All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

HERE ON EARTH






“Hell on Earth” might be more like it. Watching this shameless
tearjerker–the feature debut of TV director Mark Piznarski–
makes a viewer feel like he’s stuck in a time warp. The story
–about a sweet, impressionable girl named Samantha (Leelee
Sobieski) who, one fateful summer, finds herself torn between
affection for her long-time local beau Jasper (Josh Hartnett)
and attraction to arrogant but gorgeous preppie Kelley (Chris
Klein), who’s forced to stay in her town to do community
service after a destructive drag-race–has a contemporary
setting, but its rank sentimentality and soupy plot seem more
redolent of movies of a bygone era. This sort of romantic
triangle, with two doe-eyed guys pining away weepily over a
single life-filled but (as we can easily foresee from an early
visit to a doctor’s office) medically endangered gal, seemed
a lot more at home in the soap operas of the thirties and
forties about women drawn to handsome rascals as their long-
suffering boyfriends looked sadly on, than it does in our far
more jaded age.

The incredibly old-fashioned nature of the piece is accentuated
by other elements of the narrative. Much of the running-time
is devoted to the rebuilding of a demolished diner which is
a modern equivalent of the old community barn-raisings so
frequent in old flicks. And toward the close of the tale we’re
confronted with one of those apparently painless cases of
cancer that occur only in the cheapest kinds of fiction and
are designed solely to extract tears from the easily distressed:
since all the characters on screen are busy crying, shouldn’t
audience members do likewise?

An attractive cast has been enlisted to try to make this
contrived script–Fannie Hurst channeled through Michael
Seitzman–persuasive, but though they work hard, it’s all to
no avail. Klein, who was so charming in “American Pie” and
“Election,” goes through the prescribed paces of suffering and
longing here (he’s the product of a bad home-life, of course),
and so does Hartnett (the scruffy teen rebel of “The Faculty”);
but their performances seem more suited to afternoon television
than to the big screen. Sobieski, who was impressive in the
CBS miniseries on Joan of Arc, radiates a natural exuberance,
but her character’s indecision between her two suitors
eventually comes to seem more ditzy than affecting, and there’s
really nothing she can do with the picture’s maudlin final act.
The older cast members do yeoman service on behalf of material
that must have struck them as hopelessly cornball; Bruce
Greenwood, for instance, must here go through much catch-in-
the-throat melodramatic excess as Sam’s father–a fate that
seems especially cruel when one remembers the true pain of
troubled parenthood he was able to convey in Atom Egoyan’s
incomparably superior “The Sweet Hereafter.” And it doesn’t
help matters that the whole affair is encased in a music score
by Andrea Morricone (daughter of the famous Ennio) that’s so
sappy and overemphatic that it seems almost a parody of Waxman
or Steiner.

On the plus side, “Here on Earth” does offer some pretty
scenery, with Minnesota locations standing in nicely for the
Massachusetts Berkshires, where the story is set. But
handsome outdoor shots can’t compensate for a script which is
so hoary that it seems positively antediluvian, and so
manipulative that a viewer can’t help but feel emotionally
manhandled by the time it finally lets go.

ROMEO MUST DIE






Slick, sassy, and boasting lots of the colorfully violent
action viewers have come to expect of Joel Silver productions,
“Romeo Must Die” is a cheerfully tawdry twist on the star-
crossed-lovers motif and a solid American lead debut for Hong
Kong martial-arts maestro Jet Li. Its unfortunate that so
much of the running-time has been given over to the plodding
plot about a war between two gangs–one African-American, the
other Chinese–over some waterfront property being hawked as
a site for an NFL stadium (a conflict which leads to the deaths
of some family members and the unlikely romance between an ex-
Hong Kong cop and a black godfather’s daughter); but one can
forgive a good deal of the tedium to savor the periodic
punch-fests so artfully concocted by Andrzej Bartokowiak and
beautifully executed by, most notably, Li and Russell Wong.

The sporadic pizzazz of these balletic fisticuffs, unhappily,
can’t entirely compensate for a pedestrian storyline that’s
entirely too predictable (in terms of the identity of the
ultimate villains) and pacing of the intervening expository
sequences that drags the picture out to an unconscionable full
two hours. One gets what the producers were after here: a
picture that’s one third romance, one third chopsocky action,
and one-third hip-hoppy gangsta noir. But the love story
never really takes off (the relationship between Li and
songstress Aaliyah never progresses beyond the wet-eyes and
soulful-stares stage), and the African-American stuff, which
concentrates on gang leader Delroy Lindo trying to go legit
and smooth Isaiah Washington as his chief lieutenant, tries
too hard for emotional resonance while wasting an excessive
amount of time on the supposedly comic exertions of Anthony
Anderson as a distinctly boobish member of the crew who’s
repeatedly bested by Li. (This portion of the movie also
results in a good portion of the running-time being accompanied
by a series of ghastly rap numbers; the one which runs beneath
the titles is so awful–just a succession of obscenities–that
it takes some time for the picture to recover from the
onslaught.)

But then there are the stunt-filled action sequences, which are
sufficiently inventive to perk one up every time. Li amazes
in an opening jailbreak, outdoes Jackie Chan in a humorous
football set-piece, and does a great final confrontation with
Wong. Interspersed are a pretty nifty car-and-motorcycle
chase and a couple of well-choreographed fights between our
hero and Anderson’s crew. (On the other hand, an elaborate
scene in which Li uses Aaliyah as a confederate in order to
avoid fighting a lethal female directly doesn’t work, largely
because of the singer’s stiffness in battle.) One must also
note that Li’s English seems better than that of other Hong
Kong stars to have tried to make the transition to American
copies of eastern actioners, something which bodes well for his
future on these shores.

So if you can overlook the clunky plot conventions of “Romeo
Must Die” (a title which is unfortunately explained in a few
risible lines of dialogue toward the close) and just savor the
great action moments, you should have a reasonably good time
(much better, at any rate, than you were likely to have at
either “The Replacement Killers” or “The Corruptor,” the two,
far less successful, attempts to do Hollywood variants of the
Hong Kong formula with Chow Yun-Fat). It’s just a pity that
the airy grace of Jet Li has to be showcased in a movie that,
apart from his acrobatic contributions, is so sadly flatfooted
and resolutely earthbound.