Dir. John McTiernan; writ. James Vanderbilt; feat. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen, Brian Van Holt, Timothy Daly, Giovanni Ribisi, Taye Diggs, Roselyn Sanchez (R)
Set during the American occupation of Panama in the '80s, Basic opens with exposition by Connie Nielsen about the human cost of constructing the Suez Canal. But director John McTiernan (of Die Hard fame) isn't really concerned with U.S. foreign policy in this poor hodgepodge of war movie, action flick, and whodunit thriller. Those hoping for a return of the chemistry between Travolta and Jackson that made Pulp Fiction so good can forget it; they appear together in only one scene, and even it is spark-free.
DEA agent Tom Hardy (Travolta) is called on by an old Army buddy, who now runs a basic training camp, to help with damage control on a possible scandal - legendary Sgt. Nathan West (Jackson) and his unit of cadets have disappeared during a training mission. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that only two cadets survived, and that they are the only ones who know what went wrong that night in the Panamanian jungle. The men are returned to the base, where Hardy and Lieutenant Osborne (Nielsen) must determine what happened to their fellow soldiers.
What follows is a convoluted mess that defies logic and explanation, in which Hardy and Osborne go back and forth between the two soldiers, each time leaving with more questions than answers. Ribisi's interesting performance as a homosexual ranger stands out, but even his laconic delivery can't save this film. The increasingly incomprehensible plot twists, involving rogue Army rangers, drugs, and secret conspiracies finally unravel at the end of the film, in an awkward twist that tests the audience's faith and defies the film's internal logic.
In the end, Basic offers a few good characterizations, a lot of screaming by Travolta and Jackson, and Giovanni Ribisi puking blood from a hospital bed. In this time of war, Basic offers little in the way of social commentary; sadly, it even fails as a conscience-free action film.
Dir. Lawrence Kasdan; writ. William Goldman; feat. Morgan Freeman, Damian Lewis, Tom Sizemore (R)
Of the hysterias spawned by our modern world, those that imagine the body corrupted or violated from within by external invaders are perhaps the most telling. The psychologist would say that an irrational fear of infestation, of flesh-eating bacteria or probing alien abductors, reflects an unconscious, corporeal self-disgust turned inside-out. We are, after all, history's most obsessively clean culture, and these types of panic are almost uniquely Western phenomena.
This kind of theorizing might explain the primal revulsion elicited by Dreamcatcher's extraterrestrial beasties. They incubate inside the stomachs of their victims before exiting through the anus and, after sloshing around in the toilet or writhing across blood-soaked linoleum, become unsubtle metaphors for deep-seated castration anxiety with their multi-fanged, vagina-shaped mouths. It's no accident, then, when the film's characters (all men) have their crotches and fingers mutilated by these "shit-weasels." Freud would have a field day.
It's an unabashed spectacle that leaves little room for story, but what William Goldman manages to squeeze in is a mostly faithful, generally effective adaptation of Stephen King's bestseller. Jonesy, Beaver, Henry, and Pete are all grown up, but have never forgotten their decades-old encounter with a mentally challenged child who bestowed upon them psychic powers as reward for their selflessness. Now, stranded and besieged, the four friends must resuscitate the courage of their childhood.
King's novel reads as an obvious amalgam of his past ideas, and the movie is no different. But with source material as good as It and Stand by Me, business as usual makes for enjoyably squirm-inducing viewing that revels in the human form's grotesqueries and our society's obsession with them.
THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS
Dir: Rose Troche; writ. Troche, based on stories by A.M. Homes; feat. Glenn Close, Dermot Mulroney, Patricia Clarkson, Joshua Jackson, Moira Kelly, Robert Klein, Timothy Olyphant, Mary Kay Place (R)
The Safety of Objects defies physics - how else to reconcile the entropy of suburbia with the centripetal force of cinema, the filmmaker's urge to impose order on a movie set, on the lives of diverse characters, and on two hours? Basing her screenplay on self-sufficient stories by A.M. Homes, director Rose Troche links characters and incidents through frequent crosscuts and flashbacks.
In an unnamed middle-class neighborhood, four families lead lives of strident desperation. Esther (Close) and Julie (Clarkson) Gold are emotionally paralyzed by the car accident that has left Paul, a seductive young guitarist, hopelessly comatose. Jim Train (Mulroney) walks out of the law firm he has toiled at for eight years when he is rewarded with a plaque instead of a partnership. Boyish Sam Jennings (Kristen Stewart) is abducted from her sex-starved single mother, and Helen Christianson (Place) strays from the sanctuary of a placid marriage.
Euthanasia, shopping malls, radio promotions, and sexual awakening are all spliced together in the story, mainly through montage. But what, outside of editing, does Esther's participation in a hands-on contest to win an SUV have to do with a pubescent boy's erotic relationship with one of his sister's dolls? "A man needs a purpose," intones Jim in a voiceover soliloquy, but the one he chooses, being cheerleader to Esther as she stands for 70 hours beside the SUV she yearns to win, seems as trite as the one that drives this film. "God has a wicked sense of humor," observes Esther, but the sensibility behind The Safety of Objects is not wicked - or credible - enough to be humorous. Particularly in its ending, the film is merely sentimental.
Stehpen G. Kellman