Archive for October 1998

Vampires

October 30, 1998

Vampires isn’t another John Carpenter horror film — it’s another John Carpenter western. Carpenter will be forever identified as the director of Halloween, but, like his idol Howard Hawks, he won’t be tied down to any one genre, even within the same movie. Vampires delivers on its title, but it’s not really about bloodsuckers; it’s about gunslingers, mercenaries, screw-ups and psychos — men who can stare down supernatural horror, blow it away, and pop open a beer. The movie is best understood, and enjoyed, as a classic piece of bad-ass cinema, a remnant of a less touchy-feely age. Bram Stoker, meet Sam Peckinpah.

These vampire hunters are realistically callous, rowdy, and ugly. Led by the scowling Jack Crow (James Woods), they drag vampires out into the sunlight to incinerate them, then celebrate with booze and whores. (They work hard and they play hard.) One night, though, their revels are interrupted by a sort of übervampire — Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a vicious Master vampire with the long black hair and long black overcoat of a decadent rock star. Valek tears through the motel in a matter of minutes, leaving Jack, his right-hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), and a prostitute named Katrina (Sheryl Lee) to tell the tale.

Jack, it so happens, is being bankrolled by the Vatican; the Church has retained him to slay vampires, for reasons I won’t give away. The cardinal (Maximilian Schell) saddles Jack with a young priest (Tim Guinee) to replace the one he just lost, and James Woods’ violently impatient clashes with this cringing rookie are among his funniest on film. Woods plays Jack almost as a sequel to his best performance, in Oliver Stone’s Salvador; Jack is like Richard Boyle ten years later, recast as a vamp-killer with ambivalent feelings about the Church he grew up in. (Remember Woods’ great confession scene in Salvador? Jack Crow’s heated reaction to the mere mention of the word “confession” may be something of an in-joke.)

The motley band of Jack, Montoya, Katrina, and the priest drive around the desert, looking for Valek, who may soon convert at least one of Team Crow to Team Valek. The script, credited to Don Jakoby, takes most of the romance out of the pitiless vampires. They’re not remotely elegant or complex; if they see you, they butcher you. They have to be cut down like rabid dogs — or like the zombies in a George Romero film. In some ways, Vampires looks and feels different from other Carpenter movies — it’s more frenetic, its visuals less studied than usual — but its grimly relentless tone is perfect Carpenter. All the vampires do is kill. All the heroes do is kill vampires. In lesser hands, this could become repetitive and dull; Carpenter plays small, surprising variations throughout, as he does in his score for the film.

If Carpenter’s films tell you anything, it’s that he loves slobby anti-heroes who go in and get it done: Jack Crow has a long line of ancestors including Snake Plissken, R.J. MacReady, Dr. Sam Loomis, John Nada in They Live, Napoleon in Assault on Precinct 13, going all the way back to the bored astronauts in Dark Star, his first film. Vampires is grungy, disreputable fun — the kind of blood-and-tequila western that can only be made nowadays when disguised as a horror movie. The film gestures towards a deeper religious meaning, but what it’s really about is the showdown between good guys and bad guys — no, make that bad guys and worse guys.

Living Out Loud

October 30, 1998

600full-living-out-loud-screenshotIf you like your romances with a minimum of schmaltz and a good helping of reality, Living Out Loud is your best bet. I’ve read some reviews, like Owen Gleiberman’s in Entertainment Weekly, that poke holes in the movie’s plot. Why, they ask, would a newly divorced woman who looks like Holly Hunter fall for an elevator operator who looks like Danny DeVito? Not only is this question cruel (why not? what is someone who looks like Danny DeVito supposed to do, dip his balls in lava?), it isn’t even accurate. Judith (Hunter) has just lost her husband and everything she thought her life was. Pat (DeVito) has recently lost much more. Yet they’re not just two losers clinging to each other. They’re two of the many lonely people in New York, and they’re comforted by each other’s company. The movie is about the romance of connection; it isn’t necessarily about the standard romance that, in movies, usually ends in marriage.

This lovely and understated film is the directing debut of Richard LaGravenese, who wrote The Fisher King and tried to make something out of the adaptations of The Bridges of Madison County (he just about succeeded) and The Horse Whisperer (okay, so he’s not a magician). Directing his own script, LaGravenese is content to let the camera sit and watch the actors, for which we’re grateful. Hunter and especially DeVito seem almost delighted to be able to relax and speak to one another like normal humans. Both actors have tended toward caricature in past performances — usually pretty funny caricatures, like Hunter’s yowling wannabe-mom in Raising Arizona and DeVito in just about everything. Here, the actors enjoy each other’s quiet rhythms so much that, even if the film ended up selling you a romance between them, you’d happily buy it.

LaGravenese, though, has other things in mind. Judith and Pat both need to move on from their losses; she wants to get over her cheating ex-husband (Martin Donovan) and go back to med school, he wants to go into the olive-oil business with his uncle back in Sorrento. Their relationship is essentially a safe place for them to rest and think aloud to each other, expressing plans they didn’t know they had. The danger isn’t that they’ll grow apart, it’s that they’ll grow too close — get lost in each other and never know what they could have accomplished on their own.

Judith and Pat, in short, learn what the miserable people in Happiness don’t: that another person can’t be your lifeline, that connections based on fear of being alone are faulty. Living Out Loud is essentially a two-character play (though it benefits from the appearance of Queen Latifah, who has a beautiful singing voice and turns out not to be the soulful you-go-girlfriend angel you may expect from the ads — she’s just a friendly person). If it were more conventional, I would recommend it with misgivings, focusing on the touching honesty of Hunter’s and DeVito’s performances. But the triumph of the actors and their director is that the movie itself is touching and honest, so instead of sticking out and transcending the material, the actors blend right in.

American History X

October 30, 1998

I’ll begin by praising Edward Norton, the only reason to see American History X. Norton had been magnetic in his previous film, the lame Rounders; here he’s even better in a far worse movie. Norton effortlessly slips into the tattooed skin of Derek Vinyard, a Venice Beach kid whose fireman dad was killed in a crack-house blaze. Derek pours his grief and rage into the cracked container of white supremacy; it’s only a matter of time before he cracks, too. A brave and direct actor, Norton sells Derek’s racist rants with scary conviction. His intonations and rhythms suggest a bright young man who’s finally found a philosophy that makes sense to him. He makes you feel what it might be like to be a confused kid clinging to hatred.

For all his intelligence and skill, Norton can’t save the movie he’s stuck in, but to be fair, I doubt anyone could. American History X is trite rubbish — an ABC Afterschool Special pumped up with flashy, pretentious style and “gritty” realism. Derek, who’s just gotten out of jail (for killing two black kids trying to steal his truck), has reformed and cast off his skinhead ways. Problem: his kid brother Danny (Edward Furlong), who idolizes Derek, has fallen in with skinheads himself. Derek must redeem himself by rescuing Danny from his own former madness.

The script, by David McKenna, is maddeningly sketchy. We’re told that all the skinheads revere Derek, that he and a white supremacist (Stacy Keach) started the movement in Venice Beach. But though the movie has many flashbacks, we never see how Derek built himself up as a skinhead leader, or how he joined up with Keach. We don’t really believe in Derek’s rage over his father’s death, because the one flashback featuring the two reveals little warmth between them. We don’t believe Derek’s mother (Beverly D’Angelo) could be such a dishrag that she’d let Danny keep Nazi decorations in his room even after Derek has gone to prison. (The women in this film are enablers, racist temptresses, or powerless whiners.)

Most of all, despite the best efforts of Norton and Furlong (who’s good), we don’t believe their reformation. Danny isn’t a character; he’s a blank kid who’ll do whatever Derek does. The key event for Derek, in prison, is when another skinhead rapes him — it’s as if the movie is saying, “See, kids, this is what could happen if you hang swastikas in your room.” When Danny hears the story, he seems changed, too. Forget brotherhood: the fear of anal rape is the real answer to social ills.

For a while, American History X flirts with Clockwork Orange territory. Derek visits his racist mentor and decks him, which seems suicidal, considering the dozens of skinheads partying in the next room. Isn’t he afraid of reprisals against his family? Amazingly, McKenna drops this thread completely, but he wants an empty nihilistic ending, so we get a tragedy utterly out of left field. Characters like Derek’s rabid girlfriend (an underused Fairuza Balk) fade in and out of the movie. Presiding over it all is Avery Brooks, of the great stentorian voice, as a wise double-Ph.D. teacher; this character, like the black convict (Guy Torry) who befriends Derek in jail, seems to exist only to deflect possible charges that the movie itself is racist.

Director Tony Kaye, who made much noise about the film’s being taken away from him and recut, doesn’t seem interested in the inner workings of racists. His forte is grainy, banal images familiar from TV ads (which is Kaye’s background). The only time he wakes us up is in the violent scenes, but any idiot can make us wince at the ugliness of beatings and shootings (the curbstomping scene has become legendary). With dialogue scenes, Kaye is hopeless — he takes the camera so close in that you could lose your hand inside the pores in Edward Norton’s left nostril. The thin skin of Kaye’s style can’t cover the story’s bare bones. American History X wants to be a fire-breathing melodrama, but it just blows stale air into your face. Edward Norton cuts through some of it. But a powerful young actor can only do so much.

Apt Pupil

October 23, 1998

Stephen King’s Different Seasons, his 1982 collection of novellas, has yielded three fine movies: Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and now Apt Pupil. (The fourth story, “The Breathing Method,” remains unfilmed — and probably unfilmable.) Of the three, Apt Pupil is easily the riskiest and toughest, both as a story in itself and as a challenge for filmmakers. At least one set of adapters took a whack at it, and were only eleven days away from a wrap before the plug was pulled and the film shelved. Plagued by delays, legal hassles, and the problems of the material itself, this film has had the longest, most difficult pregnancy in recent memory.

Fortunately, Apt Pupil has two skillful sets of hands to deliver it: director Bryan Singer (who made the coolly intricate puzzle The Usual Suspects) and first-time screenwriter Brandon Boyce, a Singer associate who acted in Singer’s 1992 debut Public Access. It also has a master to cut the cord from King’s book and slap it into its own chilling life: Ian McKellen as Kurt Dussander, the Blood Fiend of Patin, a Nazi war criminal hiding in the peaceful, leafy suburbs. Apt Pupil would be well-crafted without McKellen; with him, it’s haunting — a true horror movie.

Dussander, posing as “Arthur Denker,” is visited one day by Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), a straight-A student with an unnatural interest in the Holocaust. He recognizes Dussander from old photographs, and he strikes a deal with the old man: Todd will keep quiet if Dussander will regale Todd with stories of what really happened in the death camps — all the gory details they leave out in school. At first disgusted, Dussander soon warms to his storyteller role, reliving (in more ways than one) his unspeakable past. And we watch as his influence rubs off on Todd.

Stephen King’s novella is perhaps unique among his work in that it’s genuinely evil. I don’t mean that as a criticism but as a sort of compliment: King went further than he’d ever gone (and has ever gone since), climbing into the heads of his old and young monsters, and he took us with him, at length — an ugly and undeniably compelling experience that makes us question ourselves: If we’re ready to condemn Todd for hanging on Dussander’s every word, what does that make us for reading it? The novella is bizarre and mechanistic and compulsively readable — maybe the closest King has come to his version of art.

Unfortunately, toward the end of his story, King took a sharp left turn into pulp. Singer and Boyce have wisely altered the ending, making it much more subtle, and have also muted some of the novella’s gorier bits. What remains is still challenging. We see that Dussander is a monster and that Todd is becoming one, yet the basic conventions of narrative force us into complicity with them — force us to hope they don’t get caught. When the two put one over on Todd’s dweeby guidance counselor (David Schwimmer, whose milquetoast persona works for the first time in a movie), we’re meant to enjoy their deception — and we do.

Brad Renfro is decent as Todd, though he differs sharply from King’s Todd (who started out as a cheerful Boy Scout type). We don’t perceive much of a change in his personality — he’s unsmiling and withdrawn right from the start. Somebody like the amiable, funny Seth Green might have truly frightened us by changing from a nice kid into a beast. Still, Renfro holds his own up there with Ian McKellen, who gives one of the year’s great performances. McKellen plays Dussander as a withered husk who comes to life when reminded of the butcher he once was. He makes Dussander human, and therefore all the more monstrous. Apt Pupil can’t go as far or as deep as King did; fiction writers have pages and pages to depict their characters’ inner workings, but a movie, at a certain point, has to stop and hope it has an actor strong enough to fill in the blanks. This movie does.

Life Is Beautiful

October 23, 1998

Life-Is-Beautiful-Wallpapers-Movie-4The first half of Life Is Beautiful is so charming, and the second half such a bitter letdown, that I’m not sure what to do with it. Give the movie points for trying? Acknowledge that what Roberto Benigni is attempting — a fable about keeping love and hope alive in the midst of annihilation — is murderously hard to bring off? The first 45 minutes or so are unabashedly romantic and enjoyable, and there are extremely moving moments throughout. But the film as a whole makes very little sense.

The first section opens in Italy in 1939. We meet Guido (Benigni), a happy-go-lucky drifter with dreams of going to the city and opening a bookstore. Guido falls in love with the lovely Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s wife), who is engaged to a humorless Fascist goon. No matter; Guido wins her heart by sheer persistence and spontaneity. In an image so shamelessly florid it can’t help getting to you, Guido unfurls a long, long red carpet across rain-slick stairs so his beloved won’t get her feet wet. I fell for that one pretty hard. Bravissimo. Like many foreign filmmakers unencumbered by the irony of modern Americans, Benigni does this kind of stuff with a pure conviction that recalls classic Hollywood.

In a neat transition, we soon discover that Guido and Dora have married and had a little son, Giosué. By then, the shadows have begun to creep into Benigni’s fable: Italy is being overtaken by the Nazis, who soon go about rounding up all Italian Jews — including Guido and Giosué. Out of love and solidarity, Dora insists on being taken on the same train. Guido and his little boy arrive at the work camp, and that’s when the movie starts to go wrong. Guido, as you’ve probably heard, shields his boy from the horrors of the camp by pretending the whole thing is a game. The problem is, Benigni the filmmaker almost seems to believe it, too.

Should Life Is Beautiful be castigated for not being a starkly realistic treatment of the Holocaust? It never claims to be so. However, Benigni doesn’t have the temperament that would goose the movie above the level of heartwarming — and “heartwarming” and “Holocaust” just don’t go together. There are a couple of moments of horror and tragedy, but the same could be said of Patch Adams, to which this movie is an Italian brother. Cancer, madness, genocide — there’s nothing that can’t be defeated with a little laughter, a little chicken soup for the soul. When Dora hears the voice of her little boy, whom she’d feared dead, I choked up a little, but my response had nothing to do with the subject.

Could this movie have been a masterpiece? I honestly don’t know, but one way to have approached it might have been to make Guido a man whose fantasies are sometimes clearly inadequate — the bubble of his humor pops against the sharp blade of reality. Nothing much like that ever happens in Life Is Beautiful; Guido remains indomitable throughout, and I began to wish the movie had shown us that Guido had begun to go insane under the pressure of preserving his son’s innocence, coming up with ever more ridiculous rationales that even the boy sees through.

A much more honest comedy might have been about an Italian father circa 1939 who loves his son but isn’t nearly as affectionate — who even beats the boy prior to the emergence of the Nazis. Then the “game” could be about the father terrorizing the boy into staying in hiding, out of love for the boy. But Roberto Benigni isn’t the man to play such a father or to make such a movie. He has, instead, created a role and made a movie designed to win Oscars, and it certainly worked. What he hasn’t made is a movie that means much of anything. Life Is Beautiful puts the Holocaust in comforting perspective: It reassures us that there were fathers like Guido keeping their children safe, and it tells us that love will withstand even the ruthless machine of genocide. With Life Is Beautiful, the final frontier of schmaltz has been reached; perhaps now our movies and our tastes can turn once more to honesty and reality.

Orgazmo

October 23, 1998

Trey Parker, co-mastermind (with Matt Stone) of South Park and other nuclear bombs dropped onto good taste, may be a whiz at sending up mainstream entertainment, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love it at least a little. Orgazmo, which was slapped with an NC-17 rating for no very good reason other than occasional forensic dialogue about porn-film practices, follows a self-consciously cheesy heroic narrative. Joe Young (Parker himself) is a squeaky-clean Mormon who needs to make some money to pay for his upcoming marriage to the equally lily-white Lisa (Robyn Lynne). Going door-to-door to spread the good word about Jesus, he stumbles onto the making of a porn movie. The irascible director Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs) unleashes his bodyguards on Joe, who makes short work of them with his martial-arts skills. (Parker, the press materials inform us, has a black belt in Tae Kwan Do.) Maxxx gets an idea: He’ll cast Joe as the titular hero of Orgazmo, a low-rent superhero porno (his current Orgazmo is a klutzy wimp). So Joe becomes Orgazmo, a masked avenger who zaps evildoers with his Orgazmorator, which — you guessed it — subdues his foes with debilitating petits morts.

The notion of a devoutly religious dork rising to the top of the triple-X industry is a one-joke premise, but the one joke is pretty good. In Orgazmo, Parker gets to conflate the clichés of action flicks and porno flicks, and the parody often comes close to appreciation. Parker skewers the wooden acting of porn, though most of the performances in the “straight” portion of the film, with one or two exceptions, are pretty much on the same level. Dian Bachar scores as Orgazmo’s sidekick Choda Boy, in real life an engineering geek named Ben who got into the industry for the sex. The seen-it-all Ben makes a fine foil for the perpetually horrified Joe, who more or less gets tossed into the deep end of porn filmmaking. (He’s been assured that he won’t have to perform any actual intercourse; for the money shots, several progressively mismatching “stunt cocks” are called in.) A particular scene-stealer is David Dunn as the foul A-Cup, who considers himself the ultimate bad-ass and delights in waving his own farts into people’s faces. If Dunn isn’t an alpha-male jackass in real life, he sure as hell knows how to play one.

The plot thickens when Joe’s career as Orgazmo takes off; his video sells by the ton, winning AVN awards left and right, and even appears on legit magazine covers. Meanwhile, Joe is paralyzed with fear that pure innocent Lisa may discover how Joe’s been earning that wedding money (he tells her he’s starring in a sequel to Death of a Salesman). In another plot thread, local goons are threatening the sushi bar of a Japanese hip-hop wannabe who calls himself G-Fresh (Masao Maki), and Joe outfits himself with a real, working Orgazmorator and hits the streets with Choda Boy. Throughout all this, Parker (as an actor as well as writer/director) invests Joe with a wide-eyed sincerity that the movie half goofs on and half admires. Mormons don’t come in for much bitch-slapping in Orgazmo; Parker respects people who are serious and devout about their religion (as long as it isn’t Scientology) without being judgmental assholes about it. As in all his other work, there’s a sweetness in Orgazmo that leavens the smutty stuff. The movie even manages to be anti-porn-industry (the guys who run it can be dangerous sleazeballs) without really being anti-porn. Anyone renting the movie hoping for porn, or even NC-17 arousal, is in for a disappointment: Whenever one of the porn actresses is about to disrobe, some guy’s ugly, pimply ass moves into frame to cover the female nudity. If the NC-17 rating hadn’t hurt Orgazmo‘s chances at decent distribution (it ended up being a cult video), Parker might have enjoyed the irony that a movie with nary a nipple could break through the R-rated envelope.

Orgazmo is uneven and scrappy, but that’s part of its point and its charm. Any movie that finds room for the character Sancho, who announces at every opportunity that he…is Sancho (and doesn’t do anything else), earns itself a small spot in my heart. The film also gave a legitimacy-hungry Ron Jeremy a chance to act in a flick that didn’t involve him spurting all over someone, and the script (by Parker and an uncredited Stone, who appears as the lighting guy who prefaces every statement with “I’m not queer or nothin’, but…”) has its share of Parker-esque surreal divertissements, like Choda Boy’s renunciation of his deadly Hamster Style fighting, which you know he’ll break out again at a key moment at the end.

As for the special “unrated” version found on the DVD? Even seasoned scientists studying the two versions in a lab might not find much difference between them; you certainly won’t get any lost female nudity, though you might get a few extra seconds of some guy’s hairy ass.

Practical Magic

October 16, 1998

kidman-bullockAs if by some spell of its own, Practical Magic drops out of memory, scene by scene, as you’re watching it. A calculated chick flick, it sells witchcraft as a snuggly blanket of female bonding, yet the characters’ supernatural powers aren’t put to much use except to attract or repel men. The fact that the two heroines are such dithering dummies certainly doesn’t help. Neither does the movie’s schizoid tone, which veers between tired humor (there’s the obligatory dancin’-to-the-oldies scene) and bland swipes from horror films like The Exorcist and Pet Sematary.

There’s a centuries-old curse on the Owens family: Every time an Owens woman falls in love with a man, he dies. (If an Owens lesbian, say, falls in love with a woman, does the curse still apply? The movie’s no help on this point.) So two Owens sisters, Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman), have dealt with the curse in their own ways: Sally throws herself into blissful marriage and motherhood, while Gillian flits around from bed to bed. Will the movie be about how witchcraft has influenced the sisters to grow apart while still bonded by their common curse? Not really. Will the movie be about much of anything? Uh, no.

Sally’s husband gets killed, and Gillian gets involved with some sort of deranged Transylvanian biker dude (Goran Visnjic) — just what we always wanted: Vlad the Impaler as a toxic boyfriend. Sally raises her two little daughters with the help of her two aunts (Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, who offer the movie’s only fresh moments); Gillian tries to get away from Vlad, but the sisters realize that nothing short of drinking a belladonna cocktail will stop him. He dies and comes back and dies and comes back; sadly, the movie dies around the same time he dies the first time, except it never returns from the grave.

Literally every scripted word (by Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, and Adam Brooks, from Alice Hoffman’s novel) and every onscreen second (directed by Griffin Dunne) having to do with the dead-alive psycho boyfriend is ridiculous. Through circumstances too stupid to relate here, the sisters find themselves trapped in a car with the psycho; he forces Sally to drive while he terrorizes Gillian in the back seat, threatening to brand her with his ring. At one point, after they’ve given him some tainted vodka, he gets out of the car to take a leak — and they sit in the car like morons and wait for him to get back in! I sat there going “Okay, why don’t they just drive away? Very simple: key in the ignition; foot on the gas; bye-bye, psycho.”¹ But no, they act stupid in this scene and in many others to come.

After the psycho has been buried out in the garden, a detective (Aidan Quinn) drops by to investigate; he’s been looking for the psycho, who’s wanted for pretty much everything. But the sisters’ stupidity must be contagious, because he wanders around looking baffled even after Sally all but confesses. Unless this is your first movie, you’ll be able to guess why the detective is in the movie: he’s the impossible ideal guy that the girl Sally once cast a spell for, thinking that such a man couldn’t exist. One of the ideal traits she’d specified was that he have one blue eye and one green one; Aidan Quinn’s eyes have always been his most striking feature, which calls all the more attention to the fact that, well, they’re both blue.

Practical Magic makes no practical sense, and it pales in comparison to a truly original witch movie like George Romero’s Jack’s Wife (its DVD title is Season of the Witch) — a 1972 minor masterpiece you’ve probably never heard of, because it doesn’t wrap itself in cozy sisterhood themes and it’s about something besides man trouble. Practical Magic has something to annoy just about everyone: feminists of either gender, Wiccans, or just people expecting a good movie. The citizens of Salem, too, will grumble for years — or at least until the next dumb witch movie rolls in.

¹Someone pointed out that he takes the car keys with him. Duly noted. The movie is still idiotic.


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