Here’s one for fans of A Clockwork Orange (it even uses Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” otherwise known as the “Title Music” from Clockwork). Hugh O’Conor, who played the young Christy Brown in My Left Foot, looks a bit here like John Cusack with Peter Lorre’s buggy eyes. As Graham Young, a British kid with an unnatural interest in chemistry, O’Conor lets those eyes pop open wide as he stares without malice at the results of his work: unsuspecting friends and family members expiring slowly and painfully from poison. As he “experiments” dispassionately, we hear his narration explaining how everything is going according to plan. This first feature by Benjamin Ross is striking for its consistent perverse tone of muted sadistic optimism, yet when we see what Graham’s experiments do to people, especially his wretchedly suffering stepmother, whatever laughter we might’ve indulged in is cut off coldly. A remarkable experience, brother to Clockwork Orange in more ways than one, yet also its own chilly beast. O’Conor delivers one of the great hateful/sympathetic performances. This deserves better than the relative obscurity it’s been dealt. I was surprised to find that the writer/director is the same Benjamin Ross who directed the universally yawned-at RKO 281. Don’t hold that against him.
Archive for February 1996
In City Hall, a panoramic drama about New York politics and corruption, men in expensive suits — good men and bad men — sit and whisper to each other about deals and favors and money. The power plays and intrigues have the hushed intimacy of the courtship rituals in Sense and Sensibility, and the movie is seductive as it slowly unfolds. How sad, then, that it unfolds to reveal … nothing much we don’t already know. City Hall is smart and eloquent, yet aside from the incident that sets the plot in motion, it has no power. It’s neither steak nor sizzle.
Somewhere in Brooklyn, a policeman and drug dealer get into a brief shoot-out. One of the stray bullets kills a six-year-old black boy standing nearby. Immediately, the bombastic mayor, John Pappas (Al Pacino), and Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) leap into damage control. This tragedy, spring-loaded with racial tension, threatens the mayor’s plans to build a bank. To establish himself as a mayor who cares, Pappas surrounds himself with distinguished members of the black community, then attends the boy’s funeral and makes an overwrought speech over the casket. Meanwhile, the young and idealistic Calhoun digs into the origins of the shooting. We assume he’ll uncover a trail of corruption leading back to Pappas — otherwise the movie has little point — and we’re not wrong.
City Hall is packed with top-drawer actors (Bridget Fonda, Martin Landau, Danny Aiello, David Paymer), but the director, Harold Becker, only has eyes for Pacino and Cusack. They reward him with rich performances; Cusack shines in his first real adult role, and Pacino does some amazing things with his voice (he doesn’t resort, as he did in Heat, to shouting when he doesn’t know what else to do). The movie promises to be a complex tour of the corridors of power, and sometimes it succeeds, but anyone who follows politics with any attention at all will shrug at most of it. The heart of City Hall is the gray-haired story of the fresh-faced idealist disillusioned by his not-entirely-spotless mentor.
Maybe it had to be that way. The script, initiated by former deputy mayor (under Ed Koch) Ken Lipper, was handed off to Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), then to Nicholas Pileggi (Casino), then to Bo Goldman (Scent of a Woman). Too many cooks may have spoiled this broth, heated over a very low flame by director Becker (Sea of Love). Past masters like Coppola, Welles, and Oliver Stone (in Nixon) have probed the anatomy of power in all its juiciness and ugliness. Becker is a solid craftsman who, unlike the populist Pappas, has no fire in his belly. The work is intelligent, conscientious, and bland.
By the end, the pivotal shooting just seems like a random, abstract incident — a mere springboard for an ambitious but unsatisfying meditation on the morality of power. We hear far more from Pappas’ spin doctors than we do from the slain boy¹s grieving father, who gets in one word of dialogue. Both convoluted and abbreviated, City Hall plays a losing game: Harold Becker tries to say in two hours what it took Coppola all three Godfather movies to say.
Timothy Hutton is a failed piano player who comes home to snowy Massachusetts and finds all his friends exactly as he left them, stuck in the same nowhere jobs and stagnant relationships. Sounds as entertaining as a tumor, but Beautiful Girls is consistently smart and funny — sharply written and well-acted, with an authentic Bay State fatalism underlying every scene. Matt Dillon, Michael Rapaport, and Max Perlich make their living by plowing snow before the sun comes up. The women in town (Mira Sorvino, Lauren Holly, Martha Plimpton, Anne Bobby) torture themselves trying to figure out these men and their supermodel-influenced fear of commitment. (The guys all seem to be holding out for Cindy and Elle.) The saner women are essentially outsiders: Rosie O’Donnell barges into the movie and blasts the guys for their obsession with tits; Uma Thurman, the visiting cousin of barkeep Pruitt Taylor Vince, resists the men’s feeble come-ons; Annabeth Gish, Hutton’s lawyer fiancée, has competition from precocious girl-next-door Natalie Portman (in the film’s best performance). Director Ted Demme and writer Scott Rosenberg add many touches that ring refreshingly true — my favorite is the ’80s-rock station Rapaport listens to. One of the best films about the so-called “Generation X,” unfairly dismissed by some impatient baby-boomer critics. Also with Noah Emmerich, Richard Bright, David Arquette, Sam Robards, and a rousing group rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Demme’s next was Monument Ave, though he also directed a Denis Leary concert film for HBO (Lock ‘n’ Load) before that.
A sleaze-world Rashomon, carried out with comic perseverance by British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac). In the months after Heidi Fleiss’s arrest and detox period, Broomfield sniffs around the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles — the porn actresses, the rough men and women who cater to the basest instincts, the blonde prostitutes available to sheiks and Hollywood royalty. That L.A. is a moral pit has become a banal truism; the shocking thing about this largely unsensationalized film is its unblinking gaze upon the flesh merchants who justify their livelihood with depressing glibness. Broomfield goes back and forth between Heidi’s two evil mentors: Madam Alex, who once ruled the Hollywood-hooker roost, and Ivan Nagy, a consummate scumbag and everyone’s worst nightmare of a decadent Hollywood “filmmaker.” Finally we sit for a prolonged talk with the woman herself, who speaks eloquently and nervously on her behalf. We decide that Heidi the media harlot is the most trustworthy person on view. But Broomfield doesn’t stop there. By the very end, we don’t know whom to believe, and we are relieved to be freed from the fog of contradictions and self-justifying rhetoric; we need some air. The movie’s poker-faced accumulation of lies and glimmers of truth is devastating; it has the force of great satire, all the more powerful for being real.
Holland’s Best Foreign Film winner of 1995 is a spellbinding multigenerational fairy tale spanning the latter half of the 20th century. Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy in a lovely performance) returns to her hometown after World War II, accompanied by daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans). They have come to bury Antonia’s dotty but still-alive mother, who dies after snapping at Antonia, “You’re late!”At the funeral, Danielle sees the old woman sit up in her coffin and start crooning “My Blue Heaven.” That’s writer-director Marleen Gorris’ tip-off that the movie isn’t meant to be taken literally.
As “season follows season,” the movie becomes a catalogue of offenses against women, but Gorris doesn’t stoop to man-bashing (though, like Thelma & Louise, the film was wrongly slammed for it by some critics). Each member of Antonia’s line — her artistic daughter Danielle, her musical/mathematical whiz granddaughter Therese, and her great-granddaughter Sarah, who will grow up to be a writer and tell the story we’re watching — represents different creative responses to life and death. Antonia herself, presiding warmly over her flock, comes to seem like something of a goddess — but one who flouts conventional morality by taking a lover and disregarding marriage. Her commitment to freedom both strengthens and warps those who emulate her example. The movie is a dream of freedom but not quite an idyll; it’s both harsh and gentle, sensual and intellectual, wise-ass and heartfelt — it’s a full package.