If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts
and Sciences gave Oscars to films that successfully expand
works taken from other media, it might not be worth giving
in most years. It is no mean feat to restructure a work of
art in a different kind of time and space without compromising
it. Julie Taymor managed to do this brilliantly with Shakespeare's
"Titus Andronicus" (1999), as did Carlos Saura with Bizet's
opera "Carmen" (1983) and Roger Vadim with Jean-Claude Forest's
comic strip "Barbarella" (1968). Now 2001 has a successful
transfer to which I would happily award this Oscar: John Cameron
Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
co-wrote, directed and stars in the film re-creation of
his off-Broadway play of the same name. But here he opens
it up with flashbacks, fantasy musical numbers and animation
interludes. The movie takes the form of a comic voyage of
discovery. The hero, Hedwig (Mr. Mitchell), "an internationally
ignored" transvestite musician, is in search of his "missing
part." In this case, the artist's trauma is literal as well
as metaphoric. The surgeon botched Hedwig's sex-change operation,
accidentally leaving behind an "angry" inch of flesh that
makes it impossible, except in his music, for Hedwig to
realize his transsexual fantasies. His rock band, appropriately
called "The Angry Inch," acts like a Greek chorus, commenting
on the action.
this unlikely quest so utterly amusing is that it spoofs
the pseudo-Freudian concept, found in many Hollywood films
such as "Lust for Life," "Immortal Beloved" and "The Music
Lover," that great art proceeds from great pain. Hedwig's
odyssey takes him from Communist East Germany, through seedy
trailer parks and strip malls in middle America, to New
York City. While the level of social satire does not rise
to that of Barry Humphries' ingenious creation Dame Edna
-- but, then, what does? -- it is hysterically funny. Each
juncture in the trip is brilliantly reinforced by the neo-punk
music of Stephen Trask, who collaborated with Mr. Mitchell
in both the play and film. This extraordinary flight from
the humdrum is not to be missed.
"Jurassic Park III," on the other
hand, exemplifies how Hollywood can stomp a brilliant concept
beyond recognition -- for the best of reasons: tie-ins with
toy makers, theme-park owners and fast-food merchandisers,
who, in turn, provide vast infusions of advertising for the
film concept they have bought in to.
The concept of Michael Crichton's
book "Jurassic Park," which spawned the film trilogy, is that
unanticipated consequences proceed from the best-intentioned
scientific research. The latest installment in the Steven
Spielberg-Universal dino-franchise, directed by Joe Johnston,
replaces that original concept with the "Jack and the Beanstalk"
fairy tale. To wit, a young scientist, Billy (Alessandro Nivola),
steals the giant's eggs from his lair. Only, in this version,
the giant is a dinosaur, and his lair is what remains of Jurassic
Park II on some Pacific island. Both Billy and the giant dinosaur
have their respective support groups. Billy's support group,
all of whom are signature characters in the Spielberg-Universal
saurian enterprise, includes a daring young boy, Eric (Trevor
Morgan), his parents (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni), whose
splitting marriage must be repaired during the chase, and
a wise paleontologist, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), who knows
his way around big lizards. The dinosaur's support group is
In "JP-III," these are not just big,
cold-blooded beasts. They are smart monsters, much smarter
in fact than humans. This is not so far-fetched. Why shouldn't
there be high-IQ beasts? After all, much of how we're accustomed
to think Jurassic Period dinosaurs looked is pure conjecture.
The realistic pivtures are pure dino-fraud. For all we can
tell from fossil fragments they could have been polka-dotted,
and swished rather than stomped when they walked. So, in "JP-III,"
the pursuing dinosaurs are not only intelligent enough to
converse with one another -- one even uses a cellphone --
they are also skilled at maintaining social relationships.
For his part, Mr. Johnston is smart
enough to move the action at a mercifully quick pace, without
spattering the screen with excessive blood or body parts.
And he makes the escape as exciting as "Jack and the Beanstalk"
can get for young audiences. Since I don't want to give away
the fully predictable ending, suffice it to say that, despite
the incessant roar of subwoofers, the cerebral dinosaurs turn
out to be as cuddly as many of Mr. Spielberg's other infrahumans.
And, I predict, they will have a great future in Universal's
theme parks and at Toys "R" Us.
There are only human monsters in "America's
Sweethearts," but they are mostly cuddly, too, although harder
to merchandise as dolls. The concept here is a bit like the
Land O'Lakes butter logo, in which the Indian maiden holds
a box of butter showing an Indian maiden holding a box of
butter, and so on forever. In "America's Sweethearts," a Hollywood
studio is the equivalent of the Indian maiden, a studio obsessed
with the manipulation of its audience makes a movie about
a studio obsessed with the manipulation of its audience, and
so on forever
. "America's Sweethearts" is a comedy
directed by Joe Roth, the former head of Disney Studios. Its
highly intriguing premise is that the success of a very expensive
Hollywood film depends on the studio's ability to fraudulently
manipulate the entertainment media. The corollary of the premise
is that the entertainment media are willing partners in this
fraud on the public. Not only is Mr. Roth himself presumably
knowledgeable about this subject, but his distributor, Sony,
recently demonstrated its own expertise in this area by inventing
imaginary critics to supply quotes for its film ads.
In "America's Sweethearts," the studio
head (Stanley Tucci) needs to divert the media's attention
away from an $86 million film that he thinks is a turkey.
The idea his PR man (Billy Crystal) comes up with is to take
members of the film press on a junket and focus their attention
on the personal lives of the film's stars, Gwen Harrison (Catherine
Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (John Cusack), a married but
bitterly estranged couple. To decoy the journalists away from
the film itself, the PR man orchestrates a fake romantic reconciliation
between the neurotic Eddie and the abrasive Gwen. In "reality,"
Eddie falls in love with Gwen's sister/assistant, Kiki (Julia
Mr. Roth comes close to blending these
elements into a successful screwball comedy a la Preston Sturges.
He certainly demonstrates great directorial skill in pacing
the gags -- as when Gwen's Doberman eats her window-washer
-- and he squeezes funny bits out of most of the well-cast
bit players. Squeezing a versatile performance out of the
film's linchpin, Julia Roberts, is another matter. For the
story to hold together, Ms. Roberts must be not only cute
(which she always is) but also neurotically funny enough to
steal away her sister's husband while retaining the viewer's
To date, the only director who has
extracted such a versatile cute-neurotic performance out of
Ms. Roberts is Woody Allen in "Everyone Says I Love You."
(He paid her only a fraction of what she earned in this film,
demonstrating yet again the inverse relation between performance
and compensation.) Mr. Roth, unable to achieve this feat,
is left missing a crucial screwball heroine. Without her,
the comedy wobbles out of kilter around the prosaic idea of
a hero preferring a cuter (and nicer) heroine to his wife.
Nevertheless, "America's Sweethearts" is amusing enough, especially
with its uniquely credible premise of a media fraud, to recommend.
'Ghost World' In case you've seen
enough of solipsistic Hollywood frauds, Terry Zwigoff, who
directed the documentary "Crumb," provides an alternative
universe. The super-cool, if sociopathic, characters he humanizes
from Daniel Clowes cult comics toy with conventional alliances
-- soul mates, room mates, sex mates--but lack the urge to
merge. Instead, the heroes, Enid (Thora Birch), Rebecca (Scarlett
Johansson) and Seymour, (Steve Buscemi), are fated to be eternal
outsiders. Their vision, and epiphanies, provide a supremely