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.

NON-STOP (DANGAN RANNA)

The final entry in the Shooting Gallery’s fall festival of independent films (see movies.yahoo.com/sgfilmseries) is the weakest of the lot, an awkward, affected action-comedy parable about machismo posturing and liberation from the straightjacketing that stereotyping leads to. There are occasional flashes of good humor and even glimmers of insight to be found in the debut feature by Hiroyuki Tanaka, an actor who’s rechristened himself Sabu as a writer-director, but overall “Non-Stop” feels like an experiment that doesn’t quite come off.

The picture opens on Yasuda (Tomoro Taguchi), a hapless nerd who’s a failure both at work and in romance. He decides to rob a bank, an exercise that naturally turns into a disaster. Arriving at the target, he finds that he’s forgotten his mask, and so goes into a nearby store to shoplift one. But he’s confronted by Aizawa (Daimond Yukai), a clerk who (we later find out) is high on drugs; Yasuda proceeds to wing Aizawa with a bullet, and the latter takes off after his assailant. As they run through the Tokyo streets, they collide with Takeda (Tsuysumi Shinichi), a yakuza downcast because he’s failed to prevent the assassination of his gang’s master; in addition, he’s the fellow who provided the gun to Yasuda, and Aizawa is deeply in debt to him over his habit. Takeda immediately takes off after both of them, and for the better part of a day and night they run through the Tokyo byways, recollecting from time to time in flashback on what’s brought them to this point and sporadically reacting in different ways to the people they encounter along the way.

But that’s not all: we occasionally cut away to members of the two gangs (including Takeda’s) who are taking up arms against one another, and to a group of cops (one of whom has lost his gun, which just happens to be the firearm sold by Takeda to Yasuda) aiming to deal with the threat of violence. The police and gangsters are portrayed in Keystone Kop terms, exaggerated versions of the types encountered so often in serious genre flicks. It goes without saying that everybody collides in the end, in a sequence which allows for a send-up of the sort of standoff one expects in more extreme Hong Kong actioners.

Obviously none of this is meant to be taken seriously: “Non-Stop” is based on a series of ludicrously contrived coincidences involving characters who are types rather than realistic figures. Rather the picture aims to be an almost puzzle-like parodic examination of the roles people select for themselves (usually on the basis of societal expectations) and the self-images they construct on the basis of those roles. Somehow the liberating chase at last frees the runners from the confines of their self-imposed roles and offers them at least a shred of hope for release. But the metaphor is hardly a novel one, and it’s weakened by the fact that none of the main characters strikes the viewer as particularly sympathetic, or even very interesting; and the take-off on the worlds they inhabit is, from the satirical perspective, pretty crude.

The movie suffers from the timing of its release, too. It was actually made shot in 1996, but the delay in bringing it to America makes it look like a kind of male variant of “Run Lola Run.” That’s unfair, of course, since Tom Tykwer’s arthouse hit was actually made two years later, but comparisons will inevitably be drawn nonetheless, all to the disadvantage of “Non-Stop.” Tykwer’s picture has far greater energy and cinematic elan than Tanaka’s; its characters are less cartoonish, even considering the director’s neon style; and its philosophical underpinnings, though hardly very profound, seem to possess more heft. And the mere fact that we’re dealing here with three runners rather than merely one doesn’t make any difference: the success of a picture is never determined by such purely mathematical considerations–would “Charlie’s Angels” be better if there were nine of them?

That’s not to say that “Non-Stop” doesn’t have periodic moments of genuine wit. Yasuda’s imagining what he’d look like wearing a child’s gauze mask during his robbery is almost surrealistic, and the existential conversation Takeda has with a fellow yakuza before their boss’ murder has a certain weird charm. But mostly the picture seems to be trying too hard and not quite hitting the target.

LITTLE NICKY

C

Ordinarily one would expect that since the title character in Adam Sandler’s new comedy travels from hell to earth (several times, in fact), the audience would have to take a reverse cinematic journey. “Little Nicky”–at least for those well-disposed toward the star, who after all is an acquired taste–isn’t quite as bad as all that, but it isn’t terribly good, either. It’s one of those pictures that ought to be a lot funnier than it turns out to be; despite a lot of visual imagination and some sharp in-jokes and surprising cameos, it’s really a letdown after “Happy Gilmore,” “The Wedding Singer,” “The Waterboy” and “Big Daddy.” It may not be a celluloid hell, but it’s no heaven either. It’s right in the purgatorial middle. (It doesn’t even match the off-the-wall morbid charm of 1991’s “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” in which the underworld also played a prominent role.)

Sandler plays the younger son of Satan, a sweet but oafish sort with a scratchy voice and gargoylish appearance. When Dad, played by Harvey Keitel in horns and a dark jumpsuit, decides to extend his reign by a second thousand-year term, his nasty older sons, Adrian (Rhys Ifans) and Cassius (Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Jr.), who’d been planning on taking over Hades, escape to earth, which they plan to turn into a “New Hell” by encouraging people to sin with abandon. Since their departure freezes the fire-fountain that deposits the recently-departed for eternal torment, it endangers Satan’s survival: he threatens to decompose quickly unless they can be brought back. So Nicky is dispatched to earth to capture and return his siblings. In the ensuing extended chase, he’s aided by a lascivious, talking Bulldog named Beefy (voiced by Robert Smigel, the cartoonist from “Saturday Night Live”); gets romantically involved with a shy designer named Valerie (Patricia Arquette); and is befriended by two would-be disciples of the black arts, Peter and John (Peter Dante and Jonathan Loughran). An orgy of special effects and sketch-like comic episodes culminate in a final confrontation between Adrian and Nicky, the outcome of which is hardly in doubt.

What’s good about “Little Nicky” is that it exhibits a lot of stylistic exuberance (the look of hell is pretty amazing), and its allusions to other films and TV shows are affectionate and often amusing. (There’s an obligatory nod to “The Exorcist,” of course, but Sandler’s entire characterization is clearly based on Quasimodo, down to his line “I’m not a monster,” and among numerous other riffs there’s even a recollection of “The Zanti Misfits” episode from the original “Outer Limits” series in one of the more elaborate effects sequences.) As much as one might admire the level of invention apparent in all this, however, the unhappy truth is that most of the bits don’t come off, or at least fail to reach the level of hilarity they’re aiming for. A big set-piece at a Harlem Globetrotter’s game, for example, just lays there, and most of the “transformation” moments (the demons regularly “possess” people to do their bidding) are singularly uninteresting. Even Beefy, who’s no doubt intended to be the irresistibly droll canine companion, gets tiresome after awhile. A lot of the humor is crass and rude in typically Sandleresque fashion, of course, but that’s not what’s wrong with it; the problem that it’s mostly just flat (examples: maybe Allen Covert’s turn as Nicky’s roommate, who’s ostentatiously gay but denies the fact, and the sight of repeated punishments meted out to Hitler in hell could have been funny, but in each case the writing is so poor it’s demeaning instead).

The mediocre laugh-level isn’t for lack of trying; there’s a big, talented cast at work here, putting out lots of effort. But with a few exceptions, they don’t make much of an impression because their material is weak. Sandler himself hits the target at times, but his combination of nerdiness and lovability is only sporadically amusing, and some of his dopey ripostes are embarrassing. Arquette makes a pallid romantic interest, and Ifans doesn’t generate much fun as the lip-smackingly villainous Adrian (it’s a good thing that Lister, who’s even duller, disappears relatively quickly). Dante and Loughran, meanwhile, suggest far too successfully the cluelessness of the drug-impaired. There’s a raft of cameos by former SNL colleagues and others, but most of them (those by Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Michael McKean, Quentin Tarantino, Lewis Arquette, and Carl Weathers, for example) are awfully lame; even more horrible, Clint Howard does a transvestite bit that couldn’t be worse, and Quentin Tarantino’s repeated appearances as a blind preacher are atrocious. In partial compensation, Keitel seems to be having a good time, Rodney Dangerfield bugs out his eyes amusingly as Granddaddy Devil Lucifer, and Jon Lovitz, Henry Winkler and Rob Schneider manage to be funny in their brief bits. Reese Witherspoon is momentarily enjoyable in a final twist that’s a takeoff on the Darth Vader motif from “Star Wars,” but once again, the idea is drawn out way beyond its shelf-life; and Ozzy Osbourne’s last-minute appearance is yet another instance of something that’s a pretty good idea but is poorly executed.

“Soon you will see things more horrible than you can even imagine,” the evil Adrian announces at one point in “Little Nicky.” He exaggerates; nothing in the picture is all that terrible, unless you’re allergic to the usual gross-out stuff and sniggering vulgarity. But while you have to admit that the flick is much more ambitious than any of Sandler’s previous efforts, the sad fact is that its reach exceeds its grasp. Its characters fly about periodically, but the movie itself never takes wing; despite the fact that parts of it are set in heaven and hell, the humor remains decidedly earthbound throughout.