Archive for September 2002

Sweet Home Alabama

September 27, 2002

002SHA_Reese_Witherspoon_059Watching Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama is like looking at a daisy floating in a toilet: She’s the best thing in it, but you wonder what she’s doing there. After years of being terrific in movies whose audiences ranged from few to nobody, Witherspoon finally broke through in Legally Blonde, an agreeable enough trifle, provided that you agreed to overlook the film’s rampant lameness and concentrate on Reese. Sadly, her overdue success appears to have taught Witherspoon that sharp, offbeat scripts (Freeway, Pleasantville, Election, etc.) are not the way to go, and so we get Sweet Home Alabama, not a frame of which, curiously, was actually filmed there; Georgia and Florida stand in for Alabama, though New York City gets to play itself.

Here, Witherspoon is Melanie Carmichael, though her given name is Smooter, and her married name — from a “just-outta-high-school” union she’s spent seven years forgetting — is Perry. Whichever Melanie she is, she’s far removed from her roots in Pigeon Creek, Alabama, and now designs fabulous clothes in fabulous New York. It’s every gal’s dream, except that most gals, I presume, don’t dream of Patrick Dempsey. He plays Andrew, Melanie’s fawning and moist-eyed fiancé, and I really must apologize for chortling about the waifishness of Stuart Townsend in my review of Trapped; I hadn’t yet seen Sweet Home Alabama, you see, and Dempsey makes Townsend look like Lee Marvin.

Melanie hightails it back home to serve her long-estranged husband — Jake (Josh Lucas), a good ol’ boy partial to beer and bloodhounds — with divorce papers, which he won’t sign at first, perhaps because the director told him this would be a very expensive short film if he acquiesced too soon. That director, incidentally, is one Andy Tennant, of Ever After and Anna and the King; he specializes in chick flicks in which he casts a superpowered woman (Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster, and now Reese) and then — as if this were necessary — drains the life and color out of everyone and everything around her. Fortunately, this doesn’t work with Josh Lucas, a sly presence in indie films (The Deep End, American Psycho) apparently now being groomed for hunk status. Lucas has the wit to shrug this off; he has a way of seeming amused by whatever the script (or Reese) tosses at him.

Sweet Home Alabama does nothing so crass as having Melanie do fashion make-overs for all her old Alabama friends and family, though it might’ve been a little more fun if it had done something so crass. The movie is formulaic down to the floor, and pads itself out unattractively with scenes like the one in which Melanie gets drunk and insults everyone in a bar; it’s an ugly, wrongheaded scene, and it’s followed by several scenes wherein we have to watch Melanie going around apologizing. Surely it’s the screenwriter who should offer contrition, particularly for giving us a movie in which the only black people we see are either maids or a swishy gay designer. Andy Tennant, too, should look sorrowful for coating the soundtrack with two bloodless covers of the title song (one by Jewel) but never allowing the Lynyrd Skynyrd original into the mix (gotta make room for Avril Lavigne and No Doubt).

Everything leads to Melanie’s wedding with Andrew, whose mother is played by Candice Bergen as a nail-tough broad (and mayor of New York!) who shows more testosterone than her son. It’s always good to see Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place (as Melanie’s stereotyped parents living in a double-wide), and I was cheered, as always, by the presence of Melanie Lynskey, the usually-overlooked other half of the Heavenly Creatures duo (Kate Winslet gets all the press); Lynskey, a New Zealander born and bred, does a more convincing ‘Bama accent than does Witherspoon (who hails from Tennessee). But everyone revolves around Melanie, just as the movie revolves around Witherspoon. She deserves stardom — hell, give her a throne and tiara — but she doesn’t have to make it so easy for herself. Like Melanie, Reese is in danger of forgetting her roots — the days when she was young and hungry and taking chances in weird movies. It’d be a shame if she left that behind.

Moonlight Mile

September 24, 2002

Brad Silberling had directed two previous films — 1995’s Casper and 1998’s Wings of Desire remake City of Angels. His third is far, far better, possibly because he wrote it himself and it comes out of something real. Silberling was dating actress Rebecca Schaeffer at the time of her murder at the hands of a stalker in 1989. He uses the experience to tell the story of Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose fiancée has recently been killed. Joe stays with her parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), each dealing with grief in his or her own way — Hoffman is always thinking of other people’s feelings, Sarandon couldn’t care less and is acerbic and withering towards attempts to console her. This very small movie quiets its cast down and guides them into subtle, human-scaled performances. Holly Hunter turns up as the D.A. representing the parents in the murder trial, but Silberling seems to agree with us that the outcome of the trial doesn’t really matter. A fine drama with a nicely judged selection of morose oldies (the film is set in 1973). Also with Ellen Pompeo as a postal worker with whom Joe pursues a tentative connection.

Chance

September 22, 2002

chance_205_jpgAmber Benson’s Chance — which she wrote, produced and directed as well as playing the lead — is more than just a curiosity for Buffy fans who loved her work as the stammering witch Tara. (James “Spike” Marsters has the second lead, and the cast is full of Whedonverse actors.) It’s an intriguing indie film with a surprisingly unsentimental sensibility, sharply written and smoothly directed. Is there anything Benson can’t do? Well, yes, unfortunately — getting her work seen by more people. If there’s a logical reason this has yet to find a distributor while puerile crap gets released by major studios every weekend, I’d love to hear it.

Benson plays Chance, an embittered product of New Agey parents. Rather than rebelling politically like her brother Zero (who went Republican and became a stockbroker), she has opted for apathetic slackerdom. Her roommate Simon (Marsters, probably shooting this between episodes of Angel or Buffy — he has exactly the same peroxided look, and sometimes a trace of his Spike accent peeks out) is obsessed with time. Her mother (Christine Estabrook) has just dumped her dad (Jeff Ricketts) for taking up with his bimbo secretary (Lara Boyd Rhodes in a role once played by Emma “Anya” Caulfield, who filmed one scene that accidentally got taped over and then couldn’t return to reshoot). Life sucks. Men suck. Women suck. Death sucks, too — Simon comes home to find an apparent O.D. victim (Tressa DiFiglia, who in real life is married to Nicholas “Xander” Brendon) in Chance’s bed.

As in There’s Something About Mary, a guy with a guitar (here it’s Grant Langston, singing his own compositions as well as one written by Joss Whedon) shows up every so often to comment musically and morosely on matters of love. Chance addresses the camera a lot, giving the film an off-off-Broadway feel; Chance could be gainfully adapted as a stage play. I honestly don’t know how the movie will play for non-Buffy fans, since a good amount of the film’s appeal to me was in watching Benson and Marsters play so strongly against their Buffy personae. (Spike would consider Simon a wanker, and Chance would find Tara tedious.) But I’d guess anyone who appreciates resolutely un-Hollywood narrative wouldn’t regret the 75 minutes.

Probably only a down-to-earth actress like Amber Benson could get away with writing dialogue in which someone calls her character “beautiful” and “amazing.” Benson undercuts this by making herself look hapless and goofy whenever possible (and James Marsters is eligible for some kind of good-sport award for playing a couple of scenes wearing an ugly dress). Like many well-rounded characters, Chance is accessible and enjoyable without being “likable,” whatever that word means — she’s realistically self-absorbed and flawed. When writers of fan fiction transparently put idealized versions of themselves into their stories, those characters are disdainfully called Mary Sues. Benson kind of makes herself an anti-Mary Sue here. I really hadn’t seen her in anything other than Buffy, so it was refreshing to see her much less kind and gentle here, drinking and smoking and partying and swearing up a storm.

If nothing else, Chance is a great calling card to break Benson, Marsters, and their fellow Buffy vets (including Angel‘s Andy Hallett as a gay singer Chance gets her hopes up about) out of the Whedonverse typecasting. Benson’s more famous sisters haven’t done as well on that score: Sarah Michelle Gellar continues to do teen-targeted supernatural stuff, Alyson Hannigan lost a lot of good will with Date Movie, and Charisma Carpenter hasn’t stretched much beyond her two-show run as Cordelia. Amber Benson is writing comics, cowriting novels, and writing/directing little indie flicks that cost about as much as the catering budget for a week on one of Gellar’s films. Benson, I think, is going to be the one to keep an eye on.

Chance deserves better than the oblivion the marketplace has consigned it to. Unfortunately, you can’t even give it a day in court from Blockbuster or Netflix, since it doesn’t have a distributor. Fans of Benson could get it from her website directly by ordering an autographed poster or photo (for $45), but that’s a bit of a steep investment for those not yet acquainted with Benson’s charms. Here’s hoping it can get a more conventional mode of distribution soon.

Trapped

September 20, 2002

Trapped has been gathering dust for a while; like Hearts in Atlantis, it bears a dedication to its co-cinematographer, Piotr Sobocinski, who died early last year. One could forgive its leads, Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon, if they were to forget they’re even in the movie; one could excuse the nation’s moviegoers for forgetting it has been released, since Trapped wasn’t screened for critics and thus has no advance reviews in its favor. This all screams “turkey,” yet Trapped is fairly decent for what it is — a high-strung contraption, or, as Bacon’s character describes the situation, “a machine that runs on fear.”

I assume one of the reasons for the film’s delay was to distance it as much as possible from Panic Room, another claustrophobic thriller whose tension depends on an asthmatic child under duress (Signs also cashed in on this sparkly new cliché; can we now retire it, please?). The wheezing toddler here is Abby Jennings (Dakota Fanning), who could hardly be cuter; she takes after her mom Karen (Theron), though she may have inherited some of her pixieish fragility from her dad Will, played by Stuart Townsend in another performance (after Queen of the Damned) that makes you thank God, or whoever’s responsible, that Townsend didn’t end up playing Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings as planned. Townsend looks like Hugh Jackman after several years of liquid dieting, yet here he’s supposed to be convincing as a brilliant doctor, a pilot, and a challenging foe for Courtney Love.

Ah. Yes. Courtney Love is in this, and I had my doubts about her gracing such a conventional thriller; such qualms were banished the first moment I saw her running her femme fatale number on the blinking Dr. Will, who simply wants to get back to his hotel room and isn’t prepared to confront Courtney Love, but then who is? Courtney, we soon learn, is in cahoots with Joe (Bacon) and Marvin (Pruitt Taylor Vince, he of the jiggly eyeballs); they have kidnapped four previous children with success and without harm done, and they plan to make Abby number five. The movie becomes a series of pair-offs: Joe holding Karen at her home, using every ounce of the patented Kevin Bacon oily menace to keep her on the agenda; Marvin watching cartoons at a cabin with Abby; and good old Courtney waving a big suppressed gun around or taking a bath, both of which seem to hold equal terror for the waifish Dr. Will.

I don’t mind admitting that the movie, for me, became about Courtney Love. That’s the effect she has; on screen as onstage or on disc, she insists on your attention whether you love her or loathe her (and you get the impression she doesn’t care which). Her finest moment here is absolutely immobile: Dr. Will gets the drop on her and injects her with some paralyzing (non-fatal) agent, and can you imagine Courtney Love required to stay completely still? I couldn’t either, and it’s not a pretty sight. We’re encouraged to see the kidnappers as a dark mirror image of Karen and Dr. Will, but for Stuart Townsend to compete with Kevin Bacon would mean bundling Bacon up in a laundry bag; and Charlize Theron can cringe and sob with the best of them, which would be impressive if she hadn’t done it to a fare-thee-well in Devil’s Advocate and The Astronaut’s Wife. Again, for what it is, Trapped is acceptably entertaining, but I very likely wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much without its wild card: For those who always wanted to see Courtney Love involved in a highway car chase featuring a plane and a lumber truck, this is your movie.

Ted Bundy

September 13, 2002

Can a movie succeed if the director has nothing but contempt for his subject? Matthew Bright’s Ted Bundy attempts to answer that question. Bright, who made the twisted gems Freeway and Trickbaby, is drawn to the tangled nightside of the psyche, so you’d figure he’d be the perfect go-to guy for a serial-killer biopic. Instead, Bright (who can blame him, really?) stands outside his misogynistic, sadistic rapist-murderer and finds him pathetic. It doesn’t make for terribly enlightening viewing, but maybe that’s the point.

I hope Michael Reilly Burke is in a very solid longtime relationship, because I have a hard time imagining anyone wanting to be with him after catching his act as Bundy. Following Bright’s merciless lead, Burke paints Bundy as a glowering, loathsome maggot who can only occasionally get it together to act “normal” around his clueless girlfriend and her little daughter. The movie has no fancy structure; it’s just Bundy isolating and killing one brainless woman after another, again and again, until he’s thrown in jail. Then he escapes and starts killing again. Then he’s thrown in jail again. Then he escapes again and starts killing again

It’s numbing, albeit not sensationalized. You certainly don’t identify with Bundy on the prowl, but the movie also has an unmistakable bewildered contempt for the many women — including his girlfriend — who fell for his act. Admittedly, we are seeing Bundy’s victims through modern-day eyes; his peak days as a serial killer were the mid-’70s, when young women were simply less cautious about whose car they got into (decades of media reportage on serial killers have made everyone more aware of the risks). But Bright, who has a deep love and respect for strong women (see his Freeway movies), seems to throw up his hands in exasperation at the fatal naivete of those doomed girls; at times he seems to infantilize them, as when two sorority girls are seen bouncing on their beds in their panties, moments before Bundy sneaks in with a log and caves their heads in. The only time the movie really comes alive is when one of Bundy’s would-be victims fights back viciously and gets away; you can feel Bright perking up and enjoying Bundy getting bashed around.

Ted Bundy ends on a rather sadistic note. It devotes a full ten or fifteen minutes to Bundy’s execution, and we get it all — the fear, the shaved head, the policemen wearing latex gloves (suddenly we’re in a BDSM cop-fetish porn movie), the Vaseline-coated cotton balls stuffed up the rectum so that Bundy won’t soil himself. Bright lingers over Bundy’s agony, and you may think, Well, good, he had it coming. Ted Bundy is one of the rare movies that spend 100 minutes with someone only to glory in his protracted death.

Bright has admitted that the movie shouldn’t be taken as literal fact. It’s an impression of the events, if you like. Did Bundy really carry a bagged corpse (with feet sticking out) to his car past a group of dog-walkers who didn’t even notice? Did his girlfriend really stay with him even after he forced her to play dead during sex while screaming obscenities at her? Was Bundy’s hooded executioner really a woman? Who knows?

It’s best to read Ted Bundy as Bright’s two-pronged assault on homicidal women-haters and those who glorify them; a hardline lesbian feminist filmmaker could not have made a more withering expression of disgust at misogynist pathology. At the very end, Bright gives us a Tiger Woods-like montage of little kids — including a little girl holding a dead cat! — reciting “I am Ted Bundy.” Well, what does that mean? That, however much we enjoyed seeing Bundy die, his evil didn’t die with him? That our culture is creating more Bundys every year? Again, who knows? Ted Bundy is certainly the least resolved — and for that reason, the most disturbing — true-life serial-killer movie since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (still the genre’s high-water mark). It’s also the least engaging.


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