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 Œ98? 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 Œ98 in a few weeks, but until
then, here's a look at one major holiday release along with some reader
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
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
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
Aisle Seat Reader Bag
From Jay Clellan <email@example.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
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 Œ98, 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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org):
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
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 <email@example.com>
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
<firstname.lastname@example.org>, but he did manage to weigh in with his
choices for a recast WIZARD OF OZ shot by shot remake...
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 email@example.com.
Hope your Œ99 is off to a good start!