Archive for October 2001

The Man Who Wasn’t There

October 31, 2001

After a couple of frisky larks — the stoner rhapsody The Big Lebowski and the yodelling fable O Brother, Where Art Thou? — Joel and Ethan Coen are back cruising the streets of film noir mood and menace in The Man Who Wasn’t There. This will likely be the only Coen film ever to share its title with a 3-D sex comedy, and I have no doubt that the Coens, whose roots are in ’80s grindhouse (Joel helped edit Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead), knew about the 1983 film with Steve Guttenberg as an invisible man visiting, among other places, a girls’ shower room. So the title is prankish and deliberately pulpy; the film’s style itself is austere and crisp (Roger Deakins did the black-and-white photography), but the Coens are still jokers at heart, and the movie is a joke of the driest, most deadpan kind.

The deadpan starts with Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, a barber who seems spiritually immobilized, and you quickly understand why the Coens cast Thornton — he has the fatalistic slouch of a Bogart or a Mitchum, and for the first time here he has a more promising camera face than his wife’s.¹ Ed’s thoroughgoing quietude in any situation is good for uneasy laughs, and we also hear his narration, which does not sound as if he’s telling this story at poolside in the Bahamas. Thornton looks and speaks uncannily like a B-movie actor circa 1949 (when the film is set), except it’s an A-movie performance — Thornton does wonders within the tabula rasa of words and gestures he’s limited to.

Ed wants to be more than a barber, but doesn’t know how; he has resigned himself to what he has come to see as an unexciting life, with an unexciting wife, Doris (Coen staple Frances McDormand, who enjoys one of the funnier drunken scenes on film). When an oily hustler (Jon Polito, who can always be counted on to add some oil to a Coen film) offers to bring Ed in on a get-rich-quick scheme involving dry cleaning — if Ed will just kick in $10,000 — Ed accepts, then goes about figuring out how to get the money. As luck would have it, Doris is cheating on him with Big Dave (James Gandolfini, filling John Goodman’s usual role), her boss; Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave. Of course, it’s far from that simple.

As I’ve said before, noir is not about plot twists so much as a general doomed-from-birth attitude solidified by the plot twists, which act as one door after another slamming shut behind our hero until he’s trapped by his own animal desperation. The Man Who Wasn’t There is awfully short on animal desperation, or animal anything, which is part of the Coens’ sly up-ending of the genre. Ed has no inner life, no passion; the closest he comes to the latter is his fondness for a young girl (Scarlett Johansson) who plays piano — he takes an interest in her talent and thinks there’s a career in it for her. But even then he’s such a lukewarm cod that when the girl calls him an “enthusiast,” the very idea of him being enthused gets one of the script’s weirdest laughs.

In true Coen form, the following things happen: blood flows ostentatiously; a large man screams at the camera (a favorite Coen visual); said camera fixates on a particular action (a woman’s leg being shaved) only to bring it out again later for an ironic curtain call; and once again, the pursuit of money brings only damnation. The Coens give us heroes with reasonable enough goals, who resort to unreasonable tactics to achieve them; part of the comedy of their work is that the consequences are so out of proportion to the characters’ basic intent, and this is why the Coens have often been labelled wanton boys pulling the wings off flies.

Here, at least, the absurdist cruelty has context; as Ed slumps through one misfortune after another, he becomes a walking commentary on an entire genre. The Man Who Wasn’t There may not be as immediately engaging as the Coens’ other movies — it has few fanciful “Coen moments” and will be the least likely film in the portfolio to be watched and cackled over repeatedly — but it’s still a gorgeous piece of work, as different from the Coens’ other films as the other films are from each other. Even a mere Coen exercise in style is worthwhile, because they not only have style, they understand it.

¹That wife, at the time, was Angelina Jolie.

Donnie Darko

October 26, 2001

“Don’t worry. You got away with it,” says an eerie voice to the titular hero of Donnie Darko. Those might also have been first-time writer-director Richard Kelly’s words to himself on the set every day: Of the many varied and rich mysteries in Donnie Darko, perhaps none are so compelling as the mystery of how this mesmeric, contemplative whatsit got made in the first place. But it did — Kelly got away with it — and it’s enough to give one hope for the future of movies as a medium still capable of enchantment and surprise. Having gotten a weak, token release in theaters, the movie has now achieved full, strong cult status, one of those oddities that neatly polarizes viewers into the get-its and don’t-get-its. Me, I’ve seen it four times as I write this (probably more as you read this), so take the following as a bit of preaching from the converted.

Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal, dusting himself off after the indignity of Bubble Boy) is sixteen and one of the brighter students at the Middlesex Catholic private school he attends. As Gyllenhaal plays him, Donnie isn’t a dorky outsize freak of virtuosity like Max Fischer of Rushmore (interestingly, Kelly’s original choice for Donnie was Jason Schwartzman); he wears his intellect lightly, engaging his science teacher (Noah Wyle) in an effortless-sounding conversation on physics during which the teacher seems excited, if a bit nonplussed, at the prospect of having to keep up with one of his own students in science-geek chat (Wyle does quiet, affecting work in his scenes with Gyllenhaal). Donnie has the air of a kid who’s spent a lot of time on his own reading and thinking. Oh, and receiving nocturnal visions of “Frank,” which appears to be a man in a bunny suit topped with a ghastly metallic insectoid mask. “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?” chortles Donnie (who seldom seems afraid of, or even surprised by, his visitor); Frank’s rejoinder is chilling in its ping-pong logic: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

The story, which unfolds in the autumn of 1988 (as we learn so economically from the movie’s first line of dialogue: “I’m voting for Dukakis”), involves time travel, tangent universes, portals — the usual metaphysical jazz. Those so inclined can, and probably will, spend weeks deconstructing the temporal riffing, the snake-eating-its-tail circularity of the plot. I’m not so inclined; the time-travel aspect is, to me, the least interesting thing about Donnie Darko. I’m more taken with it as a diary of a mood, a moment; Kelly was thirteen in 1988, and though several ’80s tunesmiths (Echo and the — ha! — Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, Joy Division, Duran Duran) figure prominently on the soundtrack, the movie doesn’t turn them into a jokey K-Tel Super Sounds of the ’80s, as The Wedding Singer did. If you were anywhere near high school between 1984 and 1989, the movie will, on some level, feel like your biography, and not just because of the cultural references. Kelly catches the depressive but unbowed mood of a nation after eight years of Reagan, faced with the choice of two lavishly uninspiring presidential candidates. The great fantasist was on his way back to California; God knew what the ’90s would bring. Kids in school back then grew up post-Vietnam, absorbed the Iran-Contra affair through dinner-table osmosis; we (I graduated from high school in ’88) were perhaps the first generation to be completely steeped in cynicism about our government almost from birth.

That all makes Donnie Darko sound vastly more political than I mean it to; all of that is simply background buzz, the reason its mopey milieu feels so dead-on. I wouldn’t dream of giving away the myriad twists and turns, particularly the one on which the whole quivering apparatus is founded; though this isn’t an a-ha!, the-main-character-is-really-[fill in the blank] thriller in the mold of The Sixth Sense, it really should be experienced as virginally as possible. Which leaves me with damned little to praise, except in the vaguest terms (wholly befitting the obscurantist movie itself).

My mind keeps flitting back to Sparkle Motion, an adolescent-girl dance team including Donnie’s younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase), which performs at the school talent show, and gets wild cheers from everyone except unsmiling hipster English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore, also one of the film’s executive producers), who is earlier seen applauding the ungainly interpretive dance “Autumn Angel” by an eternally harassed Chinese student, who appears to have a crush on Donnie, who when not communicating with Frank has eyes only for new student Gretchen (not her given name) Ross (Jena Malone), whose guileless charms move Donnie to near-masturbation during a hypnotherapy session with psychiatrist Lilian Thurman (Katharine Ross), who privately shares the progress of said sessions with Donnie’s parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne), who dote on Donnie as well as Samantha and older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake’s sister in our world, too), who is bound for Harvard and can’t resist tweaking Dad at the table with her liberal leanings, which are definitely not shared by tight-lipped fundamentalist Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), school gym teacher, Sparkle Motion coach, and acolyte of the self-help wisdom of motivational guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who thinks that everything boils down to fear or love, which, in this movie, everything sort of does.

Kelly shepherds this mad tumble of characters and incidents as smoothly and organically as we could want; it’s like Magnolia foreshortened, given a patina of the uncanny, and whetted down to an edge. My favorite moment changes with each viewing; currently it’s the genteel cattiness of the scene between Kitty and Donnie’s mom Rose, wherein Kitty beseeches Rose to take Sparkle Motion to their destiny at Star Search even though Kitty knows she’s the one who should be doing it, and Mary McDonnell coats her line with exquisite subtle malice: “And you can’t go. Hmm.” Previously, the favorite moment was the meeting of Donnie and Frank in a movie theater (showing The Evil Dead) as Gorecki-esque music groans and keens underneath Frank’s instructions to Donnie. Kelly shoots widescreen and dead center, indulging in Kubrickian static shots and drawing out the paranoid trance of the movie’s world. There’s a geek-worthy shot early on, scored to the synth and hop of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” that takes us from a sideways view of a schoolbus through a bustling school hallway, introducing several characters wordlessly and fixing them for us visually so strongly that their later words and actions seem preordained — that was my favorite the second time through; and the moment that officially handed my heart to the movie during my first date with it comes late in the timeline, when Donnie asks Rose, “How’s it feel to have a wacko for a son?” and she pauses and, with every ounce of love and honesty this great actress can work up, gives a three-word answer that just speaks volumes, and just flat kills me.

Donnie Darko will inspire some of its fans to geek out over its paradoxes (are they intentional or not?); I prefer to track the emotional throughline of it — to narrow the film and its hero down to psychological or scientific architecture is to diminish it, to draw an X on a simplistic chalkline between fear and love. Kelly has come in for some criticism for what’s assumed to be his sarcastic, superior handling of Kitty Farmer and her self-help savior Jim Cunningham, but I think Kelly loves everyone he takes the trouble to put on the screen — even Jim, who’s destined for a Dickensian fate as cosmic payback for his presumptuous mastery of his universe, is a fascinating specimen, and I don’t believe he belongs in another movie, as some have charged. Kelly isn’t after anything so simple as taking the piss out of fatuous video-hucksters selling the One True Way to Personal Fulfillment (a goal already accomplished in many other films); if anything he’s pointing up the folly of being that sure of anything — including oneself — in this (as we’re reminded by the movie’s closing tune) “mad world.”

Aside from that, the drowsy surrealism and elaborate inconclusiveness of Donnie Darko will simultaneously guarantee it a rabid cult and put it way off limits to the don’t-get-its. It shares with David Lynch’s Eraserhead a stubbornly-what-it-is unhipness that ensures inadvertent, and possibly perennial, hipness. I don’t understand some of it — the brooding talk of wormholes and destiny zips right over my head — and many of the characters are so deftly written and delicately played that I can’t help wanting more than Kelly allows me to see of them. (The movie does escape the too-many-characters dilemma — also known as the Paul Thomas Anderson Syndrome — by zeroing in on Donnie and his quest.) But the flaws, if you find them to be so, are merely grit in the texture. As with any richly woven work of art, if you’re attuned to it, you take what you need from Donnie Darko at each given viewing, and you take something different every time.

Ginger Snaps

October 23, 2001

“Children know something they can’t tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!”

– Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

What if Red Riding Hood is the wolf? Ginger Snaps recasts the legend as the menstrual trauma of a teenage girl (who is very overdue for her first period, just like Carrie White). Death-obsessed sisters Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) are out after dark one night, despite the threat of an animal that’s been killing local dogs and is half-seriously known as “the Beast of Bailey Downs.” Ginger is attacked by said animal, scratched badly but left alive; younger sister Brigitte comes to believe that the culprit was a werewolf, and that Ginger will begin to change. The joke is that at first, Ginger’s changes seem only an extension of her usual snarly, surly personality, heightened by the new pains of menstruation (“Just so you know,” she tells Brigitte, who asks if it’s just cramps, “the words ‘just’ and ‘cramps’? They don’t go together”).

Solidly written by Karen Walton, who has an unerring ear for how sarcastic teenage girls talk, and tautly directed by John Fawcett, Ginger Snaps successfully operates on dual levels — as a horror movie and as a study of two sisters. Like John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, the film plays by the lycanthropic rules and manages to be scary without losing its goth-inflected wit. Perhaps influenced as much by Joss Whedon’s work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as by Carrie, it mines teenage mishaps for metaphoric horror. A girl coming into her sexual power by the rite of blood is a creature to be feared — that’s a primal, if today politically incorrect, theme in culture. Ginger Snaps restores the power of that theme (at heart, it’s pretty conservative, like most great horror) while adding its own thread of Canadian-ness: As in David Cronenberg’s early movies, the polite placidity of the neighborhood is disrupted by aggression, violence, sex — in short, American-ness.

At first appalled by the changes in her body (body hair in strange places), Ginger grows to appreciate them, to roll with the freaky. She morphs from a sullen misfit in a hoodie to a sexually confident vixen, turning heads in the school halls, wearing clingy clothes that expose her midriff and her newly acquired navel piercing. Brigitte, younger and untouched by the werewolf, looks on in bewilderment, feeling pretty much the way any younger sister would when Big Sis starts noticing boys and stops hanging around with Little Sis in the garage. And what does the girls’ mother (Mimi Rogers in a cartoonishly chipper performance that gradually gathers depth) have to say about Ginger’s behavior? “It’s just a stage,” she reassures her even more clueless husband. Mom, of course, understands a girl’s first period, and insists on supporting Ginger through it, much to the girl’s disgust.

As Ginger snaps (the title is a bit too much of a pun, but I like it; it fits), Brigitte becomes the movie’s hero, researching her sister’s condition and consulting the school dope dealer (Kris Lemche), who knows a lot about plants, including wolfsbane. Ginger settles on a dorky boy (Jesse Moss) and brutally humps him, leaving him with unexplained body hair and, soon enough, a tail just like Ginger’s. It’s the first time I can remember lycanthropy being spread like a sexual disease, and it suits the movie’s body-focused horror. The boy’s first symptom of his werewolfism, ironically, is bloody discharge from the genitalia; he freaks out, as all men do when they piss blood, and we may be thinking that girls are expected to take monthly genital bleeding in stride.

The movie leads up to a Halloween bash, at which Ginger, by now a lot wolfier, gets a lot of compliments on her costume. She’s tasted blood and doesn’t want to be “cured”; Brigitte pursues her with an antidote she and the dealer have cooked up. Meanwhile, good-hearted Mom has discovered some evidence of Ginger’s carnivorous new hobby, and Mimi Rogers is never better than when she deposits an incriminating body part in a Tupperware bowl and burps the lid. Her devotion to her girls no matter what horrors they’ve perpetrated is weirdly touching, but her concern is too little, too late. Ginger Snaps finishes on a rather conventional note, with the bitchily appealing Katharine Isabelle replaced by someone in a wolf suit, and the soulful Emily Perkins reduced to hiding and screaming. But there’s really only one way for a Grimm’s fairy tale like this to end, and it does so with gusto and not a little pathos. In all, this is the smartest, most resonant horror movie to come down the pike in many years.

Mulholland Drive

October 19, 2001

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was supposed to be an ABC television series, but the network backed out after Lynch delivered the pilot episode. Given some French money to turn the pilot into a theatrical film by shooting new footage to make it self-contained, Lynch, bless his perverse heart, used it as an opportunity to make it ever more tangled in Lynchian symbology and mystery. He doesn’t even pretend to bring the film — or the various subplots designed for a TV season’s worth of exploration — to any conventional or even sensible closure.

I don’t think David Lynch will ever work in television again; Mulholland Drive feels like a vicious slap at ABC (the home of his cult hit series Twin Peaks) and any other network that would try to tame his wild-at-heart vision. But I hope his enthusiastic fan base in France and Japan will keep the wheels greased for more movies (since no American studio will back him), because Mulholland Drive, oblique and baffling as it is, is still the only English-language movie this year to use the film medium to challenge, provoke, arouse, and confound, often all at once.

Some dislike being confounded. They will find no solace in the “story,” which begins rather network-ishly, as aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) and an amnesiac who’s named herself “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring) sift through Los Angeles for clues to Rita’s identity. For a while, that’s the film’s main throughline; we meet other characters — a frustrated, cuckolded movie director (Justin Theroux), a typical Lynchian Man of Mystery called The Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), two men in a diner discussing ominous dreams — who are neglected or entirely forgotten; Lynch uses them as divertissements but doesn’t bother tying them into the dominant narrative. It’s a bit like the European theatrical version of the Twin Peaks pilot, wherein the killer was revealed but subplot threads were left dangling.

Indeed, Mulholland Drive starts out all-American — it kicks off with images of jitterbugging, for God’s sake, and employs a classical American mystery arc — and then turns on a dime into European territory, complete with lesbian erotica and freak-out surrealism. I can only applaud the moment when the movie quite merrily decides to go lesbian (“We’re now into the R-rated portion of the evening,” you can almost hear Lynch say); this director specializes in the beautiful/evil sweetness of sin, the attentiveness to breath quickened by lust or dread or both. When lips brush together and hands explore the undiscover’d country of same-sex flesh, the screen trembles and burns.

After that, Lynch goes spelunking in the caves of his own pet obsessions. Rita’s identity crisis is also the film’s. As we saw in Lost Highway, Lynch has a taste for left-brain/right-brain narrative with no easy connective link — he wants you to climb into your own head and finish the work yourself, and so there are an infinite number of ways to read Mulholland Drive. I need to see it at least seven more times, armed with interviews with the notoriously unhelpful Lynch (who refuses to kill his mysterious babies by dissecting them), preferably on DVD where Peter Deming’s lit-from-within-by-hellflame cinematography and Angelo Badalamenti’s sad, menacing score can work their magic on me most efficiently and repeatedly.

As moviemaking — as pure abstract art writ large — this is a classic, a thing of dark mystifying beauty. What actually happens during the last half hour, and what does it all mean? I really couldn’t tell you (yet). Mulholland Drive demands to be chewed over obsessively, revisited devoutly, until its secrets unlock themselves — much as Lynch’s characters (and their creator) circle around a central mystery only to find an enigma inside. Those who are willing to put that much effort into a David Lynch film — or are at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt — will enjoy Mulholland Drive; those who aren’t, won’t.

Waking Life

October 17, 2001

After a large and fortunately forgettable misstep (1998’s The Newton Boys), Richard Linklater is back in fine form — maybe the finest yet. The inquisitive and phantasmagoric Waking Life is linked with Linklater’s 1991 debut Slacker in that it takes the viewer on an adventure of ideas and words. What’s new here is the pulsating look of the film; Linklater shot the movie live-action, on digital video, and then handed it to animator Bob Sabiston, whose shifting tones and textures give the actors the appearance of (mostly) benevolent ghosts of the mind.

Read simply, the plot would seem to concern an unnamed young man (played by Wiley Wiggins, who was Linklater’s surrogate in the director’s 1993 nostalgia trip Dazed and Confused) who isn’t sure whether he’s dreaming or not. He moves from place to place, from person to person, and hears a wide variety of concepts mostly having to do with being and perception. Some of the talk is sort of academic and dry; other talk strikes you as the kind of enthusiastic gush you overhear at coffeehouses. (Sabiston’s visual commentary sometimes prankishly works against the philosophizing — your eye is drawn to a little figure in the background and you lose the thread of what the speaker is saying, which in one or two cases may be for the best. It may be intentional, or it may not.)

It’s significant that the people in Waking Life aren’t just talking about banal, externalized topics, though, because Linklater means us to see them all as people who live in their own heads. It’s debatable whether they’re all just living in the main character’s head — forgotten voices from different places in his brain, unlocked by REM sleep. Linklater, whose specialty is drama in miniature (Before Sunrise, his romantic comedy from 1995, featured only two people), may have pulled off his most audacious stunt yet: despite the many characters, it could be argued that there is only one character here — Richard Linklater. The movie can be taken and enjoyed as his dream, his invitation to us to climb into his head for 99 minutes and see what’s happening in there.

Which is as good a definition of art as any. The experiment is successful; leaving the theater, you may wish for a light switch to flick on and off (one character cites the act as a foolproof way to tell if you’re dreaming or not), and at certain points during the movie you may — if you’re like me, anyway — get that scary but exhilarating floating sensation you sometimes get during lengthy philosophical chats, as if you’d just left your physical self for a moment and connected with some mass shared consciousness. Forgive me; the movie inspires such daffy thoughts, and many more. Linklater bombards you with other people’s answers, hoping that they’ll dislodge some of your own or strengthen them; Waking Life, if nothing else, is a heroic act of intellectual love married to the greatest eye candy in years.

Would we want a steady diet of movies that look and sound like this? Of course not; part of what makes this experience so noteworthy is its rarity, and I’d rather see this movie inspire other directors to make comparably adventurous films than to make copies of it. (Linklater, who has never really had a mainstream hit, has escaped the horror of wannabe Dazed and Confused or Before Sunrise ripoffs.)

A true independent film that uses animation techniques to their utmost, Waking Life is off in its own world, off in its own head; but Linklater, unlike other artists who arrogantly don’t care whether you connect with their work, cares less about whether you connect with his movie than about whether the movie leads you to connect with the world. Or at least to connect with your dreams. By movie’s end, you might ask what the difference is. 5

From Hell

October 17, 2001

001FHL_Ian_Holm_016Halfway through the stunning 1999 graphic novel From Hell, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell, Jack the Ripper is busily dissecting his latest victim when he suddenly finds himself in a late-20th-century office building. Either hallucinating or receiving a vision of things to come, he looks around and despairs: “With all your shimmering numbers and your lights, think not to be inured to history. Its black root succours you. It is inside you. Are you asleep to it, that you cannot feel its breath upon your neck, nor see what soaks its cuffs? See me! Wake up and look upon me! I am come amongst you. I am with you always!” Wonder is gone; chaos has been tamed into plastic; the very gods appear to be dead. What doesn’t occur to him is that this is his true legacy — not murder, which existed long before Jack, but soullessness, apathy, insensitivity to suffering.

I wish the movie From Hell had found a way to include that passage — for me the finest in a book teeming with dark magic — but what it does include is more than good enough. Directors Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society) and screenwriters Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias can’t possibly pack in all the density of narrative and background that sprawls across Moore and Campbell’s phone-book-thick volume. This From Hell paints in short, sure strokes, tossing in a few of Moore’s details about events/people co-existing with the Ripper murders of 1888 (the Elephant Man, the Freemasons, Queen Victoria) while omitting others (Oscar Wilde, the conception of Adolf Hitler).

The movie also gives us a hero — Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp), an opium-addled and rather depressive detective who, like the book’s Jack, receives visions. Whores are being butchered, ritually and methodically, and left on the freezing cobblestones of Whitechapel. In a plot worthy of Oliver Stone (and backed up by certain Ripperologists, as obsessive about Jack as others are about the JFK assassination), Abberline begins to suspect that the murders, rather than being random acts of savagery, may lead all the way up to the throne.

The Hughes brothers give us impressionistic bursts of violence — we don’t see the brutality so much as feel it. They also draw out the misogynistic dread of the Victorian era, the disgust toward female sexuality (another legacy of Jack that lives on — the female body can be understood only by tearing it asunder). From what I can gather, the movie is saying that what we know of violence today has its roots in politics, mysticism, and surgery — all attempts to dissect the human experience, of course. At the center of all this is Abberline and fresh-faced prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), who dreams of getting away, moving to a home in the country, and having lots of kids to love. It’s looking as if she’s next on Jack’s to-do list.

Depp and Graham, both sporting serviceable accents, add warmth and urgency to what might have been a cold movie. It’s chilly nevertheless; while discarding a lot out of necessity, the filmmakers have retained Moore’s basic outline, culminating in the Ripper’s most horrific mutilation yet, a thorough dismantling of physicality in which Jack fancies himself giving a lecture on anatomy to an appreciative surgical-theater class. Somehow, the movie taps into the book’s uncanny implication that the very air is charged with malevolent ancient spirits, that our houses and bodies are just thin shells warding them off, ineffectually.

From Hell leaves you metaphysically disquieted rather than pleasurably spooked. Those in the mood for a crackling gothic-horror murder mystery may want to rent Sleepy Hollow, also with Depp; this one’s a bit tougher to shake off. The movie is beautifully squalid and dank — cinematographer Peter Deming, who also shot David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, should take a step up in his profession for this double whammy — and the script, taking as much as possible from Moore, is satisfyingly literate. The Hughes brothers, too, have proven themselves masters of violence among the urban class — this one just happens to unfold in 1888 London. I regret a bit of copping out at the end, but even this is balanced with rhyming portraits of desolation and loss: Jack and Abberline, alone and oblivious, communing with the spirits in their heads — the connective tissue between good and evil has become delirium, and the Ripper is with us always.

Training Day

October 5, 2001

The tagline of Training Day is “The only thing more dangerous than the line being crossed is the cop who will cross it.” To this we might add: The only thing more annoying than a dark, cynical pose being affected is the Hollywood thriller that will shy away from it at the end. Training Day spends much of its running time telling us, in wised-up, street-smart tones, that you have to become a wolf to catch a wolf; whatever disreputable charge it carries derives from this down-and-dirty outlook, so when the movie backtracks and says a wolf who catches other wolves is still a wolf, it ends up not meaning much. Either go all the way, or don’t go there.

Veteran L.A. narc Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) is the author of the wolf metaphor, among many others. Alonzo sees himself as a hard-bitten combat veteran who long ago lost any ideals or illusions about human nature. Rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is assigned to train under Alonzo’s supervision, ostensibly to prove he has the right stuff to serve in Alonzo’s unit. Like all fresh-faced rookies, Jake has been given a warm and beautiful wife and baby daughter, as if we wouldn’t care about the fate of a single, childless cop.

Jake rides around the hellholes of L.A. with Alonzo, who relishes giving the new white boy a guided tour of places white boys aren’t welcome. For a while, David Ayers’ script toys with the notion that Alonzo is the kind of shady-ethics cop that’s needed to get the job done; and if this were a more serious movie, we might be given to think about how the brutal demands of the job might turn some cops into monsters battling with monsters (while other officers retain their essential decency). The movie could’ve been about what kind of person becomes a bad cop and what kind stays clean, or at least settles for doing no harm.

But this isn’t a serious movie, despite Denzel Washington in full eruption and giving his calloused lines more weight and authority than they deserve. Denzel Washington is this movie — it’s his anti-star vehicle, his chance to stretch his legs in a compelling rare unsympathetic turn. To defuse charges of racism, the movie carefully includes its share of corrupt white officers, lurking in shadows in a restaurant and casually talking about executing a criminal who hoodwinked the court system (the scene could’ve been lifted whole and breathing from The Star Chamber, in which a group of frustrated judges banded together for vengeance). But essentially Training Day is about a noble white man against a corrupt black man.

The movie plays at realism; it plays at a lot of things. But eventually Hollywood takes over — the last act is particularly shameful in this regard, and poor Ethan Hawke (who tries hard, but is miscast) takes so much punishment that you begin to wonder if his character should headline the sequel to Unbreakable. (He bleeds a lot, but he suffers about ten separate mishaps that should have put him in the hospital.) Director Antoine Fuqua, who previously distinguished himself by making a bad Chow Yun-Fat thriller (The Replacement Killers), opts for a brand of rock-video flash slightly different from that film; this time, what he’s selling is the dark and dangerous energy of the street, but he’s still in the selling business.

Watching Training Day, I kept remembering a better thriller about a weary black cop, his eager white partner, and their contrasting ideologies — Seven, whose ending was about as bleak as you can imagine, but which did not send me off vaguely depressed and feeling manipulated. Perhaps it’s because in that film, the war of ideas meant something, and so did the price paid for it. Here, what you get is a two-hour wallow that invites you to accept it as the real world, only to turn on a dime into the fake Hollywood world.


October 5, 2001

For those who were yearning for another keep-’em-apart-till-the-last-minute romantic comedy on the order of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, the once-daring indie-cinema vanguard Miramax brings Serendipity, the goofiest movie Nora Ephron never wrote. This is another one, folks — one of those gentle fables in which everyone on the planet knows the leading man and leading lady were meant to be together, except of course for themselves and the people unfortunate enough to be engaged to them. The end justifies the means: It doesn’t matter who else gets hurt as long as the name-above-the-title stars are happy as the end credits roll.

The couple in question are John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, two smart and capable actors (let’s overlook America’s Sweethearts and Pearl Harbor) trapped inside a Rube Goldberg contraption of a screenplay (by Marc Klein). Seven years ago in New York (a magical New York in which the Twin Towers have been digitally removed so as not to distract 2001’s audiences, though the first section unfolds in 1994), Jonathan Trager (Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Beckinsale) meet cute over a pair of gloves at a trendy store. They go ice skating and are mutually smitten, yet Sara decides that if they were really meant for each other, they will have to meet again by chance. If everyone thought like Sara, the world population would plummet.

The years pass, and Jonathan and Sara have moved on to new lives and new loves — Jonathan is about to get married to Halley (Bridget Moynihan), and Sara lives in San Francisco with her pompous lute-playing fiancé Lars (John Corbett). Lars is made a self-absorbed jerk, and Halley is made a near-total zero, all the better for us to accept that Jonathan and Sara could do better and could have done better if Sara hadn’t been such a fate-obsessed ditz all those years ago.

Movies like this frustrate me, and not only because so much of the structure depends on the lovers just missing each other, misunderstanding what they see or hear, or generally acting stupid for 90 minutes until, bowing to the demands of this genre, they finally fall into each other’s arms. No, the frustration comes from these movies’ almost callous disregard for the people that the main lovers toss aside in their quest for one another. What if Lars were a good man as well as a talented musician, and what if Halley had even a single scrap of personality? What if our lovers were fated to be with them? Then Jonathan and Sara could meet again, decide that love isn’t always as neat as love in the movies, and behave like adults.

We should be thankful, I suppose, that Serendipity offers us some diversion in the way of a colorful supporting cast: Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon as Jonathan’s and Sara’s respective best friends; the scene-stealing Eugene Levy as a rigid salesman. But except for some moments between real-life friends Cusack and Piven (who aren’t allowed a tenth of the funky rapport they had in Grosse Pointe Blank) and some bits between Cusack and Levy that feel improvised, the talented cast is weighed down by the plot’s idiot mechanics. At one point, poor Molly Shannon is beaned by a golf ball and whacked with a golf club, for no purpose other than a cheap laugh; we next expect to see her in the hospital, but no, she’s chatting over coffee with Sara without so much as a bandage on her head.

The stupidity piles up at the climax, which shovels on the coincidences (a five-dollar bill with his name and number on it! a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera with her name and number in it!) and, again, forgets all about poor Hally jilted at the altar — there’s not so much as a single line of dialogue in which Jonathan has to deal with the pain he must’ve caused. At the end, the lovers meet at that same skating rink, with the same fake-looking snow falling on them, and when I was supposed to be happy about the reunion, I found myself instead looking at Jonathan and thinking, You selfish bastard — what’s going to happen if you meet another sexy British woman by chance in the city; are you going to ditch Sara, too?