the book themselves and that when, as he does often, misquotes passages from Updike, the mistaken remembrance brings a resonance to the words that probably could not have been achieved any other way.

U and I provides a wonderfully neurotic exploration of the desire to live up to one's idols and, eventually, to surpass them. Baker is no John Updike, but then Updike is no Nicholson Baker and U and I should not only entertain but will give the reader a heightened awareness of Baker himself before one sets out to read his previous novels.

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From the Vault: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

A ripple of electricity tiptoes across a reader's neck when he or she comes across a previously unknown writer whose prose emphatically announces a new, impressive talent.

Though Michael Chabon wrote the novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and A Model World, a collection of short stories, I wasn't aware of him until Wonder Boys. Reading the 31-year-old's novel was a revelation.

Wonder Boys takes place entirely during a literary festival held on a weekend at a small Pittsburgh college. One of the chief organizers of the festival is Grady Tripp, a burned-out professor who is losing a struggle with the gargantuan manuscript that is supposed to become his next novel.

Attending the same weekend is Grady's agent, Terry Crabtree, who has accompanied Grady on many a misadventure, and soon finds himself involved in another through the acts of a writing student named James Leer, who is obsessed with Hollywood suicides.

The plot itself is entertaining, but what's dazzling about Wonder Boys is Chabon's writing, which offers at least one phrase, one sentence, one description that makes the reader's jaw drop in awe, admiration or envy on nearly every page.

Wonder Boys earns Chabon the right to be mentioned in the same breath as John Updike, but Chabon's presence is even more exciting, given his age. As for now, he stands alone as the only novelist promising to be one of his generation's greatest writers.

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From the Vault: Memories of the Ford Administration by John Updike

"To me it seemed Genevieve was always singing one song, that went up and down, and returned upon itself as music does, repeating, repeating more urgently, looking for that thing it never does quite find."

John Updike writes the preceding paragraph in his latest novel, perfectly signifying both his place as America's greatest living prose stylist and the problems at the root of the novel.

The premise of Memories of the Ford Administration has Updike's latest hero, college professor Alf Clayton (bearing an uncanny resemblance at times to Updike's classic character Rabbit Angstrom), invited to write an essay for a scholarly journal looking back at the short tenure of the only man to serve as both vice president and president without having been elected to either office.

Instead, Clayton submits a rambling collage of his thoughts on his personal life at the time, when he was torn between ending one marriage and beginning another while obsessing about writing a book about James Buchanan, the 15th U.S. president.

While Updike's prose dazzles as always, the book seems divided into two unsatisfying halves. The juxtaposition of Buchanan's 19th century life and Alf's mid-1970s dilemmas never quite come together beyond the shared personality trait of indecisiveness that Updike's creation and the late president share.

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From the Vault: In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike

Of all the great reading experiences of my life, the best was when I read John Updike's first three Rabbit novels over the course of two weeks.

The novels, which were written and set roughly 10 years apart, not only traced the life of Harry Angstrom but gave the reader a fascinating glimpse into the growth of Updike's talent. Rabbit Redux showed more of Updike's prose wizardry than its predecessor and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Is Rich took Updike to an even higher level. The final novel, Rabbit at Rest, also won the Pulitzer when it came later. While it was among Updike's best works, it seemed to me his skills had plateaued since Rabbit Is Rich. This shouldn't have been unexpected — after all, Updike has been a writer all of his adult life and was 58 when the last Rabbit was published. Why shouldn't he have reached a peak?

Leave it to Updike to prove me wrong with his latest novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, another great leap forward for the author that deserves its place among his very best.

Not bad for someone in his 64th year to still be learning new tricks. In the Beauty of the Lilies, which takes its title from a verse of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," spans 80 years in the lives of the Wilmot family.

It begins their tale with Presbyterian minister Clarence Wilmot in Paterson, N.J., before spinning through the lives of his son Teddy, Teddy's daughter Essie and, finally, Essie's son Clark, who brings the novel up to 1990.

Though certainly smaller in scope and focus and more conventional, in a way it reminded me of John dos Passos' USA trilogy. Like the Rabbit novels, which highlighted significant events occurring in the same era, Lilies glances past much of history and culture in the 20th century.

Four sections divide the novel, each focusing on one of the principal characters. They almost are like interconnected novellas, but they hold together as a single work, even when their structure changes from the straight-forward slices of life — Clarence's loss of faith and Teddy's desire to get through life with as few mental wounds as possible — that launch the book.

While the first half is good, Lilies really takes off in the third section about Essie, the minister's granddaughter who becomes a movie star. In a mere 133 pages, Updike manages to condense Essie's growth from a precious 7-year-old who always got "excited when it rained, as if God was touching her somehow," to the tired actress with a neglected son she becomes. Updike manages to draw her character's life convincingly and vividly in fewer pages than any single book of the Rabbit series.

The fourth section changes form again, as it bounces between a present setting and flashbacks to paint a portrait of Clark's troubled life, which takes the young man into a Branch Davidian-type cult compound. The novel's multitudinous themes are best left for the reader to discover and ponder, though the main thrust concerns the battle between culture, mass media and religion. In a way, it shows that the more the universe expands, the smaller and less important human and spiritual connections become.

While Updike seemed to me to stumble with his last two novels, Memories of the Ford Administration and Brazil, he's never exerted more control of his powers than he does here. His prose is as stunning as always, but the story doesn't suffer in this one and it may well be his finest work as well as his most compulsive page turner.

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Friday, December 23, 2005


From the Vault: Say Anything

Say Anything depicts a rarity in teenage films — intelligence, wit, honesty and truth. Cameron Crowe, who wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life, makes his directing debut from his own screenplay. For the first time, he's involved in a film truly worthy of his ear for realistic dialogue.

Say Anything tells the story of Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), a graduating high school senior infatuated with Diane Court (Ione Skye), the attractive class valedictorian, who seems to distance herself from her classmates.

What separates this movie from most other teen flicks is the other central character: Diane's father (John Mahoney), a single dad who runs a nursing home and has pushed and prodded Diane all her life with love and encouragement to reach academic heights. His pride in his daughter notwithstanding, Mahoney's character doesn't fit into easy stereotypes as hero or villain — he's complicated. In fact, his relationship with Skye raises this film above the level of other movies in this genre by presenting a three-dimensional portrait of a parent that you seldom see in teen films.

Skye's character also provides a refreshing change of pace. She's brainy, but not a nerd, beautiful, but not popular — and she still fears for her future. Cusack can almost single-handedly take credit for saving this genre through his solid work here and in The Sure Thing and his brief role in Sixteen Candles as well.

Crowe's directing debut impresses, though some sequences slow the film. The supporting players stand out as well including Cusack's real-life sister Joan as Lloyd's sister and Lili Taylor and Amy Brooks as Lloyd's confidants.

Say Anything's fresh and moving approach hits its target. In fact, it might be the most accurate account of teens and their relationships yet put on film.



From the Vault: New York Stories

Three movies by three of America's most renowned filmmakers, all in the same film. A dream project? Yes, even though the results prove mixed. New York Stories features contributions from Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Each director filmed an approximately 40-minute segment with a separate cast and crew with only the setting of New York tying the three films together.


Scorsese's film "Life Lessons" stars Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie, an aging artist procrastinating and worrying about his latest work for a museum exhibition. The return of his assistant Paulette (Rosanna Arquette) provides him with another preoccupation. Lionel loves her, but Paulette returns determined to leave Lionel, her artwork and the city.

The plot, skimmed to its bare essentials for the shortened format, is less a story than an examination of creativity and obsession. The interrelation between Dobie, people and his work mesmerizes and fascinates. Richard Price's screenplay does what it needs to do: It satisfies and even leaves you wanting more.

Nolte, an underrated actor, gives another fine performance as does Arquette as the aspiring artist who may or may not be using Lionel. Scorsese's work in "Life Lessons" deserves to stand with his many masterpieces such as Taxi Driver and After Hours. His dizzying camera perfectly reflects the mood and spirit of the character and his art.


Coppola's "Life Without Zoe" occupies the second slot and it disappoints the most.

Fairly incoherent and meandering, the short (written by Coppola's daughter Sofia) concerns a rich young girl (Heather McComb) who practically lives on her own in a hotel while her parents (Giancarlo Giannini, Talia Shire) spend much of their time traveling around the world. The film's interesting images often fascinate, but nothing exists beneath the shots.

The picture is an empty one, looking great but offering nothing beyond the design. The best moments belong to Don Novello (aka Father Guido Sarducci) as Zoe's butler and Chris Elliott in a brief role as a thief.


After enduring "Life Without Zoe," it is invigorating to see the familiar white-on-black credits that mark all of Allen's films.

Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" could be called the ultimate comic examination of the Jewish mother stereotype. Allen, making his first film appearance in three years, plays a lawyer engaged to a gentile (Mia Farrow) who earns the strong disapproval of his mother (Mae Questel). Mom constantly nags and interferes in her son's life to the point that Allen tells his psychiatrist that he wishes she would "disappear."

The film takes off from here into Allen's purest piece of film comedy since Broadway Danny Rose. It frequently induces laughter but even at its short length, it may be a tad too long. The idea, which I won't spoil, is clever, but it might be better suited for a short sketch.

Still, it entertains and it is worth relishing, if only for Allen's reactions and Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop, as she makes her son's life hell. Julie Kavner also performs well as Treva, a woman into the occult who tries to help Allen's character with his rather unusual problem. Overall, New York Stories earns a pass despite its weaknesses. Besides, Scorsese's marvelous work alone is worth the admission price.

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From the Vault: Mo' Better Blues

Peeking out beneath three of the actors on the Mo' Better Blues poster are posters of Spike Lee's previous film, Do the Right Thing. It's as if Lee knew the inevitable comparisons that would be made between his new film and last year's masterpiece.

Comparison won't be the main factor behind the disappointment with Mo' Better Blues. Instead, the lack of a cohesive screenplay and the presence of a script in need of major reworking dooms the new movie.

Mo' Better Blues stars Denzel Washington as Bleek Gilliam, a man who hated taking trumpet lessons as a child but who learned to make a living off the instrument anyway. Bleek's selfishness requires the attention of two women (Joie Lee, Cynda Williams) to meet his needs. but he still chooses music over both of them, at least initially.

Bleek's loyalty proves to be another flaw, continuing to let his childhood friend Giant (Spike Lee) manage his career despite the fact he does so poorly. At least that's the impression viewers are expected to take away from the film. Lee's script seems to be a filmed outline of plot points that were never fully fleshed out and doesn't allow much in the way of character development.

The audience never fully understands where their interest should focus. Is this the story of a man and his music? A story of a man and two women? Perhaps it's about loyalty and relationships between friends who work for and with each other. The answer seems to be all of the above but, as in Lee's School Daze, the strands fail to form a cohesive whole.

Selected bits remain that work, such as a wonderful scene where Bleek's two-timing ways catch up with him in his bedroom, though most scenes go nowhere. The worst of this comes near the end where a situation begins and rushes to completion as the film covers six years in about 15 or 20 minutes.

Furthermore, unlike School Daze, whatever story Lee desires to tell fails to be readily apparent. School Daze failed because it tried too hard to do too much. Mo' Better Blues fails because it doesn't try hard enough to do anything of note.

Surprisingly, the music itself also weakens the movie. Granted, the story concerns music but the film's score intrudes continuously in every scene to the point of distraction. On the other hand, two numbers ("Pop Top 40" and "Harlem Blues") manage to give the film some lift it desperately needs, possessing all the energy and spirit the rest of the film lacks.

Lee's work always excites visually, but this time the story and structure do nothing to enhance his arresting imagery.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005


From the Vault: American Pie 2

Buried deep within American Pie 2 lies a simple message: embrace your inner geek. Unfortunately, the idea gets lost amid another batch of crass and unfunny humor.

American Pie 2 takes place the summer after the characters from the first film have completed their first year of college. Again, the boys have a one-track mind except for Chris Klein's character, who remains true to girlfriend Mena Suvari.

When Stifler (Seann William Scott) finds his house shut down as party central, the gang decides to rent a beach house to pursue their partying. That's the slim peg on which the story hangs as you wait for all the characters from the first film to make an appearance.

As a comparison to the original outing, the laughs are about equal, but that doesn't make American Pie 2 good. The sequel does have its moments and the lion's share of those belong to Eugene Levy as Jim's dad and Alyson Hannigan as the girl obsessed with band camp. Levy and Hannigan deserve their own movie — it would be worth watching for their facial expressions alone.

The rest of the cast do their best, but there's only so much they can do with essentially one-joke characters. Again, Jason Biggs gets most of the heavy lifting as Jim. He doesn't have sex with a dessert this time, but he gets some equally embarrassing scenes.

American Pie 2's problem stems from the laborious setups that makes the audience anticipate the obvious punchlines so far in advance that you get impatient for the payoff.

What's interesting is that it's the quieter moments, when the script flirts with a more serious nostalgia for misspent youth, that resonate in a way the gags don't. That's unusual since when silly films try to be serious, they usually fall flat. In American Pie 2, those are the best parts.

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From the Vault: Amores Perros

Of the films that have tried to imitate Pulp Fiction in the years since its release, no movie has come closer to repackaging what it steals into something fresh than Amores Perros.

Mexico received an Oscar nomination for foreign language film for Amores Perros in 2000 and now the movie has been given a much-deserved U.S. theatrical release.

While Amores Perros doesn't hit the heights that Quentin Tarantino's film did, it is quite good as it tells its characters' tales in three similar but separate episodes tied together only by a common car wreck.

A word of warning: If you are a dog lover, much of Amores Perros will prove disturbing as canines are the unifying element of the stories and the animals find themselves in bitter, competitive dog fights and trapped beneath apartment floorboards.

In "Octavio and Susana," young Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) decides to fight his pet rottweiler, Cofi, to raise money to run away with his abusive brother's pregnant wife. In "Daniel and Valeria," a supermodel injured in the accident (Goya Toledo) obsesses when her pet finds its way through a hole in her apartment's floor and can't get out. In "El Chivo and Maru," a revolutionary turned assassin (Emilio Echevarria) who surrounds himself with dogs questions his calling after rescuing Cofi from the collision.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu does fall prey to the inevitable problem of episodic filmmaking: Inevitably, some sequences play weaker than others. In this case, "Octavio and Susana" is good but "Daniel and Valeria" drags. Fortunately, he saves the best for the last with "El Chivo and Maru."

The reason "El Chivo" works so well is because of Echevarria, who draws a memorable portrait of a man who aches for a lost daughter, kills for money and does anything to protect an injured animal.

Unlike Pulp Fiction, whose segments were fairly self-contained, the episodes of Amores Perros bleed into one another to the point that separating them becomes unnecessary. That's a minor criticism though for an overlong work that rewards those who stick with it.

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From the Vault: Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

With Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Kevin Smith creates what few filmmakers do: an unabashed valentine to his fans.

What writer-director Smith promises to be the last live-action outing for Jay and Silent Bob isn't as accomplished as Chasing Amy, as funny as Clerks or as ambitious as Dogma, but the movie provides so much to laugh at that it produces more joy than most recent attempts at film comedy.

Jason Mewes and Smith return as the title characters in what basically amounts to a long inside joke. The comic book characters that Jay and Silent Bob inspired in Chasing Amy are coming to the big screen via Miramax and the shady New Jersey pals want to stop the production and reclaim their anonymity and honor, both of which have been challenged by nameless and faceless Internet critics.

The plot only exists as a loose thread to hang this farcical road movie on which takes the pair from Jersey to Hollywood, encountering just about every actor to ever grace one of Smith's films while spoofing the previous films and movies in general.

Because so many of the laughs depend on knowledge of Smith's first four films, much of the humor will likely dumbfound audiences unfamiliar with his work. Smith's movies have always referred to each other, but this well could be the most self-reflexive film ever made.

In fact, too much familiarity with Smith's work might work against you during a lengthy spoof of The Fugitive that Smith lifts nearly verbatim from a Jay and Silent Bob story he published in comic book form.

That aside, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back turns out to be a hoot, providing nearly wall-to-wall laughs for those comfortable with Smith's vulgar but ultimately sweet-natured verbal humor.

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From the Vault: Kevin Smith


After five films (six if you count Scream 3), Jay and Silent Bob are retiring from the live-action realm with a cinematic swan song, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. No one seems more relieved at putting the New Jersey pals to rest that Kevin Smith, who created the two characters and plays Silent Bob. Now, Smith can concentrate on his real love — writing and directing — and leave the acting to others.
"I don't feel the need to be in movies if I'm not playing that character anymore, which is nice because then I can just sit behind the monitor and get really fat during production."

In the film, Jay and Silent Bob set out to stop production of a Miramax film adaptation of the comic book they inspired in the movie Chasing Amy. Though Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is being released by Dimension, a division of Miramax, the studio's parent company comes in for a lot of ribbing, even though Miramax gave Smith his start with Clerks in 1994.

While the business relationship still is strong, it soured slightly in 1999 when Miramax — under pressure from its parent Disney — dropped distribution of Smith's controversial religious comedy Dogma. When Harvey Weinstein, half of the sibling pair that founded Miramax, saw Smith's script for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he asked good-naturedly what the studio had ever done to Smith.
"Remember that movie of ours that you dropped? This is payback."

The plot is a loose excuse for a wild road comedy full of nonsequiturs and inside jokes. After the accomplished Chasing Amy and the ambitious Dogma, Smith admits the new film hardly is a step forward.
"This is a quantum leap backward. We've not matured. We've just gotten so much worse. After (what we) went through on Dogma, it was just kind of nice to make joke after joke after joke."

The characters of Jay and Silent Bob evolved into something much larger than Smith's intention. He based the sex-obsessed Jay on the man who plays him, Jason Mewes, or, more accurately, what Mewes was like when Smith met him 12 years ago, when Mewes was in his early teens.
"We grew up in the same town. He was kind of a kid of local folklore. I got to know him through some mutual friends who brought him into our fold and then they abandoned him. I guess they lost interest in him and I kind of inherited him. He'd just show up at my house and knock on the door and say, 'You want to hang out?'"

Originally, Smith resisted, but Mewes won him over.
"He just kind of grows on you. He's got a huge heart, but he's just weird. The character is based on who he was about 14, 15. He's different now. He's a lot more mellow. When he was 14 or 15, he was like this little sonic boom with dirt on him."

Among the many Smith movie veterans returning for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Bob is Ben Affleck, who appeared in Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma while making big-event features including Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.

Joining the Jay and Silent Bob family this time is Will Ferrell, who improvised a lot on the set. Affleck tried improvising in Mallrats, Smith recalled, but didn't get as much leeway with the script.
"The difference between Will Ferrell and Affleck improvising is that Will Ferrell is very funny. I'll give a person a lot of room if they can make me laugh and Will Ferrell always made me laugh."

Still, most of Ferrell's best ad-libs ended up on the cutting room floor because, Smith said, no matter how funny, they often slow things down. Another special newcomer on the set was Smith's now 2-year-old daughter, Harley Quinn, who plays an infant Silent Bob in the movie's opening scene.
"Directing her was bad. They say don't work with children and they are absolutely right. The kid who played Jay in that scene was really well-behaved and my kid was like screaming. 'You're supposed to be Silent Bob, not Screaming Bob.'"

While moving on to non-Jay and Silent Bob film projects appeals to Smith, he's still involved with another great love, comic books. He's writing a 12-part series of "The Green Arrow."
"For me, it's great. It's wonderful to kick back and write something like 'Green Arrow,' where you don't bring any of your own baggage to it. You're playing in someone else's sandbox, so to speak, and you don't have to worry about ... telling their back story. It's also really good exercise in writing something that isn't comedic."

The New York Post has reported that Smith's next project will be a smaller comedy-drama, close in tone to Chasing Amy, about Smith's experiences as a father. Affleck has been signed to the project and Smith hopes to reunite him with Chasing Amy co-stars Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams. Smith said he also hopes to make a film "based on the Gregory McDonald book Fletch Won, which is kind of a year one story of Fletch, how he first got the job on the paper." If the project comes together, Smith hopes to cast Lee as the young journalist.

While Smith admits Jay and Silent Bob might surface in an animated Clerks movie or in comic book form, he's determined to make this movie their last live-action outing.
"Rather than beat a dead horse or have them overstay their welcome, it's time to leave the party before we're the last guys there. We need to get out while the getting's good. Remember when people used to love Pauly Shore? Then one day, everyone hated Pauly Shore. I don't want to be Pauly Shore."

Still, Jay and Silent Bob have their ardent admirers, one of whom implored Smith as he left the interview room not to end their tales.
"It's not a door closing, it's a door opening."

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From the Vault: Mark Hamill


According to writer-director Kevin Smith, Mark Hamill told him the only job offers that excited his children were The Simpsons and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. While their father's place in film history was lost on the young Hamills, his work as Luke Skywalker in George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy still impresses Smith, who manages to make Star Wars references in nearly everything he does.
HAMILL:"There were so many things I didn't get in this movie. I'm so out of the demographic. I just wanted to go see how the young people live."

In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Hamill's casting allowed Smith, who plays Silent Bob, the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to duel with the Jedi himself.
SMITH: "In retrospect, as we were shooting, I finished up my light saber bit and we were focusing on Jay's. As I kicked back in the chair and I was watching Jay's, I was like, 'Wow — Jay is light-saber fighting with Luke Skywalker.' Then I was like, 'Wait a second. I was light-saber fighting with Luke Skywalker!'"

While Hamill has fielded many offers over the years to toy with his image as Luke, Jay and Silent Bob was the first script where he felt it was OK to tweak Star Wars. Hamill said it was his son, Nathan, who introduced him to Smith's work.
"Years ago, before I saw Clerks properly, ... Nathan came to me and said, 'Dad, you've got to see this — it's so funny.' And he pushes the button and this was throwaway dialogue where this guy goes, 'What do you think on the Death Star? Was that independent contracting or did they do that in-house?'"

Much later, when Smith offered the chance to appear in one of his films, Hamill's decision was easier.
"With this, you can tell from that moment ... in Clerks and then all the way throughout his works, there's a real affection for the material on his part."

Hamill's approval wasn't the only one required: A clause in Hamill's contract requires that Lucasfilm see any script that spoofs Star Wars.
"Lucasfilm had to read the script because I have something in my contract that precludes me from holding (Star Wars) up to ridicule."

After Hamill agreed to take part in Jay and Silent Bob, his lawyer called to ask if had been cleared by Lucas' people.
"I said, 'No, but shouldn't we have discovered this before wardrobe fittings?' It scared me for a minute, cause I don't want to upset people, really. Basically, I just don't go do porno movies in my Luke costume."

There was no problem and Hamill appears in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, playing a movie villain named Cockknocker.
"I've been asked to do a lot of things, either in cameo situations or whole movies, that are based or derivative from George's movies, and I never really considered it at all. It's easier not to. I know when I heard that Mel Brooks was doing Spaceballs I said, 'If he calls, I love Mel Brooks so much, I know I'll do it.' But he never called. In a way, I was disappointed and relieved."

Hamill and Smith share a mutual admiration society.
"(Smith) was one of these guys — I feel this way about Matt Groening, even though I've never meant Matt — where you read an interview and you go, 'Oh my God, it's like my best friend in high school.'"

Hamill's respect for Smith increased once he worked with him. During his scene, Hamill suggested a different way to explain how his character got his name and Smith agreed.
"Even at the 11th hour, he accommodated me, and it winds up in the movie. That really makes you feel empowered."

Smith returns the compliment.
SMITH: "Mark was really fun and game and brought something to it that wasn't even there on the page because it wasn't written for him. It wound up being Mark and suddenly, it just added another dimension to the fight."

Nearly 25 years after Star Wars premiered, the film's effect still unnerves Hamill.
"I'm always surprised and jarred when you're watching something and someone makes a reference (to Star Wars). It's on sitcoms, editorial cartoons, the Evil Empire during the Reagan years. Someone said, 'Does it bother you when people call you Luke?' Not only do they know my name, they know Peter Mayhew played the wookiee. That's really something."

Even though he wasn't involved in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, the hoopla surrounding its 1999 opening amazed Hamill.
"Most of what I loved (about Phantom Menace) was just how much of a cultural event it was. People camped outside the theaters — I loved that. Now, I don't know where they bathed. Can you imagine the stench in a theater with people who'd been camped out for a month? This to me is fun, goofy pop culture at its best."

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From the Vault: Say It Isn't So

If watching Sally Field prepare a sandwich with bread she's wiped across her armpits tickles your funny bone, then you couldn't ask for a better gift than Say It Isn't So. However, if you prefer your comedies to have good timing, solid laughs and surprises, do everything in your power to avoid this monstrosity.

Chris Klein stars as Gilly, an Indiana animal shelter worker who can't commit to a relationship because of unresolved issues over growing up in an orphanage. All that changes when he happens upon Jo (Heather Graham), the world's worst hairstylist. Soon, the two are madly in love — but fate intervenes.

Let's keep what interferes a secret — just in case someone has the misfortune of sitting through this junk. It can serve as a test of moviegoing skill: See how long it takes you to anticipate every plot move and punchline, then time how many minutes elapse until the film catches up with you.

It is my firm belief that given the right circumstances, just about any subject can provide comic fodder, but Say It Isn't So bungles its attempts to squeeze laughs from stroke victims, amputees and mental patients. The results don't come off as funny, just tasteless.

The script even tries to summon smiles by injecting references to other movies. In one scene, as a plane flies over a river, they put Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" on the soundtrack to remind savvy viewers of Apocalypse Now, though that film had at least 20 times as many laughs as Say It Isn't So.

Klein began his screen comedy career in the great Election, followed that with the cruder but not-without-its-charms American Pie and now devolves to Say It Isn't So. If this trajectory continues, I predict his next film will be either a big-screen version of My Mother the Car or a straight-faced remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Why Field took this role as Jo's scheming mom will be one of the world's biggest mysteries. My best guess would be financial problems and, if that's the case, I suggest we start a trust fund so Sally need never be embarrassed in garbage like this again.

The sole saving grace is Orlando Jones as Dig, the legless pilot who befriends Gilly. He doesn't get material that's any better than the rest of the cast, but he throws himself so enthusiastically into his part that you want to commend him.

Say It Isn't So is being sold as "from the guys who brought you There's Something About Mary, but don't be fooled. The Farrelly brothers only produced this mess and the movie doesn't have any of the guilty gut-busters of their previous work. Say It Isn't So has the gross, but not the guffaws.



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