Archive for September 1998

Ronin

September 25, 1998

9cYOyZo5rXQxwnPhHj4YX8YfCXQRonin is what you’ve been waiting for. If you’ve sat, bored and resentful, through any number of Hollywood “thrillers” weighed down by one incompetent decision after another, Ronin is the movie you really wanted. The movie is unapologetically pulpy — it even includes several examples of Roger Ebert’s famous Fruit Cart cliché — but it’s a beautiful piece of work: elegant without being ponderous, complex without being complicated. It’s also a triumphant return to form by director John Frankenheimer, whose The Manchurian Candidate is now considered one of the great American films. Ronin isn’t quite in that league, but at least it’s playing the same sport.

In Paris, a motley group of mercenaries are assembled. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: find a gray metal suitcase and steal it. Any questions? The bare-bones abstractness of Ronin has a rigorous purity that the long and boring Heat, a three-hour epic about a cop trying to catch a thief, could only dream of. I’d call the movie meat-and-potatoes, except its flavor is too European for that. With its international cast, art-house feel (cinematographer Robert Fraisse and composer Elia Cmiral can take a bow), and steady pulse, Ronin is like an amped-up ’90s rewrite of the ’60s cool-crime movies of Jean-Pierre Melville and Seijun Suzuki. Not to mention The Usual Suspects, John Woo, and everything in between.

The script, by J.D. Zeik (who conceived the story) and David Mamet (who reportedly did a page-one rewrite and took a screen credit as “Richard Weisz”), sketches in the characters: Sam (Robert De Niro), the ex-CIA agent whose antennae are always tuned to danger; Vincent (Jean Reno), a French mercenary; Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), a deadpan assassin; Deirdre (Natascha McElhone), the Irish arranger who sets everything up; and Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), who’s connected to Deirdre somehow. The characters are underwritten, but in a way that allows the actors to fill in the blanks — a dangerous move when attempted by filmmakers and actors who don’t know what they’re doing.

The result here is casual magic. Frankenheimer alternates between bang-up action and relaxed dialogue scenes; the connection between the two is the movie’s general loose rhythm. De Niro and Reno are as plausible sipping coffee together (they’re like working stiffs after a long day at the office) as they are driving a speeding car through the tunnels of Paris. Ronin shrugs at its own crisp professionalism, like an assassin who’s no longer impressed by his way with a rifle. On every level, the movie is smoothly underplayed, and the climactic explosive moments really count for something. The events unfold with a neat precision that has to be part Mamet and part Frankenheimer — who turn out to be a dream team.

I never thought car chases could do anything but bore me any more, but Ronin sports some of the most electrifying set pieces since the Mad Max series. The exhilaration comes not from the excessiveness of the destruction but from the snappy rhythm of it, the clear God’s-eye view of who’s where and which collisions follow from other collisions. The result is what’s often referred to as “pure cinema,” and the label fits Ronin snugly. John Frankenheimer is 68 now, and young pups like Michael Bay could learn a lot from this old hand. Ronin feels like the work of a fresh new talent, as, in a sense, it is: Despite enjoyable oddities like 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau and taut HBO films like 1994’s Against the Wall, Frankenheimer hasn’t had the success or acclaim he’s deserved, or the right projects for his skills. It’s good to have him back, and great to see him working with such confidence and class.

Pecker

September 25, 1998

Pecker_avi0040John Waters has mellowed considerably since his 1972 Pink Flamingos, which holds up today as both a work of outrage and a work of very demented art. But if he’s lost interest in shocking the audience, he’s made up for it by refining what his movies, stripped of all the calculated offenses to human decency, have really been about all along: lovingly crafted melodramas, always set in a cartoony-grungy Baltimore, peopled with obsessive caricatures. The key word is “obsessive”: Waters cherishes nothing more than people with one-track minds.

Thus Pecker, whose eponymous hero (named because of his childhood habit of picking at his food) is a compulsive shutterbug, taking snapshots of everything and everyone he sees; his little sister is a shrieking sugar addict, his older sister a cheerful bartender in a gay hot-spot; his grandmother has a talking Virgin Mary in her room; his best friend is an inveterate shoplifter; his girlfriend, a laundromat clerk, is a ferocious stickler for the rules (“You can’t dye your clothes in my washers!”). Pecker has its flat-footed moments, and sometimes unfolds like a banal sitcom about the price of fame, but God is in the details, and these characters and their preoccupations could only emerge from one imagination.

Pecker (Edward Furlong, having fun with an atypically innocent role) captures whatever images catch his eye, however ugly or mundane. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Pecker is autobiographical, as Waters’ films since Hairspray have tended, more or less, to be. When Pecker displays his seemingly artless art, and when it’s discovered by a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor, who’s never looked more glam) and embraced by urban hipsters eager to demonstrate their cutting-edge taste, you know you’re seeing the origin story of Waters’ aesthetic and its gradual acceptance. Like Waters, Pecker makes unlikely stars of the unlovely and weird people surrounding him in Baltimore — a preconscious artist who just shoots whatever appeals to him.
The movie is fast and warmly generous towards just about everyone on the screen — even the art dealer, who in a lesser comedy might have been the villain, seems genuine in her fascination with Pecker’s work. (She wants to make him the next Diane Arbus — that’s her obsession. In Waters territory, anyone who’s obsessed with something can’t be all bad.) Like other twisted directors like David Lynch and David Cronenberg, Waters grew up in a perfectly normal and generally happy family, and his respect and love for Pecker’s oddball but supportive family links the movie to his previous effort, 1994’s Serial Mom, where Kathleen Turner’s husband and children adored her even when she started her killing sprees.

If there’s a weakness this time out, it’s that some of the characters — like Martha Plimpton’s outgoing bartender or Christina Ricci’s laundromat Nazi — are sketched in and then pushed to the side when we want to see more of them. I could have done without one or two scenes of the Virgin-Mary-toting grandma (Jean Scherter) or Pecker’s klepto buddy (Brendan Sexton III) in favor of one long scene with Ricci, Plimpton, and Lili Taylor just sitting around talking about men. Think what Waters might have done with that. In general, though, Pecker is light and bubbly and affectionate, the kind of comedy Hollywood has forgotten how to make. And the spirit of the late, great Divine — the 300-pound female impersonator and one-time star of the Waters troupe — lives on in Lauren Hulsey, who plays Little Chrissy, Pecker’s fructose-crazed baby sister. Little Chrissy’s tunnel-visioned quest for the next sugar high (and the substitute she eventually finds) is 100% pure Waters: she makes us laugh at our own obsessions and fetishes, just like her creator.

Rush Hour

September 18, 1998

rush-hour-dvd-1The best part of Rush Hour is the end credits, which, like all Jackie Chan movies, show us the outtakes of Chan when his stunts go wrong. These blooper reels, which sometimes show Chan really hurting himself, give you a greater admiration of Chan as a highly skilled human being who has to sweat and work to do this stuff (because the sweat doesn’t show in the movie proper). But the outtakes this time also show Chris Tucker, Chan’s onscreen partner, who has nothing especially challenging to do except remember how to say “Chelsea Clinton.”

Rush Hour — the title has no particular relevance to the plot — is New Line’s rather disheartening attempt to help out Jackie Chan in America, probably the only country in the world where this international legend has been a two-hit wonder (Rumble in the Bronx and Supercop). His last few movies have opened and closed here pretty abruptly, so Chris Tucker — an unaccountably popular “comedian” whose previous star vehicle, Money Talks, was successful — has been brought in to revive Chan’s American career, one assumes. How sad that the great Chan is presumed to need this kind of dumbed-down buddy movie.

The “plot” is familiar from about a million bad movies. A Chinese consul’s little daughter is kidnapped. Chan, a detective, is sent from China to L.A. to work on the case. But the FBI takes over and assigns Tucker, an L.A. cop, to make sure Chan doesn’t get involved. This needlessly complicated premise, which doesn’t make sense anyway, should have been dropped. This is a cop-buddy movie in the tradition of 48 HRS and Lethal Weapon, and no amount of variation will change that — especially since Chan and Tucker end up working together as if they were officially on the case.

The comparison to 48 HRS has a strange twist here. In 48 HRS, Nick Nolte’s racist cop developed a grudging admiration for Eddie Murphy’s convict; here, in a neat reversal, it’s Tucker who starts out racist. The gibes aren’t nearly as bad here as they were in Lethal Weapon 4, but I still felt offended for Chan, who has to listen to Tucker’s witless spouting off. (Tucker to Chan, outside a Chinese restaurant: “Just like home, huh? Stay out here. Maybe you’ll see someone you know.”) Of course, Tucker learns to respect Chan, especially when he gets a load of Chan’s moves.

Those moves, by the way, would’ve been better served by a director who knows how to film them. Brett Ratner, who also directed Money Talks, is no Stanley Tong — a lot of the action is shot too close in and ruined by quick cutting. Jackie Chan doesn’t need quick cutting — he’s quick enough. Chan’s physical genius manages to come through anyway, though the only bit of comic-brutal choreography that’s really allowed to build, develop, and point towards a pay-off is a late sequence in which Chan fends off several thugs while trying to save a variety of priceless Chinese antiques from falling over.

Chris Tucker has a handful of amusing moments, but mostly his appeal continues to elude me. His voice gets on my nerves, and generally he’s dead weight on his co-star and the movie. It’s a measure of Tucker’s zero charisma that when Chan or the criminally underused Elizabeth Peña show exasperation with him, you can relate more to them than you ever do to him. Chris Tucker may be able to open these low-ambition, mid-level New Line movies, but he’s a very one-note performer — he’s the black Pauly Shore. Yet Jackie Chan is stuck in a movie with him, presumably because Tucker will attract Americans and Chan no longer will. If this is what it takes to keep America interested in Chan, America doesn’t deserve him.

Monument Ave

September 18, 1998

Ted Demme, before cutting his filmography and life tragically short, had come into his own as a filmmaker to watch. He began on MTV, directing fast, funny commercials featuring some guy ranting about an all-Cindy-Crawford channel. That guy, of course, turned out to be Denis Leary, and the two went on to collaborate on Leary’s two cable specials, as well as Who’s the Man (wherein Leary had a small role), the much-loved black comedy The Ref, and finally Monument Ave. It could’ve turned out to be a regular De Niro-Scorsese director-star combo: Leary might work for other directors and cash his checks, but only Ted Demme really brought out the best in him.

Monument Ave has been unfairly compared to Mean Streets, Scorsese’s masterpiece about young guys on the margins of urban crime. It’s true that some recent wannabes, like Amongst Friends and even Michael Corrente’s impressive Federal Hill, were a little too close for comfort to the story of Charlie and Johnny Boy. But Monument Ave has its own flavor. Demme had a distinctive glum style — even his Beautiful Girls had an overcast of despair and regret — and his sensibility dovetailed perfectly with that of Leary, whose album No Cure for Cancer includes a rousing dirge called “Traditional Irish Folk Song”: They come over here and they take all our land/They chop off our heads and they boil them in oil/Our children are leaving and we have no heads/We drink and we sing and we drink and we die.

That could almost be the theme song for Monument Ave, which is dipped in a deep Boston-Irish fatalism: We’ve always been here, we’ll be here till the day we die, let’s get loaded and beat someone up. Or get shot. Leary plays Bobby O’Grady, a low-level car thief whose life consists of stealing, drinking, drugs, and hockey. His pals, like the aptly named Mouse Murphy (Ian Hart) or Seamus (Jason Barry), are just as trapped as he is; he has a little more on the ball brain-wise, though he won’t if he keeps doing speedballs. Demme and scripter Mike Armstrong (a Leary buddy who co-wrote the unfairly maligned confection Two If By Sea) view these deluded losers with the sad compassion of gods who see where these guys are headed but can’t do anything to stop them.

There isn’t much of a plot (there wasn’t much of a plot in Mean Streets, either, come to think of it). The local gangster bigwig, Jackie (Colm Meaney), rules with a veneer of benevolence hiding his ruthlessness: Anyone who snitches about mob activity, or even appears to be a rat, turns up dead. There’s a nice scene suffused with dread when a rabbity kid just out of jail talks about how the feds came to see him. He bends over backwards insisting that he didn’t tell them anything, and all the while Bobby sits there and listens sadly, mentally saying goodbye to the kid, because the hearty Jackie is also at the table, telling the kid not to worry.

The performances are uniformly fine, with nary a fake Cliff Clavin accent to be heard, though one actor seems out of place — Martin Sheen as the grim, walrus-mustached detective who keeps hounding Bobby about the increasing body count among his buddies. As a friend of mine pointed out, you look at Sheen at this point and all you think is Spawn; every time he shows up, he takes you out of the movie. Everyone else — including Famke Janssen and Jeanne Tripplehorn as the film’s token estrogen — is on the nose; Ian Hart’s Mouse has the film’s funniest moment — a comically anti-climactic break-in — and Leary shows his dramatic stuff, particularly when Bobby pays his final respects to a fallen friend. Another movie might have forced Bobby into an Oscar-bait speech; Leary’s choked silence speaks volumes. Words don’t mean anything; dead is dead, and life for Bobby and his crew isn’t much different. Monument Ave isn’t without humor, but it gives off a winter-in-Boston chill that you take with you in your bones.

Rounders

September 11, 1998

Rounders-1998In the generic-sounding Rounders, Matt Damon sits at tables all over Manhattan, taking the measure of the suckers who play cards with him. They’re like lambs to the slaughter; Damon can read the tiniest gesture or shift in expression and guess what they’re holding. You’d think that in such an insular circle of players — everyone seems to know each other — Damon would either have been banned from playing or gotten whacked a long time ago. Rounders has a lot of surface detail; the screenwriters, David Levien and Brian Koppelman, are both experienced poker players, and it shows. They’re also rookie screenwriters, and that shows, too.

Damon’s Mike McDermott, a law student, has given up cardsharking because he lost big to the heavyweight Russian mobster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich in his best, funniest performance in years). We know it won’t be long before Mike gets pulled back in, especially since he has a girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) whose function is to pout in disapproval and issue ultimatums if he so much as looks at a deck of cards. When Mike’s ex-convict buddy Worm (Edward Norton) enters the picture, bringing money problems and temptation with him, we bid a relieved farewell to the dreary girlfriend and look forward to some serious card wizardry.

We get it, but not as cleverly as we might expect, given the director, John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), a modest master of film-noir double-crossing. With Mike narrating and the scene set for a gritty fable of two losers trying to make the big score (to pay off a thug breathing down Worm’s neck), we sit back hoping for a bleak, bitter, and complex story of deception and manipulation. But the script only has one idea, that Mike will persevere by playing “straight-up” (i.e., no “mechanics” or scam moves), bail out his friend, and regain his dignity. Where’s the fun in that?

For long stretches, Rounders gets a shot in the arm from Damon and Norton; whenever they have a scene together, you give the movie permission to leave the lame plot behind and follow them wherever they go. Damon, who can play fundamental decency without overselling it, and Norton, who’s visibly tickled to play a sleazeball, get an electric rhythm going. Then, amazingly, the movie drops Worm altogether and focuses on Mike, who must stand alone, like a gunslinger in a Western — facing off against the fearsome Teddy KGB. This is tired, tired stuff.

The movie doesn’t even get very deeply into Mike’s supposed genius at reading people, which, from what we see, is just hearsay. We see him telling people what they have in their hands, but we miss out on how he can tell. And what the hell is Mike narrating for, if not to let us in on it? Sure, there’s a scene in Atlantic City where Mike invites us to laugh at clueless tourists who give themselves away with airhorn-obvious signals. But wasn’t this covered in Casino? As for Teddy KGB’s “tell,” if you don’t spot it before Mike does, you’re a sucker.

A director like David Mamet, in The Spanish Prisoner or House of Games, never lets the rubes — the audience — get ahead of him. Ordinarily John Dahl doesn’t either. But he’s stuck with a script by two guys who might know how to outsmart suckers at the table, but they have a lot to learn about pulling the wool over our eyes. We know exactly where Rounders is going. There are no reversals or betrayals, no hidden agenda, nothing you’d expect from this director working with this material in this setting. The movie’s only surprise is that it’s so on-the-level.

Crash: The Family-Values Edition

September 1, 1998

film-crashWhen David Cronenberg was editing Crash — a movie he always intended to be rated NC-17 — he put together an R-rated version as well. Why? Partly out of curiosity and partly, I suspect, because he knew that Fine Line Features would want a version palatable to Blockbuster (which prudishly and hypocritically refuses to stock NC-17 films), and he preferred to oversee the bowdlerization himself, rather than have some Fine Line intern mutilate his minor masterpiece.

Since I own a copy of the original, uncut Crash, I thought it might be fun to compare it to the MPAA-approved R-rated Crash — the version Blockbuster is proud to carry in its stock of family entertainment. I figured: Who knows? The cut version might include footage unseen in theaters — as did the TV version of Cronenberg’s major masterpiece, Videodrome (of which there are at least three versions: the TV version with added footage, the trimmed R-rated theatrical version, and the uncut, unrated video version).

Alas, the slashed Crash offers no such goodies; it’s just ten minutes shorter than the NC-17 version (which itself is pretty short, clocking in at 100 minutes). Unlike, say, Paul Thomas Anderson (“I hated losing this scene! I hated losing that scene!” he blurts repeatedly about the deleted scenes on the Boogie Nights DVD), Cronenberg is ruthless in the editing room. He isn’t much of a deleted-scenes guy: what you see in the finished movie is what he wanted to put there (since he has final cut). Ironically, for all intents and purposes, the NC-17 Crash isn’t much more explicit than the fun-for-the-whole-family Crash. This movie was never particularly explicit — the sex scenes merely suffered from the MPAA’s twin no-nos: length and frequency.

What we’re missing in the R version, with three major exceptions, is a few seconds shaved off all the sex scenes. Just as a few spurts of blood make the difference between an R-rated horror film and an NC-17 horror film, so a few frames of writhing and bumping make the difference between the NC-17 Crash and the R-rated Crash. Some of the trims are unnoticeable unless you watch both versions side by side; most of the cuts amount to a stroke or thrust here, a semen-stained hand there. That’s not to say there’s no difference, though.

In one case, the R-rated cut eliminates one of the film’s bits of deadpan humor — when Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) is mechanically straddling James Ballard (James Spader) in a car, asking “Have you come?” (He mumbles “I’m okay.”) The R version picks them up when they’re finished, adjusting their clothes. Another funny bit — when Ballard, Helen, and the maimed Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) fondle each other while watching Swedish crash-test videos — is only alluded to in the R version, which deletes the panning shot of their heavy petting.

The most eye-opening difference is the loss of an entire scene — when Ballard is copulating with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) and she’s talking him through a homosexual fantasy involving the car-crash guru Vaughan (Elias Koteas). Both parties are totally nude in the scene, which is probably the most explicit in the movie (actual genital contact is about all you don’t see). So the MPAA’s objection to the scene isn’t surprising — but it is stupid.

What do you lose when you lose this scene? Well, let’s see. You lose the set-up for Ballard’s later tryst with Vaughan. You lose the information that Ballard is disclosing his new explorations to Catherine (as they disclose other such extramarital activities), and so, when Catherine goes along for a ride with Ballard and Vaughan in the R-rated cut, it’s jarring (how does she know about Vaughan?). You lose what Cronenberg called the three-way sex — they’re having sex with an imaginary third person in bed with them (Vaughan).

Most of all, you lose Cronenberg’s complex, subtle sexual syntax — who’s fucking whom, and who’s positioned where, is the source of much unspoken information in this movie. In this case, we see that Ballard (who is boffing Catherine from behind) is beginning to distance himself from his wife — and perhaps readying himself for anal sex with Vaughan. (Incidentally, this scene also comes right before the “Have you come?” scene, where Helen is straddling Ballard but is no longer facing him, as she was in an earlier scene.)

Another brief scene completely gone from the R-rated version — perhaps because it links sex and violence in a direct and disturbing way — is the one after the car-wash sequence, when the nude Catherine reclines and displays the bruises Vaughan left on her body during their rough backseat sex. We no longer see the physical toll Ballard’s journey is taking on his wife, and we lose the visual foreshadowing (“Prophecy is dirty and ragged”) of the tattooing scene that precedes the sex between Ballard and Vaughan. And the movie now ends on the famous line “Maybe next time,” without the final roadside sex between Ballard and the dazed Catherine as the camera pans up and away.

Oddly, the film’s most celebrated/reviled moment — when Ballard mounts (not unlike a dog in heat) the vagina-like scar on Gabrielle’s leg — remains, to these eyes, pretty much intact. Whether a few frames have been clipped here isn’t really relevant; you get the sense of what he’s doing, as you did in the NC-17 cut — and is this what Blockbuster Video considers acceptable R-rated family entertainment? Gee, maybe Blockbuster is more radical than I thought. Ditto the MPAA — or maybe they didn’t understand what was going on in the scene. And yes, all the car-accident gore is intact; the MPAA approves of mangled bodies but disapproves of naked bodies — what else is new?

In any event, your best bet is obviously Cronenberg’s NC-17 version, available in video stores without sticks up their asses. I’ve also seen the uncut tape for sale at Suncoast; it’s not letterboxed, but Cronenberg usually shoots 1.66:1, which is so close to TV’s 1.33 aspect ratio that you don’t lose much in the transfer. You certainly lose less than you will if you watch the R-rated version — which isn’t Crash, but merely a fender-bender.


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