In 1995 and 1996, I simply went on hiatus during the holidays -- so many friends and relations to catch up with, so little access to a modem. This year, however, is the first in which your average Joe Blow is connected to the Net -- hell, even my freakin' mom is wired now -- so I can occasionally find an opportunity to sit down and play catch-up. Not, mind you, that's there anything to get too excited about: in an unprecedented turn of events, not one of the numerous prestigious December releases (with the caveat that I haven't yet seen Wag the Dog, Kundun, or The Boxer, none of which will be turning up around here ‘til January) is a contender for my annual top ten list. ‘Tis the season to be thoroughly mediocre, apparently; of the nine films I address below, five received my middle-of-the-road, close-but-no-cigar, thanks-for-playing-here's-a-copy-of-our-home-game ** ½ rating, and the other four were either a half-star higher or lower. No masterpieces, no disasters (I wasn't about to waste my time on The Postman or Mr. Magoo) -- just one kinda ho-hum experience after another. There was one near-exception, however, and since I plan to tackle the nine in rough order of preference, I'll get right to it...
A fascinating combination of newfangled technological innovation and old-fashioned cornball melodrama, Titanic is so close to being a truly terrific movie that contemplating its various missteps pains me. As spectacle, it can't be faulted: this is the most remarkable use of digital effects to date, not least because Cameron uses them as a means rather than an end; to the irritation of history buffs everywhere, his subject is not the doomed ship itself but the star-crossed romance between two imaginary passengers: posh but unhappy socialite Rose (Kate Winslet) and poor but irrepressible drifter Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). The liner's encounter with an iceberg and subsequent descent to the ocean floor is faithfully and stunningly re-created (as a non-buff, I was surprised to learn that the impact was so mild that most of the passengers didn't even realize that they were in danger until almost half an hour after the collision), but Cameron, to his credit, rarely strays far from Rose and Jack; even as the last of the lifeboats are being loaded, the amorous pair are dashing through the abandoned interior, knee-deep in water, with Rose's angry fiancé (Billy Zane) hard on their heels, pistol in hand.
Yes, the storyline is simplistic and cliché-strewn, but I'm convinced that this was intentional, and the narrative familiarity and absence of thematic depth didn't bother me in the slightest. Indeed, in a sense Titanic, despite its Hollywood pedigree, is almost an experimental film: thoroughly contemporary in its visual language, but wildly anachronistic with respect to such fundamentals as plot and character -- as if Cameron had directed a long-lost screenplay penned by D.W. Griffith. No, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our script but in our stars, that they did not seem to understand what was required of them. If any movie of the past three decades has absolutely cried out for iconic, larger-than-life Movie Star performances, this is the one; unfortunately, while DiCaprio can be a terrific actor, he's too deeply mired in whichever version of the Method he uses to transcend naturalism. (I can easily imagine him arguing with Cameron about the role -- asking why he couldn't explore more facets of Jack's personality, why he couldn't delve.) Only in his final scene does he properly abandon himself to Cameron's trite, deeply romantic dialogue -- at which point I defy anybody to ignore the lump that's risen, however involuntarily, in his or her throat. Winslet fares only slightly better; she certainly looks the part (and I am going to personally visit and slug all of the cretins on Usenet currently complaining that this perfectly normal-sized and transcendently gorgeous woman is "too chubby"), but never quite achieves the poetic, mythic quality that the role demands -- like DiCaprio, she's working way too hard.
Incredibly, the best performance in Titanic comes courtesy of Zane, an actor who's never impressed me much in the past, but whose deliciously oily, ferociously unctuous, gloriously over-the-top work as Snidely Whiplash (dubbed "Cal" here) should have been used as a template by the rest of the cast. Whenever Zane is onscreen, sneering so hard that you're afraid he might sprain several muscles in his face, it's apparent how extraordinary the film might have been with less moody and self-conscious actors in the leads. (I could also have lived without the New Age ooo-ooo-oooing on the soundtrack, but oh well.) Instead, I often found myself wincing during the dramatic scenes -- not, as many others have, because I found the dialogue ludicrous, but because I could plainly see that the actors didn't believe in it. If you've already seen Titanic, here's a mental exercise: try to imagine, if you can, the exact same movie -- a $200 million 1997 behemoth -- starring the young Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Or, if that's too much of a strain, just imagine a couple of equally talented contemporary actors who somehow haven't been conditioned to see everything in shades of grey; who'd never heard of Marlon Brando; who followed Spencer Tracy's advice about learning the lines and not bumping into the furniture. See if you don't think we'd be talking one of the greatest movies ever made.
Twice this year, I've found myself sitting comfortably in a movie theater in the middle of one of the largest urban centers in the world, many miles away from any kind of farming implement, engrossed by the sight of other people performing manual labor. Unlike Ulee's Gold, however, Sandrine Veysset's stoic Will It Snow for Christmas? doesn't use the methodical, mundane tasks performed by its characters as a counterpoint to a traditional movie plot involving dangerous criminals and unexpected redemption; here, the work that people do defines their lives, which are about little more than harnessing the strength required to get up tomorrow and pick up the hoe again. In other words, it's a movie about sheer survival, which means that I often found it as frustrating as I did fascinating; my empathy for The Mother (sturdy Dominique Reymond) -- who's being used, along with her seven illegitimate children, as slave labor by the brood's jerk of a father (Daniel Duval), whose "real" family lives in relative comfort -- battled my impatience with her weary sense of resignation. Indeed, I often found myself wanting to shout helpful advice at the screen ("pack up the kids and get the hell out of town!") -- a temptation I usually experience only during horror movies ("put down the phone and get the hell out of the house!").
In a sense, Will It Snow for Christmas? is a pastoral horror film, complete with bogeyman and faintly moralistic sexual subtext (this is a picture in which Mom comforts her little ones by telling them about a dream in which their existence in her life is a punishment meted out by God). Its pleasures, such as they are, tend to be incidental rather than cumulative; Veysset's aesthetic and emotional rigor occasionally gives her tale a plodding quality, and what little narrative there is gradually appears to be building towards an obvious, distressingly fatalistic finale -- it's like Fassbinder's idea of a family film. (Alliteration unintentional.) Happily, the movie doesn't quite get there, but nor does it truly arrive anywhere else -- it has what playwright Christopher Durang calls a "dot dot dot" conclusion, in which it's clear that nothing fundamental has changed, or is likely to do so anytime soon. (If the film were to continue for another hour and a half, I can't imagine that the second half would be demonstrably different from the first.) The lack of closure is entirely redeemed, however, by an exquisite, heartbreaking final shot -- it may amount to nothing more than a respite, but it's achingly beautiful all the same.
The most amazing thing about Will It Snow for Christmas?, though, is that it was reportedly a commercial hit in France. The American remake will undoubtedly involve a group of cherubic, precocious kids from Central Casting seeding the clouds from a hot-air balloon in order to ensure that the town's annual toboggan race isn't cancelled.
Congratulate me: I've just been named the Official Spielberg Apologist of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Blame it on the inevitable post-Schindler backlash. Like last summer's The Lost World, Amistad is neither as good as it ought to have been nor as wretched as its detractors claim: it's a fine, skillful drama that suffers primarily from Spielberg's chronic insecurity about whether or not we're being moved by the story he's telling. Thankfully, this unfortunate neurosis manifested itself only occasionally during Schindler's List -- most notably in Schindler's tearful (and wholly fictional) "I could have done more" speech -- but it's omnipresent here, mostly because the music virtually never stops. Even the picture's most placid, least urgent scenes must struggle to extricate themselves from John Williams' hideously sticky-sweet score -- and when Williams cranks it up to eleven, as in renegade slave Cinque's infamous courtroom outburst ("Give us free!"), you may feel an urge to stand at attention, as for the National Anthem. (I settled for suddenly and sarcastically sitting bolt upright in my chair, moving none too gracefully from my usual slumped, knees-on-the-back-of-the-seat-in-front-of-me position. This only confused my companion, though -- she missed the sarcasm entirely, and assumed that I'd just noticed something interesting at the edge of the frame. "What?!" she whispered excitedly. So I advise you to just stay put and grumble.)
If you can tune out the grandstanding reverence, however, you'll find a remarkable story at the film's core -- albeit one that's inspired a lot of misguided huffing and puffing from self-appointed defenders of racial equality. They complain that it's yet another movie in which noble, selfless white guys solve the problems of passive, helpless black folks; I've made the same irritated observation about other films, but this is one of the few instances in which I think that the Eurocentric focus is justifiable, maybe even necessary. Granted, the sequences in Amistad that are depicted from the point of view of the slaves -- their violent uprising on the title vessel, and an almost unwatchably harrowing flashback of their initial capture in Africa and "middle passage" to the West -- are the most effective, but it's their very brevity and (in this context) incongruity that allows them to shock and horrify us. An entire movie told from the slaves' point of view would constitute a mere catalogue of misery -- …and frankly, who needs that? Victimization is dramatic, but it isn't drama per se.
Fortunately, the legal battle to free Cinque and his fellows, while undoubtedly stuffier and less viscerally gripping than the slavery material by which it's informed, is rich and complex enough to sustain interest on its own. It's also -- and I must confess that this caught me completely off guard -- often very funny. There weren't, as I recall, a lot of yuks in Schindler's List, and the self-important trailer for Amistad ("SOMETIMES, [FREEDOM] MUST BE TAKEN…") made it look equally somber and grim; so I was quite surprised, early on, to find myself laughing -- and laughing with the picture rather than at it, more often than not. Perhaps it's this juxtaposition of the playful and the unthinkable that has some folks so riled up; personally, I found Spielberg's modulation of the film's tone masterful, apart from the aforementioned relentless pleading. Amistad is in many ways a missed opportunity, and it by no means deserves the multiple Oscar nominations that it's liable to receive on the strength of the subject matter and Spielberg's name, but it's no dud, either. File it next to the severely flawed but often underrated Empire of the Sun.
Finally, I'd like to put in a good word for Matthew McConaughey, who's been unfairly castigated for his performance as Roger Baldwin, an opportunistic lawyer with (admittedly) a wavering accent. Yes, Anthony Hopkins (a delight as John Quincy Adams; I don't know what the hell accent he's doing, but it works) and Djimon Hounsou (as Cinque) make mincemeat of him -- but c'mon, he wasn't that bad. Not bad at all, in fact. Watch him during Baldwin's brainstorming session with the abolitionists played by Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard (both underutilized), as he outlines the team's strategy, and compare his casual practicality here to his work as a steely-eyed young lawman in Lone Star, or as an affable stoner in Dazed and Confused. Then try to tell me he's yesterday's news. I don't think so. Not yet.
If it does nothing else, Scream 2 conclusively demonstrates that the standard booga-booga method of most horror movies, in which the Fiend Without a Face appears out of nowhere to the accompaniment of a sharp, sudden musical cue (BLAT!), isn't half so nerve-wracking as the skillful use of suspense. Yeah, the audience jumps a bit whenever the knife-wielding figure in the goofy Hallowe'en costume leaps out of the shadows, but those frissons of terror are almost laughable compared to the steadily mounting anxiety that's inspired by the film's best scene; which is also in my opinion the year's best scene; which I might well include in a short list of the decade's best scenes, were I to compose one; and during the whole of which the killer is apparently unconscious and unquestionably immobile. (I'll specify no further, lest I spoil the "fun" for those who haven't seen it yet.) I kid you but little: for about five minutes or so -- or perhaps I exaggerate; it felt like half an hour at the time -- I was scarcely able to breathe...not because I was holding my breath, but because I was trying very hard not to giggle aloud out of combined nervousness and giddy euphoria. The longer the scene continued -- and it's astonishing precisely because it continues much longer than anybody who's seen even three or four slasher flicks would expect it to -- the wider my saucer eyes grew, and the more acutely aware I became of the texture of the fabric covering the armrests surrounding my seat. Like the superb first half of Halloween, it relies on dread and anticipation rather than visceral shocks (the visceral shock that concludes the scene is a big fat anticlimax), obeying Hitchcock's dictum to tease the audience with a shot of the bomb beneath the table rather than simply recording the explosion (BLAT!). We're talkin' a real humdinger of a skin-crawler here.
I've dwelt on this one moment because it's the only thing in Scream 2 that's really worth mentioning; the best I can say for the rest of the film is that it's not bad as unnecessary sequels go. As you might guess if you saw its predecessor, it's fully aware of (and more than a little amused by) its bastard-stepchild status as the hasty follow-up to an unexpected hit; unfortunately, the reflexivity feels a bit forced this time around (the distinguishing characteristics of the horror sequel being less than mesmerizing, frankly), and the whole thing builds to a left-field Scooby-Doo ending that's either way too ridiculous or not nearly ridiculous enough -- I can't decide which. I must confess, however, that I've grown rather attached to Dewey, the sweetly goofy policeman played by David Arquette; in this film, he's given John Travolta's twangy Duane Eddy theme from Broken Arrow, which functions as a terrific running gag. If I bother with the inevitable Scream 3, he'll be the reason.
(I'd intended to begin this review with a disclaimer, but the disclaimer wound up being longer than the review, so I've moved it over here. Read it before or after the review, or not at all, as you desire.)
Got another thought experiment for ya: try to imagine how Pulp Fiction would play if it were re-edited in chronological order. I've just done so myself, and I've concluded that it would be at best intermittently fascinating: long stretches of mild tedium punctuated by occasional flurries of excitement. The various digressions and meanderings of Pulp Fiction as we know it feel so liberating because the movie doesn't necessarily seem to be heading anywhere; we're free to follow it in whichever bizarre direction it cares to unexpectedly lurch, largely unconcerned with its skeletal, fractured plot (much of which makes sense only retrospectively). Destination is everything: if you're hurrying to get to Uncle Everett's before he has a chance to amend the will, you probably don't care to swerve off the highway to check out the genuine two-headed gecko; but if you're just driving for the sake of driving, hey, why the hell not? It's a two-headed gecko!
Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino's first adaptation, has a complicated but conventional plot: it's about a couple of small-timers -- flight attendant/gun courier Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) and bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) -- who join forces to turn the tables on the various authority figures, on both sides of the law, who threaten Jackie's future happiness. (They also fall in love, though it's a remarkably bittersweet romance.) Tarantino tells Elmore Leonard's story chronologically, and the result is at best intermittently fascinating: long stretches of mild tedium punctuated by occasional flurries of excitement ("excitement" !necessarily= "sex and/or violence"). After all of the hullabaloo attending Tarantino's three-year semi-hiatus, it's a relief to see that he still has the touch -- there's plenty of killer stuff here -- but his lazy, hey-what's-this-over-here-in-the-corner style is all wrong for an Elmore Leonard movie, which should be fast and dirty and a lot shorter than two-and-a-half hours; because Leonard, unlike Tarantino, makes you anxious to know what happens next. (This narrative urgency is, along with a limited facility for dialogue, Leonard's only skill as a writer -- his prose is spare almost to the point of nonexistence, and his characterization is Kate Moss-thin.)
What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that this movie draaaaaags. Entire scenes feel sluggish and pointless, mostly because the two-headed gecko and other offbeat attractions weren't on the itinerary. Call me a philistine, but more than once during Jackie Brown the phrase "get to the point" sprang unbidden into my head, though that same phrase lies dormant even upon repeated viewings of the arguably even more discursive Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. When, near the end of the film, Tarantino finally does start monkeying with the chronology, showing a crucial event repeatedly from the perspective of different characters, it's like a sudden dose of oxygen: the mechanics of the plot immediately become secondary, because now we know what happens next (it's already happened). The atmosphere speedily thins, though, because ultimately there's no particular reason for this stunt -- it doesn't alter our perception of events or challenge our expectations in any way. It's a mere gimmick...and that, more than anything else, depresses me, because it reeks of desperation and insecurity. As does, for that matter, Tarantino's decision to adapt a popular novel. Hollywood is crawling with people who can do that; the last thing we need is for one of our few real innovators (and if you want to argue that he's not an innovator, here's where to do it; just be sure to phrase your argument in the form of a question) to waste his considerable talent on frivolous regurgitation.
I have a problem with the character that Jack Nicholson plays in As Good As It Gets, and the problem that I have with the character that Jack Nicholson plays in As Good As It Gets is this: what the hell kind of problem does the character that Jack Nicholson plays in As Good As It Gets have, exactly? On the one hand, we're told that he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and so there are various scenes of the character, whose name is Melvin, avoiding cracks on sidewalks and lugging his own utensils to restaurants and suchlike. Are obsession and compulsion the film's twin subjects? Apparently not, because it's not their manifestation in Melvin's daily life that impedes his budding romantic relationship with waitress and single mom Carol (Helen Hunt). No, Melvin's real problem is that he's a complete and utter asshole, albeit in a funny dry Jack Nicholson sort of way: boorish, self-absorbed, insensitive, bigoted -- "a nightmare," as Carol refers to him in a scene that was apparently left on the cutting-room floor (it's in the trailer). What these personal deficiencies have to do with his mental illness is anybody's guess; I've heard reports that the obsessive-compulsive material was a last-minute addition to the script, intended to make Melvin less destestable, and it feels exactly that opportunistic and contrived: "He's the man you love to hate, and it's okay to love to hate him, really, because the things that you hate about him aren't his fault!" Blech.
As Good As It Gets is crammed with witty throwaway gags and features plenty of first-rate acting, but compared to Brooks' Broadcast News -- still probably the finest sitcom-style movie ever made -- it's a pretty craven, cowardly piece of work. I've seen Broadcast News maybe half a dozen times, and I still don't know quite what I think of Tom Grunick (the William Hurt character) or Aaron Altman (the Albert Brooks character); Grunick comes across as both a shallow egotist and a humble, good-hearted pro, while Altman fluctuates wildly between affability and arrogance. I don't know that I ultimately "like" either of them, but they're fascinating, multi-faceted characters, and J.L.B. demonstrated enormous integrity in settling upon an ending in which his hero, Jane Craig, doesn't wind up in love with either one of them. As Good As It Gets, by contrast, slowly but surely becomes Everybody Loves Melvin, with first Carol and then friendly gay neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear) openly declaring their affection for this deranged man. I didn't believe a moment of it -- not Melvin's transformation, not Carol's growing attraction to him, not Simon's adoring encomiums...none of it. Indeed, the final scene, which seems intended to be deeply romantic and hopeful and life-affirming, struck me as borderline horrific. (How should it have ended? Go rent James Mangold's Heavy, a fine little film with which I only just caught up, the conclusion of which deftly balances the hopeful with the realistic.) As Good As It Gets is undeniably skillful and often very funny, but it's a cop-out; your best bet is to get up and leave following the restaurant scene in which Melvin refuses to dance (easily the best scene in the film), and imagine an epilogue in which he seeks professional help.
I'll spare you the snide reference to the KICK-ME title. You're welcome.
Woody Allen's latest, Deconstructing Harry, is also about a major schmuck (the working title was The Meanest Man in the World), and it's every bit as much a cop-out. In this case, the ugly, selfish words and deeds of the protagonist, celebrated writer Harry Block (Allen), are justified not by illness but by talent: it's okay that he's a creep, you see, because he's also a great artist. Double blech. The movie's theme, reeking as it does of hubris and self-justification, repels me so thoroughly that I wish I could bring myself to flat-out hate the film itself; unfortunately, it happens to be one of Allen's most formally inventive and dazzling works, the cinematic equivalent of one of his collections of New Yorker short stories from two or three decades ago (Side Effects, say), with a bit of his more recent psuedo-verité style thrown in for good measure. And for once, the nonstop parade of famous faces in bit parts is an asset rather than a distraction, since most of the cameos involve characters in Block's fictional universe. Nor will I soon forget its stunning opening -- the first deviation from the standard Allen opening credits sequence in who knows how long, and a mini-masterpiece of non-continuity editing. (Plus I just love "Twisted.") In a lot of ways it's Allen's best movie since Crimes and Misdemeanors. Pity it made me so nauseous.