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The Winter of Audience Discontent?

by Andy Dursin

Well friends, 1998 has come to a close, and none too soon as far as I'm concerned. There were some good movies this past year, but not enough great ones to fit the bill.

The Oscar race will almost certainly end up being between THE TRUMAN SHOW, which will cop Jim Carrey an Oscar for Best Actor, and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, this year's "safe" choice for the best movie of 1998, even though it had a relatively weak storyline and an ending as embarrassing as anything I saw this past year (with the possible exception of SNAKE EYES). As for the immediate Holiday film season just past, where, for instance, were the "critical favorites" one would expect to find around Christmas 98? This year we received...PATCH ADAMS? STEPMOM? I do want to see THE THIN RED LINE, but despite some great reviews, it has also received a plethora of pans from folks I know and trust.

We'll go through the Best & Worst of 98 in a few weeks, but until then, here's a look at one major holiday release along with some reader comments.

In Theaters

THE FACULTY (**1/2): Perfectly entertaining but curiously disjointed teen variation on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and Carpenter's THE THING offers some insightful dialogue and a suspenseful finale--no surprise given a script from Kevin Williamson and direction by Robert Rodriguez--along with some lazy storytelling that ultimately leaves the film less than the sum of its parts.

An alien parasite makes its way through the faculty at an Ohio high school, leading nerdy photojournalist Elijah Wood and a group of students from various cliques (Josh Hartnett, Clea Duvall, Summer Phoenix among them) to try and stop the plague from spreading. Naturally, there are outright references to Jack Finney's original BODY SNATCHERS novel (although nobody seems to have actually read it, since it doesn't actually end as downbeat as characters claim that it does!) and Robert Heinlein's THE PUPPET MASTERS, and the special effect sequences of the extraterrestrials bear more than a passing resemblance to Rob Bottin's work on THE THING.

Williamson's dialogue among the teens is crisp and the respective characters are given the time to develop their personalities, at least far more than the usual genre film would permit. Rodriguez's hyper-kinetic filmmaking technique is dialed down several notches here (perhaps out of budgetary constraints), though there are a few effective sequences--one involving a swimming pool near the end--that show evidence of Rodriguez's distinctive style.

However, despite all of the character development, the relationships between some of the high-schoolers are given short-shrift (particularly Wood's fascination with perky snob Phoenix) and the film's attempt to create a BREAKFAST CLUB sort of resolution, with kids from various cliques coming together, falls short since the movie hasn't successfully worked its way upto that point. I applaud Williamson and Rodriguez for the twist-free finale, but their final cut--which starts out focusing on the teachers and then shifts entirely to the kids--is awfully choppy, with too many stretches of dialogue that don't propel either character or story as much as they should have. The fascination the filmmakers have with the solution Harnett uses to eliminate the aliens, for example, ultimately eats up a good chunk of the narrative at the expense of other plot elements. Potentially intriguing subplots--from the town's possession to even fully delineating the changes that have come across the teachers (the female faculty members wear more make-up, as if that really spells alien contamination!)--are all but forgotten as Williams and Rodriguez decide to parade out all of the old sci-fi standbys as if we've never seen them before. There aren't enough set pieces to break up the talky stretches the movie settles into, as superior as the dialogue may be to the usual film of this kind.

The film's biggest disappointment is that none of the "Faculty" members--from Piper Laurie and Robert Patrick to Jon Stewart and Bebe Neuwirth--are given anything to do other than show up, get possessed, and disappear almost entirely from the movie! For a movie called THE FACULTY, this is indeed a letdown, as is the ultimate revelation of the Alien Queen's identity (which turns out to predictably be none other than a representative of Hollywood's real-life cultural nemesis). The film's finale--while effective in a traditional creature-feature kind of way--reeks more of SPECIES than the BODY SNATCHERS as well, especially in its combination of a naked-human-and-slimy-FX shots.

I think that the main reason why THE FACULTY just sort of treads water most of the time has to do with Williamson's unfamiliarity with the sci-fi film, which is quite a different beast than the horror genre. A lot of the dialogue here referring explicitly to the "Body Snatchers" films is plainly obvious to anyone who sat through them (any of them, in fact), and we also get a few requisite scene-steals from Carpenter's THE THING (the classic "acid test") and the standard "who is possessed?" sequence, with characters trying to explain to an outsider who's human and who isn't. The hitch is that most of these sequences lack the satirical bent that Williamson brought to the SCREAM pictures, possibly because the writer isn't as aware of this genre's trappings as he is with the horror film, and subsequently bog the film down in predictability instead of giving us a new perspective on classic sci-fi. Even Abel Ferrara's underrated BODY SNATCHERS from earlier this decade was able to demonstrate the horror of becoming something perfect but non-human--THE FACULTY merely mimics its brethren without convincing us of its apocalyptic possibilities, and Williamson's script seems content to hammer home most of its genre conventions without much of a point-of-view.

Of course, I still enjoyed watching THE FACULTY for what it ended up being--an enjoyable creature feature that will make perfect video fodder--but lamenting that it could have been, and should have been, a whole lot more. This is a fun popcorn movie, especially for those who enjoy this sort of thing (it's about a notch below THE RELIC), but not a heck of a lot more than that. (R, 102 mins., ** standard issue score by Marco Beltrami not scheduled for release; song album on Columbia features the usual teen-rock compilation)


Aisle Seat Reader Bag

From Jay Clellan <jclellan@hotmail.com>:

    I have a couple of points regarding your column of December 28, 1998. My points are in regards to "Star Trek," which I admit I am far from being an expert on. Nevertheless, I find it a pleasant enough diversion when it crosses my path and I still enjoy that one with the whales when I see it on cable.

    My point is regarding what you said about how there's been a middle age male captain and a middle age female captain and soon they're going to have to put younger people on the shows or films or whatever. Here's where I disagree.

    One of the reasons I can stomach "Star Trek" is because it isn't full of adorable teens and twenty-somethings, looking cute and walking around in tank-tops. I'm 26 and I have nothing against young people or tank-tops, but that kind of crap has permeated every facet of television and films as of late and it's nice to know there's one franchise that still values talented actors over a cool haircut. I haven't seen enough shows to evaluate the quality of the stories over time, but they seem amusing enough to me.

    When the spaceships start filling up with people from the "Felicity" program and others of that ilk, that's when I'll stop watching "Star Trek" and flip past it to whatever else is on at three in the morning. If I want to see a bunch of cool young people I'll watch one of those freakin' stupid WB shows about vampires or something. I just think it's somewhat foolish of you to assume that all of "Star Trek's" woe will be ended once they stick some guy in a leather coat and a ponytail into the captain's chair. You say that the younger demographic will have to be addressed. Who do you think is watching this stuff, senior citizens? The young people are getting what they want. Too much of it, it would seem. By the way, it seems to me that in order to become a captain, you'd have to have a little tenure; more than a 20 year old can get, I would imagine.

    It takes a lot of people to make up this world, not just the young ones. I realize I sound like an eighty year old, but it's how I feel and I'm guessing there's a lot of people who feel the same way. Although granted, I'm sure a lot of them are very ugly. However, if more people (ugly or not) felt that way, chances are we'd have a lot less "Psycho" remakes and even fewer pairs of giant pants. That said, good day. Or in words you'll understand, "Good cyber extreme in your face lasers and computers internet day."

Wow, a Dennis Miller-like rant! You address a couple of pertinent issues, but also several that I would firmly take issue with.

Yes, I can agree that STAR TREK does give us all-adult actors in an age where a lot of entertainment is being geared towards teens--but the sheer fact that the cast is, well, older doesn't mean that the quality of storytelling or overall viewing value is superior simply because of this.

In fact, your shot at BUFFY is totally uninformed, since the show has smarter dialogue and terrific ensemble acting, far superior to anything I've seen on STAR TREK in the cinema or on television in years. As proof that the show is more than some "freakin stupid" vampire program on the WB, it routinely makes critical lists of the Best Shows on TV (most recently ranked #4 on TV Guide's list of the 10 Best Shows of 98, in fact) in addition to its high demographic ratings. While also a shamelessly entertaining soap opera, DAWSON'S CREEK boasts more intelligent dialogue than what you would come to expect in a show of that nature--which is why people continuously knock the program as being unrealistic for its teen characters who talk and act like adults! I doubt most navel-piercing morons would even understand half of the dialogue and references contained in most episodes of DAWSON'S CREEK.

As far as STAR TREK itself goes, I'm not saying that I want to see FELICITY on the Starship Enterprise at all. I simply believe that you can't continuously cast middle-age actors in this franchise, then expect them to keep the interest level up as time goes on. Galloping around the galaxy is a game for the young, as Carol Marcus once said (in words to that effect), and what I would envision STAR TREK to eventually go back to is the cast breakdown of the original series. I think Patrick Steward is great, but INSURRECTION certainly felt creaky to me--and lines like "my boobs aren't sagging!" certainly aren't any more articulate and "adult" than dialogue you'd hear on the WB.

From Mike Hansen (insirta@home.com):

    For my 2 cents worth, I thought the new TNG film was just fine. It's the first TNG film that actually resembles the TV show, which is why I think fans would want to see a TNG film anyway. And I don't mean it looks like a big-screen 2-hour TV episode. The script and acting connected much more to the characters, instead of the actors just showing up to make a movie but leaving the old TNG characters at home. And this film had far less of the inappropriate humor for humor's sake that has plagued Trek films since #5; I NEVER cared for that. It's true that the films have had much more action than the series, but that means they've been less in touch with what made TNG popular; it's a whole different beast than the original Trek.

Mike, a lot of friends of mine who enjoy TNG felt this way. For people who enjoy Trek but not specifically TNG, I thought it was certainly not as accessible as other films of both the original series or even FIRST CONTACT, for example, and the pacing was far too sluggish for any movie. In any event, INSURRECTION wasn't the "breakthrough movie" Paramount initially touted it as being, in terms of it appealing to all audiences, not just Trek fans.

From Kevin J. Urbanek <urbanek.3@osu.edu>

    I was reading the comments you received regarding your review of "Psycho." One writer expressed offense at your statement that the new version is apparently aimed at younger viewers who have not seen the original. I am a relatively younger viewer as well, (26 yrs young) but I wholeheartedly agree with you. Here's why: two years ago, I caught a showing of the original "Psycho" on campus at The Ohio State University. I had seen it originally years before late at night by myself, and loved it. However, the audience actually LAUGHED at many of the scenes, sometimes because the special effects weren't up to today's standards (ala the man falling down the bluescreened stairs, or Anthony Perkins in makeup). I found it sad that the "adults" my age were incapable of appreciating a work of art. I suppose the same people would laugh at the original "King Kong," or "Earth versus the Flying Saucers" (now THAT movie had some cool 1950s trashing of Washington D.C.

Good comment on your part. Too damn bad you're probably right.

Kevin, I still haven't seen the movie, and neither did Chris Kinsinger <76263.2355@compuserve.com>, but he did manage to weigh in with his choices for a recast WIZARD OF OZ shot by shot remake...

    Andy,

    Like you, I boycotted the "new" PSYCHO, and like you, I'll see it later, out of morbid curiosity. I simply didn't want any of my dollars supporting that kind of cinematic grave-robbing. And, since you asked, here are my casting choices for the "new" shot-for-shot remake of "The Wizard Of OZ" (featuring 5 new hit songs!)

    Liv Tyler. . . . . . . .Dorothy

    Dan Aykroyd. . . . . . .Professor Marvel (The Wizard)

    Martin Short. . . . . . Hunk (The Scarecrow)

    Steve Martin. . . . . . Hickory (The Tin Man)

    John Goodman. . . . . . Zeke (The Cowardly Lion)

    Meryl Streep. . . . . . Miss Gulch (The Witch)

NEXT TIME: The Best & Worst of 98. See you then, and send all comments in the interim to dursina@att.net. Hope your 99 is off to a good start!


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