Archive for November 1996

The Crucible

November 27, 1996

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a high-school standard, has been sold to us since 1953 as the American equal of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Miller’s play remains the only major American dramatization of the 1692 Salem witch hysteria, and that’s a shame. In 1953, The Crucible struck many as a comment on Senator McCarthy’s communist “witch-hunts.” The new movie version reveals the play as what it always was: a melodrama about a married guy who shouldn’t have dallied with a vengeful girl. Miller took a huge liberty with the facts. In his story, the girl, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), is 17; her married lover, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), is around 35. In fact, John was 60 in 1692; Abigail was only 11. Obviously, there was no affair. The problem isn’t that Miller diddled with the facts; it’s that his diddling reduces the Salem tragedy to “Hell hath no fury like a teenage girl scorned.”

Director Nicholas Hytner opens with a group of girls dancing and carrying on around a fire. One of them is Abigail, caught red-handed (and red-lipped) after drinking blood in a love ritual. The girls are quick to blame their Satanic behavior on the big bad guy himself: they claim to have been bewitched by a score of villagers, and Abigail accuses John’s wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) of putting horrible spells on her. It’s Abigail’s revenge on Elizabeth, who ended the affair. Miller also wrote the script, and Hytner treats the old master’s text with at least as much reverence as the pious Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) shows for the word of God. Hytner knocks himself out trying to make the play cinematic, but Miller hasn’t made the play into a screenplay. At one point, Abigail simply vanishes, and her departure is explained by a line of dialogue. In a movie, we expect to see, not to be told.

Hytner’s previous film, The Madness of King George, was the polar opposite of The Crucible: it was an exuberant, intelligent entertainment full of terrific performances. This time, Hytner is asleep at the wheel. The actors, with four exceptions, spend their time shrieking and spitting at the camera. Ryder comes off the worst: she looks the part, but whenever she opens her mouth, it’s over. To be fair, she also gets the most unsayable lines: “I look for John Proctor who put knowledge in my heart,” etc.

Joan Allen (Nixon) gives yet another quietly great performance as the repressed Elizabeth; she makes you wish that Miller had given her more to do. Rob Campbell (Unforgiven) is low-key and smart as the visiting Reverend Hale, who slowly realizes how insane Salem is becoming, and Karron Graves, a newcomer to movies, brings some poignancy to the pivotal role of the Proctors’ frightened servant Mary Warren. But the main reason to see The Crucible is Paul Scofield as the grim inquisitor Judge Danforth. His line readings are lasers slicing through Miller’s murky drama. In the film’s best moment, Scofield’s judge slam-dunks Parris with the precisely inflected “Mr. Parris, you are a … brainless man.” Without him, The Crucible would be as humorless as a Puritan.

Sling Blade

November 27, 1996

sling_blade_3_630_pxlwSling Blade is the kind of movie I wish I could recommend wholeheartedly. On one level, it’s another little-guy triumph like Big Night and Trees Lounge, in which an excellent actor decides to write and direct a small-scale vehicle for himself. In this case, the little guy is Billy Bob Thornton, already a proven screenwriting talent (he co-wrote One False Move a few years back) and now, like Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi, a generous director who favors long takes in which he and his fellow actors can set their own rhythms.

Bad news first, though. Sling Blade, which stars Thornton as kind-hearted, simple-minded Karl Childers (that name is pushing it a little), often plays more like a showcase for Thornton’s undeniable acting chops than like a study of small-town Arkansas. Karl, who’s just been released from a mental hospital after 25 years (he killed his mother and her lover when he was 11), talks very slowly, which calls attention to his rumbling voice and strange throat-clearing noises. For about the first half hour, all I could see was Billy Bob Thornton showing off the vocal tricks he’d mastered.

Then there’s the story. Karl goes back to his hometown, where he finds work fixing engines; of course, he’s a whiz at it (why are movie simpletons always a whiz at something?). He also befriends a little boy (Lucas Black), whose mother is seeing a mean redneck (Dwight Yoakam in a surprisingly convincing performance). So far, Karl is Forrest Gump meets Norman Bates meets Rain Man; his fatherly, protective relationship with the boy reminded me of an old episode of The Incredible Hulk, where Bill Bixby befriended an abused boy, then got angry at the rotten dad and changed into big, green Lou Ferrigno.

In other words, we wonder when Karl will stop eating French-fried potaters and go Ferrigno on Dwight’s ass, preferably using the titular weapon. Okay, so now I’ve lampooned Sling Blade, goofing on its threadbare elements. Now for the good news: None of it matters much. Thornton’s acting starts to call less attention to itself once Karl has more people to react to; generally, his best moments are his quietest. The way he reads a key line addressed to Yoakam near the end (I won’t spoil it by quoting it) is first-rate and memorably chilling. And the slowness of the movie gets to us. Thornton gives his actors — Natalie Canerday as the boy’s mom, the improbably coiffed John Ritter as her gay boss and friend — plenty of space to build their characters. We begin to pick up cross-currents of kindness and dread from these people, who seem to have unconsciously summoned Karl as an avenging angel.

There are a couple of missteps near the end: Karl gets too folksy-poetic in his speech, and as the film builds to its conclusion, we wonder why nobody sees it coming. But the last two scenes are brilliant, and Thornton avoids the happy visiting-day finale I expected. Karl has found a family he loves; to save it, he must leave it forever. Sling Blade has a dull side, but it also has an edge sharp enough to draw blood.

Star Trek: First Contact

November 22, 1996

star-trek-VIII-first-contact-18-4According to the Star Trek Law of Sequels, every even-numbered Trek film must be good, while every odd one is lame. Thus Star Trek: First Contact, the second feature with the Next Generation crew, runs rings around its stiff predecessor (1994’s Star Trek Generations). The storytelling is tight, the style loose and limber, and it moves with great confidence and speed; it caught me up in the first shot and never let me down.

I never watched Next Generation on TV, so the movie’s frightening villains, the Borgs (short for “cyborgs,” I assume), are pleasantly new to me. Looking like a cross between the Terminator and George Romero’s zombies, these creatures go about “assimilating” entire races in a sick, fascist quest for “perfection.” Their new target for self-actualization is Earth. The Borgs are nothing if not strategic: they go back in time to 2063, planning to stomp us before we can achieve warp speed and make “first contact” with other sentient life. The Enterprise, led by Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), swoops to our defense, driven by more than simple urgency. Picard, it seems, was once assimilated by the Borgs. He seethes at the memory. For him, this is a matter of avenging soul-rape.

First Contact was written by Trek vets Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, whose script for Generations ran in migraine-inducing circles trying to get Kirk and Picard together. The new story gets twisty at times, but it’s much more focused and allows for meatier characters: Dr. Cochrane (James Cromwell), who will pioneer warp flight, and his friend Lily (Alfre Woodard), who pulls Picard back from his righteous disgust.

We soon meet the source of his wrath: the Borg Queen, played by Alice Krige with an animal sexuality that cuts right through her icky latex. This self-satisfied Queen is intimate with male weakness. When she captures the droid Data (Brent Spiner) and activates his emotion chip, he can’t help responding to her — especially when she grafts human flesh onto his arm and blows on it tenderly. This bit of porno-horror is worthy of David Cronenberg at his diabolical best.

Series star Jonathan Frakes, who modestly scales back his screen time as Commander Riker, makes his feature directing debut here (he also helmed a few of the TV episodes). Frakes is a natural-born action director, decisive and bold. His already-legendary opening shot — beginning inside Patrick Stewart’s eye and pulling back endlessly to reveal the massive Borg ship — is exuberantly show-offy. And he keeps the action crisp and tense, like Nicholas Meyer’s work in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Overall, I had as much fun at First Contact as a non-Trekkie can have. Like Star Trek II, it navigates smoothly between literary allusions (both films nod to Melville) and gentle self-parody. In one goofy sequence, ship’s counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) gets drunk; the elegant Sirtis is rather appealing when she’s loaded. And then there’s that Borg Queen. One look at her and you understand how she got under poor Picard’s skin. She could inspire wet nightmares.


November 20, 1996

56088777It may seem cruel to pick on a life-affirming movie based on the true story of a man learning to live with mental illness, but Shine, which has gotten wide acclaim and seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), isn’t exactly an underdog. I didn’t hate it — the middle section is intriguing. But the film overall is no more striking or moving than your average triumph-over-hardship TV movie. Shine is about David Helfgott, played by three actors (Alex Rafalowicz in boyhood, Noah Taylor in his teens and twenties, Geoffrey Rush in adulthood), an Australian piano prodigy bullied into excellence by his father (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Whenever David’s talent threatens to take him away from his family, the father stomps him flat with a guilt trip. We see that David plays (and lives) more for Daddy than for himself.

Finally David works up the guts to leave home and go to London’s Royal College of Music, where he comes under the benevolent wing of professor Cecil Parkes (John Gielgud, still vibrant and spry at 92). David seems happier with his new, supportive father figure until, in concert, he attempts Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3, which the movie presents as the pianist’s equivalent of Mount Everest. David fights his way through the piece in a frenzy, then collapses onstage. We’re to understand that David tried, as Cecil advised, to pour his emotions into “Rach 3,” and that he had so much repressed rage at his father that he burned himself out. But Shine, directed by Scott Hicks from a script by Jan Sardi, has an unconventional structure that works against it. The movie keeps flashing forward to the adult David, played by Geoffrey Rush as a happy if strenuously daft guy. Not only does this distract us from David’s anguish in earlier times, it reassures us at frequent intervals that he wound up frazzled but sociable and basically okay.

Shine feels like a routine docudrama with pieces missing — left out by design. Hicks skips over David’s recovery and focuses on his learning to take pleasure in playing — in restaurants and, finally, in concert again. In the last section, David falls in love with an astrologer (Lynn Redgrave, looking baffled) and is obsessively talkative and huggy with everyone he meets. Huh? How’d he go from the recessive Noah Taylor to the obnoxious Rain-Man-on-Prozac Geoffrey Rush?

We’ve seen people overcoming disabilities in dozens of movies (My Left Foot was the best recent one), and we’ve even visited the troubled psyche of a great pianist in the mesmerizing Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. The movie is really an Oscar sandwich — stale bread surrounding a big piece of ham: Geoffrey Rush. This certainly is the sort of turn that wins awards, which isn’t a compliment. And for the record, I’m tired of movies that give us sweet, elfin, spontaneous crazies so life-affirming and irrepressible you just want to smack them. Here’s a guy who thinks nothing of giving his wife’s breasts a squeeze in front of a packed concert audience. I would’ve loved to hear just one character in Shine say, “Okay, he’s been through a lot and he’s an okay player, but the fact is he’s an asshole.”

The English Patient

November 16, 1996

picture-of-kristin-scott-thomas-in-the-english-patient-1996--large-pictureThere seems to be no middle ground with Michael Ondaatje’s popular novel The English Patient: either you can’t put it down, or you put it down after two pages and never pick it up again. As someone in the latter group, I was still eager to see the film version. Often, the most compulsively readable books become unwatchable movies (Sleepers), while the most wildly unreadable books blossom into enthralling cinema (Naked Lunch).

Writer-director Anthony Minghella’s film of The English Patient makes me want to take another crack at the book. I’ve read that Minghella is faithful to Ondaatje’s plot and time-hopping narrative, and he has found visual equivalents of the famously luscious prose that hooked so many readers (and stood between me and the story). The mysteries and surprises are still there (I will reveal none), but the romance is more central.

At its core, this is the story of a man who risks everything and loses it. We meet the “English patient” of the title (Ralph Fiennes), burned almost beyond recognition after his plane is shot down in the North African desert during World War II. In the last days of the war, he is tended in a wrecked monastery by the kindly nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche). He says he remembers nothing; his frequent flashbacks prove otherwise.

The patient, it turns out, is a Hungarian count named Almásy. Before the war, Almásy works with British cartographers mapping the sands of the Sahara. There he meets the alluring but married Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). A howling sandstorm finds them cooped up tight in a jeep; it’s the start of a beautiful relationship, and a neat metaphor for the way their lives will continue to be sand-blasted by the fates.

Half of the movie is Almásy’s bed-ridden reverie, and I expected the nurse Hana to fall in love with her scarred but yearning patient, competing with Katharine’s memory. Not so. Instead, Hana finds love with the sensitive mine-patroller Kip (Naveen Andrews), and Willem Dafoe turns up as a saturnine thief who warns Hana not to put a halo on Almásy any time soon.

Minghella, best known for the honestly moving Truly Madly Deeply, doesn’t shy away from overwhelming romance; he runs toward it with a clear head. And clear eyes: photographed by John Seale, this is easily the most ravishing film of the year. The sand seems to drench the actors in deep golden light; the sky is a rich, muted blue, like a still and suspended sea.

If there’s a flaw, it lies with Binoche, a capable but rather opaque actress (as she was in Blue). Otherwise, the cast is impeccable. Kristin Scott Thomas finally gets the major role she deserves, and she plays it eagerly and elegantly. Ralph Fiennes, playing both an evasive, obsessed lover and a shattered wreck of a man, powerfully fuses Almásy’s past and present. Almásy thinks he can read anything: foreign languages, maps, Herodotus, people. What he can’t read, tragically, is himself. And in the end he is a map of scars read by Hana. Some would credit Ondaatje for the compelling story. Duly noted. But praise is equally due Anthony Minghella for making it a fine movie.

Space Jam

November 15, 1996

670px-Space_Jam_(1996)_-_Home_Video_Trailer_for_Space_JamThe surface conflict in Space Jam is between two cartoon hoop teams, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who’s really facing off: the mighty Disney and Time-Warner.Disney is the Goliath of feature animation, and now here comes Warner with its $90 million slingshot, hoping to outdo Toy Story and distract kids from 101 Dalmatians. Of course you realize … this means war. Mostly on gullible kids.

Space Jam isn’t the first movie based on a commercial (remember Ernest P. Worrell?), but it’s arguably the most cynical and definitely the most expensive (which amounts to the same thing). In its aggressive slam-dunk tactics, it does outdo Toy Story, whose corporate subtext was there if you were a grouch (like me) and wanted to look for it. You don’t have to look for it in Space Jam. It’s a stroke of evil marketing genius.

As the world knows by now, Michael Jordan (playing himself in a monotonous good-sport performance) is recruited by the desperate Looney Tunes to help them win a basketball game against “the Monstars” — aliens from Moron Mountain. Wearing my grouchy subtext hat, I’d say Jordan is recruited by the desperate Warner Brothers to help them wipe the court with the Mouse. If it sells sneakers and burgers, so much the better.

Space Jam is not all bad, which makes it all the more painful. The Looney Tunes — Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Elmer Fudd, and so on — barge in and let fly with the self-mocking anarchy that introduced postmodernism to the masses fifty years ago. Some of the manic parody is funny; the Pulp Fiction goof is the movie’s biggest laugh. Yet the toons get so little screen time as individuals that Space Jam is like a bad Robert Altman movie — full of cameos by great actors who never get to do much.

One legitimate criticism of Toy Story was that it was very much a boy story. The otherwise testosterone-drunk Space Jam tries to balance the scales with a new character, Lola Bunny (whose name I had to look up — that’s how strong an impression she makes). Lola has a catch-phrase (“Don’t call me doll,” perhaps a tribute to that modern masterpiece Barb Wire) and a mean dribble, but she’s as colorless as the others here.

As for the guest humans, selected to please grown-ups, the unbilled Bill Murray has one or two witty moments playing himself: a sad sack with very little dignity left (which he’ll be if he keeps doing movies like this). Wayne Knight does his annoying Newman shtick, Theresa Randle (Girl 6) is wasted as Jordan’s wife, and Danny DeVito (as the voice of the Monstar leader) sounds as bored as he must have been. Various hoop stars walk through in an amiable daze of non-acting.

All of this adds up to one big, sad commercial for itself. Will kids like Space Jam? That isn’t the point: The marketing tells them they have to like it. The movie is less self-mocking than self-fulfilling. If the toons lose the game, the Monstars will enslave them and use them as cheesy entertainment in a Moron Mountain theme park. That’s meant as a dig at Disney. But in Space Jam, Warner reveals itself as Moron Mountain, pimping once-vital toons. What a revoltin’ development.


November 8, 1996

Ransom_2As a director, Ron Howard must aspire to be a baby-boomer Howard Hawks: he skips from genre to genre, usually not stumbling — but not making much of a mark, either. He has discipline but no particular temperament or vision. Solid and competent as they are, Howard’s movies are polite guests in our consciousness, never daring to mess up the rug. And in a thriller about kidnapping and parental terror, that’s not good.

Ransom, the surefire hit starring Mel Gibson, starts out as a hard-driving nail-biter. Airline magnate Tom Mullen (Gibson) enjoys the high life without guilt. He has a beautiful wife (Rene Russo, who’s underused) and doting son (Brawley Nolte). Now watch it all fall down. The son is whisked away by scruffy hoods who want to soak Tom for $2 million. The parents become hysterical and call in the FBI.

And the movie, quite unavoidably, becomes Guys With Phones. I’m serious — I’ve never seen another mainstream Hollywood movie so dependent on zooms into ringing phones. Tom spends much screen time negotiating, pleading, and arguing with the head kidnapper, renegade cop Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise). There’s more talk than the wispy story can bear, and before long it collapses. Hyperactive yet uneventful, Ransom is one of the most unthrilling thrillers imaginable.

And yet …. If there’s one theme that links some of Ron Howard’s recent work (Parenthood, The Paper, Apollo 13 to a small extent), it’s anxiety about threats to the ideal family. Ransom is a horror movie for affluent parents, and at times it works fairly well as a study of a husband and father cracking under pressure. Tom is very rudely emasculated by the faceless, jeering kidnappers who resent his fortune. He does stupid, grandstanding things because he doesn’t know what else to do.

Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise (oh, please) were also on Howard’s short list to play Tom Mullen, but I doubt we’d have bought them in the role. Ford would have been too glum, Cruise too callow. Mel Gibson specializes in heroes who can be rubbed raw and driven around the bend, and Ransom gives him a work-out. In one moment I won’t forget, Tom seems to devolve into a wailing infant after he thinks his son has been killed. Gibson goes naked here the way Jack Nicholson did in The Crossing Guard.

But then it’s back to the rusty mechanics of the thriller. The script was largely written by Richard Price (Clockers), who has never seemed comfortable with this kind of point-A-to-point-B stuff, and it shows in the amazingly lumpy climax. Price wants to humanize the kidnappers, and we see tensions between Jimmy and his girlfriend (Lili Taylor). But Price can’t flesh them out, and we don’t know why Jimmy wants $2 million. He’s just a boogeyman scaring the nice rich people.

I can marginally recommend Ransom because Gibson does sharp work, and Sinise and Taylor find some of the truth that Price and Howard neglect to include. But what we have here are (A) desperate, violent kidnappers and (B) people arguing about how the ransom should be handled. There’s a great movie in such material. That movie, by the way, was Fargo.

Mother Night

November 1, 1996

A fine, melancholy adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel, with Nick Nolte in peak, vulnerable form as the tormented hero Howard W. Campbell Jr. An American who grew up in Germany, Howard enjoys a posh life as a playwright and husband of the daughter (the excellent Sheryl Lee) of a high-ranking Nazi. Then an American agent (John Goodman) approaches Howard with a proposition: Howard will go on the radio and deliver hateful anti-Semetic rants, ostensibly to boost Nazi morale; the speeches are actually encoded with messages to the Allies. After the war, Howard shuffles through life, a typically morose and absurdist Vonnegut hero: the American government can’t acknowledge his valor as a spy, so he has to go into hiding, where he meets many betrayers and also neo-Nazi American fans of his radio “work.” Director Keith Gordon’s work is clean and unpretentious, continuing his interest in themes of non-conformity and grace under pressure. Only weakness: Gordon’s style may be too realistic for some of Vonnegut’s plot, which hinges a bit too much on coincidence. Still well worth your time. With fine support by Alan Arkin, Arye Gross, Kirsten Dunst, Frankie Faison, and David Strathairn. Vonnegut has a cameo on a crowded New York street.

The Funeral

November 1, 1996

Abel Ferrara’s Depression-era gangster drama deserves kudos for its period look and solid cast, but the overwritten and faux-philosophical script (another dud by frequent Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John) sinks it fast. It begins with a wake for a slain young hood (Vincent Gallo), who, according to the flashbacks, was dabbling in Communism and threatened to squelch a deal between his family and local Gotti prototype Benicio Del Toro. Gallo’s older brothers Christopher Walken, a somber and conflicted don, and Chris Penn, a mercurial psycho from the Joe Pesci mold, try to find out who killed Gallo and what to do about it. Eventually we discover who killed him and why, and it’s both anticlimactic and unconvincing.

This is strictly a manly-man movie: Gallo’s widow has a bare minimum of dialogue, as does Penn’s long-suffering wife (Isabella Rossellini, who looks good, anyway). On the other hand, Annabella Sciorra (also one of the producers — coincidence?) gets more dialogue than anyone except Walken, and they’re both destroyed by the lines they do get. For no reason and with no preparation, Walken turns into a sort of Catholic theorist (“God made the world; I’m just makin’ do with what I got”), while Sciorra gets an egregious scene in which she says she used to go to college and then blurts out tearfully, “I have ideas!” That puts her one up on this movie.

Penn overplays his hand from the get-go; he seems to be trying out for The Lou Costello Story, and he’s stuck in a vicious rape scene that cribs from Bad Lieutenant. (He does have a strong, lusty singing voice in one of his few happy scenes at a drunken bash.) The only actor I enjoyed was David Patrick Kelly in a too-brief cameo as a fervent Communist tub-thumper. Score by Joe Delia; cinematography by Ken Kelsch. Also with Gretchen Mol, John Ventimiglia, and Ferrara regulars Paul Hipp (who was Jesus in ‘Bad Lieutenant’) and Victor Argo.