Archive for March 1998

Storefront Hitchcock

March 27, 1998

Filmed in 1996 before a small, lucky (unseen) audience in an actual New York storefront, this brilliant little piece — combining the best of Jonathan Demme’s earlier Stop Making Sense and Swimming to Cambodia, really — scuffled around a couple of festivals, but vanished into the whirlpool created by the sinking of its distributor, Orion. Until February 2000, when it finally made its way to video (the soundtrack album had come out in 1998), few people had seen it, and even today few people know it exists. It’s nowhere to be found among Roger Ebert’s online reviews or in Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide. It desperately deserves to be rescued from oblivion.

If you’re not a Robyn Hitchcock fan prior to seeing Storefront Hitchcock, chances are you will be when it’s over — unless his elliptical lyrics (and even more elliptical between-songs patter) aren’t your cup of tea. Hitchcock plants his feet firmly (no Neil Young-style moshing for him — he scarcely moves) and runs through 14 songs, some old, some new, all his. (None of his standard Byrds or Dylan covers here. A good chunk of them, by the way, are off recent discs like 1996’s Moss Elixir and 2000’s Jewels for Sophia and A Star for Bram.) He seems a little ill at ease with the camera — he glances at it probably at least once a song — which is okay with me; as an artist whose MTV output has been, shall we say, slim, he simply may not be used to the camera eye. The effect is to humanize him a bit, to soften him (and he can seem aloof at times — but then, so did David Byrne).

Hitchcock goes unplugged for more than the first half of the film, accompanying himself with harmonica on the first song (“The Devil’s Radio,” an apparent broadside at Rush Limbaugh and his ilk) and the last (“I Don’t Remember Guildford,” during the closing credits). About 40 minutes in, he switches from acoustic guitar to electric. Aside from occasional backup — the charismatic, smiling violinist Deni Bonet on two songs (the eligiac “Filthy Bird” and the exuberant “Let’s Go Thundering,” as close as Hitchcock ever gets to unabashed romance), the bashful-looking Tim Keegan on guitar and vocals (Keegan seems even more camera-shy than Hitchcock) on “Alright Yeah” near the end — this is a one-man show, with very little cinematic flash. What makes the movie so refreshing is that very lack of flash — plus the novelty, these days, of hearing pop songs with an actual melody. Hitchcock, before anything else, is a superb pop songwriter, marrying catchy hooks to lyrics that range from clever to beautiful to downright weird. A highlight is Hitchcock’s famous “The Yip Song,” a tribute to his late father, with one subtly superimposed line over his shoulder that clarifies the song’s poignant meaning for those unfamiliar with Hitchcock’s bio.

Towards the end, possibly getting restless, Demme lapses into a couple of mannerisms he would seem to be above. He goes for a quadruple-screen effect in one song; in another, the camera moves in close and editor Andy Weir does some attention-deficit-disorder cutting. Even here, though, Demme does this stuff better than any MTV hack who tries it. With the quadruple-screen segment, for instance, you realize that Demme is in effect inviting you to edit the number yourself by choosing which screen to look at and when. (An interesting precursor to Mike Figgis’ Time Code.) Anthony Jannelli’s photography is razor-sharp, and receives a rich transfer on the DVD (which is, sadly, utterly bereft of extras).

Overall, this is the companion piece to Stop Making Sense we’ve been waiting for. Hitchcock even references David Byrne in one of the songs, and frequent Demme producer Kenneth Utt makes his obligatory cameo: a man on the street outside holds an enlarged photo of Utt up to the storefront window during “1974.” Demme keeps the frame (unfortunately the disc isn’t letterboxed) well-stocked, but never cluttered, with a variety of backdrops — translucent window covers of different colors, candles, a lightbulb, disco ball, even a big tomato. The best backdrop, though, is the street behind Hitchcock, where we occasionally see passersby peering inside. One of them, if you look closely, is carrying a guitar and turns out to be Tim Keegan.

Primary Colors

March 20, 1998

Emma-Thompson-John-Travol-001The most enjoyable thing about Primary Colors, like the bestseller that inspired it, is its smooth mixture of cynicism and idealism. For two and a half hours, we’re submerged in an insiders’ world of major politics — the frazzled men and women who give up their lives to get someone elected. The movie won’t have the cultural impact that many hope (or fear) it will, but it should serve as a wake-up call to those who are shocked, shocked, when a politician turns out to be a slick dissembler or worse. Of course he is — how do you think he got there? Power corrupts, baby.

The movie, and the book by “Anonymous” (Joe Klein), parallel real-life events and persons in ways I choose not to discuss here, particularly given the current headlines. Directed by Mike Nichols from a witty script by his longtime collaborator Elaine May, Primary Colors is more tragic than tabloid, its concerns more timeless than timely. Its central figure is Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a smart young campaign advisor seduced into the presidential race of Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta). Henry, like everyone else, isn’t quite prepared for Stanton’s personal magnetism — he finds himself on board before he’s even accepted the job.

As played by the donut-wolfing Travolta, Jack is easy and flexible in public, explosively moody in private (there’s a great comic moment involving a cell phone). Travolta turns on the charm; his performance is itself a masterpiece of politicking. Yet he’s most charming at his least ingratiating, when he gives us a peek at Jack’s shrewdness, competitive panic, or irrepressible libido. Travolta’s contradictory Jack Stanton refutes the very American notion that great politicians must also be everything we want them to be as human beings.

Jack’s team, including the sardonic Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) and the no-nonsense Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), lose sleep over the campaign without necessarily believing anything they’re saying. Even Jack’s loyal wife Susan (Emma Thompson) has a hard-bitten, realistic attitude towards him, an attitude born of years of weathering his little flings. Thompson is terrific here — she almost steals the movie with one line, when someone apologizes to her for talking shop with Jack over chicken wings; Thompson’s delivery of Susan’s expertly plastic response, “Of course I don’t mind! How else will I learn?”, is worth the price of admission by itself.

When Jack is pulled into mud-slinging tactics, in self-defense against Democratic opponents, Primary Colors successfully straddles the line between comedy and tragedy. Both are present in the character of Libby Holden (Kathy Bates in the great performance of the new year so far), a self-styled “dustbuster” who specializes in neutralizing scandals. Libby goes way back with Jack and Susan, back to the days when everything seemed simpler and clear-cut. Problem is, Jack and Susan have gotten older, smoother, ethically relaxed; Libby has remained a blunt and rigid person, traits that the movie admires. Libby is the film’s holy fool, who digs up dirt on Jack’s competitor (Larry Hagman) and delivers the info to Jack and Susan as a test: Will they use it or spike it? Bates’ reaction when Libby discovers the answer is the finest work she’s done in a movie.

Jack has a scene with Henry, late in the film, in which he talks about the political bullshit necessary to get to the top — and then, once you’re president, you can be honest and get things done! It’s one of the saddest-funniest scenes in recent memory, a succinct capsule review of the life of a politician — a life so tainted by illusion and delusion that even Jack doesn’t seem to know any more whether he believes what he’s saying or is just seducing himself into believing it. We know Jack will triumph (if for no other reason than that his real-world counterpart did), but his victory leaves us feeling both satisfied and hollow. Satisfied, because we’re fond of him, flaws and all; hollow, because we’re still not sure, even as the end credits roll, whether we should trust our fondness.

The Newton Boys

March 14, 1998

For Richard Linklater, the vastly talented director of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and subUrbia, his new biographical film The Newton Boys is a Texas-sized leap. Linklater’s other films were small talking-heads films taking place during the course of a day; The Newton Boys actually has action sequences, spans five years, and cost about $27 million (probably the price tag of his four other efforts combined). You have no idea how much I’d love to say that Linklater’s ambitious gamble paid off and that The Newton Boys is his Pulp Fiction.

Alas, it’s not. The Newton Boys is better than its ads would lead you to believe (I’ve heard it described as Young Guns for the ’90s), but it’s a vague and mostly uninvolving film — an epic, like Boogie Nights, that skitters along the surface and affords itself no time to stop, smell the roses, or dig deeper. This true-life story of four Texas bank-robbing brothers seems to be made up of elements from several better outlaw Westerns, even if everything in the movie is factual (which it probably isn’t, movies being movies). Linklater, a Texan who jumped at the chance to recreate this slice of his history, doesn’t seem engaged in the material — he seems lost in it, and nothing in the script (adapted by Claude Stanush from his own book, then streamlined by Clark Lee Walker and Linklater) plays to his strengths.

Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey, overdoing his wide grin), the leader of the gang, is suspiciously flawless — courtly with women, great with kids, an essentially decent man who accounts for his crimes by pointing out that the banks are worse thieves than the Newtons are. His brothers — Jess (Ethan Hawke), Joe (Skeet Ulrich), and Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio) — are largely two-dimensional. Where’s the complex brotherhood dynamic you’d expect from a sharp observer like Linklater? These boys have no characters apart from robbing banks and staying resolutely nonviolent; they’re the Mild Bunch.

The robbery episodes play out without much excitement or snap. When a job in Canada goes wrong and the boys bend over backwards not to kill troublesome police, you may chuckle a little. But here you have a crime story in which nobody gets killed; even when one of the brothers is wounded (leading to a sequence that unfortunately echoes Reservoir Dogs), he turns out okay. There’s no tension, no sense of danger, no subtext of tragedy. There’s just a cast of likable actors whooping it up on immaculate period sets (by the gifted Catherine Hardwicke) and a fine director trying to keep too many balls in the air at once, and dropping most of them.

That’s what surprised me the most: Linklater, who juggled huge casts in Slacker and Dazed and Confused and showed equal skill with the cast of two in Before Sunrise, seemed a whiz at the art of narrative. He always knew which small details to emphasize and which to let us discover for ourselves; his seemingly aimless stories actually did have structure and drive. The Newton Boys doesn’t. It has no edge, no apparent guiding vision, and no personal stamp. I challenge any Linklater fan to persuade me that only he, and no one else, could have directed this.

And Linklater has temporarily lost his magic touch with actors. Of the young, eager cast, only Dwight Yoakam as the straight-laced nitro expert Brent Glasscock, Chloe Webb in a small role as Brent’s wife Avis, and veteran actor Bo Hopkins as a Texas Ranger stand out. (Julianna Margulies, of ER, is wasted in the thankless role of Willis’s sweetheart Louise. She’s in the movie so that Matthew McConaughey can be nice to her little boy.) The Newton Boys isn’t as bad as other recent ambitious misfires by major directors (like Amistad and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), but it’s disappointing enough. So is Linklater a limited talent — a one-trick pony who can only do talking-heads movies? No. I don’t doubt that Linklater can paint on a larger canvas — he has the talent and technique. What he lacks in The Newton Boys is the right subject.

The Man in the Iron Mask

March 13, 1998

The Man in the Iron Mask arrives at the perfect time to capitalize on the Leo-mania left in the wake of Titanic. Here’s Leonardo DiCaprio, the current heartthrob for teenage girls, in not one but two roles. Unfortunately, neither of those roles is terribly interesting — at least not as rewritten by rookie director Randall Wallace (he wrote the script for Braveheart) from the Alexandre Dumas novel. DiCaprio is stuck playing a cardboard villain, the young and contemptible Louis XIV, and his virtuous twin brother Philippe, who’s been in prison for six years hidden behind the iron mask of the title. The former role requires a lot of pouting and bad attitude, the latter a fair helping of doe-eyed innocence and purity unsullied by imprisonment.

This Iron Mask isn’t any more of a desecration than any of the other recent Literature 90210 movies, like Great Expectations or DiCaprio’s own Romeo + Juliet. And, given that generations of readers have taken Dumas’ books as rousing adventure stories, one can’t accuse Randall Wallace of oversimplifying great art. The movie is fast-paced and colloquial, and Wallace delivers a meat-and-potatoes costume adventure. But I was still bored, my attention wandering to such improper questions as whether the twin brothers had the same hair extensions.

One problem is that, in this telling, we don’t care much about Louis or Philippe. Much more interesting, potentially, are the aging musketeers — D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), Aramis (Jeremy Irons), Athos (John Malkovich), and Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) — who yearn for their long-gone swashbuckling days and must decide what to do when the king they’ve sworn to serve is a little twerp who couldn’t care less that the people of France are starving. D’Artagnan is closer to the king (and to the Queen Mother, played by Anne Parillaud) than are his former confederates, who plot to remove Louis and replace him with Philippe.

The casting of the musketeers is hit-and-miss. As has been pointed out elsewhere, Depardieu is the only one of them who actually is French, and you watch him up there with the other Brits and Americans and think, “What’s this French guy doing here?” Nevertheless, his rude-boy performance (he’s like John Belushi dropped into the midst of Masterpiece Theatre) is the best reason to see the movie, and Jeremy Irons continues to have one of the most exquisite voices in sound films; I was tempted several times to close my eyes and enjoy his phrasing of such otherwise dull lines as “I will kill him and the man who told me about him.”

The other two musketeers are a problem. Malkovich, at this point, can’t be bothered to create a character. He just shows up on the set and reads his lines in the same dead, fey voice he’s used in every movie from The Killing Fields to Con Air. And Byrne’s performance as the conflicted D’Artagnan seems too close to his Tom Regan in Miller’s Crossing — I kept expecting him to dream about a hat. I was glad to see the British comedian Hugh Laurie as one of Louis’ yes-men, but he’s killed off almost as soon as he’s introduced. Unfortunately, Judith Godreche doesn’t share that fate; she plays Christine, a sweet, poor girl whom Louis steals from Athos’s son, and she’s like a French Demi Moore — with all the blandness that implies.

Speaking of blandness: Leonardo DiCaprio’s career seems to be regressing. Once capable of complex work in This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, he now appears to be trapped in his new role as the late-’90s cover boy. Certainly The Man in the Iron Mask milks the hell out of him. He was aggressively awful as the bratty Rimbaud in Total Eclipse, but I’d almost rather see that again — at least it was an attempt at something challenging and different — than Leo’s pretty-boy performances here. He needs to work with someone like John Waters, who paved the way for Johnny Depp to transcend his dreamboat image by parodying it. The Man in the Iron Mask verges on unconscious parody. I like DiCaprio, and I wish he’d take off the iron mask of stardom and show us his real face again.

Funny Games (1997)

March 11, 1998

Ever since the Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke tossed Funny Games like a bucket of vomit into moviegoers’ faces, the response has been brutally polarized. Some find it an unpalatable, pretentious exercise in stringing the audience along for its own cruel sake. I think it’s kind of brilliant. With one cathartic exception, or unless you count a slap in the face, there is no onscreen violence in Funny Games. It’s all either off-camera or out-of-frame. So what’s all the fuss been about? Well, what Haneke does is diabolically simple. He leaves out the stuff that carnage-addicted moviegoers want to see, and he lingers like a smitten lover over the stuff most thrillers leave out. What you see an awful lot of in Funny Games is emotional violence. You see the shock. The gathering disbelief, and then the chilling belief: Yes, this is all really happening. The aftermath of a violent act. The agony of someone trying to move with a broken limb, filmed in agonizing real time. Most of the movie, in fact, is pretty much real-time, though towards the end Haneke seems to sense that it’s time to start wrapping things up.

The story is basic: A well-to-do family — husband Georg (Ulrich Mühe), wife Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their young son Schorschi (Stefan Clapczynski) — arrive at their lakeside vacation cottage. Two polite young men, clad in white — Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) — insinuate themselves into the cottage and then proceed to make the family’s lives miserable. Funny Games thus announces itself as being in the same league as A Clockwork Orange, Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs, and other, lesser-known home-invasion thrillers. But is it really playing the same sport?

I say it isn’t, and not just because Haneke obviously intends the film as a scolding statement on screen violence — that’s only the surface. Haneke uses cinema to deny the primitive urges of cinema. Early on, Paul coerces Anna to disrobe, and though we don’t want to see her nudity in this context, we are nonetheless primed to see it, because most exploitation films would use the sequence as an excuse for some T&A. But the camera never moves below Anna’s shoulders. It stays on her face, and, here and elsewhere, Susanne Lothar communicates volumes of rage and shame wordlessly. Haneke is tweaking those who would’ve wanted to see Anna’s breasts regardless of the context. He goes on to tweak any of us who want anything from this movie other than what he wants to give us. In a sense, he’s playing Paul and Peter to us, except that unlike the family, we have the option of walking out (and this might be one of the most walked-out-on films in recent memory).

The elegantly simian Paul and the blubbery Peter present a familiar bad-cop-worse-cop dynamic: they’re Alex and Dim from Clockwork Orange. The movie toys with a class conflict here, but it seems that the boys come from upper-crust surroundings, too. They don’t resent this family for having the fancy car and the boat and the summer cottage; there’s really no subtext to what they do — there’s hardly any text. The selection of this family seems to be random. I couldn’t help, though, thinking of the invaders as a reflection of the Anschluss in which Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany in 1933. How’s that for home invasion? (Is the family Jewish? We never find out — tellingly, when Anna is forced to say a prayer, she doesn’t know any.) This only occurred to me fleetingly, though; Haneke seems to have more on his mind than mere political allegory.

A shotgun is used three times, or maybe only twice. Haneke breaks the fourth wall; he breaks rules we may not even have been aware of. Some of the violent response to Funny Games is appropriate, I guess. If Haneke had decided to turn another genre inside out — say, if he’d made a comedy with a slapstick structure in which everyone manages to narrowly avoid tripping or spilling things, or if he’d made an adventure film in which nobody finds the treasure — there wouldn’t be as much at stake, emotionally. But the power of cinema places us in the position of the suffering family, inside this thriller structure that fairly demands catharsis, retreat, revenge, resolution. Haneke gives us the mirror image of all of that.

A knife is used, too, out of frame, and we hear the screaming, but the camera is locked on someone else sitting on the same couch as the victim. We never see the results of the knife’s work. Earlier, the camera follows Paul out to the kitchen as he fixes himself a snack; it stays on him as something horrible happens in the next room, and he continues calmly, slowly preparing his snack. “Goddammit, you’re filming the wrong thing,” you may want to scream at Haneke. But then we return to the living room and find that Haneke may have been cruel to be kind. Elsewhere, we focus on Anna or Georg as they’re reduced to despairing animals. Georg’s delayed-shock reaction to the living-room events is harder to watch than any of the bloodletting that isn’t shown.

The remote-control scene will make or break the film for many. Though there is more torment to come, it is the final outrage, the ultimate middle finger held up to an audience expecting formula. It’s also Haneke’s way of both indulging his control and parodying it. He’s the writer and director, he can do what the fuck he wants. If it’s not what you want, he’s saying, then fuck you, go rent Panic Room. The blasts of thrash metal that accompany the opening and closing credits are no mistake (nothing in the film is). Funny Games is immaculate art-house punk rock. All it needs at the end is Johnny Rotten sneering “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”, though the actual final shot pretty much implies that.

I loved it, really, from an aesthetic and analytical stance. I was into what Haneke was doing. It’s not entertainment; it’s something else. Haneke takes a rigidly controlled situation and uses it as a springboard for an assault on movies themselves. Some have complained that the film’s shots at violence-as-entertainment are facile and hypocritical. But what Haneke has actually done is to satirize the complex relationship between the story and the audience. On that level it’s a triumph. And it gleefully succeeds at failing spectacularly on the baser level of delivering what it “promises.” And what, exactly, does it promise? Why are you watching this? You know the basic premise going in; what do you expect the film to be? And do we not usually praise thrillers for surprising us, for not giving us what we expect? And who’s to say the storyteller is wrong just because he doesn’t tell us the story we want to hear, in the way we want to hear it?

The Big Lebowski

March 6, 1998

As much as I enjoyed The Big Lebowski, I’d hesitate to recommend it to anyone but die-hard fans of the Coen brothers. Such willfully bizarre Coen efforts as Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy seem designed to split viewers into two categories: those who get it and those who don’t (and the latter viewers usually don’t even show up). The Big Lebowski isn’t a relatively straight movie like their crossover hit Fargo, which the uninitiated could take as a weirder-than-usual crime drama. No, the new film finds the Coens firmly back on their deadpan-wacko Raising Arizona turf.

Abduction plots have served the Coens well, and here they are again with ransom notes and inept kidnappers (if there isn’t a film-school thesis on the motif of kidnapping in the Coens’ films, there probably will be). Jeff Bridges, returning to his shaggy King Kong look, stars as the typical Coen hero: Jeff Lebowski, a stoner and bowler who prefers to be addressed as “the Dude.” He has the same name as a disabled billionaire (David Huddleston), which leads to a misunderstanding wherein two thugs show up at the Dude’s hovel, rough him up, and pee on his rug. The other Lebowski’s trophy wife, you see, has been running up debts all over L.A.; when she’s kidnapped, the big Lebowski hires the Dude as a courier for the ransom.

As if the plot even mattered in most Coen movies. The Big Lebowski, like the Coens’ most underrated film The Hudsucker Proxy, is an excuse for Joel and Ethan’s patented stylized dialogue (“He’s a good doctor, and thorough“) and unapologetic caricatures. Coen veteran John Goodman is one of the latter, as the Dude’s Vietnam-vet bowling buddy Walter, who takes care of his ex-wife’s pooch and refuses to bowl on Jewish holidays. There’s also the big Lebowski’s “artist” daughter Maude (Julianne Moore, trying to out-enunciate Jennifer Jason Leigh in Hudsucker), who has about as much reason to be in the film as anyone else — which is to say, not much except to set up a gag or say things that nobody outside a Coen film would say.

The Coens shrewdly cast Jeff Bridges against type. Usually, Bridges is the most alert of actors; he was ideal as the alien in Starman, trying Earth customs on for size. The Dude, however, is blissfully oblivious, and Bridges gives a relaxed slapstick performance. Sometimes he’s funny just sitting there, spread out across the back seat of a limo, sipping White Russians that always stain his mustache. But underneath this slacker is a hard-working professional — Bridges does more with his deflated body language than many comedians can manage by chewing the furniture.

Like Bridges, the Coens are pros whose work doesn’t look like work at all — it looks like goofing off — until you see Coen wannabes try it and fall flat on their faces. The Big Lebowski doesn’t really come together; it’s as if the Coens consciously avoided easy, audience-pleasing wrap-ups and character arcs. (Another motif in the Coens’ work is offscreen deaths of major characters: Judy Davis and John Mahoney in Barton Fink, the kidnapped wife in Fargo. There’s another one here.)

The movie is the Coens’ acknowledged tribute to Raymond Chandler (just as Miller’s Crossing was a nod to Hammett and Blood Simple their version of James M. Cain), and Chandler wasn’t all that concerned with plot coherence either — he used a story as a clothesline on which to hang vivid characters, snappy patter, and local color. That sums up every Coen film, including this one.