The entertaining if facile 1968 original was cowritten by Rod Serling, and though this fancy new version claims to be neither a remake nor a sequel, I’d call it the formerthough one that tries to reconfigure the various commercial elements (SF adventure story, satire, action, surprise ending) rather than duplicate them. The problem is that Serling was a liberal satirist and fabulist (as presumably was Pierre Boulle, author of the source novel Monkey Planet), while the gifts of Tim Burton are chiefly visual. Pictorially, this is sometimes wonderful (and some of the credit should go to production designer Rick Heinrichs). But as satire it’s toothless and at times close to incoherent; its predictable swipes are aimed equally at conservative racists and bleeding-heart liberals, and the screenplay by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal doesn’t seem terribly invested in anything. The tone swerves between satire and straight-ahead action and frequently into bits of unintentional camp, such as the snorts and growls (complete with martial-arts flying and lots of pounding violence) of the simians, Charlton Heston’s cameo as a dying Yoda-type ape, and Estella Warren in cavegirl-jailbait attire that’s worthy of black-and-white 50s drive-in fodder. Even a few standard-issue explosions are folded into the mix, reminding us repeatedly that this isn’t so much a story as a set of attractions for kids. None of the characters captured my interest. With Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kris Kristofferson, and David Warner. 119 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (July 20, 2001). — J.R.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Joe Roth
Written by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan
With Julia Roberts, Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John Cusack, Hank Azaria, Stanley Tucci, and Christopher Walken.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Frank Oz
Written by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, Scott Marshall Smith, and Daniel E. Taylor
With Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett, Marlon Brando, and Gary Farmer.
“Talent means nothing if you don’t make the right choices,” says seasoned safecracker and jazz-club manager Robert De Niro in The Score, as he sets up “one last score” before he quits the game for good. It’s the only sensible thing anyone says in either this movie or America’s Sweethearts, a clunky ribbing of the movie industry, and whoever was making the big choices about these pictures should have taken it as advice. Both appear to be agents’ packages first and movies second, so that even though they’re trying hard to recapture the feel of Hollywood standbys — the heist thriller and the satiric screwball comedy — they seem to proceed from the premise that all that’s required is to throw the right number of “talented” elements in the same direction. It shouldn’t be surprising that the results often look more thrown together than crafted.
America’s Sweethearts begins with clips showing us Hollywood’s favorite movie couple, Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) and Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones), in some of their hits before she ran off with a Spanish bimbo actor (Hank Azaria), giving Eddie a nervous breakdown. I might have laughed if the clips were pointed or directed at something discernible, but the targets are so excessively broad and nonspecific that the effect is satire in name only. Much of the movie proper, which suffers from the same excess combined with vague targets, is set at a movie junket, just before the couple’s final feature is unveiled for both the studio head (Stanley Tucci) and the press — evidence of how farfetched the whole thing is. Billy Crystal plays a press agent honcho fighting to maintain spin control when the former couple isn’t even speaking. Julia Roberts plays the narcissistic Gwen’s sister and assistant, a former victim of overeating (as shown in some highly unconvincing flashbacks) who has dieted so that she’s now perfectly eligible to play the usual part of Julia Roberts and help Eddie get over his loss.
I like most of these actors — not to mention Christopher Walken as the hippie director of Eddie and Gwen’s last feature — so it’s depressing to see them stuck with an unfunny script and a director who tries to compensate by attacking the gags with a blowtorch. Crystal and Roberts are the only ones given coherent characters to play, but Roberts isn’t an integral part of the would-be Hollywood satire; she seems to function mainly as an afterthought, leaving me to wonder if she had her own writer on the set.
The heyday of the heist thriller was undoubtedly the 50s. John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) started things rolling in the U.S., then came Jules Dassin’s Rififi (directed by a blacklisted American) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (both 1955) in France, then Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) back in the U.S., and finally Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), a hilarious Italian parody of Rififi. Since then we’ve had mainly acknowledged or unacknowledged spin-offs of The Asphalt Jungle, including Melville’s Second Breath (1966), Big Deal remakes such as Louis Malle’s Crackers (1984) and the first half of Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks (2000), and partial spin-offs of The Killing, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992).
That’s a lot of mileage from a few low-budget noirs and one comedy, so it’s not surprising that this subgenre is beginning to show signs of exhaustion. Part of the problem, I suspect, is the fear in Hollywood of anything original or related to the present, though production executives try to cover in part by referring to remakes as if they were tributes. And they shrink the number of characters while expanding the running times: The Score is 40-odd minutes longer than The Killing, yet it’s sparsely populated compared to Kubrick’s broad lineup of memorable character actors. All we get in The Score is the old safecracker and his prickly assistant (Edward Norton), the former’s girlfriend (Angela Bassett) and heist contractor (Marlon Brando), and a stray strong-armer (Gary Farmer, who’s wasted more spectacularly here than Bassett or Brando, playing a nondescript heavy that almost any other large-size actor could do).
Frankly, I’m not sure about any of the casting in this picture. De Niro does OK with a part that consists of a few cliches stuck together, though he can’t be blamed for not making the part fresh if the screenwriters didn’t give him an interesting character (I couldn’t believe for a second that he ran a jazz club — he returns from Boston and asks an employee how the group that played in his absence was, apparently unaware even of its name). Bassett as a flight attendant/torch singer is barely sketched in, and all we know about De Niro’s assistant is that he’s working as an inside man, plays a mentally challenged janitor as a cover, and is hungry for more respect. Brando, to be fair, gives more of a performance and less of a specialty cameo than we’ve come to expect of him, but again, the part as written is strictly standard issue.
Without any strong characters to care about, the movie’s protracted efforts to wring suspense out of an elaborate scheme to steal a scepter seem, well, protracted. Similarly, it’s hard to laugh at a Hollywood satire like America’s Sweethearts that hasn’t figured out what it’s satirizing, particularly since it seems vaguely modeled after a subgenre from the 30s. Both movies suggest that we badly need new subgenres, but we aren’t likely to get them if filmmakers keep looking to studio staples from 50 to 70 years ago.
These days, most accounts of John Cassavetes’s work and career tend to be either uncomprehending dismissals, which often wrongly assume that his scripts were mainly improvised by his actors, or uncritical hagiography. At least the hagiography is better informed, and this is especially true of Charles Kiselyak’s 200-minute video documentary, finished last year–possibly the most complete look at the man we’ve had yet and much easier to follow than most of the books published about him. The narration is drawn from Cassavetes’s own words–a drawback as well as a plus, because sometimes he created as much confusion around his work as his detractors–but the biggest value of this chronicle lies in the interviews with most of the writer-director’s main actors, including Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Lelia Goldoni, and Lynn Carlin, who perceptively discuss their own performances and those of their colleagues. We even get some insights into Cassavetes’s theater work, from Jon Voight and Carol Kane, among others, and into his handling of music in his films–subjects that are usually neglected in other accounts. There’s also a generous supply of clips, many of which will mean a lot more to those who already know the films. To be shown on DigaBeta video as part of the Film Center’s ongoing Cassavetes retrospective. Kiselyak may appear at the Friday screening to discuss his work. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Friday, July 20, 6:30; Saturday, July 21, 3:00 and 7:00; Sunday, July 22, 3:00; Tuesday, July 24, 6:30; and Thursday, July 26, 6:00; 312-846-2800.
Overwritten by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan, overdirected by Joe Roth, overplayed by most of the cast, yet typically undernourished, this would-be satirical comedy, about a movie-star couple who have broken up but must give interviews together to publicize their final movie, seems very vaguely inspired by the screwball comedies of the 30s. Among the usually efficient actors (including John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hank Azaria, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin), only Julia Roberts and Crystal himself (who also produced) emerge relatively unscathed. They appear to be acting in a different, more reasonable movie than the others. 100 min. (JR)
John Cassavetes’s galvanic 1968 drama about one long night in the lives of an estranged well-to-do married couple (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) and their temporary lovers (Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel) was the first of his independent features to become a hit, and it’s not hard to see why. It remains one of the only American films to take the middle class seriously, depicting the compulsive, embarrassed laughter of people facing their own sexual longing and some of the emotional devastation brought about by the so-called sexual revolution. (Interestingly, Cassavetes set out to make a trenchant critique of the middle class, but his characteristic empathy for all of his characters makes this a far cry from simple satire.) Shot in 16-millimeter black and white with a good many close-ups, this often takes an unsparing yet compassionate “documentary” look at emotions most movies prefer to gloss over or cover up. Adroitly written and directed, and superbly acted–the leads and Val Avery are all uncommonly good (the astonishing Lynn Carlin was a nonprofessional discovered by Cassavetes, working at the time as Robert Altman’s secretary)–this is one of the most powerful and influential American films of the 60s. 129 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Saturday, July 14, 8:00, and Tuesday, July 17, 8:15, 312-846-2800.