Archive for July 2001

Planet of the Apes (2001)

July 27, 2001

“Some of it is very much me. Some of it…isn’t.” That’s Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, referring to his armor collection. Burton could point to his own collection, his filmography, and say the same thing. Edward Scissorhands, for instance, was very much Burton. Some parts of his bigger films — Batman, Mars Attacks! — are very much Burton, and some parts…aren’t. Planet of the Apes would seem at first glance to be very much not Burton — a suit of armor that doesn’t fit him. But he wears it well anyway, and it’s fascinating to see him work on material that doesn’t click perfectly with his gothic/carnival obsessions.

I took the movie as a fine, chest-pounding jungle adventure — the sort of square sci-fi epic Burton tries and, amusingly, fails to do straight. The soul of this Planet of the Apes is illogic — bursts of simian passion, rage, fear, even lust: I will not soon forget the moment when a seductive female ape gazes through a veil at her husband, then leaps onto the bed with a thrashing mating call. Aided by Rick Baker’s astonishing make-up, Burton makes the apes more distinct and, well, human than the humans ever are, and I’m sure this is by design. As in the 1968 original and its four sequels, we’re meant to look upon the apes and see ourselves. The actual humans in chains onscreen have little to do with us.

The new movie, which begins 28 years from now, follows pilot Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) as he pursues an off-course space pod containing his favorite test-pilot monkey. Leo’s pod crashes on a futuristic planet where apes reign (in a heavily militaristic society, as in the earlier films) and humans are slaves. The saturnine General Thade (Tim Roth, swinging his shoulders and glowering) runs the army, meaning he runs the show and would like to run humans into a mass grave; his ideological opposite is Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), basically Kim Hunter’s Zira version 2.0, who detests the subjugation of humans. She detests it even more when Leo is captured; she develops eyelash-flutter whenever he’s around.

This Planet of the Apes is all about noise and chaos — the unstable mix of intellect and brutal will that’s intended to mirror our own evolution. The script, by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal, is short on intellect and long on brutal will; whatever ideas you take away from the theater are the ones you brought with you. Nobody in the movie stands around debating the ethics of, say, experimenting on human slaves or breeding them genetically. Burton understands that the five earlier Apes movies already did the furrowed-brow thing long past the point of relevance (the series really should’ve stopped at the third one).

This director isn’t a thinker; he brings more of a painterly mindset to the franchise, letting artists like Rick Baker, set designer Rick Heinrichs, costumer Colleen Atwood, and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot work their primal, primate magic (Danny Elfman’s flamboyant Wagnerian outbursts complete the movie’s epic flavor). So what if Burton loses interest in the human characters? I for one don’t blame him; the movie isn’t called Planet of the Humans, and they’re not who we came to see. Mark Wahlberg, that sincere, amiable, total blank of an actor, is consistently knocked off the screen by great actors in ape latex. Tim Roth, though mesmerizing in his relentless combative spewing, is a little too conscious of playing a mean motorscooter; I was more taken with Carter’s avid, idealistic Ari, or Paul Giamatti’s cringing sleazebag slave trader Limbo — Giamatti could act with a bucket over his head and still rock the house — or even Charlton Heston in his belabored yet still gotta-see-it-for-yourself in-joke cameo as Thade’s dying great-ape father, who gives humanity props for inventing guns (and the NRA, one assumes).

Planet of the Apes is far from Tim Burton’s best film, but I don’t think it’s a sell-out or an anomaly in his portfolio, as some have charged. Here you have a lavishly designed atmosphere, in which the “freaks” — the Other, the characters we don’t see when we look around us every day — are the clear focus, while humans take a back seat. This pretty well describes all of Burton’s films (think of how lifeless Mars Attacks was before the Martians landed), and here, at last, Burton puts his bias up front. He’d much rather play with sets and latex than with bland, interchangeable people (a contemptuous ape hilariously confirms this when he snorts that humans all look alike) — he’s comfortable on this planet where apes enjoy sex, drugs, and rock and roll (or their version of it, anyway) while humans rot in cages. It’s as if the misfits of our world — the apes in zoos, the monkeys experimented on and shot up into space — finally triumphed. The more you think about it, the more Planet of the Apes seems very much Tim Burton.

Wet Hot American Summer

July 27, 2001

Wet Hot American Summer seems at first glance like one of those Super Sounds of the ’80s nostalgia movies that seem to be made for the express purpose of having a kitschy soundtrack. But really it isn’t. There are actually relatively few oldies to be heard — Theodore Shapiro and Craig Wedren have composed a scarily exact original score that sounds just like a crappy ’80s score, and just crappy enough to let you know they’re in on the joke — though the ’80s tunes in evidence, including not one but two Loverboy songs, are well-judged and well-used. The movie doesn’t use its sound to poke you into false nostalgia. Wet Hot American Summer is pretty much an ’80s camp comedy, only more so. It tips its hat to Meatballs and its multitude of imitators without really borrowing wholesale from them; this, as far as I can see (unless I’ve missed some impossibly obscure 1981 Z-budget Canadian-tax-shelter comedies it specifically references), is an original.

It’s the last day of camp, 1981 (for some reason, much is made of the fact that this is a predominantly Jewish camp). Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) flirts dorkily with nearby astrophysics professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce). Helmet-haired counselor Coop (co-writer Michael Showalter) nurtures affection for hotsy colleague Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who’s involved with sullen womanizer Andy (Paul Rudd). Arts-and-crafts counselor Gail (Molly Shannon) weeps over her failed marriage and is consoled by preternaturally mature camper Aaron (Gideon Jacobs). Entertainment counselors Susie (Amy Poehler, a massively quirky talent in full eruption here) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) try to whip the campers into shape for the talent show. Victor (Ken Marino) is obsessed with returning from a rafting trip in time to get it on with Abby (Marisa Ryan). Camp cook and ‘Nam vet Gene (Christopher Meloni) has an intense relationship with a can of mixed vegetables. Oh, and a piece of Skylab is threatening to fall right on top of the camp’s rec room.

Sounds…weird. Brilliantly so. It’s got its share of toilet/sex humor, but it also has some wonderfully left-field stuff. I laughed heartily throughout. Examples: Andy’s yeah-whatever approach to lifeguarding. The way David Hyde Pierce — a true hero of subtle dry comedy — delivers a single word, “dinner.” (It’s hilarious in context. I about peed laughing.) Everything Chris Meloni (better known to some as the duplicitous, love-struck con Keller on HBO’s Oz) does, especially the New Way montage. The Crate and Barrel gag. Janeane Garofalo with moussed hair. The “White people be funny” kid in the talent show. Lines — the script is full of them — like “You taste like a burger. I don’t like you any more.” The debauched montage in town. The big, trite softball championship scene. Truth is, the movie is on wheels right from the uncannily accurate opening credits.

If it’s so sharp and funny, why didn’t it get a wider release? Good question. It wasn’t given nearly enough of a push by its distributor, USA Films, and the mostly uncomprehending reviews (especially Roger Ebert’s annoying non-review) didn’t help. It wasn’t as straightforward as, say, American Pie 2. The ’80s nostalgia thing had been tapped out not long after The Wedding Singer, and the poster art made it look too much like Detroit Rock City (another worthwhile retro comedy audiences stayed away from in droves). This was always more or less destined to be a cult comedy, passed along enthusiastically on video/DVD. (And the DVD has some cool extras — the “Behind the Scenes” featurette is worth a spin just for the actors’ off-the-cuff in-character synopses of their lives ten years later. Paul Rudd’s is especially funny.)

WHAS was pretty much too smart for the mainstream room. It’s subversive; it doesn’t take the expected beats (either that or it satirically turns them on their heads — see the final conversation between Coop and Katie, a most unconventional note for a comedy to end on), it cheerfully approves of same-sex love (it deftly feints towards homophobia only to turn that on its head), and it teases the boys in the audience with cheesecake but never stoops to full nudity. This is a wildly funny essay on the comedies I, and maybe you, grew up with on cable in the early ’80s. It also works admirably as a comedy in its own right — it’s not a “you had to be there” scrapbook, though the appearance of only-in-the-’80s toys like Merlin will keep Gen-Xers happily chortling. It doesn’t overdose on pop-culture references, either — none of the young campers talk about Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was pretty much the movie to see that summer among kids of that age (including me, back there in ’81).

The movie’s weirdest touch by far: The talent show’s MC, Alan Shemper, who’s brought on as if he were some half-forgotten real-life TV personality (like, say, Charles Nelson Reilly) we should recognize. And if you ransack your memory looking for childhood afternoons spent in front of the tube watching Alan Shemper, you’ll go nuts. In fact, he’s Michael Showalter in a disguise good enough to make you pause for a second — “Is that a real comedian from the ’70s and ’80s? Should I know him?” But since that is exactly the spot where a lesser movie would insert a surprise “Oh yeah, I remember that guy!” cameo, it just makes the comedy that much stranger…

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

July 20, 2001

“An anatomically incorrect rock odyssey” is how the ads describe Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a gender-bending, rip-snorting psychodramedy with the sound of glam and the soul of punk. John Cameron Mitchell, the heretofore-obscure character actor who wrote and directed Hedwig and plays the titular diva, first breathed life into Hedwig in various gay clubs, working out a stage persona he would then translate into an off-Broadway rock musical. Hedwig, born Hansel in East Berlin, begins as a young gay man devoutly wishing to flee to America. He meets an American sergeant; they fall in love, but the sergeant can’t leave the country with Hansel unless they’re married, and they can’t get married unless Hansel gets a sex change. After that — well, let the lyrics tell it: “My sex change operation got botched/My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch/Now all I’ve got is a Barbie-doll crotch/I’ve got an angry inch.”

Hedwig is not the story of a true transgendered woman; Hansel seemed comfortable in his skin as a gay man, and did not feel as if he’d been born female in a male shell. What Hansel becomes is a person with a king-hell identity crisis, a neither-nor: neither man nor woman, neither phallic nor vaginal. Hedwig represents the split between genders, a loud wedge driven between them, and Emily Hubley’s trippy flights of animation (Mitchell uses Hubley much the same way Alan Parker used Gerald Scarfe in Pink Floyd — The Wall) point up Hedwig’s essential dividedness. Hedwig even writes a song accounting for herself — “The Origin of Love,” a beautiful ballad drawing on Plato’s Symposium to tell the story of bi-gendered people split asunder by Zeus. The song is a big hit, but unfortunately it’s not a big hit for Hedwig — it’s been stolen by Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), a trailer-trash kid Hedwig once took under her wing and taught how to rock. Now Tommy is a rock star, and Hedwig and her motley band follow Tommy all over the country, playing mostly-ignored gigs at Bilgewater’s restaurants while Tommy sells out arenas nearby.

The movie tracks Hedwig’s bitter attempts to confront Tommy and get her due acknowledgment while dealing with growing rumbles of mutiny in the band: her guitarist Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), for instance, yearns to be female and ditch the band to try out for a role in Rent. Mitchell keeps this short movie dense and lively, skipping back and forth, slapping any number of extravagant wigs and costumes onto Hedwig, and paying homage to every rock icon from Bowie and Iggy to Lou Reed and Johnny Rotten. The movie occasionally wallows in Hedwig’s angst, but Mitchell is too much the entertainer to bum us out for long; Hedwig’s mournful “Wig in a Box” becomes a giddy sing-along (complete with a bouncing ball surfing over the lyrics), which in turn becomes a punk-rock anthem of empowerment. Anyone who has ever felt discarded, disenfranchised, or just plain dissed will find in Hedwig a lot to hook into.

A phenomenal performer with the prerequisite gay-show-biz sense of irony, Mitchell imbues Hedwig with irrefutable charm even when she’s being heartless. Aside from his tantrummy blasts onstage (or his sidesteps into lascivious almost-country, as in the hilarious “Sugar Daddy”), Mitchell’s finest moments are his quietest, mostly with the recessive Michael Pitt when Hedwig and Tommy are still together. The bit when Hedwig first does Tommy’s makeup while rain patters on the trailer roof is both warming and soothing, and Mitchell has a heartbreaking moment when Tommy accidentally gropes Hedwig and asks what that is between her legs; she says softly, “It’s what I have to work with.” Mitchell also has solid rapport with SCTV alumna Andrea Martin in her best role in too many years, as Hedwig’s amusingly named manager Phyllis Stein.

Hedwig is like a great album with colorful visuals. I own both the original stage recording and the movie soundtrack, and the music works beautifully on its own, like the songs in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (by the way, just because both films have stage origins, rock music and a guy in drag doesn’t mean we need to compare Hedwig with Rocky Horror at every opportunity; aside from those superficial likenesses, and the fact that Hedwig the live show has spawned “Hed-Heads” at least as enthusiastic as the Rocky Horror fans, the movies couldn’t be more different in terms of story and tone). By the end, when Hedwig is stripped of her shell and learns to accept who she/he is — the sublimely Bowie-like “Midnight Radio” puts a seal on this final transformation — Mitchell’s vision comes to fruition. It’s been fun, but eventually we have to deal with the person in the mirror, and work with what we have. 5

Lost and Delirious

July 20, 2001

Lost and Delirious is a sensitive coming-of-age drama about forbidden love, carpe diem, “Rage more,” and unrequited lesbian passions in a girls’ boarding school. The unrequited lesbian passions notwithstanding, is this as tedious as it sounds? It is my sad duty to report in the affirmative. What we have here is an ABC Afterschool Special — erotically charged Canadian division.

Fans of Mischa Barton shouldn’t get all excited: her character (also the narrator), Mary “Mouse” Bradford, is as queer as a one-dollar bill. Mary, the new girl at boarding school, rooms with Paulie (Piper Perabo) and Tori (Jessica Paré), who surreptitiously swap spit on the roof, inspiring the naïve Mary to observe, “At first I thought they were just practicing for boys.” They, um, “practice for boys” in an R-rated sense — actually more like an unrated sense. See, the MPAA would presumably have no problem with Paulie shooting Tori (R rating if the wound’s bloody, PG-13 if not) or even breaking her jaw (PG-13). But they have a big problem with Paulie and Tori tenderly enjoying each other’s bodies. So in America the movie went out without an MPAA rating even though the sex scenes are, by any sane standards, exquisitely tame and tasteful. Since the actresses are topless and are enacting sexual fun between underage characters, we Americans apparently can’t handle that. (Note: For some reason, the DVD carries an R label on the package.)

This is meant to be taken as the story of a great love that failed, but it’s largely hearsay. We see Paulie and Tori in a few clinches; we see them cuddling together giggling. But from what we see, it’s your standard girl friendship that goes lesbian. They’re seen entirely from Mary’s POV anyway, so by the time we meet them, the affair is almost over. Tori is concerned about what her überstraight parents will think if they discover her Sapphic extracurriculars; she hurries out and snags herself a boy, Jake (Luke Kirby), much to Paulie’s dismay. We never quite figure Tori out — is she a LUG (Lesbian Until Graduation)? Bi? Hetero? Gay but way in denial? How does she feel about Jake? How does he feel about her? Paulie only knows one thing: she loves Tori and plans to go after her with the zeal and passion of … well, a stalker, when you get right down to it.

During the long sit, we get symbolism lobbed into our laps like a large you-go-girlfriend beach ball. Paulie — the wild child, the free spirit — adopts a flightless falcon and, yes, teaches her to fly again. They’re both, yes, birds of prey, destined never to be tamed by this awful hypocritical society where you can’t express your love or your beautiful female selfhood *ahem gag choke* excuse me, got a wad of righteousness stuck in my throat there.

Aside from the lifeless direction and clunky dialogue, Paulie is annoying pretty much nonstop. It takes a while to realize she’s nuts — the movie’s to be commended for seeming to put her up as a daring and bold role model and then gradually showing us exactly how many of her screws are loose — but that doesn’t make her any easier to take, and the mechanistic plot requires her to go exponentially bonkers unfettered by the intervention of anyone around her (have fun counting the number of times her free-spirited ass should’ve been suspended). One begins to long for the jackbooted faculty of Dead Poets Society.

Piper Perabo, the sweet new girl in Coyote Ugly, plays a psycho lesbian in this. Which more or less guarantees interest from those who enjoyed her in that Jerry Bruckheimer guilty pleasure. And it’s simultaneously a young actress’s dream role and a thankless role. It seems perverse to say that Perabo was better in the Bruckheimer dancing-bartenders summer flick than in the sensitive indie coming-of-age film, but she gets stuck with the most platitudinous dialogue, she has to play the most unplayable scenes (as when she desperately tries to win back Tori’s heart — at least two mortifying such scenes forced me to avert my eyes), and you’re always aware that this is Piper Perabo knocking herself out playing a literary concoction — you never accept Paulie as a person.

The poor girl almost never relaxes, and when Perabo has her big crying scene, the director ladles Ani DiFranco onto the soundtrack and takes the camera in way too close — sometimes you can tell when a performer is forcing him/herself to convey an emotion, and you can tell here. Mischa Barton and Jessica Paré, by contrast, underplay and come off much better. So do Graham Greene, immensely appealing as the campus greenskeeper, and Jackie Burroughs, reining it in for once as the understanding headmistress, who has many opportunities and valid reasons to bust Paulie’s ass but good, yet never does.

If you make it to the end, you’ll find that the ending sucks. It was funnier when they did it as a fake-out in Birdy, and the shot of everyone standing around staring at the falcon in flight doesn’t square with Planet Earth’s idea of reality (shouldn’t someone, like, be calling an ambulance or something?). The movie’s motto is “rage more” — Paulie’s favorite exhortation. That it sounds like something an overdramatic teenager would come up with doesn’t make it any less irritating on the fifth or sixth repetition.

Jurassic Park III

July 18, 2001

It may seem odd to criticize a summer movie for delivering the goods, but Jurassic Park III delivers the goods to the exclusion of anything else. The movie is the utmost in studio wish-fulfillment: You want raptors, we got ’em; you want dinosaurs you haven’t seen before, we got a huge Spinosaurus and flocks of Pteranodons; you want chase scenes, you want action, we got plenty of that. So why couldn’t I quite warm to this stripped-down dino-fest? Maybe because it feels totally animated by what Universal thinks — or hopes — we want; it feels like one of those old one-off Marvel comic books with plot points suggested by readers.

The original Jurassic Park (1993) and its follow-up The Lost World (1997), both directed by Steven Spielberg, had their moments of bloat and absurdity, but that only made the dinosaur attacks seem more vivid. (In Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg was able to surround the money scenes with dialogue and character scenes of actual interest, but that was back in the ’70s, when such things were allowed in big movies.) This time, Spielberg steps aside and lets Joe Johnston (Jumanji, October Sky) take the wheel; Johnston seems determined to eliminate anything that critics jeered at Spielberg for doing, but he lacks Spielberg’s malicious taste for suspense.

There’s nothing here like the ominous whoooom … whoooom (“That’s an impact tremor, is what it is,” Jeff Goldblum stammered; “I’m fairly alarmed here”) that announced the T. rex in the first film, or the witty clack-clack of the raptors’ claws tapping patiently on the kitchen floor. Johnston’s dinos just pop up and chase whatever’s around. More than before, they come across merely as big monsters who occupy the center of action scenes. Jurassic Park III is spectacular but not scary or thrilling — Johnston has graciously, if probably unintentionally, given Sony a good template for a PlayStation game.

Once again, a child is in danger; this time it’s young Eric (Trevor Morgan), who’s marooned on Isla Sorna, the “second island” of genetic-dino breeding seen in The Lost World. Eric’s divorced parents (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) unite to go save him; they lure the original movie’s hero, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), to help them by waving a fraudulent promise of big money in his face. If Macy and Leoni were presented as obsessive, narcissistic parents driven to find their son no matter who else gets killed, the movie might’ve had some bite, but they’re painted as everyday boring people for the audience to relate to, and William H. Macy, aside from a couple of funny lines, hands in his least inspired performance ever.

Ironically, Laura Dern probably comes off best here — maybe because she’s worked with Johnston before (in October Sky), maybe because she’s only in it for about five minutes and feels relieved not to have to run screaming from thin air. Playing a happily-married-with-two-kids Ellie Sadler (not married to Alan Grant, we note with some surprise; the movie never tells us what happened), Dern seems loose and relaxed — qualities not shared by those on Isla Sorna, for obvious reasons. Sam Neill does some of the same ah, shit, not this again shtick Jeff Goldblum did in Lost World, but whereas Goldblum made it work for his character, Neill — the actor, not the character — looks resentful at having to revisit this digital playpen.

The credits inform us that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor worked on the script; if you know the names, you’re probably as big a fan of the satires Citizen Ruth and Election (both written by Payne and Taylor, and directed by Payne) as I am. You will probably also enter Jurassic Park III curious as to what contributions they made; you will very likely leave the movie still curious. Surely nothing in this dino smackdown is remotely satirical, with the vague exception of a recurring satellite-phone gag, which may be a sly goof on how the T. rex’s presence is always broadcast well in advance. But if Payne and Taylor were assigned to the script not to add anything brilliant but simply to remove anything blatantly oafish, they seem to have overlooked many such moments (my favorite is the scene where a man steps in front of a speeding airplane, expecting it to stop for him). Those who keep track of such things will note that the sole black character is among the first to become dinosaur stool, while the sole female is a dithering buffoon; this movie follows its two predecessors into the land of retro pulp adventure, pre-political correctness, yet lacks Spielberg’s affectionate parodic wink at same (not only in the previous Jurassic Park entries but also in his Indiana Jones series).

So how are the dinosaurs? As sculpted by Stan Winston and animated, in part, by ILM’s computer wonks, they’re looking smooth; the dinosaurs in the first Jurassic Park that blew us all away in 1993 already look a little, well, 1993 in comparison with the 2001 models. (Students of such things may be able to trace the development of computer animation through the Jurassic Park movies alone.) But the dinosaur scenes also go by too fast; it’s not only that Johnston isn’t the mechanical wizard Spielberg is — he also doesn’t have Spielberg’s team of editor, composer, and cinematographer. Much of Jurassic Park III looks alternately washed-out and too dark — it looks crappy, to be blunt. And the film zips by too fast for any one sequence to gather weight or momentum. When the mighty T. rex and the even mightier Spinosaurus duke it out, it should be a true clash of the titans, a climactic collision of apocalyptic force, but it arrives too soon and is staged at such a hectic pace that it’s over before you know it. That goes for the rest of the movie too, really.

The Score

July 13, 2001

Dear God, did this movie ever arrive just in time. The Score is not a great movie, or even a great heist movie, but coming as it has in the middle of the most unsatisfying movie summer in years, it feels very much like sinking into a cool swimming pool after a long, humid drive in a car with no air conditioning. This film takes the apparently radical step of featuring characters of actual intelligence, who speak to one another with equal intelligence. More magical still, this movie respects silence. At several points, long stretches go by without dialogue or even noise, as if the camera itself were mesmerized.

It helps a great deal that The Score, a competent if nothing-special heist thriller on paper, showcases three generations of acting giants: Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, and young turk Edward Norton. Amusingly, the hard work increases in inverse proportion to the age of the actor here: Norton essentially plays two characters, De Niro contributes the sort of hardboiled professional he’s done before (most recently in Ronin), and Brando eases his bulk into the nearest chair and watches and reacts.

Watching De Niro and Brando together, I had a random eye-opening thought — “My God, here’s the younger and older Vito Corleone together at last” — but the thought vanished quickly: Actually they’re Nick Wells (De Niro), a safecracker who owns a jazz club in Montreal, and Max (Brando), his old partner and friend. No question, there’s a definite subtext to their scenes together — Max warmly appraising the solid skill of his younger counterpart — and when Norton enters the picture, as a sharp and vaguely contemptuous thief named Jack, his Gen-X impatience only adds to the dynamic, as if Norton were saying to his costars, “Hey, your great acting isn’t the only kind of great acting; it didn’t end with you.”

Fortunately, Norton can back this up. In order to weasel his way into Montreal’s Customs House — wherein lies a priceless scepter Max wants Nick to swipe — Jack has adopted the persona of Brian, a harmless, addled janitor. While Brian is waxing the floors, Jack is casing the joint. When we see Jack at work, and Norton at work, we understand that The Score is less about its plot (Nick and Jack grudgingly team up to nab the scepter) than about deception, acting, the theater of subterfuge. The Score isn’t as suave and exhilarating as Ronin, which had the one-two punch of director John Frankenheimer and scripter David Mamet. It’s mainly an excuse to get these three guys in a room — three generations of controversialists (Stanley Kowalski, Travis Bickle, and Jack the narrator of Fight Club).

Director Frank Oz, taking a sharp left turn from his usual amiable star comedies (In & Out, Bowfinger, etc.), steers this vehicle smoothly. He’s not a natural at action, and thankfully The Score has almost none. There are no car chases — the closest we get is a scene where Jack drives around the Customs House tracking Nick’s movements inside — and I think there are only maybe two gunshots at the very end, fired at the wall. Oz’s method has always been to point a camera at comedic actors and simply let them be funny; here he turns the camera on and lets his dramatic actors crackle. A movie like this benefits without too much personality behind the camera; there’s more than enough in front of it.

The Score isn’t without flaw. Angela Bassett shows up as Nick’s girlfriend, who flies in every so often to be disappointed in him for not quitting his life of crime; she’s a plot point, not a person. So much is made of Nick’s jazz club — he agrees to go in on the heist so that he can finally pay off the club — that we expect more to come of it, and we feel a little cheated that we get no sense of Max’s or Jack’s musical tastes (it might’ve been fun to have Max or Jack make fun of Nick’s tastes).

The movie is bare-bones and, frankly, wouldn’t be much to talk about without its cast. Yet it isn’t a waste like The Mexican or The Negotiator, two cases of banal scripts outweighed by star power. Here it’s more like seeing three of Nick’s beloved jazz legends join together to riff on some old standards; you’re not there for the songs, you’re there for the riffing.


July 6, 2001

The hard-driving, explicitly sexual and violent Baise-Moi is built for confrontation and conversation — especially conversation, the sort of heated post-movie debate over whether it’s brilliant or trash. Baise-Moi might be described as a textbook “love it or hate it” film, but the problem is I didn’t love it or hate it, either. I watched it; I’ve not quite processed it yet, and I’m not sure the filmmakers intend it to be easily processed. I don’t feel a burning need to revisit it any time soon, and I’m neither sadistic nor perverse enough to invite anyone over to watch it. If you really want to know: I was not shocked, I was not moved, and by and large I was not impressed. Onward.

It’s been widely described as a porno Thelma & Louise meets Natural Born Killers, and that’s more or less on the money. Two women go around copulating and killing for no very good reason other than the sheer cinematic, nihilistic charge of it. The title has been translated, rather disingenuously, in America as Rape Me, but the more accurate rendering is Fuck Me. It occurs to me that an even better title might be Fuck You — it has a genuine punk-rock heart and soul, right down to the grubby digital-video look. It’s certainly the closest cinematic equivalent to a Bikini Kill album I’ve seen.

Manu (Raffaela Anderson) and Nadine (Karen Bach) are two shat-upon French women. Manu is raped early on (yes, you see it in detail), which doesn’t bother her much, because as a sometime porn actress she’s used to giving up her vagina and disconnecting whatever goes into it from any emotions whatsoever. Nadine is a prostitute with a druggie boyfriend who wants her to run an errand for him. After committing separate murders, the women meet by chance and go on a sex-and-violence-filled spree to the too-frequent accompaniment of really quite weak French heavy-metal music.

That’s it? They just kill and fuck and fuck and kill until the 77 minutes are up? There’s an occasional dialogue scene, but, yeah, pretty much.

Baise-Moi has no great affection for men, that’s for sure — chiefly because it stacks the deck by making sure just about every male we meet is abusive, or loathsome in some way. The worldview is familiar from such notorious films as I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45 and, yes, Thelma & Louise. The women’s victims — and there are some female casualties as well — are by and large dehumanized or not even characterized, the better to preserve their status as target practice.

Anderson and Bach are porn actresses in real life (as was the film’s co-director, Coralie Trinh Thi), so they look comfortable enacting the movie’s numerous hardcore passages. Much (fake-looking) blood is also splattered; a man is stomped to death, another has a gun shoved where it’ll do him the least good and….Well, you get the idea. In what amounts to a climax, the women empty their guns inside some sort of orgy club. Most of the sex scenes, leading as they do almost unfailingly to painful mayhem, aren’t really the stuff of lubricant and pause buttons. So if you’re renting it for that…

What it all adds up to, perhaps, is a pedal-to-the-metal riff on two genres dear to many males: the action movie and the porn movie. Baise-Moi can be taken as a critique of the following: movies with gun-toting, mean, yet still somehow sympathetic and pliable babes; pornos in which women fuck anything that moves; movies in which men get to fuck and kill with few consequences; tasteful French art films; and those who have ever enjoyed any or all of the above.

Baise-Moi is intentionally rough. Also intentionally hollow and disaffected — the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid anything that might falsely gain our sympathy/empathy, and therefore fail to win any sympathy or empathy. As a result, the movie is a moral and emotional blank. The lead actresses are good, but then a subtitled Keanu Reeves might seem like a great actor to someone who doesn’t speak a word of English. Karen Bach squeezes out a tear or two near the end, but mostly neither she nor Anderson are required to express much besides malice, lust, malicious lust, or lustful malice. It’s too bad, because the actresses convey an authentic lived-in quality of experience. The filmmakers essentially just use them as found objects, the way Catherine Breillat used the Italian porn stud Rocco Siffredi in Romance.

The filmmaking is pointedly amateurish. It’s not the finest example of digital-video clarity you’ll ever see. Since digitally-shot movies can and often do look way better than this, one can only assume that the filmmakers meant it to look so grungy (it was shot on digital, then transferred to film, rather haphazardly from the looks of it). Daytime exteriors are decent, interiors are spotty, night scenes threaten to disappear into pepper-shaker graininess. The cinematography is predominantly a matter of pointing the camera at whatever’s happening, as close in as humanly possible. Perhaps you’re meant to experience the film as something Manu and Nadine themselves could’ve caught on the fly, or perhaps its smash-and-grab cinema-verite style is part of the film’s overall consciously unslick agenda. That conceit worked much better in 1993’s Man Bites Dog, wherein a camera crew followed a serial killer on his rounds, and which was a far more shocking (and funny) film.

Occasionally the movie pauses to critique itself. At one point Manu opines that they should think of better dialogue while they’re killing people. There’s also a rich guy the women rob, who tries to pin down some psychological reason for their anti-social actions. He gets summarily silenced. This could be either a critique of the film’s own disdain for Psych 101, or a confirmation of it.

I admire the idea of Baise-Moi. I’m with it as a snarly, pixillated, PMSing feedback shrill of female rage, except that there isn’t much rage involved — the women mainly kill (A) for money or (B) because they can. I found it watchable — sex and violence being inherently attention-grabbing — yet fundamentally uninvolving. I questioned whether the same narrative with the same incidents would’ve gotten the same buzz if it had been an American shot-on-video porn tape interspersed with cold bloodletting. To be sure, it crackles with more power than the other sexually explicit French drama to court recent controversy, the lethargic Romance, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. Overall it’s a conversation piece, to be sure, but I don’t know that it’s going to be looked back on as any sort of corner-turning cinematic event, as some easily impressed critics have suggested. What you’re watching throughout is meaningless sex, which you can find in a thousand porn videos, and meaningless violence, which you can find in a thousand action movies. If you choose to impose meaning on all the rampant meaninglessness, you’re well on your way to becoming a French film critic.

Cats and Dogs

July 4, 2001

cats-and-dogs-2001Having lived under the same roof with both species in question, I was ready to embrace Cats & Dogs as a frisky, funny antidote to the bloat and crud we’ve been handed so far this summer. I was ready to accept the movie’s premise that dogs are loyal and friendly and cats are devious and evil; the two cats I currently live with, while not exactly evil, are still the sort who deposit interesting gifts on the bathroom rug and don’t remotely care if I catch them doing it. Cats & Dogs is a blend of live action, Jim Henson Workshop puppetry, and computer animation. In short, it’s yet another movie that would have little reason to exist without the novelty of bits and bytes; if it were done as a straight hand-drawn cartoon, it would seem to have no point, primarily because it’s been done that way so many times before — the war between cats and dogs has been chronicled since lines first moved on a screen (most notably by Chuck Jones, the Thucydides of this particular war).

The premise, courtesy of scripters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, has amusement potential: Cats used to lord it over mankind until dogs rose up and helped their best friends, humans, overthrow the feline oppressors. Now the cats, led by the unfortunately named Mr. Tinkles (voice by Will & Grace‘s Sean Hayes), have a plan: stop nutty professor Jeff Goldblum from inventing a formula that will eradicate human allergies to dogs. (You’d think the cats would want to befriend Goldblum and persuade him to concoct a comparable serum for cat allergies, but never mind.) After the family dog is “catnapped,” Goldblum’s wife (Elizabeth Perkins) brings home a perky new beagle for their bratty kid (Alexander Pollock, who isn’t exactly a find), who christens the dog Lou (short for “Loser”).

Tobey Maguire comes in for voice work on Lou, and he and the rest of the actors who make the dogs talk — Alec Baldwin as the gruff combat veteran Butch, Joe Pantoliano as the surveillance expert Peek, Susan Sarandon as the vampy Ivy — are mostly stuck on sincere mode; it’s as if dogs were incapable of guile (if so, they must suck at the espionage we keep seeing them practice in montages). At least the dogs are convincing visually, though; except for the talking scenes — no one has yet mastered the illusion of talking animals, though the Babe movies came closest — the dogs move like real dogs. It’s obvious actual dogs were used whenever possible.

The cats, on the other hand, are disgraceful. Those who live with cats and watch them a lot will be offended by Cats & Dogs, not because the movie slanders kitties but because nobody who made the movie seems to have any idea how cats move. Cats are constantly shown doing things cats can’t do, moving in ways no cat can. Since the dogs are generally realistic, the cats look all the more puppety and cheap. Really, these cats are only a step or three advanced from Toonces the driving cat. When an actual cat makes a rare appearance onscreen, it sticks out and looks wrong — “Hey, that’s a real cat. It’s actually moving gracefully. Looks weird.”

The photo of the dour-looking cat leader addressing his minions under a giant banner reading “MR. TINKLES” promises a sillier, funkier time at the movies than you get; so does Sean Hayes’ participation as Mr. Tinkles — he never gets to be as bitchy as you want him to be. Cats & Dogs is, at its absolute peak, faintly amusing. I chuckled at a few bits, like an audience of mice flipping through Mr. Tinkles’ planbook in unison, or the way an esteemed dog (voiced by Charlton Heston) gets the attention of all the other canines at the World Council of Dogs. I certainly didn’t laugh much at the humans; poor Elizabeth Perkins seems stranded, and Jeff Goldblum is sidling up to the non-performance stage of his career — he knows all he has to do is show up, stammer a little, and put on that hipster grin of his that tells you he’s really smarter than this. If so, why is he, or anyone else, in this movie?