Archive for November 1998

Very Bad Things

November 25, 1998

Like many truly challenging movies, Very Bad Things has gotten atrocious reviews. Most critics seem to have seen an entirely different movie from the one I saw; they have misunderstood it, misread it, misrepresented it, and generally just been stupid about it. In approaching the film, they have made two big mistakes, one of which is somewhat understandable, the other inexcusable.

The movie is a pitch-black comedy about a bachelor party gone terribly wrong. Kyle Fisher (Jon Favreau), a dispassionate yuppie, is about to marry his pushy fiancée Laura (Cameron Diaz), who has a serious wedding fixation. Before the ceremony, Kyle and a few buddies — the shark-like real-estate agent Robert Boyd (Christian Slater), the uncommunicative mechanic Charles Moore (Leland Orser), and the brothers Adam and Michael Berkow (Daniel Stern and Jeremy Piven) — go to Las Vegas for some rip-snorting oats-sowing. The menu includes cocaine and a stripper-prostitute (porn star Kobé Tai, moonlighting under the name Carla Scott) — a recipe for disaster, as it turns out.

Which brings us to the excusable mistake that critics, and you, might make going into Very Bad Things. In its trailer and TV ads, the movie was sold as a zany hipster comedy, along the lines of Grosse Pointe Blank or Pulp Fiction, in which we’re invited to laugh at bloodshed. As written and directed by Peter Berg, though, the movie is considerably darker and grimmer; its tone is probably closer to Happiness than to, say, There’s Something About Mary. People are killed, carved up, and mangled — the film could be called The Vegas Chainsaw Massacre. If we laugh at all, it’s the sort of strangled, disbelieving laughter that’s a natural response to a steadily worsening situation and the protagonists’ desperate actions.

What’s unforgivable, however, is many critics’ assumption that Very Bad Things somehow approves of the events it depicts. Roger Ebert, for instance, managed to state that “the movie is not blatantly racist” while suggesting that it is. Why? Because some of the victims are minorities, and the victimizers are white. Uh … yeah … that’s sort of how it’s been throughout history, hasn’t it? Berg, I think, is consciously placing his white, upper-middle-class men in a situation where they dispatch, and discard, minorities not of their class. What he has in mind, it seems, is a Swiftian satire on white yuppies — it’s American Psycho with five psychos.

Take the Christian Slater character, Robert Boyd. Slater plays him as an update of his J.D. in Heathers, the film Very Bad Things most resembles. Boyd is a fountain of justifications, moral slipperiness, and motivational corporate gibberish. The other four men are easily-led sheep, too worried about saving their own futures to think much about what they’ve done. (You’ll notice that, unlike Ebert, I choose not to give away the entire plot.) Even the bride-to-be Laura is so tunnel-visioned about her wedding that she hardly even cares what her fiancé did in Vegas — or cares to find out. The movie is about how middle-class ambitions can pile up and block your view — it’s about moral blindness, yet it has been reviewed as if it were a cross between Porky’s and Friday the 13th.

Which, on some level, it is: Berg doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of his characters. Even when they start falling apart, shuddering with remorse and self-disgust, Berg keeps his distance (except for a terrific, paranoid bit of business at a gas station). Like a lot of actors turned director, Berg is a fine actor’s director: Daniel Stern hasn’t been this dead-on since maybe Diner, to which this film is almost a horror-movie sequel; Jeremy Piven hits some great, extreme notes near the end. Berg also has a strong command of visual mood, from the garish Vegas night life to the gore-spattered hotel room. That Very Bad Things is nothing like the ads suggest is a pleasant surprise. Everything else in it is unpleasant — as it’s meant to be. Sometimes I wish critics would simply review what’s on the screen, instead of using a movie as an excuse to vent about grievances that have nothing to do with the movie.

A Bug’s Life

November 25, 1998

01phim-2Perhaps A Bug’s Life would play better if if hadn’t come so soon after Antz, but not much better. Though the films were clearly developed and made around the same time, this Disney/Pixar animated feature almost feels like a copy of the earlier DreamWorks movie. A Bug’s Life has the same wisecracking dialogue, the same basic plot (a wimpy ant helps his colony defeat a vicious tyrant, though here the villain is a grasshopper instead of a military ant), a similar look, a comparable theme (in both, an evil character says something like “Ideas are dangerous”), even some of the same gags. And, like Antz, this film doesn’t even have musical numbers — a surprising departure for Disney animated movies.

The problem is that, even if Antz didn’t exist, A Bug’s Life would still be eye-catching but immediately forgettable. This is the second feature by John Lasseter, who directed Disney/Pixar’s wildly popular Toy Story, which left me cold. Halfway through A Bug’s Life, I began to yearn for the relative simplicity of Toy Story. The movie is always teeming with movement and color, but you never quite forget that the insect heroes are ready-made toys. The characters in Antz were like wiry action figures; the Bug’s Life menagerie are more like Beanie Babies.

The hero is Flik (voice by Dave Foley), a dreamer whose schemes don’t impress his fellow ants, who are too busy gathering food for seasonal offerings to the fascistic grasshoppers. Led by the malicious Hopper (Kevin Spacey, whose voice work here lacks his usual deadpan cool), the grasshoppers have terrorized the ants into keeping them well-fed. Flik has an idea: He’ll leave the colony and search for bigger bugs to help the ants fight their oppressors. He finds a group of rowdy critters he thinks are warrior bugs, but are actually circus performers: a black widow (Bonnie Hunt), a macho ladybug (Denis Leary, not as funny as you’d expect), a plump and bumbling caterpillar (Joe Ranft), and so on.

What follows is all very cutesy and lightweight, without the verbal wit of Antz or the visual splendor of James and the Giant Peach. The landscapes, framed in ostentatious widescreen (for a movie about bugs?), are exquisitely detailed, and a few of the touches have comic ingenuity. But again, as with Toy Story, I felt both locked out of the narrative and locked inside the claustrophobic, untouched-by-human-hands look of the movie. John Lasseter doesn’t really create a world and let you enter it. He programs a world and then surrounds you with it, aggressively.

The plot, involving the creation of a fake bird meant to scare the grasshoppers away, leads nowhere. It’s as if the moviemakers needed a way to get the other ants involved in their own destiny — otherwise this is a movie about characters who can’t handle their problems and have to recruit outside forces. (Nobody points out that, having been scared off, the grasshoppers will probably come back again.) A Bug’s Life doesn’t merit much enthusiasm or indignation; it just skitters across your consciousness, leaving no traces except a vague depression. A lot of people put in a lot of hours on this, and for what? The movie will certainly sell toys and hamburgers, but it won’t endure as a work of fantasy. For that, it needs a vision that extends beyond the Disney boardroom.


November 20, 1998

In Celebrity, Woody Allen’s angle isn’t the headaches of fame; he did that already in Stardust Memories. No, he’s interested in the hangers-on — the entertainment reporters, the aspiring actresses working as extras, the hoteliers who must deal with a hot young star’s room-trashing tantrums. Celebrity is about the tiny planets revolving around Hollywood’s many suns, trying to absorb some heat. It’s a cold universe nonetheless.

Woody doesn’t appear onscreen, but he’s there in spirit and in voice: Kenneth Branagh, as the schlumpy reporter Lee Simon, has puckishly adopted Woody’s trademark stammer. Allen has said that this was Branagh’s idea, not his own, and that he didn’t want to interfere with the performance. Bullshit: This is the director who once reshot an entire film with a new cast, and interfering with a performance you didn’t intend is your job as a director. No, Allen and Branagh understood there’s only one way to play Lee — written as an insecure, immature putz, forever jabbering at women in hopes of getting them horizontal. And that way is to play him as the familiar Woody character. Branagh, by the way, does a terrific, self-deprecating job of it. Critics who’ve said he’s annoying miss the point: Should Lee, a sensitive-insensitive jerk, not be annoying?

Lee weaves in and out of the Woody Allen universe, a Manhattan full of bitter women, failed artists, and tweedy people who drone on about books. All of Woody’s people are smart, or at least eloquent, but stone stupid when it comes to sex and romance. That’s always been the saving grace of even Woody’s most rarefied dramas: These elitists, who drop casual references to Rilke and Schopenhauer, are as hopeless as the rest of us when struck by Cupid’s arrow or by stirrings in the loins. Celebrity adds another reassurance: These intellectuals are also more infatuated with success and fame than they’d care to admit — just like us popcorn-munchers.

The loosely structured plot follows Lee and his soon-to-be ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis) as they rebound from the implosion of their fifteen-year marriage. Robin tries the usual upper-middle-class balms for a broken heart (a religious retreat, a consultation with a plastic surgeon) before meeting the man of her dreams — Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna), a local-TV producer who falls hard for her. Allen gives her a romance so implausibly storybookish that she keeps waiting for the sad ending; the joke is that there isn’t one, and she, too, becomes a beloved celebrity, while Lee flails around, hopping from one infatuation to the next, and trying to get big-name actors to look at his dumb screenplay about an armored-car robbery.

One of Lee’s targets is Leonardo DiCaprio, as an abusive, hard-partying movie star probably modeled on what Woody has read about the exploits of Johnny Depp or Christian Slater. That Leo was cast before he himself reached the top of the world is one of the movie’s deeper ironies. It would be unfair to say he’s playing himself (DiCaprio has been relatively well-behaved so far); I think he’s really playing what he doesn’t want to become. His performance, which takes up a Warholian fifteen minutes of the film, presents celebrity excess as viewed from the outside; yet DiCaprio still manages to suggest the stress and isolation of being a star, even before he actually became one.

The message of Celebrity is the extremely un-American notion that anything you aspire to and work for — fame, sex, success — won’t make you happy; you have to give up the pursuit of happiness (as Robin does) to achieve it. Celebrity isn’t really a satire of our obsession with fame; it’s consistent with Woody Allen’s tragicomic theme: that the harder we push that Sisyphean rock up the mountain, the harder it rolls down on us.

Death: “Meet Joe Black” and the “Phantom Menace” trailer

November 13, 1998

Bd0ocOne of the unwanted gifts of the impending millennium is the new metaphysics-lite subgenre. These movies usually involve good people — no, make that downright noble people — who go on some awe-inspiring spiritual journey, nudged along by lots of pieties and string music. Contact, City of Angels and What Dreams May Come are prime examples. The point of these films always seems to be that the universe is kind, God is smiling above us and within us, blah blah blah.

Meet Joe Black is far and away the best of this current crop, and not just because it skimps on the life-lesson speeches. (Anthony Hopkins, summing up the film in a Today Show interview, spouted more pieties than can be found in the entire three-hour movie.) This isn’t a great film, but it’s an excellent piece of work — hushed, deliberate, surprisingly level-headed and intimate. The director, Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman), takes his time and lets tension and meaning gather in the long spaces between lines of dialogue. The 178-minute length makes sense: The movie unfolds during the final days of a man who has to learn to let go of his life.

Bill Parrish (Hopkins), an extravagantly rich businessman, has been plagued by alarming fatigue and chest pains. He suspects that death is near, and, sure enough, Death is waiting for Bill in his library — in the form of Brad Pitt. Death, who soon assumes the name Joe Black, has occupied a human body and wishes to experience life on this mortal coil before he takes Bill into the undiscover’d country. This idea has been around before, of course — in 1934’s Death Takes a Holiday and its many permutations since. And the selling point now, as then, is the romance between Joe and Susan (Claire Forlani), the younger of Bill’s two daughters. As a doomed storybook love, this beats Titanic all to hell: Hey, guy, you’re Death — you can’t be messing around with mortals, even if they do look like Claire Forlani.

Surprisingly, though, the script (credited to Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, and Bo Goldman) treats the romance as a plot point among equals. Much of the film’s emphasis is not on Joe Black but on Bill, who knows he doesn’t have much longer to live and is trying to put things in order. More important, he learns, is to put things in perspective. Anthony Hopkins does a beautifully subtle job of showing us the growing tension between Bill’s not wanting to leave his loving daughters (his eldest, who’s throwing herself into planning his 65th birthday party, is played by the warm and appealing Marcia Gay Harden) and his wanting to make sure there’s no unresolved business. The character is a bit idealized — your basic dream boss — but Hopkins burrows inside the man’s fear, anger, and resignation.

Brest’s Scent of a Woman had that completely needless subplot about Chris O’Donnell getting in trouble for a prank, and some will say that Brest is at it again in Meet Joe Black: There are maybe three scenes too many involving the machinations of Bill’s devious right-hand man Drew (Jake Weber, who nonetheless brings dry wit to a thankless role). And Thomas Newman’s score gets a bit too loud and effusive near the end, screaming “Cry!” (To be frank, I didn’t need musical encouragement. When Susan delivered her line about her father, I admit I was a goner.)

Judging by her winning performance here, I’d guess Claire Forlani is about to become very hot, and deservedly so; Brad Pitt, too, makes up for his dullness in The Devil’s Own and Seven Years in Tibet. Sometimes he’s funny (as when Joe discovers the joys of peanut butter), sometimes a little frightening. What’s more, Meet Joe Black contains one of the more startling images I’ve ever seen in a movie — the opening-night audience buzzed about it for a full minute.¹ (You’ll know it when you see it.) Overall, the movie is full of surprises: Long but never boring, spiritual but never soggy, this is the brand of big entertainment Hollywood is best at but so rarely does right these days.

¹There was also laughter, as I recall, and indeed that ragdoll-physics moment — right, you know the scene — became how the movie was known best, and derisively so. Which is unfair. It’s a good film. Martin Brest is a good director.

6560257021_546b113bb0_zOkay, so the now-famous trailer for Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace (which was shown in front of Meet Joe Black, among several others) has finally been unveiled. What is there to say about it? The fans are loving it, and there’s no question that it’s a brilliant job of marketing. The trailer will be analyzed and deconstructed for months to come, poked and prodded for the secrets it may dislodge upon the twentieth or thirtieth viewing. All of this, to an unbeliever like myself, is a gigantic sick joke. The movie, when it comes, will undoubtedly be a trailer itself — a shiny advertisement for a fresh line of Star Wars toys, and the first chapter in yet another trilogy. The presence of a young Anakin Skywalker and a goofy alien sidekick suggests that George Lucas is courting the next generation — the children of his original fish, which he landed back in 1977.

Can Star Wars be blamed for the current wretched state of American movies? Not entirely, but Lucas hasn’t done much to help, either, to put it kindly. The new Star Wars films will be good for 20th Century-Fox, exhibitors, toy manufacturers, and whatever other companies are in bed with Lucasfilm to produce Star Wars junk; the films will move some currency around. But I don’t think I will be called cynical if I predict that very little of the riches will be pumped back into independent film. The massive anticipation for The Phantom Menace — hell, the massive anticipation for its trailer — reveals America at its arrested-development worst. Big-budget spectacle has its place, but if that becomes the only genre welcomed in the marketplace — and we’re getting perilously near that point — then it’s all over.

The Waterboy

November 6, 1998

Now that Jim Carrey is testing deeper waters, Hollywood’s mantle of the Golden Idiot has been passed to Adam Sandler, who has quietly and modestly built one of the major careers of recent years. It’s easy to see why: Sandler plays regular guys — not stupid, but maybe a little slow; ambitious, but not heartless — who go up against the big guys and win on their own terms. Not terribly original, but nothing much wrong with it, either. Sandler is also genuinely funny; he sits down with some buddies to work on his scripts, and leaves in all the goofy, silly stuff (“What if we did this? …. Nah, man, we can’t do that”) most writers would leave out.

The result has been some uneven but often wildly funny comedies. Happy Gilmore, from 1996, and The Wedding Singer, from earlier this year, both pack considerable charm and more than a few classic bits (like the Bob Barker scene in Happy Gilmore). Sandler’s new one, The Waterboy, reunites the Wedding Singer team of Sandler buddies (director Frank Coraci, co-writer Tim Herlihy) and has already been described as a fusion of the rude-boy sports-fan Sandler of Happy Gilmore and the kinder, gentler Sandler of The Wedding Singer. Possibly, but his character this time, Bobby Boucher, is funnier than Happy or Robbie Hart.

The minute Sandler opens his mouth in The Waterboy, you’re either irritated (as Roger Ebert was) or completely with him. Sandler speaks in a soft, zonked-out stutter with a dash of Louisiana accent. It’s not the stutter so much as the doofus voice that struck me funny, spruced up by the unexpected appearance of words like “profusely” or “discourteous.” Sandler’s Bobby Boucher is a mild-mannered man-child, 31 years old and still under the thumb of his beloved mama (Kathy Bates). Booted from the college football team where he serves as a “water distribution engineer,” Bobby finds work providing water to an underdog team coached by Henry Winkler, who sees a hidden talent in Bobby. Sufficiently riled up, Bobby can deliver bone-crushing tackles.

The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore will make good companion videos. Happy stormed up to the tee and whacked the ball as if going for a slap shot; Bobby goes into football with a similarly bullheaded, aggressive approach. These movies are about how a sad sack turns a flaw into a personal style, and that’s why the repeated scenes of Happy or Bobby doing their thing don’t become tiresome: We see how these sports rebels keep doing the same thing over and over until the fans start getting into it and loving it. We begin to see their shtick as a rude kind of integrity.

Fairuza Balk is around, too, as a hell-raiser with a bad rep; she’s drawn to Bobby for the same reason all women are attracted to Sandler in his movies — he loses his aggressiveness around women, and turns rather shy and sweet. Sandler and the usually rough-edged Balk have a gentle rapport. Everything leads to the big game, though the momentum is derailed by a long hospital sequence and a revelation that invalidates Bobby’s fixation on water. I could’ve lived without the last scene, and the cameo of one of Sandler’s fellow Saturday Night Live alumni wears out its welcome after the fifth or sixth insert of him. Still, like most Sandler films, The Waterboy is scrappy and funny and achieves its modest aim, which is to make us laugh like grade-schoolers. The doofus boy triumphs again.

Gods and Monsters

November 4, 1998

“Died under mysterious circumstances”: those are words to conjure with, and also words perfectly befitting James Whale, found dead in his California swimming pool in 1957. Retired from directing films for almost a decade, Whale was in physical and mental decline — though only in his sixties — and his most famous work, his two Karloff Frankenstein pictures, was nearly half a lifetime behind him. Was his death a suicide or an accident? Christopher Bram’s 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein had some theories, as does the film version, Gods and Monsters. Both book and movie also take advantage of one key fact about Whale: he was openly gay in an era of closeted directors and stars.

Why is that important? Well, the reason Whale is mainly remembered for his horror movies — including The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House as well as Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein — isn’t just that they’re monster classics. It’s also that an unmistakable streak of proud queerness runs through all of them: sympathy for the outcast and misunderstood, the “perverse” and “wicked.” Like Tim Burton 50 years later, Whale identified with the Other. (This is particularly true of the wonderful horror-satire The Old Dark House, in which Whale seems to be kidding the ideal of a “normal” family while at the same time celebrating the entertaining wackos.) A case could be made that if F.W. Murnau (also gay) invented goth as we know it in modern culture, Whale brought it to the masses. Whale introduced a stylized filmic code that generations of gay horror fans have gravitated to — including Clive Barker, one of the executive producers of Gods and Monsters, whose work, underneath all its flesh and gore, shares Whale’s sensibility.

As played by Ian McKellen, the sickly old Whale keeps flipping back and forth in time, not out of nostalgia — indeed, he’d rather not think of his painful past — but because his life now offers no distractions from his memories. Bill Condon, who wrote and directed Gods and Monsters, sets up the flashback structure in a way that fractures Whale’s consciousness, rather than whisking him away to more innocent times. Whale does enjoy thinking back on the days when he was on the set with Karloff and Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive, but that only underscores the impotency and frailty of his existence now. His chief enemy is his failing mind, and the only possible escape from it is death. We may recall Karloff’s line in Bride of Frankenstein: “We … belong … dead.”

Then, as if by Hollywood magic, a distraction appears. He’s Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), a hunky greenskeeper working on Whale’s lawn. Whale is fascinated by Clayton at first sight — more aesthetically, we suspect, than sexually (though that, too). Whale can’t stop staring at Clayton’s skull, as if it were a beautiful piece of sculpture. Clayton’s head is also square enough to resemble that of Frankenstein’s monster, and strong enough to make Whale forget about his own faulty brainpan. He invites Clayton indoors for tea, chat, and the occasional sketching session.

What develops between Clayton (who is Christopher Bram’s invention) and Whale is one of the more intriguing relationships in recent movies. The resolutely hetero Clayton doesn’t even realize at first that Whale is gay; after Whale’s acidic housekeeper (the sourly funny Lynn Redgrave) gives Clayton the scoop, Clayton doesn’t recoil — he likes listening to the old guy. And who can blame him, with Ian McKellen in the role? McKellen had sensational control of his vocal effects in Apt Pupil, and he has it again here, caressing each vowel and tucking it snugly into bed. When talking to a sycophantic nerd (Jack Plotnick) who comes to interview him and just wants to discuss his horror films, Whale is rather curt and even cruel; with Clayton, Whale speaks with the ardent suavity of a man who knows that the only seductive tool he has left is his voice. Whale seems to view Clayton (Clay for short) as his own clay, to be molded into … what? A god? A monster? Both, perhaps.

Bill Condon keeps the film’s many metaphors from becoming too obvious, and he brings them all together with a gratifying click. Gods and Monsters deepens, becoming less a story about a horny old man lusting for a beefy garden boy than a parable worthy of Mary Shelley herself. In the end, Whale and Clayton both assume the position of god and monster, and the film turns melodramatic; the coda is even more so. But it’s perfectly consistent with the work of James Whale, who was certainly unafraid of melodrama — in his movies, and in his life. After all, his death has inspired decades of speculation, a novel, and now a film; the sly old entertainer knew how to make an exit, and Gods and Monsters does full justice to him.