Archive for November 1994

Star Trek: Generations

November 18, 1994

star-trek-the-next-generation-motion-picture-collection-20091002115117853-000It’s been said of the Star Trek movies that you can determine their quality by the number in the title. All the best ones are even-numbered: Star Trek II was the highlight of the series, IV was goofy and likable, and VI was a fine adios to the crew of the old Enterprise. And all the odd-numbered ones — the bloated premiere voyage, dubbed by many Star Trek: The Motionless PictureIII, in which Spock returned from the dead, Kirk’s son joined the dead, and nobody cared; and V, which offered the ghastly spectacle of William Shatner directing himself — well, they all sucked. So where does that leave the numberless Star Trek Generations? Is this actually Star Trek VII? Or is it meant to be Star Trek Volume II: The Picard Years? There hasn’t been this much confusion among those of us who actually keep track of these things since The Empire Strikes Back came out and was called Episode V. Oy.

Well, not to worry. The new Star Trek film isn’t nearly as numbing as the 1979 movie that ushered the previous crew to the big screen; it’s lean and purposeful. But neither is it a particularly compelling demonstration of why there should be more movies with this crew. Not being a Next Generation fan (I’ve seen it a couple of times), I hoped the movie would tell me why the TV series gained a rabid cult. Here, 18 years after the cancellation of the dear departed original series, was this pretender to the throne, with new people on the Enterprise (sacrilege!), among them a Klingon (blasphemy!). Has there ever been a TV show with more potential ill will going against it? Yet Next Generation outran the original series, and some dared say it was even an improvement — more thoughtful and complex. I have no special feelings about Trek in general, and I think people who memorize Klingon conjugations and carry on vituperative debates over which episode is the best are hopelessly twerpy. But I rooted for Generations to be good. The Trek movies are comfortably familiar; you can count on them to be either terrible or better than you expected. It’s no fun when they’re just sort of competent and not-bad.

Generations has a headache-inducing plot that I’d just as soon not go into. The gist of it is that the evil Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell in a fluffy white brush-cut) has found something called the Nexus, a “ribbon” in space where “time has no meaning.” Tap into it, and you get to spend eternity in your own private paradise. Unfortunately, the only way Soran can access it is to blow up a star (destroying a planet inhabited by some 250 million people), which will alter the course of the Nexus so that it swings by and scoops him up. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), captain of the Enterprise, disapproves of this plan. To stop Soran, Picard must cross into the Nexus and find Kirk (Shatner), who was swept into the Nexus when the Enterprise entered it 78 years ago …. I’m starting to feel the throbbing behind my left eye.

The hard sell of the movie — an unnecessary hard sell, given any Trek film’s built-in audience — is the historic meeting of the two captains. Yet they don’t do anything together that Picard couldn’t have accomplished with Data or Worf. We’re meant to sit there and think, “How neat — look at the two of them on their horses,” the way comic-book fans are tickled when Superman teams up with Batman. You also get the feeling that Paramount didn’t trust the Next Generation crew to draw the crossover audience by themselves — Kirk was needed as a link to the familiar Trek. And he’s not the only link. The script schleps out Scotty (James Doohan, failing to hide his contempt for Shatner) and Chekov (Walter Koenig), and introduces Sulu’s daughter; Generations is too stuck in the past to look to the future. Kirk gets to die heroically not once but twice; even Spock didn’t get that honor. (Spock is absent here, and he’s missed.)

Generations, I bet, will come to be regarded as a transitional movie — a shaky passing of the torch. Some of it is fun, though. Malcolm McDowell, whose Caligula embarrassment had seemingly doomed him to direct-to-video schlock, comes through with an icy, malicious performance that recalls his glory days in A Clockwork Orange; the real team-up excitement for me was seeing Alex the droog versus Kirk the gasbag — the collision of two very different kinds of sci-fi icons. As written, though, Soran is lame and easily the most confusing villain of any of the movies. I wanted to see what Soran’s Nexus paradise looked like, for example; Kirk’s and Picard’s are idyllic — Soran’s dream world might have been a psychotic fantasia out of William S. Burroughs. I wanted more of the wonderfully bitchy Klingon women in cahoots with Soran. They’re hysterically nasty, like rude biker chicks in a Mad Max movie, and they show more humanity than most of the women aboard the Enterprise. The character development everyone’s talking about (Trekkies either love it or hate it) occurs when Data (Brent Spiner), the stoic android, inserts an “emotion chip” and goes completely goofy. But that’s about it for innovation.

The opening scenes are a fair indication of where the movie goes wrong, though there’s some humor in Kirk’s pained expression as he watches the Enterprise’s callow new captain (Alan Ruck) occupy the legendary chair on the bridge. When this rookie loses control, Kirk expertly takes over. There’s never a moment in Generations when Picard shows comparable authority (he seemed plenty authoritative on TV); mostly he just mourns his dead brother and nephew — the boy who had become the son Picard never had. How sad. How dull. Where is this man’s much-hyped intellect? Everyone else does his thinking for him.

Sure, some of Data’s antics were funny, but for me the biggest laugh in the movie was a title reading “78 years later,” which you don’t see in every movie. That goes to show how much screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga have to stretch to get to the hard sell — to get Kirk and Picard together somehow. It all seems rather gimmicky. Nicholas Meyer, who directed the two best Treks (II andVI) as well as the time-travel fantasy Time After Time (in which H.G. Wells, played by McDowell, faced off against Jack the Ripper), could have goosed some wit out of the tired legend-meets-legend premise. He might have had the newly irreverent Data (who’s accustomed to the cue-ball Picard) say upon meeting Kirk, “Hey, nice rug.” Or he might have digitally inserted Shatner into footage from the old Star Trek show; somehow we know that would be his true dream world. But Generations is helmed by David Carson, a dutiful captain who takes you somewhere, but not too far. Nobody even utters the immortal, ungrammatical line “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Maybe because we have gone here before.

The Professional (Leon)

November 18, 1994

leon_the_professional_jean_reno_movie_stills-HDAmerican critics have been unkind to the young French director Luc Besson (he’s still only 35, and he made his debut in 1983), who had a crossover hit four years ago with La Femme Nikita. A blockbuster overseas and an art-house hit here, it met with some snobbery (Terrence Rafferty’s entire review was this: “The end of French cinema as we know it”), and the American remake, Point of No Return, was similarly slammed. Have reviewers gotten so jaded, so reflexive in their disdain for any action movie, that they can’t distinguish stylish, smartly-paced action from the latest dud based on a video game? Besson has now directed his first American film, The Professional, and while it’s not great (Quentin Tarantino has forever spoiled us for movies about hit-men), it’s hardly as offensive as many critics are saying.

The Professional is high-concept in a way that made me cringe whenever I saw ads for it: Assassin Leon (Jean Reno) takes orphaned 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) under his wing after slimy DEA thugs (led by Gary Oldman) murder her family. Twenty-five words or less. And the plot motor has whiskers; we know that Leon will learn to love and Mathilda will learn self-reliance. But the movie is cool about its subject. Besson likes to see what happens to killers-for-hire when domesticity is imposed on them — Nikita endured charm school and almost became a housewife, and Leon is forced into a father-mentor role. Besson still hasn’t taken full wing with this theme, the way John Huston did in Prizzi’s Honor, but that was a comedy and Besson isn’t a comedian. He’s a brutal sensualist of the Walter Hill/John Woo school. Some of the sequences, such as an army of cops converging on Leon (in a faux-Scarface climax), are so hyperbolic they’re funny; they’re a relief from the artificial tension of the story, which rarely makes sense. An early image of sunlight slicing through bullet holes in a wall might be Besson’s way of one-upping Blood Simple; Besson makes smoother American junk movies than most Americans do these days.

Overall, the movie is better than I’d anticipated. Given the sticky premise, it shouldn’t work, but Besson believes in it — either that or he believes in the big action scenes made possible by the premise (which amounts to the same thing). There’s conviction in this movie, and intelligence. It’s square, but not in the overstuffed way that StarGate is square. After all, what is Leon (who’s simple at heart and illiterate) but a heavily armed Forrest Gump? Jean Reno consistently underplays Leon, and he has a great long face that fascinates the camera; he’s like a scrawny Stallone, whom he often resembles vocally as well — he has some of Stallone’s pre-’80s sweetness, before Sly’s spirit got as hard as his body. (Reno is most appealing when he’s entranced by an old Gene Kelly movie — he has the rapt expression of a boy watching his first Disney.) This soft-spoken but kinetic actor is a worthy vehicle for what appears to be Besson’s new chosen theme (the headaches of an assassin), but unlike Nikita, he has no anger; that’s reserved for Mathilda.

Probably thanks to Natalie Portman, whose film debut this is, Mathilda doesn’t come across as a baby Nikita. She has more cause to be vicious and enraged than the nihilistic Nikita did, but she just wants justice — though the Besson twist is that she wants revenge for the death of her little brother, not for the murders of her moronic father, stepmother, and stepsister. (The four-year-old boy’s fate is about the only death Besson spares us.) Besson doesn’t overdraw on her cuteness, though he is a little too stuck on Mathilda’s romantic yearnings and alienation. As written, Mathilda is usually unreadable and sometimes idiotic (she marches into the DEA offices with a variety of hidden guns — does she seriously believe she could assassinate the villain and get away clean?), but Portman somehow makes us understand Mathilda’s eagerness to enter the same violent life that killed her brother. She’s like the boy in Time Bandits: Life gets scarier and more exciting when an outlaw enters the picture.

The Professional keeps going on the power of its performances, but one actor threatens to bring everything crashing down. Is it my imagination, or has Gary Oldman started to gobble bad ‘shrooms before each take? He was pretty funny as the corrupt, wired sap in last year’s Romeo Is Bleeding, but that same oily intensity is used here to try to send shivers up our spines. Oldman is introduced with his back to the camera, a time-honored movie device to establish evil. And he’s evil, all right — so much so that I wondered how he never blows his cover. Oldman’s gelatinous performance throws the film out of whack; you can’t believe that this pill-popping ding-dong would inspire loyalty among his partners in crime. He’s a cartoon bad guy with a set of fancy traits; he listens to Beethoven before moving in for the kill — a nod to A Clockwork Orange, I guess.

Besson’s characters have names, but they don’t really need them. Besson treats them as action-film archetypes: The Hit-Man, The Girl, The Bad Cop. On the evidence of this movie and Nikita, Luc Besson seems to want to do for the action genre what Sergio Leone did for Westerns in the ’60s: inflate the clichés, present them with an air of parody, and yet honor the genre. Essentially, I’ve seen The Professional a few times before; its closest antecedent is John Cassavetes’ Gloria, from 1980, about a little boy who runs afoul of gangsters and is protected by a tough female detective. In that movie, there was some wit in the way Gena Rowlands rolled her eyes at the kid’s budding machismo. The Professional goes back to the films Gloria poked fun at.

Leon and Mathilda don’t even go through the obligatory period of hating each other, then grudgingly bonding. The attraction is immediate and mutual (though, I hasten to add, platonic), and before long he gives in to her demands that he train her as a hit-girl. I doubt there’s any calculation in this; like his contemporaries — Tarantino, Spike Lee, Tim Burton — Besson makes the movies he wants to see. Sergio Leone was well into his forties by the time he made his Dollars trilogy, and critics sniffed at those, too. Besson has years ahead of him, and in Jean Reno he may have found his Clint Eastwood. And if not Jean Reno, then Natalie Portman.

Interview with the Vampire

November 11, 1994

994ITV_Tom_Cruise_035Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire survives its pre-release buzz — good and bad — and emerges as a first-rate work of goth splendor. Anne Rice’s novel (she also did the script) was a three-way cult item — a book that appealed to horror fans, women, and gay men (each group sees something different in the story) — and the movie should satisfy all three. Director Neil Jordan, who has a flair for dark enchantment (particularly in The Company of Wolves), perfectly captures the threatening beauty of New Orleans after midnight. The movie draws you in and enfolds you in a thick fog of menace. Jordan is a master of poetic, deceptive atmosphere. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to break the spell with a shocking image or a dash of morbid slapstick.

You’re probably sick of hearing about the Tom Cruise two-step: Everyone, including Rice, questioned his ability to play Lestat, the sardonic, sadistic, sophisticated vampire; then everyone, including Rice, did an about-face and said, Hey, he ain’t too shabby. I’d go further. This is perhaps Cruise’s best work since Born on the Fourth of July, and not just because he plays a villain. The qualities that Cruise’s detractors most resent — his air of self-satisfaction, his chiselled physical perfection — are just right for Lestat. He’s an American Lestat, just as the other major role is filled by an American, and I hardly think this should be the movie that turns us into purists demanding that French characters be played by French actors. This is not, after all, Napoleon — he’s a fictional character in a vampire movie. It’s an enormously entertaining performance, even if Cruise sounds dubbed some of the time. He’s such an evil sprite that the movie inevitably loses steam when he’s not around. But Jordan keeps the images coming.

Rice’s idea was to tell the story through the eyes of a more “innocent” vampire — Louis (Brad Pitt), a depressed young man who can’t accept the bottom line of vampirism. (Killing people is in the job description.) Louis forms a fatherly bond with Claudia (Kirsten Dunst in a chilling performance), the little girl he initiates into vampirism. Together, they flee to Paris, the setting for the film’s widely ridiculed but, I think, most upsetting sequence. The two stumble upon some sort of vampire theater group — Rice’s metaphor, maybe, for gays in the arts: hounded, misunderstood people of the night, who transform their skill at hiding their identities into the art of performance. (Of course, the vampires-as-gays metaphor probably isn’t meant to be pushed too far; readers will plug into what’s emotionally relevant to them, and disregard literal-minded details.)

The vampire performers stage a show in which they murder and drain a nude, terrified woman before a sickened audience (which thinks it’s all fake, part of the show). Throughout the movie, Jordan has toyed with our expectations: He knows we want to see blood sucked — that’s been the appeal of vampire movies since Murnau — but he brings out the cruelty of the act, the horror of a woman looking down to see a crimson stain spreading across her breast where Lestat has chomped her. In the theater sequence, Jordan forces us to question what we’ve been enjoying as bloody entertainment. The woman is sacrificed for our voyeuristic sins.

Interview with the Vampire could be a little tighter. The seemingly indestructible Lestat keeps popping up in various stages of decay, and Jordan doesn’t do enough with the vampiric code that states Thou Shalt Not Kill Fellow Vampires: Why are Louis and Claudia punished for killing Lestat, who never stays dead anyway? We spend most of our time with Louis, which is unfortunate, since Brad Pitt plays him as a sullen party-pooper. (Maybe that’s the trap of the character. One can’t help noticing that Rice’s subsequent books in the Vampire Chronicles focus on Lestat, not Louis.) And I hated the end-titles music: Guns ‘n Roses covering “Sympathy for the Devil.” If any rock star is a brother to Lestat, it’s Mick Jagger, and Jordan should have stuck with the Stones original. Otherwise, Interview is a rarity: an elegant, truly unsettling horror film in a mostly toothless period for American movies.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

November 4, 1994

The brash young actor-director Kenneth Branagh came to us steeped in the finely calibrated traditions of Shakespeare and the BBC, but he smuggled something else in with him: a hearty vibrancy that told us he wasn’t about to be a stuffy bore. He would entertain us, try on different hats, open up the great plays to the masses. Not yet thirty when his debut film, Henry V, was released, Branagh already revealed a puppyish appetite for melodramatic excess. Like Henry, Branagh was a whippersnapper whose enthusiasm and confidence made up for his perceived callowness. Well, nothing succeeds like excess, and Branagh followed it up with the enjoyably ludicrous (or ludicrously enjoyable) Dead Again, and then he followed Much Ado About Nothing with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is only ludicrous.

The same stupidity virus that infected Lawrence Kasdan (Wyatt Earp), Gus Van Sant (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), and Rob Reiner (North) also appears to have claimed Branagh, the latest in a long line of gifted directors this year who have stepped with both feet into cow flop. This Frankenstein is hollowly energetic, a frantic aria of off-key notes. Branagh pumps up the material and lays on the cheesy mad-lab electricity; he encourages the sort of aggressive overacting that wouldn’t be offensive if the director didn’t encourage himself above all. He plays Victor Frankenstein, and he’s always fervent about something; you may fear that if you leave your seat to hit the bathroom, his eyes will burn resentful dime-sized holes in your back. Fashionably long-haired, Branagh goes shirtless during the key monster-making sequence, a detail Mary Shelley somehow overlooked. This is far from a class act, despite the credentials and hard labor of its international cast. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is largely awful, and in this case I’m reasonably sure the box office will bear me out: The storytelling is simply too fractured and thin to involve an audience.

This Frankenstein supposedly sticks closer to the novel than did previous screen versions. But just as Bram Stoker’s Dracula was really Francis Coppola’s Dracula, so Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is really Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein. Its overwrought penny-dreadfulness violates the tone of Shelley’s work, a stately meditation on death and rebirth that’s a bit of a chore to get through (I’ve tried several times). The original story is rich in melodrama, and Branagh latches onto the anecdotes that most film versions have ignored, such as the housekeeper Justine’s being hanged for the murder of Victor’s little half-brother. Branagh stages it as a raging Tale of Two Cities mob scene, complete with the poor woman’s body plummeting and then being jerked back up on the rope. I will give Branagh credit for having the sense to include the novel’s most horrifying line — “I will be with you on your wedding night.” But generally he flails so hard to keep us interested in the story that he never lets it breathe (and loses our interest that way). Trying for fidelity to Shelley’s epistolary narrative and structure, Branagh spreads out a lifeless first half hour — the movie takes forever and a day to get going — and frames the story aboard a landlocked ship, with the dying Victor telling his tragic tale to Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn). This captain, like Victor, is afflicted with hubris; he thinks he can chart a new route to the North Pole, or something along those lines. The framing sequence is actually an excuse for Branagh to outdo Moby Dick and The Bounty and every other movie featuring masts crashing to the deck.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is destined to be a camp classic, right down to the daffy finale, a Re-Animator swipe in which Victor finds another use for his dead wife/half-sister Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). This climax certainly doesn’t come from Shelley, but by then who cares? The movie is already bad; it might as well get worse in a big way. Adding to the unintentional fun is Robert De Niro, who manages a sometimes affecting performance as the Creature despite being utterly miscast. The Creature (or monster, or whatever you want to call him) isn’t as flexible an archetype as, say, Dracula, who has been successfully interpreted by such wildly disparate actors as Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and (oh, what the hell) George Hamilton. After Boris Karloff (whose monosyllabic reading of the monster has endured even though it’s the polar opposite of Shelley’s eloquent Creature) and perhaps Peter Boyle’s comic riff on Karloff, what other actor has made the Creature his own? If you’re going to do it by the book, you need a physically imposing man who yet can take off, convincingly, into florid philosophical soliloquies on the injustice of his existence. The Creature is Man, roughly assembled and plopped down naked into a chaotic world, railing against God the Creator. For all his talent, De Niro is more comfortable handling a gun than handling Miltonian pronouncements. He’s best in his quiet, yearning moments, when he has the pathos of a roadkill Chaplin (the make-up whizzes on this movie kept busy). But when he attempts to fit his GoodFella accent around such lines as “Who are these people of whom I am composed?” you just cringe. He’s like Harvey Keitel’s Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ yelling “Yer no better than da Romans! Yer woise than dem!”

Like Victor, Kenneth Branagh puts a lot of sweat and energy into animating this stitched-up creation, but on just about every level the movie is deeply foolish. Surprisingly, the one actor who doesn’t succumb to the general histrionics is John Cleese, who, as Victor’s twisted mentor, gives what I believe is his first serious movie performance. We look at his wormy face and gaunt Victorian body and we may wonder what Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would have been like if Cleese had played the Creature. Or directed the film, or done the whole thing as an absurdist Monty Python sketch — whatever. For a few minutes, though, Cleese breaks through the static and ego to gift us with the cracked decorum and restrained madness — and above all, the spookiness — that the rest of this overamped movie sorely lacks.