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The Aisle Seat Star Spangled 4th of July Edition

by Andy Dursin

The Fourth of July holiday, because it falls on a Saturday this year, will be jam-packed with even more of what the day usually comes associated with--fireworks, cookouts, beach-goers, and the appearance of another Bruce Willis action movie. I recall seeing DIE HARD 2 just before the 4th back in 1990...the last time that I was actually stoked going into a Willis actioner. Almost a decade later, that effort by Renny Harlin stands as one of the '90s best pure action flicks, having been deluged over the ensuing years by Jerry Bruckheimer's headache-inducing filmmaking machine, which has spawned such noisy and brainless efforts as THE ROCK, CON-AIR, and BAD BOYS. Hard to imagine that most of us would instantly prefer the movies that came from the stable of producer Joel Silver (LETHAL WEAPON, LAST BOY SCOUT, DIE HARD, DEMOLTION MAN) to much of the action fare from the late '90s, particularly since Silver's movies were often equally critized in their day for stupid scripts and an insistence on explosions in the place of character development.

This week from the Bruckheimer stable comes ARMAGEDDON, the year's second impending-doom-from-outer-space sci-fi adventure, with Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, and a stable of predictably colorful character actors including Steve Buscemi, Will Patton, and Billy Bob Thornton. Now, if past trends are any indication, the surprising success of DEEP IMPACT, which has quietly taken in over $135 million in the U.S., will likely curtail some of ARMAGEDDON's box-office success (remember TOMBSTONE and WYATT EARP, and last year's DANTE'S PEAK and VOLCANO? In both instances, the earlier effort was superior, and did far better in financial terms as well). What this new movie has that DEEP IMPACT didn't, of course, is the fact that Bruckheimer's production means there will be an array of action, thin character development, a pulse-pounding soundtrack, and marquee-headlining Movie Stars, such as Willis, to save the day.

Bruckheimer's stylized action films are a matter of taste, particularly since I hated THE ROCK, one of the bigger hits of '96, even as a mindless action movie. The set-pieces were badly choreographed, staged and shot, and the climax of the film was non-existent. Director Michael Bay couldn't hold the camera steady for more than 2 seconds, and there was hardly an individual shot in the movie that lasted longer than 5 seconds before there would be a cut. Now, I haven't seen ARMAGEDDON, but already Variety's critic Todd McCarthy, who killed the movie earlier last week, said that the editing scheme is ludicrous, with hardly several seconds that go by without a frantic cut to another shot. Imagine watching this for nearly 2 and half hours. Are you excited yet?

Well, perhaps you are. And I'll admit it, I'll probably pay to see it anyhow (though at a bargain matinee if I can make it), just to see if this inferior style of action movie-making will once again hold true to form and make a bundle of cash, or if DEEP IMPACT really will have an impact on the success of this film. Yes, they're different movies, but it's obvious from looking at both pictures that their styles and approaches are clearly different, despite the fact that they cover similar terrain.

At any rate, we'll look at ARMAGEDDON next week once the dust has settled, but fear not, the word on THE MASK OF ZORRO is extremely positive, as it is for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, so it's not like the summer movie season will be grinding to a halt just because of another Bruckheimer/Bay production. Have a super 4th and we'll see you here next week---in the meantime, here are a few recent reviews (two for a pair of genuinely good films!) just in case the idea of watching another celestial body threaten Earth isn't high on your priority viewing list this week.


OUT OF SIGHT (***1/2): Elmore Leonard's novels have been adapted through the years in everything from the disastrous "52 Pick-Up" to the more successful recent cinematic translation of "Get Shorty." Riding on the coattails of Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," which received a lukewarm reception last Christmas, OUT OF SIGHT is arguably the best of the lot, mainly because director Steven Soderbergh strikes the perfect balance between a complicated crime drama and an often loony character study, never succumbing to cuteness (like "Get Shorty" did at times) or an abundance of gratuitous violence.

It helps that George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, the two leads of OUT OF SIGHT, generate more chemistry than many recent on-screen duos, Clooney perfectly acclimating himself to the big-screen after the enjoyable but little-seen programmer "The Peacemaker," and Lopez positively fetching in a smartly written caper-thriller adapted by Scott Frank from Leonard's novel. Clooney plays a bank robber who ends up kidnapping Lopez's federal marshal after a springing from a Florida prison; what happens next is, of course, an intricate but uncluttered heist scheme involving recently released Wall Street banker Albert Brooks, and how Detroit boxer/thief Don Cheadle, Clooney's pal Ving Rhames, stoner ex-con Steve Zahn, and, of course, Lopez all play a role in Clooney's "last big score." Each character is well-defined in the script, and Lopez and Clooney's romance is satisfying and warm, providing a strong backdrop for the movie's main storyline to work itself out.

OUT OF SIGHT works in part because of the performances--Rhames, Zahn, and Cheadle all offer sterling support while Michael Keaton turns up in a hilarious cameo role--and while strong ensemble acting isn't anything new in movies of this sort, the fact that Steven Soderbergh's direction of this material is so assured comes as a happy surprise. The movie isn't as briskly paced or as broadly comic as "Get Shorty," but it's no less entertaining because of it--in fact, OUT OF SIGHT has more of a believable and realistic tone because characters aren't consistently spitting out glib one-liners in every other line of dialogue. Soderbergh seems content to let the movie move at an offbeat clip, allowing the characters to slowly develop at a speed that enables them, and not the caper at-hand, to be the real highlight of the picture. After having directed "sex lies and videotape" almost a decade ago, Soderbergh has turned out numerous pictures that have suffered from a lack of emotion and consistent point of view (save "King of the Hill," his underrated adaptation of A.E. Hotchner's childhood memoir), but OUT OF SIGHT ought to re-establish Soderbergh's career and hopefully get him back on track.

His handling of the material is on-target throughout, and with excellent acting, a solid script and vivid cinematography behind him, Soderbergh has made one of the year's better movies, and a Leonard film that, for once, truly captures the essence of the author's books. And the fact that we can have a crime-thriller that doesn't have to rip off Tarantino's overly-stylized dialogue or "Pulp Fiction"-modeled cinematic style is a small miracle itself. (R, 122 mins.)

THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (***1/2): We always hear about "independent" movies that are supposed to be refreshing simply because they're made outside the Hollywood studio system and, subsequently, have none of the commercial elements that make mainstream movies so predictable. Truth be told, there are just as many bad "indie" films out there as there are ineffective examples of studio filmmaking. The only difference is that, when an indie movie bombs, it isn't playing on 2500 screens across the country thanks to a multi-million advertising campaign.

In the last year, I saw two overrated "art house" movies--"Boogie Nights," which was a glossy but bubble-headed look at the porn industry via an obvious visual "emulation" (or hack rip-off, depending on how you look at it) of Martin Scorsese's movies, and "In the Company of Men," a movie that did offer a few comments on the relationship between the sexes, I suppose, but was so impressed with its own "daring" storyline that it never properly exploited the emotion of the characters underneath the surface. Relationships in the movie just happened and weren't sufficiently explained, leaving all of its would-be shocking plot developments to be hollow evidence of a screenwriter more interested in toying with the audience instead of providing a believable situation.

I only go through this to say that my tastes are not always aligned with the art-house crowd. Sure, I'm as big a fan of the Coen brothers as anyone, but for the most part, I'd rather spend my $7.50 on sci-fi spectacle than the often artistically pretentious dialogue found in some art-house films, not to mention the recent attempts to out-Quentin Tarantino by so many indie contenders.

Now that my rant on that is over, the fact that I found Whit Stillman's THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO to be one of the year's best movies ought to be fairly significant. I didn't think much of Stillman's earlier films (though I'll probably go back and take another look at them now), but this picture really is a refreshing, intelligent, and often subtly hilarious look at shallow yuppies living, clubbing, and loving at the tail end of the Disco era (i.e. "the very early 1980s"). The demure Chloe Sevigny and the bitchy Kate Beckinsale play a vastly different pair of publishing assistants who decide to room in a New York railroad apartment while they hit the highlife at night with a colorful group of supporting characters--not the least of which include advertising man Mackenzie Astin (who needs the disco to attract clients), club bouncer Chris Eigeman (a regular in Stillman's films), and Assistant District Attorney Matt Keeslar (who perhaps has both the hots for Sevigny, and ulterior motives for visiting the disco himself). Many of them went to Harvard, all of them want the same things out of life in different ways, but all them, invariably, love disco.

The performances are uniformly on target, each character believably echoing the frivolous nature of the music, but also the genuine feeling for the time and place they do share. Stillman provides seemingly every character with a vital scene or line of dialogue, and comes down hard on their essentially materialistic ideals while never condemning them or turning the picture into a broadly comic spoof. Sevigny's character, in particular, is a credible portrait of a young girl lost in the big city, emotionally if nothing else, and Beckinsale creates one of the most effectively obnoxious women you're ever likely to see on the big screen.

They all speak Stillman's prose, which is funny, insightful and hip, but not so off-the-wall as to sound like it's coming from a source that's merely cloning Tarantino. I believed, then, that these people existed and spoke in the same way they do here. I also usually come down hard on movies where dialogue is out of place and seems to be merely a vestige for the screenwriter's p.o.v. (i.e. Tarantino's pop-culture riffs in oddly inappropriate places), but here, the conversation on the true meaning of "The Lady and the Tramp" fits right in.

The picture is engaging and fun, filled with an enjoyable soundtrack, and Stillman handles each turn--dramatic and (predominantly) comic--with an unabashed love for the era. It may not have a gigantic, thought-provoking point, but then again, neither did the early '80s. THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is thoroughly entertaining and clearly represents what independent filmmaking should ideally be like, though only seldom ever is. (R for no discernible reason; a PG-13 would have been more appropriate here).

A PERFECT MURDER (**): Routine all the way through, Andrew Davis's redo of "Dial M For Murder" is another classic movie update we could have easily lived without. Despite solid performances and efficient direction by Davis, the movie's script is so uninspired and plastic that any semblance of a twist somewhere along the line would have done the movie good.

Alas, there isn't one to be found anywhere in sight as Michael Douglas hires wife Gwenyth Paltrow's lover, Viggo Mortensen, to bump off his cheating spouse. Naturally, the planned murder turns out to be anything but perfect, and the rest of the movie plays itself out predictably and without any power, right down to the obligatory final "confrontation" sequence that, given this particular script, seems very much out of place. Furthermore, several lapses in plot logic and common sense pop up throughout the movie, nor more so than when the elegantly dressed Paltrow decides to visit Spanish Harlem--by herself--so she can visit a crime scene, and is, of course, saved from being attacked by stereotypical Hispanic bit players simply because she's intelligent enough to speak more than one language. (Sure, I believe that this would really happen!)

One of the main problems with the film is that the characters are so thinly drawn that we have no connection or real sympathy for any of them. Paltrow's character is hard to root for, Mortensen isn't given nearly enough screen time to create much of an impression, while Douglas--playing the same type of conniving slickster he's essayed countless times before--is neither a monstrous villain (as the script would seemingly like him to be) or a sympathetic, albeit severely deranged husband who's simply lost his mind. Because Douglas's role rests firmly in the middle, the film's finale is a troubling one, particularly since its banal conclusion adeptly illustrates what's wrong with the screenplay more than anything else in the picture. At the end, we're supposed to feel an emotional "release" for the heroine, but instead we're left wondering just what Douglas's character was really all about. In never taking sides, the viewer is left dangling, watching a movie without ever becoming engaged by it.

Had Douglas and Paltrow's relationship been sufficiently developed, A PERFECT MURDER could have made for a more complicated psychological study of a marriage gone wrong, at the same time it attempted to carve out its own place in the recent sub-genre of "steamy suspense thrillers." But this movie is only interested in playing the material at a bare surface level, failing utterly to find any nuance in the characters below the main plot. It's a mechanical movie that never really engages any emotion on behalf of the viewer, a perfect example of cookie-cutter movie-making. (R)

As always, send off your comments to We're outta space, so we'll dive into the Reader Bag next time out. Adios!

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