Archive for August 1997

Excess Baggage

August 29, 1997

Rule #73 in Rob’s Book of Movie Laws: Christopher Walken makes any film worth seeing. Following this rule, I’ve sat through some pretty lame films (The Prophecy, Last Man Standing, The Funeral), so I knew to scale down my expectations for Excess Baggage, in which he plays a supporting role as the concerned “uncle” (i.e., friend of the family) of Alicia Silverstone. I was happy to discover that the movie, after a bumpy start, turns into a good little comedy with a string of winning performances besides Walken’s. But for me, the best moment in the film is still the scene in a diner, when Walken says, in his incomparable Queens diction, “Go get yaself a waffle.” See, I’m so easy to please.

The movie itself benefits from low expectations; it’s the sort of off-center, wannabe-Something Wild comedy that critics have little patience for. Silverstone (also the co-producer) is Emily Hope, a bored Seattle teen who enjoys getting herself in trouble just to get the attention of her businessman dad (Jack Thompson). The rather gimmicky premise is that she’s faked her own kidnapping and locked herself in her car trunk, waiting to be found and fussed over. What Emily doesn’t count on is Vincent (Benicio Del Toro), a car thief who slips into Emily’s car and takes off with her still in the trunk.

Vincent is one of those good-bad boys popular in romances pitched at teen girls: a gentle outlaw, a soulful thief who’s saving up his ill-gotten gains to open a karaoke club in Brazil. With a bland pretty-boy as Vincent, Excess Baggage would collapse into trivial mush. But Benicio Del Toro, who was the hilariously befuddled Fenster in The Usual Suspects, has an oddly casual rhythm all his own — as if he’s mildly surprised that he’s in a movie — and Silverstone, who starts off bratty, relaxes around him. When these two talk, they share a strange but pleasant vibe. On the run from various people (her father, her “uncle,” some guys chasing Vincent), they fall sideways into love.

None of which may sound all that exciting or original. But the movie has a satisfying realistic tone. Director Marco Brambilla, whose only previous film was Demolition Man, has a feel for the muted blues and grays of Seattle, and he’s good at the contrast between the sterile mansion Emily is fleeing and the rumpled, homey motels where she and Vincent hide out. Brambilla shows an appreciative, Jonathan Demme-like touch with diners and warehouses, which feel like real places where real people work, not just locations. (Sitting in a diner, Walken looks around and is impressed: “This is classic Americana.” Not every comedy stops to smell the roses that way.)

Aside from that, Excess Baggage offers rich supporting performances. Sally Kirkland turns up as a waitress with her own album of songs for sale at the counter (Walken buys a CD and a tape, not as a plot device — as I expected — but because he loves the songs). The always agreeable Harry Connick, Jr. is Vincent’s partner in crime, who’s in way over his head. Nicholas Turturro, in his funny-crazy Federal Hill mode, scores some laughs as one of the guys chasing Vincent. But really the best reason to see it, as I said, is to hear Christopher Walken say “Yes. I’m gonna give my car keys to a car thief.”

The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

August 29, 1997

This pathetic fourth entry in the series was shown, probably shamefacedly, at a few festivals and then shelved until 1997, when it got a limited theatrical run to capitalize on the success of its stars, Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey. Until then, die-hard Leatherface fans (like me) had to track down bootleg tapes struck from the Japanese laserdisc. I can’t imagine anyone thought it was worth the effort or the wait. This makes the previous two sequels look like Citizen Kane, and is little more than a pale Xerox of the first movie’s plot.

The saddest part is that Kim Henkel, co-writer of the original, is fully to blame for this mess. (The pompous trailer, as found on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre DVD, announced the movie as “the real sequel.” Right.) It’s fitfully amusing because of Zellweger (as the shy heroine Jenny) and McConaughey (as the sadistic, hee-hawing Vilmer, one of the new chainsaw clan) in most undignified pre-stardom roles. (Both stars, trying to be nice upon the film’s ’97 release, said they had fun doing it.) Their scenes together are the only watchable moments, largely because they’re about the only ones who can act; Toni Perenski, as Vilmer’s crazy girlfriend Darla, is easy on the eyes and shows some wit before she’s reduced to being pushed around.

But for the most part you stare at the screen and wonder how anybody involved thought this could possibly have been any good. Henkel throws in some sort of X-Files subplot involving aliens (?!) to explain the exploits of Leatherface and his family; it makes about as much sense as anything else in the movie. Of interest only to Zellweger fans curious to see her in a torn prom dress, waving a shotgun and spitting F-words at her tormentors. With Robert Jacks as Leatherface, re-imagined here as a chainsaw-wielding Divine.

To clarify: The version I saw and have reviewed was called The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The version released in ’97 was cut from 94 to 84 minutes (reportedly removing all inferences that Zellweger’s character has been sexually abused by her father) and retitled Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.

G.I. Jane

August 22, 1997

By a happy coincidence, I finally got around to seeing G.I. Jane the same day I started reading a book by Rene Denfeld, the controversial author of two postfeminist works: The New Victorians, which challenges the modern feminist orthodoxy that defines women as victims of men; and, more germane to this review, Kill the Body, the Head Will Fall, an account of Denfeld’s training as a boxer and a study of female aggression and violence. An incisive and provocative thinker, Denfeld would have been the ideal choice to write G.I. Jane, and I wish to God she had.

G.I. Jane is a rabid piece of militaristic pulp with a crucial and commercially shrewd difference: The hero, the soft clay to be molded into a steely instrument of death, is a woman — Demi Moore, of course. Moore is Lt. Jordan O’Neil (a carefully androgynous name), a smart but frustrated officer handpicked to undergo the harshest military training in the world — in the Navy SEALs, which boast (and that’s a good word for it) a 60 percent drop-out rate. Will a woman have the right stuff? Or will she fail and set feminism back decades?

Well, we’re talking about an expensive Hollywood movie co-produced by its star, so the question is never whether Jordan will make it; it’s how she’ll make it, and what kinds of highly fetishized punishment we can watch her endure on the road to self-fulfillment. G.I. Jane was directed by Ridley Scott, a sometimes great stylist (Alien, Blade Runner, the similarly op-ed-worthy Thelma & Louise) who often sacrifices substance to style. Scott turns G.I. Jane into a heavy-breathing pictorial ordeal, an essay in eroticized brutality and masochism. A certain part of the audience may enjoy seeing Demi Moore shaved and beaten and degraded, and Scott gives them that and more. If not for its flimsy “feminist” pose, the movie would be denounced as violently misogynistic.

G.I. Jane — a stupid title befitting a stupid film — is the sort of Nietzschean service drama I thought Full Metal Jacket had bagged and tagged ten years ago. Stanley Kubrick’s chilly masterpiece told the truth about military training: that it isn’t remotely “good for building character,” that it grinds up human meat and spits out war machines. As Jordan transforms into an ass-kicking iron butterfly, the self-actualizing spectacle becomes absurd. For centuries we’ve gotten the coded message that men must be brutal to be real men. The message is no less repulsive when applied to women. Jordan says her ordeal is her choice, but what is she choosing? To be cannon fodder in a war that improves politicians’ approval polls?

Since the movie introduces a duplicitous senator (Anne Bancroft) who selects Jordan and then betrays her, I expected Jordan to see through the bullshit. But no, she stays true to her unit — a good cog in the machine. She blossoms under the cruel tutelage of the baroquely named Master Chief Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen, whose witty and sinister portrait of sadism is the movie’s saving grace); she gets to prove herself in a real-life battle that I found unwatchable — Scott fractures the action with jittery zooms that had me wishing for Dramamine. By the end, the message is clear: to be a real woman, you have to become an animal. I eagerly await Rene Denfeld’s review.

Cop Land

August 15, 1997

If you put Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, and John Sayles together in a room and told them to come up with a modern suburban Western, the result might be Cop Land. The sophomore effort of writer-director James Mangold, Cop Land has the cast of a Scorsese film, the muckraking police-corruption plot of a Lumet film, and the leisurely pace and character focus of a Sayles film. If you admire those directors (as I do), you might enjoy the movie enough to see it twice (as I did). Be warned, though, that Mangold duplicates those filmmakers’ flaws, too.

The film is set in the fictional Garrison, New Jersey, a town populated almost entirely by New York cops (Mangold based it on the real-life New York suburb of Orange County). A quote by Juvenal comes to mind: “Who watches the watchmen?” Well, the town is officially policed by sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone), who lost his hearing in one ear while saving a woman from drowning; that prevented him from becoming a “real” cop in the big city. But Garrison is unofficially owned and operated by Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), a mob-connected cop who colonized Garrison as a dirty cop’s paradise and installed the harmless sad sack Freddy as its peacekeeper.

Stallone, who gained 40 pounds for his role, uses his new physical awkwardness and insecurity around “real” actors to convey Freddy’s self-hating shame around “real” cops. It’s a touching performance with barely a hint of aggression. Nobody in Garrison takes Freddy seriously, least of all Freddy himself. Denied a true cop’s life by one moment of heroism, Freddy is now too frightened to stick his head out of his shell (note the stuffed turtle Mangold plants). But a blatant instance of police corruption — an accidental and possibly racially motivated double killing, and the subsequent cover-up — might be enough to jolt Freddy out of his passive funk.

I sympathize with some of the criticism of Cop Land: There’s too much plot and too many characters, and the film needed to be either streamlined or lengthened. At times, it’s like three episodes of NYPD Blue jammed together and whittled down to feature length. Some of the best actors suffer from the plot overload; Janeane Garofalo, as Freddy’s deputy, has a hard, flat way of saying “Hey, that’s not necessary” to a cop who’s just called her “cupcake,” but that’s all she does that I remember even after my second viewing.

Some other actors, though, take advantage of the script’s series of confrontations and grandstanding. Robert De Niro, looking like Rupert Pupkin ten years later, is sour-faced and funny as the Internal Affairs cop who’s out to nab Keitel. Ray Liotta, in the stand-out performance as a conflicted cop, has an easy and almost gentle rapport with Stallone; Liotta’s bitter city cop acts like Freddy’s protective older brother. What lured me back to Cop Land again were these performances and the film’s aching, authentic tone of regret. Stallone, who has wasted far too many years in meaningless action and unfunny comedies, may understand all too well Freddy’s pain at the path not taken. Freddy proves himself in the end; Stallone proves himself long before that.

The Full Monty

August 13, 1997

A rough-hewn but gentle comedy, especially beloved by women (who love to hoot at the unlikely strippers). Robert Carlyle, a very long way from Trainspotting, is Gaz, an out-of-work steel worker who needs to make some quick cash or else lose joint custody of his son. Gaz and a few other blokes on the dole notice how much money (and how many women) the hunky Chippendales dancers pull in at the local pub; they decide to train as strippers who promise to deliver “the full monty” (full-frontal nudity). The training sequences are hilarious, as is much of the only-in-England dialogue (“Anti-wrinkle cream there is; anti-fat-bastard cream there is not”). All but one of the men are pudgy or skinny or old, and the movie makes the subtle point that men aren’t often judged by the same rigorous physical standards that they place on women — except when they shake their booty in front of hundreds of drunk lasses. Carlyle proves an engaging actor with amazing range; Tom Wilkinson (who was in Priest with Carlyle) as a desperate, laid-off supervisor too frightened to tell his wife, and Mark Addy as the flabby, impotent, insecure Dave, are funny and touching. Only demerit: the generic score by Anne Dudley (of the Art of Noise) — it sounds like the tinkly stuff I used to hear in the theater before a movie started. (Inexplicably, it won an Oscar for Best Musical/Comedy Score.) The choice of songs (Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing,” Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part Two,” Tom Jones’ cover of Randy Newman’s “You Can Keep Your Hat On”) is much better than the score. Cinematography by John de Burman. With Steve Huison, Paul Barber, Hugo Spier, Lesley Sharp, Emily Woof, Deirdre Costello, and Bruce Jones. It was a solid little art-house hit for Fox Searchlight and did well when it expanded to the plexes. A few years later it became a Broadway musical.

Conspiracy Theory

August 8, 1997

conspiracy_0An hour after coming home from Conspiracy Theory, I read Entertainment Weekly‘s cover story on it and was most unsurprised to find the following sentence: “Unable to resolve how the movie should end, [director Richard Donner] filmed two different endings and left the final decision up to a test audience.” Test audience: the two ugliest words in a movie buff’s vocabulary. Has there ever been a film that benefited from such cowardly studio waffling? It’s a shame, because Conspiracy Theory is two-thirds of a fine comedy of paranoia. At its best, it’s a Looney Tunes riff on Taxi Driver and The Manchurian Candidate, with Mel Gibson as the looniest toon of his career.

Jerry Fletcher (Gibson), a grungy New York cabbie, has an elaborate theory for everything. Bobbing along in his own private sea of crackpot logic, Jerry is the most entertaining creature of the season. This is the fifth time Gibson has worked with Richard Donner — their other four team-ups were the Lethal Weapon trilogy and Maverick – and these men obviously go well together; they bring out each other’s playfulness. As long as Donner stays with the babbling Gibson (in one of his riskiest and least sexy performances), the movie is completely satisfying.

But then the script (by Brian Helgeland) embroils Jerry in a real conspiracy. Jerry, it turns out, isn’t as nutty as he seems. Donner and Helgeland keep us as confused as Jerry is, zapping us with flashbacks or, perhaps, flash-forwards — they’re flashes, anyway. The only one who can help Jerry is Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), a Justice Department lawyer whom he loves from afar. He’s been pestering her for months with one theory or another, but will she believe him when it really counts?

Conspiracy Theory works as a twisty thriller given a manic edge by Gibson. Donner has fun with the paranoid theme of such thrillers — that you can’t trust anyone or anything, even your own memory. The chief villain, played by Patrick Stewart with cool malice, spends half the movie with his nose bandaged (after Jerry bites him) — one of several nods to Chinatown. Helgeland writes some wonderful rants that Gibson happily sinks his teeth into, and the production design in Jerry’s cluttered maze of an apartment is a triumph (he has padlocks on the fridge and on the food inside); when the place was blown up, I felt a pang of loss, as if a quirky supporting character had been killed off.

Then we come to the third act, when the movie lapses into generic action scenes, contrived revelations, and half-baked romance. I won’t reveal the ending, but it’s the kind of cop-out that seems to please test audiences (and insecure studio execs). It didn’t please me; as Julia Roberts got onto her beloved old horse and rode towards a potential sequel, I looked away in embarrassment. Conspiracy Theory is well worth seeing for Mel Gibson’s immensely enjoyable performance and the edgy comedy of its first hour. But once the movie starts heading for its climax, don’t trust anything it says.

In the Company of Men

August 1, 1997

The first film by writer-director Neil LaBute, In the Company of Men has been both exalted as a brilliant satire and scorned as a shallow burp of white male indigestion posing as satire. It’s probably a little of both. But that very uncertainty is what makes it such an uneasy and unforgettable experience. Working with a $25,000 budget (shades of Clerks — this movie could be called Jerks) and stark, spartan sets, LaBute keeps his camera locked down as his two protagonists, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), discuss the perfidies of women. Woman — that most untrustworthy and enraging creature! Listening to these two, we realize that some of their specific complaints would sound inoffensive if they were women talking about these same flaws in men. But these two, and Chad in particular, go a step further. They’re bewildered; they can’t believe they’re living in a world in which the rules keep changing and men can’t even pretend to be men any more. Chad talks about women as if they were a virus spreading and infecting everything.

LaBute never stands outside the sensibilities of these men, never tells us that of course he understands that they’re sexist pigs. (For this reason, the film should infuriate the literal-minded.) Chad, a rancid corporate slickster, and Howard, a schlumpy doormat, decide to get revenge for the pain that women have caused them. Their plan is to single out a woman — preferably lonely and grateful for any male attention — and court her simultaneously and separately, then dump her and gloat over the psychic damage they’ve wrought. Chad stumbles onto the perfect target: Christine (Stacy Edwards), a shy, beautiful secretary who also happens to be completely deaf.

In the Company of Men is a static and hermetic exercise; the head games in the boardroom and bedroom are intended as a microcosm for the callous corporate ethos that has coarsened us all. The form is farcical — critics have likened it to Restoration comedy and to Les Liaisons Dangereuses in particular — yet the tone is realistic, and the actors give performances to match. Eckhart smoothly embodies every frat boy turned office wolf; Malloy’s portrait of a spiritually squashed and pathetic man becomes almost too painful to watch. And Edwards, in an enchanting and utterly convincing turn, makes us feel what this war between the sexes is costing the other side.

Is it a great movie? It falls just short, I think. LaBute, like Jules Feiffer in his nasty men-women satire Carnal Knowledge, goes too far in hollowing out the men. They are nothing but resentment and manipulation, which sometimes leaves a dramatic void. So it’s hard to be involved in their game on a basic human level. We watch from a distance. A great satire, like A Clockwork Orange, would seduce us into complicity with evil. LaBute’s film isn’t nasty enough. Still, this is an energizing and indelible debut. And it ends on an appropriately sour note; the silence of the final shot may echo in your mind for days afterward.


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