Archive for April 1999

The Winslow Boy

April 30, 1999

A refined, subtle, and sophisticated drama like The Winslow Boy represents everything that’s sorely missing from our culture, so I wish I could rise to it. Adapting a 1947 play by Terence Rattigan, which in turn was based on actual events, writer-director David Mamet handles each scene as if placing a fine China cup delicately onto a shelf. An apt analogy: Mamet is essentially a butler to the material. In the past, Mamet has specialized in macho intellectual gamesmanship peppered with profanity; lately, he has chosen more artful projects, like The Spanish Prisoner, a precise and sterile Hitchcockian piece, and now this seemingly atypical period piece.

You may want to applaud Mamet’s iron grip on his storytelling. Technically, this is an elegant piece of work. Yet some of us prefer Mamet the scrappy, surly poet of obscenity, whose American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross burst out all over with the desperation of defeated men. Perhaps that stage of his career is gone; when Mamet turned his hand to film directing, he also turned into a neat freak. Nobody is likely to be much offended by the (literally) G-rated Winslow Boy; no one is likely to be very excited, either. It’s as if Mamet thought that cinema existed only to preserve a performance. The Winslow Boy is terribly stagy, and I don’t feel that it gains anything from having been filmed.

The story, set in 1912, is simple. An English boy of 14, Ronnie Arthur Winslow (Matthew Pidgeon), has been booted out of the Royal Naval Academy. Reason? He is accused of forging and cashing a postal order. Ronnie’s well-to-do family automatically assumes he couldn’t have done it. His elderly father (Nigel Hawthorne) spares no expense in the boy’s defense — it’s as if it were the crime of the century and the Winslow name would be forever tainted by scandal. Ironically, it’s the father’s very indignance and perseverance that ensure the case’s notoriety; the whole affair becomes a sort of turn-of-the-century O.J. trial, a media bonanza sparking parodies and merchandise, and everyone gets sick of hearing about it. If the father had kept his mouth shut, no one would have known about it.

The Winslow Boy is really only marginally about the matter of the boy’s accusation and possible exoneration. It focuses more on his family, including his older sister Katherine (Rebecca Pidgeon, who is the director’s wife), a suffragette who toys with a ticklish and combative (if poorly developed) rapport with the boy’s legendary attorney, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam). The movie doesn’t give us a rousing courtroom finale; everything happens offscreen — or, I should say, offstage. Occasionally, characters will also move away from our earshot and whisper something to conceal it from us, further underlining the movie’s theatrical origins. Film is an intimate medium capable of picking up the softest whisper, and here’s Mamet taking his characters across the room so we can’t hear them. The filmmaking seems to be stuck in 1912, too.

Mamet’s intentions are fine and noble, except for one major problem: I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters, so it disappointed me as a character study. The starchy repression of turn-of-the-century, upper-class Brits must have appealed to Mamet; he must’ve admired their reserve. Unfortunately, as a filmmaker he shares their starchiness; he doesn’t even have a very strong visual sense (he never has). The Winslow Boy is like a perfectly typed term paper on a subject you’re not especially interested in; you can give it an A for neatness of presentation, but none of it stays with you. Mamet is getting so austere and rigorous that he drains all the life out of his art. The Winslow Boy is handsome and sturdy and hollow — an elegant, empty armoire of a movie.

Entrapment

April 30, 1999

entrap2I always love when they break out the cool gadgets in movies like Entrapment. Here is a computer-controlled cord precisely calibrated to drop a person down the side of a building and gently slow him down to exactly where he needs to be. Here also is a hand-held device for decoding a security system, and a long, thin pair of cutters with a penlight attached — perfect for those occasions when you need to snip an alarm wire in back of a painting. Do these gizmos actually exist in real life? I have no idea, but damn it, they look cool.

So do Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Entrapment is clearly meant to be an old-school, stylish caper movie in which we watch cool people doing cool things (hey, it worked for The Matrix). Such a movie hardly needs a plot; all we really want is to watch the anti-heroes prepare for the caper, do the caper, and get away with it. But the people behind Entrapment — director Jon Amiel, writers Ron Bass and William Broyles — seem to think we need a lot of twists and turns and double-crosses. That’s not necessary. Sometimes cool people with cool gadgets are enough for a spring-afternoon piece of Hollywood entertainment.

Connery is Robert “Mac” MacDougall, a legendary thief who apparently has the ability to materialize and dematerialize at will (if so, you wonder why he needs all the gadgets to break into buildings). One night he materializes in the hotel room of Virginia Baker (Zeta-Jones), an investigator who’s been itching to catch him. Virginia is also, as it happens, not too shabby in the thievery department herself; she proposes that they team up to steal a priceless Chinese mask, and then take advantage of the impending Y2K shutdown on “Millennium Midnight” (the movie is erroneously said to take place “days before the millennium,” though smart people know the millennium doesn’t actually begin until January 1, 2001).

Part of the fun of Entrapment is watching old pro Connery and relative newcomer Zeta-Jones interact — the twilight of a seasoned star meets the dawn of a fresh one. Connery has the weight of authority and experience, and he’s amusing here when he grows impatient with his protegé (or backs away from her romantic advances), or when he’s posing as a harmless tourist snapping pics of the Kuala Lampur bank the thieves have targeted for their $8 billion caper. Zeta-Jones has beauty and brains, plus a spark of wit, but she needs better scripts. In this movie and The Mask of Zorro she’s proven she can be a movie star, but time will tell whether she can be an actress to contend with, given richer material.

Besides the gadgetry, the best part of Entrapment is the middle section, when Mac trains Virginia. She has to writhe and curl across a room, avoiding red strands of yarn standing in for the laserbeams guarding the mask; she goes through other preparations we don’t fully understand until the actual caper. To me, the bulk of the movie should have been the training, and the climax should have been the theft of the mask (though there are some deft moments of tension in the later bank caper). The movie runs on a bit longer than it should, with double-crosses inside double-crosses; it’s a little too plot-heavy.

Jon Amiel should have trusted the charisma of his two leads. Entrapment gets by well enough on style and star chemistry and the basic allure of watching a tightly-planned caper unfold. Simply a half hour of set-up, a half hour of training, and a half hour of the caper itself would have sufficed. Some might also throw in a half hour of Catherine Zeta-Jones writhing under the yarn, but let’s not go there.

eXistenZ

April 23, 1999

In the agreeably low-tech world of eXistenZ, the elaborately entertaining new film by David Cronenberg, technology has sort of gone backwards, or sideways, and become technobiology. Those who fetishize computers and hardware won’t find much to plug into in this movie, which imagines, among other things, guns made out of flesh and bone and virtual-reality gamepods that resemble nothing so much as pulsating sex toys. This is not the Cronenberg of Crash, a stark icicle of a film; eXistenZ finds him in a witty and playful mood. The whole movie is a game, visceral as well as philosophical; it’s a great wild ride to stand alongside Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Naked Lunch.

To attempt a plot synopsis would be folly; I will limit myself to the basic set-up. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra Geller, a renowned virtual-reality game designer preparing to unveil her latest masterpiece, “eXistenZ.” Unfortunately, a Khomeini-like fatwa has been issued on her life, and she goes on the run with public-relations rookie Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who becomes her bodyguard by default. What follows is 90 minutes of guess-what’s-real hijinks. In Cronenberg’s hands, however, such games are never played on the audience for their own sake: not for nothing do the game and the film have a metaphysical ring. A clue is provided the first time we hear someone pronounce the name — “ex-is-tenz” — which sounds closer to “existential” than to “existence.” If, as existentialism has it, we are responsible for our own acts in this reality as we know it, what happens if that reality is false?

As the middle film in 1999′s unofficial trilogy of virtual-reality fantasies, eXistenZ will no doubt be compared with the big hit The Matrix and the also-ran The 13th Floor, but Cronenberg works his own side of the street. He gets better and better as a filmmaker; every frame is meticulous in its control and purpose. Regular composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky build a firm aural and visual backdrop for Cronenberg’s complex ideas and structure. Ted Pikul, the latest in a long line of passive Cronenbergian observers, is our onscreen counterpart; we share his confusion and are grateful when Allegra briefs him on the rules of “eXistenZ” (first rule: there are no rules).

Even without the icky organic biomechanics, eXistenZ would be completely in keeping with Cronenberg’s method, which is to suggest that the world as seen through the eyes of the protagonists (and therefore through the audience’s eyes) shouldn’t be taken at face value. Cronenberg uses the multilevel construction of a game to show us what he has always shown us: that there is more than one way to experience reality. As the plot of the game keeps shifting, we are left without any bearings, without any way to know whether to trust anyone, even ourselves. This, of course, is life — or existence.

Depressing? Not the way Cronenberg approaches it. He’s a laughing existentialist here, a philosopher who sees the comedy in disorientation. In his version of Naked Lunch, everything we saw was merely the lead character’s self-protecting fantasy filter for what was really going on, and here we go deep inside a game designer’s contrived, cliched view of what’s happening around her. eXistenZ comes complete with its own self-critiques, but it’s not a shallowly amusing exercise in deconstruction á la Scream; it’s closer to our own detached experiences of watching ourselves watch ourselves until reality becomes a hall of mirrors in which we can’t escape the reflection of our own perceptions. eXistenZ is a fast and engaging joyride; it takes you around in circles, but you don’t see the same things twice.

Election (1999)

April 23, 1999

Teen cinema is full of here-today, gone-five-minutes-from-now stars — today’s Hilary Duff is tomorrow’s Dana Plato — but Reese Witherspoon is the real thing. She is the oddest young actress: a perky lioness who can shift from a sunny grin to a squinched-up pout of disgust in a millisecond. In movies like Freeway, Pleasantville, and the biting new satire Election, Witherspoon sometimes seems like the only fully alive person on the screen — if only because she has so much more energy than her costars — and sometimes that energy lashes out and zaps people. This lioness can be red in tooth and claw.

Election, the second feature by director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (their previous collaboration was 1996′s Citizen Ruth), finds Witherspoon sharpening her fangs on her hapless classmates and teachers at George Washington Carver High in Omaha. She’s Tracy Flick (the surname spelled in caps on a poster sometimes comes prankishly close to obscenity), a true renaissance girl who throws herself into every possible extracurricular activity. Tracy knows that women must work twice as hard for success, so she’s starting early. In fact, when it comes time to begin her candidacy for Student Council President, she has her table set up, her sign-up pads neatly arranged, long before the first bell of the school day. And God himself couldn’t help anyone who gets in her way.

Watching the brash, confident, resourceful Tracy, we might wonder how she’d get along with a brash, confident, resourceful teen of a decade ago — Ferris Bueller. As it happens, we don’t have to wonder: Matthew Broderick, with some meat around the middle and some gray in his temples, is Jim McAllister, a well-respected history teacher at Carver High. Ferris was a different prodigy than Tracy — he was more of a goof-off, using his wits and energy to get out of school. Jim could almost be Ferris ten years later, settled into a stable job, an unsurprising life. The answer to our question is, Ferris and Tracy wouldn’t get along, and neither do Tracy and Jim; Jim sees Tracy as a ruthless climber, and he tosses a few roadblocks in her path, including a likable but dim jock (Chris Klein) and the jock’s nihilistic lesbian sister (Jessica Campbell), both of whom run against Tracy.

It’s said that the rest of life is high school, only more so; Payne and Taylor invert the equation here, treating the power plays and snubs and naked competition of high school as a microcosm for American politics (with a little economics tossed in). The script, based on a Tom Perrotta novel, is tight and elegant; Payne’s neutral eye, which he turned so effectively onto pro-choicers and pro-lifers in Citizen Ruth, stares just as unblinkingly at the fallible students and teachers brought low by their own unattainable desires. Everyone, that is, except Tracy; for her, no desire is unattainable, provided you get up early enough and press enough flesh.

Tracy seems almost like an alien, but then so do Anthony Robbins or Stephen Covey or your choice of personal-improvement gurus. One can picture her ten years from now, tossing off a bestseller explaining how to achieve your dreams, using the banal language of optimism and self-realization to smother the cries of those she’s destroyed on the way up. The brilliance of Election, and of Reese Witherspoon’s performance, is that we also see the human being inside all that manipulation and muck. When Tracy thinks she’s defeated, her despair is nearly Homeric; she bawls like the little girl she never really got a chance to be, and our hearts go out to her in spite of ourselves. But the movie isn’t over yet, and there are more twists in store. Alexander Payne catches us feeling sorry for these characters — Tracy in her time of agony, the hapless Jim, the miserable lesbian outcast, the aw-shucks jock — and then turns the tables on us. Nobody in Election is as bad as they seem; nobody is as good as they seem, either.

Life

April 16, 1999

life-imageAh, the mass audience does love its comforting prison stories. The guards may be tough, the conditions may be harsh, but you get to put roots down in one spot for an extended period, and you make some great friends. Even such an accomplished prison film as The Shawshank Redemption fell for this sentimental view of life behind bars (I much prefer the balls-to-the-walls spit and snarl of HBO’s Oz), and now there is Life, which tries to turn the subject into a comedy vehicle for Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It’s basically Shawshank meets Stir Crazy, and it’s pretty much a crock — unfunny when it’s meant to be funny, unmoving when it’s at its most synthetically poignant.

Murphy and Lawrence are two mismatched, inexperienced bootleggers — Murphy a con man, Lawrence a prim and proper bank teller — who are framed for murder and sentenced to life in a loosely structured Mississippi work prison. There are no fences; instead, the cons are told that if they cross a certain line, they will simply be shot. With one maudlin exception, no one is shot in this way, and nobody really undergoes any suffering that we can see; it’s more like a juvenile-delinquent boot camp than like a real prison. The rigors of hard labor certainly don’t seem to touch Eddie or Martin. Their characters never change; at most, they become a little more frustrated and irritable.

There are about 50 interesting subtexts in Life that the director, Ted Demme, and screenwriters, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (they also wrote Destiny Turns on the Radio), never move themselves to explore or acknowledge. In this prison, for instance, the racism seems a lot less vicious than it is on the outside; there is a nasty white guard, but he has an even nastier black right-hand man, who has violent contempt for the black convicts. I would’ve liked to know why, and I would’ve liked to discover why the white guard seems to soften towards Eddie and Martin over the years (the film spans about 60). Most of the convicts — a hulking bruiser, a delicate gay con, a mischievous-looking nerd in specs who never gets to do anything — are similarly underwritten, but then so are the leads.

Murphy and Lawrence never quite move beyond shtick in this movie; even when tragedy strikes, all they can do is put on their serious faces. The progressive old-age make-up — by Rick Baker, who did much better (and deservedly Oscar-winning) work with Murphy in The Nutty Professor – underscores the artificiality of the performances. Weighed down with pounds of fake-looking wrinkly latex, Murphy and Lawrence do simplistic codger voices, but they don’t move like actual septuagenarians — particularly when Lawrence sprints across a yard like a man in his twenties. Their performances have no wildness, no invention; it’s their usual routines spread out across 60 years, or 104 minutes that feel like 60 years.

Life was directed by Ted Demme, the nephew of Jonathan (The Silence of the Lambs) and a fine filmmaker in his own right — he made The Ref, Beautiful Girls, and last year’s overlooked gem Monument Ave, which had the anger and despair that Life could have used as a springboard for some truly daring humor. Demme is just going through the motions here; his main theme, it’s clear by now, is guys sitting around bitching about life, but Life has too much bitching and not enough life.

I certainly wouldn’t hold up Stir Crazy as a comedy masterpiece, but there are scenes in it I remember after 18 years — Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder’s famous “We bad” entrance; Wilder spending a stretch in the hole, then being disappointed upon getting let out (“I was just beginning to find myself”); a bald, fearsome, gargantuan convict starting to sing in a soft, high, lovely voice. Three scenes aren’t much, but that’s more than I’ll remember from Life 18 days from now, let alone 18 years.

Go

April 9, 1999

We’ve all had the experience — whether we admit it or not — of being in a place we shouldn’t be, with people we’d rather not be with. Usually the situation is harmless — a bad party, a sleazy dive — but our brains still go into overdrive: What am I doing here? I don’t like these people. I don’t even know where we are. This could get ugly. I wish I were home in bed right now. And some movies excel at evoking this mood of ominous disorientation — the Zed-and-Maynard scene in Pulp Fiction, the prolonged drug-deal scene in Boogie Nights, the Pink Room sequence in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Go, directed by Doug Liman (Swingers), sustains this mood for pretty much its whole running time. The title, in fact, suggests both the reckless impulse to get into dangerous situations and the terrified impulse to get out. Every time a character has figured out the situation, it shifts or disintegrates, and Liman and screenwriter John August pile calamity on top of calamity. Set in L.A., the capitol of drifting randomness, Go is like watching a daydream morph into a nightmare and then back again. The movie isn’t great; it’s less a wild ride than an antic ride, and it’s too derivative of not only Tarantino but Richard Linklater (the movie unfolds within a 24-hour period). Still, this fluffy confection is tasty enough.

The movie, like Pulp Fiction, tells three interlocking stories, all of which begin in the back room of a supermarket. Disgruntled check-out clerk Ronna (Sarah Polley) needs some quick cash or she’ll be evicted. Ronna’s British co-worker Simon (Desmond Askew) offers his shift to her, so that he can head to Las Vegas with three buddies. Two actors, Zack (Jay Mohr) and Adam (Scott Wolf), come to the supermarket looking for Simon, who usually hooks them up with some ecstasy. Instead they find Ronna, who sees a chance for even quicker cash and offers to get the drugs for them. With her friend Claire (Katie Holmes), Ronna enters the lair of Simon’s drug-dealer associate Todd (Timothy Olyphant), a tattooed slimeball who is nevertheless so open about his amorality that one character even calls him “the only person I’ve met tonight who isn’t fake.”

That’s the basic set-up, and I can’t reveal any more; other reviewers have likewise tiptoed around the plot’s twists and turns, which are the movie’s main currency. I can sketch and suggest, though. The first act is somewhat lackluster, though I began to feel the film turning around when the cat made its funny appearance. The second act, involving Simon’s misadventures in Las Vegas, is an escalating comedy of errors in which the fun is in spotting every oversight and mistake that will pile up and come back to haunt the characters. There’s also a great Kleenex gag and a nice bit with a shrewd little boy. The third act, with Zack and Adam visiting a couple with mysterious motives (the hilarious William Fichtner and Jane Krakowski), is brilliant — a Pulp Fiction scenario turned on its head.

Speaking of that movie, Go isn’t quite in its league; it’s just outside the ballpark, but at least it’s the same sport. It’s in there with Bottle Rocket and Suicide Kings — a better-than-average Tarantinoid piece of cotton candy, spiked with the occasional splatter of blood or hit of coke. Go lacks the thematic weight of Pulp Fiction (and Tarantino’s other films), which said that actions have consequences and loyalty is the finest virtue. In Go, actions don’t have very big consequences; people make mistakes, get knocked down and shot, but keep on going. The movie is fun but essentially meaningless. I don’t mind Tarantinoid knock-offs as long as they have some spirit and some fresh acting (Polley, Mohr, and Fichtner are the stand-outs here), but I await the next movie that has the same originality and impact as Pulp Fiction, but not the same plot, structure, or dialogue. I await the next Tarantino, not the next Tarantino clone.

The Out-of-Towners (1999)

April 2, 1999

It’s possible to endure The Out-of-Towners by distracting yourself with memories of Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn in better movies, but you may end up depressing yourself even more. For to watch this movie is to learn, once again, what Hollywood does with aging comedians (Martin and Hawn are both 54 this year): tame them and make them ready for a sitcom. The Out-of-Towners, a remake of a largely forgotten, Neil Simon-scripted comedy from 1970, is written and directed on the level of a made-for-TV remake; the film has its moments, but Martin and Hawn seem held back, imprisoned by the dumb mechanics of the Murphy’s Law scenario.

We’re to believe that Steve and Goldie — who never quite seem plausible as a 27-year married couple — have just shipped their youngest off to college, and that the resulting void forces them to stare their future (both as a couple and as individuals) in the face. The script pays lip service to this every so often, but the real plot motor is what happens when this upper-middle-class Ohio couple find themselves stranded in New York City. As they miss trains, get mugged, are refused entry into a swank hotel, and devolve to the point of Goldie trying to get Steve out on bail, we’re aware of the conflict between what this story used to be about and what it’s trying to be about now. In 1970, it was hip to put comfortable married couples through the wringer just for the sadistic pleasure of watching the older generation writhe around in the muck; today, they’re put through it in order to grow closer and stronger.

I will admit a certain degree of impatience with comedies like this, in which the protagonists are kept from achieving a simple goal (getting home safely, etc.) for the length of a film. Such premises only work if handled as sinister black comedy, with a parade of intriguing characters along the way — Martin Scorsese’s After Hours pops to mind. In The Out-of-Towners, Steve and Goldie are expected to carry the movie without much help from supporting wackos. There’s a neat appearance by Christopher Durang and Mo Gaffney as a stereotypical paranoid New York couple, and John Cleese brings some snap to his scenes as (the comparison is inevitable) a Basil Fawlty-type hotel manager. But these interludes are too brief, and the movie seems to think that the mere idea of John Cleese furtively dancing around in drag is comedic genius. The drag scene just reminded me of Monty Python, all six of whom did drag, and remembered to write funny things to do and say while in drag. A man in a dress is not automatically hilarious, though this movie certainly seems to think so.

Long before the end credits, I lost all patience with the movie, which treats comic originals like Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn (yes, her — go back and rent The Sugarland Express or even Death Becomes Her) like wind-up toys chugging through contrived complications. We don’t believe in the couple’s love for each other — the two actors’ styles don’t mesh, and so their characters seem to have nothing in common. Therefore, we don’t care about their future, or whether they pull off any of their highly implausible schemes. We do get some vintage Steve silliness near the end, when he’s tripping on LSD, but even this seems meant as a comforting laugh for the aging baby boomers in the audience (See how wild we were back in the ’60s! See, we turned out respectable despite all that!). Still, with the market overrun by soulless action and mindless teen flicks, The Out-of-Towners looks to be this month’s grown-up movie by default, though I know of no mature person of any age whose intelligence it would not insult.


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