Films Seen April 2000

Frequency (Gregory Hoblit): C

[WARNING: Big fat spoiler looming within; bail out of the penultimate parenthetical after the word "Quaid" if you don't want to know how it ends]

First scene, post-credits: Jim Caviezel watches forlornly as his live-in girlfriend packs her stuff. "So you're gonna leave, just like that?" he says. "I've been leaving for six months," she says. "You just didn't notice." By the time I've recovered from that exchange -- thank christ the pre-med two rows down had lugged her defibrillator to the theater -- they've moved on to the gist of their quandary. "I want to change, but I just can't," he says. "No, you won't change," she says. "That's what hurts so much." All dialogue approximate, but you get the idea: Blecccchhhh. A few mildly clever plot twists (most of which I predicted, but in a pleasant, prophecy-fulfilled kinda way rather than an irritating, foregone-conclusion kinda way) rendered the rest of the film semi-watchable, but didn't remotely compensate for all the clumsy touchy-feeliness; a slew of utterly ludicrous paradoxes, meanwhile (so, what, Quaid spends the next thirty years knowing that someday he'll have to drop by junior's place with a shotgun? and if so, wouldn't he have been lying in wait before the dude even got there? and in fact, wouldn't the dude have long since been jailed, if not executed? and hey, wait a minute, etc. etc. ad inf.), confirms that the Twelve Monkeys model of time travel, in which it's impossible to alter past events (because you've already "altered" them), is the only one that makes a damn bit of sense. Although, should temporal modification ever become a reality, I may well hop back to 1998 and warn Quaid not to attempt that atrocious lov'ble-Noo-Yawk-lug accent.

Gladiator (Ridley Scott): A-

Believe me, you're no more surprised than I was. Simply the most satisfying and invigorating big-budget summer event movie in years -- a gloriously dumb throwback to the days when the word "postmodern" still sounded like the oxymoron that it is; when the story received as much emphasis as the special effects; when even the Technicolor pictures were morally b&w -- heroes impossibly noble and courageous, villains festering with incestuous desire. Not since the original Terminator, or possibly Raiders of the Lost Ark, has my response to a movie of this sort been so unselfconsciously childlike. When you think about it, popcorn movies have to walk an exceedingly thin tightrope, with chasms representing pretentiousness and stupidity yawning on either side: we don't really want them to traffic in moral complexity (which would get in the way of our rooting interest in the hero), but we don't want our intelligence actively insulted, either, thanks muchly. Gladiator gets the tone exactly right, conveying simple, damn near mythic dramatic tropes with a conviction that simply cannot be faked. Plus, no Charlton Heston! His extra 38 Wigand-pounds now ancient history, Crowe is every inch the taciturn hunk o' beef that the role demands; at the same time, he brings to it both a shrewdness and a guttural sensitivity that transcend the script's occasional limitations, and elevate what might, in other hands, have been corny lines or clichéd gestures into moments that are truly iconic. (On paper, his big second-act speech -- basically a florid variation on the standard "I'm comin' to get you, motherfucker" threat that Stallone growled at least once in every Rambo flick -- is just unbelievably hokey; hearing the words spoken in Crowe's measured, steely cadence, it was all I could do to restrain myself from standing up and cheering.) Visuals characteristically stunning, juxtaposing claustrophobic, torchlit interiors with frantic battle scenes that play like a less elegiac version of the Normandy Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan (stern finger-waggling, thankfully, is kept to a minimum, with perhaps thirty seconds expended on drawing a connection between the capacity Colosseum crowds and the popcorn-munching multiplex audience; somewhere, Michael Haneke is screaming). But then, Black Rain looked fabulous, too, and who besides Catherine Zeta-Jones wants to see that again? No, what sets Gladiator apart is its...spareness, for lack of a better word. You give a damn whether the hero wins or loses, succeeds or fails, lives or dies. It's that simple -- and, sadly, that rare. [TONY #241]

The New Eve (Catherine Corsini): B-

Not a good sign, methinks, when an actor as relentlessly affable as Sergi Lopez walks up to your protagonist in the final reel and decks her in the face, hard enough to land her in the hospital, and you can actually hear people in the theater straining not to applaud. (Okay, so maybe I was projecting.) Alternately assaulting and cajoling everybody in sight, Karin Viard's Camille is without a doubt the most memorably volatile spitfire to command the screen in ages; but while Corsini is ostensibly critical of her heroine's increasingly irrational behavior -- yes, it's yet another tale of l'amour fou, subdivision: Self-Destructive Obsession with Married Man -- she's more often prone to glorify it, particularly w/r/t the film's nauseatingly sunny denouement. (Plus, Pierre-Loup Rajot does such a superb job of portraying Alexis as grounded and dependable early on that it's simply mystifying when he suddenly begins to look at Camille as if she were made of milk chocolate.) Those who swoon at the notion of damn-the-torpedoes desire are in for a treat; those who believe, as I do, that infatuation doesn't automatically preclude maturity are less -- or perhaps more -- likely to roll with the punches. [TONY #241]

Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood): C

Why people are getting excited about -- or are even remotely tolerant of -- this painfully earnest, schematically plotted, eminently predictable, indifferently shot after-school special beats the hell outta me. It's exactly as memorable and inventive as its title. (Tolstoy schmolstoy, I'm making a point here. Who let you in, anyway? Got any ID?)

The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola): C+

How apropos that the soundtrack is courtesy of Air, given the sheer weightlessness of this intelligent and assured but sorely misguided adaptation of what I'm told is a truly haunting book.* "Remove the normal emphases on character, plot and setting, and what's left?" asks Godfrey Cheshire in his (rave) review; my answer: precious little, apart from wistful lyricism so thick (WARNING: Elvis Mitchell homage imminent) that it could choke a team of mules wearing vintage WWII gas masks, which I fear just ain't enough for me. On the page, it's possible to get away with employing a collective omniscient protagonist in a tale that's about misplaced idealization; on the screen, however, what you wind up with is a story that's about...nobody, really. In theory, it's about the group of boys who love the Lisbon girls from afar; without the interior monologue as a guide, however, footholds for the befuddled viewer are few and far between. Coppola's images, while ably chosen, don't take up the slack, essentially becoming subservient to Giovanni Ribisi's intermittent narration of Eugenides' graceful prose; and the movie winds up feeling, as so many adaptations of first-rate books do, more like a really complex FotoNovel than a stand-alone work of art. Or, I dunno -- maybe it's just that I can't quite surrender myself to an ode to five blandly dewy-eyed damsels who perpetually look like they're killing time at a casting call for a Breck ad. If nothing else, however, Ms. Coppola has now earned the right to give the finger to everybody who dismissed her as nepotism's poster child after New York Stories and Godfather III.

* (I use the phrase "which I haven't read" so frequently on this site that I sometimes fear that y'all assume me to be some sub-literate cretin who does nothing but sit glassy-eyed in front of various screens all day every day -- not that that's so far from the mark -- so indulge me for a second while I self-aggrandizingly mention that I'm currently in the middle of (a) Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter; (b) Daniel C. Dennett's Consciousness Explained; and (c) Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Thanks, I feel ever so much better.)

Committed (Lisa Krueger): C

More mannered quirkiness from Ms. Krueger, whose Manny and Lo similarly drowned a potentially compelling premise in a sea of distractingly wacky asides. I gave up on this one early on, about the time that Casey Affleck started trying to make out with Heather Graham, playing his sister, and she responded not with alarm or confusion but with amused exasperation, good-naturedly reminding him of their pronounced genetic similarity. ("You know what this exploration of the meaning and ramifications of unconditional devotion really could use? Some random incest humor!" Our determined heroine, meanwhile, despite heroic efforts by Graham and by Krueger's script to make her delightfully spunky, ultimately comes across like a deluded, monomaniacal twit, and the movie methodically builds to a facile bit of wordplay (think about other possible scenarios suggested by the title -- bingo, you got it) that bears unfavorable comparison to the most labored variety of shaggy-dog tale. The rollicking, percussion-heavy score by Calexico is a keeper, however, and Goran Visnjic provides further support for my thesis that the sexiest men on the planet hail from what used to be Yugoslavia; I'm about a 2 on Dave Eggers' orientation scale (on which 1 is perfectly straight, 10 perfectly gay), but I shifted over to roughly a 3.5 during a couple of Visnjic's scenes. (No worries, sjl.) [TONY #240, along with Timecode]

Timecode (Mike Figgis): C

"You know what? You know what, guys? We don't need all this development bullshit. With these lightweight digital cameras they have now, we could just go out and make a movie tomorrow. Script? To hell with the script. Let's round up some great actors, give 'em a basic scenario of some kind -- hell, we could set it right here in Hollywood, make it about a movie audition, keep it simple -- and just let 'em improvise the whole thing, they're smart people. More truthful that way. We could have maybe, I dunno, let's say four main characters, and a camera could just follow each of them around continuously for the entire length of a feature film, no cuts whatsoever -- that way we'll find out what's left once we've eliminated the medium's single most powerful tool. And instead of me playing the little dictator and juxtaposing the images myself, what we'll do is we'll put all four up onscreen simultaneously, so that each individual audience member can choose for him or herself which portion of the frame to look at at any given moment. I mean, I can manipulate the sound mix a little, sort of as a guide, but basically there'll be four interrelated stories taking place at once. It'll be a new kind of cinema for the 21st century: all digital, entirely improvised, no fascist editing, and people get to kind of make their own movie as if they were standing at a salad bar. And we'll just shoot it over and over again until we get a version that really cooks. Whaddaya say?"

Bad Idea

Top of the Food Chain (John Paizs): B

So who's the funniest American actor currently working? A few years ago, I might have plumped for Jim Carrey; more recently, Mike Myers' portrayal of Dr. Evil (and, to a much lesser extent, Austin Powers) has forced a record number of embarrassingly loud guffaws to escape my larynx. (I'm still mildly amazed that none of the folks who saw International Man of Mystery with me walked over afterwards to say, "dude, it just wasn't that funny.") If I had to vote today, however, I'd be sorely tempted to name Campbell Scott, based on his sublimely ludicrous turn as a German martinet in Stanley Tucci's The Impostors and his dead-on deadpan delivery as an atomic scientist in this agreeably zany spoof of '50s sci-fi classics. Paizs relies a bit too heavily on non sequiturs (though some of them, like the never-explained secret in the hero's bathtub, are admittedly pretty hilarious), and the picture runs out of steam well before the closing credits, as spoofs are wont to do; give me Scott repeatedly referring with an imposingly straight face to "the lumpy hilly bumpy part of town outside of town," however, or a scene in which he transforms what would normally be a momentary chuckle and the words "no, no" into a minute-long symphony of jolly contradiction (this one you have to see for yourself), and I'm yours for the evening. No distributor as yet in the U.S., but don't fret -- cult status clearly awaits. It could use a more patently ridiculous title, though, I think.

Love's Labour's Lost (Kenneth Branagh): C+

Let's begin with the number of talented actors in the English-speaking world -- a reasonably largish figure. If we then limit ourselves to the number of talented actors in the English-speaking world who excel at rattling off Shakespearean verse, of course, the number dwindles considerably; and if we further whittle it down to include only those talented English-speaking iambic-pentameter-adroit actors who are additionally capable of belting out show tunes and dazzling the audience with fancy footwork...well, I'm not really sure how many qualified candidates we're talking about, frankly, but I can tell you that not a single solitary one of 'em is in this movie (though Nathan Lane, to his considerable credit, comes pretty darn close). So enamored am I of Branagh's basic idea here (if not of his song selection -- every '30s standard that Woody Allen has ever rejected as "too obvious" is present and accounted for), and so eager am I in general to see the musical triumphantly reborn, that it just about kills me to have to report that each number or routine stops the movie cold. The actors are game, but they just don't have the chops; it's like watching a really exuberant high school production, especially when Alicia Silverstone and/or Matthew Lillard are onscreen. (Lillard, in particular, must've been foisted on Branagh by worried execs, as a herculean effort is made to hide, compensate for, or simply ignore him.) Only when Branagh and Natascha McElhone are alone together does the picture momentarily come truly alive; any chance we can put them in a film of As You Like It while we're waiting for a new generation of Astaires and Kellys and Garlands to be trained?

U-571 (Jonathan Mostow): C

"Take her down to 160 meters," orders Callow Replacement Skipper Matthew McConaughey. "But that's over 500 feet!" protests Expository Metric Conversion Expert Harvey Keitel. Most of the dialogue isn't quite that laughable, admittedly, but the lean, mean concision that Mostow demonstrated in Breakdown has been replaced by typical studio-style pandering -- you can almost hear the story conferences in the background, clueless execs offering sage advice like "listen: since the climax involves the captain making a tough decision, shouldn't we maybe have a scene near the beginning where somebody spends like five minutes lecturing him about how leadership is all about making tough decisions, and suggesting that maybe he doesn't have the cojones to let the chips fall where they may when the going gets rough, and that way at the end when we see his cojones in action it's more of a satisfying payoff kind of deal, wouldn't that be good?" Yesterday, I could have said in all honesty that I'd never met a submarine flick I didn't like -- I even kinda dug Tony Scott's sub movie, fer cryin' out loud! -- but this one is just depressingly rote: action scenes a generic hodgepodge of quick-cut shakycam and flying rivets; plot little more than an excuse for additional shakycam; characterization so hastily minimalist that most of the poor swabs weren't even issued their customary Single Defining Trait. Breaking the Code is a more exciting depiction of the Allies' attempts to crack the Enigma, and that's a talky, dense play about a stammering mathematician. Though I don't believe any production to date has featured that hunky Jon Bon Jovi... [TONY #239]

East-West (Est-Ouest) (Régis Wargnier): B-

"Sweeping" is a word folks seem to be associating with this resolutely old-fashioned historical melodrama, but I'd substitute "sprawling": it's a movie that has no qualms about getting nice and comfy and telling you the whole affair, every detail...except for the very many static boring parts, which are airily dismissed with a quick swig from the bottle and an emphatic "Now then:" TWO YEARS LATER, ONE YEAR LATER, TWO MONTHS LATER, HALF A DOZEN FREAKIN' YEARS LATER AND TIME FOR A NEW ACTOR IN THE ROLE OF THE NEARLY MUTE SON WHO HAS NO PERCEPTIBLE NARRATIVE FUNCTION -- was that the N train rumbling beneath my seat, or was it Aristotle shifting restlessly in his pine box? Terminal choppiness notwithstanding, something this gloriously fusty is awfully hard for a nostalgia-prone movie buff to resist (which probably explains its Oscar nomination a few months back), especially with rock-solid Sandrine Bonnaire and the increasingly charismatic Sergei Bodrov Jr. as anchors -- not to mention Bodrov's recurring co-star Oleg Menshikov (call this one Prisoner of the Russkies) doing a fine brooding-martyr routine, plus Catherine Deneuve occasionally flouncing in to briefly lend her inimitable Deneuvitude to the already lush proceedings. A few additional shades of gray would have been welcome, though -- the Stalinist stooge who hounds our heroine is a dead ringer for that fey Raiders of the Lost Ark Nazi who winds up with half the Well of the Souls instructions burned into his palm -- and Patrick Doyle's insistent score would have been a nuisance even back in 1966.

American Psycho (Mary Harron): C

Monotonously repetitive, driving home the same rather glib satirical observation -- Bateman as a product/symbol of '80s greed and vanity -- again and again and again, albeit via a wide variety of different power tools. In spite of Harron's undeniable visual flair and admirable restraint (it's not as gory as you'd expect), this story clearly belonged on the page if it belonged anywhere at all (haven't read the book); the juxtaposition of Bateman's murderous impulses with his breathless paeans to some of the decade's most aggressively banal pop music might make hilarious journal entries, but they just don't work when delivered as extemporaneous monologues. Bale does what he can with his non-character (Leo would've been a disaster), and there's one genuinely brilliant scene in which the font styles and comparative levels of embossment on business cards form the basis of an increasingly anxious game of one-upmanship (the subtext could scarcely be clearer if these guys actually unzipped their flies and produced a ruler), but ultimately it all feels as hollow as its subject's ostentatiously avaricious lifestyle. [TONY #238]

Rules of Engagement (William Friedkin): C-

The expectorant sound you just heard was your faithful correspondent spitting in unadulterated disgust. A right-wing apologia for military psychopathology cleverly disguised as a treatise on duty and honor, this is easily among the most morally repugnant movies I've ever seen; that the grade is as high as it is, in spite of the retching it inspired, serves as a true testament to the skill of old pros like Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, and, as the most despicably hissable corrupt authority figure since Paul Reiser turned the facehuggers loose on Ripley and Newt, poor ol' Bruce "call me soon, Atom...please" Greenwood. Wish I could say it was at least somewhat entertaining in its mindless jingoism, but even the extended fistfight between the two stars felt tired and irrelevant. If you absolutely must see a movie called Rules of Engagement, go rent the one that begins with Waco: The. As a favor to me. [TONY #238]