Archive for February 1998


February 20, 1998

Early in Palmetto, yet another tedious film noir clone, Woody Harrelson is fixing Elisabeth Shue a drink — vodka with a twist. He turns to her and says, “We don’t have any more twists.” I wish the same were true of the movie, which is all twists — and, what’s worse, strained and unconvincing twists. This is the kind of thriller that could end with the hero discovering that the whole movie was his dog’s bad dream; that would make about as much sense as Palmetto‘s actual ending.

Harrelson is Harry Barber, a writer just released from jail (he was framed). Bitter at having lost two years of his life (I can relate — I just lost two hours of mine), Harry is looking to stick it to the system. A blond temptress named Rhea (Shue) spots Harry in a bar and gets him interested; after some boring hanky-panky, she outlines her plan. She has a rich husband and a teenage stepdaughter (Chloe Sevigny). Harry will pretend to kidnap the stepdaughter, the hubby will cough up $500,000, and Harry will pocket ten percent.

If there’s one rule in modern movies, it’s that no one should do a kidnapping film noir unless his name is Joel Coen or Ethan Coen. Fargo, for instance, was more about its frozen locale and quirky inhabitants than about an abduction scam. Palmetto (the title unfortunately evokes Fargo) is set in Florida, yet it has none of the sweat and funk and local color of Miami novels by Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard. It doesn’t even have an alligator. Even with the stock hey-we’re-in-Florida shots of swamps and houseboats, the film might as well be set in Massachusetts.

Harrelson does his stubbly-stupid-loser shtick, which he did better in White Men Can’t Jump. He’s not credible at all as a noir hero, especially when the costume people make him wear a fedora, which is often. Everyone else is fatally miscast. Shue gives an utterly autopilot performance — I stared at the screen in mild shock, looking in vain for the same actress who embodied complex characters in Leaving Las Vegas and The Trigger Effect. Sevigny, looking unhealthily like Fiona Apple, seems lost in the tangle of plot twists (which invalidate her character anyway). Gina Gershon has a hot first scene as Harry’s loyal wife, but then has nothing to do.

And I’d love to know which genius at Castle Rock read the script (by E. Max Frye, who wrote the superior Something Wild) and decided that it’d be perfect for Volker Schlöndorff, the überserious director of The Tin Drum and The Handmaid’s Tale. As I’ve said before, you can’t do noir straight today; it helps to treat it as a black-comic goof, as Oliver Stone did in U-Turn. Schlöndorff seems totally at sea here. The tone is inconsistent and baffling; if we’re meant to take the plot seriously, we don’t, and if it’s meant to be funny, it isn’t. And what is it with E. Max Frye and dangerous women wearing wigs? Did he have a bad experience with a mannequin as a child?

The only source of amusement in Palmetto is counting all the bonehead things Harry does — few of which come back to haunt him, as in a true noir. By the time Woody Harrelson was dangling above a vat of acid, and Elisabeth Shue was doing a Sunset Boulevard exit in one of her 59 wigs (it looks as if a black cat died on her head), I didn’t care if I never saw another thriller about stolen money or clever violence or elaborate double-crosses or horny idiots led to their doom by voluptuous vixens. It’s tired, and it makes me tired just writing about it. 1

Dark City

February 20, 1998

If you took Blade Runner, Brazil, Alphaville, Hellraiser, and 12 Monkeys, mooshed them all together, then snorted some chimney soot and sneezed all over the celluloid, the result would look very much like Dark City. This hopelessly lifeless and derivative fantasy has gotten hefty praise in some quarters, most loudly from Roger Ebert, a lifelong sci-fi fan who actually gave it four stars (maybe he snorted too much chimney soot). It’s the second film by Alex Proyas, who previously directed The Crow; Proyas’ achievement here is to make a more incomprehensible movie than The Crow, which I had not thought possible. He has indeed topped himself.

Rufus Sewell stars as John Murdoch, a man with serious memory lapses. He is wanted by the police for a series of prostitute killings, he is married to Jennifer Connolly, and he can’t remember any of it. (I can understand not remembering Jennifer Connolly, who may, for all I know, be a woman of many talents; acting is not among them.) A detective, underplayed by a slumming William Hurt, is on Murdoch’s trail; so is a limping psychiatrist, played by Kiefer Sutherland with an. Unusual verbal tic that. Requires him to pause. After every few words. Like this.

It turns out that a black-leather-clad society of bald guys is running everything, putting everyone in the city to sleep at midnight and rearranging stuff: “Let’s make this building bigger and that building skinnier, and let’s get some nice coffee tables in here.” They also like to switch people’s identities — it’s all part of some experiment they’re performing on humans to see how they react (“Hey, where’d this coffee table come from?”). Perhaps they switched Roger Ebert’s identity with that of a very easily impressed 12-year-old; I hope they switch him back.

I gave up on following Dark City about five minutes after I gave up on trying to see it. My semi-annual lecture to hotshot directors: There is this thing called a “screen,” and the audience sits facing the screen, and images are projected onto this screen so as to create visual entertainment. No matter how elaborate the sets are, if the lighting is so dim that we cannot see them, we might as well be looking up our own asses for two hours. Movies like this and The Crow (Dariusz Wolski shot both films — it’s encouraging that people who are apparently blind can get work as cinematographers) aren’t really designed to be followed or enjoyed — not by sober viewers. They’re for college kids who prepare by getting stoned in the parking lot: “Dude, what if we are not who we think we are? Wow. That’s profound, man.”

So, back to the plot: Murdoch, it seems, has mysterious powers like those of the Hellraiser-clone bald guys. His expression gets real intense, as if he’s channeling the hidden forces of the universe (either that or he’s passing a kidney stone), and suddenly a door appears out of nowhere, or a bridge crumbles under the feet of his pursuers. Who gave him these powers? I’ll tell you who: Lazy screenwriters (Lem Dobbs, of Kafka, and David S. Goyer, of the Crow sequel) who haven’t thought of creative ways to get the hero out of a jam and have to resort to deus ex machina.

During the climax (so heart-pounding that I only nodded off once!), Murdoch faces off against one of the bald guys; they stand in mid-air frowning at each other while all hell breaks loose around them. Evil loses, good triumphs, and a new world is born. A world with sunlight and beaches, and probably ice cream and kittens, too. Dark City is one of the most ludicrous movies in years. Roger, lay off that soot.

The Wedding Singer

February 13, 1998

A lightweight, by-the-numbers romantic comedy with Adam Sandler as Robbie Hart, a recently jilted wedding singer, and Drew Barrymore as Julia, the innocent waitress he falls for. Problem is, she’s engaged to a womanizing dick (Matthew Glave). What sets this apart are the charm of the kinder, gentler Sandler and the appealing Barrymore, and the hot late-’90s gimmick of setting the movie in 1985 — therefore allowing for wall-to-wall ’80s nostalgia. The movie, in fact, is like the entire decade of the ’80s thrown into a blender. It helps if you’re in the Gen-X demographic that remembers Miami Vice, Rubik’s Cube, and Culture Club, though the film did well enough to suggest that younger audiences simply laughed at the pastel-colored decade they were too young to live through. The jam-packed ’80s soundtrack includes just about everyone you can think of — Nena, Lionel Richie, the Smiths, Billy Idol, After the Fire, Hall and Oates — plus Sandler covering “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” “Love Stinks,” and “Holiday.” With Allen Covert, Christine Taylor, Angela Featherstone, Alexis Arquette as a Boy George clone, Christina Pickles, Steve Buscemi as a drunken best man, Jon Lovitz as a rival wedding singer, Ellen Dow as the hip-hop grandma doing “Rapper’s Delight,” and one of the above ’80s rock stars as himself.

Blues Brothers 2000

February 6, 1998

vlcsnap2010101416h51m51I have to confess a certain indifference to the Blues Brothers, both on Saturday Night Live and in their first movie — I always thought the Festrunk brothers would’ve made better heroes for an SNL comedy. The first Blues Brothers, directed by John Landis and starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, was little more than a string of great musical numbers and endless car wrecks; it set the stage for Hollywood blockbusters as we know them today — plotless, senseless, self-indulgent mayhem, a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Blues Brothers 2000 could be described the same way, yet, oddly, I found myself enjoying it. For one thing, it’s divorced from all the late-’70s Blues Brothers hype; it plays as an affectionate, nostalgic tribute. And Landis, returning as director, is clearly relieved to revisit the characters and blues greats he loves so much. It’s his most relaxed moviemaking in years, and his knack for contrast — between deadpan-cool comedy and impassioned music — works better here than it did in the original.

Aykroyd returns as Elwood Blues, who’s been in prison for eighteen years. After his release, he learns of his brother Jake’s death (in a nicely restrained scene). Neither Elwood nor the movie wastes time mourning Jake (or John Belushi — Aykroyd probably felt that John would’ve wanted it that way). Elwood quickly gets to work assembling his old band members, hauling along a kid (J. Evan Bonifant) who’s been dumped on him by the nun at his old orphanage.

John Goodman is also along for the ride, as a bartender who hooks up with Elwood and assumes the unenviable task of filling Belushi’s shoes. As a comedian, Goodman is up to the challenge (though the script, by Aykroyd and Landis, gives him very little to do); as a singer, he’s a passionate belter who too often throws his considerable weight into a lyric to sell it. Mostly, I wasn’t buying.

The “plot” also involves Elwood’s “stepbrother” (Joe Morton), a cop who spends most of the movie chasing the band until he finally “gets the calling” and joins up. Morton, whose voice puts both Aykroyd and Goodman to shame, should have been incorporated into the band much earlier in the film. Of course, then we wouldn’t have had the traditional Landis car pile-up — which is admittedly funny here; the cars just keep piling and piling until the excess becomes almost surreal.

Landis is childlike in his eagerness to get to the music scenes, and the presence of legends energizes him. Aretha Franklin and James Brown return, as do the hardy group of veteran players in the Blues Brothers Band; in the climax, the boys go up against an all-star band whose roster reads like a Who’s Who in Blues. Problem: Aykroyd and his fellow frontmen pale next to genuine blues greats (as he and Belushi did in the original). Solution: look behind the Brothers and concentrate on the masters backing them up.

Blues Brothers 2000 is probably an unnecessary sequel. Why haul the black suits and Ray-Bans out of mothballs after 18 years? Partly because John Landis needs a hit after Beverly Hills Cop III and The Stupids. Yet the movie isn’t totally opportunistic. Dan Aykroyd has never lost his passion for the music (House of Blues is a life project for him), and maybe he just wanted to jam with the greats again. Older fans, though, may feel that the Blues Brothers died with John Belushi, and they may wonder why Aykroyd doesn’t feel the same way.