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.

DR. DOLITTLE 2

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Toward the end of Steve Carr’s sequel to the 1998 Eddie Murphy hit, the picture’s twin villains–Jeffrey Jones as a greedy lumber tycoon out to bulldoze a California forest, and Kevin Pollak as his seedy lawyer–are bombarded by a Hitchcockian flock of birds in a particularly gross and unsavory fashion as they cross a parking lot. The audience can sympathize with them. For an hour or so they’ve been pelted with a seemingly endless stream of jokes and sight gags involving excrement, urination, and various forms of flatulence. The movie drags on for only twenty minutes more–the running-time, at least, is mercifully brief–but many others follow. The kids at whom the picture is aimed laugh almost automatically as such stuff nowadays, of course, but its prevalence is indicative of the complete poverty of invention that afflicts “Dr. Dolittle 2.” There doesn’t seem to have been the slightest effort to endow it with any charm or cleverness. The picture’s just loud, vulgar and chaotic–a perfect fit, it would seem, with the rest of this year’s Hollywood summer schedule.

The feeble plot devised by Larry Levin centers on Dolittle’s efforts to foil the scheme to annihilate the forest at the behest of the animals who dwell therein (led by a “Godfather” beaver). Aided by his lawyer-wife Lisa (Kristen Wilson), the vet gets a month-long court stay to try to save an endangered species of bear by reintroducing into the wild a performing circus animal named Archie to mate with the sole surviving female there, thereby winning protection for the site. Attention is thus shifted to this bear-out-of-captivity shtick, with Steve Zahn voicing the ursine beast–characterized all too predictably as a dense, klutzy, childishly naive sort who’s supposed to be lovable but comes across as fatally dull. (Anyone who remembers the lumbering star of “Gentle Ben” could have told the filmmakers that bears aren’t the most charismatic of animals, and though Zahn’s an accomplished farceur, on the evidence of this outing he isn’t much of a voiceover artist.) Under Dolittle’s ever-more-stentorian urging (Murphy goes into full screaming mode here), Archie screws up the courage to romance his intended Ava (voiced lackadaisically by Lisa Kudrow), an effort which is intended to be hilarious but barely provokes a chuckle. The doctor also smolders over the rebelliousness of his sixteen-year old daughter Clarisse (Raven-Symone), a singularly bratty kid (she has a reason for her attitude, as we’ll discover) who’s being courted by a good-natured gangsta type, Eric (Lil’ Zane) her father naturally mistrusts; needless to say, she and pop have a warmhearted reconciliation before everything’s done.

This is awfully thin stuff, and though room is made for lots more talking critters–most notably the returning dog Lucky, voiced by Norm Macdonald (who for some reason goes uncredited)– it’s all terribly fragmented and lackluster. A big finale based on the premise of a worldwide strike by animals to save the California trees seems a desperate attempt to add some scope to what’s basically a very small-scaled story. The effort fails. (Another instance of the tendency to inflate things beyond reason is in the set of the Dolittle home: it’s an apartment, but as shot appears to be slightly larger than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and just about as lavishly furnished.)

As for Murphy, he’s surprisingly nondescript, alternately too subdued and overly frenetic. (At least he still has “Shrek.”) Jones and Pollak make an irritating, unfunny pair of bad guys, and as Dolittle’s family Raven-Symone is simply pouty, and Wilson and Kyla Pratt (as a younger daughter) are instantly forgettable. Among the voice actors Macdonald gets the most exposure, but a few others–Jacob Vargas as a Mexican lizard, Michael Rapaport as a wiseguy racoon, Andy Dick as a weasel–also get a couple of laughs. The effects work is solid enough, though this sort of thing has gotten so familiar that it no longer carries much magic.

So get out the super-dooper-pooper-scooper–this movie’s a real dog.

TOM TYKWER AND FRANKA POTENTE ON “THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR”

“Films are about original, unique visions,” said German writer-director Tom Tykwer, whose “Lola Rennt” became–pun intended–a runaway hit in America in 1999. He went on to praise pictures which possess, as he put it, a “quality of being personal but not too private. Private is, I think, not interesting, because then you feel you are invading somebody’s personal space. But personal in [the sense] of having a perspective that you haven’t encountered before. It’s like meeting an interesting person. If you meet an interesting person, you want to meet him again, because there’s maybe something else to discover. A good film is like that. The very best films age with you, and thirty years later they still tell you something interesting. They’re very precise, but still ambivalent and open and personal.”

Tykwer, visiting Dallas with his star and companion Franka Potente in advance of the release of their new film “The Princess and the Warrior,” was explaining what he tries to achieve in his own work through his own broad experience of the films of others. “My favorite films always give me the impression that they had an idea, but they were also very strongly going for intuitive ways to describe situations, just to keep them open for the projections of an audience. I think that the best films are done like that–they are a good mixture of an analytical knowledge of the basic thing the film is about, and a strong intuitive tendency.” He cited as evidence the films of Alfred Hitchcock, most notably “Vertigo,” as possessing layers and suggestions beneath the surface which even their maker might not consciously have understood. “This is what makes them strong,” he argued.

The writer-director’s comments were in response to a query about the closing scenes of “Princess,” a haunting, dreamlike fable about the relationship between Sissi (Potente), an introverted nurse in a psychiatric hospital, and Bodo (Benno Furmann), a troubled veteran who saves her life after a horrendous accident. As in Tykwer’s earlier films, the narrative raises questions about the nature of determinism, coincidence and individual decision in human life, but it does so in a way that lifts the story to a near-mythic level, transforming the two leading characters into almost archetypal figures who must overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles–internal and external–if they are ever to come together. And at the close a mysterious doubling of characters is employed to suggest a fundamental psychological change of perspective in one member of the couple that might allow them to find happiness.

“It’s an ambivalent ending,” Tykwer acknowledged. “I have my idea of it, and I hope everybody can construct something about it. It’s not supposed to be something that you would explicitly understand–there’s not one idea [there].” Potente added: “When you do it, you do have some conception [of what it means], but it matters more what the people think that see it. That makes it complete.”

Tykwer reflected further on the mythic quality of the picture when he described it as “a modern reality-rooted fairy tale.” And he elaborated on the ending by saying: “There is a place waiting for them, and the place is very beautiful, but also kind of like the beautiful version of the end of the world, like really somewhere where you can hide but also start over again, go for a new future.” He described Sissi and Bodo as “tiny dots in this huge planet,” and explained that the film raises the question of “why did those tiny dots really meet–how did it happen, this amazing coincidence of the car accident, the feeling that there is a kind of concept behind it. I really like that there is the potential to give an idea of that in one shot, and this shot is for me the end of the film. They get more and more tiny and tiny and tiny, and you start to be distanced [from them] in a way, but you also [think]–is there something like a concept, is there something like a plan? You think about these things–there is something bigger than life to their appearance in the film. I like the connection of these two elements–having a huge, epic feeling about real people.”

Tykwer alluded to another sequence in the picture, in which Sissi and Bodo jointly leap off a rooftop in a fashion that will remind many viewers of “Thelma and Louise,” as equally crucial to the story’s center. “For me it’s the big turning-point in the film,” he noted. “They really decide to do something together, to go out of this world that they belong to and to start something new, no matter how high the risk is.” He went on: “The film describes the world as something where anything can happen any time. It’s so unpredictable where your life is taking you sometimes, and it’s so important at a certain moment to decide not to be only taken somewhere but also to take over and say, ‘I want to be part of the construction of my life and of my fate.’ Everybody has the perception of sometimes it seems everything is a plan and everything has been already organized by somebody who is constructing your life outside of yourself, and sometimes it seems like a total, pure chain of coincidences. Everybody knows that there is this strange contradiction between both possibilities.” The picture, he added, suggests that it is important, indeed essential, ultimately to take charge of one’s life, “being creative with your existence.” That is what the jump signifies, he said, and “that’s a very positive thing.”

Potente recalled that sequence as crucial, too, but from a far more practical perspective. “I can’t tell you anything about [filming] that scene, because I was basically scared,” she laughed. “I’m scared of heights. I don’t like flying. And we shot that in the very last week of shooting, so I had about three months to look forward to it.” Her only condition to doing the leap was a simple one, she said: “I’m only going to do it once. We really only did it once. And I was so happy it was over.” She took some consolation, she added, in the fact that Furmann seemed as frightened as she.

Potente came to “The Princess and the Warrior” only weeks after finishing an earlier film with Furmann–Stefan Ruzowitzky’s strange, darkly comic slasher outing “Anatomie,” which received only modest circulation in this country (it’s recently been issued on VHS). “He was after me in ‘Anatomy,’ and now [in ‘Princess’] I [was] stalking him,” she smiled.

“The Princess and the Warrior” is a very different film from “Run Lola Run,” and Tykwer admitted that he was happy that it wasn’t written under the pressure of the earlier picture’s success–the first draft of the script had been finished before “Lola” was even released in Germany. “I got obsessed with it before I knew that there was anything to be recognized as pressure at all,” he noted. Both he and Potente had, in any event, been surprised by the enormous popularity of their previous collaboration, a small, modestly-budgeted effort that most observers viewed as too rarefied to appeal to large audiences. “I always said it was an experimental film for a mass audience, but everybody was feeling, ‘Oh, he’s [being] funny about this,'” Tykwer recalled. “And actually it turned out to become what I was hoping for.” He obviously hopes that the new picture, though a very real change of pace, will find its audience, too, and be embraced and “finished” by its viewers just as he cherishes the films he most admires. “A movie has to keep open,” he said, going back to a theme he’d touched upon earlier. “The same with performances, by the way. They have to stay open to a certain degree to be able to make yourself become that character and to project on it. This is what Franka does.” Turning to his star, he added: “Yesterday you said that sometimes you just try to pull out a white sheet and become that sheet for the audience to project on, which is of course possible only if you’ve gained a lot of knowledge about your character, and then you pull out the sheet, and behind the sheet you know there is wisdom, but we’re able to put our own image on top of that wisdom. And that’s what I like about films and acting.” And what, he hopes, others will appreciate about “The Princess and the Warrior.”