The Opposite of Sex

The Opposite of Sex

Christina Ricci gets all tarted up and says nasty things about gay men in The Opposite of Sex, a self-consciously scabrous comedy from Don Roos, the guy who wrote Single White Female, Boys on the Side, and the ill-advised Diabolique remake. Continue reading

Deep Impact


Remember how critics and the Academy shat all over James Cameron when the former group claimed he couldn’t write his way out of a dime novel and the latter declined to honor him with an Oscar nomination for scripting Titanic? Well, barely six months after the fateful voyage of the big T, a pair of “real” screenwriters, Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) and Michael Tolkin (The Player), have hashed out a disaster movie screenplay so full of undisguised hokum and drivel that it makes Titanic look like Casablanca.

In the context of the current spate of disaster flicks, Deep Impact is just another movie about the end of the world, ho-hum. A comet the size of Mount Everest is discovered on a direct collision course with planet earth. A spacecraft has been built by the U.S. and Russia to try and head off catastrophe, but if the comet can’t be knocked off course by nukes, it will almost certainly spell the end of civilization.

Deep Impact nods toward the inevitable apocalyptic panic now and again, but mostly it’s interested in putting a bunch of cardboard characters through their dreary paces, a la any afternoon soap opera. There’s the daughter who’s torn between her estranged parents, there’s a crowd of handsome kids on a mission to save the planet, and there’s even (thank you, Mr. Cameron) a teenage romance. If these cliches were at least spun out with some aplomb, they could be charming. Instead, it’s all deja vu driving a movie that’s predictable, perfunctory and —worst — dull.

Téa Leoni (Flirting With Disaster) can’t carry this mess. After her character, a journalist for MSNBC (huh?) breaks the comet story in improbable fashion, her reward is a spot on the anchor desk. The problem with too many films that strive to be canny where the news media is concerned is a lack of authenticity. Certainly Leoni, with her leisurely drawl and eyes that look like she’s perpetually rising from a deep sleep, resembles no successful news anchor on the face of the planet. (Well, maybe one on MSNBC, but even that’s pushing it.)

Deep Impact doesn’t even try to make her a hero (even though she is, um, the main character). That job falls on the able shoulders of Robert Duvall, playing the spunky old mission commander on what turns out to be a fool’s errand. Hero or no, his part is woefully thin. Morgan Freeman is terrific as the President, but just when he gets up a good head of steam, the camera is liable to cut back to Leoni again, looking tired. Vanessa Redgrave, still a formidable actress when she finds a reason, has no reason for being here. In this context, seeing the very credible James Cromwell on-screen for three minutes, as the Secretary of the Treasury, is reason to cheer. Nobody else, not even Elijah Wood, makes an impression worth commenting on.

The only reason to watch this thing is for the admittedly spectacular special effects footage of New York City being crushed by huge comet-spawned tsunamis. But since New York plays pretty much no part in the rest of the film, the shots of skycrapers being toppled against one another seem completely gratuitous. What’s more, they flit by awfully quickly, like Dreamworks had its collective eye glued to the budget, fearful of overruns. And the final insult is that much of the “cool” stuff has already been featured prominently in trailers and TV spots.

Seasoned TV director Mimi Leder, whose big-screen debut was The Peacemaker, has now made her second perfectly competent but unexciting picture for Dreamworks SKG, the Hollywood start-up helmed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. If The Peacemaker seemed like a pitch for a James Bond movie that didn’t make the cut, Deep Impact plays like a TV miniseries that’s been hacked to the bone. All the most interesting bits —like the arrival at a network of caves being built underneath Missouri to hold a million Americans selected by lottery — are cut short before they can play a part in the story. Where’s the chaos of such an event? Where’s the society in tumult? Featured instead are gooey close-ups of babies’ faces, interminable conversations between people we don’t care about, and shots of couples staring lovingly into each other’s eyes and embracing in their final moments.

If you go, root for the comets.

Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin
Cinematography by Dietrich Lohmann
Starring Téa Leoni, Morgan Freeman, and Elijah Wood
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)
U.S.A., 1998

He Got Game

Denzel Washington in He Got Game

For a guy who doesn’t want to be called “the black Woody Allen,” Spike Lee sure invites the comparison. Look at his new movie, He Got Game, which opens with some gorgeous hoops-across-America photography of kids shooting baskets, all set to music by Aaron Copland. Barring a few songs by Public Enemy, the musical score to He Got Game is all Copland. It would be fairly unprecedented if Woody Allen hadn’t already done much the same thing, setting his rhapsody in Manhattan to music by great American composer George Gershwin. Continue reading


Ewan McGregor in Nightwatch

With the U.S. release of Nightwatch, Deep Focus comes full circle. The very first review I wrote for the Internet was dashed off after I trekked halfway across Chicago, in the rain, to see a film festival screening of a little Danish horror movie that looked promising. That movie was Ole Bornedal’s Nattevagten, and it disappointed me so much that I dashed off a bitter review, hoping simply to warn others away from it should it begin a regular U.S. theatrical run. Continue reading

Species II


Species II is one of those movies that the studio was ashamed to screen for critics. This is dumb. True, I can’t imagine that there’s a critic in the world who could find more than one or two kind words for Species II. But since when does a movie about space aliens mating with human females depend on good notices? Memo to MGM: there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Just look what The New York Times wrote in its Saturday editions: “Species II … includes bloody murder, bloody births, exploding heads, partial nudity, shootings, simulated sex, monstrous couplings, profanity, foul language and bad parenting on the part of a U.S. senator.” Continue reading

City of Angels


In its very first scene, City of Angels resorts to the kind of cliche that its source material, the meditative German fantasy Wings of Desire, so completely eschewed. A little child is dying, and an angel in a long dark coat arrives in the room to accompany the girl on her journey into the next world. The afterlife is, of course, symbolized by a bright white light at the end of a hallway.

The sole saving grace is that the ethereal “messenger” here is Nicolas Cage, whose dark beauty easily suggests a lithe angel of death. He has a hard time, however, conveying the sort of abiding wisdom that would befit somebody whose been hanging around since God created the universe. He seems, instead, confused (not to mention a little creepy). Maybe it makes sense that an angel should remain, in a way, forever young, always capable of being impressed by and becoming involved with the daily machinations of human lives.

How else to explain angel Seth’s sudden and inexplicable attraction to pretty heart surgeon Maggie Rice, played effortlessly by Meg Ryan (who has “pretty” down to a T)? OK, he’s impressed by her perky dedication to life, and he’s touched by her sorrow over losing a patient after literally holding his heart in her hands. But surely Seth has encountered countless such dedicated humanfolk before, right? I guess we’re expected to chalk it up to love at first sight, but Seth’s awe-struck manner in Maggie’s presence resembles a post-adolescent crush or psychotic fixation rather than the discovery of a soul mate. When Seth makes himself visible to Maggie and starts stalking her around the hospital, he’s lucky she doesn’t just belt him one and call the police.

Instead, she’s mesmerized. And once Seth learns from flabby ex-angel Nathan Messinger (Dennis Franz), whose surname is indicative of this movie’s crushing lack of subtlety, that it’s possible to trade in a pair of angel wings for a mortal human soul, it’s clear that he won’t be able to resist the lure of the flesh.

And there, more or less, is your story. Naturally, Maggie already has a doctor boyfriend who insists that they’re right for each other because they’re so much the same. The lesson she learns from Seth is that opposites attract, and City of Angels shares Wings of Desire‘s nigh-spiritual reverence for the way that women and men fit together, both emotionally and physically. It also borrows the German film’s best images, dwelling on angels’ eye views of the city and matter-of-factly positioning the angels atop construction sites, highway signs, and billboards. Just as in the earlier film, the angels like to congregate at the library, basking in the collected chronicles of all human existence. A new twist, California-style, is that they also gather at the beach. John Seale’s photography is truly majestic (he shot The English Patient), but the imagery is so calculated that I kept wanting the angels to break up into volleyball teams just to fracture the self-conscious solemnity. A lighter touch would have made a big difference.

City of Angels bears the end-credit dedication, “For Dawn.” Producer Dawn Steel, who optioned Wings of Desire upon its U.S. release, died in Los Angeles on December 20 after struggling for a year with a brain tumor, and it’s impossible to separate the production of this film from her impending death. That may go a long way toward explaining why City of Angels gets a weepy ending that’s more maudlin even than Titanic‘s. Screenwriter Dana Stevens (Blink) and director Brad Silberling (Casper), sophomores both, have crafted a movie that’s meant to be a tribute to our memories of people we’ve loved, and to the joys of being alive. But in slavishly second-guessing the mass audience and piling cliches on top of cliches — “It’s like Touched by an Angel in the E.R.” — they’ve instead created an unconvincing new age melodrama that plays like Death and Dying for Dummies.

Directed by Brad Silberling
Written by Dana Stevens
Based on Der Himmel Uber Berlin (Wings of Desire) by Wim Wenders
Cinematography by John Seale
Edited by Lynzee Klingman
Music by Gabriel Yared
Starring Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, and Dennis Franz
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)
USA, 1998

Hana-bi / Sonatine

Takeshi Kitano in Sonatine

Hanabi is the Japanese word for fireworks. Insert a hyphen, and you break the word into its component parts: flower and fire. In the translation into English, of course, you lose that subtlety, and all you’re left with is Fireworks. That’s a shame, because while Fireworks may evoke the image of guns blazing, it misses the duality that Kitano explores. Continue reading