12-16-97: Amistad, Scream 2

The Aisle Seat 12/16/97

by Andy Dursin


TITANIC finally sets sail this week after over a year of media scrutiny; the early word is indeed positive, so it looks like a good bet to get your money’s worth next weekend. (They’re not charging us extra due to the movie’s budget, so who cares about its cost?) Also new is TOMORROW NEVER DIES, the latest James Bond adventure, which could get buried by the formidable competition opening on Friday and currently playing in theaters.

Speaking of that, it was–finally–a good week at the movies, as SCREAM 2 packed theaters nationwide. (I showed up locally in RI for a 9:30 show over half an hour early, yet it had already been sold-out. Definitely the sign of a popular movie, considering it was playing on three other screens in the local multiplex!) AMISTAD also opened to mixed critical response, but seeing that it’s Steven Spielberg, nobody should be surprised. The big shocker was HOME ALONE 3, which received many positive notices from critics who weren’t expecting much–goes to show that you just can’t speculate about these movies until you see them for yourself.


AMISTAD (***1/2) : It’s funny how Steven Spielberg’s movies were (and still are) unnecessarily dumped on because of the director’s past successes. THE COLOR PURPLE and EMPIRE OF THE SUN both contained lyrical, powerful moments that ranked as some of the filmmaker’s best work at the time of their release, yet many critics found the opportunity to pan Spielberg’s efforts in those films simply because he found box-office gold in other places. Now, after SCHINDLER’S LIST, it appears as if certain critics are being unncessarily harsh on AMISTAD, Spielberg’s latest film, and a picture that has ridden the storm of “controversy” over the changing of factual events and a plagarism lawsuit that is still on-going.

Not that this historical drama–centering on the true-life 1839 incident about a slave ship mutiny and the subsequent trial of the slaves in New England after their vessel, “La Amistad,” lands in American waters–is without flaws, but the fact is that AMISTAD is a well-documented, compelling, and thoroughly entertaining account of an incident from our early historical heritage.

Spielberg does a masterful job in juggling the local Connecticut trial of the slaves and their leader, Cinque (the dynamic Djimon Hounsou)–who are defended by ragged, inexperienced lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey)–with the national interest in the case, as represented by President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) and ex-President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). The slaves’ plight, as they go through trial after trial in court, is effectively retold through flashbacks which illustrate the Gold Coast trading as few films have done before; just as adept is Spielberg and screenwriter David Franzoni’s illustration of how pressure from Spain, England, and the Southern states all factor into the national U.S. debate on what was, relatively speaking, a minor incident at the time.

For the sake of illustrating all of these incidents, Spielberg’s film takes some liberties with specific facts, but they never alter the historical relevance of the actual events, and, in fact, make many worthwhile points about slavery, politics, and even religion along the way. Most surprising is how the movie avoids heavy-handed parallels to modern life (a la Spike Lee’s films), often intelligently conveying various characters instead of portraying them as broadly painted stereotypes. If some of the protagonists, such as Morgan Freeman’s ficiticious abolitionist Theodore Joadson and President Van Buren, are given short-shrift in relation to the other characters, it’s most likely because Spielberg had to trim the running time down to a managable 2 1/2 hours, which nevertheless goes by quickly in the final cut.

Filmed extensively in Newport and Providence, R.I., as well as Boston and Mystic, Ct., the movie has a flavorful location atmosphere akin to the filmmaker’s earliest efforts, complimented nicely by Janusz Kaminski’s often evocative cinematography. John Williams’s excellent score usually enhances the drama, though Anthony Hopkins’s climatic (though low-key) court summation is overscored to the point of irritation (try, the music doesn’t stop once during its 11 minute duration!). We know how noble Quincy Adams was in his intentions, so the music adds absolutely nothing to the sequence–even in its restrained trumpet lines (performed by Tim Morrison), Williams’s score here is something of an annoyance, since it continually pounds us over the head with obnoxious, “this is important” thematic passages. The sole detriment to an otherwise superb Williams score, it’s the only heavy-handed element in an often poetic and always entertaining picture. (R, 145 mins.)


SCREAM 2 (***1/2): Why can’t all sequels be like this one? Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson have teamed up again for another homage/spoof of the horror genre, and this time out, they’ve abandoned some of the grizzlier elements of its predecessor and created an even more engaging pop-horror thriller the second time around.

Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette and Liev Schrieber all return from the original, and naturally, there’s a bevy of veritable lambs for the slaughter as the movie follows the original’s protagonist, Sidney (Campbell), onto the hallowed grounds of some undisclosed college campus where (uh-oh!) mysterious murders begin once again. Williamson’s script contains the requisite “hip” dialogue for us Generation-Xers (lines referring to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Entertainment Weekly, and “Saved by the Bell”) and also gets into what makes (most) genre sequels such hackneyed affairs; some commentary is also made about how movies can sometimes send wrong signals to real-life psychos, but hey, it’s only SCREAM 2, so don’t be looking for too much food for thought.

One of the things I wasn’t too keen on in the original film was how the line between horror and comedy was blurred, particularly in its needlessly overdone “stabfest” finale. Thankfully, Craven and Williamson have actually dialed much of the gore down a notch in this picture, and refrain from dwelling on excess carnage–the “much more elaborate” murders and expanded bodycount aside. It all boils down to a supremely entertaining picture, populated by engaging young actors (and actresses, of course), filled with good dialogue, a few frights, and all deftly packaged together by Craven. Sequels really wouldn’t have such a bad rep if they came out like this one.

One final note for us film-music fans: Marco Beltrami’s score is, unfortunately, not as effective this time around, as the original’s subtle piano-and-string orchestrations have been replaced here by more generic, almost Horner-like percussive “stabs” and a less effective, Pino Donaggio-esque chorus. Perhaps the composer’s music was compromised in more ways than one; imagine my surprise when Hans Zimmer’s music from BROKEN ARROW is used THROUGHOUT the picture as the theme for David Aruqette’s Dewey character! To put it mildly, someone in the editing room must have fallen a bit too hard for the strains of Duane Eddy’s guitar. (R, 115 mins.)


MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING (**): A quite unusual hybrid of romantic comedy and melodrama, this Julia Roberts farce suggests that too many re-shoots aren’t necessarily a good thing. Roberts plays a scheming gal attempting to win back old boyfriend Dermot Mulroney from his cute younger fiance Cameron Diaz. One of the main problems with the movie is the ever-changing attitude the picture takes towards its protagonist, changing from sympathy to anger in often the same sequence! Aussie director P.J. Hogan (MURIEL’S WEDDING) tries valiantly to keep things on an even keel, but it’s truly hard to get where this movie is coming from; a lack of chemistry between Roberts and Mulroney is just one of the problems. Only Ruppert Everett’s gay pal of Roberts brings much light to the precedings. (PG-13, 105 mins.)

GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (*1/2): The last time someone attempted to make a movie out of Jay Ward’s cartoon creations, the results (“Boris & Natasha”) were so poor that the picture was never theatrically released. GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE is not quite that bad, but after a few sporadic laughs in the opening 15 minutes, you’ll most likely be reaching for that remote as the movie sputters its way to filling out its required 90-minute running time. Brendan Fraser is engaging enough in the lead, but the plot is so haphazardly constructed that it feels like several episodes from a bad TV sitcom. If you thought it was shocking how this movie could make over $100 million, just remember THE FLINTSTONES and say, “it CAN happen again!” (PG, 92 mins.)

Send your comments! Andy Dursin (Dursina@worldnet.att.net)