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Tucson Weekly Who's On The Dark Side Now?

In The Ultimate Battle Of Summer Blockbusters, Only You Can Choose Between Good And Drivel.

By Zachary Woodruff

MAY 24, 1999:  I SPENT SEVEN weeks in a tent outside one of Tucson's largest movie theaters first to see The Phantom Menace. It was rough. My tongue was shredded from eating nothing but Sour Patch Ewoks, and my soundbite for the local TV news was cut so they could spotlight some loser who'd been in his tent for eight weeks.

But I was content--content in the knowledge that I would be the first one admitted to the 6 a.m. showing on May 19, fifth row center, the primo spot for Surround Sound! Yeah!

Then P-Day came: they opened the box office for the advance ticket sales. I was first in line. "One for my reason for living, The Phantom Menace," I said with oozing pride. Ticket boy stared at me for three seconds, and then started cackling. "We're not showing The Phantom Menace here. We're showing Notting Hill!"

It was like when Pee Wee Herman discovered there wasn't a basement at the Alamo.

So now I'm picking up the pieces. Daily therapy has helped me realize there's more to life than the Star Wars prequel. Like other movies. Loads of other movies. About which I've taken copious notes....


STAR WARS, WONDERFUL STAR WARS

Who am I kidding? When Phantom Menace stops selling out, around August, I'm there. Sure, the reviews haven't been so hot--like that one where Janet Maslin of The New York Times compared it to choking on a Chewbacca hairball. But who cares? Who cares that George Lucas has only ever directed two good films in his life? He's a visionary genius. Plus, I want to see Miss Piggy reprise her gender-bending performance as Yoda. She's terrific.


THE BIG CRAPOWSKI

We're talking big-time summer schlock here. The Phantom Menace's top competition may turn out to be Wild Wild West, starring wild, wild Will Smith and the three G's of gunplay, gadgets and CGI graphics. WWW's based on a TV show I used to love but now can scarcely remember, so I won't mind if the film violates the spirit of the original. Plus, it's directed by Men in Black's Barry Sonnenfeld, who knows how to keep things coherent and brisk. (Unlike The Mummy. What was that?)

I'm less certain about The Deep Blue Sea, in which regular old sharks won't do--now we've got Smart Sharks™. When last we saw "hacktion" director Renny Harlin, Geena Davis was chomping on their marriage license because he put her in the embarrassingly bad Cutthroat Island and Long Kiss Goodnight. Now that he's Geena-less, Renny's turned to flesh-eating sharks for companionship. Hey, maybe this movie will help reprise 1977's Star Wars and Jaws double-whammy? Far out.

Speaking of déjà vu, Roland Emmerich's The 13th Floor looks a heck of a lot like The Matrix without martial arts or Keanu. But it does have some of that crrrazy "Question Reality" philosophy--in fact, its website has a glossary that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about epistemology, existentialism and Soren Kierkegaard's favorite snacks. Still, I remain skeptical: a deep, meaningful special-effects film from the man who stomped us with Godzilla? Next thing you'll tell me is that Hugh Grant can still play a romantic lead!

If you can put those oceans of schlock out of your mind, try Lake Placid, in which a giant alligator terrorizes a small town. It's the latest career move from a top Ally McBeal screenwriter (he's not the alligator, he's...oh never mind). The forked-tongue-in-cheek action stars Bill Pullman and Bridget Fonda, whose smartly quirky taste in scripts (rent Zero Effect for proof) suggests this movie might actually be, well, good.

My top vote goes to Run Lola Run, a film-fest favorite that, like Retroactive and Groundhog Day, plays out the same scenario in multiple ways. I'm convinced, though, that the real reason indie movies are so clever has less to do with Rashomon than with saving money on sets.

As for The 13th Warrior (starring Antonio Banderas, from a Beowulf-inspired story by Michael Chrichton), it's all the proof we need to avoid movies with the number 13 in them. Even Jean-Claude Van Damme beating up East Texans in the latest Universal Soldier sequel promises better luck.


PRIMITIVE THRILLS

It goes like this: Hollywood releases the special effects and big-gimmick stuff early, then it releases the more "human" thrillers in anticipation of a neo-Luddite audience backlash. One such thriller is Arlington Road, wherein Jeff Bridges begins suspecting neighbor Tim Robbins of being a bomb-making militia wacko. Since Unabomber Manifesto: The Motion Picture won't be around for a while, this ought to be just the mysterious package to keep things ticking.

Speaking of hateful and primitive, Fight Club stars Edward Norton and Brad Pitt as the kinds of lost souls who join gangs and beat each other up for fun. Sounds like a hoot.

Then there's The General's Daughter, in which Scientology freak John Travolta investigates the murder of--bing! bing! bing!--a general's daughter; and he uncovers--bing! bing! bing!--more than he bargained for! It's got James Woods, which is enough reason to see any movie. Even that Vampires thing.

If you're looking for a reason not to see a movie, trust your instincts about Instinct. The idea of casting the increasingly humorless Anthony Hopkins (ever see the guy ebullient?) as a primate researcher who goes ape is right up there with casting Jodie Foster as a baby-talking wild child. Maybe Foster's Nell can hunt down Hopkins' Instinct and they'll make a movie about it called Hannibal and we'll all be happy.


KISS AND TELL

Where romantic roles are concerned, it's a good time to have either (a) a career that was launched by having played a prostitute; or (b) a career that was nearly sunk by having played with a prostitute. That might explain why Notting Hill stars former Pretty Woman sex worker Julia Roberts and former Hollywood Boulevard patron Hugh Grant. Get those two together, and bam--it's gonna be juicy. For art-imitating-life bonus points, The Englishman Who Went Up Notting Hill and Came Down With a Prostitute is also about the pitfalls of being a scandal-plagued celebrity.

But I don't want to see Roberts play a beleaguered star, I want to see her go bwa-bwa-bwa! If we're lucky maybe that bomb-siren of a laugh will be on display in Runaway Bride, which casts Roberts opposite the bad-rumor-plagued, former American Gigolo sex worker Richard Gere. Here Roberts plays a woman who keeps running away from the altar...in direct opposition to the actress' perfectly stable love life. She's playing against type, you see.

Other romancers include The Love Letter, about what happens when somebody starts sending secret-admirer letters to everyone in a small town (try it, it's fun); or The Thomas Crown Affair, which looks like a carbon copy of Entrapment with a younger James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and a bit more smoochin'.

If you're still thirsty after Notting Hill, you could go for a second round of Hugh Grant with Mickey Blue Eyes, which pits him against the far-more-interesting-than-Julia Jeanne Tripplehorn. (Want to rent a really good romance? Check out Tripplehorn in The Night We Never Met.)


SCARY STUFF

Who needs love when you can have fear? It's the American way! So run shrieking to the movie theater when The Haunting opens. It's based on a very subtle 1963 classic from director Robert Wise, so of course this time it's loud, full of special effects, and directed by Speed's Jan de Bont as if he had Poltergeist envy. It's also got Liam Neeson without his hair extensions, which could be seen as scary to some.

What else is scary? Try The Astronaut's Wife, which has Charlize Theron worrying that her space-exploring husband Johnny Depp might have been replaced by an alien. Or Stigmata, in which Patricia Arquette tries her bleedin' hand at the Agnes of God thing. Better bring your blanket to those and get under cover.

My vote for a summer spine-chiller goes to The Blair Witch Project, in which the "recovered footage" of some missing documentary filmmakers forms the narrative of a very original-sounding story. Blair appears to have a genuine nightmare quality akin to Picnic at Hanging Rock, and it's been reported that terrified festival audiences often left theaters awash in pee. No foolin'!

But for something really scary, prepare to look away in terror: Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box is on its way.


COMEDIC RELIEF

After all that spookiness you'll want to laugh and laugh. Can Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me help? The first one was hit-and-miss: Mike Myers would have benefited from sharing the screen with other comedic folk instead of making himself the center of all things mirthful. But when it hit, it hit good, and there's no indication this one won't, too (though I do think Alotta Fagina is a funnier name than Ivana Humpalot).

About that South Park movie: screw South Park! I refuse to pay for bad animation and cussing kids--I got enough of that during my own childhood.

Also in the funny realm is Big Daddy, an Adam Sandler film that's as much about awwws as it is about duhhhs. Sandler adopts a kid to impress a woman, then a bunch of cute, dopey stuff happens. It'll make billions of dollars and Sandler will never, ever leave our collective unconscious no matter how fervently we pray.

Now for the apparent gems: comedian Albert Brooks, whose movies are always smart, low-key and richly funny, has cast Sharon Stone in the title role of The Muse. I'm there, but first: Bowfinger and Mystery Men await. The former teams Steve Martin with Eddie Murphy, who may yet achieve the comic comeback he's been struggling for all these years.

But Mystery Men looks like the summer comedy to watch, even on cast alone: Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Greg Kinnear...excellent. And they all wear lame superhero costumes. It's ideal!


TA TA, TEEN MOVIES

In case you missed the trailers, American Pie features a scene in which a curious teenager masturbates by getting intimate with a hot apple pie. It also has the following plot: high-school pals bet to see who can lose his virginity first. In other words, teen sex comedies are about to rear their ugly, zit-speckled heads all over again. Run!

What else do we have in the big bag of teeny? There's Teaching Mrs. Tingle, a wacky comedy about high-school students plotting murder. That oughta go over well. Then there's the beauty-contest black comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous, starring Kirsten Dunst and the augmentation of Denise Richards. There's a Nixon-era movie with the unfortunate title Dick (John Waters' Pecker--now that was a title). There's Outside Providence, written by the gooey-haired scribes behind Something About Mary. There's even a film in which Molly Ringwald attempts a comeback. Let's move on.


KIDS' MOVIES

What can one write about Dudley Do Right or Inspector Gadget? I would like to point out, though, that Inspector Gadget's Matthew Broderick earns my respect for simultaneously appearing in a Disney movie and the fantastically frank, delightfully disturbing and mesmerizingly misanthropic Election.

Shhh! Do you hear it? If not, you'll hear it soon--the sucking sound of money leaving parents' pockets as they buy tons of Tarzan merchandise for their kids. Disney engineers this each summer like nauseating clockwork. Whatever the themes within the original Tarzan might be, you can be sure they'll be muted, whitewashed, kiddiefied and embodied in self-congratulatory song when Disney gets done with them. And you can also be sure the female characters will appear to have been given animated nose jobs, in much the same way that Tomb Raider video game heroine Lara Croft appears to have virtual breast implants.

As for Muppets From Space, I'd love to see it, but I'm already seeing The Phantom Menace. So it would be redundant.


DOCUMENTARIES

These probably won't come to town for months, if ever, but new documentaries about experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie, Star Trek geeks and Ry Cooder all look quite worthy.


DIRECTORS WHO CARE

The best films of the summer will probably be the least attended--which means more elbow room in the subzero AC for you and me. Millions more people will go to Wild Wild West than Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, about the New York serial murders in 1977 (there's that pesky year again). But you can bet Lee's film will have that rare quality in summer movies: it'll be challenging.

Same for Eyes Wide Shut, from the all-time best Evil Control Freak of a director who ever lived and died, Stanley Kubrick. Eyes doesn't stand a chance against The 13th Schlockfest or Wild Wild CGI Graphics, but it's probably just a leeeetle bit more intelligent.

How big of an Evil Control Freak was Kubrick? Well, I got a press packet full of detailed information about the summer's movies, and the Eyes Wide Shut page was blank. Kubrick's movies are fine-tuned to obnoxious levels. It kills any spontaneity his movies might have had, but the perfectionism is worth the trade-off. Appropriately enough, Eyes Wide Shut stars Evil Control Freak (and bonus Scientology freak) Tom Cruise and his wife Nicole Kidman. They play a therapist couple who experiment with sex and infidelity.

Other auteur-style directors whose works look interesting include Limbo, from John "Mr. Independent Cinema" Sayles; a retelling of the Ichabod Crane story from Tim Burton; an uncharacteristically un-weird family story from David Lynch; and The Loss of Sexual Innocence from Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), who perhaps knows a thing or two about the subject. Especially intriguing is 50 Violins, in which Nightmare on Elm Street horrormeister Wes Craven goes the feel-good drama route and casts...Meryl Streep!

See you in line--but not if I see you first.


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