Archive for September 2000

Almost Famous

September 22, 2000

“Be honest and unmerciful,” says the revered rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to the budding 15-year-old writer William Miller (Patrick Fugit) near the beginning of Almost Famous. That’s sound advice; it’s too bad more movie critics didn’t follow it when approaching this film. Perhaps it’s no mystery: Almost Famous, an amiably autobiographical film by Cameron Crowe (Say Anything…, Singles, Jerry Maguire), is nothing if not a valentine to critics — flattery of their innocence and integrity in the face of self-promoting rock bands, actors, or movie directors. If Lester Bangs had covered movies instead of music and had lived to see this one, he might’ve known what to make of it.

It needs to be said that Almost Famous is by no means a bad film — just a middling, loudly overpraised one (it has been heralded as Cameron Crowe’s epic or masterpiece, or something). The movie, as you may have heard, is based on Crowe’s own experiences as a teen rock journalist in the early ’70s, writing for Rolling Stone and meeting the rock gods of the day. Crowe’s onscreen surrogate is William, who squirms away from his well-meaning but overprotective mom (Frances McDormand, never once allowing her role to devolve into a stereotype) and spends some time on the road with an emerging, nothing-special band called Stillwater.

The wide-eyed William (whose portrayer, Patrick Fugit, must have been cast for his whitebread inoffensiveness to most demographics) is a more or less passive observer as the band members taste a few drops of fame — they’re opening for Black Sabbath — but are always on the verge of splitting up. The tipping point comes when the band’s t-shirt design favors Stillwater’s guitarist (Billy Crudup) over its lead singer (Jason Lee). Crowe may have actually witnessed such inane backstage hissy fits in his day, but unfortunately for him, the mock-rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap scooped him on the absurdity of rock egos by about fifteen years.

Almost Famous isn’t only about that, though — it’s also about maintaining one’s purity in the face of temptation: sex, drugs, fame, adulation. William hangs out a lot with a Stillwater hanger-on, a girl calling herself Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who leads a pack of groupies who delude themselves that they aren’t groupies. I got a little restless as the familiar plot mechanics kicked into gear, setting up Penny as William’s first great love, who is drawn to the bad-boy excitement of rock stars but longs for a sweet, tender boy like William. And, by extension, like Crowe. And, by further extension, like the critics he’s flattering. Yes, movie critics, that sexy blonde may lust after bad boys, but deep down she’s really waiting for you.

As an admirer of Crowe’s earlier films, I was more than eager to see this one, but Almost Famous lacks dramatic focus. Crowe’s gentleness as a writer, so warming and refreshing in his romantic comedies, doesn’t help him much in this chaotic, post-Altamont rock milieu. In part, the movie is a love letter to Crowe’s remarkable adolescence, and I can accept that. But he softens just about everything, as if he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of anyone he knew back then. Autobiography shackles him; he has more freedom with characters he creates out of whole cloth. Penny Lane, for instance, is seen entirely through a gauze of affectionate memory, and Kate Hudson’s glimmer of adorableness dims after about half an hour; Hudson may be quirky enough to do something more interesting than this, but the evidence isn’t here.

On the road, William keeps calling his mentor, Lester Bangs, who advises him to ward off the fake friendship musicians use to suck in journalists. (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his few minutes as Bangs, gives the movie some badly needed jolts of complexity and tension.) Almost Famous is a form of fake friendship, too; it wants us to believe we’ve been there with Crowe and shared a moment, but it offers little more insight than a typical Ron Howard film. Here’s a movie about a nice young man who meets a bunch of mostly nice people (even the jerks are basically harmless) and has nice adventures. The entire enterprise is too nice, too looking-back-fondly, too willing to let its characters and its audience off the hook. Almost Famous doesn’t pretend to be journalism, but it could’ve used a little more Lester Bangs in its soul.

The Exorcist (2000 re-release)

September 22, 2000

Those who’ve only seen The Exorcist on video — or, Satan forbid, on network television — may, like me, gain a greater appreciation for the film in its new beefed-up theatrical release, where its bigger-than-life horrors and chaotic sound design can envelop you. My mother was among the many moviegoers who, in 1973, took the Exorcist ride and never got over it; only recently was she able to brave it again (in diluted form, on TV). After years of my mother’s fearful build-up, The Exorcist struck me as more silly than scary when I was finally old enough to see it, and perhaps the film’s rep as “the scariest movie of all time” might lead to the same jaded reaction from younger audiences who see it now for the first time.

About halfway through this refurbished Exorcist — which I probably hadn’t seen in its entirety in well over a decade — I realized why I was appreciating it on a deeper level. The Exorcist, you see, is not a “horror movie” — at least not in the degraded sense that the term is often used today. It doesn’t belong in the same class as Cheez Whiz like The Omen or the more recent Stigmata, two other religious-dread flicks. No, these days I read it more as a drama with supernatural underpinnings, like a harsher, R-rated M. Night Shyamalan film. It unfolds slowly — perhaps, for today’s audience, too slowly — fleshing out the humans who will soon do battle with a demon. Director William Friedkin’s style is unhurried and decidedly unflashy except for the moments of terror; he establishes a glum, banal reality, then violates it, cruelly, in a way that makes us feel the pain and fear of everyone trying to deal with the madness.

Some bits remain cringe-inducing. I still think Friedkin and screenwriter-producer William Peter Blatty (adapting his own bestseller) overemphasized the cuddly-cute innocence of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair); the contrast between the normal girl and the possessed girl didn’t need to be that severe. Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil, delirious with frustration and powerless rage over what’s happening to her daughter, can get on your nerves after a while — but I came to see that as a form of integrity. Burstyn doesn’t care whether we like her; she stays in character as a flawed but decent woman cracking under the weight of the unspeakable.

Overall, the movie remains a superbly designed machine (though in form only; those who have called the film “impersonal” may not remember the painfully compassionate subplot dealing with Jason Miller’s depressed priest and his failing mother). But is this new Exorcist — with its added footage, its sweetened sound mix, and its handful of jarring new subliminal images — a travesty or an improvement? I wouldn’t call it a travesty — the film entire remains mostly intact, the 121-minute cut you know and love; nothing significant has been deleted — but it isn’t an improvement, either.

The newly dusted-off scenes — originally trimmed by Friedkin to whittle the film down to two hours — don’t amount to much: the two priests having a brief conference on the stairs outside Regan’s room; a bit showing Regan’s early visit to a doctor; the infamous “spider-walk” sequence, more freaky than scary. The most needless addition is a bit of chat at the end between a priest and a detective, which is meant to echo an earlier conversation. These new/old bits don’t trash the movie (though they overdid the new subliminals a bit), nor do they enhance it.

My biggest gripe with Exorcist Version 2.0 is, oddly, the way it sounds now. Yes, the sound effects have been intensified, often to the film’s benefit — an abruptly ringing phone sounds as if it’s sitting on your shoulder; the flying debris in Regan’s bedroom patters and smashes around your head. For those who’ve only seen the film in mono sound (as it was first released), it’s a real ear-opener. However, Friedkin has also seen fit to underline many scenes — even simple, non-shocking dialogue sequences — with ominously swelling, deep-chord music cues. This gravely alters the movie’s tone, in ways subtle and obvious. Part of what freaked people out about The Exorcist was its contrast between the naturalistic and the supernatural — between deceptively calm moments and loud, crashing horror. The movie’s eerie quietude is gone, replaced by a generic “This scene might be boring and talky, but scary stuff is coming up” horror-movie soundtrack.

The Exorcist is jolting and scarifying in either version. But the version hailed as a great achievement in supernatural cinema, or “the scariest movie of all time,” is available on DVD in its original form, with much of the deleted footage included as a supplement. I plan to buy that soon. I don’t plan to buy the new one.

Best in Show

September 19, 2000

best-in-show-fred-willard-as-announcerCan a comedy be biting and generous-hearted at the same time? Any comedy walks a fine line between making its characters laughable and making them laughing stocks; it’s the fine line, as someone once said, between clever and stupid. Christopher Guest, in his films The Big Picture, Waiting for Guffman, and now Best in Show, walks this line so skillfully that you never worry whether your laughter is powered by condescension (as it so often is with comedies you hate yourself in the morning for laughing at).

Guest had an unfortunate career blip a couple years back with the excruciating Chris Farley swan song Almost Heroes, which he directed but did not write (it showed). Best in Show finds him back in his very specialized element: Some people were put here to write poems, some were meant to compose symphonies — Guest was born to make mockumentaries. Though he didn’t invent the subgenre, he has perfected it, starting with his contribution to the hallowed classic This Is Spinal Tap. (Guest showed with The Big Picture that he can score with “straight” narrative comedy, too.) Guest seems happiest when poking a flashlight into obscure, hapless offshoots of entertainment — Waiting for Guffman‘s regional-theater troupe, Spinal Tap‘s on-their-uppers heavy-metal band — and Best in Show finds him examining dog-show contestants, mainly the humans whose dogs are competing.

Best in Show has a similar arc to 1999’s flawed beauty-pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, only without that film’s self-consciously “dark” murder plot. Guest wastes no time overplotting; he simply introduces the characters and their shared goal, then watches what happens. To my great relief, there are no sitcom-level conflicts, no backstage quarrels or sabotage between the dog owners (who hardly interact with each other). Guest stays with the specific, disparate people who have all come here to take home the “Best in Show” trophy.

It’s Guest’s particular genius to come up with a premise, work up a basic blueprint of a script (he developed this one with Eugene Levy), and then cast actors who can improvise and bring their characters above stereotype. Certainly the film has more potential stereotypes than you could shake a squeak toy at. There’s the bland Florida couple (Levy and Catherine O’Hara) — he with two left feet (literally), she with an impressive sexual past. There’s the opposites-attract gay couple, a reserved hairdresser (Michael McKean) and an unapologetic flamer (John Michael Higgins). There’s an uptight yuppie couple (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) who bonded over their mutual passion for catalogs. There’s a trophy wife (Jennifer Coolidge) who seems built out of collagen, and her butch dog handler (Jane Lynch). There’s a drawling good-ol’-boy (Guest himself) who dotes on his dachshund.

Yet, uniformly, the cast refuses to let us look down on these people. Like Waiting for Guffman, the movie gets its laughs by letting its people talk and reveal themselves unconsciously. They’re silly — this is a comedy — but never beyond recognition. Eugene Levy, for instance, endows his geeky character with affectionate self-awareness (just as he did playing the too-helpful dad in American Pie). You expect his left-footedness to pay off, perhaps when he’s walking his dog during the climactic show, but despite planting the detail that Levy used to walk in circles due to his left feet, Guest doesn’t go for a cheap laugh. Most other comedies would.

Most other comedies also wouldn’t find time for Fred Willard, as the show’s on-air commentator, who starts off poorly and gets hilariously worse, spiraling off into increasingly irrelevant musings (“How much do you think I can bench-press?” he asks his baffled British co-chair). While the contestants sit or pace in nervous silence, Fred Willard takes over the movie, treating us to one riotous stream-of-consciousness soliloquy after another (his comparison of a defeated dog to a certain baseball icon is worth the ticket price by itself). Best in Show isn’t really about the dogs; it’s about the goal-oriented humans flitting around the center of this mundane event. Christopher Guest sees the deep comedy in people obsessed with things most of us would find ridiculous, but he doesn’t have the heart to ridicule them for it.

Nurse Betty

September 8, 2000

Every so often, usually at the end of a long dry spell, a movie comes along that cuts through the garbage and reminds you what movies are for. Pulp Fiction was one of those films that stated loud and clear, “This is what you want, you just didn’t know it until now”; L.A. Confidential was another, and now there is Nurse Betty — a characteristically deceptive name for a movie of such surprising depth. It left me more than a little rattled; with a director like Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors) and a cast including Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock, I expected to be amused. I didn’t expect to be moved.

Zellweger stars as Betty Sizemore, a Kansas waitress married to a loutish car salesman named Del (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart). The first reel or so is like the expected LaBute film in miniature: Del is thoroughly contemptible — he cheats on Betty and forgets her birthday (he absently eats the birthday cupcake given to her at work) — and he gets a swift comeuppance when he runs afoul of two hit-men, Charlie (Freeman) and Wesley (Rock), who accompany him to his house looking for some hidden drugs. Unbeknownst to everyone, Betty is also in the house, watching her favorite soap opera A Reason to Love at low volume. She eavesdrops on the men’s business meeting long enough to see Del dispatched in a particularly gruesome way not seen much in movies outside of Westerns.

The entire sweetly optimistic movie grows out of the shock and horror of Del’s murder, and Betty’s reaction to it. Betty can’t process it; somewhere in her mind, she puts a wall up against what she’s seen, and is compelled to go to Los Angeles to find Dr. David Revell, a dashing doctor on A Reason to Love. Revell is played by a hack actor named George McCord, who in turn is played by the much more skillful Greg Kinnear. Like Robin Williams’ medieval trip in The Fisher King, Betty’s fantasy is literally escapist, a flight from ugly reality, and she latches onto the blank Dr. Revell as the embodiment of true love and happiness. Meanwhile, Charlie and Wesley hit the road in pursuit of Betty, and Charlie develops his own fantasy image of Betty — her image draws him out of cynicism and makes this seasoned assassin believe that innocence is actually still possible.

It would be a mistake to think that LaBute wants us to laugh at Betty or Charlie for their delusions. This is the first movie he’s directed from a script he didn’t write (John C. Richards and James Flamberg did the screenplay, a prizewinner at Cannes), and it suggests a new direction for LaBute — not sell-out, exactly, but generosity of spirit. Nurse Betty has an undertone of sadness and trauma even in the cheeriest of moments; we don’t want Betty to snap out of her fugue state and remember everything, and when the actor George brings Betty to the set of A Reason to Love and asks her to act with the cast — thinking that she’s an ambitious actress with a great gift for improv — Renée Zellweger’s performance, which up till then had been soulfully touching, comes close to heartbreak.

LaBute treats his cast gently (except maybe for Eckhart, who’s still paying for the creep he played in Company); he gets an atypical turn out of Chris Rock, not remotely his usual hyperactive self here — I don’t think he smiles once. Freeman, too, puts across Charlie’s increasingly giddy attraction to Betty, sharing an imaginary dance with her at the Grand Canyon; left to his own devices, the old LaBute would never have allowed himself such a … well, romantic moment. I read Nurse Betty as LaBute’s movement from theater (which his previous two movies essentially were: filmed plays) to movies — the escapist spell they can cast on us. Without an ounce of cleverness or hipness, the film quietly speaks volumes about why we go to movies, and then proves it.

The Watcher

September 8, 2000

If serial killers hadn’t already existed, Hollywood screenwriters would have had to invent them; as it is, there have probably been more serial-killer movies in the last ten years than there have been actual serial killers in the last century. The late, lamented Gene Siskel had grown bored to tears with S-K thrillers in recent years, and I wish he were still around to bash new entries like The Cell and now The Watcher — two of the worst films ever to open at #1 at the box office.

In a way, movies that announce their awfulness in the first five minutes, as The Watcher does, are preferable to films that begin well and sadly go south: At least you’ve had fair warning. The Watcher was directed by one Joe Charbanic, whose resumé includes videos for Keanu Reeves’ rock band Dogstar; Charbanic wastes no time getting nostalgic for his roots, zapping us with a nonsensical montage of Keanu (as the movie’s serial killer) cavorting around to the beat of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” (the music buys the movie unearned association with a better Keanu movie, The Matrix, which featured the same song).

Most of the movie’s remainder is little better, and I was offended to hear a snippet of Portishead — a sumptuous, moody sound that belongs miles away from The Watcher — adorning a dull scene between burned-out FBI cop James Spader and his shrink Marisa Tomei. (Marisa Tomei as a psychiatrist? Let that sink in.) Spader and Reeves have a history: Spader spent three years trying to catch Reeves, whose modus operandi is to spy on young women and then kill them. The frazzled, migraine-plagued Spader moved to Chicago; now Reeves has followed him there and begun his killings anew, because every Moriarty needs a Sherlock, right?

James Spader is more or less responsible for my losing 97 minutes of my life to this movie, since he was the main reason I bothered with it, but I can’t be too mad at him. Given a kindergarten-level script (by David Elliot and Clay Ayers), Spader does the best he can, bringing gut-level intensity and gravity to his scenes. Still, if you dump a load of manure on a butterfly, you can’t expect it to fly very well, and after a while Spader wriggles around in this muck despite his hardest efforts to maintain some personal dignity. Marisa Tomei is here only to give Reeves a star to kidnap (as opposed to the no-name actresses he slaughters, who apparently don’t mean as much). Keanu, as other reviewers have noted, is Keanu — a blank slate on which talented filmmakers can sometimes draw. No such doodling here.

Where does The Watcher cross the line? Is it in its utter serial-killer-template approach to its story? (I mean, for once let’s see a serial killer who doesn’t spout one-liners or devise elaborate schemes to trap his prey.) Is it in such ridiculous scenes as the one in which Keanu drives his car through some gas tanks and tosses a lighter, incinerating everything in the area except his gas-soaked car? Is it in the pompous style of the film (Keanu presumably has a vision problem — his point of view is always shot on digital video)? Is it in the clichéd writing of the Spader character, whose unenviable quality of living is underscored by the familiar empty fridge?

Well, it’s all of that and one thing more. Perhaps it’s that I’m getting older, or maybe I’m just tired of serial-killer movies (whose victims tend to be female exclusively), but if I never see another scene in which a woman is bound and gagged, terrified and knowing she’s going to die, while her killer struts around the room basking in his own psychotic cleverness, I won’t mind a bit. One depiction of murder in The Watcher struck me as morally repugnant — the killing of a homeless young woman, reduced to a rock-video shorthand of brutality. The losses of life are meaningless, just beats in a screenplay without rhythm. I would rather have seen a ten-second synopsis of The Watcher — “Here’s Keanu. He’s bad. Here’s Spader. He’s good. Good eventually defeats bad. Have a nice day” — than sit through it at 97-minute length.