Archive for December 2002

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

December 31, 2002

I loved Chuck Barris’ 1984 book, I loved Charlie Kaufman’s script when I got my hands on a copy a couple of years ago, so I’m not sure why I sit here with such ambivalent feelings about the movie Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Unlike most of the people surrounding me in the theater, I knew what I was in for: a mock-serious “unauthorized autobiography” purporting to tell the true story of game-show guru Barris, who, according to his book and the movie, was carrying out “directives” (assassinations) for the CIA when not busy producing or hosting The Dating Game or The Gong Show. But the absurdist juice of the book and script seems squeezed out of the movie. What’s left is loneliness and despair: The film is unexpectedly and unavoidably depressing.

Barris’ fanciful account of his adventures with the CIA may have been his metaphor for never being known for what he really was. A novelist and songwriter, Barris was pilloried left and right for leading America into new depths of depravity with The Gong Show. Barris converted his feelings of being misunderstood — the dissonance between his public persona and his private life — into a tall tale of leading a double life. In the movie, Chuck (Sam Rockwell) doesn’t seem secretly refined or learned, just a callow hustler who stumbles into the CIA as heedlessly as he stumbles into television. Rockwell, a fine character actor, is given only the externals to play, and his dead-sounding narration doesn’t help; reading the book, I heard Barris telling his story in an irrepressible, get-a-load-of-this tone.

George Clooney famously took on the directing chores himself (after several A-list directors couldn’t get the project off the ground) because he wanted Kaufman’s script delivered without corruption or softening. He has overcorrected and made a glum, almost listless movie, with frequently bleached or tinted photography (by Newton Thomas Sigel) that makes one wish for a normal-looking film. Clooney plays Chuck’s CIA contact, the dour Jim Byrd, and there were times I thought Jim Byrd had directed the movie. Clooney does a somber and solid job behind the camera and in front of it, but this film needed a live wire and wicked wit — someone like Brian De Palma would’ve done nicely — and Clooney seems more interested in reproducing the art films of the ’70s, particularly the punishing, guilt-ridden cinema of Paul Schrader.

The doubling in Chuck’s life goes beyond his careers: Romantically — or, let’s say, sexually — he has an angel (Drew Barrymore as the sweet, carefree Penny) and a devil (Julia Roberts as the shadowy agent Patricia). Both women are available for sack time with Chuck, and both make demands on him (Penny wants marriage, Patricia wants loyalty). That’s about all there is to their characters; though played (respectively) appealingly and seductively by Barrymore and Roberts, the women in what’s being called a hip black comedy hark back to the movie stereotypes of fifty years ago. Only Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a Chuck conquest who never loses her expression of boredom even when he’s on top of her, rubs against the grain of the film’s benign neglect of women, and (guess what?) she’s not around for long.

I can’t say I “liked” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but I want to see it again; it may be the kind of difficult movie that improves for me upon repeat viewings. It speaks of joylessness and self-loathing, qualities that Barris himself, in his little-seen 1980 The Gong Show Movie, used as shtick in his autobiographical account of a put-upon schmuck who runs an out-of-control TV show. Confessions just adds assassination to the mix (in rather clumsily staged scenes) and invites us to stare into the abyss of a lonely man who can’t do anything noble or worthy no matter how hard he tries. This bleak tragedy is being sold as a comedy, and I hope it won’t scare confused audiences away from Barris’ laugh-out-loud book. As a director, Clooney certainly knows how to bum you out, and he may have a future helming chilly movies about sad, angry men. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind shouldn’t have been one of those movies.


December 27, 2002

79-chicagoI hated Moulin Rouge, but that doesn’t mean I hate musicals; it just means I hate self-consciously chaotic messes. I mention that film only because it may give all future musicals a bad name. Those who share my disdain for Moulin Rouge should try to get over that trauma and submit to the expertly crafted pizzazz of Chicago. Here, finally, is a movie musical made by people who know what they’re doing. In all, it’s the most electrifying entry in the genre since Dancer in the Dark, though admittedly a lot more lightweight than that rewarding ordeal.

The material has knocked around for decades, most famously in the Broadway musical of the same name, which opened in 1975 under the watch of Bob Fosse and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. As with most musicals, great and bad, the “book” — the story — is very simple. Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), who has dreams of being a star on the Chicago stage, kills a callous lover and almost gets her sap husband Amos (John C. Reilly) to take the fall for it. Roxie is thrown in jail, where she meets two-time murderess Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a song-and-dance star who killed her husband and her sister after catching them in flagrante delicto. They compete for the attention of the hungry media and the venal lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who can beat any murder rap as long as his client greases his palm to the tune of $5,000.

Chicago sees the judicial process as just another form of show-biz, a viewpoint that seemed overly sour in 1975 but looks perfectly plausible after the countless celebrity trials of recent years (including Winona Ryder, whose arm injury might’ve earned a smirk of approval from Velma). Roxie has well-scrubbed innocence to sell, and sells it so well that a sympathetic nation gives their hearts to her. Velma has wit and show-biz instinct — she works with Billy on the manipulative bits of business she’ll wow the jury with as if they were both choreographing a new number, as indeed they are. Taking Fosse’s cue, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) adore Roxie and Velma precisely because they’re cast-iron lying vixens — the breed of outsize divas that used to power classic Hollywood movies.

A lot of hard work must’ve gone into the film — prepping the somewhat rusty Zellweger and Gere for musical numbers, for instance (Zeta-Jones has a more solid and recent singing-dancing background). But you don’t see the sweat; you just see passion and joy. Chicago looks as though it was a great deal of fun to make, even if it wasn’t. Gere is a somewhat forced singer, but he makes up for it with a colorful and sleazy turn, especially during his numbers “All I Care About” (money) and “Razzle Dazzle” (which re-imagines a tense courtroom moment as a tap-dance). Zellweger is a pleasure to watch as she morphs from frightened convict to seasoned spin-mistress, but Zeta-Jones is the real star here; she takes the stage (and the screen) with the hunger of a lioness, kicking the movie off beautifully with “All That Jazz” and sneering her way through the show-stopper “Cell Block Tango.” Queen Latifah, too, scores as the prison matron with the ribald number “When You’re Good to Mama.” Even John C. Reilly gets a poignant tune, “Mr. Cellophane,” lamenting Amos’ invisibility.
I felt like applauding after all these numbers; I felt like applauding the movie. Chicago is exactly the sort of big, silly trifle that audiences in similarly dark times (war, depression) used to escape to, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be as huge a hit as it deserves to be. Loud, and without a shy bone in its body, Chicago shows us what we’ve been missing, just as (in an entirely different tone and context) Unforgiven showed us what a true example of another moribund genre — the western — should look like. And it shows, along with 2001’s cult item Hedwig and the Angry Inch, that it’s not lack of talent or brassiness that keeps musicals and movies segregated; it’s Hollywood’s perception of a lack of interest in movie musicals.

Catch Me If You Can

December 25, 2002

6-catch-me-if-you-can-2002-99-millionIt maybe could’ve used some tightening, but Catch Me If You Can is still the most purely fun Steven Spielberg film since his incredible decade-long streak as a master entertainer (from, say, 1975 to 1985, when he started yearning to sit at the grown-up table with The Color Purple). There’s nothing in particular riding on the movie, no stentorian tributes to historical courage; it’s just Spielberg larking — it’s not important. (Even the enjoyable Minority Report unfurled Big Statements about privacy and the future of law enforcement.) And the movie’s very lightness has freed up Spielberg, made him a looser and more generous director than we’ve witnessed in some time.

Based on Frank W. Abagnale’s memoir, the film tracks young Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) from age sixteen as he flits around putting on and discarding identities with the casual breeziness and imperturbable suavity of a born con man. His antics, which include forging millions of dollars’ worth of checks and posing as an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, catch the eye of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a grim, businesslike bear (Hanks makes him humorously humorless) who makes it his life’s work to catch Frank. The movie, for all its location shifts and elaborate scams, is essentially a feature-length chase, which puts it in the league of early single-minded Spielberg entries like Duel and especially The Sugarland Express.

If you plan a double-feature rental of the two December 2002 Leo flicks, Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can, do yourself a favor and take in Gangs first; then settle in for Catch Me and rediscover Leonardo DiCaprio the actor. Disgruntled and one-note in Gangs, DiCaprio opens up wide in Catch Me, having obvious fun that he doesn’t hesitate to share. He’s basically playing an actor — a kid bold enough to sell strangers on whichever persona he’s trying on — and DiCaprio glows with the sneaky joy of imposture. His scenes with Christopher Walken, gainfully cast against type as Frank’s loving dad, flow with an affectionate intimacy that caught me by surprise. When Frank impersonates a substitute French teacher and his parents are called in, Walken’s expressions — when he finds out what the kid’s been up to, and when he can’t suppress a grin at his son — speak volumes: Frank is a more successful chip off the old block.

This is a classic Spielberg film in spirit and theme, but not in style. With Schindler’s List, Spielberg made two major changes in his familiar approach: He dropped his usual tics like dolly shots and Close Encounters backlighting, and he took on cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who’s been with him for almost a decade now. Catch Me If You Can is Spielberg’s most colorful film in years — certainly not the monochromatic blue of Minority Report — and it’s shot with soft filters and relaxed compositions that recall the movies of the period (the mid- to late-’60s). The movie feels a little long here and there, particularly in the segment dealing with Frank’s engagement to a fresh-faced Atlanta blonde (Amy Adams), but it still goes like a shot without seeming rushed. Making a movie about a wunderkind of deception, Spielberg must’ve tapped into his old self, the big-fibber and fantasist who told great lies like Jaws and Close Encounters and made us believe them.

The movie is a good time. It not only produces happiness, it is happy. It buzzes with the pleasure of people — on camera and behind it, in and out of screen character — who are damn good at what they do and love doing it. Even the stoic Carl Hanratty gets a contact high from Frank’s sheer daring, and gets electrified by the possibility that he may finally have an adversary worth the chase. Hanratty moves heaven and earth to bring the kid to book but, on some level, can’t help loving Frank’s ingenuity and skill. Neither can Spielberg. Catch Me If You Can is not an intensely personal film for Spielberg. That’s what’s so good about it.

Gangs of New York

December 20, 2002

If it were anyone but Martin Scorsese behind Gangs of New York, most critics would, I suspect, advise you to avoid it. Since it is Scorsese, the reviews have been respectful even when mixed, in honor of the master’s early films. They are genuflecting to a movie god whose presence is seldom felt in Gangs of New York, a murky, empty saga that represents Scorsese at both his biggest and worst. Scorsese had wanted to adapt the material in Herbert Asbury’s nonfiction book for 30 years, and the trials he went through to shoot the picture and then edit it down to a reasonable length are by now legendary, so the temptation may be to go easy on this epic from the critically anointed Greatest Living American Director. What’s the point of defending the movie, though, when there’s very little of him in it? It’s like revering a toilet Scorsese recently used and flushed.

Well, maybe not that bad (I can hear the howls: “You’re likening the new Scorsese film to a toilet?”). The movie is certainly watchable, if choppy and impersonal (the choppiness may owe to the reported hour of trimmed footage). Much has been made of its violent passages, when warring factions in 19th-century New York go at each other with knives, cleavers, swords, even metal claws. It’s hard to say how much of the resulting thin flash-cut carnage was genuinely Scorsese’s idea and how much was imposed on him by the MPAA, but what you’re watching is fleeting glimpses of slashing and bashing in the midst of seething chaos. I’m not asking for slow-motion close-ups of flying heads and splattered guts, but it would be nice to have some spatial sense of what’s going on; the moments of mass slaughter, which must have been hell to choreograph, just feel fake — fake-seeming brutality surely being a first in a Scorsese film. Worse, it feels as though Scorsese is aping the frantic, incompetent hand-to-hand combat scenes in lesser films like Gladiator.

The story that Jay Cocks has drawn from Asbury’s anecdotal material (with the help of co-scripters Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, both of whose knack for pithy, juicy dialogue is sometimes evident here) is a drawn-out revenge fable. In 1846, the stolid, noble Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), leader of the immigrant gang the Dead Rabbits, readies for battle with the Natives, led by the vicious and aptly named Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Vallon falls to the Butcher’s blade; his now-orphaned son escapes and grows up to be an angry young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who christens himself Amsterdam. Since there’d be no movie if he didn’t, Amsterdam returns to the Five Points, site of his father’s death, where the Butcher still holds sway, with various politicians and lawmen (including Jim Broadbent’s Boss Tweed and John C. Reilly’s too-Officer-Clancy-like Happy Jack). Amsterdam falls in with Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), who remembers him from childhood; he cons himself into the Butcher’s inner circle and into the bed of the Butcher’s favorite lass, the pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz).

What with the post-Titanic Leo craze, people forget that DiCaprio can be a fine actor and entertainer. (For proof of that, I refer you to the contemporaneous Catch Me If You Can.) But as written, Amsterdam simply isn’t a strong enough — or complex enough — character to hold the center of a 168-minute movie, and doesn’t give DiCaprio enough to chew on. The performance is surly and wet; I don’t think DiCaprio smiles more than twice. Where was Scorsese on the set? He all but ignores Cameron Diaz (whose accent comes and goes, and whose character scarcely makes sense anyway), and, as usual, he doesn’t have much interest in the film’s women in general; mostly they’re puffed-up society femmes or cackling whores, and the alarming-looking warrior Hellcat Maggie (Cara Seymour), who slashes men down with her metal talons and takes their ears, gets lost in the crowd after the first gang battle, occasionally scowling wordlessly (she has no dialogue) in the middle of the rabble.

No, Scorsese only has eyes for Daniel Day-Lewis as the Butcher. I’ll concede that this is a riveting figure of mayhem played by a great actor returning from a five-year hiatus from the screen; Day-Lewis, his voice as flat and mean as the blades he flourishes, knows the camera is attending to his every intonation and twitch, and performs accordingly. But how much of a triumph is it to lord over a movie that the director hands to you while forgetting about your co-stars? The Butcher has more life — and more fun — than anyone else in the movie, and it was around the halfway point that I started understanding Gangs of New York as a 19th-century rewrite of GoodFellas, with DiCaprio filling in for Ray Liotta as the gangster who is in, but not quite of, a violent group of men, while Day-Lewis, a taller and more baroque Joe Pesci, enjoys being the unpredictable psycho everyone fears.

Why did Scorsese spend three decades thirsting to make this movie? It’s nowhere clear on the screen. Probably he wanted to wallow in the low, Dickensian origins of the macho, destructive gangs whose modern descendants he chronicled so memorably and effortlessly. But he’s stuck with a wholly conventional script and a $100 million budget; you definitely see the money on the screen — the elaborate sets were built at the Cinecitta studios in Rome — but it registers as flop sweat, not an actual place where actual people lived, just as the equally cluttered sets in Robert Altman’s Popeye made you feel the strain and pressure of money.

Gangs of New York doesn’t feel torn from Scorsese’s obsessions, or even sparked by his curiosity (as his underrated Kundun did). Frankly, it feels as if Harvey Weinstein finally handed him a check to make some sort of Gangs of New York film, and as if Scorsese, not wanting to blow the chance, rushed into it with a weak script and a faint memory of why he’d wanted to film the book in the first place.

Morvern Callar

December 20, 2002

Lynne Ramsay is twice the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is, without trying half as hard. She achieves the lyricism Anderson strains to get; he desperately wants to have an original vision, but she was born with one. In 1999’s Ratcatcher, Ramsay followed a group of scruffy Glasgow kids through a series of alternately harsh and gentle vignettes. In her new one, Morvern Callar, she puts a camera on Samantha Morton and lets this great young actress
lure us into her unfathomable emotions with a scarcity of dialogue. Morton is the eponymous heroine, whose boyfriend has just committed suicide and left both an unhelpful note and a finished novel manuscript. After lying about the flat for a time, Morvern goes on holiday with effusive friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott in a fine, frisky performance), aloof from the goings-on (including one-night stands), and eventually finds a use for that manuscript. There’s nothing much to say about Morvern Callar (based on an Alan Warner novel) that the movie
itself doesn’t say eloquently through image and silence. Aside from the bravely unsympathetic turn by Morton, who steadfastly refuses to telegraph Morvern’s feelings, the film is simply the latest chapter in what promises to be a most strange, idiosyncratic, and beautiful body of work.

25th Hour

December 19, 2002

Whether you love or hate Spike Lee’s movies, they’re not sellouts — even a didactic, hectoring bummer like Jungle Fever or Bamboozled has integrity. In 25th Hour, perhaps Lee’s most consistently compelling work since 1995’s Clockers, protagonist Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) spends his last day and night of freedom before reporting to prison for a seven-year stretch. Monty got where he is (in both senses — a fancy car and a prison term) by dealing drugs. Yet we see no drug deals in the movie. There are guns and thugs, but no shootouts. There are flashbacks, but they serve only to flesh out Monty’s life — what he’s losing — before this day and night. 25th Hour, written by David Benioff from his novel, stays almost exclusively with Monty as his moments of freedom tick away.

Part of what Monty is losing is New York, the city he loves, and Spike Lee is not one to ignore 9/11’s impact on the city. Two of Monty’s friends — Wall Street hustler Frank (Barry Pepper) and schoolteacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — sit and talk, in a very long unbroken shot, in front of Frank’s window overlooking Ground Zero. “Bin Laden can drop another bomb right next door; I ain’t moving,” says Frank, exemplifying the movie’s (and its director’s) philosophy of pride and defiance in the face of disaster. Shooting for the first time in widescreen, and aided by the deservedly hot cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida, 8 Mile), Lee gives us sprawling and heartfelt panoramas of the great city. Accompanied by his dog, Monty sits on a bench staring out at the river; you know he’s memorizing the view.

Frank, Jacob, and Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) take Monty out for one last night on the town, and the mood is jocular yet muted, the atmosphere heavy with the unspoken. Monty, who seems to be known and respected everywhere, puts on a half-hearted show of indifference, but inside he’s terrified and furious at himself. Earlier, having dinner with his father (Brian Cox) at the old man’s bar, Monty goes to the bathroom and is set off by an obscenity scrawled on the mirror; he launches into a stream of invective (understandably but wrongly attributed to Lee, it comes right out of Benioff’s book) that savages everyone in New York — strangers, friends, family — and finally turns viciously onto himself. In the highlight of this tense, angry performance, Norton makes us see how love can flip into hate: He rails against New York and everyone in it because he no longer belongs there.

Monty’s dog is about the only one who loves him without complications. Frank tells Jacob that, as much as he loves Monty, he deserves to be sent up. Jacob is preoccupied with a Lolita-esque student (Anna Paquin) in his English class; she tags along with Monty’s group for a night at the club, and her teasing of the flustered Jacob — almost forcing him to act on his heavily repressed lust — is another of those unwatchably painful Philip Seymour Hoffman moments. In general, Lee doesn’t jump around much; he keeps the camera glued to Hoffman or Pepper or Dawson long enough to poke the truth out of them. This director has always given his actors room to breathe, create, surprise themselves.

In the gloomy dawn before his seven years begin, Monty goes about giving up what little he has left, even his looks. Monty’s dad offers to drive him to prison, then starts talking about possibilities. I won’t give it away, but it’s the most heartbreaking alternate-universe riff since the dead child really grew up to be an Olympic-class swimmer in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. But the movie insists on reality, and 25th Hour makes for a fine bookend piece to Lee’s Clockers, which also considered the drug-dealer formula: You get caught or you get killed. Everything else is details.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

December 18, 2002

Even though I was lost through some of it, I liked The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers better than its predecessor, The Fellowship of the Ring. As the middle section of what is really one long story (or one long nine-hour movie), it doesn’t bother setting anything up — it assumes you’ve seen the first one — and just plunges in. Whereas Fellowship gave us the sunlit complacency of the Shire darkening into grim duty, Two Towers begins on a note of near-disaster — a dream of the standoff between the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the fearsome Balrog — and mostly keeps its jaws clenched in readiness for hopeless battle. The theme of this Act Two is good warriors standing tall in the face of odds that could hardly suck worse.

If that sounds like a downer, it isn’t; Peter Jackson, delivering the second of his three Christmas gifts to J.R.R. Tolkien fans worldwide, comes most alive during the scenes of peril and evil, of which there are enough here for a year’s worth of movies. One could conceivably enjoy The Two Towers knowing very little of its conflicts or interspecies politics; it can be processed as pure cinema, and forget about the plotlines, which in any event are unavoidably way stations to The Return of the King. We do spend a great deal of the movie watching characters prepare for things that won’t happen in the movie; even the big-bang sequence, the battle at Helm’s Deep, is but a minor skirmish in the grand scheme of things.

A good deal of the dawdling is fun. The fearful comic-relief hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) find themselves hanging on a massive walking and talking tree — an Ent, really, a sort of plant elemental that watches over the green. These Ents talk slowly and arrive at decisions even more slowly; Jackson seems to be tweaking the ponderousness of most epics. Meanwhile, the human warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) tries to get the woefully unprepared kingdom of Rohan ready for legions of merciless Uruk-hai sent by the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee); and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), bearer of Tolkien’s mystical McGuffin the One Ring, and his loyal friend Samwise (Sean Astin) slouch towards Mordor to dispose of the thing, accompanied by the wretched Gollum.

Most of the hype surrounding Two Towers has centered on Helm’s Deep and Gollum. Of the two — and the battle is one of the best of its kind in film history, a symphony of bloodlust and hopes dashed and restored — I prefer the little creature who used to be called Smeagol before the Ring stole his mind and soul. As you’ve heard, Gollum is played in voice and gesture by Andy Serkis, and fleshed out digitally by Jackson’s computer wizards. You’ll always be aware that Gollum isn’t literally “real,” but in his pathetically addled way he’s more real than anyone else in the movie. Jackson seems to have studied Jar Jar Binks and learned from George Lucas’s mistake.

Two Towers may play narratively as a downer, but Jackson is too spirited a director to get bogged down: Characters are always reminding each other to keep hope alive in the midst of dread and panic. Hope is there, too, in the raw beauty Jackson finds everywhere, whether in battle or in a poetically downbeat episode at Rivendell with a weeping Arwen (Liv Tyler). Jackson hasn’t disdained his horror-movie roots, either: no director could be happier among the Orcs and Uruk-hai, and he has the diabolical wit to end this second entry on a note of demented enthusiasm that functions as a chilling cliffhanger. Fellowship interested and entertained me; this one hooked me.


December 13, 2002

David Cronenberg’s Spider is some sort of master class in rigorous filmmaking; this director cuts to the bone now, with absolutely no flab and no ingratiation to the mainstream. Cronenberg tells bizarre and psychologically gnarled stories, but he tells them with a calm and measured sense of purpose, as if he had all the time in the world, and he assumes a high level of patience on our parts. Spider is slow but deadly, fixating on minute details as if weaving a world around us, and the world becomes a web smothering reason.

Working from Patrick McGrath’s screenplay (based on his novel), Cronenberg gives us an unreliable narrator — Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a schizophrenic who takes up residence in a dingy halfway house. Spider is haunted by his past, which we see in fragments, with Spider standing off to the side and observing. We see Spider’s working-class parents, a plumber (Gabriel Byrne) and his wife (Miranda Richardson), who seem to be more or less existing together. The joy seems to have gone out of the marriage; the father frequents a local pub, where he begins an affair with a local “tart” (also played by Richardson). One night, the mother catches the father in flagrante delicto with the tart; what follows convinces the young Spider that a murder has been committed.

We’re not convinced, though. For one thing, the movie often shows us events at which Spider was not present. Spider pursues the mystery anyway, though, a rumpled gumshoe unsure of his own perceptions. Playing this cracked inquisitor, Fiennes builds tension and heartbreak out of indecipherable mumbling and ritualistic, twitchy gestures. Cronenberg’s precise direction keeps us breathing the same stale air as Spider, and the lying, manipulative essence of cinema itself forces us to share Spider’s viewpoint even as we’re questioning it. Miranda Richardson also has a tough role — a triple role, actually, since she also takes on the part of the nurse running the halfway house (played at the beginning by Lynn Redgrave). Richardson is encouraged to play the mother sensibly, the tart and the nurse as threatening caricatures, which of course is how Spider would experience those two women. Gabriel Byrne, too, manages a difficult balancing act as the father, playing against decades of abusive, drunken working-class dads in movies. He drinks, and he fixes toilets, and he seems to be having sex with a local whore. But is he a murderer? And is she a whore?

Spider is bound to be misunderstood by literalists and Freudians, and those who persist in seeing misogyny in Cronenberg’s work. He presents, without comment, a programmatic view of women as either saints, whores or bullies that’s rooted in psychosis; all women become perversions of Spider’s beloved mum. Spider sifts with trembling fingers through the shards of his life, picking out pieces that may not reflect the truth. Cronenberg fixates on the possibly irrelevant and makes it relevant to the complete picture. Martin Scorsese used to be capable of films like this — small gems that root around in a damaged brain, persuading you that no subject could be larger or more important. Cronenberg, who came from visceral drive-in movies, is in his way as obsessive and as purely cinematic as Scorsese. His worlds are hermetically sealed; no outside perspectives are allowed to intrude, no glimmers of pop culture. Spider is Cronenberg’s most delicately poetic work yet, a shattered mirror whose reflection is false but finds its own truth.

About Schmidt

December 13, 2002

Jack Nicholson is being cloaked in respectful critical and Oscar-watcher buzz for exactly the wrong performance. People are responding to his work as the retired, depressive widower Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt as if he’d never done anything like it before — as if he’d never dialed himself down and given a muted, pained performance. For that, I refer you to his outstanding work under the direction of Sean Penn: The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Pledge (2001), neither of which got much attention. Why here? Why this draggy, overcast, simplistic drama? Is it Nicholson’s courage in wearing his hair in a combover of such deep ugliness that it puts Peter Jackson’s Uruk-hai to shame?

Warren Schmidt, at 66, is dissatisfied with his life. You can tell because director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor make every effort to surround Warren in big, lonely spaces that still feel cramped — his suddenly half-empty house, the mammoth Winnebago he drives from Omaha to Denver for the wedding of his daughter (Hope Davis in a bad mood that seems to have carried over from Hearts in Atlantis) to a dopey mullethead (Dermot Mulroney). This trip is somewhat out of character for Warren, who’s so unaccustomed to movement that the undulations of a water bed nearly cripple him. Warren is a self-pitying lump at the center of an overlong movie that has nothing in particular to say about his plight.

Payne and Taylor previously crafted two deft, razor-sharp satires — Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999) — and one wants to respond to About Schmidt as some sort of comment on the emptiness of a lifelong company man whose routine is doubly shattered when he finds himself minus an occupation and a wife. If the road trip is supposed to give Warren a sense of purpose, as a murder gave Nicholson’s retired cop in The Pledge renewed vigor, it doesn’t seem to. Warren holds everything in; the only person he opens up to is Ndugu, a six-year-old African boy he’s sponsoring by mail. Along with his $22 monthly checks, he sends letters to Ndugu in which his seething resentment of his life is at odds with the neutrally dyspeptic face he wears around everyone else.

Mostly, the satire here amounts to nudging us into feeling superior to other people’s lives. There are also crude touches like a urine motif: Warren bitterly celebrates his new independence by pissing on the toilet seat; the next time we see him relieving himself it’s after he’s made a speech of glowing tribute to the newlyweds, a lie to make his daughter happy on her wedding day. Payne’s cold eye freezes our responses when he tries for warmth. What are we supposed to make of the sexually liberated mother-of-the-groom, played by Kathy Bates in her usual let’s-cut-the-crap mode? Bates, easily the best element of the movie, represents what Warren recoils from — spontaneity, outspokenness — because he sorely lacks it, but Payne undercuts her in subtle ways by clothing her in gauche outfits, or by not clothing her at all.

Through this aimless movie drifts Nicholson, a flabby balloon full of toxic self-hate. This performance is a mere faint echo of the sharp self-loathing he lacerated us with in The Crossing Guard. Nicholson’s films with Sean Penn show him as a real actor still capable of surprise. About Schmidt is just Jack coasting in a role as tailor-made for him as the neurotic Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets. You may recall that for his audience-tickling efforts in that film, Nicholson grabbed his third Oscar; he may be nominated for a fourth for the audience-reassuring Warren Schmidt, whose pain at wasting his life is vague enough not to scare anyone off and distant enough from Nicholson himself — who celebrates his forty-fifth year of film acting next year — to let us know he’s just playing a part that has nothing to do with him.

Star Trek: Nemesis

December 9, 2002

Star-Trek-NemesisWhat took so long? I mean, I don’t care all that much, but … it took four years for Paramount to come up with this? The Star Trek movies, in recent years, have been reliable every-two-years affairs; one expected Star Trek: Nemesis, the Enterprise’s first voyage since 1998, to be something special. Bigger special effects? A complex and compelling script that required months turning into years of rewrites just to get perfectly right? A villain unlike any we’d seen before? A pallid rehash of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with a side order of cloning borrowed from George Lucas? Bingo.

If you’re bothering to read this, you probably know the players. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is preparing to bid farewell to Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), who’s assuming command of another ship, and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), who’s now married to Riker. Data (Brent Spiner) confronts a replica of himself, called B-4. And that’s about it for the character development this time out. Before long, Picard and crew are thrown into the middle of a fight between the Romulans (represented by a nearly unrecognizable Dina Meyer, from Starship Troopers) and the Remans (represented by a totally unrecognizable Ron Perlman, from every film that requires heavy make-up). The instigator? Praetor Shinzon (Tom Hardy), a bitter clone of Picard who suffered at the hands of the Romulans and now seeks revenge.

There’s entirely too much gum-flapping (especially between Picard and Shinzon, as if their animosity were of Shakespearean import) and not nearly enough fun, action, or tension. You need only look toStar Trek II to see how it should be done: with a conflict that counts for something, emotions running high, and Ricardo Montalban flaring his nostrils like a maddened horse as he steals the movie. Montalban’s Khan was sufficiently crazed and blood-lusty to give even the complacent Kirk serious pause. The nemesis of Nemesis looks like a British chemo patient wearing a Christmas tree made of licorice, and if we’re meant to sense blood hostility between him and Picard, we don’t. Shinzon is yet another sneering heavy bent on galactic domination.

Paramount made a grave error in handing the directorial keys to Stuart Baird, a former editor turned director of uninspired action flicks (Executive Decision, U.S. Marshals). Whatever one thought of the previous two Trek adventures (I liked First Contact, yawned at Insurrection), the action sequences — courtesy of Jonathan Frakes, who directed like a lumberjack — had hair on their chests. Frakes (who was apparently busy directing Clockstoppers) brought some red-blooded, meat-eating gusto back to the series, which is what these films need if they’re not to disappear into the ozone of leftover Gene Roddenberry Lofty Ideas. Baird takes the franchise back to the clunky tedium of Generations, staging endless shootouts between one computer-generated ship and another computer-generated ship.

You may have heard two things: one, that a major character dies, and two, that this is reportedly the last big-screen voyage for the Next Generation crew. I can’t speak to the former without indulging in spoilers, though I will say it’s the most boringly reversible sacrifice in recent memory. As to the latter, I certainly hope so. Star Trek has served Paramount long and well for almost four decades. As tough as it may be for the studio to let go of its final big franchise, maybe it’s time. To keep it going any longer serves only to keep Trekkie nostalgia stoked and Paramount’s coffers full.