Archive for March 1996

Sgt. Bilko

March 29, 1996

Sgt_Bilko_30190_MediumGeneration X is growing up, and we’re prematurely nostalgic for the Carter-Reagan era. Our taste in retro music shows it (look at the Schoolhouse Rock album), and our tastes in movies are catching up. The recent Executive Decision took care of our yearning for militaristic pulp, and now Sgt. Bilko is here to cash in on our nostalgia for The Jerk and Stripes.

I have a tiny but nagging affection for Sgt. Bilko. It’s the sort of unambitious comedy I might have enjoyed in junior high school, on cable TV. Yet it doesn’t have two original ideas to rub together, and most of it is ramshackle and lame. As usual, director Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny) just points the camera at his cast, hoping they’ll do something funny. Steve Martin, stepping into the big shoes of Phil Silvers (who originated the role on TV in the ’50s), plays Sgt. Bilko as a cross between his Jerk and his Dirty Rotten Scoundrel. It’s a welcome break from Martin’s recent heartfelt sincerity. He has at least one vintage scene, dining in an elegant restaurant with a soldier in drag (don’t ask). In general, Martin seems invigorated, re-animated; he snaps to attention.

If only I could say the same of the movie. The plot is essentially a string of scams and cons leading up to a climax involving a hovering tank. (Large hovercrafts seem to be a trend lately — see Rumble in the Bronx.) For romance, Lynn and writer Andy Breckman throw in Bilko’s long-suffering fiancee (Glenn Headly, doing her best in a thankless role), who’s driven to distraction by the guy’s inability to commit. The rest of the cast, ranging from fresh talents Pamela Segall¹ and Darryl Mitchell to old hands Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman, are all Bilko’s straight men or foils. One actor, Austin Pendleton (the stuttering lawyer in My Cousin Vinny), starts to make an impression as an idiosyncratic tank technician, but he gets lost in the shuffle.

What’s comforting about Sgt. Bilko is also what’s annoying: We’ve seen it before, almost frame for frame, in every other service comedy, especially Stripes. That movie at least pitted its wise guys (Bill Murray and Harold Ramis) against one of the screen’s leading tough guys, Warren Oates. Here the tough guy is Phil Hartman, who just does “The Anal-Retentive Major.” The role needs a true hard-ass — say, Harvey Keitel. And something else haunts me. It seems impossible, but this is actually the first movie pairing of Martin and Aykroyd (the wild and crazy Festrunk brothers!). What should be historic ends up flat. Aykroyd could play a clueless authoritarian in his sleep, and that’s what he seems to do here.

Probably all Sgt. Bilko has going for it, aside from Martin’s deft touch, is that it brings you back to 1981. This is a movie to put on the shelf next to Caddyshack and Meatballs — comedies that Gen-Xers think fondly of, but really aren’t all that hilarious (watch them again now). The scary thing is that, fifteen years from now, the twentysomethings of 2011 may look back fondly on Sgt. Bilko.

¹Otherwise known as Pamela Adlon, who went on to greener pastures in Louis C.K.’s two TV series.

Diabolique (1996)

March 22, 1996

Diabolique is a great chiller that ranks with the best of Hitchcock. It draws you into its web of guilt and complicity, and it takes a long time to shake off. Now for the bad news: The Diabolique I’m talking about is the 1955 French thriller by the ingenious director Henri-Georges Clouzot, a quiet master of the form. The new remake bearing that title might as well be called Plastique.

Director Jeremiah Chechik apparently got the job because of the flair for the macabre he showed in his previous work — National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Benny and Joon. Diabolique is another example of American non-entities being allowed to remake French classics (The Birdcage is an exception). To be fair, Chechik does try to make the movie look and feel European, and he and writer Don Roos (Single White Female) preserve Clouzot’s plot twists (while adding some lame new ones).

But if you’ve seen the original — well, it’s like watching a remake of Psycho and waiting to see whether the new filmmakers will screw up the shower scene. Both versions of Diabolique hinge on a bathroom shock comparable to the one Janet Leigh got. In 1955, nobody saw it coming. In 1996, you’ve likely seen it imitated (if not duplicated) dozens of times even if you missed the original. Does Chechik screw it up? Not really, but he doesn’t improve on it, either — so why do it?

The story remains the same, though transplanting it from France to Pittsburgh seems pointless. (Maybe Chechik hoped some Night of the Living Dead vibes would rub off on him.) What we have now is just a movie about a jerk (Chazz Palminteri) and the two women — his sickly wife (Isabelle Adjani) and his former mistress (Sharon Stone) — who conspire to murder him and are taunted with hints that they botched the murder. The key phrase there is “just a movie”; Clouzot’s film didn’t feel like just a movie. He wasn’t a droll trickster like Hitchcock: he grabbed you with cold hands and never let go, right up until that unforgettable final line, “I saw her. I know I saw her.”

The new Diabolique mostly dispenses with subtlety, contenting itself with regularly scheduled cathartic jolts that pass for suspense in our degraded culture. Clouzot staged the bathroom scene with a nightmarish detachment, whereas Chechik’s version is more like Night of the Living Dead Guy in the Tub. The actors are dead, too. We know Stone can play a cast-iron conniver, Palminteri a lout, and Adjani a vulnerable waif. They go through the motions here, and halfway through Diabolique I started thinking how much more intriguing it might have been if Stone’s and Adjani’s roles were reversed. As a rule, when you sit there mentally recasting a movie for lack of anything else to chew on, the movie is in trouble.

One welcome addition is a female detective, played by Kathy Bates apparently after she watched a Columbo marathon (Columbo, by the way, was inspired by the detective in the 1955 version); she wears a cruddy coat and actually says “Oh, one more thing…” Bates’ no-nonsense performance rides right over the insipid climax, in which Sharon Stone gets funky with a rake. Clouzot made you share the guilt of murderesses; Chechik makes you ponder the horrors of yard equipment. C’est Hollywood.

Girl 6

March 22, 1996

A few months before Get On the Bus, Spike Lee released his biggest flop up to that time, which is actually pretty funny, though the script (by future Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks) is patchy. Theresa Randle is a struggling New York actress who takes a job as a phone-sex worker. She gets hooked on the intimate dirty talk and unwisely gives some callers her home number. One of them is psycho Michael Imperioli, who’d like to rape her while suffocating her with a trash bag. This late-inning shift to queasy suspense cuts the legs out from under the comedy, to say the least. The rest of it is a juicy update of Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It: Lee’s character Jimmy is like Mars Blackmon ten years later, and the monologue Randle delivers for her audition is taken verbatim from Nola Darling’s first speech. Randle is sensuous and smart, and the amusing supporting cast includes Isaiah Washington (as her thieving ex-husband), Debi Mazar, Madonna (who’s not bad as a phone-sex exec — Spike and Madonna had to work together eventually), Quentin Tarantino (as a loutish director named QT), Halle Berry, John Turturro, Richard Belzer, Peter Berg, Naomi Campbell, and Ron Silver. Not one of Lee’s best, but better than most critics claimed. Worth seeing just to catch Spike as George Jefferson.

Flirting with Disaster

March 22, 1996

flirting-with-disaster-1996-ben-stiller-patricia-arquette-tea-leoni-pic-1Flirting with Disaster starts off with a Republican-friendly unit — successful husband, pretty wife, adorable newborn son — and proceeds to trash every possible familial concept.Clearly, this theme is close to David O. Russell’s jaded heart. His previous film, Spanking the Monkey, was a jet-black comedy about an ailing mom who seduces her hapless college-age son. Yet for all his cynicism, Russell doesn’t hate his characters. He sees them as deeply confused human beings whose struggles to preserve family unity are in direct proportion to their inability to do so. His scripts are also rude and profane, which is a big plus.

Flirting with Disaster follows yuppie Mel (Ben Stiller), his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette), and their unnamed baby on a quest across America. Mel, whose new fatherhood has rattled him, thinks that finding his biological parents will give him a better idea of “who he is.” His overbearing adoptive parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal, both hilarious) think it’s a stupid idea, and the movie keeps proving them right.

Mel and Nancy are guided, more or less, by a woman from the adoption agency — Tina (Tea Leoni), one of those people whose confident facade hides the fact that they have no idea what they’re doing. Tina leads the couple to one false parent after another, and this section of the movie gets a little elitist; we’re meant to be mortified by the idea that a Reagan-worshipping woman or a scruffy truck driver could be Mel’s real parents. Then Mel and company arrive in Arizona, where they finally meet the real McCoys — Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, who quickly take over the movie. Playing these ex-hippies (who still drop acid and have their own pharmacological lab in the cellar), the comedy veterans work together so smoothly that Flirting with Disaster would be worth seeing just for their scenes, even if the rest of the movie were junk.

Fortunately, it isn’t. David O. Russell has a sharp ear for satirical dialogue, and he loves to put his characters in the kinds of horrific, embarrassing situations that make you hide your face even as you’re laughing. Like The Birdcage, Flirting with Disaster is a farce — a machine that rolls slowly but surely into chaos. It also rolls right over such things as logic and credibility, but that’s the nature of farce. Usually, some lesson emerges from the wreckage. Here, as in Spanking the Monkey, it’s that the imperfect family unit itself isn’t nearly as destructive as the expectations we attach to it. The pain and comedy of families lie in the distance between the ideal and the reality. In his cheerfully twisted way, Russell is making the healthiest, sanest comedies around — entertainment for the whole dysfunctional family.

Executive Decision

March 15, 1996

Executive Decision is as bland as its title. What’s more, it finally gives us what Hollywood has been threatening for years, the movie nobody was waiting for: Airport ’96. It’s got everything — the mad bomber; the plucky stewardess; the Who’s Who passenger list (though this movie uses character actors, not faded stars as in the Airport series); the hero who knows how to do everything except land a plane, which of course he’s called upon to do.

The plot is one of those bewildering pieces of cheese about terrorists and anti-terrorists, all of whom have huge guns and identical constipated expressions. A famous terrorist has been arrested, and his cohorts hijack an airliner and demand that America set the terrorists free. Or else what? Well, there’s a nerve-gas bomb on the plane, ready to detonate when it lands in Washington.

Kurt Russell, as some sort of fancy intelligence agent, is the only one smart enough to figure out this plan. He and a pack of commandos (led by Steven Seagal) decide to take another plane up and break into the airliner. I’d just as soon not go into how they do it, because it’s complicated and probably the most entertaining section of the movie. After that, though, Executive Decision loses altitude fast.

The two or three remaining members of the Steven Seagal Fan Club should know that his presence in the movie is grossly exaggerated in the ads. Great character actors like J. T. Walsh sit around, obviously bored and wondering when they’ll get to do anything. Joe Morton (as an injured commando) spends most of the film on his back. Halle Berry (as the plucky stewardess) looks anxious. Oliver Platt, who tries to disarm the bomb, sweats a lot and chews a straw. Marla Maples Trump shows up, too, as another stewardess. That’s how you really know this is Airport ’96.

As he proved in StarGate, another throwback to ’70s schlock, Kurt Russell has a way of shouldering a big retro load like this without too much strain. He’s not bad here; as an actor, he always projects solid common sense and intellect, and he keeps Executive Decision halfway watchable. But you’d hardly know from his bespectacled, buttoned-down performance what a witty actor he can be.

Apart from the movie’s specific flaws, there is something distasteful about Hollywood’s insistence on foreign terrorists, especially after the extreme reality slap in Oklahoma City. Executive Decision has an odd and bitter element: The title refers to the government’s decision to destroy the airliner — with 400 innocents aboard — before it can touch down and release the nerve gas. The movie is full of toxic gas itself. It demonizes both foreigners and the U.S. government in a way that reminded me of the militant paranoia of Rambo — the definitive Reagan-era fantasy. Executive Decision would fit better in any era but this one. It’s for people who still want to believe the enemy isn’t us.

If Lucy Fell

March 8, 1996

Scarlett-Johansson-through-years---If-Lucy-Fell-jpgLike most movies of its breed, If Lucy Fell is a tiny blip on the radar. After an exceptionally annoying first reel, though, it settles into its story and actually ascends to not-terrible status. The writer-director-star Eric Schaeffer doesn’t push the unlikely plot (he doesn’t push much of anything), and he has the sense to sprinkle the soundtrack with intelligent songs by the band Marry Me Jane.¹

Schaeffer is Joe, a New York painter who has an odd pact with his roommate Lucy (Sarah Jessica Parker): If neither of them finds love by the time Lucy turns thirty in a month, they’ll both jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. The fact that Lucy is a therapist made me worry about the treatment her patients are getting, if she’s dippy enough to entertain this pact. Let’s just say the premise is idiotic and move on.

Joe and Lucy both find what they think and hope is love — Joe finally gets to meet a distant beauty (Elle Macpherson) he’s been smitten with for five years, and Lucy has childlike fun with a doofus artist named Bwick (Ben Stiller, tossing his fake dreadlocks around). If this is the first movie you’ve ever seen, you will never suspect that Joe and Lucy will become disenchanted with their new partners and rush into each other’s arms at the end. I saw it coming before I even sat down.

Give Schaeffer credit for some balls: He’s written himself a role in which he gets to smooch Elle Macpherson and then dump her. And he endears himself to the audience by being kind to kids and old people. I was waiting for him to go all the way and adopt a puppy, too. (Joe’s only unappealing quality is that he’s a head-grabber during smooching: any woman he kisses, he locks her face between his palms. Ever since a woman friend told me how much this annoyed her when guys did it, I’ve remembered it. Joe wouldn’t have lasted long with her.) These writer-director-actors seem to want to make movies just so they can be cuddly in them; where’s Roman Polanski when we need him? But Schaeffer, like The Brothers McMullen‘s Edward Burns, is a funny and natural actor, and he and Parker have some good gentle moments.

The movie isn’t bad enough to get upset about. It’s the cumulative effect of these Gen-X blips that’s demoralizing. Collectively, they paint a portrait of a generation that takes nothing seriously except themselves, and even the movies that get around our cynicism and hit big with us — ranging in quality from Pulp Fiction all the way down to The Brady Bunch Movie — are stubbornly unserious. If Lucy Fell has a chance to say something substantive about the lonely desperation that can lead to bad relationships, but it sticks to its dumb death-pact gimmick and never dips a toe beneath the surface. At one point, Schaeffer shouts at Parker, “Don’t give me that glib psychobabble!” This critique of his own movie is as devastating as it is unintentional.

¹Whatever happened to Marry Me Jane, anyway?


March 6, 1996

It doesn’t take long before you realize that Fargo, the mesmerizing thriller by Joel and Ethan Coen, is about blankness of all kinds — moral, ethical, emotional. Yet the movie itself is far from blank. In the past, the Coens have been accused of playing art-house film-nerd jokes on the audience. Fargo has its cruel jokes, too, but underneath them is a genuine respect for decency, a sympathy for human frailty. The blankness begins in the opening shot — a car slowly appearing in a completely white frame (white sky, snowy ground) as it heads towards us. This vast whiteness, this void, is a canvas that every character gets to paint on, usually in blood. The opening shot is a chilling image of possibility, a blank page whose emerging text can spell redemption or doom.

Fargo has a rather simple plot. A weaselly car salesman named Jerry (William H. Macy) hatches a plan to pry money out of his rich father-in-law: He hires two thugs to kidnap his wife, hoping to pocket half the ransom money he expects her dad to put up. Jerry, unfortunately, is an idiot, and the pair of thugs (hot-headed Steve Buscemi and cold-blooded Peter Stormare) aren’t Rhodes scholars either. The thugs, it seems, can’t drive three feet without having to resort to violence. Soon, several corpses are left to harden in the snow.

The Coens have visited this territory before, most notably in Blood Simple. What’s fresh about Fargo is its heroine, Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who carries a gun, a badge, and a very pregnant belly (she’s seven months along) that precedes her on the trail of the killers. McDormand, who has always been a great unsung character actress, has her best role yet as the dedicated Marge. The Coens don’t encourage you to laugh at her Minnesota accent (“Yaaah”) or the way she waddles around a crime scene (the unborn life inside her contrasts with the stark evidence of murder). The brothers know they’ve got the best movie heroine in years. Marge is polite, cheerful, whip-smart, and perpetually hungry. She does her part to melt this sharp icicle of a movie.

As usual, the Coens (Joel directs, Ethan produces, they both write the scripts) flood the climax with lurid gore and pain. A wood-chipper is put to bad use, and poor Steve Buscemi takes enough abuse for five movies. That this all happens against immaculate wintry backdrops makes the violence more horrific and more tragic. The blood freezes before it hits the ground. Your blood might freeze, too.

Like Hitchcock and David Lynch, the Coens create a surface of bland normality that gradually devolves into horror and perversity, until finally the perversity runs wild. But Fargo, with its easygoing earth-mother heroine, may be the Coens’ most accessible film yet, and definitely their richest and most mature. In other movies, the Coens got off on coolness bordering on coldness. This time, they show us that warmth can endure in a cold world without losing its vitality. Kind-hearted Marge points the way: The boys may chill our bones, but the woman thaws us out.

Extreme Measures

March 3, 1996

The medical thriller Extreme Measures concerns itself with a neurologist who kidnaps homeless men and conducts experiments on their spinal cords. Ah, the stark realism of these thrillers! The movie is borderline preposterous, but it’s sturdy and professional, and I surprised myself by having a pretty good time with it. It’s tightly constructed, and it takes time to unfold smoothly; if it’s never as scary or provocative as it means to be, at least it’s straightforward and satisfying.

Hugh Grant, as the doctor hero Guy Luthan, provides one of the movie’s more pleasurable surprises by proving he has the chops for a Hollywood thriller. Intelligent yet never arrogant (he’s a model of British self-deprecation), Grant is easily the politest thriller hero in years; when he isn’t saying “Please” and “Thank you ever so much,” he’s apologizing profusely for taking people’s time. Grant’s hesitant persona, sometimes annoying in other roles, works here as a ’90s-guy tribute to James Stewart’s uncertain heroes in Hitchcock’s films.

The script, adapted by Tony Gilroy (Dolores Claiborne) from a Michael Palmer novel, follows Guy as he hunts for information about a homeless man who turned up in Guy’s hospital with mysterious symptoms. The man dies and then vanishes; it becomes clear that someone powerful wants Guy discredited and, if necessary, dead. You’ve seen a lot of this before. But then Extreme Measures turns into an ethical thriller. An ambitious (i.e., mad) neurologist, Dr. Lawrence Myrick (Gene Hackman), has been swiping homeless people and tinkering with them in his secret lab. His goal is to cure paralysis by regenerating damaged nerves, and he believes he’s on the brink of a breakthrough. Your take on Myrick’s mission depends on which description you prefer: “His methods are barbaric, but his motives are good” or “His motives are good, but his methods are barbaric.”

There is a difference. And there is no better actor than Gene Hackman at suggesting the shifting gray tones of morality. When Hackman delivered a long and quite persuasive speech defending his actions, I found myself nodding in agreement with some of it. That’s the mark of a great actor. But then Grant counters with his own speech denouncing the experiments, and I could hear people in the audience agreeing with Grant out loud. I wonder if they’d have done the same if Hackman, not Grant, had been allowed the last word.

But this isn’t a philosophy film; it’s a Hollywood thriller, and it comes down firmly on the side of decency. That’s fine — we know early on that we’re not in Vertigo territory. The ethical questions are there, quite frankly, to restore Hugh Grant’s moral glow after his unfortunate 1995 comedy What Do I Get for Fifty Dollars? Devotees of Freudian symbology will notice that director Michael Apted stages a prolonged and spooky odyssey for Grant inside a dark, wet tunnel. Elizabeth Hurley, the film’s producer, may have appreciated the irony.

Killer Tongue

March 1, 1996

AKA La Lengua Asesina. Good God, was this a letdown. I expected great things, or at least great trash: it has the stellar Melinda Clarke and a suitably absurd premise — a comet lands near Melinda’s house, pieces of it get in her soup, her poodles turn into three drag queens and a gay man, and she gets a massive, deadly tongue that gradually develops claws and starts to talk. This sounds like a godsend for anyone who laughed their way through Re-Animator or Dead Alive, but writer-director Alberto Sciamma never lets the movie chill out for even one second; it’s the Moulin Rouge of horror-comedies, an aggressively over-the-top and incoherent spectacle that almost never makes sense. What’s worse, the American DVD version of this 2.35:1 film is the worst case of clueless cropping I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t especially moved to go find a foreign letterboxed DVD, though. Everyone is coached to overact, especially poor Clarke (who looks terrific in her black bodysuit and black ringlets of hair, but has no character to play) and Robert Englund as a sadistic, crypto-gay prison warden. And nobody else will say it, so I will: the frequent shots of Clarke with the thick, pink, elongated, veiny tongue sticking out of her mouth are nothing if not default oral-sex porno images of her — I was embarrassed for her, and embarrassed for myself for wasting time with this in general. The textbook example of bad trash — trash that tries way too hard to be wild and “outrageous.”