Archive for June 1995

Apollo 13

June 30, 1995

Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 promises to be a riveting history lesson. The facts of the aborted Apollo 13 mission in April, 1970, seem like God-given movie material. Three astronauts — family men Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), plus cocky bachelor Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), a last-minute replacement for the original third crew member — go up in space with visions of Neil Armstrong dancing in their heads. Early in this second moon shot — on April 13, in fact — an explosion disables their capsule. It’s uncertain whether they’ll have enough oxygen, water, and energy to make it back to Earth alive. The men have to improvise solutions as problems arise, while NASA engineers on the ground do what they can, which at first isn’t much.

Apollo 13 has a satisfying grand sweep. Ron Howard sets up the trappings of the NASA techno-brotherhood, and he knows how to whip up massive, stomach-freezing effects, as he showed in Backdraft, with its flames roaring out at us like the wrath of a dragon. He knows how to put us inside a pressure cooker. And since movies, unfolding in a horizontal, rectangular world, are an inherently claustrophobic medium, I expected Apollo 13 to paralyze the audience with nauseated horror at being locked in this capsule — floating in an infinite inky void yet enclosed in a tight metal tube. But none of this really comes through. Partly it’s because these men aren’t very nervous about being shot up there to begin with, so that undermines our nervousness. It’s all old news to them. They’re stoic, they deal well with stress; like Tom Wolfe’s knights of the right stuff, they have an unspoken pact not to express fear or doubt. And so you feel the force of the movie slowly leaking out.

The story, adapted by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert from last year’s book Lost Moon by Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, abounds in real-life ironies. After 1969’s famous giant leap for mankind, America is rather blasé about a return trip — until things start going wrong, at which point the media camps out en masse on Lovell’s front lawn. (As Lovell’s wife Marilyn, Kathleen Quinlan spends the movie sitting in the house, staring at the TV, and fretting.) Howard picks up on an intriguing unsung-hero aspect of the story: Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), the experienced pilot Jack Swigert replaced — he would have gone up if not for a suspected case of measles — stays on the ground and goes through one flight simulation after another, looking for a way to bring the capsule home on minimal energy. Mattingly’s story would make a good movie in itself; he gets all the stress of the mission and none of the actual elation of being near the moon. He’s the original virtual-reality hero.

Howard couldn’t have cast three more likable actors as the imperilled spacemen. What’s amazing is how little of their personalities comes across. Even Kevin Bacon, a suave Casanova whose idea of a come-on is a smirking demonstration of a lunar module sliding into dock, is too close to Dennis Quaid’s hell-raiser in The Right Stuff (and none of these boys is a hell-raiser). Physically, the performances look strenuous. The sequences in the capsule were filmed in real zero gravity, aboard the Vomit Comet used in astronaut training, and sometimes the actors look a little green around the gills. But the stars, and Tom Hanks in particular, are running on autopilot. Like the men they’re playing, they seem to have convinced themselves that the only thing that matters is the problem at hand; once the pressure’s on, there’s no room for such frivolity as inventive acting. (I kept expecting Bill Paxton to flip out as he did in Aliens — “Game over, man!” — but no such luck.) Hanks has an effective way of speaking in a dead, neutral tone when Lovell is frightened, but it seems like an actor’s choice. Hanks is trying to be true to the real-life, brave Lovell. The actors are smothered by history and good intentions.

Apollo 13 is so much more self-possessed, so much clearer in a basic narrative sense, than almost every other blockbuster this summer that I didn’t trust my initial, complacent enthusiasm for it. Of course it looks great next to Batman Forever or Johnny Mnemonic — what movie wouldn’t? There was one moment during Apollo 13 when I felt an Olympian surge of adrenaline: the countdown to the launch. Everyone in the audience stopped breathing. (The launch itself doesn’t live up to it. And I must point out the sonic inaccuracy, perpetuated by Star Wars and countless other space operas, of the exterior shots of Apollo 13 in orbit: We shouldn’t be hearing exhaust or explosions in the airless vacuum of space — we shouldn’t be hearing anything. A surprising lapse in a movie otherwise slavishly devoted to The Facts.) I also liked the DIY solution devised by Mission Control for the carbon-dioxide problem. The movie is terrific on nuts-and-bolts stuff — the disposal of waste, the instruction manuals magnetized to the capsule walls. But nuts and bolts aren’t the same as drama. I hate to say it, but in format Apollo 13 is Speed in space, and without Speed‘s kinetic audacity.

A director like James Cameron, whose nerve-destroying The Abyss made me vow never to go more than five feet underwater, would have made us sick with stress up there in that capsule. He would have risked melodrama, and probably would have toppled right into it with a mighty crash, but at least he would have gambled. Apollo 13 actually would have been perfect for Cameron’s temperament and talents. Ron Howard has talent but no identifiable temperament, and he isn’t a gambler. Taking his camera into zero gravity, he makes us feel the strange giddiness of weightlessness. Howard is the ideal man for a space movie — he’s a weightless director. Apollo 13 has its gripping bring-the-boys-back-home narrative drive going for it, and Howard’s monklike attention to detail sometimes pays off. It’s a solid and honorable piece of work, but to think it was a great movie you’d probably have to have a thing for control panels.


June 30, 1995

Todd Haynes has made a career out of trying people’s patience. He annoyed Richard Carpenter with his infamous, unreleased Superstar, which told the story of Karen Carpenter via Barbie dolls. He irritated me with his feature debut, Poison, an art-house flower so swollen with metaphorical pollen it could give a department of English professors a bad case of the sniffles. And in Safe, Haynes risks losing viewers who aren’t willing to stay with him through long, static, slow spots before his vision takes hold. Safe is another art-house flower, though this one is more like a Venus fly-trap. Like Hitchcock and David Lynch, Haynes lulls you with a pattern of dullness — presentable middle-class normality gradually eroded by perversity, until finally the perversity takes over. The movie isn’t in a trance — it is a trance. And either you find it weirdly compelling or you don’t. I did.

Safe is about Carol White (Julianne Moore), a passive and rather dull California homemaker who discovers that she’s allergic to the 20th century — that she has Environmental Illness, a rare disorder afflicting people who have a low tolerance for the thousands of daily chemicals and irritants that most of us, by now, take in stride. This is an actual ailment, and though Haynes’ script follows something of a TV-movie disease-of-the-week trajectory, he knows a ripe symbol of modern alienation when he sees one. Carol is like an innocent alien, a cross between E.T. and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, driven into seclusion by our intolerable atmosphere. She could represent any number of other things, too (though Haynes has insisted that we take her simply as a woman with a disease). Even her name carries associations with Carol Brady and, of course, colorlessness. In an odd way, too, Carol is linked to the Lily Tomlin character in, of all movies, the 1981 Joel Schumacher comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman; Tomlin played an ordinary housewife whose exposure to everyday household chemicals made her shrink, and both movies share a certain anger about women who are victimized, marginalized, and finally radicalized by their own consumerist culture.

Little by little, Carol detaches herself from the outside world, suffering at the hands of clueless men who think she’s just a bored rich woman angling for attention. Julianne Moore is in almost every shot, and the physical preparation she did for the role — dropping about fifteen pounds from her already slender frame — certainly shows. She’s convincingly ravaged and weak, a helpless woman who, by the end of the movie, has seen her world dwindle to the confines of a hermetic igloo. Nobody can be trusted: not her doctor, not her insensitive husband (Xander Berkeley), not the unctuous leader (Peter Friedman) of a “safe” retreat for EI sufferers — not even the air she breathes, which at any moment can be fouled by the exhaust of an unexpected passing truck. In the past, Moore had played red-blooded women of intelligence. Here she plays an empty, pallid, somewhat dim woman, yet she never condescends to Carol. You’re with her right from the start, when she lies beneath her husband, silently enduring his thrusting. And when her symptoms worsen and she’s wheezing and gasping for air as if through a pinhole, you gasp right along with her. Without Moore’s delicate portrait of disintegration, Haynes probably wouldn’t have a movie.

But Safe is still an advance over Poison, a less focused study of disease and society. “Inspired by the works of Jean Genet,” Poison was subversive, all right, but it was hard to tell what it was subverting. Haynes used B-movie cheapness to hook us, then turned around and sneered at the cheapness. The result was interesting, perhaps, but not very satisfying — antagonistic rather than involving. In Safe, Haynes has a better story and a surer touch, and in the lifeless, suffocating long takes of soulless people sitting in boring living rooms he shows a Kubrickian taste for visual irony and hypnotic mood. A populist exciter like Oliver Stone might have turned Safe into a rampaging cautionary tale, with Carol venting her rage at her male oppressors (probably at a noisy press conference). Haynes isn’t interested in catharsis. He likes to confound the audience, punish us for wanting an easy way out.

After Carol has been at the retreat for a while, we realize that the leader’s relentless motivational talks amount to psychological fascism. “I’ve stopped reading the newspapers,” he announces — the negative news media being a roadblock to self-actualization. The confused, unhappy people sitting in therapy-group circles are encouraged to “take responsibility” for themselves, i.e., blame themselves for their illness; they could get better if they would only listen to the leader and become self-actualized. This section of the movie rivals Kubrick in its cold-eyed satire of the new therapy culture (just as toxic as the pollution outside, we’re meant to see), where people are made to feel they can’t get by without a motivational head-shrinker guru and Prozac, or at least the latest self-help book. There’s nowhere for Carol to escape except into herself, which would be fine if she had a self. Safe is one of the most mesmerizing and provocative films in recent years. It’s a rash of ambiguity spreading across your skin and under it, too; if Haynes has the ointment, he won’t apply it.

Judge Dredd

June 30, 1995

“Eat recycled food,” suggests a hallway robot in Judge Dredd. That could be the movie’s tag-line: Everything in it comes almost full-blown from the foreheads of Blade Runner, RoboCop, The Terminator, and Batman. But this is tasty recycled food, and Sylvester Stallone — as Judge Joseph Dredd, the cream of the neofascist police force patrolling the chaotic blocks of Mega-City One — gives a new performance. He does his scowling Rambo routine and tosses off the usual cheesy one-liners, but he shows flashes of amusement at what he’s doing. In futuristic head-slammers like this and Demolition Man, Stallone is the comedian he failed to be in his early-’90s comedy attempts. Those were light comedies; these, I guess, are heavy-metal comedies. Dredd is every anal-retentive principal or gym teacher you ever laughed at behind their backs, and Stallone understands that the only way to play him is absolutely straight. Dredd almost never even sits down; in his phallic, gleaming helmet and mammoth epaulets, he’s a walking erection, forever alert to the smallest transgressions.

Judge Dredd is junk, but it’s fun junk with a decent pedigree. The British comic book it takes off from (written mainly by Alan Grant and John Wagner) was conceived as the reductio ad absurdum of the rock-ribbed heroes who usually shoulder their way through comics. Dredd is a superhero gloss on R. Crumb’s character Whiteman, who said, “I must maintain this rigid position or all is lost.” The comic’s tongue-in-cheek irreverence makes it into the movie fairly intact, largely because director Danny Cannon is a Dredd devotee. Judge Dredd doesn’t make the mistake of suggesting that things will get so bad in the future that we’ll need “protectors” like Dredd. On the contrary, as the movie goes on you begin to feel that things are that bad because of cops like Dredd. Religiously devoted to the law, Dredd sentences people to five years for minor offenses. It’s the nightmare flip side of the enforced sunshine world of Demolition Man: If you live in Mega-City One, you can’t not break some law.

Cannon and the writers (William Wisher and Steven E. de Souza) soon give Dredd a taste of his own medicine. A newscaster and his wife are murdered, and Dredd is framed for the crime. Despite the legal maneuvers of Dredd’s partner, the more compassionate Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), Dredd is sentenced to life imprisonment in Aspen. The bitter, psychotic ex-Judge Rico (Armand Assante) is behind the frame-up: He wants Dredd out of the way so he can clone a master race of Judges from his own DNA. Casually blowing holes in people or gloating over his huge robotic bodyguard, Assante gives an icy-eyed Christopher Walken performance; he’s enjoyable, but he should concentrate on being Assante. (Those who recall that he played Stallone’s brother in 1978’s Paradise Alley may be amused by the plot twist here.)

This is only Danny Cannon’s second feature (his debut was The Young Americans, a morose Harvey Keitel vehicle that drove straight to video), but he doesn’t seem intimidated by the scale, the sets, the budget, or the star. Working with ace cinematographer Adrian Biddle (who shot Thelma & Louise), Cannon gives Judge Dredd a pleasant big-movie look: hefty but not overdeliberate. He knows how to stage action so that we can see who’s who and what’s where — this appears to be a dying art this summer. And he understands Dredd’s stoic appeal. This frowning fascist who grunts “I am the law” begs to be goofed on, and Cannon provides a good foil in Rob Schneider, as a harmless petty criminal who runs afoul of Dredd and later teams up with him. Schneider, who never seemed to move past his Copy Guy during his Saturday Night Live gig, may have found his niche as action-movie comic relief. Bug-eyed and shrimpy, he skitters alongside the granite hero and never shuts up. His lines aren’t always fresh, but he’s consistently funny.

I saw Judge Dredd the day after the slight letdown of Apollo 13. It seems perverse to say that Dredd is the better movie, but I had a better time at it. It isn’t trying to be true to history — it isn’t true to anything except a comic book. Danny Cannon gives us our bearings at the start by moving in on the panels of a Dredd comic. The device works better here than it did in The Return of Swamp Thing, whose opening-credit montage of comic-book panels was livelier than the crap that followed. Here, the panels are like the fake (or actual) newsreels that kick off historical dramas: They set up the world and set the tone. And the movie is faithful to the unfussy, straightforward clarity of adventure comics in a way that shames the cluttered Batman Forever, which played like a random bunch of panels glued together out of order. Judge Dredd is simple and mindlessly gratifying, and Sylvester Stallone, finally resigned to being the comic-book jock he’s become, achieves an odd paradox. Playing this stiff, constipated hero, he does his most relaxed acting in years.


June 23, 1995

Pocahontas-post-1As Disney never tires of pointing out, Pocahontas is the studio’s first historically-based animated feature. What they don’t point out, understandably, is that — with the exception of two or three characters — this is essentially a live-action movie that a lot of people spent four years drawing. Has there ever been a cartoon less animated in spirit than Pocahontas? Disney’s well-meaning solemnity seeps over the characters like spilled ink. There’s a built-in problem with animated films featuring mostly people: Unable to project our emotions onto the otherness of cartoon animals, we observe the imitation humans, scrutinizing their every movement for accuracy. You look at someone turning his head and notice how his nose seems to shrink or expand from frame to frame. Even when a human gesture rings true, you can’t help considering how much work went into animating that gesture.

Pocahontas goes by fast, and some of it is reasonably entertaining. By now, Disney has this stuff down cold: the pastoral images segueing into show tunes (“Colors of the Wind” will likely continue Disney’s monopoly of the Best Original Song Oscar); the largely opaque heroes/heroines; the buffoonish villains who exist to be deflated; the earnest preaching, which here shifts from the usual “Be yourself” to “Accept others who are different.” And Disney has always excelled at low-comedy supporting players; there are really only two here — Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird — but the movie would feel completely stiff without them. (They don’t talk, which is an almost radical step for Disney.)

Despite Disney’s pride in delivering a history lesson, the advance word has advised us to approach Pocahontas not as armchair historians but as people who want to be entertained. (Okay, here we are, now entertain us.) In other words, Disney is saying: Get off our backs, we’re doing a good deed here. And I guess in some respects they are. Pocahontas is a decent film for girls, who generally don’t find many role models at the movies, and it’s a long-overdue big fantasy for Native American children. Yet Disney’s fiddling with history has produced a bloodless romance. Pocahontas, a proud young woman who resists marrying her boring intended, meets John Smith, a blandly cute Disney hunk who lands on this strange new territory along with a crew of English settlers searching for gold. Pocahontas and John fall in love because … because there would be no movie if they didn’t. Neither one is a person; they’re both too busy representing something or other. Call me a grinch, but I’m not particularly moved by two abstract concepts falling in love.

Disney already handled the “We’re all the same underneath” theme in Beauty and the Beast, where it resonated more deeply. Belle, a studious girl, learned to love the Beast even though he looked like an upright ox and sounded like Robby Benson talking through a shoe. Pocahontas takes a much more PC approach, never more explicitly than in the number “Savages,” in which the Native Americans and English settlers prepare for battle and denounce their foes as savages (“They’re barely even human”). But is it so unreasonable for the Native Americans to characterize the settlers that way? The romance between Pocahontas and John Smith is meant to be a bridge between cultures, a salve on ancient wounds, but we know that English culture won out and the wounds were mainly Native American. That Disney has received support from Native American groups is irrelevant — how can the studio whitewash this story as a Romeo and Juliet conflict? (Actually, it’s closer to West Side Story, but never mind.) And the movie’s pleas for tolerance are hypocritical in light of the effete villains, who even have a spoiled, plump dog named Percy. With its decadent plummy-accented queers pitted against virile heteros (Mel Gibson provides the speaking voice of John Smith), the movie is flat-out homophobic, a kiddie-musical version of Rob Roy.

Despite that, Pocahontas is a guilty-white-liberal movie. It sees Native Americans through Caucasian lenses: See, underneath that scary warpaint and red skin they’re really just like us. And if they were unlike whites in every possible way, would that justify wiping them almost completely off the face of their own earth? After a while, the movie turns schizo: No, they’re like us except that they respect nature and they don’t believe in guns. (Which made them easy targets until they were forced to start believing in guns.) What lesson will Native American children draw from Pocahontas? “Love thy white neighbor even though he took your country away”? How warmly would the black community receive a cartoon in which a slave woman and a plantation owner fell in love? Would they, too, suck up to Disney for finally putting their people on the screen?

On almost every level, Pocahontas is a mistake, though I did enjoy the clowning of Meeko and Flit. They’re basically leftovers from The Lion King, and I’m aware that Disney threw them in so as to have characters they could convert into stuffed toys, but they give the film what life it has. The anti-gun message is a nice touch, I suppose — two Native Americans are fatally shot, and cannons tear trees apart — but no English settlers get hit by arrows, which makes the Native Americans look fairly ineffectual. And then there’s Pocahontas herself. Lacking a mother (just like every other Disney heroine), she instead has a grandmother-tree, whom she asks for advice about her destiny. But does her destiny have to include romance? Especially with a white guy? (As Pinocchio demonstrated, Disney can actually make a superb fantasy without a whiff of hearts and flowers.) Checking out the hunky John Smith, the grandmother-tree gives the couple her seal of approval. She must not have noticed what his fellow soldiers were doing to her fellow trees.

The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love

June 16, 1995

A breathless, inflated title for a small and charming movie. High-school seniors Randy (Laurel Holloman) and Evie (Nicole Parker) become friends and then girlfriends, dodging the nagging and/or disapproval of everyone around them. Randy, who works at a gas station and lives with her aunt and her lover, is white and middle-class; Evie, a popular girl who drives a Range Rover and lives with her overprotective mom, is black and upper-class. Director Maria Maggenti doesn’t push the possible race and class tensions; she doesn’t push much of anything. The movie is as inoffensive and out-of-your-face as can be, and if not for the occasional R-rated language it could almost be an Afterschool Special. But Maggenti isn’t interested in making a tormented art-house lesbian film (like, say, Claire of the Moon); she presents the girls’ love as a healthy form of teen rebellion. (It’s far better at this than the later Lost and Delirious was.) The climax is funny but implausible until you realize Maggenti doesn’t intend it literally — Randy and Evie learn to ignore the squawking all around them and listen to their hearts. Fun and satisfying, with appealing work by Holloman and Parker (who later both appeared in Boogie Nights — Paul Thomas Anderson must’ve been a fan of this film).

Batman Forever

June 11, 1995

The key to the first two Batman movies — 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, both directed by Tim Burton — was their gloomy ambivalence about the hero. Committed to a huge project he didn’t initiate, Burton showed no interest in the catharsis of crime-fighting; his Batman was a loner haunted by the random murder of his parents, doomed to keep playing the event in his head, sworn to protect the innocents of Gotham from the horror that shattered his life. (Burton and his screenwriters took a page from Frank Miller’s 1986 revival Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.) And Michael Keaton, feeling a bit removed from this strange hero (but relating to his intensity), embodied Burton’s depressed ambivalence: you saw it in the way he held his body — stiff and pinched, even when he wasn’t in costume. Even in 1989, Keaton knew he was too old to run around in a cape, and he gave Batman the weight of uncertainty. Burton and Keaton’s Batman movies are really about two misfits trying to make sense of the all-time misfit: a man preserving peace through violence, upholding the law by breaking it.

The new Batman Forever dispenses with all that bothersome complexity. Despite its stabs at hipness, it’s the campy no-brainer we were afraid the 1989 movie would be. Pinch-hitting for Burton, Joel Schumacher (Falling Down, The Client) tries to make Batman Forever a shoot-the-works bash, a deliberate departure from Batman Returns, which many found “too dark.” But if this director has a personality, it hasn’t snuck into any of his movies. Burton’s controversial gothic gloom is gone, with nothing to replace it; Schumacher has overcorrected and made Batman too light. The director has no talent for action (every fight is shot so close in that you can’t see what’s going on) or for spectacle; generally, he gives us a brief establishing shot of each big, pricey set, which we never see again, and the camera never pauses to take in details. And what we do see gets drowned in pastel strobe lighting. (If I were the set designer on Batman Forever, I’d be pissed.) However, Schumacher (who started out as a costume designer) does show you every contour of the new rough-trade Batman and Robin suits. (For a daffy moment, we seem to be watching superhero fashion porn.)

Val Kilmer steps in as Batman this time. He’s a fine actor — rent Tombstone if you doubt — and he performs smoothly, but the script gives him nothing to play; Batman is reduced to chintzy one-liners and even chintzier flashbacks to his parents’ funeral. Kilmer’s scenes as Bruce Wayne don’t connect with anything he does as Batman. Unlike Keaton’s Bruce, this Bruce isn’t a lonely rich man adrift in his vast manor (like a four-color Charles Foster Kane) — he’s a slickster, a shrewd businessman. With the normally outgoing Keaton, you sensed the tension of the actor’s restraining himself, trying to flesh out a pained man who hadn’t developed a knack for small talk. (There was a sadness in the way Bruce’s attempts at conversation petered out in the first Batman.) When Kilmer wears the Bat-suit, there’s little difference between him and Keaton from the nose down; the continuity of those pursed lips is a mixed blessing, because sometimes I had to remind myself it was Kilmer, especially since both actors have the same aurally enhanced Bat-whisper. And because this Batman (unlike Burton’s) isn’t conceived as a quiet, embattled man seething with pent-up violence, Kilmer’s performance has no tension. The virus of Gotham’s sin hasn’t infected him.

Critics accused the earlier Batman movies of forfeiting the action to the villains, who were more flamboyant than the hero. But Keaton provided a center of stillness, without which the glorious excesses of Nicholson, DeVito, and Pfeiffer would have lacked context. Kilmer isn’t allowed to hold the center; he has too much competition from eager co-stars trying to wrestle it away from him. Four major characters introduced in a sequel are at least two too many. In Batman Forever we have the duelling ids Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey), and, as if they weren’t enough, the long-awaited Robin (Chris O’Donnell) finally hits the big screen. Somewhere in the margins of the movie, Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian tries to light Batman’s fire, but the BDSM-doppelganger sexuality shared by Batman and Catwoman in the previous movie spoiled us for this Kim Basinger-type damsel-in-distress stuff. (Chase is shown to be a good fighter, but she hardly uses her skills.)

So who wins? Chris O’Donnell, the current cover boy of choice, gives a faintly embarrassing “I’m a tough guy now” performance. Near the end, Robin gets all duded up in his fabulous muscle-bound costume and then does … not much. Despite Rick Baker’s yin-yang make-up, Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face couldn’t be less interesting. He does the same flatulent mugging he did in Blown Away and Natural Born Killers; since he also did amazing and subtle work in last year’s Cobb and Blue Sky, I’ll forgive whatever he thinks he’s doing here. It’s up to Jim Carrey, and as soon as the camera singles him out, the movie’s energy level soars; not much later, he takes over completely. Carrey gives the expected Tasmanian-devil performance, but he also lets us share his glee at playing his first villain in a summer blockbuster. His manic vibrancy — he comes up with a terrific diabolical laugh when he kills off his prissy boss — cuts right through the movie’s muddle.

It helps, too, that Carrey is the only actor in Batman Forever who gets to shape his performance — progressing from bitter nerd Edward Nygma, who experiments with brainwaves, to the megalomaniacal Riddler, who beefs up his IQ at the entire city’s expense. By contrast, Two-Face is abruptly thrown into the plot right at the beginning, so that Jones starts off hammy and never varies. We don’t get to meet him (as we did in the comics) as a crusading attorney disfigured and warped by an accident he blames Batman for, though this is explained in a news clip that barely registers. Two-Face seems like an afterthought, and I wondered why the filmmakers didn’t just save him for the next sequel.

Batman Forever is boring and near-unwatchable; its title sums it up with cruel accuracy. But I can see why millions of people will go along with it. It’s a Batman movie, and it’s there, and the trademark pop visuals (what little we see of them — the editing is wretched) make it a must to catch on the big screen. Yet I’d hate to think that people honestly accept this rhythmless blob as entertainment. Joel Schumacher may be going for the freewheeling, boldly colored escapism of the Batman comics of the ’50s, but Dick Tracy already did that sort of thing as well as it can be done. Even Batman’s dark nights of the soul are filmed in Schumacher’s vapid, Michelob-commercial Flatliners mode. Batman Forever has no heft, no specific mood; it’s the latest big, aggressive summer non-movie. It invites comparison (and not flattering, either) with the ’60s Batman TV series, which achieved the same level of proud, idiotic awfulness without having to spend $100 million.

Party Girl

June 9, 1995

Indie princess Parker Posey was supposed to own Hollywood, and Party Girl was the vehicle that was supposed to hand her the keys. It didn’t do much theatrically, though, so Posey had to settle for small roles in big movies and big roles in small movies. The movie has built a vociferous video cult, both among Posey fanatics and among librarians. Many are in both camps, and if you don’t believe a librarian can also be a Parker Posey fan, Party Girl explodes the stereotype. Believe me, more librarians are like Posey than like Nancy Pearl these days.

Posey is Mary, a New York hipster who organizes drink-and-drug-fueled parties for all her hip friends. Yeah, that sounds annoying. It’s sort of meant to be, though the movie is consistently good-hearted, and before long you’re won over by Mary and her crowd. A one-woman United Nations, she embraces interesting, funny people of all nationalities and sexualities, and so does the movie. Party Girl sees New York as a multicultural fairyland where pretty much nobody means any harm.

After the cops bust one of Mary’s parties, she appeals to her godmother Judy (the late Sasha von Scherler Mayer, whose daughter Daisy made her directing debut here) and is offered a job at Judy’s library. It’s a tenuous match at first, but we see that deep down Mary is desperate to be serious about something. Eventually she comes to love the library and its ordered volumes of knowledge; she applies her newfound Dewey Decimal skills to her DJ roomie’s record collection.

The dialogue is often funky and hilarious (I particularly like “They threw me a surprise birthday party without my permission”), though the script could be fresher. Every character has a facile other side to them. Mustafa (Omar Townsend), a falafel street vendor Mary crushes on, is also a teacher. Nigel (Liev Schreiber, rocking a fake British accent), a doorman at a trendy club, shows his true colors in the only plot turn that really doesn’t fit this bubbly movie. Rene (Donna Mitchell), the hard-bitten owner of that club, turns out to be — surprise — not so hard-bitten. And so on.

Mary’s character arc, too, is a bit clichéd. But we understand Mary’s yearning for structure after years of living from party to party, and we get that being organized — whether at work or in her life — fills a deep need for her. Posey gets this across without losing track of what makes Mary fun to watch, and the movie does offer a Marian the Librarian type in the uptight Judy but also offers a staff as ethnically mixed as the rest of the city. And in one good speech, we see that Judy is right to be uptight: nobody respects librarians because reading is a dying art. The film doesn’t indulge in any “shhh” burlesque, which is a relief (if anything it reserves its snark for library patrons).

But it’s safe to say Party Girl wouldn’t be as beloved without Parker Posey, the jewel in this indie crown. She dances, she poses, she looks great in any number of ensembles only she would look great in, she cross-files books. She’s fabulous in a way that few actresses are allowed to be anymore. That she never really hit the big time in Hollywood is a continuing testament to Hollywood’s lack of taste.4