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Oscar Helps Bring Out The Best

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Here is to the New Year - the time for good holiday joy and cheer, for rejoicing and spending time with friends, for making (and breaking) important resolutions, and for spending hours at your local multiplex. This is the season which makes one yearn for the relatively relaxed summer release schedule (one blockbuster-hopeful per weekend), with the studios sending dozens of movies onto the screens to fight for your hard-earned dollars. Usually, December is the period when the best movies of the year are released, with an eye not only for the box-office receipts, but also for the upcoming Academy Awards.

The end of this year brings two excellent movies, both of them, due to some extraordinary coincidence, set mostly on a board of or named after a ship (Amistad and Titanic). The rest of the crop is, unfortunately, ho-hum. Even the best of it gets only a reserved recommendation from yours truly. Here's a scoop on the four high-profile releases; each of them earning a cautious "thumbs up" recommendation, but lacking something important to make it more than merely means to pleasantly spend two hours in the theater.

So here we go, roughly in the order of preference.

Wag the Dog

Plot in a nutshell: Ten days before the re-election, the President is implicated in molesting an underage girl. To save the situation, a team of professional spin-doctors (Robert deNiro and Anne Heche) creates an even bigger story: America goes to war with Albania! The faux-documentary footage is shot by a famed Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman), the jingoistic songs are written, the emotions are cranked up - and the nation responds to the ruse in this searingly sarcastic black comedy.

Wag the Dog is a highly economical film, shot on a shoestring budget in four weeks, but this doesn't spoil any enjoyment. Some secondary stuff is mediocre, like an especially boring score (two parodies of patriotic songs notably excepted) and messy editing, but these don't distract much as well. What I found particularly lacking, is the human characters. It's ok in a satire to have one dimensional supporting characters and sometimes it can be really funny ("Old Shoe" is hilarious), but it's unforgivable to have zero-dimensional leads. In case of Wag The Dog, two out of three main characters, namely played by Robert deNiro and Ann Heche possess no personality of any kind, which makes watching a very distancing experience (compare this one with its direct predecessor, "Dr. Strangelove," where each character has complete and rounded personality, including three different ones played by Peter Sellers).

At least there's Dustin Hoffman on hand, whose character seems limited at first, but this makes his bursting out of the cocoon in the end even more impressive; this, finally, creates an emotional connection which is sorely lacking in the most of the movie.

Having said all that, Wag the Dog is still recommendable. The tale of spin-doctoring gone to absurd heights, lengths, and depths is wildly unpredictable. The dialogue is bitingly sharp (no wonder; David Mamet co-wrote the screenplay), and the observation that this country is governed by ideology feels grimly apt. All in all, this is an excellent movie about the political and sociological concepts. I only wish it was more about people as well.

Tomorrow Never Dies

Plot in a nutshell: A media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) wants to rule the world (don't they always go for that?), and plans to start the World War III to achieve his ends. It's up to Bond, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and his Chinese counterpart Wei Lin (Michelle Yeoh) to stop the dastardly plans of the villain. Lots of running around and screaming ensues.

As Jackie Chan was eclipsed in Supercop, so is Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, the 18th installment of the Bond franchise. And eclipsed not by all the gunfire (way too much of it), explosions (about the right amount) and daredevil stunts (a bit too few) - but by former Miss Malaysia, Michelle Yeoh.

While Brosnan looks and acts the part quite well (damaging much less of his dialogue than in Goldeneye - although maybe because he has less dialogue here), it's Ms. Yeoh who owns the movie, at least the second half of it. Not really pretty in a usual way, she possesses tons of charisma, and her moves - slinking around the bad guy's hideout, wreck-scuba-diving, spin-kicking two assailants at a time, firing an uzi - are a wonder to behold. With an exception of couple of leaps and lots of running away from gunfire, Mr. Bond himself doesn't have much to do. Again, nothing to blame Brosnan about; but the screenplay shortcharges him a bit.

On the other hand, the villain is a lot of fun, and also has a legitimate reason for his villainous activities (Jonathan Pryce chews the scenery and spits it out in large chunks), and there are quite a few good one-liners, which I'm afraid I've forgotten by now, along with the rest of the movie. Technical credits are average - special effects are seamless, but the editing is a bit choppy; the musical score takes itself way too seriously, and the sound effects, while very good by themselves, are on the loud side. And why, oh why do they think it's interesting to watch people shoot at each other for long, long, long stretches of time? Well, it is interesting to watch while Ms. Yeoh does that, but I think you got my point already.

Good Will Hunting

Plot in a nutshell: Will Hunting (cue groans for a too-cute pun) is a genius of the order of Einstein; he reads the books like Star Trek's Data, by flipping through them; he has a photographic memory; without any formal education, he excels in solving extra-complicated problems of group theory; he shames Fields-prize-winning scientists; and at night he dons the cape and fights crime and injustice. Well, ok, I made the last one up. But, you see, Will is psychologically wounded, has an attachment problem, and, all in all, is pretty much self-destructive. Arrested for assault, he plea-bargains under the condition that he undergoes therapy; enter Robin Williams as kindly shrink Sean McGuire.

This setup doesn't look like it could make a realistic movie, does it? One of the problems of Good Will Hunting is that it pretends to be realistic, and the clash of a fairy-tale premise and grounded-in-real-world execution makes this movie much less enjoyable than it could have been.

To say the truth, Good Will Hunting is very entertaining; but then again, any movie partially set at MIT has to be (there are glimpses of Killian Court, Kresge Auditorium, and The Tech). All the performances are quite nice (especially Minnie Driver as Will's would-be-girlfriend), and, best part, the dialogue zings (frequent profanity overuse excepted). Robin Williams didn't deserve to receive top credit, since he plays only one of four supporting characters; but he's still very good.

But while "Good Will Hunting" is never boring to watch, I frequently wished that Will's problems were illustrated through less than four very similar relationships (best friend, woman, MIT mathematics professor, and a shrink). In the end, the movie feels like it ran out of screen time, and the actual character development flies out of the window. Will and Sean talk, bond, solve each other's problems, and then cry and hug each other. After said crying and hugging the movie ends, postulating that Will's life will be perfectly fine now. Such feel-good pretentiousness is definitely not my mug of egg-nog.

Scream 2

Plot in a nutshell: After events of the first movie, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) entered college, and started to put her life back together. However, leave it up to Hollywood to spoil the fun - her life is now a basis of a new slasher movie "Stab." There's also a book about her, an ambitious reporter, some old and some new friends in Sidney's life - and, it seems, a new deranged homicidal psycho.

This one is not too bad of a followup, but not quite as good as the first one (especially for the movie which has the line "Sequels suck, man"). Yes, I know I should judge movies on their own rights, but since this one would make completely no sense if you haven't seen Scream (consider this a warning), I believe this is the valid approach in this case.

Scream 2 is full of the same trademark mixture of horror and satire, which works; suspense works almost as well; there's even a rare moment of penetrating subtext (Sidney plays the part of Cassandra in a school play - see, now you wish you paid attention to that lecture on Iliad), and the final monologue of the killer is quite astute (well, for the maniac this guy/gal is).

Unfortunately Scream 2 suffers from the most common sequel malady - it frequently feels like "more of the same." The element of a game (between the masked psycho killer and his main victim) is gone, and the comic elements are spread a bit too thin. Tory Spelling is hilarious, though, as a merciless parody of herself. (I assume they achieved this effect by not telling her that her part was supposed to be a parody.) To sum it up, both movies are not quite the exciting-yet-brainy cinema experience they're being hyped for; but they should work well as a late night rental if you have a bunch of sarcastic friends who enjoy talking back to the screen.