The Man Who Viewed Too Much
12 May 1997


Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Written by Jonathan Mostow and Sam Montgomery
Rating: *** ½

Chasing Amy

Written and directed by Kevin Smith
Rating: ** ½


Written and directed by Gregg Araki
Rating: **

The Designated Mourner

Directed by David Hare
Written by Wallace Shawn
Adapted from the play The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn
Rating: **

Diary of a Seducer

Written and directed by Danièle Dubroux
Rating: **

The Bloody Child

Directed by Nina Menkes
Rating: * ½

Ratings are on a four-star scale

As I type these words, the summer movie season is less than a week old. Hollywood's first two juggernauts, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (technically French, but released in the U.S. by Columbia) and Ivan Reitman's Fathers' Day, have been unspooling in theaters for only a few days, and they'll be followed, over the course of the next three months or so, by several dozen more blockbuster-hopefuls, all ridiculously expensive, all clamoring wildly for our attention. History indicates that only one of these behemoths will turn out to be worth the price of a ticket and the hassle of summertime crowds -- two years ago, Apollo 13 was the standout; last year The Frighteners was the only megapic worth writing home about -- and so I'm pleased to announce that the 1997 summer movie season is officially over, and that we all can go home and sit the rest of the hype out. I have seen this year's needle in the massive Hollywood haystack, and I am astonished as you must be to find that it stars Kurt Russell.

Okay, so Breakdown, which opened on May 2nd, isn't a summer movie by a strict definition of the studios' bizarre and capricious rules -- this year, for no particular reason, "summer" as defined by Hollywood began on May 9th. (The way the studios' tectonic plates have been shifting in recent years, "summer" as defined by Hollywood will soon begin in mid-February.) Doesn't matter. While I'm not suggesting that it's impossible that a more satisfying and entertaining big-budget movie will turn up at your local multiplex before Labor Day, I think it pretty darn unlikely...not because Breakdown is so staggeringly brilliant, but because it's the kind of workmanlike, sturdy action picture that Tinseltown should be churning out every other week but in fact manages to deliver only once in a blue moon. There's really nothing exceptional about it, except that it works. And if you're thinking that that shouldn't be exceptional, especially given the virtually unlimited resources the major studios possess...well, the line at the complaint window forms behind me.

A brief list of things that Breakdown decidedly is not:

Original As just about every critic in the western hemisphere has noted by now, Breakdown is an almagam of half a dozen celebrated pictures, including The Vanishing (woman mysteriously vanishes while on road trip), Duel (everyman menaced by guy in huge rig), Deliverance (hapless city folk experience rude awakening in the boondocks), and about half of Hitchcock's oeuvre. Nothing here you haven't seen before.

Profound Don't expect any kind of insight into human nature; Breakdown's characters are purely functional, and the film isn't about anything except the next hairpin curve in the road. If you seek sharp dialogue, subtle characterizations, or social commentary, you'd best look elsewhere.

Progressive In addition to the clumsy and glib class-struggle "subtext," which is really just an excuse to depict good ol' boys as the embodiment of evil, Breakdown also features the traditional He-Man Risks All To Save His Dearly Beloved And Utterly Helpless Woman narrative. As much as I enjoyed Breakdown, I can't help wishing that for once Kurt Russell (or whoever) were in jeopardy, and that Kathleen Quinlan (or whoever) was the one who had to brave the elements and cling to the bottom of speeding sixteen-wheelers.

Plausible I believe "Yeah, right" is the operative phrase.

All of that being the case, why the hell am I so enthusiastic? Because Breakdown delivers what it promises: thrills, excitement, suspense, gut-churning kinetic mayhem -- and does so without insulting the audience's intelligence. Yes, the plot is ridiculous, if carefully examined; but hefting your disbelief into the air, where you can comfortably ignore it, should be as effortless as bench-pressing a barbell made of cotton candy. This is about as pure as action gets: no hip one-liners, no distracting sidekick or love interest, no labyrinthine, incomprehensible backstory involving stolen floppy disks or covert government operations or diabolical schemes to undermine the nation's socio-economic infrastructure. What we have here is elemental: hero loses something valuable, hero struggles to regain it. Hero encounters obstacles, hero overcomes obstacles. Simple, direct, clean.

This kind of thing looks deceptively easy, but in unskilled hands the straightforward often becomes the mundane and uninvolving. Director Jonathan Mostow, who also cowrote the screenplay, appears to have been blessed with an innate understanding of the mechanics of cinematic suspense; Breakdown is his first feature, but every frame is so confident and unfussy that it looks like the work of an old pro. Unlike the odious Michael Bay (The Rock), for example, Mostow trusts his audience enough to let scenes play out at an unhurried pace. That's not to say that Breakdown ever meanders -- in fact, it's a model of narrative economy -- but nothing ever seems rushed or frantic or desperate; I was on the edge of my seat throughout, but I never felt the director's hands pressing at my back, shoving me toward the screen. Such respect is so rare nowadays in Hollywood movies that I'm inclined to be a bit more generous with my star rating than I might otherwise have been -- in another context, Breakdown might have struck me as a respectable three-star picture, but after being bludgeoned by the likes of Twister and Batman Forever and Broken Arrow, its no-nonsense professionalism seems like a revelation. (Remember, my star ratings indicate how much I enjoyed the movie, not how objectively good I think the movie is.)

The final reel or so of Breakdown, unfortunately, is a bit of a letdown, relying as it does upon standard-issue chases'n'explosions, as well as contrivances that make that cotton-candy barbell momentarily feel like hefty bales of cotton. And there's a gratuitously ugly moment in the final scene that represents everything that's wrong with most of the other recent films in the genre -- you'll know exactly which moment I'm talking about when you see it, because you'll wince and turn away in disgust at an event that was clearly intended to make you cheer approvingly. In spite of these flaws, however, I left the theater in a terrific mood. After peering into my trick-or-treat bag, house after house after house, only to dejectedly observe each time that "I got The Rock," someone finally gave me a damn candy bar. (Explanation of cultural allusion available on request -- I think Dennis Miller might reject that one as too obscure.)

Oh, and did I mention that J.T. Walsh is in this film, in a significant role? If the paragraphs above aren't incentive enough, the prospect of seeing perennial bit-player Walsh onscreen for more than three minutes at a time oughta do it. Somebody give this guy a protagonist. He's paid his dues.

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I'm a bit late getting to Chasing Amy, reason being that I avoided seeing it for the first month or so of its New York release, reason for that being that I am not, to put it kindly, director Kevin Smith's biggest fan. I suspect that I may be the only person on planet Earth -- no, literally -- who thought his viciously panned sophomor(e/ic) effort, Mallrats, to be a marked improvement on his unaccountably acclaimed debut, Clerks...and the former made my ten worst list for 1995, so you can imagine -- or perhaps you can't -- how intensely I loathed the latter. Combining the studiously terrible acting of forgettable off-off-off-Broadway theater, the maturity level of a John Landis picture, the acute social perception of Simpson juror Brenda Moran ("what does domestic violence have to do with murder?!") and the visual aplomb of an Etch-a-Sketch as wielded by a paraplegic lemur, Smith's first two films represented a new nadir in the annals of independent cinema, at least in my eyes. Forced to choose whether to toss the only life preserver on the ship to Kevin Smith or Tony Scott, treading water side by side, I'd probably opt to dive overboard instead, in utter despair.

Early reports from Sundance that Chasing Amy represented a "return to form" for Smith, therefore, didn't exactly motivate me to dash to a nearby theater. Eventually, however, a feeling of semi-professional obligation prevailed, and I reluctantly paid my $4 (the cheapest deal I could find in the area) and sat down, prepared for the worst. But what's this? Halfway decent performances? Longish stretches of reasonably clever and funny dialogue? An appealing and sometimes genuinely affecting romantic streak? A modicum of restraint -- dare I say maturity? And...wait a minute...this can't be this movie making one of the gutsiest, most subversive moves I've ever seen onscreen? Am I in the right auditorium?

Chasing Amy isn't entirely successful -- Smith still has a lot to learn about using a movie camera, and his maturity level, while improving, still leaves something to be desired -- but it's unquestionably a substantial leap forwards. For the first time, he actually appears to give a damn about his characters and their predicaments, and to have spent some time thinking about how their various desires and obsessions and needs and neuroses affect their relationships. For example, male sexual jealousy plays a significant role in both Clerks and Chasing Amy, but whereas in Clerks Smith merely mined the topic for crass jokes, in Chasing Amy he actually appears to be critical of his protagonist's behavior (while still mining it for crass jokes). In fact, one of the most impressive aspects of Chasing Amy is that its alleged hero is often wildly unsympathetic, and intentionally so -- a bold move in an industry where the primary concern of almost every functionary is ensuring that the main character is constantly likeable.

That's not, incidentally, the incredibly gutsy and subversive move to which I alluded a moment ago (and don't try to pretend, if you haven't seen the film -- or perhaps even if you have -- that you're not curious). Nor am I talking about the extended spoof of Jaws' dueling scars sequence, with its no-holds-barred discussion of the perils of cunnilingus, though that bit is far and away the funniest in any of Smith's three films. I'd never be so callous as to give the game away, but suffice to say that Smith's take on the buddy film is refreshingly unique; there's a moment in Chasing Amy that I've literally been waiting for for years, and I'll always retain at least a smidgen of respect for him, regardless of where he goes from here, for being the first person in movie history (to the best of my knowledge -- corrections welcome) to state the glaringly obvious.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Smith is still Smith, and consequently much of Chasing Amy is borderline unwatchable. The most painful scene features Smith himself, as his recurring and irritating character Silent Bob, who delivers a long, tedious, and totally unnecessary monologue that not only explains the film's title (wow, it's a metaphor!), but essentially functions as both a pointless summary of The Story So Far and a feeble, simplistic moral. Also problematic is Joey Lauren Adams, Smith's offscreen paramour, as Alyssa, the lesbian who unexpectedly falls head over heels for Holden (Ben Affleck), to the consternation of Holden's best friend and business partner Banky (Jason Lee). (Sorry, just realized that I haven't even begun to address the film's plot. Too late now, really.) Adams does decent work, and seems fairly talented, but she's required by the script to shout at great length on several occasions, and her squeaky voice is so unpleasantly strident that these scenes are almost unbearably grating, which is clearly not the intended effect. (Imagine Jennifer Tilly in Glenn Close's Fatal Attraction role, for instance, and you'll get the general idea.) And, of course, there's plenty more of Smith's inimitable wit, which, with occasional exceptions, I continue to find about as hilarious as thiamin hydrochloride.

Still, I find myself in a totally unexpected position: I'm actually looking slightly forward to Smith's next movie, if only to see whether his progress continues. At any rate, I've made up my mind: Smith gets the life preserver. Unlike Tony Scott, he at least appears to be trying.

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If my closing remarks about Kevin Smith and Chasing Amy struck you as familiar, you're probably a long-time reader with a good memory -- I came to the same conclusion about Gregg Araki, two years ago, after seeing his promising The Doom Generation: didn't quite work, big improvement (in this case, over Araki's noxious The Living End), looking forward to the next one. In one of those fortuitous coincidences for which those of us looking for clever segues are forever grateful, Araki's follow-up, Nowhere, has just opened. Sadly, it's a case of two steps forward, one step back.

To be fair, it's entirely possible -- more than likely, in fact-- that I just plain didn't get this one. Where the two previous Araki films that I've seen focused on two or three central characters, Nowhere roams all over the map, Altman-style (it can't be a coincidence that its opening titles echo those of Short Cuts), following the intertwining paths of a dozen or more attractive and confused high school students over the course of a very bizarre and traumatic day. It struck me as an apocalyptic, SoCal Dazed and Confused, but apparently that's only because I don't watch television -- everybody else has immediately recognized it as a knowing, surreal parody of shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. Unfortunately -- or is it fortunately? -- I've never seen so much as twenty seconds of either of these cultural landmarks, so I imagine that a lot of the intended humor flew right over my head. One upsetting subplot involves an actor from Baywatch, playing a twisted, repulsive version of "himself" -- trouble is, I had no idea who he was until several hours after the movie had ended. There are also endless TV-related cameos, only a few of which I recognized (Christopher Knight and Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch have a mildly funny bit as a Scandinavian married couple); my girlfriend spent most of the walk home explaining the gags to me.

I'm therefore in the unenviable and ridiculous position of reviewing Nowhere for the four other people in North America who only use their television sets as expensive monitors for their VCRs and laserdisc players. There is, as it happens, something for we happy few to grasp onto -- Araki doesn't depend entirely upon the viewer's familiarity with his sources of inspiration, and the film isn't merely an extended spoof. As in the director's previous work, there's a deadly serious undercurrent lurking beneath the glaring primary colors and the stylized teen lingo; as superficially playful as his films generally are, ultimately each one is a tragedy. In Nowhere, however, Araki's ambition works against him: because he includes so many characters, and because they tend to be more or less indistinguishable (virtually without exception, the dramatis personae consists of hedonistic, unhappy children), it's difficult to find an emotional foothold. The only character worth caring about is Dark, a bisexual romantic with a camcorder permanently attached to one shoulder, who just wants to be loved is that so wrong?! But even he seems wan and lifeless, because he's played by Araki regular James Duval, whose performance never varies, regardless of whether he's acting in The Doom Generation or Independence Day. I liked Duval the first time I saw him, because I assumed his Keanu-on-heavy-medication routine was satirical, but he's trotted it out twice since, and it's getting old fast.

So, for that matter, is Araki's obsession with doomed youth. But there's hope: Nowhere is reportedly the final film in a loose trilogy that began with his second feature, Totally Fucked Up (which I haven't seen); and Araki, who is approaching middle age, and who has referred to himself as a gay man in every interview that I've ever read, is reportedly involved with a woman at present. I'm guessing that the word "departure" may crop up in reviews of his next work. If I'm lucky, the word "Baywatch" will not.

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IN BRIEF: Wallace Shawn is best known to American filmgoers as a first-rate character actor (The Princess Bride, Vanya on 42nd Street, etc.), but he's also, in his quiet, unassuming way, one of the country's most daring and controversial playwrights, specializing in devil's-advocate exercises that challenge the complacency of the genteel folk who can still afford to attend the theater. His latest, The Designated Mourner, has been adapted for the screen by another esteemed playwright, David Hare, who retains the stage production's original cast. Despite the nominal presence of Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser (neither of whom seems comfortable with Shawn's florid language -- Richardson looks like she's auditioning for something, and badly), the film is essentially an extended monologue delivered directly to the camera by director (and, lest we forget, former comic) Mike Nichols, whose simultaneously engaging and disturbing performance is its greatest strength -- I enjoyed his work here more than any movie he's made since, oh, Carnal Knowledge (1971). But Shawn's scenario -- a nightmare future in which the fine arts and those who care about them have been systematically eliminated, as cheerfully and cogently defended by proud lowbrow Nichols -- is less provocative and challenging than it might have been; and while Spalding Gray can get away with not budging from his chair for 90 minutes in what is allegedly a motion picture, it's still a generally inadvisable choice for this particular medium. Worthy, but dull. Equally literate, and equally flawed, is Danièle Dubroux's Diary of a Seducer, the dispassionately zany tale of a French lothario who seduces women with the aid of a magic copy of Kierkegaard's volume of the same title. For a movie about obsession that includes such wacky plot twists as a corpse in the refrigerator and a cross-dressing houseguest, it's remarkably staid; and while individual scenes often work beautifully (the ones involving Dubroux herself and Mathieu Amalric are especially strong), the picture as a whole is both incoherent and too cute by half. It does, however, feature an original score by Jean-Marie Sinia that's so magnificent that I'd be grateful for any leads in securing a copy of the soundtrack CD. Thanks in advance. Why is The Bloody Child called The Bloody Child? I don't know. Why is the 'L' in the film's title represented onscreen by a vine-covered tree, when no such tree appears or is even alluded to in the film itself? I don't know. Why has director Nina Menkes included, in her fractured, elliptical, torpid examination of a murder near a U.S. military base, a great deal of footage shot in Africa years earlier for a completely unrelated project, none of which in any way clarifies or enhances the surrounding material? I don't know. Why are we expected to be enthralled or fascinated by repeated, lengthy shots of Marines conversing at such a distance from the lens that we can make out neither their facial expressions nor their words? I don't know. Why do so many intelligent, thoughtful cinéastes consider this film a major work of art? Beats the shit outta me, folks. My impatience with feature-length non-narrative filmmaking is one of the few constants in my life; if you're keen on this kind of thing, by all means, check it out.

Next week (in all likelihood): La Promesse, Night Falls on Manhattan, The Van