Archive for October 1999

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

October 29, 1999

houseonhauntedhill01One of the many sins of 1999’s oafish remake The Haunting — still my candidate for the year’s worst movie — is that the memory of its awfulness may keep people away from 1999’s other remake of an old haunted-house film, House on Haunted Hill, which is actually pretty entertaining.This update of the 1958 camp-horror chestnut by William Castle jacks up the shock effects and the booty (the reward for surviving the night in the godforsaken house is now $1,000,000, two zeroes more than in the original). It’s an unpretentious and cheerfully trashy night at the movies; horror fans could do worse, and lately they’ve had to.

Amusement-park entrepreneur Steven H. Price (Geoffrey Rush, whose character is named in honor of Vincent Price, who filled this role in the original) is planning a birthday party for his beautiful and hateful wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen), who wants to throw the bash inside a run-down house that used to be a mental institution. This hospital has an ornate backstory: It used to be run by the mad Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs in a performance without dialogue, unfortunately for fans of Re-Animator), who was fond of performing cruel surgical experiments on the inmates until they rioted in 1931. A fire was set, the hospital’s “lockdown” mechanism was triggered to keep anyone from escaping, and everyone burned to death inside. Great place to throw a birthday party 68 years later.

The people on Price’s guest list are deleted and replaced mysteriously by seemingly random outsiders: former baseball player Eddie (Taye Diggs), production assistant Sara (Ali Larter), TV personality Melissa Marr (Bridgette Wilson), and stoic Dr. Blackburn (Peter Gallagher). Also along for the ride: the fearful Pritchett (Chris Kattan, doing a Jeff Goldblum imitation), who owns the house and is renting it to Price, and Price’s assistant Carl (Max Perlich, cashing an easy check — all he does is push buttons and eat sandwiches). They, along with Price and Evelyn, are soon “locked down” in the house, which seems to turn on them with the vengefulness of the insane — or the dead.

This House on Haunted Hill feels a lot like a 90-minute episode of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, as well it should: The director, William Malone, helmed several episodes of the series, and the movie is the first production of Dark Castle, the new company formed by Crypt producers Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silver to put out medium-budget horror films. The movie doesn’t skimp on the gore — at least two people are relieved of their heads, and one poor bastard gets his face scooped out — and there are some genuinely creepy bits, such as the opening inmate riot and the sequence when Price is locked into a sort of sensory-overload chamber that drives him temporarily mad.

True, the movie could have been fresher. About five scenes too many depend on characters wandering around in dark cobwebby places; I’m all for that, as long as it’s not run into the ground. I expected a juicier performance from Geoffrey Rush, who doesn’t camp it up as much as you’d think he’d want to (he was more fun in Mystery Men). And it’s hard to defend a film that wastes oddball talents like Combs, Perlich, and singer Lisa Loeb and Buffy vampire James Marsters (Spike) in eyeblink roles. (I didn’t even know he was James Marsters until I read the credits.) Overall, though, House on Haunted Hill keeps the scares and laughs coming (Chris Kattan provides most of the laughs). It’s a cheesy throwaway horror flick, but it’s a tight cheesy throwaway horror flick. You won’t be sorry you saw it — even if, two days later, you also won’t remember you saw it.

Being John Malkovich

October 29, 1999

The intricately funny Being John Malkovich, a funhouse-mirror fable of perception and experience, works on our senses more effectively than any movie in years. When our protagonist, hangdog puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), and his dishevelled, animal-loving wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) are talking in their kitchen, it feels like an authentic cramped kitchen in a low-rent apartment — you can almost smell the lingering odor of cheap spaghetti sauce, the smothering essence of animal fur (the Schwartzes own a dog, a chimp, and a parrot). At the hunchbacked offices where Craig works as a file clerk — on the 7 1/2th floor, where the ceilings are about five feet high — you feel the 9-to-5 oppressiveness physically literalized. It’s the inverse of those fantastic high ceilings in Brazil, which made the worker drones seem small; here, the offices reduce the actual stature of the workers, and you imagine the neckaches and backaches you’d suffer after an eight-hour day.

This is the world set up for us by writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, both making their feature debuts (Jonze had directed many MTV videos and appeared as the cheerful redneck soldier in Three Kings). The movie proper begins in Craig’s “workshop” — a tiny space where he makes and practices with his puppets — and the whole movie is a workshop. Throughout, we’re made conscious of the fact that we’re watching a puppet show, with actors saying lines, and yet we’re drawn into their suffering and triumphs, as we are when we glimpse Craig’s puppetry. (An indication of the filmmakers’ generosity of spirit: Craig is presented as fairly self-absorbed and faintly pompous, but his work itself is quite accomplished.) Kaufman and Jonze push artifice far but not too far: The weirdness is always rooted in drab reality, the outsize emotional shifts always defined by plausible motives. The filmmakers are sly enough to know why we go to movies — to be someone else, passively, vicariously, feel what they feel — and the movie itself proceeds from that premise.

And perhaps the largest irony in a movie full of them is that probably no moviegoer in history has ever sought to feel what John Malkovich feels — the cold sardonic hipster, the mystery man, the moral blank who keeps you at arm’s length and laughs at you for watching him. Malkovich makes it impossible for us to enjoy him except at a considerable distance. So of course he’s the perfect marionette for this mad puppet show. Behind a heavy file cabinet at work, Craig discovers a portal into the head, the consciousness, of John Malkovich. The square hole suggests a TV screen or movie screen; the portal is long and, well, womblike. Craig crawls through the wet and muddy portal and is violently sucked into Malkovich’s everyday experiences for 15 minutes, after which he is just as violently deposited — from the sky — onto the ground outside the New Jersey Turnpike. (The Malkovich ride removes you mentally and then physically.) After a while, Maxine (Catherine Keener), an icy co-worker with whom Craig is smitten, proposes that she and Craig start JM Inc. — charging people $200 for 15 minutes inside Malkovich. He becomes a “vessel” — an escape pod from the mundanity of life. Never mind that most of his experiences, when experienced by JM Inc.’s clientele, are just as mundane.

In recent years, I’d grown a bit impatient with Malkovich’s imperiously noncommittal performances. He seemed to use the same fey, dead voice in every role; what was new and refreshing in The Killing Fields and Empire of the Sun had grown familiar by the time of Con Air and Portrait of a Lady, where Malkovich was merely using his cerebral creepiness to cash easy checks playing bored, jaded villains. I’d just about counted him out as an interesting actor when he surprised me with his playful turn as Teddy KGB, the gambler with an accent as thick as a brick, in Rounders. Perhaps Malkovich had been bored in all those films, and his boredom showed — perhaps he needs more freaky parts like Teddy KGB and, well, John Malkovich. His performance here thoroughly humanizes him, opens him up to us and to himself, especially when he’s occupied by other people and we get to see his spasms, his balking at a controlling puppetmaster consciousness, and finally his complete subjugation to someone else’s personality. His childlike grin late in the movie when he announces to an unimpressed audience, “I’m John Malkovich,” makes up for all the cool one-handed performances he gave throughout the ’90s.

Being John Malkovich will benefit greatly from repeat viewings and fervent post-viewing deconstruction. Kaufman’s screenplay, chaotic and messy at first glance, is actually drum-tight in its themes and metaphors. It’s right on the cutting edge of gender discussion, as seen in a lovemaking sequence that is perhaps the oddest (and the funniest and most touching) menage a trois ever put on film. Is Malkovich the only vessel? Can any of us, like him, be vessels without knowing it? To some extent, we all are; certainly all creative people are both vessels and puppeteers. The movie is about — among approximately 79 other things — the creative exchange. When telling a story, we inhabit the characters and see through their eyes, but they also inhabit us; and those who are told the story also project themselves into the characters and absorb them into themselves at the same time. BJM triggers complex connections and then skips lightly to the next thing; a movie that’s outwardly “thoughtful” could never be this thought-provoking. Like the Malkovich ride itself, it’s a fast and fun trip; only afterward do you appreciate where it took you.

Some will say BJM goes on a bit past its natural conclusion. Kaufman throws structure to the wind; an hour and a half into the movie, he isn’t shy about jumping ahead seven years or seven months. Our internal clocks tell us the movie should be wrapping up, tying up its loose ends; instead it expands and gets more tangled. I like that; the movie works overtime, it plays its loony self out right to the finish and beyond, when most movies would be grabbing a smoke and heading for the climactic shootout or tearful confrontation scene. (The climax of this movie, by the way, has both. And much more.) Craig’s quirky boss, the 105-year-old Dr. Lester (Orson Bean in an irrepressible comic turn), is nearly forgotten and then emerges in the third act as a major player, acting as journeyman and metaphorical conscience for the embattled Craig. Transgenderism is explored, toyed with and cast aside — it’s just another way of escaping an old self. BJM takes on a cosmic and rather serious tone in the second half while losing little of its satirical bite. Our senses are no longer engaged; it’s a mind trip now. Craig begins to recede, wondering to himself, “What have I become? My wife’s in a cage with a monkey.” The inner and outer universes are on a collision course, and there is much talk about “ripe vessels” and eternal life. Women grapple in the primal mud and rain outside the New Jersey Turnpike. The movie finishes with a series of dazzlingly evocative yet simple images that express both freedom and confinement, progression and submersion.

Being John Malkovich is a triumph for Spike Jonze, who has distinguished himself as a rock-video artist mainly by not dealing in the same tired flash-flash, Cuisinart gimmickry we associate with MTV (and many of its graduates, like Alex Proyas). His contribution here, it could be said, is to display little or no style at all; he serves Charlie Kaufman’s ideas, knowing they’re freaky enough without cinematic embellishment. A young director who knows how to stay out of the way of a fine script is, perhaps, more valuable — and more durable in the long run — than a young director who sees a script as a series of hey-look-Ma-I’m-a-director whizbang angles and smash-cuts. Yet there’s a deadpan fizz of surrealism around everything he does here. We’re seeing through the eyes of a filmmaker with an amiably skewed take on things, along with a compassion that grants each character his or her own awkward dignity and flaws. And he’s working with a script that allows him access to emotional complications and absurdities that no conventional movie could touch. Being John Malkovich reminds us why movies like this need to be made; at its best, it reminds us that the medium hasn’t lost its magic yet. There are still new stories to tell, new portals to explore, new vessels to inhabit.

Bringing Out the Dead

October 22, 1999

20gro9Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), the frazzled city paramedic at the center of Bringing Out the Dead, appears before us as a kind of bleary-eyed Charon — a ferryman transporting lost souls from one end of Hell (dirty streets, crackhouses) to another (a hectic hospital with no beds to spare). Frank’s job is complicated by the fact that this isn’t just New York City; it’s Martin Scorsese’s New York City, a hostile enchanted forest inhabited by wackos, killers, whores, addicts, and, every now and then, an actual normal person — as endangered a species here as the spotted owl.

Scorsese, renowned for his definitive New York portraits (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas), is solidly in his element. He rarely puts a foot wrong here, and he goes into Bringing Out the Dead with a restless eye and a playful spirit. Visually, this is unquestionably the work of the Master — a speed-demon action painting of paranoia, guilt, adrenaline — but is it a masterpiece? Sadly, painfully, I have to say no. Watching it, you feel like a cardiac-arrest patient, with Scorsese working on you with a defibrillator: jolt, lull, jolt, lull — he keeps pumping you full of electricity, and then he keeps losing you.

This may be due to Joe Connelly’s source novel (which I haven’t read), or it could be due to screenwriter Paul Schrader’s workmanlike adaptation. The reunion of Scorsese and Schrader on the insane streets of New York promised something on the level of their celebrated collaboration Taxi Driver. But that film emerged whole and bleeding from Schrader’s fractured psyche, whereas here we don’t feel much connection between Schrader and the material. He understands exhaustion, endless nights, obsessional guilt and shame, but he covered that in Taxi Driver and several other movies. Come to think of it, so has Scorsese.

Central to Frank’s torment is the ghost of a teenage girl, an asthmatic he failed to save, who has been haunting him ever since, in his dreams and now in waking life. She keeps turning up, and after a while she seems less like an embodiment of guilt than like a fancy literary device, a suggestion of the spiritual among the physical grime and rot of the city. We never quite understand why Frank is hung up on this particular girl; if he’d been emboldened by recent successes and let his cockiness lead to negligence that resulted in the girl’s death, we’d go along with it, but it’s hard to know why he’s plagued by this one failure and not others as well.

Another device that seems intended to work better than it does: a holy-fool addict (Marc Anthony), a dreadlocked, crazy-eyed patient who turns up at least as often as the guilt-inducing ghost. I suppose he’s meant to stand for the unsaved lost souls we’ve all turned our backs on. But he’s generally irritating to the point where you wish Frank would turn his back on him, too. I would rather have seen more of Cy, a seductively mellow drug dealer played with smooth precision by Cliff Curtis, and there are some amusing brief characterizations: a barking supervisor who refuses to fire Frank; a grim security guard posted outside the hospital entrance; a cynical doctor who keeps telling repeat patients things like “Why should we help you? You’re just gonna leave here and get drunk again”; sarcastic dispatchers voiced by Queen Latifah and Scorsese himself (in his usual rapid-fire mode, exhorting Frank to get going — it’s almost as if you’re hearing Scorsese telling his own movie to go faster).

Scorsese does his level best with the material; he cranks up the volume, sends his camera into warp speed, and composes a mood poem on the life of a paramedic. He pushes his actors to extremes, getting some wildly funny bursts of madness from Nicolas Cage, indulging guest loonies like food-obsessed Larry (John Goodman), impromptu preacher Marcus (Ving Rhames), and borderline psycho Major Tom (Tom Sizemore, easily and hilariously stealing his scenes), all of whom serve as Frank’s ambulance partners during a long weekend. But whenever Scorsese builds momentum, a scene comes up featuring Patricia Arquette as the morose daughter of a cardiac-arrest patient Frank has saved, and the movie slams on the brakes — we jerk forward and wait impatiently for the Arquette scenes to be over.

Perhaps Scorsese felt we needed the becalmed scenes of tentative romance between Frank and the daughter (Cage and Arquette may have fantastic chemistry in real life, but not on the screen) to give us a break from the relentless forward riffing in the ambulance sequences. After all, an entire movie as frenetic as Ray Liotta’s cocaine-cranked sequence near the end of GoodFellas would wear us down after about an hour. But really, I wish Scorsese and Schrader had had the courage to dump the romance aspect altogether and stick with Frank’s falling apart. However, without this subplot, we would lose the best scene in the movie: Frank’s final visit to Arquette’s ailing dad, a wordless scene that speaks eloquent volumes.

It’s been fascinating to follow Scorsese’s explorations over the past decade; he hasn’t been content to repeat his gangster successes too much, and even when an experiment doesn’t quite come off (The Age of Innocence, for instance, felt only slightly more alive than your average Merchant-Ivory museum piece), one still applauds the effort, enjoys the effortless technique. Scorsese, as he approaches his twilight years, has begun to get into pure cinema in a way that he perhaps couldn’t as an angry young man. Many Scorsese fans still haven’t seen his previous film, Kundun, and those who did probably didn’t care for it — too slow, too “boring” and uneventful. Yet I thought it was a triumph — a natural companion to The Last Temptation of Christ, a painterly trance of a movie whose images and pacing were perfectly true to the subject. It had no “story” to speak of, but neither do a lot of classics hailed as pure cinema.

Similarly, Bringing Out the Dead is really more about the marriage of image and sound than about the mundane and scattered plot mechanics that Frank encounters. This time, however, Scorsese is also married to a script that drags him down, keeps him from taking wing as a pure artist. Anyone could have directed the Cage/Arquette scenes; Scorsese just plugs them in there, dutifully. Perhaps he needed a story that roved a little more, like After Hours, which Bringing Out the Dead really resembles more than Taxi Driver. He needed less Patricia Arquette (her sister Rosanna sort of derailed After Hours, too) and more weirdos, more subterranean life, more dark corners to illuminate and explore.

Paradoxically, Bringing Out the Dead would seem more pedestrian if it weren’t directed by Scorsese, who at 56 shows no signs of diminishing energy; yet, because it is Scorsese, the pedestrian parts jump out and slap us. We expect more from him, and from Paul Schrader (whose adaptation of Affliction the previous year was a fine and painful piece). Should we judge this movie against Taxi Driver, or should we judge it against the usual Hollywood tripe? Either way seems unfair. So, judging it as an isolated work: terrific bit of directorial wizardry, but sometimes even Scorsese isn’t enough of an alchemist to make gold out of a lump of coal.

Modern Vampires

October 19, 1999

A fitfully entertaining nouveau-exploitation film written by Matthew Bright (Freeway) and directed by Richard Elfman (brother of Danny, who here contributes theme music). Casper Van Dien is Dallas, a fun-loving vampire who pals around with continental vamps Ulrike (Kim Cattrall), Panthea (the enthralling Natalya Andreychenko), Richard (Craig Ferguson), and Vincent (Udo frickin’ Kier!). He meets and falls for young trailer-trash vamp Nico (frequently topless Natasha Gregson Wagner) and takes her side against the powerful Count (Robert Pastorelli, better as a big-cheese vampire than you’d think) while eluding Dr. Van Helsing (Rod Steiger, so hammy you could serve him for Easter dinner).

The movie sort of farts around until the halfway mark, when Van Helsing hilariously gains a team of rowdy, pot-smoking Crips and Natasha Lyonne drops in for a small role as a lesbian who takes a liking to Nico. Good for a rental, but don’t expect too much more than your $4 worth; given the writer, director, and cast (Van Dien is better here than I’ve seen him before — something about playing a scruffy anti-hero vamp loosens him up), it should be a lot spicier and stranger than it is … although the scene wherein Van Helsing’s posse stages a gang-bang on a bat-monster version of Kim Cattrall has to go down in some sort of movie history. I guess the movie is content to be cheerfully cheesy junk, so don’t expect it to be otherwise. The DVD is full-frame and not a terribly good transfer.

Fight Club

October 15, 1999

In Fight Club, the self-consciously “daring” adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s excellent cult novel, men assemble and pound one another in dank basements; they spit blood and teeth and then return for more next week. When this isn’t enough for them, they wage war on our consumerist culture with media-friendly, attention-getting pranks that escalate into mass destruction. I bought all this in the book, because Palahniuk’s fevered first-person narration puts you inside the exhausted rage of powerless young men who are sick of it all. A movie, however, can be a delicate animal, and this one begins boldly and gradually dies.

What happened? The screenplay, by first-timer Jim Uhls, is pretty loyal to the novel; the Narrator, a nameless corporate drudge played by Edward Norton, delivers many of the book’s best lines in sarcastic voice-over. But — and here I must step very lightly in order to avoid major spoilers — what worked on the page, especially the credibility-stretching plot twist, comes off labored on the screen. Readers of the book may sit there wondering how director David Fincher (Seven) will sustain the illusion from scene to scene. Newcomers, in turn, may wonder why many of the scenes are so stilted, with characters entering and exiting as in a screwball play. And when the surprise is sprung, nobody in the audience so much as gasps.

Fincher zeroes in on the dark heart of whatever material he’s given, and in Fight Club his camera burrows around in modern anxiety like a cyberworm munching holes through web pages of narrative. The show-offy tone at the start — whee, let the ride begin! — provides some prickly fun for about the first twenty minutes. And when the sad-sack Narrator meets his future guru — Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), glorious Zen master of chaos — the unstable interaction between Pitt (who’s quite effective) and Norton (who’s atypically dull here when he doesn’t have Pitt to play off) prepares us for a new, stark kind of millennial buddy movie. Tyler and his new disciple start Fight Club, where men savage each other all night; they move in together and live cheerfully in squalor, like a couple of college freshmen.

But then, inevitably and sadly, Fight Club begins to lose steam. We watch the sweaty, half-naked men grapple in rabid ecstasies of blood and torn flesh, and it looks like nothing we’d want to try. We watch the three leads — rounded out by Marla (Helena Bonham Carter, wasted here), a morbid dark flower who beds Tyler — and they hardly seem like functioning persons. When Tyler’s faceless fight-clubbers graduate into black-clad terrorists — “space monkeys” — making soap and nitroglycerin out of human fat, we wonder why nobody ever notices what’s going on. The satirical metaphor of the book is flattened out, made literal, by the frame-by-frame realism of a movie; Fincher exhausts his tricks early on, and he poops out.

Chuck Palahniuk hasn’t been mentioned much in the reviews of Fight Club, except occasionally to point out that he wrote the book it’s based on. Thus, Fincher is getting the credit, as well as the scorn (in negative reviews), for the ideas presented in the movie. This, as usual, is the auteur theory in full bullshit mode. What Fincher does here is to film, sometimes quite skillfully, the passages that Jim Uhls has transferred more or less intact from Palahniuk. On that level — watching the scene-by-scene dramatization of a book I admire — I enjoyed much of the movie. It also needs to be said that this is generally miles above your standard Hollywood adaptation. Most directors and screenwriters might have left out Bob (Meat Loaf), a testicular-cancer survivor whose hormone therapy has endowed him with “bitch tits”; they might have left out the whole subplot dealing with the Narrator’s addiction to attending support groups for illnesses he doesn’t have. The movie has its moments of inspiration — it’s far from a dud. But it may also be yet another example of a book that was just fine as a book — that didn’t need to be made into a film.

Fincher wants Fight Club to be a transgressive, loony pop artifact on the level of A Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers; he wants to make, in Tyler’s words, a beautiful and unique snowflake. Yet despite the spasmodic camera gags — some of which are fun — Fight Club feels less like the trailblazing cinematic critique it’s meant to be, and more like a clever rock video. It doesn’t help that Three Kings, with its guided tour of an infected bullet wound, stole Fincher’s thunder. Fight Club has a veneer of stylistic radicalism, but when it comes to the moments of ultraviolence, nothing really challenges us. The explosions are just explosions; the punches are just punches. (We get guided tours of wastebaskets and refrigerators — why? — but no tours of the splintered teeth in a punched face.) Fincher also blows a nice visual running gag that Palahniuk’s book lobbed right into his lap. Earlier, crying into Bob’s bosom, the Narrator leaves a wet impression of his tear-soaked face on Bob’s shirt. Later, the Narrator gets his face slammed into the cement floor during Fight Club. In the book, his face leaves a mask of blood on the floor similar to the mask of tears on the shirt — a flat reflection of his face in extremis. In the movie, it’s just a splatter of blood. The whole movie is essentially just a splatter of blood, with surprisingly little resonance — it’s just spew and spurt all the way down, all ejaculation and no penetration, like a porno loop. This is not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

Who is Tyler Durden? The casting of golden boy Brad Pitt (“I look the way you want to look,” Tyler rants, “I fuck the way you want to fuck”) as a sort of ubermensch, contrasted with Norton’s just plain mensch, is a pretty decent joke. What we see on the screen is a hipster rebel, a goateed Mephisto orchestrating terror and spouting Palahniuk’s juiciest lines slamming the culture. He’s unavoidably attractive, if not quite a role model, and Pitt gives the movie a slight tremble of subversiveness, like a pumped-up Jeffrey Goines who’s been reading Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism. By movie’s end, after his true nature is revealed, Tyler is just as unavoidably diminished. We then have to watch the hapless Narrator race around trying to undo everything Tyler has set in motion, the dreary Marla (who was, I admit, just as dreary in the book) fades from view, and the movie begins to sputter into a nosedive. The final scenes, which try to have it both ways and lack the chill of Palahniuk’s original ending, are borderline embarrassing.

Certain images, certain surrealistically funny bits of business, occasionally made me think “I have to buy this on DVD,” which is in hilarious opposition to the anti-consumerist message the movie is selling. Reading the book, I wasn’t thinking about DVDs. Palahniuk made you ponder the lost masculinity of a generation, the ease with which a charismatic brute like Tyler can assemble disgruntled men and unite them in chaos. The book is a modern horror story about how populist fascism can flourish here, and about why this is the perfect time for it. (The detail of soap made of human fat is no accident.) The movie, unfortunately, is a stylish blank, a countercultural advertisement just as slick as the ads it claims to disdain. The last reel, which departs from the book and gives us movie-ish thrills we’ve seen a hundred times before, is about as saddening a commentary on Hollywood as any I’ve witnessed. What’s even sadder is that those involved with Fight Club think they’ve made something scathing and radical, and that some viewers might agree with them.

The Straight Story

October 15, 1999

David Lynch began the ’90s with a triumph (Twin Peaks) and finishes it with another one. The Straight Story is based on the true account of Alvin Straight (played here by Richard Farnsworth), a 73-year-old Iowan who sets out to visit his long-estranged brother Lyle, who’s recently had a stroke. Alvin can’t drive — his eyes are too far gone — so he makes the journey on a John Deere lawnmower, pulling along a makeshift trailer where he sleeps and stores his things.

Lynch is best known — some would say most notorious — for his severe, very R-rated shockers exploring the nightside of human sexuality and brutality: Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway. Yet it isn’t at all out of character for him to do this 180-degree turn and make a becalmed, soothing ode to rural life. Lynch, a Montana native, always comes across in interviews as folksy and gee-whiz, despite the heart of darkness beating in most of his work. It’s not an ironic put-on; he really is that way, and The Straight Story brings out a part of him that he’s maybe had to sneak sideways into some of his other movies (Blue Velvet had its folksy moments).

The movie is exquisitely simple, near-plotless, as Alvin makes his slow journey from Iowa to Wisconsin. As always, Lynch draws the scenes out, letting them breathe, giving us time to drink in the images. His measured pacing is completely organic to the subject — a 73-year-old man with two canes, travelling at about five miles an hour on a 1966 lawnmower. We experience life as Alvin does. The cars and trucks zooming by on the highway seem like demons violating the rural space — why are they in such a hurry? There’s a beautifully spooky moment when dozens of bicyclists whoosh past Alvin in a bike race, looking like silent white aliens streaking down the country road, like something out of Close Encounters. Don’t be fooled by the G rating: This is probably the first true art film to come out under the Walt Disney banner.

Veteran actor Farnsworth, who was actually six years older than Alvin when he played the part, gives a stunning near-silent performance. This is a movie of few words (I’d be surprised if the script, by Mary Sweeney and John Roach, came in at much more than 60 pages), with a hero of few words. Lynch and his great cinematographer Freddie Francis get a lot of mileage out of the countryside — the deep blue sky, the rustling corn, the rusty old farm machines chugging in the fields — but the movie is all in Farnsworth’s weathered face, his way of looking at someone and understanding all he needs to understand. “How far along are you?” he asks a sullen runaway girl. She isn’t showing yet; he just knows.

The Straight Story also gives Lynch an opportunity to put slightly askew characters on the screen; as always, he’s not really laughing at them — he respects them, enjoys them for who they are. There’s the set of twin mechanics who fix Alvin’s mower; one of them has a strange bandage on his cheek. There’s the woman who keeps hitting deer with her car no matter how hard she tries not to. There’s the hardware-store clerk who’s moved nearly to tears when Alvin asks to buy the man’s beloved “grabber.” Most radiantly, there’s Alvin’s daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek, who goes way back with Lynch but has never acted for him before), a somewhat slow woman with a vocal hesitancy that hides her essential level-headedness.

This is the only G-rated movie Lynch has directed and probably ever will direct. For that reason, some parents may think it’s a movie they can take their little kids to. While there’s absolutely nothing kids shouldn’t see in The Straight Story, there’s also very little to interest them. The movie is really for mature audiences, and it’s for patient audiences, too. If a meditative pace isn’t your thing, you’d better pass. But for some of us who find subtle, hushed, easygoing movies an immensely refreshing change of pace from today’s usual bang-bang, The Straight Story hits the spot. Leaving the theater, a friend remarked that he’d enjoyed the film, but that nobody would ever say “That movie rocks.” “No,” I said, “it rocks quietly.”

Random Hearts

October 8, 1999

Slow-moving targets (and I do mean slow-moving) like Random Hearts are almost too easy. C’mon, give it a break: It’s about pain and loss, it tries to be a movie for grown-ups, it … it … No, I can’t do it. It’s a big unnecessary rectangle in the dark, that’s what it is, and it takes up entirely too much of our time. God help anyone who wanders into Random Hearts expecting a few laughs and a few tears: It’s stubbornly unmoving (in all respects), and if it isn’t art or entertainment, what is it?

What it’s not is plausible drama. The premise is that the wife of our hero, Internal Affairs cop Dutch Van Den Broeck (Harrison Ford), and the husband of our heroine, politician Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas), were carrying on an affair. The cheating spouses were seated together on a plane that went down en route to Miami. So Dutch and Kay are drawn together by their mutual loss and feelings of betrayal; she wants to put the whole sad thing behind her and focus on her congressional race, while he wants to dig around and figure out why his wife was so inconsiderate as to cheat on him and then die before he could bust her for it. At least I think that’s what his crusade is about.

At some point during the crucifyingly dull proceedings — I guess it was during the extremely odd and passionless sex scene between Dutch and Kay in a parked car — I began to amuse myself by thinking of Random Hearts as a somber mainstream version of David Cronenberg’s Crash. Some of the themes are similar: Dutch and Kay share grief and sadness that nobody else understands, like the car-crash cultists in the Cronenberg film. Problem is, Crash was intentionally cold and unromantic, whereas this movie is supposed to be about how these two broken people warm to one another and put each other back together. And it doesn’t work.

Who ever told Harrison Ford he was a romantic leading man? Women may find him sexy in a retro, manly, cowboy-carpenter kind of way, but he lacks the mischievous spark of a Mel Gibson or the self-deprecating boyishness Kevin Costner used to allow himself to show. Kay seems to fall for him because he’s as glum and colorless as she is, and poor Kristin Scott Thomas, after this movie and The Horse Whisperer, is well on her way to becoming Hollywood’s resident cold fish who needs a real man to loosen her up. Put this woman in a comedy again before it’s too late.

The movie, directed at a crawl by Sydney Pollack (as if trying to duplicate the deadly pacing of his climactic scene with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut), throws in a half dozen needless complications, not the least of which is a corrupt-cop subplot — what is this, The Devil’s Own 2? — that could’ve shortened the film by a good half hour if taken out. Kay worries about the impact the affair — both her husband’s and the one she’s having with Dutch — might have on her campaign, while Dutch can’t let go of the idea that his wife lied to him. Every so often they sit around together and occasionally manifest strange little things on their faces — could those actually be smiles? In a movie as morose as this? Or maybe it’s just gas. (Ford’s performance here makes his burned-out cop in Blade Runner look like Ed Grimley.)

One neat way to do Random Hearts might have been as a dark comedy. Why not have Kay’s husband be a worthless wimp dragging her campaign down, or why not make Dutch’s wife a sharp-tongued bitch? Then they could actually be relieved that their cheating spouses went down in flames, so that they could get together and have some fun. But fun is alien to this movie, and we don’t even notice much affection between the respective couples when the cheating spouses are still alive. So we don’t feel anything has been lost, except maybe 133 minutes of our lives.


October 8, 1999

431-romance-enOne wants to give the benefit of the doubt to an ambitious film like Catherine Breillat’s Romance, particularly if one wants to seem hip and liberated; but what is one to make of the film as a film? It cries out for interpretation, but then it doesn’t trust us to do it — the movie helpfully interprets itself at every turn. The miserable protagonist Marie (Caroline Ducey), stuck in a sexless relationship with a dull male model (Sagamore Stévenin), mopes about numbly, delivering many Deep Thoughts (either aloud or in her head) about the metaphysics of sex, the allure of domination or anonymous fornication, and so on. How nice of Breillat to include the Cliff’s Notes for the movie within the movie itself.

Romance is bound to be praised for its bravery, its insistence on being a philosophical porn art-house film (though it’s not really pornographic — more on that later), but it’s little more than a glacially paced term paper on female sexuality, with none of the wit or perversity that directors like Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg (or, not to sound sexist, Mary Harron or Lynne Stopkewich) would have brought to it. At times, the movie plays like what might happen if Cronenberg decided to make a porn film (I mean a real porno, not Crash). The elegant photography by Yorgos Arvanitis, the cold-as-ice score by Raphaël Tidas and DJ Valentin — the style is definitely austere, distanced, clinical. Yet what feels rigorous and probing in Cronenberg comes across, in Breillat’s hands, as methodical and lumbering. The movie seems to have no curiosity about its characters, who exist only to represent one thing or another, or to prove one point or another. Breillat, we may feel, had this film in her head too long; by the time it got out, it had hardened into dogma.

Disgusted with her immovable boyfriend and with herself for being powerless to move him, Marie throws herself into a variety of joyless affairs. She declares her desire to become a mere “hole,” a receptacle for male lust. She meets a virile guy named Paolo (Rocco Siffredi, an Italian porn star) and takes him to bed, but her existential angst seems to rub off on him; at the first sign of his neediness, she’s quick to dump him. She moves on to her boss (François Berléand), a school principal (did I mention she’s a grammar-school teacher? shades of Looking for Mr. Goodbar), and the respectable-looking, gray-haired principal turns out to be a philosophical horndog who claims to have slept with 10,000 women. He also has quite the collection of bondage paraphernalia, only some of which he actually knows how to operate. They seem to make the perfect couple — they can have anguished BDSM sex and then dispassionately deconstruct it afterward. Ah, the French and their pillow talk. Somewhere in there, Marie also falls into an anonymous clinch with a man off the street (literally), who pleasures her orally and then flips her over for some rough rear entry. Her response to this, as he climaxes and scurries off like a bug, is “I’m not embarrassed, asshole!” Which, I suppose, can mean a woman has the real sexual power over a man even when she is being raped. I can’t imagine this film’s being a favorite of Andrea Dworkin.

Nor will it be a favorite of prurient guys (or women). Romance, like Crash, is too cold to generate much heat. But Crash was positing a sort of alternate universe in which the collision of metal was sexier than the merging of flesh, and probing the sexual imaginations of those who lived there. Romance locks us inside one unhappy, frustrated woman’s mind — could it be a high-toned version of Diary of a Mad Housewife? — and from the flat, declamatory tone of Marie’s pronouncements, we’re clearly meant to feel that her truths are universal truths. To her credit, Breillat does debunk a good deal of male bulling about female eroticism — the title is obviously ironic — and many women may connect with the spirit of some of Marie’s musings, if not their specifics.

But when it comes time to illustrate Marie’s loss of inhibitions, Breillat drops the ball. Romance is probably not half as explicit as you’ve been led to believe. Yes, at two points we do see the mouth of established actress Caroline Ducey make (brief) contact with a (limp) penis; we get a couple of vagina shots, which feel suspiciously like inserts, and a “money shot” during Marie’s fever-dream fantasy of a brothel in which only female crotches and legs are available to men. (As if that were all men wanted, when you strip away all the bullshit. It’s the old tired argument again.) We see why Rocco Siffredi is a successful porn star, too. But a lot of the sex here, while a good deal lengthier than you’d find in an R-rated film, is really no more revealing than anything you’d catch on late-night Cinemax. Much of it appears to be very skillfully simulated, not real. I mention all this only to caution those who’ve been waiting for a serious drama with hardcore sex. Keep waiting, or haul out your old copy of In the Realm of the Senses again.

One critic went so far as to compare Romance with Luis Buñuel’s erotic farce/masterpiece Belle de Jour, which is a little like comparing a dull Protestant minister’s sermon with a Lenny Bruce routine. Both films do show the character arc of a woman caught up in her own purple fantasies, except Breillat leaves out the purple. Her people are bleached robots in lockstep, and in case you didn’t get her point, she comes up with an ending that redefines “contrived,” involving a gas oven left on and a nick-of-time trip to the delivery room. Yep, once again Marie spreads her legs, becoming the “hole” she said she wanted to be, only this time the hole produces life instead of swallowing male insecurity. (The life it produces is male, too. Another man for Marie to coddle.) You can’t argue with a movie like Romance; it has its mind made up before it sits down to the table. Unless you’re French, or would like to seem French, there’s not much point to arguing about the movie, either. It is what it is, and it says what it says. It’s more tell than show.

Three Kings

October 1, 1999

Every year or so, a big, serious studio movie thunders into view; the critics, tired of teen junk and overawed by any film remotely intended for adults, declare it a masterpiece and spill lots of magazine ink (cover stories, interviews tied to reviews, etc). Three Kings is one such movie, and the surprise is that it’s actually pretty good. It has a distinctive look and feel, an atmosphere of burnout and chaos; it launches at a high energy level and generally stays there. The buzz, however, wears off fast. As with Natural Born Killers, the roughhouse style leaves an afterimage, but the serious points the film tries to make don’t follow you home.

We’re in Iraq, right after Operation Desert Storm has reached its anticlimax. Many of the soldiers stationed in the Gulf have been pumped up for combat, but it’s been a smart-bomb, PlayStation war — death from above, but not much excitement on the ground. We meet a few of these soldiers just marking time in the sand: nice guy Troy (Mark Wahlberg), born-again Chief (Ice Cube), callous redneck Vig (Spike Jonze), and cynical Special Forces captain Archie Gates (George Clooney). They’re all itching for adventure, and they find it in a map that may lead to millions of dollars’ worth of stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion hidden in one of Saddam’s bunkers.

In a way, writer-director David O. Russell (who previously did the acclaimed indie comedies Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster) is itching for action, too. You can feel his excitement at painting on a broad canvas full of hair-trigger shootouts and exploding trucks. But I’m afraid he also wants us to consider the human cost of the same violence he thrills us with, and this doesn’t always work. The movie shifts tones many times, and though that doesn’t bother me, Three Kings loses some of its disreputable charge when it starts going human on us. Like many directors before him, Russell can’t resolve the complex issue of anti-violence movie violence and our complicated response to it.

What we have here is an attempt at a thinking person’s adventure film — it even pauses to show us exactly what a bullet can do to a man’s innards, the infected pockets of flesh filling with bile — and on that level, compared with the stupid and meaningless concussive epics we usually get, Three Kings is near the head of its class. The characters are sketched in for us in a backhanded, wise-ass manner; the central figure, Archie Gates, is also the least developed — he’s your basic cynic who sticks his neck out for nobody, until he gradually learns compassion — and George Clooney simply seems to be walking in the footsteps of a hundred change-of-heart anti-heroes before him. He knows how to take charge, though, and he and his fellow actors, in Archie’s words, do whatever’s necessary at any given moment.

While you’re watching it, Three Kings feels like a hipper, bolder breed of war movie, with its hallucinatory left-out-in-the-sun photography (cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel did the honors) and its satirical swipes at American pop culture invading Iraq. Afterward, though, what you remember are the scenes of moral awakening that generally bring the movie to a dead stop. Three Kings begins like an action-comedy and ends as a message movie bucking for Oscars. It tells us that saving human lives (Archie and his crew eventually try to get some Iraqi refugees over the border to freedom) is nobler than grabbing the gold — a comforting moral the American audience is always ready to hear, if not always to heed. Greed and dictatorship: bad. Compassion: good. It doesn’t take much to be a media masterpiece these days.