Reviews

What Lies Beneath


Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by:Clark Gregg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid, Joe Morton, James Remar, Miranda Otto, Katharine Towne
Released: November 2, 2000
Grade: B

We meet Dr Norman Spencer (Ford) and his wife Claire (Pfeiffer) in their perfect little house in a perfect part of the country and everything is well, perfect.  You sort of know what’s going to happen next now don’t you?  Everything becomes not quite so perfect.

Every time Norman is out, Claire hears strange creaks and noises from within the house.  At first she dispels these occurrences but when they persistently continue and an illusion starts appearing, things are getting a little scary. 

So who is this mysterious illusion and why does she inhabit their home?  I hate to give more away but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll already know the answer.  Why 20th Century Fox would choose to give away the key secret of the film is beyond me.  It’s like telling everybody before the movie that in Psycho, Norman Bates was impersonating his mother.

Director Robert Zemeckis compares the 20th Century Fox strategy to that of McDonalds and its success.  The reason McDonalds is so popular is that there are no surprises and people know exactly what they’re getting.  It is Zemeckis’s theory that cinema goers work in a similar vein - people like to go to a movie knowing what they’re in for (and can I add Double Jeopardy as another good example this year).  This astounds me particularly when the whole point of a thriller is to shock and surprise.

Given I knew who the apparition was, I sat impatiently through the first hour waiting for her identity to be revealed.  It seems that this wasn’t the only ghost to appear - Alfred Hitchcock appears to have risen from the grave himself to direct What Lies Beneath.  I have the utmost respect for Zemeckis in light of his last film, Contact, but his insistence on creating a Hitchcock-like film doesn’t quite result in the intended effect.  Things have changed since his era.

Music is kept to a minimum, the smallest sounds are amplified, and tricky camera angles will have you jumping from your seat more than once.  The film is quite scary but ruined by a ludicrous ending that has you questioning rather than enjoying the finale.  At film’s end, someone tries to kill someone else (that’s all I can say).  Firstly, I cannot understand why the person in question would try to kill the other.  Secondly, I cannot understand the method of killing and finally, I cannot understand how the other person escapes.  That sounds very vague I know but you’ll read them in a new light once you’ve seen the movie.

Michelle Pfeiffer is well suited to her role despite it being very different from her “norm” and it’s great to see her in action.  Harrison Ford’s role is much smaller and fans will be disappointed by his weaker showing (both in terms of time and performance).  Australian fans hoping to catch Miranda Otto can stay home as she features for not much more than a minute.

After dominating the box-office in the United States, What Lies Beneath is yet another in the ever growing list of Dreamworks blockbusters.  A film worth recommending if only we didn’t know “what lies beneath”.

     

Shaft


Directed by: John Singleton
Written by:Richard Price, John Singleton, Shane Salerno
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa L. Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Dan Hedaya, Toni Collette
Released: October 26, 2000
Grade: A-

John Shaft (Jackson) is the gun detective of the New York Police Department.   He’s the best there is but takes plenty of flack from the “whiteboys” and John’s worked damn hard to get where he is.  On his latest case, he’s taken to a bar where a young African-American has been bludgeoned to death in what appears to be racially motivated attack.  The top suspect is the son of wealthy real estate tycoon Walter Wade (Bale) but there’s little to hold him on and the only witness, Diane Palmieri (Collette), is keeping tight lipped.

When Wade is released on bail and flees the country, Shaft is disgusted but knows that one day he’ll get his man.  That date comes two years later when tipped off to his arrival back into the U.S. but  after arresting him again, the judge grants bail.  Fed up with the legal system, Shaft turns in his badge, says “fuck the job” and decides to take justice into his own hands.  His primary goal is to track down Diane and get her to testify before Wade and his hitmen get there first.

The original Shaft was released in 1971 and starred Richard Roundtree, who makes a cameo in this version as Shaft’s uncle.  Having never seen the original I cannot compare but a striking feature of the 2000 version is just how many aspects reminded me of the 1970s.  Whilst it’s a modern day setting (as you can tell with references to sports stars Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter), the police station, neighbourhood and other settings all have a 70s feel as does the snazzy film score from David Arnold.

John Singleton does a great job behind the camera given his passion for the subject material.  Whilst at times a blow ‘em up action fest, the film goes much deeper with its look at discrimination of the African-American community.  Singleton’s previous films include Boyz In The Hood, Poetic Justice and Higher Learning and given his own African-American heritage, you can sure tell he knows what he’s talking about. 

A great example of this comes from the relationship between Shaft and the police chief (played by Daniel von Bargen).  I bagged The Hurricane earlier this year complaining that the detective who put Rubin Carter in jail overplayed his racial intent.  In Shaft, both men are hospitable to each other but there is an underlying subtext in their conversations that shows the chief thinks less of Shaft because of his colour.  This provides more realism and interest by not painting the boundaries so clearly. 

Christian Bale plays the villain well and I still hope he’s in line for an Oscar nomination next February for American Psycho.  The villain is always the toughest character to play and Bale gives the role depth rather than turning into a James Bond-like super villain who makes all the right moves until the very end.  He’s also assembling some great wardrobes if you check out his costumes in both this and Psycho.

One can’t overlook Samuel L. Jackson who shows he’s always picking the right roles.  Since his Oscar nominated turn in Pulp Fiction six years ago, he’s built a stunning resume including roles in A Time To Kill, Jackie Brown, The Negotiator, Rules Of Engagement and The Phantom Menace.  This is one of his best performances and few can imagine anyone else filling Shaft’s shoes.  You can also tell just how much he enjoyed making this movie.

Don't be confused in thinking Shaft is a serious drama dealing with racist segregation.  It’s loads of fun mixed with slick lines and a surprising ending.  Be careful whom you do see it with as I haven’t seen more killings nor mentions of the word “fuck” in a single film this year.  Still, Shaft is still the man.

     

Play It To The Bone


Directed by: Ron Shelton
Written by:Ron Shelton
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Woody Harrelson, Lolita Davidovich, Tom Sizemore, Lucy Liu, Robert Wagner
Released: October 12, 2000
Grade: B-

There’s nothing like a big fight night in Las Vegas to bring the celebs out and everyone’s geared up to watch Mike Tyson flatten his latest opponent.  Fight organiser Joe Domino (Sizemore) is geared up too but when his one of his undercard fighters ends up dead and the other overdoses on the day of the fight, he’s left with nothing to provide the preliminary entertainment.

Begrudgingly, he calls two old friends Vince (Harrelson) and Cesar (Banderas), both who he’s screwed over in the past - such is the world of professional boxing.  Both are best friends and still in the game but their careers are slowly fading away.  Domino promises them $50,000 each plus the winner getting a shot at the world title if they agree to come down to Vegas to fight each other for the first time.  We have ourselves a contest.

I’ve seen several films in this vein with note going to The Great White Hype.  Most of the film is set on the road as the two drive across America with former flame Grace (Davidovich).  They reflect back on their career, swear a lot and have a bizarre adventure with a sex-craved Asian (Liu) along the way.

Without doubt the most interesting parts of Play It To The Bone are those set in Las Vegas.  The opening credits are a series of helicopter shots taken around Vegas and they look spectacular and make you appreciate just how big a city it really is.  All the background conniving and backstabbing from Domino and his offsiders are hilarious as they take a big stab at the boxing world.  As Domino says when asked how he’d ratify this fight he says, just let me make a couple of calls and I can get anyone ranked.

The impending fight scene at the end was a touch overdone and had some obscure camerawork but the action itself combined with the make-up by Ken Chase gives you one of those realistic, sporty adrenaline rushes as you anticipate and predict who will be the victor.

Boxing is always an interesting topic on the big screen but it’s a shame the two most boring characters (Vince and Cesar) had all the screen time.  Too much time is wasted getting to the “punch” and with most of the humour having been seen before, Play It To The Bone winds up being just another one of those films that comes along and passes by with little fanfare.

     

The Dish


Directed by: Rob Sitch
Written by:Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Rob Sitch
Starring: Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington, Tom Long, Patrick Warburton, Genevieve Mooy, Tyler Kane, Roy Billing, Bille Brown
Released: October 19, 2000
Grade: A-

Parkes is a small town with a population of around 10,000 in central western New South Wales.  You can find the Southern hemisphere’s largest telescope there that was built in a sheep paddock in 1961.  Man first walked on the moon on July 20, 1969 and it was life-changing event watched worldwide by millions.  Life’s full of small stories and the relationship between these two has been brought to the screen in The Dish.

Cliff Buxton (Neill) is the “dishmaster” at Parkes and is nervously anticipating his date with destiny.  His telescope has been selected by NASA to receive radio signals from the Apollo 11 crew and be responsible for beaming the indelible images of the moonwalk across the globe.  His crew are ready to go with the help of NASA representative Al Burnett (Warburton aka Puddy from Seinfeld) but some are apprehensive of the need for U.S. involvement.

In town, Mayor Bob McIntyre is preparing to put Parkes on the map.  The U.S. ambassador has arrived, the Prime Minister is eminent and “celebrations” are in full swing.  It’s time to show those Yanks just how it’s done.

Without giving much more away, The Dish is a charming comedy bearing strong similarities with Rob Sitch’s previous effort, The Castle.  Both stories are simplistic in nature with the focus on the people rather than the story.  These are not characters from a Hollywood blockbuster for which life and words are always perfect.  These people have more than one dimension.

Ideally, this is illustrated by Sam Neill’s character.  More is revealed of his background as the film progresses until we find that his wife passed away a year ago and it was her inspiration that reignited his enthusiasm for the project.  Instead of turning into a schmaltzy, sympathetic soap opera, the film continues and lets us do the reflecting rather than have the film do it for us.

There are many subplots created for laughs but some are distracting.  A notable example was the relationship between the Mayor’s daughter and the soldier next door.  It was a criticism of mine that The Castle took some of its jokes too far and both these characters were funny for a while but were overused and overplayed.

The film is wonderfully scored by Edmund Choi (who also worked on The Castle) and has some great cinematography by newcomer Graeme Wood.  Rob Sitch’s direction is also top notch and one can expect bigger studio’s knocking on his door in the near future.  It’s a tribute to the four collaborators (Sitch, Jane Kennedy, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner) that they have come up with such rich stories given the current drought that’s plaguing the U.S. (and me thinks that drought will continue).

What an unbelievable year it has been for Australian films and The Dish will carry the tradition.  Highly acclaimed last month at the Toronto Film Festival, it looks set for international success - something which eluded The Castle.

I’ve seen the footage of Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon and echoing those famous words a thousand times previous.  This time is was different.  This time I saw it was about more than man’s conquest of the universe.   The telescope is still in a sheep paddock in Parkes and the moon is still looking at us from above but both played a part in created memories and stories that will be told as long as time permits.  This is one of those stories.

     

Saving Grace


Directed by: Nigel Cole
Written by:Mark Crowdy, Craig Ferguson
Starring: Brenda Blethyn, Craig Ferguson, Martin Clunes, Tcheky Karyo, Jamie Foreman
Released: October 12, 2000
Grade: B+

Her husband has just jumped out of a plane without a parachute and Grace Trvethyn (Blethyn) is in mourning.  Those feelings turn to shock when she finds her late husband had been involved in many bad business deals and raked up debts totalling 300,000 pounds leaving Grace penniless and the bank ready to seize title of her home.

Grace is a highly regarded member of the small town and she’s not going without a fight.  Her gardener, Matthew, is now out of a job and he asks Grace to help him with a small horticultural problem - he has a few small marijuana plants in the vicar's backyard that just aren’t growing.  Grace solves Matthew’s problems and in the process has come up with a solution to her own...

It’s hard not to think of Waking Ned Devine when seeing Saving Grace.  Both are comedies set in small towns with the whole community rallying around a bizarre scheme and a common goal.  Purely, it’s an English situation comedy that is entertaining and original.  Cast member Craig Ferguson is partly responsible for its screenplay and you can tell he had a fun conjuring up this idea.

Two-time Academy Award nominee Brenda Bleythn was a top choice to play the leading role.  I feel she doesn’t have the versatility to make it in the States but with roles like this coming her way, she won’t need to make the transition.  All the cast members though are a blast with their quirky characters and comedic lines.

The film ended rather abruptly for my liking and the sudden halt took a little time to digest.  The whole set up deserved a more fitting conclusion than a few TV clips shown during the end credits.  Regardless, Saving Grace is sure to be a talked as a peoples’ movie.  A real charmer.

     

Boiler Room


Directed by: Ben Younger
Written by:Ben Younger
Starring: Giovanni Ribisi, Nia Long, Ben Affleck, Vin Diesel, Tom Everett Scott, Scott Caan, Jamie Kennedy, Ron Rifkin
Released: October 12, 2000
Grade: A

Money is all you need, well at least according to Seth Davis (Ribisi) it is.  Determined to be encompassed by wealth, Seth has even gone to the trouble of setting up an underground casino in his own home which is open twenty-four seven.  As easily as the money is pouring in, it’s still far from fulfilling his dreams and has cost him his relationship with his father (Rifkin), who as a State judge wants to distance himself from his son’s illegal activities.

Seth is introduced to Greg (Nicky Katt) by close friend Adam (Kennedy) who offers him a job at the New York stockbroking firm of J.T. Marlin.  At the interview, Seth finds himself exposed to a world he only dreamed of.  As employee Jim Young (Affleck) tells the budding hopefuls, you will make a million dollars within three years guaranteed.

It’s demanding but Seth fits straight in.  He develops the knack for pressuring potential purchasers and convinces them to part with their hard earned money for stock recommended by the firm.  Soon enough he’s rising up the corporate ladder but his intelligence senses that something is not quite right.  Why are employees shredding documents after dark?  Why is the boss setting up another organisation next door?  Why is it that no one has heard of J.T. Marlin?

Boiler Room is a very slick and sharp thriller from first time director and writer Ben Younger.  The story focuses not only on the firm but also its effect on the families of people affected, which offers a different perspective and creates feeling for them.  There’s a great scene where Seth tries to convince a self-employed, married man to part with his $50,000 life-savings to invest in stock with no chance of rising in value.  It’s heartbreaking to see the inner battle that both Seth and the gentlemen are going through - it’s a defining moment.

The ensemble is well cast with all of them young, arrogant entrepreneurs.  It must have been a field day for the costumers and make-up artists preparing their picture-perfect looks (it reminiscent of American Psycho).  A career performance was turned in by Ron Rifkin as the father who showed more than one dimension in a very realistic portrayal.

This film has a lot to offer and is edge of your seat stuff for its full two hours.  Certainly different, Boiler Room provides not only entertainment value but also a lesson in the treachery and danger fraught with playing the stockmarket and the depravity that some will go to make their own personal fortune.