Archive for July 1997

Air Force One

July 25, 1997

It’s probably unwise to trust our response to a movie in mid-summer, when our brains have been so battered by big, stupid blockbusters that any film that isn’t blatantly moronic looks like a masterpiece. (How else to explain the second-coming-of-Gump accolades for Contact?) Yet I should admit I had a good time at Air Force One, the latest Die Hard knock-off. The movie is derivative and by-the-numbers, with three separate scenes of Harrison Ford dangling from an airplane where one scene would have sufficed, but it has a confident snap as it goes about its business.

Ford, of course, is the President of the United States — James Marshall, a decorated Vietnam vet who’s tough on terrorists — and that’s both a fantasy and a bitter joke. Boldly decisive, stubbornly opposed to political maneuvering, honest and morally righteous, this man would never be elected to any office in America, let alone its highest. As the movie opens, a vicious Russian dictator (Jurgen Prochnow) has just been captured and imprisoned, and the gray heads of the United Nations convene to congratulate Marshall on his part in the capture. He makes a manly speech outlining his zero-tolerance approach to terrorism: Never negotiate, never compromise in the face of evil.

The stage could be set for a drama in which the unyielding President gets an ugly reality slap. But this is a summer action movie, and so the hero’s philosophy must be tested but never seriously challenged. A group of terrorists, led by a scruffy Gary Oldman, invade Air Force One and demand that the dictator be set free. Oldman and his pack of stoic killers think that Marshall has fled the plane in mid-air, by way of an escape pod (maybe they’ve seen Escape from New York), but the prez has decided to stay on the plane, hiding and picking off terrorists. President Solo, President Indy! What a man!

As the familiar cat-and-mouse plot unfolded, I stopped mourning the lost possibilities and let myself enjoy the unapologetic masculine thrills. Air Force One is always two steps away from being a comedy, maybe because it takes itself so seriously. Sometimes the seriousness works. The director, Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire), has never treated violence as a joke. Several of the gunfights are staged with the frightening chaos of the real thing, and Petersen puts full weight on the terror of a hostage who realizes, before our eyes, that she’s going to die. Oldman, in another great performance, speaks to her with a curious tenderness and perhaps a little sadness before he pulls the trigger.

The last act is a crisper (if sometimes less plausible) version of Executive Decision. Ford does his dangling, and the passengers must be removed from the failing plane. Air Force One abandons any pretense of drama and embraces the usual elaborate summer-movie logistics. Ford stares evil in the eye and growls that now-famous one-liner: Get off my plane! (It sounds amusingly like Mel Gibson’s Give me back my son!)

As usual, Ford drips with moral authority; he’s good at it but also too comfortable with it. I think he never got over the failure of the only movie in which he took a chance — The Mosquito Coast, where he played a rigid, uncompromising man who never admitted that he could be wrong. He plays the same role here, only now we’re supposed to cheer him on.

Batman & Robin

July 20, 1997

The first two Batman movies, directed by the moody Tim Burton, were Gothic riffs on alienation and trauma — the film equivalents of manic depression. The subsequent entries, helmed by the flamboyant Joel Schumacher, are just manic. With 1995’s Batman Forever, Schumacher chucked Burton’s operatic gloom and gave the series a make-over. Never models of narrative clarity even in Burton’s hands, the Batman films have become proudly nonsensical — awash in neon and campy dialogue, like some nightmarish disco remix of the ’60s Batman TV show.

Batman and Robin, the fourth in the series, is slightly better than the third — and I mean slightly, by millimeters. The large-scale pop apocalypse goosed a few laughs out of me. But this franchise has gotten aggressively unsatisfying. Why build expensive sets if we barely get a glimpse of them? Why stage big action set pieces if we can’t see what’s going on? Why is the editing so jumpy, the compositions so garish and cluttered, that we don’t know where to look or what we’re looking at? Why?

Joel Schumacher makes a Batman movie by throwing a batch of new characters into the stew and stirring it vigorously, leaving the poor actors to fight for elbow room. The film is almost over before Alicia Silverstone climbs into her Batgirl costume; even then, she doesn’t do much except trade a few kicks with the guest vixen, Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), who likewise does little except blow aphrodisiacs at hapless men. Pouting and vamping in a blank postmodern way, Thurman seems dazed by the sets; Fox Force Five might have been better than this.

Among Ivy’s boy-toys are Batman (George Clooney now) and Robin (still Chris O’Donnell), who squabble over her when they’re not fighting big, bald, blue Arnold Schwarzenegger. As Mr. Freeze, who wants to cover Gotham City with ice, Arnie comes through with a rousing comic performance; he relaxes and has a great time, especially when he forces his shivering minions to sing the “Snow Miser” theme. And he has the movie’s one genuinely fine moment, when Mr. Freeze makes a tiny ice sculpture of his ailing wife and sadly watches it revolve. But even Arnie is defrosted by 6,000 lame one-liners (“Let’s kick some ice”).

Clooney, a genial regular-guy actor, makes a plausible Batman and a better Bruce Wayne than Val Kilmer. As for O’Donnell … well, he tries hard. I still think Winona Ryder or Fairuza Balk would have made a great, funky Girl Wonder, as in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. As it is, there are so many babes here (Uma, Alicia, the dispensable Elle Macpherson and Vivica A. Fox) that the studio seems to be nervously refuting the old Batman-and-Robin-are-gay theory. If so, why all the fabulous latex nipples and codpieces?

Batman and Robin is such sheer overkill that it’s tempting to give up in disgust and let it have its way with you. Joel Schumacher has single-handedly turned this series into empty eye-candy for ten-year-olds who demand one sugary stimulant after another; if Burton’s films were manic-depressive, Schumacher’s suffer from attention-deficit disorder. I fully expect the next Batman film to drop the heroes altogether and just be a montage of expensive guest villains chewing the neon scenery. Come to think of it, that’s what this one is.

Operation Condor

July 18, 1997

operation condor 01François Truffaut once wrote, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema.” Truffaut might have enjoyed the cinema of Jackie Chan, whose films satisfy both demands. Chan does all his own stunts, ranging from dangerous to suicidal: While shooting his 1986 Armour of God, he jumped off a cliff, landed on his head, and was left with a permanent dent in his skull. Watching the movie, we see the joy of Chan in action; at the end are outtakes, and we see the agony of Chan breaking his bones when a stunt fails.

Operation Condor, billed as the “new” Jackie Chan movie, is actually seven years old; it’s the 1990 sequel to his head-denting epic Armour of God, though you don’t need to have seen that movie to follow this one. Not that there’s much to follow. As I’ve said before, you watch an Astaire and Rogers musical to see them dance, and you watch a Jackie Chan movie to see him fight and clown around and risk his life. In both cases, the plot is perfectly irrelevant.

This movie’s plot, in fact, is the whole Indiana Jones trilogy in condensed form. There are car chases and deadly crawly things; there are vast treasures hidden in the desert and pursued by Nazis and Arabs; there are elaborate death machines set in motion; there are also not one but three women who can be relied on to shriek, flail, and generally be all useless and girly when confronted with danger. Sheesh, even Indy (and feminist viewers) only had to endure one such damsel in distress; this movie is like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with three Kate Capshaws. I point this out not to be overly PC, but to warn fans of Chan’s Supercop that the gun-toting women in the ads for Operation Condor are not cut from the same cloth as Supercop‘s Michelle Yeoh. Now there was a woman who more than held her own alongside Chan; her formidable exploits spoiled some of us for the retro “Eek, a mouse” stuff in this movie.

Aside from that (and occasionally murky photography that detracts from a few of the fight scenes), this was far and away 1997’s best comedy. (I laughed more during any given five minutes than I did during the entirety of Men in Black.) Chan, as always, is a goofy and endearing presence; his small frame and expressive features link him with the great silent comedians he idolizes and also make him a plausible action hero. That’s what he does as a director, too. He sets the tone right away: when he escapes some irate natives by running inside a large inflatable ball, there’s a hilarious long shot of the ball bouncing down the side of a high cliff. There’s a great sequence set in a hangar, where a huge fan alternately blows and sucks Jackie and his enemies all around the room.

The major studios can learn a lot from Hong Kong. Jackie Chan, John Woo, and others like Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark understand the action genre better than Hollywood does. They hire appealing actors, and they stage action cleanly and with imagination and excitement. They don’t need $100 million, they don’t need computer effects, and they don’t need stars — except Jackie Chan.

Contact

July 11, 1997

FosterContact41I wonder when exactly it was that Robert Zemeckis became a mass-audience healer, dedicated to our enlightenment and improvement. This, after all, is the man who gave us that hilarious ode to insincerity Used Cars (“Mrs. Lopez, do you realize your hair matches the color of these tires?”). And even as recently as 1992 he made the memorably nasty Death Becomes Her — whose box-office failure may explain Zemeckis’ hard left turn into Serious Major Motion Pictures.

In Contact, as in his inescapable Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis tucks us in with an inspirational bedtime story. Both movies are fit for inclusion in William Bennett’s Book of Virtues; they’re companion pieces, really — Gump toured America’s past, while Contact turns its eyes to the future. And both movies have matching strengths and weaknesses. I actually liked Gump before it stopped being a movie and started being a pop-culture religion; I enjoyed its narrative sweep, its satisfying big-movie aura, and the same qualities kept me interested in Contact.

The movie is based on a novel by the late Carl Sagan, an enthusiastic scientist and thinker who was also a tad full of himself, as anyone who watched him on PBS’ Cosmos can attest. Contact is full of itself, too — swollen with hefty talk best left to college students lazing around a bong. Who are we? Why are we here? What is our destiny? Like, wow, man. The movie is like an extremely literal-minded answer to 2001, which hid maddening questions inside the folds of its narcotic mysticism. Contact poses questions only to provide its own warm and fuzzy answers. The universe is like a box of chocolates.

Acting for the first time since the awful Nell in 1994, Jodie Foster is once again alert and grounded, which is the best news about Contact. She’s Ellie Arroway, a brilliant young astronomer driven to find a way to chat with whatever might be Out There. A skeptic and passionate scientist, she doesn’t believe in God but does believe we’re not alone; she’s Mulder and Scully rolled into one — she, too, wants to believe. And that, I’m afraid, turns out to be the emphasis of Contact. We’ve lost ourselves! We need faith in something — anything!

Much of Contact unfolds in an anticipatory hush that’s most welcome in this loud summer. The astrologers wait for a sign from the skies. They wait to figure out what the signal means. They wait for word from the White House. They wait to see who will be picked to go up in a spacecraft whose design has been encoded in the signals. Waiting and more waiting. Yet the movie isn’t boring. Zemeckis still has superb, assured control of his filmmaking, if not his choice of material.

Contact yearns for a marriage of science and religion. The devotees gathering to await alien contact are like the Gump acolytes jogging across America, and Ellie becomes a Gump for Roswell junkies. After her trip through space, everyone thinks she hallucinated it, and her skepticism is thrown back at her. She can’t prove what she saw; it’s like God — you just have to believe. Zemeckis is telling us that our soul matches the color of the cosmos. He’s selling us used pieties.

4 Little Girls

July 9, 1997

Perhaps the strangest thing in Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls is the recent footage of George Wallace, the old segregationist himself, so enfeebled by age and his assassination-related frailty that Lee has to provide subtitles for his slurred speech. Lee has shown us the famous footage of Wallace blocking the school entrance (it’s the same clip that appears in Forrest Gump), and now Lee shows us an old man eager to seem misunderstood. Sitting at a desk with a can of Diet Pepsi prominently displayed (what a product placement!), Wallace keeps repeating that his best friend is black. “Ed,” he beckons, “c’mere. Been all over the world with him.” Ed the black best friend obediently stands next to Wallace, his expression faintly embarrassed. Spike Lee stays off camera throughout 4 Little Girls (we hear him asking a few questions), but I would pay good money to have seen his face when he was interviewing Wallace.

The Wallace segment is part of Lee’s condensed history lesson in the middle of 4 Little Girls, which begins with tragedy and then establishes the historical context for it. As Joan Baez’s cover of “Birmingham Sunday” plays on the soundtrack, Lee pans across the graves of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley — the girls who died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Denise was 11; the others were 14. Four broken columns in a memorial represent four lives cut short.

Aside from some Oliver Stone-ish touches — abrupt fades to white; jittery zooms into file photos — Lee’s style here is unflashy and uncluttered. He sets a camera in front of his subjects — survivors, friends and relatives of the girls, activists and journalists — and lets them talk, intercutting a generous amount of newsreels and pictures. Some may debate Lee’s judgment in keeping the camera on a weeping relative for a few beats too long, or slashing us with shock-cut morgue photos of the mutilated girls. But even these moments play less as lapses of taste than as necessary, visceral reminders of the horror of the events of September 15, 1963.

I don’t really know why Lee interviewed Bill Cosby (he doesn’t say much that any of us couldn’t have said), but the rest of his choices (including Wallace) are impeccable. We listen to the deep sadness of Chris McNair (father of Denise) remembering Denise’s first encounter with racism, or the resigned grace of Alpha Robertson (mother of Carole) renouncing any hatred of the man who killed her daughter, and we may wonder if we would have the strength to endure what they did. And such activists as Andrew Young and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth are living history texts illuminating the fear and loathing (and hope) of the era.

If there were any justice, Lee would’ve taken home a statuette on Oscar night. His filmmaking here may be simple, but it has the beauty of simplicity and the shadings of compassion (an aspect that has brightened the often-overlooked recent work of this once-angry director). Aided by rich photography by Ellen Kuras (who shot, beautifully, Tom Kalin’s 1992 Swoon) and a subtly moving score by Terence Blanchard, Lee has crafted a lovely piece of work about one of the ugliest chapters in American history.

Men in Black

July 2, 1997

For the second July in a row, Will Smith stares out at us from the cover of Newsweek, selling an overhyped movie about aliens. Underneath his picture — he’s posing with co-star Tommy Lee Jones — is a blurb anointing Men in Black “the summer’s coolest, funniest movie.” Cooler than Face/Off? Funnier than Hercules? If Newsweek says it’s so, then it must be so. This is margarita hype — best taken with many grains of salt. If only Newsweek‘s bouquet were the only one being thrown.

Men in Black is the chosen movie of the season — the darling of punch-drunk critics battered by the grinding idiocy of Speed 2, the hollow glitz of Batman and Robin, the crude pyrotechnics of Con Air. There’s a touching element of wishful thinking in the reviews I’ve read; the movie is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the former cinematographer (Raising Arizona) who went on to make the Addams Family movies and Get Shorty, and perhaps these critics want very badly to believe that his new film is witty, hip, inventive — everything it isn’t.

Tommy Lee Jones, as a hard-bitten government agent who keeps an eye on aliens living in Manhattan, gives his patented four-D performance — detached, dry, deadpan, droll — but he’s great at it, and the movie gains from having an actor of his gravity in such absurd situations (as Volcano did). Will Smith, as the hot-shot New York cop whom Jones recruits as a new Man in Black, has the film’s funniest moment, which has nothing to do with aliens. Filling out forms along with several other candidates, Smith gets tired of writing with the pages propped up in his lap; finally, he drags over a heavy table to write on, making enough noise to wake the dead.

Given its director and stars, Men in Black should have been a wacko classic to put alongside Ghostbusters and The Hidden (this movie’s basic parents). But the script, adapted by Ed Solomon (the Bill & Ted movies) from a comic book, betrays its shallow origins. The story is just a collection of sketches in which Jones and Smith run into farcical E.T.s. In the main plot, they’re on the trail of an evil “bug” that’s inhabited the skin of a farmer (Vincent D’Onofrio). After about the fifth repetition, the sight gag of D’Onofrio staggering around the streets like a spastic Dawn of the Dead reject wears very thin.

The aliens are rubbery and goofy and often repulsive, forever gushing blue slime or translucent puke. Men in Black seems calculated to go over big with ten-year-old boys; it also features a rocket-fast car and huge, bulbous weapons — except for Smith’s “noisy cricket,” a tiny gun that packs a megaton wallop. Once, that’s kind of funny. Four times, no.

Somewhere in the margins of the movie, Linda Fiorentino turns up as a lonely, antisocial coroner (“I hate the living”), and the film ends with the promise of a Woman in Black — an idea that makes Men in Black seem like the prequel to a more intriguing comedy. Smart and reserved, Fiorentino is the most memorable human on the screen — perhaps because Barry Sonnenfeld, who doesn’t seem all that interested in this material, shares her alienation from the boys-with-toys hijinks. So did I.


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