Archive for April 1998

The Big Hit

April 24, 1998

83654512Is Quentin Tarantino the worst thing to happen to American movies in the ’90s? In a rational, cool-headed moment, you’d probably say no. But after suffering through some of the Tarantinoid rip-offs of the last couple of years — like 2 Days in the Valley and the abominable new The Big Hit — you may catch yourself wishing that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had flopped, if only so that no wannabe-hip filmmakers would want to emulate him and no studio would want to bankroll the rip-offs.

The Big Hit wants to be ironic and grisly in the tradition of Tarantino, mixing blood ‘n’ guts with knee-slappers (two guys dump trash bags full of severed limbs into a car trunk — that’s the movie’s first shot), but it achieves only a jokey tone of free-floating triviality. The script, by rookie writer Ben Ramsey, is among the most disgraceful screenplays ever to be produced by a major studio (Tri-Star). It plays as if written by Tarantino’s cretinous evil twin — it has no connection whatsoever to life outside video stores, and almost everyone on the screen is annoying and shallow.

Mark Wahlberg is the “hero,” Melvin Smiley, a soft-hearted hit man who wants to please everyone. “I can’t stand it when people don’t like me,” he says — which raises the question of why he got into killing for hire. Essentially, Melvin is Dirk Diggler with a big gun instead of a big schlong; both characters are too sensitive for the callous lives they lead. One gets the impression that Wahlberg is trying to atone for his real-life street-punk background by playing doe-eyed male waifs in movies like this and Boogie Nights. But at least he isn’t actively irritating.

No, that honor is reserved for Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Cisco, Melvin’s duplicitous partner. Cisco kidnaps a Japanese student (China Chow), the daughter of a big executive who’s just gone broke making a flop movie. When Cisco learns that the student is the goddaughter of his menacing boss Paris (Avery Brooks, wasted here), he frames Melvin and spends many scenes flashing his fake gold tooth and beating a certain twelve-letter epithet into the ground. Phillips is doing a Gary Oldman turn (specifically, Oldman’s Drexl the dreadlocked pimp in True Romance), but the problem is that Phillips is to Oldman what Cheez Whiz is to caviar.

The director-for-hire here is Che-Kirk Wong, who did the well-respected Jackie Chan film Crime Story, and he throws in a lot of impressive stuntwork. Too bad the unscannable Cuisinart editing turns it into gibberish. The worst thing about the editing is what it leaves in. I, for one, would have deleted each and every frame dealing with Melvin’s fiancée (Christina Applegate) and her dreadful Jewish-stereotype parents (Lainie Kazan and Elliott Gould), as well as the material about his other girlfriend (Lela Rochon), who keeps harping on him to make money to pay her bills. But this is really nitpicking — the entiremovie is composed of scenes that go nowhere.

For an example of an excellent movie that does everything this film so ineptly tries to do, look at Grosse Pointe Blank, from which The Big Hit swipes so blatantly that John Cusack should get a screen credit. GPB was about something besides hipster irony and farcical violence; The Big Hit is about nothing except cynicism and sensation. It’s the worst of the worst — an example of a new lazy trend in screenwriting, wherein the writer just assembles cool stuff from other movies that he wants to see all together in one movie. Tarantino does that, too, but he can get away with it because he writes sizzling dialogue and rich characters. If only the new hipsters emulated those Tarantinoid trademarks! But skillful characterization — even competent characterization — seems quite beyond them.

So I end with another question: The Big Hit will very likely be the worst major release of the year, but would I go so far as to call it the worst film of the decade? In a rational, cool-headed moment, I might say no. But I think of Pulp Fiction and the great independent-film renaissance it could have inspired, and then I think of miserable shit like this, which is what it actually has inspired … I don’t know; it’s a tough call. What movie of the ’90s could be worse than The Big Hit?

The Object of My Affection

April 17, 1998

The premise — what if a woman and her gay male friend fell in love? — is imported from Stephen McCauley’s novel of a few years ago, yet The Object of My Affection feels like a synthesis of Chasing Amy (where the scenario was reversed) and In & Out (in which a well-liked teacher becomes confused about his sexuality). McCauley focused on the gay character, George (Paul Rudd); the movie’s scripter, Wendy Wasserstein, focuses on the bewildered Nina (Jennifer Aniston), who allows George to move in with her after his self-absorbed lover (Tim Daly) dumps him for some hunky student.

The shift in focus defuses what might have been fresh in the story. Instead of Nina being the Other who makes George’s life a mess of confusion, it’s George who’s the Other. Everything in the movie is seen in terms of how it affects Nina. I’m not saying Wendy Wasserstein isn’t a skilled writer. She is — when it comes to Nina. We feel Nina’s frustration, her yearning for independence, her dissatisfaction with her condescending boyfriend Vince (John Pankow). That’s partly due to the writing, which has been felt from the inside out, and partly due to Jennifer Aniston’s wistful performance.

George, however, is fairly opaque. His emotions aren’t dramatized; they’re told to us in speeches. Paul Rudd’s blandness in the role (he’s been more charming elsewhere) doesn’t help, either. George is a woman’s dream date: a handsome, sensitive man who won’t try anything sleazy. George hardly tries anything sleazy with men, either. For most of the movie he’s a poster boy for cuddly gay normality — softened to appeal to the homophobes in the audience. (It didn’t work at the show I attended. A peck on the mouth between George and a new lover provoked sounds of disgust from the teenagers around me. This is a good time to point out that I heard no retching when two women kissed in Wild Things. But I digress.)

At first glance, The Object of My Affection doesn’t seem to fit with director Nicholas Hytner’s other two films, The Madness of King George and The Crucible. Those were historical dramas based on plays. This is a modern romantic comedy-drama that feels like a play (the movie’s rhythm and pace are very slack). There is a theme running through the films: the impact that forbidden or “inappropriate” passions can have on an uncomprehending society. Yet Nina and George encounter almost no resistance (even the jilted Vince basically washes his hands of Nina). George doesn’t take any static from gay friends for getting chummy with a breeder. Nina seems to have no friends other than good old George.

What seemed like hyperbolic rhetoric in movies like Jungle Fever and Go Fish, where characters’ sex lives were subjected to political scrutiny by their friends, now seems like a better dramatic deal than what goes on in this movie. Which is to say, nothing much. Even Nina’s pregnancy feels inconsequential. Stand aside from the movie for a moment, look at it from a detached viewpoint, and what you see is a selfish woman who wants to have the best of all worlds — the baby, the non-threatening gay man waiting for her to decide that she wants him — and who comes close to ruining poor George’s life. The story could certainly have been told that way (and might have been in the novel, which I haven’t read). It sure isn’t told that way here. If it were, it would stop being a chick flick and start being an intelligent film for adults of all genders and sexual orientations. I’m sorry, should I not have expected a movie like that? I can be so naïve sometimes.

The Opposite of Sex

April 14, 1998

“I don’t have a heart of gold, and I don’t grow one later,” says Dedee Truitt (Christina Ricci), the protagonist of one of the year’s best movies, The Opposite of Sex. Like all smart villains, Dedee knows the best way to get us on her side is to talk to us via narration; we’re flattered that this liar and manipulator tells the truth to us and us alone. Think of Dedee as a Jerry Springer-era, teenage-vixen version of Richard III, and you’ll have one key to the movie, but not the only one.

The Opposite of Sex is a comedy about one volatile catalyst — Dedee — dropping into a group of dissimilar people and forcing them to discover their similarities. Of course, that isn’t Dedee’s aim; her focus is on money, and Christina Ricci’s somewhat two-dimensional style works for this single-minded tramp. Dedee has no depths to reveal — seduction and swindling are all there is to her. Yet something interesting happens. Even though Dedee keeps narrating, the movie’s emphasis shifts from her to the people whose lives she affects — something like the better scenes in To Die For, when we got to see the human cost of Nicole Kidman’s entertaining manipulations, their effect on the hapless kids she was seducing.

At the beginning, after Dedee’s rotten stepfather has died, she leaves home and lands on the doorstep of her half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan), a gentle gay teacher living with the handsome goofball Matt (Ivan Sergei). Dedee wastes no time seducing Matt and running away with him (along with a big chunk of Bill’s money). Bill takes off after them, accompanied by his sort-of sister-in-law — Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), whose brother, now dead of AIDS, was once Bill’s lover. As if Bill didn’t have enough to worry about, a sleazy little teen hipster (Johnny Galecki) is accusing Bill of molesting him.

As the movie goes on, the meaning of the title comes into focus. Bill and Lucia are essentially decent but also sexless in their own ways; Bill seems too nice and, well, vanilla to have much carnal appetite (that’s why the accusation against him is such a joke), while Lucia is a brittle, cynical woman who rolls her eyes at all the sexual Musical Chairs the characters play. These two form the moral spine of a movie that seems, at first glance, to be cheerfully amoral; even those who reject Dedee can hook into Bill and Lucia. Donovan, as always, has an easy and intelligent presence — we have faith in Bill’s ability to pull himself out of this mess. Kudrow gives the stand-out performance, proving she has more in her portfolio than Phoebe, Ursula, and Michele; Lucia isn’t a New Age ditz but a tightly wound, witty fellow teacher — the first truly adult woman Kudrow has played.

There are other twists and complications, which I’ll let you discover. The movie is a comedy, so everything clicks together nicely at the end, with all the characters where we want them to be. The Opposite of Sex is the directing debut of Don Roos, who previously wrote Single White Female and Boys on the Side; he starts with Dedee’s nastiness and then takes us deeper into human connections and motivations. In a way, Dedee emerges as something of a heroine: Her lies and betrayals force the more decent characters out of their ruts and into the world. They find themselves, while Dedee ends up in a shabby motel room with a gun-waving teen Jesus freak. The surprise of The Opposite of Sex is how compassionate it turns out to be, despite the acidic remarks of its narrator; it even has sympathy for Dedee herself, who wields all this manipulative power, yet is essentially powerless to be anything other than what she is.

City of Angels

April 10, 1998

MSDCIOF EC004Why do so many people seem to want so badly to believe in guardian angels? To me, there’s something vaguely creepy and stalker-ish about the whole concept: invisible beings floating around, watching you and maybe giving you a kindly nudge every so often. Ick. Guardian angels sound like a plot devised by an Orwellian government so that we’ll gradually get used to, and even embrace, the idea of being spied on. (Now that might be an interesting movie premise. Call Oliver Stone.)

The one angel movie that gets around my defenses is, of course, Wings of Desire — Wim Wenders’ acclaimed 1988 fantasy in which Bruno Ganz gives up his halo, becomes human, and wins the heart of beautiful acrobat Solveig Dommartin. A decade later, Wenders’ vision comes to us Hollywoodized — not to mention bastardized — in the new remake City of Angels, in which Nicolas Cage gives up his wings to be with surgeon Meg Ryan. There could hardly be a better illustration of Hollywood’s uncanny ability to suck all the brains out of a good idea.

City of Angels begins as Wings of Desire does, with passing glances at random citizens (in Los Angeles instead of Berlin) whose thoughts we overhear. Wenders used the device to make us feel like isolated angels, doomed to eavesdrop on people but never communicate. The filmmakers here, director Brad Silberling (Casper) and scripter Dana Stevens, don’t sustain the angel’s-eye device. Whereas Wenders established black-and-white photography as the way angels see the world, this film is in lush color. In the remake, when an angel becomes human and marvels at the sight of his own blood — “Red! Red! Color!” — it makes no sense, since we’ve spent the movie seeing through his eyes and admiring John Seale’s lovely color photography.

Wenders’ film was also about duality and splits of all kinds; its forbidding Berlin Wall (still standing when the film was shot) and characters with double lives (including Peter Falk playing himself playing a role in a movie) gave us a brooding sense of fractured existence. People go through life looking for wholeness, taking their flawed, painful humanity for granted. There’s also, of course, the eternal divide between the spirit and the flesh. City of Angels pays some feeble lip service to this last idea. Nicolas Cage, the angel protagonist, can’t feel or taste or smell anything. He yearns to be human so he can be with Dr. Meg, who is specifically looking for a guy who can feel, taste, and smell things, apparently.

Somehow Meg is able to see Nicolas in her operating room, staring at her over the soon-to-be-dead body of a guy whose heart she’s fondling (this must be what Hollywood calls a “meet cute”). Soon she’s telling him how a pear tastes and he’s getting advice from a red-faced Dennis Franz as a former angel turned human. The spiritual pieties come fast and hard, and we get a bare-assed Dennis Franz running into the surf and a scene where Meg stabs Nicolas with a knife to see if he bleeds. If a woman stabbed me to see if I bleed, I’d want to be anywhere that she’s not. But no, Nic trades in his wings for his blade-happy sweetie.

As always, Nicolas Cage keeps his end of the bargain; he commits heart-and-soul to a role no matter how stupid the movie is, and he makes you feel the emotional highs and lows of his newly human hero. In his early scenes, when he’s following Meg everywhere, he reminds you less of a creepy stalker than of a lost puppy looking for a warm lap to snuggle in. But after he turns human, City of Angels loses whatever humanity it had, regressing into pointless tragedy and manipulative tearjerking. I mean, even Wim Wenders didn’t feel compelled to whack Solveig Dommartin with a lumber truck, for Christ’s sake. We’ve reached a weird point in cinema history, where “uplifting” Hollywood romances are more depressing than solemn German art films.

Lost in Space

April 3, 1998

lost-in-space-originalHaving never seen the old TV series Lost in Space, I had no preconceptions of how the new movie version “should have been done” and am free to judge it independently on its merits as a movie. Having now seen the film, I have many ideas about how it should have been done. How about … intelligently? Perhaps with some wit and originality? A little less dependence on CGI effects and a little more attention to the script? A single moment that doesn’t seem pitched to slow ten-year-olds? Movies like Lost in Space are routinely defended as “just fun,” but when did “fun” become synonymous with “bland” and “shallow”?

We’re in 2038, when the Earth is in trouble: In another twenty years, the planet won’t be able to support human life. So the plan is to ship everyone to another human-friendly planet, Alpha Prime (and presumably ruin that planet too). Professor John Robinson (William Hurt) will lead the way, taking his family with him. The premise of both the show and the movie is that the Robinsons’ ship gets knocked off course, leading to many episodes of well-loved TV adventures.

The problem with the movie — well, one among many — is that it adopts the episodic structure of a Lost in Space marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel. The characters — also including the macho pilot Don West (Matt LeBlanc) and the evil stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith (Gary Oldman) — go from one damn crisis to another, and the episodes don’t build on each other; we don’t feel that the heroes are in a situation beyond their control, but rather that the filmmakers are running to catch up with a big movie beyond their control. The film is like an unguided missile.

Lost in Space was directed by Stephen Hopkins, a solid action craftsman (he made The Ghost and the Darkness and the underrated Judgment Night). Hopkins keeps things moving, and a couple of the space-chase sequences have an adrenalized lift to them. But the movie keeps crashing into clichés — those being the specialty of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who worked on the last two terrible Batmanentries. Seasoned moviegoers will find much here to roll their eyes at, whether it’s the tired device of the absentee dad (Professor Robinson is always missing out on his son’s milestones) or the introduction of an allegedly cute critter named Blarp, who makes the movie seem even more like a two-hour toy commercial.

The casting splits you down the middle — you don’t know whether to be grateful that you at least have good actors to watch, or to regret that they’re given nothing to do. The idea of Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith promises more diabolical fun than you get; this is one of his very rare dull performances, weighed down by a script that doesn’t let him take off. The Robinson children are non-entities: Judy (Heather Graham) is defined almost entirely by her Princess Leia-Han Solo hostile banter with Don West, Will (Jack Johnson) is a little techno-geek, and Penny (Lacy Chabert of Party of Five) is like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s less talented kid sister. Mimi Rogers, who has been impressive elsewhere (The Rapture), is yet another wife telling her man to be careful; she could start by telling him to wake up — Hurt sleepwalks toward the paycheck being dangled in front of him, as he did in Dark City.

The climax is some nonsense involving a “time bubble,” which is really a code name for a gimmick useful to desperate screenwriters. Lost in Space is so full of time bubbles it’s practically effervescent, and the ending is left so arrogantly unresolved that I sat stunned for a moment until I realized — Of course! They’re leaving it open for a sequelLost in Space is so witless that it never answers the major question raised by both the TV show and the movie: When the Robinsons find Dr. Smith aboard the ship, why don’t they just shoot him in the head and get it over with? “Because then there wouldn’t be a movie,” you may say. Well, so what?

The Butcher Boy

April 3, 1998

The Butcher Boy begins boldly, with lurid comic-book panels filling the screen under the opening credits. This economical grabber has two effects: it sets the stage for the movie’s unstable, violent fantasia, and it assures you that the director, Neil Jordan, knows exactly what he’s doing. Jordan has found a visual hook comparable to the first line of Patrick McCabe’s book (which the movie also uses, courtesy of the script by McCabe and Jordan): “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent.”

What exactly the young Irish protagonist Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) did on Mrs. Nugent is covered in a casually horrible paragraph — an afterthought in a fever dream — and Jordan, like McCabe, is less interested in the crime itself than in the demented logic that leads to it. If you wanted to discount the novel and come up with a crass Hollywood analogy, you might call the movie A Clockwork Orange meets Heavenly Creatures. But then you’d miss what makes The Butcher Boy truly unsettling — the way it crosses, unnoticed, the line between garden-variety childhood tomfoolery and full-blown psychosis.

I invoked Heavenly Creatures for another reason: Eamonn Owens jumps out at you the way Kate Winslet did in her debut. Looking like a pint-size Terry Gilliam (he has the same cartoonish, mile-wide grin), Owens hurries from one mishap to the next, playing Francie with an animalistic exuberance that immediately puts us on his side — everyone else in this grim Irish town seems depressed and waterlogged. It takes a while before you realize that Francie is, as Eric Cartman might say, a very disturbed little boy.

The Butcher Boy presents Francie’s worldview as a toxic brew of pop culture, Cold War paranoia, class resentment, Catholicism, and deficient genes: his dad (Stephen Rea) is an alcoholic failed musician, his mom (Aisling O’Sullivan) a manic-depressive who takes “tablets” and bakes hundreds of sweets for a small party. The ill-fated Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw, with a Dickensian stiff upper lip trembling in outrage) denounces Francie and family as “pigs,” an unfortunate analogy that only fuels Francie’s fire.

The film is narrated by an adult Francie (also played by Stephen Rea), chuckling fondly over his youthful pranks. As Francie’s actions get more violent, the narration remains jovial — it’s like A Christmas Story retold by a sociopath. (There are various darkly funny, and surely unintentional, parallels between the two movies — imagine Ralphie obsessed with butcher’s tools instead of a Red Ryder BB gun.) We want to follow Francie along, and though we dread what’s coming, a part of us wants it to happen — we want the catharsis, the ferocious end result of all this swirling Catholic/pig/slaughterhouse imagery. When it comes, it is flat and undramatic and unsatisfying, and is perhaps Neil Jordan’s crowning achievement as a director. The whole sensually heightened movie leads up to a murder that takes place mostly offscreen. An ingenious touch (and true to the novel): For Francie, the build-up and aftermath are much more exciting.

A lot of the publicity has centered on the casting of Sinéad O’Connor as the Virgin Mary — a decision, Jordan has insisted, that wasn’t meant to provoke controversy. In context, the casting makes perfect sense: the Virgin Mary who appears in Francie’s deranged visions and says things like “For fuck’s sake” wouldn’t have much use for a Pope anyway. She’s fighting for elbow room with a lot of other things in Francie’s head — his mind seems fractured into glitzy panels, like a page of a comic book. And Neil Jordan has assembled those fragments into a forceful and unforgettable ode to madness — a horror film in the truest sense.