Archive for September 1999

Jakob the Liar

September 24, 1999

Oh, dear God, not another one: a Holocaust fable in which a fanciful man uses benevolent deception to make life more bearable for a child. Jakob the Liar has an older pedigree, though: it’s an English-language remake of a 1974 film from Germany that may well have inspired Life Is Beautiful, and the remake was in the can before the Roberto Benigni film came out. It’s also a better movie, and though it isn’t really my kind of movie — it can’t resist an uplifting ending — Jakob the Liar isn’t nearly as intolerable as you might expect of a Holocaust fable starring Robin Williams.

Williams has a bad case of Hamlet-itis — the disease afflicting comedians who want to show how serious they can be — and he’s been in his share of pap and crap, not least the nauseating Patch Adams. He gets that savior gleam in his eye, and he gets all elfin and inspirational, and you just want to hang him up by his stupid red clown nose. But in Jakob the Liar, directed with steady tact and grace by Peter Kassovitz, Williams stays in character as Jakob Heym, an embittered former restauranteur trapped in the Polish ghetto and just trying to get through the day. Williams is tight and angry here, no savior but a normal man who has grudgingly built up a degree of callousness to the suffering around him. There’s a fine scene in which Jakob strolls through the ghetto, humming to himself as if to block out the cries of the grieving and dying people in the streets. Williams is also thinner here, and usually caked with grime, and I found myself thinking, What a great camera face he has. He gives a new performance, or at least a fresh one.

Called into the Commandant’s office for being out after curfew, Jakob overhears a bit of news on the Nazis’ radio: The Russians are close, and the war may soon be over. He lets this information slip to a despondent friend (Bob Balaban) who’s about to hang himself, and soon Jakob and “his radio” are the talk of the ghetto. Everyone thinks Jakob has a secret radio (radios are illegal in the ghetto), and he finds himself adding lies on top of misunderstandings — he makes up bits of news, always with a positive spin. He realizes that the hope of impending freedom is all that keeps many of these people going. We also see that the quarrels and debates everyone gets into about the meaning of Jakob’s news flashes are a necessary distraction from their daily horror. To complicate matters, Jakob also takes in a little girl (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) whose parents have been taken away.

The relationship between Jakob and the girl isn’t pushed too much; nothing is really pushed too much. Jakob the Liar is tasteful Holocaust entertainment, which raises the question of whether any story about the Holocaust should be entertaining. At times, the movie feels as if it could have unfolded in any prison setting. And the Nazis here, as in Life Is Beautiful, are guttural cartoon bad guys; it’s as if Schindler’s List and its frightening treatment of Nazis — human beings infected by Hitler’s virus of evil — had never existed. Schindler’s List achieved art because Steven Spielberg was able to push past his disgust and get in touch with the part of himself, of all of us, that could be susceptible to Nazism under the right circumstances; he understood that the Nazis didn’t land here from another planet. He did this without in any way trivializing the suffering of the Jews. And anyone looking for a dark comedic treatment of the Holocaust might want to look at Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties, a surefire antidote for pablum like Life Is Beautiful; Wertmuller’s view was that there was no transcendence or hope possible in the Final Solution, just dehumanizing squalor and death.

Aside from the ending, which recalls Braveheart without the impassioned cry for freedom (Jakob’s silence is far more eloquent), Jakob the Liar tells a solid story: Jakob’s earnest attempts to keep the bullshit going, while almost getting involved in an insurrection led by Liev Schreiber (in one of the better performances) and deflecting the doubts of cynic Alan Arkin. Shot by Elemér Ragályi in bleak grays and dingy browns, the ghetto looks like a more forbidding place than the concentration camp á la Benigni. The movie is well-made, and I didn’t hate it, but I wish moviemakers would stop trying to find sense and redemption in the Holocaust. Far be it from me to decree what should or shouldn’t be done in a movie, but some subjects don’t gain much from being filtered through the major-motion-picture machine. In a way, I now resent Spielberg’s achievement: He made it acceptable for other movies to handle the Holocaust, and I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of fables that put a smiley face on the abyss.

For Love of the Game

September 17, 1999

If you haven’t had your fill of movies in which everything hinges on the Big Game, For Love of the Game might do it for you. It’s presumably meant as the concluding film in Kevin Costner’s baseball trilogy; as such, it’s not terrible, but it lacks the wit of Bull Durham and the resonance of Field of Dreams. This movie, based on a short novel by the late Michael Shaara (The Killer Angels), is about nothing less — or more — than baseball as a metaphor for life: Even when it hurts, you gotta stay in there pitching. We grasp that after five minutes, but the movie goes on for another two hours and fifteen minutes.

Not that there aren’t some stray good moments along the way. Costner is Billy Chapel, a forty-year-old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Billy is apparently the star of the team; he’s the only player anyone talks about, and his teammates — especially his devoted catcher Gus (John C. Reilly) — seem in awe of him. He’s a living legend, and Costner plays him with becoming modesty. His scenes with Kelly Preston, as a magazine writer he falls for, and with the gifted Jena Malone as a teenage girl he sort of takes under his wing, are casual and intimate. This is one of his regular-guy performances, just the way his fans seem to like him, and if he doesn’t do anything fresh, he at least does familiar things with finesse.

For Love of the Game has a ruminative flashback structure: The conceit is that, as Billy plays what may be his final game, he thinks back on his life — mostly the recent past having to do with the Preston character, Jane Aubrey. We keep flipping back and forth, a technique that only works when the past illuminates or comments on the present. Here, it just seems like a nostalgia trip. We learn nothing much about Billy — he is defined entirely by his passion for the game and his greatness as a pitcher. Jane’s character is similarly sketchy; she exists to throw Billy a curveball every now and then (that may or may not be a pun; she may actually be intended as a symbolic pitcher throwing relationship fastballs Billy can’t hit).

When we’re not watching the flashbacks — which lose whatever warmth and momentum they’ve been allowed to build whenever we’re taken out of them again — we’re watching the game, or, more precisely, The Game. Every pitch, hit, bunt, foul, strike, and slide into first base has the weight of Hercules’ twelve labors. Billy is driving himself to pitch the perfect game — i.e., no hitters taking a base — and he’s working against physical and spiritual pain: His shoulder is killing him, Jane has just dumped him, and he might get traded to the Giants. Given all this, you can pretty much predict how Billy’s trial on the mound will end, and you’ll be right.

For Love of the Game is painless, but it’s also pompous and pious about baseball in a way that doesn’t mean much to a non-fan like me. Also, I see that I’ve gotten almost to the end of the review without mentioning the director, Sam Raimi. That’s because anyone could have directed it. Which is a shame, because Raimi was once a terrific screwball horror-comedy director (the Evil Dead movies, Darkman) who has succumbed to a yearning for mainstream respect. First he gave us A Simple Plan, which I found bland and overrated; now he gives us a sanctimonious baseball fable. If he keeps this up, he’ll be ready to shoot a Nora Ephron script. Sam Raimi may have wanted to break into the big leagues, but I liked him better when he was in a league of his own. He doesn’t use the camera as a fastball any more — he doesn’t throw us any curves. Maybe he’s forgotten how; maybe he no longer wants to. Whatever the reason, even Raimi fans who enjoyed A Simple Plan may look at For Love of the Game and sadly conclude that he’s lost his arm. Let’s hope it’s only a temporary Hollywood sprain.

American Beauty

September 15, 1999

Where is the beauty in a discarded plastic bag tossed around in the wind? That’s the central image in American Beauty, a forceful and morose drama about a suburban family cracking apart. As it happens, there is considerable beauty in that plastic bag as it swoops and dances; it’s also a useful symbolic tool. The movie’s hero, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), is himself something of a plastic bag thrown around by fate, unwanted and empty. A magazine writer stuck in a loveless marriage, Lester decides one day to drop out of it all, and suddenly the plastic bag no longer looks empty — it can be filled, it now has potential.

American Beauty is narrated by Lester from beyond the grave; he’s detached and ironic as he tells us about his impending downfall, and nobody is better at this detachment than Kevin Spacey. It fits him perfectly — he has always seemed like a man who knows something you don’t but is keeping it to himself, for his own private amusement. Here, though, he adds an almost Buddhist contentment: being detached from things that don’t matter isn’t so bad, and Lester’s life has not mattered in a very long time. In death, he sees the sad comedy in everything he’d thought so important; the irony is that he dies soon after his new contentment.

Lester’s wife Carolyn (Annette Bening in a bravely unsympathetic turn) is a driven careerist, an edgy woman determined to succeed as a real-estate agent. She spends her days prettying up vacant homes and showing them to disinterested clients: she, too, is trying to see the beauty in emptiness. Their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is a typically disaffected teen, mortally embarrassed by her “pathetic” parents; she hangs out with blonde cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari, a talent to watch), a cynical wannabe-model who catches Lester’s yearning eye. Lester becomes obsessed with Angela, giving himself over to florid rose-petaled fantasies of her; he devotes himself to working out and getting high with Jane’s boyfriend Ricky (Wes Bentley).

There’s some satirical flavor in the sight of middle-class baby boomers regressing to adolescence (Carolyn, for her part, has a fling with rival real-estate hotshot Peter Gallagher and develops a gun fetish), but American Beauty is not a satire. Thematically, we’ve been on this turf before, in the tales of Raymond Carver and in recent films like The Ice Storm and Happiness. Yet the filmmakers — writer Alan Ball, first-time director Sam Mendes (who comes from the theater) — don’t invite us to sneer at the suffering of their characters. The movie’s point isn’t that suburban families are miserable under their Brady-bunch facade; we knew that. It’s more about wanting to return to a point in life when everything seemed possible, not realizing that everything still is possible if only we loosen our grip on things we can’t have, and learn to appreciate the grace of everyday, mundane things.

Sound a little highfalutin? It is, a little. American Beauty sometimes teeters on the edge of adolescent romantic jive, and occasionally falls into it, as when Ricky shows Jane his video footage of that plastic bag and gushes about how all the beauty in the world hurts him. And the whodunit aspect of the climax — who killed Lester and why? — feels tacked on, as if the ending were once more ambiguous before the studio imposed a clear-cut resolution. (I’ve since learned that the film did indeed have a different ending originally.) But really, what Ricky says about the plastic bag doesn’t matter, and the identity of Lester’s assassin doesn’t matter. These are just details, and despite its flaws (and beauty without flaw, as Ricky points out, is just ordinary), American Beauty is a small classic. Like that plastic bag, it’s an elusive and allusive work of art that won’t be pinned down easily; whether you see it as empty, and what you choose to put into it, is up to you.

Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trickbaby

September 10, 1999

Matthew Bright’s 1999 follow-up to Freeway was never supposed to be Freeway 2. Conceived as the middle film of a projected trilogy of modern-day Grimm tales, the movie was shot, and initially promoted, as Trickbaby. In some countries, the movie went out as Confessions of a Trickbaby; for its American video release — yup, this was another Bright project that swerved ignominiously around a theatrical launch — it was christened Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trickbaby. The star and associate producer, Natasha Lyonne, expressed her disappointment that the film, which she’d felt “passionate” about, had been tossed onto video shelves looking like some cheapjack Freeway sequel instead of a separate entity with its own vibe, personality, and merits. The result, of course, was that many unsympathetic reviewers carped that Freeway 2 had nothing to do with Freeway. Well, duh.

Trickbaby, as I’ll call it out of respect for Bright and Lyonne, does have at least three things in common with its predecessor. It plumbs, once again, a creaky fable (in this case, “Hansel and Gretel”) and modernizes it out the yin-yang; it displays, once again, Matthew Bright’s stock in trade, pitch-black wit co-existing amiably with genuine shafts of compassion; and it provides, once again, a meaty role for a young, intelligent, hungry actress. In this case, “hungry” doesn’t only describe Lyonne’s appetite for a challenging, star-making role; Lyonne plays Crystal (aka “White Girl”), a bulimic who stuffs her face and promptly deposits each meal into the nearest toilet. By my count, Trickbaby offers at least five vomiting scenes before the 30-minute mark. Two ways to respond to this: either “Okay, we get it,” or, as I choose to read it, the writer-director and star’s strenuous desire to take all the romance out of bulimia. Half of the opening credits unfold over a lengthy shot of our heroine ralphing, belching, coughing, and puking some more into the commode in her jail cell. I felt that this was Lyonne’s way of making the two-finger diet look extremely uncool and gross to any teenage girls who happen to rent this.

Lyonne deglamorizes pretty much everything else she does here, too. Her performance and Reese Witherspoon’s (as the anti-heroine Vanessa in Freeway) aren’t just apples and oranges; they’re apples and, oh, pizza or something. Approaching the role of Crystal, who’s been sent up for 25 years for trying to sell some of her mother’s crack, Lyonne must have realized that the part as written could’ve come off as one of those sullen, dangerously cool bad grrls, something like Eliza Dushku’s Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that might strike impressionable viewers as someone to emulate. Or maybe that was never Lyonne’s game plan; whatever her intentions, I think only the most inattentive viewer could look at Crystal and conclude that anyone would want to be like her. In a bravely rumpled and sometimes downright ugly performance, Lyonne makes Crystal a realistically damaged specimen as dead-eyed and cynical as Vanessa Lutz was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Crystal is, if you must, the Louise in the movie’s scheme of things; the Thelma is a deranged Hispanic/Apache serial killer who calls herself Cyclona (Maria Celedonio) and drools over fantasies of eating pussy while huffing spray-paint fumes. (Another link to Freeway: while in the joint, Vanessa befriended a spacey lesbian huffer, played by Brittany Murphy as only Brittany Murphy could play a spacey lesbian huffer.) Cyclona is headed for a life sentence (we learn she killed her entire family — not without provocation, we later also learn), and she’s haunted by visions of a savior — Sister Gomez, who lives in Mexico and could provide sanctuary to Cyclona and Crystal if they escape from the rehab center before they’re routed to real prison. They do (no spoiler there; otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie), and here Bright borrows from another disreputable genre, the prisoners-on-the-lam flick. (It’s also tangentially a road movie, so I suppose the video title Freeway 2 is microscopically justifiable for that reason.)

Trickbaby takes its time getting around to the “Hansel and Gretel” parallels (well, Freeway wasn’t wholly dominated by the “Little Red Riding Hood” motif, either). Our heroines do a considerable amount of damage en route to Mexico; there’s a fairly distressing home-invasion scene, capped by a “what the fuck have you done?” scene by a shocked Crystal that manages to outdo a similar scene in From Dusk Till Dawn (the scene where George Clooney returns to the motel to find the female hostage raped and splattered across the bed). Catching a ride on a boxcar, the girls also run into a salacious crackhead hobo; the weirdness of this passage of the film is that the crackhead is (A) played by Michael T. Weiss of Freeway and (B) named Larry, as he was in Freeway, only without the white-trash dye job and with a hellacious new walrus mustache. Is this meant to be the same Larry we last saw hooting in the back of a police car in the first act of Freeway? Or is he intended as a stand-in for all “Larrys,” all no-account jerks who live to fuck with girls just for the sheer priapic sport of it? I read him as a little of both, and in any event, he soon finds that Crystal and Cyclona aren’t Vanessa; they’re not going to biff him on the head with little fists and amuse him with how cute they are when they’re pissed — they have knives and shit.

Crystal and Cyclona are a little — okay, a lot — rougher around the edges than was Vanessa. But Lyonne and Maria Celedonio pour such heart and soul into these outwardly soulless, heartless girls that we recognize them as human even when their actions appall us. (If you want an example of the mystery of fine acting, riddle yourself why we continue to empathize with and stay interested in Cyclona even after her vibrator scene, a scene that would be infamous if the movie were better known.) Cyclona is softened by her childlike faith in Sister Gomez and the purity of their quest. Crystal gets us in her corner by being the yeah-whatever voice of jaded reason, the stained fingers snatching the string of Cyclona’s helium balloon of consciousness whenever it threatens to float off into the ozone. Tucked away subtly into Lyonne’s characterization, though, is a sense of damaged, stunted girlhood. Crystal was once a little girl who loved to eat until guilt was attached to appetite; toss teenage body-loathing into the mix and you have a complex web of self-destruction and destruction, a girl who hates herself and figures nothing she does means anything anyway, so, fuck it, let’s do some crimes. Lyonne also knows what to do with a line like “Blowing your dad definitely qualifies as some memorable shit. I know. I been there.” She delivers this with a rueful smile that speaks volumes about the self-protective membrane such girls must place over memories of abuse.

Eventually the girls reach Mexico, where they do indeed locate Sister Gomez, played by Vincent Gallo — no, you haven’t just gone insane; Vincent Gallo — as a fluttery-voiced visionary nun who takes the starving orphans of Tijuana into her dining room for pastries and candy. This, you’ll note, is also where the film reaches its fairy-tale mode (there are intimations of it earlier, when the girls leave a trail of crack rocks in the forest). Sister Gomez offers to “feed” Crystal’s “demon,” curing her of her anger and bulimia; Crystal believes this, not because she’s gullible but because she feels the metaphorical truth that her rage and her eating disorder are connected. For Cyclona, Sister Gomez promises to rid her of the voices in her head. All of this comes at a price, though, and Crystal finds herself working the street, hustling stupid guys for services she doesn’t provide. It all leads to a John Woo-style climax wherein Crystal discovers Sister Gomez’s perfidy, introduces her to her own oven, and blazes away at a decadent party of pervs with a gun in each hand. I’m not sure what to think about Sister Gomez, yet another case of crossdresser-as-psycho, perhaps justifiable in that the girls are led to trust her only to discover that she’s just some guy — and in this movie, guys spell trouble (yet, as usual, cops aren’t demonized and even a clownish horndog lawyer played with brio by David Alan Grier comes off as oddly likable).

Trickbaby has been derided as post-Tarantino trash unworthy of the Freeway label; it’s a cheap way for critics to assert that they enjoy Ebert-approved pulp like Freeway, but harder-edged pulp like Trickbaby that makes them think about bulimia, incest, child pornography, and the inequities of the American justice system is just, well, too much. Better to just slag it off as a bad sequel and move on. This is as unfair as it is stupid. Trickbaby doesn’t deserve to be judged as “a Freeway sequel”; it works on its own snarly, baroque terms as what I hope will be the middle panel of that trilogy. I eagerly await Freeway 3, or whatever the hell Kushner-Locke ends up calling it, as long as they finance it. Why stop at a trilogy, though? I wouldn’t mind if Matthew Bright went on making these art-house/drive-in rewrites of Grimm until he ran out of fairy tales to fracture or gutsy actresses willing to star in them.5

Stir of Echoes

September 10, 1999

To call Stir of Echoes a better movie than Stigmata, its weekend competitor, is to damn it with faint praise. To compare it with The Sixth Sense is a bit unfair, since it’s not Stir of Echoes‘ fault that Sixth Sense got bumped up to an earlier release and ended up owning the box office — and besides, Stir is based on a Richard Matheson novel published 41 years ago. So when you watch the plot about a man and a little boy visited by a ghost who wants them to help her find justice, just keep repeating to yourself: I didn’t just see this last month … I didn’t just see this last month …

It’s also not the movie’s fault that its source novel (which I haven’t read) may have inspired previous movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with its visionary-crackpot hero compelled to trash his living room. Here, the crackpot is Kevin Bacon as Tom, a Chicago telephone lineman who is hypnotized by his occultist sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas, effortlessly stealing the movie as usual) and begins to have close encounters of the spectral kind. He has ugly hallucinations involving broken teeth, fingernails, plastic bags. He develops a serious jones for orange juice (this is never explained, even at the end when everything else is). Most significantly, he is inspired to dig up his back yard and then his cellar — looking for what? He doesn’t know, but whatever it is, it Means Something.

Aside from the derivative plot (accidental or not), Stir of Echoes sometimes offers the same gray, pleasurable realism that distinguished The Sixth Sense. Tom, a good man vaguely frustrated by his lot in life, has a scruffy and easy relationship with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) — at least until he starts going wacky — and he adores his little son Jake (Zachary David Cope), who has a much calmer reaction to the supernatural than his dad does. At several points, including the very first shot, Jake speaks directly into the camera when communicating with the dead — effectively putting us in the position of the ghost. This was cool when Kubrick did it in The Shining (remember Nicholson talking to us for a long time before the camera cut away to reveal his audience, Lloyd the bartender?), and it’s still cool here. Zachary David Cope’s performance has been compared favorably to that of Haley Joel Osment in Sixth Sense, but Cope lacks Osment’s dread-ridden quietude and soulfulness; he’s just a healthy kid diverting himself with his unseen playmate, like Heather O’Rourke in Poltergeist.

Writer-director David Koepp essentially has two careers. To put food on the table, he punches the time clock on big projects like Mission: Impossible and The Lost World; on his own, he has written and directed one previous film — The Trigger Effect, an intriguing sociological thriller that was fine until it got a bit fancy in the last couple of reels. I can see why he wanted to do Stir of Echoes; both movies are concerned with community and the ways in which it comes together or splits apart in times of stress. Tom’s visions point towards a secret horror, and really, on some level, I didn’t want to watch it. Koepp is tasteful enough to spare us the worst of it, but the revelation (shown in a flashback vision) works our sympathies in the eleventh hour and can’t come up with a resolution decisive enough to satisfy us: Having seen the wicked deed, we want to see the perpetrators get it so it hurts. And so a thoughtful metaphysical chiller becomes a revenge movie, which ends up rehashing the old saw that this seemingly perfect neighborhood has a few skeletons (or at least one, literally).

Bacon throws himself into his obsessive performance; it’s strenuous, honest work from an underrated actor. But after a while Tom’s mania gets monotonous, and it’s a relief when we can leave the house and follow Maggie and Jake (who encounter a black cop who seems to be a blatant reference to Scatman Crothers in The Shining — he does everything but warn the boy to stay away from room 237), or when we get to visit Illeana Douglas’ Wiccan of uncertain sexual preference, who complains at one point that Tom has dropped in on her right when she and a lady friend were “smoking a nice fattie.”

A great actress like Douglas makes you feel that there’s much more you need and want to know about her characters; David Koepp doesn’t quite have that gift yet as a filmmaker. Thus far, he is an accomplished and serious director whose movies fall apart after a promising start. Perhaps one day he’ll make it across the finish line; to do that, though, he needs to exorcise some of the Screenwriting 101 demons he has had to internalize in order to become a Hollywood success story.

Stigmata

September 10, 1999

According to Stigmata, a luridly “sacrilegious” new horror movie, the Catholic Church is responsible for the biggest cover-up this side of Dealey Plaza. Seems there are secret scrolls written by Christ himself that may invalidate the necessity — the very existence — of the Church. So of course the Church has kept it under wraps all these centuries, and a presumably pissed-off Jesus has been trying to contact us over the years by way of stigmata — bloody manifestations of the wounds he suffered during his crucifixion. Question is, if J.C. wants to get the word out so badly, why does he pick Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette), an atheistic Pittsburgh hair stylist, as his next stigmatic? Did he get tired of all those boring, devout monks? Why doesn’t he just build a website or something?

You’re not supposed to ask any of those impertinent questions, and the director, Rupert Wainwright (yet another veteran of commercials and rock videos), doesn’t give you time to, anyway. Stigmata tries hard not to be a stodgy, old-school religious horror flick (like, say, The Omen or The Exorcist); no, it’s way hipper than that — it hypes itself like a Mixmaster-MTV floor show in a rave club (sometimes literally). If you don’t like a shot, wait two seconds and it’ll change, although some of the most banal images — like Frankie wearing a crown of thorns and looking heavenward — are apparently so dear to Wainwright that we get to see them several times. With grungy cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball and a soundtrack partially blamed on Billy Corgan, you know you’re in for the latest in millennial-industrial trash, and there’s hardly a laugh to be found in it unless you get sick of the relentless visionary anguish and start getting the giggles.

A priest kicks the bucket in Brazil, and his rosary winds up in Frankie’s hands; soon the bleeding begins — first from her wrists, then from mysteriously inflicted whip slashes on her back. When Frankie first wakes up in the hospital, the doctors suspect the wounds may be self-inflicted, but they let her go home anyway — presumably because she allays their fears that she’s suicidal by insisting, “I’d never do that. I love being me — ask anyone.” I guess she’s right, though I couldn’t say for sure; all we know about Frankie prior to her sanguinary adventures is that she cuts hair and she likes to hang out in dance clubs. (She’s also dumb enough to take a bath during a thunderstorm.) Patricia Arquette can be a vibrant, funny actress in the right role — True Romance has earned her a lot of good will among movie buffs — but she can’t do anything with Frankie except suffer and bleed. Arquette’s appealingly skewed front teeth have more character than Frankie does.

Frankie’s case draws relatively little media attention (we see one tiny newspaper clipping), which is strange since she always seems to pick the most crowded places — a club, a restaurant, a subway car, a city street — to launch into one of her manifestations and start flailing around. Nevertheless, the Church, represented by shadowy cardinal Jonathan Pryce, sends out a special guy to check Frankie out: Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), a priest with a background in biochemistry. Father Andrew had a whole other life before entering the priesthood — he’s not a virgin — so we get a few awkward scenes in which a possessed Frankie rubs her merchandise all over the flustered Father Andrew. It’s never clear who’s possessing Frankie — whether it’s the spirit of Christ himself or something a bit more destructive. I ask because there’s a scene where Frankie kicks the priest’s ass all over her huge loft (do 23-year-old hairdressers make enough to afford that kind of hook-up?). Whatever’s inside Frankie, it doesn’t like men of the cloth all that much.

Stigmata does most of its work with woozy flash-cuts; at times, I thought I was watching Jacob’s Ladder 2, complete with a freak-out scene on the dance floor. You keep expecting some sort of twist, some reason for Frankie’s involvement besides the random circumstance of her getting that rosary. Why make such a big point of her being an unbeliever when nothing much is done with that angle? And why wouldn’t the Church just shrug and laugh Frankie off, calling her a hysteric just trying to get attention? Oliver Stone would have known what to do with a juicy premise like this one — he would’ve politicized it and turned it into an all-out assaultive inquiry into the Church and its way of blotting out awareness of anything that doesn’t fit its beliefs. And he would’ve ignited the sort of controversy that Stigmata got (from the Catholic League) and doesn’t really earn.

Stigmata turns the Catholic Church into just another corporate villain trying to hide stuff — it might as well be the government or a tobacco company. Most of the time, though, it’s just a cheeseball horror flick using Christian iconography to pass itself off as deep and heavy. In that respect, it’s a lot more like some of those old-school religious horror movies than it lets on.

Hares and Hounds: “Watership Down” and “The Plague Dogs”

September 6, 1999

Two animated films about talking rabbits and talking dogs. Kid stuff? Don’t bet on it.

As many fans know, 1978’s Watership Down is not only not a kiddie movie, it boasts a good deal more maturity and depth than most live-action movies for adults. The same is also true of 1982’s The Plague Dogs, which is, if anything, even more grim than Watership Down. The two movies are proper companion pieces for several reasons. Both are based on novels by Richard Adams, who is basically in the same boat with Anthony Burgess: British author of many novels, forever identified with only one. Both come from the same filmmaking team: writer-director Martin Rosen, animation director Tony Guy. Both contain some of the finest detail you’ll ever see in an animated feature. At least two noted British actors lend their voices to both — John Hurt and Nigel Hawthorne.

However, while most people are familiar with Watership Down — if you haven’t read the book, you’ve probably caught the movie on video or TV — almost no one outside Adams die-hards and animation buffs has even heard of The Plague Dogs. Both movies deserve to be seen and cherished, but The Plague Dogs needs your attention more urgently: It has languished in obscurity long enough.

A fable of fettered souls yearning for freedom, Watership Down has long been burdened with sociopolitical meaning that Adams himself never intended (or so he has said). A young, fearful rabbit named Fiver has been having troubling visions of impending doom. “The field is covered in blood,” he whimpers, and we see that, sure enough, blood is everywhere. This, in case you were wondering, is your first clue that this isn’t a Disney toon. Hardly anyone in Sandleford Warren takes Fiver seriously except his brother Hazel. These are very British rabbits; in one of my favorite moments, when Fiver is jabbering about his visions, we overhear a bemused rabbit muttering “What’s he on about?”

Fiver’s visions, it turns out, are real: Sandleford is soon to be bulldozed to make way for a housing development. So Fiver, Hazel, and a few other believers — including Bigwig, a former member of the warren’s “owsla” (paramilitary group) — set off for points unknown. They have to trust in the intuitions of Fiver, who knows only that Sandleford is unsafe and that there is a better place ahead — a high place of rolling hills, devoid of mankind. That place is Watership Down. Once there, they realize they don’t have any does (females) with them, and a few of them go to a nearby farm to liberate some. In the course of their journey, the rabbits run across two other warrens: an odd place where the rabbits have good food but suspiciously empty burrows, and a fascist warren run by the fearsome General Woundwort. Scholars of the book have suggested that the rabbits in these latter warrens are doomed because they have abandoned Frith, the god of creation in the rabbits’ mythology; they’ve abandoned spirituality in favor of personal gain (food) or power (the Efrafa warren run by Woundwort with the help of vicious owsla).

Richard Adams, who like so many authors began Watership Down as a story told to his children, put a lot of lapine mythology into his novel. Devotees of the book say this is where the movie version falls short. It has room only for the basic quest — the dangers, the escapes, the battles, the strategies. My feeling is that the book is the book and the movie is the movie, and that if you want the mythology, it’s there in Adams’ book and its 1996 sequel Tales from Watership Down. The movie still retains the vivid characterization of the novel, as well as the incidents that have sparked so much speculation. And it’s beautifully realized — a rainbow of muted colors and perfect voice casting. John Hurt is the voice of the sensible Hazel, Richard Briars the nervous visionary Fiver, Ralph Richardson the imposing Chief Rabbit, Denholm Elliott the snooty Cowslip — who lives in the warren that fans have come to call the Warren of Shining Wires. A potentially discordant note is the loud seagull Kehaar, voiced by the loud Zero Mostel. Kehaar sometimes comes perilously close to being the Jar Jar Binks of Watership Down, but the difference is that he’s funny when he’s supposed to be, and helpful when he needs to be.

All told, the movie is an excellent and unsoftened take on the novel, though I regret the pacing that sometimes makes it feel like a TV movie; there are a few too many fades to black where it seems a commercial should go. There’s a musical interlude set to the song “Bright Eyes” (sung by Art Garfunkel) that’s subtle enough — at least it’s not a pull-out-the-stops Disney number — but also runs on a bit. Otherwise, all these years later, this is the same movie I fell in love with as a kid. The villains are genuinely frightening; I’d put Woundwort up against anyone whose name begins with Darth, and the crosscutting in the climax — Bigwig vs. Woundwort, while a hungry dog decimates most of the Efrafa owsla — has it all over the similar climax in Phantom Menace. The grim, brutal moments stand out more in memory, but actually a good deal of the film is hopeful and almost idyllic.

Watership Down has gotten a somewhat tarnished “too intense for younger children” rep, and it does have its moments of abrupt, unforgiving violence when some of the characters meet the Black Rabbit of Inlé a lot sooner than they ever wanted to. When the rabbits are slashed, they bleed, and when they die, they go out with eyes open and tongues lolling out. But it really doesn’t tell children anything they can’t handle; hell, even Bambi showed kids that nature is cruel and man is the ugliest predator. They might as well learn it young. There is an actual Watership Down, the Hampshire/Berkenshire region located west of London; the land surrounding it is owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber. In recent years, according to reports, the rabbits in the real-life Watership Down have multiplied and dug too many holes in what is essentially an agricultural area. The government came up with a plan to discourage the rabbits: mass extermination by gassing.

That’s a real-life denouement worthy of The Plague Dogs, which would also get — and deserve — the “too intense for younger children” rep, if it were well-known enough to have a rep. The film begins not on the sun-bathed English countryside (as did Watership Down) but in darkness, with a mournful, echoing gospel-type song with lyrics like “Not gonna feel the pain no more.” We also hear splashing. We fade in, and we’re inside a secret government animal experimentation lab in the middle of a British national park. A noble black labrador is swimming in a huge water tank; exhausted, he slips under the water and bumps the bottom. A hook fishes him out, and he’s brought back to consciousness with electroshock paddles. This dog — called Rowf — is part of a water-immersion experiment to see how long a dog can swim before he drowns. Welcome to The Plague Dogs. It’s not a fun movie. Nor is it meant to be.

Adams wrote his book, he has said, as a dark satire on animal testing, government, and the media. (In the book, the name of the lab site is Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental — a sly pun for British readers: check the initials.) When the door to Rowf’s cell is left ajar, he escapes with a fellow inmate — Snitter, a jittery little dog with a bandage on his head (from recent tampering with his brain). The dogs roam the bleak, rocky countryside, more or less unprepared for life in the wild. Rowf is a cynical, tired old dog who can’t take any more immersion tests by the “whitecoats” — he figures he’s going to die out in the wild, but he’d rather die there than in the tank. Snitter is a bit like Fiver; he has hallucinations of his former life as a house pet, and he wants to find a loving master so he can sit by the fire and be petted and cared for. The dogs are sighted here and there, and after a truly shocking and bloody incident that spells out in neon that this is not a movie for kids, the government redoubles its efforts to capture and destroy Rowf and Snitter. To prevent any citizens from being heroes and catching the dogs themselves — or from taking pity on the mutts and sheltering them, for that matter — the government feeds the British papers the official lie that the dogs may be carrying fleas infected with bubonic plague.

John Hurt returns here as the voice of Snitter, joined by the gruff Christopher Benjamin as Rowf. In due time, the dogs run across a fox named Tod, voiced by James Bolam as a schemer full of plots and immensely satisfying invective the way only the British can deliver it — “You bleedin’ great sod” and so on. (In human roles, you can hear Nigel Hawthorne as Dr. Boycott, the head of the experiment lab, and Patrick Stewart as an army major.) The two Adams movies gave John Hurt the opportunity to play both ends of the spectrum: as Hazel, he was the level-headed one, and as Snitter he gets to suffer and complain about the cobwebs in his skull. There’s a surface similarity between the Hazel/Fiver team and the Rowf/Snitter team, but Rowf isn’t the thinker that Hazel was, and the dogs have no real game plan. The rabbits were escaping from one place towards the paradise in Fiver’s visions; the dogs are just escaping, and the only paradise in Snitter’s visions is the one in his past, the one he can never have again.

Somewhere near the middle, after the dogs have passed the point of no return, there’s a brilliant circling shot of Rowf on a hill howling at the moon. The whole movie is shot through with despair and dread; it feels like a prolonged howl of helplessness. The Plague Dogs, I think, actually has a smaller body count than Watership Down, but it establishes its bleak tone in the first moments and never lightens up; the closest thing to comic relief here is Tod, but he’s no Kehaar — he’s not allowed to break the dark mood. This is a movie that shows you a cute little dog lying in its cell, motionless, quite dead; a custodian strolls by, says something like “Right, here’s another one,” and scoops the carcass up with a shovel. The sound of the shovel scraping the concrete floor is the final ugly touch of realism.

Perhaps moments like that were part of why the movie fell through the cracks. It’s too grim for kids, and most adults will look at it, see that it’s a cartoon with talking dogs, assume it’s something like All Dogs Go to Heaven, and pass on it. Unlike Watership Down, which can be marketed and enjoyed as family entertainment, The Plague Dogs is made of nastier, more upsetting stuff. Watership Down can be viewed at an interpretive distance — ah, it’s a fable about society and the folly of systems built on force and hatred. The Plague Dogs is a little too uncomfortably real, because Richard Adams didn’t put anything in his book that hadn’t actually been perpetrated on lab animals, and it continues to this day. Maybe, too, the movie was punished for being too political: Show this to kids, and they might grow up to be activists. Whatever the reason — and though I love Watership Down — my sympathies lie with the underdogs, so to speak. The movie has a dark beauty, with an ending that’s simultaneously depressing and transcendent, and the fact that The Plague Dogs remains largely obscure is a crime.

Sweet and Lowdown

September 4, 1999

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)When Woody Allen stopped trying to be Ingmar Bergman, a pleasantly scrappy tone crept into his work. With the fancy dud Shadows and Fog, from 1992, Allen went over the edge of homage and into a pit of derivative muck; since then, his stuff has been rough-edged, far less studied, and generally more entertaining. His latest, Sweet and Lowdown, continues his theme of creative folly: As in Bullets Over Broadway and Deconstructing Harry, one should never expect a good artist to be a good human being. Some have interpreted Woody’s movies of the ’90s, taken together, as a prolonged mea culpa: So I slept with Soon-Yi — cut me some slack, I’m an artist. But that’s a disservice to Allen, who sees people — including himself — more complexly than that.

Sweet and Lowdown offers Allen’s most glaring example yet of the artist-as-prick. Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a jazz guitarist of the 1930s, second only to the great Django Reinhardt, represents vast talent and promise poured into a most unworthy receptacle. Emmet treats women like shit — he literally pimps on the side — and he is in all respects a thoroughly appalling specimen, an egotist and vulgarian, a crawling bug who transforms briefly into a butterfly onstage. Sean Penn, himself a great artist, doesn’t make the mistake of making Emmet lovably obnoxious, though somehow he manages the trick of putting us off Emmet while keeping us connected to everything he, Penn, is doing as an actor. Watching Emmet, we are amused not by his manner or actions but by the cosmic joke that God has bestowed beautiful gifts upon this pile of sludge.

We’re given to understand that Emmet is married to his music, but he’s also too self-absorbed to sustain a relationship past the occasional quick boink; he just blames his self-absorption on his music. During the course of the film, he takes two lovers: a mute, adorable woman named Hattie (Samantha Morton) and a sophisticated writer (Uma Thurman, who looks more comfortable here, in the ’30s setting, than she has in years; this is probably her best work since Pulp Fiction). One woman is inarticulate, the other possibly too articulate. One woman wants only to give Emmet her love; the other keeps gathering material for the book she’ll write on Emmet, and she tells him straight out what his problem is — he keeps his emotions bottled up and therefore will never be as great as his idol Django Reinhardt.

I caught a glimmer of autobiography here. Could it be that Emmet is to Django as Woody was to Bergman? Allen was eventually able to shake off the Swedish master’s influence and make his own brand of adult comedy; Emmet, who mostly plays other people’s jazz standards, doesn’t have that option. Often, Woody Allen likes to examine characters who are trapped in situations he himself managed to avoid. (Penn, too, may have an understanding of Emmet, given his rowdy public persona in the ’80s that dogs him to this day.) Gradually, a poignant portrait emerges. We continue to disapprove of Emmet’s actions — particularly his cavalier treatment of Hattie, played most endearingly by Samantha Morton using only childlike gestures and an expressive face — but we begin to understand some of what drives his scumminess as well as his art. The greatness of Django looms over Emmet — “He haunts me!” Emmet squawks at one point — and he keeps referring to himself as the world’s greatest jazz guitarist, except maybe Django Reinhardt. His overstuffed ego always has that hole in it.

Sweet and Lowdown gives us a fast and compelling autopsy of this fictional louse, though I wasn’t sure Allen needed the faux-documentary structure in which jazz buffs and experts (including himself) speak to the camera about Emmet Ray’s work and life. It makes the material feel more thin and anecdotal than it has to, and the style of the movie proper is straight narrative, not documentary (unlike Allen’sZelig); it’s just a fancy way into some of the stories Allen wants to tell about Emmet. It comes off as a little coy to be hearing real people, as themselves, speaking in all seriousness about an invented character. The one touch that might have redeemed it would’ve been to have Sean Penn discussing the research he did into Emmet’s life to prepare for playing him — then the movie would’ve been a faux-biopic. The gimmick doesn’t seriously mar the movie, but one wonders why it couldn’t have been done as a straight period piece, like Bullets Over Broadway.

Has Woody Allen been watching Trainspotting and reading Stephen King? Emmet’s two cherished pastimes, aside from the guitar and sex, are watching trains go by and shooting rats at the dump (a favorite practice of a humpbacked character in King’s book ‘Salem’s Lot). Probably, though, these obsessions are freighted with meaning: they express Emmet’s self-loathing that he doesn’t consciously acknowledge. If only he were as great as Django Reinhardt, if he didn’t have to scrape for a living, maybe then he could feel better about being a bastard — nothing is more pathetic than the second-best bastard in the world. Or maybe, if he were as great as Django, he wouldn’t be such a prick to begin with — or maybe if he weren’t such a prick, he’d be greater than Django. Regardless, Emmet is stuck with who he is. But Woody Allen, in his thirtieth outing as writer-director, still shows signs of change, improvement, depth of feeling.

Outside Providence

September 1, 1999

tumblr_llm2vyfmr71qcodspo1_500God is in the details: That’s what separates one coming-of-age story from another. The themes are usually similar, but a fresh coming-of-age tale gives us familiar material in a specific setting with specific characters. Despite the title of Outside Providence, its heart and soul is inside Providence — or, more accurately, Pawtucket. Rhode Island is the homeland and cinematic stomping grounds of three of our most promising filmmakers: writer-director Michael Corrente (Federal Hill, American Buffalo) and the brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary). Now the three have collaborated here, based on a 1988 book by Peter.

The movie is set in the early ’70s, but it has no political consciousness, no awareness of Watergate or Vietnam. Which only makes sense: it’s about a stoner teenager, Tim Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy), who has precious little knowledge of anything outside Providence. Tim and his friends don’t care about Nixon or the war; they just want to get baked and have fun, like the kids in Dazed and Confused. However, when Tim gets a little too baked and has a little too much fun one night, his irascible dad (Alec Baldwin) ships him off to a Connecticut prep school. “It’s to prepare you for not gettin’ your neck broke by me,” Old Man Dunphy clarifies.

Alec Baldwin doesn’t appear in much of the movie, but it’s only fair to take a time-out from discussing the main plot and revive my old theory that Baldwin has always been best as a supporting character actor, not a star. He sinks his teeth into this role, cutting against his glamour-boy looks to create a living, breathing man, hilarious in his fond contempt for his screw-up son (who probably reminds him of himself at that age), poignant in his grief over his departed wife. The role could be a cliché, but Baldwin, sitting in his grim living room eating ice cream out of the carton and watching some stupid variety show, turns Old Man Dunphy into someone we all know. If he doesn’t get an Oscar nod, the award is meaningless. [NOTE: He didn't. Therefore the award is meaningless.]

But back to Tim, who has a tough time adjusting to life at the repressive prep school — until he finds another group of kids to get high with (the rich kids can afford better weed). He also meets a delicately beautiful student, Jane Weston (Amy Smart), and falls instantly in love with this initially unattainable princess, as all boys in C-of-A stories must do. A lot of the prep-school stuff in Outside Providence is standard anti-authority and drug humor, but it’s funny anyway, especially when a dean who resembles Mr. Whipple solemnly reads aloud a letter Tim has gotten from his friend back home, “Drugs” Delaney.

Outside Providence has been attacked by some critics for continuing the Farrellys’ alleged obsession with disability: Tim’s little brother (Tommy Bone) is in a wheelchair, and the family dog, “Clops,” has one eye and three legs. I don’t think the Farrellys mean us to laugh at “cripples” so much as to see the human comedy in the situation; I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that the Farrellys have some firsthand experience with disabled people and are familiar with the gallows humor that can make life a little more livable for such people.

The movie is probably a little softer and more Hollywoodized than it might have been before the Farrellys’ current success. In Peter Farrelly’s book, poor old Clops doesn’t make it past page 8; he kills one cat too many, so Old Man Dunphy slams a door on the mutt’s neck and snaps it. I don’t know who’s responsible for the change, but I’d like to think that Alec Baldwin didn’t read the script and say “Great screenplay, guys, but I’m not about to play a guy who breaks a crippled dog’s neck.” I also would like to think that Miramax didn’t say “Can we keep Clops? Audiences loved the dog in Mary.” Maybe Peter Farrelly just said “What the hell, let’s let the mutt live” out of genuine fondness for it. That fondness for all of the characters, however fucked-up (except maybe the jerks at the prep school), is what makes Outside Providence work.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers