Top Dogs

Frank Marshall's Eight Below, "inspired by a true story" as well as by a Japanese film inspired by the same story, is an agreeably old-fashioned survival adventure about a team of Antarctic sled dogs who, after saving the life of a UCLA scientist in quest of "the first meteorite from the planet Mercury," are chained up for safekeeping while their masters fly out to get medical aid, and are then left on their own for six months -- forty-two months, that would be, in dog years -- when winter storms come ahead of schedule and seal off their retrieval. The early shots of the dog team in harness at full run ("They absolutely love their work") are stirring; and the rescue of the scientist from a hole in the ice, the leader of the pack worming her way towards him with a lifeline in her teeth, is breath-stopping. There is also, in their months of aloneness, one moment guaranteed to make you jump out of your skin (if I hear a louder scream in a theater auditorium all year I'll expect to be treated for ear damage), and that's just the start of the film's most nerve-racking sequence. All eight dogs, blessedly free of inner voices provided by the likes of Bruce Willis and Whoopi Goldberg, form as stoical an ensemble of actors as you could find outside a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster film. They thoroughly outclass Paul Walker, Jason Biggs, Bruce Greenwood, and Moon Bloodgood (as the hottie airplane pilot), despite the humans' sincerest efforts and the indiscriminately flattering photography, crisp, clean, bright, by Don Burgess. Not all of the dogs (pussies be warned) make it through alive, but it's precisely at the times of loss and injury that their demeanor is most inspirational. This is bad, their faces seem to say, but let's get on with it. A couple of them, over the course of events, emerge as individuals, but even then the overriding point, and very touching point, is their togetherness, their oneness. As their handler laconically puts it: "Good team."

The Pink Panther, a resurrection of the pratfall-prone Inspector Clouseau, can hardly be judged a degradation of the original Blake Edwards film of the same name, seeing as how Edwards himself degraded it in the process of doing seven sequels, including a posthumous patchwork with the peerless Peter Sellers, a substitution of the maladroit Frenchman by an unrelated American cop played by Ted Wass, and another substitution of him by his bastard son, the very Italian Roberto Benigni. Plus, Alan Arkin had a go at the character under the direction of Bud Yorkin in the Inspector Clouseau of 1968, before Edwards saw the wisdom, or the profit, in resuming the series himself. So now -- and so what? -- we get a game Steve Martin under the direction of Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, again starring Martin) for another round of broken English, broken furniture, broken bones, etc. Political correctness has dictated that the function of the Oriental manservant Cato will here be filled by a deadpan cop partner, Jean Reno; and a rather halfhearted Kevin Kline takes the place of the wholehearted Herbert Lom in the part of Clouseau's hair-tearing superior. Beyoncé Knowles pitches in some pulchritude, and Emily Mortimer reminds us that a French accent can also be cute. The whole business is a matter more of maintenance than invention, more hard work than humor, like some TV sitcom that has outstayed its welcome. Amid the thickening glut of remakes and sequels, however, there is no cause to come down particularly hard on this one. The undemanding will not be disappointed.

Firewall gives me the chance to tout the top-flight series of Swedish police procedurals by Henning Mankel, not because it is adapted from any of them, but merely because it shares its title with the one I rate the highest. Check it out. (If, I mean to say, you find it at the library.) This, on the other hand, is a perfectly ridiculous heist-and-hostage thriller that requires the retirement-age Harrison Ford to shoulder altogether too much of the burden of heroics -- all of it, to be exact -- as much as Jean-Claude van Damme shouldered at half the age. And this in the role of a family-man Seattle banker! Not an ex-Navy-SEAL banker, not a former-FBI-agent banker, just a plain old banker, a computer geek. The clichés come in bunches. Because the story is set in Seattle, it must rain ninety percent of the time, the Space Needle must be visible out the banker's office window, and he must live with his wife, his TV-addicted teen daughter, and his peanut-allergic tween son in a sumptuous waterfront home that would be the envy of Bill Gates. In a slight modification of a cliché, the architect who designed the place is not the man of the family but the woman (Virginia Madsen in her first post-Sideways job opportunity, let's hope a lucrative one). The fiendish mastermind of the caper is a cultivated Brit (not Alan Rickman, not Jeremy Irons, not Sean Bean, but Paul Bettany), and the action is a techie's delight (computers, cellphones, security systems, fountain-pen video camera, GPS dog collar). It is not an aesthete's delight, shot as it is in such closeup that the viewer can't get a decent look at it.

Freedomland, from a novel and screenplay by Richard Price, directed by Joe Roth, is a ripped-from-today's-headlines thriller that amounts to a virtual collage of newspaper clippings: child abduction, domestic violence, police brutality, racial profiling, ghetto rioting, and whatnot. Julianne Moore is once again a bereft mother, but in trying out, for a change of pace, a Joisey accent and low-rent grammar, she shows that she can broaden her range only at a cost of broadening her performance. Samuel L. Jackson, as the streetwise cop on the case, is able to incorporate an asthma inhaler without losing his equilibrium. And Edie Falco looks startlingly disguised as the plain-Jane brunette who heads up the volunteer search party. She has one very interesting dialogue with Moore, or anyhow her end of it is very interesting, when she seems to be telling Moore about the loss of her own child but beneath the surface is in fact probing Moore about Moore's.

Final Destination 3, our third and final "F" title, is a commonplace instance of a sequel that's really just an alternative version, a completely different cast of characters in a parallel series of contrived chain-reaction accidents with gory payoffs, all to test the dictum that you can't cheat death. Death, evidently, will go to great serpentine lengths to see that you don't. But here's what creeped me out. On the way to the theater on opening day I punched the button for the oldies station on my car radio and got the O'Jays' "Love Train," not a song that ever meant anything to me in its day, a song that among my generation would barely even qualify as an oldie, but a song now fused forever in my brain with the lovely fantasy scene at the end of The Last Days of Disco, when the subway riders rise up and boogie as one. Dissolve now to the end of Final Destination 3... a horrific subway wreck... and over the closing credits an acidic, harsh, hard-rock cover version of -- what are the odds? -- "Love Train," by Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe (pronounced Muetley Creu). As I said... creeped me out. The rest, excepting the prescient and pretty heroine (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), grossed me out.

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