Archive for April 2000

Frequency

April 28, 2000

Frequency is the sort of movie I have fun rewriting in my head; the movie in front of me floats away while I attend to the more interesting film playing behind my eyes. Perhaps that isn’t fair to the movie, but life isn’t fair, and attention spans even less so. If Frequency were involving on any level but the surface, it wouldn’t drive me into the arms of a better, imaginary film. For instance, here’s a grabber of a premise: What if the grown son of a man who died 30 years ago were magically able to communicate with his dad via ham radio? The son in question, John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel), was a boy of six when his fireman father, Frank (Dennis Quaid), fell in the line of duty. Unusual sunspots enable Frank, a ham-radio enthusiast, to connect with his grown son 30 years in the future. Conveniently for the plot, John takes out the old man’s radio on a whim and starts playing with it two days before the 30th anniversary of Frank’s death. I wondered what would have happened if John had hauled out the radio a day too late; there would’ve been no movie, but that doesn’t seem much of a loss.

At first skeptical, Frank quickly accepts the fact that his 36-year-old son is talking to him from 1999 — I would’ve had Frank’s disbelief take a lot longer to dispel — and he asks John what he’s doing these days. John, as it happens, is a cop; Frank has a moment of disappointment that the kid didn’t turn out to be a third-generation fireman, but hey, a cop is almost as acceptable to a macho guy like Frank. If John had grown up to be a computer programmer or interior decorator (or film critic), the movie would collapse. Much is also made of the childhood scenes in which Frank teaches the boy how to ride a bike, and we don’t even get a cheesy shot of the adult John riding one (maybe he could’ve grown up to be a bicycle cop).

Frequency was directed by Gregory Hoblit, a TV veteran whose feature films to date (Primal Fear, Fallen) have been rather gimmicky — even Edward Norton’s phenomenal performance in Primal Fear was central to the film’s gimmick. Here, the gimmick involves the efforts of the son and the departed father to save lives — first Frank’s own life, then his wife (and John’s mother). A lot of the plot focuses on some serial killings 30 years ago, a discovery of a skeleton, and the ability of Frank to stash things where they won’t be found for 30 years, so that John can retrieve them. Frank is reduced to a puppet wandering around doing whatever John’s disembodied voice tells him to; the sci-fi literal-mindedness of the plot neutralizes any ambiguity — such as the possibility that either man is imagining his son’s or father’s voice.

The time-warp drama could be fun and mind-bending; instead, it all seems to point to an ending that redefines “schmaltz.” Should I spoil it? It doesn’t really matter. If you see the movie, ask yourself what would be the most upbeat ending possible; you’ll see it all and more. Frequency doesn’t even supply any generational tension: The father and son love each other dearly, so there’s no animosity for them to overcome (and thus, not much meaning to their reconnection), and the movie doesn’t have much fun with the idea of a 1969-era man talking to a 1999-era man. Frequency isn’t genuine enough to be moving, and it’s too predictable to be suspenseful. When a plot has this many time-travel curves, it can’t really afford to throw any other curves our way. That would be another, better movie.

U-571

April 21, 2000

A beefy, crunchy sound mix can certainly add to the impact of a film, but I’ve never seen a movie as dependent on a fancy sound system as the submarine thriller U-571. I have a foolproof test for such audio spectacles: If you saw it on a 15-inch TV screen with a dinky mono speaker, would it still be a compelling film? Interesting characters? Good story well-told? U-571 flunks on all counts.

It’s not that this is a disgraceful movie — it’s the sort of film for which the noncommittal phrase “It’s okay for what it is” was coined. And what is it? Take away the god-of-thunder sound mix and you have a historical action flick, sometimes competent, occasionally tense, more often inert. But how hard is it to work up suspense by putting a group of men in a tin can hundreds of meters below the surface, then setting off explosions all around them? The movie that did all this to a T, of course, was 1982’s classic Das Boot, which was more a study of personalities under stress than a war story. U-571 is like a hyper Internet-age remix of Das Boot without, y’know, all that boring characterization. It’s Das Boot stripped for action.

The movie sets up a tentative hero — young Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey), who wants to run his own sub but has no command experience. If you sense early on that the film is going to be about how Tyler proves his mettle, you’re half right — U-571 will also be about selfless sacrifice, pulling together as a team, and lots of jiggly camerawork whenever the sub takes a hit. Only the ship’s chief (Harvey Keitel) has any faith in Tyler; he even gives Tyler pointers on how to act as though he has all the answers even when he doesn’t (which is often).

These men are part of a mission based glancingly on actual World War II events. The Germans have a secret code to communicate with each other; the Allies haven’t been able to crack it, so the plan is to steal the Germans’ code machine from one of their subs. Tyler and his crew, posing as Germans, succeed in taking over the German sub, but then their own vessel is sunk by a German rescue ship. Now they have to get home in the leaky German sub they now occupy, hampered by destroyer ships, depth charges, and the most by-the-numbers script since Armageddon.

I suppose there’s something to be said for a movie that just goes in there and does the job. U-571 has almost no downtime; like Das Boot, it kicks off with a bit of R&R but quickly gets down to business. The trouble is, the movie is edited to within an inch of its life; there’s no room to breathe. And, aside from McConaughey and Keitel — that is to say, the stars — most everyone is interchangeable, so that when someone dies, you have only the vaguest sense who it was, much less why you should care. A scene in which a dead man is shot up to the surface as a distraction tactic underlines why most of the characters are there: to die for our entertainment.

The cheesy moments pile up. Tyler, of course, gains authority as the film goes on, or so the script tells us. You wouldn’t know it from McConaughey’s performance, though he valiantly foregoes his usual good-ole-boy grin; at times, he gets so grim he’s ready to recite beat poetry. When a young sailor bravely dies for the good of the ship, Tyler says, “He never gave up,” and the ship’s (and film’s) token black sailor validates him: “Neither did you, sir.” U-571 never gives up, either, but it’s a lot of Dolby sound and computer-generated fury signifying nothing.

The Virgin Suicides

April 21, 2000

Five perfectly normal-seeming blonde teenage girls — all sisters from the same perfectly normal-seeming suburban house — killed themselves in 1975. This much we’re told at the beginning of The Virgin Suicides, a glum coming-of-age/suburban fairy tale structured like a murder mystery — a self-murder mystery — to which there is no answer. The point being, I suppose, that suicide is a void that swallows up rational questions; the very existence of suicide cancels out logic.

I wish I’d enjoyed The Virgin Suicides more — in outline, it’s exactly my kind of depressive anti-Hollywood fare — but I can really only half-heartedly recommend it. Partly it’s the timing: the source material, Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, may have seemed fresh upon its 1994 publication, but since then we’ve had a raft of films probing the suburban malaise — The Ice Storm, Happiness, and American Beauty were the better ones. By now, the idea that misery lurks underneath the plasticized surface of outwardly happy homes is a bit stale; these days, a truly original movie would show us a suburban family that seems happy and then actually turns out to be happy.

The five Lisbon girls, ranging in age from 13 to 17, have grown up in a Repressive Environment (ah, the usual suspect in movies like this). Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), a grim and smothering woman, keeps the girls safe at home every night, while Mr. Lisbon (James Woods), a milquetoast math teacher, pretty much leaves the decisions to his wife. The “first to go,” we’re told by the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi), is the youngest, Cecilia (Hannah Hall), whose botched wrist-slitting attempt is soon followed by a more surefire method that seems imported from a horror movie. After that, Mrs. Lisbon cracks down harder than ever, and the fence outside the house is disposed of, for reasons you’ll discover if you see the film.

That fence, along with so much else in The Virgin Suicides, feels literary in a way that doesn’t present itself until later — you intellectualize the meaning, but you don’t feel it. And you don’t really feel it when the second eldest, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), falls for a young stud who calls himself Trip (Josh Hartnett). The teens in this movie cling to each other in a fog of suburban self-contempt bordering on hysteria, and all I could think was how indelibly Ang Lee already accomplished this in The Ice Storm.

The Virgin Suicides has won some glowing notices — let’s face it, it’s been overpraised — and I can only conclude that many critics, remorseful about the skewering they gave Sofia Coppola for The Godfather Part III when she was only trying to help out her dad, are now building up her writing-directing debut to be more than it is. To be sure, the younger Coppola is gentle with her cast, and she does some interesting things, but she also tries a little too hard to be lyrical yet gloomy — the movie is like a Francesca Lia Block young-adult novel left out in the rain. She also can’t do much with the parents as written, and neither can their (elsewhere excellent) portrayers: Turner’s performance is like a joyless remix of her Serial Mom, and poor James Woods seems raring to play a man sinking under the weight of unacknowledged grief, if only the script would let him. And didn’t Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland play these same characters 20 years ago?

The movie, perhaps daringly, arrives at its conclusion without really having arrived at a point. The point may be that there is no point, which seems a fashionable trend in indie films these days. Trip and the other three boys who fall in love with the Lisbon girls — or so the movie tells us; we don’t really feel that either — are left with nothing except their memories of the blonde suburban perfection that concealed such hungry demons inside. Even when the boys become men, the girls are never far from their thoughts. They don’t know why the girls were so miserable, but we in the audience can read the situation pretty well: It’s yet another case of blame-the-parents, and, more precisely, blame-the-overprotective-mother. For all its sympathy for teenage girls’ pain, The Virgin Suicides is an ode to girls as helpless waifs and women as martinets, and inadvertently it’s also an ode to suicide: What better way for a girl to gain eternal life in the minds of her boy admirers?

American Psycho

April 14, 2000

American Psycho, the movie, is a brilliant second draft — the work of art that Bret Easton Ellis’ notorious novel should have been. Even those of us prepared to give Ellis the benefit of the doubt were appalled by such passages as the following (warning: do not read the next sentence if you are easily offended):

It was cool this morning but seems warmer after I leave the office and I’m wearing a six-button double-breasted chalk-striped suit by Ralph Lauren with a spread-collar pencil-striped Sea Island cotton shirt with French cuffs, also by Polo, and I remove the clothes, gratefully, in the air-conditioned locker room, then slip into a pair of crow-black cotton and Lycra shorts with a white waistband and side stripes and a cotton and Lycra tank top, both by Wilkes, which can be folded so tightly that I can actually carry them in my briefcase.

Truly the stuff of nightmares.

Ellis’ real downfall was that he envisioned a sprawling, Dostoyevskian architecture but lacked the skill to draft it; he is a serious novelist but a terrible, monotonous stylist. Mary Harron, who directed the adaptation, deftly takes over; she tidies up Ellis’ blueprint, builds the house, and makes herself right at home. The script, which Harron cowrote with Guinevere Turner, couldn’t be more succinct — it hums right along, from one thing to the next. An axe murder that takes Ellis 217 dawdling pages to get around to, for instance, appears a brisk half hour into the film.

That axe murder, along with the very few other slayings that survived the book-film odyssey, occurs safely off-camera; Harron’s film isn’t about gory special effects, but about the rage and contempt that fuel murder (and, not coincidentally, the corporate world). The slowly fragmenting protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), may voice his desire to stab a woman to death and play with her blood, but we don’t have to look at him doing it. When Patrick, a corporate Jekyll by day and a rabid Hyde by night, invites a pair of prostitutes to his ritzy apartment and does unspeakable things to them with a coathanger, the episode is left to our busy imaginations (which conjure up greater horrors than a film is allowed to show).

As in the book, Patrick slaughters with almost cartoonish impunity. He never gets caught, even when he wants to get caught. “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” he confides, deadpan, to an oblivious colleague. Patrick’s shallow fiancée (Reese Witherspoon), his cronies at the office, his lovestruck secretary (Chloe Sevigny), even a detective (Willem Dafoe) investigating the disappearance of one of Patrick’s victims — none of them can possibly believe there’s a demon in their view. Patrick a killer? It seems ridiculous. After all, he’s no different from the other gutless wonders clogging the hallways of Pierce & Pierce.

Christian Bale affects a hilariously smarmy American drawl that’s part Casey Kasem, part Rod Serling. Having the time of his life every second of the way, Bale grabs onto this largely hollow role and pumps it with all the diabolical charisma it can hold. Nature has also gifted Bale with an amusing little V-shaped crease that bisects his brow whenever someone pops Patrick’s bubble of superiority. When a colleague dares to have a more elegant business card than Patrick’s, out comes the V-crease; the axe soon follows. Harron has recast American Psycho as a comedy about the fragility of masculinity, and Bale cheerfully plays the sap for her.

The book was tedious and messy, fixating on the squalid details of Patrick’s slaughterhouse of an apartment; the movie is clean and trim, getting much mileage out of the outlandish dishes served at the finer restaurants. (The food is more disgusting than any of the carnage we glimpse.) Harron and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction) can’t get enough of the stark white atmosphere (racially as well as visually — the only people of color here, significantly, are either homeless or service-level employees who quickly get dispatched, which doesn’t make the movie racist but aware of the racism of the world it depicts). The movie is cold but not quite distanced; Harron uses the inherent, identifying power of movies to draw us into Patrick’s fevered reality. Bale’s robust performance has a lot to do with it, too — he makes Patrick the most likable complete bastard since Malcolm McDowell amused himself throughout A Clockwork Orange. The comparison to Kubrick is apt, even earned; one can picture Kubrick handling this material with a similar elegant malevolence giving way to unexpected flashes of compassion.

Yet even Kubrick might not have directed Ellis’ story (widely disparaged as misogynist) as a sly feminist satire. American Psycho gains immeasurably from having been written and directed by women. Harron and her writing partner Guinevere Turner (who makes a brief, vivid appearance as Elizabeth, one of Patrick’s deb acquaintances who comes to an unfortunate end) don’t hold out much sympathy for airheads like Patrick’s fiancée or the drug-addled waif (Samantha Mathis) he’s sleeping with on the side. But I very much doubt a male director could have given us a character like “Christie,” a seen-it-all prostitute played by Cara Seymour with heartbreaking resignation. Christie knows what Patrick is, but goes home with him anyway — twice — because she needs the money he’s flashing in her face. A lot of the movie is fun and games — Patrick’s hack job on an insufferable co-worker (Jared Leto), set to the bounce and swagger of Huey Lewis’ “Hip to be Square,” is first-rate Grand Guignol slapstick — but Cara Seymour’s tired, frightened face brings the movie abruptly into focus. She’s a real person trapped in Patrick’s demented playpen, and when Patrick comes after her with a roaring chainsaw, the movie goes over the top, but it also becomes tragic and genuinely horrifying in a way that goes beyond satire.

Following Ellis’ ambiguous narrative, Harron steers the audience through some eleventh-hour curves, and in one instance the ravishing set design works against her: the sameness of the yuppie apartments is so satirically thorough that those who haven’t read the book in a while (or at all) may be confused by a key scene involving a borrowed apartment and a real-estate broker. Patrick may come apart, but Harron holds things together; like Ellis, she toys with the wishful theory that Patrick’s atrocities may all be imaginary — the foul whimsies of a bored yuppie — and when Patrick’s secretary discovers his notebook filled with feral doodles of torture and murder it’s almost Harron’s way of sneaking in the novel’s gallery of horrors through a side door. But in the end, as in the book, we are reminded: “This is not an exit.” Even if Patrick didn’t commit all these crimes, so what? Others have; others will. American Psycho is a hot-blooded comedy that leaves a chill in its wake.

Joe Gould’s Secret

April 7, 2000

Near the beginning of Joe Gould’s Secret, the New Yorker essayist Joseph Mitchell (Stanley Tucci) is describing his next piece — about a local bar — to his wife. He asks if that sounds boring. She says it depends on what happens; he says nothing happens. She shrugs and says, well, then it depends on the skill of the writer. Or the director, I’d say. In this era of concussive movies deathly afraid of losing the audience’s attention for two seconds, Stanley Tucci has a deep, and deeply satisfying, respect for stories in which nothing much happens. In this movie and his directing debut Big Night (I missed his second, the screwball homage The Impostors), Tucci sets the scene, introduces interesting characters, and then lets us eavesdrop on them for a while. It’s fitting, then, that his new movie is about a pair of eavesdroppers.

Mitchell, a transplant from North Carolina who feels comfortable among the working class and bohemians of New York (this is the ’40s, after all), finds himself drawn to a notorious but well-loved local character — Joe Gould (Ian Holm), a whiskered free spirit who lives on charity (he likes to ask strangers and friends for “contributions to the Joe Gould Fund”) and is assembling an epic oral history of New York. Much like Mitchell, Gould finds truth and nobility in the random snatches of conversation and displays of life he sees and hears on the street. Mitchell and Gould become friends, and the two temperamentally opposite yet fundamentally alike men roam the flophouses and poetry readings of the city.

If done a bit differently — the laid-back Mitchell and the overwrought Gould enter a place, Gould makes a scene, Mitchell shakes his head affectionately and grins — it would feel too much like an odd-couple movie, like too many other films we’ve snored through. But Tucci, directing a screenplay by Howard A. Rodman based on Mitchell’s two New Yorker essays on Gould, approaches the material as a study of two different kinds of observers. Mitchell keeps his distance; Gould gets right in the thick of things, tearing off his clothes at a party, crashing a snobby poetry reading, keeping up a madcap stream of patter. It’s not long before we realize that someone as garrulous as Gould doesn’t make the best listener or chronicler of the language of the streets. He likes the sound of his own voice too much.

We like the sound of his voice, too, thanks to Ian Holm, as explosive here as he was implosive in The Sweet Hereafter. It’s a very actorish performance — it’s a very actorish role — but Holm takes such joy in Gould’s theatrics (while still suggesting the essential despair of the man) that it never reads as overacting. After a while, you see Gould’s rants and exploits as what they are: the cries of a lonely man who refuses to be forgotten. Generously playing straight man in his own movie, Tucci makes Mitchell a kind, soft-spoken man whose patience is considerable but only goes so far. A key confrontation scene between Mitchell and Gould, which uncovers the mystery of the title, is all the more affecting for being low-key.

Adding poignance to Joe Gould’s Secret is Tucci’s fond reanimation of the New York of the ’40s, a city that still had a place for people like Gould. Today, legions of Joe Goulds die on the street unnoticed every day in America, but Tucci doesn’t push this; we see Gould booted from his apartment and covered in sores, but it’s presented as just another fact of Gould’s life. Indeed, most of the movie is refreshingly light and good-hearted; you relax as you realize you’re not going to get any manufactured conflicts or Hollywood plot points (Mitchell has two cutie-pie daughters, and it’s a damn relief to know they’re not going to be kidnapped or something). On the basis of the two I’ve seen, a Stanley Tucci movie is an easygoing experience; you sit back in comfort, knowing you’re in the hands of a director who keeps things simple, loves actors, respects words, respects silence even more, and never goes for sentiment or sensation when he can simply opt for truth.


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