Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chasing Amy (1997) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

And to all the critics who hated our last flick -- all is forgiven. -- Chasing Amy's closing credits
Well, I didn't exactly hate Mallrats, but I thought it was a comedown for Kevin Smith, the talented writer/director who debuted strongly with 1994's ClerksChasing Amy is the third film in Smith's so-called New Jersey Trilogy (a series that may end up having more than three entries), so named because most of the action takes place in the Garden State. Like Clerks, but unlike Mallrats, principal photography took place in Smith's home town, as well as across the river in Manhattan.

Chasing Amy fits in nicely with the director's previous two films. As in Clerks and Mallrats, there are numerous references to pop culture (the ubiquitous Star Wars films, comic books, the Archie comic strip, TV shows Alice and Star Trek, and even a few in-jokes related to Clerks). Smith's brand of bawdy humor is also very much in evidence, although it should be noted that Chasing Amy isn't as hilarious as Clerks. In fact, it could be argued that this film isn't even as funny as Mallrats. Instead, Chasing Amy finds other ways to satisfy its audience, and the result is the most complete and mature film of Smith's short career.

With Chasing Amy, it's easy to anticipate a certain degree of inventive humor, but what's a bit unexpected is the solid drama, effective romance, and strong characters. Clerks worked because the dialogue sparkled, but Smith has honed his screenwriting and film making skills since then. While Chasing Amy boasts the same keen interplay, that quality, along with first-rate character development, acts as a supplement to the smart, surprisingly original plot. The movie starts out as light as a feather, but it doesn't take long for us to realize that Chasing Amy isn't just another lark for Smith. This movie is about something, and the deeper we get into it, the more we realize how emotionally on-target the script is.

Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) are comic book authors. Their Bluntman & Chronic magazine is a big seller, and, when they attend a comic book convention in New York, they attract long lines for autograph signings. At that convention, Holden meets fellow comic writer/artist Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). Alyssa's project is the less testosterone-oriented Idiosyncratic Routine. She and Holden hit it off almost immediately. They go out for a few drinks and play darts. Later, when talking to best friend Banky, he claims that he and Alyssa shared a moment and confesses that he has fallen for her. But, whether or not it's really love, Holden is in for a big surprise because Alyssa is a lesbian. So, while she wants to be friends and pal around with him, Holden finds himself helplessly, hopelessly smitten.

Smith clearly has his hand on the pulse of his generation ("X" marks the spot). His observations about comic books, video games, and other aspects of life in the '90s are as insightful as they often are scathing. But this is nothing new -- it was evident in both Clerks and Mallrats. What's different here is that Smith has crafted a touching, nuanced romance which may be the most memorable screen love affair since Before Sunrise. There are real human feelings and problems involved in Holden and Alyssa's relationship, and, every time the storyline threatens to devolve into a cliché, it somehow avoids the trap. There's also a rich subtext pertaining to the difficulty that many individuals face in attaining a level of comfort with their sexual identity.

The best scenes are those that explore the evolving relationship between Holden and Alyssa. There's a wonderful montage that depicts them doing all the kinds of things that friends do. Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams, both veterans of Smith films, develop an effective chemistry. Adams, who looks a little like Cameron Diaz and sounds a little like Jennifer Tilly, displays surprising dramatic range and ability. She's someone to watch.

Affleck and Adams aren't the only familiar faces to appear in Chasing Amy. Jason Lee, who played one of the leads in Mallrats, is back, albeit in a different role. Brian O'HalloranClerks' Dante, has a cameo as a TV producer who wants to develop Bluntman & Chronic into a Saturday morning show. And, of course, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are on hand, dispensing advice as only they can. The end credits once again promise their return (in the long-awaited, often-delayed Dogma, which was originally supposed to be the follow-up to Clerks).

Ever wondered exactly what lesbians do when they're together? Or how they define virginity? Banky does, and he's not shy about asking. This leads to a graphically funny sequence that results in Alyssa and Banky comparing war wounds gathered from past sexual encounters. Like ClerksChasing Amy doesn't shy away from profane conversations. There's even an instance when oral sex is compared to (of all things) The Weather Channel and CNN (you'll have to see the movie to understand why). In fact, I can't print any of Chasing Amy's best lines here -- they're all R-rated.

Chasing Amy is entertainment of the best sort. For nearly two hours, it keeps the audience enraptured. There aren't many missteps, and, those few that exist are minor and easily forgiven. Chasing Amy is touching, funny, sweet, and most important of all, real -- a welcome breath of fresh air. You can't ask for more than that from any motion picture, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a movie in theaters these days that offers anything more appealing, revealing, or enjoyable than Kevin Smith's third feature. [Berardinelli's rating: *** 1/2 out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, drama, lesbian, romance
Metacritic 71/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=74, viewers=70)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dante’s Peak (1997) [PG] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli.

Where are the flying cows (from Twister) when you really need them?

Dante's Peak is obviously predicated on the dubious idea that bigger is better. 1996's Twister brought in hundreds of millions at the box office by showcasing relatively small (if something so destructive can be gauged as small) natural disasters -- namely, tornadoes. The next logical step would be to go for something larger and more devastating. Apparently, hurricanes weren't deemed visually impressive enough and earthquakes have been done to death, so Hollywood has set its sights on volcanoes with not one, but two, similarly-themed disaster flicks. Let's just hope Volcano shows a glimmer more intelligence, not to mention a higher energy level, than Dante's Peak.

No one is ever going to accuse Twister of being a masterpiece of originality, but, as roller-coaster movie go, it's a great deal of fun. Part of the reason is the effective use of audio and visual effects; the other part is that director Jan de Bont knows how to get the adrenaline flowing. Twister is a rush. Dante's Peak, on the other hand, is a bore. Oh, it has its moments, but most of them are concentrated in the final forty-five minutes. The first hour, which is all typical disaster movie setup, is interminable.

In keeping with time-tested formulas, we have a male/female pairing, children and animals in danger, a voice of reason that no one listens to until it’s too late, and a character with a tragedy in the past. Volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce   Bond, James Bond   Brosnan) lost his beloved girlfriend four years ago when they were studying an erupting volcano in South America. As a result of this incident, he tends to be jumpy about any possible volcanic activity, and when there are signs that the snowcapped mountain overlooking the tiny Washington state town of Dante's Peak (population 7,400) may be about to blow its top, Harry calls for an evacuation. The local mayor, Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton), backs him up, but the others on the town council aren't so sure. Enter Harry's boss, Paul Dreyfus (Charles Hallahan), and his group of roving geologists (who look like refugees from Twister's ragged band of storm hunters). Paul, sensitive to the delicate political situation of spreading panic without proper scientific evidence, calls off the evacuation. So, of course, when disaster inevitably strikes, people are needlessly killed.

The first hour of Dante's Peak is spent getting to know the characters. Not that we need that much time, since they're all familiar types. In addition to Harry and Rachel (who predictably become romantically involved), we're introduced to two kids, an independent old lady, and a dog. If you manage to stay awake through fifty-five minutes of drivel, you'll be rewarded with some nifty special effects as the mountain throws everything it has at the town: fire, water, air, and earth. No stone (literally) is left unturned. It's pretty impressive, I admit, but there's an unwelcome sense of déjà vu. As recently as the aforementioned Twister, we've already been there and done that, and it was a lot more enjoyable last time around.

Brosnan and Hamilton gamely try to generate some chemistry, and, while both are appealing in their own right, the moronic plotline and dumb dialogue defeat them at nearly every turn. It will come as no surprise for astute viewers to learn that the screenwriter for Dante's PeakLeslie Bohem, also wrote Stallone's Daylight. Both movies feature some similarly embarrassing bad lines. Meanwhile, director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, The Getaway) fails repeatedly to do anything interesting to enliven the proceedings.

Even discounting the first hour, Dante's Peak still isn't all that satisfying. I suppose there's a certain degree of tension as Harry and company flee rivers of molten lava and volcanic shockwaves in their attempt to get out of town before it's buried in ash, but, with everything being done according to a well-established formula, the level of excitement stays low. Once the film is over, you'll likely acknowledge that, although there's some nice eye candy, the experience as a whole leaves something to be desired.

And there aren't even any flying cows to redeem the situation.

Labels: action, adventure, disaster, thriller

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 43/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=49, viewers=54)