Archive for February 1995

The Brady Bunch Movie

February 17, 1995

The fluorescent clothes, the astroturf, the dialogue so chipper it’s surreal, the hair, the songs — oh, dear God, the songs …. For about the first two reels, The Brady Bunch Movie is like nightmarish science fiction. We’re in Bradyland, or, more accurately, Sherwood Schwartzland — named after the venal TV producer who gifted us with Gilligan and the Skipper as well as the Bradys. Schwartz, a baffling man, has actually claimed social significance for his creations: The Bradys, he has suggested, symbolize the familial fragmentation of the late 20th century. (You don’t want to know what Gilligan and pals represent.) Every few years since the death of the original show, Schwartz has re-animated the Bradys, most recently in a short-lived 1990 series of hour-long dramas — yes, dramas — chronicling the trials and tribulations of the grown-up Brady kids. These attempts failed because … well, primarily because they sucked, but also because the Bradys’ enduring audience wants them just as they were back in the ’70s.

So here’s The Brady Bunch Movie, advertised as a fun ‘n’ bouncy spoof. Actually, it’s among the most deeply cynical movies ever made, and the film’s huge, eager Generation X audience (which is hardly less cynical) bears me out. This audience doesn’t mind Paramount’s naked desire to sell their past back to them, any more than baby boomers minded The Big Chill. This movie will enjoy repeat business — nostalgic twentysomethings will embrace it as a low-rent cheezoid event, an opportunity to get stoned and giggle at the outfits, the vapid line readings. Experienced sober, the movie is just creepy. So much care has gone into the details of this mutant world, and for what? Fidelity to the source? Movies like this and The Flintstones take massive pains to do what is not worth doing.

Aside from that, the movie fails as a comedy. Director Betty Thomas, shackled to a Brady-anthology script by four TV-saturated writers, wants to play it both ways. The movie is a satire; the movie is an homage. The Bradys are out of it; the Bradys are admirable. Waffle, waffle. The Brady Bunch Movie doesn’t commit to any position on the Bradys, which makes this the ultimate Gen-X movie. It holds ’90s grunge culture up for scorn (the way Forrest Gump disapproved of the ’60s hippie culture); you may think the film risks alienating its core audience, but the approach is actually rather shrewd. Young people who hate the way their lives are going can plug into the plastic orderliness of the Brady household, feeling superior to it and longing for it at the same time. So much easier than putting one’s own life in order.

What passes for “satire” here is the contrast between the gee-whiz Bradys and the “real” ’90s. But this contrast is haplessly beside the point. Of course the Bradys are out of step in the ’90s — they were out of step in the actual ’70s, too. Given that the Bradys were always just ’50s stereotypes in ’70s garb, why not re-dress them for the ’90s — have them wearing wannabe-hip grunge outfits, the way the original Bradys took to wearing wannabe-groovy outfits? A truly biting Bradys satire would comment on the absurdity of American pop culture in the ’90s the way the original show now comments, unintentionally and retrospectively, on the ’70s; it would assume the vantage point of hindsight and show us how stupid the hipsters of 1995 will look in twenty years, with their nose rings and Doc Martens and cappuccino fixation. But Gen-Xers, a notoriously touchy lot, don’t care to be shown how ridiculous they often are; they’d rather embrace the goofiness of things past. The smug detachment of Gen-Xers, who take nothing seriously except themselves and exalt what can’t be taken seriously (i.e., pop garbage like disco), gives the movie a faint aura of self-satisfaction. I’m OK, you’re OK — let’s laugh at the goofy Bradys.

At the same time, The Brady Bunch Movie sets the Bradys on a pedestal. There’s no problem they can’t solve, no mess that optimism and hugs can’t sweep up. Rather than subverting this sitcom thinking, the movie buys into it. The Bradys are indomitable, and the proof of that is the movie itself. Yet the script, while scrupulously transcribing plotlines from the original series, doesn’t discover anything new in them. Marcia’s face is disfigured by a football — Ow! My nose! — and the movie misses its chance to point out that her swollen proboscis, by the ’90s grunge aesthetic, might actually be considered attractive; it makes her pristine features more interesting. Mostly, the ’90s touches invading Bradyland are crass and obvious (Greg encounters a carjacker! Ha ha ha! Brilliant!). One promising subplot, in which Marcia’s new friend turns out to be a lesbian with a crush on her, goes nowhere. It’s a bone thrown to lesbian chic, and it’s hypocritical: There’s also a taking-it-in-the-ass joke directed at Mike Brady — a clear reference to the Mike prototype, Robert Reed, a closeted gay man who at the time of his death was HIV-positive. So lesbians are chic, but fags are funny. A lovely, progressive movie.

That’s bad, but what the movie does with (and to) poor Jan is worse. The neurotic Jan, whose life revolves around diverting attention from her rival Marcia, is the one character with identifiable human emotions (and the one many women who grew up in the shadow of a Marcia might relate to). Here, Jan is turned into a contorted psycho who hears voices. The movie makes brutal fun of her. What is going on here? Her obsession casts dark shadows across the astroturf. Betty Thomas and her writers blow a great chance to show us how a dissatisfied girl going through the agonies of adolescence and sibling rivalry — and the only child who isn’t a pod person — would react to life with the Bradys. Maybe she would go insane, but we’re meant to laugh at her nuttiness, when we could have been encouraged to see it as the only sane response. And why not have Jan steal Marcia’s new friend away from her and discover the joys of Sapphic love — finally finding someone who appreciates her? For all its forced bounciness, the movie becomes boring; the missed opportunities pile up, and after a while my attention floated away from the screen and never returned.

The Brady Bunch Movie is profoundly unimaginative about its true subject: the promiscuity of pop culture. Themes are repeated in sitcom after sitcom, down through the decades, each show tailored to fit the sympathies, prejudices, and mood of the day. Why do the Bradys have such staying power? Why do they keep rising from their shallow graves? Certainly it’s not only because they’re goofy — many goofy TV families of the same period have fallen into oblivion. One answer: The Bradys are the purest distillation of the squishy-soft sitcom ethos. At the end of the 22 minutes, the family hugs and learns something. For years, TV executives have tried to recapture the fuzzy family falsehood of the Bradys. And they succeed from time to time. In 2015, we may bear witness to Full House: The Movie, attended by stoned twentysomethings eager to mock their memories.

Shallow Grave

February 11, 1995

ShallowGrave01I never thought I’d look back on the remorseless black comedy Blood Simple as a model of compassion, but Shallow Grave makes Blood Simple look like Forrest Gump. A self-consciously stylish thriller from Scotland, the movie is a grating sensual experience — like John Carpenter’s Halloween, it gets on your nerves and stays there. But Carpenter also allowed you to care about his characters, and Shallow Grave, I’m afraid, is too hip for that. Director Danny Boyle, working from a skeletal script by John Hodge, distances us from the main characters — a doctor (Kerry Fox, from An Angel at My Table), a tabloid journalist (Ewan McGregor), and an accountant (Christopher Eccleston) sharing a simple, spacious flat — so that we become jaded spectators to their decline. Unable to fear for them, we wonder how low they will sink, what exponentially vile forms their moral squalor will take.

Boyle is a playful director; the movie is enjoyable for a while as it skitters across the surface. But if you want it to go deeper, you’re at the wrong show. I wonder if Boyle, having committed to the script and realized too late that there really isn’t one, tried to compensate with a busy camera and random poetic visuals. At one point, the accountant, who is going wacko, hides up in the attic and drills holes through the floor, to spy on his roomies. The light from below comes flooding up through the attic floor, sending dozens of white spotlights pointing every which way through the gloom. It’s very pretty. Problem is, the sound of a drill squealing through wood at all hours would bring the landlord running, or at least make the neighbors mighty curious. Shallow Grave almost never makes common sense.

The movie falls into a film noir lockstep without much conviction. At the beginning, the three roommates brutally reject anyone who applies for the empty room in their flat. If they’re going to be this antagonistic, why are they looking for another lodger in the first place? To get cheap jollies from turning down uncool people? They settle on a mysterious, saturnine man (Keith Allen) who claims to be a writer. We pick up flashes of bad vibes from him, but he isn’t around long. He OD’s in his room, leaving behind a suitcase full of money. The roommates, who are young professionals, see the money as a kick they can’t pass up.

Immediately, Boyle and Hodge have violated the emotional core of film noir: sweaty desperation as the trigger for evil. These yupster Scots aren’t hard up for cash. The doctor and the journalist spend the money stupidly, while the accountant scowls. He, you see, had been charged earlier with the ghastly task of dismembering the dead man. This seems to have popped a few of his synapses — a development the movie barely moves itself to explore. The cut-up body molders in its shallow grave, symbolizing whatever you want it to. Meanwhile, a three-way paranoia sets in at the flat. Life starts crumbling down.

Shallow Grave will impress those who have never seen Rope, the intricately subtle stunt by Alfred Hitchcock. By saying that, I don’t mean to sound like a film snob. Rope wasn’t art; it was very much a machine — Hitchcock testing himself, placing two dislikable characters at the center of a static movie. In that film, based glancingly on the Leopold-Loeb case, two brilliant, vicious students strangle someone for the sheer intellectual thrill of it, stash the corpse in a trunk, and throw a dinner party around it. Except for one shock-cut to the face of James Stewart (playing a professor whom the students assume will approve of their crime), Rope appeared to consist entirely of one 80-minute unbroken take, an effect Hitchcock achieved by “invisible” cuts at the end of every reel. Shallow Grave tries nothing so bold, and since the characters are not actually murderers (not at first, anyway), there’s nothing at stake. To keep us alert, Boyle and Hodge resort to introducing a pair of thugs who are after the suitcase; they show up every so often to torture people to death. The people they butcher mean nothing to us, and after a while we stop wincing at their brutality.

This leads to the movie’s most ruinous scene. Through some excellent detective work that Boyle doesn’t confide to us, the thugs trace the money to the threesome. They interrupt the doctor and journalist at dinner (how rude), while the loony accountant hovers over the cash in the attic. The thugs rough up the other two roomies, and the accountant lies in wait. Tipped to the money’s whereabouts, the thugs head up to the attic, and a stupid dread settles over you — the insensate twitchiness you feel at cheap horror movies, where bimbos stumble through darkness and you wait for something to spring out at them. Our nerves respond as expected, but we don’t give a damn whether the accountant ambushes the thugs, or the thugs kill him, or a giant spider crawls out and kills everybody. And guess what? Nothing crucial to the plot comes of this anyway. Now three bodies are found in the shallow grave instead of one. But these men are lowlife killers, and the authorities mount a major investigation into the murders of these three marginal criminals. Are the Scottish police that hard up for things to do?

Shallow Grave falls apart loudly from there. Boyle pumps himself up into a gory shoot-the-works climax; by then, the movie has forfeited any pretense of reality, though the violence at the end gives us a bit of a hard pinch. The characters keep shifting allegiances, which might have meant something if they’d had a shred of loyalty to violate. There’s a reversal and another reversal; twin sick jokes seal the movie, and the audience goes out buzzing. But what they buzz about is the mindless stress of being roughly handled for two hours. Shallow Grave is a death tease. It keeps promising something baroque and disgusting, and finally you get it. It’s pathetically easy for a thriller to make you feel physically menaced; the dozens of awful slasher films in the early ’80s did that. What’s difficult is making the audience feel emotionally menaced. The Silence of the Lambs did it quite elegantly, and Roman Polanski did it in Death and the Maiden and every other thriller he’s made. Danny Boyle is a gifted director, and Shallow Grave isn’t a weighted dud. He takes you for a ride. But his movie has the soul of a maggot, and the wicked novelty of people behaving abominably only goes so far. At some point, ordinary human compassion must take up the slack. Boyle isn’t a zippy enough director to make up for what’s missing. No one is.

In the Mouth of Madness

February 3, 1995

John Carpenter’s first horror feature in eight years was this disappointing pastiche of Lovecraft (as the title suggests) and Stephen King. Sam Neill is John Trent, an insurance-fraud investigator assigned to find Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a mysterious King-like horror author, and deliver Cane’s new manuscript. What follows is one of those what-the-fuck-is-going-on-at-any-given-moment plots, with lots of icky monsters and demons by Bruce Nicholson and KNB EFX. The movie eventually eats its own self-referential tail; the only scary thing about it is that, along with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, it points at the future of horror movies: dull conceptual mind games. Carpenter tries, but he’s too workmanlike a director to make us feel as disoriented as the main character, as if we’d actually become part of a twisted fiction. And if we don’t feel that, the movie has no point. Also with Julie Carmen, John Glover, David Warner, and Charlton Heston — the last actor you would’ve expected to show up in a Carpenter film (I suspect Kurt Russell vouched for Carpenter to Heston). Screenwriter Michael De Luca was in charge of New Line for a while. Carpenter’s next was Village of the Damned, released later the same year.

Heavenly Creatures

February 2, 1995

After a few gory items well-loved by the relative few who saw them, Peter Jackson decided to tackle more mature material. Except he didn’t. Heavenly Creatures is a quantum leap in substance from gleefully sick flicks like Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, but it retains Jackson’s restless devotion to the delirium of fantasy. After a diabolically goofy prologue — a heartily square travelogue of 1950s Christchurch, New Zealand — we’re thrown rudely into bloody chaos: Two girls, Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet), running and shrieking, smeared and spattered with gore. We don’t know them yet, and we don’t know where the blood came from (though Pauline says “Mummy’s terribly hurt”), but we sure are intrigued. The rest of Heavenly Creatures explains how the girls got to that state.

Pauline, a defiantly frumpy girl (played by Lynskey with uncompromising unpleasantness that still manages to be likable), lives with her parents in a clean but cramped house, where boarders sometimes rent a room. The glamorous Juliet arrives from England, instantly antagonizing her new French teacher by correcting the old lady’s grammar. Pauline, who’s in the same class, is impressed. Soon the girls, sitting out gym class, bond over their illnesses — “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic,” gushes Juliet with the sort of passion only Kate Winslet seems able to access. These two were goth and emo before there were goth and emo, and in due time they construct an elaborate fantasy world drawing on standard mythic templates as well as pop culture of the day (Mario Lanza, Orson Welles, etc.). They’re escaping their families — Pauline’s forbidding drudge of a mother, Juliet’s intellectual but cold mother and father — and hurtling toward a place that gives them the status and sense of belonging they crave.

Jackson is always chasing after the girls with his camera as they sprint along the landscape of New Zealand, morphing in and out of the land they call Borovnia. Heavenly Creatures has been called a lesbian film, but even though the girls do kiss and snuggle while acting out the fantasy narrative, they go way beyond sexuality into pathology. Of course, back in the ’50s, homosexuality was pathology (the massive close-up of a doctor sibilantly enunciating the word homo-ssseck-shuality is good for a laugh), and the girls’ parents — Pauline’s working-class family and Juliet’s far more cosmopolitan parents — decide the girls have been spending far too much time together. Which, undeniably, they have. Jackson acknowledges that the girls’ feverish fantasy life, while rich and satisfying to them, is also leading them down a path from which there is no sane return.

Heavenly Creatures acquires emotional heft partly because of Sarah Peirse’s honest performance as Pauline’s unsophisticated but hardworking mother. Pauline despises her and is mortified by her very existence, but Jackson paints the mother as a frightened woman who made a lot of mistakes as a girl and possibly sees Pauline unconsciously following in her footsteps. The final reel, in which Pauline encourages her mom to have another piece of cake before their fateful walk in the woods, is exquisitely sad. The girls have been driven to the point where their actions, meant to unite them forever, will do quite the opposite. As the moment of truth approaches, Lynskey and Winslet perform a duet of regret — the awful weight of what the girls are about to do settles rock-like in their stomachs.

On one level, Heavenly Creatures is a stellar true-crime story, which Jackson probably grew up hearing about. The movie also outed Juliet, who’d changed her name to Anne Perry and written a series of popular mystery novels; Pauline now goes by Hilary Nathan. As per court order, they haven’t seen each other since 1954. The movie, upon repeat viewings, only becomes more poignant with that knowledge. I truly don’t think Jackson’s filmmaking has gotten better since Heavenly Creatures — just bigger. Here, at age 32, he nailed a difficult tonal mix of exultation and anguish he hasn’t approached since, though his forthcoming adaptation of The Lovely Bones may restore the old magic.¹ The inner tension of the film emerges from Jackson’s enjoyment of the girls’ bustling insanity and then his gradual withdrawal from it — turning out the lights, one by one, in the kingdom of delusion.

¹It didn’t.

The Passion of Darkly Noon

February 1, 1995

By the time you get to the giant glittering silver shoe floating in the river, you’ll know whether The Passion of Darkly Noon is your kind of insanity. I knew right from the start, because I’d seen writer/director Philip Ridley’s previous film, 1990’s The Reflecting Skin, the oddest, most obsessive and morbid rural fantasia ever made, at least until The Passion of Darkly Noon. If anything deserves the full Criterion treatment, these two movies do; as it is, neither of them is available on properly letterboxed DVD in America. What’s worse, Ridley has taken fourteen years to make another film — Heartless, which, as I write this, is listed in the IMDb as being in “post-production.” Get it done! The world has waited too long for more Philip Ridley cinema!

Back to Darkly Noon, wherein the eponymous character (a stammering, sweaty, never-better Brendan Fraser) collapses on a forest road, delirious and disturbed. A local undertaker’s assistant (Loren Dean) finds him and brings him to a remote house belonging to the mute carpenter Clay (Viggo Mortensen), who occasionally builds coffins for him. Clay isn’t around, but his lover Callie (Ashley Judd) is, and she takes Darkly in. We discover that Darkly comes from an ultra-religious sect, which has been persecuted and finally attacked by men with guns and helicopters (shades of the Branch Davidians). Only Darkly, apparently, escaped with his life; his ma and pa were killed.

Darkly carries a bible and takes the word of God very, very seriously and literally. Callie is more secular and wants Darkly (whom she calls Lee) to loosen up a bit; she invites him to join her in an outdoor spa in the woods, but he won’t even undo his top shirt button. After dark, Callie strays onto her front porch for a smoke, and Darkly, standing nearby but out of her sight, finds his hand wandering into his pants. On one level, The Passion of Darkly Noon is as advertised by the title — a study of one deranged man’s impacted sexuality. But there’s more in store. In the woods, Darkly meets a bitter woman (Grace Zabriskie) who believes Callie is a witch. This woman has left dead birds wrapped in barbed wire all over the forest, to train her dog not to crush them when he retrieves them. It’s as vivid a metaphor for biting the forbidden fruit as any.

Darkly, being human, wants to bite the fruit — all the more so when Clay finally returns home. Darkly disapproves of Callie and Clay’s living arrangement and spends more of his time in the barn loft where he’s staying; he has visions of his ma and pa, he gradually stops stammering, and he finds another use for barbed wire. Concurrently, Ridley’s technique grows more eccentric, with jump cuts, sudden zooms, and one deep-focus shot that’s almost like split-screen. As in The Reflecting Skin, Ridley keeps tight control — it’s never just weirdness for its own sake. Eventually the movie goes Apocalypse Now, complete with a shirtless, painted Darkly stalking through the forest with a big blade.

What Ridley (a Brit) is after with these films, I think, is southern gothic — along the lines of Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor — only with frayed edges and spiked with peyote. Darkly Noon has nothing trite or obvious to “say” about religious mania or persecution. Those things just provide the meat of this thick stew of obsession. Ridley simply puts a repressed man with a sexually free woman and watches what happens — while also, of course, adding his own sui generis touches. You could trace his approach back to Faulkner, Lynch, maybe Jodorowsky (an elephant figures in the final scene), but the way it all comes together is all Ridley.

Predictably, both these movies have made about fifteen cents in America, where we like our movin’ pictures straightforward and without true passion — on the screen or behind the camera. Philip Ridley tried twice during the ’90s to give us more. We ignored him, so he stayed in England writing plays and children’s fiction. Serves us right. 5