The Man Who Viewed Too Much
7 April 1997

New Directors/New Films

The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
21 March - 6 April, 1997

Liar Liar

Directed by Tom Shadyac
Written by Paul Guay & Stephen Mazur
Rating: ** ½

Ratings are on a four-star scale

So where have I been for the past couple of weeks, anyway? Well, for one thing, April is the cruelest month (how Eliot was able to predict today's film distribution patterns way the hell back in 1922 is a mystery to me), and the pickings have been slim; apart from a few re-releases (The Godfather, Das Boot, Pink Flamingos -- really, aren't these all essentially the same film?), nothing seems worth bothering with at the moment. For another, I spent so much of late March and early April at the Museum of Modern Art that I seriously considered asking the management to set up a cot for me in one of the inner offices. Every year at about this time, the museum, in conjunction with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, treats New Yorkers to its New Directors/New Films program...which, as its name implies, focuses on up-and-comers -- usually directors who have made no more than two or three features to date, with an emphasis on debuts. Last year's lineup included the indie hits Welcome to the Dollhouse, Big Night, and I Shot Andy Warhol, as well as my favorite film of 1996, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The 1997 edition, from which I have only just wearily staggered home, turned out to be even more impressive; I managed to see 11 of the 22 features screened this year, and of those 11, no fewer than three are in contention for my 1997 top ten list. Not Ted Williams territory, perhaps, but still not a bad percentage.

What follows are brief thumbnail assessments of the pictures I saw. Some of them are scheduled to be released commercially in the coming months, and I may have more (in some cases considerably more) to say about them when that time comes. Others will probably never make it beyond the festival circuit, but are worth keeping an eye out for if you happen to live in or near one of the major metropolitan areas where foreign-language films that aren't Miramax-friendly eke out their transient American existence. Release dates, when available, are noted. Happy hunting.

Though it isn't as remarkable or as satisfying as his Un air de famille, which inexplicably still has no distributor, festival opener When the Cat's Away (France) confirms that director Cédric Klapisch is no one-hit wonder. This is one of those plot? what plot? affairs: young makeup artist Chloé (Garance Clavel, superb) loses her beloved cat, Gris-Gris, early in the picture, and spends the next 80-odd minutes trying to find her; as you might imagine, she finds a lot of other stuff along the way, including herself. Fun, energetic, and confidently scattershot, it's as engaging as it is slight. Terrific opening credits, great final shot. Sony Pictures Classics releases it on 20 June. Rating: ***

Love Serenade is quintessentially Australian, which means that it kinda bugged me. I've never responded well to the country's predilection for overbearing kitsch -- at least in the films that find distribution here -- and Shirley Barrett's debut feature, about two bizarre sisters (one of them exceedingly bizarre -- and creepier, I think, than Barrett knows) and their rivalry for the affection of their new next-door neighbor, a sybaritic disc jockey, rubbed me the wrong way more often than not. There's also a mid-film revelation that's so utterly and incongruously weird that you likely wouldn't believe me if I told you what it was; this certainly grabs your attention, but Barrett doesn't do much of anything with it, and it ultimately seems like something she injected into a later draft of the script in a vain attempt to spice things up. Still, the acting is first-rate, and there are some very funny moments. Also scheduled for a 20 June release, in this case by Miramax. Rating: ** ½

Like most people, I'm a sucker for certain movie genres and situations; in my case, I tend to cut more than the usual amount of slack to submarine pictures (Das Boot, here I come!), black comedies, unconventional biographies, and Altmanesque narratives in which several apparently unrelated storylines gradually intersect as the picture progresses. Anders Rønnow-Klarlund's excellent debut, The Eighteenth, falls into the last category; set on May 18, 1993 -- the day on which Denmark voted to join the European Union, just a few months after they'd voted not to do so -- it follows eight or so disparate Danes (an escaped mental patient, a newly-famous singer, a business executive, and their assorted families and cohorts) as they unwittingly alter one another's lives, for better and for worse. Stylish, captivating, and probably not quite as brilliant as I think it is. No distributor, but New Yorkers can see it in the Walter Reade's current program of new Danish cinema; it screens on 15 April at 2 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Rating: *** ½

No sooner had MoMA wrapped up its gargantuan Fassbinder retrospective than it subjected its weary patrons to the bleak, depressing, and heavily Fassbinder-influenced German film Little Angel, in which every misfortune that could possibly befall its hapless protagonist, lonely factory-worker Ramona (Susanne Lothar) (of the Hill People!) (never mind), proceeds to do so. You know the kind of movie I'm talking about. Does she have a lover? He will betray her. Does she have a pet? It will die. Does she have a box of cold cereal? She will be out of milk, and the corner market will be closed. (These are hypothetical examples, folks.) An ordeal, but an impressive one, rescued from mawkishness by Lothar's dynamic, uninhibited performance in the title role. No distributor, and not likely to find one unless a suicide cult buys out Strand or Zeitgeist or Castle Hill. Rating: ***

Black & White & Red All Over, which generated some mild buzz at Sundance earlier this year, has a unique pedigree: it was written, produced, and directed by DeMane Davis, Harry McCoy, and Khari Streeter, three former advertising executives. Unfortunately, the film looks as if it had been conceived and executed by a group of several dozen advertising executives: it's obtrusively flashy, aggressively didactic, and demonstrates only the sketchiest understanding of the complexities of human behavior. Confined entirely to a single living-room set (and employing every trick imaginable to distract us from that fact), it concerns six black friends -- conveniently representing the entire spectrum of urban America, from business executives to schoolgirls to drug dealers and murderers -- who gather there to gab, argue, watch TV, and idly wonder whether they're currently being filmed in black-and-white, in color, with a blood-red filter, or via a "joint's-eye-view." The actors, mostly non-professionals, keep it watchable, and occasionally even manage to break through the stylistic goop and cut to the chase. No distributor yet. Rating: ** ½

The best film I saw at this year's festival was the sure-to-be-controversial In the Company of Men, Neil LaBute's contemporary retelling of Les liaisons dangereuses as it might have been written by David Mamet. I docked it half a star for familiarity and for a merely adequate performance in a role for which an inspired one was required, but otherwise this is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent and accomplished American debuts in several years. The less I say about this film, the better. Just go see it. Tentatively scheduled for an August release by Sony Pictures Classics. Rating: *** ½

The title on the print I saw was In Expectation, which actually makes some sense, but for some reason this Chinese film is now known as Rainclouds over Wushan, which does not -- presumably somebody thought it sounded more Asian. Directed by Zhang Ming, it's a drama of omission (which mightily flummoxed a friend of mine, who chose an inopportune moment to head for the bathroom and then spent the rest of the film wondering whether he'd missed something crucial [he hadn't]), in which key events take place offscreen, leaving the audience in doubt as to characters' motivations and actions until the final scene. Moment to moment, I found it reasonably compelling (if a tad slow), and Zhang's compositions are a welcome change of pace from the Chinese films that generally get released in the U.S. -- striking without being lush or depending on glaring primary colors. In retrospect, however, the whole affair struck me as almost painfully contrived. No distributor. Rating: ** ½

"The Snooze" is my none-too-affectionate nickname for Chang Tso-chi's soporific Taiwanese drama Ah-Chung ("gesundheit"), the only film I saw at New Directors this year that actively made me wish I were elsewhere. I'd happily describe the plot for you, were that within my power, but Chang apparently didn't want to divulge that potentially dangerous information to the viewer, and so his film travels the fabled Road to Nowhere, taking numerous tedious pit stops along the way, admiring the breathtaking pace of the snails zipping past. Admirers of Hou Hsiao-hsien, for whom Chang once worked, may find more to admire than I did. No distributor. Rating: * ½

I spent several weeks dreading the approach of Kirby Dick's infamous documentary Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, fearing that I would be unable to stomach such diversions as Flanagan cheerfully nailing the head of his penis to a board. (It helps a little that this act is accompanied by the folk classic "If I Had a Hammer.") As expected, the film is often extremely difficult to watch, though I did manage to keep my eyes open and my dinner down; what took me by surprise was how alternately hilarious and moving it is between bouts of mutilation. Flanagan is as provocative and memorable a subject as Robert Crumb, and while Sick, due to its harrowing subject matter, probably won't find the (relatively) wide audience that Terry Zwigoff's Crumb did, it's in the same ballpark in terms of both ambition and quality. Shot almost entirely on video, sadly, so it looks almost as terrible as Flanagan typically does. Nevertheless, it's essential viewing, provided that you think that you can take it. No distributor yet, but virtually certain to find one by year's end. Rating: *** ½

Speaking of expectations, I've been consistently disappointed by the films that have won Sundance's dramatic Grand Jury Prize in recent years (Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Brothers McMullen, What Happened Was...), and this year's surprise winner, Sunday, continues the losing streak. Granted, David Suchet and Lisa Harrow give astonishing, world-class performances; unfortunately, the gimmicky script into which they've been shoehorned (which somehow won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) lets them down. It's clever, all right, but I didn't believe a word of it. Unlike the similarly fraudulent The Usual Suspects, however, it is, at least, a mildly pleasurable experience in the unfolding, perhaps because it concerns real human beings rather than stereotypical hoodlums. Directed by Jonathan Nossiter; CFP releases it on 22 August. Rating: ** ½

Finally, there's Japan's enervated version of Strictly Ballroom, Shall We Dance?, which I'm tempted to simply ignore, so certain am I that no amount of scathing criticism can prevent it from becoming a runaway foreign-language hit. (Not that I'm anticipating a critical drubbing -- everyone who loved Emma will certainly love this.) Director Masayuki Suo, who also wrote the script, seems to have had Miramax in mind from the get-go, so perfectly is this by-the-numbers charmer tailored to the Weinsteins' predilection for feel-good fluff. Even the dancing is pleasantly mediocre. Your mom will love it, and will ask you plaintively afterwards why more foreign movies can't be like it; try not to visibly wince. Miramax jams it down our collective throat on 16 May. Rating: **

For the record, the features I missed (many to my regret) were: Chronicle of a Disappearance (Elia Suleiman, Palestine); The Apartment (Gilles Mimouni, France); Love and Other Catastrophes (Emma-Kate Croghan, Australia) [currently in commercial release]; Bolshe Vita (Ibolya Fekete, Hungary); Three Friends (Yim Soon-rye, South Korea); The Asphalt Kings (Oussama Fawzi, Egypt); The Father (Majid Majidi, Iran); Al Leja (Ryad Chaia, Syria); Sous-sol (Pierre Gang, Canada); Moebius (Gustavo Mosquera, Argentina); and English, August (Dev Benegal, India). The festival also featured ten short films, of which I saw half; none made much of an impression.

We now return you to Old Hacks/Ancient Novels (e.g. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina), already in progress.

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Because of my immersion in New Directors, I'm a bit late getting to Liar Liar, the latest Jim Carrey cash cow...but let's pretend, just for argument's sake, that you're one of the 37 people in North America who hasn't yet seen it. Should you bother? You could, of course, peruse each of the dozens of reviews accessible through the various search engines available on the web (I recommend the Movie Review Query Engine, myself), looking for those scribes whose aesthetic preferences most closely mirror your own, burrowing through screen after screen of garbled net.prose, hoping against hope that a coherent picture of the picture might eventually emerge. Or, if that sounds a bit too taxing (which is to say, if you have a life), you could instead simply take the following handy quiz. Begin with 100 points; if at least 50 points remain after you've followed the instructions below, you should definitely head to the multiplex semi-pronto:

If you hated last year's Eddie Murphy hit The Nutty Professor, also directed by Tom Shadyac, subtract 10 points.

If you think that the script for a comedy ought to be at least mildly funny, subtract 25 points.

If the film's premise -- a lawyer who can't lie -- strikes you as more appropriate for a five- or six-minute "Saturday Night Live" sketch than for a feature-length motion picture, subtract 40 points.

If you never want to see another goddamn movie about a career-driven, neglectful dad who miraculously learns to appreciate his kid(s), his spouse, and the extraordinary, fragile miracle that is life, subtract 100 points.

If you think Jim Carrey is a funny guy, add 200,000 points.

There, that wasn't hard, was it?

Carrey is the only reason to see Liar Liar. In fact, Carrey is the only reason that we, as concerned citizens, shouldn't form a coalition demanding that every print of Liar Liar be buried 600 miles beneath the ocean floor in containers designed to detonate nuclear warheads upon contact. (Yeah, okay, there's that pesky First Amendment, too.) For generations to come, camp counselors who used to terrify their charges around the campfire at night with the tried-and-true tale of "The Hook" will instead hold flashlights beneath their chins while sepulchrally intoning "imagine that the movie Liar Liar had starred someone other than Jim Carrey!" Exuent children, screaming.

What I'm trying to say is this: Liar Liar is, in every conventional respect, a terrible movie. Script, direction, editing, cinematography, performances by actors who are not Carrey -- all of these things are at best functional, at worst downright incompetent. As a vehicle for someone less inspired -- even a comedian as talented as, say, Robin Williams or Steve Martin or Martin Short -- it would be unwatchable. Carrey, on the other hand, almost makes it work, by sheer force of will. To watch him wrestling with this train wreck of a motion picture is simultaneously painful and inspiring; like him or not, nobody can claim that he phoned it in.

Having said that, I don't know what else to say. There's no point in enumerating the picture's endless flaws, and no way to describe in words what Carrey does to make you forget about them. For example, in what is perhaps the film's funniest scene, Carrey's character, Fletcher, has just discovered that he can no longer lie; to put this to the test, he picks up a blue ballpoint pen and attempts, for about five minutes, to say the words "This pen is red." If you haven't seen the scene in question, I can't imagine that my description reads as terrifically funny; and even if I tell you that Carrey contorts his body and facial muscles in ways that seem physically impossible, and utters sounds that simply should not emerge from the human throat, I still can't even begin to convey how knock-down, drag-out, toss-aside, run-over, scrape-off hilarious this bit is in Carrey's hands. Bottom line: If you like Jim Carrey, Liar Liar is, just barely, worth seeing (preferably cheaply). If you don't, you're better off in any other theater in town, including the ones that are closed and condemned. Unless Ah-Chung happens to be playing in your neighborhood, that is. Gesundheit.

Next week (in all likelihood): Licensed to Kill, A Mongolian Tale, Schizopolis