Archive for September 1997

The Ice Storm

September 27, 1997

Sigourney-Weaver-The-Ice-StormThe Ice Storm begins and ends with a train making its way home to New Canaan, Connecticut. Its heavy wheels crack the frozen glaze on the tracks as it passes trees that droop under the weight of glistening icicles. Every frame of The Ice Storm feels glacial and depressed. The title event rattles the windows of the perfect suburban houses; inside, the people ignore the storm, just as they ignore the frigid emotional climate in their living rooms and bedrooms.

The movie, set in 1973, is easily the best of the current crop of retro-’70s films. I grew up in the ’70s, and I loathe ’70s nostalgia — the disco, the polyester, the sideburns, that ugly Mary Tyler Moore Show font, Star Wars — I hate it all, and The Ice Storm looks back with refreshing detachment. It doesn’t chuckle affectionately and say, “Boy, people were goofy back then.” No, it stares through a microscope and says, “People were pathetic back then.” You see the sideburns and the sweater vests, but you don’t laugh much. It’s not funny, it’s sad.

Director Ang Lee, who showed great skill at depicting repression in Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense and Sensibility, isn’t as kind to the story’s two suburban families as their creator, Rick Moody, was in his 1994 book. Lee and screenwriter James Schamus have some compassion for these soul-sick New Canaanites but don’t hold out much hope. These people are beyond help; they push themselves into “liberation” but trip over their own psychological shackles.

The Ice Storm follows the Hoods and the Carvers (renamed from the novel’s Williamses, maybe in tribute to Raymond Carver) as they dabble half-heartedly in trangression. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is having a joyless affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver); Ben’s wife Elena (Joan Allen) is a shoplifter, as is her gloomy daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci), who distracts herself with Janey’s horny sons Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Their misery is intricate and intertwined. The worse they feel, the worse they behave, which makes them feel even worse — the familiar vicious circle.

There’s some humor in Ben’s and Janey’s idea of parental advice; they’re so clueless they’d be better off not telling their kids anything. But sadness lurks beneath the humor. You sense that the adults want to be good parents — they’ve screwed up everything else — but they honestly don’t know how, and this is the best they can do. So the kids are already depressed and disillusioned. Their awkward sexual experimentation mirrors the queasy wife-swapping “key party,” which is in full swing as the rain freezes on the cars outside.

Lee has an impeccable cast. Kline makes Ben selfish, confused, but still decent — there’s a touching image of Ben carrying Wendy home through the wet, snowy woods — and Allen, a great and subtle actress, suggests flashes of ungovernable wildness in Elena (what’s up with that shoplifting?). And Christina Ricci, passing into adulthood, is going to be a major reason to stay interested in movies. All the characters’ self-disgust seems to crystallize in Wendy, and Ricci conveys it almost wordlessly. The Ice Storm is a rich and elegant drama on its own, but it will be remembered for Ricci’s first adult role. That the role is a 14-year-old girl only adds to the movie’s poignance. Kids couldn’t stay kids for long even back in 1973.

L.A. Confidential

September 19, 1997

Los Angeles in the early ’50s — the world of the dazzling L.A. Confidential — is a well-lit place of darkness. “The sun shines bright,” we’re told at the beginning, and even the night is sliced open by spotlights and tabloid flashbulbs. This is the L.A. of James Ellroy’s “bad white men,” the brutes and killers driven by ambition and obsession. Are they cops or mobsters? What’s the difference? L.A. Confidential is part of Ellroy’s brilliant “L.A. Quartet,” an alternative gutter history of America mixing sensational fact and corrosive fiction. Except for a couple of easily overlooked movie-ish speeches and alterations, the new film adaptation does full justice to the moral complexity and compulsive sin of Ellroy’s universe. It may just be the movie of the year.

The closest thing to a hero is Bud White (Russell Crowe), a dim and brutal cop who likes to kick the crap out of wife-beaters. Bud’s willingness to use excessive force has made him both admired and feared in his department. Bud’s opposite number is Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a shrewd and virtuous young cop who believes in integrity and non-violence. Ed also believes in advancement, and isn’t above snitching on fellow cops to nab a Detective Lieutenant spot. Somewhere in the middle is Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a cop who acts as technical advisor to the popular cop show Badge of Honor and has a standing deal with tabloid vulture Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) to get himself ink and glory.

Ellroy’s cops are haunted by erotic and psychological demons that drive them far more than any ideal of justice. The film, directed by Curtis Hanson (The River Wild) from a script he wrote with Brian Helgeland (Conspiracy Theory), distills Ellroy’s epic into a compact drama that sketches in the motives that Ellroy plumbed in depth. Gone, for example, are Jack’s addiction to violent porn and Ed’s romance with a rape victim, whose adulation of the brutal Bud compels Ed to prove his manhood and earn the nickname “Shotgun Ed.”

What’s left of Ellroy’s story is still so dense that I barely have room to touch on it. A massacre at the Nite Owl Diner leaves six people dead, among them a dirty cop. Ed takes the case, and Jack and Bud flit around the criminal margins of L.A., sniffing after vague scents of corruption. A ritzy call-girl ring of movie-star lookalikes (including Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake hooker) is involved, as well as Mickey Cohen and heroin and pornography and male hustlers. Yet all of this is easy to follow; the filmmakers have boiled the story down to its bare, punchy essentials. Several moments are stunningly violent, especially the death of a major character (significantly changed from the book).

I regret a few Hollywood touches — one of which is Ellroy’s. Ed’s speech about the death of his cop father is meant to set up a later revelation, but it rings false anyway. The ending, which gives one of the men a happily-ever-after exit with Kim Basinger, is right from the novel; it smacked of wishful thinking there, too. But overall this is a great achievement. Masterfully acted across the board (Australian actors Crowe and Pearce deserve the stardom they’re about to get), L.A. Confidential is dizzying and powerful. James Ellroy is justifiably proud of it, and Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland should be, too.

In & Out

September 19, 1997

inoutWhen Tom Hanks accepted his Oscar for Philadelphia and thanked his gay high-school drama teacher, he surely had no idea he was planting the seed for one of the year’s best comedies. Hanks’ heartfelt homage to his mentor — who was already “out” and retired — is recreated, and given a fiendish twist, at the beginning of In & Out. Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), a beloved high-school teacher in a sleepy Indiana town, is watching the Oscars along with a billion other people. His former student, the hot young movie star Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), wins Best Actor and singles out Howard in his acceptance speech — and also outs him. Howard’s fiancée (Joan Cusack), students, and parents are shocked — they had no idea Howard was gay. Then again, neither did Howard.

In & Out, sharply written by comic genius Paul Rudnick (Jeffrey, the Addams Family movies), is a gentle and knowing comedy about stereotypes that also reclaims and embraces stereotypes. A man who adores Barbra Streisand and moves with grace! Oh, the horror! The movie suggests that it isn’t gay people that scare many homophobes — it’s gay style. If, for example, Howard were an openly gay lumberjack who loved football and the Three Stooges, his fellow Hoosiers might shrug. He’d be gay, but at least he’d be manly.

But no, Howard is one of those is-he-or-isn’t-he guys. He teaches poetry. He gets into arguments over whether Yentl was a disappointment. He talks with his hands (and his wrists) and can’t help surrendering to a disco beat. Yet he vehemently denies that he’s gay — after all, he’s due to be married in a week! (Yes, married to a woman who’s going nuts from three platonic years with Howard.) So, is he or isn’t he? Put it this way: The movie would have little point if it were a feature-length retread of the famous Seinfeld outing episode (not that there’s anything wrong with that — except that it’s been done).

Howard is hounded by the media, including openly gay reporter Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck in a suave turn). Everyone wants to know: is he or isn’t he? (Presumably, the town will rest easier once they know one way or the other.) If Howard is gay, he hasn’t even come out to himself; if not, he’s a feminine celibate whom everyone thinks is gay anyway. He can’t win. Kevin Kline, a great comedian, nails Howard’s confusion, despair, and embarrassment — but never shame. Howard learns to accept his identity — whatever that may be.

Paul Rudnick has written scenes that will go down as classics. The “Exploring Your Masculinity” session is a riot, and the clips from Cameron’s oh-so-PC gay-soldier epic To Serve and Protect are viciously funny. Frank Oz, a solid actor’s director who knows how to stay out of the way of a great script, keeps things moving up to the triumphant finale, which spoofs Spartacus as well as Dead Poets Society. And there’s superb support from Bob Newhart as Howard’s stammering principal, Debbie Reynolds and Wilford Brimley as his parents, and especially the formidable Joan Cusack as Howard’s fiancée, who’s so bewildered she’s borderline psychotic. In & Out is somewhat safe and hetero-friendly in the Hollywood tradition of The Birdcage — though it does dare to show two men in a prolonged smooch — but it’s still the freshest, wittiest comedy in a long time.


September 19, 1997

Wes Craven may be a fine horror director, but that doesn’t mean he has good taste in the movies he “presents.” Craven’s name is splattered all over the ads for Wishmaster, which he executive-produced while shooting Scream 2. I hope his supervisory chores on Wishmaster didn’t distract him too much from directing his own movie. Evidently they didn’t, because Craven’s touch is nowhere to be found in this tired cheesefest.

The movie is your typical mystical slasher flick in the tradition of Hellraiser — unsurprisingly, screenwriter Peter Atkins worked on three of the Hellraiser sequels. An evil djinn (genie), released from an ancient gem, goes around telling people to wish for anything they want. Predictably, their wishes backfire horribly. A guy wishes for a million dollars; cut to his mother signing a million-dollar insurance policy before boarding a plane; cut to the plane blowing up. And so on. Snore. If played as satire, this could work, but it isn’t and it doesn’t. And the be-careful-what-you-wish-for premise has been done to death and beyond in better horror stories, from “The Monkey’s Paw” to Pet Sematary.

Wishmaster was directed by Robert Kurtzman, better known (to horror nerds like me) as one-third of the special-effects make-up team Kurtzman, Nicotero, and Berger. These guys, who started out on FX master Tom Savini’s crew, have done imaginative work for movies ranging from Jason Goes to Hell to Reservoir Dogs, and some of their creations here are impressively twisted. But just as Spawn — directed by a former CGI whiz — was a demo tape for CGI, so Wishmaster is a portfolio of latex monsters and gory corpses. Generally speaking, tech guys shouldn’t be allowed behind a camera, because as directors they focus on their specialty and let the rest of the movie go to hell; if Kurtzman were a hair stylist, the movie would be called Wigmaster.

The heroine, the improbably named Alexandra Amberson (Tammy Lauren), is some sort of antiques expert; she also coaches girls’ basketball (huh?) and feels guilty about her parents’ death in a fire. Hearing this, I sighed and sank into my seat. People in horror films are always haunted by guilt or past traumas; it’s in the rulebook. The way Wishmaster supplies this information is wonderful: “Oh, by the way, her folks got crisped and she never got over it. And now — girls playing basketball.” Anyway, Alexandra is stalked by the Wishmaster (Andrew Divoff), who wants her to make three wishes. “I wish I could act” apparently never occurs to her.

Die-hard genre fans may be tempted to endure Wishmaster to see the cameos by horror stars. The film features Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), Kane Hodder (Jason in the last few Friday the 13ths), Tony Todd (Candyman), Reggie Bannister and the voice of Angus Scrimm (both from the Phantasm series). But if, like me, you’re such a shameless horror geek that you actually know who Reggie Bannister is, you’ll know he’s thrown away here, as is everyone else. It’s good that Dimension Films (a branch of Miramax) is committed to horror films, and I like the idea of Wes Craven supporting the work of new directors. But if you put Wes Craven’s name on a dog turd, that doesn’t make it a croissant. Wishmaster is a lazy slap in the face to horror fans, who expect and deserve better from the man who directed Scream and the studio that released it.

Different for Girls

September 12, 1997

Two people, once schoolboy acquaintances, meet again randomly after sixteen years. Paul (Rupert Graves) is a scrappy motorcycle courier, who likes to drink and play his music loud and stay just a few steps ahead of his creditors. Karl is now Kim (Steven Mackintosh), a post-operative transsexual, who has a sedate job, a tasteful apartment, and many quiet evenings at home. A movie about how these two get to know each other and fall in love would be a fascinating comedy-drama, but Different for Girls isn’t that movie. It seems almost spooked by its own subject — it keeps wandering off into irrelevant subplots, and about halfway through, the narrative goes to a place we don’t really care about. At one point, Kim accuses Paul of not dealing with his feelings about her; the movie doesn’t deal with it, either.

Back when Kim was Karl, he was an easy target for ruffian homophobes, who taunted him in the shower; Paul stood up for him, though we never see the two of them in any other context (aside from a class photo where they seem to be exchanging an electric look), so at first we’re confused as to whether they’re friends or lovers. (The actors playing them as teens look nothing like the adult Kim and Paul, even allowing for Kim’s change — in fact, the teenage Karl looks more feminine than Kim.) Meeting again as thirtysomething adults, Paul and Kim don’t really know what to make of each other; it’s as if they had no history together. Yet they seem to be attracted to each other — Paul to Kim’s vulnerability and level-headedness (her life turned out a whole lot more orderly than his did), Kim to Paul’s raffish machismo hiding an essentially kind heart.

This all might still seem interesting, but you haven’t seen what the moviemakers do with it. Director Richard Spence treats the material as little better than a sensitive sitcom — or at least one of those fluffy British comedies that wouldn’t impress anyone in America if they didn’t have British accents. Screenwriter Tony Marchant has done some technical homework — he gives Kim a speech about how hormones have changed her body (with Paul hanging on every word) — but didn’t he talk to any post-op transsexuals? If so, didn’t he come away with anything other than “My breasts developed first”? Marchant also puts the plot through some synthetic spins: a stupidly drunk Paul waves his dick around in public and gets arrested, and Kim gets locked up too (for “interfering with arrest”). The movie becomes about how Kim will work up the nerve to break out of stealth mode and bail Paul out of trouble, but from what we can see he’s not worth the hassle. Paul can be sweet, but he also has a temper and does stupid things when drunk, and I couldn’t help thinking that many women are charmed by guys like this until a year or two into the marriage, when drunken temper turns into abuse.

The character of Kim is another problem. Tony Marchant may have learned how men become women, but he hasn’t really figured out why, and he never gets inside Kim’s head. She remains pretty opaque, despite Steven Mackintosh’s intelligent and compassionate performance. Mackintosh, it must be said, is at best androgynously feminine in the Jamie Lee Curtis mold; in softer daylight, Kim is fairly passable, but in darker scenes the shadows are unkind to Mackintosh’s angular features. (He looks most womanly when he smiles, which isn’t often.)

Still, Mackintosh does what he can with an unwritten role. Perhaps in reaction to the usual stereotypes about transgendered people — either they’re psychos or sluts — Kim has been made a professional woman (she writes verse for greeting cards), a tasteful dresser, a sensible and cautious person; in other words, she’s been made very dull. (Mackintosh gives some of Kim’s lines an angry, standoffish spin that suggests more past pain and heartbreak than the script ever explores.) The only thing interesting about her is that she’s had sex-reassignment surgery, and we don’t hear very much at all about that. The movie, like Paul, is unavoidably prurient about Kim’s body, in a tactful way that doesn’t redeem the prurience. Kim eventually shows Paul everything, and though it leads to a genuinely tender and erotic lovemaking scene, Kim’s nude scene becomes completely about Steven Mackintosh’s fake breasts — instead of feeling Kim’s mixture of shyness and pride, we’re looking for the seams in the makeup.

Different for Girls staggers around, keeping its lovers apart as in any conventional romantic comedy, adding pointless subplots about Kim’s sister’s husband (Neil Dudgeon), an infertile military man who seems to be in the movie just to prove, as Roger Ebert pointed out, that the inability to reproduce doesn’t make a man less of a man — or, by extension, a woman less of a woman. (Intellectually, you can connect this to Kim, who also cannot conceive or bear children, but since she never mentions wanting children it seems a moot point.) At only a few points do Kim and Paul actually sit across from each other and talk like human beings; the bulk of their romance is dashed off in montages in which Kim learns to ride Paul’s motorcycle, and so on. We’re entirely unconvinced of their love for each other — at best, they seem mutually fascinated by one another, like two people from different countries bonding briefly over a shared taste in music — so it’s tough to swallow the ending, in which Kim gives up her anonymity as a woman for good so that Paul can get a quick thousand pounds to retrieve his bike. Apparently they’ll live happily ever after, with Paul protecting Kim from bigots, getting drunk, and taking her for long rides on the bike bought with her privacy.

The Spanish Prisoner

September 8, 1997

spanishprisoner2The playwright/screenwriter/director David Mamet has a rigorous sense of structure. His storytelling is clean, severe, obsessively designed; his complex stories are simply told, but that simplicity is the result of hard work. You feel you’re seeing the version of whatever story Mamet is telling — the distilled essence, the story without flab or waste. The Spanish Prisoner, Mamet’s fifth film as writer-director, is the most accessible and conventional of the movies he’s directed — which I have slight reservations about, but more on that later. First, it must be said that The Spanish Prisoner (named after a popular scam) ticks like a small, elegant clock. The rhythm of the plot is the heartbeat of paranoia: the protagonist, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), finds himself in an ever-tightening web of lies and betrayal, a web meticulously engineered by Mamet to confuse us as much as it does Joe. We don’t have a clue where the movie is going, but we have full confidence that it’ll get there eventually.

Joe, an inventor who has devised some brilliant business formula called “the Process” (Mamet never tells us how it works), is sent by his company to pitch his idea at an island resort. There he meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a mysterious millionaire who seems to zero in on Joe. Joe is a magnet for inscrutable people — he also attracts a secretary (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife) who comes on like Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo, a lonely plain Jane enthralled by the virtuous hero.

And therein lies the problem I have with The Spanish Prisoner, the more I think about it. I enjoyed the film, especially the dead-eyed performance by Steve Martin, whose elegant menace is on a par with Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train. By this point in the review, it should be clear: this movie is Mamet’s Hitchcockian riff, a beautiful interlocking puzzle of a breed that Hollywood has forgotten how to make (that the film is an independent production speaks condemning volumes about the state of the movie industry). And on that level, The Spanish Prisoner is absorbing, sharp, and darkly funny.

But it doesn’t go beyond that level — which is not something you can say about Mamet’s plays or most of the other films he’s directed (like House of Games or Homicide or Oleanna). The movie shows Mamet the brilliant, clever craftsman, not Mamet the artist. There’s no primal howl here, none of the spasms of violence (or even profanity — the film mostly minds its language) found in American Buffalo orGlengarry Glen Ross or even such Mamet scripts-for-hire as The Untouchables. There’s no wildness — it’s too neat, too worked out, too locked in. That locked-in quality is engaging on an immediate, surface level, which — for me, anyway — has worn off slightly with time and distance.

I realize this is a different kind of movie, one that demands to be plot-driven, not messy or discursive, but Mamet’s true gifts lie elsewhere. You take pleasure in watching the pieces click together, yet nothing in the movie is all that surprising — you distrust Jimmy and the secretary as soon as you lay eyes on them. The question is never who is screwing Joe over, but how. Mamet uses the thriller form to make his usual paranoid themes explicit (he’s great on the way corrupt men talk to each other), but he doesn’t subvert the genre, as Hitchcock did. He works the genre gracefully but impersonally; at times, such as when Joe stupidly puts his fingers all over a bloody knife, Mamet seems to be daring us not to say “Give me a break.”

Lest this sound like a negative review, I should emphasize that The Spanish Prisoner offers pleasures that few other works of art or entertainment can manage these days: the satisfaction of a plot slowly unfolding, our ticklish insecurity when we realize we have no idea what’s coming next, the affable and decent Campbell Scott as a hero Jimmy Stewart could have played. The Spanish Prisoner may be a hermetic Hitchcockian doodle (I had the same reaction to The Usual Suspects), but it’s a compelling exercise — David Mamet’s variation on a theme.


September 5, 1997

TY-Fteller-Chap6-16The 1997 Japanese ghost film Kokkuri kept reminding me of The Sixth Sense, which it predated by two years. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s big hit, the movie frequently uses red to signify the presence of the unearthly. It is also unusually quiet. I wouldn’t recommend popping Kokkuri into your DVD player at a late hour unless you like waking up to scrolling end credits.

Which is not to say that Kokkuri is boring. Far from it. Directed by Takahisa Zeze — perhaps best known in Japan for his “pink films” — the movie could almost pass as a somber drama about grief and remorse if not for the occasional appearance of a ghostly little red-coated girl, whose arrivals never mean good news. Three schoolgirls — Mio (Ayumi Yamatsu), Hiroko (Hiroko Shimada) and Masami (Moe Ishikawa) — play a ouija-like game in which they communicate with the spirit Kokkuri. They ask questions, Kokkuri answers.

Among other things, Kokkuri predicts the death of Michiru, a worldly, sexually experienced DJ with her own midnight talk show, before she turns eighteen. This doesn’t bode well for virginal Mio, who is actually secretly Michiru, bullshitting on the air about things she’s never done. Mio also, we gather, bears more than friendly affection for Hiroko, who in turn carries a torch for Masami’s boyfriend. Mio and Hiroko have also lost loved ones to drowning; water is the movie’s other visual motif. The scenes proceed in whispered real time; up to a certain point, the biggest dramatic event is a fish tank toppling over. The fish, naturally, are red. Kokkuri‘s tone is more Bergmanesque than anything — sad, guilt-ridden. These may be the least perky schoolgirls in Japanese film history; each carries a terrible weight inside.

I’ve seen some bewildered and impatient reviews from people who were probably up for another Ringu or The Grudge, with clearcut eek! moments. There are no eek! moments here; there’s hardly any score at all, and therefore no musical “stings” to make us jump. When the little ghostly girl shows up, there’s no EEK LOOK LOOK prompt on the soundtrack — she’s just suddenly there. The closest thing to a conventional scare tactic comes when a character starts talking in a little-girl voice, and even that isn’t punched very hard. Kokkuri is an exquisitely stately and subtle chiller. Shogo Ueno’s photography casts Tokyo as a gray and mundane place where souls are drenched and lost. Only the flashbacks of trauma yield any lyricism.

Washing around in the subtext is shame about sexuality, hetero and homo, wired into survivors’ guilt after events that effectively end a childhood. As the film quietly goes about its business, its acquiescence to certain horror clichés, like a showdown in an abandoned public bath, can’t help but disappoint slightly. In the end, though, we realize we’ve been watching a meditation on inevitability: What happens to the girls was written in stone years ago.

I wasn’t always clear on how various people were connected — a second viewing may help — but I was always jacked into the film emotionally. These girls are miserable, and the scariest thing about the movie is that we can’t quite decide whether Kokkuri’s influence dooms them or simply guides them more quickly to where they were going anyway.