Archive for October 1997

Gattaca

October 24, 1997

Under the opening credits of Gattaca, huge, mysterious objects fall to the ground and land with oppressive, Dolbyized thuds and clatters. Elephant tusks? Downed power lines? Volcanic ash? No, they are fingernails, eyelashes, and dead skin, respectively — telltale carriers of our genetic codes. Part of the magic of Gattaca, the best (and best-looking) science-fiction film since Brazil, is the way it focuses our attention on the detritus we shed everywhere. Our bodily wastes, ourselves? You better believe it. In the world of Gattaca, God isn’t in the details — our DNA is. Biology is truly destiny.

Gattaca is set in “the not-too-distant future,” when perfect humans (“valids”) are bred by computer and trained for elite jobs, while “Godchildren” — people born the old-fashioned, imperfect way — are doomed to marginal lives as cogs in the machine. Of course, pessimists will say that the future of Gattaca is already here — that we are entering a techno-fascist era full of self-righteousness and empty of compassion. This is what dystopian fiction has always pointed out in the guise of sci-fi, but Gattaca chillingly captures the quick-fix, intolerant mood of the no-sex-no-drugs-no-nothing ’90s, and where it might logically lead.

New Zealand commercial director Andrew Niccol, making a superbly assured feature debut, wraps his message in a paranoid neo-noir plot. The hero, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), is a Godchild with a heart condition and an “expiration date” of about 30 years. He dreams of being an astronaut, but the prestigious Gattaca space corporation will hire him only as a janitor. Vincent resigns himself to sweeping up the dead skin of “valids” until he meets a genetic black-marketeer (Tony Shalhoub), who sets up a deal between Vincent and a disabled “valid,” Jerome (Jude Law). Vincent will pose as Jerome, using Jerome’s blood, hair, skin, and even urine to fake out Gattaca’s hypersensitive genetic screening and win a seat on the next space shot.

The weird physical details of Vincent’s fakery alone would make Gattaca fascinating. But Niccol ups the ante when a Gattaca bigwig turns up dead — and a stray eyelash of Vincent’s is found at the crime scene. Will Vincent be caught (even if he’s innocent of the murder), or will he sustain his ruse? The real paranoia of Gattaca is in its theme: the destiny of biology can be avoided for a while, but eventually it catches up with you (you can’t get much more noir than that).

Most sci-fi movies look great because of cutting-edge special effects and lavish sets. Gattaca has few special effects, and its sets are struck from the stark, antiseptic mold of David Cronenberg movies. Yet the movie is at least as stunning as Blade Runner or Brazil. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (who shot a few Krzysztof Kieslowski films, including Blue) is a sorcerer conjuring with golden browns and muted violets; this is one of the most beautifully photographed movies of the decade. Uma Thurman, as Vincent’s lover Irene, has never been more radiant — I wished there were more women in the movie to enjoy Idziak’s lavish lighting.

Gattaca is a “soft” science-fiction film — i.e., it depends less on hardware than on character and ideas. It may not be a hit — the Saturday-night, opening-weekend show I attended was considerably less than packed — but it’s ideal for cult-movie reappraisal in a few years (just as Blade Runner and Brazil flopped and went on to become classics — and those films, like Gattaca, got a largely ho-hum response from American critics). As the movie winds down, so do its momentum and logic, but I didn’t honestly care. Gattaca is the most elegant and hypnotic sci-fi thriller in years — a vision as dazzling as it is bleak.

A Life Less Ordinary

October 24, 1997

tumblr_mp2i2yNmpS1qlmwmro1_1280The cheerfully daft A Life Less Ordinary reminded me of another, far less enjoyable film that came out last year — Feeling Minnesota, a hipster piffle featuring guns, tough guys, a scruffy male lead, and Cameron Diaz. That movie just sat on the screen waiting to die of lameness. A Life Less Ordinary could easily have been just as bad. It’s one of those ironic crime comedies pitched at the young and jaded (Pulp Fiction was the template), but it isn’t the Tarantino swipe the ads lead you to expect.

This is the third collaboration between four guys from Britain: director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald, and star Ewan McGregor. Their first effort was 1994’s nasty, off-putting thriller Shallow Grave; last year they took U.K. and U.S. art-houses by storm with Trainspotting. A calculatedly shocking comedy like Trainspotting is a hard act to follow, and Boyle et al. have done the properly perverse thing: They’ve made a romantic comedy crammed with five movies’ worth of Hollywood cheese — lovers on the lam, kidnapping, gunplay, even angels, for God’s sake. The movie is a joke on big studios (Fox paid for this one) and the mass audience. The indie bad-boys are saying, “You want lightweight escapism? We’ll give you lightweight escapism.” But they’ve done it their way.

McGregor is Robert, a janitor and aspiring “trash novelist” who gets fired — replaced by a robot. Robert storms into the office of his boss (Ian Holm), waving a gun and demanding his job back. After a melee with a pack of security guards, he abducts the boss’s daughter Celine (Diaz), who has recently disabled her dentist fiancé (Stanley Tucci) in a William Tell scene that may be a parody of Naked Lunch. Celine goes with Robert willingly; it’s not like she has anything better to do.

All of this is monitored by two angels (the hilariously cast Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo), who are assigned to play Cupids for Robert and Celine; God isn’t happy with the divorce rate on Earth. The angels also pose as assassins who offer their services to Celine’s dad — he wants Celine back and Robert dead. Since the movie begins in Heaven, we know we’re not meant to take it straight. Yet real feeling does develop between the mismatched lovers.

That’s because McGregor and Diaz make a fine off-center couple. Diaz’s sexiness is played down (except for her opening bit in a bikini, when Boyle seems to be saying “Right, let’s get this out of the way early”), and McGregor spends the film in a dorky shag haircut. Yet they also have a brazenly romantic karaoke number in a club, belting out “Beyond the Sea,” and you smile as you realize that Boyle is having his cake and eating it too. The scene is a goof, but it gets to the heart of the lovers’ fantasies with a peppy directness beyond the reach of most Hollywood movies.

What’s fresh about A Life Less Ordinary is that we get to see weary romantic clichés through the eyes of cinema’s new Fab Four — clichés mocked, celebrated and, finally, abandoned in favor of an odd kind of honesty. Celine and Robert pose side by side, talking directly to us and to each other, and in the end they turn into Claymation versions of themselves. Like everything else in the film, this is both a goof and not a goof: People are clay in the hands of God, shaped by fate …. Aah, forget it. The Claymation is just fun. And any movie featuring Holly Hunter as a blood-spattered angel, grinning homicidally as she clings to the hood of a speeding car, is just about impossible to dislike.

Gummo

October 17, 1997

When Harmony Korine’s Gummo crept into theaters like a scabby thief in the night, it was greeted with the sort of critical violence that always makes me want to see the movie for myself. Sometimes a universally hated film is universally hated for a reason, and I’ve gotten stung at such movies as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and North. But other such despised movies, like Crash and A Life Less Ordinary, made me wonder if the entirety of American critics had seen the same film I saw. We say we want something different, and yet when a film actually gives us that, we punish it, mock it, call it pretentious and pointless.

My honest opinion? I liked Gummo. That surprised me, since I’m not a big fan of Kids, the overhyped 1995 film that Harmony Korine wrote (Larry Clark directed it). Kids tried to be an old-fashioned cautionary tale dressed up in new-shit hipster clothes; the result was a shrewdly posturing work — a film that young urban moviegoers could attend and pretend they’d walked on the wild side. Gummo, which Korine wrote and directed, is closer to the real thing. If it were a documentary, Korine would be hoisted up there alongside Errol Morris and Terry Zwigoff as a filmmaker who captured the chaos of inner life. Because it’s fiction, Korine is denounced as an exploitative brat with a camera.

What’s really going on here? Seems to me a lot of urban baby-boomer critics have a knee-jerk aversion to any work that shows poverty-stricken rural people but doesn’t serve up a clearcut uplifting message (banks are bad, farms are good, the community will always pull together, etc.). Gummo is set in Xenia, Ohio, a town that never recovered from a tornado. (It was shot in Nashville, though.) The two main characters are Tummler (Nick Sutton) and Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), two aimless kids who kill cats so they can sell them for meat and buy glue to huff. Korine regards them neutrally, without comment, and he treats everyone else onscreen the same way. That this is condemned as condescension, and not merely depiction, shows the condescension of the critics — the same well-to-do critics who hate Jerry Springer because its guests are supposedly too ignorant (i.e., too small-town) to know they’re being exploited.

Working with cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier (Good Will Hunting), Korine sustains a depressive mood, a world of muted colors and no expectations, a place where entertainment consists of watching two men beat up a kitchen chair. Some may ask why we’d want to watch such things. Me, I think it’s a relief. When a film like Crash or Gummo comes along that’s so not Hollywood, so not about cute people with cute flaws and happy endings, we Americans, who claim to be sick of the same action movies and romantic comedies, have the gall to complain that movies like Gummo have no story. Well, the non-story in Gummo interested me a hell of a lot more than the non-stories that Hollywood passes off as stories.

And Korine is a far more inventive visual filmmaker than his one-time director (and photographer) Larry Clark ever was. That famous shot of Jacob Reynolds eating spaghetti in a tub full of gray bathwater puts a slippery finger on a part of your brain that usually isn’t touched. The movie is full of such bothersome, elusive images (a kid with pink bunny ears strolling across a bleak landscape; a retarded woman shaving her eyebrows; two skinheads pummeling each other — for real; the sight of Out of the Blue‘s Linda Manz as Solomon’s weird, tap-dancing mom). Directors have been hailed as visionaries for less. In fact, if Gummo had subtitles and came from, say, the Netherlands or Spain, some of the same critics who shat all over it might have embraced it.

There’s also a hidden compassion in Gummo — the movie’s dirty little secret is that it’s not as coldly hip as it lets on. The notorious scene in which Solomon shoots the comatose old woman in the foot is actually rather ambiguous: this is their hapless attempt to wake her up. Another scene that drew critical fire — Korine’s cameo as a drunk guy who comes on to an encephalitic black dwarf after talking about how lonely he is — struck me as oddly moving. Can we just not deal with movies that don’t express emotions the same old way? Can’t we, for just 90 minutes, rise to the challenge of genuinely difficult art?

Your reaction to the people in Gummo says more about you than it does about them or Korine. If you recoil or laugh or scoff, you should ask yourself why. Perhaps the comatose old woman is Korine’s metaphor for the lazy, narrow-minded, unadventurous American audience that he hopes to wake up. Most critics have rewarded him with a kick in the ass, but they should be thanking him. Better he should make Lost in Space? I’m reminded of a great quote by Spike Lee: when an interviewer said that Spike’s use of different styles in the same movie isn’t what some people are used to, Lee retorted, “Most of the movies that people are used to suck anyway!” A sentiment with which, I think, Harmony Korine would heartily agree.

I Know What You Did Last Summer

October 17, 1997

The dark side of the horror genre is that when a horror movie crosses over and makes big money — The Exorcist, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street — a wave of inferior rip-offs is never far behind. Well, once again, studio execs have sat up and taken notice: “Hey! Scream made $100 million! Let’s make a slasher movie!” The first one out of the box, I Know What You Did Last Summer, is particularly disappointing because it was written by Kevin Williamson, who scripted Scream, and who, I thought, was much smarter than this. Scream was a clever slasher-film parody that played by the rules of the subgenre while affectionately ribbing those same rules. Last Summer just plays by the rules — boringly, predictably so.

The film is based on Lois Duncan’s dated, poorly written young-adult novel from 1974 (sample dialogue: “Of all the dumb tricks! The guy must be off his nut”). Williamson has altered the plot while keeping the basic premise. Four high-school stereotypes — beauty queen Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), straight-A student Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), jock Barry (Ryan Phillippe), and working-class outsider Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) — are out driving when they run over a shadowy figure. The kids panic and dump the body into the nearby ocean, making a pact never to talk about the incident. Then, one year later, Julie gets a mysterious note that reads — well, check the title.

At this point, Last Summer turns into a depressingly routine slasher film. A figure called the Fisherman, dressed in a black slicker and wielding a hook, goes around terrorizing the kids. Does he want to scare a confession out of them, or does he just want to kill them? The latter, I’m afraid. But while we wait, Williamson tosses in many red herrings — who just turn out to be Fisherman fodder. The big question on the kids’ minds, and on ours, is: Who’s doing this and why? The final explanation is disastrously anti-climactic, especially coming from the writer who threw us a few diabolical twists and curves in Scream.

Director Jim Gillespie is no Wes Craven. He doesn’t know how to use the wide screen (it’s a waste of Panavision), and he gets no help from his actors. Phillippe and Prinze lack the quirkiness of the horror-obsessed geeks in Scream; they’re generic Fox-TV hunks. Gellar, the vibrant star of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is bland here; she’s too smart and likable to be credible as the snotty, shallow Helen. (Charisma Carpenter, who plays the self-absorbed Cordelia on Buffy, would have been more like it. Gellar was originally up for the role of Cordelia, and here she demonstrates how wrong she would’ve been for the part.) Hewitt, of Party of Five, fares better with the brooding, guilt-stricken Julie, but she’s too obviously being groomed as the next Neve Campbell. Only Anne Heche, stealing her two scenes as a lonely backwoods woman, makes an impression.

Williamson is a native of the North Carolina fishing community, where the movie is set. There are a few atmospheric scenes and touches of local color, but even though the film was shot on location, the place feels like the same suburban wherever I’ve seen in a hundred slasher movies. Despite the open ending and Columbia’s hunger for a franchise, I doubt that the Fisherman will catch on as an enduring icon of fear to match Michael Myers, Freddy, Jason, or even Scream‘s Munch-faced killer. The movie could have been a small paranoid classic, a smart teen rendition of Hitchcock, set in a specific locale with living, breathing people we could care about. Instead, it’s the kind of anemic gore-fest that killed the genre fifteen years ago. Kevin Williamson, what were you thinking?

Seven Years in Tibet

October 8, 1997

sept ans au TibetSeven Years in Tibet is the first of two films this year to deal with the Dalai Lama. The other is Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, due at Christmas; it has no American stars, much less Brad Pitt, so it will be a tough sell. I recommend holding out for Kundun. The current movie adheres to Hollywood’s Rule of Racist Indifference: The mass white audience won’t care about the life of a great man who doesn’t happen to be white, unless he’s the supporting character in a movie about an unimportant white guy. Thus, Seven Years in Tibet gives us the über-blond, blue-eyed Brad Pitt as mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, who is Austrian and also a former Nazi. Harrer, of course, is redeemed through his exposure to the young Dalai Lama — it’s Schindler’s List meets Little Buddha.

The film is certainly handsome. The director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, also made Quest for Fire and The Bear, which relied heavily on nature’s watercolors and had almost no human dialogue. But Annaud’s pictorial style is impressive without being expressive. Any shot from the movie would look ravishing out of context, but there’s nothing under the images — not even any storytelling pizzazz á la Spielberg. The rhythm is smooth and deadening. It’s all “Look at this; look at this; ooh, look at this.” It’s a slide show of Tibet (actually, it’s Argentina and the Andes).

Those who giggled at Pitt’s allegedly Irish lilt in The Devil’s Own (“Ay naid tha’ mooney, Tum”) should know that he has better luck with his Austrian accent as Harrer — though he becomes noticeably less Teutonic once he starts bonding with the Dalai Lama. Cold and selfish, Harrer deserts his pregnant wife to go climb the Nanga Parbat for the greater glory of Germany — and himself. Fully the first half of the film follows Harrer and his expedition leader Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis, much more amiable here than usual) as they are captured by the British and locked up in a POW camp, which they escape by fleeing to Tibet. It’s there that Harrer meets the 14-year-old Dalai Lama (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk).

It’s also there that the movie becomes ripe for parody. After more than an hour of solemn preparation, we get … Brad Pitt showing a kid how to drive a car and work a radio. Wow. When the Dalai Lama isn’t asking eager questions, he’s spouting wisdom like a Buddhist Pez dispenser. Dumbed down for the mass audience, the teachings sound like Yoda, or worse. “If you are worried about something, change it,” he says, “and if you can’t change it, why worry about it?” In other words: Don’t worry, be happy. Whoa, this little dude is heavy, man.

I really hope Kundun does more justice to the subtlety of Buddhist thought. I think it would almost have to. (Though if this movie leads even one Brad-happy teenage girl to the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh or Ayya Khema — or the Dalai Lama, for that matter — it will have done something right.) In Seven Years in Tibet, the Dalai Lama comes off as a benevolent alien — E.T. in Coke-bottle glasses — and Harrer learns to love the son he abandoned. (What is he, a Promise Keeper?) The last act is rushed and murky, sprinting through the Chinese occupation of Tibet — which plays not as a climax but as an afterthought — and winding up, finally, with Harrer and his teenage son planting the Tibetan flag on a mountaintop. One large leap for a white man, one very tiny step for the people of Tibet.

U-Turn

October 4, 1997

Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), the eight-fingered loser in U-Turn, is stranded in the godforsaken dustbowl of Superior, Arizona — land of scorpions and rednecks and whimsical, wise Indians. It’s the Southwest as a mystical Satanic sandbox, depicted with trippy time-lapse photography, gory flash-cuts of torture and mutilation, lurid close-ups of snakes and radiator hoses (they both hiss in our faces). That this is an Oliver Stone film probably goes without saying.

U-Turn is a gorgeous controlled mess — a rest stop for Oliver Stone, a detour from his usual heavy-breathing indictments of American apathy. It’s a film noir goof, stylized from first shot to last, like David Lynch’s Wild at Heart only weirder (if that’s even possible). Is it a success? Visually, it isn’t as abrasive as Stone’s Natural Born Killers; Stone sustains a hectic mood of paranoia, yet he seems relaxed — he isn’t trying to say anything. U-Turn is just two hours of Oliver Stone amusing himself, and he amused me, too.

Bobby is on the run from some vaguely-drawn Russian heavies, to whom he owes serious money. He leaves his broken-down Mustang with a grubby mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton) and slouches into town, where he promptly gets in over his head. A local woman, Grace (Jennifer Lopez, luminous as always), catches Bobby’s eye. He goes back to her place to help her hang some drapes; they’re about to take their relationship to the next level when Grace’s jealous husband Jake (Nick Nolte) storms in. Jake pops Bobby in the nose but later offers him a ride — and a deal. See, Grace has a big insurance policy, and …

Yes, I know; we’re supposed to see where this is going. But surprises were never the point of film noir. Fans of the genre expect twists and double-crosses; the only surprise would be if everyone were on the level. No, noir is about style and attitude and fatalism — everything that, say, Robert Mitchum could convey just by standing there. But noir can’t be done straight any more. Whether a panoramic epic like L.A. Confidential or a postmodern doodle like Lynch’s Lost Highway, it won’t go far unless it’s hitched to a larger vision — obsessive, parodic, or perverse.

Stone is eager to oblige. He takes a routine script by John Ridley (adapting his novel Stray Dogs) and runs it through his caffeinated vision of an amoral, sun-baked America. He strikes gold with Nick Nolte, whose yellow crewcut and beard turn him into a rotgut John Huston. Leering and growling in the repulsive-funny manner of Rodney Dangerfield in Natural Born Killers, Nolte leaves a bad taste in your brain; it’s gutsy work from a great actor. Stone also lampoons NBK‘s Mickey and Mallory with a strange young couple — flighty pixie Claire Danes and jealous doofus Joaquin Phoenix — who keep turning up to harass Bobby. Jon Voight, though underused, is dryly witty as Stone’s familiar Indian sage.

Oddly, Stone all but ignores Sean Penn. Aside from some volcanic fits of rage and the hilarious toothless voice he uses in his final scene, Penn is less interesting here than in his brief appearance in The Game. When two bad boys like Stone and Penn collide, you expect more sparks to fly. But then the real star of an Oliver Stone movie is the guy himself. Like Stone’s past few films, U-Turn is an abstract splatter of varying film stock and discordant editing — a jagged little pill that goes down easy, only this one also wears off fast. This long, strange trip is fun but aimless. I didn’t mind; Stone can go back to firebombing the American conscience next time.

Boogie Nights

October 2, 1997

Boogie Nights shows a gifted young filmmaker — Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s only 27 — with a severe case of “Hey, Look, Ma, I’m a Director!” No doubt it’s an energetic, exuberant piece of moviemaking; if only energy and exuberance equalled greatness. It can, in the hands of a master like Martin Scorsese. But Anderson, in this film, is only a skilled imitator. Boogie Nights is lively and often powerful; it’s impossible to dislike, unless you can’t get past the subject matter. But it’s far from the masterpiece that many critics are claiming it is.

This is Anderson’s second film, after the taut, superior drama Hard Eight, released earlier this year. Hard Eight was original and unpredictable, though much less ambitious; Boogie Nights has ambition to burn. Anderson wants to bypass sophomore slump and blow everyone away, as Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino did with their second films. Anderson wants it all; he wants to be Scorsese, Tarantino, even Robert Altman (Boogie Nights tries for the kaleidoscopic sweep of Altman’s Nashville). But Hard Eight showed what he can do when he’s content to be himself.

The ambition shows even in the subject: the porn-film world at its “peak” in the late ’70s, before it succumbed to video in the ’80s. Anderson strains to convince us that this is a worthy subject for a 152-minute film — he frames the rise and fall of a lunkheaded porn star as a tragicomic epic. But there are too many characters, each with only a single trait. William H. Macy appears as a cameraman with an arrogantly unfaithful wife; you giggle at his hideous ’70s wig, and you want to see more of him. But all Macy gets to do is sulk over his wife, and his final rage comes from nowhere. (How do his colleagues react to his outburst? We never find out.) It’s a waste of a fine actor, and an example of Anderson’s one-note screenwriting here.

Boogie Nights is about Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a busboy groomed by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) to be the next big thing. (Jack’s father-son relationship with Eddie recalls Hard Eight, where a veteran gambler took a young loser under his wing.) Innocent Eddie, endowed with a prodigious member, becomes “Dirk Diggler,” celebrated porn stud. He finds a family among Jack’s crew, including porn queen Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), who loses custody of her son and acts as den mother to Eddie and other lost sheep. Stardom goes to Eddie’s head; he turns into an egotistical cokehead and swiftly drops into squalor.

And I just told you the story in 150 fewer minutes than it takes Anderson. Boogie Nights is long but never boring — it flies by. But it has epic length without epic depth. It flits along, observing and sketching. Some of it is immensely enjoyable; Anderson throws a lot of stuff at the wall, and some of it sticks. Julianne Moore is vividly poignant as a woman who uses sex to conceal her desolation, and Alfred Molina turns up as a crazed cokehead and sends the film’s energy level through the roof. Yet even his scene is a caffeinated copy of the drug-deal-goes-sour sequence in Brian De Palma’s Scarface.

After a while, the borrowings add up. De Palma is also a cheerful thief, as is Tarantino, but they seal their homages with a prankish wit all their own. Anderson is too ambitious to be prankish, but he also isn’t above lifting shots and entire scenes from Scorsese. You sit there thinking “Okay, that’s GoodFellas” and “Oh, now he’s doing Taxi Driver” as the camera tracks and swoops. Sometimes Anderson leaves Scorsese behind — the camera dives in and out of a pool a la I Am Cuba. Critics are responding to Anderson’s joie de cinema, and I did, too. But adding a prosthetic penis to the last scene of Raging Bull isn’t exactly an improvement. Boogie Nights is a well-acted, compassionate study of a sordid milieu. It’s also almost totally second-hand.


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