Archive for December 1997

Wag the Dog

December 25, 1997

Wag the Dog has the loose, improvisational rhythm of a group of great musicians jamming at a club, performing at their peaks and surprising each other and themselves. This low-budget studio release does what Heat and Sleepers failed to do: it collects a cast of legends and up-and-comers and lets them have fun working together. The fun is contagious; Wag the Dog feels tossed-off and casual in the best way — not too heavy, not too much riding on it. To over-analyze its satire — or to overrate it — is to suck most of the life out of it.

As a satire, it’s probably the 417th black comedy to break the news that the media is evil and we are being lied to. Wow, stop the presses. What distinguishes Wag the Dog is its systematic approach to media deception. The movie invites us behind closed doors, where we rub elbows with Washington spin doctors and Hollywood illusionists, and they show us how everything works (or, theoretically, could work). Taking this tour, we’re not so much disturbed as oddly flattered, the way we are when Richard III turns and confides in us (and only us) in his asides.

The script, by Hilary Henkin (Romeo Is Bleeding) and legendary playwright David Mamet, shares its basic premise with Michael Moore’s less successful satire Canadian Bacon, where the President declared war on Canada to boost his flagging polls in the wake of weapons-factory shutdowns. Wag the Dog concerns itself much more with the process, the mechanics of manipulation on a grand scale. Here, we go to “war” with Albania (why? why not?) to distract the American public from the President’s recent misadventure with a Firefly Girl days before re-election.

The joke is that there never is a war, only a media mirage (and barrage) that cranks up public hatred of Albania and support for America’s defense of freedom. Presidential advisor Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) calls in the big gun: spin master Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), who lays the groundwork for the “war” (deny everything; people expect the government to issue denials) and then calls in his own big gun. Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a fantastically successful movie producer who feels unappreciated by Hollywood, jumps at the chance to help Conrad set the stage for the war: “a little song, a little dance, a pageant.”

Nobody who watched the protracted CNN video game called the Gulf War will find Wag the Dog all that far-fetched. As director Barry Levinson has pointed out, the Gulf War may not have been faked, but it could easily have been. Levinson, whose directorial hand was so heavy and lugubrious in Sleepers, snaps awake here and puts up a piece of jittery, hand-held, on-the-fly filmmaking. He seems relieved to be working so fast, cheap, and in control, as do all of his actors. Hoffman in particular makes Stanley not just a crass producer but a hopped-up ersatz sorcerer getting high on the snap, crackle and pop of his own “creativity.” His satirical performance is sharper for being genuinely affectionate; he loves this tanned weasel, and so do we.

Part of the fun of Wag the Dog is its respect for professionalism: These people may be scoundrels, but they know what they’re doing, they love what they do, and they’re great at it. That extends to everyone involved in the movie, from the cast to the cinematographer (Robert Richardson, taking a breather from Oliver Stone movies) and the composer (Mark Knopfler, whose deadpan riffs perfectly suit the action). Is this a great movie? Not quite; it lacks the pitiless circular snake-eating-its-tail shape of classic satire — the ending is dark but could have been a lot darker. “They’re nice guys, they just haven’t thought it out,” says Conrad of the CIA who meddle in the fake war, and that could describe the screenwriters during the last act. Still, you don’t expect shape and structure from a jam session; you’re there to hear great artists making music. Wag the Dog hits one true note after another.

An American Werewolf in Paris

December 25, 1997

Hollywood has been mixing horror and comedy at least since James Whale’s The Old Dark House in 1932, but John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981) was probably the first horror-comedy that managed to comment on the genre without being openly parodic. That film’s smirking college-student hero — David Kessler, who found himself turning into (you gotta be kidding me, right?) a werewolf — can now be considered the precursor of the wised-up horror fans in the Scream movies. Landis’ hero didn’t believe his predicament any more than we did — until the movie got scary and David (and we) got a reality slap.

The original American Werewolf blended big laughs and bigger scares so seamlessly that one wonders exactly how Landis pulled it off. He wrote it when he was 19 and held onto it until he had the clout to get it made his way; it’s his best film and his last good one. The belated sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, doesn’t feel like a movie that sprang full-blown from the fevered brow of an aspiring filmmaker. It feels like a movie passed from writer to writer and director to director over a period of five years — as, indeed, it was. It’s a needless sequel — it has some scattered good moments, but it’s fundamentally lame. (To be fair, Landis’ own sequel concept, which he described in a Fangoria interview some years ago, was even lamer.)

The American werewolf this time is Andy McDermott (Tom Everett Scott, the Tom Hanks lookalike from That Thing You Do!), a college student vacationing in Paris with two buddies. Preparing to bungee-jump off the Eiffel Tower, Andy spots a suicidal French beauty, Serafine (Julie Delpy), who’s also preparing to jump — sans bungee cord. Why? Because she’s a werewolf — the product, it turns out, of a night between David Kessler and his English nurse girlfriend (Alex Price, who appears here as a ghost laden with make-up intended to hide the fact that the moviemakers couldn’t get Jenny Agutter to reprise the role).

Andy, like David, gets scratched by another werewolf and soon begins acting lycanthropic: a ravenous appetite for raw meat and sex; strange dreams and visitations from gross-looking undead people. Landis handled all this with a straight face that made it funnier (and creepier); the director here, Anthony Waller, goes for broad effects most of the time. Since Waller did such subtle, witty work in his debut, the 1995 thriller Mute Witness, I’ll chalk this up as the sophomore slump of a gifted director swamped by a bigger budget and too many special effects.

Speaking of which: don’t get me started. The werewolves of Paris, a combo of latex and CGI, are uniformly cheesy-looking. Motionless in the dim light of the full moon, they’re all right; photographed full-on, charging at the camera in jerky movements that scream “CGI,” they’re embarrassing. In a way, though, I’m grateful: This review provides the perfect opportunity to point out that Rick Baker’s effects for the original American Werewolf sixteen years ago — done entirely with latex — still wipe the floor with almost any computer-generated monster I’ve yet seen.

Waller’s sly use of the frame (as seen in Mute Witness, which you are required to go rent right now) occasionally brightens Paris. A few gags get their laughs by having odd things happen in the background, and Waller’s best, scariest moment here comes when two people are trying to fire up a lighter, illuminating and concealing the werewolf slowly approaching in the background. But the script, written by Tom Stern and Tim Burns (Freaked) and revised by Waller, is overplotted and doesn’t get much mileage out of several promising ideas — such as the ghost of Andy’s one-night stand (Julie Bowen, who’s funny) coming back to haunt him, or the development of a serum that speeds up the process of lycanthopy, or the idea of a subculture of werewolves hanging out in rave clubs that keep changing addresses.

I won’t give away the non-ending, but I think it should have ended the way Landis had the courage to end his film: tragically. It should have ended with Andy kneeling over Serafine with a knife and getting popped by the cops, like Gregory Peck in The Omen. Then they could have used the idiotic final scene (it involves the Statue of Liberty) as a bit of hallucinatory wishful thinking on the parts of the dying lovers. As it is, it seems that Hollywood Pictures was hoping for a second sequel (Two Ex-Werewolves in America?) — which may have been wishful thinking on the studio’s part, but certainly not on mine.

Jackie Brown

December 25, 1997

If there absolutely has to be another movie about guns and stolen money, it might as well be drawn from the work of the master — Elmore Leonard, whose novel Rum Punch is the basis for Jackie Brown, the long-awaited new film by Quentin Tarantino. How is it as a follow-up to the hallowed Pulp Fiction? Don’t think of it as that. Consider it a superb Elmore Leonard adaptation by a filmmaker who knows how to serve someone else’s material while making it his own. Neither a razor-sharp black comedy like Reservoir Dogs nor a pop-culture encyclopedia like Pulp, this is something new for Tarantino: a leisurely and compassionate character study in which the guns and stolen money seem almost incidental.

Despite the central presence of Tarantino favorite Pam Grier and the blaxploitation tone of the ads, this isn’t the Quentin-a-go-go vanity project some of us feared it would be. Tarantino, it turns out, has done for Grier what he did for John Travolta in Pulp: pluck a good actor out of obscurity and restore his/her dignity. As Jackie Brown, a 44-year-old flight attendant for a last-resort airline, Grier is earthy, funny, smart, and often touching. Here, finally, is a Tarantino woman who offers more than just diversion or danger for a Tarantino male (even if she began life as an Elmore Leonard woman named Jackie Burke). Grier eagerly rises to the challenge of a complex role; she takes the screen like a lioness.

Jackie is running money for a gun dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a ruthlessly pragmatic criminal with an efficient way of dealing with employees who’ve been nabbed by the cops: he bails them out and then kills them (so they won’t rat on him). When Jackie herself is arrested by two feds (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen), she knows her options: go to jail for a year and start her life over at 45, or end her life in a car trunk. There’s also a third option, brilliantly laid out by Leonard in the novel and faithfully followed by Tarantino. It involves Jackie’s bail bondsman, the weary Max Cherry (Robert Forster in an authoritative comeback performance that equals Grier’s), and an elaborate scam that Tarantino, in a nod to The Killing, shows us three times from various viewpoints.

Although not an actor (he stays behind the camera this time, thank God), Tarantino is indisputably an actor’s director. Not merely a rehash of Pulp Fiction‘s Jules, Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell is a calculating sociopath with a short fuse. Jackson makes Ordell quietly deadly where Jules was oratorical (Ordell wouldn’t waste time quoting Ezekiel 25:17). Ordell’s flunky Louis, just out of prison, is played by Robert De Niro in his subtlest, funniest performance in years. At first glance a harmless, run-down stoner (he gets high constantly with Ordell’s girlfriend Melanie, played by a hilariously lackadaisical Bridget Fonda), Louis eventually reveals his own short fuse. When De Niro gives the ditzy Fonda a long, silent, furious stare, he’s scarier in that one moment than he is in all of Cape Fear.

By now, Tarantino has gone through so many shifts in public perception (he’s a genius, he’s an overexposed geek, he’s a one-hit wonder) that Jackie Brown is bound to disappoint some people who want to be disappointed — who want Tarantino to take a dive in a big way, and shut up and go away. Jackie Brown proves he’s not going anywhere except further in his career. The movie is nimble and more quietly funny than Tarantino’s other work (it may benefit from a second viewing). Even if it’s not “original” (and, really, what Tarantino film is truly original?), it’s the ideal match of author and director; Tarantino is the first filmmaker to get Elmore Leonard on the screen, and not just Leonard’s plot and zesty dialogue. Get Shorty got his plot and dialogue but missed his spirit. Tarantino, who once got busted for shoplifting a Leonard paperback, understands and loves Leonard’s marginal losers, grungy milieu, and decent people trying to keep their heads above water. Pulp Fiction, after all, was the best Elmore Leonard novel Leonard never wrote.

Jackie Brown continues and expands Tarantino’s basic ongoing theme (actions have consequences), and its black comedy is leavened by a new, more humane outlook. The abrupt sick humor of the past (“I just shot Marvin in the face”) is gone, replaced by genuine shock. Only four people get whacked in Jackie Brown, but their deaths have weight. Tarantino is maturing, and the sensibility of this film is miles away from the bouncy sadism of Reservoir Dogs. With Jackie Brown, Tarantino restores his own dignity and his status as an artist to watch.

As Good As It Gets

December 25, 1997

Did this really need to be 138 minutes long? Aside from that, this is a reasonably entertaining comedy that allows Jack Nicholson to amuse himself (and us) for most of the running time. Melvin Udall (Jack) is an obsessive-compulsive romance novelist whose rude behavior alienates everyone he meets — everyone except Carol Connolly (Helen Hunt), the only waitress at his favorite restaurant who doesn’t refuse to wait on him. Carol has a sick little boy at home; Melvin helps her find a better doctor for the kid and asks her to go along with him on a trip with his Friendly Gay Neighbor (Greg Kinnear). Love ensues, naturally. This is really more of a better-than-average sitcom than a movie, but Nicholson and especially Hunt put it over; they won Best Actor and Actress Oscars. Score by Hans Zimmer; cinematography by John Bailey. Also with Skeet Ulrich and Jamie Kennedy (they have a scene together — it’s like a Scream reunion), Cuba Gooding Jr., Shirley Knight, Yeardley Smith, Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, and cameos by Lawrence Kasdan, Todd Solondz, and Shane Black. Hilariously, it was retitled Mr. Cat Poop in Hong Kong.

Kundun

December 25, 1997

Martin Scorsese’s Kundun is a hushed and meditative film, wholly befitting its subject (the Dalai Lama). Sometimes I don’t understand American critics, who have almost unanimously dismissed Kundun as “boring” and “undramatic.” They miss the point — and miss the movie. The Kundun I saw is Scorsese’s best movie since GoodFellas — a dreamlike and poetic vision of becalmed Buddhist life. Nothing much happens in the conventional narrative sense (until the Chinese invade Tibet), but Scorsese, usually the most hyperactive and tumultuous of directors, makes you understand and appreciate the very idea of nothing happening.

Kundun unfolds as a series of tableaux and impressionistic montages; it’s essentially an experimental film. The script, by Melissa Mathison (E.T.), outlines the barest bones of the Dalai Lama’s story — perfect for Scorsese’s purposes, because he isn’t trying to make a normal biopic. Kundun is pure cinema, a story telling itself through images. Working with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins and his usual editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese creates the movie equivalent of a trance; Philip Glass’s ritualistic, repetitive score serves as a kind of mantra.

The movie begins with little Tenzin Gyatso, a normal toddler who seems to exhibit the usual bratty behavior (he demands to sit at his father’s place at dinner). There are indications that the boy is special — that he has memories of power in a previous life. “He thinks he’s a king,” sneers one of his brothers. Close enough. Soon, a monk travelling to Lhapso stops at the boy’s house; he is looking for the reborn 14th Dalai Lama (the 13th has recently died), and he becomes convinced that the willful little boy is the living incarnation of Buddha.

As some critics have pointed out, Scorsese keeps the early scenes rather ambiguous. The prospective little Dalai Lama is told to point at objects that “belong to him” — i.e., belonged to the previous Dalai Lama. The boy does so, subtly prodded by the monk, whose expressions seem to guide the boy’s hand. It’s almost a solemn game of “hot and cold.” The monks, after all, need another spiritual leader. Scorsese the famous Catholic may not fully buy into the concept of reincarnation, and may have planted tiny doubts like this in the narrative, but in the end, the Dalai Lama, whether or not he was truly born into his position, learns to grow into it.

Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong takes over the role when the Dalai Lama moves into his teens, and he’s a natural if undemonstrative actor, with placid, angular features that reminded me a little of Matthew Modine. The teenage leader of Tibet has gained wisdom since childhood, but he’s still basically a boy, untested and naïve, and he waits until the last possible instant to flee Tibet once the Chinese invade. The graceful images throughout have given us reason to love Tibet, and we understand why the Dalai Lama doesn’t want to leave. Scorsese has shown us a mindful and elegant way of life, and we mourn its violent passing in the hands of Mao Zedong.

Kundun is light years beyond the previous Dalai Lama film, the oafish Seven Years in Tibet, in which we were supposed to sigh at the highlights in Brad Pitt’s hair as he hung out with the Dalai Lama and became nicer. Neither is this a noble failure like Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, an equally extreme departure. It’s closer to Scorsese’s other spiritual study, The Last Temptation of Christ, in which the savage red landscapes were a battleground for Jesus’s inner conflicts. Kundun rejects conflict (as Buddhism itself does), and, since we Westerners demand conflict in our drama, there’s a danger of chalking Kundun up as another noble failure. If only all “failures” were this mesmerizing. At this late stage in his career, Scorsese is still taking chances and refusing to play by the rules. This quiet, meditative gallery of pictures may be his most radical, trangressive film in years; it requires that we disavow everything we want from normal movies. It’s a true Buddhist work of art.

Titanic

December 19, 1997

Let’s get the obvious out of the way — the stats you’ve been hearing constantly, unless you live at the bottom of the Atlantic: Titanic cost $200 million (at least), and it runs over three hours. By the end of the movie, I didn’t care if it had cost $500 million, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing another hour or two. More than just the thousand-pound gorilla of the season, Titanic is clearly the movie of the year — a big, beautiful, excessive spectacle, the kind of lavish moviemaking that only Hollywood can finance and that only a few directors can pull off. Spielberg is one (though not in the recent Amistad). James Cameron, as he proves definitively here, is another.

Since Aliens eleven years ago, Cameron has made a career of pushing the envelope, straining his budgets, and topping himself. His next movie, I imagine, will be filmed entirely on the moon; that’s the only way he can possibly top Titanic, which exceeds our expectations by making the ill-fated ship (and its passengers) real to us. Cameron centers his story on a romance between two fictional characters — resourceful poor-boy Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and upper-class Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) — and he risks trivializing the historical tragedy: Who cares about two young lovers when the Titanic is cracking apart? But the risk pays off. The romance is a familiar, comforting spine for the movie, and Cameron makes it work by sheer, stubborn force of will. By the time the ship hits the iceberg, ninety minutes into the film, we’ve had time to get to know Jack and Rose, and to care about them.

Titanic is actually an epic flashback seen through the eyes of 101-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart), who recognizes a sketch of herself found in the wreck of the Titanic. As Rose relates her story to the expedition leader (Bill Paxton), we see the dead Titanic literally come to life — its rotted, barnacle-crusted hallways and rooms restore themselves, via computer imaging, to mint condition, and we’re smoothly transported to 1912. The Titanic’s first and final voyage kicks off with a sense of optimism bordering on arrogance. “God himself couldn’t sink this ship,” says Rose’s upper-class (i.e., hissable) fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). The ship, we later learn, contains less than half the lifeboats needed to save its 2,200 passengers. Why? Because the lifeboats spoil the ship’s beauty, and it’s never going to sink anyway.

The heart of Titanic is the romance, played out at an epic length that allows time for the mismatched Jack and Rose to fall plausibly in love. I had worried about Cameron’s decision to rest his massive film on the shoulders of the leads, who still look like teenagers; DiCaprio in particular had lost some of my good will after his annoying, pouty performances in Total Eclipse and Romeo + Juliet. Whatever Cameron did to bully DiCaprio’s bad habits out of him, it was worth it — DiCaprio makes a fine epic hero, brave and honest but never insufferably noble, and Winslet, as always, conveys trembling vulnerability concealing reserves of strength. Always a feminist, Cameron gives his Titanic two gutsy female survivors: the young Rose, who finds grace under pressure, and the elderly Rose, who lived to tell the tale.

About two hours in, the real destruction begins, and it’s both thrilling and terrifying — that $200 million is on the screen. The repeated image of people falling to their deaths, glancing off rails and propellers on the way down, has a heart-stopping grandeur far beyond the reach of a routine disaster movie. Like Spielberg, Cameron can find incongruous beauty in tragedy: dozens of corpses in the icy water, frozen into an eternal upright position, as if still praying to be rescued; the broken china plates and exquisite furnishings, rendered meaningless by the brutal logic of disaster; and the actual footage of the gutted Titanic itself, which has an odd elegance in death that it didn’t have in life. At least it looks lived-in now; the fish swimming around inside have no class distinctions, unlike the tuxedoed old money and the scrappy immigrants who shared the Titanic’s last voyage. Cameron’s anti-upper-class touches are sometimes too broad and facile, and his dialogue is often anachronistic (did anybody say “That’s pretty much it” in 1912?), but these are small flaws on a huge canvas — a blockbuster work of art. Titanic delivers and then some.

Tomorrow Never Dies

December 19, 1997

Tomorrow-Never-DiesLate in Tomorrow Never Dies, the eighteenth James Bond film, my familiar question at every Bond movie arose — though it was my friend, not me, who posed it. When Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and his new sidekick Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) had just finished mapping out their strategy, my friend turned to me and said, “Okay, I’m lost — what are they gonna do?” Then he answered his own question: “They’re gonna go stop the bad guys.” Maybe I’m slow, but one of many reasons I’m not a big Bond fan is precisely this: the writers concoct complicated plots (Who’s in cahoots with whom? What country are we in now? What exactly does the arch-villain want?) to cover the fact that the 007 films are just a bunch of stunts strung together.

So, okay: As a bunch of stunts strung together, Tomorrow Never Dies isn’t bad. The series has found a serviceable 007 in Brosnan, who doesn’t make Timothy Dalton’s mistake of taking these films too seriously. At the same time, this series serves as a depressing commentary on the state of megabudget action fare: As the genre has gotten cruder and more brutal, so have the Bond films. Long dead is the elegance found in Sean Connery’s slow-moving but still entertaining 007 entries. The series has reached the point where a Bond film’s simplest, most satisfying moment comes when good old Q (Desmond Llewellyn) breaks out his cool gadgets.

Partly, too, Mike Myers is to blame. I find it hard to buy into 007, even on his own outrageous, borderline campy terms, after Austin Powers so thoroughly lampooned Bond and his imitators. This movie’s Dr. Evil is Jonathan Pryce as Elliot Carver, a media mogul who likes to provoke wars and then command full media coverage of the carnage. These post-Cold War villains are getting rather sad, their motivations progressively bland. (No recent Bond villain has matched Adrian Veidt in Alan Moore’s 1986 comic book Watchmen, who killed off half of New York with a fake alien landing in order to avert nuclear war.) And let’s face it: as a target for satire, the media is so riddled with holes by now that it whistles in a strong wind.
Bond reacquaints himself with old flame Teri Hatcher, who — well, don’t get too attached to her, put it that way. He also benefits (as does the movie) from the two-fisted help of Michelle Yeoh, an international superstar who gained U.S. cred two summers ago in Supercop. It’s great to see Yeoh, but it’s also a little discouraging to see her playing a sidekick, however skilled and autonomous, to some mere guy. Give this powerful woman her own movie and let a guy be her sidekick.

Tomorrow Never Dies was directed with no particular flair by Roger Spottiswoode, a once-promising talent (Under Fire) who has resigned himself to impersonal Hollywood stuff. His staging of the action sequences is competent but lacks the snap Martin Campbell brought to GoldenEye. Perhaps the series’ most valuable addition is Bruce Feirstein, the humorist who wrote Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche and has also worked on the last two Bonds. Feirstein lets characters like Q and Bond’s supervisor M (Dame Judi Dench, a welcome injection of cool, intelligent estrogen in this testosterone-drunk series) roll their eyes at Bond’s fixation on gadgets, derring-do, and womanizing.

As for that media-evil villain: For a while, Jonathan Pryce seems to be having fun hamming it up, but past a certain point he can’t come up with anything fresh, and his performance sputters out. Comparably esteemed British actors can drop into a piece of Hollywood entertainment, relax, and amuse us by amusing themselves (Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons come to mind); perhaps Pryce has trouble letting himself go. He outclasses the movie, and I felt that the vulgar way he’s killed off (c’mon, I’m not giving anything away; maybe tomorrow never dies, but Bond villains always do) is fairly insulting. If a villain lives by the media, he should die by the media, not by some big stupid thing that looks like Pac-Man on steroids.

The Apostle

December 17, 1997

The Apostle, an enthralling do-it-yourself labor of love by Robert Duvall (he wrote, executive-produced, and directed it, and paid for it out of his own pocket), makes most “independent” movies look like the pretenders they are. At a time when every hipster with a viewfinder is doing rip-offs of Reservoir Dogs or Clerks or Friends (or an unholy combo of the three), Duvall dares to build an entire film around the subject of religious passion and redemption — a subject that invites disdain or indifference, because so few movies actually get it right. The Apostle nails it.

Duvall is also courageous enough to play the protagonist, Pentecostal preacher Sonny Dewey, as a study in extremes and contradictions. Sonny spreads — no, make that shouts — the word of God, but he’s also a sinner, a smoothie who cheats on his wife (Farrah Fawcett) and also beats her; when he finds out she’s been having her own affair, the way she recoils and says “Keep your hands over there” speaks volumes without our having to see the abuse. Sonny is also about to be ousted from his own church; enraged, he does some damage to the church’s upstart minister (who’s been sleeping with Fawcett) and promptly gets out of town.

At the start, Sonny seems like a madman — a violently confused man hitching his passions to God’s wagon, justifying his sins because he’s been “saved.” But Sonny isn’t the kind of Bible-thumping hypocrite we usually meet in movies. He’s serious, and Duvall plays Sonny as a flawed saint in the throes of religious mania. Sonny has a powerful effect on churchgoers, who believe that God is working through him — and if they believe it, then his impact on them is the same as if he really were God’s instrument. The movie is about finding faith in the unlikeliest places and having faith in the unlikeliest people.

After the incident with the minister, Sonny leaves his former life and settles into a Louisiana bayou town, where he adopts the name “E.F., the Apostle” and starts gathering a new flock. With the help of a motley crew of believers — a retired minister (John Beasley), a young mechanic (Walton Goggins), a radio DJ (Rick Dial) — Sonny sets up a modest church immodestly named One Way Road to Heaven. He also pursues a secretary at the radio station (Miranda Richardson) — a rather aimless plot thread that could have been pulled out without unraveling the movie.

The Apostle builds up steam as the church gains more converts (watching a community built from the ground up is one of the basic, satisfying pleasures in rural movies). It leads to a great scene with Billy Bob Thornton as a racist lout who threatens to demolish the church. We know that Sonny’s fearless stance against the racist isn’t just noble: He isn’t about to be chased out of another church. Sonny goes to work on the lout, trying to convert him, and I felt a stab of worry; scenes like this never work. But this one does. Duvall and Thornton play it with the conviction of men who understand the pain of salvation — the overwhelming mix of relief and vulnerability that born-agains are said to feel when they “give it over to Jesus.”

This is also one of the few showboat writer-director-star films that don’t feel like a vanity project. Duvall’s integrity and intelligence shine through his movie and his performance. Funny, tender, menacing, exuberant, sometimes all at once, Duvall makes Sonny a man possessed by divine love, earthly passions, and all the angels and devils in between. We never really know Sonny (Duvall keeps him a mystery to us), but we understand him perfectly. The Apostle digs into the souls of the intensely devoted ex-sinners you sometimes meet, the former addicts whose current drug of choice is God. By painting Sonny in complex, conflicting colors, Duvall respects his humanity, and so do we.

Scream 2

December 12, 1997

A sequel to a well-loved movie like Scream has a lot of good will going for it — and a lot of high expectations going against it. How to recapture the freshness and surprise of the original — the feeling that you were seeing an entire subgenre both trashed and rejuvenated? The experience of seeing an original movie for the first time can’t be duplicated in a sequel, which, by definition, is the same only different.

The Scream franchise, though, has one other thing in its favor: This stuff wasn’t original the first time, either. Scream, as I noted in my review of it, was a clever and effective satire of the then-moribund slasher subgenre. I liked it well enough, and subsequent video viewings have endeared it to me more; it’s a postmodern, endlessly quotable cult phenomenon. With Scream 2, you don’t necessarily want a radical departure. You want familiar elements with a spin — everything you liked about Scream, only different. On that level, it triumphs.

Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson resume their Scream duties, atoning for their earlier misfires — Craven executive-produced the inept Wishmaster, while Williamson wrote the popular but lame I Know What You Did Last Summer. They’re working near the top of their form here. Scream 2 isn’t quite as witty as I’d hoped — it should’ve had more fun with the idea of sequels — but it’s twistier, gorier, and, at times, more shocking. Anyone could be the killer (the cast is full of red herrings), and anyone can die at any time.

Except Neve Campbell. She is, after all, the pole holding up this franchise. Her Sidney Prescott, now in college and pledging a sorority, wants to put the horror behind her and move on. Three reasons why she can’t: Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the ice-blooded reporter who wrote a book about the Scream killings, which has been made into the movie Stab, starring, of course, Tori Spelling; Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), who spent the first Scream in jail for killing Sidney’s mom (he was innocent) and now demands media absolution; and, yep, the killer in the Munch mask. He’s back. Or she’s back. Or they’re back. More than this I cannot disclose.

I can say that I enjoyed seeing Neve and Courteney again, as well as geeky horror addict Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and doofus deputy Dewey (David Arquette). The sequel also serves up such new-to-Scream faces as Jada Pinkett (who shines in the virtuoso opening sequence, set in a theater showing Stab), Sarah Michelle Gellar (not very Buffy-like here, but still much better than she was in Last Summer), Laurie Metcalf as a reporter stalking Gale (for a change), and Duane Martin, who’s funny as Gale’s apprehensive new cameraman (“Brothers don’t last long in situations like this,” he accurately points out).

Had Scream 2 been left in other, lesser hands, it would surely have sucked, as most sequels do (as the movie itself acknowledges in its best film-nerd scene). That it escapes suckage is due to Craven and Williamson, who operate under a productive philosophy: “There’s gonna be a sequel anyway, so we might as well come back and do it up right.” They do. Scream 2 is as clever and nerve-wracking as the original; on its own self-referential, crowd-pleasing terms, it’s a success. Yet I will end this review as I ended my review of the first movie: How about a truly original horror film — some new blood in the genre? Where is the next Wes Craven? See, I can do same-only-different, too.

Amistad

December 4, 1997

Amistad is a great story on paper. In 1839, the Cuban slave ship La Amistad is carrying a full cargo of Africans across the Atlantic. One of the slaves, called Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou), uses a nail to pop his shackles open and frees his fellow captives, leading them in a bloody mutiny. The ship winds up not back in Africa but off the coast of Connecticut, where the Africans are arrested. A group of well-meaning abolitionists buzz around the case like moths around a flame. The fate of these Africans, the abolitionists realize, will be the fate of democracy itself.

Given this material, and given the director — Steven Spielberg, who proved with Schindler’s List that he has the chops for vivid, unblinking historical filmmaking — it’s more than a little shocking how remote, impersonal, and flat-out boring Amistad is. Except for the scenes aboard the ship, which have a feral power comparable to the liquidation sequence in Schindler’s List, the movie is dry and dawdling, haphazardly structured, and grindingly obvious. There are those, I assume, who will insist that the message that slavery is bad needs to be hammered home every so often. Fine. But noble goals don’t make a dull film interesting.

The ugly flashes of atrocity we see late in the film, as Cinqué relates the suffering of the Middle Passage, are also the only flashes we get of Spielberg the great director; elsewhere in this long movie, his crackling storytelling is nowhere evident. Instead we get Spielberg the emotional bully (coating “uplifting” scenes with John Williams’ ickiest score in years) and Spielberg the dutiful teller of someone else’s story. I never felt that he was engaged in the material — except when he stages the sadism aboard the ship (which, if you think about it, is a bit disturbing).

Amistad devotes itself to scene after scene of drably attired white guys arguing over what should be done with the Africans, where they came from, etc. The Africans themselves are generally a faceless, abstract bunch, and even Cinqué is never quite real to us. Djimon Hounsou, a model, has an imposing presence and goes as far as David Franzoni’s sketchy script allows, which isn’t far. At times, Spielberg comes close to fetishizing Cinqué’s stoic, noble blackness; Cinqué is like an African superhero in a comic book, and we get no sense of his life before slavery or what the experience has done to him besides make him stronger. Many, many other slaves aboard the Amistad suffer and die, but he survives, apparently because he’s just so darn photogenic. He’s never more than an icon of endurance.

The whites are just as blurry. Matthew McConaughey, as the passionate legal eagle Roger Baldwin, comes off as a 19th-century version of a John Grisham hero. Fine actors like Nigel Hawthorne and Pete Postlethwaite drop in and out of the movie without making a ripple; David Paymer narrowly beats McConaughey for the title of Least Plausible Actor in a Period Setting. Morgan Freeman gets top billing as an abolitionist who stands around thinking important things — at least I assume that’s what he’s doing, because he doesn’t do anything else.

I can marginally recommend Amistad for one performance: Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, the ex-president who lumbers out of retirement to defend the Africans before the Supreme Court. As usual, Hopkins is borderline hammy, but his showmanship is like a jolt of caffeine; when he commands a guard to remove Cinqué’s shackles, his voice has the snap of unquestionable authority. That’s what’s missing from the rest of Amistad (which could have used a whole lot more of Hopkins).

In other movies, whether serious or escapist, Steven Spielberg has shown that same kind of authority — in the clarity and economy of his filmmaking. We felt that he knew what he was doing and why. In Amistad, we sense him stumbling around the subject, trying to figure out what he’s doing and why. While this might be an interesting way for an experimental artist to work, it doesn’t suit a master entertainer like Spielberg. We don’t know what he’s doing or why, either, and before long the movie just dries up and blows away.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 55 other followers