Archive for August 1998

54

August 28, 1998

If you never made it to the famous New York hot spot Studio 54 during its heyday, you might be drawn to see 54 to find out what the fuss was about. According to those who got in, the place itself wasn’t nearly as impressive as the status of getting in — the honor of being stylish and fabulous enough to be judged worthy of entrance. Well, now that any of us with a Netflix account can get into 54, the club stands revealed as what it was: a glitzy playpen for trendoids, wannabes, and campy celebrities. Let me pause for a minute to think of a more boring subject for a movie …. Sorry. I give up.

If Boogie Nights was all sizzle and no steak, 54 is neither steak nor sizzle — it’s just an empty plate. Writer-director Mark Christopher, who previously contributed a segment to the gay anthology Boys Life 2, certainly plays up the overt homo-eroticism of the place — the ripe young men swaggering around shirtless, the women stuck in ghastly height-of-1979-fashion wigs and outfits that made them look like drag queens. Christopher presents the hedonism (the cocaine, the open copulation in the balcony) without judgment, yet he’s wedded the true story of Studio 54 to a fictional story that lacks the conviction to be moralistic. Once again, a young innocent (Ryan Phillippe, making Mark Wahlberg look like Olivier) is lured into sex and drugs, and once again everyone parties hard until a death during the New Year 1980 bash foretells the death of an era. Any of this sound familiar?

Shane O’Shea (Phillippe) starts at 54 as a busboy, then works his way up to bartending — the primo job, where you can schmooze with powerful players and top models. Are we supposed to care whether this blank-faced kid makes it? Shane befriends a young married couple — fellow busboy Greg (Breckin Meyer) and his wife Anita (Salma Hayek), who dreams of being a singer. Shane is also fixated on Julie Black (Neve Campbell), a soap actress who wants to cross over into movies. So we have a bunch of low-level, obscure people deluding themselves that they’re on the fast track to success — again, any of this sound familiar? When I saw Boogie Nights , I never thought I would one day compare it favorably to even more derivative movies, but that was before I saw 54.

Mark Christopher has no apparent feelings for his chosen milieu (the movie was shot on a Toronto soundstage), and I never figured out how he felt about Steve Rubell, the effusive ringmaster of 54. Stretching his legs in his first dramatic role, Mike Myers does what he can with a shallow conception, but Rubell remains remote and unknowable right to the end (as he was, perhaps, in life). We don’t know whether we’re supposed to take Rubell as a nurturing party boy or as a corrupt little bastard who promotes his male staff in exchange for sexual favors. This inconsistency, and a lot more in the movie, may be due to severe pre-release trims (the distributor, Miramax, is famously scissors-happy). Or it may be due to the script, which, judging from what’s left, was never particularly focused or insightful.

If a mitigating director’s cut surfaces on DVD, I promise to apologize. [EDIT: Such a DVD has yet to present itself. Therefore I have yet to apologize. However, as of late 2008 a director's cut has been shown and praised.] But I think I’m safe in my bewildered contempt for this film. 54 doesn’t give you the highs or lows of the dying disco age; it’s just a series of hackneyed scenes that make Boogie Nights look like a model of originality. If you go to this movie wondering what the fuss at Studio 54 was about, you’ll still wonder about it when the movie is over.

Blade

August 21, 1998

The depressing thing about a glut of bad movies is that they lower your expectations and also your standards. Blade, the latest MTV-PlayStation software, isn’t anything great — some of it isn’t any good at all — but compared to tripe like Godzilla and The Avengers, it looks like a Fritz Lang film. Blade is fast and painless and sometimes agreeably cheesy, with a string of solid supporting performances. Coming at the end of this lethal summer, it’s neither a highlight nor a lowlight; it’s a mediumlight, I suppose. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t excited either.

Blade, the half-vampire “daywalker” whose mission in life is to dispatch as many bloodsuckers as possible, began life in the ’70s as a popular character in the Marvel comic book Tomb of Dracula. Blade’s mother, you see, was bitten by a vamp while pregnant with Blade; vampirism ran in his veins, so his obsession carried a personal twist beyond the standard you-killed-my-mother-prepare-to-die vendetta. As comic-book heroes go, Blade (at least in his ’70s incarnation — I’m not familiar with the more recent Marvel comics) was tough and driven but also witty. His creator, Marv Wolfman, always made sure to write sharp dialogue for him, and Wolfman even gave Blade the unlikely partner Hannibal King, a turncoat vampire (who predated Hannibal Lecter, in case you wondered).

Good ol’ Hannibal is missing from the movie Blade, and so is 99 percent of Blade’s personality. As played by Wesley Snipes (also one of the producers), he’s a big hunk of wood with a stylish haircut and an arsenal that puts Rambo’s to shame. Blade is such a stoic bad-ass that you keep wanting to laugh, but Snipes — who is not a humorless man, as his performances elsewhere certify — never quite lets you. He takes Blade and this movie far too seriously, never riding with the absurdity of it or showing the redeeming charisma of, say, Chow Yun-Fat. In his review, Roger Ebert ranked Blade among New Line’s other recent genre pictures Dark City and Spawn. I would, too — they’re all grim-faced, pompous comic-book movies for people who think narrative begins and ends with Todd McFarlane.

Director Stephen Norrington seems to know there’s nothing going on with Snipes, because he surrounds the star with colorful actors, such as Stephen Dorff as the nasty, ambitious vampire Deacon Frost (since he and Snipes have both played drag queens, think of their final conflict as the Battle of the Divas), N’Bushe Wright as a hematologist whose blood research comes in mighty handy, Kris Kristofferson as Blade’s grizzled old mentor and weapons specialist, and the great Udo Kier as a genetically “pure” vampire. Kier, who once played the big-cheese vampire in the cult classic Blood for Dracula, gives his scenes a dash of welcome Teutonic flavor; too bad he doesn’t have much else to do.

Neither does Blade, really. Oh, he’s active as all get-out — every reel or so, he shows up at some vamp hang-out, unsheathes his sword, and gives the director another excuse for pounding techno music and Cuisinart editing. But compared to the Blade of the comics, this hero is dumb bordering on suicidal; he never seems to have a strategy aside from crashing vampire parties. The old Blade relied more on smarts than on brute strength and superior firepower. That’s what’s missing from Blade, and what makes it a reasonably diverting video-game of a movie but not successful entertainment.

Your Friends & Neighbors

August 19, 1998

The characters in Neil LaBute’s universe aren’t quite like us — they’re abstract — yet in some ways they’re more like us than we like to admit. LaBute doesn’t stylize his characters so much that we can stand at a comfortable distance from them, and that bothered a lot of people who saw his debut, In the Company of Men. Those people called LaBute’s vision cold and hollow, as if they experienced his work as a personal slap at them. That says more about the critic than about the work.

LaBute’s second film, Your Friends & Neighbors, won’t win him any converts (the way Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction managed to charm some viewers who’d hated Reservoir Dogs), but for those who appreciated Company, it’s a keeper. As always, LaBute points his microscope at a microcosm of sexual politics, except here he has twice the number of people — three men, three women — and many more opportunities for those painfully funny (or just painful) LaBute moments in which characters are explicitly candid without really saying anything. And in LaBute’s world it hardly matters if nobody really says anything, because nobody really listens, either.

In an unnamed Anycity (the film has no exterior shots), two couples — the married Barry and Mary (Aaron Eckhart and Amy Brenneman), the cohabitating Jerry and Terri (Ben Stiller and Catherine Keener) — fumble in their respective beds. The women grit their teeth and endure the strained lovemaking of their insecure men, who see sex as a way of measuring up. “Is it me?” the men keep asking. “Yes, it’s you” seems the proper answer, though LaBute only has one woman say that in a nonsexual context. Rounding out this sextet (or bad-sextet) are Cheri (Natassja Kinski), a friendly lesbian, and Cary (Jason Patric), an unfriendly womanizer.

LaBute doesn’t tell stories, exactly; he sets up his people and lets them knock each other down, and Your Friends & Neighbors has a looser structure than the rigorous In the Company of Men, which marched to its grim conclusion like a man to the gallows. Those who hissed Aaron Eckhart’s Chad in Company will be amused to see him here, pudgy and with an ugly mustache, playing someone closer to Chad’s stooge Howard. Any film in which Eckhart plays the most sympathetic character is full of surprises, not the least of which is Jason Patric, shaking himself awake to give a rancid, scowling performance — a mesmerizing portrait of misogyny that makes Chad look like Alan Alda. The actors are fine across the board, but the stand-out is Catherine Keener, whose Terri is snappish and blunt but also the movie’s voice of reason, forever pleading for silence — an end to the constant banal babble.

LaBute likes symbolic names. In Company he had Chad the cad, Howard the coward, and Christine the pristine; here everyone has rhyming names. These people have nothing in common, and no poetry in their lives, besides their names. Yet they sleep with each other, or hang out together, out of convenience. LaBute doesn’t tell us how any of them met; they stand for the busy drones in any city who latch onto people just to be “social.” The Ben Stiller character, a drama professor, keeps talking about “fate”; that’s what people say to justify bad relationships. We’re just hollow bodies, LaBute is saying, going through the motions of love and friendship to avoid being alone — which produces a more piercing loneliness: the awareness that your friends and neighbors, and even lovers, don’t really know you and never really will. 4

The Avengers

August 14, 1998

The Avengers is so thoroughly and consistently awful that I’ve actually wasted some time wondering whether its makers intended it that way. If so, the movie is brilliant — a successful blend of terrible acting, a flat-out incomprehensible plot, groan-inducing dialogue, ridiculous action sequences, and artistic failures on every level. It may well have a second life on video as an Ed Wood movie for the ’90s, a Cheez Whiz fiasco to rent and guffaw at with a bunch of wise-ass friends.

In fact, let’s look at it from another angle: Why is this movie so bad? Some theories:

· Ralph Fiennes, who plays secret agent John Steed (the role filled by Patrick Macnee in the BBC-TV series), must have grown tired of giving good performances. So he decided to phone in his performance as Steed, reciting his lines in a dull upper-class monotone occasionally punctuated by a smug little smirk. The result is stunning — the worst acting by a great actor since Al Pacino in Revolution, though unlike Al, Ralph doesn’t get to deliver a line as fabulously shitheaded as “My mouth belongs anywhere I put it.”

· Uma Thurman obviously wanted to undercut her sex-symbol image by making herself look really stupid. She does this in The Avengers by pouring herself into her Emma Peel suit (and I gotta say, Elizabeth Hurley in Austin Powers wore it better), affecting a now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t English accent, and playing a delirious scene in a straitjacket that will certainly get the movie a spot in Movieline‘s “Bad Movies We Love” column.

· After years of watching other actors ham it up as Bond villains, Sean Connery must have wanted to try it himself. As Sir August de Wynter, who wants to control the weather all over the planet, he’s a real glazed ham, all right. I mean, you stare at him in this movie and you think “My God, he doesn’t even seem like Sean Connery.” Dr. Evil had more dignity than this, for Christ’s sake. Sean’s lowlight comes early, when he’s addressing a roomful of henchmen dressed in … you ready? … teddy-bear costumes. Connery also wears one, though he takes the head off so we can see who he is. He should’ve left it on.

· Director Jeremiah Chechik apparently was curious to see if he could make a movie worse than his remake of Diabolique. After a wide search (so goes my theory), he settled on the Avengers script by Don MacPherson, who fills entire scenes with rapid-fire repartee that’s meant to be witty but so painfully isn’t. MacPherson also knows a knee-slapping pun when he sees one. Walking through a shrubbery maze like the one in The Shining, Emma Peel says “It’s amazing.” Ha ha ha! Get it? A-maze-ing? And there are just so many more like it!

· Having read this masterpiece of stupidity, Chechik (still according to my theory) rushed headlong into production, making sure to pace every scene like a snail crawling up a mountain of flypaper backwards; also taking extra care to make each big set-piece as stupefyingly implausible as possible, from the robot wasps to the magnificently brain-damaged climax, in which Steed and De Wynter duke it out on a metal bridge during a thunderstorm. Guys, there’s this thing called “indoors.” It’s a safer place to be when you’re fighting each other with metal objects during a storm.

· Finally, Warner Bros. must have monitored this production at every step of incompetence along the way — from the script to the dailies to the final cut — and decided to release it anyway. Since Warner was coming off a devastating year full of megabudget flops like The Postman and Sphere, their commitment to a movie that makes Sphere look like Battleship Potemkin brings tears of admiration to my eyes.

Yes, everyone involved with the making of The Avengers has pooled their talents to make something very special. We have to recognize perfection in all its forms, wherever we find it, and what we have here is a perfect piece of shit.


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