MediaCircus' Winners & Sinners: August 2001
Special Feature by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2001
With Labor Day weekend having come and gone, the summer moviegoing season has officially wrapped up for another year. For the studios, the summer has been a mixed bag. Though the summer moviegoing season roared out of the gate in May with "The Mummy Returns", box office returns started to show signs of softening during the month of July. In addition, very few pictures have been able to keep their hold on audiences for more than a weekend, which has resulted in a number of major disappointments at the box office, such as "Pearl Harbor" (a $140 million production that has yet to cross the $200 million mark domestically), "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within", and "A.I. Artificial Intelligence".
However, by the end of August, the movie business seemed a little less gloomy, thanks to a 27% uplift in box office receipts over the previous year. With $543 million in August admissions, ACNeilsen EDI estimates that the 2001 summer box office is on track to reach a grand total of $2.93 billion, which is about 10% higher than last year and 5% over the record set in 1999. However, once ticket price increases are factored into the equation, the total number of admissions is much less impressive. Though the estimated 518 million movie tickets sold this summer is a modest increase over last year's 492 million admissions, it is still a far cry from the record 550 million ticket purchases of 1999. But compared to how the rest of the sluggish economy is faring these days, studios and exhibitors should be quite happy with these modest numbers.
Though the numbers in the month of August may have been good enough to lift the pall hanging over the industry, qualitatively speaking, the selection of films was abysmal, with only a handful of films actually worth watching:
- Captain Corelli's Mandolin: Based on the best-selling 1994 novel by Louis de Bernieres, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is a sweeping romance set against the backdrop of the Second World War, specifically the Italian occupation of Greece. Beautifully shot in the lush vistas of the Mediterranean, employing a script that captures the essence of the novel, sporting some strong performances (particularly Nicolas Cage, Penelope Cruz, and John Hurt), and skillfully directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love"), "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is the film that "Pearl Harbor" should have been.
- The Others: When was the last time you remember seeing a truly frightening 'haunted house' movie, the kind that puts you on the edge of your seat for two hours with claustrophobic anticipation? Well, with recent duds like "House on Haunted Hill" still fresh in my mind, neither can I. In an age where horror usually means (a) overblown special effects compensating for cardboard characters and well-trampled clichés ("The Haunting"), (b) well-scrubbed teens being picked off by yet another mad slasher in the latest "Scream"-wannabe ("Valentine"), or (c) idiotic parodies of films where well-scrubbed teams get picked off by yet another mad slasher in the latest "Scream"-wannabe ("Scary Movie 2"), it is a joy to see a classy 'old school' 'haunted house' film like "The Others", which has restored my faith in this horror sub-genre. With its smart and suspenseful build-up, great characters, and a superb cast headlined by Nicole Kidman ("Moulin Rouge"), "The Others" is a safe bet for some genuinely summer thrills and chills.
- Original Sin: For fans of film noir, "Original Sin" is a passable entry in the genre, and even rivals the previous cinematic incarnation of Woolrich's novel, François Truffaut's "La Sirène du Mississippi" from 1969. Even if one has little interest in film noir, "Original Sin" benefits from the pleasant pairing of Antonio Banderas ("Spy Kids") and Angelina Jolie ("Tomb Raider") in a guilty pleasure thriller that just might be hiding an added layer of complexity, depending on how you interpret the film's last few minutes.
- O: What do you get when you recontextualize Shakespeare's "Othello" into a modern-day private school where the entanglement of a star basketball player (Mekhi Phifer of "Shaft"), a senator's daughter (Julia Stiles of "Save the Last Dance"), and the jealous son (Josh Hartnett of "Pearl Harbor") of the school's basketball coach turns tragic? A surprisingly powerful film that is a perfect accompaniment to the original text. However, the real tragedy is that this film was shelved for three years in the aftermath of Columbine, and is only seeing the light of day now.
- Osmosis Jones: The Farrelly Brothers ("There's Something About Mary") are back again, this time with a blend of animation of live action detailing the epic life-and-death struggle inside a very sick Bill Murray. Thankfully, the 'bodily functions' humor you would expect in a Farrelly Brothers production is much more clever than you would expect, and capably backed up by some decent celebrity voice talent (such as Chris Rock, David Hyde Pierce, and William Shatner).
Unfortunately, when the list of winners is short, it usually means that the list of sinners is long:
- American Pie 2: If you managed to enjoy the first "American Pie", then you will probably enjoy "American Pie 2", which delivers more of the same low-brow-humor-that-borders-on-soft-porn in abundance. But if you are looking for something that is a little bit more than an endless parade of raunchy scenes (some funny but many not-so-funny) strung together by a threadbare plot and some stock characterizations, this second serving of "American Pie" will probably leave you more nauseated than satisfied.
- Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: For those who have never heard of the View Askew universe or only have a passing knowledge of it, "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" will appear to be little more than a this mish-mash of Zucker Brothers' parody, juvenile toilet humor, and Robert Altman-style name-dropping doesn't quite work. Even for hard-core Kevin Smith fans, "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" will only be of passing interest for maintaining the continuity of the previous four films. Sadly to say, it will probably be remembered as a mediocre effort, almost as bad as his disappointing sophomore feature "Mallrats".
- Rush Hour 2: If you found the first "Rush Hour" to be lacking due to the illogical plot, the so-so action sequences, and the annoying ranting of Chris Tucker, then you'll probably enjoy "Rush Hour 2" even less. Compared to last year's "Shanghai Noon", which benefited from a better pairing of Jackie Chan with the easygoing Owen Wilson, as well as a more clever script, "Rush Hour 2" seems tired and tedious, rehashing the same old stale clichés and culture-shock humor from the first film. Other than the welcome presence of Chinese cinema's 'It girl' Zhang Ziyi and some great bloopers at the end of the film, there's little reason to get caught in this 'Rush'.
- Rat Race: What happens to yesterday's stars, such as Whoopi Goldberg ("Girl, Interrupted"), Kathy Bates ("Titanic"), Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Men of Honor"), Kathy Najimy ("Sister Act"), John Cleese ("The World is Not Enough"), Rowan Atkinson ("Bean"), and Dean Cain ("Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman")? They end up in "Rat Race", the latest scattershot comedy from Jerry Zucker (who found fame in the Eighties with spoof films such as "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun"). Unfortunately, the jokes in this "It's a Mad, Mad World" rehash are lame, the laughs are infrequent, and there's little point in reaching the finish line.
- Curse of the Jade Scorpion: Like clockwork, each passing year means yet another new Woody Allen film at the local movie theater. Though this was something that was looked forward to back in his heyday during the Seventies and Eighties, in the past decade, it has become an annual event fraught with disappointment and diminishing returns. "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is no exception, as it pairs Allen and Helen Hunt ("What Women Want") in a cursed and humorless affair involving bickering co-workers, hypnotism, and jewel heists.
- Jeepers Creepers: No, it's not the full-length feature adaptation of the 1939 animated short in which police officer Porky Pig investigates a haunted house, but then again, it probably would have been more enjoyable. Though the first half offers a few competent thrills, as the brother-and-sister heroes (Gina Phillips and Justin Long) investigate what may be bodies dumped in a sewer pipe by a country road, "Jeeper Creepers" becomes increasingly ludicrous in the second-half until it finally crashes and burns with an ending that abruptly drop-kicks the audience out of the theater.
- American Outlaws: The tagline for "American Outlaws" declares that 'bad is good again'. If that's the case, with 'good' being the new 'bad', then this very liberal retelling of the Jesse James story makes good on its promise with lackluster action, 'accidental' comedy, and the blandest bunch of outlaws this side of the Mississippi.
- Summer Catch: The only thing more wooden than heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. ("She's All That") in this 'redemption through baseball' flick is the Louisville Slugger that his character uses.
- Bubble Boy: It may have worked for a half-hour "Seinfeld" episode, but spending over 90 minutes poking fun at one of John Travolta's early roles, "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble", doesn't.
- The Princess Diaries: Garry Marshall plagiarizes his own "Pretty Woman" in this tired "Pygmalion"-esque fantasy where the overlooked schoolgirl (Anne Hathaway) turns out to be a real princess.
- Ghosts of Mars: John Carpenter plagiarizes his own "Assault on Precinct 13" in this tired "Rio Bravo"-esque action-thriller where a cop (Natasha Henstridge of "Species") and a convicted killer (Ice Cube of "Three Kings") must survive a supernatural onslaught on the red planet.
With the advent of fall and the return to school in September, moviegoers can look forward to (hopefully) an end to megaplex mediocrity as the studios begin releasing their more upscale fare in the build-up to the upcoming Oscar season. Looking ahead into the coming month, viewing choices include the combination of Hong Kong-style martial arts action with the literary legacy of Alexandre Dumas in "The Musketeer", Denzel Washington in hard-boiled cop thriller "Training Day", the latest Steven King film adaptation "Hearts in Atlantis", Mariah Carey's delayed film debut in "Glitter", and Mark Wahlberg in "Rock Star". Until next time...
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