Archive for December 1997

The Apostle

December 17, 1997

The Apostle, an enthralling do-it-yourself labor of love by Robert Duvall (he wrote, executive-produced, and directed it, and paid for it out of his own pocket), makes most “independent” movies look like the pretenders they are. At a time when every hipster with a viewfinder is doing rip-offs of Reservoir Dogs or Clerks or Friends (or an unholy combo of the three), Duvall dares to build an entire film around the subject of religious passion and redemption — a subject that invites disdain or indifference, because so few movies actually get it right. The Apostle nails it.

Duvall is also courageous enough to play the protagonist, Pentecostal preacher Sonny Dewey, as a study in extremes and contradictions. Sonny spreads — no, make that shouts — the word of God, but he’s also a sinner, a smoothie who cheats on his wife (Farrah Fawcett) and also beats her; when he finds out she’s been having her own affair, the way she recoils and says “Keep your hands over there” speaks volumes without our having to see the abuse. Sonny is also about to be ousted from his own church; enraged, he does some damage to the church’s upstart minister (who’s been sleeping with Fawcett) and promptly gets out of town.

At the start, Sonny seems like a madman — a violently confused man hitching his passions to God’s wagon, justifying his sins because he’s been “saved.” But Sonny isn’t the kind of Bible-thumping hypocrite we usually meet in movies. He’s serious, and Duvall plays Sonny as a flawed saint in the throes of religious mania. Sonny has a powerful effect on churchgoers, who believe that God is working through him — and if they believe it, then his impact on them is the same as if he really were God’s instrument. The movie is about finding faith in the unlikeliest places and having faith in the unlikeliest people.

After the incident with the minister, Sonny leaves his former life and settles into a Louisiana bayou town, where he adopts the name “E.F., the Apostle” and starts gathering a new flock. With the help of a motley crew of believers — a retired minister (John Beasley), a young mechanic (Walton Goggins), a radio DJ (Rick Dial) — Sonny sets up a modest church immodestly named One Way Road to Heaven. He also pursues a secretary at the radio station (Miranda Richardson) — a rather aimless plot thread that could have been pulled out without unraveling the movie.

The Apostle builds up steam as the church gains more converts (watching a community built from the ground up is one of the basic, satisfying pleasures in rural movies). It leads to a great scene with Billy Bob Thornton as a racist lout who threatens to demolish the church. We know that Sonny’s fearless stance against the racist isn’t just noble: He isn’t about to be chased out of another church. Sonny goes to work on the lout, trying to convert him, and I felt a stab of worry; scenes like this never work. But this one does. Duvall and Thornton play it with the conviction of men who understand the pain of salvation — the overwhelming mix of relief and vulnerability that born-agains are said to feel when they “give it over to Jesus.”

This is also one of the few showboat writer-director-star films that don’t feel like a vanity project. Duvall’s integrity and intelligence shine through his movie and his performance. Funny, tender, menacing, exuberant, sometimes all at once, Duvall makes Sonny a man possessed by divine love, earthly passions, and all the angels and devils in between. We never really know Sonny (Duvall keeps him a mystery to us), but we understand him perfectly. The Apostle digs into the souls of the intensely devoted ex-sinners you sometimes meet, the former addicts whose current drug of choice is God. By painting Sonny in complex, conflicting colors, Duvall respects his humanity, and so do we.

Scream 2

December 12, 1997

A sequel to a well-loved movie like Scream has a lot of good will going for it — and a lot of high expectations going against it. How to recapture the freshness and surprise of the original — the feeling that you were seeing an entire subgenre both trashed and rejuvenated? The experience of seeing an original movie for the first time can’t be duplicated in a sequel, which, by definition, is the same only different.

The Scream franchise, though, has one other thing in its favor: This stuff wasn’t original the first time, either. Scream, as I noted in my review of it, was a clever and effective satire of the then-moribund slasher subgenre. I liked it well enough, and subsequent video viewings have endeared it to me more; it’s a postmodern, endlessly quotable cult phenomenon. With Scream 2, you don’t necessarily want a radical departure. You want familiar elements with a spin — everything you liked about Scream, only different. On that level, it triumphs.

Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson resume their Scream duties, atoning for their earlier misfires — Craven executive-produced the inept Wishmaster, while Williamson wrote the popular but lame I Know What You Did Last Summer. They’re working near the top of their form here. Scream 2 isn’t quite as witty as I’d hoped — it should’ve had more fun with the idea of sequels — but it’s twistier, gorier, and, at times, more shocking. Anyone could be the killer (the cast is full of red herrings), and anyone can die at any time.

Except Neve Campbell. She is, after all, the pole holding up this franchise. Her Sidney Prescott, now in college and pledging a sorority, wants to put the horror behind her and move on. Three reasons why she can’t: Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the ice-blooded reporter who wrote a book about the Scream killings, which has been made into the movie Stab, starring, of course, Tori Spelling; Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), who spent the first Scream in jail for killing Sidney’s mom (he was innocent) and now demands media absolution; and, yep, the killer in the Munch mask. He’s back. Or she’s back. Or they’re back. More than this I cannot disclose.

I can say that I enjoyed seeing Neve and Courteney again, as well as geeky horror addict Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and doofus deputy Dewey (David Arquette). The sequel also serves up such new-to-Scream faces as Jada Pinkett (who shines in the virtuoso opening sequence, set in a theater showing Stab), Sarah Michelle Gellar (not very Buffy-like here, but still much better than she was in Last Summer), Laurie Metcalf as a reporter stalking Gale (for a change), and Duane Martin, who’s funny as Gale’s apprehensive new cameraman (“Brothers don’t last long in situations like this,” he accurately points out).

Had Scream 2 been left in other, lesser hands, it would surely have sucked, as most sequels do (as the movie itself acknowledges in its best film-nerd scene). That it escapes suckage is due to Craven and Williamson, who operate under a productive philosophy: “There’s gonna be a sequel anyway, so we might as well come back and do it up right.” They do. Scream 2 is as clever and nerve-wracking as the original; on its own self-referential, crowd-pleasing terms, it’s a success. Yet I will end this review as I ended my review of the first movie: How about a truly original horror film — some new blood in the genre? Where is the next Wes Craven? See, I can do same-only-different, too.

Amistad

December 4, 1997

Amistad is a great story on paper. In 1839, the Cuban slave ship La Amistad is carrying a full cargo of Africans across the Atlantic. One of the slaves, called Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou), uses a nail to pop his shackles open and frees his fellow captives, leading them in a bloody mutiny. The ship winds up not back in Africa but off the coast of Connecticut, where the Africans are arrested. A group of well-meaning abolitionists buzz around the case like moths around a flame. The fate of these Africans, the abolitionists realize, will be the fate of democracy itself.

Given this material, and given the director — Steven Spielberg, who proved with Schindler’s List that he has the chops for vivid, unblinking historical filmmaking — it’s more than a little shocking how remote, impersonal, and flat-out boring Amistad is. Except for the scenes aboard the ship, which have a feral power comparable to the liquidation sequence in Schindler’s List, the movie is dry and dawdling, haphazardly structured, and grindingly obvious. There are those, I assume, who will insist that the message that slavery is bad needs to be hammered home every so often. Fine. But noble goals don’t make a dull film interesting.

The ugly flashes of atrocity we see late in the film, as Cinqué relates the suffering of the Middle Passage, are also the only flashes we get of Spielberg the great director; elsewhere in this long movie, his crackling storytelling is nowhere evident. Instead we get Spielberg the emotional bully (coating “uplifting” scenes with John Williams’ ickiest score in years) and Spielberg the dutiful teller of someone else’s story. I never felt that he was engaged in the material — except when he stages the sadism aboard the ship (which, if you think about it, is a bit disturbing).

Amistad devotes itself to scene after scene of drably attired white guys arguing over what should be done with the Africans, where they came from, etc. The Africans themselves are generally a faceless, abstract bunch, and even Cinqué is never quite real to us. Djimon Hounsou, a model, has an imposing presence and goes as far as David Franzoni’s sketchy script allows, which isn’t far. At times, Spielberg comes close to fetishizing Cinqué’s stoic, noble blackness; Cinqué is like an African superhero in a comic book, and we get no sense of his life before slavery or what the experience has done to him besides make him stronger. Many, many other slaves aboard the Amistad suffer and die, but he survives, apparently because he’s just so darn photogenic. He’s never more than an icon of endurance.

The whites are just as blurry. Matthew McConaughey, as the passionate legal eagle Roger Baldwin, comes off as a 19th-century version of a John Grisham hero. Fine actors like Nigel Hawthorne and Pete Postlethwaite drop in and out of the movie without making a ripple; David Paymer narrowly beats McConaughey for the title of Least Plausible Actor in a Period Setting. Morgan Freeman gets top billing as an abolitionist who stands around thinking important things — at least I assume that’s what he’s doing, because he doesn’t do anything else.

I can marginally recommend Amistad for one performance: Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, the ex-president who lumbers out of retirement to defend the Africans before the Supreme Court. As usual, Hopkins is borderline hammy, but his showmanship is like a jolt of caffeine; when he commands a guard to remove Cinqué’s shackles, his voice has the snap of unquestionable authority. That’s what’s missing from the rest of Amistad (which could have used a whole lot more of Hopkins).

In other movies, whether serious or escapist, Steven Spielberg has shown that same kind of authority — in the clarity and economy of his filmmaking. We felt that he knew what he was doing and why. In Amistad, we sense him stumbling around the subject, trying to figure out what he’s doing and why. While this might be an interesting way for an experimental artist to work, it doesn’t suit a master entertainer like Spielberg. We don’t know what he’s doing or why, either, and before long the movie just dries up and blows away.