Archive for May 1998

The Last Days of Disco

May 29, 1998

Whit Stillman was contracted to turn this movie into a novel (published in 2000 as The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards; Christ, what a pompous title) — and it should always have been a novel, not a movie. What passes for a story here gains nothing from having been filmed. The era is the early ’80s, but it’s really the same airless, elite whenever that Stillman’s other two movies (Metropolitan and Barcelona) inhabit. Stillman has no feel for the lurid milieu of disco clubs, no particular affinity for the music; he picks overused songs and employs them as bland background Muzak. I can marginally recommend it for Kate Beckinsale (looking like Neve Campbell’s icy older sister) and the always engaging Chloe Sevigny, but the male characters are of no interest whatsoever, and the self-absorbed chat goes on and on without variations or even much personality. Proof that not every talky art-house film does it for me.

Almost Heroes

May 29, 1998

Almost Heroes should never have seen the light of a projector. Not because it’s in bad taste for Warner Brothers to make money from Chris Farley’s last movie, although the film is unavoidably creepy: There he is in his final performance, guzzling whiskey and shrieking, pasty and dangerously overweight, looking very much like a man who’s going to die soon. No, the movie should simply have been pronounced dead along with Farley — or at least unreleasable. God knows it’s unwatchable.

A little of Chris Farley went a long way, as is the case with many Saturday Night Live alumni: their relentless broad shtick gooses a laugh out of you if kept to five-minute increments, but at feature length it becomes obnoxious. Farley made me laugh occasionally on SNL, but one look at the ads for his movies told me exactly what I’d be missing: a fat guy whacking his head on things for ninety minutes. In Almost Heroes, Farley, playing a scruffy mountain guide named Bartholomew Hunt, does a fair amount of witless slapstick. He confronts a vicious eagle; he tumbles down mountains and gets slapped around.

Watching Almost Heroes becomes incredibly sad when you recall that Farley badly wanted to do more substantive work, like a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle. He never got the chance to do better than this, and what’s truly shocking about the movie is that it was directed by Christopher Guest, who has done better. His The Big Picture and Waiting for Guffman — not to mention Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, which Guest co-wrote as well as co-starred in — were razor-sharp digs at the pretensions of show business. At Almost Heroes, I sat blinking in the dark, completely baffled. Guest is on autopilot here, halfheartedly staging the crude jokes, and I began to wonder whether it was Farley who dragged his directors down all along.

The script, credited to Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe (not the Tom Wolfe, I’m sure) and Boyd Hale (a producer on Full House), plays like a low-rent Mel Brooks comedy. It’s 1804, and Farley’s Bartholomew Hunt is recruited by explorer Leslie Edwards (Matthew Perry) to help him beat Lewis and Clark across the country to the Pacific. The idea has promise; Guest sets up Edwards as a foppish glory-hound who’s willing to put his team (including Eugene Levy, whose insanely jealous Frenchman is the movie’s only source of laughs) in serious danger so he can steal Lewis and Clark’s thunder.

But the movie just uses the plot as a string on which to hang gags — which is fine if the gags are funny. They aren’t. Where was Christopher Guest on the set? The movie has none of his prickly verbal wit or deadpan sight gags. And the eerie subtext makes matters worse. While Farley is carrying on like Falstaff on crank, Matthew Perry stands around looking sickly and drained, his features still gaunt from his much-publicized bout with painkillers. What we’re watching isn’t a funny fat-thin team — these are two guys with massive health problems.

The stars’ sickness and exhaustion eventually bleed the movie dry. Almost Heroes meanders along, and Kevin Dunn (Godzilla) shows up as a Spanish villain named Hidalgo, a pale copy of Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. This smells like a project that was dead from the get-go, and Chris Farley’s posthumous exertions cast a final pall. There he is, one last time, knocking himself out for nothing. Poor bastard. He deserved a better swan song; anybody deserves better than this.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

May 22, 1998

The subtitle of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson’s classic work of Gonzo Journalism, is “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” and that’s the key to appreciating both the book and Terry Gilliam’s astonishing film version. The surface reading of the “story” would be that of two guys wandering around Vegas getting loaded and having a variety of progressively insane misadventures. Its true subject, though, is the sea-to-shining-sea derangement of America, its uneasy mix of forbidding Puritanism and greedhead capitalism, its straight-arrows who seem weirder than the weirdos, the “normal” recreational activities so bizarre they render drug hallucinations redundant.

The great rebel Terry Gilliam is ideal for this material, and he approaches Fear and Loathing as a sort of extension of the odd little cut-out animations he used to do for Monty Python. This is his best work since Brazil, and very likely the most vivid and mesmerizing American comedy of the ’90s. (Typically, the reviews in America have been, well, savage.) Working with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, and shooting for the first time in Panavision (which intensifies his trademark wide-angle distortions), Gilliam crafts a beautiful/ugly visual poem, a jittery, deadpan exercise in hellish red and aqua blue and paranoid green — the American dream as peyote nightmare.

Johnny Depp immerses himself in the role of “Raoul Duke” (i.e., Thompson), a sportswriter who goes to Vegas to cover the Mint 400 (a desert race for motorcycles and dune buggies). Along for the ride is “Dr. Gonzo” (Benicio Del Toro), a wild Samoan attorney inspired by Thompson’s friend Oscar Acosta. Their rented red Chevy convertible is a drugstore on wheels — the movie could be retitled Apothecary Now. The men are always snorting or smoking one evil thing or another, stumbling around casinos while completely twisted on ether or acid. Oddly, sex doesn’t play much of a role, except for an artistic runaway waif (Christina Ricci) the attorney picks up. Duke is as asexual as the lizards he hallucinates.

Which could be part of the point. Fear and Loathing is about the ways American men sublimate sexual lust — through idiotic, punishing sports, or firearm worship, or fascism (Duke also — hilariously — covers a narc convention). Despite the occasional threats and knife-waving, our anti-heroes are as close as soldiers in a foxhole, and Depp and Del Toro bring out the best in each other. Del Toro, packing an added 40 pounds, does his most lucid and comprehensible work (amazing, considering the wacked-out loon he’s playing), and Depp doesn’t just imitate Thompson — he channels the man’s rubbery outlaw spirit. Funny and repulsive, obnoxious yet in some ways pitiable, Depp’s performance should kill, once and for all, whatever pretty-boy image he still has left.

Gilliam wisely uses Thompson’s writing as narration, and the script — which he cowrote with Tony Grisoni, reworking an early attempt by Alex Cox (Sid & Nancy) and Tod Davies — is scrupulously faithful to the book. Yet Gilliam doesn’t let Thompson off the hook — the movie isn’t just a jokey celebration of weirdness. In scenes like the one with Ellen Barkin as a waitress terrorized by the knife-wielding attorney, Gilliam measures the human cost of his heroes’ bad craziness. Those who complain that the film glorifies its protagonists just aren’t paying attention. Duke and his attorney fancy themselves wild outsiders, but they’re just as much a part of hellish America as the monsters they encounter. In fact, they’re more: living it up, trashing ritzy hotel rooms, getting away with everything short of murder, they embody the American dream in their own addled, squalid way — a nightmare of excess and consumption.

That’s the true horror and comedy of the book, and Gilliam gets every bit of it onto the screen. Thompson’s book has endured for 27 years, and not just because of its drug-induced strangeness: like William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, it uses hallucinatory states as a funhouse mirror on the sordid, ugly face of humanity. Gilliam’s film will likewise endure, and outlive the short-sighted critical bashing. Years from now, it will be reappraised as a misunderstood masterpiece. Well, this is one American critic who’s not waiting until years from now, if you catch my drift. 5

Godzilla

May 20, 1998

How much does size matter? It matters a great deal to Hollywood studios, and the very lucrative team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin — Emmerich directs, Devlin produces, and they work together on the scripts — are a studio exec’s dream come true. With StarGate and Independence Day, this dynamic duo proved they could create enormous anticipation — a bulletproof gotta-see-it campaign. What they can’t do, it’s clear by now, is make a good movie to go with the brilliant marketing.

Godzilla, the new big one from Emmerich and Devlin, achieves the same weird paradox that ID4 did. It thunders into view with the full weight of event marketing, yet the movie itself is completely weightless. And, like Deep Impact (to cite just the most recent example), it zaps you with the spectacle of giant destruction and bores you with puny human-interest stuff. Who cares whether biologist Matthew Broderick and aspiring reporter Maria Pitillo get back together? There’s a monster knocking very large holes out of New York City.

Emmerich and Devlin’s genius at arousing anticipation does result in a compelling first reel or so, here as in ID4. The audience gets excited by the promise that something big is coming. But when the something-big arrives, notice how fast the awe wears off, how quickly the audience’s giddiness turns to restlessness. Godzilla goes on for two hours and nineteen minutes, a great lumbering beast that has no personality, has size but no power. Am I referring to the movie or the monster? Both. The movie is bad in the same way that ID4 was bad: It aims low and misses.

The big action scenes owe just about everything to both Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Godzilla running amok in New York is a pumped-up version of the T. rex menacing San Diego, and there’s an extended sequence involving an army of baby Godzillas that blatantly rips off the raptor scenes. I have no idea why Emmerich and Devlin needed to up the ante by infesting Madison Square Garden with mini-‘zillas (why didn’t they leave that for the sequel?); it adds an unnecessary half hour. Godzilla himself is fun when he first hits New York, but the filmmakers don’t find anything imaginative to do with him, and they keep him offscreen most of the time, while we’re stuck with Broderick whining and Jean Reno as some special agent and lame humor at the expense of Siskel and Ebert.

The original Toho Godzilla (or Gojira), for all its guy-in-a-rubber-suit cheesiness, had a lovely clunky charm. The new Godzilla, technically whiz-bang though it is, actually looks bad next to the stop-motion behemoths of Ray Harryhausen (whose It Came from Beneath the Sea appears on a TV in the film) and the rubber suits of Toho. In his obscure book The Total Film-Maker, Jerry Lewis often refers to “the intangibles” of film. Well, a monster that has been sculpted and manipulated by hand has a tangible essence, a quality of having been worked on, that a CGI-created beast, however skillful, simply doesn’t have. This Godzilla is an “intangible” in the wrong way.

After a while, Godzilla just strikes you as a big CGI blur; even the streets and buildings he destroys look cold and computerized. The deafening soundtrack tries to sell you size and force, but if you watched Godzilla with the sound off, you’d see a parade of thin, frantic images. This Godzilla even forgets to include the traditional cautionary message about nuclear testing; it’s used as an explanation for the monster, but then the movie drops it and concerns itself with … how to prevent Godzilla from nesting. In other words, “We don’t care that we created this thing; we just don’t want it to reproduce.”

The original Gojira was Japan’s metaphor for the terrible mutating power of Hiroshima. The new, Americanized version goes after the great monster with the same military technology that dropped the bomb. And in this telling, Hiroshima isn’t even the cause — the culprit, it turns out, is France’s nuclear testing. Blame it on the French! The ironies and idiocies swirl together in a bland soup that, for some viewers, may taste like entertainment. Others may find it tasteless in both senses of the word.

Bulworth

May 15, 1998

polmovies_bulworthWhen we first see Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty), he’s grinning at us from a TV screen, promising us that we can move forward if only we shake off the deadwood (welfare chronics, etc.) holding us back. When we first meet him, though, he’s sitting in his office, watching himself on TV and feeling empty and suicidal. Bulworth, a Democratic senator once filled with idealism, has become just another political puppet — a hollow man serving the interests of big money. The next morning, he takes out a huge life-insurance policy and arranges to have himself assassinated. His impending death frees him, allows him to tell the truth for the first time, and the people of California can’t get enough of him.

Bulworth, which Warren Beatty directed and co-wrote (with Jeremy Pikser and an uncredited Aaron Sorkin), is a liberal call to action — a satire driven by equal parts disgust and hope. Is it a classic? No; the climax hasn’t been thought out, and the movie, while enjoyable and heartfelt, is a bit amorphous where it needs to be as sharp as an ice-pick. Bulworth ambles up to the line dividing smart entertainment and great satire, and stops about ten feet on this side. Still, it’s always refreshing to have a movie — any movie — that talks about money and power (and understands that the real subject is the poor and powerless).

At a South Central church, Bulworth throws away his standard speech and shocks the congregation with his candor; in the space of about thirty seconds, the African-American audience shifts from wanting to throw things at him to wanting to lionize him. His point, which doesn’t fully come through in the ads for the movie (“Put down that malt liquor and chicken wings,” etc.), is that in politics, money talks — which is not a problem for people who have money, but is a sizable problem for people of any color who don’t. It’s at this church that Bulworth meets Nina (Halle Berry), a young woman impressed by his bravado; she gives him a sort of informal education on the lives of disenfranchised black people, and he embraces the surface trappings of black urban culture — he even starts rapping his speeches.

This aspect of Bulworth has drawn fire from both workaday film critics and African-American editorialists. Is the movie hauling out that old tired “White Negro” stuff? Not really. Take away the racial aspect and you have a despairing, exhausted politician rejuvenated by what he considers a more authentic way of living and speaking. The movie is only superficially about a white man acting black; it’s really about a powerful man rediscovering his idealism among the powerless. If you take the film too literally, as some did (what are we to make of the fact that Bulworth’s “blackness” appears to be a case of temporary insanity or, at the very least, sleep-deprived dementia?), you’ll miss the point and the fun.

Beatty keeps things light and fast, with a performance to match — you’d probably have to go back to Shampoo to find him this loose and raring-to-go. The undeniable silliness of a sixty-year-old white man adopting hip-hop mannerisms liberates Beatty as much as it does Bulworth. If only the movie were as liberated. Towards the end, the plot takes a turn into martyrdom, and the tone gets bleaker, more “important.” The last shot is shameless editorializing out of a bad Oliver Stone or Spike Lee film. Beatty and his writers should have cooked up an ending that doesn’t recall Network quite so explicitly (see, you stick up your head to tell the truth and they chop it off!). Still, most of Bulworth is a knowing adult comedy raising its voice above the din of summer-movie thunder, and we hear it loud and clear.

The Horse Whisperer

May 15, 1998

 

In The Horse Whisperer, a stressed-out city-slicker woman goes to Montana with her anguished teenage daughter and their uncontrollable horse; she falls in love with the studly trainer who works with the horse. How long did it take you to read that? Ten seconds? It takes Robert Redford, the director and star, two hours and forty-nine minutes. It feels like a lot longer, too. One can appreciate what Redford is trying to do: He wants to slow us down, to lure us into the leisurely tempo of ranch life. That’s nice of him, but unfortunately he also gives us plenty of time to poke holes in the story.

The Horse Whisperer is a sort of compendium of Redford’s first three directorial efforts: the touchy-feely family conflict of Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It meets the hardworking-people-of-the-soil worship of The Milagro Beanfield War. Admirers of Redford’s previous (and best) directorial outing, Quiz Show, won’t find any of that film’s subtlety or smarts here. I haven’t read Nicholas Evans’ source novel (adapted by The Fisher King‘s Richard LaGravenese and Forrest Gump‘s Eric Roth), but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it isn’t what the movie is — The Horses of Madison County.

Redford is Tom Booker, a laid-back cowboy who dedicates himself to gentling wild horses when he isn’t posing or Pez-dispensing bits of down-home wisdom. New York editor Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas) seeks him out after her daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson) gets into an accident that leaves her with an amputated leg and her horse with physical and psychic wounds. It’s up to Tom, the ten-gallon therapist, to work his charms on the horse and its equally wounded owners. For fun, I imagined transplanting Tom to Ordinary People and letting him loose on Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton; he’d set those uptight WASPs straight in no time — or in less time than it takes to cure Annie and Grace.

The movie looks great (cinematographer Robert Richardson did the honors), and Redford looks suspiciously great — certainly much younger than he did during his chat with Rosie O’Donnell last week. At times he’s prettier than his leading lady. And the additional burden of directing himself seems to have drained his charisma. But then the character of Tom as written defies any interesting performance. Tom is a noble New Age cowboy, while Annie is a standard rigid careerist and Grace is a pouty teen. I kept flashing back to The Sweet Hereafter, which gave us ten times as much in half the screen time, and Johansson won’t erase anyone’s memory of Sarah Polley’s fate-scarred Nicole. Scott Thomas, meanwhile, seems to be humoring Redford as both co-star and director, giving him the simplistic emotions he wants.

The forgotten man of The Horse Whisperer is poor Sam Neill, once again the clueless cuckold (see The Piano), as Annie’s doormat husband, who lets her yank their child out of school and live on a ranch thousands of miles away with a guy she’s never met. Neill is offscreen for most of the movie, then shows up near the end to complicate things as much as things ever get complicated in this film. Annie faces a difficult choice — should she stay or should she go? I felt the same conflict about halfway through this very long sit, but I heeded Tom’s sage advice about sticking to it, and so I did, long after Redford had beaten his thematic dead horse (“To thine own self be true”) to death and beyond.

Deep Impact

May 8, 1998

I don’t know whether to be annoyed or amused by filmmakers who don’t know one of the fundamental laws of moviegoing: We go to different movies for different things, and we adjust our expectations (and sometimes our IQs) accordingly. Someone attending The Lost World expecting a sobering analysis of human nature will be frustrated, as will someone who goes to The Sweet Hereafter expecting a couple of raptors to menace the kids in the schoolbus. Rare indeed is the artist/entertainer who can juggle convincing emotion and convincing CGI effects.

Deep Impact juggles so relentlessly that it seems positively schizo, giving us a little “character development” here and a little mini-disaster there, leading up to the big event — death from above, the tidal waves and mass destruction, the skyscrapers scattering like petals. And good God, does this ever not work. You can feel the audience’s impatience during the obligatory tedious dialogue scenes, the disappointment when the movie finally gets around to those big destruction scenes, which can’t possibly live up to all the build-up and anticipation.

The new apocaflicks have the good fortune of boasting uniformly good casts, as opposed to the old ones back in the ’70s, which mostly had one or two good actors (Gene Hackman or Paul Newman) and a lot of has-beens or TV stars. Here, Téa Leoni is nicely low-key as a reporter who pursues a government cover-up and trips over the biggest story in history: A comet the size of Mount Rushmore has made definite plans to visit us real soon. Morgan Freeman plays the President, whose sad job it is to break this epic bad news to his country, and Freeman has such strong, quiet authority that the noisy opening-night audience shut up whenever he spoke.

President Freeman sends up a crew of brave astronauts, headed by Robert Duvall, to land on the comet and plant nuclear explosives to blow it up into several million Earth-friendly pieces. This doesn’t work; pretty much everything else they try doesn’t work, either. It’s during the walking-on-the-comet sequence that director Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker) has her finest moment: Due to a burst of “explosive outgassing” (sounds like Cartman after too many Cheesy Poofs), an astronaut is literally blown sky-high, and we get a view of the rapidly receding ground from his panicked point of view. It’s a chilling, vertiginous moment.

Leder, working with a script credited to Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin, can’t do much with the alleged “human interest” scenes. Téa frets over the divorce of her parents (Vanessa Redgrave and Maximillian Schell), young astronomer Elijah Wood frets over his school sweetheart, Duvall frets over his crew, Freeman’s performance is one long fret-fest. A serious movie could be made about characters taking stock of their lives in the face of apocalypse, but this isn’t it. The characterization is TV-quality at best; everyone makes self-defining speeches to each other. A movie like Deep Impact may make you appreciate the no-nonsense sweat of Volcano or Twister, for me the two best recent apocaflicks because they didn’t bother at all with plot — the characters hurtled along, working as a team, racing against the clock, certainly never stopping to muse on the importance of family or paths not taken. Disaster movies are trim and exciting or they’re nothing, and Deep Impact isn’t trim or exciting.

He Got Game

May 1, 1998

hegotgamestill1Flawed father figures are a recurring theme in Spike Lee’s work. Think of the pizzeria owner Sal and his two sons in Do the Right Thing, the uncomprehending dads in Jungle Fever and Get On the Bus, the paternal but deadly crack lord Rodney in Clockers, the musician struggling to support his family in the autobiographical Crooklyn. Lee has had a tempestuous relationship with his own father, Bill Lee, a musician who scored Spike’s early films; when Bill Lee got busted for heroin possession, he invoked his famous son’s name to the police to get out of trouble.

He Got Game, Lee’s new film and one of his finest, feels like a reconciliation of sorts. The story of a screw-up father and his superstar son, it’s perhaps Lee’s most personal film since Crooklyn. Denzel Washington is Jake Shuttlesworth, who’s spent the last six years in Attica for murder. Jake is offered a reduced sentence if he can persuade his son Jesus (Ray Allen), a high-school hoop legend, to sign on with the governor’s preferred college basketball team. (Well, Jesus may get an education there too, but that’s considered beside the point.) The challenge is that Jesus loathes his father and won’t talk to him; he sees Jake as one more vulture who smells cash.

The hyperbole surrounding Jesus gets to be so intense it’s funny — though not for Jesus, whom Lee presents as a martyr for the ’90s. True to his name, Jesus is being tempted right and left, and his indecision about which college he’ll attend is his way of avoiding, if you will, a crucifixion — he won’t be nailed down. Movie directors as visible as Spike Lee has been may also feel crucified by the media, betrayed by false friends who come sniffing around for money (there’s a montage of beggars who sound like people Lee may have dealt with). Lee loves basketball, sees it as a graceful way out of the projects for many African-Americans, but he’s also all too familiar with the pitfalls of the sports culture — you’ll recall him in the great documentary Hoop Dreams advising athletes to use their heads.

As a filmmaker, Lee only gets better. The great young cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, with whom Lee has worked since Clockers, uses a saturated and gritty palette to give the images a hyper-realistic texture. Lee doesn’t push as hard for effects now; he’s mellowed — Malcolm X marked the beginning of a more mature and measured style — and He Got Game is a nimble and engaging work, with important scenes that feel casual and tossed-off (that’s a big compliment). He has also, thank God, dropped his curious habits of having people walk down a street as if they were being pulled along on wheels, and shooting entire scenes through a distorting lens (he uses that effect in just two well-chosen shots here).

Casting the nonactor Ray Allen, a guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, was a major risk that generally pays off. Allen is natural and low-key, if sometimes a little too subdued in emotional scenes. His achievement is that he holds his own with Denzel Washington, who should work more often with Lee; with other directors, he can be a tad stiff and inexpressive, as if refusing to yield to the poor movies (like Virtuosity and Fallen) he finds himself in. Lee, however, knows how to deglamorize Washington, giving him the freedom to play noble failures like Jake, with his bad ‘fro and his way of making grilled-cheese sandwiches with an iron. Washington’s Jake is palpably sorrowful; even his pride in his son is tempered with regret.

He Got Game climaxes with Spike Lee’s version of the Big Game in sports movies: Jake and Jesus face off on the court, playing for Jake’s future. Will Jesus do the right thing? In the concluding scenes, Lee achieves his reconciliation in an indirect way — he tells us that even screw-up fathers can teach their sons by being negative role models, examples of what not to do. It’s not much, but it’s something. The final sequence (which I won’t reveal) isn’t meant to be taken literally; Lee is saying that the ball is in Jesus’ court, and that it’s up to him to be the man his father couldn’t be. In real life, Lee isn’t only a disappointed son now; he’s also a father himself, and the movie may be his acknowledgment that fatherhood is never easy.


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