Natural Disaster

FORCES OF NATURE
Directed by Bronwen Hughes

At the movies, the fun-loving temptress has been liberating the buttoned-up clod ever since Katharine Hepburn's leopard made off with Cary Grant's dinosaur bone in Bringing Up Baby, 61 years ago. Maybe even longer, if you count pioneer vamp Theda Bara's effect on a long succession of speechless men. In a new romantic comedy called Forces of Nature -- new in the sense that it's fresh product at the multiplexes -- we encounter the old story again: Reckless Sandra Bullock puts a charge in uptight Ben Affleck, and he starts to wonder where she's been all his life. Despite the fact he's marrying somebody else come Saturday.

Between their chance meeting on an airliner that skids off a runway in New York and their bittersweet goodbye, a couple of days later, in a hurricane-tossed garden in Savannah, Bullock's wild Sarah and Affleck's cautious Ben are subjected to every neo-screwball mishap and road-movie disaster scriptwriter Marc Lawrence and director Bronwen Hughes (Harriet the Spy) can pull out of the archives. Thrown together by fate, our unlikely fellow travelers find themselves in a rental car with a stranger who promptly gets everyone busted for marijuana possession. Next, Sarah and Ben's train uncouples in midtrip. They're drenched by a rainstorm. They slide across the floor of a Kmart in North Carolina. They wind up on a chartered bus full of retirees headed for Miami. Our reluctant hero has to do a striptease in a gay bar.

"You wanna be on your deathbed saying you lived by all the rules?" the free spirit asks the rattled straight man -- perhaps for the 2,000th time in movie history. But now there's an unintended irony in the question: Forces of Nature also lives by all the rules; it goes through all the motions without moving us very much.

Lawrence, who wrote the kiddy comedy Life with Mikey and the upcoming remake of The Out-of-Towners, has gathered spare parts from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and recent road pictures like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and bolted them together with the mock-cynicism of the '90s. On the eve of his wedding, for instance, Ben finds that almost no one believes much in marriage -- not his ailing grandfather, who says that Grandma "looked like Tolstoy"; not two septuagenarians on a train, who say they're happy for the first time because they're finally having an extramarital affair with each other; not even the mismatched parents of the prospective bride (Maura Tierney) and groom, who are waiting none too happily for Ben's arrival in Savannah.

Sarah has some predictable problems of her own, it turns out. She's been married twice, both times to con men, and her 10-year-old is in emotional limbo.

It's too much to ask that Bullock give off the madcap heat of someone like Carole Lombard, or that Lawrence infuse his dialogue with Dudley Nichols' wit, or that director Hughes move along at the thrilling pace of a Hawks or a Sturges. But anyone who forks out 8 (or more) bucks for a movie ticket deserves more than a bit of hip attitude, a pair of pretty faces and a raft of TV-sitcom jokes.

Unfortunately, Bullock and Affleck don't strike many sparks or produce many yuks. The star of Speed and the co-author/co-star of Good Will Hunting may be hot properties these days, but they're not exactly built for comedy. Perched on the roof of a passenger train, they happily howl at the sunset, and the moment evaporates like mist from a window. Stuck together in a gaudy motel room, they fail to mine the tenderness or the absurdity of their plight. We get the sense that we are watching not characters in the making but movie stars on display. That's a pleasure in itself, of course, but one that doesn't last. By the time you get to the end of this plodding and predictable rehash, you feel as worn out as an old movie plot.

Opens March 19.
-- Bill Gallo

MIXING NIA
Written and directed by Alison Swan

THE WORLD'S BEST COMMERCIALS 1998

For all its flaws, Alison Swan's debut feature, Mixing Nia, is an independent film with ideas of its own, a throwback to the not-so-distant time when the "independent" label was more than a catchphrase for selling Tarantino knock-offs and romantic comedies starring cast members of Friends. (If they're so independent, why do they all look alike?) The first offering in Webster University's Independent Visions series, Swan's romantic comedy tackles heady subjects with energy and ambition, taking risks and even making mistakes, but showing genuine promise in a time when many new filmmakers are content to go for broke in their first film, never to be heard from again.

At the center of Swan's film is Nia (Karyn Parsons, best known for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), a young woman from a racially mixed background who abruptly quits her advertising job to become a writer. Having evidently never given much thought to her racial identity, Nia is suddenly confronted by a barrage of opinions,continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageas nearly every person in her life presents their view of what she should be writing about and, by extension, how she should see herself. These include her divorced parents; her former work partner (Eric Thal), a young man who has bought into the whole "cocktail nation" fad a bit too heavily; and a professor of African-American studies (Isaiah Washington) whose strident views threaten to overtake Nia's own personality.

The film suffers from the same problem; despite an appealing performance from Parsons, her character is a blank page, too easily influenced by the others in her life to reveal a personality of her own. Swan and Parsons try to turn this feature to their advantage, using comic fantasy scenes to illustrate Nia's various attempts at developing a literary persona, but it's a joke that wears thin. Although some of the characters raise interesting points about race, others -- Nia's liberal Jewish father the worst example -- are merely stereotypes; the film isn't always careful about distinguishing satire from cliche. Swan's obvious talent as a director is undermined by her lack of experience as a screenwriter, resulting in a film that looks good but takes too many narrative shortcuts. Technically impressive but dramatically muddled, Mixing Nia is a promising debut of a director who, like her heroine, is clearly on the way to finding herself.

Given that one of Mixing Nia's most insightful moments comes from the heroine's struggle with her conscience while working for an ad agency, it's ironic that Swan's film is sharing screen space at Webster this week with The World's Best Commercials 1998, an annual compilation of advertising films. Few films, after all, are less independent than the average 30-second commercial, produced to meet the demands of a corporate client, increasingly extravagant in scale and limited in content to little more than a shrill "Buy this now!"

As usual in these collections -- this one of 96 commercials from 22 countries -- there are clever moments and several strong public-service announcements (none, however, from the U.S., where PSAs appear only in the wee hours of the morning when TV stations get tired of running the Tae-Bo infomercial). But there's also a relentless sameness in approach, regardless of the nationality of the ad or the product being sold. As commercials get shorter, sight gags and shock value become the most important -- sometimes the only -- way to get the message across, often with an emphasis on crass humor and bodily functions parading as innovation or invention. Consider, for example, a Dutch spot for a language school, touted in the press release as "the media's choice for best ad ... daringly original ... an ad you would never see on North American screens": A family sits in a car while a song from the radio repeatedly blares, in English, "I want to fuck you in the ass." Is this an incentive for the product being advertised? Ah, isn't it good that U.S. advertisers have something to aspire to?

Mixing Nia plays at 7 p.m. March 18 and The World's Best Commercials 1998 at 7 & 8:30 p.m. March 19-20 at Webster University.

-- Robert Hunt

THE KING AND I
Directed by Richard Rich

Imagine a bunch of kids watching the classic 1956 film musical The King and I on television, then going outside and spending the rest of the afternoon acting it out in the backyard. Apart from a lack of hired-gun Broadway voices performing the songs, their re-creation might not be too different from Morgan Creek's new animated version of the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein chestnut.

Anna still comes to 19th-century Siam (now Thailand) for a gig as governess to the King's many children. But this time, she and her son come on a ship that's fighting its way through a raging tempest, and they sing "I Whistle a Happy Tune" to dissipate the illusions of menacing dragons that have been conjured up by the Kralahome. Remember the Kralahome? The Siamese prime minister was a stern but not sinister figure in the original musical. Here, envelopingly voiced by Ian Richardson, he's a wicked sorcerer who watches the action on a magic gong and is scheming to seize the throne and -- in a surefire touch of PC villainy -- get rich in the ivory trade.

In other words, he's been turned into a standard-issue animated-feature villain. And he comes complete with a standard-issue groveling sidekick, a roly-poly Lucky-Buddha caricature called Master Little, voiced by the gifted Saturday Night Live comic Darrell Hammond with such a broad chop-suey accent that, if the film wasn't animation, he'd likely be pilloried by racial anti-defamation groups (this may happen anyway).

The childlike embellishments don't stop there, however. There are cute little animal pals -- a monkey for Anna's son, a baby elephant called Tusker and a stately black panther who attends the King. Tuptim, the Burmese concubine who's the heroine of the play's romantic subplot, is here in love with the King's oldest son. Bafflingly, she has jade-green eyes. There's a big chase finale in which the King rides to the rescue of these lovers in a hot-air balloon while the Kralahome tries to shoot him down with fireworks. Honestly, I'm not putting you on about any of this.

It was apparently Arthur Rankin, of the same redoubtable Rankin/Bass studios that gave us such children's faves as Mad Monster Party and the wonderful, slyly subversive Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, that we have to thank for this stupefyingly weird retrofitting; he's credited with having "conceived and adapted for animation" the project. The director is Richard Rich, who did The Black Cauldron. For the encrustation of obligatory elements, like the hokey bad guys and the cutesy critters, we can point the finger at Disney, who has established a formula for profitable, cross-marketable animated features that is almost as rigidly ritualized as Kabuki.

This formula has resulted in some undeniably entertaining pictures, both by Disney and by competing studios. But the downside is that feature animation, a medium that should give free rein to the imagination -- and not be exclusively the province of kiddie audiences -- is now straitjacketed by the need to include stuff that can be put into happy meals.

In fairness to the new King and I and its alterations, it should be noted that the 1956 film, with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in the respective title roles, was hardly an unadulterated account of the story. The material has a complex lineage -- it's based on a Broadway musical, which, like the 1946 nonmusical film with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, was based on Margaret Landon's 1943 book Anna and the King of Siam. This work, in turn, was adapted from The English Governess at the Siamese Court, the published diaries of a Welsh widow named Anna Leonowens who spent the mid-1860s as tutor to the numerous offspring of Siam's King Mongkut. Each generation of the story has softened up its harsh edges. The animated version can't really be blamed too vigorously, I suppose, for following suit.

In further fairness, it should also be noted that the kids with whom I saw this King and I did seem to enjoy it, and that in the lobby after the screening two boys of about 8 or 9 could be seen trying to learn to dance, like the King. That civilizing influence should count for something.

For adults, the film does, at least, offer up most of the lovely, schmaltzy Rodgers-and-Hammerstein score, competently sung from journeyman lungs belonging to the likes of Christiane Noll and Martin Vidnovic. Even here, though, the pleasure comes with a wearying price tag -- the numbers are more or less used as background, while elaborate, frantic slapstick is kept buzzing in the foreground to keep the kids from squirming too much.

During "A Puzzlement," for instance, while the King sings his heart out to Buddha, the Kralahome's magic animates the demonic statues in the temple behind the King's back. The payoff to this deranged gag is that at the end of the number, the King, his soul unburdened, sighs with contentment, while his panther collapses next to him, exhausted from desperately trying to ward off the evil to which the King was oblivious.

We in the audience can empathize with the panther -- we've been trying to ward off this busy, pointless distraction so we could listen to the song.

Opens March 19.
-- M.V. Moorhead

THE CORRUPTER
Directed by James Foley

The Corruptor should come as something of a relief to fans of Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-Fat who were mostly disappointed with last year's The Replacement Killers, Chow's American screen debut. Among the producers of that action thriller was John Woo, who in the '80s and early '90s had directed five brilliant films starring Chow that had made both men dominant figures in Hong Kong cinema. Replacement Killers director Antoine Fuqua did a fairly good job of mimicking the surface aspects of Woo's style but missed its crucial emotional underpinnings.

Even more to the point, the film inexplicably seemed designed to straitjacket Chow. Because two of his greatest virtues are his nonchalant charm and his extraordinary versatility, the actor is frequently and not inaccurately characterized as the Asian Cary Grant. But The Replacement Killers allowed him to display neither of his star qualities: His grim, one-note role never even allowed him to crack a smile.

The Corruptor is not a great film, but at least it allows Chow a little room to strut his stuff. Chow stars as Nick Chen, a seemingly heroic member of the NYPD's Asian Gang Unit. But we quickly learn that Chen is more than a little compromised: He appears less concerned with eradicating gangs than with eradicating rivals to the gang of Uncle Benny (Kim Chan), to whom he owes some kind of fealty.

Chen maintains cool control of his turf until headquarters inexplicably assigns Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg), a young white cop, to be his partner. Wallace is instantly the object of much ribbing and distrust among the otherwise all-Asian crew; his desire to work in Chinatown is seen as part of the same sort of fetish for Oriental exotica that infected so many colonial Brits.

Slowly but surely, Chen and Wallace begin to earn each other's trust and to form the classic partners' bond. And no sooner does Danny begin to realize the extent of Chen's compromised ethics than Chen and the audience learn that Danny has his own problem pushing him toward corruption -- a drunken father (Brian Cox) with debts to bookies.

Director James Foley has a stylish, if inconsistent, filmography -- from At Close Range and After Dark, My Sweet at one end to the Madonna vehicle Who's That Girl? at the other. The noir setting and subject matter of The Corruptor clearly belong to the milieu and style in which Foley does his best work, but he can't seem to straighten out the kinks and complications of Robert Pucci's muddled script.

The story is series of double-crosses and plot twists, in which everybody is revealed to be betraying (or pretending to betray) everybody else; by the time we are two-thirds through, it's close to impossible to figure out just who each character is working for ... or to what end. And, even if we can figure it out, there's no reason to assume there isn't another reversal coming.

The net effect of this sort of plotting is that the viewer becomes weary. All the twists tend to neutralize each other, and we no longer care who is on what side. In this way, The Corruptor makes an interesting comparison to Hard-Boiled, the last of Chow's Hong Kong films with Woo, to which it bears a superficial plot resemblance: In Hard-Boiled, there is one major plot revelation, relatively early on, on which the remainder of the film builds emotionally; in The Corruptor, there are so many to-and-fro twists that we are never allowed to develop clear feelings for either of the major characters.

Wahlberg is well cast and excellent throughout, as is Ric Young as the unctuous bad guy. But The Corruptor is primarily Chow's show. He plays yet another sort of character that Cary Grant also excelled at -- a charmer who keeps us continually guessing whether he is hero or villain. The main difference is that Chow gives both sides of his character a manic intensity that was never part of Grant's shtick.

Now playing.
-- Andy Klein

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