Archive for May 1994

Stones and Coens

May 27, 1994

huds_Image3Consider, if you will, two long-awaited megabudget movies. One has $100 million worth of advertising behind it; the other doesn’t. One is a blockbuster; the other has all but Houdinied from theaters. One has built-in audience recognition; the other has a weird title that seems designed to keep people away. So of course I’m rooting for the underdog. The Hudsucker Proxy is the exact opposite of everything bad you may have read about it, so please see it, either in a theater (if possible) or on video. I don’t, on the other hand, care whether you see The Flintstones.

The Flintstones, which cost around $40 million and raked in $37 million in its first weekend, is fun but instantly forgettable. Hudsucker, which cost about the same as The Flintstones but has only made about $3 million (making it 1994’s most costly flop by far), is terrific. That’s right: Hudsucker the failure, Hudsucker the critics’ dartboard, is one of the year’s best movies, and I’ll say so in front of God and everyone. Of course, you didn’t see Hudsucker mugs at McDonald’s, did you?

The movies have other things in common besides their price tags. Both have elaborate sets; both feature an actor departing from his nice-guy image to play dirty (Kyle MacLachlan in The Flintstones, Paul Newman in Hudsucker); both were executive-produced by Hollywood hotshots known for throwing serious cash at pet projects (Joel Silver on Hudsucker, “Steven Spielrock” on The Flintstones). Most tellingly, both have the same basic plot: An anonymous company drone gets sucked into a scheme that makes him the fall guy for corporate shenanigans; success turns him into a stuck-up jerk until failure humbles him again. The difference is quality, which begins, as always, with the script. Three guys — director Joel Coen, producer Ethan Coen, and their buddy Sam Raimi, a zesty director in his own right (who, oddly enough, has cameos in both films) — wrote Hudsucker. A reported thirty-three writers toiled on The Flintstones. That round-table approach to scripting may work with sitcoms, but a feature film needs shape, not only a succession of gags.

Hudsucker, luckily, has both. From start to stop, it’s a goof, popping from the fevered-prankster brows of the Coens (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink) and Raimi (the Evil Dead trilogy). Many critics hate the Coens because their films play too many games — you boys stop this damned fooling around, or you’ll go to bed without supper! — and Hudsucker is, gloriously, no exception. The parting-of-the-ways sequence here is the double-stitch flashback, in which Paul Newman, literally dangling by the seat of his pants above a 45-story drop, tries to remember whether he specified stronger stitching in the seam of his trousers. Either you think this is funny or you think it’s stupid. Me, I say it’s a lot funnier than a bowling ball falling on Fred Flintstone’s head. The Coens should be applauded, not spanked, for their virtuoso playfulness.

To be fair, The Flintstones offers its own oddball incidental pleasures: Never again will we see Elizabeth Taylor and the B-52s in the same movie. Kyle MacLachlan, beloved for his Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks, gives a juicy performance as the corporate greedhead Cliff Vandercave, who plans to rebuild Bedrock and embezzle the profits. (As RoboCop and Darkman taught us, rich guys who brag about building the City of the Future are never to be trusted.) MacLachlan seems to be having a blast — with his Dudley Do-Right jaw, he’s a cartoon anyway — and Rosie O’Donnell, though she isn’t given much else to do with her character, at least nails Betty Rubble’s signature giggle. It’s probably perverse to criticize talented actors for not effectively duplicating Hanna-Barbera doodles, but Rick Moranis and Elizabeth Perkins ring no particular bells as Barney and Wilma. MacLachlan scores because he isn’t competing with childhood memories — he’s free to make Cliff Vandercave his own. Apart from him and the cheerful O’Donnell, who seems happy enough to pay homage to a cartoon she enjoyed as a girl, the actors seem rather sad and lost; the loincloths force indignity on them.

vlcsnap353994lx6It’s ironic that John Goodman (who did outstanding work in two Coen movies, Raising Arizona and Barton Fink) has finally found a starring role in a hit by submerging almost everything that sets him apart. He has been cast for his physique and hearty voice. Yet there’s something dark and restless in this actor — you see it on Roseanne, too — that resists being flattened into a two-dimensional clown in a movie for kids. Goodman does a competent Fred, but he’s been worrying in interviews whether he’ll now be typecast. If I were him, I’d worry: Apart from his consistent excellence on Roseanne, his best performances (True Stories, Matinee) have been largely unseen. If The Flintstones becomes his biggest success, it won’t be because he can now carry a movie; the franchise carries the movie. Goodman is a complex actor — a born character actor, really — and if he ends up playing Fred or quasi-Freds for the rest of his life, he has only himself to blame. He can always return to the Coens; it seems to have worked for Tim Robbins.

In Hudsucker, Robbins plays Norville Barnes, an idealistic, ambitious “farm boy” who becomes a patsy for the stockholders of toy manufacturer Hudsucker Industries. The movie is aggressively stylized and old-fashioned — every plot point has quotes around it — and Robbins strikes his performance from the Stewart-Capra mold. I’m not sure what I think of Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose tickertape turn as a hard-edged reporter is Katharine Hepburn by way of Howard Hawks. It is refreshing, though, to see her enjoying herself in a comedy and playing a relatively stable woman, and it’s a relief to see Robbins being goony again after his trilogy of jerks (The Player, Bob Roberts, Short Cuts). His enraptured expression as he unveils his new creation (“You know…for kids!”) is worth the ticket price by itself. Even when Hudsucker gets a tad goony itself — the climax is the textbook definition of deus ex machina — Robbins anchors the hijinks in reality.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between the movies is that one was directed by the guys who made Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, and the other was directed by Brian Levant, the guy who made Problem Child 2 and Beethoven. The Coens use their sets to suggest a prevailing mood — the chaos of the mailroom where Norville gets his start, the icy vastness of Newman’s office — while Levant just points a camera at his sets; he’s a tourist sightseeing in Bedrock. Neither film feels inhabited, but that’s the point of Hudsucker; Bedrock, which should feel like a community, doesn’t — and that hurts, because we’re supposed to care whether Cliff Vandercave razes Bedrock for his own gain. The Hudsucker Proxy is a witty, engaging variation on a theme (rise and fall of the little guy). The Flintstones is just a theme park. With, of course, a theme song.

Step on It: “Beverly Hills Cop III” and “Speed”

May 25, 1994

Following the Peter Principle, Beverly Hills Cop III rises to its level of incompetence in its first scene and stays there. Once again, we’re in Detroit, and maverick cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is staking out a ring of carjackers. Director John Landis, working for the third time with Murphy (after Trading Places and Coming to America), adds a touch that promises a return to the pop-fed wit that distinguished Landis’ Animal House. While Axel crouches outside the garage, mapping out a strategy with some other cops, a pair of rotund mechanics inside begin gyrating and lip-syncing to a Supremes oldie blaring from a tape deck. This sudden musical interlude has a wonderful randomness. But it leads nowhere: In a few minutes, the dancing duo will be machine-gunned to death.

Beverly Hills Cop III is a depressing, abhorrent spectacle — big-studio cynicism incarnate. Products like this roll out of Hollywood every summer, while filmmakers with something valid to say languish in obscurity. In the past, the shrewd barracudas of Tinseltown could put together a lowest-common-denominator package and still manage to come up with something entertaining. I honestly don’t know whom Cop III is meant for, except the executives at Paramount, who have watched their other franchises (the Indiana Jones series, the Star Trek series with the original crew, the Friday the 13th series) come to a close and want to revive the Axel tentpole. Why is Axel returning to Beverly Hills after seven years? The script, credited to Steven E. de Souza, puts Axel on the trail of a corrupt security mogul (Timothy Carhart) who operates a counterfeit ring out of the theme park Wonderworld — a bald swipe at Disneyworld, which has been parodied beyond death, as has the 90210 lifestyle. Axel is returning to Beverly Hills because Eddie Murphy and John Landis need a hit. Cop III is as soulless as they come.

Landis is a past master of contrast, as he showed in the horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London, and in that great elevator scene in The Blues Brothers — Landis kept cutting from the heroes standing in an elevator playing peaceful Muzak to an army of cops outside noisily preparing to nab them. In Beverly Hills Cop III, Landis tries to bounce between action and comedy, but he leans more heavily towards the action, which isn’t very well staged. When Axel, trapped in an amusement-park ride, leaps from one car to another to save a couple of kids, the scene has no snap, no tension, and obviously no plausibility. Landis is good at bashing vehicles together, but any of us could do the same given $60 million. He fails to do what Martin Brest, who directed the first Cop, did so deftly: contrast the streetwise Axel with the foppish pretentiousness of Beverly Hills. The only contrast Landis achieves here is explosion/one-liner/explosion.

Has Eddie Murphy completely lost his comic gifts? He’s occasionally amusing here, but he lets his big, horsey grin do too much of his work. Murphy played straight man to visiting lunatics Bronson Pinchot in Cop I and Gilbert Gottfried in Cop II; he seems to play straight man to everyone in Cop III. Where are the inspired ad-libs that made even the bloated Cop II bearable? Given the chance to score points off a pair of grim-faced Wonderworld security guards the way he did off a couple of cops in the original (“You’re not going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe?”), Axel just cracks a few lame jokes. Cop III does bring back Pinchot as Serge, gallery owner turned weapons dealer (huh?), but this time it’s a breeze for him to steal his scenes from Murphy. The star looks tired, demoralized, in it for the money. Murphy once swore never to make another Beverly Hills Cop movie and never to work with John Landis again. He should have kept both promises.

As if to show Landis and Murphy what a real piece of summer entertainment looks like, former cinematographer Jan De Bont (Die Hard, Basic Instinct) has made his directorial debut with Speed, a gleefully reckless and unabashedly “high concept” summer thriller. The plot? Mad bomber Dennis Hopper has placed an explosive on a Los Angeles bus. When the bus goes above 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If the bus then dips below 50, the bomb goes off. I would like to think that the first-time screenwriter, Graham Yost, lit a cigar and poured himself a cold beer after coming up with this idea; it’s so purely a Hollywood-summer-movie premise that it seems entirely fresh, and the surprise of the movie is that it doesn’t get bogged down in boring, needless subplots or flabby attempts at characterization. That bus, full of passengers, is on the streets and freeways of L.A., and it cannot stop. It must keep going and going, like an Energizer Bunny with a bomb inside the bass drum.

De Bont keeps pounding the drum for two hours; the movie never lets up. Crackerjack cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) manages to board the bus, and he spends most of the film figuring out how to keep the bus going, swerving around and bashing through all the obstacles that the bomber (and De Bont and Yost) leaves in his path. Along for the ride is Annie (Sandra Bullock), a passenger who has recently lost her driver’s license for speeding; naturally, she’s the one who has to take the wheel after the bus driver is put out of action, and Bullock (from last summer’s Demolition Man) takes the wheel of the movie, too. A warm and sane presence, she picks up the slack from her bulked-up co-star Keanu Reeves, who, in his first turn as an action hero, is plausible enough but a bit callow. As for Hopper, he spends most of his screen time in his ratty apartment monitoring the action, but he makes his presence felt throughout the movie — he’s like a psychotic Zeus testing the mettle of Hercules, and this film gives its Hercules far more than twelve labors. I’m sure that Speed, like Die Hard, will be often imitated, never duplicated. It devotes itself to the moment-to-moment ingenuity necessary to keep that bus going, and the movie rockets right along with it. On its own lowbrow terms, Speed is a triumph — a technical exercise so relentless, yet also so light of foot and heart, that it comes close to the summer-movie version of art.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

May 20, 1994

Some of the most critically despised movies of recent years — Walker, The Dark Backward, Shakes the Clown, and several others you’ve never seen because the reviews scared you away from them — have been guilty favorites of mine. So when Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues opened to near-unanimous loathing, I had high hopes. Van Sant’s previous two movies, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, were oddball but terrific; maybe the critics just weren’t getting this one. For about half an hour, I was feeling pretty smug: The movie was entertaining, it looked great, and it was shaping up to be one of those films nobody likes except me. (That there were only three other people in the theater intensified my smugness.)

At about the 45-minute mark, though, I started checking my watch, which suddenly seemed frozen in limbo. Despite a promising start, Cowgirls is one of the most boring movies of all time, a ridiculous stew of mysticism, flat satire, and whimsy. Essentially, it’s a Warhol film played almost straight, with prancing queens, killer lesbians assaulting their foes with feminine body odor — all handled without irony. At least John Waters would have milked this material for all the rude humor it was worth. Van Sant, whose accepting, democratic style served him well in his earlier films, pays reverence to characters he should be scoffing at. By the time an old desert sage was saying “The earth is alive,” I was praying for Denis Leary to burst in and deflate the movie’s hippie-dippiness with a few verbal pinpricks.

Cowgirls is based on the cult novel by Tom Robbins, who narrates the movie; I haven’t read it, but it has to be better than Van Sant’s adaptation. Cissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman) is born with abnormally large thumbs, which help her to become the best hitchhiker ever. She gets involved with various weirdos, including a revolutionary group of cowgirls who have branched off from a fat-farm ranch and dedicated themselves to saving the whooping crane. This sounds bizarre enough to be engaging, if handled well, but the movie dies at about the same time the story develops some tension — should Cissy hit the road again or stay with her new love, Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix)? Again and again, Van Sant short-circuits the narrative with endless scenes of people discussing visions and destiny — the sort of conversation you hear at parties where the smell of weed hangs heavy in the air. I can’t remember the last time I was so grateful to see the end credits.

Van Sant is a respected filmmaker, so he lured lots of hip actors to contribute mostly meaningless cameos. Roseanne Arnold gets a few lines as a palm reader, Keanu Reeves appears as an asthmatic, John Hurt vamps his way through the fairly offensive role of “the Countess,” and many other performers (Lorraine Bracco, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Buck Henry, Udo Kier, Angie Dickinson, Grace Zabriskie, Crispin Glover, Ed Begley Jr., Carol Kane) get chances to look foolish. What can you say about a movie in which Sean Young gives the best performance? About the only thing Cowgirls has going for it is k.d. lang’s mesmerizing, plaintive score, which was available in stores for months before the film’s release while Van Sant tinkered with the movie in a bootless attempt to make it watchable. Thanks to k.d., at least it’s listenable.

The Crow

May 11, 1994

The Crow would be morbid and sepulchral even if Brandon Lee had survived the making of it. Without the ugly novelty of the fact that Lee died on the set, filming a routine gunplay scene that has been accomplished in hundreds of movies without fatal incident, I’m not proud to admit that I wouldn’t have bothered with it. Yet the on-set tragedy feeds into what the film wants to be about. Stylistically akin to Highlander and dozens of tedious direct-to-video movies, thematically identical to such pop standards as Batman, Darkman, Swamp Thing, and all the others that invite us to applaud a loner’s revenge on the scum who took everything away from him, this is every inch a comic-book movie. Hardly a shock, since it’s based on a comic book. And like a lot of superhero comics of the ’90s, The Crow is angry, anguished, saturnine, “complex” — in a word, pretentious. There’s much babble about memory, about transcendence of death. Some may view the movie itself as proof of that: Brandon lives on — here he is, in his final performance. Yet too much of The Crow gets off on death for it to be a celebration of immortality.

Lee plays Eric Draven, a guitarist who dies at the hands of a pack of vicious thugs, who also rape and murder his fiancée. (Lee himself was set to marry his own fiancée; he died two weeks before the scheduled wedding.) A year later, Eric claws his way out of the grave, not much the worse for wear, and hunts down his killers. That’s essentially the movie, though screenwriters David J. Schow and John Shirley, adapting James O’Barr’s cult comic, give Eric some buddies: a sympathetic cop (Ernie Hudson), a tough, skateboarding little girl (Rochelle Davis), and a crow that sometimes serves as Eric’s eyes (and sometimes snacks on his enemies’ eyes). But ultimately Eric is alone in his annihilating fury of grief. Given the number of tormented flashbacks to the fiancée’s agonized death, The Crow seems to aspire to be a meditation on despair in the wake of a violent act. But Rambo had flashbacks, too.

Co-scripter David Schow is the brightest light in the horror-fan magazine Fangoria, for which he writes a column that often focuses on his adventures among the real-life ghouls and vampires at the Hollywood studios. Much of his graveyard wit is detectable in the dialogue of the lead villain, Top Dollar (Michael Wincott). “Die already,” Top Dollar sneers at a man he’s just impaled. Schow, however, isn’t overly interested in the redemptive aspects of the material, the theme of a hero rising from the ashes. Nor does ambiguity detain him. We should sense that Eric’s revenge deforms whatever humanity he has left. But that’s not what the young audience responds to. For all its high-flown visuals and metaphysics, The Crow has a most basic, crude appeal: It sets up repulsive bad guys and prompts us to cheer when Eric slashes them down. It’s Death Wish for Clive Barker fans. The movie’s bitter vengefulness burns away any spiritual core it could ever claim to have.

The Crow‘s twisted roots grow in real agony. James O’Barr wrote and drew the comic, he says, to exorcise the rage and pain that nearly engulfed him after his fiancée was killed. A genuine wounded heart beats under the surface of hip nihilism, and Brandon Lee does his best to locate it. Would his performance be as moving without all the irony attached? I tried to forget, but death is stubbornly integral to the movie. Let’s say that Lee has perfectly fine moments; he gives Eric a human soul, particularly when he’s enjoying the terror he strikes in the hearts of evildoers. But the role is too sketchy for Lee to do anything truly startling with it. We know almost nothing about Eric or his fiancée; if we blink, we miss the reason that she was targeted for a hit. The Crow, I’m afraid, shows only the first small flexing of acting muscle. The real irony is that Lee will never do better than this, and he might well have.

As for the much-touted directorial “style” and “dark vision,” it gave me a headache. Alex Proyas, a veteran of rock videos, can’t get enough of murk, flashy editing, grating industrial music. Proyas is trying to create a specific, alien cityscape that advances, visually, the theme of the story. What rookies like Proyas forget about movies like Batman, Blade Runner, and Brazil is that they take time to invite you in; the camera caresses the design, gives you some bearings. Visually, The Crow is jumpy and off-putting right from the start, and we’ve seen much of it before anyway. (There is one satisfying image: Eric puts a flame to an outline of gasoline, which ignites and forms a fiery crow.) Proyas recruits great, oily character actors like Jon Polito and David Patrick Kelly, but the editing fractures their performances.

Despite our heart-of-stone reputations, we reviewers can be a sentimental lot, and our impulse is to go easy on a posthumous movie like The Crow — to applaud the filmmakers for having completed production (though there’s a necrophilic ickiness about it, no matter how many cast and crew members insist that Lee would have wanted filming to continue), and to attest that the late star’s final appearance is a worthy swan song. In this case, we also recognize the poignance of a visual record of the renewal of a career aborted by fate. Lee had made several other films, mostly chop-socky junk in the tradition of his father, Bruce Lee; The Crow was going to be his break-out role. The ironies create a dark membrane between us and what’s actually on the screen.

Some critics may buy into the movie’s bleak mystique, or it may just be wishful thinking. But I doubt that anyone would be raving about The Crow, or flocking to see it, if its star were still alive to promote it on Letterman. The movie is simply more of the same gritty superhero nonsense that appeals to depressed 15-year-old boys. And it’s not done all that well, either. The feelings of loss and rage just lead to action scenes, which are wash-outs. The movie’s true source of pain, clearly, is what happened to Brandon Lee on the morning of March 31, 1993. That’s what critics are grabbing at to insist that his last film is something special. There was more genuine horror and rage in Robin Williams’ trembling, heartsick performance on TV’s Homicide some months back — he played a tourist whose wife was shot dead right in front of him — than in all of The Crow.