What a Croc Lake Placid,about a 30-foot crocodile terrorizing a lake in Maine, is the kind of moviethat starts with a diver being bitten in half, and ends the scene by havingthe sheriff who hauled the dead diver's bisected torso out of the water justsit there gawking at the corpse in the boat and the surrounding water insteadof fleeing. It's the kind of movie where the heroes track the croc through theforest and come across a really big footprint and one of the characters pausesmeaningfully and intones, "That's a really big footprint,"and the audience is supposed to titter at the film's postmodern wit or pumpa fist in the air and yell, "Woooooo!" It's the kind of movie where,every 15 minutes, some character hears a noise in the bushes or just behind him on the lake and instead of getting the hell out of there pronto, heads directlytoward the noise to investigate it, whereupon the source of the noise isrevealed to be 1) a beaver or some other harmless animal, which leaps out ofthe darkness, scaring the bejesus out of the curious person and the audience,2) a thoughtless colleague who claps a hand on the curious person's shoulderfrom behind, scaring the bejesus out of the curious person and the audience,or 3) a gigantic fucking crocodile. In other words, like Anaconda,Lake Placid is no Jaws, even though it desperately wishes it wereJaws, steals Jaws blind and diverts attention from its shamelessJaws robbery with self-deprecating dialogue and sight gags that all butannounce to the audience, "Hey, relax, people-we know you're onto us."And like Anaconda, Lake Placid will probably do surprisingly wellat the box office, for the simple reason that untold millions have seen Jawsand would love to recapture a fraction of the tingly pleasure they experiencedthe first time they saw it. (One of my wife's more intriguing theories is thatpeople keep disregarding critical warnings and attending pale imitations ofJaws and Star Wars each summer because they remember how muchfun it was to see those films for the very first time, and are hoping againsthope that the latest homage will be a tenth as entertaining.) Unlike Anaconda,Lake Placid isn't engagingly trashy. It contains no scenes so screwythat you have to admire the filmmakers' brass-like the one where dead meat soundman Owen Wilson gets wrapped up and wrung out by the giant water snake whilescreaming like Goofy plunging off a cliff, or the scene where Jon Voight's lunaticParaguayan snake hunter tells the terrified American explorers that the anaconda"?holds you tighter den your true love, and you have de pleasure of hearingyour bones break?and your veins eeeesplode!" Nope, the latest aquaticmonster movie is written by acclaimed tv series creator David E. Kelley (ThePractice, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal), a critical darling,and like most of David E. Kelley's writing, it somehow manages to be cleverand obvious, snappy and puerile and self-satisfied rather than satisfying. It'soff-kilter in a way you can't quite place, but not off-kilter enough to disguisethe fact that you're watching a Jaws ripoff starring a crocodile. (Alligator,the 1980 Jaws ripoff written by John Sayles, suffered the same handicap,but it was cheaper and less calculating, which meant the flaws were easier to forgive.) Technically, of course,Lake Placid does have human stars, and they're fun to watch. BridgetFonda plays the Ally McBeal character-a bright, perky, neurotic paleontologist(skinny and blonde, natch) who is dispatched from the natural history museumto identify a mysterious reptilian tooth removed from the body of the aforementioneddiver. Upon deducing that the tooth belongs to a GFC, she joins forces witha group of intrepid croc-trackers, partly because she wants to see if the GFCexists and partly because she just broke up with her philandering boss and doesn'twant to return to New York to face him. The reptile posse includes a small-townsheriff (Brendan Gleeson) who witnessed the initial attack, a relaxed, handsomeFish & Wildlife officer (Bill Pullman) and a rich, eccentric mythology professor(Oliver Platt) who has studied the role of the crocodile in cultures all overthe world and fancies himself blessed because he's never been bitten. (Platt'scharacter, a rotund, bearded, hyperverbal put-on artist with a sarcastic senseof humor and zero fear of death, is like a combination of Richard Dreyfuss'characters in Jaws and The Goodbye Girl. He's so kooky-kooky inthat patented Kelley way, like The Biscuit on Ally McBeal-that he mightas well be wearing a t-shirt that reads, "Breakout supporting characterwho will score really well at test screenings." The always-reliable Plattdeserves some kind of award for making the guy charming rather than repulsive.) The major characters playoff each other nicely, and they deliver Kelley's stranger lines with the rightspin. (Upon first encountering Gleeson's beefy sheriff, Platt's character remarks,"Oh, the Earth is round, and so should you be!") At times, these peopleare so odd and entertaining that you might find yourself wishing you were watchinga romantic comedy instead of a Jaws ripoff about a 30-foot lizard thatbites down on shrieking law enforcement officers and whips them about like astarving dog chowing down on a bratwurst. (Or perhaps not.) Betty White hasa cameo as a crazy old coot who lives in the woods and responds to a perceivedinsult by saying, "This is where if I had a dick, I'd tell you to suckit." Director Steve Miner isa veteran of genre films that are more entertaining than you expected but nevercompletely satisfying-films like House, Forever Young and Halloween:H20. He's directed episodes of Chicago Hope and The Practiceand is attuned to Kelley's sensibility, so it's no wonder he'd find a directorialequivalent for Kelley's crass/cute/shallow approach. He and his support crew-includingcinematographer Daryn Okada, composer John Ottman and special effects wizardStan Winston, who designed the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the gorillasin Instinct-pull off some marvelous shocks and create a consistentlymenacing mood. But the result still feels like it's missing something; the filmis clever and proficient enough to distract you from the fact that it's repackagingpilfered bits from Spielberg's classic summer shocker, but not clever enoughto distract you indefinitely. I quit adding items to the "Jaws thefts"page of my reporter's notebook after the first hour because I was getting ahand cramp. The insect-infested severed body part discovered on the beach, thelunatic who leads the other characters on a foolhardy quest to best the creature,the scene where the creature bites into a boat anchor and pulls the boat alonglike a kite on a string-the klepto appropriations inspire little jolts of recognitionand resentment, and they're all wrapped up with a bratty little Kelley-stylebow, but put them all together and they're not too memorable. Jaws is-andI hear it's on video. Framed Shark bites: Speaking ofvicious aquatic monsters, the best trailer on screens right now is the one forthe upcoming Renny Harlin movie Deep Blue Sea. For some reason, thoughHarlin can be a crude and obvious action filmmaker, his stuff makes for outstandingtrailers; remember the ones for Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight?This one is the best yet. Like all good trailers, it gives us the premise ofthe film-arrogant scientists implant sharks with human intelligence to studya cure for Alzheimer's, and all hell breaks loose-without giving away the specificsof the plot or showing us so much of the action set pieces that we won't besurprised when we actually pony up for the finished movie. (One lone exceptionis the shot of a shark pushing a man lashed to a steel gurney at high speedin order to shatter a glassed-in observation deck and drown the scientists inside.I have a feeling this is one of the action high points of the picture, and whoevercut the trailer was wrong to spoil it.) Sure, it's probably going to be justanother Jaws clone, but this compressed theatrical ad is more excitingon its own terms than any of the action pictures and thrillers I've sat throughin the last year. Nothin' but the blues: Genghis Blues, a documentary premiering Wednesday at Cinema Village,is an engaging look at a blues musician's quest to master a completely foreignand unfamiliar form of music. It's also the story of a man who does not viewbeing black and blind as any sort of handicap, despite the fact that other peoplemake assumptions about him and throw obstacles in his path because of thosecharacteristics. While scanning shortwaveradio back in 1977, the man in question, blues legend Paul Pena, discovers theancient practice of Tuvan folk singing-a style that pulls trilling vocal noisesfrom a constricted place very deep in the throat-and becomes obsessed with masteringit, to the point where he can participate alongside lifelong practitioners ofthe art form. He is pleased but not surprised to discover that he is taken moreseriously as a musician and a person in Tuva than he was back home in the racistand musically ignorant United States. Regular readers of this space know thatI tend to give bonus points to any movie that shows us the repetitious hardwork that goes into learning a new art-a part of the artistic life most filmsavoid because they are terrified viewers might get bored. That predispositionaside, this is one special movie. Anybody who appreciates music and commitmentwill find it fascinating..
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