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.

FINAL DESTINATION






Back in the halcyon days of black-and-white television, the
original “Twilight Zone” offered a script by Rod Serling titled
“And When the Sky Was Opened.” Based on a story by Richard
Matheson, it concerned three astronauts (Rod Taylor, Charles
Aidman and Jim Hutton) who returned to earth after their mission
had temporarily disappeared in space. In the course of
the show it became clear that their survival had been a
mistake in the fabric of destiny, and one by one they vanished
into oblivion, and the world’s recognition of their return
faded.

By “TZ” standards it wasn’t an outstanding episode, but “And
When the Sky Opened” is still preferable to the teen variant of
it assembled by “X-Files” veterans Glen Morgan and James Wong
in “Final Destination.” The premise–a pretty good one,
actually–is that when seven people, six students and a
teacher, depart a doomed airliner minutes before its departure
because of the horrifying premonition of a crash one of them
experiences, their escape of the calamity sets into motion the
force of fate, which systematically begins removing each of
them through some ghastly “accident.” The fashioners of the
piece thus achieve the goal of the modern generation of
slasher movies–arranging a succession of elaborate death
sequences for mostly young, and usually quite photogenic,
victims–without having to resort to the cliche of devising
some Freddy Kruger-like character to do the actual dirty work.

The problem that becomes apparent, as the movie unspools, is
that having once set up the premise, the makers have pretty
much shot their wad. The first twenty minutes of the flick,
in which nervous high-schooler Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) has
his precognition and runs screaming from the plane with his
six compatriots in pursuit, are nicely done, ominously building
a mood of dread that’s really quite effective (abetted by an
atmospheric if derivative score by Shirley Walker); and the
deaths which follow are cleverly choreographed, with two of
them having a kind of Rube Goldberg complexity and the third
the giddily shocking suddenness of the best moment of “Meet Joe
Black.” But as the explanatory mechanism of the plot kicks in,
things grow increasingly tiresome. We’re treated to a totally
extraneous explication of the “pattern of fate” our survivors
have abridged by a ghoulish undertaker (a cameo by Tony Todd,
recited in his resonant, sepulchral tones)–a scene that lapses
into dull self-parody. Underdeveloped secondary characters
(Kerr Smith as loudmouth bully Carter Horton, Seann William
Scott as geeky Billy Hitchcock) come to the fore, only to
become more and more irritating as their screen time expands. A
sequence with Alex in an isolated cabin, which promises to
develop into something akin to a riff on “The Evil Dead”
formula, simply fizzles. And then we’re forced to sit through
an elaborate finale in which the geography of affairs and the
precise nature of the threat are never made sufficiently clear,
as well as the obligatory epilogue-with-a-twist, which in the
present instance is very elaborate but more than a trifle
confusing.

In all of this one comes to miss the simplicity and economy of
the old “Twilight Zone” episode, which didn’t hesitate to close
on what was essentially a grim, downbeat note. Here, as so
frequently happens nowadays, the makers feel the necessity of
hedging their bets at the end so as not to be too bleak (and,
one might add, to leave room for a sequel if one seems
warranted). You also begin to worry about the condition of
poor Mr. Sawa, who has had to go through such strenuous paces
in last year’s “Idle Hands” and now this, that he seems to have
reached a point of absolute exhaustion. (It also can’t be
helpful to the lad’s leading-boy persona to be type-cast as a
sort of teenaged Bruce Campbell.)

But despite its failings, the picture does manage, especially
in its earlier stages, to be more stylish, inventive, and
(especially in its elaborate death sequences) imaginative than
most of the (admittedly wretched) examples of its genre. (For
this one must credit primrily Morgan and Wong, along with
cinematographer Robert McLachlan, who also worked with the
duo on the TV series “Millennium.”)

Still, it must be admitted that after its promising liftoff,
“Final Destination” loses altitude fairly quickly and
ultimately doesn’t get very far.

ERIN BROCKOVICH






There’s probably nothing in “Erin Brockovich” that you haven’t
seen before. It’s basically the same story–of a small law
firm taking on a big corporation which, through its pollution
of a local water supply, has caused disease and suffering
among nearby residents–that was told recently in “A Civil
Action,” and many of the same plot elements can also be found
in the still-current tale of tobacco company perfidy, “The
Insider.”

What’s different here is that the instigator of the
investigation isn’t an arrogant, nattily-attired attorney
like “Action’s” John Travolta, or a scruffy newsman like
“Insider’s” Al Pacino, but a scrappy, struggling single-mother-
of-three-darling-kids who’s lovable despite her gruff manner.
In an earlier era it’s a role that might have gone automatically
to Sally Field, but in the current instance it’s been taken
by Julia Roberts, who uses her full repertoire of “Pretty
Woman” tricks to make the title character eccentric but
irresistible.

Of course, what would Erin be without a bumbling but kindly
boss to take the information she collects and run with it in
court? This inevitable part is assumed by Albert Finney, who
mugs the daylights out of it and seems to be having a jolly
good time doing so.

Of course, Roberts needs a romantic interest, too, and in
steps Aaron Eckhart, in his first major mainstream role after
serving as a member of Neil LaBute’s stock company. Eckhart,
usually an edgy, personable actor, is here content to do a
leisurely, unthreatening turn as a most unlikely beau–a much
tatooed, bicycle-riding new neighbor of Erin’s who turns out
to love kids and doesn’t mind taking care of our heroine’s
brood while she’s off battling corporate skullduggery.

By now you should have gotten the idea that “Erin Brockovich”
is pretty pat and predictable stuff, even though it’s based on
a real person and a genuine legal case. Director Steven
Soderbergh does try to liven it up with a few classy edits and
some nifty camera tricks in the first hour or so, but even he
settles into a more ordinary style as the plot goes
formulaically on.

But that’s not to say that the film won’t be a big hit. Julia
may be going through her patented shtick, but as “Notting
Hill” and “Runaway Run” recently demonstrated, audiences still
love it. Finney may mug shamelessly, but he gets the laughs
he’s after. Eckhart may disappoint those looking for his
usual edge, but his artlessness will seem charming to many.
Soderbergh may have sold out to conventionality, but can you
blame him when the grittier, more outrageous tone he brought
to “Out of Sight” apparently doomed that picture’s mainstream
acceptance? And “Erin Brockovich” does boast a solid
supporting cast–even the heroine’s kids are nicely played
by Scotty Leavenworth and Gemmenne de la Pena–including the
always wonderfully seedy Tracey Walker as the man who proves
Erin’s most important informant. In fact, the only obvious
element that the picture lacks is a strong personification of
the villainy that Erin’s fighting: “A Civil Action” had
Robert Duvall, but there’s no equivalent here.

Still, that won’t keep “Erin Brockovich” from succeeding as a
real crowd-pleasing star vehicle. “A Civil Action” and “The
Insider” are both more powerful and impressive treatments of
corporate coverups undone by the judicial process, but you can
bank on the fact that this user-friendly version of the
subject will rake in more receipts than both of them put
together.