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Armageddon, Mark Twain's America

By Ray Pride, Carl Kozlowski

JULY 6, 1998: 


Or, "Shallow Impact." A thuddingly dull two-and-half-hour coming attraction for thrills, chills and puppy-dog-hugging emotion that never arrives, "Armageddon" is, to paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton's scary NASA man, "basically the worst parts of the Hollywood production process." The alleged $140 million budget balances out to almost a million dollars a minute, a once-thought-impossible scale that matches that of television commercials, and the work of director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer approaches that style in both sensory overload and intellectual deprivation. (John Schwartzman's images, taken singly, are often striking and fine.) So "Armageddon"'s about apocalypse? Nah. There are only the smallest instants of the always-attractive violent pornography of senseless destruction. It's about these really cool blue-collar roughnecks who go to an asteroid, where no one, particularly the audience, knows the rules or stakes, and pretty much no one cares. Bruce Willis is Harry Stamper, veteran oil rigger and stock Willis, complete with small smirk and smaller rug. Stamper's daughter's Liv Ryan; she's in love with his protegé, Ben Affleck, with shiny new teeth; his crew includes Steve Buscemi, who gets several jokes about being a pedophile and Will Patton, who grinds his teeth and flashes his stock psycho eyes; Peter Stormare is a stock wild-and-crazy Russian cosmonaut. A rare six writers are credited with the stick figures and stock situations. Let us turn to the official Word–the press kit–for how this came about: "In creating one of the most exciting action-adventure scripts in Hollywood history, Bruckheimer, the master of the genre, assembled a cadre of talented writers including Shane Salerno, Tony Gilroy, J. J. Abrams, Paul Attanasio, Ann Biderman, Scott Rosenberg and Academy Award-winner Robert Towne, who worked sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, over an intense eight-week period, writing, polishing and perfecting the material. This dedication to the project, and to Bruckheimer's and Bay's vision, continued throughout the actual shooting of the film." This visionary alliance means all those writers can buy new houses, and all I got was this lousy headache. Panavision. 150m. (Ray Pride)

Mark Twain's America

A fish is still a fish, even if it's in 3-D on a movie screen. And accordingly, a 3-D documentary is still a documentary. Such is the case with the new IMAX 3-D "Mark Twain's America," which takes the Ken Burns school of documentary filmmaking–extensive use of old photographs with the even more extensive use of celebrity narration–and try to pump new life into it via a theatrical rather than a PBS viewing experience. Stephen Low wrote, produced and directed the film, in which narrator Anne Bancroft details the ups and downs of Twain's colorful life, occasionally trading off with the vocal stylings of a Twain impersonator reciting the author's comments. The 3-D footage comes in modern-day depictions of life in America and particularly Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, where kids fly off of rope swings and into your lap, or splash mud in your face while engaging in a truly wet game of volleyball during a town festival. Meanwhile, actual 19th century stereopticon photographs (which resemble 3-D imagery) of the author and historic events blend in surprisingly well with the new footage. In the end, the film provides a lilting look at a firebrand's life–one that might be better served by kids reading "Huckleberry Finn." As it stands, the film seems as though it may better inform parents than entertain their children. 50m. IMAX. (Carl Kozlowski)

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