Tag Archives: C

HUMAN NATURE

Grade: C

There are fewer things sadder than witnessing the sophomore jinx strike again, but unhappily the instances of talented newcomers matching their initial triumphs the second time around are rare indeed. So however much one might have looked forward to Charlie Kaufman’s followup to his brilliantly outrageous script for “Being John Malkovich,” it will come as no great surprise that in the event, it turns out to be a distinct letdown. In “Human Nature” Kaufman tries to replicate the bizarre, oddball tone that gave his first picture such wildness and spark, but the premise this time around is much less adventurous, and the treatment by first-time director Michel Gondry lacks the inventiveness that Spike Jonze brought to the earlier picture. While “Malkovich” soared, “Human Nature” sputters.

The picture is basically a darkly comic updating of the old “wild boy” plot, in which a human being brought up in the jungle is returned to the modern world. The Tarzan figure in this case is Puff (Rhys Ifans), a fellow who was raised as an ape by his deranged father and, having been discovered in the wild, is placed in the care of animal behaviorist Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a nerdy, needy sort who’s obsessed with teaching critters such etiquette as eating with knife and fork as a result of the demands made on him in his youth by his parents (Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place). Nathan, however, is married to Lila (Patricia Arquette), a nature writer who keeps secret from her husband the fact that she’s afflicted with a hormonal imbalance causing her to be extraordinarily hirsute–indeed, until she felt the urge to mate, she’d intended to live in the wild herself in order to let the hair grow uncontrolled. Returning from the forest, she’d sought out an electrologist (Rosie Perez) who helped control her condition and introduced her to Nathan. Now, rather predictably, as Puff is trained by Bronfman to control his animal urges and act in accordance with societal expectations, Lila finds herself of two minds about her husband’s work. Nathan, meanwhile, is seduced by his lab assistant (Miranda Otto), who feigns a French accent to get the man she desires. Matters come to a head when Lila discovers her spouse’s infidelity and takes aim at both him and his project.

It’s easy to see where Kaufman wants his treatment of Puff, Nathan and Lila to go. It’s supposed to be a twisted take on a familiar subject that, in the process of provoking mirth, raises serious issues of nature versus nurture, instinct versus civilization, freedom versus social inhibition. And it does include some weird touches that some will find amusing–a subplot involving two white mice that become the focus of Nathan’s experiments (they show up for a closing gag, too); a very strange song into which Lila bursts during her sojourn in the forest; Puff’s habitual inability to control his sexual impulses whenever Nathan attempts to introduce him to the outside world. But many of the elements of the plot (Lila’s skin affliction, for example) will be likely to cause many members of the audience discomfort rather than enjoyment. And numerous others come across as curiously flat and obvious. The whole business of Puff’s indoctrination into civilization, for instance, is obviously designed as a sort of bizarre refashioning of the “Pygmalion” story, but it’s not anywhere near as funny as what Mel Brooks accomplished with similar material in “Young Frankenstein.” And the background circumstances of all three principals have their amusing aspects, but too many arch, heavy-handed components as well. The structure of the piece has difficulties, too. The story is told in flashback, with Lila talking to police investigators, Puff to a congressional committee and Nathan, in “Sunset Boulevard” style, to a heavenly inquisitor in the afterlife. The way in which everything’s going to turn out, in other words, is telegraphed from the very beginning, and while Kaufman tries to tag on a twist at the close, it’s far too clumsy and implausible to work.

Still, despite the inherent problems, “Human Nature” might have come off better were Gondry’s direction less dilatory and the performances less stiff. Robbins uses his angular form to decent effect as Nathan, but his nebbishy turn never goes beyond the obvious. And while one has to admire the courage of both Arquette and Ifans in showing so much skin, they don’t get very far beneath it in dealing with their characters. Otto, Forster and Place are encouraged to play to the back rows of the auditorium–something that works better on the stage than the screen. Perez, however, is restrained by her typical standards, and is more likable than usual.

“Human Nature” is competently made from the technical perspective, though it has an overbright look and its employment of obviously unrealistic outdoor settings makes for a less magical ambience than the makers were aiming for. But it’s the substance of the film, not its accidents, that are the major difficulties here. For a story about liberation, it feels curiously constricted by the mechanics of its plot; and all the oddities that Kaufman adds to the mix prove a vain effort to transform a rather obvious piece into an edgy example of postmodern irony. Though it wants to be sharp and scintillating, the film is contrived and strangely stodgy instead.

BLADE II

The initial 1998 installment of “Blade,” based on a comic book about a half-human, half-vampire martial arts expert who tracks down and kills full blood-suckers, was fun junk, marked by ripe performances from Wesley Snipes as the title hero and Stephen Dorff as his main nemesis, and by a garish design that pulled out all the stops and held one’s often-amazed interest. The sequel has been fashioned by a more skilled filmmaker that the director of that effort, Stephen Norrington; the helmer of the new film is Guillermo Del Toro, whose “Cronos” (1992) and “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) were remarkably stylish and whose “Mimic” (1997) was a successfully creepy move into the mainstream. Still, “Blade II” isn’t as sharp as the original. That’s not Del Toro’s fault: he’s made a visually inventive piece, and staged the periodic fight sequences with panache (although the points at which real people are replaced by computer-generated replicants are–as usual–all too obvious). Unfortunately, while the plot tries to give the material a new spin by having Blade join forces with his usual foes to fight a new vampiric strain that threatens both species, the narrative trajectory is all too reminiscent of the first picture, and the characters invented as threats to the hero just don’t measure to Dorff’s outrageous creation. Del Toro’s methodical pursuit of dark, gloomy atmosphere, moreover, while impressive in itself, has its own drawbacks: he’s so intent on showing us the moody settings and shadowy recesses that he doesn’t move things along speedily enough. Like its predecessor, “Blade II” seems overlong by a half-hour or so; or to put it in the genre’s own terms, the rising of the sun is postponed longer than the ideas in the script warrant.

In this installment fashioned by David S. Goyer (who wrote the script for the original film as well), the taciturn Blade first rescues his mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), who seemed to have been killed last time around, from a vampire-controlled stasis chamber with the aid of his new assistant Scud (Norman Reedus). After the hard-bitten Whistler is restored to full human status, Blade is approached by the vampire king Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann) to enlist his aid in tracking down a mutant called Nomak (Luke Goss), who’s spawning a race of “Reapers” who feed on vampires as well as humans. Blade agrees, though not without some suspicions; and eventually he’s leading a band of vampire commandos–the lovely Nyssa (Leonor Varela) and her stalwart partner Asad (Danny John Jules), along with the “Bloodpack” of Chupa (Matt Schultze), Priest (Tony Curran), Snowman (Donnie Yen), Lighthammer (Daz Crawford) and Verlaine (Marit Velle Kile) led by brooding, nasty Reinhardt (Ron Perlman)–through dance clubs and sewers to track Nomak and his minions down and do away with them. Of course, there are twists in the pursuit, and the motives of some participants turn out to be quite different from what they’d alleged. Inevitably Blade winds up seriously imperilled and, as in the first flick, must be freed before taking on his ultimate foes. It would be nice to say the plot turns were imaginative and exciting, but they’re actually pretty predictable and tame; a final confrontation resembling nothing more than a WWF Smackdown championship match is especially tiresome. And apart from Kristofferson’s Whistler, who’s the typical cantankerous old coot, the secondary figures are pallidly drawn and played. Varela proves a colorless love interest, Perlman has gone to the tough-guy well once too often, and Reedus resembles a bargain-basement version of Joachin Phoenix as the scruffy Scud. Even more troublesome, the two vampire chieftains are dull creations. As Nomak, Goss barely registers but for his athletic abilities, and as the dark Damaskinos, Kretschmann looks rather like the wicked emperor from “Return of the Jedi” with black hood removed from a balding pate.

On the other hand, some of the fights are nicely staged, especially in the first half, and there are some nifty effects. The vampires expire splendidly: first they explode like sparklers, and then their exposed skeletons disintegrate. And there’s an especially cool moment when we see a severed head, which itself has been sliced in two, boasting an eye prominently blinking in one of the halves.

But as stylish as Del Toro’s take on this material is, and despite its occasionally amusing moments, “Blade II” seems in desperate need of more imagination than Goyer has been able to provide–as well as of somebody with the grotesque energy that Dorff contributed to the first film (as so many comic-book movies have shown, you really need a good villain in stuff like this). So despite some visual virtues, “Blade II” just doesn’t cut it.