Archive for April 2003

Identity

April 25, 2003

identity-2003-13Full disclosure: I have little patience with thrillers that play with you for its own superior sake, leading up to a big twist ending designed to make you feel like a sap. Unless it’s done in fun (Brian De Palma’s specialty) or driving at something larger than simply the filmmakers’ dominion over a gullible audience, what’s the point? You’ve just spent a chunk of the day being manipulated for nothing. The rain-swept, brooding, violent thriller Identity is one such elaborately crafted necklace of nothing. The characters are not people; they’re not even pawns. They’re just pieces of the puzzle.

Fate, or Michael Cooney’s contrived screenplay, brings together ten pieces — er, people — on a dark and stormy night: limo driver Ed (John Cusack) and his movie-star employer Caroline (Rebecca DeMornay); detective Rhodes (Ray Liotta) and a vicious killer he’s transporting (Jake Busey); an unhappily and recently married young couple (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott); a star-crossed family of three (stepdad John C. McGinley, mom Leila Kenzle, and little son Bret Loehr); and Larry (John Hawkes), manager of the remote motel everyone converges on. The roads are flooded, the phone lines are out, and people start to die. Something nasty is found in a clothes dryer; one character is permanently silenced with a baseball bat; and so on. Identity is a guess-what’s-real slasher movie with high secretive overtones. There’s more to what we’re seeing than we’re seeing.

The question is whether we care about seeing the Big Truth. Every now and then, we move away from the body count at the motel and sit in on a hearing concerning a condemned prisoner. Is this the Busey character, or someone else? This is a very short movie, so it’s obvious to anyone who’s seen a movie before that there’s something fishy about this hearing, which appears to be taking place on the same dark stormy night. In such thrillers, any apparently pointless scene is really there for a reason — maybe the Big Reason.

A good cast is enacting this fancy rubbish; what drew them to the material besides its self-conscious cleverness is beyond me, since they rarely get to push the tight envelope they’re stuffed into. Cusack, as always, exudes an aura of intelligent decency, which of course sets you up to think he might be the mysterious killer (especially after he talks about his history of blackouts). Most of the other characters pretty much are what they appear to be, though each has his or her secrets and shames. Mainly, the rigid control of the screenwriter rules the day. There was probably precious little improv on the set, and few discussions of character depth, since everyone is no more or less than what the script requires.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of Identity is its director. James Mangold has done a dour indie drama (Heavy), a convoluted cop drama (Cop Land), a sensitive female ensemble piece (Girl, Interrupted), and a cross-century romance (Kate & Leopold). Now this. If we try hard enough to find a thematic link in Mangold’s work, it would appear to be the onion-like layers of delusion and deception hiding our true selves from other people and from ourselves. Identity, I guess, fits into that, but it’s a pretty crude and obvious reiteration of his theme. If you want to get to the bottom of your characters’ identities, it helps if they have identities first.

A Decade Under the Influence

April 25, 2003

Were the 1970s a golden era in movies? Many would argue so, but one wonders if the ’70s-fetishists remember that the same decade that gave us Taxi Driver and The Godfather also gave us Love Story and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In any event, it’s easy to agree that the particular dovetailing of social revolution and the influence of foreign films led to a renaissance in counterculture film, generally acknowledged to span from 1967 (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde) to, let’s say, November 19, 1980, when Michael Cimino’s disastrous, budget-busting Heaven’s Gate premiered, sinking not only a studio but an entire film movement.

The topic has been covered before, most notably in Peter Biskind’s excellent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (which itself spawned a documentary). But A Decade Under the Influence, a collaboration between filmmakers Ted Demme (Blow) and Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud) — the latter finished the project after the former died in January 2002 — is unabashedly a tribute, not reportage. The movie is a valentine from one generation of directors to another; among the off-camera interviewers here are Alexander Payne (Election) and Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), who may be as starstruck to be sitting down with such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese as we would be.

The movie, organized into three sections (and lengthened by about half an hour for home video), carries a humble disclaimer at the end apologizing for the directors who had to be left out. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are two of the more glaring omissions, though their respective hits Jaws and Star Wars, and the impact they had on American movies, are discussed. Michael Cimino is referenced, but a no-show. Woody Allen apparently didn’t want to sit for the camera either, though his erstwhile writing partner Marshall Brickman did. British directors who made popular American films, such as Alan Parker and Ridley Scott, are ignored, though John Schlesinger is mentioned regarding Midnight Cowboy, though perhaps only because Jon Voight was available for an interview. Also, except for The Exorcist, the just-as-groundbreaking horror movies of the ’70s are forgotten about (though there’s always Adam Simon’s insightful 2000 documentary The American Nightmare to pick up the slack). And why didn’t Ted Demme ring up his director uncle Jonathan for an interview? While not as visible or influential in the ’70s as some of the others here, the senior Demme did get his start early in the decade with Roger Corman (as did Scorsese, Coppola, and Bogdanovich), and he made at least one acclaimed film during the ’70s, Citizens Band. Why a second-string director like Monte Hellman (presumably featured because he made two Jack Nicholson movies) is here and Jonathan Demme isn’t baffles me somewhat.

The people who are here, though, consistently fascinate. The former hotshot directors now sound rather humble. For a while, nobody was hotter than Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) and William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist), and their success, according to Biskind’s book, turned them into egomaniacal monsters; these days they function almost as cautionary elder statesmen. The documentary, unlike Biskind’s book, gives less attention to hubris and lessons learned than to the contagious experimentation of the era. Studios had no idea what worked any more, so for a while, any director with an inexpensive hit under his belt had the keys to the kingdom and a blank check to pursue any project, however uncommercial. It ultimately led to Scorsese’s New York, New York, Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, Spielberg’s 1941, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Regardless of the individual quality of these films — I actually think some of them are quite good, and Apocalypse Now is some kind of hallucinatory masterpiece — they were considered either financial flops or big risks that didn’t bring in a payoff commensurate with their costs.

Demme and LaGravenese are just as happy to let the directors bask in their past glories and reminisce about those crazy days. Some actors appear here as well; Roy Scheider weighs in on behalf of The French Connection and Jaws, Bruce Dern is typically intense and surprisingly funny (he does a sharp Jack Nicholson impression), Ellen Burstyn and Sissy Spacek make us yearn for the time when women like them were top box-office draws. Julie Christie seems to get a little too much screen time; I would rather have heard more from Pam Grier, and indeed, this documentary is very white, skimming lightly over the blaxploitation period and ignoring the emergence of black stars like Richard Pryor. (In the filmmakers’ defense, LaGravenese has said that they would’ve loved to have included more black filmmakers, like Melvin Van Peebles, but simply couldn’t get them.)

Unless you were alive back then and seeing every movie, A Decade Under the Influence will likely make you jot down some titles you’d like to get acquainted with. I’d seen John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, but clips from his earlier Faces and Shadows made me want to look those up. My curiosity was likewise piqued by footage from Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens and Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Other clips from movies I saw years ago, like Coppola’s The Conversation and Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, made me want to watch the whole things again. On a basic level, the film is both a scrapbook and a primer of ’70s movies, and should intrigue and guide the uninitiated.

The irony of the film is that its title is a triple reference: to Cassavetes’ classic, to the influence of foreign directors like Godard and Truffaut, but also to the influence of drugs. It’s been acknowledged that Ted Demme’s untimely death may have been cocaine-related, and maybe his friend and collaborator didn’t want to make drugs look cool by suggesting that some of the masters who made the classics under discussion here (like Scorsese, a major cokehead back in the day) couldn’t have been such energetic and bold directors without controlled substances. Biskind’s book gives the devil his due; the film shies away from the rampant, casual drug use that was as much a part of the milieu as sideburns and polyester. Still, as an affectionate document, and a chance to see some of the wizened warhorses reflecting on excesses and failures, this candy goes down easy.

House of 1000 Corpses

April 11, 2003

How much you enjoy Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses depends on your tolerance for grubby ’70s grindhouse horror. Sure you’ve seen Halloween, but what about Mother’s Day? You might’ve caught Last House on the Left, but how about Last House on Dead End Street? And you may have seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but you can’t call yourself a die-hard horror freak unless you’ve also seen Slumber Party Massacre. If your reaction to any of these lesser-known titles is a blank stare, you’d better skip Zombie’s long-delayed homage to the gritty and the nasty; he made it for horror fans like himself, which may not include you.

I can applaud House of 1000 Corpses on at least one level: The movie has absolutely no interest whatsoever in sanitized horror. Rob Zombie wallows quite comfortably in squalor, doling out mutilation, gore, sweaty close-ups, bad teeth, bad skin, fetid-looking clutter everywhere. Even the four college students — two male, two female, by the book — whose agony provides most of the fuel for the plot motor are not empty UPN/WB clones. Zombie has made a conscious and, yes, loving throwback to nuclear-family geek shows like Chainsaw, Mother’s Day, and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. If it doesn’t sound original, well, it isn’t. Zombie never designed this to be the new fresh thing in horror; he simply wants to blow away all the shiny teen crap that passes for horror nowadays and cover the audience in grime, spit, intestines. He even sets the film on the night before Halloween 1977 (and uses the Ramones to fine effect on the soundtrack).

The four college kids are on a cross-country trip, documenting various offbeat out-of-the-way attractions. They stop for gas at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen (which doubles as a convenience store and fried-chicken joint), whose eponymous owner (Sid Haig) gives them the “Murder Ride” showcasing various psychos, including the local Dr. Satan, who mutilated patients at a mental institution and was hanged. The kids want to go see the hanging tree, which happens to be right near a dilapidated house near a cemetery. A comely hitcher they pick up, named Baby (Sheri Moon), lives there and takes the kids home with her to meet the family. That includes the voluptuous Mother Firefly (Karen Black), the disfigured Tiny (Matthew McGrory), and the vicious Otis (Bill Moseley).

Much gnarly sadism ensues. Structurally, House of 1000 Corpses is like Texas Chainsaw Massacre with no hope of escape at the end. Zombie and his team of cinematographers (there were two) and editors (three) keep the grainy flash-cut imagery popping, like Natural Born Killers directed by Roger Watkins. The story is stolen wholesale from Chainsaw, which I consider the greatest American horror movie, yet I wasn’t offended; Zombie has made a movie that shows he loves Chainsaw as much as I do. What he hasn’t done, unavoidably, is to touch the genuine pain and stench of Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece. Zombie goes as far as anyone has ever gone to reproduce Chainsaw‘s aggro power, but it’s still a reproduction.

That said, House of 1000 Corpses is nowhere near as bad as you may have gathered from its largely negative web reviews and its kiss-of-death history (original distributor Universal dumped it in bewildered disgust; Lions Gate rescued it and finally unleashed it in just 595 theaters in April, when it should’ve had a beefy Halloween release). This movie was never going to save the horror genre single-handedly, but it probably deserves a place on your shelf (once the uncut version emerges on DVD) next to Basket Case, Motel Hell, and all those other indefensible gorefests you rarely admit to seeing, much less owning. The fun thing about the movie is that Rob Zombie seems to have made it to put it on his shelf alongside the same stuff.

Anger Management

April 11, 2003

Jack Nicholson as Adam Sandler’s therapist — what a coup for Sony’s marketing division. The concept sells itself, and handily bought itself a number-one opening weekend. Anger Management looks like a comedy classic in its trailer, but the trailer is only about three minutes long. That’s about how long it takes for the movie itself to make you say, “Okay, we get it. Fun concept. Are you going to do anything interesting with it?” Sadly, no.

Some say that rage fuels comedy, and Adam Sandler has built his castle on his passive-aggressive persona (emphasis on aggressive). He specializes in the sad-sack regular guy with reserves of fury, which eventually bursts out and, more often than not, works to his benefit (as in his sports movies Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy). Many scenes in Sandler’s films are just marking time until the moment where he loses it. (For his other trick, he has a Gen-X shrug in response to things that baffle him, as in his many “O-kaaaay, psycho man” asides to Nicholson here.) In Anger Management, though, Sandler is cast too snugly in the role of executive whipping boy Dave Buznik, who devised the idea of clothes for rotund cats and privately seethes with resentment that his boss took credit for his brainstorm. This sort of plot worked better when Sandler was an underdog slob, not a stressed-out company man.

Nicholson, as radical therapist Dr. Buddy Rydell, swoops into the picture on fiery Balrog wings and gleefully torments Dave, hoping to free up some of Dave’s repressed anger and then teach him how to process it more fruitfully. Most of the ensuing hijinks, you’ve seen in the trailer; this is one movie whose premise was solid enough, marketing-wise, that it could’ve gotten by with a short teaser trailer that didn’t spoil almost every joke in the movie. Nicholson, too, isn’t exactly cast against type here. Once you’ve understood the dynamic between befuddled Dave and wacky Dr. Buddy — and it takes no great insight to do so — you’ve understood pretty much everything to follow.

Sandler’s movies do tend to attract appreciative buddies, making the films play at times like half-organized parties. John Turturro shows up as one of the loose cannons in Dave’s anger-management support group and gets most of the honest laughs in the movie. Krista Allen and January Jones are amusing as lesbian porn stars, whose presence in a restaurant leads to the film’s best throwaway gag. Woody Harrelson drops by as a German she-male hooker named Galaxia — no, you’re not on drugs; you did indeed just read that sentence. There are the usual cameos, including a New York celebrity who gets to deliver Rob Schneider’s “You can do eet!” bit seen in various Sandler films.

Do we really need a fable about corporate guys getting in touch with their inner brats? Adam Sandler, who turned 37 the year this was released, is getting a little old for roughhousing with Buddhist monks and jokes about penis size. Punch-Drunk Love was supposed to steer him toward a more mature packaging of his persona, but failed because Paul Thomas Anderson believed there was nothing wrong with Sandler’s character that the right woman couldn’t fix. Anger Management arrives at the same disheartening (and dubious) conclusion, adding Jack Nicholson for good measure. As structured, the movie is a narcissist’s dream: everyone — literally, the entire crowd at Yankee Stadium — rises up and gives Dave props for defeating a (silly) childhood demon. Anger Management is a movie for those who think they deserve applause for not being assholes.

Phone Booth

April 4, 2003

phonebooth-movie-review3I happened to see Phone Booth on Roger Corman’s 77th birthday, and chances are that the old B-movie skinflint would heartily approve of the movie. Corman, of course, is the guy who shot an entire film — Little Shop of Horrors — in just over two days; the director of Phone Booth, Joel Schumacher, brought his movie home in ten days and brings it in at a snappy 81 minutes. I doubt Corman would’ve spent as much money on extras playing cops (he would’ve had about twelve cops, and hired Dick Miller to play eight of them), but we can’t have everything.

File the following under Things I Never Dreamed I’d Say: I had a fine time with this movie directed by Joel Schumacher. This formerly glitz-addicted and hype-addled filmmaker (the two worst Batman movies, A Time to Kill, etc.) has been gesturing towards smaller, grittier fare of late; 8mm (1999) repulsed me so much I skipped his next two, Tigerland and Flawless, which seemed like honest enough attempts at something different, though Schumacher had to go and make Bad Company to prove to the studios that he still had a knack for big stupidness. Phone Booth is a Joel Schumacher movie for those who don’t like Joel Schumacher movies. It’s no classic, and any ten directors in thriller-movie history could’ve tightened the screws more elegantly and maliciously, but Schumacher at least tells the story fast and hard. He serves the story.

And that story — by Larry Cohen, veteran of many gimmicky yet amusing B-movie scripts (It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q) — is essentially one long conversation (it could easily be adapted to the stage). Suave New York publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is trapped in a city phone booth by a moralizing sniper (Kiefer Sutherland, sounding richly entertained throughout) who wants Stu to fess up to his various crimes of dishonesty. Stu, married to comely shop owner Kelly (Radha Mitchell), has been pursuing a flirtation with aspiring actress Pam (Katie Holmes), calling her every day from this very phone booth. The phone rings, Stu picks up, and the game begins.

Soon, someone is shot, Stu is blamed, the cops (led by Forest Whitaker in the Die Hard role of the rotund, sensible black officer on whose intelligence the hero’s life rests) get involved, and Stu, commanded by the sniper not to leave the booth or spill the beans, is caught in a standoff. Like Dennis Hopper in Speed, the psycho in Phone Booth has thought of everything. He doesn’t just want to kill Stu; he wants to force Stu, in a kind of brute intervention, to lay bare his soul and strip away the layers of lies that insulate him. After a while, Stu is sort of wishing the psycho would just kill him.

Schumacher discovered Colin Farrell on Tigerland, and he places this movie fully in Farrell’s care. Farrell has been groomed as the next big thing, but he doesn’t really need grooming, and Schumacher knows it; Stu’s connection to the audience grows stronger the grubbier and more desperate he gets. And there’s an added edge to the casting: with most A-list stars, the story would be hampered by the audience’s awareness that nobody could possibly think that, say, Tom Cruise would shoot someone. But what Colin Farrell has to sell is his bad-boy image, his amiable-regular-drinking-guy persona (last seen in the young Mel Gibson) with a pocket of craziness underneath. On television monitors during the standoff, Farrell’s Stu looks like the kind of guy you’d see on live TV coverage. He’s plausible as both a hero and a suspect, a tricky balancing act. If Phone Booth is a hit — surely the first Joel Schumacher film that deserves to score — credit will go less to Schumacher than to the actor whose meltdown he photographs without fuss.


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