Archive for November 1999

End of Days

November 24, 1999

Near the beginning of the entertainingly trashy End of Days, the big bad guy himself — Satan, looking remarkably like a translucent CGI blob — swoops through the streets of Manhattan. Because this is a big-budget action-thriller, his arrival is heralded by exploding gas mains, exploding cars — just a whole lot of explosions. Satan whooshes around the city for a while before he spots a well-dressed man through the window of a posh restaurant, who very much resembles Gabriel Byrne. Satan chooses to occupy this man — a Wall Street banker — for no apparent reason except that he’s Gabriel Byrne, man; he just looks so cool in that black coat.

End of Days is best seen, and enjoyed, as the ultimate high-concept crap: the main millennial event in Madison Square Garden, the fight of the century — Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Satan. Until it bogged down in a lot of clichéd hand-wringing about faith (as well as a batch of largely cheesy effects), I had bad fun with it. Schwarzenegger is Jericho Cane (check the initials), a bitter, alcoholic ex-cop whose sweet-faced wife and daughter were killed because he wasn’t home to protect them from thugs; that pushes absentee-father guilt about as far as it can go. Jericho, it seems, used to believe in God until his dual loss taught him that God can be a real dick sometimes. The movie is set up so that Jericho must regain his faith in order to defeat Satan. (As usual, only Christian faith will do the trick.)

It’s the last few days of December 1999, and Satan has travelled here for both business and pleasure: In the final hour of the millennium, he must impregnate a woman who has been marked to bear his spawn. That woman is the cutely named Christine York (Robin Tunney, a good actress who seems rather lost here), who has nightmarish apocalyptic visions; this being the ’90s, she’s on a bunch of medications under the supervision of priest/therapist Udo Kier, though if my therapist were Udo Kier, I wouldn’t take Xanax or even aspirin on his advice. Jericho must find and protect Christine before Satan can capture her and show her his “oh” face.

Arnie is Teutonically amusing as always; this movie requires its own leap of faith, as most of Arnie’s movies do — that people can live and work alongside him without ever noticing that he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. (His standard unimpressed schlumpy partner is played here by Kevin Pollak.) And he’s been given a terrific nemesis in Gabriel Byrne, who seems to take his cue from “Sympathy for the Devil”; an eminently reasonable man, Satan is witty and seductive, and Andrew Marlowe’s script leaves out the usual rhetorical pomp. “We’ll rule side by side,” Satan promises Jericho. “It’ll be so cool.” The always engaging Byrne plays Satan as a guy who keeps himself entertained — what good is being evil if it isn’t fun?

Of course, we’ve seen 1,001 variations on this conflict; the bloated climax feels like a megabudget version of every season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Part of the degraded charm of End of Days is its buffet-table derivative approach — it’s not shy about scooping a little Omen here, a bit of Seven there, and the movie’s tone owes a lot to the fin-de-siecle paranoia of Strange Days. There’s even a ridiculous helicopter-chase scene early in the movie that has practically nothing to do with the plot, as if this were a James Bond film, with Satan as the all-time diabolical villain. End of Days is the sort of pulpy claptrap you might have caught as the second feature at a drive-in 20 years ago. As such, it has a certain shitheaded appeal: If you’re going to make a big, goofy action-thriller about the millennial coming of Satan, you might as well hire Schwarzenegger and go all the way with it.

The World Is Not Enough

November 19, 1999

Every time a James Bond installment arrives, I’m left with the same question: Does 007 still matter? He matters a great deal to MGM, I’m sure, as long as he continues to make money for them; but really, I’m afraid the only meaning left in the franchise is the guarantee, every two years, of an action blow-out with a veneer of class.

With Pierce Brosnan — a likable enough actor without too much personality to get in the way of the dumb thrills — firmly ensconced in the lead, the Bond movies are as big as ever, but also as redundant: Every damn time, some powerful nut will threaten world security; every damn time, Bond will stop him. Really, who decided that the Bond films should go on this long, anyway? One can’t imagine Indiana Jones being played by five different actors over a span of 37 years. Bond is the unkillable Michael Myers of the action-adventure genre, and he’s become just as stiff and unvarying. Perhaps the secret of such longevity is to tell the same story over and over until it becomes an institution, a sacred template, a biannual ritual.

The World Is Not Enough, the nineteenth episode in this interminable series, is easily the most boring of the three Brosnan adventures so far. (The Thomas Crown Affair with Brosnan, and even Entrapment with the definitive Bond, Sean Connery, were sleeker and more entertaining 007-style films than this.) As handled by Michael Apted, the latest gifted director to go where the cash is, the movie is a textbook example of craftsmanship without excitement. There’s no outlandishness here; what little there is comes early, when Bond gets into a roaring boat chase, in a tiny speedboat that skips along the rough waves like a black triangular rock. That little boat hops across the water almost cheerfully, as if it were happy to get out for a ride; the boat gives the most charming performance in the movie. Once we come down from the giddiness of this scene, though, we’re never raised back up again.

Once again, we have one of those solemnly incomprehensible plots — this one has to do with an oil heiress (Sophie Marceau) imperilled by a nasty terrorist named Renard (Robert Carlyle) who’s after a nuclear warhead. As always, there are many changes in locale, much dialogue about who’s doing what because of some past offense in which someone did something to someone. The Bond films are always meaninglessly complicated; I lack the mystery-espionage-buff mindset necessary to understand them, so I’ve given up trying, and besides it always boils down to “Bond has to stop the bad guy.” Also along for the ride is the usual Bond beauty with an improbable name: Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), a nuclear scientist (you are forgiven for snickering) with the usual bodacious curves and the usual lack of personality.

The Bond girls have always been eye candy, never interesting human beings on a level with Bond; even Michelle Yeoh, an exciting presence in Hong Kong movies, was thrown away in Tomorrow Never Dies, and Famke Janssen, who has since proven herself an interesting actress in such films as Monument Ave, was used rather crudely and cartoonishly in GoldenEye, crushing men between her formidable thighs. No one could say that Denise Richards, with her eager cheerleader grin, and Sophie Marceau, with her hooded eyes and soft smile, are not good eye candy; however, they’re playing two of the dullest Bond girls ever, with performances to match. Whenever the movie turns its gaze to Dame Judi Dench as M, Bond’s iron-willed boss, we glimpse what a genuinely powerful woman — a genuine woman, period — looks like.

The World Is Not Enough also shares the weakness of the other two Brosnan Bonds: a tedious villain. Robert Carlyle has been great elsewhere (Trainspotting, The Full Monty, Ravenous), but as Renard, a scrawny villain with a bullet in his head that makes him impervious to pain, he just seems like a soccer hooligan who somehow commands a lot of armed men. The producers of these movies seem to have lost sight of what makes a good Bond villain: an actor having a grand time being diabolical. Carlyle just appears sickly, and vaguely pissed off at the world. (Perhaps Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil is a hard act to follow.)

A better villain might have been John Cleese, who’s been cast here as R, the gadget guy replacing the retiring Q (Desmond Llewellyn). This movie tosses Cleese away in one quick scene, but I’m sure the producers will bring him back; they’d better, because his presence (and Judi Dench’s) is about all that’ll keep the 007 films interesting. As always, the movie ends with the promise, “James Bond Will Return.” I’d have been happier to read “John Cleese Will Return.”

Sleepy Hollow

November 19, 1999

When discussing a Tim Burton film, you want to go on and on about the mood and look of the piece, because the story is never much to write home about. In Sleepy Hollow, based glancingly on the Washington Irving story, Burton and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki give us a world of fog and chill; the blacks are blacker than midnight in a coal mine, and the whites — well, there isn’t much white, just gradations of gray. Burton doesn’t wallow in gloom; he luxuriates in it, and the result, for all its drabness, is a work of great morose beauty. One almost wishes that there were no script at all — that the film were silent, even.

Working for the third time with Burton (after Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood), Johnny Depp steps forward out of the mist, hair mussed and dark, clothes also mussed and dark, flesh paler than anything else around — once again, he’s Burton’s onscreen surrogate. This time he’s Ichabod Crane, a New York constable (not a schoolteacher as in Irving) religiously devoted to “sense and reason.” It’s 1799, the dawn of a new century, and Crane espouses the future of detective work: new scientific advances, the strenuous use of logic and deduction. In response, his superiors disdainfully assign him to Sleepy Hollow, a bleak town where people have been mysteriously turning up minus their heads.

Crane slouches into town, which is full of some of the great eccentrics in modern movies, along with some veterans like Michael Gough, who played Alfred in Burton’s two Batman movies. (If Sleepy Hollow were an utter dud, which it isn’t, it would be worth seeing just to hear Gough intone, in answer to what became of the missing heads, “Taken … taken by the Headless Horseman … taken back to Hell.“) There’s the usual pious reverend (Jeffrey Jones, always fun to watch), a gossipy magistrate (Richard Griffiths), and a prosperous couple (Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson) with a blond, angelic daughter named Katrina (Christina Ricci). Crane keeps hearing the local legend of the Headless Horseman, which he discounts out of hand. Surely, he says, there is a logical explanation for the murders.

There is, and that’s where Sleepy Hollow falls down. Burton isn’t, nor should he be, a man of logic. He’s an artist of spooky intuition, painting with bullet-gray skies and gnarled branches reaching towards us like skeleton’s fingers. The movie, experienced solely with the eyes, enfolds us in mesmerizing atmosphere — a mood poem in tribute to the dark, gory, campy Hammer horror movies Burton devoured as a kid. (A familiar Hammer legend turns up in a cameo, and Christopher Walken in his scenes as the pre-headless horseman is like the spirit of Hammer incarnate.) “I’m pinioned to logic,” says Crane at one point; unfortunately, Burton is pinioned to the rather banal logic of Andrew Kevin Walker’s script (reportedly doctored by Tom Stoppard), which explains everything and takes all the mystery out of what we’ve been watching.

Sleepy Hollow is two-thirds of a masterful gothic horror-comedy — for long stretches, it plays like an Edward Gorey tale in live-action. But as it winds down, characters start spinning around in ecstasies of exposition (which barely makes sense anyway), and the movie begins to feel cheesy; an overlong stagecoach chase, a recap of similar bits in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is the mold on the cheese. The film doesn’t fully recover after its haphazardly conventional climax, but everything leading up to it — the tormented woods, the deep thuds of hooves, the nightmarish splendor of the Headless Horseman himself — is superb. So I don’t really have the heart to dwell much on Sleepy Hollow‘s eleventh-hour loss of magic. I just wish Tim Burton had trusted more in his own brand of logic — the dream logic of horror and fantasy, the unaccountable imagination that gives us a villain who doesn’t bleed and a tree that does.

Dogma

November 12, 1999

When the hounds of righteous indignation are unleashed upon a movie, invariably nothing in the movie itself really deserves the barking and slobbering. Dogma, the religious farce by writer-director Kevin Smith, is an agreeably rumpled and scattershot comedy about nothing less than faith. It asks the big questions: If there is a God, did He — or She — really intend there to be churches and factions at odds with each other? Don’t all the doctrinal squabbling and chauvinistic claims (one’s own religion is the only true religion, etc.) take people even further away from the basics as taught by Christ? And do women fart when having anal sex? (This is a Kevin Smith movie, after all.)

On one level, Dogma can be enjoyed as Smith’s big blow-out — his action-adventure/quest epic, with a cast picked to please the fans; it’s also his New Jersey biblical epic. If you ran Nikos Kazantzakis through the View Askew blender, the result would taste something like Dogma — a lumpy but tangy concoction that goes down easy. Smith begins with a strong premise: Two outcast angels, the former angel of death Loki (Matt Damon) and the watcher angel Bartleby (Ben Affleck), have found a way to get back into Heaven. The Catholic Church is kicking off a new user-friendly PR program with a surefire lure for sinners: Pass under the arches of the New Jersey diocese and you’re absolved of sin. Loki and Bartleby figure they’ll take advantage of this loophole, get absolved, and get back to Heaven.

They’re not the heroes here, though. Their scheme, if successful, will disprove the infallibility of God and negate existence itself. So God, in the form of a spokes-angel named Metatron (Alan Rickman), recruits a disillusioned Catholic and abortion-clinic worker, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), to help stop the renegade angels. Other metaphysical entities keep popping up: the slickster demon Azrael (Jason Lee), who’d love to see everything come crashing down; Rufus (Chris Rock), the obscure “13th apostle” left out of the Bible because he’s black; and a Muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek) who got stuck on Earth and became a stripper. Not to mention the prophet stoners Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself).

What you hear throughout Dogma, liberally peppered with the usual prankish profanities, is Kevin Smith having a conversation with himself about his faith (he’s a devout Catholic in real life). He puts his ideas in the mouths of all the characters, each of whom defends his or her own theological turf. The ideas come out in a rough tumble, with the becoming awkwardness of flawed human beings trying to live by the ideal of God — or the awkwardness of a director struggling to make sense of it all. Dogma is fairly disorganized, but it has the honest heartbeat of a filmmaker busily stitching a bunch of elements into a crazyquilt of farce and faith.

Some of Dogma staggers and stumbles. An early test print ran better than three hours; Smith carved it down to just over two, and I have a feeling a lot of plot coherence is littering the editing-room floor. Bartleby, for instance, seems to undergo an abrupt shift in behavior, and the character of Bethany, though most appealingly played by Fiorentino, just seems to be along for the ride (she may be intended as the audience’s spokesperson, an everyday woman amongst a ragtag group of gods and monsters). The movie has everything including the kitchen sink; Smith juggles a lot of balls, and inevitably he drops some — as always, he wants to let you know every little thing that’s been on his mind since the last time you listened to him. Overall, though, Dogma is Smith’s most consistently engaging movie since Clerks — a rude yet, in the end, reverent ramble encompassing an excrement demon, a handstanding God, and everything in between.

The Insider

November 5, 1999

The Insider

You can have a pretty good time with The Insider while recognizing that it’s essentially a high-toned rabble-rouser. It has a buzz of excitement and complexity — the sense that we’re seeing the actual back-room decisions that affect lives. In 1995, 60 Minutes taped an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a former higher-up researcher at the tobacco company Brown & Williamson. Wigand had some scarier-than-average insights to share about the billionaire tobacconists, mainly the fact that they were inserting ammonia into their cigarettes to provide the consumer with a faster “fix.” It had been part of common knowledge for decades that cigarettes are hazardous and addictive; here was a guy who told exactly how and why. Except he almost didn’t. At the last minute, CBS blinked and aired a significantly altered version of the interview, and the story became not only that B&W was covering up, but that CBS was covering up, despite the loud protests of segment producer Lowell Bergman and the vacillating Mike Wallace, who conducted the interview and, according to the film, was torn between journalistic integrity and his desire not to bring CBS down with a fatal lawsuit from B&W.

The nice thing about The Insider is that it seems legitimately interested in the thorny ethical issues it raises. There may be clearcut villains here (Michael Gambon, as the representative tobacco CEO, may as well have a mustache to twirl), but there are no easy heroes. Bergman (Al Pacino) is a grandstander, a tunnel-visioned idealist who worships at the altar of his own integrity; Wigand (Russell Crowe) is a pinched, irritable man, soft in the middle, who has gotten too accustomed to the easy flow of tobacco money. We see these men in harsh light, observe their flaws, and gradually watch them discover their strengths. Though at heart it’s another David-and-Goliath saga, these Davids have a lot of baggage to cast off — ego, paranoia — before they can effectively fight the giant.

At an earlier stage in his career, Al Pacino might have played Wigand, or someone like him, and of course he did (Serpico). Here he’s the noisy fly of conscience buzzing around the head of the true hero, and though the movie is constructed as Bergman’s story — his struggle, his fight to get Wigand on the air — Pacino plays his end close to the vest, exploding only at key moments, when explosions are called for. He essentially (and subtly) plays Bergman as if he were the supporting actor, regardless of his top billing; he understands that it’s really Russell Crowe’s movie.

I’ve been enjoying Crowe’s work a lot longer than most people, who seem to think he materialized out of nowhere for L.A. Confidential; as far back as 1992 he was low-key and impressive (and also funny, which he rarely is now, sad to say) in the Australian import Proof, where he starred opposite Hugo Weaving (The Matrix). One senses, in Crowe’s recent performances, a reserve of bottomless anger barely held in check. Is this due to the frustration of a decade in relative obscurity despite his fine work? (L.A. Confidential wasn’t the big hit that might have broken him out.) In The Insider, Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand is on constant low simmer — the only time you really see him relax is when he’s with his wife (Diane Venora) and two little daughters — and his eruptions are mesmerizing, the bleats of a wounded soft-bellied animal (Crowe put on some weight for the role) with the added power of a defensive lion. Wigand knows all too well that his status as a family man — what makes him care about what the tobacco industry is doing — is precisely what makes him a vulnerable target. When he first senses that his family is being threatened, you can almost hear the blood gurgling into his head.

This electric, fleet-footed drama has been brought to you by Michael Mann, of whose previous work (particularly the lugubrious Heat, also with Pacino) I’m not overly fond. In the past, Mann has designed his movies as kinetic ideas on display — abstract men at war. Here, miraculously, Mann generally drops the vague nonsense and digs in with both hands. There’s still a bit of hey-look-Ma-I’m-a-director in his style — shots held for a tad longer than they need to be; an ongoing fetish for massive close-ups — but he puts the style in service of the script. Mann wrote it with Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and perhaps the presence of a collaborator helped to rein Mann in, to keep him attentive to the friction of emotion.

The moviemakers don’t pretend that the story will end happily; indeed, the very necessity for the movie itself is proof that Wigand and Bergman didn’t succeed as well as they’d hoped, since Wigand is not exactly a household name. At best, he was simply one more whistle-blower watched by millions on a lazy Sunday evening, confirming what everyone already knew about the greedy bastards running the tobacco industry (or any industry). Like Oliver Stone in JFK, Mann may be saying that one lone, crazy, discredited man speaking out against official lies might just be enough. But enough for what? In the movie, we don’t see anyone watching the interview and rising up in indignation, and chances are they won’t watch the movie and do that, either. The heroes of the movie seem to know this. They haven’t lost the fight, but they haven’t really won, either.

 


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