Archive for November 1995


November 22, 1995

What few people know about Martin Scorsese is that he has never made a gangster film. No, really. Mean Streets wasn’t about gangsters, it was about Catholic guilt. GoodFellas wasn’t about gangsters, it was about the American dream as seen in a cracked mirror. Casino isn’t about gangsters, either. Taken together, these films (all set largely in the ’70s, when Scorsese came to prominence) form a trilogy of rise-and-fall stories, lovingly crafted and intricately detailed, addressing all the key American themes: money, sex, power, love, death, religion, family, above all ambition — the hot desire to move up, move out, move ahead. (Scorsese’s camera expresses the motion of motivation.) Casino, a true epic, pulls it all together and yet leaves us with chilling food for thought about what it all means. The movie is about business. There’s business, and then there’s everything else. Eventually there is nothing else.

Scorsese is working again with Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote GoodFellas based on his fascinating piece of journalism Wiseguy. After GoodFellas, Pileggi threw himself into researching the web of mob connections in Las Vegas; his work yielded a book and now this script. Pileggi lets his subjects talk in their own voices, with little authorial intrusion, and both GoodFellas and Casino are densely journalistic. The characters narrate while Scorsese’s images underline (and sometimes contradict) their words. At one point he even provides subtitles translating the code phrases they use to foil the feds. People talk and talk about how Vegas works, and Scorsese’s camera sprints to keep up. He’s like an energetic tour guide making sure we understand everything.

Casino revolves around two hollow men. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a bookie with a scientific genius for picking winners, positions himself as the boss of the mob-run Tangiers hotel. Ace is cool and rational and shrewd — the perfect man to oversee a casino, because he knows it’s in his best financial interests to keep the mob bosses back home happy, and the bosses know he won’t get stupid about the fortunes rolling in. He dresses flamboyantly, in a variety of dandyish pastels ranging from peach to pistachio, but under the suits he’s perhaps the most unflamboyant man Scorsese has ever put on the screen. Ace’s opposite number, and boyhood buddy, is Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), who comes out to Vegas looking to carve himself a niche. Nicky offers his services as Ace’s unofficial muscle, and quickly gains a rep as a mercurial sociopath. Ace may shake his head at Nicky’s savagery, but Nicky is great advertising: To mess with Ace is to mess with Nicky, and you don’t want to mess with Nicky.

Scorsese knows these guys; he’s comfortable with them. But every director has an Achilles heel, and Scorsese’s has always been women. He can see them only from the outside, and the third leg of Casino is weak. Ginger (Sharon Stone), the glamorous hustler whom Ace marries and Nicky has an affair with, has no visible inner life. De Niro narrates, Pesci narrates, even Frank Vincent (as Nicky’s right-hand man) gets to narrate a quick anecdote, but Stone never gets a turn. That’s a shame, because this is Stone’s breakthrough performance — vibrant, alive, operatic in its extremes of mink-fur bliss and bottom-dog torment — all the more so because she’s working against a script that barely bothers to humanize her. Ginger is the wild card, the untrustworthy junkie bitch who brings chaos into the boys’ club. Ace, usually the epitome of caution, throws caution to the wind and falls deeply in love with her, or so we’re told; we don’t really understand why. (The book isn’t much help either.)

Luckily for Scorsese, Casino doesn’t rest its full weight on this ill-starred love triangle (or it would collapse). Its real meat is the tragic theme of the hothead prevailing (with disastrous results) over the cooler head, a Biblical theme (think of Cain and Abel) that links the movie with Mean Streets and GoodFellas. Ace keeps his pulse steady unless something threatens his bottom line: an incompetent slots manager, an inattentive cook in the casino kitchen. (One of the funniest moments in the entire Scorsese portfolio to date occurs here when we get to watch Robert De Niro going ballistic over the amount of blueberry in a muffin.) Nicky, on the other hand, is a back-home street thug with his eyes on the prize. Power to him means being feared. He doesn’t use his head, and after a while the bosses back home start to wonder if he’s worth the trouble. Joe Pesci may seem to have already gotten an Oscar for this performance, but Nicky is different from his other psycho, Tommy, in GoodFellas. Tommy had fun being a hard-ass — that was what made him scary — but Nicky, mesmerized by the gold in the desert, doesn’t have much fun. Money is serious. The more you have, the more you have to worry about losing it.

Even by Scorsese standards, the violence in Casino is exceptionally harsh. There’s not as much of it, and the brutality is parcelled out over three hours, but when it happens, it’s always uniquely grotesque, rage-filled, almost intimate; there are at least three scenes that make the notorious Billy Batts pistol-whipping in GoodFellas look nearly serene. Part of what makes the savagery here so haunting is that there’s no Henry Hill looking on in horror; nobody looks on in horror. To the extent that ghastly beatings and stabbings keep things moving smoothly, they’re tolerated. By the time someone ends up betrayed in the middle of a corn field, beaten beyond recognition and buried alive in the desert, the cruelty has the sting of Greek tragedy.

The men in Casino have calcified far beyond the Ray Liotta character in GoodFellas, who got off on the sensual pleasures of being a hot-shot. These Vegas men, lured long ago by the siren song of money, have long since crashed on the rocks. Ace derives no pleasure from his grandly successful casino or even from his family. De Niro plays his one note skillfully, sometimes introducing a second note — Ace’s conflicted feelings for Ginger, which bring out a frightened vulnerability De Niro hasn’t shown in a while. But ultimately only one thing matters to Ace, and it’s not until he loses everything that he is restored to himself: he goes back to picking winners. It’s a classic Scorsese finish — redemption by self-destruction. Casino has been criticized for being cold, and unfairly compared with GoodFellas, as if the collaboration of De Niro, Pesci, and Scorsese made it an unofficial sequel. Scorsese takes risks based on the nature of his material. Love and honor mean nothing in this movie because in Vegas, nothing means anything except money. As Michael Corleone said, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” Casino is Scorsese’s personal epic about business, and he seals it with a devastating joke. The mob loses its grip on Vegas, and at the end, we see the new casinos — shining castles built by corporations, the mob of the future.

Nick of Time

November 22, 1995

In Nick of Time, a thriller that unfolds (like High Noon) in “real time,” Johnny Depp rides an elevator, and we ride with him; goes to the bathroom, and we accompany him; gets his shoes shined (twice), and we sit with him. Occasionally we cut away from Depp to see what Christopher Walken and Roma Maffia — villains who kidnap Depp’s little daughter to get him to assassinate the governor for him — are doing while Depp is peeing or going up and down. This is all entirely as boring as it sounds. Aside from its time’s-a-wastin’ gimmick (Depp has about 75 minutes to do the deed or his little girl dies, and we experience those 75 minutes along with him), Nick of Time is a standard sub-Hitchcock thing about conspiracies and kindly shoeshine men with wooden legs that come in handy (Charles S. Dutton plays the thankless role here). Viciously impatient and no-nonsense, Walken and Maffia (the heroic attorney from Disclosure) are the only reasons to watch; Depp, making the leap into mainstream “adult” fare after several years of risky roles that didn’t pay off at the box office, gives a novelty performance — look how clean-cut and ordinary he is! — that is perfectly opaque. We can’t begin to identify with him. Another bummer from John Badham, one of the more sadly erratic directors in the business (once capable of Saturday Night Fever, now capable of The Hard Way and Another Stakeout). His time as a respected moviemaker is almost up, if it isn’t already.


November 17, 1995

peliGOLDENEYE1As the 1990s’ reboot of 007 in GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan is under at least as much pressure as Roger Moore was when he took over. But, like Moore (at least in the ’70s), Brosnan wears the pressure gracefully. When Moore became James Bond, in 1973’s Live and Let Die, George Lazenby had already failed to fill Sean Connery’s tux; Connery returned for one (supposedly) last appearance in Diamonds Are Forever and then bequeathed the franchise to Roger Moore, who did something very smart. Realizing that many 007 fans wouldn’t accept him either, Moore projected a certain indifference — “Who cares if you like me? I’m Bond now. Deal with it” — that worked quite well as Bondian insouciance. In his own style, Moore was true to Connery’s cool impassiveness, and he outlasted Connery (until his indifference festered into boredom). Then came Timothy Dalton, a fine, classically trained actor who took the role altogether too seriously (this from the man who’d seemed able to camp it up in 1980’s Flash Gordon); he outlasted Lazenby by one film. Now comes Pierce Brosnan, who would have been Bond instead of Dalton if he hadn’t been tied to Remington Steele. He stands in relation to Moore and Dalton the way Moore stood in relation to Connery and Lazenby, and there’s the added pressure of proving the Bond franchise still has legs.

Should we care? I don’t have an emotional stake in James Bond. The movies are essentially Cold War cartoons having no more to do with reality than Boris and Natasha, and many of the 007 films have a lot of dead space in between the outlandish stunts. The latter isn’t true of GoldenEye, which, under the direction of Martin Campbell (No Escape), moves like a bullet. And Brosnan, like Moore, understands that Bond isn’t a serious endeavor. The idea is to have fun in the role and look slick doing it. He does. GoldenEye isn’t anything great, but it’s certainly one of the least boring Bond entries (how’s that for damning with faint praise?), and Brosnan takes much of the credit. Some of Bond’s demons parallel Brosnan’s (Bond lost his wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Brosnan lost his wife to cancer), and Brosnan brings this to Bond without making a big point of it or weighing the action down. Bond’s womanizing and brutality, we realize now more than ever, were cemented when he lost the only woman he would ever truly love.

Oh, yes, and stuff blows up too. GoldenEye delivers the goods — the massive set pieces so absurd the audience laughs and gasps at the same time. If you blink, you miss the plot, which has something to do with computers and big weapons and a scheme to wipe out England’s economy. (If the movie is a big hit, it can only reflect the deep American concern about the well-being of British finance.) Sean Bean, unmemorable as the terrorist villain in Patriot Games, is equally forgettable here as the renegade Agent 006, the big arch-villain this time. He has issues with Bond dating back to a shared botched caper, and he sports a Blofeld facial scar that makes him no less boring. His cohort is Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a hyperventilating man-killer who crushes her victims between her powerful thighs. This is perfectly in keeping with the Bondian take on sexual women: They’re fine if they can be seduced; if they’re the seducers, watch out. The woman-who-can-be-seduced here is Izabella Scorupco as Natalya, a smart Russian computer hacker. Think Sandra Bullock in The Net with a Natasha accent. Perhaps the biggest challenge Bond faces in GoldenEye is how to peel off all of Natalya’s layers of frumpy clothes.

All this, and stuff blows up, too. If the Bond films have one saving grace, it’s their escalating game of “We bet you haven’t seen this before, or if you have, you haven’t seen it this ballsy.” GoldenEye sets the tone right off the bat, when Bond hops onto a motorcycle, chases a pilotless plane off a cliff, goes into free-fall, catches up to the plane, slips behind the controls, and pulls it out of a certain crash. Even Indiana Jones would be impressed. Indy would, however, know what to do with the tank near the end. When 006 seizes Natalya, Bond comes after them in a massive Russian tank, bashing through cars on the street and finally derailing a train. Brosnan (in his close-ups, anyway, when we’re not watching his stunt doubles) plays these scenes wittily, striking the ideal balance between self-aware parody and focused seriousness. So does the director. GoldenEye in general is fast and light.

Is this what movies were meant to do? It’s what Bond movies were meant to do, anyway, and though the 007 movies feel less liberating and fresh now that we routinely get a dozen big, dumb spectacles a year, at least the Bond revival may show Hollywood how it should be done. If the series can stay as painless and mindlessly engaging as GoldenEye, it has a future.

The Crossing Guard

November 15, 1995

In recent years, Jack Nicholson has pulled himself out of his crowd-pleaser rut. Nicholson spent much of the ’80s coasting; a lot of it was brilliant, entertaining coasting, to be sure, but audiences came to expect the standard Jack tricks — the eyebrows, the insinuating voice that could read from an ingredients label and make it sound dirty, the wild and crazy extremes of rage and contempt. When I saw The Shining on the big screen years after its initial release, once in 1993 and again in 1994, the mostly college-age audience laughed at everything Nicholson said. They couldn’t even wait for him to go nuts; they cracked up at the stuff he said when he was supposed to be normal.

Can such an entertainer ever again be taken seriously as an actor — as someone who wants you to believe he’s someone else? Gradually, Nicholson has been restoring some purity to his performances, even if you had to sit through some turkeys to see the restoration. In the chaotic dud Hoffa, he certainly tried something different; wearing a false nose that threw his whole face out of whack, Nicholson embodied Jimmy Hoffa without a trace of the familiar “Jaaack” — he was playing a tough, monomaniacal bastard. (It was certainly a more daring performance than his audience-tickling mustache-twirling in the contemporaneous A Few Good Men.) In Wolf, a kind of bookend piece to Carnal Knowledge, Nicholson showed considerable subtlety and vulnerability. He seemed to understand that he could no longer play the guy with the biggest cock on the block — that it was a lie, a joke. And in The Crossing Guard, Nicholson unveils what may be his most powerfully naked performance ever. I’d gladly trade all his strutting in Batman and A Few Good Men for the heart-stopping scene in The Crossing Guard when Nicholson, playing a broken man who’s never gotten over the death of his daughter, makes a late-night call to his ex-wife. Desperate for contact, for sanity, for anything, he breaks down until his words blur into a prolonged, anguished wail. It’s probably the wildest, most extreme moment of his career (some members of the audience will be forced to avert their eyes in shocked embarrassment, the way some responded to Marlon Brando’s comparable moment in Last Tango in Paris), a major risk that pays off big.

The movie itself, written and directed by Sean Penn, is dark and literary, sometimes slow, quite often pretentious. I’d be surprised if Penn’s script came in at anything over 80 pages, because he goes in for a lot of brooding close-ups, as well as way too much slow-mo — so much that I felt as if I were underwater. To be blunt, the movie feels padded and awkward. But the awkwardness grew on me. Penn is an honest director, as he always is as an actor. (He could’ve coasted for years on Jeff Spicoli but didn’t.) I came to value the clumsy moments in which Penn seemed to be groping for truth and meaning along with the characters. I’d call him the next John Cassavetes if his movies had Cassavetes’ improvisational spin, but they don’t. As a writer, Penn is like the star student in a fiction-writing class; he presents his themes neatly, with an artistic plainness. The Crossing Guard is about men and their guilt, and the women who want to love them but can’t cut through the guilt and self-hatred.

The plot is simple: A grieving father, Freddy Gale (Nicholson), has sworn to kill John Booth (David Morse), who killed Freddy’s daughter six years ago in a drunk-driving accident. Freddy has waited all these years for Booth to get out of jail, and when he does get out, Freddy comes to visit him with a gun. Revenge will give his life meaning. “I’m a jeweler,” Freddy spits at Booth. “I own a jewelry store. That’s who I am. Do you know what I’m talking about?” Freddy has nothing except long, boozy nights with his cronies at a strip joint; he takes the occasional stripper to bed, but they give him no pleasure — like booze, they just numb his pain for a while. Booth, meanwhile, struggles to live with what he did. “I’m not an unhappy person,” he tells his parents. “I’m a person who has caused unhappiness, who has caused death.” These self-defining moments sum up the best and worst of Penn’s writing: they’re too explicit by half, but they give some sense of the awkwardness of men fighting to understand themselves.

The women who fight to understand the men are a different story. Penn doesn’t neglect them, exactly; the dialogue he gives them is true, and he doesn’t demonize them. And maybe if he’d given them more screen time The Crossing Guard wouldn’t have been a completely different movie, but it would almost certainly be a richer, more balanced one. Freddy’s ex-wife Mary (Anjelica Huston, focused and intense in what amounts to a prolonged three-scene cameo) has hated him since their daughter died; she needed him to be strong for her, and instead he fell apart and fell away. Since their divorce, she’s remarried and tried to move on — he hates her for her ability to move on, and she hates him for his inability to move on. (In six years, Freddy hasn’t even been able to visit the grave.) This is a primal male-female conflict, and Nicholson and Huston — who, as we all know, were together for years before a bitter break — sink their sharpest teeth into it.

But I could have done with less slow-mo Freddy walking down the street and more scenes with Mary and her new family life. Does she, as Freddy suggests, secretly want him to kill Booth? If so, is Freddy meant to be her id — the demon consumed by grief and need, rejecting the comforts of family? The appearance of Robin Wright as an artist who’s uneasily attracted to Booth likewise raises more questions than it answers. Wright has made quite a career of getting stuck with screw-ups and psychos (Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, abusive hippies in Forrest Gump), so she’s equipped to make us understand why an intelligent woman would want to get involved with a man with an obvious gallery of flaws — which is good, because the script is no help. She’s in the movie, basically, to tell Booth to get over himself and embrace life, not death.

That’s the lesson of the movie — again, perhaps too neatly presented. But if the scheme of the film is neat, the emotions push it into something messier and more vital. The two self-loathing men face each other, and themselves, over the grave of the girl whose death has deformed them and linked them. Penn takes his time: The climax is drawn out and lumpy, but also moving, like everything else in the movie. Penn seals The Crossing Guard with a gesture that, unlike an identical gesture in Michael Mann’s Heat, has real resonance. The men, confronted with the physical fact of the girl’s death, realize that nothing they can do will undo what has been done; they also realize that their problems go deeper than mourning or guilt. The Crossing Guard takes us beyond pain and grief into something like grace.

Total Eclipse

November 3, 1995

Total boredom. Christopher Hampton adapted his 1967 stage play, which should’ve stayed back in the dippy ’60s where it belonged; Agnieszka Holland directs with almost none of the lyrical imagery of her earlier work. The movie is a romantic-masochistic debauch of the sort that may please pompous high-schoolers who’ve just discovered that dead poets were, like, real rebels. Arthur Rimbaud (the embarrassingly American Leonardo DiCaprio, completing his fucked-up-budding-writer trilogy begun with This Boy’s Life and The Basketball Diaries) is a rude, crude poet ahead of his time; he’s Holden Caulfield, he’s James Dean, he’s Jim Morrison, he’s a screaming asshole. Paul Verlaine (the usually fine David Thewlis, nearly unwatchable here) is a pathetic wretch, a failed poet, who idolizes Rimbaud and has an obsessive love affair with him. See Rimbaud and Verlaine get tanked on absinthe, baa like sheep, and put bloody holes in each other’s hands! See Rimbaud piss on another poet’s work, cavort naked on a roof, and bark at a dog sculpture! See the giggling Verlaine set fire to his wife’s hair! Boy, those French poets sure were wild and crazy guys! The only way this material could possibly be played is as scabrous comedy, but Hampton and Holland treat it as deathless tragedy. “The unbearable thing,” muses Rimbaud, “is that nothing is unbearable.” Obviously he hadn’t seen this movie.