Archive for August 1996

The Spitfire Grill

August 23, 1996

maxresdefaultLeaving The Spitfire Grill, I was convinced of two things: that nice girls who’ve done their time in prison should be given a second chance, and that Alison Elliott is going to be a major actress.¹ I knew the first thing going in, and I would have known it even if the movie hadn’t systematically drilled it into my forehead. But Alison Elliott … well, damned if she doesn’t make this otherwise trite Kleenex marathon worth seeing.

Elliott is Percy Talbot, an Appalachian ex-con who drifts into sleepy Gilead, Maine (actually sleepy Vermont). With its rolling hills, rushing waterfalls, and quirky townies who appreciate the local trees, Gilead is like Twin Peaks left out in the sun too long. As the mousy Percy steered around the disapproving stares of the natives, I knew, just knew, that she would end up a pivotal and beloved member of the community.

First, though, she takes a job waiting tables at the Spitfire Grill, a dead diner owned by no-nonsense widow Hannah (Ellen Burstyn). When Hannah got waylaid by an accident, and Percy ineptly took over as cook, I don’t know how I knew that the bashful Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden), unhappily married to Hannah’s bitter nephew (Will Patton), would help Percy in the kitchen and become her dearest friend. Somehow, though, I knew.

Then the wise Percy comes up with a plan to sell the Spitfire: raffle it off in an essay contest, where the entrants send $100 cash along with their reasons for wanting the diner. Soon, bags of mail and money are pouring in. I knew that; I was on a roll. But I was shocked, utterly shocked, to learn that the collected $200,000 in raffle money had vanished and that Percy would be blamed for it. I have never seen this plot development in any other movie this week.

The Spitfire Grill is a soft machine designed to open tearducts (my own eyes stayed as dry as Percy’s cooking). What’s more, it builds up a series of climaxes driven by revelations of clichéd secrets and traumas. I’ll be vague here, but I figured out the mystery man in the woods almost before I sat down. And writer-director Lee David Zlotoff unwraps a backstory for Percy that is the sheerest overkill. Welike the girl, already — stop hyping her as this saintly diamond-in-the-very-rough.

Spitfire is the feature debut of Zlotoff, who created TV’s MacGyver; this doesn’t mean Percy makes gizmos out of gum wrappers, though the movie may have been better for it. Zlotoff would be nowhere without Rob Draper, whose cinematography often achieves the lyricism Zlotoff’s script fumbles for. With its laconic loner striding into town and changing it forever, the film is like High Plains Drifter as a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.

Yet one can’t fully dismiss Spitfire. Stringy-haired and drably clothed, Alison Elliott nevertheless radiates beauty; she has a wide, warming smile she rations sparingly, opting mainly for a performance of touching gravity and vulnerability. She takes this lumpy, heavy film-for-the-whole-family squarely on her slouching shoulders and carries it until the final scenes, when there are two corpses, one of which is the movie.

¹ Not that she got any roles afterward to prove it. This movie pretty much disintegrated on contact, failing to redeem itself by providing a breakout role for Alison Elliott. Oh, well.

She’s the One

August 23, 1996

shestheone06Edward Burns has been called the Irish-Catholic Woody Allen, and in some respects he earns the title. Allen’s humor is suffused with guilt, neurosis, family dysfunction, and the eternal craziness between men and women. Burns works the same side of the street. He isn’t Jewish like Woody, but urban Jews and urban Irish-Catholics share a knack for expecting the worst — think of Denis Leary’s rants — and finding it funny. She’s the One, Burns’ follow-up to 1995’s witty The Brothers McMullen, continues his wry examination of Irish machismo and its growing irrelevance in the ’90s. In both movies, grown sons are warped by their fathers’ neolithic approach to women; these twentysomethings either reject the old man’s example or follow his advice, and neither tactic guarantees happiness.

Burns, a natural and engaging actor himself, here plays Mickey, a New York cabbie who took off for three years after finding his fiancee Heather (Cameron Diaz) in a questionable position with a man whose hairy ass has become legendary. Mick’s brother Francis (Mike McGlone, from McMullen) is a Wall Street sleazo who’s cheating on his wife Rene (Jennifer Aniston). The woman he’s cheating with, it turns out, is Heather. Meanwhile, Mickey picks up a beautiful bartender named Hope (Maxine Bahns, Burns’ real-life partner), who is going to a wedding in New Orleans and wants Mick to drive her. En route, they get married. This part of the movie is problematic for two reasons: We’re never sure of Hope’s motives — is she using Mickey? — and Bahns, although not a terrible actress, reads her lines as if doing just that: reading them.

For a while, I was afraid She’s the One was headed for the can’t-trust-men/can’t-trust-women territory staked by the bitter Short Cuts, where everyone was an idiot. But Burns doesn’t let us hate anyone — not even the arrogant Francis (played with gusto by McGlone), the sort of guy who smugly asks his chauffeur, “Do I look as good as I think I look?” Everyone is allowed to have moments of craziness and sanity.

Burns focuses on the clueless brothers, but he doesn’t give the women short shrift. Heather, for example, could have been an offensive cliche — she paid her way through college by hooking — but she’s written (and played by the gifted Diaz) as a vulnerable woman looking for someone who won’t pass judgment on her past. These women are daughters of Annie Hall: smart enough not to let men define them, but unsure how to define themselves. But they’re models of stability next to the guys.

She’s the One begins and ends aboard a small fishing boat where Mick’s and Francis’ dad (John Mahoney, who’s great) spends all his time. So much time, in fact, that his own wife finds a way to fill his absence. The boat, I think, is both a joke and metaphor for the way commitment-phobic men always think there are other fish in the sea. At the start, Mickey is still casting about. At the end, he’s made an amazing discovery: women are not fish. For these guys, Edward Burns is saying, that’s real progress.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

August 23, 1996

6a0168ea36d6b2970c01774439a387970d-800wiThe new version of The Island of Dr. Moreau is scary for reasons that have nothing to do with the movie itself. The first adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel — 1933’s Island of Lost Souls, with Charles Laughton as the mad scientist — seemed to predict Dr. Mengele’s horrible experiments in the Nazi camps. The second, released in 1977 and starring Burt Lancaster, seemed to foreshadow Jim Jones’ bungle in the jungle the next year. What future atrocity is this third film preparing us for? (Cloning, perhaps — possibilities abound.) Maybe nothing. But the chilling idea of Wells’ story — that the fusions of man and animal must struggle to keep the humanity that humans so rarely show — comes through loud and clear in the new film. In fact, this Dr. Moreau, unlike Laughton and Lancaster (and very like Wells’ original concept), is basically benevolent if deluded — a tragic hero, almost.

This Moreau begins like the others: a civilized man (David Thewlis) finds himself on the island, where animals are turned into humans and kept in line by a set of laws — “Not to go on all fours,” “Not to eat meat,” “Not to kill.” The “manimals” are the children of Moreau (Marlon Brando), an animal lover who somehow misses the contradictions in his work. Brando has done jungle fever before, of course, in Apocalypse Now, whose Colonel Kurtz might have been a warm-up for the godlike Moreau. Charles Laughton’s Moreau was a milestone in creepy acting, and Brando seems to be going for a Kabuki parody of Laughton, wearing messianic robes and thick, white sunblock, as well as a series of progressively goofy hats. Brando, who’s often hilarious, magnetizes the camera even when surrounded by Stan Winston’s elaborate creature make-ups.

The same can’t be said, sadly, for the usually electrifying David Thewlis, who is given nothing to do except react with disgust to Moreau’s hobby. If you saw him here for the first time, you’d never know he could make poetry out of scuzziness (Naked, Prime Suspect 3). Val Kilmer turns up as Montgomery, Moreau’s junkie assistant; he does a funny Brando impression near the end, but most of his performance isn’t worth the hassle he reportedly caused on the set, leading to the dismissal of original director Richard Stanley. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) took over for Stanley, and he does credible work; this isn’t a hack job like his 1979 horror attempt Prophecy. He gets a touching performance from Fairuza (The Craft) Balk, as Moreau’s “daughter,” who is slowly regressing to her feline origins. But Frankenheimer doesn’t do her character justice, and he seems unsure whether he’s making a horror movie or an action thriller with horror elements. The climax involves a depressing amount of gunplay.

Still, this Island is worth visiting. It retains Wells’ anti-vivisection concerns, and asks who is more bestial: the animal or the scientist who experiments with it. And it has Brando keeping himself amused, like a deadpan Falstaff in the jungle. Maybe his great days are gone. But now that the pressure of greatness is off him, he knows that all he has to do is show up and have fun.


August 23, 1996

In 1996, with very little fanfare, a strange creature shuffled onto the HBO schedule. Freeway, it called itself, and it announced itself as a weird-athon immediately, with a credits sequence featuring a cartoon wolf chasing a cartoon girl. “What the hell is this?” you may have asked yourself as the credits briefed you on some of the participants: Reese Witherspoon … Kiefer Sutherland … okay, this sounds like your average HBO Friday-night Guilty Pleasure movie so far (remember, this was before Witherspoon had Pleasantville and Election, among others) … Amanda Plummer, okay, it’s cool she’s still getting work … Brooke Shields?? Brooke fuckin’ Shields is in this? … Dan Hedaya, cool … Brittany Murphy, awesome, she was great in Clueless … Music by Danny Elfman?? … Executive producer, Oliver Stone??? Okay, this just got interesting … Written and directed by Matthew Bright … Where do I know that name from … Oh, yeah, he wrote Guncrazy, which I really should’ve seen but haven’t … Hell, this could be interesting, let’s watch it.

Yes, let’s. Because Freeway, as many critics were soon to discover, turned out to be one of the most stubbornly original and electrifying films not only of 1996, but of the ’90s, period. This riot-grrl take on “Little Red Riding Hood” went straight to cable, only to be rescued and heralded, á la Red Rock West, by the influential likes of Siskel and Ebert, whose raves greased the wheels for a limited Freeway run in theaters. There it was reviewed by a variety of workaday critics, some baffled, others amazed. More than one scribe said that, as a satirical white-trash fantasia of violence, it trumped the executive producer’s own Natural Born Killers. Would I go so far? Stylistically, no; Freeway doesn’t attempt NBK‘s McLuhanesque tapestry. Thematically, hell yes. Where NBK is sometimes muddled, or simply another “bad media! bad! bad!” pulpit-scold, Freeway cuts with a cleaner blade. The opening scenes, wherein the illiterate heroine Vanessa Lutz (Witherspoon) watches her prostitute mom (Plummer) and crack-addled horndog stepdad (Michael T. Weiss) get bundled away by bored California cops, show a much deeper understanding of and empathy for girls like Vanessa than NBK could ever hope to have.

We’re on Vanessa’s side right from the start, when she painfully, slowly sounds out “The cat drinks milk” in class, then triumphantly frenches her buff boyfriend Chopper (Bokeem Woodbine). Here the first instance of Matthew Bright’s subversive playfulness bubbles up: Chopper is very black, and Vanessa is very white, and this ain’t no chaste peck on the cheek. In other words, if you can’t deal with black-white tonsil hockey, you better get off this freeway at the next exit, because if that’s the kind of thing that bothers you, Bright has loads of other stuff to bother you with. But getting back to Vanessa’s illiteracy: note how Bright establishes it without a whisper of condescension, and shows us that Vanessa is trying, and that she exults in finally getting it right. She doesn’t give up sullenly and say “Fuck it”; she stands right up in class and sounds out those four words as if the exercise were the most crucial thing in her universe at that moment. Vanessa may have reached the age of 16 with a kindergarten reading level, but we see that she has drive, determination and focus — qualities that will come in very handy later on in the narrative.

That narrative, we quickly learn, is puckishly modelled on “Little Red Riding Hood”: Vanessa, deprived of legal guardians and faced with another demeaning stay in foster care (Bright is uncannily perceptive about this and other realities of poverty-level kids in America), decides to light out for a visit to her grandma, whom she’s never met. (Vanessa alludes to some “bad blood” between her mom and her grandma, something to do with the former throwing some corrosive chemical in the latter’s face. Yeesh.) She assembles a basket of goodies, swipes the family car, accepts a gun (a “Spanish antique” she can sell when she gets where she’s going) from Chopper, and gets on Interstate 5, undeterred by recent media reports of “the I-5 Killer,” who has been preying on runaway teenage girls. Soon enough, Vanessa’s car shits the bed, but salvation comes in the form of a kindly child psychologist named Bob Wolverton (Sutherland). Bob Wolverton? Aha!

As soon as you hear that name, Bright’s hand is pretty much tipped, though the movie spends a tense fifteen minutes or so selling Bob as a Nice Guy who just wants to help our Vanessa. Even without the name, though, the movie-savvy among us know that any guy with a tan suit, geeky specs, slicked-back hair, and a portrayer like Kiefer Sutherland cannot be on the level no matter how soothingly he enunciates his concern for Vanessa’s psyche. Sutherland has given good bad guy before, but this is him at his creepy-crawliest, particularly when his “therapeutic” grilling slides into despicable Lecter-like mind-rape. Bob reminds us of the weirdness we may have felt the first time we noticed that “therapist” broken up spells out “the rapist.” And it’s yet another example, skillfully pinned to the board by the writer-director, of the many ways our system fails the young and disadvantaged. Bob works with disturbed young boys, and who knows, maybe he helps them; as for young girls, especially “garbage people” like Vanessa, he has a far more brutal quick-fix. See the subtext here? Let’s help the boys become healthy men, but the girls? — fuck ’em and kill ’em, not necessarily in that order; that’s all they’re good for. Bright is saying that girls like Vanessa are up against a system wallpapered with this callous sensibility from top to bottom, which puts us more on her side than ever.

So we cheer when Vanessa whips out her gun and aerates the wolf in sheep’s clothing, but even here Bright doesn’t make it easy for us. Generally, Bright isn’t one of those hot-shots who get off on violence. He shows it in all its disgusting, wrenching squalor, never depicting it as cool or cathartic. Among other things, we learn that one bullet from an antique Spanish pistol isn’t enough to kill a man, even with a point-blank head shot. The sequence leading up to the shooting — when Vanessa yowls her famous line “You wanna get shot a whole buncha times?”, and gives Bob a few pert whacks upside the head with the gun (gashing Kiefer Sutherland’s scalp for real, Bright informs us in his audio commentary on the Freeway DVD) — is hilarious and powered entirely by the unorthodox rhythms and mannerisms of Reese Witherspoon, who turns Vanessa’s outrage (“You were gonna kill me and do sex on my dead body??”) into a comic aria all her own. Just when we’re thinking this is a really cool 40-minute movie, though, the plot, as they say, thickens; Bob survives the assault, Vanessa is taken into custody, and the remainder of the film plays itself out while touching on various disreputable exploitation genres (girls in prison! jailbreak! turning tricks and fleecing johns!) as it heads towards its predetermined “what big teeth you have” climax.

Another way Freeway one-ups NBK is its subtlety and complexity of character. Nobody in the film is ever just one thing (well, with the possible exception of Brooke Shields as Bob’s indignant wife, who seethes in fury at what that white-trash bitch has done to her sweet blameless husband, and wants to see Vanessa sizzle in Old Sparky; but even she has a final scene that has a certain savage logic and puts her on the plus side of our sympathy ledger). The cops on Vanessa’s trail are not corrupt buffoons, just people trying to do their jobs. Dan Hedaya stands out in a rare unslimy turn as a detective who suspects that Vanessa isn’t the marauding hellion she’s been painted as (amusingly, he has a hospital-bedside “is this the person who shot you?” moment exactly like a later bit he had in The Hurricane, wherein he did play a corrupt sleaze). There’s also a female cop, weary in face and manner, who feels for Vanessa early in the movie but knows there’s a limit to what she can do personally. Even Vanessa’s cackling crackhead parents have some degree of humanity — even when her stepdad Larry (Michael T. Weiss’ brief, over-the-top performance helps considerably) comes on to her sexually, the tone is less monstrous than matter-of-fact: this stuff happens, and stepdads who fuck their stepdaughters aren’t aliens from another galaxy; they’re damaged shitheads who never learned any other way to relate to a girl living under their roof.

Freeway might work without Reese Witherspoon, but I doubt it would work so flawlessly. Witherspoon embodies Vanessa with such energy and directness of spirit that, yes, she does earn her stripes as heiress to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Nineteen years old at the time, not much older than Vanessa, Witherspoon invests her character with an upbeat, wide-eyed charm that scarcely wears off even when, at the height of a heated Q & A with Hedaya and a black cop (Wolfgang Bodison), she slaps the black cop twice, whacks him with a chair, and hurls racist epithets at him. (The capper to the scene: when Hedaya asks Vanessa why she said those things, she snarls, “Because he didn’t apologize. And I knew it’d piss him off.” The black cop pegs Vanessa as a racist cracker until he learns about Chopper later on.) Like McDowell in Clockwork, Witherspoon is fiercely in the moment every second she’s onscreen, as if she knew that roles like Vanessa don’t come around every day and that she’d better have her game face on. It helps that her game face has so much variety, too: a sparkly grin that can’t help but coax an empathetic smile out of all but the most stone-hearted viewer; a squinchy look of distrust; and my favorite Vanessa expression, the look Witherspoon comes up with when Vanessa has her gun pointed at Bob, a look that says “I am so pissed and I don’t even know what I’m gonna do about it just yet.” One can imagine Vanessa coming off as callous, sadistic, or even psychotic on the page; what gives her life on the stage, as it were, is Witherspoon’s exuberant, fully committed eagerness to become this person and let her be true. This is what you can expect to find in this straight-to-cable reworking of a fairy tale; this and much more.5

Tales from the Crypt Presents Bordello of Blood

August 16, 1996

Note: It may be helpful to remind the reader that this review was written in 1996, when Dennis Miller was still funny, and before 9/11 broke his brain.

Bordello of Blood may sound a bit like From Dusk Till Dawn, but it’s more consistently funny. Sure, Dusk had Quentin Tarantino’s zesty dialogue and Robert Rodriguez’s ballistic direction, but Bordello has a great joker in its deck: Dennis Miller. Why did such a smart man want to do such a dumb movie? I don’t know, but the movie would be pretty sad without him. Miller is supposed to be Rafe Guttman, a cynical private eye whose office is above an old porno theater. But Dennis Miller can really only play one character, and that’s Dennis Miller — the snide, ironic fountain of pop-culture references. Picture Miller barging into a cheesy ’80s horror flick, and you’ll know why Bordello of Blood is oddly appealing.

The movie itself is unapologetic trash, like the HBO Tales from the Crypt series inspired by the notorious EC Comics of the ’50s. Wallowing cheerfully in its own sleaze, Bordello is sometimes fun, sometimes lame. It isn’t particularly well-directed (by Gilbert Adler) or written (Adler and A L Katz), and a subplot lampooning televangelists is tired, to say nothing of dated (are there even any televangelists left to skewer?). The agnostic Miller is retained by a pink-cheeked Christian soldier (Erika Eleniak) whose punk brother (Corey Feldman) has disappeared into a spooky mortuary. The place turns out to be a whorehouse run by vampire queen Lillith (Angie Everhart). Lillith and her hell-whores seduce men, drain them, and (I love this touch) sell their cars.

Horror buffs will check off the nods to The Lost Boys, Phantasm, Frankenhooker (gotta love those exploding vampire wenches), and The X-Files (“Let me advance a Duchovnian theory,” Miller cracks). There’s plenty of crimson to satisfy gorehounds, as well as copious T&A; it’s the sort of grisly sexist romp that, in junior high, I might have considered, like, totally awesome. I’m older now.

A friend of mine has a running joke: Whenever I see a movie featuring an attractive woman, he wants to know, “Is she naked?” In the interest of journalism, I must report that Angie Everhart is not naked (every other vampiress is, though), nor is she an actress. Her function here is to pout, wear form-fitting purple, and have a bad attitude. Dennis Miller, of course, is the king of bad attitude, and he deserved a wittier queen to spar with. Judging from some of the allegedly funny one-liners his castmates are saddled with, I’d guess that Miller ad-libbed most of his own barbs. Even when he’s in the thick of things, he’s off to the side goofing on the movie, like an obscene doodle in the margin of a textbook. Only this book has very little text.

Bordello of Blood isn’t much of a movie, though it suggests a new career for Miller, if he wants it: He could be a freelance ironist in other movie genres. Can you imagine him in a Western? Or a war movie: “Fuck, man, don’t show me a picture of your sweetheart back home, okay? That means you’re gonna get killed. Go find another foxhole.” Or Escape from L.A.: “Snake, babe, love the eyepatch. Nice big black target right there on your face, but hey — it’s a statement.”

Tin Cup

August 16, 1996

Tin CupSome movie genres are lucky enough to have expert filmmakers working their side of the street. Gangster films have Martin Scorsese, for example, and sports movies have Ron Shelton.Of course, Scorsese’s films aren’t just about gangsters, and Shelton’s movies — Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Cobb, and now Tin Cup — are never just about the game. They’re gentle comedies of masculine mythology (except for Cobb, which was far from gentle). Shelton’s heroes are boys who never grew up.

The boy in Tin Cup is Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner), a legendary golfer — legendary, that is, for his lack of discipline and wasted potential. Roy, who can’t resist going for risky long drives, had the big time in his grasp and blew it; now he gives lessons at his run-down Texas range and takes good-natured abuse from his caddy Romeo (Cheech Marin, continuing his run of hilarious comeback performances). Roy is fairly content with his lot until two figures disrupt his stagnation, like a cartoon devil-angel duo sitting on his shoulders. The devil is David Simms (Don Johnson), a smug pro who made the bigs by “laying up” (going for safe shots) and who relishes the chance to offer Roy a job as his caddy. The angel is Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo), a psychologist who comes to Roy for lessons and ends up learning a good deal more.

Shelton, who wrote the script with John Norville, sets up a parallel romance/competition: Molly, as it turns out, is dating Simms, and to win her heart, Roy decides he must beat Simms at the U.S. Open. But winning isn’t all Shelton has in mind. He’s more interested in what Jay McInerney called “the shabby nobility of failing” — that is, failing on one’s own terms rather than winning by playing it safe.

Working again with the director who guided his best performance (in Bull Durham), Kevin Costner proves what a lot of us have known about him all along. Put him in a mega-budget action flick as a Mel Gibson clone, and he looks groggy and irritable. Give him a fleshed-out character whose sense of humor is as strong as his code of ethics, and Costner relaxes and never puts a foot wrong. And we can feel the pleasure he takes in delivering Shelton’s pitch-perfect dialogue.

At some point, Tin Cup divides our responses. When the inevitable final round approaches, with Roy facing off against Simms, we want the basic movie satisfaction of Roy trouncing his insufferable rival. Yet Molly (another witty turn by Russo), like all Shelton women, keeps things in perspective: It’s only a game. Will Roy be false to himself in order to win? Molly’s final advice during the game sets Roy straight. The movie, like Shelton’s others, is an illustration of the old maxim: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” For Shelton, and for Roy, that wisdom extends past golf. Athletes and fans love to position their sport as a metaphor for life (and vice versa). Shelton does something similar — he uses sports as an excuse for life lessons. But the lessons go down with beautiful ease and charm. In its low-key, scruffy way, Tin Cup is Hollywood’s class act of the summer.

The Fan (1996)

August 16, 1996

Is there anything more soulless than a thriller that plays with you just for the sheer bullying sake of playing with you? Any idiot can tighten the screws by, say, putting a cute kid in danger … or how about this: putting a cute kid in danger from Robert De Niro! What genius! The Fan, which stars De Niro in his 500th whackdoodle role, is professionally made and sharply acted across the board, but it’s still a bummer — more ugly and depressing than haunting or suspenseful.

Gil Renard, De Niro’s latest wingnut, is a schlumpy knife salesman whose life is falling apart. His one remaining passion is baseball, and when his favorite player, hot-shot Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), joins his favorite team (the San Francisco Giants), Gil is in heaven. He projects his fantasies onto Bobby; in Gil’s fracturing mind, the dreams and agonies of his life crystallize around the superstar. For about the first hour, De Niro comes through with a suffocatingly real portrait of a lost soul. No actor does implosive psychosis better than the man who played Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin. But when things start going wrong for Gil, and he becomes bitter and violent, De Niro falls back on the menacing, crinkly grins he overworked in Cape Fear. And the film, which began as a compelling parallel study of two men at opposite ends of the rainbow, becomes junky and crude — a flashy splatter movie. And without the drive-in charms of actual splatter movies.

The Fan has been around before in various permutations; in one of its previous lives, it actually had the same title, and starred Lauren Bacall as a Broadway diva hounded by nutcase Michael Biehn. Celebrity stalking is a sad and relatively new subgenre of the slasher movie. The villains are pathetic, lonely wretches who yearn to slash through their anonymity. Material like this needs to be handled seriously (Taxi Driver) or as black comedy (The King of Comedy, I Shot Andy Warhol). Otherwise, the horror comes across as callous and pointless. The director, Tony Scott (True Romance), teases us with shots of Gil fondling his knives, readying us for future carnage. The Fan doesn’t miss a trick. We feel nothing in particular for Bobby until he turns out to have an adorable little boy, who might as well have “Kidnap Me” stamped on his forehead. These are all standard slasher-flick gimmicks.

Gil is enraged that the high-paid Bobby, idolized by millions, doesn’t care much about the game itself — that baseball is as cutthroat a business as Gil’s knife company. What exactly does Bobby owe his fans? At times, the movie comes dangerously close to endorsing the murderous Gil’s disillusioned view of Bobby, who takes the American dream for granted. Near the end, when everyone runs around trying to stop Gil, The Fan becomes “serious” and hypocritical. Tony Scott puts us in the position of enjoying De Niro’s detailed performance, but then he turns Gil into a monster waving a bat or a knife, so that we can also savor his inevitable death. Gil dies for our sins of idolatry, I guess. There’s something pathetic and sick about The Fan, and it isn’t Gil.


August 9, 1996

It helps to bring a bit of patience to Basquiat, the new rise-and-fall movie about the SoHo art scene of the ’80s. Some scenes — okay, many scenes — drag or seem pointless and formless, which is true to the film’s subject but often comes across as mannered and pretentious. Director Julian Schnabel, himself a prosperous painter during the ’80s, tries to paint with film — dabbing here, splashing there. It’s a nice try, anyway.

As a straight biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat, a sort of mythical street urchin lifted out of obscurity and into the Warhol Factory, Basquiat often seems like a blank canvas. Jeffrey Wright, who plays him, is quiet and appealing, but we know almost as little about the man near the end as we do at the beginning. Painting with maple syrup on a restaurant table, Basquiat is presented as an innocent who compulsively makes art wherever he is. Why? I guess because he feels like it.

According to the movie, Basquiat was a gentle homeless guy who shot to the top of the SoHo art world more on the basis of hype than of talent. (He signs his work “SAMO,” meaning “same old shit.”) The effusive art critic Rene Richard (The Crow‘s Michael Wincott in a real change-of-pace role) gets excited about Basquiat and arranges to show his work. When Basquiat is pulled into the Warhol clique, Ricard reacts like a jilted lover. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of Basquiat.

The movie, I was surprised to remember afterward, spans about eight years, but the scenes all seem to take place in the same anachronistic whenever. Basquiat’s filmmaker buddy (Benicio del Toro) is seen using a home VCR in 1979, when VCRs weren’t readily accessible to anyone, much less to starving avant-gardists. Julian Schnabel, like Larry Clark (Kids), is an artist dabbling in film, not a film artist. To see their movies is to know the difference. These artist-directors don’t speak film language fluently; it isn’t their medium.

That said, Basquiat is mildly entertaining — mostly in its middle section, when Basquiat rubs elbows with jet-setters and street people played by some of the hippest actors of the ’90s, ranging from Dennis Hopper and Gary Oldman (as Schnabel’s surrogate, “Albert Miro”) to Parker Posey and Courtney Love. Christopher Walken, as ubiquitous in indie films as Steve Buscemi, turns up as a sweaty, smarmy interviewer, and the few who saw Mallrats will be pleased to see the engaging Claire Forlani as Basquiat’s (composite) girlfriend Gina.

If nothing else, Basquiat is worth watching for David Bowie in a diabolically deadpan performance as Andy Warhol. Judging from this movie and I Shot Andy Warhol, the Brillo man was really a proto-slacker: noncommittal, addicted to the trendy and the tacky. Bowie nails Warhol’s detachment but also brings out some warmth in Warhol’s laid-back bond with Basquiat. Warhol, secure in his fame, was the only one who didn’t want anything from Basquiat except friendship. In the end, of course, Basquiat died in 1988, at age 27, of a heroin overdose. Too much fame, too fast — the old story. Basquiat works best as a snapshot of the ’80s, when high art became high commerce, and artists like Basquiat (and Keith Haring) were treated like rock stars. Live like a rock star, die like one.

Escape from L.A.

August 9, 1996

Watching Escape from L.A. is like attending a huge reunion concert where the aging band members prove they can still rock. They get into character and play tried-and-true hits, and the fans pretend it’s 1977 again. When the opening chord of a familiar song pierces the arena, everyone goes nuts. Bands like Kiss and the Sex Pistols offer time-machine events that turn nostalgia into self-defining incantation: I wanna rock and roll all night. I am the anti-Christ. Call me Snake.

Movies, of course, are a different medium. Yet Escape from L.A., John Carpenter’s hard-driving sequel to his 1981 cult thriller Escape from New York, comes close to duplicating the ritualistic highs of a concert. Shamelessly Xeroxing the basic story of the 1981 film, it breaks little ground. The resolute sameness of the movie is part of its point. It’s really a remake, or, more precisely, a remix. Carpenter can still rock.

In Escape from New York, set in 1997, the criminal anti-hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) was sent into Manhattan, which had become a walled-off prison, to rescue the President. Now, in 2013, another President (Cliff Robertson) has decreed L.A. — split off from the country by a 9.6 earthquake — an island for “undesirables.” The President’s daughter, rebelling against his fundamentalist politics, is holed up in L.A. with Latino rebel Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), who has a “black box” that spells global doom. Snake’s mission: retrieve the box and whack the brat.

The Escape movies have a built-in trap. Snake couldn’t care less about his missions — his “employers” must inject him with delayed-action bombs or viruses to get him to comply — and we share his apathy. In an odd way, John Carpenter dabbles in deconstruction: he invites contempt for his own plot. The ride, though, is fast and almost festive — more fun, actually, than the entertaining but dour original. Escape from L.A. finds Carpenter in a playful mood. He brings in such West Coast targets as Disneyland, plastic surgery, surfing, and Hollywood (talk about biting the hand that fed you $50 million) for satirical spanking. That Escape from L.A. itself is a standard-issue Hollywood copycat sequel only sharpens the satire.

Shooting and snarling his way through the chaos, Kurt Russell wrings wit and personality out of Snake’s two basic expressions. Snake is what it takes to get things done in L.A. (He rang no satirical bells in New York, where everyone was as surly and grungy as he was.) Carpenter, writing with producer Debra Hill and Russell, gives Snake a menagerie of eccentrics to hiss at: weaselly Steve Buscemi, surfin’ bird Peter Fonda, gender-bending lioness Pam Grier.

Escape from L.A. is, in Carpenter’s words, “cowboy noir.” Perched on his motorcycle, wearing a slick black overcoat that reflects the flames in the streets, Snake is the coolest gunslinger in the West Coast. The color scheme is perfect noir: midnight black and fiery orange — the colors of Halloween. Escape from L.A. is John Carpenter’s greatest-hits concert album. Now let’s hear some new songs from the band, okay?