The Last Big Thing


In the very first scene of The Last Big Thing, protagonist Simon Geist is haranguing a young couple at the local video store about “great” movies. According to Simon, there are some great movies in the “classics” section (“four of them,” he says, “were directed by Orson Welles”) and there are some more in the foreign film section. After declaring that the “new releases” section is barren, he strolls off.
Thus Simon is off on an Edward Munch-inspired tear that will give the opening reels of The Last Big Thing a ferocious energy unlike anything else currently on movie screens. Played with an unsparing intensity by writer/director Dan Zukovic, Simon Geist is a fin-de-siecle agent provocateur who uses a fictive magazine called The Next Big Thing as a pretext for interviews with up-and-coming pop culture figures (actors, models, rock groups). Once the unwitting interviewees sit down, Simon tears them apart with sardonic, deadpan relish. It would almost qualify as postmodern performance art, if only there were an audience for the spectacle besides Simon and his victim. (On one occasion, the joke is that he hasn’t even bothered to put a tape in his recorder for a lengthy interview.)

Of course, there is (theoretically) an audience for the very low-budget film made about Simon and his victims, and The Next Big Thing exudes a wild, look-at-me exuberance in its lambasting of celebrity culture and 70s decade-worship that’s awfully hard not to like. Many of the early scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, and Zukovic manages to make us care who this guy is and what’s going to happen to him. Happily, Zukovic also realizes that Simon is, fundamentally, an asshole.

The problem is that when he makes that the subject of the film — examining Simon’s dangerously askew relationship with unstable roommate Darla (Susan Heimbinder), or watching the tables get turned on him by a model (Pamela Dickerson) who’s smarter than she looks — it’s hard to differentiate The Last Big Thing from any other low-budget, self-important American independent production. As Zukovic starts to take all this stuff too seriously, the jokes start fizzling. (The one about directing a music video is especially creaky.) It would be nice to see some doors open for Zukovic, who has made a spare, startling and fitfully interesting movie (and one that sat on the shelf for two years before finding a distributor). But, sadly, The Last Big Thing (expanded from an award-winning short) wears out its welcome about halfway to the end.

Rush Hour


Buried in the middle of Rush Hour, there’s a great scene that shows what a classic the movie could have been. Hanging out on a city sidewalk with Edwin Starr’s “War” blasting from a nearby building, Jackie Chan, a Hong Kong police detective on assignment in Los Angeles, starts to groove, singing along with the chorus. “War,” he mouths in an exaggerated pantomime, “What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’.” Continue reading



Director John Dahl’s quasi-SF thriller Unforgettable tanked in 1996, but he had already made a name for himself with a couple of crackling neo-noir pictures: Red Rock West and cult fave The Last Seduction. His new Rounders smells like a comeback picture, and it reinforces Dahl’s reputation as a stylish, low-key chronicler of the lives of saps and scoundrels. The resulting picture is a thinking man’s take on the game of poker that’s vastly entertaining, yet fundamentally unsatisfying. Continue reading

Your Friends and Neighbors


From the poison pen of Neil LaBute comes another big kiss-off to humanity in the vein of his 1997 In the Company of Men. With a bigger budget has come the expansion of his milieu from the claustrophobic workplace to the bedrooms, gyms, and honeymoon suites of urban America. Continue reading

The Avengers


This big-budget version of the well-liked 1960s TV series (which I’ve never seen) smells like something cooked up by a talent agency that still thinks a film is just the sum of its thespian parts. Stars Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery may seem well-positioned to breathe life into a tongue-in-cheek action pic derived from these most stylish, rough-and-tumble icons of British urbanity, but who thought that director Jeremiah Chechik (1996’s atrocious Diabolique) and screenwriter Don MacPherson (Absolute Beginners) were the ones to pull it off?

Continue reading

The Avengers

This big-budget version of the well-liked 1960s TV series (which I’ve never seen) smells like something cooked up by a talent agency that still thinks a film is just the sum of its thespian parts. Stars Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery may seem well-positioned to breathe life into a tongue-in-cheek action pic derived from these most stylish, rough-and-tumble icons of British urbanity, but who thought that director Jeremiah Chechik (1996’s atrocious Diabolique) and screenwriter Don MacPherson (Absolute Beginners) were the ones to pull it off?

We get an abundance of semi-clever bons mots, gleaming cinematography by ace lensman Roger Pratt, and production design that exhumes the corpse of dear René Magritte in a dubious quest for that surrealist touch. Worse, director Chechik seems to have graduated from the Joel Schumacher School of Action Choreography. Every fight sequence is made up of a quick series of closeups of limbs and bodies flailing about, cut together in a rhythm that’s meant to suggest physical contact. Then, when the camera gives us another wide shot, we have a couple of seconds to try and figure out what the hell just happened before the next series of closeups. Even the special effects seem like ungainly afterthoughts, cobbled together on the cheap. (The giant teddy bears are easily the best thing in the film.)

As for the performances, who could tell there was a director present on the set at all? Fiennes and Thurman deliver their lines like they’re reading the script for the first time around the coffee table in some Los Angeles hotel. Fiennes is lost in this material, like a smiling passenger who’s trapped in the wreckage after a car crash. Thurman once again proves that she’s one of the screen’s most beautiful women, and that she can’t act her way out of a shopping bag, much less a black leather catsuit. Connery is appropriately blustery as meteorological madman August De Wynter, but Connery could bluster in his sleep. Given that cast, this movie should have enough raw charisma to balance the most daunting shortcomings.

What it can’t overcome is a lack of story, character, or even any idea of what it means to move a narrative along from plot point to plot point. The Avengers lurches like a movie that was edited to the bone, and maybe it would make a little more sense in a longer version. What’s on the screen, however, comes as close as any movie I’ve seen lately to utter ineptitude. There’s no rhythm, no style, and precious little that could be construed as fun.

Directed by Jeremiah Chechik
Written by Don MacPherson
Cinematography by Roger Pratt
Edited by Mick Audsley
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery
USA, 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Snake Eyes

Carla Gugino in Snake Eyes

If you were to review Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes in just one word, it would have to be the sound of air being let out of a balloon: Pfffffffft. Continue reading

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later


Let’s get one thing straight — Halloween H20: 20 Years Later is not great moviemaking. Hell, for the bulk of its 85 minutes, it’s not even very good moviemaking.

But H20 has two things going for it. One of them is a powerhouse performance by one of the great icons of contemporary horror film, Jamie Lee Curtis. And the other is the wordless presence of the bulky, bemasked heavy known as Michael Meyers.

John Carpenter’s Halloween suggested, more forcefully than any movie since The Exorcist, that unspeakable evil was lurking in the dark corners of the American suburbs. But while The Exorcist finally put the Catholic Church in control of unspeakable evil, suggesting that there was life after demonic possession after all, Carpenter’s film refused that reassurance. Few movies end on such a disquieting note as Halloween, with Donald Pleasance searching the darkness for evil embodied, but losing Michael Meyers to the shadows.

So the smartest thing about H20 is that it has a singular, humbling reverence for the original Halloween, the horror-movie equivalent to an enduring campfire tale. The film opens with a so-so preface that dispatches a handful of characters in low-grade slasher style, which may be a cut-rate reference to the phenomenally successful Scream movies. The director is the old horror hack Steve Miner, who helmed installments two and three in the Friday the 13th slasher cycle before finding respectability as a director of TV fare. His camera moves ape those of Carpenter, including the choice of the widescreen frame, but his eye is nowhere near as sophisticated. The original Halloween was a film of uncomfortable situations that were underlined by striking, disturbing imagery. The 1998 model is a pokey lead-up to a balls-out deathmatch that draws its stylistics from recent action movies as much as from horror film.

In the opening credit sequence, H20 establishes what it’s really about, showing us news clippings that recount the story of the first two films and running snippets of dialogue from those films on the soundtrack. Like the underrated Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, H20 is about resurrecting a demon from the past in order to put it down for good.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the haunted one, the former babysitter so memorably terrorized in the first film in the series (and, to a less memorable extent, in the second). In H20, she’s changed her name, changed her identity, and become the headmistress of a private boarding school. Nice idea for a slasher film — Laurie is charged with protecting exactly the sort of teenage flesh that tempts these ageless, deathless slashers. She’s got a drinking problem that has its roots in her trauma. She’s also got a teenaged son, who’s getting fed up with her zealous protectiveness. It’s when she finally starts to ease up on her obsession that Michael Meyers crashes back into her world, threatening not just her life, but also the life of her son. Reprising the role she long ago left behind, Curtis turns in a very strong, utterly credible performance that will, if there’s a god, close the door on one of the most overextended franchises in contemporary horror film.

In the slow, mostly somber expository scenes, H20 treats the Strode character more carefully than you might expect, which is to its credit. But it also makes the mistake that the Scream movies avoided so effectively — it thinks that teenagers are boring. Four of the students, two boys and two girls (including Dawson’s Creek star Michelle Williams), scheme to stay home from a planned trip to Yosemite National Park for an evening of sex and alcohol somewhere on the deserted campus. While the actors are appealing enough, this time-honored slasher film device falls flat because, in time-honored slasher film fashion, the characters are too interchangeably vanilla to be worth caring about.

Of course, the point of Miner’s Friday the 13th films wasn’t so much the cat-and-mouse games that they played with young, dumb teenage victims as the payoff — a gruesome, usually imaginative and occasionally spectacular make-up effects showpiece. (I still remember a showstopping scene in Friday the 13th Part 3 where a kid was literally ripped in half, cleaved into two pieces by Jason’s machete, and I know that the MPAA would never allow that to happen in today’s horror movies.) Looking back at Halloween, which has a reputation for inaugurating the whole slasher movies cycle, the big surprise is how little gore was involved. Halloween is a very violent film, but the violence is conveyed in the staging and editing of each murder scene, as well as in the gruesome tableaux that a malevolent Michael leaves behind. The Friday the 13th films, by contrast, were very gory, but hardly seemed violent at all. (They weren’t very good, either, but that’s another story.)

The murders in H20 might have benefited from a little more gore. Miner directs them in a casual, color-by-numbers fashion, like he’s making one of those Gap commercials where he’ll declare at the end, “This is too easy.” They’re anything but scary, and I didn’t even find them menacing. But the film rachets up little by little in preparation for the final showdown between stalker and stalkee. And from the moment when Laurie Strode finally locks eyes with her long-lost brother (the shot reminded me of those scenes in the Alien movies when Ripley comes face-to-face with the creatures), H20 becomes the hardest-working film of the year.

Particularly effective is the moment when Laurie decides not to make an easy exit from the scene. Instead, she blocks off the only egress and finds herself a big axe. The camera cranes overhead and an orchestral version of the electronic Halloween theme swells on the soundtrack as she strides back into the darkness, crying shrilly, at the top of her lungs, Michael! Michael! All the conversation earlier in the film about Laurie’s need to confront her demons is here given specific cinematic form, and it raised my gooseflesh. Evoking a sense of destiny and finality that harks back to the beginning of a 20-year-old nightmare, horror fans may well find it to be one of the most stirring scenes of the year.

Directed by Steve Miner
Written by Robert Zappia & Matt Greenberg and Kevin Williamson
Cinematography by Daryn Okada
Edited by Patrick Lussier
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis
USA, 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1