March 06, 2005

Movie Reviews: Paddle and Vanity

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Without a Paddle & Vanity Fair

Without a Paddle

This was your typically stupid comedy. I think I liked it (i.e. actually laughed) was because the actor who played Shaggy in Scooby Doo was in it. I sort of have a crush on him.

I should have known, as soon as I saw Burt Reynolds was in it, it would be a bomb. I wasn't disappointed. But in Burt's defense, he actually did a good job portraying a crazy old mountain man.

The story itself was pure silliness. However, it had a really good message: Time is more valuable than all the money in the world. This message, however, got buried behind the zany acts of the characters. It wasn't bad, but I wouldn't watch it again.

** stars out of five

New York Times' Review

FILM REVIEW; Up a Creek With City Slickers And Beer-Bellied Beasts By STEPHEN HOLDEN Published: August 20, 2004, Friday

As every red-blooded American male is at least partially aware, 1972 was the year camping trips lost their innocence. That was when the movie ''Deliverance'' introduced a new specter into the horror show of macho nightmares. Thanks to ''Deliverance'' and many subsequent rip-offs, every camper knows that behind every tree may lurk a sadistic, rotten-toothed hillbilly itching to rape a soft city slicker and make him squeal like a pig in front of his friends.

The homosexual panic instilled by ''Deliverance'' fuels the running joke (if that's the word for it) driving the uneasy laughs evoked by the loathsome comedy ''Without a Paddle,'' which opens today nationwide. Three buddies, 30 going on 13, embark on a ridiculous treasure hunt in the Pacific Northwest. Although no rape actually takes place, the threat of it is a constant source of leering humor. When the treasure hunters run afoul of a pair of gun-toting marijuana growers who resemble outlaw bikers, rape, torture and murder seem probable punishments, should the campers be caught.

Much of the movie is a frantic chase through the forest, in which the beer-bellied beasts pursue the wimpy city slickers. At one point, the friends hide in a treehouse where two nature-loving beauties are living an environmentally pure life. But even here, the dreaded possibility of androgyny raises its head, when one of the women (who don't shave) reveals a hairy leg. When the beasts arrive, the women's stored-up bags of excrement come in handy as stink bombs dropped from above.

Later in ''Without a Paddle,'' directed by Steven Brill, the friends, shivering and nearly naked in a downpour, find themselves forced to curl up together in a ball to avoid hypothermia. Homosexual panic is exploited for easy guffaws as the companions, wincing in revulsion, cling to one another fearing the worst (a stray erection), and of course the worst happens. Much is also made of the fondness of Dan (Seth Green), the wimpiest of the three, for the old Culture Club hit ''Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?,'' an affection for which signifies possible gayness. Dan sings it out loud to combat his claustrophobia while squirming through a tunnel.

To be fair, ''Without a Paddle'' is only the latest in a spate of teenage and post-teen buddy comedies to trade on gay panic for laughs. The movie, which pushes its ugly humor further than most, follows Dan (a doctor with a suitcase full of phobias), and his grownup childhood buddies Tom (Dax Shepard), and Jerry (Matthew Lillard) on their jaunt back to nature. Tom is a pathological liar with a bogus résumé as a whitewater rapids guide, and Jerry is an overstressed insurance executive with infallibly bad judgment when it comes to roughing it.

The trip is inspired by the death of Billy, the fourth and most glamorous member of their childhood clique. As boys they used to fantasize searching for the $200,000 stash of a legendary bank robber who disappeared in the forests of Oregon. When they reconvene in their childhood treehouse after Billy's funeral, they discover the treasure map he drew, along with a cereal box compass, and decide to honor his memory by venturing into the wild and fulfilling his quest.
In an early life-threatening mishap, they are menaced by a computer-generated bear with a taste for cellphones. The overlong bear sequence is so poorly coordinated that the animal poses no palpable physical threat. The movie's final joke and homage to ''Deliverance'' is the appearance of Burt Reynolds himself as a shaggy hermit who has lived in the woods for 30 years. With Mr. Reynolds consenting to lend his name to such a shabby enterprise, the joke is really on him.

Vanity Fair

Kevin fell asleep.

This was a character-driven movie and they tend to slow moving anyway. Not to mention, they all speak with an English accent and that's sometimes hard to keep up with.

This story reminded me of The House of Mirth. This is a story about a woman, born to a French opera woman and a starving artist father, who was trying to find her niche in English society. This was back in the day when social classes were sharply defined and if a woman didn't have the pedigree to back her up, then a woman's best career option was a governess.

Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) was such a woman. Though she was very clever, witty, and beautiful, those qualities weren't enough to get her by. She thought she married money, only the wedding ticked off the aunt who possessed the family money and she wrote them out of her will.

This means Becky has to resort to anything and everything in order to survive. She basically gives up rights to her son so he can have a better life. She drives away the husband, who truly loved her, and he dies of a tropical disease. It's a tragic story. However, I think the underlying message was that it was important for a woman in those days, indeed, nowadays, to have strength of character to advance and in fact, survive, in those days and in these days.

*** stars out of five.

New York Times Review

September 1, 2004
FILM REVIEW; Becky Sharp Again Weaves Her Wily Web

Her eyes snapping like tiny firecrackers and jutting her chin, Reese Witherspoon makes an appealingly crafty Becky Sharp in Mira Nair's bland but color-drenched adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel, ''Vanity Fair.'' Ms. Witherspoon, as usual, conveys a bristly, determined spunk. But if her performance emits enough sparks to hold the screen, it never ignites a dramatic brush fire. Despite her make-do British accent, she is quintessentially American in attitude and body language, even more a fish out of water in ''Vanity Fair'' than she seemed in ''The Importance of Being Earnest.''

Ms. Witherspoon's upbeat approach in the film, which opens today, makes her Becky more likable than other portrayals (and there have been many, most famously by Miriam Hopkins in the 1935 movie ''Becky Sharp,'' the first Hollywood feature in Technicolor). But with its diminished gravitas, this Becky comes across as a lightweight schemer about as formidable as an aspiring trophy wife on a daytime soap. When the movie is over, you half expect Ms. Witherspoon to turn to the camera and plead, ''You still like me, don't you?''

The ascent of Becky, the orphaned daughter of an impoverished artist and a French opera dancer, to the treacherous peaks of 19th-century London society and her subsequent fall from grace, plays more like the story of a cheerfully reckless flirt than of the swath cut by an unscrupulous social climber. Becky has been cited as the literary role model for Scarlett O'Hara (a claim Margaret Mitchell denied). And as you watch Ms. Witherspoon's Becky spin her webs, you long for a lot more Scarlett O'Hara and a lot less Elle Woods.

In studiously compressing a novel that spans three decades of early- 19th-century British social history into 138 minutes, the movie becomes increasingly hurried as it struggles to compress so many subplots. Eventually it loses track of time, and its refusal to show the characters aging over 30 years adds to the confusion.

The screenplay, by Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes, applies the same mosaic technique to ''Vanity Fair'' that Mr. Fellowes brought to ''Gosford Park,'' but the novel's daunting size prevents its being pieced into a similarly tidy jigsaw puzzle.

But ''Vanity Fair'' has a deeper conceptual confusion. In mixing satire and romance, the movie proves once again that the two are about as compatible as lemon juice and heavy cream. The Thackeray novel is a sweeping satire of the rampant drive for upward mobility in a Britain newly flush with the wealth flowing from its colonies. Thackeray grounded the novel in an omniscient, often caustic voice looking down (and askance) at his characters and their foibles.
The movie flashes to comic life in those scenes that convey Thackeray's disdain for the preening foolishness and snobbery of early 19th-century British society and the crass symbiotic relationship between money and aristocracy. Then, as now, you could buy your way to the top, and one of the sharpest scenes observes a crude premarital negotiation that goes nowhere.

The movie's brightest moments belong to Eileen Atkins, as Matilda Crawley, the wealthy, tart-tongued spinster who takes an instant liking to Becky for her cleverness and candid wit and adopts her as a social pet. A selfish hypocrite beneath her rebellious pose, Matilda exiles Becky when the girl marries her beloved nephew, Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy), whom she disinherits in a fury. Once Ms. Atkins fades from the movie, it never fully recovers.
At the same time, ''Vanity Fair'' toys half-heartedly with billowy romantic drama, and its token gestures emulating ''Gone With the Wind'' are too clear and clumsy to ignore. ''Vanity Fair'' gives us the Battle of Waterloo (and an overhead view of battlefield carnage that recalls the famous crane shot of Atlanta) instead of the Civil War. The stormy marital breakup of Becky and Rawdon recycles some of the same phrases hurled during Scarlett and Rhett's final, desperate leave-taking, but minus the passion.

The most obvious parallel between the movies (and the novels) is the bad girl-good girl similarity of Becky and her best friend from boarding school, Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai) to Scarlett and Melanie Wilkes. But Ms. Garai's goody-good Amelia registers as such a pallid screen presence that despite the character's dramatic changes of fortune, you barely remember her face after the film ends.

Ms. Nair, the Indian-born director of ''Monsoon Wedding'' also can't resist embellishing the novel's connections to her South Asian roots and slaps on a contemporary multicultural gloss. Two outlandish Bollywood-flavored production numbers in the second half of the film come off as jarring digressions that seem shoehorned in from another movie. In the first, Ms. Witherspoon, flanked by dancers, does a grinding Indian-flavored hoochy-cooch, worthy of Britney Spears, at a party given by her social mentor, the Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne).
Mr. Byrne's Steyne may be the film's most complex character. A discriminating aesthete, he is also a cynical cad who humiliates his wife and daughter and eventually demands his pound of flesh from a resistant Becky.

The movie has pungent but too-brief performances by Bob Hoskins as Pitt Crawley (Rawdon's father and Matilda's brother), who hires Becky as governess for his daughters, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Osborne, the callous father of Amelia's snobbish husband, George, whom Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays as supercilious twit with the Rupert Everett flounce. Amelia's devoted, longtime suitor Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) is acknowledged only long enough for him to register as a piece in the puzzle.

Tempting as it may be to translate a broad social canvas to the screen, it may be asking too much of a movie, even one this long, without major excisions. Look only at the debacle of ''The Bonfire of the Vanities.'' That Tom Wolfe novel, the contemporary American equivalent of Thackeray's masterpiece, proved even more unmanageable as a movie for many of the same reasons.

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