1998: Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post
Award for Critism Writing
Wednesday, July 1, 1998
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Critism writing

Stephen Hunter

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'Speed': Missing a Hook And Line, It's a Sinker

June 13 1997

The original "Speed" was so milled to maximum streamline, it didn't even have a subtext. The sequel -- "Speed 2: Cruise Control" -- takes this concept further: It doesn't have a text.

What a reeking bag of nothingness! What emptiness, what vaporous vapidity! What rot, stink, and whiff of mold spore! It's like an existential prank merrily engineered by Jean-Paul Sartre in heaven.

The director, Jan De Bont, who did both the original "Speed" and last summer's brain-dead "Twister," has put together a reputation for pyrotechnic kinetics at the technical level and infantile twaddle at the emotional level. Naturally, this has made him hugely successful. But in this one he underwhelms even the lowest expectations. The kinetics aren't that good, the twaddle is off the charts and the characters seem written by monkeys on amphetamines with crayons.

At least the first "Speed" had the benefit of a premise that was both original and breathtakingly clear: a madman had wired a bus with a bomb that would explode if the bus's speed dropped below 50 mph. Consequently, as the vehicle careered through the worst traffic on the planet, the speedometer needle was like an electrode to the collective medulla oblongata of the American public; as it flirted with the red line, it kept you in oxygen debt, even if you didn't believe a second of it.

The sequel exchanges the bus in traffic for the 25,000-ton luxury steamer wending its piglike way through the trough of the Caribbean under azure skies. It looks like a skyscraper designed by Albert Speer floating on its side. That makes the title a joke: There's no illusion of speed whatsoever. It should have been called "Sloth."

The only survivor from the previous cast is poor Sandra Bullock, still named Annie, still acting like the girl with a good personality that nobody wants to date. Keanu Reeves and his offbeat charm being absent, she is teamed up this time with -- whatta coincidence! -- yet another daredevil SWAT cop, played by that refugee from the Planet of the Handsome, Dull Men: Jason Patric. His Alex is so beautiful and inert he reminds you less of Reeves than of Michelangelo's David.

The de rigueur madman here is the normally reliable Willem Dafoe, an actual actor. But given no actual character to play, Dafoe falls back on what appears to be the ammonia-inhalation school of method acting. When called upon to invent a passionate expression, he appears to imagine that he's just taken a stout whiff of the old NH3; his eyeballs and nostrils blow open to about f/1. That's it for acting.

Dafoe's character, a disgruntled former software designer for the company that designed the ship's navigational system, is that archetypal office bore, the chronic whiner, always at pains to explain why he's so right and everyone else is so wrong. ZZZZZZZZZZ. He's rigged the ship with explosives, but his prime plan is to fake the passengers and crew into abandoning the vessel by commandeering the computer system and sending false information, and then looting a jewelry cargo. This leads to numerous exciting scenes of him pounding manically at a keyboard.

He gets most of the idiots into lifeboats but a small "Poseidon Adventure"-size squad is left on board, including a couple of officers, the woman with the cleavage, the woman who is fat, the rich snooty couple with the deaf daughter and the parvenu millionaire. And, of course, the "A" kids, Alex and Annie, who immediately take charge because they've learned more about the ship in 24 hours than the professionals who run it on a daily basis.

As an action movie venue, the ship needn't have been so wretchedly wasted. In fact, in 1974, Richard Lester made the masterpiece of the ships-in-peril-on-the-sea genre in his underappreciated classic "Juggernaut" (Rent it; love it; thank me later.) But De Bont wastes an hour on drizzly rescues in the ship's dark bowels, as Patric keeps leading or pulling the unfortunate out of the water. It's really more a remake of Stallone's recent "Daylight" than any kind of sequel to "Speed."

By the second hour, De Bont finally gets to his big number: a game of ocean vessel chicken between the big cruiser and a fuel-laden tanker at anchor in St. Maarten's harbor. Watching these giant sea turtles laboriously close on each other isn't quite the thrill he thinks it is.

He does, finally, squeeze a little adrenaline out of you when he contrives to give the big ship shore leave in that quaint harbor town. It thunders ashore like Godzilla looking for the head, crunching the tinkertoy town to toothpicks. A little later, that tanker finally goes up: a very nice explosion, thank you very much.

But in all ways, shapes, forms and meanings, "Speed 2: Cruise Control" is a titanic dud. Where is that damned iceberg when you need it?

Speed 2: Cruise Control is rated PG-13 for mild violence and profanity. Dramamine optional.

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'Air Force One': Pressurized Ride

July 25 1997

This is the one into which Clinton should have had himself inserted!

"Air Force One" is a pulse-pounding bull goose of a movie, but more than that, it's a $90 million endorsement of the Great Man theory of history. It's "The Rough Riders" set on a jetliner. It's president as action figure, 6 feet 2 of heroic plastic.

This prez kicks butt. He kills. He knows the operating drill on the Heckler & Koch MP5 machine pistol. He gives forthright speeches -- and this is really brave! -- without clearing them with the staff first! He puts the world on notice that America is back in the saddle again and there's a new sheriff in town.

Harrison Ford, in the role of this righteous galoot, can't really be said to act, because he's not really required to play a character. His President Jim Marshall, lion of the free world, Medal of Honor winner, Big Ten grad, football fan and beer drinker, is so idealized he makes Barbie's Ken look positively Dostoevskian. Ford does two things brilliantly: He never bumps into the furniture and he never lets even a whisper of campy self-awareness crack the 100-foot-high Mount Rushmore of his face. "Air Force One" is set in an irony-free zone. Ford's discipline is at its highest as he cleaves to the movie's fundamental proposition: This is not a joke. (It is, of course.)

Naturally, he's the dullest thing in the movie. But that's not bad, that's good. Who wants a neurotic intellectual or an ironist or a policy wonk at the helm when psychotic Russian nationalists have taken over the president's plane on a flight back from Moscow and are busily executing hostages as a ploy to free a demonic nationalist leader recently filched from his despot's den by a joint Spetznaz-Delta team (the movie's fabulous opening sequence)? Much better this sort of leadership: doubtless, fearless, dynamic, clever, aggressive, anachronistic, impossible and dull. But his dullness clears the way for the movie's showiest special effect: Gary Oldman.

Oldman plays the evil Ivan Korshunov, the terrorist who masterminds the skyjacking of Air Force One and then proceeds to steal not merely the gigantic flying machine itself but another and more important machine: the camera. This actor is never so good as when he is very, very bad, and "Air Force One" provides him with a platform to do a variation on a combination of Boris Godunov and Boris Badenov simultaneously. Throw in some Rasputin and some Alexander Nevsky and even some Ivan Skavinsky Skavar and you've got the whole nine yards. He would eat the furniture if it weren't all plastic and fiberglass.

Director Wolfgang Petersen controls the mayhem with his usual extreme cleverness. Like everybody in the picture, however, he's working miles beneath his head. He once made a great movie about real men in a real war, "Das Boot," but now he's making straw movies about straw men in a straw war. But you sense the intense level of his engagement. As in his last macho confabulation, "In the Line of Fire," so much of the cleverness is in the details.

In "Fire," I loved the way they solved the problem of getting not a ceramic gun but a brass and lead bullet through a metal detector by hiding it in a key chain, which of course would go around the detector in a little plastic tray. In this one, his micro-genius is on display in one sequence where he follows a bad MiG pilot engaging the president's plane and then Air Force F-15s. The actor (Boris Krutonog) has maybe 25 seconds of total screen time, the bottom of his face sealed off in an oxygen mask, the top of his head capped in a plastic helmet. What's left? Eyes. Fabulous, bulging, expressive eyes that radiate the raptor's glee as he looses an air-to-air missile toward the big bird, then utter fear of doom as he watches an F-15's Sidewinder come screaming to erase him in a bright orange blot. Cool movie death!

In fact, one of the pleasant surprises of "Air Force One" is how much of it is an old-fashioned airplane movie. The modern computer morphing does no task better than rendering aircraft in flight. You never for a second tumble to the fact that you are watching electricity concocted by some arrogant kid in a Southern California computer shop: The jets, as they lace through the sky in and around the president's plane, are majestic, and one sequence where a line of F-15s lets fly a phalanx of heat-seekers leaking flame as they streak across the sky has a terrible beauty to it.

But in order to keep the odor of man-sweat, testosterone and flatulence from becoming too terribly oppressive, Petersen, abetted by scriptwriter Andrew W. Marlowe (of Washington, in fact), provides some female presence. Glenn Close is effectively steely as the vice president who manages to deal with a power play by the secretary of defense while coolly managing the war room crisis team. She cries only a little bit.

Equally impressive is Wendy Crewson as the first lady. I love her sense of flintiness, too: She upbraids a staff member for not paying attention during a speech, just like the real thing, and she has a commanding presence that never breaks down, even when the guns are pressed against her head. More idealized but also welcome is Liesel Matthews as the teenage first daughter.

In all, "Air Force One" is of a piece. It takes its absurd premise and keeps itself narrowly focused, pushing its heroic cast through obstacle after obstacle. It lacks perhaps a moment of grief for the many warriors who sacrifice their lives for the chief exec, and some of its gambits -- a parachute "escape" into where, the Urals? -- play well on screen but fray upon application of minimum thoughtfulness. But it's a great ride.

Air Force One is rated R for extreme violence, a high body count and occasional profanity.

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'M': Fritz Lang's Dark Masterpiece, Still Shocking After All These Years

August 29, 1997

"M" is for the many nightmares it gave to me. That is, "M," Fritz Lang's 1931 dark masterpiece, out of which sprang so much of the century's bleaker popular art and some of the earliest images of the haunting chaos that dogs us to this day.

Alas, this "restored" version may represent a heroic seven-year effort on the part of the Munich Film Archive and it may well be the best possible cut of the 66-year-old film available in years, but it still seems to be in far from pristine condition. And too many times the white subtitles are projected against a white background, their information completely lost.

So you can't see parts of it and you can't read other parts of it. My advice: Deal with it like a grown-up. The movie is somehow still necessary, and its power to disturb remains profound. On top of that, Peter Lorre's sweaty, puffy, froggy-eyed portrayal of a child murderer remains one of the most frightening images in screen history. All moist flesh and grubby, fat little fingers, infantile and pathetic yet truly monstrous at once, Lorre's character is one of the great monuments to the true squalor of evil. He is not banal in the least, but neither is he dramatic: He's a little worm with an unspeakable obsession, insane and yet a horrible reflection of the society that created him.

The film is constructed as a double manhunt. In an unnamed city (the story was based on a case in Duesseldorf, but many critics place the setting in Berlin, where "M" was filmed), a child murderer is stalking the streets. In a brilliant early montage Lang shows us the young Elsie being suavely picked up by her shadowy killer, led along streets and into the woods. There's no on-screen violence, of course, but the sense of menace is unbearably intense, particularly as Lang signifies the murderer's dementia in musical terms, having him whistle a selection from "Peer Gynt" as the demon's grip on his soul grows more fierce. Lang polishes off the sequence with two horrifying images: Elsie's ball bouncing across the grass, losing energy, and reaching stasis; and Elsie's balloon caught (as if in torment) in the suspended telephone wires.

The cops, under great pressure, mount a massive manhunt; they attack the only target they have, which is the underworld. This completely upsets the orderly nature of crime -- these guys are so well organized, they even have a stolen-sandwich ring! -- and so the crooks respond by attempting on their own to find the killer.

In allegorical terms, Lang seemed to be getting at the escalating conflict between the increasingly inept Weimar Republic and the increasingly efficient underground Nazi Party, and the underworld, being more merciless and better organized, is able to uncover the villain before police.

It goes further. The original name of the film was "The Murderers Among Us," which had resonance that annoyed those thick-necked creeps in the brown shirts. It was for that reason that Lang changed the title to "M," for murderer and for the mark of Cain that a beggar chalks on Lorre's back so that he may be identified and tracked by the beggars who are the reconnaissance unit of organized criminal interests.

And, as a narrative, the film still works brilliantly. It broke the mold before there was a mold to be broken. Lang begins by completely dispensing with the mystery elements; he reveals Lorre at about the one-third mark, so there's no whodunit. There's not even really a whydunit. Instead, it's a who's-gonna-catch-him as the two sides work frantically against each other. But even when Lang documents the final apprehension (in a brilliantly edited and timed sequence where the cops are racing to a building that the gangsters have all but commandeered as they search it), he has a surprise. That is the ironic trial of which the clammy little human mushroom, where at last he speaks for himself, declares his own insanity and the pain it's caused him and asks them who they are to judge -- interesting questions to be asked in the Germany of 1931.

But the movie is, perhaps, just as interesting as a piece of film design as it is as a piece of narrative. It was the domestic high-water mark of German expressionist filmmakers, who were about to be dispersed around the world by the rise of those same Nazis, who would gain power in 1933.

German expressionism, which may have gotten to its strangest moment in 1919's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," was essentially a visual version of a treacherous universe. It was spread by this diaspora of fleeing German genius (including Lang, who went on to have a distinguished American career) and came to light in the works of Hitchcock and Welles but perhaps most notably in that movie genre known as film noir, which dominated the American screen in the late '40s.

To look at "M" is to be in the heart of the noir universe, a shadowy zone of wet streets, dark alleyways, secret places and impenetrable mysteries. It's astonishing how modern this six-decade-old piece seems, especially if one focuses on the compositions and their meanings and can see past the Victorian wardrobes worn by the citizens of a German city in 1931.

"M," after all these years, is still a fabulous movie.

M is unrated and while it contains no gore, it does have scenes of extreme emotional intensity suggesting violence to children.

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'Anastasia': A Magical Ride Unfettered By Facts

November 21, 1997

Little-known fact about Stalinist Russia, 1926, courtesy of "Anastasia": There was no food but there was a surprising abundance of Maybelline eyeliner.

How else to explain the almond definition of Anastasia's vaguely Orientalized eyes in this beautiful idiot of an animated movie? She doesn't look like a Russian princess at all, but more like the teenage Cher.

Though it's from 20th Century Fox, "Anastasia" shows us a very Disney Russian Revolution, so Disney that, oops, they forgot the Communists. The movie is a dream, a peach and a lie. It works fabulously as spectacle, at least marginally as story, and as history it's bunk.

Of what importance is history, you ask, if it makes my little girl smile? There's no answer to this question, really, but one must ask directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman why they chose to call it "Anastasia" and set it in the century's central drama if they meant to completely ignore that history. They could have called it "The Missing Princess" and set it in Graustarkia, Ruritania, or on the Island of Guavabuto.

Bluth and Goldman are ex-Disney animators who left the studio in a huff in 1979 because it had abandoned the classic, voluptuous, painterly stylistics of "Snow White" and "Dumbo" for a cleaner, cheaper modern look. Since then, they've bounced from studio to studio trying to out-Disney Disney, and this is one time they may have succeeded.

On the other hand, they may have cheated.

The hardest thing to animate convincingly is human movement. But it becomes considerably easier if you trace it -- and, using human beings as "live action reference," Bluth and Goldman have clearly filmed some of the film's complex action, then based their images on those sequences. So the movie is an odd hybrid: It seems animated, it has all the stylizations of animation, yet the human movement is so realistic that your brain picks up on it subconsciously, sending little signals of weirdness up to the conscious. It's continually . . . not annoying, so much, but noticeable.

The story is an infantilized, sanitized version of the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman (she won an Oscar). A White Russian finds an orphan to pass off as the only survivor of the murdered Romanov clan, making her heir to a treasure that her father, Czar Nicholas II, had hidden in Paris banks before the revolution. To qualify, she must pass muster before another surviving royal, the dowager empress. But what seems a mere scam soon proves troublesome: She may be the actual princess and the con man may be in love with her.

With Meg Ryan and John Cusack voicing the roles, Anastasia and Dimitri have been simplified from the Bergman-Brynner cosmopolitan wariness into twenty-somethings, with faces as uncomplex as Ohio cheerleaders. It's not particularly believable, but it certainly makes box office sense.

The movie evokes the terrifying events beginning in 1916 in highly spurious form, then cuts to 1926, where the con man Dimitri is recruiting a young woman to play Anastasia in his scam. Fate throws him together with the amnesiac orphan Anya, and they journey from St. Petersburg (which was then called Leningrad, though the movie never notices) to Paris and the scrutiny of the dowager empress, along the way bedeviled by the spirit of the Mad Monk Rasputin, who in limbo has sworn to destroy the Romanovs. (More historical absurdity: The Romanovs promoted him; it was nobles who murdered him.)

One can see the material's fascination for the animation team: great set-pieces of the lavish glories of Czarist Russia, the thrills of escape, the tenderness of young love, the mystery of the girl's identity, the melancholy of a lost world, the chance to re-create not merely "St. Petersburg" in 1926 but, more promisingly, Paris.

But there are pitfalls, too: the depressing business at Ekaterinburg in 1918 when Bolshie goons took Mr. and Mrs. Czar and all the little czars and czarinas into the cellar and spattered their brains on the bricks. Not exactly your typical musical number.

So Anastasia is peeled off from her family at the railway station and the fate of her parents and siblings is never referred to again; they're simply gone. That seems okay. But the actual revolution itself is strangely handled. It's ascribed entirely to the curse by the mad monk, who "spread unhappiness through the land." Other than a hammer and sickle on one guard's babushka, there's not a single reference to the political system that replaced Mr. and Mrs. Czar and its monumental cruelties. There's no reference whatsoever to the Romanovs' culpability in the debacle, or to the idiotic blood bath known as World War I, which made the whole thing possible and set the century up for 80 more years of conflict. The brothers Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin go unmentioned.

This creeps me way out. The museum of history is full of tragedy, cobwebs and corpses. Somehow attention must be paid to the great campaigns of death that shaped the century and haunt us to this day. To pretend it's not there, even in so innocent a vehicle as this, feels indecent, as if a reliquary is being burgled by hucksters.

But let's put that aside. As a colorful spectacle, kids under 10 will love "Anastasia," though the very young might find the final confrontation between Anastasia and Rasputin on a Paris bridge somewhat intense, as it borrows elements from both Prince Charming's battle with the dragon in "Sleeping Beauty" and the "Night on Bald Mountain" from "Fantasia."

The vocal performances are okay. Ryan and Cusack are incongruously American -- every other Russian character speaks with an accent -- but as there's no requirement for internal logic in animation, it's not bothersome. Ryan hardly registers as anything beyond generically spunky; Cusack over-registers as Cusack, so you see his own face, not Dimitri's visage, when he speaks. The musical numbers are all right but they have a '50s feel to them, a sense of the static; the numbers in such recent Disney products as "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Lion King," driven by dazzling editing, are much better.

So here's my quote for the movie ad blurb: " `Anastasia' isn't terribly bad! In fact, it's almost all right!" 20th Century Fox advertising department, go for it!

Anastasia, at area theaters, is rated G and features no objectionable material but several intense sequences that might prove unsettling to the very young.

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Sweet Hereafter: A Cry of Hope

December 25, 1997

Here's one way to look at it: Man is a meaning-seeking creature.

Pitiful being, he cannot accept the random cruelty of the universe. That is his biggest failing, the source of his unhappiness and possibly of his nobility as well. He paws through disasters with but one question for God: Why? And God never answers.

He certainly doesn't answer in Atom Egoyan's superb "The Sweet Hereafter," which watches a mad, vain scrambler seeking to impart his own meaning on someone else's terrifying disaster. As derived from the intense Russell Banks novel, the story follows lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) on his peregrinations through a western Canadian town where a school bus has recently fallen through the ice, drowning 14 children and leaving an enamel of grief as blinding as the snow that blankets the place.

This lawyer: greedhead or pilgrim of pain?

This town: victim of horrid coincidence or of God's vengeance?

This story: remembered myth or spontaneous occurrence?

The answer to the questions is: All of the above. And one more thing is certain, and that is uncertainty. The movie is of the mode called postmodernism, which no one understands but everyone recognizes. To borrow from Kurt Vonnegut, its story has come unstuck in time, and though the narrative materials are eventually clarified, we seem to drift for a period between now and then, here and there. Some people can't handle this willed ambiguity and grow restless, if not anxious, in the absence of a clear chronology. But as in "The English Patient," the chronological looseness is part of the pleasure of the piece, which magically reassembles in the last reel into something strong, lucid and compellingly powerful.

Basically, its "now" appears to be a plane ride in which Stephens returns, in defeat, from his trip. As he tells the story to his seat-mate, a friend of his daughter, the whole story emerges in bright and tragic vignettes, seen from a dozen perspectives, revealing the heart of the observer.

It turns out that in one sense, it's the most old-fashioned of narrative archetypes, the small-town story. Sam Dent, as the place is named, picturesque in the Canadian Rockies, soon reveals itself to be another in the form revealed by Grace Metalious all those years earlier in "Peyton Place," a caldron of promiscuity, alcoholism, even some terrifying sexual child abuse.

In his recollection, as he bobs about the town in support of his lawsuits against the school board, the county that maintains the road and hires the driver, even the bus manufacturer, in search of a villain, any villain, Stephens encounters instead human weakness and culpability in all its forms. A was sleeping with B, C was molesting his daughter, D was cheating on her husband and on and on.

On top of this, Egoyan adds something that Banks never thought of. That's an overlay of myth, as he impresses Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin Town" on the events as if to ask the question, that eternal question: Who took the children? Who was the piper? Why did the portal in the mountain -- an actual portal in the ice at the bottom of the mountain in the movie's most shattering scene -- why did the portal open up and why did they disappear? As the saying goes: You've got to pay the piper. Why didn't the townspeople pay the piper?

But the final ambiguity is the lawyer himself. As it advances, the film makes clear he's not merely in search of wealth (though he may be), but driven by the need to impose meaning. He wants to inflict punishment on them. Them? Oh, you know: Them, they, the unknown agents of all destruction, workers for Lucifer, corporate, municipal or ecclesiastical, as the case may be. For he is also a parent in mourning: He once loved his daughter, Zoe, so much that he went beyond taboo and attempted to save her life with an emergency tracheotomy, taking upon himself the moral weight of cutting into his own daughter's flesh. Zoe is among the lost, not in this accident, but in another, larger accident called society.

Zoe phones him, wheedles for money, pretends to be his old Zoe, but she is clearly of that subset of living dead, the hopelessly addicted, her soul crippled with lust for heroin, her immune system finally overcome. We realize that the lawyer has gone west seeking meaning in the larger society of a town of lost children in hope of finding meaning in his own lost child.

Of course, it's hopeless. One can, after all, never know the reasons and the meanings. But there's something so human in the attempt that the movie, despite the crushing weight of the pain it contains, ultimately feels hopeful. The sweet hereafter of the title is that zone of wisdom where we ultimately come to accept the unacceptable and in some provisional, broken way, go on living.

The Sweet Hereafter, at the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle 3, is rated R for the intense portrayal of a bus accident and graphic sexual content.

But now newer styles have made virtues of Sibelius^ mannerisms: the sluggish chords and darting rhythms of American minimalism, the stark spiritual landscapes of the popular Estonian Arvo Part, the lushly evocative symphonic style of the young New York composer Richard Danielpour. After nearly a century in which intellectuals assumed that Sibelius^ Mt. Rushmore face was gazing into the past, in New York in 1997, it now looks as though he did have his eye on the future after all - or at least on that slice of future that is our present.


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