Archive for November 1997

Alien Resurrection

November 26, 1997

The Alien series, for my money, is the most provocative franchise Hollywood has ever spawned. What began as a sci-fi splatter-film concept has developed, over four films and eighteen years, into an ongoing meditation on women’s issues. The Alien films aren’t really about the eponymous monsters; they’re about Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the real alien of the series — a woman fighting for her life in hostile male environments. This is Hollywood’s only feminist franchise, and is of considerable value as such.

Pregnancy, abortion, rape, motherhood, the death of a child, her own death — Ripley has been through it all, at least symbolically. Two centuries after her Nestea plunge into molten metal in Alien 3, Ripley is resurrected when scientists clone DNA from her blood; the military extracts the alien Queen inside her, hoping to study and train it. Business as usual: the patriarchy always does idiotic, suicidal things in the Alien movies.

Ripley, it turns out, still has a bit of alien DNA in her. Weaver’s freshly cloned Ripley is cynical and oddly childlike; death has left her both jaded and liberated. She’s already died once — what more can you do to her? Weaver’s performances have gotten stronger with each sequel, and this is her most complex work yet. The script, by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), endows Ripley with a dark, fatalistic wit. “She’ll breed,” Ripley shrugs, referring to the captive Queen. “You’ll die.” No big thing. Slime happens.

A lot of slime happens in Alien Resurrection, directed with baroque flair by the traditional young visionary — this time it’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet, of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. The action unfolds, as in Alien, aboard a junky space vessel, where aliens can hide and humans can’t escape. A band of space pirates, including the waiflike Annalee Call (Winona Ryder), board the ship occupied by Ripley and her brood of aliens. Jeunet and Whedon deliver the alien-attack scenes with a spin and a wink.

There are also two powerfully upsetting moments that will stay with me for a while. One takes place in a lab full of botched cloning experiments. The implications of what Ripley finds there are chilling. The other comes near the end, when we meet a new breed of alien — a grotesque humanoid who seems to be Ripley’s twisted mirror image. If Ripley is a human with a touch of alien, this thing is an alien with a touch of humanity, and the climax — an inspired quote from the end of Alien — is both tense and saddening.

If Alien was about rape, Aliens about motherhood, and Alien 3 about unwanted pregnancy, what is Alien Resurrection about? The intrusion of science and government into women’s bodies, I’d say. It imagines a techno-religious future, ruled by a cyber-crucifix called Father (remember Mother, the computer in Alien?) and enforced by the military. Alien Resurrection continues the series’ message that women — even women who aren’t quite human — must assert their humanity in the face of inhumanity. That doesn’t necessarily mean aliens: Nothing they do is nearly as inhuman as what humans do to each other in the name of science, God, and country.

The Sweet Hereafter

November 21, 1997

The Sweet Hereafter, the deservedly acclaimed masterpiece by Atom Egoyan, could have been bad in so many ways that it’s tempting to praise it for what it isn’t. It involves a schoolbus accident that takes the lives of fourteen children, yet it doesn’t jerk easy tears with scenes of the kids flying kites with their parents. It centers on the attempts of a lawyer to win a settlement on behalf of the grieving parents, but there’s no rousing John Grisham finale in which Matt Damon tackles the corrupt bigwigs, wins justice for the parents, and sends us out hollowly satisfied.

No, the satisfaction of The Sweet Hereafter runs deeper. Working from Russell Banks’ fine, painful novel, Egoyan presents extreme misery and despair — parents struggling to find meaning in their children’s deaths — and suggests that there may be no meaning. “There’s no such thing as an accident,” insists the lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), but some of the parents know better — for instance, Billy Ansel (Bruce Greenwood), who had already lost his wife and has now lost his twin children. Billy has no illusions, and that’s Egoyan’s great theme: the cruelty of illusion — faith as delusion, as a buffer against the truth.

Egoyan, like some of his fellow Canadian filmmakers (David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand), takes his time and keeps a respectful distance. His previous film, Exotica, was an intricate and interlocking puzzle that only clicked together near the end. The Sweet Hereafter is more linear, but not much more: Egoyan has become so assured a storyteller that he can juxtapose three time frames (before the accident, the aftermath, and two years later) as if shuffling a deck of cards. The sequences comment and reflect on each other, wedded by the metaphor of the Pied Piper — Robert Browning’s poem, read by Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), one of the accident’s few survivors, a moody girl now in a wheelchair.

Mitchell Stephens keeps visiting the broken parents, demanding that they help him help them. He wants to get to the bottom of the tragedy; somebody along the line — the makers of the bus or the guard rail on the road — must have been negligent. (His real nemesis, we feel, is the big maker Himself; there’s a touch of Ahab in this ambulance-chaser.) Mitchell has his own “dead child”: his daughter Zoe, a runaway drug addict who badgers him over the phone for money. For him, this crusade is about wresting control out of chaos, and Ian Holm gives us a wrenching portrait of a self-contained man cracking at the seams. It’s a performance of great, bitter force: Mitchell is driven to save the children of the world, and the fact that his own child is lost doesn’t make him a hypocrite — or a hero, either.

Mitchell puts his case in the lap of Nicole, played by the 18-year-old Polley (an actress to watch) with touching gravity. Nicole’s anguish, we learn, goes far beyond what happened on the bus, and we see that for many in the town, such as Billy Ansel, the accident just smothered pain that was already there. You can only endure so much pain before you shut off and go numb. The Sweet Hereafter is about a town that has become comfortably numb, in contrast to Mitchell Stephens, a raw nerve raging against the injustice of life. Somewhere in the middle is Nicole, who knows the truth but also knows it can’t help anybody. Numb denial and rage may be understandable responses to tragedy, Egoyan says, but how useful are they? The adults can rage and deny all they want; their children will still be just as dead.

The Rainmaker

November 21, 1997

The Rainmaker is the sixth movie to be made from a John Grisham novel, and by far the best. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, takes the manipulative, potboiling story and digs in with both hands. This isn’t as striking a case of sow’s-ear-into-silk-purse as was The Godfather, Coppola’s masterpiece based on Mario Puzo’s trashy bestseller. Coppola turns this sow’s ear into more of a functional handbag with gaudily attractive decorations.

The Grisham hero this time is Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon), a struggling young Tennessee legal eagle who’s just signed onto a low-rent firm (headed by Mickey Rourke — that’s how low-rent it is). In addition to chasing ambulances and sniffing out potentially lucrative cases, Rudy also has to cram for the bar exam, protect a young woman (Claire Danes) whose rotten husband beats her with an aluminum bat, pull the weeds around the house where he’s a lodger, and handle the case of a lifetime: representing a leukemia-stricken young man (Johnny Whitworth) who’s been screwed by his shifty corporate insurance company.

Everything including the dogs snappin’ at his heels (when he first visits the dying boy, the family dogs bark at him) — this is one beleaguered hero, and Matt Damon plays Rudy with sweet, deferential modesty. Coppola doesn’t sell him like a bar of soap, the way Joel Schumacher hyped Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill. Rudy is eager and passionate but also klutzy and inexperienced — we see ample evidence of his greenness in court. The slickster representing the insurance company, Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight, clearly having a great time) welcomes the chance to squash this young gnat, but he seems to regret it, too — Leo admires the boy’s passion and envies it. “Do you remember when you sold out?” Rudy asks a grim-faced Leo.

The best card The Rainmaker has in its deck — better than Coppola, even — is Danny DeVito, perfectly cast as Deck Schifflet, a partner at Rudy’s firm who’s never passed the bar but has managed to absorb invaluable legal experience by surreptitiously practicing without a license. DeVito was hilarious as the crude, stupid father in his own Matilda last year; here, playing a smart man, he’s just as funny, but also intensely likable — even when he’s bothering a bandaged man in a hospital bed and slipping him a business card.

Coppola also wrote the script, and I suppose he felt he needed to keep the abused-wife subplot to inject some romance (i.e., box-office appeal) into the story. Still, despite Claire Danes’ touching performance and her gentle, tentative rapport with Damon, I could have done without the subplot. It feels unconnected to anything else in the story, and it leads to a conventionally violent confrontation. It’s clear by now that Grisham relishes vigilante justice — but only the good kind, of course.

The Rainmaker is nothing great — just a solid entertainment whose likely success (on the heels of the successes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Jack) may restore some of Coppola’s clout and grease the wheels for the projects close to his heart. If it does, it will have done its job. The question is: Does Coppola remember when he sold out, and how to do great work again?

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

November 21, 1997

midnight-in-the-gardenOver the past decade or so — dating back to Pale Rider and Bird — Clint Eastwood has developed a moody and meditative style that can be immensely satisfying. Eastwood trusts us to be adults, to sit still and relax into a narrative. Yet his deliberate style only works when he gives us ambiguities and complexities to savor, as in Unforgiven. A slow pulp movie like Eastwood’s Absolute Power merely seems slow, giving us too much time to pick at the plot threads.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is certainly not pulp, and it might be more disreputable fun if it were pulp. The movie is based on John Berendt’s bestseller, which reads like a shot; if Berendt had written his book the way Eastwood has directed the film, nobody would’ve gotten past the first chapter. A flamboyant director like Kenneth Branagh might have captured the juicy vitality of the book. Eastwood dries everything out, telling the basic story at a snail’s pace.

Berendt narrated his book as a detached outsider and observer drawn into the local color of Savannah, Georgia. Eastwood and scripter John Lee Hancock (who previously collaborated on A Perfect World) replace Berendt with the fictional John Kelso (John Cusack), a writer doing a story for Town and Country about the legendary Christmas party thrown by local antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). The Kelso character has been given a more active role than Berendt had in the book, but Cusack never quite registers; he seems to be floating around the margins of the movie.

Spacey, the best reason to see Midnight, gives his usual suave, effortless performance as the mysterious Williams. Williams, it seems, is having an affair with a mercurial young stud named Billy Hanson (Jude Law, who makes a vivid impression in his few scenes). One night, a drunk and hot-headed Billy visits Williams in his study; they have an argument that leaves Billy shot to death on Williams’ Persian rug.

Was it self-defense or outright murder? That was the mystery that held Berendt’s local-color anecdotes together. The film compresses Williams’ four trials into one and retains a few of the book’s odd characters, including a guy who ties flies to his clothes (Geoffrey Lewis), an elderly voodoo woman (Irma P. Hall), and the flashy drag queen Lady Chablis, who plays herself — a little of her goes a very long way. Boy, get a load of all these quirky people! The movie is sometimes like a Letterman sketch about weirdos stretched out over two and a half hours. Eastwood had more success with a group of misfits in his Bronco Billy, a fine movie that suggested he could adapt Berendt’s difficult-to-adapt book.

Why couldn’t he, then? Maybe nobody could have; some material simply works better on the page than on the screen. Eastwood gets points for trying, but Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil lacks dramatic power and focus; it’s one long ramble surrounding a routine courtroom drama, meandering and, finally, boring. It asks whether we can really know the truth — a question asked and answered brilliantly in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a far better film and, God knows, far shorter.

The Man Who Knew Too Little

November 14, 1997

You have to be a Bill Murray fan, or in an especially generous mood, to find The Man Who Knew Too Little more than mildly amusing. I fit into both categories, and I think I chuckled maybe twice. Murray, a master of hostile irony, is sadly miscast here as Wallace, a wimpy Blockbuster Video clerk and failed actor who gets embroiled in an assassination plot. He does provide what few laughs there are, and he has a nice bit when he’s tied up and suffering an allergy attack, trying not to sneeze. But think back on Murray’s best roles. How many of them required him to play stupid? Demented, maybe — Carl the gopher-hating greenskeeper in Caddyshack comes to mind — but flat-out stupid, no.

Here, Murray has to be not only dumb but naïve. The only way Wallace prevails is by sheer idiotic luck. On his birthday, Wallace goes to London to visit his slick yuppie brother (Peter Gallagher), who signs Wallace up for a new interactive game called Theater of Life — in which the player has simulated adventures with a troupe of role-playing actors. Unlike Michael Douglas in The Game, Wallace eagerly submits to the experience, which, unbeknownst to him, is real: some actual spies think he’s a hit-man and order him to kill a woman (Joanne Whalley) who possesses some incriminating letters. Instead, he helps her stay a step ahead of her pursuers, while his “bosses” monitor him in bafflement.

Perhaps you’re starting to feel how boring the plot is. Wallace keeps thinking that all the intrigue is just part of the game, while the spies keep thinking he’s some fearsome assassin. When everyone on the screen is a moron, it’s hard to stay interested in a movie or to find it funny. Given Murray’s usual jaded persona — think of Stripes and Ghostbusters — wouldn’t it be funnier if he’d played a cynical wise-ass who didn’t take the danger seriously, going along with the “game” half-heartedly? Maybe, since Wallace works at Blockbuster, he might have seen all the Bond films on video and taken his cue from them. But Murray as an innocent dimwit really doesn’t do it for me.

Then we have the obligatory action scenes without the spin needed to make them funny; most of this stuff was done better in Grosse Pointe Blank. When Wallace is in a car chase and swerves to knock over a row of traffic cones, he says, “I’ve always wanted to do that.” So have I, and that was one of the two times I laughed. The other time was later in the same scene, at an overhead shot of Wallace’s car leading his pursuers around a roundabout. Otherwise I was glad I brought my watch and sorry I didn’t bring a magazine.

Starship Troopers

November 7, 1997

Starship Troopers is about Earth vs. big bugs, so of course I loved every absurd minute of it. I make no apology for that. Breathlessly stupid and endearingly cheesy, this is the best guilty pleasure in years — if you’re in the right mood and in the right company. Put yourself in a state of amused anticipation, and go with at least one witty friend with whom you can play Mystery Science Theater 3000, and you will have a great trashy time.

A film that aims high and misses can still be worthwhile but also frustrating — you think, It wants to be great, but it just isn’t getting there. Starship Troopers doesn’t want to be great; all it wants to do is have some fun. It aims low and hits, again and again, with hammering relentlessness and a steady stream of rude satire — not to mention a horde of stunning CGI critters that fold, spindle and mutilate a good percent of the hapless cast. These guys are hands-on (or legs-on) killers, and they wipe the floor with the ETs in the tedious Independence Day. The movie is everything ID4 should have been — a big, shiny, straight-faced parody so outrageously violent, so outlandishly corny, that it has a kind of moronic purity.

Starship Troopers (the title evokes SS troopers) is based on a 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein — a meat-and-potatoes war story that happens to involve starships and giant bugs. Heinlein, a retired Navy officer, filled his book with military anecdotes, strategies, and ethics. The novel is nuke-’em-till-they-glow militaristic pulp, but it’s compulsively readable and fairly provocative: Like the best sci-fi, it touches on thorny issues. The society is divided into two groups: citizens — those who serve the government, preferably in combat — and civilians. If you want a peaceful civilian life, nobody begrudges your choice; you just lose the right to vote. Heinlein’s point may be that as our enemies get more ruthless and totalitarian, so will we. As Nietszche warned: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become one.”

Director Paul Verhoeven and scripter Ed Neumeier, who worked together on Verheoven’s breakthrough hit RoboCop, distill Heinlein’s story into a heavy-metal shoot-’em-up with barbs of satire. Remember RoboCop‘s grotesquely insensitive TV clips and commercials? Starship Troopers is punctuated with sunshiny ads recruiting fresh cannon fodder — JOIN UP NOW! — and wonderfully sick commercials in which smiling soldiers distribute guns to eager children. The rest of the movie is equally cartoonish, with swipes from Star Wars and Aliens so audaciously blatant you laugh — just as you laugh at everything else, especially when a stupid civilian muses “Looks like rain” before the Bugs wipe out Buenos Aires.

Starship Troopers follows young soldier Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) through basic training in the hardcore Mobile Infantry, whose motto is “Everyone fights, no one quits.” Yes, everyone: Women fight (and shower) alongside men without conflict, harassment, or even much sexual tension. In the book, women weren’t troopers; they were trained as starship pilots due to their superior math skills and coordination. In the movie, women fly ships and fry bugs, but Verhoeven doesn’t make a big political deal out of it, as G.I. Jane did so ineptly.

The setting may be futuristic, but the characters are out of a ’50s big-bug movie. The cast is full of young hunks and babes, mouthing dialogue so corny it’s retro-hip. Verhoeven could have directed them with a lyric from Tom Lehrer’s “The Hunting Song”: “You just stand there looking cute/And when something moves, you shoot.” The best line in Starship Troopers is delivered by one-armed lieutenant Michael Ironside with grim intensity: “They sucked his brains out!” When all is said and done, you may feel as if Verhoeven had sucked your brains out, too. But brain-sucking has rarely been so fun.