Spice World (1998)

Before *Spice World*, the faux film about the faux fab five Spice Girls, started, I was having a fairly enjoyable time at the movies. The theatre was buzzing with excitement as the audience, composed primarily of squealing pre-adolescent girls, eagerly awaited their next "Girl power" fix. The gaggle of little women sitting behind me had a major crisis when it became apparent that one of them would have to sit next to a *boy*. A strange boy. Luckily, their chaperone interceded, and the transmission of cooties was avoided.

The fun ended as the movie began. The Spice Girls themselves aren't really to blame. *Spice World* is in the same mold as *Hard Day's Night*, a slight, slice of life bit o' fluff about British rock stars on a concert tour which climaxes with a frantic effort to reach Albert Hall in time for the big show. The five Spices work their rather limited talents with charm and energy, but are wholly undone by a virtually nonexistent script (by Kim Fuller) and Bob Spiers' utterly inert, leaden directing. *Spice World* is little more than an extended music video, with surprisingly little music. What scant plot there is would have about filled a three minute video, but the movie stretches it too far, and then stretches it some more.

If you're older than 13, the Spice Girls phenomenon may have escaped your notice. Scary (Melanie Brown), Baby (Emma Bunton), Sporty (Melanie Chisholm), Ginger (Geri Halliwell) and Posh Spice (Victoria Addams) are a Monkees-type manufactured singing group of scantily clad, anatomically gifted lasses. They were overnight sensations when their first album, *Spice*, became a huge hit. Britain's princes Harry, William and Charles, and Nelson Mandela are among their fans. Then the Girls had a not-so-big hit record, and were booed off a stage in Spain. They fired their manager/creator (aka Svengali Spice), and are rumored to be on the verge of breaking up. Now that's a movie! A real *Truth or Dare* type documentary about the Girls could have been pretty spicy, and far more interesting than this bland, half-hearted roman a clef which has them riding around London in their Union Jack-decorated Spice bus (driven by Meat Loaf) and shouting "Girl power!" in between mildly interesting encounters with space aliens, assorted genuine musicians (Elton John, Bob Geldof, Elvis Costello) and sneaky tabloid spies.

The little snippets of plot in *Spice World* concern the Spices' tribulations with their overbearing, artery-popping manager Clifford (Richard E. Grant), a pregnant single mom friend (Naoko Mori), a pretentious documentary filmmaker (Alan Cumming, deliciously affected) and a villainous tabloid publisher (Barry Humphries) who so hates the Girls that he engineers the group's break-up. Clifford, meanwhile, contends with a pair of movie producers (George Wendt and Mark McKinney) who pitch an assortment of lame ideas for a Spice movie (some of which were at least as good as *this* movie), and the mysterious Chief (Roger Moore), the behind-the-scenes Spice master (modeled after a James Bond villain) who is seen shaking martinis and petting a variety of small animals while babbling incoherent aphorisms.

As for the Girls themselves, they're given little to do other than talk about clothes, wear clothes, change clothes, tease each other, contemplate superstardom, drift off into the occasional fantasy, frolic and dance about and lip synch (badly), while wearing vertiginously tall shoes. Spice Girls music is strangely downplayed in *Spice World*, and, while there is surely better music than the Spice Girls brand of candy pop, isn't music the point of a movie like this? Missing an opportunity to give their fans a dose of girl empowerment, Girl power doesn't get much of a workout in *Spice World* either, and even when it does (as when Sporty Spice leaps from a speedboat to rescue Posh and two little Fan Spices), the results are laughably inane.

The controlled and contrived Spice personalities are not elaborated upon at all in the movie, each consisting of one prominent characteristic plus a lollipop: Scary is the wild one with the biggest hair, Sporty exercises, Posh is bored unless considering makeup, Ginger is glamorously blowsy, and Baby Spice is sweetly childish. The girls do engage in a fair amount of self-aware humor, a recognition, for example, that the Wonderbra deserves at least some of the credit for their success, and an acknowledgment that their cultural influence far exceeds their cultural contribution (when Ginger sarcastically says "Is the Pope Catholic?" it sets off a crisis in the Vatican). Given the pulchritudinousness and energy of the Spice Girls, and the number of talented actors who make appearances in *Spice World* (to the abovementioned add Stephen Fry, Bob Hoskins and Jennifer Saunders, among others), *Spice World* should have been at least as good as a Spice Girls record, which is a fairly low standard, but one this movie never approaches.


Palmetto (1998)

"There's nothing worse than a writer who doesn't have anything to say," drones Harry Barber at the beginning of *Palmetto*. Harry just hasn't seen this movie yet. While *Palmetto* doesn't really have anything new to say, it goes on at great, tedious length in telling the tale of how Barber is double-, triple- and quadruple-crossed by a pair of luscious vixens in the steamy seaside town of Palmetto, Florida.

Harry (Woody Harrelson) is an ex con and ex-journalist, fresh out of prison after spending two years in the clink on trumped-up charges. Harry looks for a job by hanging out in a bar, proving that he is something of a low-watt bulb. T'is in that bar that Harry meets Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), vampy trophy wife of a local millionaire. Rhea squeezes into a dress like a sausage in a casing, but her teenage stepdaughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny) is less subtle, and Harry falls like a rotten apple for both scantily clad, overripe chippies. Rhea and Odette, for their parts, delight in the wriggly exercise of their feminine wiles, and sucker Harry into a scheme that the ex con, embittered by his time in prison, is just stupid and bilious enough to fall for. The devious plan cooked up by the Malroux women is a feigned kidnapping designed to coax a half mil out of miserly old Malroux. In exchange for ten percent, Harry acts as the beard and bag man in their scheme. Just how dumb is Harry to fall for this? He's so dumb that he takes a job as the local prosecutor's press liaison on the same kidnapping case.

It isn't long before everything starts to go wrong, and Harry is driving around with a body in the trunk of his girlfriend's car. The girlfriend Nina (Gina Gershon) gets suspicious, the cops get suspicious -- in fact, everyone except Harry gets suspicious. Several plot twists later, Harry is still as stupid and unenlightened as a sack of hammers, and *Palmetto* has turned into a messy self-parody, a desperate neo-noir in which chatty villains blather endlessly, a churning tub of acid is the weapon of choice and Rhea's relentless, butt-waggling vamping starts to look like the most subtle thing this movie has going for it.

*Palmetto* certainly has atmosphere. The sweaty tropical air all but steams up the lens, and there are nifty close-ups of brown palmetto bugs and an abundance of noir elements: rain, typewriters, hard liquor, fedoras, broken men and the women who broke them, and, of course, shadowy rooms sliced by shafts of light. Director Volker Schlondorff certainly gets the look right, but the story spins out of control early on, forcing the actors to work ever so hard for so little result.

Based on James Hadley Chase's novel *Just Another Sucker*, *Palmetto* is tiresome and overworked, a sweat-soaked Southern noir melodrama stewing in pheremones. Nobody does anything predictable in *Palmetto*, but neither do they do anything remotely believable, thus blunting the element of surprise with the element of indifference. The climax of this overwrought escapade features a bizarrely brazen performance by Shue (mimicking Gloria Swanson in *Sunset Boulevard*) followed by a supremely corny ending. *Palmetto* is as enervating as a heat wave, and leaves one longing for a truly cool movie (like *Sunset Boulevard*) instead of this microwaved noir knock-off.


The Borrowers (1998)

Borrowers are the reason things tend to disappear. A race of pocket-sized people with wild red hair and big teeth, they live within the walls and beneath the floorboards of homes, borrowing things from humans (aka Beans). Borrowers have charming names like Dustbunny, Minty and Swag, and they are stealthy, clever and brave beyond their size. A box of dental floss and a cup hook, in the hands of a Borrower, is rapelling gear for a borrowing mission in the kitchen, a sugar spoon is a shovel, a birthday candle a torch. Refrigerator magnets can be scaled like a rocky cliff face.

Based on the novels by Mary Norton, *The Borrowers* is a clever, charming and entertaining film that, like so many other tales for little people, proves that size really doesn't matter. As directed by Peter Hewitt, with outstanding production design by Gemma Jackson, *The Borrowers* creates an abundant, visually seamless and wonderfully convincing world of big and small, old and new.

The Clock family, Pod, Homily, Arrietty and Peagreen, are all alone, the last of the Borrowers living in the Lender home. They are menaced by vacuum cleaners, but otherwise co-exist secretly and peacefully with the Lenders, although young Pete Lender (Bradley Pierce) is determined to find out why things are forever disappearing. When the two families are forced from their home by Ocious P. Potter (John Goodman), an evil real estate developer, Arrietty (Flora Newbigin) and Peagreen (Tom Felton) are separated from their parents. Suddenly home alone, they discover Potter's pernicious plan to purloin the old homestead, but Potter discovers them too. Aided by Exterminator Jeff (Mark Williams), who promises "death for every bug and every budget," Potter menaces the clever Borrower kinder while Pete, Pod (Jim Broadbent) and Homily (Celia Imrie) race to the rescue. In the wild chase that ensues, Arrietty will encounter a cute Borrower boy with a hot rod roller skate, Potter will be harassed by a helpful police officer (Hugh Laurie) and drenched in molten cheese, and little Peagreen will be bottled. Luckily for the Borrowers, Potter is the sort of evil villain who inclines toward protracted perils, allowing for hair-raising knick-of-time rescues by intrepid Bean boys and brave Borrowers.

The visual effects in *The Borrowers* are perfectly executed, calling attention not to themselves, but to the story and characters. The flow between the big world of Beans and the tiny world of Borrowers is so casual and ingenious that it achieves a perfect realism that is as delightful as the story itself. *The Borrowers* rewards vigilance, but doesn't beg for it: there are no 'Look at me, I'm really small' moments in the film, just a witty, absorbing naturalism in which a Cheerio is a meal unto itself and an inch of spaghetti is sliced up for dinner. Old and new cultural artifacts and old and new cultures blend together in *The Borrowers*: the Clocks and their unwitting, flawlessly polite accomplices are Brits, while the Lenders and their nemesis Potter are Americans; the Lender house, situated in a circa 1950s London, is a grandmotherly Victorian, full of dark corners where Borrowers can hide, where lace curtains filter shafts of golden light, decorative crown moldings conceal tiny, secret doorways, and an old coal stove squats next to a modern refrigerator complete with a shockingly dangerous ice dispenser.

With its wee heroes and oversized villain, *The Borrowers* slyly pokes a bit of fun at movies in which bigger is better -- the clever climax is both stirring and giddily funny, a fitting finale to a crafty, ingeniously entertaining little film.


The Replacement Killers (1998)

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, *The Replacement Killers* flatters the "Hong Kong-style" action movie to death. As directed by music-video director Antoine Fuqua, *The Replacement Killers* slavishly apes the visual look of Hong Kong action movies -- noirish sets, hyper-violence, unlimited firepower and chaotic gunfights shot in slow motion -- but leaves out the emotional and moral content. *The Replacement Killers* is a designer knock-off, with no pretense of originality.

Two of the designers actually aided and abetted this bit of movie surimi. John Woo is executive producer of the film (although judging from his three American films, his edge has been successively blunted by Hollywood homogeneity). Chow Yun-Fat, a Hong Kong mega-star and veteran of over 60 movies, makes his Hollywood debut in this film, and basically walks through it, simmering, but never generating any heat. Chow is given little opportunity to exercise his newly-learned (and quite competent) English, as *The Replacement Killers*, written by Ken Sanzel, offers him about 20 or 30 words to recite. Mira Sorvino, playing Chow's surly sidekick/potential love interest/hostage, has a few more lines than that, but she, like Chow, is essentially a hired gun, squeezing short bursts of acting in between gunfights.

John Lee (Chow), the taciturn hero-hitman of *The Replacement Killers*, works for a Chinese mobster named Wei (Kenneth Tsang). Wei wants Lee to kill Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker), the cop who killed Wei's son. He also wants Zedkov's son killed, and he wants the cop to witness the murder. In a fit of conscience, Lee can't kill the boy or the father, so Wei, being the ruthless sort of fellow who would hire Jurgen Prochnow as a henchman, orders Lee and *his* family killed by the killers hired to replace Lee in killing Zedkov and son. So, Lee, in order to get back to China to protect his mother and sister, turns to document forger Meg Coburn (Sorvino) for the necessary papers. When assassins come looking for Lee, a fierce gun battle ensues, destroying Meg's atmospheric, heroin-chic apartment, her expensive computer, and her ability to forge a passport. Lee takes Meg hostage, more or less, rather than find another forger, and the pair flee to an assortment of dimly lit locations (apparently in search of a passport), the assassins always right behind them. Zedkov pops up from time to time as well, ostensibly because he's after Wei, but mostly to run out the clock in this brief but content-free movie. Eventually, the killers-chasing-the-killer plot loses steam, so Meg convinces Lee that he has to save Zedkov's boy, which allows for a few more bloodbaths and a tidy veneer of redemption.

There are a few imaginatively staged scenes, such as a gunfight in a car wash, and a nifty little movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie piece set in a cinema (showing Mr. Magoo!). The plot, however, is clunky and transparent, and utterly devoid of the emotional and ethical complexity of an authentic Woo-Chow film. In *The Killer*, or *Hard Boiled*, for example, Chow, fueled by a variety of frequently conflicting motives, kills with regret and has a few hobbies on the side. Woo's narrative style is more leisurely than that of his frenetic imitators, and he stages his gun fights in slow motion not so much for the aesthetic effect, but to amplify the consequences of violence: as geysers of blood erupt from bullet-riddled bodies in hellish scenes of chaos, innocent bystanders often die in great numbers. Slow motion violence in *The Replacement Killers* paradoxically amplifies the violence while muting its effects. The shattering glass, the flying bullets, the cool glint of black steel -- it all has a numbing, soporific effect, an instant, just-add-water poeticism without any mental engagement.

Chow, with his upper lip curled into a permanent sneer, and his suave good looks, physical grace and signature two-gun shooting style, is about the coolest thing on two feet, when those two feet are on his own turf. In *The Replacement Killers*, he's just a ringer, a bit of authentic Hong Kong in a mock Kong movie. There is no discernible wit or intelligence to Lee, nor any complexity to the hitman who is really a big softy when it comes to kids and family, and who was only a good assassin because his targets were always bad guys. Meg doesn't fare much better as a hard-edged, smart-mouthed toughie with a heart of gold and, predictably, a soft spot for Lee. Both characters are as simplistic and unsatisfying as the connect-the-dots, faux-motion rendering of a "Hong Kong-style" movie.


Kundun (1998)

From the opening to the closing credits, *Kundun* is a film of unusual visual richness, replete with metaphoric detail, beautiful compositions, lush color and expressive light. It is a painterly rendering of the early life of the 14th Dalai Lama, sparing in narrative detail, told largely through potently symbolic imagery.

Future Dalai Lama Kundun is found in a remote village on the Tibet-China border, when the toddler (Tenzin Yeshi Paichang) successfully identifies his possessions from a previous incarnation as the 13th Dalai Lama. In Lhasa, the young boy's childhood preoccupations are tempered only slightly by the efforts of the monks to educate him in preparation for the day that he will rule Tibet. Kundun's progress from boyhood to enthronement as spiritual and political ruler of Tibet reveals both the ordinary and the remarkable about him, as well as the tangible humanity of a young man in the unique position of being revered as a god. The presence of a hostile China haunts the young Dalai Lama's life -- though a modern boy by Tibetan standards, he cannot fully comprehend the cynical political and military circumstances that will converge to eventually force him into exile.

A movie that covers nearly 20 years of a life must do it rather quickly -- *Kundun* accomplishes the task not by loading the narrative with exposition, detail and dialogue, but by distilling the history down to a bare bones tale, then fleshing it out with rich pageantry, emblematic landscape and luminous, trance-like visions. At first blush, this unconventional narrative seems too sparse, empty of ideas and structure, relying too heavily on aesthetically pleasing sights and sounds. As the film progresses, however, it becomes more and more clear that director Martin Scorsese's ingenious method effectively reveals much that is impossible to convey in a conventional narrative film, while allowing much that is mysterious to remain so. The uncommon story structure allows *Kundun* to linger at moments of great internal drama in the Dalai Lama's life, such as his exodus to exile in India, that were highly significant events for both the leader and his nation, but are, from a movie standpoint, relatively uneventful and lacking in external drama (i.e. no car chases through the Himalayas). Tibetan culture, politics and spirituality, the intellectual and religious progress of young Kundun, his unique ethical conflict as the human embodiment of the soul of a nation, and the philosophical underpinnings, and practical flexibility, of Tibetan Buddhism are all lucidly explored in *Kundun* (the KTD monastery in Woodstock was one of several to provide technical assistance to the filmmakers, as did the Dalai Lama himself).

Nearly as remarkable as the visual clarity of the film is the cast, composed almost entirely of Tibetans (excepting Chinese characters, such as Robert Lin's menacing, effete Chairman Mao), many of whom are familial relations of the Dalai Lama, or the characters they play. There is not a white face to be seen in Kundun, which is a real break with a movie tradition that tends to temper unfamiliar ideas with faces and facial features familiar to Western eyes. If you believed the very different version of this story told in *Seven Years In Tibet*, it might come as a surprise that there are actual Tibetans living in Tibet. That movie, told from the perspective of then-Nazi sympathizer Heinrich Harrer, suggested that Harrer, an Austrian, was a central, important figure in the Dalai Lama's life, and a prominent personality in Lhasa -- Harrer is entirely absent from this account, which instead emphasizes, respectfully, the Tibetan people and their culture and traditions, mysterious and occasionally astonishing though they be.

The performances in *Kundun* are simple but revealing, relying more on visual expressiveness than dialogue. Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong's performance as the adult Dalai Lama limns the range of characteristics -- naivete, compassion, intelligence, idealism -- that, in the face of Tibet's crisis of sovereignty, contribute to a philosophical and personal dilemma for the man who, unique among world leaders, is so inseparable from his country that he must, paradoxically, leave it in order to save it. Tencho Gyalpo is striking as the Dalai Lama's mother (the actress is the actual granddaughter of her character); also exceptional as Kundun's teachers and advisors are Tsewang Jigme Tsarong (as Taktra Rinpoche), and Gyatso Lukhang (as the Lord Chamberlain).

The most striking feature of Scorsese's film is the way that it uses the visual world to represent the insubstantial and spiritual world of Tibetan Buddhism. The very tension present in the film itself, as it weaves together impressionistic visions borrowed from the corporeal world to evoke what is ineffable, reflect the tensions between the spiritual and political, the modern and traditional, the internal and external, that are present in unique ways in the life of the 14th Dalai Lama.