Archive for August 2000

Titus Andronicus

August 26, 2000

At a time when so many people complain about our increasingly crude and tabloidish culture, maybe it’s not surprising that Shakespeare’s most notoriously grisly play, Titus Andronicus, is enjoying a bit of a comeback. It puts things in perspective, actually. Forget Eminem, There’s Something About Mary, or the Scream films; here’s the Bard himself, 400 years ago, baking human pies and writing the incomparable stage direction “Enter Messenger with two heads and a hand.” (For laugh value, it’s second only to “Exit, pursued by a bear” in A Winter’s Tale.)

Why are gifted directors — from Peter Brook in his 1955 Stratford production, to Julie Taymor in her 1999 version, to Providence’s Richard Griffin in his 2000 $16,000 digital-video adaptation — drawn to such disreputable, lowly material? Well, partly because it’s fun. And it’s not all that lowly: you can see the seeds of Shakespeare’s later tragedies in this youthful work. Finally, unlike standards like Hamlet, Othello, or King Lear, it hasn’t been done to death. A director can come to it with fresh eyes, a spirit of play. Neither intimidating nor stodgy, Titus Andronicus may be the richest found object among Shakespeare’s lesser-performed works.

Technically, and in many other ways, Griffin’s film is superb — I’d put it up against just about anything I’ve seen in a multiplex this year. Where Julie Taymor went for a kind of graphic-design fantasia, Griffin takes the Kubrick route, with plain, elegant compositions sliding out one by one. He gives us an almost corporate vision of evil, with some scenes unfolding among the Macintosh clutter of a modern office space (the setting is like a hybrid of now and ancient Rome). Since this film was already in the can (or, more accurately, the hard drive) when Mary Harron’s American Psycho and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet came out earlier this year, Griffin may have caught something in the air — the same something that informed those other two films, an aesthetic in which bright blood and white collars mingle like a dark potion.

It helps, too, that Griffin has a vigorous cast, many of whom work wonders, all of whom (like Griffin and his crew) worked unpaid. British actor Nigel Gore, as Shakespeare’s first poster boy for circumstantial insanity, brings the weight of morality as well as madness to Titus. He’s matched step for step by Zoya Pierson as the devious Tamora, driven to revenge by her enslavement at the hands of Titus; Pierson plays this Queen of the Goths as if taking her cue from our modern goths (and Griffin, in one of his best inspirations, dresses the Goths accordingly, complete with black lipstick). I also enjoyed Kevin Butler’s robust Aaron, the Moor in cahoots with Tamora; Christopher Pierson’s perpetually offended Saturninus; Molly Lloyd’s innocent Lavinia, for whom ugly things are in store; and John Capalbo’s complexly drawn Lucius, who more or less emerges as the play’s hero by default.

Griffin has used the architecture and nature of Providence in a way that brings Shakespeare into our world and also pushes us into Shakespeare’s rather harsh moral world. It wasn’t long before I forgot the movie was shot in Providence; Griffin pulls us into the story, and even when he goes in for a bit of stylized violence (as in the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, in a scene that reminded me of the woodsy horrors in Last House on the Left while making The Blair Witch Project look pretty anemic), it packs all the more punch for coming in the midst of a restrained style. Yet this doesn’t look or feel like a televised BBC adaptation, either; regardless of its digital-video format, this is as much a film as Julie Taymor’s version. Like other interpreters of Shakespeare’s least respected work, Griffin sees the gold in what many had considered the dross of the play, and he lets us see it, too.

Orfeu

August 25, 2000

Orfeu (Toni Garrido) moves through the streets of Rio de Janeiro like a man who knows the sort of satisfaction most people will never know. An accomplished and respected musician, Orfeu composes prize-winning sambas for the city’s Carnaval parade. He is also quite the ladies’ man, the kind of languidly attractive lover that women are drawn to and generally know not to get too attached to. Yet something is missing from Orfeu’s life — true love, perhaps, an anchor for his passions. The film Orfeu is about how he finds it; unfortunately, he doesn’t know that his character is based on the Orpheus legend, or that love will equal despair.

To enjoy Orfeu, you don’t have to be familiar with the Orpheus myth, or with the two major films based on the legend (Jean Renoir’s 1949 Orpheus, or Marcel Camus’ Oscar-winning 1959 Black Orpheus, also set in Rio de Janeiro during the Carnaval); it may actually help if you’re not. Director Carlos Diegues, who wrote the script with four others, clearly doesn’t intend Orfeu as a film that requires Cliff’s Notes. At its best, it’s an electric symphony of sights and sounds — the vivid colors of the Carnaval, the liquid music of the acclaimed Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso, the pristine wide-screen photography of Affonso Beato (who has shot some of Pedro Almódovar’s recent films). This is lively, fully engaged mythmaking.

Orfeu is instantly struck foolish with love for Eurídice (Patricia França), a newcomer to the chaos of the city, a young woman with soft features and even softer black hair spilling down her shoulders. Eurídice is here to stay a while with her aunt Carmen (Maria Ceiça), a no-nonsense woman in her late thirties perhaps, who has been around the block a few times, at least once with Orfeu. Despite the inconvenience of a fiancée — Mira (Isabel Fillardis), a giggly narcissist who waves the copy of Playboy she’s in as if it were an acceptance letter from Harvard — Orfeu can’t stop following Eurídice around, and if we know anything about movies, we know she will get over her initial misgivings and land in his arms.

For conflict, we have a local drug kingpin named Lucinho (Murilo Benício), who has been best friends with Orfeu since childhood and remains respectful of him despite Orfeu’s disdain for Lucinho’s career path. We also have the bitter cop Pacheco (Stepan Nercessian), who wants to nail Lucinho despite — or maybe because of — the fact that he is Lucinho’s godfather. Both of these characters catch Orfeu in the middle; they become angry at him for remaining noncommittal to one side or the other. They also tell him he’s “untouchable,” as if the death of a popular samba composer would bring down apocalypse; details like this don’t translate very well from the Greek myth, in which Orpheus was beloved by the gods and Muses.

Orfeu is colorful and vibrant, painting its story with bold, operatic strokes. Carlos Diegues is perhaps best known in America for his 1980 Bye Bye Brazil, an art-house hit whose reputation as an erotic comedy preceded it. Orfeu is more sensuous than sensual, letting the flamboyance of the Carnaval set its tone, then sprinkling it with the gray reality of the slums (where Orfeu insists on living, though he could afford to live anywhere else). We get a sharp sense of the two worlds of this particular universe, with telling details like a green-haired kid who paints murals and prefers to be called Michael (after Jackson or Jordan), or little girls smearing lipstick all over their faces, or the blasé reaction to gunshots (“Is that fireworks or gunshots?” “Fireworks, right now”).

This is something of a pleasurably overstuffed movie — it tries to get a lot into its 110 minutes, and mostly succeeds with smooth skill. The last act feels a bit predetermined, as if Diegues realized he’d better get around to the outcome of the Orpheus/Eurydice affair and stop goofing around with minor characters, like the rabbitty assassin who dresses like Superman and carries a sniper’s rifle in his drum. Once Orfeu clicks into tragic mode, it doesn’t disappoint; Diegues goes all out, like many foreign directors unafraid of grand gestures because they haven’t been infected with American irony. Even here, God is in the details: a grieving woman slamming a window shut with a stick that will soon be used lethally; a heartbroken father blowing a whistle in rhythmed lamentation, for whatever reason — maybe at such a moment it’s all he can think of to do. Orfeu seduces the eye and stays in the mind.

The Cell

August 18, 2000

Not so long ago, calling a movie visually stunning© actually meant something. Today, though, even films shot on video can look quite good, and computer imaging enables a Mac to do what it would’ve taken a crew of fifty to do ten years ago. When applied to science-fiction or fantasy films, the “visually stunning©” accolade is even less impressive. Such films are supposed to pack a visual punch; saying they’re great because they look cool is like saying a glass is great because it holds water. Many of us, though, would rather see a story that holds water, even if it has meat-and-potatoes visuals.

Which brings us to The Cell, a visually stunning© dud that holds no water whatsoever. Ironic, since the titular object is a huge glass container in which women are trapped until water fills the space and drowns them. This is part of an elaborately vicious fetish of serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), who kidnaps women, stashes them in the aforementioned cell until they drown, then soaks them in a tub of bleach to give them a baby-doll look, then hovers over their corpses by hooks in the flesh of his back, then dumps the bodies for the cops to find.

Who does that? Why all this Dr. Evil stuff? Why doesn’t he just shoot women in the head and bury them somewhere, like a normal serial killer? And what does Carl do for a living that enables him to afford this amazing deathtrap? What is he, Batman?

Carl has another woman somewhere, awaiting death by drowning, but just as the FBI are closing in on him, Carl suffers some sort of massive brain fart and goes into a coma. Problem: He’s the only one who knows where the endangered woman is. So the FBI sit down and, I imagine, have the following conversation:

FBI Agent #1: Okay, we gotta find out where he hid this woman before she drowns. Should we put extra manpower on this? Put out an APB? Ask questions? Use our deductive skills? Work overtime until we turn up a lead?

FBI Agent #2: Nah, let’s get Jennifer Lopez to wander around in his head.

And so it is done. Lopez, playing an experimental psychologist who pokes around inside the psyches of the comatose, is recruited to delve into Carl’s inner sanctum for clues. There she finds Carl as an innocent boy — see, the movie is saying, killers aren’t born, they’re made — and also Carl as some kind of demented Lizard King of slaughter. Apparently Carl’s inner life is influenced by Kabuki theater and the music videos of Tarsem Singh (REM’s “Losing My Religion”), who has directed The Cell like a man screaming in your face every 20 seconds, “Look what a visual genius I am!” Lopez wades through many nonsensical, pompous, gradually annoying dream-logic scenes that are, of course, visually stunning©.

Vince Vaughn also turns up, sleepwalking through his performance as an FBI agent who accompanies Lopez into Carl’s mind and comes out with a clue he hadn’t spotted in the real world (take the guy’s badge away and make him clean toilets at Quantico, say I). If not for that one clue, the dream sequences would be utterly pointless. Actually, they do have one point: to show us a whole lot more blood and women in bondage than the movie could’ve shown if it had stuck to reality.

Not that it sticks to reality even when it’s in reality. The Cell is yet another pretentious sci-fi freak-out show, following Dark City and The Matrix, two other visually stunning© scriptless wonders. While Vaughn tracks down the increasingly desperate woman (FBI choppers and cars speeding across the frame, just like in The Silence of the Lambs and Seven), Lopez is still in Carl’s head, and I kept thinking, Why is she still there? Her work is done; can’t she just go home to her cat and get stoned watching Fantastic Planet some more? But no, Lopez stays in Carl’s head to redeem him, I guess, and put him at peace. Meanwhile, no matter how nicely Lopez is treating Carl’s inner child, his victims remain just as horribly dead. But, hey, at least his violent misogyny is visually stunning©. That makes it okay. Right?

The Original Kings of Comedy

August 18, 2000

You’d think this would have been more at home as an HBO concert film, but it did extremely well in theaters in limited release. Steve Harvey emcees and does his own material between acts; the wiry D.L. Hughley, the roly-poly Cedric the Entertainer, and the severe Bernie Mac get to do extended acts, but Harvey, whose resemblance to Richard Pryor is more than just physical (he has a similar way of raising his voice in an indignant shrill), seems like the star. Spike Lee shot the proceedings fast and loose, on digital video; I can’t say how the result looked in theaters, where the image was transferred to 35mm, but on the DVD, a direct digital transfer, we get hyper-clarity but miss the grain and texture of film — it looks like something shot for HBO, though the image is markedly more pristine than past shot-on-video concerts.

As for the film itself, an hour of it would probably have been enough. The comedians have distinct styles but often seem to double back to the same racial-comparison shtick, which goes something like “White people always [insert joke about a goofy and/or impractical thing white people do]. Black folks are different — we’re more like [insert joke about a shrewd and/or frugal thing black people do].” Steve Harvey sets the tone with his joke about how a black band would act on the Titanic, and the other three comedians play to the mostly black audience, flattering them with goofy-white-people observations. To me as a white viewer, this is funny at first but gets sort of old after a few repetitions — we get it; black people and white people are different. Also speaking as a white viewer, some of the material (particularly some of Bernie Mac’s stuff) is incomprehensible to me, as it no doubt should be — it’s not really meant for me. I enjoyed much of it, but I’m neither in the “hilarious” camp nor in the “It’s ironic that Spike Lee made Bamboozled after making this minstrel show” camp (a charge I don’t really understand).

Cecil B. DeMented

August 11, 2000

The day a John Waters film gets unanimous raves is probably the day Waters should retire and take up golf, so it’s very good news that his spray of Mace in the face of good taste, Cecil B. DeMented, has been getting slammed left and right. The movie seems to annoy two different kinds of critics: those who never liked Waters anyway, and those who loved Waters’ early outrages (Pink Flamingos, Polyester) and feel he’s mellowed to the detriment of his humor. I’m the third kind of critic — the kind that’s willing to follow Waters wherever he goes. And in Cecil B. DeMented he takes us on his most consistently funny ride since Hairspray.

The movie is a loving nudge in the ribs of the director Waters used to be: a guerrilla auteur with a motley cast and crew of loyal outcasts and weirdos. This film and Waters’ previous comedy Pecker, about a young photographer who hits it big when the New York art scene discovers his grungy work, are companion pieces about outlaw artists who, instead of tailoring their work to the masses, stay true to what they love and wait for the masses to come to them. In other words, autobiographical. The only difference is that this film’s rabid protagonist, the underground filmmaker calling himself “Cecil B. DeMented” (Stephen Dorff), won’t wait for the masses or cater to them — he prefers to attack them.

Cecil, who loathes mainstream Hollywood fare, kidnaps bland movie star Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) and forces her to act in the cinematic smash-and-grab guerrilla effort he’s putting together — a sort of movie manifesto in which Honey and her “co-stars” barrel through a number of public shrines to Hollywood (a multiplex, a press conference welcoming a Hollywood film crew to Baltimore) and trash everything, screaming such slogans as “Punish bad cinema!” When you get a glimpse of one such example of bad cinema — Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut, playing to a sniffling multiplex audience — you sort of see their point.

As always, Waters works with an unmistakable affection for even his grubbiest characters. Cecil’s band of cinema terrorists, the “Sprocket Holes,” include a gay redneck driver (Mike Shannon), a Satanist make-up artist (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a producer of questionable gender (Harriet Dodge), a porno actress (Alicia Witt in the stand-out performance, livelier and funnier than anyone in Boogie Nights), a hairdresser who’s straight but wishes he were gay (Jack Noseworthy), a butch director of photography (Erika Lynn Rupli), a sexually repressed mama’s boy (Eric M. Barry), a production designer (Larry Gilliard Jr.) with “David Lynch” tattooed on his knuckles, a sound techie (Zenzele Uzoma) whose boom mike doubles as a gun, and a leading man (Adrian Grenier) who’s glad he’s a drug addict because “before, I had so many problems; now I only have one problem.”

The haughty star Honey soon fits right in with this manic Manson family of filmmakers; perhaps their sincerity about the purity of cinema touches some part of her she’d thought Hollywood had killed years ago. (Griffith, playing this star whose career mirrors hers in some ways, comes through with a deft self-parodying turn that simultaneously lets us see how Honey becomes a true Cecil B. DeMented star and how Griffith becomes a John Waters star.) The movie takes many potshots at the idiocies of Hollywood, but if it’s not as biting as some people want it to be, that’s because a large part of Waters loves Hollywood (he’s gushed in print over Randal Kleiser, the director of Grease and The Blue Lagoon). He loves both art films and outlandishly corny Hollywood melodramas. You’re not meant, I think, to take Cecil or his slogans all that seriously. Waters pokes fun at the cinema rebels as much as the Hollywood hacks.

Cecil B. DeMented is a further exploration of Waters’ true theme — not shock for its own sake (the grossest things here are people forced to eat oysters at gunpoint, and a gerbil going where no gerbil was meant to go), but obsession. Waters adores single-minded people, and Cecil and his Sprocket Holes are nothing if not dedicated to their loopy cause. Despite the title, though, it’s really Honey’s story — her arc from a star who doesn’t care to a guerrilla actress who does — and during the climax (set at a drive-in, a nod to one more dearly departed movie tradition) Waters gives her a send-off worthy of creakiest Old Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMented is vintage John Waters, which means it doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning the mass audience that wept over Patch Adams. And thank God for that.

Coyote Ugly

August 4, 2000

Critics are often too harsh on movies like Coyote Ugly, a harmless enough trifle. There are worse ways to spend 94 minutes on a humid August afternoon than sitting in an air-conditioned theater watching several attractive women writhe and giggle their way through a mechanical confection. Some have said it’s not bad enough, and that’s certainly true; it’s not so-bad-it’s-good, and it’s not so-good-it’s-surprising, either. I equate it to last year’s Deep Blue Sea, another late-summer cheese-fest that did its job for me exactly as long as it lasted, but not beyond that.

Some of the disappointment centers on the revelation that Coyote Ugly is not particularly sleazy (yes, it’s rated PG-13, which means the women can wear wet, clinging, tight tops that almost render full nudity redundant anyway, but they keep those clothes on). It’s actually kind of sweet and goofy, and part of the reason is Piper Perabo, a likable, frisky presence with a warm smile — a Denise Richards who can act. Perabo plays the heroine, Violet Sanford, who moves from New Jersey to New York in pursuit of songwriting dreams; she just wants to write songs, though, because even though she has a lovely voice, stage fright smacks her down whenever she actually has someone looking at her while she sings her own compositions.

New York smacks her down, too; Violet bumps against the city’s freezing disinterest in struggling young musicians (one music-publishing receptionist is played by Ellen Cleghorne, too little seen lately, who brings such snap to her rejection of Violet that she seems to speak with the voice of New York). So Violet stumbles across a job — at Coyote Ugly, the notorious East Village joint where the sultry barkeeps dance on the bar when they’re not setting it on fire (and sometimes when they are). Bar owner Lil (Maria Bello in an entertainingly direct performance) sizes up Violet and hires her because she “looks like a kindergarten teacher.” Violet soon takes her place among the other coyotes — friendly blond Cammie (Izabella Miko), bitchy Rachel (Bridget Moynahan) — and is rechristened “Jersey,” or “Jersey Nun” (don’t ask).

The script is credited to Gina Wendkos, who also wrote a 1992 Jami Gertz vehicle called Jersey Girl; write what you know, I guess. What Wendkos knows is mostly borrowed plot elements: the disapproving dad (John Goodman invests his role with far more comic dignity than was probably on the page), the sensitive boyfriend Kevin (Adam Garcia, who has an easy rapport with Perabo), the back-home best friend (Melanie Lynskey, once again bringing soft warmth to whatever she does), the hard-ass boss with a well-hidden heart of gold. Still, the cast fleshes out the clichés exuberantly and with little irony, which is something of a relief.

Coyote Ugly has a jostling good humor about it. If you find Violet likable, you won’t mind the ridiculous fairy-tale ending; “You won’t be validated,” a sneering receptionist had told Violet earlier, but she gets validated, and how. The producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, gets some validation, too; after a long run of terrible movies, produced solo or with his late partner Don Simpson, he has made two films this summer I actually kinda liked — this one and Gone in 60 Seconds. Both are essentially remakes of past Bruckheimer hits — Coyote Ugly shares more than a little with Flashdance — but somehow they’re better remakes. I’d rather see Bruckheimer remake his own bad movies well than have him remake good movies badly.

Hollow Man

August 4, 2000

Any movie calling itself Hollow Man dares to make itself the biggest critics’ target since A Goofy Movie. You’d think the filmmakers would do whatever they could to avoid cheap shots — by making the lead character as complex and human as possible. But no. This is yet another multi-million-dollar Hollywood thriller that has plenty of time for elaborate special effects (many of which are eye-popping) but very little time for characterization. The movie could be called Hollow People.

Does that matter? Do we go to see a big-budget invisible-man movie for its profound understanding of the human struggle? No, and if we agree we’re not here for that, then the movie had better at least be fun. Roughly the first half of Hollow Man is agreeably trashy, like an over-amped remix of David Cronenberg’s The Fly crossed with John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man. But once we see where it’s going — a showdown between the protagonist/villain and a rapidly dwindling team of former colleagues in a locked-down lab — we may sink into our seats in frustration. All this magical computer-generated whiz-bang, and they can’t do more with it than a climax ripping off your choice of slasher movies and Alien films?

Kevin Bacon, the poor guy, wrote an engaging two-part Hollow Man diary for Entertainment Weekly detailing the nightmarish preparations — the smelly latex, the tedious hours of CGI mapping — he had to endure to play the lead, Sebastian Caine, a military scientist looking for a way to make people invisible. Bacon went through such hell for the role that it almost breaks my heart to say all his effort comes to very little. It’s not his fault; the script (by Andrew Marlowe, of Air Force One and End of Days) won’t let him develop Sebastian in any meaningful way. He goes from being a two-dimensional obsessed scientist to a two-dimensional psycho once he’s invisible.

Sebastian’s loyal crew of scientists, including former flame Elisabeth Shue and her new lover Josh Brolin, are worried about him: They can’t find a way to make him visible again, and we’ve seen that lab animals who went invisible for too long became aggressive and violent. So, too, does Sebastian, who very quickly devolves from a voyeur and groper to a possible rapist-murderer (he pays a visit to a nearby woman; we never find out exactly what he does to her). Psychologically, Sebastian’s shift into evil might make better sense if he were a sexually repressed nerd, a loser jealous of his ex-lover’s new boyfriend, but Bacon plays the pre-invisible Sebastian as a virile scientist hunk simmering in his own ego. So we don’t feel that being invisible puts him in touch with his id, his darkest unacknowledged desires.

The unfairly ignored Memoirs of an Invisible Man, structured as a comedy, nevertheless tapped into curious areas of sadness as well as prurience; this may be the only time in film history that Chevy Chase has given a better dramatic performance than Kevin Bacon. The moment when Daryl Hannah renders Chase visible by gently applying foundation to his face is absurdly moving, and Hollow Man could have used more human touches like that. Instead, Bacon stalks around behind an expressionless latex façade, further underscoring Sebastian’s indebtedness to masked slasher-film psychos. Well, John Carpenter did that better, too.

Granted, you don’t expect subtlety from director Paul Verhoeven, the man who gave us RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers — most of which (I exclude the clownish Showgirls) are cheerfully over-the-top, winking at themselves and at the audience, and highly enjoyable. I don’t see Hollow Man joining the Verhoeven pantheon of well-loved trash. The becoming-invisible and becoming-visible-again scenes have some of Verhoeven’s charged-up showmanship; the rest of the movie is a lumbering haunted-house flick with an oddly sour, vindictive tone. Did Verhoeven think he was taking the moral aspects of invisibility seriously? A serious movie doesn’t give us peeks at naked women, as if we were pubescent boys, and a serious movie doesn’t have Elisabeth Shue announce “We’re gonna take him down” and punctuate it by cocking her gun. I like Verhoeven’s cheese as much as anyone, but this movie is the wrong kind of cheese.


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