Archive for January 2001

Scotland, PA

January 22, 2001

Please don’t. Trust me — just don’t. This is the worst film I have seen in years. Set in the ’70s for some reason, it’s at least the third modernization of Macbeth (after Joe Macbeth and Men of Respect), only this one concerns the power struggle over — are you sitting down? — a burger joint. And the laughs keep on not coming! James LeGros and Maura Tierney (wife of writer-director Billy Morrissette, who’ll be lucky if he gets another project based on this sludge¹) are the young couple who murder greasy-spoon owner James Rebhorn and turn it into a McDonald’s-type place complete with drive-thru. It’s yet another indie movie that’s supposed to be hip and funny but never is.

Things get off to a bad start with the introduction of this movie’s version of the three witches — stoners Andy Dick, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, and Amy Smart — and actually get worse from there, with scenes that drag on into an infinity of stupidity and pointlessly obscene dialogue for Tierney’s character that gets really fucking boring really fucking quickly, as you can imagine. The only small saving graces are Christopher Walken as the inquisitive detective McDuff (I wouldn’t even recommend renting this just for him — that’s how annoying it is) and the selection of ’70s rock that probably usurped half the movie’s budget. Otherwise, you have been warned. The whole thing just made me wish a serious director would do Macbeth again for real (the last theatrical feature based on the play was Polanski’s 1971 version).

¹He didn’t. He’s not married to Tierney any more either.

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L.I.E.

January 20, 2001

Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) is an aimless 15-year-old house burglar who, along with his friend Billy (Gary Terrio), breaks into the wrong house one night. The homeowner, burly former Marine “Big John” Harrigan (Brian Cox), tracks down Howie and takes the boy under his wing, gently mentoring him and offering nonjudgmental friendship. Problem with this picture: Big John is also a pederast. Yet he does genuinely seem to want to help Howie, and even refuses Howie’s offer of sex. Is Big John redeemable? Or is he just gaining the boy’s trust in order to move in for the kill? Michael Cuesta’s complex drama benefits immeasurably from a brave, layered, and damnably likable performance by Brian Cox, who seems to have made a list of all the cheap, easy ways Big John could have been played and then decided to do the opposite of each. One minute Big John seems like a good guy, the next you’re reminded of something that renders him nauseating or at least pathetic. An entire book could be written about Cox’s work here, such as the way Big John’s show-offy patriotism plays like a cover story but at the same time seems honestly felt. The movie was stupidly rated NC-17, even though aside from an early sex scene between Howie’s dad and a woman there’s nothing particularly explicit except the disturbing emotions explored between the characters.

The Pledge

January 19, 2001

The Pledge Jack NicholsonIn two out of his three directorial outings, Sean Penn has had the good fortune of having Jack Nicholson, unglamorous and hungry to act, as his star. Subtle work such as Nicholson does in The Crossing Guard and now The Pledge makes up for any ten crowd-pleasing, one-hand-tied-behind-his-back Nicholson performances (like, say, As Good As It Gets). Not content to be a brilliant actor himself, Penn is shaping up to be one of the great actor’s directors — a filmmaker who lets his performers live and breathe, giving them space to invent and to inspire each other.

Nicholson rules over The Pledge with a shaky hand, and that’s the source of his power here. He immerses himself in the role of Jerry Black, a Nevada detective about to retire from the force. Twice divorced, with no children that we hear about (we see a possible son in a photograph), Jerry plans rather half-heartedly to file himself away at a lake resort, fishing for marlins and waiting to die. When a little girl’s body is found in the snowbound woods, raped and murdered, Jerry can’t turn his back. He visits the girl’s parents (Patricia Clarkson and Michael O’Keefe), promising to find her killer. He knows he can’t fade into what he sees as the purgatory of retirement just yet. His brain can’t shut off the deductive process.

In structure, The Pledge is only tenuously a whodunit. We see Jerry uncovering clues, making connections that others scoff at (younger cop Aaron Eckhart and captain Sam Shepard are the main scoffers), refusing to believe that the case is closed even after a confession is manipulated out of a Native American drifter (Benicio Del Toro) who is barely even aware of his surroundings. We feel Jerry’s need to honor his promise and impose sense on a senseless crime. This movie, adapted by scripters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski from the book The Promise by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, is similar to the overlooked 1982 drama The Border, featuring another fine, low-key performance by Nicholson as a lawman driven to do the right thing in the face of cynicism and indifference.

The Pledge also ranks among recent depressive, wintry dramas like The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, in which the snow seems to rise to cover old wounds, old secrets, old violence. Chris Menges’ photography is immaculate yet naturalistic, never overselling the chilly climate or reducing the scenery to postcards. Sean Penn is never likely to direct a feel-good romantic comedy; his gods are Bergman and Cassavetes, with perhaps a side order of the French New Wave directors. Nicholson responds to Penn’s directorial muscle by allowing himself to appear weak; wrapping himself in this despairing role, he nevertheless exudes the intellectual glee of an actor who feels safe to explore, who knows he’s in good hands.

Continuing his lonely hunt for the killer, Jerry buys a gas station, the better to position himself by the road and see who rolls into town. (One wonderful touch: the former gas-station owner is Harry Dean Stanton, one of many cast members known for on-screen or off-screen hellraising; others include Mickey Rourke as the numb father of another missing girl, Vanessa Redgrave as the slain girl’s grandmother, and Helen Mirren as a shrink.) He also meets a waitress (Robin Wright Penn), a decent woman abused by her ex-husband, and her little daughter (Pauline Roberts). Feelings develop between the broken-down old cop and the wounded waitress, and Jerry has a kindly, grandfatherly touch with the little girl. What we begin to wonder is whether the resulting family unit is only a means to an end; we also begin to wonder about Jerry’s sanity.

Almost defiantly, The Pledge leaves us with no clear-cut resolution, yet this feels like the right — the only — way for such an emotionally messy film to finish. At the very beginning, we see a bloodied Jerry having what appears to be a nervous breakdown; this is reprised at the end, and we understand why. Penn catches us leaning the wrong way: conditioned by whodunits to expect a lurid revelation, we are instead confronted with an anticlimax that confounds our expectations and Jerry’s. Yet this question mark (closer to an ellipsis, actually) is more emphatic than the usual strained exclamation point that closes most formula Hollywood thrillers, and is more haunting than any manufactured shock ending. Sean Penn is batting three for three now; if he wants to forego acting to concentrate on directing, I wish he’d do the latter more often, but if movies like The Pledge are the result of five years of waiting for the right material, he has my blessing to wait.

The Gift

January 19, 2001

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is one of the most hotly awaited movies of next year, and it’s easy to see why: His past three films — A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game, and now The Gift — are deadly dull, and his fans are hoping a big-budget superhero movie might wake him up. It would be sad work to determine which of Raimi’s late-’90s Hollywood films is the worst — the most severe betrayal of the filmmaker he used to be — though For Love of the Game may have the edge. The Gift is, like A Simple Plan, a respectable thriller anyone could have directed. There’s not an ounce of Raimi’s former playfulness in it; a vibrant director is dying before our eyes.

The pulpy-gothic script comes courtesy of Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, the former of whom might have served the movie better by appearing in it than by writing it. Thornton is a decent screenwriter — the Academy obviously thought so, awarding his Sling Blade — and he and Epperson contributed a valuable film noir entry in 1992, One False Move. But The Gift feels as if the duo had written it before One False Move — it carries the stale odor of the trunk, and it trades complexity for complication. Such an amalgam of Southern-gothic clichés could have been fun if handled with wit and juice, but Raimi isn’t that kind of director any more. He proceeds as though each scene deserved humorless precision.

Cate Blanchett doesn’t quite make the movie worth seeing, but she does make herself worth seeing in it. She plays Annie Wilson, a Georgia psychic who reads fortunes for the troubled locals. Among her clientele are Valerie (Hilary Swank), who routinely displays fresh wounds from her despicable husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves), and a discombobulated mechanic named Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), whose suicidal impulses have something to do with his father. It would’ve been more fun if Annie were a bogus psychic, or at least a genuinely caring person who counsels people under the guise of fortune-telling, but apparently she’s on the level. It’s not long before she’s having nightmarish visions of local tramp Katie Holmes and the waterlogged fate that may be in store for her.

Holmes goes out of the picture fast, so that we don’t have to worry about her painful accent except in flashbacks, and the movie allegedly gets down to business: Annie’s visions have led the police to the vicious Donnie, who is fingered for the murder, but Annie’s not so sure. Ah, irony! The guy you think is the killer isn’t actually the killer. Okay, who is it, then? Is it the vengeful Valerie, hoping to get her husband sent up for a long stretch? Is it the dead girl’s fiancé (Greg Kinnear), a milquetoast principal? Is it the unstable Buddy? Is it the attorney (Gary Cole) who liked to meet Holmes for a quick bang in the office? Is it anyone we remotely care about? To this, at least, I can render an honest answer: No.

The Gift becomes a cruelly tedious whodunit, unredeemed by the local color of its setting (at times it’s like a supernatural, made-for-TV version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). Except for poor Giovanni Ribisi, prompted to slobber all over the camera (he must never be asked to abandon his deadpan cool to this extent again), the actors acquit themselves competently, giving the naturalistic, television-level performances Raimi seems to require these days. (Watching Hilary Swank, I couldn’t help thinking of her Brandon Teena with a wig on. She may pay a heavy price for that brilliant performance.) Keanu Reeves, you may have heard, acts his ass off as the scary husband. He does, but he also overdoes the character’s redneck white-trashness, letting his voice slide into a deep Georgia rumble and generally overdoing Donnie’s violent hatefulness to the point where you wonder why the cops didn’t put him away long ago.

Blanchett does as much as her considerable talent will allow, but in the end she’s beating her head against a flawless martyr role, a lone woman whom nobody will believe — until they believe her wrongly, after which nobody believes her some more. She’s also given Greg Kinnear as a love interest, and though Kinnear is a deft light comedian, you can’t picture him with a woman like Cate Blanchett, who deserves a hot and funny guy to be sultry and playful with. Kinnear can be funny, but he’s well-cast as a dull principal, and gives a performance to match. Much better, in a small but winning role, is the fine character actor J.K. Simmons, appearing in the middle film of his Raimi trilogy (he was in For Love of the Game and would later be in Spider-Man). Perhaps best known for his loathsome Nazi convict Vern Schillinger on HBO’s Oz, Simmons has a way of investing his dialogue with casual but powerful authority (which makes his racist grumblings on Oz that much more appalling). He appears here as the skeptical town sheriff, who at crucial points of tension takes a meaningful pause, as if musing about the murder case, and then demands to know who ate the last eclair or whether anyone brought a Thermos of coffee. Aside from the unintentional laughs earned by Ribisi and Holmes, Simmons is the movie’s only lifeline to humor.

I’d almost rather not write about The Gift — it does hurt to be slamming a director whose past films (the Evil Dead trilogy, Darkman) are so dear to my heart. But if Raimi is going to do such a perfunctory thriller, can’t he at least work up some brooding poetry? His handling of Annie’s visions smacks of too many made-for-cable movies, and some of it feels left over from What Lies Beneath. (Raimi does permit one moment of spooky beauty, when a single bright spill of blood creeps down Cate Blanchett’s pale cheek.) Towards the finish, the wrong side of our brains is engaged — the dank atmosphere and what passes for characterization aren’t allowed to enfold us, because we’re too busy second-guessing the plot. By the time a deus ex machina in the form of a convenient apparition comes to save the day, most people will have thoroughly given up on the movie.

Who would have thought Sam Raimi could have made a film in which the dead are harmless, even helpful? For a backwoods supernatural thriller, The Gift is only slightly more frightening than For Love of the Game. Gone are the malicious trees of The Evil Dead, which seemed to have a horrid life of their own even before they started ripping into people; the woods in this movie are just window dressing. So is everything else, including the director.

My First Mister

January 18, 2001

Depressive, multi-pierced goth Leelee Sobieski and uptight store manager Albert Brooks befriend each other and learn Valuable Life Lessons. Oh, brother. My First Mister sounds intolerable, but hold on a sec. The movie — crappy and sappy as it often is (let’s start with the awful title) — benefits massively from the two leads it’s lucky enough to have. It can be enjoyed by fans of Brooks or Sobieski (I’m a fan of both; do the math); the rest of the movie can be easily ignored.

And there’s so very much to ignore. The utter patness of pretty much everything in the script. The way Brooks’ sad-sack but quietly witty character is given not one but two plot-shaking revelations. The way Sobieski’s character morphs from a surly, Plath-reading goth to a more tastefully clad young lady — the change is roughly akin to Ally Sheedy’s shift from mope-goth to well-scrubbed girl with a frickin’ ribbon in her hair in The Breakfast Club. The way the script gets well-nigh everything about the goth scene wrong, from the music to the hang-outs to the fact that Sobieski must be the only mope-goth in history not to chain-smoke cloves.

So what recommends this movie? Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski. That really is all you need. Sobieski is working with a script without the slightest whisper of deeper-than-surface understanding of goth, but she brings a grumbly goth sensibility to her early scenes anyway. And even when she pretties up near the end, we accept it as her way of progressing to a new form of individuality — she still dresses primarily in black and visits graveyards. Brooks is betrayed by the script eight ways to Sunday, but he brilliantly triumphs over it. Even in the midst of the mawkish plot turns, he’s as hilarious as ever — he does one of the funniest spit takes in the history of spit takes, and he invests each line with a distinctly Brooksian dry wit that makes it sound written expressly for him.

The moment Brooks and Sobieski meet in Brooks’ clothing store, the movie had my enthusiastic permission to be just them talking in a room for two hours, or six hours, or whatever. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t pan out that way. But Brooks and Sobieski start with some wonderfully intuitive and combative rapport — if he were younger or she older, it’d be the beginning of a beautiful romance — and gradually thaw towards each other, building mutual respect, yada yada. The script requires that, but it would mean nothing if we didn’t feel it, and their friendship is so bizarre and unlikely that, as enacted by Sobieski and Brooks, it feels not only plausible but inevitable.

Brooks helps Sobieski get her own apartment — a nice, roomy crib with no roomies, on what she makes helping out at the store? Gimme a break. Sobieski also has cartoonish divorced parents: Carol Kane as her insanely chipper mom (whose boyfriend is played with maximum smarm by Michael McKean), John Goodman as her ’60s-throwback dad. We get it: she had little or no helpful parental guidance, and gets what she needs from Brooks. The daughterless Brooks, in turn, plays daddy to Sobieski. Late in the game, Sobieski meets a figure from Brooks’ past, and, well, let’s not go there. Though well-played by Desmond Harrington, the character is a little much — the movie seems to be racing towards an uplifting, Tuesdays with Morrie finale, throwing credibility screaming over the side. Yet I’m proud to have this disc in my collection, because I’ll never get tired of watching Brooks and Sobieski discover that they’ve never met anyone like one another. Even the sappily-written scenes involving Brooks and Sobieski shine just because they involve Brooks and Sobieski. The actors earn the couple of salty drops you may shed at the end — the script sure doesn’t.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

January 12, 2001

I sincerely hope that the inventive Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t tormented by their biggest success, Fargo, for the rest of their lives. The Coens have bent over backwards not to repeat themselves; their follow-up to the frozen, rigorous Fargo turned out to be the amiable shaggy-dog Raymond Chandler goof The Big Lebowski, which annoyed some fans because … it wasn’t Fargo. Their new one, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, may already be suffering from non-Fargo-itis (the critics have been unkind). Actually, the most relevant comparison to O Brother in the Coen portfolio is the slaphappy, yodelling Raising Arizona; and, yep, it’s not Raising Arizona, either. On its own loopy terms, though, it worked for me.

Someone at Universal decided to give the Coens a lot of money to recreate Depression-era Mississippi, right down to the period clothing on every extra in the crowd shots. If nothing else, O Brother is big Hollywood entertainment seen through an indie lens (which, for this film — a first for the Coens — is super-wide Panavision, the better to get that epic feeling). Based, so we’re told, on Homer’s The Odyssey, the story tracks three escaped chain-gang inmates — Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) — on their quest to find some loot buried by Ulysses (“a million-point-two dollars,” we hear repeatedly, in a possible spoof on box-office numerology).

If we’re to have an anecdotal sketchbook movie, we might as well unleash the Coens on it; they still bang out the most elaborately eccentric dialogue never heard outside a Coen film (George Clooney grins almost nonstop, aware that he’s reading the deftest wordplay of his career since snarling his way through Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn script), and they give their three heroes three movies’ worth of vivid, freshly minted characters to run across during their journey. Some, like John Goodman’s Cyclops-like salesman and a trio of bathing, bewitching beauties, are imported from Homer and given the Coen once-over; others, like soul-selling guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) and George “Baby-Face” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), are postcards from the Depression.

O Brother is simply the Coens luxuriating in a period setting and having a great time. Critics who dislike the Coens always slam them for making fun of the characters and worlds they so painstakingly build, but I’ve never gotten that sense from their work; you either accept the Coens’ deadpan-absurdist sensibility or you don’t, and their characters, for me, are never quirky just for the sake of quirkiness. Even a borderline-slapstick farce like O Brother, whose most memorable moments include a Ku Klux Klan sequence that suggests an unholy union of Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl, lavishes care and attention on the kind of faces you’ll never see in a typical youth-appeal thriller starring Ryan Phillippe.

Whether it’s a man apparently turned into a toad, a picnic that turns into a beating worthy of WWF Smackdown, or a chain-gang brought en masse to a movie and taking their seats in perfect synchronicity, the Coens enjoy every bit of weirdness they put on the screen. They don’t make fun of the wall-to-wall bluegrass music, which, as supervised by T-Bone Burnett, comes to seem like the movie’s heart and soul, approaching something like grace even when our heroes are singing (as “the Soggy Bottom Boys”) while smothered in ridiculous fake beards. I wouldn’t rank O Brother, Where Art Thou? as the Coens’ best work (for me, Miller’s Crossing has yet to be unseated); then again, I wouldn’t rank it as their worst, either, perhaps because they have yet to make a “worst” film. Least best, maybe? Let’s just say the Coens are still doing what they do, and nobody else is doing anything remotely like it.

Traffic

January 5, 2001

Well-acted and smoothly directed, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is nonetheless the most wildly overpraised, overnominated movie since Saving Private Ryan. Has this really been such a substandard year that a decent but flat piece of work like Traffic is airlifted to the top of the crap heap? Soderbergh, working from a speechy script by Stephen Gaghan, wants to give us a panoramic, crackling view of the drug trade — the users, the dealers, the enforcers, all caught in a self-perpetuating loop of need, greed, and ignorance. What he ends up with, I’m afraid, is very much like two and a half episodes of Miami Vice edited together and color-coded.

The color-coding is part of Soderbergh’s stylistic agenda this time out. Scenes in Mexico, featuring honest cop Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), are a washed-out grainy yellow, sleepy and left out in the sun. Scenes dealing with Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the pregnant and clueless wife of a busted druglord (Steven Bauer), unfold in more naturalistic light, the better for the camera to dote on Zeta-Jones’ luminous skin tones (she was actually pregnant during filming). Scenes involving newly anointed drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), whose 16-year-old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is in a free-fall of freebase and sex, comprise the bluest, chilliest footage since David Cronenberg’s Crash.

The name Wakefield, like much else in Traffic, is a bit too obvious (the drug czar wakes up to the reality of the drug problem — get it?). Every character is there to preach, or to learn, the movie’s thesis that the “war on drugs” is a wasteful sham. People praised the film’s bravery in announcing this, as if cultural and political critics hadn’t been saying it for decades (even National Review ran a cover story conceding the point). Traffic is one of those square-up-the-middle tracts that make people think they’re thinking. It’s not likely to face many arguments, and it stacks the deck by having Michael Douglas’ nice white daughter getting high and even, gasp, having sex with black men. (Oddly, Requiem for a Dream also had Jennifer Connolly arriving at the same presumably horrific fate. Message to white parents: Keep your daughters off the drugs and they’ll stay off the black guys.)

This is Benicio Del Toro’s movie, if it’s anyone’s. What little he says is in Spanish, so he sidesteps the stiff dialogue; in an elegant, near-silent performance, he lets us read his disillusionment rather than hearing it at length, as with some of his castmates. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman get some comic friction going as a pair of undercover narcs, but they’re a couple of good actors playing variations on 2,000 other movie cops. Zeta-Jones has some lovely pangs of hurt when her husband is taken away, but her progression to an ice queen á la Talia Shire in The Godfather Part III is too facile; when she orders someone’s death, we’re not shocked so much by her ferocity as by her abrupt, thinly written shift to Machiavellian evil.

Steven Soderbergh began 2000 with the frisky, rousing Erin Brockovich, and has now ended it with a film much better cast and directed than it deserves. Except for the color-coding (and maybe not even that), he doesn’t do much that hasn’t been done before, by himself or others. Even poor Michael Douglas, except for one quietly effective moment when Wakefield confronts a man about to fuck his daughter (there’s no other word for it), seems pinched and restless, as if he knew he’s being used for his angry-white-male aura and little else. Soderbergh, too, is used for his radical-filmmaker credentials; he makes a very conventional melodrama feel ragged and independent. He does more for Traffic than it does for him, much like an addict and his dealer, and by the end you sense Soderbergh burning out. His final image is of a children’s baseball game, which elsewhere might be a calming, enigmatic visual, but here it whacks you over the head: See, the national pastime — just like drugs! And the players get younger every year! Maybe Soderbergh has experimented long enough with the drug of Hollywood; he’s starting to like it, and need it, too much.