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

Piranha 3D


Piranha 3D

Jerry O'Connell gets a little skinnier during his dip.

(2010) Horror (Dimension) Jerry O’Connell, Elizabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, Steven R. McQueen. Richard Dreyfuss, Ving Rhames, Jessica Szohr, Kelly Brook, Riley Steele, Adam Scott, Ricardo Chavira, Dina Meyer, Paul Scheer. Directed by Alexandre Aja

Some movies get remade so that their story can be reinterpreted. Others, as a means of homage to the original filmmakers. Still others are plain and simple a cash grab.

This one is one of the latter. French director Alexandre Aja directed the impressive High Tension in 2003, but has been exiled to remake land since coming to Hollywood. He already has remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors to his credit and now he takes on Joe Dante’s 1978 schlock exploitation classic of the same name, only throwing in some after-the-fact 3D conversion to pull in the crowds.

The movie is only loosely based on the 1978 original, maintaining only the broad concept of prehistoric carnivorous fish attacking a beach resort. In a kind of tribute to the era (although not necessarily the original film which I admit I haven’t seen in about 20 years and remember very little of) Aja has amped up the blood and boob quotient, throwing in lots of bare-breasted and bikini clad babes to get their bare flesh consumed in a kind of orgy of adolescent boy fantasy frenzy.

Yes, there’s a plot but does it really matter? Jerry O’Connell is a sleazebag who shoots light porn vignettes a la “Girls Gone Wild” (whose Joe Francis has taken legal action against O’Connell and the producers for what he considers slanderous depictions of him as a drug-using, exploitative meathead for which I can only say if the shoe fits). He is visiting the spring break resort at Lake Victoria just as Spring Break festivities are getting underway.

There is a plucky sheriff (Shue), a crazed marine biologist (Lloyd) and of course the heroic sheriff’s son who disobeys not only her instructions but simple common sense as well. Dreyfuss is stunt cast as a fisherman who is the first victim (he gets about three minutes of screen time) whose name alludes to his character in Jaws. Most of the target audience however not only won’t get the reference, they won’t care much.

The camp factor is off the scale; definitely you have to watch this understanding that there is a tongue planted firmly in cheek, although you’re not necessarily sure whose tongue and whose cheek. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love naked breasts and gory fish food as much as the next guy (which is a lot) but I need more. Maybe not every adolescent boy who dreams of beautiful girls in bikinis needs a plot or characters who aren’t caricatures but while I can enjoy this on a visceral level (and I do), I simply can’t recommend it for discerning audiences.

WHY RENT THIS: Revels in its B movie-ness. Plenty of gore and boobs in a throwback to films of the era when the original was made.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too over-the-top with the camp. The acting varies from atrocious to forgettable.

FAMILY VALUES: A surfeit of fish violence, blood and gore as well as lots of bare breasts and sexuality. The language is a bit rough too and there’s a scene of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set on Texas’ Lake Victoria, the movie was actually filmed at Arizona’s Lake Havasu. The tequila brand used on the boat is Havasu as a kind of sly tribute to the filming location.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.2M on a $24M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Immortals