Archive for May 1996

Welcome to the Dollhouse

May 24, 1996

From the ashes of Todd Solondz’ ignored debut Fear, Anxiety and Depression rose the phoenix of his second film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. If not for the fact that Solondz disgustedly gave up on movies (based on the studio hassles on his first one) and went into teaching, he wouldn’t have collected some of the material that made Dollhouse a critical favorite and rejuvenated his career. Life does sometimes work like that.

This may remain Solondz’ most user-friendly comedy, at least until he pulls a Straight Story and goes G-rated or something, but it still couldn’t have been easy to market. The trailer made it look like the kind of whimsical revenge-of-the-nerd comedy it isn’t — it included all the funny scenes of junior-high hell we can all relate to, but was careful to leave out the painful, uncomfortable bits. Solondz’ movies are really off-center psychodramas with occasional comic relief. Anyone expecting a bouncy, colorful trifle about a geeky girl who triumphs over her tormentors and gets the boy will instead find a story that seeks uneasy laughs in a little girl’s kidnapping and a class bully’s threat of rape.

Yet Dollhouse is consistently funny, starting with Heather Matarazzo’s indie-film-star-making performance as Dawn Wiener, aka Wiener Dog, a tacky dresser and wallflower with blocky glasses and a chinless overbite. Matarazzo, in photos out of this character, is actually rather pretty, and has a warmer smile than she allows herself as Dawn, whose grins in her rare moments of happiness always look pained and desperate. Still, Matarazzo fearlessly lets Solondz dorkify her and stays inside Dawn’s anguish and resentment. Dawn isn’t a lovable martyr, either — she can be prickly, and often has heated exchanges with her older brother Mark (Matthew Faber, looking like a young Bill Gates) and younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina) — especially Missy, whom her parents adore.

Dawn, who probably never expected to give or receive romantic attention, finds herself at the center of the weirdest triangle in recent movies. She falls haplessly in love with Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius), a long-haired high-school hunk who sings and plays guitar in Mark’s band. This part of the movie is a little stale; it doesn’t speak well of Dawn’s taste that she would fall for such an airhead, but then teenagers usually don’t get to pick the objects of their undying love (come to think of it, neither do adults). Competing for Dawn’s affections, in his own bizarre way, is the loutish Brandon (Brendan Sexton III), who torments her and says he’ll rape her after school. Yet we discover that Brandon’s bully act is just that, an act, and that he wants to be in her thoughts in some way, even dread-ridden thoughts.

Solondz puts Dollhouse in neutral for a while, observing Dawn’s misfortunes with Steve and Brandon, and with her unsympathetic parents, who want to tear down her secret clubhouse in the yard to make room for the anniversary party they’re throwing themselves. The last act, when Missy goes missing and we’re invited to giggle at her mom’s overplayed agony, gets a little iffy. But then that’s the turf Solondz knows best — the stuff we don’t normally laugh at, or aren’t supposed to laugh at. Dollhouse deservedly established Solondz, seven years late, as a talent to watch. At its best it’s like the funniest yet bleakest comic book Dan Clowes never drew; it would make a perfect double bill with Ghost World, and I can imagine Dollhouse being a favorite film of Enid and Rebecca, and vice versa.

Mission: Impossible

May 22, 1996

It isn’t until Mission: Impossible is almost finished that you realize it never actually started. This, I hope, will be the emptiest spectacle of the season (God help us if they get any emptier) — a pointless, aggressive non-movie to rival Batman Forever. Summer blow-outs like this can bring out the Chicken Little in those who care about film: The sky is falling! Cinema is dead — long live the corporate thrill-machines!

The director, Brian De Palma, is a past master at operating thrill-machines (Blow Out, Carrie, The Untouchables, a host of others). So I don’t understand why this one crashes so often. There are a handful of witty De Palma touches, but after a while it gets depressing to sit there and count all the De Palma-isms for lack of anything else to hold your interest. It’s like hearing sporadic Jimi Hendrix riffs scattered amid two hours of Muzak.

Mission: Impossible has a headache-inducing plot that I’d just as soon not explore in depth. Secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), working for veteran spy Jim Phelps (Jon Voight, in for Peter Graves), gets caught up in a scramble for a valuable computer disk, and some agents trust him, even if he doesn’t trust them …. I can feel the pounding behind my left eye. I don’t remember why the disk is valuable, and I don’t care.

Nor, evidently, did De Palma, or the screenwriters (Robert Towne, Steven Zaillian, and David Koepp are credited), or anyone else involved in the movie. Mission: Impossible is vague and dull in an infuriating way: Nothing is at stake, nobody on the screen means anything to us. (At least Twister found a few seconds for characterization — banal characterization, granted, but still.) It starts loudly and confidently and maintains that pitch, but it’s all bluff.

De Palma has rounded up a stellar international cast (Vanessa Redgrave, Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames), only to forget about them or to kill them off rudely; any movie that loses Kristin Scott Thomas in the first reel obviously has no priorities. Mostly, De Palma sticks with his unexciting star, who is also the co-producer, unfortunately. Cruise himself is a bit of a machine, but De Palma can’t rewire him. Cruise has only one thing on his hard drive: cockiness.

Two sequences stand out: a nail-biting entry into a heavily-guarded computer room, and the outrageously phallic climax involving a train, a helicopter, and a tunnel. De Palma pumps up the action the way he always does, turning suspense into a sly joke. But too often the action simply collapses into bombastic special effects that your cousin Floyd could direct, given $70 million and cutting-edge computer pizzazz. De Palma inserts his first joke at the end of the opening credits, when his name appears over an image of a tape famously self-destructing. But the joke may be on him. This Mission results in the self-destruction of a great film artist for the sake of Hollywood, commerce, and star ego. It’s a mission De Palma shouldn’t have chosen to accept.

Dead Man

May 17, 1996

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a pristine and delicate mood piece — or, at least, as delicate as a movie with such alarming incidents of violence can be. Surely it wasn’t his intention, but Jarmusch, in opting for black and white photography (world-class D.P. Robby Müller did the honors, in a portfolio of lush, stark beauty that warrants inclusion among the all-time finest achievements of cinematography), found a way around the MPAA’s overactive gag reflex. Certainly such images as a fresh corpse’s skull crushed under an assassin’s heavy boot, followed by a sprightly dual jet of blood through the nose, would have dared an NC-17 rating if shot in color.

The first five minutes — the deceptively lugubrious train journey of William Blake (Johnny Depp) to the hellish town of Machine, where an accountancy job supposedly awaits him — show you exactly why Jarmusch dismissed color this time out. Jarmusch must’ve seen how much fun David Lynch had with b&w portraits of ancient chugging machinery in The Elephant Man and decided to join in. Watching the black steam of the engine befouling the gray-metal sky as rusty gears churn, you may forget to breathe as you realize how seldom you see true examples of black-and-white artwork at the movies these days. Blake sits through the train ride, sometimes glancing out the window, sometimes leafing through a pamphlet with odd advertisements, often nodding off (the movie keeps helpfully fading to black, as if turning the lights out for him). Your first indication that this is a Jarmusch movie, and not just a radical change of milieu, is Crispin Glover’s appearance as a soot-covered engine worker who sits across from Blake and expresses bottomless hostility while barely maintaining a poker face.

Blake arrives in Machine, where a towering Robert Mitchum (in his final screen performance — a good one to go out on) points a rifle at him and denies any such job waiting for him. The dejected Blake detains himself at a boarding house with a tenuously reformed whore (Mili Avital); they are interrupted in bed by her estranged beau (Gabriel Byrne), leading to gunplay that results in two and a half corpses. The half corpse is Blake himself, carrying a bullet in his frame not deep enough to kill him outright but too deep to dig out. The latter fact is discovered by Nobody (Gary Farmer), an Indian who happens across Blake’s unconscious body. Nobody, it turns out, is a scholar of poetry; hearing Blake’s name, he takes the white man for the William Blake — “You are a poet and a painter, and now, William Blake, you are a killer of white men.” Blake isn’t inclined to argue. He’s been a nobody himself; now, at least, he gets to be somebody, even if it’s somebody else.

The movie proceeds slowly and digressively, like an Anthony Mann Western chilled out and left to thaw, wedded to a drizzly and mournful fuzz-guitar score by Neil Young; sometimes you feel it should’ve been titled Deadpan. As if to compensate for the inexpressive-by-design Depp (few actors can do as much with as little facial animation as Depp can) and the stoically bemused Nobody, Jarmusch fills this text’s margins with antic performers — Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jared Harris turn up, bickering around a campfire; Alfred Molina, a smilingly racist trader who offers Nobody pox-ridden blankets and obsequiously seeks Blake’s autograph; Lance Henriksen is a cartoonishly vicious assassin, with Michael Wincott as his partner, filling the air with raspy, inconsequential observations. For a while the narrative plays out as a collection of anecdotes, a horseback road movie; then, as Blake draws nearer to death and makes it to Nobody’s village, Jarmusch goes all the way into mysticism and absurdity.

I know (and have read) several people who have no patience for the elaborate dawdling in Dead Man. It’s true that if you attempt to catch it at too late an hour, you may nod off along with Blake — that opening sequence is a test. But both times I’ve seen it, I was held by Depp’s transformation from white-man non-entity to the Jarmusch version of the affectless Man With No Name, blandly asking an antagonist “Do you know my poetry?” before delivering a short lead haiku. Physically beautiful, temperamentally reflective, “meaningless” scene for scene until you ponder it afterward, the film is itself a poem — a meditation on death that shrugs at life but then moves beyond a shrug. If you have the stomach for its wanderings, and its “poetry written with blood,” this is an original and masterful achievement. Dead on the surface (even the photography has the grim authority of the slab), it comes to life, vampire-like, in your head days later.

Twister (1996)

May 10, 1996

twister-1996-05-gIn Twister, the capricious tornadoes growl ominously as they approach, and they pluck up huge trucks and tear houses apart with such casual, horrifying force that the audience gasps and laughs at the same time. Twister promises — and delivers — pure apocalyptic power unlike anything put on film before. These seething black mushrooms in the blue-gray Oklahoma sky have a scary, Wagnerian grandeur. I was reminded of the King Lear line: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.”

Is Twister a great movie? Hell, no. The script, credited to Michael Crichton and his wife Anne-Marie Martin, is basically either “Look, a tornado! Let’s chase it!” or “Look, a tornado! Let’s take cover!” But Twister is a great summer movie — a warm-weather no-brainer addressing the two classic action-film themes, force and momentum. Those themes are the bread and butter of director Jan de Bont, a former cinematographer (Die Hard) who made his debut with the pedal-to-the-metal Speed. De Bont has a genius for the aesthetics of motion, the comedy of relentlessness. Twister may be the most beautiful action movie you’ll see this summer: The kinetic shots, composed by Jack N. Green (Clint Eastwood’s regular cameraman) and edited by Michael Kahn (Steven Spielberg’s usual cutter), flow into each other like the panels of a great comic book — say, Jack Kirby circa 1966.

The plot? There isn’t one, actually. The Crichtons have obviously seen The Abyss, with its estranged couple under stress. Here, the couple is Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, dedicated stormchasers who want to send special sensors up into a tornado to get data that may improve tornado warnings. Meanwhile, a rival team of stormchasers (led by arrogant Cary Elwes) hope to beat Helen and Bill at their own game. That’s it. But that’s about all de Bont needs.

Twister isn’t the brilliant machine that Speed was, but it often packs a comparable wallop. When the heroes are driving towards a tornado and a terrified cow spins through the air, I laughed at first, but the surrealism of that image has haunted me. The cow is only a warm-up for such unguided missiles as tractors, windmills, fuel trucks, and finally an entire house. What happens with the house is so perfect, so summer-movie absurd, that I wouldn’t dream of giving it away.

Hunt and Paxton make an appealing pair, and they try to do more than “Look, a tornado!” Hunt has a fine, lyrical moment when she stands her ground and gazes into a massive twister, her blonde hair billowing; she’s like a storybook goddess. But really you don’t go to see the people in Twister any more than you went to see the people in Jurassic Park or Speed. You go for three things: pursuit, retreat, annihilation. In that order. Twister may be no more than what Pauline Kael called “jolts for jocks,” but it’s among the most ravishing dumb movies ever made.

The Craft

May 3, 1996

Witchcraft movies tend to be an uneasy mix of female empowerment and punitive moralizing. The fun comes from watching put-upon women testing their new powers, and yet the subtext seems to be: See, gals, you messed around with the supernatural and it got out of hand — you invoked an evil spirit or you caught Jack Nicholson’s demonic eye, whatever. Few such movies (except maybe George A. Romero’s superb, obscure Jack’s Wife) escape this paradox, which appears to derive from fear of female power.

The Craft, which I might as well go ahead and nickname Carrie Meets Heathers, is no exception. Four misfits in a Los Angeles Catholic high school — new girl Sarah (Robin Tunney), punkish Nancy (Fairuza Balk), African-American Rochelle (Rachel True), and burn-scarred Bonnie (Neve Campbell) — form a coven, and for a while they enjoy bonding and being “wicked” and casting spells. Not for long, though. The story is by Peter Filardi, who co-wrote the script with director Andrew Fleming (Threesome). Filardi, who also wrote Flatliners, must have a thing about young people who mess with the unknown. Too bad he doesn’t also have a thing about snappy dialogue or complex characters. And Fleming, who made his horror debut with 1988’s Freddy Krueger rip-off Bad Dreams, doesn’t have the dark, lyrical touch the material cries out for; he pushes too hard and frames everything TV-style.

The Craft turns into a war between the decent Sarah and the gradually amoral Nancy, who can’t resist misusing the powers given to her by the spirit she invokes. The other two are more intriguing characters but get less screen time. Bonnie’s scars vanish, and she turns into a snob overnight. And Rochelle puts a curse on a bleached-blonde Heather-type racist, played by Christine Taylor, who tossed her hair so accurately as Marcia in The Brady Bunch Movie. Taylor’s casting here turns out to be The Craft‘s wittiest joke — Jan Brady would love it.

The script is just connect-the-dots — far sketchier than such potentially rich material deserves. But the actresses work their own magic. Campbell (of TV’s Party of Five) and True are skilled at suggesting many girls’ reflexive self-hatred, and the freckled Tunney, whose dialogue all sounds ad-libbed even if it isn’t, creates an honorable young woman of integrity. And then there’s Fairuza Balk. Since her debut as Dorothy in 1985’s neglected gem Return to Oz (rent it now!), Balk has matured into a sparkly hellcat of an actress. She was funny and touching as a street ragamuffin in the recent Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and the best reason to see The Craft is to watch this former Dorothy become the Wicked Witch of the West Coast. When she’s floating and grinning, she’s pure riot-grrl id — an unholy mix of Courtney Love and Linda Blair. The Craft may ultimately depend on Screenwriting 101 sleight-of-hand, but this coven of actresses — especially Fairuza Balk, whose stardom is a decade overdue — can turn warmed-over horror soup into a real witches’ brew.

I Shot Andy Warhol

May 1, 1996

Should we begin with the obvious quote from the man himself — that in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes? Of course, one of the fastest ways to fame is to shoot someone famous. On June 3, 1968, at the height of Andy Warhol’s fame (some would say infamy), a previously obscure woman named Valerie Solanas shot him at close range three times, nearly killing him. For cultural observers, this and Altamont drew the curtain on the Dionysian bash of the ’60s.

I Shot Andy Warhol, the erratically paced but generally provocative film by Mary Harron, isn’t only about the angry loner Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor) — though it does work well as a neutral biography. Harron’s great theme — what makes the movie linger in the mind — is the chasm between reality and artifice, between Solanas’ relentless man-hating and Warhol’s kitschy Pop philosophy, between raw emotion and empty posing.

Solanas was undeniably intelligent, and just as undeniably unhinged. Harron and co-writer Daniel Minahan touch on Solanas’ early life (molestation, prostitution) and then place her in the druggy New York scene of 1966. A hustler and writer of feminist pamphlets (the SCUM Manifesto, which remains essential, hyperbolic reading), Solanas meets drag queen Candy Darling (a striking performance by Stephen Dorff), who is her ticket into the notorious Warhol Factory.

As Jared Harris (son of Richard) plays Warhol, he’s as noncommittal as Solanas is committed. There’s a fine moment when both of them, attending one of Warhol’s freak-out parties, sit on a couch, detached from the excess. Solanas wants Warhol to produce a play she’s written, but it’s too extreme even for him, and he blows her off. Perhaps her worst crime in Warhol’s eyes is that she has no style, by which I mean no kitschiness about herself; Solanas gives off obsessive vibes that mark her as unhip — and, eventually, dangerous.

Lili Taylor is usually a lovable actress — she was a fountain of warmth in Dogfight — and here she plays a consciously antagonistic woman, yet she still conveys warmth. Until she becomes homicidal, Solanas is actually pretty good company — lively and fiercely direct. Taylor plays her with an abrupt, no-nonsense humor that, oddly, weakens the film itself: Anyone this funny and engaging, however extreme her ideas, would have gotten some meaningful attention.

I Shot Andy Warhol gets a little slow and artsy during the Warhol party scenes. (Look again at Midnight Cowboy, whose endless party sequence — featuring actual Warhol hangers-on — is its only major flaw.) Artistically, though, this is defensible because we share Solanas’ boredom with the “scene.” Harron doesn’t condemn it, but she doesn’t glamorize it either.

Andy Warhol tried to redefine art as something trendy and unserious. The bubble of his artifice would burst against the sharp edges of Valerie Solanas, who was as serious as a loaded gun. I Shot Andy Warhol itself straddles the line between serious and unserious. It’s best understood as a twisted Warholian love story: Valerie and Andy, wallflowers at the druggy prom night of the Love Era, a match made in Pop Art hell.