Summer at the movies

Culture | More end-of-the-world and other cultural buzz

Issue: "DeLay: Cracking the whip," July 18, 1998

Revelation is a lot scarier
With all the calamity that New York has seen in movies released this year, the millennium bug should be no sweat. In Armageddon (Touchstone, rated PG-13 for disaster action, sensuality, and language) the destruction comes early in the movie, as the harbinger of things to come. There's an asteroid the size of Texas heading toward Earth. Bruce Willis and his buddies are the only ones who can save us. Like the Robert Duvall character in Deep Impact, the other movie on the same subject, our hero leads a space mission to nuke the big rock before it crashes into the ocean. Mr. Willis plays a top-notch oil driller with a crew recruited to be astronauts so they can dig a hole in the asteroid's surface to plant the bomb. Naturally, this gives Armageddon the chance to eat up a lot of screen time showing us a rowdy bunch of misfits. Most prominent is Ben Affleck. He plays a young hotshot seeking to win the approval of Mr. Willis, along with his daughter's hand in marriage. Interestingly, there is a strong father/daughter theme. The father, Willis, rightly objects when he catches his daughter in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend. She is rebellious, but he is always protective. Finally, he sacrifices himself for the boyfriend (not to mention the Earth) so that his daughter can marry the boyfriend. Meanwhile, Billy Bob Thornton is trying to keep the pieces together back at mission control. Even though the movie drags on for over two and a half hours, this misnamed Armageddon never shows any signs of divine judgment. Another huge problem with this movie is that, in the face of sure doom, no one stops to consider seriously his standing before God and what he will face in eternity. (Armageddon does show the world going to multicultural places of worship when the end is near, and though there is a lot of profanity, there is also a lot of explicit prayer.) Armageddon is one of those movies following the Independence Day trend of giving summer audiences the film equivalent of a carnival ride. After watching this movie, it was hard to figure out what took so long. This is epic sci-fi that looks like a lion but plays like a mouse. It's a fun summertime diversion, and not much more. For a real Armageddon, read the Book of Revelation. Doing little of value
Who would have believed that Eddie Murphy would take over a role made famous by Rex Harrison? This bit of adventurous casting is called Doctor Dolittle (20th Century Fox, rated PG-13 for crude humor and language), and it takes great liberties with the 1967 movie and Hugh Lofting's stories. Nothing survives except name and concept. This Dolittle repressed his ability to talk to animals as a kid, but it returns with a vengeance after he almost runs over a dog. All the animals discover that there's a human who can hear them and rush to his house to be cured by the good doctor. Soon life goes bonkers because of his newfound friends, who were created by the late Jim Henson's Creature Shop and voiced by comedians. So Dolittle must save a sick circus tiger and stay out of the hands of an evil HMO while his colleagues are trying to have him committed. This also follows a predictable course. Out go the imagination and music of 30 years ago. In comes a pile of often crude humor. Dolittle resembles another remake featuring a major comedy star, Flubber, with Robin Williams playing the Fred MacMurray role. It follows the trend of rehashing old classics with new twists. Except it's hard to know whether this film was designed to reach children or adults. Gags involving rectal thermometers and pigeon droppings aren't good kiddie fare. It's no surprise that this movie was directed by Betty Thomas, who also did the Howard Stern Private Parts movie. Birds of a feather flock together. One wonders if this was intended to be a primer into the South Park genre of lowbrow entertainment, featuring childish vulgarity for adults, which kids end up watching because it is childish. The movie at least spares us the expected animal-rights theme and gives the audience a be-yourself moral, which isn't much better. In a year with some above-average children's fare like Paulie and The Borrowers, Doctor Dolittle does little. The truly titanic movie
Titanic may be the box-office champ of modern Hollywood, but the true giant of the screen remains Gone with the Wind (New Line Cinema, rated G). Even after many TV showings and several years on video store shelves, David Selznick's masterpiece still plays well on the silver screen. The current generational re-release of the film is perhaps the most ambitious. It combines restored Technicolor with digital sound. Even so, GWTW seems even more of an anachronism compared to movies today. Such a story as Margaret Mitchell's novel would not be made if pitched these days. Its view of the South would have to include more preachy rhetoric that reflects modern ideology. And how many hoop skirts have appeared in recent movies? Plus the film's almost four-hour length would be nearly impossible. This epic about selfish Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara is still grand soap opera. She's in love with a man who is engaged to someone else. So she marries someone else and is increasingly drawn to Rhett Butler. Then there's Ashley and Melanie, the couple whose lives are endlessly intertwined with Scarlett's scheming. Meanwhile, there's a war on and the South is losing. While today's special effects may be light-years ahead, GWTW's magnificent photography and pastel colors still grip audiences. Unlike the "strong women" in today's chick flicks, Scarlett, though strong, isn't a woman to cheer for. Instead she is a combination of strong will, misplaced desires, and immature personality. Rhett is like many modern heroes, cynical about causes but engulfed by the wrong women. GWTW didn't show the South as a gloryland that should rise again, but it didn't cram itself with condescension toward the antebellum world either. For better or worse, it changed the world's view of the Confederacy. Since most Americans are ill-taught about that short-lived nation, this is the picture that still stands out.

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