Archive for February 1997

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love

February 28, 1997

As more female directors try their hand at feminist erotica, a pattern begins to emerge. Readers of Harlequin romances will recognize it instantly, though many women who would never dream of reading a paperback with a Fabio clone on the cover will fall for the purple splendor of Jane Campion’s The Piano and now Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. There’s remarkable consistency in these erotic fantasies, and remarkable narcissism, too.

Which is not to say that male fantasies (which have, after all, dominated cinema since its birth) are less goofy. But let’s stick to Kama Sutra, a visual feast (like The Piano) that wants you to think it’s deeper than Danielle Steel but isn’t (ditto). In the interest of deconstruction, here are a few femme-erotica clichés without which Kama Sutra (and The Piano) would be nowhere:

· The proud and willful proto-feminist. This is a woman who chafes at the crushing patriarchal society of centuries past, conveniently sharing and validating the sensibilities of women of the ’90s. Holly Hunter in The Piano, for example, was a feminist anachronism. Here it’s newcomer Indira Varma as a servant girl who beds the newly-anointed king, gets exiled as a “whore,” and returns to the palace as a courtesan (i.e., prostitute) to service the king. Eventually she will leave all this behind and live happily ever after, secure in the knowledge that men need women far more than women need men. Especially men such as:

· The flamboyantly sexist jerk. See Sam Neill in The Piano, who was such a sexist jerk, Andrew Dice Clay looked at him and said “That guy’s a sexist jerk.” Here the s.j. is Naveen Andrews as the lustful king, who can’t choose between Varma and his queen (Sarita Choudhury, from Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala). An opium addict and inept lover, Andrews gives the women in the audience a straw man to hiss without reservation. Ironically, Andrews was last seen as Juliette Binoche’s lover in The English Patient, where he embodied the next cliché:

· The dark-eyed, soulful, sensitive, tough but non-threatening man with a mane of shoulder-length hair. Whew. This is where the narcissism comes in. The ideal men in these fantasies are basically women with pecs and penises: feminine, but not feminine enough to detract from their hunkiness; masculine, but not masculine enough to make women go “Eww, yuck.” Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall, Harvey Keitel in The Piano: you get the idea. Here, the dark-eyed blah-blah-blah is Ramon Tikaram, who has the perfect hunk name. He exists to provide beefcake, as well as:

· The moment of self-sacrifice and tragedy leading to independence. Here I’ll reveal a major plot point, so beware. The jealous king wants to kill the hunk. Our heroine offers herself to the king, along with the promise never to see her hunk again, if the king will let him live. Sigh. But then the king has the hunk squished by an elephant anyway. Boo-hoo. And so then our heroine must follow her own path, alone. Sigh.

Every talented director is allowed one wet bit of flatulence like Kama Sutra, and Mira Nair is no exception. She has made fine movies before; no doubt she will again. But Kama Sutra, while easy to look at, is even easier to laugh at.

Hard Eight

February 28, 1997

A solid and unpredictable debut from Paul Thomas Anderson (whose preferred title for the film is Sydney). John (John C. Reilly), a sad sack who needs money to give his mother a decent burial, is approached by the mysterious Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), who offers to teach John the secrets of casino gambling in Vegas. A father-son relationship develops between young John and the much older Sydney, until a secret from the past threatens to shatter the arrangement. The plotting gets a tad contrived in the final act, with almost every character behaving desperately or stupidly, but this is still a smooth and compelling character study. Hall gives a riveting and almost immobile performance as a man who seems too wise and courtly to be true. The other stand-out turn is by Gwyneth Paltrow, who usually radiates intelligence as well as beauty; here she plays a cocktail waitress and prostitute without two brain cells to rub together. The effect is rather shocking — we expect her character to be smarter than she turns out to be. Paltrow is touching and effective anyway. Samuel L. Jackson also turns up as the flamboyant Jimmy, who works casino security and knows a lot of dirt. Also with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an obnoxious high-roller. Cinematography by Robert Elswit; score by Michael Penn and Jon Brion. Anderson’s next was Boogie Nights, released later the same year.

Donnie Brasco

February 28, 1997

In his recent films, dating back to his undeniably funny turn in Dick Tracy, Al Pacino has become a compulsive ham — one step away from being a self-parody that his fans laugh at affectionately, as we do now with Dennis Hopper or Jack Nicholson. A friend of mine loves to parody Pacino ripping his glasses off in City Hall and bellowing “Thass all I wanna know!” In that movie, and also in Heat and even in Scent of a Woman, Pacino’s motto seemed to be “The louder the better.”

But he’s a great actor, and he still has plenty of surprises left in him. In Donnie Brasco, a superbly crafted true-life mobster film, Pacino plays a shabby, aging gangster named Lefty Ruggerio, and he gives a performance that nearly erases our memory of his awful grandstanding in Heat and City Hall. Pacino is quiet here, exhausted and bitter — he turns Lefty into a wiseguy version of Willy Loman. There’s deep pathos in his portrait of a mobster who never made it.

Pacino would make Donnie Brasco worth a look even if it were a dud, but it isn’t. The title character, whose real name is Joseph Pistone, is an FBI agent who infiltrates a New York crime family by getting close to Lefty. Johnny Depp, who plays Pistone, turns in a brilliant poker-faced performance. For most of the movie, the undercover Pistone must keep his expression perfectly blank (he can’t react with horror to the sudden bursts of violence or he’ll give himself away), and yet Depp always lets us know what Pistone is thinking. He does this with no voice-over narration and a bare minimum of dialogue.

With a quieter Pacino and the deft silent actor Depp, Donnie Brasco is free to be subtle. Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and the great screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) pay as much attention to emotional details as to the clockwork details of mob life. When Pistone visits his wife Maggie (Anne Heche), who’s always in the dark about what he’s doing, the camera lingers on Pistone putting away cereal boxes. A wonderful touch: it dramatizes how diligently Pistone must organize his dual life. Mob over there, family over here.

Many reviewers have singled out the scene in which Pistone refuses to remove his shoes in a Japanese restaurant (his tape recorder is in his boot). That’s a terrific bit, but what stayed with me were the scenes between Pistone and his new friend. Lefty, whose own son is a junkie, seems to cling to Pistone as the son he should have had. Pistone doesn’t know how to react to Lefty’s fierce love for him, and for me the best moment in the film is when Lefty confronts Pistone with evidence that seems to blow his cover. He takes out his gun and scares Pistone with it, but not by aiming it at him.

Donnie Brasco ends with two eloquently silent bits from Pacino and Depp, after the FBI closes in on the mob family. Lefty puts his valuables in a drawer and goes to meet his fate, while Pistone accepts a medal and a check, his expression frozen and stoic. What are these men thinking? We can spend hours filling in the blanks left by this great and saddening movie.


February 21, 1997

John Singleton probably wouldn’t enjoy being likened to Steven Spielberg, but his Rosewood cements the likeness (it even has a John Williams score). I mean that as a compliment. Singleton’s best work (Boyz N the Hood, Higher Learning), like Spielberg’s, has a sincerity rare in these ironic times, and an emotional directness rarer still. He also lifts bits of many earlier movies, but he uses them as archetypes or icons, not as half-baked homages. That’s the difference between an opportunistic copycat (howdy, George Lucas) and an artist.

Rosewood is John Singleton’s epic — his bold attempt to mount a Schindler’s List-caliber tale of courage in the face of annihilation. The movie is based on the real-life 1923 massacre in Rosewood, Florida, a swampside town populated almost exclusively by blacks. In the neighboring town of Sumner, a white woman beaten by her white lover blames her bruises on a black man, and the vicious crackers of Sumner descend on Rosewood, a place they’ve always resented: The blacks there are economically (if not socially) better off than the whites.

Singleton’s camera regards the ensuing atrocity with a mixture of unblinking documentary style and fleeting glimpses of horror. The technique explicitly recalls Spielberg’s shocking ghetto-liquidation scene in Schindler’s List, with the added chilling knowledge that this happened in this country, in this century. The massacre is among the most ferociously repulsive sequences ever filmed — the racist id at play.

To balance the horror, Rosewood has two iconic heroes — black war veteran Mr. Mann (Ving Rhames) and white storekeeper John Wright (Jon Voight) — and this is perhaps where many people will part company with Singleton. The classical heroism of these men (especially Mr. Mann, who’s right out of a western) would seem jarring juxtaposed with the ugly realism of the lynch mobs and slaughtered babies. But Gregory Poirier’s script gives these great actors room to dig deep. Ving Rhames is warmer and more open than I’ve seen him before, and Voight, as a man torn between fear and compassion, does his most detailed work in years.

The climax, a frantic chase through the swamp that ends aboard a speeding train, has struck even some of Rosewood‘s admirers (like Roger Ebert) as too much of an action-movie finish. Which poses a question. Is Rosewood a conventional escape movie with serious concerns, or a serious film that uses heart-pounding conventions to achieve catharsis? I’d say the latter, and I would add that the highly-acclaimed but thoroughly ugly Mississippi Burning, whose black characters were mostly cringing victims, did the same thing. Rosewood does it a lot better.

The sense one gets from Rosewood is that John Singleton was eager to tell a horrifying but ultimately satisfying story in which black people score a small win against the most appalling racism. As in Schindler’s List, you win by surviving or fleeing. Singleton makes sure his fleeing heroes do some damage, too. Manipulative? Sure. But at the end of this long and bruising study of racism, it’s hard to begrudge Singleton (or ourselves) the strong pleasure of a movie-ish blaze of glory.

Lost Highway

February 21, 1997

In David Lynch’s Lost Highway, we get to know an L.A. jazz hipster named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who suspects his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) of cheating on him. Renee is murdered — cut into pieces — and a confused Fred is tried and convicted. In his cell, Fred (who’s been having headaches) somehow changes into a young mechanic named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) — and we’re into a whole other story.

Or are we? Pete, who fixes cars for mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), falls for Mr. Eddy’s moll Alice — played by Patricia Arquette again. There’s also a Mystery Man (a ghastly Robert Blake) who can be in two places at once and seems to function as a monitor/puppetmaster, like the lever-pulling Man in the Planet in Lynch’s seminal Eraserhead. The movie demands patience and attention, and some viewers may not feel it’s a fair trade. In Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Lynch set up a mystery and then sprinkled surreal oddities onto it. Lost Highway is all oddities, and the mystery is the film itself.

Most Lynch fans, I think, will much prefer the first half, and not only because Balthazar Getty is sullenly inexpressive and annoyingly “cool” — a rebel without a pulse. The Fred section is doomy and deliberately paced, heavy with voluptuous erotic dread; the languid nothingness sucks you in. The Pete section is noisy and overwrought, with occasional bursts of thrash metal and freakish violence, such as death by coffee table — which seems meant to be funnier than it is. (It’s staged poorly, or maybe it was trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating.)

Yet even the weak second half offers distinctively Lynchian pleasures. When Alice is forced to strip at gunpoint, our response is divided between moral disgust and detached appreciation of Lynch’s pristine composition of the shot (the cinematography, by Peter Deming, is superb throughout). When Mr. Eddy assaults a tailgater, it’s the movie’s comic high point, but we also feel sorry for the poor pistol-whipped victim. Lynch was a wizard at this comic-horror stuff years before Quentin Tarantino cut off that cop’s Blue Velvet ear in Reservoir Dogs.

Lost Highway is a movie about divisions, so it’s fitting that we come away from it with mixed feelings. Some may prefer the faster, more lurid Pete section and find Fred’s half boring. Lynch himself seems split between artist and entertainer. In the climax, a chaotic seizure in which the literal and the symbolic collide, Lynch is a capital-A Artist who can’t, or won’t, bring the movie together in any satisfying way. He expects us to do it. Lynch is courting audience hostility here in a way he hasn’t since Eraserhead, which at least was wacko from the start. Lost Highway begins conventionally and then takes a hard left. The defiant strangeness reminded me of Alex Cox’s career-ending doodles Straight to Hell and Walker (both of which I liked).

I enjoyed much of Lost Highway, though I hesitate to recommend it to the uninitiated. It’s classic Lynch — a metaphysical horror movie about the dark mysteries of sex. I was enthralled even when I was baffled. Yet many Lynch fans may find it depressing. Lost Highway is mesmerizing yet cold and remote — an exotic fish we can’t touch. Instead of connecting with us, David Lynch now wants to withdraw into his brilliant void, and he doesn’t care whether we go with him.

Absolute Power

February 14, 1997

51a5gVh+wHL._SL160_In recent years, and especially after Unforgiven, the critical consensus on Clint Eastwood has brightened considerably, and deservedly so. He’s become a skillful and compassionate director and not a bad actor. But a lot of critics seem to want to believe that Absolute Power, Eastwood’s new movie as director/star, is better than it is. The film isn’t bad, but it’s contrived and dawdling, and the slow patches give you plenty of time to reflect on the many implausible moments.

Adapted by screenwriting godhead William Goldman (whose credibility is steadily slipping after The Ghost and the Darkness and The Chamber) from a bestseller by David Baldacci, Absolute Power aims to be entertainment with serious political undertones. The format is familiar: Disreputable Loner Discovers Corruption in High Places. In movies like this, the hero must have a questionable background, or else everyone would listen to him and the movie would be over in five minutes. The film that was supposed to kill this genre for good was, of course, JFK.

But no, here’s Clint as ingenious thief Luther Whitney, a kinder, gentler update of his arrogant art thief Jonathan Hemlock in The Eiger Sanction. One very dark night, Luther breaks into a ritzy mansion and is interrupted by a drunken couple. Hiding behind a two-way mirror, Luther watches as the man and woman fumble with their clothes. Then the foreplay turns rough, and the episode ends with the woman dead. Some reviewers have given away the twist about half an hour into the movie, when the supposedly shocking identity of the man (an underused Gene Hackman) is revealed. I’ll keep my mouth shut, but it really doesn’t make much difference who Hackman’s character is. He could just be a rich and powerful man — the same sort that always turns up in these thrillers. The title promises far more intrigue than we get.

Instead, we get many scenes of Clint in his cute mode, sketching or wearing disguises or playing coy games with an admiring detective (Ed Harris). And there’s a nice subplot, involving Luther’s tentative relationship with his estranged daughter (Laura Linney, redeeming yet another thankless role), that would fit snugly into a whole different movie. But all I kept thinking was: A woman is dead here. Knock it off with all the digressions and patented William Goldman snappy patter.

The first reel or so, in which the appalled Luther witnesses the rough sex and killing, has been compared to Hitchcock and Blue Velvet, and Eastwood stages it deftly. Yet we can’t help thinking how contrived it is that Luther should be there under these circumstances, helpless to act (if he intervenes, he’ll go to jail), and Eastwood’s direction is unhurried and calm when it needs to speed us past our misgivings. Absolute Power is professional and sometimes witty. It was probably a useful exercise for Eastwood. But he has gone past this button-pushing pulp, and his phlegmatic style here shows it. Maybe Eastwood simply can’t do shallow stuff any more. That’s good news for his admirers and bad news for this script.

Dante’s Peak

February 7, 1997

DantesPeak-Still2Dante’s Peak is great fun, but for all the wrong reasons. Here is a movie that cries out for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. The best part is that Universal spent $115 million on what they marketed as a scary disaster movie. Afraid not. Once it gets going (and it takes a good hour), Dante’s Peak has more belly-laughs per minute than The Nutty Professor.

The movie begins seriously enough. Intrepid geologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) and his sweetheart are driving away from an erupting volcano. A smoldering chunk of rock slices through the cab roof — thwack! — and the girlfriend will never need a hat again. Cut to four years later. Harry is now a workaholic trying to forget his grief; you can tell because he spends his spare time doing really intense push-ups.

Harry is summoned to investigate a possibly cranky volcano near the thriving town Dante’s Peak, which is declared “the second best place to live in America.” (Why not first-best? Oh, I don’t know — maybe the dormant-volcano thing.) The mayor (Linda Hamilton), a divorcee who seems to have adopted the kids from Jurassic Park, makes goo-goo eyes at Harry while he’s trying to explain that Dante’s Peak may soon become the second best place to find crispy corpses in America.

Volcanology must be tedious work — all that waiting around for the thing to blow — and I admire the integrity of director Roger Donaldson and writer Leslie Bohem, who keep Dante’s Peak defiantly boring for at least an hour. Just when we’re starting to feel like geologists watching rocks erode, the thing finally blows. Boy, does it blow. The volcanic effects, particularly a highway crumbling and cars falling like loose change, do manage to be fairly frightening. But then the movie accidentally takes a sharp detour into comedy, never to return.

Up to this point, Dante’s Peak has been a pale Xerox of Jaws (the town officials don’t want to scare away tourists and investors) and Twister (Harry has a team of volcano-chasers). But this movie, rather bravely I thought, declines to offer a plot motor like “Kill the shark” or “Get the balls into the tornado.” What we get instead is … Grandma and Ruffy the dog. I’ll try to explain. The little kids’ stubborn grandmother (Hamilton’s “ex-mother-in-law”) refuses to believe that the volcano is dangerous. Even when volcanic ash blackens the sky, she won’t leave her mountainside cabin. So our heroes go through Dante’s inferno to rescue this moron and her dog.

I won’t reveal much more; I don’t want to give away all the jokes. But the scene set in a boat in an acid lake is a comic masterpiece, ending in the funniest unintentional sight gag (involving poor Grandma, who apparently refuses to believe that acid is dangerous) I’ve seen in years. Not to mention Harry’s heartfelt, hilarious promise to take the kids deep-sea fishing when all this is over. Dante’s Peak is truly a special movie. I can’t recommend it, but it has my undying affection.