Archive for December 1996

Evita

December 25, 1996

For all the sound and fury of Evita, I had a tough time staying awake.Visually, the movie is gorgeous. Director Alan Parker and the great cinematographer Darius Khondji (who shot Seven) make glorious use of the wide screen. But I’d rather see a crappy-looking film with some heart and soul. Evita comes dangerously close to being a parade of beautiful hollow images.

That said, I doubt any director could have made a good movie from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s baffling and shallow musical. Except for Cats, which has T.S. Eliot’s poetry and some luscious costumes and lights going for it, Lloyd Webber’s work leaves me cold. Those who enjoy his brand of pompous pop may not mind the numbingly repetitive Evita; at times, I felt as if I were trapped inside a jukebox that only plays three songs.

The basic story whizzes by. The poor but ambitious Eva Duarte (Madonna) sleeps her way to the top, marrying Juan Perón (Jonathan Pryce), future president of Argentina. Eva becomes a sort of ab-fab representative of the people, though the movie suggests that it’s merely another career move by a woman who craves love and acceptance. Meanwhile, the cynical narrator Ché (Antonio Banderas) keeps rolling his eyes and singing a series of “Get a load of this” commentaries.

We get a load of it, all right. Alan Parker actually can do small, enjoyable human stories (Shoot the Moon, Birdy, The Commitments); he works best with material that doesn’t require him to push so hard. Here he’s in his overbearing razzle-dazzle mode, where slick technique and surface excitement are everything. After about an hour you get jaded: “Gee, another painstakingly composed crowd shot.” To be fair to Parker, Evita probably couldn’t have been filmed any other way, which raises the question of whether it should have been filmed at all.

It’s no compliment to Madonna to say that this is the role she’s been waiting for. She’s in decent voice, and she handles her deathbed scenes deftly, but most of her performance is a pose — again, a problem originating with the material. Eva is vogueing through history. A real actress might have brought some slyness and depth to Eva’s machinations. Banderas (who sings surprisingly well) and Pryce seem to be having more fun; unlike Madonna, they don’t feel they have anything to prove to us, and they have a natural elegance that the expensively-attired star lacks.

Yet the screening I attended was packed, and there was scattered applause at the end — something I haven’t heard at a movie in years. It’s easy to see why. Evita is noisy and blunt, and it presents itself as a serious musical epic (the illusion is often trashed by Lloyd Webber’s dated disco-rock orchestrations). No question, it’s the event movie of the season. The applause also says that Madonna is now respectable. The ridiculed sex priestess has become a pop icon your grandma could approve of. You don’t have to like Madonna to be disturbed by the homogenization our culture imposes on provocative women. In Evita, the controversial but redeemed Eva Perón ascends to Hollywood good-girl heaven, and Madonna is right beside her.

The People Vs. Larry Flynt

December 25, 1996

Woody Harrelson has a way of starring in high-profile, controversial movies that split me right down the middle. There was Natural Born Killers, which I’ve seen five times, and I still haven’t decided whether it’s brilliant or abhorrent. Now comes The People Vs. Larry Flynt, which I’ll be glad to see another four times, because it’s funny and absorbing. And also slippery and superficial. It has moments of greatness and power, and moments of shameless preaching-to-the-converted. In other words, it’s an Oliver Stone movie — except that he only produced it. Milos Forman got the directing job, which he carries out with minimum flash. Or flesh, either: this biopic about a porn king is less erotic than Jerry Maguire. Forman’s heart is in the legal issues of Larry’s life, and he delivers a lively thesis on First Amendment rights.

Larry Flynt (Harrelson), the scurrilous publisher of Hustler magazine, is painted here as an ironic American hero — a scumbag forced into political awareness by his legal battles. The Moral Majority try to jail him for obscenity; his straight-arrow lawyer, Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton), is driven to distraction by Larry’s buffoonish antics in court. A parody ad in Hustler is the last straw: its target, Reverend Jerry Falwell, sues for $40 million, and Larry takes it to the Supreme Court. We know what happened: Flynt, by then paralyzed from the waist down by a sniper’s bullet, won his case and made it safe for the press to lampoon public figures.

Yet the real hero of the movie isn’t Larry. It’s Alan Isaacman, who catches the smug Falwell in a contradiction on the stand. For Larry, it’s a pyrrhic victory. When he gets the news, he’s staring at a video of his wife Althea (Courtney Love), who didn’t live to share his triumph. Addicted to painkillers and stricken with AIDS, Althea had drowned in her bathtub eight months before. I wanted to see more of Larry and Althea, who enjoy a loving but open marriage (they both sleep with other women). Their romance is both perverse and innocent. Vulgar, vivid, and always touching, Courtney Love’s Althea is a rich creation, and Harrelson does some of his most tender work opposite her. The strange and affecting bond between these doomed soulmates is the heart of the movie, providing its beats of true greatness.

The movie’s flaws, I think, can be traced to the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also wrote Ed Wood. Both movies look at their disreputable subjects with rose-colored hindsight: Ed Wood was a nice guy who loved making movies (not a talentless hack), and Larry Flynt was a freedom fighter (not a sleazeball). The movie congratulates us for snickering at Larry’s prudish enemies, as if only censors would be put off by what’s actually in Hustler (ever flipped through it?). The People Vs. Larry Flynt, at its best, is a rambunctious American saga. It gives us Larry the pig, the public clown, the rebel. But only intermittently do we find Larry the man. Maybe we’re meant to think that the man is less important than what he represents. Unfortunately, that cuts both ways.

Hamlet (1996)

December 25, 1996

At his best, and sometimes at his worst, Kenneth Branagh is an exuberant and playful actor-director. His excess was wretched when applied to the sedate Mary Shelley, but it’s perfect for Shakespeare. In Hamlet, Branagh gives you both barrels — the full play, which usually takes about five hours to perform on stage. Branagh brings it in at just over four hours, and it hurtles ahead like the bus in Speed (a comparison Branagh might enjoy) — bulky but fast and exhilarating.

As Hamlet, Branagh wears a triangular goatee pointing down at his body, as if to indicate that this production will be preoccupied with the physical. Branagh’s camera circles around huge, opulent sets; he delivers his pre-intermission soliloquy in front of a vast expanse of snow, with Fortinbras’ army approaching far in the distance. (It’s a glaringly obvious process shot, but I didn’t care.) The cumulative effect of four hours of Ken’s Magic Show is far from boredom; it’s closer to happy exhaustion, like the aftermath of a great meal or great sex. And Branagh keeps serving up one irresistible dessert after another.

In his eagerness to lure the mass American audience, Branagh also serves up a batch of novelty cameos. Ooh, there’s Billy Crystal as the gravedigger! (He’s actually pretty funny.) And here’s Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, and a few others in a variety of walk-ons ranging from amusing to meaningless. A gross example of the latter is Gerard Depardieu, whose sole function in his one brief scene is to listen to Polonius and say “Yes, my lord.” Scenes like this make you wish that Branagh had settled for an almost complete adaptation.

Still, even Branagh’s insistence on retaining the pointless moments is refreshing nowadays, when every scene in a Hollywood film timidly serves some Screenwriting 101 purpose. And when Branagh gives the floor to his main actors, all is forgiven. Derek Jacobi, who directed Branagh in two productions of Hamlet, makes an imposing and lusty Claudius. Kate Winslet’s Ophelia is earthy and lively, making her descent into madness all the more vivid. Julie Christie, a newcomer to Shakespeare, is a touching and conflicted Gertrude. (Branagh has ditched the Oedipal interpretation as seen in the Mel Gibson Hamlet.)

Hamlet is a notoriously difficult role, and Branagh does some amazing things and some other things that don’t work. His gestures often seem too smooth and practiced (watch him in his first soliloquy), and he’s too openly furious a lot of the time. Branagh never met a rant he didn’t like; he’s Dennis Miller as a tragic hero. Mostly, though, Branagh the actor-director just wants to put on an eye-popping show, and he does. Consider, for instance, the brilliant conception of “To be or not to be,” which Branagh delivers into a two-way mirror, with Polonius and Claudius behind it watching him. At the end, Fortinbras’ soldiers crash through the mirrored doors, as if shattering the narcissism, paranoia, and rampant deceit in the corridors of power. It’s an action climax; finally, John Woo meets Shakespeare! Die-hard Bard students may quibble, but this gargantuan and glorious Hamlet is a movie-lover’s paradise.

The Portrait of a Lady

December 24, 1996

The difference between Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and Jane Campion’s version can be summed up in a quick early exchange between the heroine, Isabel Archer, and her failing uncle, Mr. Touchett. In the book, the old man tells Isabel she is beautiful; Isabel blushes and laughs, “Oh yes, of course, I’m lovely!” with cheerful, self-deprecating irony. In the movie, Isabel responds with those same words, but Nicole Kidman delivers the line with numb, sarcastic self-disgust.

Campion is at it again. In adapting Portrait, she has turned James’ complex, enchanting heroine into the basic Jane Campion model: a defiantly inexpressive, sexually repressed drudge with really bad hair. A look at Campion’s previous work (Sweetie, the excellent An Angel at My Table, and The Piano) confirms that her vision is remarkably consistent in its sour masochist-feminism. The men in her films are dolts who rob independent women of their spirit. Yet Campion does the same thing; she creates hollow heroines and then blames men for it.

This isn’t a political objection but a dramatic one. Campion, it’s clear by now, has no aptitude for narrative. Her great gift — what draws me to her work and makes it hard to dismiss — is her unearthly way with imagery. Campion and her superb cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, paint their stark pictures with colors I’ve never seen before. Portrait of a Lady ties with The English Patient as 1996’s most delicious eye-candy.

Campion wrote the script with Laura Jones, who wrote Campion’s best film, An Angel at My Table. About a reel into Portrait, I wished that Jones had worked alone. Was it her idea to open the movie with those excruciatingly pretentious shots of modern women posing in a forest? From there, the film skips across the text and lands on Isabel rejecting a marriage proposal from Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant). We also meet Warburton’s consumptive friend, Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan, looking and sounding exactly like Christopher Walken circa 1978), and Isabel’s persistent, unwelcome suitor Caspar (Viggo Mortensen).

The movie gives Isabel a choice of the lesser of three weasels. Except for Ralph, who is dying and therefore acceptable, the men are unpleasant little creeps — pathetic. The third weasel is Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), the pompous slacker artist Isabel marries, for reasons known only to her and Campion. Gilbert, a worm who enjoys feeling superior to his miserable wife, is an art-house version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, with a hint of Malkovich’s villain in Dangerous Liaisons; he schemes with Isabel’s friend Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey in the film’s only enjoyable performance) to enslave Isabel’s soul.

In all, Jane Campion has pulled off a neat trick here — she’s made a film that makes Henry James’ work seem positively giddy. The movie drowns in simmering rage and loathing, and Nicole Kidman, under her ugly valentine hairdo, radiates enough depressed victimhood to fill a year’s worth of women’s weepies. Campion’s harshly gorgeous images can’t redeem her smug, self-congratulating faux-feminism. Oh yes, of course, it’s lovely.

Scream

December 20, 1996

“This isn’t a movie,” says heroine Sidney (Neve Campbell) midway through Scream. “Of course it is,” says her boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich). “Everything is one big movie.” An exchange like that could destroy a lesser movie. But the people in Scream know they’re in a horror movie — in fact, they’ve seen all the movies that Scream copies, dissects, and parodies. They know the “rules” (don’t have sex, don’t go off alone), but they goof on the rules and promptly get killed for it.

I’m surprised it took this long for a postmodern slasher movie to be made (if you don’t count outright parodies like Student Bodies). Slasher movies, of course, were big in the early ’80s; we saw a hundred rip-offs of Friday the 13th, which in turn ripped off the heavyweight champ, Halloween. After a while, the slasher craze petered out. Then, in 1984, came the movie that gave horror a new face — A Nightmare on Elm Street, directed by Wes Craven, who has now made Scream.

Is Scream a revolutionary horror breakthrough on the level of Nightmare? I don’t think so. But it is witty, tightly structured, and often effective as a straight horror film. The script, by Kevin Williamson, turns our I’ve-seen-it-all jadedness against us. The teens in Scream laugh at horror videos, yelling at the screen (“Turn around! Don’t drop the knife!”). Then they go off and do the same stupid things they’ve been laughing at. This conceit is nasty and plausible — we’re saying the same things while we’re watching the movie.

Scream faithfully reproduces every stock slasher cliché. There’s the Traumatic Anniversary: Sidney’s mom was raped and murdered a year ago. There’s the Creepy Crank Caller. There’s the “Boo! It’s Not the Killer!” seat-jumper (I lost count of how often Craven uses this). There are enough red herrings for five movies, including a touchy-feely, scissors-wielding principal (Henry Winkler!), a dorky police deputy (David Arquette), and a virginal horror-movie expert (Jamie Kennedy).

The killer, who goes around in a dime-store mask (like Halloween‘s Michael Myers), taunts Sidney while her friends die around her. She’s being saved for last, like Jamie Lee Curtis. One nice twist is that, unlike Curtis in Halloween, Sidney loses her virginity — and still survives. The script subverts and critiques the Victorian morality of these movies, which (like most horror stories) equate sex with violent death.

Neve Campbell, one of the appealing misfit witches in last spring’s surprise hit The Craft, carries her first starring role gracefully. She makes Sidney brave and smart but also convincingly haunted. It’s a performance to match Heather Langenkamp’s in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven’s touch with the other actors is less adept — he lets Matthew Lillard (Serial Mom), as a wacky teen geek, overact all over the place. And Craven’s dialogue scenes, as always, are as flat as Wyoming.

I’m a horror buff, so I enjoyed Scream, and I wish it well; the genre needs a hit. Yet I suspect it’s a movie for fans only.¹ If the horror genre is to recapture the public imagination, it needs more than an in-joke movie. It needs new blood — it needs a new face. Where is the next Wes Craven?

¹Boy, was I wrong about this.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America

December 20, 1996

At the risk of losing my more refined readers, I must report the truth about Beavis & Butt-Head Do America: it’s rude, it’s twisted, and it’s hilarious. What does the movie’s runaway success say about the future of America? Who cares? The movie works. Unless you’re uptight, over 40, or Michael Medved, the movie is funny almost nonstop. Nothing else matters.

For the uninitiated, B&B are teenage sex-crazed morons addicted to TV. Their MTV show is instantly recognizable as a satire of MTV’s audience: teenage sex-crazed morons addicted to TV. Humorless parents who take B&B at face value miss not only the satire but its context, and B&B fell into disfavor after a five-year-old torched his trailer allegedly in emulation of Beavis’ “Fire! Fire!” Suddenly, the boys became symbols in the tedious debate over TV violence, and I lost interest.

I didn’t think B&B’s creator, Mike Judge, could sustain their dim-witted appeal throughout a feature film. But as Beavis & Butt-Head Do America proves, Judge has a feasible movie-comedy duo here — Cheech & Chong for the millennium. (Parents hated that pair, too, before Cheech got Disneyized.) What’s funny about B&B is their absolute single-mindedness in any situation. To them, TV and “scoring” (or the distant possibility of it) are as holy as getting wasted was to Cheech & Chong.

The movie is structured as a road comedy. After B&B’s TV is stolen, they stumble into a motel room, where a shady guy (voice, rumor has it, by Bruce Willis) mistakes them for hit men and offers them $10,000 to “do” his wife (voice by Demi Moore, according to the same rumor). B&B, of course, misinterpret “do” and go off eager to please; their odyssey takes them from Vegas to the White House, the national greed capitols.

On the basis of this film and the MTV episodes I’ve seen, Mike Judge is a ruthless nihilist. For all the leering about “hooters” and jabs at principals or cops, you can’t call Judge anti-woman or anti-authority — he’s anti-everything. I’d find that mildly troubling if his satire weren’t so uncannily on-target. Judge pokes vicious fun at a hippie teacher who spouts New Age-isms and sings the tender PC ballad “Lesbian Seagull,” and there’s a great opening-credits bit lampooning ’70s TV.

Judge knows his audience. B&B trash everything in their destructive quest for cheap thrills, which may be Judge’s coded critique of those other profligate B&B’s — baby boomers. Judge is saying that the last 30 years have left us nothing except snide commentary on dead culture. While their baby-boomer parents disapprove, the jaded Gen-Xers in the audience plug right into the crappy nihilism, laughing at the fact that they’re laughing.

Beavis & Butt-Head Do America, like any comedy that doesn’t suck, tells us more about where we are now than most earnest Oscar-hungry dramas do. The movie, which really pushes the PG-13 envelope, will offend those who don’t like their humor crude and nasty. As will Jonathan Swift. Beavis and Butt-Head — the Gulliver of the degraded ’90s? Every era gets the satirical figure it deserves. Mike Judge is saying we deserve these two.

Mars Attacks!

December 13, 1996

The first third of Mars Attacks! moves like molasses uphill in January. Major stars show up, mostly playing broad caricatures, and the audience chuckles politely, like the studio audience during a bad Saturday Night Live sketch. My heart sank as I thought “Oh, no — this is really sucking.” But stick with it. Mars Attacks! has a very slow fuse, but once it goes off, director Tim Burton hits his stride. The Martians land, and you can hear Burton cackling “Welcome to Earth — now go kill everybody!”

Mars Attacks! has been called both a spoof of 1996’s bloated sack Independence Day and an affectionate homage to the cheerful sci-fi of the ’50s; it’s worth noting that Burton’s previous film was Ed Wood, about the notoriously inept director of Plan 9 from Outer Space (whose hubcap UFOs are spoofed here). More than anything, though, it’s a comedy of destruction — Tim Burton’s version of Steven Spielberg’s 1941.

There really is no plot. The ramshackle script (by Jonathan Gems) sets up a dozen characters, ranging from the President (Jack Nicholson) to a clerk at a donut shop (Lukas Haas), who are all defined in terms of their response to the Martian visitors. Burton assembles an all-star cast and then blithely kills off half of them. Up yours, Hollywood! At times, the movie plays like a successful director’s revenge on the studio moguls who want him to deliver another Batman.

The Martians, designed to duplicate the invaders in Topps’ Mars Attacks! trading cards of the ’60s, are like E.T. redrawn by Bart Simpson. Their heads are grinning skulls topped by big, squishy brains; to be blunt, their heads look like testicles. It’s fitting that we almost get wiped out by the only species more warlike and testosterone-brained than we are, and Burton is at his funniest when the Martians are zapping away like brats playing a video game.

He’s at his worst with the human actors. Burton has never known what to do with everyday people (see Kim Basinger in Batman); here, he encourages everyone to ham it up. Nicholson is relatively restrained as the President, but he also plays another role, an oily Vegas land developer, and goes way over the top in a fake nose that makes him look like Sonny Bono. Actors like Danny DeVito, Rod Steiger, and Glenn Close (as the First Lady) seem too aware that they’re doing this as a goof.

Pierce Brosnan comes through. Playing some bleeding-heart egghead who believes we can learn from the Martians (think Robert Cornthwaite in 1951’s The Thing), he acts with perfect pipe-puffing seriousness and gets his laughs effortlessly. Brosnan also has Burton’s best funny-surreal moments when he’s a disembodied head making goo-goo eyes at Sarah Jessica Parker, whose own head has been grafted onto …. Never mind.

Such moments make you forgive whatever’s wrong with the movie. Mars Attacks! isn’t the psychotic cartoon many of us hoped for; the first third is dead. But the last two-thirds are very much alive, and very much Tim Burton. It’s as if he’d started making Independence Day and then burned it to the ground.


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