Guns and Poses
There's less to "Wild Wild West" than meets the eye, and too much for "Summer of Sam"
By Susan Ellis
JULY 12, 1999: Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kenneth Branagh, raises some questions. Such as:
Did they have thong underwear in the Old West? It's a small issue that arises when an Oriental lovely lifts her skirt to seduce the hero James West (Smith), a federal agent out to nab the evil Dr. Arliss Loveless (Branagh), a legless, embittered Civil War officer who is determined to kill President Grant and take over the country.
The point is that there's barely a whiff of the spirit of the West in this Western comedy. Sure, James West rides a horse and shoots a bunch of people with a pistol, but he also clothes-lines them. In fact, Wild Wild West stands as a multimillion-dollar example of imagination at its laziest. Instead of trying to work within the setting, the filmmakers pretty much ignore it for the sake of big-deal effects in the form of The Tarantula, a giant spider-like machine used by Dr. Loveless to spread ruin. So much for sharp-shooting.
Then there's the old mismatched-partners theme brought out yet again to tepid effect. West is the sexy, brute-force, instinctive type, while Artemus Gordon (Kline) is the cerebrally sweet and whimsical inventor who'd rather think his way through a sticky situation than shoot, which brings up the next question:
Why'd they do it? Perhaps Branagh and Kline signed up for their roles to make some money to see them through their other projects which usually don't gross what this film will probably make in its opening weekend.
As Dr. Loveless, Branagh puts on the most wonderfully old Southern accent. It's all rounded vowels and mint-julep-y, just the sort of accent you'd imagine from an old Civil War officer. He evokes a graciousness even when offering the most heinous of threats. It's a fine performance. Unfortunately, you can't build a movie around an accent.
The filmmakers do, however, try to build it around the box-office draw of Will Smith and his widespread appeal. As the cool but flappable James West, Smith is game, but the material is weak and he's without the technique needed to create something from it the way Branagh does with Loveless. It might have helped had he had a character stronger than Kline's Gordon to bounce against, but Kline plays it too straight and steady to be of any use.
So, finally, Is it worth it? Mostly no. Hardcore Smith fans might want to give it a shot, and it's just getting hot enough that the deep-freeze temperatures of the theatres could provide some relief.
If you're still on the fence, consider this: At a recent screening the theatre was packed with small kids, and before the credits their teacher kept walking up and down the aisles telling them to shut up, shut up, shut up. Frankly, she was making more noise than the kids. Despite some initial nervous giggling over a few poorly disguised innuendoes, the kids made nary a peep. Not a sound.
Parents of the victims of David Berkowitz are angry that Lee is bringing back painful memories, while Berkowitz himself has reportedly protested his being a character in the film. Lee argues that the use of the Son of Sam killings in New York during the summer of 1977 is merely a backdrop.
Lee has a strong case, for what Summer of Sam is really about is mood, the feel of a city on the verge and a small group of people who get swept up in it without really knowing what's going on. Disco is big, the punk scene is rumbling, and AIDS is unheard of. But, for these characters, something unseen is around the corner -- it could be a killer with a .44, or it could be a whole lifetime of bad decisions waiting to catch up with them.
Vincent (John Leguizamo) is a sharply dressed hairdresser who proudly parades around with his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) and then screws around on her. His guilt drives him to believe that the serial killer Son of Sam is after him. Meanwhile, his buddies have made up a possible list of suspects, and number-one on the list is Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who dares to return to the old neighborhood with a punk hairdo and a fake English accent.
Lee, never one for a light touch, wants to make sure you catch his drift. He intersperses the primary plotline with scenes of Berkowitz cowering and howling in madness, goes for the truly obvious by placing the neighborhood friends in front of a dead-end sign, and, at about a third of the way through, uses a long vignette of city-at-large scenes to sum up the atmosphere. The appearance of a talking dog may be a signal that Lee is losing his sense of humor -- or that he really likes the Babe movies.
Lee does get his point across and, with a running time of almost 2-and-a-half hours, across again, so that the movie begins to feel a bit overbearing and redundant -- and that can be a killer. -- S.E.
This Is My Father is the first collaboration of the three Quinn brothers -- writer/director Paul, cinematographer Declan, and actor Aidan. With a resume that includes acclaimed turns in big-screen projects such as Desperately Seeking Susan and Avalon -- as well as an Emmy-nominated performance in the televised AIDS drama An Early Frost -- heartthrob Aidan is easily the best known member of the Quinn clan. But his two older brothers have distinguished themselves, too. Declan is the talented lensman behind Leaving Las Vegas and Vanya On 42nd Street, among other films, and Paul is a veteran Chicago stage actor and director. All three brothers served as executive producers on the film.
Paul Quinn based his screenplay for This Is My Father on a story his mother recalled from her childhood in Ireland. Unfortunately, the finished film often has the qualities of a half-remembered tale -- anecdotal, lacking in detail, and never fully realized. But in the end, the story's verisimilitude and poignancy -- helped along by several understated but powerful performances -- carry the film and the day.
James Caan, who is given his first chance in years to really act and who comports himself very well, plays Kieran Johnson, a Chicago-area schoolteacher who has lost his passion. A widower and childless, he no longer communicates with his students, fails at playing surrogate father to his adolescent nephew, and fights with his sister over the care of their bedridden mother, Fiona. Unable to speak, the victim of a debilitating stroke, Fiona's silence only masks even further long-held secrets about her past, secrets Kieran begins to uncover when he discovers a photo of a young Fiona and a man he assumes to be the father he never knew.
With no answers forthcoming from Fiona, Kieran travels to Ireland -- nephew in tow -- to discover the identity of the man in the photo. In the little village of his mother's youth, Kieran meets a "traveler" who, after some prodding, begins to tell him of the love affair between the spoiled, prideful Fiona Flynn (Moya Farrelly) and the "poorhouse bastard" Kieran O'Day (Aidan Quinn).
In 1939, the 17-year-old Fiona is sent home early from boarding school and begins a romance with O'Day, an older but simpler man who farms the land rented by his foster parents. It is one of the most crippling failures of Quinn's screenplay that while the chemistry between the performers works, you never completely buy the romance because you don't understand the initial attraction. Why would a young girl of privileged background fall for a much older, less-refined farmer? Not that such a relationship is unthinkable, but Quinn never explains it.
Like all great lovers, Fiona and Kieran face mighty obstacles. The widow Flynn (Gina Moxley) doesn't think much of her daughter spending time with an older man of limited prospects. And the local clergy, distrustful of any expression of love, sees nothing but the prospect for sin. Eventually, these two forces combine to set our two lovers on a course toward a tragic conclusion that seems out of proportion with what has preceded it.
What saves This Is My Father from the unbelievable melodrama of the Fiona-Kieran affair is the framing story featuring Caan. Given the distance of a tale told in a parlor by an old Gypsy woman, the story of that fateful summer in 1939 fills the missing pieces of modern-day Kieran's life quite nicely, effecting not a life change but a reaffirmation, subtle and poignant. -- Mark Jordan
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