Mystery, Alaska


Russell Crowe on ice.

Russell Crowe on ice.

(1999) Sports (Hollywood) Russell Crowe, Ron Eldard, Burt Reynolds, Hank Azaria, Maury Chaykin, Colm Meaney, Mary McCormack, Lolita Davidovich, Ryan Northcott, Michael Buie, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Mike Myers, Michael McKean, Adam Beach, Judith Ivey, Beth Littleford . Directed by Jay Roach

From then-TV flavor of the month David E. Kelley comes the town of Mystery, a small settlement amid the magnificent scenery of Alaska. There isn’t much to do there, so an awful lot of fornicating goes on. There is also a weekly hockey game that involves the young men of the town playing against one another on the town pond. The wide open space of the pond breeds tremendous skaters, guys who take flight on ice.

It also attracts the attention of Sports Illustrated writer Charlie Danner (Azaria), who is actually an ex-townie who was never well-liked. He calls them the best pond-hockey players in the world, and arranges a game with the NHL’s New York Rangers (like that would happen). And, predictably, this energizes the town and it’s somewhat quirky inhabitants.

There’s the passionate, but somewhat befuddled lawyer (Chaykin) who sits on the town’s hockey committee, and loves Mystery perhaps more than anyone else. There’s the crusty but good-hearted mayor (Meaney). There’s the curmudgeonly judge who wants nothing to do with the game (Reynolds). There’s also the libidinous defenseman (Eldard) who has more cojones than sense. Finally, there’s Sheriff John Biebe (Crowe), who is a veteran of the Saturday game recently demoted, now the reluctant coach of the team.

There aren’t a lot of ladies in the cast and most of them are either supportive and long-suffering (McCormack) or bored and unfaithful (Davidovich). The fact that hockey was so central to the plot was probably the biggest reason this movie did so poorly at the American box office which is a shame – the movie deserved a better fate.

This being a sports underdog movie, the overall outcome is more or less predictable. Director Jay Roach (both of the Austin Powers movies) has assembled a fine cast. Reynolds, for example, was just settling in to becoming a great character actor after years of floundering in lead roles after his glory years. Crowe shows some of the qualities that would elevate him in movies such as The Insider and Gladiator, but here he’s not quite as luminous as he would become in those breakout roles.

The success of Mystery, Alaska lies in creating a mood, and that is done rather well. Take away the unbelievable scenario and the sports-film clichés and you’d have a mighty good movie. Those obstacles, alas, are too difficult to overcome and this becomes just a pretty good movie instead of a great one which given its cast it could have been.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie’s got heart. Reynolds, Crowe and Azaria have some fine moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The premise is preposterous. Too many clichés spoil this broth.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of rough language and a fair amount of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mike Myers’ character of Donnie Shulzhoffer is reportedly a gentle spoof of legendary Canadian hockey commentator Don Cherry.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.9M on a $28M production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Goonies

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The Words


The Words

Bradley Cooper tries to explain to Zoe Saldana why she can’t be in The Hangover III

(2012) Drama (CBS) Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, Ron Rifkin, John Hannah, J.K. Simmons, Michael McKean, James Babson, Brian Klugman, Zeljko Ivanek, Elizabeth Stauber. Directed by Brian Klugman and Len Sternthal

 

Writing is near and dear to my heart. I am fascinated by words and like to use a lot of big ones. I don’t apologize for that. Communication is my job and I like to be precise about it. Still, as I’m fond of saying, I don’t write because I want to; I write because I have to. Those who write for a living will tell you that they didn’t pick their particular career choice; it chose them.

Clay Hammond (Quaid) is reading from his latest best seller. A comely grad student named Daniella (Wilde) approaches him from the audience and asks him for more detail about his story than he had given during the reading. Clay, who is separated from his wife, is a little tipsy and responds to the flirting. He starts to tell her about it.

Rory Jansen (Cooper) has dreams of being a writer. He works for three years on a novel, pouring out his heart. It’s good, he’s told but not great. He, like many struggling writers, begins to collect rejection slips like Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons. His girlfriend Dora (Saldana) is supportive; his dad (Simmons) not so much, although there is clearly affection between them. It’s just that dear old dad wants his son to grow up and take responsibility, understanding that not every dream is achievable.

Rory and Dora (which sounds a bit like a preschoolers cartoon – couldn’t you have come up with better names than that?) eventually get married and wind up honeymooning in Paris (which is a bit pricey for struggling young newlyweds but let’s assume they got it as a gift) and while antique hunting Dora finds a beautiful old valise which she buys for Rory to use at his new job in the mailroom at a literary agency.

Still, Rory is depressed about his stalled career and wonders if he has the talent to be somebody. His depression begins to create a gulf between him and his friends and even between him and Dora. Then Rory finds a manuscript in the valise, one that has been sitting there for a long while. He begins reading it. He can’t put it down. It’s almost like a slap in the face; here is the novel he’s always wanted to write and someone else has written it. He becomes obsessed with it. He wants to know what it would be like to write something like that, so he takes the typewritten manuscript and types it, word for word including the misspelled words, into his laptop. He leaves it there and forgets about it.

But Dora finds it. She insists that he take it to an agent so he does. The agent (Ivanek) loves it. It gets published. The little book becomes a sensation. At first Rory feels guilty over plagiarizing the work but reasons that it was a means to an end; the novels he couldn’t get published now have deals and all due to this forgotten manuscript. He wins awards and becomes rich. His relationship with Dora becomes stronger.

One day while reading on a bench in Central Park, an old man (Irons) sidles up and sits nearby. The old man recognizes him and gets his copy of the book autographed. Then the old man tells him a story; the story of a young man (Barnes) in Paris after World War II. The young man becomes smitten with Celia (Arnezeder), a waitress in a sidewalk cafe. She falls in love with him. They marry but after a tragedy they separate. He becomes disconsolate without her. He writes a book, one he pours all his heart and soul into. The words flow out like a river. It is finished in two weeks.

He sends it to her and she reads it. She’s amazed and agrees to come home. Unfortunately, the valise she put the novel in got left aboard a train. It disappears – and it’s absence comes between the young man and Celia just as surely as a brick wall would.

The line between fiction and fact blurs a little in The Words. It isn’t about writing so much, although the demon in Rory that compels him to write, that compels him to be adored for it, is one I know all too well. But this is a story about guilt and how it gets into a relationship insidiously destroying it from within. It destroys people as well.

The three stories are all interrelated, but which ones are true and which ones are fantasy are pretty much left up to the interpretation of the audience (my take? All three). It is a story inside of a story within a story which while not an original means of telling a story is nonetheless not an easy one and takes a deft hand to pull off, which it is here.

It helps to have some strong performances from the male leads, and the filmmakers get them. Irons is one of those actors who looks and sounds great even when uttering banal lines. He’s memorable when onscreen and his scenes with Cooper are among the best in the movie. Quaid also has some fine moments although he is little more than a framing device. Still, there’s some thought and depth to his character.

The women don’t fare as well – Saldana gets the most screen time among them but for the most part the women in the movie aren’t developed quite as well as the men are. They are entirely reactive and serve either as ornaments or as plot devices. It’s not a commentary on them as actresses; more of a commentary on the writing.

It is meant to be literate and there is a bit of the hoity toity “writers are special” attitude that movies about writers sometimes get. And, as a movie about words, there are a lot of them. Much of the action moves through dialogue and there are voiceovers throughout. And while you may not see everything coming (to their credit the filmmakers refuse to spell things out although you can pretty much figure things out) the story isn’t what you’d call ground-breaking.

Still this is a smart movie that also appeals to the heart. The Old Man is a figure you will have a great deal of sympathy for, even though much of his dilemma is of his own making. I have to say I was inspired to go and do some writing after seeing this, even though that’s something I do every day. Writing movie reviews is one thing. Writing something that counts, something that means something to somebody and gives them insight to life or at least their own soul – that’s an entirely different thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful and literate. Inspires me to write. Fine performances by Irons, Quaid and Cooper.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly talky. Story is a bit been-there done-that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly rough language in certain places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rosamund Pike was considered for the role of Daniella but it eventually went to Olivia Wilde.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100. The reviews are horrible.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hoax

ERNEST HEMINGWAY LOVERS: The book that inspires the Young Man to writing is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Jackal

Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.