IN THE COMPANY OF MEN
CONSPIRACY THEORY - COPLAND - SPAWN

IN THE COMPANY OF MEN

Winner of the 1997 Filmmakers' Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival, "In the Company of Men" arrives on a wave of controversy. Writer/director Neil LaBute goes the low-budget, independent router in order to bring his nasty tale of two white collar men, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), who, fed up with their treatment by woman, decide to pick a random wallflower and romance her for the sheer thrill of inflicting emotional pain by dumping her. To underscore their cruelty, the woman Chad targets for their scheme is a pretty deaf woman.

Laura LAURA:
Word from Sundance was that "In the Company of Men" resulted in many walkouts. The film clearly had its champions as well as detractors, however, some even going so far as to call it a feminist film. The movie's not so much about the battle of the sexes, though, as it is about power, and it's no where near as harsh or nasty as its reputation would have you believe.

LaBute and his two lead actors paint two very interesting characters in a partnership that somewhat resembles the Leopold and Loeb thrill killing case that resulted in Orson Welles' film "Compulsion" and Hitchcocks "Rope."

Chad and Howard's character development is the clever part of the script. Aaron Eckhart plays Chad as a completely confident charmer who's pure evil - his only driving force is in own self satisfaction. Matt Malloy has the more difficult role to play as Howard, though, a man who is Chad's boss but is inferior to his underling in every way. Howard is a prematurely balding, kind of lumpish nerd, without the intelligence to pick up on Chad's witty, mean-spirited cultural references. He's a pathetic loser who makes the audience feel sorry for him before they realize he's every bit as self-serving as Chad. Stacy Edwards does a fair job as Christine, the mousy deaf typist who blossoms under the two mens' attentions.

The story itself isn't quite as cleverly played out. If you haven't figured out Chad's real agenda by about the half way point, you probably haven't seen very many movies. On the other hand, the concept is original enough in its non-Hollywood way, to maintain interest in watching the actors play it out. The final scene is also very well handled ending on an intriguing freeze-framed image.

The film also shows its low budget too clearly, with almost every scene playing in cramped, shabby interiors. Chad can't come across as quite the evil corporate climber he's intended to be when the company offices resemble a Motel 6 in some depressed Midwestern city. Technical credits such as cinematography and sound are also somewhat substandard.

Kudos for two fine peformances and some interesting writing, but overall a vague disappointment - I give "In the Company of Men" a B-.

ROBIN:
The structure of the story told in "In the Company of Men" is relatively simple: Two guys, one the subordinate to the other, are away from home for six weeks. Both are single and admit to each other that they have just been dumped by their girlfriends. The underling, Chad (Aaron Eckhart), is a savvy, competent executive who suggests to his boss an idea for their amusement while away: the two of them woo a susceptible young woman, then, when their stint is up, dump her hard. The joke, as Chad sees it, is that "she'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week and, you and me, we'll laugh about this until we're very old men." Chad's boss, Howard (Matt Malloy), reluctantly, goes along with the plan.

The draw (not attraction) to "In the Company of Men" is Eckhart as Chad. The intriguing, and, equally, disturbing, aspect of Chad's character is the utter lack of compassion displayed by the man. He represents an attitude, hopefully, in extremis, of male chauvinism and misogyny that treats woman as mere objects to be toyed with and cast away. Woman are not people in Chad's mind. To his defense, Chad isn't really just prejudiced against women. He hates everyone. Chad is so extreme in his hate, however, that there is little in the man's emotional makeup that I can identify with, and virtually nothing that I like.

The subtlety of Chad's scheme is in his thorough manipulation of the other players in his game. His agenda is, on the surface, to build up the emotional feelings of a woman, a stranger, then dump her hard. Beneath this malicious game are Chad's other desires - to push Howard out and, more importantly, to be the puppetmaster of his world, with no concern for those he exploits for his personal amusement. His victims, Christine and Howard, don't matter. They are his pawns and Chad is the master of his universe.

Supporting players, Stacy Edwards (Christine) and Matt Malloy (Howard), are symbols of Chad's disdain. Both are overshadowed by the sheer power of Aaron Eckhart's performance.

I'm glad I don't know anyone quite like Chad. He does makes "In the Company of Men" a compelling, but not likable, film.

A powerhouse lead performance makes me give "In the Company of Men" a B-.


CONSPIRACY THEORY

Jerry Fletcher drives a New York taxi cab and sees conspiracies on all levels. He can't explain his sudden flashbacks to needles, smokestacks and cartoons, but, he firmly believes he has uncovered a plot by NASA to assassinate the President of the United States with an earthquake. This is the start of "Conspiracy Theory," starring Mel Gibson as Jerry, and Julia Roberts as Alice Sutton, a Justice Department attorney who is the only person that Jerry trusts.

Alice believes Jerry to be a likable crackpot and goes along with his ravings until, one day, his kidnap by, and escape from, government spooks prompts her to believe there's more to Jerry and his nutty theories than meets the eye.

ROBIN:
Of all of the Hollywood dreck to come down the pike this summer, "Conspiracy Theory" has the distinction of being the most sterile of the big-budget action features. There is no blood in the veins of this film, providing an anemic conspiracy thriller that is little more than a showcase for its high-pay actors and director (Richard Donner).

Mel Gibson provides the charm and physical ability one expects, but is miscast in the role of Jerry Fletcher. The character calls for someone quirkier and not anywhere near as good looking as Mel. Gibson twitches and jerks around a bit early on, trying to give some indication that he's a man with problems, but doesn't carry it through the rest of the film. A lower budget character actor would have been more suited to the role. Or, if a big name is required, Dustin Hoffman might have been a better choice.

Julia Roberts is not bad as the heroine. How her character is written is silly. She becomes ninja attorney, going toe-to-toe with the evil government bad guys to help Jerry uncover the truth about his past. It's the first performance by Julia that I don't dislike.

Supporting cast, except for Patrick Stewart, are totally generic and without any distinction. Stewart, too, is as sterile in his role as the evil psychiatrist running the secret mind-control program as is the rest of the film. Cylk Cozart, as FBI agent Lowry, is the only second-tier character to show any kind of depth.

The story, by New Bedford native Brian Helgeland, starts off with Gibson's manic spouting of his theories of conspiracy, cover-up and government deceit to anyone who'll listen. It's oddball and crazy paced, establishing Jerry as an amiable nut immediately. This changes quickly and radically as the specter of a secret government operation - using people, like Jerry, as victims of dastardly mind control experiments - comes to the forefront. At this point, things get muddled and confused. I lost track of who did what to whom by film's end. Nor, did I care.

"Conspiracy Theory" is the rice cake of summer entertainment. There's nothing to it and it is totally unsatisfying.

No bang for the buck here. I give "Conspiracy Theory" a C.

Laura LAURA:
The producer, director and star of the "Lethal Weapon" series reunite for "Conspiracy Theory," an action adventure romantic thriller starring Mel Gibson as Jerry Fletcher, a seemly crazy cab driver who believes everything in life is a conspiracy plot. Jerry's also obsessed with Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), a Justic Department investigator still trying to solve her father's murder long after the case has been closed.

Jerry lives in a fortified, bunker-like apartment which he never enters via the front door. He writes a newsletter (the titular Conspiracy Theory) with five subscribers where he airs such ideas as a NASA plot to assassinate the president (he's noticed that major earthquakes always seem to occur when the space shuttle is in orbit). When he's kidnapped and tortured by the mysterious Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart) in a scene that's terrifyingly surrealistic, he manages to escape via one humorous mishap after the next and seeks refuge with Sutton, who begins to at least believe that Jerry is in some kind of danger.

Julia Roberts suprises me for the second time this year by giving a performance that doesn't soley rely on two or three facial expressions. She's quite OK as Alice, a woman who veers between feeling sorry for Jerry and getting a restraining order against him. Mel Gibson, on the other hand, is a major disappointment as Jerry - I found his performance to be alternately endearing (overly so) and annoying. Gibson keeps his brow furrowed, babbles a lot, and acts childish in order to portray nutcase Jerry. The supporting case is largely unremarkable, with the exception of a winning performance by Cylk Cozart as Agent Lowry, presented to Alice and Jerry as a cop, but actually another player in the large global conspiracy game.

"Conspiracy Theory" moves along at a nice clip, taking enough good twists and turns along the way to keep one's interest. Overall, though, it has the substance of vapor - it's the one movie I've watched recently that I keep forgetting I've seen.

C+ 


COPLAND

Sylvester Stallone attempts to give himself a career makeover a la Bruce Willis by swapping his brawn for some beef as a New Jersey sherriff in "Copland," an independent film by writer/director James Mangold ("Heavy").

Garrison, New Jersey is a small town where many New York city cops choose to call home. Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Stallone) aspired to be one of these slick guys but a heroic act to save a woman from drowning years earlier has left him deaf in one ear and uneligible for the job. He's a lame duck sheriff in a town ruled by corrupt cops until an internal affairs investigator (Robert DeNiro) asks for his assistance with a case where one of Garrison's own, an off duty cop, presumably shot two people to death in self defense, then jumped to his death. That young cop's Uncle Ray (Harvey Keitel) is the virtual creater of Garrison, aka Copland, and the real power in the town.

Laura LAURA:
"Copland" is crammed with acting talent, although, ironically, its Oscar-nominated star (for "Rocky"), Sylvester Stallone, lobbied for this role to attempt to redefine his career a la Bruce Willis and John Travolta in the independent "Pulp Fiction," gaining over forty pounds to get into the character of Sheriff Freddy Heflin.

In fact, "Copland's" cast is largely made up actors known for their work in the greatest of Martin Scorcese's films. Robert DeNiro gained considerably more weight and went on to win the Oscar for "Raging Bull," which co-starred Cathy Moriarty, here playing the wife of Harvey Keitel, who co-starred with DeNiro in "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver." Ray Liotta's career-defining role was in "Goodfellas" as a coke addicted mobster whose life was intertwined with DeNiro's, while in "Copland" he's a coke-addicted cop whose life is intertwined with Harvey Keitel's. Couldn't writer/director James Mangold find a place for Joe Pesci in "Copland?"

So how well does Stallone fare against this formidable group of acting heavyweights? He's sympathetic, if a bit too forelornly wistful, but certainly doesn't embarrass himself. "Copland" will not do for his career what "Pulp Fiction" did for Travolta's, but it's not a bad start. He's touching when, slightly inebriated, he shuffles out of Garrison's cops' bar in rubber beach thongs to liberate a parking meter of quarters to continue feeding the pinball machine. He seems a bit foolish when he 'rescues' a stuffed green turtle dropped by a little girl and makes his rounds around the town with it under his arm. Mangold's script should maybe take some of the blame for what's lacking in this characterization.

The real firepower comes from the aforementioned Scorcese vets. Ray Liotta is particularly interesting as a bad cop who leaves us wondering where his conscience will lead him. DeNiro is also in top form in a smaller role as a jaded internal affairs investigator with a flair for psychology. Keitel is solid as the most corrupt of the cops, a big fish in a small, self-created pond with important political connections. Cathy Moriarty is perfect as his blowsy, cheating wife who does what she can to stymie her husband's nefarious plans.

Also of note are Michael Rappaport ("Mighty Aphrodite"), as the bewildered cop on the lam and Robert Patrick ("Terminator II") as Keitel's ever present right-hand man.

Garrison is a community with a dark underbelly including murderous secrets and illicit affairs. Sheriff Heflin is supposedly awakened to this reality during the course of the film, yet oddly, seems to know and accept certain facts all along.

Mangold's created a pretty well paced, exciting flick, but his script could have used a final polish or two. I was particularly disappointed when an otherwise pretty dynamic climax (featuring a magnificent use of sound to convey a world of deafness punctuated with the bagpipes which play at policemen's funerals) featured such silly cliches as bullets intended to take out the 'good guy' missing their mark by an unbelievably wide margin. On the other hand, Mangold did resist letting his hero get the girl, winding down on a more bittersweet note.

B

ROBIN:
Coming up to the plate for his second at bat, writer/director James Mangold ("Heavy") heads the much ballyhooed production of "Cop Land," the film that is expected to do for Sylvester Stallone's sagging career what "Pulp Fiction" did for John Travolta.

Stallone is Sheriff Freddy Heflin, the paunchy, middle-aged constable of the town of Garrison, New Jersey. Crime in his town is the lowest in the state, mainly due to the fact that most of the NYPD 37th Precinct moved their families to this hamlet years ago. Freddy, denied the chance of being a big city cop by a heroic act in his youth which cost him the hearing in one ear, is treated as the cops' pet, never being taken seriously, but allowed to hang around them. Freddy is happy just to be around these officers of his coveted NYPD.

This is the state of things as "Cop Land" opens with a bang - NYPD cop Murray Babitch (Michael Rappaport), on his way home to Garrison after a night out in the big city, is side-swiped by a couple of joyriders. When he races after them, he believes they point a gun at him and responds with own weapon, killing the two, then crashing into them.

The ensuing coverup and policeman-hero Murray's faked suicide are presided over by his uncle, Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), the cop who first instigated the move to Garrison. The story follows the cops' efforts to protect one of their own, then, as things go awry, intrigue to get rid of the problematic Murray, who knows about Ray's, and others, involvement with the mob. Sheriff Freddy's desire to be an NYPD police officer draws him into the cabal, where he uncovers the inherent corruption in Garrison and is forced to do something about it.

"Cop Land" is a fair telling of a wild west story in a 1990's setting. Freddy may be the local "law," but, in Garrison, the cops who live there make the rules. The elite members of this NYPD brotherhood are above local legal jurisdiction, so infractions of the town laws (like, going 71 mph in a school zone) are de riguer, leaving Sheriff Freddy hamstrung in trying to control the uncontrollable. The cops are the Clanton Gang (but, legal), Freddy is a second rate Wyatt Earp, and Garrison is Tombstone. There is even an OK Corral-type duel, with Ray Liotta's Figs playing the Doc Holiday role. It's not "High Noon" or "My Darlin' Clementine," but it ain't bad as westerns go.

Performances are enthusiastic, but, with such an embarrassment of acting richs present, "Cop Land" is hard pressed to provide enough material for any one of the talented cast to chew on. Ray Liotta, as "Figs" Figgis - a cop who's partner was murdered in prison, apparently while cooperating with police CID in a corruption investigation involving the 37th Precinct - is given the most opportunity to flesh out his character into a real person. More, even, than Stallone, who is the star.

Stallone, I do not think, will be making the career turnaround with his performance as Sheriff Freddy. His perf consists, generally, of a wistful look as he suffers the humiliation at the hands of the real cops in town. He's in the big leagues, acting-wise, in "Cop Land" and is going to have to do better if he expects to break with actioners and become an actor.

Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Michael Rappaport, Robert Patrick, et al, give solid performances across the board. None of them, except Liotta, is given the chance to flesh the characters out to anything more than symbols. There is just too darn much talent on board to allow more than cursory character development.

Tech credits are fair, without anything of note, except the fast and violent car chase and killing that punctuates the start of the film. Once the punch scene is done, "Cop Land" hunkers down to its task of telling its story of corruption and redemption, moving to a logical and, thankfully, singular, ending.

James Mangold's script is too sparse to take advantage of the talented cast. The film's run time of about 100 minutes does not give this terrific group of actors the opportunity to develop their characters. This is one of the rare times I complain about a film being too short.

The industry buzz on "Cop Land" has been incredibly hyped these past months, so expectations are high. A more vigorous handling of the screenplay, or fewer name actors, may have raised "Cop Land" up a bit to meet this hype. Still, it's an interesting parable/western and, perhaps, a start for Stallone's new career. I give "Cop Land" a B.


SPAWN

"Spawn," based on the popular comic book series by Todd McFarlane, is the latest of the comic superheroes to come to life on the big screen.

He's Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), a high profile assassin for the CIA. His professional life has always been for the "good" cause, even if his methods side with evil (murder and mayhem are his way of life). This evil aspect of Al makes him a prime candidate as leader of the Devil's army, causing the hit man to become a victim of the forces of evil, led, on earth, by the ruthless Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen as the sinister minion of the Devil).

Al's betrayal, and subsequent murder, by Wynn, plunges the CIA killer into the bowels of Hell, where he makes a pact with the Devil, himself. Al, now Spawn, agrees to lead the Lord of Hell's forces of evil over the face of the earth, then, into Heaven itself. But, there's a price - he wants back his beloved wife, Wanda (Theresa Randle).

ROBIN:
"Spawn" is an ambitious film that tries really hard to cover a great deal of territory, from the Apocalypse and a Bosch-like vision of Hell to the relationship between Spawn and his dog, Spaz. This is a plus and a minus. On the plus side, first-time director Mark A.Z. Dippe and his creative crew have put together a remarkably slick looking little flick that uses (now) routine special effects to good use. Spawn's morphing into his impregnable armor - with huge, billowing, red cape - looks great.

The image of Hell takes on Dante-eque proportions in its fiery depiction of pain, suffering and, yes, fire, as Spawn goes back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead. Herein lies the minus side of "Spawn." The film tries too darn hard to tell its multi-layered story, jumping from Spawn's desire to possess his wife, Wanda, (even though he's dead and grotesque - yuck!), to doing battle with the Devil to stop the hostile takeover of Heaven. Did I say "ambitious?"

There is a goodly amount of time spent in some unexplained place called "The Alley," where everyone is supposed to be good, or something, but life really sucks. I could not figure it out.

Of the cast, John Leguizamo, as the Devil's henchman, Clown, is the most sinister harlequin since "Killer Klowns From Outer Space." Leguizamo gets to deliver a nonstop banter of flatulence joke, bad table manners and all around disgusting behavior as he, first, recruits Spawn, then, when rejected by his conscript, tries to do him in.

Nicol Williamson and Martin Sheen, two fine actors, are given little to do besides mouth their line as the good warrior and the human rep of the Devil, respectively.

The well done comic book flavor of "Spawn" will appeal to its fans and fans of the genre. It's a good looking film that gets high marks for trying its heart out with a complex story. Too bad the complexity is more than the makers can get their arms around.

I give "Spawn" a B-.

Laura LAURA:
"Spawn" is an unlikely comic book hero. Michael Jai White is Al Simmons, an assassin with a Top Secret U.S. agency who kills for 'good,' but decides to quit the biz when his latest directive results in the deaths of innocent bystanders. His boss (Martin Sheen) seems to believe that the end justifies the means and convinces Al to go on that inevitable 'one last mission' along with himself and female agent Priest, ostensibly to destroy chemical warfare plants in Korea. Of course, Sheen really intends to utilize these weapons himself to take over the world ('natch) and gets rid of Simmons in a firey blaze. Simmons descends immediately to hell, where he makes a pact with the devil to lead the devil's army in exchange for a chance to see his wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) again. Simmons is now Spawn (as in hellspawn), and he's given a sidekick, Clown (John Leguizamo), to keep him on his hellish course.

The film really only succeeds in two areas - John Leguizamo's manically, corrosively entertaining performance as Clown and spectacular visual effects. Clown himself is something of an effect - Leguizamo is made to appear about four feet tall with an unnaturally large face in makeup that's reminiscent of "Killer Klowns from Outer Space." Clown's the type of guy who finds a maggot-ridden piece of pizza in the trash and scarfs it down anyway, commenting "I hate anchovies." His idea of a good time is kicking puppies. Clown can also convert himself into a fifteen foot demon which bears more than a passing resemblance to a bad Gremlin.

Spawn sports horrific burn makeup, but his new action hero identity enables him to coat himself in a black shell with a headpiece that looks like a high tech motorcycle helmet and chains tipped in sharp hooks which he can control with his mind. He also sports the most fantastic red cape in comic history - a huge, billowing almost lifelike blood colored shroud. For all that, Spawn ends up coming across as pretty bland.

We know Sheen's a bad guy when early on, he stubs out his cigarette in an ashtry that's actually a terrarium for two live scorpions. That's about the extent of his character development. His henchwoman Priest is an evil cross between Aeon Flux and Emma Peel with a yuk-yuk name who's dispatched rather early. Theresa Randle ("Girl 6") is an underdeveloped plot contrivance as Wanda Simmons. D.B. Sweeney is Simmons' former colleague Terry in a likeable, if slight, performance. The fact that he married Wanda after Al's death is supposed to cast some doubt as to which side he's on.

"Spawn" is an extremely derivative movie, stealing most blatantly from the far superior "The Crow" in both look and several plot points (Spawn finds a locket at his grave, Spawn's bullet wounds heal themselves before our eyes, Spawn befriends a kid, it's usually raining). However, the sets and effects are first rate, particularly the painterly, otherworldly scenes of hell. (Unfortunately, the devil himself is a major disappoint, looking like a muppet controlled by strings with no attempt at lip synching.) The opening credits are artfully done, strongly influenced by those of "Seven." The city itself could be the same one inhabitted by the Crow. The soundtrack features many hot artists.

"Spawn's" a fair effort with real treats for the eye.

C


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