Archive for September 1996

2 Days in the Valley

September 27, 1996

Like a politician near election time, 2 Days in the Valley tries to be so many things that it ends up not being much of anything. Sometimes it’s a self-consciously “hip,” quirky crime movie. Sometimes it leans towards tearjerking drama (and falls flat on its face). Sometimes it’s funny, most often not. One constant is its lovely cinematography (by Oliver Wood). Another is its utter insignificance.

2 Days was clearly 1996’s attempt to strike gold on the West Coast a third time, after 1995’s Get Shorty and (of course) 1994’s Pulp Fiction. These films boast characters you only meet in movies (or in L.A.), and 2 Days gives us hit men (James Spader, Danny Aiello), vice cops (Eric Stoltz, Jeff Daniels), a suicidal movie director (Paul Mazursky), an Olympic skier (Teri Hatcher), an art dealer with kidney stones (Greg Cruttwell), and a nurse (Marsha Mason). A nurse? What’s this, an everyday person? Get her out of here!

The plot, by writer-director John Herzfeld (a veteran TV-movie director whose previous claim to theatrical fame was the awful John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John vehicle Two of a Kind), trips over itself trying to link all these characters. Mostly, it doesn’t. The hit men pay a visit to the skier’s ex-husband (Peter Horton), looking for money. Spader double-crosses Aiello, who escapes and stumbles onto the art dealer’s house. Everybody else gets shoehorned into the plot, largely thanks to coincidence.

Yes, I know: Pulp Fiction would have been nowhere without coincidence. But at least Quentin Tarantino had the courage of his ironic convictions. It didn’t matter that we didn’t take those plot twists seriously; nothing else in the movie was meant to be taken seriously either. But Herzfeld’s ironic detachment falters. He fumbles for pathos in scenes involving the despondent director Mazursky and vice cop Daniels, who misses his little son, taken from him by divorce.

Daniels’ character is the film’s oddest inconsistency. For most of the movie, the vice cop is defined almost entirely by his obsession with busting a newly opened massage parlor. Why? The parlor doesn’t figure in the story. Midway through the film, he’s wrapping a birthday gift for his estranged son and reading a letter declaring him unfit to serve on the force. This is the first we hear about either of these problems; it’s also the last we see of Daniels. Classic sign of severe pre-release trimming.

The movie works up to a nasty climax that never comes; mostly people just shoot each other, and Teri Hatcher throws herself into a vicious spandex catfight with Spader’s squeeze (Charlize Theron). Some guys may find this arousing; I found it embarrassing. John Herzfeld is yet another director who sees women either as violent babes or maternal blankets to keep men warm (for instance, Glenne Headly as the art dealer’s assistant, who falls in unlikely love with Aiello).

Two actors rescue 2 Days from complete tedium. Aiello has fun with his balding, canine-phobic hit man. And James Spader lends the movie more gravity than it earns. He manages to be both threatening and laid-back. But sometimes actors subtly lie back out of a movie they dislike, and I suspect that’s what Spader’s chilly, detached performance is about. Can’t say I blame him.

Last Man Standing

September 20, 1996

Last Man Standing is not the ideal movie to see when you have a cold. You stare at the dust, and the light shining through the dust, and then the men in hats walking through the dusty light, and you wonder if this is a style or a Robitussin hallucination. The film is also big on dissolves, which usually denote the passage of time; here they’re used constantly, often within the same scene. Between the dust and the dissolves, this movie makes you feel drowsy and stuffed-up even without a cold.

Writer-director Walter Hill (48 HRS., Wild Bill), a veteran stylist and macho mythologist, borrows a story that has served two masters of epic action: Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars). Hill’s grainy images and snail’s pace suggest he’s aiming for an instant classic to be shelved alongside those two greats. What he ends up with looks (and moves) a lot like Heaven’s Gate, with frequent quotes from a contemporary action master, John Woo.

Bruce Willis clicks into monosyllabic mode as John Smith, a mysterious hired gun who drives into the dead-end border town of Jericho looking for a place to lie low. Instead, he lands in the middle of a shaky truce between two rival gangs — the Italian Strozzis and the Irish Doyles, who each want Smith to help run their bootleg booze and rub out the opposing gang. Smith’s plan is to play both sides against the middle until he is, as advertised, the last man standing.

This story worked well with Toshiro Mifune and Clint Eastwood, and yet it does not work with Bruce Willis, who has shown greater range than either of those effective but limited stars. Why? Perhaps because Hill has directed Willis to submerge his personality in tribute to the laconic icons Mifune and Eastwood. But a laconic Bruce Willis is less iconic than bionic.

Hill tries to spice up the movie with such dependable eccentrics as Bruce Dern (as a sheriff), David Patrick Kelly (as the Doyle gang’s leader), William Sanderson (as a bartender), and Christopher Walken (as a spooky gunman). But Hill drowns them in trite tough-guy dialogue, and Willis himself labors under needless hard-boiled narration that obscures the film’s one striking element: the score by Ry Cooder, whose work has graced some of Hill’s best movies (Southern Comfort, especially).

And if you’re looking for decent female characters, keep looking. That’s to be expected from Hill, who here deals us two stereotypes from the usual sexist deck: the innocent who must be saved (Karina Lombard) and the whore who must be punished (Alexandra Powers). Judging from what happens to the whore, I’d say Hill has taken a page (and an ear) from Quentin Tarantino, who will probably gush that this is “a great movie.” It isn’t. Oh, how it wants to be. But this is an airless and humorless dud — a folly that only a gifted director could have made. The film chokes to death on Walter Hill’s dusty artistry. Didn’t he know that Last Man Standing was already made a few years ago, faster and funnier and much cheaper, by Robert Rodriguez? It’s called El Mariachi, Walter. Rent it and weep.

Big Night

September 20, 1996

tumblr_m61hx9LPLt1rpb43tThis fall has been the worst movie season in recent memory; Hollywood has been dropping one expensive, star-studded turd after another. So I’m happy to see that Big Night, which has wowed critics and tickled art-house audiences, is breaking into a wider release. It has no stars, just fine actors. It has no gimmicks, just a good story well told. We’ve reached the point where independent films, which used to be artsy and inaccessible, are now reviving the lost art of simplicity.

Stanley Tucci, a character actor whose brilliant work on last season’s Murder One reached too few viewers, wears four hats in this labor of love: co-producer, co-writer (with cousin Joseph Tropiano), co-director (with Campbell Scott, who has a small role as a car dealer), and co-star — with another unsung actor, Tony Shalhoub of NBC’s Wings. Having made money for other people, Tucci was ready to make art for a change. His movie reflects his own status as an artist in a commercial industry.

It’s the late ’50s, and Italian brothers Primo (Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci) are trying to keep their small New Jersey restaurant, The Paradise, from sinking into bankruptcy. Primo, the cook, thinks of his work as art that must retain its integrity — no meatballs with his risotto, even if the customers want them. Secondo, the manager, respects Primo’s culinary genius but knows it’s killing their business. Across the street is a loud, lurid joint named after its owner Pascal (Ian Holm at his funniest), an effusive Italian who sells American patrons their stereotypical idea of Italian dining. “The rape of cuisine,” Primo calls it. Shrewd business, Secondo might call it. Pascal, who likes the brothers (though Primo loathes him), offers them a last shot at success: He’ll ask Louis Prima, the popular singer, to dine at The Paradise.

Preparing for Prima’s visit, the brothers go all out, inviting friends and lovers to join them for what can only be decribed as an orgy of food. Be prepared to hear many moans of pleasure and pain at Big Night, which serves dish after dish that looks orgasmically delicious. Be prepared to hit the aisle running towards a restaurant after the movie, too. Local Italian eateries should stock their kitchens accordingly. The movie has many lively moments, but it also knows when to sit still. There’s a riveting final shot of Secondo and Primo in the kitchen that lasts five minutes without a cut. Nothing happens and everything happens. (Director of photography Ken Kelsch, a master of nailed-down camerawork, did similar things in Bad Lieutenant.) And the actors-directors do fine work with the cast: Minnie Driver is more vibrant here than she is in Sleepers, and Isabella Rossellini loosens up and has fun.

Tucci and Shalhoub work beautifully together, expertly drawing Primo and Secondo’s fraternal tensions without resorting to clichés. Big Night is a triumph for everyone involved, but especially for Stanley Tucci. He’s spent years serving the meatballs audiences wanted. Now he has made an exquisite dish of risotto, and, best of all, audiences are eating it up.

Feeling Minnesota

September 13, 1996

The gray landscapes, the twangy country music on the soundtrack, the fashionably rumpled and unshaven Keanu Reeves squinting and pouting (somewhere between contemplative and constipated) …. For a while, I thought I was watching My Own Private Idaho, especially during the credits, when exotic dancers in framed portraits come to life (a swipe from the much wittier gay-porn gag in Idaho). But this isn’t Idaho, it’s Minnesota — Feeling Minnesota, to be exact. Or, to be more exact, Unfeeling Minnesota. (The title, incidentally, is from Soundgarden’s “Outshined,” which is heard in True Romance: “I’m looking California/And feeling Minnesota.” Whatever that might mean.) The movie is one of those calculatedly hip and quirky Gen-X marketing decisions, far too cool to engage our emotions and too inept to engage anything else. Everyone on the screen is stupid and passive — passive even when they’re aggressive — and the attempts at whimsy crash down like dead trees.

Reeves is the semi-hero, a compulsive thief named Jjaks, whose name is the result of a birth-certificate error. Since I don’t have the stomach to type “Jjaks” repeatedly, I will rename him Typo. Typo drifts back into his hometown to attend the wedding of his loutish brother Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose unwilling new bride Freddie (Cameron Diaz) falls in love with Typo at first sight. Taking pity on Freddie, who’s been forced by local bad guy Red (Delroy Lindo) to marry Sam, Typo whisks her away along with some of Sam’s money. Thus begins a kind of Punch-and-Judy show between the brothers, who pound each other every time their paths cross. The one good thing I can say about first-time writer-director Steven Baigelman is that he stages the Typo-Sam fights naturalistically, with authentic clumsiness. But the rest of Baigelman’s direction is just as klutzy.

Feeling Minnesota is one bad screenwriting decision after another; it could be taught in film school as an example of what to avoid. For instance, avoid scenes that go nowhere, such as the one set at a gas station. Sam follows Typo to this station and promptly locks himself out of his car. So he steals a truck hitched to a trailer carrying a show horse. What comes of this? Nothing, except a guest appearance by Courtney Love as a waitress who asks Sam, “Is that your horse?”

Courtney’s actually one of the few reasons I didn’t hit the aisle; Baigelman gives her nothing to do, but she seems to relish the irony of playing perhaps the sanest character in the movie. I also liked Cameron Diaz, except that Baigelman keeps her offscreen too long near the end (and keeps us in suspense about whether she’s dead). The two leads surprised me more. D’Onofrio, a decent character performer, overacts in every scene. I found it hard to look at him. Reeves, not exactly Olivier, is halfway likable as the confused Typo. After a while, I began to feel that Reeves’ confusion was real — that he couldn’t quite figure out what Feeling Minnesota was supposed to be or where he fit into it. I could certainly relate.

American Buffalo

September 13, 1996

There’s an interesting ongoing pun in American Buffalo that I wonder if its author, David Mamet, intended. One of the three characters, the burned-out weasel Teach (Dustin Hoffman), keeps ranting about two local lesbians, Grace and Ruthie. These women never appear on screen, but they’re never far from Teach’s mind: Grace and Ruthie this, Grace and Ruthie that. By the end of the movie, we’ve learned something about Teach: the man is graceless and ruthless.

American Buffalo itself may be ruthless — an unblinking study of trust among bottom dogs — but graceless it isn’t. The play was David Mamet’s Broadway debut, introducing many audiences to a new species of rhetoric. Men sit and vent about women, food, the weather, anything. It’s the sound of self-defeating machismo sputtering out in spasms of profanity. Without the precedent set by Mamet (and also Elmore Leonard), Quentin Tarantino would still be reminding people to rewind.

The “story” is really a story waiting to happen. We meet the bedraggled junk-shop owner Donny Dubrow (Dennis Franz), who’s sore about selling a buffalo-head nickel for much less than he figures it’s worth. Donny decides to break into the buyer’s house, stealing back the nickel along with anything else that might be valuable. His shabby friend Teach wants in on the “shot” and can’t understand why Donny wants to include his younger gofer Bob (Sean Nelson), possibly a heroin addict. The men go back and forth; American Buffalo is the clash of two philosophies — Donny’s “Things are not always what they seem to be” versus Teach’s “Things are what they are.” Hoffman tears into Teach’s paranoid tirades like a bull mastiff, while Franz quietly positions himself as the voice of reason. The drama becomes a head-butting contest that nobody wins.

This is director Michael Corrente’s follow-up to his acclaimed 1994 debut Federal Hill, a good, solid movie that nevertheless owed a little too much to Mean Streets (and the rest of the Scorsese portfolio). Like many young male directors, Corrente loves the verbal shrapnel of street guys, the repetitive obscenities and homophobic taunts, and American Buffalo has enough of it for five movies. Mesmerized by the trademark Mamet gutter poetry, Corrente directs unobtrusively and respectfully.

Maybe too respectfully. At times, American Buffalo seems like a punk rewrite of Waiting for Godot, and the staginess of the material shows despite Corrente’s sporadic attempts to “open it out” — putting Donny and Teach on the sidewalk, mostly, as if they were dogs needing to pee. At least Glengarry Glen Ross, another film based on a Mamet play, had two basic sets; this movie has only a shop, and as much as I enjoyed the talk and the performances, I can’t say I was sorry to leave the shop. What works on stage doesn’t always play well on screen.

Still, I’m reminded of Pauline Kael’s review of The Trojan Women, a 1972 adaptation of Euripides. Kael said it wasn’t great filmmaking, but it was a welcome chance to see the great play performed by great actresses. American Buffalo gives us the great Mamet words spoken by great actors. That’s enough.

Grace of My Heart

September 8, 1996

This fictitious mini-epic has many fine moments of comedy and drama — not to mention Illeana Douglas carrying her first (and thus far only) leading role sharply and confidently — though it does try to cram way too much into one movie. Basically the story is: What if Carole King married Brian Wilson, and then they turned into Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain? Douglas is warm and witty as Edna Buxton, who goes to New York in 1958 to be a singer just when female singers are on the way out and black quartets are the new thing. Music producer John Turturro hires her anyway, to write songs for pop groups under the name Denise Waverly. After a while she gets the chance to record her own stuff and falls in love with psycho-genius surfer boy Matt Dillon. Writer-director Allison Anders gets carried away and sets Edna up as a brave survivor of just about everything a male-dominated business can throw at a female artist. Many will prefer the lighter, peppier That Thing You Do (which, like this movie, underperformed in theaters). Still, Anders explores things hardly any other director does. She gives Edna the right to not always be a saint, as when she tells an admiring disk jockey (Bruce Davison) that she doesn’t want him as just a friend — “I have enough friends.” Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach collaborated on Edna’s song “God Give Me Strength.”

Michael Collins

September 5, 1996

michael-collins-1996-04-gCritics are fretting way too much over Michael Collins, as they frequently do with historical films. Is it an accurate portrait or a glorification? Will it inflame the renewed Irish Troubles? No use picking nits about Michael Collins; it’s an unabashed romantic epic. The proof is in the casting: hunks Liam Neeson and Aidan Quinn, pretty woman Julia Roberts, and thinking-woman’s heart-throbs Alan Rickman (whose stock has risen since Sense and Sensibility) and Stephen Rea (The Crying Game).

Working from his own script, which took years to get produced, the acclaimed Irish director Neil Jordan uses very broad and movie-ish strokes to paint his portrait of the busy, eponymous hero. As played by Neeson, Michael Collins is a Dublin scrapper with soul — a terrorist who regrets the need for terrorism. In 1916, the British have the Irish under their thumbs, and Collins believes that the only way to escape the oppressors’ thumbs is to hack them off.

We get premonitions of the violent dissent to come when Collins clashes with Irish Republican Army president Eamon De Valera (Rickman), a canny and (Jordan suggests) murderously duplicitous politician. As Collins tires of bloodshed and seeks a peaceful compromise, De Valera harbors vengeful bloodlust beneath his dyspeptic demeanor. Michael Collins should be seen for Rickman’s performance alone; his best and spookiest moments are his most immobile — he’s like a cobra in repose.

That’s one of the movie’s two conflicts. The other is between Collins and his best friend, Harry Boland (Quinn), who are both madly in love with the gentle Kitty Kiernan (Roberts). Sometimes this love triangle is groanworthy, even if it did actually happen, and dramatically it leads nowhere. Neeson and Roberts strike few sparks together, perhaps because they were once an item in real life years ago.

Jordan isn’t good at conventional romance, anyway. He’s best known as a dark fantasist (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves), and Michael Collins gives him some Third Man-esque intrigue to play with. When Collins meets a spy (Rea) in various dark places, the atmosphere is as saturnine and forbidding as you could hope for, and Jordan’s cinematographer Chris Menges works in bottomless shades of blue and gray. (No green in this Irish movie.) The director also stages violence — sudden, jolting — like a true pacifist.

The performers understand their function, which is to look great and be larger than life. Roberts’ accent falters a bit (as it did in Mary Reilly), but she commits herself, as if grateful for a high-prestige job. Quinn has a fine moment of quiet heartbreak when Kitty confesses her love for Collins. Neeson comes through with a full-bodied, full-throated performance, though you’d do well to forget that Collins was only 31 when he was murdered. Neeson, who looks his age (44), is playing a man in his twenties for much of the movie. Michael Collins is neither a history lesson nor great art; it lacks the complexity to be either one. What it offers is Jordan’s visual mood, carried on Neeson’s wide shoulders. You either relax into the voluptuous movieness of it or you don’t. I did, happily.