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Nashville Scene Slashing Pumpkins

"Halloween" sequel offers mild thrills...and more

By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman

AUGUST 10, 1998:  For anyone who remembers seeing Halloween in theaters way back in 1978, watching Halloween: H20 is like bumping into a former high-school classmate who now has a kid in college. The Scream movies made me feel old and curmudgeonly: I wasn't a hack 'n' slash nut the first time around, and the addition of jokey self-consciousness wasn't an improvement. But there was a certain fascination in the treatment of early-'80s slasher movies as a pop-culture canon as if in the 15 years since I left high school, the likes of When a Stranger Calls and Hell Night had become quaint, musty tomes ripe for deconstruction.

There's nothing musty about John Carpenter's Carter-era spook show, which capped a vintage year for horror movies (Romero's Dawn of the Dead and De Palma's The Fury among them). It pretty much established the vernacular of the modern horror film POV stalking shots, the fake-scare-real-scare double whammy, the multiple ending and despite countless imitations and rip-offs, it still pulverizes an audience. Nevertheless, it was made 20 years ago, and the movie has sequels that are older than its target demographic. H20 doesn't play like the continuation of a franchise; in spirit, suspense, and execution, it's more like attending a 20-year reunion.

When last we saw victimized baby-sitter Laurie Strode and I'm not sure which sequel this was, since the series has gone through enough guest victims for a banquet of Soylent Green she was cowering in the flaming corridors of a hospital. Meanwhile, the bogeyman, her heretofore indestructible brother Michael Myers, presumably broasted down the hall. The subsequent sequels continued without her, and now we know why: Laurie faked her own death to escape Michael's clutches. She married and divorced, changed her name, and took a job as headmistress of a boarding school in California. She now has a teenage son (Josh Hartnett), a drinking problem, and an understandable paranoia which turns out to be justified when Michael turns up one deserted weekend on the school grounds.

The director, Steve Miner, whose credentials include a couple of Friday the 13th sequels, doesn't have freshness on his side. The original Halloween came out after a spate of post-Watergate demonic-possession flicks, and its externalized menace and campfire-simple escaped-maniac plot came as a crisp shock. That shock wore off long before Halloween II. Furthermore, Carpenter booby-trapped every side, corner, and background of his wide Panavision screen with nasty surprises a technique that's standard operating procedure now.

Miner never delivers any of the body-blow jolts that made the original a sensation, perhaps because he doesn't spend as much time as Carpenter did establishing the characters and the nature of the small town in peril. The bulk of the action consists once again of people being chased through dark corridors, which isn't as innately compelling as the filmmakers seem to think. To Miner's credit, though, he relies more on atmosphere than splatter: The body count is admirably low, which is good the stalk 'n' slice scenes are the dullest in the movie. He even manages one deliciously creepy moment: Laurie shuts a heavy door only to find herself staring right into Michael's face on the other side.

Miner is helped a lot by Jamie Lee Curtis, who's a good enough actress to suggest the kind of toll 20 years of constant fear would exact on your nerves. In the late '70s, Laurie was a remarkably strong heroine (a Carpenter trademark): clearheaded and brave in times of crisis, tough enough to fight a muscle-bound killer to a draw using her wits. (A personification of sexual threat, he reaches for her with a steely, phallic knife; she lashes back with a coat hanger.) I can't believe after 20 years she'd drop a knife at a crucial moment good God, didn't she see Fatal Attraction? but Curtis nonetheless makes Laurie an engaging underdog, both as a potential victim and as a single working mom.

Calling H20 the best of the Halloween sequels is like calling Treet the best of the potted meats: The ingredients remain awfully dubious, and the end result tastes questionable. The movie has no point of view, no subtext: It doesn't even have the kicky satirical bent that gives a middling genre flick like Disturbing Behavior its mild distinction. Its 85 minutes click by with little offense and less inspiration. The time passes painlessly enough, though, especially with an audience of teens roaring their approval. Just forgive us geezers in the aisle seats for feeling not so much fear as a blush of nostalgia especially when a few frames of Carpenter's classic turn up in a dream sequence. Those moments only underscore how watered down H20 really is.

Jim Ridley

Action Jackson

Entertainment Weekly just published its list of the 25 greatest actors of the '90s, and right smack on the cover are Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, the costars of the just-released cop thriller The Negotiator. So the ante of this review has been raised. It's not enough to talk about The Negotiator as a taut, entertaining action picture that generates a surprising amount of suspense. Now it's also a meeting of the minds a collaboration between two of Hollywood's best.

Truth be told, it is the acting that elevates The Negotiator, though not just the acting of Spacey and Jackson. The supporting roles are populated by the likes of Ron Rifkin, David Morse, the late J.T. Walsh (in his final role), and Paul Giamatti (whose frequent, funny character roles are turning him into something of a national treasure). Meanwhile, Jackson gets to go all out as a Chicago hostage negotiator who takes hostages of his own after he's framed for murder and embezzlement. Spacey is a negotiator from another precinct who may be the only lawman that Jackson can trust.

The tension generated by such hoary clichés cop endangered by other cops, a race against time to find the truth, etc. is a credit to screenwriters James DeMonaco and David Fox, who play bait-and-switch with the plot so many times that the audience remains in the dark up to the closing scene. Also laudable is director F. Gary Gray, who can place this film alongside his underrated Set It Off as an example of how to establish a clean, compelling narrative out of material that could easily have been rendered incomprehensible. His only real mistake? Using composer Graeme Revell, whose bombastic score lends too much operatic overkill to this otherwise gut-level story.

Ultimately, though, this film really is a showcase for its leads, who work with and against each other in ways that are exciting to watch. As two men who know the tricks of each other's trade, Jackson and Spacey match wits in a series of moves and countermoves not unlike a chess game. There's plenty of action in The Negotiator, but the body-count is minimal this is a situation where brains matter more than bullets. To that end, there's no better actor for the job than Kevin Spacey, who is at his best when he's considering the angles and even lying outright to the other characters. (Think of Glengarry Glen Ross, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and his Oscar-winning turn in The Usual Suspects.)

The problem is, when Spacey is offscreen, Jackson flounders. He doesn't play off his stellar supporting cast as well as he does against Spacey; he overwhelms them with his big voice and cool charisma. This is becoming a problem with Sam Jackson, whom I daresay has been overrated as a leading man. Jackson has greatness in him he was brilliant in Jungle Fever, 187, The Great White Hype, and especially Pulp Fiction but he's begun to coast on a shticky acting style. Look at A Time to Kill or Sphere, in which he shifted from flat, rapid line readings to throaty shouts with little or no motivation. He was better in Jackie Brown, but even there he tended to lapse into a grating, inflectionless rap (until Robert Forster showed up to keep him honest).

Jackson is a fine actor, and has presence to spare, but if he doesn't watch out, he'll become like William Hurt or John Malkovich actors who dominated the '80s but are now wan parodies of their former greatness. The Negotiator is being received by many as the anointing of Sam Jackson, but it really just reconfirms the quality of Kevin Spacey. Jackson's canonization remains...well, negotiable.

Noel Murray

Cinderella liberties

The story of Cinderella has been the basis for movie screenplays since the days of the silents because it has a truly timeless theme. After all, love between members of different social strata will be around as long as the class system itself endures. But the problem with making a movie based on Cinderella is how to keep it fresh. Ever After: A Cinderella Story takes the novel tack of trying to imagine a realistic genesis for the Cinderella myth, and as long as it avoids the temptation to update the old story with contemporary attitudes, it's a uniquely satisfying version of the tale.

Anachronisms, however, cannot help but creep in from time to time, especially since that California chick Drew Barrymore is asked to play Danielle, a French country girl of the 16th century. After her father's death, Danielle has been relegated to a servant's role by the Baronness (Anjelica Huston), who is angling her snooty daughter for marriage to Prince Henry (Dougray Scott). But the prince gets an eyeful of Danielle, in disguise as a courtier, and an earful of her liberal theories on noblesse oblige. With the help of Leonardo da Vinci, improbably at court as a visiting genius, Danielle seeks to overcome royal prejudice and the schemes of her stepmother.

It's hard to get beyond Barrymore's game but misguided attempt at an accent not a French accent, of course, but the English accent that passes for generic European in American movies. She seems to be doing an Emma Thompson impression punctuated by violent head bobs and shakes to help her concentration. If this distraction can be ignored for a moment, lots of truly talented actors are doing great work in Ever After. Scott is more than just a princely, pretty face; he has a regal manner and a nicely self-deprecating sense of humor. Melanie Lynskey, as the dowdy stepsister Jacqueline, parries the insults of the Baronness with a sly wit. And Huston plays off the evil stepmother cliché with wicked glee, although the comeuppance awaiting her at movie's end is a bit strong, given that the script encourages us to feel some sympathy for her.

The real achievement of Ever After is how it fills out the Cinderella plot with enough detail to keep our attention and even surprise us once or twice. Settings, costumes, and historical tidbits give the movie sensuality and at least the illusion of smarts. If Barrymore had been replaced by a more believable performer, and if a few other loose ends had been cleaned up, it might have been an unqualified success. Even in its flawed state, it will awaken romance in the heart of any girl over the age of 8. Ignore the incomprehensible PG-13 rating, and take the preteens but be prepared for their disappointment when Sir Thomas More's Utopia doesn't prove quite as accessible as Danielle makes it sound.

Donna Bowman

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