Archive for February 1996

The Young Poisoner’s Handbook

February 23, 1996

Here’s one for fans of A Clockwork Orange (it even uses Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” otherwise known as the “Title Music” from Clockwork). Hugh O’Conor, who played the young Christy Brown in My Left Foot, looks a bit here like John Cusack with Peter Lorre’s buggy eyes. As Graham Young, a British kid with an unnatural interest in chemistry, O’Conor lets those eyes pop open wide as he stares without malice at the results of his work: unsuspecting friends and family members expiring slowly and painfully from poison. As he “experiments” dispassionately, we hear his narration explaining how everything is going according to plan. This first feature by Benjamin Ross is striking for its consistent perverse tone of muted sadistic optimism, yet when we see what Graham’s experiments do to people, especially his wretchedly suffering stepmother, whatever laughter we might’ve indulged in is cut off coldly. A remarkable experience, brother to Clockwork Orange in more ways than one, yet also its own chilly beast. O’Conor delivers one of the great hateful/sympathetic performances. This deserves better than the relative obscurity it’s been dealt. I was surprised to find that the writer/director is the same Benjamin Ross who directed the universally yawned-at RKO 281. Don’t hold that against him.

Rumble in the Bronx

February 23, 1996

rumbleinthebronx1995112Correct me if I’m wrong, but nobody ever went to a Fred Astaire musical for the plot. They came to see Astaire do his thing. It may seem absurd to compare Jackie Chan with Astaire, but bear with me. When the song-and-dance movies died, the beauty of physical movement all but disappeared from screens. Then Bruce Lee came along. Within the martial arts format, Lee inaugurated a violent new brand of ballet. Then he died. Since then, we’ve had skillful but uninspired clunkers like Sonny Chiba and Steven Seagal — bruisers giving martial arts a bad name.

Actually, we’ve had another great fighter-dancer for the past twenty years. America has been oblivious to him until now. His name is Jackie Chan, and he has tried to kick through American apathy twice before — in 1980’s The Big Brawl and in 1985’s The Protector. His new one, Rumble in the Bronx, is the 42-year-old international star’s calling card to the west. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a decent showcase for a great star.

People will probably go to laugh, to goof on the movie. But watch what Jackie Chan does, and try to be unimpressed. Chan, who does all his own stunts, has the most fluid and gravity-defying moves since Bruce Lee, and he isn’t a grim punisher like Chiba or Seagal — he’s an entertainer. The word that best describes him, crazy as it sounds, is “sweet.” He has an easy manner, and when he smiles he looks so goofy yet so delighted that you can’t help smiling along with him.

I love, for example, the way he deals with a scuzzy gang of motorcycle creeps. After dispatching what seems like dozens of them, he stands back and says, “I hope that the next time we meet, we will not be fighting, but instead drinking tea together” — and he means it. Chan only fights when he’s forced to, and even then he’s not vicious. He fights to give us a virtuosic show, not to destroy people. The only time he gets really mad is when some bad guys, looking for stolen diamonds, threaten a wheelchair-bound little boy he has befriended.

Director Stanley Tong, who has a stunt background himself, doesn’t really know what to do with the camera in the dialogue scenes. When it matters, though, his work is crisp and unintrusive. The fight choreography is flat-out brilliant; there’s one brawl — involving a shopping cart, a fridge, you name it — that is easily the funniest and most exhilarating sequence of mayhem I’ve seen since Harrison Ford hung up his fedora. Tong realizes that Chan is the best special effect a director could want. Chan does something no other star can do by himself: he gives us back a childlike sense of awe.

And the plot? This is the plot: Every ten minutes or so, Jackie Chan gets into a fight; everything else is filler. This is the plot of every Jackie Chan movie, as well as every Bruce Lee movie (and every Fred Astaire movie, if you substitute dancing for fighting). Some may say Rumble in the Bronx uses Jackie Chan to make up for not having a story. I say most other movies use a story to make up for not having Jackie Chan.

Mary Reilly

February 23, 1996

maryshelly-mainThe stuffy clothes, the furtive repression, the Victorian drizzle and fog …. Mary Reilly will undoubtedly leave many people cold, but I snuggled into its bleakness. This film has been shot (by Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot) to be as black-and-white as a movie can possibly get and still be in color, and the world it shows us is one big grainy haze — the gray area between virtue and sin, love and horror. Mary Reilly deserves a bigger audience than it got in this country, not least because it offers Julia Roberts’ true breakthrough performance, with no glamour whatsoever but plenty of power.

Roberts gives herself totally to Mary Reilly, a maid in the house of Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Malkovich). Throughout the movie, Mary is like a frightened bird, always having her wings clipped by one abusive man or another. But Jekyll is kind to her, and he draws her into a small degree of intimacy by inquiring where she got the odd scars on her wrists and neck. He seems to respond to the pain and anger she carries around (but never expresses), but she doesn’t know what to make of the signals he’s sending.

It soon becomes clear that this gentle man of science is keeping a lid on a huge, steaming pot of sexual aggression. An assistant, Edward Hyde, enters the picture and …. Well, we know who Hyde actually is. But Mary doesn’t. Or does she? Director Stephen Frears and writer Christopher Hampton (who previously collaborated on Dangerous Liaisons) slyly suggest that Mary knows more than she lets on, even to us. Comforted by the tender Jekyll, attracted to the savage Hyde, Mary is as divided as the doctor himself. And both men need her desperately.

Mary Reilly probes the raw flesh under this woman’s sexual scars. The moviemakers, adapting Valerie Martin’s novel, imply that Mary’s preoccupation with her strange master is her way of empowering herself — allowing herself to be drawn to a man who is both dangerous and safe. In Mary’s tense moments of passion or peril, Roberts lets her face go utterly blank, a brave choice bound to be misinterpreted. Though her accent comes and goes, Roberts subtly communicates the shifting emotions of a woman shrinking in fear of herself. The beast in her is the Victorian beast of the sexual woman (embodied by Glenn Close in a sneering, mega-campy turn as a whorehouse madam).

As for Malkovich, his Hyde isn’t quite as creepy as you might hope. (His Jekyll is creepier, probably by design.) That dead voice he uses is effective but indifferent, as if he didn’t want to commit to his dialogue. And neither he nor Roberts can rescue the climax, which is far too literal (it reeks of studio meddling) and betrays the ambiguous tone the moviemakers have sustained so elegantly.

But even this parting shot in the foot doesn’t cripple the movie. Mary Reilly is a mood piece in grays and blacks; the only spots of vivid color are the flowers in Mary’s tiny garden and the blood of Englishmen (and women). Its one-two combo of hot desire and freezing rain gives you a Jekyll-Hyde fever.

City Hall

February 16, 1996

936full-city-hall-screenshotIn City Hall, a panoramic drama about New York politics and corruption, men in expensive suits — good men and bad men — sit and whisper to each other about deals and favors and money. The power plays and intrigues have the hushed intimacy of the courtship rituals in Sense and Sensibility, and the movie is seductive as it slowly unfolds. How sad, then, that it unfolds to reveal … nothing much we don’t already know. City Hall is smart and eloquent, yet aside from the incident that sets the plot in motion, it has no power. It’s neither steak nor sizzle.

Somewhere in Brooklyn, a policeman and drug dealer get into a brief shoot-out. One of the stray bullets kills a six-year-old black boy standing nearby. Immediately, the bombastic mayor, John Pappas (Al Pacino), and Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) leap into damage control. This tragedy, spring-loaded with racial tension, threatens the mayor’s plans to build a bank. To establish himself as a mayor who cares, Pappas surrounds himself with distinguished members of the black community, then attends the boy’s funeral and makes an overwrought speech over the casket. Meanwhile, the young and idealistic Calhoun digs into the origins of the shooting. We assume he’ll uncover a trail of corruption leading back to Pappas — otherwise the movie has little point — and we’re not wrong.

City Hall is packed with top-drawer actors (Bridget Fonda, Martin Landau, Danny Aiello, David Paymer), but the director, Harold Becker, only has eyes for Pacino and Cusack. They reward him with rich performances; Cusack shines in his first real adult role, and Pacino does some amazing things with his voice (he doesn’t resort, as he did in Heat, to shouting when he doesn’t know what else to do). The movie promises to be a complex tour of the corridors of power, and sometimes it succeeds, but anyone who follows politics with any attention at all will shrug at most of it. The heart of City Hall is the gray-haired story of the fresh-faced idealist disillusioned by his not-entirely-spotless mentor.

Maybe it had to be that way. The script, initiated by former deputy mayor (under Ed Koch) Ken Lipper, was handed off to Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), then to Nicholas Pileggi (Casino), then to Bo Goldman (Scent of a Woman). Too many cooks may have spoiled this broth, heated over a very low flame by director Becker (Sea of Love). Past masters like Coppola, Welles, and Oliver Stone (in Nixon) have probed the anatomy of power in all its juiciness and ugliness. Becker is a solid craftsman who, unlike the populist Pappas, has no fire in his belly. The work is intelligent, conscientious, and bland.

By the end, the pivotal shooting just seems like a random, abstract incident — a mere springboard for an ambitious but unsatisfying meditation on the morality of power. We hear far more from Pappas’ spin doctors than we do from the slain boy¹s grieving father, who gets in one word of dialogue. Both convoluted and abbreviated, City Hall plays a losing game: Harold Becker tries to say in two hours what it took Coppola all three Godfather movies to say.

Beautiful Girls

February 9, 1996

Timothy Hutton is a failed piano player who comes home to snowy Massachusetts and finds all his friends exactly as he left them, stuck in the same nowhere jobs and stagnant relationships. Sounds as entertaining as a tumor, but Beautiful Girls is consistently smart and funny — sharply written and well-acted, with an authentic Bay State fatalism underlying every scene. Matt Dillon, Michael Rapaport, and Max Perlich make their living by plowing snow before the sun comes up. The women in town (Mira Sorvino, Lauren Holly, Martha Plimpton, Anne Bobby) torture themselves trying to figure out these men and their supermodel-influenced fear of commitment. (The guys all seem to be holding out for Cindy and Elle.) The saner women are essentially outsiders: Rosie O’Donnell barges into the movie and blasts the guys for their obsession with tits; Uma Thurman, the visiting cousin of barkeep Pruitt Taylor Vince, resists the men’s feeble come-ons; Annabeth Gish, Hutton’s lawyer fiancée, has competition from precocious girl-next-door Natalie Portman (in the film’s best performance). Director Ted Demme and writer Scott Rosenberg add many touches that ring refreshingly true — my favorite is the ’80s-rock station Rapaport listens to. One of the best films about the so-called “Generation X,” unfairly dismissed by some impatient baby-boomer critics. Also with Noah Emmerich, Richard Bright, David Arquette, Sam Robards, and a rousing group rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Demme’s next was Monument Ave, though he also directed a Denis Leary concert film for HBO (Lock ‘n’ Load) before that.

Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam

February 9, 1996

A sleaze-world Rashomon, carried out with comic perseverance by British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac). In the months after Heidi Fleiss’s arrest and detox period, Broomfield sniffs around the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles — the porn actresses, the rough men and women who cater to the basest instincts, the blonde prostitutes available to sheiks and Hollywood royalty. That L.A. is a moral pit has become a banal truism; the shocking thing about this largely unsensationalized film is its unblinking gaze upon the flesh merchants who justify their livelihood with depressing glibness. Broomfield goes back and forth between Heidi’s two evil mentors: Madam Alex, who once ruled the Hollywood-hooker roost, and Ivan Nagy, a consummate scumbag and everyone’s worst nightmare of a decadent Hollywood “filmmaker.” Finally we sit for a prolonged talk with the woman herself, who speaks eloquently and nervously on her behalf. We decide that Heidi the media harlot is the most trustworthy person on view. But Broomfield doesn’t stop there. By the very end, we don’t know whom to believe, and we are relieved to be freed from the fog of contradictions and self-justifying rhetoric; we need some air. The movie’s poker-faced accumulation of lies and glimmers of truth is devastating; it has the force of great satire, all the more powerful for being real.

Broken Arrow

February 9, 1996

broken-arrow-movie-still-5“Broken arrow,” we are told, is the government term for a lost nuclear missile. Freudians will know better. Broken Arrow, John Woo’s let’s-see-what-we-can-blow-up-next action romp, is loaded with enough phallic symbols (missiles, guns, knives, trains) to keep Quentin Tarantino happily theorizing for weeks. The bad guy, cocky military pilot John Travolta (think Han Solo crossed with Vincent Vega), steals not one but two thermonuclear missiles; the good guy, heroic but untested Christian Slater (think nobody in particular — Slater’s gun does his acting here), must outwit Han Vega and recover the missiles. The movie is infatuated with potency games and one-upmanship. Who’s got the missile? John Wayne Bobbitt could tell you what “broken arrow” really means in this macho-showdown context.

Broken Arrow, like the recent From Dusk Till Dawn, is so unapologetically what it is — lowbrow crapola — that you either roll with it or roll your eyes at it. If only the script, indifferently sketched in by Graham Yost (Speed), didn’t make eye-rolling so easy. This writer seems taken with hurtling vehicles and young heroes challenging older psychos (as Keanu Reeves did with Dennis Hopper) — he must have seenStrangers on a Train as a kid and never gotten over it. Yost’s scripts are skeletons onto which gifted directors (Speed‘s Jan de Bont, and, in this case, the legendary John Woo) can graft meaty action sequences. But those hoping for witty dialogue, due to the presence of Tarantino alumni Travolta and Slater, are in for a dry evening. Yost can’t get enough of lines like “We gotta get outta here!” and “We don’t have time to discuss it!” (Quentin would have given them plenty of time.)

While Travolta calmly executes anyone who threatens his plan (“I don’t see what the big deal is,” he muses after making his first close-range kill), Slater tracks him across the desert with the help of brave park ranger Samantha Mathis. Though stuck in a Sandra Bullock clone role, Mathis transcends the thousand annoying “What’s going on?” lines that mar her first half hour. Slater apparently doesn’t have time to have a personality in this movie, but Mathis has enough for both of them. She’s not impressed by the boys with big guns.

Two other guided missiles give Broken Arrow semi-nuclear capability. Behind the camera: John Woo, the Hong Kong master of crescendo cinema, whose movies (The Killer, Hard Boiled, and this one) elevate gunplay and explosions to concussive ballet. On the screen: John Travolta, whose recent tough-guy performances (Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, and certainly this one) make smug aggression seem like a state of grace. They both have elegant moves, and they turn this mosh pit of a script into an intricate, rather beautiful dance of momentum and force. Broken Arrow is good trash; to be great trash, it needs a screenwriter who knows it’s trash and proceeds from there.

Antonia’s Line

February 2, 1996

Holland’s Best Foreign Film winner of 1995 is a spellbinding multigenerational fairy tale spanning the latter half of the 20th century. Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy in a lovely performance) returns to her hometown after World War II, accompanied by daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans). They have come to bury Antonia’s dotty but still-alive mother, who dies after snapping at Antonia, “You’re late!”At the funeral, Danielle sees the old woman sit up in her coffin and start crooning “My Blue Heaven.” That’s writer-director Marleen Gorris’ tip-off that the movie isn’t meant to be taken literally.

As “season follows season,” the movie becomes a catalogue of offenses against women, but Gorris doesn’t stoop to man-bashing (though, like Thelma & Louise, the film was wrongly slammed for it by some critics). Each member of Antonia’s line — her artistic daughter Danielle, her musical/mathematical whiz granddaughter Therese, and her great-granddaughter Sarah, who will grow up to be a writer and tell the story we’re watching — represents different creative responses to life and death. Antonia herself, presiding warmly over her flock, comes to seem like something of a goddess — but one who flouts conventional morality by taking a lover and disregarding marriage. Her commitment to freedom both strengthens and warps those who emulate her example. The movie is a dream of freedom but not quite an idyll; it’s both harsh and gentle, sensual and intellectual, wise-ass and heartfelt — it’s a full package.