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Battle ready: Cage in Windtalkers.

Code Blues
By Ann Morrow

Directed by John Woo

Windtalkers starts out as an old-ashioned World War II movie about placing human life above military imperatives, and stars Nicolas Cage as Joe Enders, a gung-ho Marine physically and psychically damaged while doing battle on the Solomon Islands. With his hangdog eyes and barracks physique, Cage conveys anguished heroism with a minimum of emotive fuss—the best possible approach, considering that the film’s director is John Woo, the trapeze artiste of violence. As the platoon is cut down one by one, Woo combines the harrowing realism ushered in by Saving Private Ryan with the tight-focus inventiveness of his Hong Kong actioners: Never have bayonets appeared so lethal.

Too bad this fearsome sequence belongs in another movie. Windtalkers ostensible subject is the Navajo soldiers whose complex, unwritten dialect was encrypted into an unbreakable radio code that helped to secure the Pacific theater, a potentially fascinating drama that is relegated to subplot in this blood-and-guts parade of clichéd World War II melodrama. The story of the first 30 or so “code talkers” who risked their lives for a country that didn’t exactly deserve their patriotism merely provides a framework for Joe to work out his guilt and find redemption in the heat of Woo’s crisply grisly battle scenes.

While Joe stoically endures the ministrations of a love-struck nurse (Frances O’Connor) and hastily recuperates from an incinerated ear, two Navajos from the same Arizona reservation participate in a training class that gives the audience the barest idea of the workings of the code. Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) is a proud but amiable young father; and Charlie Whitehorse (newcomer Roger Willie) is thin-skinned and taciturn. Since Charlie is not a young idealist like Ben, it would’ve been interesting to find out a smidgen of his motivation, but mostly, Charlie seems to be around to play his flute and provide the film’s wistful interludes with authentically mournful music.

Joe’s guilt-ridden desperation to return to the front lines is rewarded with a high-priority mission: escorting one of the Navajos during the invasion of occupied Saipan. The Japanese have broken every previous encryption, and Joe is told to protect the Navajo code at all costs—the talker being expendable (a not-very-likely scenario considering their value to the war effort). Joe is paired with Ben, and the utterly extraneous “Ox” (Christian Slater) gets Charlie. Ben and Charlie, “the Injuns,” get a lot of bigoted razzing from the standard-issue GIs making up the Saipan platoon. Wide-eyed Mark Ruffalo (extraordinary as the brother in You Can Count on Me) is wasted as an excitable Greek-American, and pastrami-faced Noah Emmerich plays the racist Midwesterner who could’ve been recruited out of any of a half-dozen recent war movies. The banter between Joe, who has a harder shell than an armored tank, and Ben, a good-natured ball buster, is the only talking part of Windtalkers that doesn’t feel as if it were scripted from Pearl Harbor outtakes.

The rest of the movie is composed of acrobatic dismemberments and bombardments, with each bloody skirmish serving to advance the male bonding instead of the conquest of Saipan. Woo seems stymied by the familiarity of combat—once you’ve seen one Marine blown spread-eagled into the air, you’ve seen ’em all—but strategically, all the bombing and bayoneting helps the audience to bypass the crucial contributions of the code talkers as completely as the film does.

The Con Is On

Nine Queens
Directed by Fabián Belinski

For months, when anybody asked me if I’d seen any good movies lately, the only one I could recommend wholeheartedly was Lantana. After this weekend, I have a second recommendation, and I advise everybody out there to make haste to the Spectrum to see Nine Queens before it leaves this area.

This Spanish-language film, which won an Argentinean Film Critics Association Award, is reminiscent of David Mamet’s House of Cards in that it concerns an elaborate con, one that is perpetuated by smooth operator Marcos (Ricardo Darín) and rougher-around-the-edges Juan (Gastón Pauls). During what starts out as a sort of training day for the younger Juan, who has been rescued from likely arrest by the more worldly Marcos, the two stumble upon the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to sell counterfeits of priceless rare stamps (the title entity) for a fortune. The delicate maneuverings that go into this precious deal, each involving another layer of payback and deceit, mount to a point where the suspense is palpable, and we can’t help but wonder who in this motley arrangement is conning whom.

Writer-director Fabián Belinski adroitly conveys the idea that there are two types of people in this world, con artists of all degrees and the rest of us, and this conceit is depicted with panache and, often, great humor. The viewer finds himself caring to varying degrees about these crooks, and admiring their respective abilities, which makes the possibility of the whole enterprise blowing up in Marcos’ and Juan’s faces that much more deliciously thrilling. Darín and Pauls are both compelling, as is the statuesque Leticia Bredice, who plays Marco’s estranged sister Valeria. An interesting twist in the story revolves around the fact that the Nine Queens deal must be conducted in the swank hotel at which Valeria and younger brother Frederico work seemingly all hours, having been swindled out of their share of their grandparents’ estate by Marco. Ultimately, Marco needs Valeria’s help to nail the deal with slithery stamp aficionado Vidal Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal), pressuring already strained family loyalty in a way that adds even more surprising twists to an intricate story structure.

As if it’s not enough just having a superbly written and acted caper film, Nine Queens bears the added benefit of eerily mirroring, with its scenes of commonplace petty thievery and labyrinthine cons, the political situation of Argentina [the film was completed just prior to that country’s latest political and economic crises]. Cinematographer Marcelo Camorino’s work gives the feel that we’re watching subtle espionage at work, and that we’re watching something very crucial taking place, even if we’re not quite sure what. Throughout, the audience can’t help but be swept away by the undeniable love that Bielinsky and company have for movies and their power to seduce.

—Laura Leon

Every Dog Has Its Day

Directed by Raja Gosnell

Even though a great many aspects of this live-action version of the crudely drawn Hanna-Barbara cartoon “classic” stink, it still manages to be entertaining. Chalk this up to one thing, the fact that Scooby-Doo gets the most important aspect of the show right: the characters.

In case this cultural icon has remained off your radar, a big dog and four teenagers have been solving mysteries on Saturday mornings since the fall of 1969. This crew is mod, man. Scooby-Doo is an endlessly hungry, sweetly innocent, consistently cowardly Great Dane. Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is a blond stud with big shoulders and an ascot. Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a red-headed damsel in a lavender miniskirt, always perfectly coiffed even when carted off by monsters. Velma (Linda Cardellini) is the brainy nerd, and a little bit butch with her glasses and sensible sweater. Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) is a hippie with a perpetual case of the munchies, and inseparable from his pal Scooby-Doo, the talking dog who has a serious problem with consonants. They travel around in a groovy van called “The Mystery Machine.”

The show was always loaded with subtext, which has probably contributed to its enduring appeal. Are Fred and Daphne getting it on? Is Velma gay? Are Shaggy and Scooby stoned all the time? With good humor, the film toys with these ideas without becoming ridiculous. Cardellini and Lillard are very funny as Velma and Shaggy. They both nail their characters’ distinctive voices and mannerisms, making them cartoonish and human at the same time. Scooby is the result of very expensive animation—reportedly a quarter of the film’s monstrous budget—and still captures the charm of the original. There is also a hilarious cameo by the dreaded Scrappy-Doo, an obnoxious, universally loathed Great Dane puppy added to the cast in the late ’70s (and since happily banished).

Let’s get through the film’s failures quickly. The mise en scene is horrifically cluttered. As if to overcompensate for the crudely drawn original, the film is jammed with overdressed sets, every shot an orgy of excess. The plot is inane, indiscriminately and incoherently swiping bits from assorted junk zombie horror flicks. Don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but apparently the filmmakers forgot that a saving grace of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? was the consistent theme that ghosts and monsters aren’t real. (With Sarah Michelle Gellar in the cast, the film occasionally seems like Daphne the Vampire Slayer.) David Newman’s music ranges from merely awful to atrocious, aurally cluttering the film with embarrassing sentimentality and distracting bombast.

That said, there’s still hope for the franchise as long as Lillard and Carellini are in the cast, Warner Bros. is willing to spend millions to create the animated pooch, and the next set of filmmakers realize that, when it comes to Hanna-Barbara cartoon characters, less is definitely more.

—Shawn Stone

Forget About It

The Bourne Identity
Directed by Doug Limon

It’s Bourne again for Robert Ludlum’s durable novel of espionage. Apparently he was not content with the superior 1988 made-for-TV version that starred Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne, a lethally effective secret agent suffering from a dangerous case of amnesia. The shorter big-screen treatment has far less detail, especially in character development, but then, who would really want to spend any more time with Matt Damon’s boring Bourne?

The action, involving assassins and duplicity, stems from Bourne’s attempt to discover his identity after he is fished out of the ocean with two bullets in his back and a high-tech implant in his neck. The road to recovery suggests that he is an agent for the CIA with an uncanny ability to survive diverse threats. Because he has a safety deposit box with a host of different passports, the straightening out of his identity proves more difficult than fleeing unknown enemies and dispatching his assailants. Highly charged and looking quite realistic, those sequences involving martial-arts combat and car chases are the chief reason to justify the big-screen treatment.

But then, these are not really at the heart of Ludlum’s sharp plotting and character development in the novel. And although Ludlum served as executive producer, his clever story is reduced to a rough framework for the physical action. His real craft was much better served in the TV version that ran almost an hour longer and benefited greatly from Richard Chamberlain’s deeper, more complex and far more human performance. Although he looks cool and professional as he scales a wall and engages in well-edited fights, Damon is a very limited actor who creates no empathy.

Franka Potente (Run, Lola, Run), as Bourne’s initially reluctant savior, is another matter. Highly skilled at action, Potente offers a dimension absent in Damon and is a fascinating presence whose face is alive with conflicting thoughts and emotions. Too bad Ludlum didn’t get with the times and update his novel with a female Bourne (on the order, say, of Jennifer Garner’s Sydney in Alias); Potente would have been far more potent than Damon.

—Ralph Hammann

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