Archive for April 1997

The Shining (1997)

April 27, 1997

Stephen King didn’t care for Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of his novel The Shining, so he decided to write his own adaptation 17 years later. This version is more faithful to the book — six hours (with commercials) of lugubrious, slavish faithfulness. Six hours? Shit, wasn’t The Stand eight hours? And that book was, like, fifty times as long as The Shining. How could they get three nights’ worth of story out of an average-length novel? They couldn’t; the damn thing dawdles like Scatman Crothers coming to the rescue in the Kubrick film.

ABC gave carte blanche to King, though, because The Stand had been a ratings bonanza. That’s also why that miniseries’ director, Mick Garris, was asked back for this one. Naturally, the question arises: How does the Garris version compare with the Kubrick version? You mean aside from being pretty well unmemorable and bereft of fright? Well, Steven Weber makes a more naturalistic, likable, and human Jack Torrance than Jack Nicholson did, and Rebecca De Mornay turns in a much stronger and warmer Wendy than Shelley Duvall was allowed to contribute. The scenes in the book wherein we’re supposed to sense love between the Torrances — the better to mourn that love when it’s challenged later — are enacted far better here than they ever were under Kubrick, who had other things on his mind.

Lest I be impugned for saying the guy from Wings gives a better performance than Jack Nicholson, I’m not; I’m saying Weber’s Jack Torrance is closer to the novel’s Jack Torrance. Given this to work with, Weber makes us care; and therefore, when Jack begins to lose his shit, Weber is able to dig into a disturbing and saddening downward spiral. Nicholson’s performance, highly entertaining and iconic on its own, was stylized from the get-go and offered little or no contrast between Sane Jack and Axe-Swinging Jack.

There’s nothing in the Garris version to top the peerlessly bone-chilling “Come and play with us, Danny” bit in the Kubrick film. Doesn’t even come close; hardly even tries. There are many, many cameos to tickle horror fans, though, including King himself. And if Weber and De Mornay make a more credible book-Jack and book-Wendy, the others in the new cast falter. Courtland Mead, who plays Danny this time, is more outgoing and verbal than Kubrick’s Danny, and is also borderline annoying. I prefer Danny Lloyd’s grave, near-catatonic performance in the original. And Melvin Van Peebles as Halloran doesn’t make us forget Scatman Crothers, who had a genuine, unforced warmth that the one-time director of Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song can’t duplicate.

ABC’s reward for springing for this miniseries was relatively low ratings, plus a gag order on King preventing him from dissing the Kubrick film in promotional interviews for the miniseries. It’s believed that Kubrick (and by extension, I presume, the Kubrick estate) did not care for the idea of The Shining being done again, and that this may be why the miniseries took so long to see a home-video release in the U.S. Shining ’97 is best seen — if seen at all — as a curiosity, an alternate-universe take wherein bad old Stan never existed and good ol’ Steve was allowed to adapt his novel exactingly. But it’s not a Shining you’re likely to watch more than once.

Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion

April 25, 1997

tumblr_lx9keu8NCN1qzihvqo1_500I went to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion hoping for a tasty, colorful wad of bubble gum, and that’s exactly what it is. The movie is a celebration of its two gently daffy heroines, Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow), both closing in on thirty without any hint of growing up. Best friends since forever, they live together in their cluttered L.A. apartment, watching Pretty Woman (which they mock and cherish) and hitting dance clubs. They seem to have no other friends and no future.

Done another way, the movie could be very depressing. Instead it’s, like, really fun. Romy and Michele gets a lot of mileage out of the one event that can strike terror in the most jaded Gen-X heart. The ten-year reunion demands that you be well on your way down the path to capitalist glory: house ‘n’ spouse, good job, maybe a rugrat or two. It’s the Show and Tell from hell. Romy and Michele, staring their ten-year reunion in the face, realize they have very little to show or tell. So they fake it.

The clueless duo recast themselves as powerful career women — self-made tycoons who allegedly invented Post-Its. And it’s a tribute to the light-as-air charisma of Sorvino and especially Kudrow that we really feel a loss when they feign buttoned-down professionalism. We like them because — like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless — they’re so completely who they are: not dummies, but postfeminist goddesses without a whole lot on their minds besides having fun, looking good, and (most important) being kind. When they fake being driven careerists out of the ’80s, we experience it as a violation.

Now and then, the movie plays like a cheerful vindication of everyone who was a misfit in high school. Yes, the super-popular cheerleader wound up marrying the jock stud, but look at them ten years later, stuck in an empty marriage; she’s perpetually knocked up, he’s an alcoholic skirt-chaser. As the movie demonstrates, the problem with peaking in high school is … well, you peaked in high school. Romy and Michele’s aimlessness seems like a bright future in comparison.

The dorks and wimps survived and then some. One geek (Alan Cummings) became Bill Gates, while the bitter misanthrope (Janeane Garofalo, boldly tossing out the nice-girl goodwill she built in The Truth About Cats and Dogs) made her bread marketing fast-burning cigarettes for women on the move. Living well is the best revenge — who needs Heathers? For most of us who existed in the gray area between Heather and Carrie White, Romy and Michele’s triumph is our triumph.

But enough deep-dish analysis. The movie succeeds by being goofy and disposable (and, in the case of an overextended dream sequence, very disposable — funny at first, but goes on well past its purpose). Sorvino scores laughs with that odd is-she-kidding voice of hers (it makes half her lines sound like put-ons); Kudrow may be repeating her space-girl shtick from Friends, but she’s great at it. And I haven’t even mentioned the blissfully absurd dance number, a tiny classic all by itself. This is a warm pink bubble bath of a movie — poppy, soothing, and satisfying on a very basic level.


April 25, 1997

The poorly timed but well-made Volcano arrives three months after Dante’s Peak, to which it is infinitely superior. I was more than a little surprised at how gripping Volcano is, especially after many critics (such as Roger Ebert) dumped on it — as if the chowderheaded Dante’s Peak were a masterpiece and Volcano a pale imitation. (For the record, both films went into production simultaneously; when the release of Dante’s Peak was bumped up to February 1998, Volcano got pushed back to April.)

The movie, of course, is just another megabudget pre-millennial blow-out. But these things can be done well or badly, and Volcano goes full steam ahead. Like Speed and Twister, it half-heartedly sketches in some human-interest banalities but wastes very little time on them — unlike Dante’s Peak, with its yawning hour of exposition and its unforgettable stupid Grandma sloshing through the acid. Actually, my only gripe about Volcano is that it offers nothing comparably laughable. Where Dante’s Peak was campy and dumb, Volcano is taut and stressful.

The disaster shown in Dante’s Peak could conceivably happen; the one in Volcano — Los Angeles consumed by cranky lava stirred up by a quake — isn’t nearly as likely, and yet this is the more convincing movie. Partly it’s because of the special-effects sequences, which aren’t just better, they’re better-paced and better-placed; the director, Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard), knows how to build one spectacle on another. Early in his career, Jackson made a post-nuclear film for British TV called Threads, and he evokes the fear and chaos of an apocalyptic situation without skimping on the destructive fun.

Volcano also gains from Tommy Lee Jones in his hyper-efficient Fugitive mode, playing an L.A. crisis manager who rattles off orders like a human Morse-code machine. When he tells hundreds of assembled cops and firefighters that they’ve got to build a six-foot wall to contain the lava, nobody questions him — you don’t question Tommy Lee Jones. He has a good match in Anne Heche as a brilliant geologist who’s calm and unflappable in the face of tons of lava. Next to that, a few nosy reporters asking about Ellen must seem like nothing.

Jackson also directed the excellent Steve Martin satire L.A. Story, and Volcano is almost its disaster-flick sister. When the movie takes a breather from destruction, it’s usually to get in some jab at the media center of the universe. Forty-five actual newscasters appear as themselves in Volcano, flitting around the apocalyse like moths around a lamp. We glimpse one man on a subway train reading How to Write Screenplays That Sell (perhaps he survived to pitch this movie). Racial tension is touched on, but only to set up the cheesy moment when everyone is covered in gray ash — get it? Nobody’s black or white now!

What I liked most about Volcano is that it has almost no narrative flab. Like Tommy Lee, it goes in with both hands and gets the job done — it concerns itself almost exclusively with problem-solving (okay, the lava is oozing down the street — we need a barrier). And it puts a great spin on a tired cliché in recent disaster movies: the dog that escapes doom by a whisker. Here, the dog gets out of a lava-ravaged building in the nick of time — but only after pausing thoughtfully to pick up his chew toy.


April 18, 1997

MV5BMTQ5MzE3MTAyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjA0NjE1NDE@._V1_UX214_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Brent Lestage’s twenty-minute short film Race takes a deceptively simple and small-scale approach to a huge and complex subject. Inspired by Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List, Lestage has traded that film’s epic sweep for a more personal study of one survivor’s flight from the Holocaust. Of course, such a survivor can never escape the horrors of the past; he carries them with him as he runs towards the future, perhaps never fully inhabiting the here and now.

Race begins with warm and colorful images of children running. For them, the race is just a game — child’s play. For other children, such as Josef Liebowitz, it’s a race against darkness. Lestage crosscuts between the young Josef (Jay Catelli) fleeing from Nazis and the elderly Josef (David Jenney) running slowly but implacably in a present-day marathon. We hear the latter-day Josef’s thoughts as he runs, narrated by Lestage, who fuses Josef’s external and internal odysseys.

Lestage films the flashbacks in hand-held, journalistic black-and-white, a tribute to Spielberg’s style in Schindler’s List. Linking these fleeting memories of horror to Josef’s marathon running (shot in color), Lestage pulls off a few transitions that Spielberg might have been proud to think of. A Nazi’s rifle shot becomes the report of a starter’s pistol (Lestage’s professional background in sound is impressively evident here and elsewhere in Race); when Josef accepts a cup of water during the marathon and douses himself to cool off, Lestage cuts to the boy Josef washing himself in a forest puddle.

As narrator, Lestage provides the older Josef’s voice, and his two actors in the lead role must do without dialogue. Their silent, primarily physical performances have their own eloquence. Jay Catelli conveys desperation but also intelligence (the boy, thinking on his feet, knows how to throw a dog off his scent), and David Jenney lets us see Josef’s younger self still running endlessly in his mind, chased this time by history. During Race (a double-edged title), Lestage brings out the meaning of Josef’s inner drive towards peace. Running, it turns out, is not only an escape from death but an embrace of life. The race has a dual context of bitterness and freedom for Josef; the movie itself is split every which way — two lead actors, two styles, two parallel realities enlarging each other.

Lestage takes his central metaphor and runs with it for twenty minutes, never putting a foot wrong. He works magic with a New Bedford location that doubles neatly for the 1943 Sobibór Ghetto; he makes effective use of exquisite Bach selections, beautifully performed by Michelle Djokic; best of all for aspiring filmmakers always looking for inspiration, Lestage has managed to go out with a funky 16mm camera and $12,000 and come back with a film that looks way more expensive.  Great careers have been built on far less promising debuts than Race, another example of how talent, resourcefulness, and many people tanked up on coffee can triumph. If Race gets public screenings in the area, don’t see it because the guy is a local. See it because the guy is a director to watch.


April 11, 1997

This surprise hit is unpretentious and silly; it never forgets what it is –­­ a campy Jaws clone. A documentary film crew floats down the Amazon and runs into Jon Voight, enjoying himself to the hilt as a psycho obsessed with capturing the giant anaconda and bringing it back to civilization. The CGI snake looks fake, but that only adds to the fun (it’s endearingly fake-looking); so do Voight’s clownish accent and ridiculous dialogue (“I am not the bad guy. I did not eat the captain”). Voight also benefits from the best death scene (and subsequent, um, “resurrection”) any villain has gotten in recent years. A thoroughgoing beer-and-pizza drive-in movie, classic bad fun. The multicultural crew includes Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jonathan Hyde, Kari Wuhrer, and Eric Stoltz, who spends most of the movie in bed breathing through a pen in his larynx. Cinematography by Bill Butler (who shot Jaws); score by Randy Edelman. Director Luis Llosa is the guy who gave you Sandra Bullock nude in 1990’s Fire on the Amazon.

Grosse Pointe Blank

April 11, 1997

grosse-pointe-blank1Grosse Pointe Blank, which seems destined for cult-movie status (it didn’t open very well), may have arrived too early to capitalize on the growing ’80s nostalgia. For Generation X, ’70s nostalgia (which returns twentysomethings to childhood) seems to have played itself out; this movie and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, which opened two weeks later, remind their target audience of their teens. A bigger problem for Grosse Pointe Blank is that it looks like another Tarantino clone. No clone, this; in its modest way, it’s one of 1997’s best films, and certainly the funniest and freshest.

The movie stars John Cusack, the prince of smart ’80s cult comedies (The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer) who became a Gen-X icon as Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. In Grosse Pointe Blank, which he also co-wrote (with buddies Steve Pink and D. V. DeVincentis, reworking a Tom Jankiewicz script the star optioned for himself), Cusack doesn’t buy, sell, or process anything, but he does kill people for a living. Call it Slay Anything. Cusack even does some kickboxing and has a few scenes with his endearingly off-center sister Joan (who plays his long-suffering but devoted secretary). He’s called Martin Q. Blank here, but he’s Lloyd as a reservoir dog.

Which is an entirely charming premise. If Martin were played by anyone else — say, a fellow ’80s veteran like Kevin Bacon or Charlie Sheen — the movie wouldn’t work. Grosse Pointe Blank, which is quite violent at times, needs Cusack’s witty aura of decency. Like many of his generation, Martin has stumbled into a job he’s getting sick of. Talking to his shrink (Alan Arkin), he denies any personal connection to his work. Whenever he’s forced to kill, he insists “It’s not me.” Cusack and his co-writers use professional killing as a metaphor for the dreaded buying, selling, and processing that trap so many Martins (and Lloyds).

Martin isn’t as chipper about his job as is his deranged colleague “the Grocer” (Dan Aykroyd, casually turning in his best performance in years), who envisions an assassin’s union and wants Martin to join. Instead, Martin takes a freelance hit job near his hometown of Grosse Pointe, where his ten-year class reunion is approaching. He tracks down his ex-girlfriend Debi (Minnie Driver, who matches up beautifully with Cusack; they’re funky post-punk soulmates), whom he stood up on prom night and has obsessed about ever since. His childhood house, he discovers, has been supplanted by a convenience store. “You can never go home again,” he sighs, “but I guess you can shop there.”

When Martin slouches homeward, a variety of unforced scenes flesh out his character for us. He has a natural, easy rapport with Debi even after ten years of absence; they seem to pick up exactly where they left off, even though the past decade has meant a failed marriage for her and a lot of dead bodies for him. They remind each other of the potential they once thought they had, and their deftly written dialogue has a sting of depression giving way to a flowering of hope — maybe they can ditch it all and start over. We feel the history between them, the shared in-jokes and tastes (they both seem to have been seriously into the Clash and the Specials in high school — when Martin visits Debi at her home, she greets him with a line from a Specials song). Cusack’s and Driver’s acting styles mesh so seamlessly that a magical thing happens: in the middle of this hipster black comedy about a hit man, you’re watching a bona fide romantic couple (smart, suave, smitten with each other) right out of a Cary Grant classic.

The freshest aspect of Grosse Pointe Blank is the depressed hit man’s encounters with his fellow alumni in town and at the reunion. His meeting with his former English teacher is a rapid-fire exchange of amiable sarcasm that tells us volumes about the student Martin might have been: a brainy kid popular with the faculty because he made them laugh. Jeremy Piven is in riotous form as an old buddy who hardly blinks at Martin’s job: “Do you need grad school for that?” In fact, I wanted more reunion scenes and a little less of the Grocer and the corrupt feds tailing Martin; their scenes are funny and necessary but a tad stale.

I particularly liked Martin’s run-in with a brawny cokehead who bullied him in school. Instead of wasting him (as he easily could, with years of lethal experience at his fingertips), Martin calms him down — “There is no conflict between us; there is no us” — and the cokehead, suddenly sentimental, favors Martin with a muddled, heartfelt poem he’s written. Most other comedies would have gone for a cheap laugh in which Martin drops the guy with one well-aimed foot. But this isn’t a movie that goes for anything cheap. It’s a true original.

Grosse Pointe Blank is smartly directed by George Armitage, whose 1990 Miami Blues wasn’t as successful a balance of quirky and queasy; the gore sometimes drowned the humor. Here he gets it just right, aided by great ’80s new-wave pop as sparkly counterpoint to the mayhem. I bet, for instance, that you’ll never hear Nena’s “99 Luftballons” the same way again. Grosse Pointe Blank is a lot of fun. As Lloyd Dobler might say, it’s “warped and twisted and hilarious.”

Chasing Amy

April 4, 1997

Back in 1994, Kevin Smith blasted out of obscurity with his rude, invigorating debut Clerks, a comedy everyone loved — well, everyone of a certain age. Smith followed it with Mallrats, which many people hated; I liked it. Now comes Chasing Amy, in which Smith reveals the romantic heart beneath his grungy exterior. It’s been widely acclaimed as a mature leap forward. I’m not so sure. I laughed a lot — the movie isn’t bad. But I hope Smith grows out of this new maturity soon.

Smith’s basic idea — which dawned on him while he was hanging out with Guinevere Turner, star of the lesbian romance Go Fish (she has a cameo here) — seems custom-built for hot debates at the coffeehouse: What if a hetero guy and a gay woman fell in love? The hero, comic-book artist Holden (Ben Affleck), is appearing at a convention when he meets Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), who puts out her own comic. He’s instantly infatuated with her. Why? Because he’s narcissistic, I’d say: She’s a female version of himself. Such is Gen-X love.

Holden soon learns that Alyssa is more like him than he bargained for: He’s into women, and so is she. Alyssa is a guy’s femme fantasy of a lesbian: fun-loving, club-hopping, one of the guys. (When does she have time to do her comic?) They become fast friends, which irritates Holden’s best buddy and partner Banky (Jason Lee in the funniest performance), a cynical homophobe who feels threatened by Alyssa. Before long, Holden can’t take it any more; he blurts out his love for Alyssa, who recoils but then gives in to her own feelings for him.

At this point, Chasing Amy seems ready to dig into the problems of hetero-lesbo romance. But amazingly, Smith all but drops the lesbian angle. The movie somehow becomes about Holden’s shock at Alyssa’s wild sexual past (it turns out she’s been with more than her share of guys, too). Holden gets uptight, Alyssa delivers anguished speeches about her confused youth, and the dialogue (I never dreamed I’d say this about a Kevin Smith script) becomes annoying. The psychobabble piles up and buries the engaging leads; the last act is borderline awful.

What went wrong? A guess: The plot and dialogue play too much as if Smith is re-enacting past romantic squabbles he’s had, and rewriting them, too. Nobody in real life is this earnestly articulate. The movie doesn’t really resolve its view of female promiscuity, and Holden’s solution (skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film) is to propose a menage a trois between him, Alyssa, and the rather baffled Banky. Is he serious, or is he testing her? If the former, he’s an idiot; if the latter, he’s simply cruel. Either way I wound up disliking him.

Like John Waters, Smith is incapable of making an unfunny film (though Waters has never needed to show us his “heart”). He writes elaborately obscene, hilarious dialogue, and he comes up with a great goof on the scar contest in Jaws. And he brings back the beloved slacker duo Jay and Silent Bob, played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself. Yet even Silent Bob breaks his silence to deliver a monologue about a lost love. Oh, come on. Can’t Kevin Smith expand his horizons without turning into Sensitive Bob?