You can be forgiven for assuming that From Hell, Allen and Albert Hughes' re-telling of the Jack the Ripper saga (based on the immensely popular graphic novel), is a follow-up to Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, what with its previews focusing on a shadowy murderer, lots of fog and mist, Johnny Depp's investigator speaking in a British accent (Cockney this time), and Heather Graham in the Christina Ricci role of the Corseted Love Interest.
But the film has an air of the macabre that Burton's film, for all its strengths, lacked; the Hughes brothers bring you deep into the decadence of 1888 England - you can practically smell the rot and filth - and the film is wrapped in an elegantly plotted mystery that proves most satisfying. It's an imaginatively directed, grisly entertainment with a literate, Sherlock Holmes quality: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution meets Seven.
The Hughes brothers show that their steely-eyed view of poverty and impending death isn't confined to American streets, and they generate dread and excitement with a tangible energy, quite a compliment considering the sameness of the murders' setups (wait for prostitute to be alone, and wait for the kill); the film's editing rhythms are near flawless. It's true that From Hell is mostly an exercise in style - the performers, sensational as most of them are (particularly Depp and Ian Holm), place second to the movie's visuals - but it's a strong, atmospheric film, probably the most purely successful feature currently in wide release.
RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS
While I've seen worse movies this year - Cats & Dogs and The Musketeer come quickly to mind - I'm not sure I've seen worse direction in 2001 than Penny Marshall's work in the Drew Barrymore vehicle Riding in Cars with Boys. Based on Beverly Donofrio's memoir, Riding in Cars is chock-full of can't-miss material: Bev overcomes teen pregnancy, disappointed parents, a slacker husband, and the crushed dream of a college scholarship, all the while raising her young, resentful son; with plucky Drew in the lead, this is manna from Chick-Flick Heaven. And the material has plenty of beguiling, dark undertones that should elevate it above the merely saccharin; Bev's hubby becomes a junkie, Bev herself attempts to earn extra cash by selling dope, and we're given plenty of evidence that, in actuality, Bev is a lousy mother who blames her son for everything that went wrong in her life. The movie continually exposes the ugly, repressed feelings that can linger between parents and children; it threatens to venture beyond the realm of standard chick flicks into something more universal, and definitely harder-edged, all the while retaining an air of black comedy.
And what happens? Damned if Penny Marshall doesn't sabotage nearly every scene in the movie with ham-handed, sit-commy obviousness and an insistence that everybody play it nice and cute. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. In 1990, Marshall and screenwriter Steven Zaillian took Oliver Sacks' blistering memoir Awakenings and turned it into a sappy, Hallmark Hall of Fame wannabe that showed that Catatonics Are People Too, just sleepier than most; here, she and screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward show that heroin addiction and parental abandonment are just pesky mini-traumas that interfere with one woman's goal of becoming a great author.
You don't believe a single minute of this movie: not the character arc of Bev's husband, Ray (Steve Zahn), who flip-flops from well-meaning goofus to drunk and druggie in about two scenes; not Bev's comic-relief best friend (Brittany Murphy, so grossly overdirected that she seems more of a basket-case here than in her Girl, Interrupted and Don't Say a Word performances); not Bev's supposed writing gifts, the brief samplings of which we receive sounding excessively florid and phony; and not, most damagingly, in poor, misguided Drew Barrymore herself. She shrieks, she sobs, she most certainly Survives (in that I'm-angling-for-at-least-a-Golden-Globe-nomination way), but she doesn't connect with her character in any realistic manner, because Marshall keeps her a cartoon from first scene to last. Almost everyone I know likes Drew Barrymore, a normally fizzy and ebullient presence, but after her recent string of mistakes - Never Been Kissed, Charlie's Angels, and now Riding in Cars with Boys - it's getting hard to remember exactly why.
THE LAST CASTLE
In Rod Lurie's The Last Castle, Robert Redford's General Irwin enters a military prison on a 10-year stretch, faces off against the sadistic machinations of Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), and, quicker than you can say Shawshank Redemption, shows his fellow inmates that they aren't soulless maggots and can indeed defy the cruel mistreatment by their warden through an all-out assault on their captors. A shallowly entertaining prison flick, The Last Castle features a terrific supporting ensemble - Gandolfini brings surprising depth to his piggish villain, there's fine work contributed by Mark Ruffalo and Delroy Lindo, and Robin Wright Penn turns in a lovely cameo - and a juicy twist or two; I had a pretty good time seeing it. I would have had an even better time had someone other than Redford assayed the Irwin role. It's not that he's bad; his line readings are on-target, and his patented, laconic Golden Boy quality gets shaken up a bit, which is a relief. But by now, we're so used to seeing Redford in holier-than-thou mode that there are no surprises left - the film could play as an unofficial sequel to Redford's 1980 prison drama Brubaker - and his heroic quality gives short shrift to what could have been revealed as a fascinating character flaw; doesn't anyone realize that Irwin is just as megalomaniacal and dangerous as his nemesis, albeit with glistening blonde hair? Crude, cliché-ridden, and faintly ridiculous, The Last Castle remains a mostly enjoyable escapist drama; with someone like Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall in the lead, it might've been much more.
NOVA 6 INDEPENDENT SERIES: MADE
Moline's Nova 6 cinema continues its presentation of noteworthy "art" films with one of 2001's most popular independent releases, Made, running from Wednesday, October 24, through Tuesday, October 30. Boasting the long-awaited re-teaming of Swingers' stars Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, this comedy, which Favreau himself wrote and directed, actually spent five weeks in the nation's Top 20 at the box office this summer (that's as long as Spielberg's A.I. did), and yet this is the first time Quad Cities audiences are seeing it; it's the perfect intro for those who fear that independent art movies all feature subtitles and dream sequences involving dwarfs. In fact, Made - in which Favreau and Vaughn play longtime friends and amateur boxers who get mixed up with money-laundering, the Mob, Peter Falk, and Sean "Puffy" Combs - is about as mainstream as "art" movies get. It's just smarter than most mainstream releases, which helps explain why, at your average multiplex, flicks like American Pie 2 get three individual screens to Made's zero.