Seven-year-old Ludovic (Georges Du Fresne) is pretty sure he’s really a girl. After all, he loves to wear dresses, and he wants to marry his friend Jerome once he’s “not a boy any more.” His parents try to understand but are increasingly baffled and embarrassed by their stubborn “girlboy” child. Is Ludovic actually just gay, or is he transgendered? This is the sort of sweet, kind-hearted comedy Hollywood seems less and less capable of; leave it to the French to find beauty and redemption in gender confusion. (It’s miles beyond most any English-speaking film I’ve seen on the subject.) I would think only the most steadfastly bigoted viewer wouldn’t root for Ludovic to be whatever s/he wants to be regardless of the scorn of parents and classmates. I also shudder at the thought of Hollywood attempting to remake this; it would probably turn out something like Shirley MacLaine’s direct-to-Starz directorial debut The Dress Code.
Archive for May 1997
Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner is a raft of words — self-justifying words, self-loathing words, self-absorbed words. It’s an autopsy of the menagerie of demons rattling around in any given self. Hearing the words, we may think, This is the bleat that a dying soul gives off near the end. As a three-character play (really just a one-character play), it has been performed in Britain to justified acclaim. Now it is a movie — or, more precisely, it has been recorded on film, since 94 minutes of talking heads may not be most people’s idea of a movie. But, as with Shawn’s collaborations with Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street), the words and moods are so much more dramatic than what usually goes on in Hollywood “drama” that the comparison is embarrassing.
I should admit up front that at first I didn’t much like the film — while watching it, and then immediately afterward. But The Designated Mourner has a way of hiding in a dark corner of your memory, and popping out when you least expect it. Its pleasures are almost entirely retroactive (and it may well benefit greatly from repeat viewings, though watching it for the first time, you may want to pat yourself on the back for getting through one sitting, never mind two or more). Part of the challenge is that there are three characters, or at least three people onscreen with speaking roles, and not one of them is likable. The closest thing we have to a sympathetic protagonist is the main character, Jack (played here by Mike Nichols), who speaks to us at length and is so brutally honest about himself and his shortcomings that we have to admire him on some level even as we recoil.
The play has been directed for the screen by David Hare, who also directed the stage version, and he almost arrogantly refuses to make it “cinematic.” Where another director might seek to dramatize in flashbacks some of the stories Jack tells, Hare simply keeps a camera trained on Jack as he speaks, occasionally throwing in an echo effect (once) or a dissolve (often) or bringing the lights low. The film was shot in three days, presumably for peanuts, and the post-production couldn’t have taken much longer; the first bit of monologue by Jack’s estranged wife Judy (Miranda Richardson) is hobbled by poor syncing. But that, too, is part of the challenge. You’re forced to look past the screen, look past what you normally expect from a film, and concentrate on the words. So, as in My Dinner with Andre or a Spalding Gray monologue, the words begin to assemble themselves into drama, and then into visuals. By the time Jack talks about a new execution method involving tubes stuck into prisoners’ mouths, damned if you don’t see those terrified, demoralized prisoners waiting for death by tube.
The Designated Mourner is a futuristic parable (I’ll bet some subversive video-store clerk will prankishly file it in the sci-fi section), set sometime after a bloody revolution that has expunged society of its elite — its artists, its intellectuals. Jack, it seems, married into the elite class without ever really becoming part of it. He learned how to talk the talk, but he never quite walked the walk; he couldn’t get into poetry and preferred sex magazines over John Donne. His father-in-law Howard (David de Keyser) is a prime example of the sort of disdainful, pompous intellectual he hates and fears. We’re given to understand that, as if manifesting itself out of Jack’s own unease, the majority of society rose up against high-minded people like Judy and Howard and brought them low. “Don’t get up” was the common refrain heard by intellectuals before they were shot in the head, still sitting at a table in their favorite fancy restaurants, their blood pouring onto their plates — Jack seems to relish that fetishistic detail.
Jack talks and talks, and it takes a while for us to adjust to the idea that we’re watching Mike Nichols — a legendary stage comedian during his days with Elaine May, true, but more or less out of the public eye since he became a film director way back in the mid-’60s. This is Nichols’ film acting debut almost by default, since Wallace Shawn presumably did not write the play with an eye to film adaptation; the BBC footed the (small) bill for The Designated Mourner to be recorded for posterity, and Nichols, who played the role during the British run, reprises it here. Despite the fine performances by Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser, our interest naturally gravitates to Nichols, whose character exists in the here and now; even before we learn the fates of Judy and Howard, they seem to live only in Jack’s dwindling memory (and their slightly overdone upper-crust performances may reflect Jack’s embittered, tainted memories of them). As a director, Nichols has blown hot and cold (anyone who saw Regarding Henry or What Planet Are You From? would no longer rank Nichols among the great directors, even if they treasured the overrated The Graduate), but The Designated Mourner makes it clear that his gifts as a performer have been denied us for too long. He gives a bewildered, regular-guy performance, speaking to us in a way that makes us feel he’s levelling with us; he even slyly borrows some of Wallace Shawn’s mannerisms — the perplexed stammer, the insecure nasal whine.
The Designated Mourner made me angry and a bit restless the first time around. Was this not a well-to-do baby boomer’s horror fantasy — a scenario in which the comfortable liberal elite are exterminated by the great unwashed? But consider the audience for the play (and the movie) — essentially, the comfortable liberal elite. Will the scenario force them to confront themselves (while paying good money for the privilege of confronting themselves, if they see it on the stage)? The Designated Mourner seems to speak for balance. It shudders at the thought of a world without poetry, but it also disapproves of an overclass with nothing better to do than one-upping each other with their clever opinions about so-and-so’s latest book or essay in the Times. Jack could have been written as a man who enjoyed poetry but didn’t enjoy intellectual pomposity, but then he wouldn’t have been spared in the revolution, or he wouldn’t have run away from the dangerous lifestyle of the elite. No, Jack represents a side of humanity even uglier than the snobs or the underclass who rose to destroy them: the coward who gets out when the getting’s good. Jack has to live with that knowledge about himself, while people like Judy and Howard at least stuck to their doomed convictions to the death. In a way, Jack is the deadest character of the three, and his final epiphany — appreciating a nice breeze while he sits around thinking about absolutely nothing, a kind of enforced simplicity — is highly ambiguous. Upon first viewing, The Designated Mourner will almost certainly not strike you as more haunting than any so-called horror movie in years, but that’s what it is.
Night Falls on Manhattan is an imperfect but powerful ethical drama — the movie City Hall should have been. We’re in the hands of one of the great New York directors, Sidney Lumet, whose urban dramas (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Q&A, to name a few) are emotionally overheated, sometimes wildly uneven, but never boring. Parts of this movie are flat-out bad — there has to be at least one clinker in every Lumet film — yet I was moved and fascinated throughout.
The hero, assistant district attorney Sean Casey (Andy Garcia), is a typical Lumet protagonist: young, idealistic, not quite prepared for the lion’s den of big-city corruption. Al Pacino could have played Sean 25 years ago (and did, in Serpico); Garcia, who from certain angles could pass as Pacino’s son, gives his usual simmering performance that boils over without warning into eruptions of rage. This movie gives Garcia a lot to erupt over, and sometimes he threatens to lapse into loud Pacino-style overacting; his best moments are his quietest.
One of those good moments takes place in a hospital early on, when Sean is visiting his father (Ian Holm), a cop who was critically wounded while trying to bust a drug dealer. The dealer flees but later surrenders to defense attorney Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss), a bleeding-heart grandstander who makes a big media show of taking the dealer’s case. The head DA (Ron Liebman) assigns Sean as the prosecutor, and we settle in for a protracted, predictable courtroom drama … which we don’t get. A verdict is reached quickly, and the story deepens.
Frankly, Night Falls on Manhattan (a beautiful title with no apparent relevance to the movie) isn’t much on logic. Why would the untested Sean be handed a case involving his own father? And why, on the strength of one case, is Sean promoted to DA after Liebman has a heart attack? You can feel Lumet pulling you over these implausible plot bumps by force, commanding you to look deeper and see the story he really wants to tell: that of a son torn between justice and family. Sean’s father, it seems, isn’t as clean as Sean would like to believe. There’s more to the drug-dealer case than meets the eye.
The same is true of the movie. For every element that doesn’t work — Ian Holm’s erratic New York accent, or the entirely expendable attorney played by Lena Olin (who’s in the movie solely to sleep with Sean and cook eggs for him) — there’s a moment or a performance that hits its target. Dreyfuss is amusing and complex in what amounts to an extended cameo, and Ron Liebman steals the movie as the flamboyant DA, a type-A creature of New York who always seems to be hopping onto tables, the better to launch his nasal tirades into orbit.
I enjoyed Night Falls on Manhattan and didn’t mind giving it the occasional slack. Sidney Lumet doesn’t make well-oiled machines; his films operate more like the human heart, which (as Liebman’s character finds out) doesn’t always work as well as it should. But it beats with authentic New York blood. Messy, overwrought, and technically fuzzy, this cop opera still maintains a strong and passionate pulse.
A rip-off movie can be annoying and boring unless it’s done with great love and enthusiasm, in which case we call it a pastiche or an homage, or some other French word. In The Fifth Element, the director Luc Besson is like a little boy showing off all his cool toys. He doesn’t care that he didn’t make the toys himself — he just wants to play with them. The movie is a gigantic Christmas tree festooned with flashing lights and intricate ornaments, with a million presents underneath.
Its ominous ads aside (“IT MU5T BE FOUND,” etc.), The Fifth Element is really a comedy — a sci-fi Cuisinart that nudges you past the point of saturation. As in his previous two cult movies (La Femme Nikita and The Professional), Besson straddles the line between straight-faced thrills and Mad-magazine parody. One thinks of Nikita stashing her rifle in a bubble bath, or the assassin in The Professional enthralled by a Gene Kelly movie. Besson’s films have an oddball personality; they’re not just grim heavy-metal thunder.
Besson concocted the plot as a teenager, and it shows. Most critics have had a tough time outlining what The Fifth Element is actually about in a point-A-to-point-B sense, and I won’t be the exception. The gist of it is that a big wad of Evil is threatening the universe, and the only one who can avert disaster is a genetically reassembled woman called Leeloo (the entrancing Milla Jovovich). She is “the fifth element” that needs to be positioned between the other four elements, which are represented by mystical stones from Egypt, and …. So what exactly was Besson smoking in high school?
Anyway, Leeloo falls into the airborne taxi of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a 23rd-century hack who used to work for the government as some sort of secret agent. The government hires him to protect Leeloo; it also arranges — are you sitting down? — to send the pair on a vacation cruise on a ship called Fhloston Paradise. This plot turn is an excuse for Besson to indulge in outlandish costumes and cartoonish violence. It also introduces a character named Ruby Rhod, an aggressively irritating DJ who follows Korben everywhere, bleating and squealing. He’s played by Chris Tucker, who almost derails the movie all by himself.
The Fifth Element, as you may have gathered, makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a triumph of form over content, but it’s a stunning triumph. The sets, costumes, and visual effects are elaborate but never too oppressive — Besson casually tosses them off. Willis, in his appealing Die Hard mode, and the bewitching chatterbox Jovovich (who spends half the movie babbling in an alien tongue) keep the human element alive.
Then there’s the incomparable Gary Oldman, consistently hilarious as the evil bureaucrat Zorg. Oldman was given far too much scenery to chew and saliva to spew in The Professional, but his performance here is a goofball classic. The biggest laugh in the movie by far is Zorg’s priceless reaction when he opens a box that turns out not to contain what he hopes it does. Oldman isn’t even the weirdest thing in The Fifth Element, which must be a first.
The peak James Bond movies — say, any of the original Sean Connery entries, and maybe the first two Roger Moores — couldn’t have been made in any other period except the mod ’60s and groovy early ’70s. There were two British invasions, the Beatles and Bond, and America went daft for a while. Our culture reflected it, and the Bond movies, ever more gaudy and excessive, were decadence on a grand scale. But the spy genre after Vietnam — even the drum-tight GoldenEye — seemed glumly realistic, with largely colorless villains and almost no sex.
Austin Powers, the goofy-deadpan parody written by and starring Mike Myers (Wayne’s World), takes a page from GoldenEye and asks what might happen if a smug, womanizing secret agent from the ’60s were transplanted to the politically correct ’90s. In GoldenEye, Bond was all too regretfully aware of the shifts in sexual politics; Austin Powers, frozen in 1967 and revived in 1997, remains blissfully ignorant. “Am I making you randy, baby?” he asks a potential conquest, imagining himself to be irresistible. As, in a sense, he is. He’s so cheerfully retro-sexist he’s almost a breath of fresh air.
The movie is Mike Myers’ valentine to the Bond films and ’60s Brit culture in general. The costume designers must have had fun; this and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion may spark a new trend in form-hugging leather. Myers has more or less duplicated a typical espionage plot: the Blofeldian villain Dr. Evil (also played by Myers) steals a nuclear weapon and holds the world hostage for $100 billion. The joke is that Dr. Evil, who’d also been on ice for the last thirty years, was originally going to demand $1 million — big bucks in 1967.
You don’t necessarily have to be familiar with the movies Myers spoofs in order to enjoy Austin Powers, though it helps. What I enjoyed more than the specific parodies was the spirit behind them. Myers is reviving a style and sensibility that have been frozen since, well, about 1967; when Austin Powers emerges into 1997, he brings his era with him. This allows a few culture-clash jokes, such as Dr. Evil attending group therapy with his genetically-engineered offspring (the cynically funny Seth Green). At the end of this scene, Dr. Evil launches into a childhood reminiscence that gets increasingly bizarre; it sounds like classic Myers.
Elizabeth Hurley also turns up as a second-generation agent who eventually climbs into an Emma Peel get-up, just like her mom (Mimi Rogers), who was Austin’s partner thirty years ago. Hurley is about the right age to be the result of a forgotten “shag” between Austin and his partner; Myers never plants this reverse-Oedipal revelation, though I expected it. Much of Austin Powers could have been lifted from Roger Ebert’s book of clichés; Ebert probably loved such touches as Dr. Evil insisting on putting Austin in an elaborate death trap that doesn’t work. Mike Myers is slowly carving himself a niche as the next Steve Martin (whose early comedies resemble Myers’). He’s an eager postmodern prankster — a Jim Carrey who can also write, and a Quentin Tarantino who can also act.