Originally posted 27 December 2000
Movies: Cast Away, Crouching Tiger, and More!
It's the holiday season, which means subway musicians are playing bad Christmas carols, the super and the newspaper delivery person slip "thank you" notes under the door and Hollywood releases a lot of unpleasant movies. Who am I to gum up the works? I stinted on the underground performers, but I tipped Jerzy (the world's best super) and Carla (the delivery person, whom I have never seen), and I forked over more money for movie tickets than I've put in my IRA this year. Here's what I sat through.
Last Sunday, in a moment of truly deficient judgement, my neighbor Rich and I decided to go see "What Women Want," a mess of a movie starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. I can't stand Mel Gibson, and Rich can't stand Helen Hunt, so our motivations for paying to see this flick are a mystery. Your guess is as good as ours.
"What Women Want" was playing at the Sony gigaplex on 68th and Broadway, a theater that is looking, as Rich put it, "a little long in the tooth--no, make that down at the heels." Whatever, it's gross. We settled into our half-broken seats and Rich went off to kill us some popcorn. While he was gone, I witnessed an Olympic-caliber seat-saving event: one woman, using three coats, saved twelve seats in two rows. I gave her a 9.8.
The premise of "What Women Want" is that Mel, supposedly a lady killer, has an accident with a hair dryer that gives him the ability to hear women's thoughts. Helen Hunt plays an exec who beats him out for a promotion at the ad agency where he works; Hunt's role conforms to the worst Hollywood portrayals of female career babes. Nonetheless, the movie starts out relatively smart and funny, with winning performances but Marisa Tomei and Ashley Johnson. Halfway through, however, it tanks, becoming stupid, sentimental and aggressively unfunny. By the end, I was curled in a fetal position on my creaky chair, wincing uncontrollably.
As the credits rolled, I removed my hands from my cheeks and said to Rich that I'd never seen such a spectacularly miscast movie--Mel Gibson was just terrible. Rich, also in a bad way, growled, "Yeah, but I'd sleep with him before I'd sleep with that Helen Hunt. Ugh." While I was thinking, That quote goes in my review, Rich said, "Don't put that in your review." We had a little chuckle over our reenactment of the movie, but we both knew I'd wind up betraying him here.
Afterwards, we went to Saigon Grill and, over sautéed string beans, complained about "What Women Want." I think Steve Martin would have been good in the lead role; neither of us could say who would have been better than Hunt--maybe Sandra Bullock? I did manage to recall that a minor character in the movie that looked familiar is the actor who played George's girlfriend in the Seinfeld episode about faking orgasms.
"What Women Want" put us off Hollywood drek for a while, but by Friday night, we were ready to get back in the saddle and endure some more Helen Hunt. Rich wanted to see "Cast Away," and although--with the minor exception of Toy Story 2--Tom Hanks hasn't made a movie I've liked since "Big" (1988), I was intrigued by the much-hyped island scenes of his latest pic, so I agreed to go.
For various complicated reasons best left unrecounted, we decided to see "Cast Away" at the UA theater on Union Square. Big mistake. Most of the screening rooms there are constructed such that the first ten rows are on a flat floor, and the back section of seats is on a steep angle. The import of this is that if you sit in my preferred spot (fifth row, center), you can't see at all if somebody tall sits in front of you. So we were reduced to sitting about a dozen rows back--which was really far from the screen in this joint--and I was crabby. I tried munching on a Reeses' to brighten my mood, but I was so assaulted by the Coke-sponsored slide show and the piped-in music, that I just wound up nauseated on top of annoyed. So that was my state when the lights dimmed. And then there were about six commercials before the previews, which sent Rich over the edge.
Even if we had been in better moods, I don't think either of us would have liked "Cast Away" much. As you know (unless you've been stranded on an island in the Pacific for four years), it's about a FedEx exec, played by Hanks, who is the sole survivor of a cargo-plane crash and must spend four years on an uninhabited Pacific island. He is ultimately rescued and returns to his hometown of Memphis, where his former fiancée, played by Helen Hunt, has figured him for dead.
The beginning of the movie is slow, supplying facts about the relationship between Hanks and Hunt, but providing little sense of their connection. Then there's the plane crash scene, which is very well done and truly upsetting. And then the bulk of the movie follows Hanks alone on the island. It's "Survivor" meets "Titanic." Or "Gilligan's Island" meets "Perfect Storm." Or something. But it isn't terribly interesting. And it lasts a long, long, long time. By the time Hanks has grown a full beard and lost forty pounds, the audience could have done so too. Then there's a short bit when Hanks returns to civilization--including a cameo by the actual CEO of FedEx, Fred Smith--and ba-da-bing! it's over.
I would have preferred a lot less focus on the island survival skills (aided by FedEx packages that wash up on shore) and a lot more on the aftermath. And I could have done with somebody other than Hunt in the fiancée role--enough already with the concerned looks! Hanks is decent, though, and the movie--although it actually features swelling music for a *volleyball* at one point--manages to show a modicum of restraint in the sentiment department (surprising, since it was directed by Robert Zemeckis of "Forrest Gump" fame). Also, it is well filmed.
Afterwards, Rich and I went to Bar Six, where we were promptly seated at a romantic candle-lit corner table, and complained about the movie. "Cast Away," with its pretentious two-word title, aims to be an epic film that imparts wisdom about the human spirit and prioritizing family and all that crap. But it falls short, teaching nothing so much as how to heal a flesh wound with packing materials and ice-skate laces. Nonetheless (or is it, as a result?), Hanks is a shoo-in for the best-actor Oscar.
The next night, feeling we hadn't gotten our fill of FedEx product placements during "Cast Away," Rich and my friend Jennifer and I went to see "State and Main," which failed to deliver Fred Smith again, but did include some prominent and strategically placed FedEx logos. "State and Main" is latest from director/writer David Mamet ("The Untouchables," "Wag the Dog," and many others). It's the unimaginative story of a film crew that shakes up a sleepy Vermont town. Stereotypes of country folk abound, and there's pretty much no story. But the movie isn't a total loss. It features the signature Mamet dialog, some fine acting by an ensemble cast (William Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Stiles, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charles Durning, Rebecca Pidgeon, etc.) and a very cute Dalmatian.
We ate Junior Mints and saw the movie at the Chelsea Clearview theater on 23rd between 7th and 8th. Afterwards, on our way down the stairs (the escalator was broken), we found ourselves behind an older gentleman who was shouting to the woman he was with: "This theater is a shithouse! Total crap!" He banged on a painted column. "This isn't even real marble!" Rich and Jennifer and I had our best laugh of the night witnessing his tirade.
The next night was Christmas Eve, and I had arranged to see "O Brother, Where Art Thou," the latest Coen brothers flick, with Judy Wolfe. Judy is a good friend of Marsha Dowshen, a good friend of my mother, and she (Judy) writes movie reviews--with handy categories--that she emails around to her posse. Judy's reviews are hilarious, and if you want to have them delivered to your inbox, write to Judy directly: email@example.com (they are not archived online, but Judy is an artist, and you can check out her groovy artwork at www.judithwolfe.com). Anyway, periodically, Judy holds contests for her readers, and I won the last one! (I suggested she add "food" as a category in her reviews.) The prize for winning was getting taken to the movies by Judy (snack and drink included) and then guest writing her review. So you can read my guest review of "O Brother, Where Art Thou"--which featured no FedEx boxes but did have both Charles Durning and a minor Seinfeld actor (the guy who played the high talker)--here. Meantime, Rich came with Judy and me to see "O Brother, Where Art Thou" at the icky-sticky UA theater on Union Square, and he's guest written a review for me. Here it is:
My eighth-grade English teacher had us believe that Homer, author of "The Odyssey," among other epic works of his day, was not only sight-impaired, but that he may have actually been a woman. He, or she, was even considered by some to have been more than one person. Hence, at thirteen, we were reading the masterpiece of a bisexual blind committee, heady stuff for a group of adolescent boys whose idea of an odyssey was to brave our way over to the girls' school across the street.
With their new film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou," the Coen brothers, a pair of overgrown adolescent boys, have done their own interpretation, albeit a loose one, of Homer's epic poem, while paying homage to Preston Sturges and his "Sullivan's Travels" in the process. The story of three men on the lam from a chain gang in the Depression-era deep South, "O Brother" is definitely an odyssey, but only in the sense that the movie is all over the place.
George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson (a college classmate of mine who never used his middle name until now--he must be going for a part in one of those teenage girl movies) make quite the trio, and Clooney makes it clear that he wouldn't be hanging around with the other two had they not been chained together. Though his contract probably stipulated that he not have the bad teeth and mental-patient haircuts of the other two, Clooney--even to an ER virgin like me--would be hard to mistake as anything less than a movie star, if only an ersatz one. He may be a low-rent Clark Gable, but that ain't bad in today's dollars.
The movie bears the trademark Coen brothers' goofiness and offbeat humor, and it wouldn't be complete without John Goodman playing one of its creepiest characters, in this case, a cyclops. In many ways, the picture feels a lot like a cartoon, most notably by the presence of what I like to call a water-pump on wheels, one of those man-powered carts that rides on train tracks. I don't know anyone who's ever seen one of those things ridden by anyone other than Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam.
After "O Brother, Where Art Thou," Rich and I stopped by Joe Junior's for a Greek salad and complained about the movie.
The next day was Christmas. Although neither Rich nor I is an observant Jew, we honored our religious tradition and went to see a movie--"An Everlasting Piece," at the Sony gigaplex. This was our fourth Hollywood pic in four days, and I was flagging. I had no tolerance for the idiots who surrounded us in the sold out theater, and I fantasized about buying Twizzlers and "inadvertently" smacking the woman next to me while gesticulating with a piece of artificially flavored strawberry rope. The commercials before the movie made me angry, and I thought all the previews looked lousy (terrif, Ben Affleck in a WWII movie!). So I wasn't in a really expansive mood when the movie started. Still, I don't think I would have liked it much.
The genius of director Barry Levinson's movies ("Diner," "Rain Man," "Wag the Dog") tends to be the intimacy with which his subject matter is treated. But I didn't get the sense Levinson has a clue about "Everlasting Piece's" main characters: a couple of toupee salesmen in Belfast during the 1980's. The guys have cute accents, but their relationship is underdeveloped, and the movie fails to make dramatic use of its own story, a sales contest between two wig companies. Fortunately, the movie has some decent acting, plus a few adorable dogs, so I wasn't completely put off by it.
Afterwards, adhering to tribal ritual, Rich and I had Chinese food, at Ollie's, across the street from the theater, and complained about the movie (actually, Rich kind of liked the flick). Ollie's isn't great, but it was a huge relief to eat food that wasn't purchased at a concession stand.
Speaking of concession-stand food, last week Rich and I saw "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" at the Roachplex, and about twenty minutes into it, Rich got up and went out to buy a cookie. From the many movies I have seen with Rich, I never deduced that he is the kind of person who could leave in the middle of film to go get a snack. I was appalled. And he should be ashamed: he missed six minutes of a really fine film.
"Crouching Tiger" is a Mandarin-language martial arts movie from director Ang Lee ("Eat Drink, Man Woman," "The Ice Storm"). It stars kung fu legend Michelle Yeoh and Hong Kong's mega-celeb Chow Yun Fat--two of my fave actors. The fight scenes were choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen, a behind-the-scenes HK superstar (and the man who created the fancy footwork in "The Matrix").
As you know, I rilly rilly like martial arts movies, and I was prepared to love "Crouching Tiger," which has washed onscreen amid a wave of positive advance press. I was not disappointed. It has characters I respect, a poignant love story, central conflict between the lead women, and awesome fighting. Chow Yun Fat was unfortunately underused. But Michelle Yeoh was outstanding, and I just had a great time watching the movie.
I also had a great time watching "A Hard Day's Night," which I saw earlier tonight at the Film Forum with Adam and Tania. The exuberant 1964 movie has been remastered (gorgeous print) and rereleased, and it's a joy to see. The only pain during a screening is that you have to refrain from singing along. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Also at the Film Forum is "One Day in September," which I saw last week with Matthew. It's a documentary about the 1972 Munich Olympics, during which Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes. The movie does a reasonable, if overtly partisan job, of portraying the events. I was glad to have seen it, and I learned from it, but it raised more questions than it answered.
So that's the all the reviews that are fit to print today. Stay tuned for another blitz of holiday film going, coming soon to a monitor near you. And if I can manage to pull it off, I'll include a year-end top-ten list along with the next batch of reviews. Now that'll be a nice tip!