Aaliyah in Queen of the DamnedQUEEN OF THE DAMNED

Granted, the new year is only eight weeks old, but I already have a nominee for Best Guilty Pleasure of 2002: the Anne Rice adaptation Queen of the Damned. I'm not suggesting the movie is great, or even good, but this tacky amalgam of vampire clichés, hard rock, and MTV posturing is a surprisingly deft and confident work, and about a hundred times more fun than the pompous, enervated Interview with the Vampire.

Based on Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, Johnny Depp clone Stuart Townsend assumes Tom Cruise's role as Lestat (that's a huge improvement right there), who has decided to get out in the light, as it were, and front his own rock band, which attains a delirious measure of success. Public awareness, though, annoys the world's other vampires, and while a young parapsychologist (Marguerite Moreau) attempts to track Lestat down, so do: a host of vampires who want Lestat dead; Lestat's mentor, Marius (Vincent Perez), who wants him to shut up already; and the Vampire Queen Akasha (the late pop singer Aaliyah), who wants him to join her in ruling the world. I guess.

This leads to many vampiristic confrontations set against a grunge backdrop, and director Michael Ryner appears to have a ball with all of them. What separates Queen of the Damned from Neil Jordan's 1994 travesty is that this new film only pretends to take vampires seriously (which will probably piss off Ms. Rice), so even the movie's expository scenes and dramatic high points are done with a wink and a nudge. The flashbacks employ a ritualistic, comedic knowingness, and there's a giddy sequence in which a group of vampires attacks Lestat at his concert in Death Valley; naturally, the audience thinks it's all part of the show and cheers on the slayings and heads being lopped off. Gorgeously lit by cinematographer Ian Baker, the film nagivates a fine line between, as Spinal Tap would put it, the stupid and the clever; for a while you're laughing at the movie, but sneakily, the filmmakers let you know they're in on the joke - they might be saying, "Come on, no one should be taking this seriously" - and soon enough you're laughing with it.

There's certainly no room for acting in a piece like this, but the performers do pose expertly. Townsend exudes proper charisma, Perez comes through with satisfyingly blasé reactions to everything around him, the magnificent Lena Olin makes a few appearances, and Aaliyah is a real knockout; her screen time is limited, but she's so tantalizingly nasty that you wouldn't want more of her. Sure, the dialogue is dopey and the plotting silly, but Queen of the Damned is admirably exuberant garbage, the most enjoyable Hollywood trash since The Glass House.


Colin Farrell and Bruce Willis in Hart's WarHART'S WAR

In a nutshell, Gregory Hoblit's Hart's War is Stalag 17 meets A Soldier's Story meets Hogan's Heroes. (I'd say "Hogan's Heroes without the laughs," but that would imply that I found the show funny.) Set in a German POW camp at the tail end of World War II, the film stars Colin Farrell as a young lieutenant trying to prove that a black Air Force commander (Terrence Howard) had been unjustly accused of murdering an unapologetically racist fellow prisoner, while a battle of wills takes place between an American colonel (Bruce Willis) and his German captor (Marcel Iures). Though filmed with admirable professionalism, Hart's War is about as tired and retrograde as modern moviemaking gets; it feels as if it was made in 1944. The hero is noble and unbelievably naive with - surprise, surprise - a Dark Secret in his past, the German villain hisses and mincingly smokes his cigarettes with Contempt for All, and the defendant is an image of martyred perfection. (The role is an insult to Howard's considerable talents.) Hart's War panders to our inner liberal so flagrantly - who's going to come out in defense of bigots and Nazi imprisonment? - that it ends up a monotonous and rather infantile little work - Baby's First War Movie.


Linda Hunt and Kevin Costner in DragonflyDRAGONFLY

Misleading trailers drive me nuts. I'm not talking about previews that lead you to expect a terrific movie and instead give you a crappy one; that would account for, what, 80 percent of them? I'm referring to trailers that deliberately hoodwink audiences by showing them what studio executives think they want from a film, rather than what the film actually provides. Hart's War, for example, had a rather grandiose theatrical trailer that focused primarily on explosions, superstar Willis' scratchy War Is Hell line readings, and its themes of Bravery and Heroism and Justice. Now, I'm not suggesting that the folks at MGM's publicity department would do anything as tasteless as milk our national, war-minded climate for PR purposes - heaven forbid! - but surely they knew their picture was more courtroom melodrama than war spectacle, and that Willis appeared in about half as many scenes as Colin Farrell. Subsequently, anyone going to Hart's War looking for Bruce to kick some Nazi ass is going to be sorely disappointed to learn that the film is mostly talk, talk, talk, or rather, lecture, lecture, lecture. (Even those of us who might prefer this route to a routine action spectacle will be bummed at how drearily it's pulled off.)

I bring this up because similar chicanery is going on with Dragonfly. The previews for the film make it look like a creepy supernatural chiller, where the threat of Evil hovers in the air, and where Kevin Costner gets his chance at a role his contemporaries Bruce Willis and Richard Gere nabbed in The Sixth Sense and The Mothman Prophecies, respectively. No such luck. For Dragonfly is yet another of Costner's "romantic," New Age-y, spiritual-uplift pieces of drivel, and about as fraudulent and embarrassing as any ever concocted. In this one, Costner believes he's receiving messages from his dead wife through the titular insects and some children who've had near-death experiences; though I've tried to block every single frame of the execrable Patch Adams from my mind, I was reminded that Dragonfly's director is Adams helmer Tom Shadyac, which should give you some indication of how shameless and maudlin the proceedings are going to get. And is there any sight in modern films more disheartening than Kevin Costner in angsty, Serious Actor mode? The man is like a two-ton anchor pulling the film to the depths of melancholy. The Dragonfly experience isn't even worth discussing, except that the movie even manages to sink fine performers such as Kathy Bates and Linda Hunt, and any reasonable viewer can see where events are leading 20 minutes into the picture. If Shadyac and Costner were to give up their show biz careers and land jobs at Hallmark, I doubt any of us would feel the loss.

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