The Wind in the Willows
Hasty Reviews of Movies I've Been Studiously
Dreadful, no? Thankfully, that is not how Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Rear Window begins. Instead, Hitchcock manages to convey almost all of the information above in a single, eloquent tracking shot that begins with a survey of the apartment complex in which Jeff resides, moves into Jeff's own apartment, travels from his sweaty face to his cast-entombed leg, pans to a thermometer reading ninety-something, pans further to a broken camera on a nearby table, and finally settles on a wall festooned with framed photographs, including one in which a race car is apparently bearing down on the person behind the lens. (It might be two shots, actually, with a cut when the camera enters Jeff's apartment, but same difference.) Even though several scenes pass before Jeff vocally alludes to the accident, we immediately and correctly assume that he broke his leg taking a picture of the car. Why? Because we're not idiots, that's why.
Gattaca, a potentially intelligent science-fiction drama written and directed by Andrew Niccol, makes the crucial mistake of treating its audience like idiots, and thus risks alienating the very people who might otherwise have most appreciated it. The setting -- a sterile future in which most babies are genetically engineered, and the few born warts and all are stigmatized -- is both topical and intriguing; and the opening credit sequence, in which enormous objects that eventually reveal themselves to be magnified fingernail clippings and human hairs fall in slow-motion from the top of the frame, is visually stunning and appropriately subtle. But as soon as the film's protagonist, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), appeared, and began to explain the film's "backstory" to us via monotonous voiceover, I slumped in my seat. Didn't Niccol see the director's cut of Blade Runner? I mean, what the hell?
Vincent, as we learn immediately from his own lips, belongs to the persecuted minority of "de-gene-erates," and thus is doomed to a life of custodial work with the likes of Ernest Borgnine (no, seriously). His dream, however, is to explore new worlds and new civilizations -- to boldly go where only the genetically superior have gone before -- and to that end he adopts the identity of a flawless specimen named Jerome (Jude Law, in the film's only first-rate performance), who's paralyzed from the waist down as the result of being hit by a speeding car. (See how I tie it all together, folks?) Using Jerome's urine and blood to defeat various security measures, Vincent lands a job at Gattaca, the futuristic equivalent of NASA. (This clever name is the only thing in the movie that isn't dutifully explained -- it's derived from the four letters that scientists use to denote the DNA code, which stand for the organic bases (G)uanine, (A)denine, (T)hymine, and (C)ytosine.) There, he falls in love with one of his boring co-workers, Irene (Uma Thurman, boring), and becomes implicated in the murder of one of his superiors when a police search of the building turns up one of his own eyelashes, the genetic makeup of which naturally doesn't match that of any known employee. Soon he's on the run from the law, desperately trying to explain his situation to his befuddled but still boring paramour, and ingeniously distracting our attention from the very theme that the movie ought to have been exploring.
That theme, of course, is the nature of human potential -- are we merely the sum of our genes, or is there something more? (Typically, the film's dopey tagline -- "There is no gene for the human spirit" -- removes all doubt before you've even bought your ticket. For the record, fellas, there's no gene for anything, per se.) Niccol pays lip service to the various disturbing ideas that his Huxleyesque scenario raises, but apparently felt that the audience would tune out if he didn't also provide a murder mystery, a romance, and a silly final-reel plot twist to keep us alert. (The plot twist -- the mind still reels -- leads to the film's ludicrous climax, which is -- I kid you not -- a swimming contest.) Worse, Niccol's lazy, thoughtless writing and direction constantly undermine the occasional moments of intelligence and clarity. Since I approach movies less from the point of view of an aspiring film critic than that of an aspiring screenwriter -- I want to avoid making the dumb mistakes that I see committed on celluloid every week -- allow me to share with you a few rules that I learned, or saw reinforced, while watching Gattaca:
1. Fuck the backstory. Just plunge us into the middle of the narrative and hit the throttle. We don't need to know the history of genetic engineering, and we don't care about Vincent's unhappy childhood. Even if we do, a few offhand lines of dialogue can speak volumes. Do we know, specifically, what happened to Travis Bickle in Vietnam? Not really. Did we need a lengthy Vietnam flashback to get the idea? Hell no (and I'd like to thank Schrader and Scorsese now for not including one). Allude, don't elaborate.
2. Don't narrate. Yes, there are exceptions, but in general, offscreen narration amounts to mere sloth -- it's the bad writer's expository device. If you're tempted to narrate your story, consider what function the narration would serve. In Raising Arizona, Nicolas Cage's mannered narration is almost a character of its own, and provides some of the film's biggest laughs. The Apartment opens with a quick voiceover to establish Jack Lemmon's actuarial mindset, then abandons the device altogether. Martin Sheen's spoken thoughts in Apocalypse Now exude a poetic menace. In Gattaca, however, the only purpose of Vincent's offscreen prattling is to convey a lot of information in a short amount of screen time, which is the single worst reason to include it. There are any number of inventive ways in which Niccol could have clued us in to the nature of his imaginary world; if he was dead-set on simply telling us about it, he should have written a novel.
3. If you must use clichés, throw them away. The dialogue in Gattaca is nothing to write your high school sweetheart about, but the nadir is this exchange between Vincent and Irene:
IRENE I have this crazy idea that you're more interested in this murder investigation than you are in me. VINCENT You're right. Three-year pause during which Niccol cuts to Irene's surprised expression, then back to Vincent. VINCENT (cont'd) That's a crazy idea.Yo, even the folks who painted the Lascaux caves were sick of that one, and the pregnant pause makes it doubly dopey. Moments like this are tolerable if the actors zip through the lines as if the characters know that they're saying the obligatory thing, and are en route to something a bit less hackneyed, but for god's sake don't behave as if nobody had ever thought of them before. And if you're laboring under the impression that nobody ever had thought of them before, hit the VCR, pronto.
4. If you're gonna kill your wife, draw the shades when you dispose of her corpse. Oops, wrong movie.
Herzog: It's obvious to me that you never attended film school. Korine: I hate that shit. It's eating the soul of cinema.
Korine's rather pretentious response is a superlative example of the fine art of "ducking the question." Technically, what he says is probably true -- I think it quite likely that he does hate the concept of film school, and that he truly believes that it's eating the "soul of cinema" (whatever that may be). He also seems to imply, however, via omission, that what is obvious to Herzog is also absolutely correct -- to wit, that he never attended film school, that indeed the very thought of film school is and has been so noxious to him that he'd sooner hire his retarded sister out as a prostitute, or eat a candy bar that had fallen into disgustingly filthy bathwater, than set foot within fifty miles of, say, the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Certainly that's the impression that I would have come away with...if not for the niggling fact that I sat about three feet away from Korine for a year at NYU, where we were both enrolled in the undergraduate Dramatic Writing Program.
I mention his almost-lie not merely to namedrop, or because I'm envious that my erstwhile classmate is already making films while I'm still writing about them (though I'd be as much of a liar as Korine if I denied that those factors play a part), but because it seems to me to encapsulate what Harmony (as I still think of him in spite of his new stature) is all about. Both Kids and Gummo demand, by their lack of narrative structure and their vérité sensibility, to be taken seriously as an accurate depiction of the state of contemporary youth, but both films strike me as utterly phony, a privileged kid's condescending notion of squalor and moral turpitude. Like his lie to Herzog, they're designed to impress the right people and alienate everybody else; the New York Times' Janet Maslin called Gummo the worst film of 1997, and I'll be quite surprised if Harmony doesn't have that review framed on his living room wall.
"So what's this Gummo about?," you're wondering. Frankly, nothing. Or, rather, it's about itself, which is to say that it's about being as repulsively bizarre as possible, the better to create an unmistakable chasm between the hip and the hapless. Set in Xenia, Ohio, a city permanently suffering the aftermath of a tornado that tore it to pieces more than two decades previously, it's a monotonous series of anecdotes designed, Korine's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, to shock and repel, as much by the affectless presentation of its sordid set pieces as by the sordid set pieces themselves. Two dead-eyed kids spend the entire film killing stray cats. Two peroxide-numbed young girls apply duct tape to their bare breasts, then quickly rip it off, hoping to make their nipples more prominent. A group of drunken men beat the shit out of a defenseless folding chair, for no apparent reason. (This scene is admittedly kinda funny.) Somebody removes a picture from a wall and dozens of insects scamper from behind it, to the consternation of nobody. The cat killers shoot a comatose old lady in the foot with a BB gun to see whether she's still cognizant of her existence, then turn off her respirator, killing her. And you didn't think that I invented the retarded girl being pimped by her brother, or the candy-and-bathwater supper, did you?
Etc., etc., etc. There's no point, no story, no character development -- this is all represented as roach-on-the-wall realism, just another day in the life of Xenia. Which would be fine, except that Gummo isn't a documentary, or even a plausible fiction; the film was actually shot in Tennessee, not Ohio, and while some of the footage is reportedly "live" (i.e., unscripted conversations in which non-actors allegedly forgot about the presence of the camera and behaved "normally"), the vast majority of it was scripted, by Korine's admission, and acted by professionals, including Max Perlich (Drugstore Cowboy), Linda Manz (Days of Heaven), and Chloe Sevigny (Kids, Trees Lounge). Korine either invented or (let's give him the benefit of the doubt) re-created every nauseating event that takes place onscreen, and any suggestion that the result is somehow "truer" than the average gangster flick or romantic comedy is laughable nonsense. It's merely "grosser," for lack of a better word -- meaningless sensationalism masquerading as social realism. The target audience for Gummo consists of the people who scoff at the trapeze artists and the lion tamer but salivate at the thought of the geek biting the head off of a live chicken. It's a freak show, and nothing more.
The saddest part of this travesty is that Korine is not without talent. The few moments in which he's not merely posturing, such as one in which Linda Manz dances to Madonna's "Like a Prayer" in front of a mirror, are genuinely touching, and cinematically the film is often remarkable (though much of the credit may go to ace cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier). He has the stuff, I think, to make a movie worth seeing. All he has to do is grow up.
Grahame's novel, as most of you probably remember, is populated entirely by anthropomorphic animals, with Mssrs. Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger defending their meadow from a group of ornery Weasels. The obvious choice, then, in adapting it for the screen, is animation, à la The Rescuers and The Secret of NIMH. Instead, former Python Terry Jones (who also directed or co-directed all but the first of the group's feature films, as well as the so-so Erik the Viking) ambitiously opted to shoot a live-action version, using human actors cleverly dressed and made up to suggest the local fauna.
Eric Idle, for example, who plays Rat, isn't burdened with a silly rat costume; he's simply outfitted with a tail, and a mustache that strongly resembles whiskers. Jones himself plays the motorcar-obsessed Mr. Toad in a fat suit only slightly smaller than the one he wore as Mr. Creosote in the most notorious sketch in The Meaning of Life, plus a greenish-tinged complexion. The Weasels are dressed in identical spectacles and pompadours, with the sole exception of the Chief Weasel (Antony Sher), who's distinguished from the others by his almost bald pate. And so on. It's a bold move, and a smart one -- instead of expending its energy on tedious acting-class exercises ("what I see is an actor demonstrating a mussel. I want you to be the mussel"), the cast is free to concentrate on conveying the wit and whimsy of Grahame's inherently lovable characters.
Unfortunately, it's also free to concentrate on singing the film's several crummy show tunes, each of which stops the picture cold just when it's picking up steam. Who passed a law stating that all lighthearted childrens' films must now be musicals? Can we please suspend it until we manage to train a new cadre of first-rate songwriters? Equally puzzling is Jones' decision to hire outsiders like John Du Prez, Andre Jacquemin and Dave Howman to pen Willows' lifeless tunes, knowing full well that his longtime buddy Idle is a terrific comic songwriter; a couple of numbers as catchy and clever as "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" and the Bruces' Philosophy Song would have made all the difference.
Speaking of Python, this is as close to a reunion as we're ever likely to see; in addition to Jones and Idle, both John Cleese and Michael Palin turn up in small roles -- the former as Toad's rather unsympathetic defense counsel, the latter in a recurring bit as The Sun. All four, however, are ultimately overshadowed by screen newcomer Sher, whose turn as the Chief Weasel is a masterpiece of Snidely Whiplash villainy. As Mrs Brown's Disraeli, Sher was undeniably a hoot, but he was also, as I noted at the time, undeniably at odds with the strictly naturalistic performances by which he was surrounded. This, by contrast, is the kind of outsized role he was born to play, and the malevolent glee evinced by his every facial expression and line reading is the stuff of legend. Hollywood casting agents will be considering him for every maniacal bad guy in every dopey action movie that comes down the pike for the next dozen years or so. Assuming, that is, that any of them actually sees The Wind in the Willows...which seems rather unlikely. Never mind. Sigh.
Succinctly, then, and in rough order of preference:
Every great thing you've heard or read about L.A. Confidential (*** ½) is true -- particularly any kind words you may have encountered regarding Russell Crowe's heartbreakingly intense performance as the thuggish but chivalrous Detective Bud White. (Guy Pearce is almost as good, but I was distracted a bit by his huge fake teeth.) My one qualm, however, is a serious one: namely, that the ridiculously sunny conclusion seems to endorse White's repugnant methods. As in Mississippi Burning, the straight-arrow cop learns that the only way to achieve justice is to beat the shit out of anybody who threatens to subvert it. (It does help that in this case the straight-arrow cop is also an opportunistic, backstabbing jerk.) Nevertheless, not to be missed.
Look up "droll" in your dictionary and see if you don't find a reference to Peter Jackson and Costa Botes' Forgotten Silver (***), a mock-doc that's more clever than funny, but very clever indeed. Detailing the career of an imaginary New Zealand filmmaker named Colin Mackenzie, whose numerous cinematic innovations were forgotten by an indifferent world, it's most entertaining when parodying the conventions of silent epics -- the lengthy clips from Mackenzie's alleged masterpiece, Salome, are too accurate to be hilarious, but they're still great fun -- and the studiously hushed tone of the typical documentary voiceover narration. Slight but agreeable, and at just slightly over an hour it doesn't remotely wear out its welcome.
French director Claire Denis makes exquisitely lush and haunting movies that I invariably find maddeningly opaque; I'll gladly pay $US20 to anybody who can provide me with a rational explanation for the two laughing helicopter pilots at the beginning of her 1995 film I Can't Sleep, for example. Her latest, Nénette et Boni (***), concerns a highly dysfunctional brother-sister relationship, and again certain scenes and moments seem willfully, perversely obscure -- I'm not even sure whether one of the film's most dramatic actions actually took place, and this is not the kind of teasing, playful picture that benefits from that degree of ambiguity (as, say, Belle de Jour is). The actors (including Olivier Olivier himself, Gregoire Colin) are first-rate, however, and Denis' visual sense is typically assured.
Lilies (***), courtesy Canada, is an audacious adaptation of a very theatrical play by Michel Marc Bouchard, which succeeds -- and let this be a lesson to us all -- not because Bouchard and director John Greyson "opened it up," but because they found strong cinematic equivalents to the play's stagebound devices. The conceit is ludicrous -- prison inmates act out events from the lives of one of the prisoners before a Catholic priest, who's been taken hostage and forced to watch -- but never less than fascinating, as present-tense scenes in the prison alternate with both a theatrical presentation within its walls and unconventional flashbacks in which all of the female characters continue to be played by the male prisoners, without an ounce of camp. While the story itself becomes excessively melodramatic, I found the technique used to tell it so riveting that I didn't mind. An experiment that paid off.
Speaking of stage adaptations, The House of Yes (***) provides more ammunition for my contention that "opening it up" is generally a bad move. Apart from a disturbing home-movie prologue and epilogue, director Mark Waters sticks closely to the text and setting of Wendy MacLeod's terrific, perversely goofy incest comedy (I saw and immensely enjoyed the New York production several years ago); while the resulting staginess limits the movie's effectiveness, it also retains the source material's considerable claustrophobic bite. As the blissfully insane Jackie-O, Parker Posey -- hyperactive one instant, insouciant the next -- deservedly won a special acting award at Sundance earlier this year. The rest of the cast, sadly, doesn't quite measure up; even Genevieve Bujold, who's fine, can't live up to my memory of Alison Janney's more outrageously stylized work at the Soho Rep. The somber conclusion doesn't work in either medium, but it's preceded by so much killer dialogue that the anticlimax seems forgivable.
The Edge (** ½), written by David Mamet, is my kinda guy movie, positing as it does that one's ability to survive in the wilderness is determined not by how tough one is, but by how much trivial information one has retained from a lifetime of book-learnin'. (Mamet's script was titled Bookworm; I suppose studio execs feared that that word would frighten their target audience away.) With Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin as the lead actors, and scenery this splendiferous, only a unprecedentedly (from Mamet) mediocre plot could possibly keep me from drooling in my seat...and that's what The Edge is saddled with, incredibly. (It's also saddled with Elle MacPherson, but she's quickly left behind so that the men can be Men.) All is well until Mamet introduces a painfully predictable and totally unnecessary plot twist in the final reel -- as if watching the protagonists fighting the elements and Bart the Enormous Bear weren't drama enough. Oh yeah: Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) directed, if anybody cares.
Talky, charming and reasonably witty, My Sex Life, or How I Got into an Argument (** ½) would have made an excellent 90-minute film, I think. Instead, for reasons beyond my comprehension, it makes a so-so three-hour film. No, that isn't a typo; imagine a three-hour Whit Stillman film, only featuring neurotic self-conscious French intellectuals instead of neurotic self-conscious American preppies, and you've got the general idea. The acting throughout is French (i.e., superb -- I think I'll start using this adjective in other contexts), and there are scattered moments of inspiration (particularly a scene involving a pet monkey trapped behind a radiator), but writer/director Arnaud Desplechin's attempt at making an epic romantic comedy/drama simply doesn't work, and Eric Rohmer he ain't. Much of the verbal humor may well have been lost in the subtitled translation, though.
FairyTale -- A True Story (** ½) isn't, and that's its most glaring flaw. What is true about it is the palpable yearning that emanates from its characters, most of whom desperately want to believe that the fairies photographed by the two little girls are real...because the existence of fairies would constitute proof of magic, and the existence of magic offers hope to a country beleaguered by war (the year is 1917). Unfortunately, the film unequivocally declares that the fairies were real, while also hinting at what we now know to be true: that the girls faked the pictures. So am I saying that my rating would be higher if the film were called simply FairyTale? No. I'm saying that my rating would be higher if the film had been canny enough to offer us the possibility that the girls faked photos of fairies because they couldn't capture the real ones on film (much as the L.A.P.D. probably planted evidence to frame a guilty O.J.). Instead, it flits computer-animated fairies in our faces...and where's the wonder in that?
The first half of the documentary The Long Way Home (** ½), which depicts the arduous journey undertaken by displaced European Jews following the end of World War II, is both moving and harrowing; most of us mistakenly imagine that, occasional pogroms aside, the Jews' troubles ended on V-E Day, and so a reminder that 1945-1948 wasn't exactly a party either is more than welcome. The second half, however, is devoted to the political machinations involved in the formation of the state of Israel, and this is dry, woefully uncinematic material (U.N. roll call, anybody?) that's best left to the history books. Wait 'til it turns up on PBS, when you can change the channel once the monotony begins.
Finally, In & Out (** ½) is Hit & Miss, and not half as hilarious as I'd expected it to be given its sure-fire premise -- a gay man outed during an Oscar acceptance speech on the eve of his wedding to a woman -- and the talent assembled behind the lens. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick is a very funny guy, but he's all too eager to play ball with nervous studio execs; I never thought I'd see a film written by a gay man in which being gay is depicted as an offbeat lifestyle choice involving a desire to boogie to disco music and a keen eye for interior design, rather than as an intrinsic nature involving sexual attraction to other men. Kevin Kline, as the outed schoolteacher, and Joan Cusack, as his unsuspecting fiancée, are French (see above), but this is safe, sitcom-level comedy that takes no risks and consequently hits few giddy heights. A major disappointment; in retrospect, I feel like my rating above is too high.