The Spice Girls in SPICE WORLD (1997) – Not what you really want

Spice

Spice World marked the film debut of a heavily hyped singing group called The Spice Girls, but it was obviously intended to evoke a more legendary British rock band. The movie’s ad is plastered over with the British flag and the tag line “You say you want a revolution?” And like another first film, Spice World is a semi-documentary about the trials and tribulations leading up to a rock group’s concert.

Ripping off old Beatles concepts is about as radical as this movie gets. But the only way in which Spice World resembles that other, far superior rock film is that watching this movie does indeed make for a hard day’s night.

The film plays as though it’s written by someone who never understood Monty Python sketches and then tried to write one. And it’s no help that the five Spice Girls can hardly manage a personality among them. To lend credibility to the movie, there are cameos by Elton John, Meat Loaf, and Elvis Costello. Ironically, these genuine rockers display more movie charm in a few seconds of screen time than the Spices do in 100 minutes.

The movie centers on the efforts of the group’s manager (Richard E. Grant, who was in Steve Martin’s L.A. Story in better days) to keep the girls together for their big concert. But whereas the Beatles film credibly depicted a rock group’s fishbowl existence, The Spice Girls’ most pressing problem is which boots to wear on a social outing. Since even The Spices’ own movie can’t muster up any interest in their well-being, the running time is padded with fantasy sequences that wouldn’t pass muster on an old “Monkees” episode, and some embarrassing subplots involving Roger Moore and “Cheers'” George Wendt.

I’m no music critic, but I have to ask: Why do the female rockers most intent on displaying their feminist credentials always present themselves as sex objects? Yes, women can be powerful and sexy at the same time, but usually not by pandering to the lowest-common-denominator males. There is an interesting movie to be made about singers with names like Baby Spice who wear weirdly suggestive clothing and hairstyles. However, that movie would be at the other end of the spectrum from Spice World.

The funniest moment of this indifferent movie is the credit which informs us that the movie’s story is “based on an idea by The Spice Girls.” The movie handily proves that these women never had an original idea in their lives.

 

THE STING (1973) – Lots of pros in this con

Stingredfordnewman

In these days of gazillion-dollar blockbusters, sometimes you just long for a movie with a solid story and real movie stars. 1973’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Sting delivers the goods.

After the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it was inevitable that a movie would re-unite director George Roy Hill (who also won an Oscar here) with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. (To those who now know this duo mainly as moguls of salad dressing and independent movies, let’s just say they were the Brad Pitts of their day.) Since sequels weren’t as prevalent back then, they were re-teamed for a fresh effort scripted by David Ward (another Oscar winner for this one, and deservedly so).

Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a wet-behind-the-ears grifter who sees his partner killed after the two of them score a con that trails back to a ruthless high-stakes gambler (Robert Shaw). Eager for revenge, Hooker enlists the help of experienced con man Henry Gondorff (Newman).

Their initial meeting involves Hooker sticking Gondorff under a cold shower to wash off a hangover. But where Hooker is eager to sink his teeth into the con, Gondorff moves slowly but steadily, considering every move and calling in many friends in low places (a wealth of great character actors including Harold Gould and Ray Walston). Hooker also has to work his end of the sting while fending off a local cop (Charles Durning) who knows Hooker’s up to no good.

For all of its layers of con-artistry, it’s a fairly simple story, and at 129 minutes, it could move a little more tightly. But it doesn’t rush for its effects — some of the neatest touches are old movie style, as in its “wipes” from one scene to another, and in wordless sequences powered by Marvin Hamlisch’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Scott Joplin rags. It doesn’t hurt that Newman and Redford have old-style movie charisma in spades. And the grifters’ sting doesn’t work only on the villain — the movie’s beaut of an ending will leave you gasping with laughter.

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991) – Surprisingly mild Albert Brooks comedy

Defending

In Albert Brooks’ comedies, his usual persona is that of a schnook who is so obsessed with being hip that he doesn’t realize how obnoxious he is (such as the Brooks yuppie who wanted to “touch Indians” in Lost in America [1985]). But his other movies made fun of these obsessions; Defending Your Life takes them seriously and tries to explore them. Consequently, though it’s officially a comedy, it’s more thoughtful than hysterical.

Brooks plays David Miller, a meek advertising executive who dies in a traffic accident. David finds that, before he can move on to the next level of afterlife, his otherworldly lawyer must be able to prove that David lived his life on Earth to the fullest. If he loses his case, David will be sent back to Earth to try again.

One night, David meets Julia (Meryl Streep), whose case is also being tried, and he falls in love with her. But as always, David is afraid of expressing his true feelings. Will he overcome his self-doubt? Based on his previous life, the evidence isn’t good.

The movie is pretty enjoyable throughout, but the all-out funniest parts are in the first half, as David tries to cope with both the nonchalant blandness of the afterlife and a trial that recounts his most humiliating earthly moments. The romance between Julia and David is not unwelcome either. Meryl Streep is quite charming, and her love scenes with Brooks are surprisingly believable and touching.

But the movie builds up a lot of momentum and goodwill for a huge resolution that never arrives. The whole point of the movie seems to be, “Don’t be afraid of life” —  not Brooks’s most profound statement ever. He seems content to make this film his Heaven Can Wait, complete with a tacked-on happy ending and celestial photography (provided by Allen Daviau, who also did Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial).

As in Lost in America, Brooks’ other actors constitute a rich supporting cast. Lee Grant is terrific as David’s prosecutor, and Rip Torn displays just the right degree of pomposity as David’s condescending lawyer. There are also a lot of neat cameos, such as that of the emcee of The Past Lives Pavilion; I won’t give away the surprise, but when you think about it later, she turns out to be perfectly appropriate.

Defending Your Life is not a bad movie, but coming from Brooks, it’s amazingly benign. If you liked Brooks’s hapless newscaster in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News (1987), you’ll probably love this one. But it’s surprising that one of America’s most incisive satirists is content to settle for middle-of-the-road sweetness.

SCHINDLER’S LIST (1997) – Steven Spielberg’s sobering look at the Holocaust

Schindler

Schindler’s List — a clear-eyed, flawless look at the Holocaust — is a movie filled with infinite paradoxes.

The most obvious paradox is its true story. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a German businessman who ran factories that made unusable products in order to save the lives of the factory workers — 1,100 Jews who otherwise would have been sent to Nazi death camps.

The movie shows the man but never quite explains him. Schindler is a rich womanizer — what has he to gain from this astounding gesture? Spielberg answers that question, not by delving into Schindler’s character, but by showing the atrocity going on around Schindler.

That atrocity is best personified by Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the Nazi who runs the Krakow ghetto as well as a Jewish death camp. Goeth is the absolute evil among evils, a man playing God in the most lethal sense.

Goeth’s atrocities range from petty to tragic. In one scene, he considers raping one of his Jewish servants, but then he verbally ponders how tainted she would seem to him after the rape, and so he merely slaps her. In another instance, a Jewish woman tries to warn him of a mistake in one of the death camp’s physical details. Goeth shoots the woman, then tells an underling to correct the mistake.

Schindler’s List soberly examines the ethics between these two extremes. The Nazis want to have somebody, anybody, come begging to them. They play into the hands of Schindler, who acts as though he’s using the war to his own ends when what he’s really doing is saving Jewish lives.

Then there are the movie’s commercial paradoxes. In 1993, nobody would have expected Steven Spielberg, known mostly for escapist fare, to have made such a haunting movie. It looks as though a camera was just set down in the middle of the Holocaust to soberly record its brutality. The movie runs over three hours and is not a minute too long.

 

THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) – Cinema’s first popular “talkie” has not aged well

JazzSinger

Despite its place in movie history, The Jazz Singer must be approached with a caution usually reserved for radioactivity.

The backstory is better than anything in the movie. The Warner Bros. studio, on the brink of folding, risked investing in a sound-on-film system in the silent era. The movie was based on a popular Broadway play. The starring role went to Al Jolson, a singer whose wild popularity was the ’20s version of Beatlemania.

The movie was not the first “talkie,” and it is largely dialogue-free. Jolson’s singing was the initial sound draw. But the movie’s success is believed to have come from Jolson’s improvised dialogue, where twice he declares, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” — five words that changed movie history.

So much for the interesting part — now we come to the movie’s story. It’s a creaky conflict between good Jewish boy Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) and his cantor father. Papa wants Jakie to sing beside him at his New York synagogue. But Jakie forsakes his heritage for a musical career in California.

Jakie anglicizes his name to Jack Robin, gets a girl, and is called to appear on Broadway. Jack’s stubborn father takes ill and expects Jack to sing “Kol Nidre” at the synagogue — on the night of Jack’s Broadway premiere. Could any more buttons be pushed here??

The story is melodrama in full bloom, and it has not aged well. (If you need further proof, check out the 1980 remake with Neil Diamond and Sir Laurence Olivier.)

The movie’s cause is not helped by racial stereotyping that was common in its day but is jaw-dropping now. Jack’s hand-wringing papa is played by Warner Oland, later to caricature another race as the star of the Charlie Chan movie series.

And the DVD’s packaging does its best to hide the movie’s dirty little secret: Nobody loved blackface more than Al Jolson. (In the movie’s finale, a “blacked up” Jolson belts out “Mammy” to his mother.) Google this movie on the Internet, and you’ll find countless promo posters of Jolson happily emoting in blackface. Strange, isn’t it, that the DVD’s cover (shown above) shows Jolson only in silhouette?

The DVD set’s extras are lavish, with a documentary about cinema’s “talkie era” and over three hours of early sound short subjects. But then there’s that irony-free story of a singer aiming for fame not only by denying his own racial heritage, but defaming another race while doing it. It hangs over this historic movie like a pall.

(Here’s another creaker — the movie’s original theatrical trailer, which is a full seven minutes long.)

 

KING KONG (2005) – Not the gorilla my dreams

KONG

I’ll give Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong one thing: As Ann Darrow (portrayed in the original by scream queen Fay Wray), Naomi Watts gives a downright heroic performance. She puts a terrific, thoughtful spin on Ann, showing her truly falling for this huge ape who can’t possibly have her. Scene after scene, she does courting rituals with Kong that, by rights, should get her laughed off the screen, and she really makes them work.

Other than a few scenes here and there, though, that’s about the only thing that Jackson’s pre-fab version gets right. The 1933 Kong did in five bad lines of dialogue what it takes Jackson five bad scenes to do. The storyline is pretty much the same: Megalomanical filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black in full blowhard mode) drags Ann to Skull Island to do the jungle movie of all time. The yin to Carl’s wacko yang is love interest Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), here a socialist playwright rather than the original’s sailor. But Jackson doesn’t do a blessed thing to update the dialogue; it sounds like the kind of cornpone that was already pushing up daisies in 1933.

By the time that the old Kong would have been half-over, we still haven’t arrived at that blankety-blank island yet. And when we do, it’s eye-popping in more ways than one, and none of them positive. African-Americans who had hoped the day had passed when they were portrayed on screen as superstitious savages will have a field day here. And when Jackson isn’t resurrecting old stereotypes, he drags his cast through an hour of fighting with CGI-based creatures who have nothing to do with Kong and everything to do with Jackson saying, “Watch what my computer can do!”

And is Kong “realistic”? It depends on your definition of realism, I guess. The movie doesn’t cheat, it shows him in full-shot most of the time, and yet, to me he didn’t seem any more plausible than the ape in the 1997 family film Buddy. The movie bucks him up with THX sound to intimidate us, but the old stop-motion Kong was a lot more fun.

The movie’s $200 million is definitely up on the screen. But mostly I just wanted to turn my head away from it, as Ann does when she gets a dose of Kong’s hot breath in her face. Ironically, it’s the movie’s quieter moments that work: the opening montage of Al Jolson serenading Depression-era New York; a couple of thoughtful sequences where Ann and Kong are essentially having play-time together. But as the movie’s disappointing box office evidenced, I think kids were more interested in getting the movie’s video-game version so that they could knock Kong off the Empire State Building themselves.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) – An empire of movie riches

StarWars

IMHO, in the Star Wars universe, The Empire Strikes Back is the one that sticks. Twenty-five years after its first release, I re-viewed it with my then-8-year-old son as part of our “prep” course for the final Star Wars entry Revenge of the Sith. And everything that originally was emotionally satisfying to me remains intact.

Until I saw Empire, I hadn’t fallen for Star Wars the way millions of moviegoers had. It seemed passable as a “Flash Gordon”-type time-killer, but not worth falling all over. But Empire is the real deal. Right from the opening scenes, it has a different tone that its chipper predecessor. The “Rebels,” far from cheering over their initial victory in the first movie, are now hunkered in an endless snowland, trying to continue their battle and stay alive at the same time. Then our hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), gets womped by the love child of the Abominable Snowman, and suddenly we realize that the good guys are going to have to deal with some real issues.

This movie has it all: eye-popping scenery, fully developed characters who feel both joy and pain (who can forget Chewbacca’s wail every time his friends have a major setback?), and most memorably, believable romantic dialogue between prissy Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and roguish Han Solo (Harrison Ford). SW creator George Lucas has been roundly criticized for the stilted romantic talk in “Episodes II and III”; he would have done well to go back and study the simple yet effective repartee in this movie.

This is also the movie that introduced sage Yoda, who at this point was not the animatronic whiz of the “prequel” trilogy but was initially a senior-citizen Muppet with Frank Oz’s hand up his behind. But even with that drawback, Yoda was as believable and powerful as his later, more youthful CGI version. (That scene where he pulls the spaceship out of the pond is still goose-bump-inspiring.)

Of course, this “galaxy far, far away” is nothing without uber-villain Darth Vader (voice by James Earl Jones, body by David Prowse), and Empire makes the most of the good- and badwill built up by the Man in Black in his first outing. He finally gets his own theme song (“The Imperial Theme”), and it only does him justice. And if, by some miracle of ignorance, you don’t know the major plot twist in this movie, it will blow you away as quickly as Luke loses a major appendage.

The best element of this movie is that it takes time for the “little” moments, such as when Han Solo can’t get the Millenium Falcon running until he hits the “dashboard,” or that great moment where Han’s carbonited body slams into the frame with hands up, as though he’s trying to break out of his enforced prison. (Funny thing is, before he got frozen, his hands were bound behind his back. But when that body slams onto the screen with such urgency, logic takes wing.)

Any box-office smash that can leave so many major plot points hanging at movie’s end has to be some kind of triumph. Until Anakin Skywalker devolved into Darth Vader at the end of SithThe Empire Strikes Back was truly the gold standard for this series.