Archive for June 1996

The Nutty Professor (1996)

June 28, 1996

This cruder, more sexualized update of the Jerry Lewis classic is also more consistently funny and imaginative. Eddie Murphy, in a terrific comeback performance, is Sherman Klump, a 400-pound professor who falls in love with Jada Pinkett and decides to try his weight-loss serum on himself. The result is the fast-talking, womanizing slickster Buddy Love, who is physically attractive but a rotten human being — Jerry Lewis’ Buddy as a stand-up comic instead of a singer. This new Buddy Love is, of course, Eddie Murphy as we’ve known him throughout his career, monstrously exaggerated; Murphy seems to be saying that he’s outgrown his old cocky persona, and his performance as the sad, humble Sherman is moving and engaging. There are the expected fat jokes (and a sprinkling of fart jokes — this is a Tom Shadyac film, after all), but by the end, nobody in the audience would prefer the slim Buddy to the huge but kind Sherman. Murphy also plays five other roles: Sherman’s mom, dad, grandma, and brother, and a Richard Simmons-like diet guru. Lewis was one of the executive producers (that was part of the deal when Jerry grudgingly sold the rights), though I doubt he had much creative input. Amazing make-up by Rick Baker. Also with Dave Chappelle, Larry Miller, and James Coburn.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

June 28, 1996

vlcsnap-8278937Time to eat some crow: Months in advance, without having seen it, I had been most unkind to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I wasn’t alone in my cynicism. Disney doing Hugo? Anybody remember The Tall Guy, where struggling actor Jeff Goldblum played the lead in a ludicrous Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque musical based on The Elephant Man? A Disney Hunchback promised to be even worse.

So now I feel like a jerk, guilty of doing to Hunchback what everyone does to Quasimodo in the movie — ridiculing it out of ignorance. Yes, Disney is still too loud and show-bizzy. And yes, Hunchback can’t go more than a reel without boisterous comic relief (here it’s a trio of gargoyles, voiced by Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander, Murphy Brown‘s Charles Kimbrough, and the late Mary Wickes). And yes, the villain — despite his seething lust for the heroine — is firmly in Disney’s questionable diabolical-queer tradition in terms of his features and velvety sneers.

But still! After a serious misstep with the PC lecture Pocahontas, Disney has rediscovered the dark magic of the psyche. Hunchback, like The Lion King, resonates deeply for adults as well as for kids. There are moments of shocking darkness and obsession, which means that parents should prepare for long talks with younger children after the movie. Hunchback isn’t “too scary for kids,” as has been claimed, but it is provocative.

The basic story — the very basic story — remains the same. Quasimodo (voice by Tom Hulce), a deformed bell-ringer raised by the evil Judge Frollo (Tony Jay), falls in love with the fiery gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore). She befriends him but falls in love with the kindly, heroic soldier Phoebus (Kevin Kline). Frollo, in turn, becomes obsessed with Esmeralda; his lust for her mutates into self-denying fury.

The gifted directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, also did Beauty and the Beast, another fable of tolerance. They do for Tom Hulce what they did for Robby Benson: give weight to an actor known for callow roles. They get vivid performances from Demi Moore, who is sexier here than she ever is in the flesh, and from Kevin Kline, who delivers a pitch-perfect heroic parody.

If only they could have turned the sound down a notch. Like Beauty, Hunchback is often too shrill and clamorous to be truly lyrical. The songs (by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) are forgettable except for Judge Frollo’s twisted valentine “Hellfire,” a number that made me wonder if the parents sitting around me were regretting having brought their pre-schoolers. The show tunes and the clownish gargoyles (though Alexander is hilarious) keep disrupting the grim enchantment.

That’s Disney for you, though: Subtlety just isn’t in the Mouse’s blood. Yet ‘Hunchback,’ for all its ready-for-Broadway razzle-dazzle, is surprisingly radical. Quasimodo may not be Disney’s first physically flawed hero (Dumbo was there first), but he doesn’t win Esmeralda in a bogus happy ending, either. That is one hell of an advance for Disney. For any studio, these days.

Lone Star

June 21, 1996

Lone Star begins with a skeleton in the sand. Some people in the Texas border town of Frontera wish it had stayed buried; others, like the decent Sheriff Sam Deeds, wonder what secrets the bones can tell the living. Deeds, a man of intelligence and compassion, recognizes the remains as a metaphor for the skeleton in Frontera’s closet — evidence of past racism and violence bleeding into the present. It may also be a skeleton in his father’s closet.

Leave it to John Sayles to elevate this mystery to an essay on the larger American mysteries. Sayles, a novelist turned screenwriter turned director, spent the first half of his filmmaking career using the camera as an extension of his typewriter. His work was sharply written but technically rough and awkward. Somewhere around City of Hope (1991), Sayles became a born-again director; his subsequent efforts, Passion Fish and The Secret of Roan Inish, were near-perfection. Lone Star is the latest chapter in Sayles’ ongoing great American novel.

Sheriff Deeds (Chris Cooper, the star of Sayles’ ambitious but wearying Matewan) is a second-generation lawman, and the Frontera natives never let him forget it. His father, the legendary Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), was the town’s previous sheriff; Buddy got off to a good start — so goes the story — by expelling his own predecessor, the corrupt, racist, and brutal Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson). Sheriff Deeds suspects that the sun-bleached bones may be Charley’s, and that Buddy was the one who gave the corpse its dry funeral.

That would be enough for one reasonably compelling movie. But Sayles digs deeper. Lone Star, it turns out, is only marginally “about” Charley and Buddy and the skeleton, in terms of the screen time they get (Sayles’ miserly distribution of the Charley/Buddy scenes, masterfully played by Kristofferson and McConaughey, is his only slight misstep). On another level, the movie is very much about those men — what they represent, the impact their lives and actions had on the people of Frontera.

Settling into the dust of the town, Sayles gives us Frontera as a web of emotions and memories. Every character — the cheerful Mayor Hollis (Clifton James), the black bar owner Otis (Ron Canada), Sheriff Deeds’ high school love Pilar (Elizabeth Pe�a) — has roots that point back to Charley or Buddy, like vines seeking blood instead of water. Sayles doesn’t pin name-tags on these people, and you do have to pay attention. But the movie repays your effort with interest.

Having said all that, I don’t feel that Lone Star is a masterpiece (though it is one of the year’s best) or Sayles’ best work; I lean towards his Lianna, Eight Men Out, and Passion Fish. This movie, subtle and enthralling as it is, ultimately saddens me: Hollywood should be releasing a Lone Star (or a Fargo) every month. That’s not John Sayles’ fault; he’s doing his part. Lone Star shows him at his most reflective. And he has a powerful image in that skeleton: the ugly past grinning up at the present, haunting the future.

Eraser

June 21, 1996

eraserHere’s how you know Eraser is a total guy movie: When you leave the theater, all you want to talk about is the guns. These guns — the movie’s McGuffin, the thing the bad guys will kill for — are serious guns indeed. They come equipped with some x-ray device that scans through thick walls to zero in on their prey; the force of the laser blast will knock you right through the aforementioned thick walls. Guys could watch this all day. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t even have to show up.

He just barely shows up anyway. Not that Arnie doesn’t sweat and bleed as much as usual. It’s just that he usually has some fun with his granite persona (think of his witty work in True Lies), and he doesn’t this time. In Eraser, Arnie plays yet another super-agent — he wipes out the identities of federal witnesses — but it’s as if his own identity had been deleted, too. He’s just an efficient war machine here, a Homeric version of Tom Cruise’s character in Mission Impossible.

Eraser is pure no-frills action, which may not sound bad — Speed did pretty well with just a bus. But Speed (and other great modern action movies) achieved a kind of beautiful idiocy — Zen for frat boys.Eraser is more often just idiotic, with none of the true wildness that can goose a movie like Die Hard past popcorn thrills and into something close to art. The script, credited to Tony Puryear and Walon Green, could have been spat out of a Macintosh on one of those screenwriting software packages that combine different plot points from past hits. Arnie the Eraser has to protect Vanessa Williams, an FBI employee who discovers illegal government deals involving those cool super-guns. It’s the sort of plot you’ve seen so many times before that you forget exactly where you’ve seen it before, though you know it probably worked better then.

The director, Chuck Russell, has an interesting track record that Eraser doesn’t fit into. He did the third Nightmare on Elm Street installment, one of the more imaginative entries in the series; the gross-but-fun remake of The Blob; and the whirligig Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask. Russell is a fantasist, not a man of action, and the set pieces in Eraser are blurry and half-hearted. He’s in his element, though, in the scenes involving the guns — he has those freaky x-ray graphics to conjure with.

Eraser does have a wild card, which isn’t played nearly enough. Robert Pastorelli, best known as Eldin the painter on Murphy Brown, turns up as a former Mafia goombah whom Arnie “erases.” When called upon to return the favor (“Jeez,” he grouses, “I thought you just wanted me to help move a couch or something”), Pastorelli takes part in a scheme involving pizza and Alka-Seltzer. Eraser is worth seeing just for Pastorelli’s expression when he realizes his ruse is working far better than he intended.

If only there were more to it. You’ve seen the ads: Eraser has a nice gag involving a parachute, and Russell does some nasty business with alligators. But most of the movie is neither hot nor cold — just fast and undistinguished. It works so hard to wipe the audience out that it ends up erasing itself.

The Cable Guy

June 14, 1996

thecableguy009dd1The guy has a few problems. His childhood reads like a list of suburban despair: abusive dad, oblivious bar-hopping mom, electronic babysitter. His adult life is terribly empty and lonely, and the loneliness expresses itself in anti-social spasms of weird aggression. He’s clingy and annoying at best, violent at worst. His basic need is the same as anyone’s: to be loved and accepted. Yet, because of who he is and how he behaves, he can’t help pushing everyone away.

This sounds like the blueprint for a hefty drama — something Martin Scorsese might direct in a bad mood. Instead, it’s the premise of a Jim Carrey comedy. The reviews were baffled and hostile; The Cable Guy was spanked for being too dark, too creepy, “no fun.” Recall, though, that Scorsese’s 1983 The King of Comedy got whacked on the same grounds — mainly because people expected a zany Jerry Lewis comedy. Retrospect has revealed it as a misunderstood gem. I hope The Cable Guy won’t have to wait as long.

Carrey, of course, is the Cable Guy, and not just in this movie. His persona has always been plugged into pop culture; he belongs to the postmodern ironist’s tradition of Robin Williams and Steve Martin. The Cable Guy, whose entire experience of life is filtered through TV, is a classic postmodern creation — he channel-surfs through his own head. Speaking with a dopey, insinuating lisp, Carrey seems eager to go all the way into scary neediness. Overall it’s a brilliant and fearless performance, a black-comic tour de force, and maybe only the $20 million man can afford this kind of gamble.
Weaned on TV, the Cable Guy takes philosophical and sensual delight in whatever flickers across the tube. He pushes his way into the life of a yuppie customer (Matthew Broderick), offering advice, free cable services and equipment, even a prostitute. In return, he wants only friendship. But the yuppie correctly guesses that the Cable Guy demands a level of devotion that no one could give. Broderick (an excellent straight man) distances himself, but the Cable Guy keeps on coming — a sociopathic Energizer Bunny.

The Cable Guy resonates with sadness and dread, yet it’s also consistently funny (in an intensely uncomfortable way). Much of this, I assume, is due to Lou Holtz Jr.’s sharp script. And director Ben Stiller, rebounding from his freshman effort (the whiny Gen-X piffle Reality Bites), digs into the multi-levelled satire; he gives cameos to himself (as a homicidal twin) and old friend Janeane Garofalo (who effortlessly steals her scene as a jaded waitress at a medieval theme restaurant). In The Cable Guy, Jim Carrey is as rubber-faced as ever, but this time he shows us the beast behind the mask.

The Rock

June 7, 1996

25166932219973970964About The Rock, the newest model off the summer assembly line, I have just one question: Why Alcatraz? The plot — concerning a terrorist’s threat to launch poisonous rockets at a major city — could, in theory, take place anywhere. But Alcatraz is a cool location and The Rock (the nickname for the long-defunct prison) is a cool title, so the terrorists set themselves up in Alcatraz. Makes perfect sense. Hey, it’s summer.

The terrorist in question is Ed Harris, a disgruntled Marine furious at the government for their failure to honor the soldiers who died under his command. Instead of going on 60 Minutes, as some real-life military men with a similar complaint did recently, Harris points four missiles loaded with VX gas at San Francisco and demands reparations to the tune of $100 million. So it’s Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage to the rescue. Cage, a chemical-explosives expert, and Connery, the only man who has ever escaped from Alcatraz (well, him and Clint Eastwood), infiltrate the Rock and try to disarm the missiles. They also make sure to get into a gunfight every so often.

This is all entirely as synthetic as it sounds. Director Michael Bay (who did last year’s hit Bad Boys) is a graduate of the MTV Mixmaster school of action filmmaking, which teaches that rapid-fire, unscannable editing makes the carnage more exciting. It doesn’t, and much of the action feels thin and inauthentic. Essentially, if you’ve seen the trailer for The Rock, you’ve seen the movie.

What you don’t see in the trailer are the performances of Connery and Cage, who are both reasons enough to see almost anything. Connery has perfected his grizzled-old-lion schtick. No other actor can match his wry authority. Yet he’s also in something of a rut. Connery hasn’t been really surprising since his comic turn in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He’s great at what he does here, but he needs to try something else.

Cage, on the other hand, is up for anything, whether it’s munching a cockroach in Vampire’s Kiss (watch for the in-joke reference to it early in The Rock) or drinking himself to death. In The Rock, Cage has the guts to play a wimp — a guy who’s been in the rear with the gear too long — and he hits wild notes of fear and hysteria. He’s the sanest man on the screen, and maybe his honest performance makes Sean Connery’s testosterone look worse than the filmmakers intended.

As for Alcatraz itself, I was surprised how little was really done with it. It could be just any big building with catacombs and bars. And the terrorists could be any terrorists. This was the last production of Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, and like most of their hits, it’s thoroughly impersonal. The Rock will likely make Nicolas Cage more bankable, but I can’t work up much enthusiasm for it. Its box-office glory will be the latest triumph of low expectations and low standards.

Heavy

June 5, 1996

Victor (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a sluggish, overweight man, works as a short-order cook in a moth-eaten tavern owned by his mother (Shelley Winters). When a beautiful new waitress, Callie (Liv Tyler), is hired, Victor falls in love with her but knows she can never love him. Aptly named in all respects, Heavy moves at a lumbering pace and is very big on quietly repressed fury and despair. One can give it credit for never introducing the cheesy melodramatic touches one expects, but that’s really all it has going for it as a movie — rookie writer-director James Mangold avoids the clichés but forgets to put anything in their place except murmuring, endless tableaux of stoic rural suffering. (It’s like The Spitfire Grill as an austere art-house film.) Neither a striking writer nor director, Mangold should probably be filed under the heading Works Well With Actors — he gets touching performances from Vince and even Liv Tyler and Deborah Harry (as an acid-tongued barmaid), though he can’t do much with Evan Dando as Callie’s unpleasant musician boyfriend. The movie has a kind of elegance, but it’s a very long sit.


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