Archive for October 1996

Thinner

October 25, 1996

In 1985, Stephen King published Thinner under his pseudonym Richard Bachman. The movie version has King’s name all over its ads. King got it backward: he should have put his name on the book and Bachman’s name on the movie. Thinner, easily the worst movie of the year, is a wretched excuse for a horror movie and a flat-out disgrace on every level.

King’s premise has an air of AIDS/cancer paranoia. Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke), a 300-pound lawyer, tries everything to lose weight. One night, as Billy drives home from another high-calorie dinner, his wife (Lucinda Jenney) distracts him with, um, romantic overtures — bad timing, because an old woman picks that moment to dart out in front of his car. Splat. The old woman, it so happens, is the daughter of an ancient gypsy (Michael Constantine), who puts a weight-loss whammy on Billy. He goes from 300 pounds to 280, then 240, and so on. This worked in the book, because Billy’s deterioration unfolded in our imagination. In the movie, Billy’s curse is a matter of a slim actor wearing less and less (unconvincing) fat make-up and more and more (unconvincing) thin make-up.

Thinner wants to be a psychological horror film, but director Tom Holland (who made another bad King movie, The Langoliers, for TV) isn’t up to it. He and co-writer Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice) resort to it’s-only-a-dream clichés and pitiful attempts at humor, such as Billy and his daughter (Joy Lenz) swapping amazingly unfunny Godfather jokes in reference to Billy’s Mafioso client Ginelli (Joe Mantegna). Holland has no idea how real people talk or how real movies move; it’s a long 92 minutes.

The movie also deserves an ensemble award for inept acting, since Holland lets everyone underact passively or overact aggressively, shrieking at the poor innocent camera. This could be fun (Bronson Pinchot’s psychotic flailing in The Langoliers kept me amused), but here it’s just embarrassing. To be fair, the script is no help. Michael Constantine, whose gypsy looks like a homeless Buddy Hackett, gets to deliver great stuff like “You die thin, White Man from Town, but you die clean.”

In the difficult lead role, acting through pounds of latex, Robert John Burke is no Eddie Murphy. Partly it’s his dull voice, but mainly it’s his body language. Most real-life large men (John Goodman, for example) move with a mindful grace that comes from a lifelong awareness that they occupy more room. Murphy had it in The Nutty Professor. Burke just shuffles around in a fat suit, which was a rush job by Oscar-winning make-up artist Greg Cannom (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and looks it.

Thinner is angry and depressing aside from being awful. It can be read as a metaphor for AIDS being spread by infidelity; Billy bitterly blames his wife for his condition and suspects her of honking his doctor buddy. King’s twist ending, involving a deadly pie, is nasty and ironic in the tradition of EC Comics and King’s own Creepshow, but the movie botches it. King, at least, served a tasty gypsy pie. Tom Holland’s pie is stale and tasteless.

Swingers

October 18, 1996

swingers-1996--00In Swingers, the twentysomething guys sit around talking about women — or, more precisely, “babies” — and comparing notes on how to land them. Swingers, of course, is the latest illegitimate child of Diner, and bits of it are genuinely sharp and funny. But the movie is also the very latest in ironic, post-everything comedy, with hip references and an obscure lingo — like Trainspotting for lounge lizards. And do we need another affectionate look at hapless Gen-X guys?

Directed by Doug Liman and written by one of its stars, Jon Favreau, Swingers is a clearly autobiographical L.A. story. The guys are all aspiring actors who grumble about the demeaning stuff they audition for; one character is up for the role of Goofy, but loses it to someone with “more theme-park experience.” We’ve seen the type in many independent movies lately, from Swimming with Sharks to Leaving Las Vegas. But this isn’t a movie to wallow in the despair of being a little fish in L.A.’s big pond.

The two main characters, struggling stand-up comic Mike (Favreau) and retro-slick actor Trent (Vince Vaughn), will remind some of Jules Feiffer’s clueless guys in his “Bernard and Huey” strips and his script for Carnal Knowledge. Those guys were baffled by the emerging feminism of the ’60s. Mike and Trent, by contrast, are fin-de-siecle single guys. Decades of pop culture have given them an ironic awareness of every move they try on women. They’re watching themselves imitate the icons they grew up on: Travolta, the Fonz, even Woody Allen.

Some of this is engaging, and the leads do carry you along. Favreau is likably flustered and unsure (despite a troubling resemblance to Steve Guttenberg); Mike, who still carries a torch for the woman he left in New York, tells himself that nice guys finish last — that women don’t respect men who respect them. Trent, played to suave near-perfection by Vaughn, agrees that nice guys finish last, so he turns himself into his idea of a narcissistic playboy. Sex is less important to him than getting a woman’s phone number — he digs the theater of the singles bar, the process, the performance.

Liman and Favreau concoct a consciously derivative world for these guys, and though it’s appropriate to the movie, I got tired of it after a while. It’s too soon for homages to Reservoir Dogs (especially when the take-off is accompanied by talk about Tarantino), and Liman stumbles when he mimics the Copacabana tracking shot from GoodFellas; he lacks Scorsese’s gliding technique and seemingly spontaneous choreography. The scene is there so you can recognize it and feel hip.

Swingers is very of-the-moment. It cashes in on the recent lounge revival and exploits male confusion in an era when sensitive guys are on the way out. (In these films, men are doomed never to know what women want.) It quotes from movies that Gen-X guys know by heart. It has its moments (the punchline of the movie is great), but the moments don’t add up to a vision or even a quotable cult comedy. The guys in Swingers are struggling actors in their careers and in their lives, too. They’re the stars of their own self-absorbed Gen-X mind-movies.

Sleepers

October 18, 1996

sleepersLorenzo Carcaterra’s “nonfiction” bestseller Sleepers reads like a movie, which may be why (A) its veracity has been questioned and (B) a film version is almost unnecessary. Here we have the story of four Hell’s Kitchen boys who go to reform school, endure months of torture, and grow up to be haunted men who take revenge on their tormentors. Perfect movie material. Yet the movie Barry Levinson has made from it feels less true and vivid than Carcaterra’s snappy prose. For one thing, when you watch it as a movie, you can’t help recalling other movies that did it better. The Hell’s Kitchen footage is right out of GoodFellas (cinematographer Michael Ballhaus shot both films). The reform-school stuff is Shawshank Redemption Jr. The climactic trial is John Grisham. And so on. The film makes Carcaterra’s story seem as fake as his detractors say it is.

After a stupid prank that hospitalizes an old man, the boys are sent to Wilkinson, a notoriously harsh institution. The neighborhood priest, Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), is an alumnus of Wilkinson and knows what happens to boys who land there. But he’s powerless to stop the guards, led by the sadistic Nokes (Kevin Bacon in full sicko mode), from beating and raping the boys routinely.

Cut to fifteen years later, 1981. The nightmare lives on in the memories of the boys, now grown men. The Carcaterra character, nicknamed “Shakes” (Jason Patric), works at a newspaper. The other three men are on different sides of the law: Michael (Brad Pitt) is a DA, while John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup) are swaggering hit-men. One night, John and Tommy happen across the now-broken-down Nokes in a bar. This coincidence, and the swift vengeance that follows, feel so unlikely and movie-ish that it might actually have happened this way. John and Tommy are arrested, and Michael takes the case against them. Yes, you read correctly. Michael and Shakes hatch a plan to get their friends off and put Wilkinson on trial. They hire inept lawyer Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman) to act as the pair’s defense. Hoffman and De Niro are fine individually, but I wish Levinson had let them share more screen time; there are exactly two fleeting shots of these legends together in the same frame. (Heat, with De Niro and Al Pacino, made the same mistake.)

I didn’t believe the trial in the book, and I don’t buy it in the movie. What court would allow lawyers to throw a trial so blatantly? Michael is supposed to be pretending to prosecute his friends, but I lost count of how many times he should have yelled “Objection” just to keep up appearances. (Does the title refer to the judge and jury?) I also found myself thinking (which I didn’t when reading the book) that, even before their murder of Nokes, John and Tommy were cold-blooded hit-men — presumably guilty of killing many other people who were not leering child-rapists. Shakes and Michael (and probably Father Bobby) endured the same abuse. They didn’t become killers. The point of Sleepers might be to show us why. But almost everything in it, true or not, plays as a cliche. Barry Levinson does a competent job, but he works best with material that isn’t necessarily the stuff of movies, like Diner. There’s not much he can do with Sleepers. It was a better movie as a book.

Get On the Bus

October 16, 1996

In the days after the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., it was interesting to see it through the wary lens of the white media. We heard about Louis Farrakhan (what’s he up to this time?). We heard about the whiff of sexism in the men-only gathering. We heard about the hopes and doubts that African-American men (seen, as always, as a monolith) would find peace in unity, especially in the tense days after the O.J. verdict.

What we didn’t hear about, except in sidebars and snippets, was the human element. What did the March mean to the men of wildly different backgrounds, generations, and beliefs? Spike Lee’s Get On the Bus throws us in with fifteen men who seem to have been selected for maximum friction. The movie, which rarely leaves the bus, is almost African-American Buffalo. It’s a feat of metaphor and rhetoric — a lot of talk before the “real” story happens (the March is seen only in fuzzy video clips near the end).

One can almost imagine Lee and scripter Reggie Rock Bythewood checking off their list of types. There’s the gang-banger turned Muslim (Gabriel Cassus), the biracial cop (Roger Guenveur Smith), the downsized old-timer (Ossie Davis), the gay couple (Isaiah Washington and Harry Lennix), the camcorder-toting Spike wannabe (Hill Harper), the absentee dad (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and his wayward son (De’aundre Bonds), the arrogant actor (Andre Braugher), and a trio of drivers (Charles S. Dutton, Albert Hall, and Richard Belzer).

That these men are types, not stereotypes, is due mainly to the performances. Bythewood’s script isn’t bad — it’s sometimes very good — but it’s full of speeches and actor’s moments. In this brand of drama, everyone must stand and unfold himself while Lee zeroes in. Get On the Bus is Spike Lee’s first feature in which he doesn’t appear onscreen, though the kid with the camera is his obvious surrogate (at one point, Charles Dutton waves the kid away dismissively and says something like “Okay, Spike Lee, get the camera outta my face”), and Lee’s camera itself becomes a character. The movie is grainy and jump-cutty, like Lee’s other recent films, making visual jazz out of talking heads.

Lee knows he has a potent metaphor in the bus itself, which resonates with memories of Rosa Parks and school busing. The vehicle of past oppression becomes a symbol of forward movement toward empowerment. You’re either on the bus or you’re not. Some of the men have doubts, and Richard Belzer, as the Jewish driver, elects to get off. He misses the point, but then so do a few of the passengers.

Of the actors along for the ride, veterans Dutton and Davis offer their usual impeccable gravity (though a tragic plot twist mars Davis’s characterization). Washington, of Lee’s Clockers and Girl 6, is fine as the bitter Gulf War vet who found himself doubly ostracized as a gay black Marine. Braugher, of TV’s Homicide, is bitingly funny as the egotistical, womanizing actor.

Get On the Bus, in the end, is a film in the form of a question: Are you on the bus or not? Are you going to stand still or help move things forward? The black men in the movie answer in different ways. But we don’t have to be black or male to find the question relevant, or to seek our own answer.

The Chamber

October 11, 1996

the_chamber_1996_to_the_gas_chamberThe best of the long-goodbye movies (such as Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas) bring us inside people who know and accept that they’re going to die. The lesser entries, such as this one, just seem pointlessly manipulative. The Chamber is yet another sincere legal drama based on a novel by John Grisham (the Stephen King of the ’90s), and its hero is yet another idealistic boy lawyer (and boy wonder, with Chris O’Donnell in the role). Watching this legal eagle, who’s actually named Adam (ah, Grisham and his Biblical references), I wondered if Grisham had written his 1994 book in a fit of Tom Cruise worship after seeing 1993′s The Firm. Adam has a dead father (there are enough dead dads in the Cruise portfolio to fill a cemetery) and a mission impossible.

That mission, should Adam choose to accept it, is to keep his racist grandfather Sam (Hackman) out of the gas chamber. Sam is on Death Row for a 1967 bombing that killed two little boys. He is also, as we see (vividly) in a flashback, guilty of outright murder — for which, ironically, he was never arrested. After many pulse-pounding scenes of research, Adam uncovers evidence that Sam may not be completely guilty of the crime he’s slated to die for.

As a Death Row drama, The Chamber gets the big “so what?” from anyone who’s seen Dead Man Walking. As a study of racism handed down through generations (Adam argues that Sam was made into what he is), the movie probes no more deeply than did the average ’50s melodrama like Giant. As a screenplay, it’s often muddled and confusing, with dialogue that rings false as loudly as a church bell. (The culprits are William Goldman and “Chris Reese,” a pseudonym for Field of Dreams writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)

As a showcase for Gene Hackman, though, the movie just might be worth your time. Hackman specializes in finding the decay that powerful men hide behind affable façades. Here he drops the façade — he’s far from likable as this decrepit old cracker — yet he’s still mesmerizing. In his final scenes, Hackman gives us a man crumbling under the weight of decades of hatred and self-hatred. While Sam fights for his life, Hackman fights the script’s sorry attempts to soften him. Watching Hackman behind bars, I remembered that he was once up for the role of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. I began to envision him as Lecter, and meanwhile the movie I was watching went on without me. The Chamber was directed by James Foley, who proved in At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross that he knows how to point a camera at great actors. If only he knew how to make a John Grisham story anything more than a pumped-up TV drama (no director ever has) or how to make Chris O’Donnell interesting (no director ever will).

The Long Kiss Goodnight

October 11, 1996

The-Long-Kiss-Goodnight-04Samantha Caine, a happy schoolteacher, wife, and mom, is what used to be called a nice girl. She’s goofy and flighty, her hair spilling over her shoulders in gentle maternal curls. Charly Baltimore, a remorseless government spy, is every inch a bad girl. She drinks, smokes, sleeps around, wears her hair short and blond, kills practically everyone she meets, and — worst of all — she says bad words. Except for the profanity and the dye job, Charly is a female James Bond. Is there any common ground between these women?

There is and there isn’t. The sly joke of The Long Kiss Goodnight, of course, is that Samantha and Charly are the same woman (Geena Davis). Samantha, you see, has had amnesia for eight years and settled into her new domestic identity. Her violent past as Charly the assassin is lost to her. But not for long. The movie, it turns out, has a better joke in store: Charly the pulp-fiction hit-woman is more “real” than the peaceful Samantha, who never really existed.

Samantha/Charly is an intriguing creation, and it’s too bad her creator, Shane Black (who also wrote Lethal Weapon), couldn’t have devised a better story for her. The plot is more of the same government vipers, ticking bombs, and cars bursting in air. Charly is pulled out of retirement when a former enemy spots Samantha on TV (in a Christmas parade, yet) and pays her a visit. Luckily, Charly’s old tricks come back to Samantha when she needs them, and she takes off with cynical detective Mitch (Samuel L. Jackson), who knows her only as “Amnesia Chick.”

Mitch is a solid (if underwritten) role for Jackson, who scores most of the movie’s laughs with his increasing befuddlement at Amnesia Chick. Bits of Charly begin to surface in Samantha, until finally Charly takes over. This vastly increases the amount of Steve Buscemi-type punishment Mitch takes from the villains trying to kill Charly. He also gets a few lumps from Charly herself. “I liked Samantha better,” Mitch gripes.

I liked them both, because Geena Davis is engaging and funny no matter which woman she is. She pulls off some Samantha-to-Charly transitions (and vice versa) that rank among the finer acting moments of the season. She’s chilling when Samantha is with her little daughter and unconsciously lets a little cruel Charly slip out. And Davis’s flashes of soft-hearted Samantha when she’s cold-blooded Charly are wonderful. “Wanna get a dog?” Charly chirps before setting off a huge explosion.

As much as I enjoyed The Long Kiss Goodnight, I can’t help sniffing some traces of sexism. When was the last time a male action hero was torn between family life and killing? Okay, True Lies is the exception. But where is the heroine who can just be a fighter and killer, no questions asked? [EDIT: This was written before TV’s Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not to mention Kill Bill.] Movies like this and Point of No Return bend over backwards to assure their male audience that it’s all fantasy, that violence is alien to “normal” women. Or maybe this mother-vs.-assassin conflict is a welcome dab of complexity to the familiar kaboom genre. And Geena Davis’s warm, witty performance takes the sexist curse off it. The nice girl and the bad girl, as in real life, can be the same woman.

That Thing You Do!

October 4, 1996

tumblr_m4rmx2Wx4K1r3gb6ao1_1280There’s a scene about half an hour into That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks’ debut as a writer-director, that would cement Hanks’ status as a fine filmmaker even if the rest of the movie were sludge (it isn’t). It’s 1964, and a clean-cut band from Erie, Pennsylvania called The Wonders have just released their first single. When it first plays on the radio, we see each of the band members in hysterics as they head for an appliance store (where the drummer works). Hanks lets the scene play out, upping its intensity until it becomes an operetta of joy.

That Thing You Do! is a nostalgic, whistle-clean comedy about a (fictional) band like the dozens of other nice-boy bands that cropped up after The Beatles. Most of these bands had as much longevity as the American rip-offs of the other ’60s British Invasion, the James Bond films. Hanks compounds our awareness of this by the very name he picks for his band: The Wonders, which almost begs to be preceded by “one-hit.”

The one hit, of course, is “That Thing You Do!,” which begins as a sensitive ballad penned by the band’s Lennonesque singer-leader Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech). But when the goofy, jazz-worshipping drummer Guy (Tom Everett Scott) joins The Wonders for a campus music competition, he cranks up the tempo and turns the song into a bouncy rocker. We hear the tune many more times, and it sounds emptier and slicker every time, as Hanks means it to. As The Wonders move into the “big time,” the music takes a back seat to the image — it becomes merely that thing they do. Over and over and over.

Hanks is shrewd to chart the band’s downfall by following the mutation of their one hit from scrappy rock to processed cheese. He’s also good at touching on The Wonders’ inner tensions without letting those tensions usurp the movie. Guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) has his eye on the glitz and babes of Vegas. The unnamed bass player (Ethan Embry) joins the Marines. Most of all, the idealistic Guy and the increasingly cynical Jimmy clash not only over the future of the band, but over Jimmy’s neglected girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler), who’s attracted to Guy’s unassuming sweetness.

Unassuming sweetness may have been Tom Hanks’ middle name in the past, but it doesn’t describe his movie (which is smarter than it lets on, like Clueless) or the character he plays — Mr. White, the record exec who signs The Wonders to his label. Hanks looks pasty and a little reptilian here. When he plays a scene with Tom Everett Scott, who’s a ringer for Hanks circa Bachelor Party, Hanks squints his eyes and sounds rather weaselly. It’s as if the exec were recoiling from a more innocent version of himself — a reminder of lost idealism.

That Thing You Do! is a reminder, too, but it doesn’t get bogged down in sentimental regret. At the end, after the band’s disintegration, Faye tells Guy, “This all wouldn’t have happened if not for you. And I mean that in a good way.” It’s a good way for Hanks to end the movie, which restores dignity to the one-hit wonders — the guys who were in it for the music.


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