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.

CHARLIE’S ANGELS

C+

Drew Barrymore’s colorful but silly modernization of “Charlie’s Angels,” which ran on ABC from 1976 to 1981, begins with a joke about the misery inflicted on today’s audiences by pictures based on old TV shows. The ploy is obviously intended, in a self-referential postmodern fashion, to defang criticism of the movie itself, but it doesn’t quite succeed. “Angels” isn’t nearly as awful as the worst examples of the trend–“The Wild Wild West,” “The Avengers” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle” among big-budget efforts, or “Car 54 Where Are You?” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the quickie category. But despite its glitz, an attractively varied cast, and an effort to mate modern cinematic pizzazz with a 1970s naivete, it’s at best a brainless–and highly derivative–diversion. Although it’s being released in November, it’s really a summer film par excellence.

As in the series, the movie is about three leggy distaff detectives who crack convoluted cases while in the employ of an unseen boss named Charlie, who talks only via speakerphone to the trio and their immediate superior, a blissfully dopey fellow named Bosley. On the small screen, there were actually about six or seven angels, as actresses joined and left the cast; now the group consists of former bad-girl Dylan (Barrymore), ditsy blonde Natalie (Cameron Diaz) and intense intellectual Alex (Lucy Liu). Whatever their backgrounds, though, all share physical dexterity and fighting expertise. Their Bosley is shambling, smirking Bill Murray, and Charlie is still voiced (though in tones that occasionally sound enervated) by John Forsythe. The case which they’re called upon to break involves the kidnapping of a nerdy computer mogul (Sam Rockwell), apparently at the hands of a shady competitor (Tim Curry); Rockwell’s partner (Kelly Lynch) hires them to retrieve the guy and break into Curry’s computers to see whether important stolen software is to be found there. Much of the infiltrating and sneaking about that occurs in the course of their snooping evokes the technical outrageousness of Pierce Brosnan’s recent spy escapades or Tom Cruise’s impossible missions more than the homely old TV show on which the picture’s based–at times one might think that “Jane Bonds” would have been a more appropriate title. But the outrageously oversized antics are undoubtedly considered de rigueur in a big-budget project nowadays. (The style, especially up front, also calls to mind the nostalgically neon looniness of the “Austin Powers” flicks, though obviously at not quite so high a pitch.)

Though there’s a big twist about halfway through that puts our heroines in jeopardy (and self-referentially inflates the original show’s premise beyond endurance), it hardly makes much difference, because logic and coherence are not among the strong suits of the script at any point. The picture is basically nothing but a series of cartoonish action set-pieces, mostly utilizing the slow-motion fighting tricks originated by “The Matrix,” punctuated by goofily comedic and romantic interludes; all are carefully arranged so that each of the three stars gets to show off both her physical prowess and her spunkiness. The kung-fu fisticuffs are nicely staged, even if they do drag on a bit and seem pretty second-hand by now. Their amusement is enhanced, however, by the fact that most are done against a buffed-up Crispin Glover, woozily overplaying a snarling villain and looking rather like Mickey Rourke with a beaked nose. (The presence of Glover, who immediately calls to mind “Back to the Future,” wittily suggests the marriage of past and present represented by the picture; beyond that, he glowers and stares hilariously, and at one point even returns without explanation from certain death–a trick he’s trying to repeat professionally to resuscitate his career.) The farcical interludes, unhappily, are less successful. One might enjoy fantasizing about Diaz jiggling her derriere in scatterbrain mode, for example, but it seems decidedly retrograde the third or fourth time around; and a running gag about Liu’s inability to cook is terribly old-fashioned, proving that “female” humor hasn’t matured much over the last two decades. Murray, moreover, sails through the picture without making much of an impression. He does his usual smarmy shtick decently enough, but the material he’s been given is generally poor. There are more pleasant turns from Matt LeBlanc, as Liu’s dense he-man beau, and Luke Wilson, playing a gee-whiz waiter who’s attracted to Diaz. Tom Green, as a fisherman with whom Barrymore has a fling, is more of an acquired taste, one that viewers over a certain age probably won’t have mastered.

“Charlie’s Angels” has been directed by yet another crossover from the commercial/music-video world, in this case a fellow who calls himself simply McG, and much of the picture resembles work in those media in terms of both style and content: the movie is essentially empty-headed, but at least it moves briskly past the inanities and is vibrantly dumb rather than dull. That’s hardly a great recommendation, but as “The Avengers” proved, things could have been a lot worse. The picture closes with one final borrowing via outtakes over the closing titles, showing us flubs and alternate shots of some of the more impressive stunts. Anyone who’s even seen a Jackie Chan movie will recognize the source, but that’s okay. Along with all the earlier reminiscences to other pictures, it at least shows that the makers realize that if you’re going to steal your ideas, you might as well take them from something that worked in the first place.

THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE

C-

“This could be the worst idea I ever had,” young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief), whose older self (played in his customary shambling fashion by an unbilled Jack Lemmon) narrates the story as a nostalgic memory trip, says early on in “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” He’s referring to his attempt to persuade Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), once the golden boy of golf in the south whose spirit was sapped by the horrible experience of World War I trench warfare, to return to the links and participate in a tournament aimed at saving a Savannah course threatened by foreclosure during the Great Depression. It’s a sentiment which Robert Redford might well express about his latest directorial effort, a soggy, soporific exercise in hamfisted uplift wherein Junuh is helped to find his “lost swing” (and thereby rejoin the human family) by a smiling, aw-shucks stranger named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) who carries his clubs and spouts a stream of New Agey gobbledegook about “feeling the game.” A better title for the forced, feeble fable might well be “Touched by a Caddie.”

It’s easy to understand why Redford might have been drawn to the script, fashioned by novelist Jeremy Leven (who also wrote and directed 1995’s “Don Juan DeMarco”) from Steven Pressfield’s book. It tries to bring to the golf course the same kind of magical whimsy that he helped suffuse the baseball field with in “The Natural,” in which he starred back in 1984. But Barry Levinson’s picture, despite some serious defects, managed to suggest a mythic quality that “Bagger Vance” utterly lacks. You can sense Redford straining to portray a genius for golf as an analogue to knowing how to live in harmony with things, and Junuh’s attempt to come back from adversity as a metaphor for the wider struggle of his society to come to terms with the deprivations of the depression; but the comparisons remain clumsy and obvious, and no amount of golden light drenching the countryside (courtesy of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) or swooning music pumping from the speakers (contributed by composer Rachel Portman, who at one point goes so far as to add an angelic chorus to accentuate the drama of a hole-in-one) can persuade us that the picture is anything but high-minded hokum. It certainly doesn’t help that Redford shapes and paces the piece with a sluggish determination that shows that he believes he’s dispensing Important Life Lessons (with medicinal properties, no doubt); nor is it a benefit to have the old gasbag voiced by Lemmon (who’s supposed to be telling us the story while suffering a heart attack on a golf course!) interrupt every few minutes not only to let us know how the tournament’s going but also to explain the characters’ feelings and the human stakes of the competition. These are matters that should be dramatized, but instead they’re covered lazily by dialogue that’s simply ladled over the pretty, burnished pictures.

The cast doesn’t bring much to the party. Damon smiles cutely, as is his wont, and he models the period clothes well, but there’s no sign of the intelligence he brought to dear, degenerate Tom Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s icily brilliant 1999 thriller. Smith shuffles about amiably, but the role of Bagger, the guardian caddie, is simply hopeless: how could anyone recite inspirational dialogue that constitutes some of the most monumental drivel heard onscreen since Robert De Niro’s loony monologue about “listening to the fire talk” in Ron Howard’s 1991 “Backdraft,” or make anything of a character who apparently wears a battered old hat all the time to hide his halo? Moncrief is little more than a picture of blank and boring innocence as the young Greaves, and Lemmon merely does his patented grouchy shtick as the older version of the same fellow. Charlize Theron, who seems to be in about every second movie nowadays, is far too pushy and aggressive as the gal who’s inherited the golf course, and who was once Junuh’s squeeze (and is destined to be so again). Bruce McGill and Joel Gretsch have a few good moments as the two pros against whom Junuh competes in the tournament, but Peter Gerety (whom you might recall from the last few seasons of “Homicide”) is way over the top as Savannah’s mayor. (Incidentally, as a setting for films the Georgia city seems jinxed. Clint Eastwood’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” was set there, too, and was just as big a dud.)

In the final analysis “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is simply too silly to take seriously and too slow and overemphatic to serve as junky fun. The metaphoric message it delivers about searching for “perfect oneness with the game” isn’t much different from the meaning of the surfers’ attempt to track down “the perfect wave” in 1966’s cult documentary “The Endless Summer.” But while writer-director Bruce Brown treated those swimming dudes as cheerfully goofy obsessives, Redford insists that we think of his golfers as iconic figures engaged in what’s said to be “the greatest game in the world because you play it against yourself” (read: one’s personal struggle to come to terms with the vicissitudes of life), and the thin narrative can’t bear the weight of such a pretentious, but actually simple-minded, theme. At mid-point in this ponderous allegory, the ever-loquacious Lemmon explains to us fatuously that the 72-hole course in which the players are competing will be “grueling.” For viewers, that word will prove an apt characterization of Redford’s movie, too.