The Man Who Viewed Too Much
2 March 1998

Nil by Mouth

Written and directed by Gary Oldman
Grade: A-

The Gingerbread Man

Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Al Hayes
Grade: B+

Comrades, Almost a Love Story

Directed by Peter Chan
Written by Ivy Ho
Grade: B

Four Days in September

Directed by Bruno Barreto
Written by Leopoldo Serran
Adapted from the book O Que É Isso, Companheiro? by Fernando Gabeira
Grade: B-

Hurricane Streets

Written and directed by Morgan J. Freeman
Grade: C-


Written and directed by Nick Gomez
Grade: D+

I tend to be skeptical about movies directed by famous actors, but about 45 seconds into the opening credits sequence of Nil by Mouth, Gary Oldman's feature debut, I relaxed, already confident that this was no self-indulgent vanity project cobbled together by somebody keen to give orders rather than take them for a change. If you've seen the film, this may strike you as odd, because nothing terribly exciting happens during its opening minutes; the titles are a spare white-on-black, as I recall, and the entire sequence is intercut with a single medium close-up of the film's abusive husband and father, Ray (Ray Winstone), ordering a round of drinks in a deafeningly noisy club. This plain matter-of-factness, as it happens, is precisely what I found so reassuring. Oldman worked with Mike Leigh very early in his acting career, in 1983's Meantime, and Nil by Mouth begins much the way that Leigh's films tend to, unceremoniously plonking the viewer into its chosen milieu without bothering to narrate or signpost. It takes a fair amount of patience and self-confidence to begin your movie with something as mundane as a guy placidly shouting instructions at a bartender for like two solid minutes, especially if you know that he's not then going to spill the beer on a beautiful woman and thus begin a passionate romance, or be given the wrong tray by mistake and thus wind up mistaken for a notorious drug courier. By the time the sequence had ended, I was prepared to follow Oldman wherever he cared to take me.

Which is a good thing, I suppose, because Oldman's destination isn't exactly Disneyworld. I should warn you up front that Nil by Mouth is the kind of film that many people tend to wonder why the hell they ought to endure: a harrowing, unflinching, largely plotless examination of a brief period in the lives of a handful of very unhappy people, none of whom learns any valuable life lessons before the closing credits roll. Watching it is not "fun" in any sense of the word, and the picture is "entertaining" only if, like me, you feel giddy while experiencing first-rate filmmaking no matter how aggressively bleak the subject matter. I can't even claim that you'll learn anything from it, unless your life has been so sheltered that you can't imagine why a woman might choose to remain with a man who beats her so savagely that her face sometimes resembles John Merrick's, or why a mother who dearly loves her son might knowingly support his heroin habit. Oldman has no agenda here, no message to impart; he simply depicts, with the same acute perception that he's demonstrated time and again before the lens, the pain-addled world of this particular South London family. (I almost wrote 'dysfunctional family,' but that term seems a laughably polite understatement in this case.) The film is reputedly at least somewhat autobiographical, and the mere thought that Oldman may have personally experienced anything like what he's written here makes me fervently hope that he spent many years in twice-a-week therapy...though I imagine that making Nil by Mouth was itself a deeply therapeutic act. The long and the short: not the film to see if your objective is "to unwind." Tell Mom and Dad to stay away.*

Okay, now that I've scared everybody off, here's why I can't wait to see this movie again, horrific or no: Gary Oldman, unless this picture turns out to be a fluke (which I doubt), is every bit as talented a director as he is an actor. Most films directed by actors tend to be, predictably enough, actors' exercises, more interested in the nuances of the characters than those of the camera (cf. Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge, John Turturro's Mac, all of Cassavetes); those that aren't are more often than not overblown, ponderous epics (cf. Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, Mel Gibson's Braveheart, most of Attenborough. Must they keep giving Oscars to these movies? Don't encourage them!). Nil by Mouth is neither. That's not to say that the performers aren't staggeringly good, because indeed they are: Winstone is alternately monstrous and puppy-dog-lovable, and utterly believable in both guises; Kathy Burke, as Ray's wife, Val, deservedly won the Best Actress prize at Cannes last year for her work in this film (though, no disrespect to Ms. Burke intended, I think that part of that award should probably have been given to the makeup artist who created her ghastly facial bruises); Val's drug-addicted brother, Billy, is played with boundless energy and desperate conviction by Charlie Creed-Miles; and Laila Morse, as Val and Billy's sometimes too-supportive mum, is...well, she's really good. Even the minor supporting players register. But their terrific work is supported and enhanced by Oldman's fluid, dynamic direction, which is quietly and subtly magnificent. There are a couple of longish stretches during the film in which he slaps a mournful, bluesy hip-hop track on the soundtrack and just follows one of his characters around London's streets for a while, silently observing, and these occasional respites from the obscenity-laden arguments and pervasive physical and emotional violence are among the most transportingly beautiful sequences I've seen in the past several years. His touch elsewhere is only marginally less assured. For a first effort, this is simply stunning.

If I haven't said much about the plot, that's because there really isn't one; Oldman introduces the characters and sets them in motion, and the rest is appallingly inevitable, if also hideously compelling. My comparison to Mike Leigh in the opening paragraph, while not entirely unjust, is a bit misleading; the harsh, painfully naturalistic world of Nil by Mouth has more in common with Ken Loach's Raining Stones and (especially) Ladybird Ladybird than with Leigh's more mannered oeuvre. (Leigh's Naked is mondo bleako, to be sure, but its dialogue still sounds carefully written, and I just don't think that people like Jeremy/Sebastian really exist.) I'd like to say that there isn't a false moment in the entire picture; unfortunately, there is one false moment, and it's a doozy: a long, ridiculously articulate final-reel monologue by Ray that explains the movie's somewhat cryptic title. (I'll let you find out for yourself.) Winstone does a fine job with the speech, and almost manages to make it work, but near the end he becomes so self-aware that you begin to wonder why he isn't voluntarily trundling off to twice-a-week therapy -- it virtually negates everything he's said and done previous to this monologue. It's the only even vaguely reductive or didactic moment in the film, though, and I can easily forgive it, as I can forgive what I just now remembered is the other vaguely reductive or didactic moment in the film, so okay there are two, this second one being a scene in which one of the supporting characters sings a popular standard the lyrics to which are just a bit too pointed vis-a-vis the personal circumstances of the two main characters who are happily listening to her sing it. (Whoops, there I go into D.F. Wallace mode again. Sorry. I find his prose style addictive.) They're minor, tolerable lapses in a generally tough, uncompromising, and powerful work: the best film of 1998 to date, and the last film that most people are gonna wanna sit through on a Saturday night. Their loss.

*(parental tolerance for grim subject matter based on the author's mother and father, who are more likely to run out and see Krippendorf's Tribe and Blues Brothers 2000, respectively; your parents' tolerance may vary)

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Lord knows I have few fond memories of Robert Altman's last two "personal" films -- the monotonous Kansas City and the breathtakingly awful Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter) -- but that doesn't mean that I would have counselled him to put his iconoclastic imprimatur on a movie derived from the mass-market oeuvre of Mr. John Grisham. Damned if it didn't work, though. The Gingerbread Man, based on an original story by Grisham and written by one "Al Hayes" (reportedly Altman himself), is pretty much indistinguishable from such rot as The Firm and The Client in terms of plot (functional) and characterization (sketchy), but Altman's peculiar, inimitable sense of style -- his stubborn refusal to foreground characters or objects, or in any other way direct your eye; his penchant for rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue; his herky-jerk sense of narrative rhythm -- gives the whole thing an urgency and a sense of genuine mystery that other, more conventional Grisham adaptations have sorely lacked. Examined in retrospect, the story is predictable and derivative, but it doesn't feel predictable or derivative as it's unfolding, because Altman deftly keeps the viewer off-guard for almost the entire picture, simply by not shooting every scene (any scene, really) in the obvious, tried-and-true, anonymous-Hollywood-pro fashion. And yet The Gingerbread Man never seems ostentatiously flashy or forced, either, in the way that Phil Joanou and Danny Boyle's self-celebratory pictures generally do; Altman's visual innovation enhances, not detracts. There should be a special Oscar for this kind of thing: Most Inspired Direction of Material That Should've Gone Direct to Video or Cable or Possibly Even Hell.

A few weeks later, I barely even remember the storyline. As I recall, it's got something to do with an attorney (you don't say) by the name of Rick Magruder (played with a dead-on Southern accent by Kenneth Branagh, in what is probably his best film performance since Henry V) and his relationship with a troubled waitress sporting the truly wonderful name of Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz of Schindler's List) -- a name so mellifluous that I hope you'll forgive me if I repeat it again and again, in full, throughout the remainder of the review. Mallory Doss is being terrorized by her father, a demented old coot played by Robert Duvall, and Magruder is determined, with the assistance of a perpetually soused private investigator (Robert Downey, Jr., who appears to have improvised his entire performance as he went along) and an intrepid assistant (Daryl Hannah, who looks and behaves so little like "Daryl Hannah" that I didn't recognize her until the movie was nearly half over), to help Mallory Doss, said determination being perhaps not entirely unrelated to the fact that Mallory Doss stripped completely naked, for no immediately apparent reason, virtually the first moment that Mallory Doss laid eyes on him. Magruder's act of kindness or self-aggrandizement or both ensnares him in a malevolent web the nature of which I can no longer quite recall, except that it eventually results in the kidnapping of his two beloved children and some not-terribly-interesting revelation concerning a last will and testament. Enough about the plot, in fact, because frankly: who cares? Suffice to say that nothing is what it seems, but in all of the usual ways.

No, what makes The Gingerbread Man worth seeing is its texture, for lack of a better word. Look, for example, at the way that Mallory Doss is introduced, at a party celebrating a recent Magruder court victory, where she's working as a waitress. As Magruder works the room, chatting inconsequentially with one well-wisher after another, the camera finds Mallory Doss...and utterly ignores her, just as it ignores all of the other catering employees (none of whom will play any part in the story that soon develops). Virtually any Hollywood director you can name would have made a point of singling out Mallory Doss from the crowd, of blatantly signaling to the audience that Mallory Doss is an Important Character whose face we should remember (especially given that Embeth Davidtz, no slouch herself in the name department, isn't exactly Demi Moore, fame-wise). Altman, on the other hand, chooses to give us no more information than his protagonist is privy to; we only truly meet Mallory Doss when Magruder does, a bit later on, as he leaves the party and finds Mallory Doss trapped in a downpour and offers to give her, Mallory Doss, a lift home. (Okay, I'm done.)

And that's just one example; given time and a second viewing, I feel confident that I could name several dozen more without even half-wracking my brain. Already I'm itching to describe at length the tension that Altman manages to invest in an utterly banal scene in which Magruder walks through a street fair with his kids, simply by shooting it from far overhead and allowing us to seek out the shot's focus for ourselves. Merely giving the audience an opportunity to think -- not just about whodunnit or the nature of the whatsit, but about what's happening right now -- frays more nerves than a gaggle of car chases or Mexican standoffs. If I had to define Hollywood cinema in a single word, that word would be "pushy"; The Gingerbread Man is hardly Short Cuts or 3 Women or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but it's almost certainly the least pushy Hollywood movie in recent memory, and the only thriller that I can recall in which I wasn't absolutely certain, at every single moment, what part of the frame I was meant to be looking at. If Altman opts to tackle Tom Clancy or Elmore Leonard next, rather than attempt another potential masterpiece/disaster, I'll only be mildly disappointed.

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A man and a woman, in love but not yet lovers, prepare for the woman's departure. It is a bitterly cold night, and the man insists that the woman borrow a few warm garments to wear for the journey. He also, gallant fellow that he is, offers to help her to put them on. Standing inches away, he silently, patiently buttons her into an almost comical succession of sweaters, coats, and jackets, until she looks ready to hop aboard a dog sled and cross hundreds of miles of frozen tundra. His hands move clumsily along her torso again and again, his knuckles repeatedly brushing her belly and ribs and the hollow between her breasts; their facial expressions clearly suggest that their physical proximity is driving them crazy. Finally, the task complete, he bids her farewell. No sooner does he do so, however, then the pair's inhibitions suddenly vanish, and they begin kissing passionately, almost which point the man begins to fumble at the buttons of the outermost layer of her wall of insulation, hurriedly attempting to unfasten everything that he'd just spent several tortured minutes fastening. Only by laboriously erecting a barrier was he able to summon the strength to raze it to the ground.

This hilarious, almost unbearably romantic scene from Comrades, Almost a Love Story -- one of the rare non-action Hong Kong films to get even a token theatrical release in the U.S. -- is something of a microcosm of the entire movie, which is one of those pictures in which two people who are self-evidently made for each other somehow take two hours of screen time to figure that out. The scene actually takes place fairly early on, and though the man and the woman make love, both then and on various other occasions, it will be many years, and they'll have travelled many miles (the movie is set mostly in Hong Kong, but ends in New York City's Times Square), before it looks like they may finally begin to live happily ever after. There are, naturally, impediments: Jun, the man (Leon Lai) is engaged to a sweetheart on the mainland, to whom he feels a strong sense of loyalty and responsibility (even as he cheats on her repeatedly); Qiao, the woman (Maggie Cheung) is more interested in finance than romance, and has no intention of wasting her time with somebody who neither moves nor shakes. It's the Qiao-related stumbling block that forms Comrades' most pointed and potent subtext, as the couple's progress is explicitly linked to the rise and fall of Hong Kong's economy; there were times when I felt that my ignorance of recent HK history was preventing me from picking up on key thematic elements, but the story is so superficially charming that I tried not to worry about it. Instead, I marvelled at how beautifully the coat-bundling scene works as central metaphor: Jun and Qiao seem perversely determined to invent as many needless obstacles as humanly possible before finally succumbing to the inevitable. The film's penultimate scene, in which they finally "get it," is consequently all the more moving. (The final scene is a winner as well, though I saw something I wasn't meant to see in the opening scene, and hence correctly guessed what was to come.)

A romance flat-out does not work if the lovers aren't intensely appealing, and Comrades, fortunately, stars two of Hong Kong's most charismatic actors. Leon Lai, in a performance that couldn't be further from the ice-cool, almost reptilian hit man he embodied in Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels, makes Jun intensely sympathetic in spite of the fact that he's undeniably a naïve, goofy, simpleminded dweeb (at times his dorkiness approaches Pee-Wee Herman levels). Maggie Cheung, similarly, doesn't shrink from portraying Qiao as a mercenary, sometimes heartless, occasionally even cruel woman, yet she never loses sight of the character's essential humanity. With two such likeable, root-for-able protagonists at its center, the film's anachronistically (by Hollywood standards) overcharged melodrama and maudlin tone are at worst forgivable and at best thoroughly enjoyable. Indeed, my only complaint -- but rather a big one -- is that the ways in which Ivy Ho's script (if the writer's name is, indeed, Ivy Ho -- there seem to be contradictory accounts out there that don't simply involve alternative methods of transliteration) conspires to keep Jun and Qiao apart are often so ridiculously contrived that my disbelief came plummeting earthward. In particular, I just did not buy a scene in which Qiao, after agreeing to tell the wealthy gangster with whom she was not-very-passionately involved that she was leaving him to be with Jun, abruptly chose to flee the country with said gangster, leaving poor pathetic Jun standing in one of those symbolic rainstorms that tend to drench poor pathetic movie characters at the most depressing moments in their lives. At moments like this, Comrades felt overlong and underwritten. But -- full disclosure -- I saw this movie the day that I returned to New York from a week-long visit with the woman I love (who has the audacity to live in San Francisco), and I was in no mood to be churlish. Yeah, I know: Awwwww.

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IN BRIEF: I've now seen four of the five pictures nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar this year, and I'm sorry to say that this is the most aggressively mediocre lineup the category has seen since I began paying attention to it more than a decade ago. Four Days in September, the Brazilian entry, is probably the best of the bunch, but it's hampered, as are so many "based on a true story" movies, by its fidelity to the facts; the conclusion, in particular, is a major anticlimax, and I frankly don't care whether that's what "really happened" -- it's utterly unsatisfying dramatically. The film is thoughtful, intelligent, well-acted (especially by Alan Arkin, in a rare non-comic role [rare nowadays, anyway], and Pedro Cardoso), and missing any kind of spark that would make it seem more than merely dutiful. Note to those participating in Oscar pools: Bet on Character. I continue to be bewildered by the aesthetic mindset of the people who attend the Sundance Film Festival every January -- both the official jury and the "civilian" film buffs -- as they regularly bestow awards on well-intentioned piffle while overlooking truly innovative and remarkable work. Hurricane Streets, a trite, painfully hokey coming-of-age tale written and directed by Morgan J. "not the one from Driving Miss Daisy" Freeman, won both the Audience award for Best Dramatic Feature and the jury's Best Director award in 1997; now that I've seen it, I'm at a loss to explain why, especially considering that In the Company of Men was one of its competitors. If I tell you that Freeman highlights the protagonist's status as the most sensitive and emotionally fragile member of a gang of penny-ante teenage thieves in NYC's East Village by making him asthmatic, is that sufficient to keep you away? 'Cause I don't have room to get into how dumb the plot is, I'm afraid. Pretentious, inept, and pointlessly "arty," illtown is a tired old war-of-the-drug-dealers picture tarted up with allegorical character names (Dante, Gabriel, Cisco), Stupid Camera Tricks, bad pseudo-philosophical dialogue, and elliptical editing clearly intended to hide the story's flaws rather than gradually reveal its merits. A host of fine actors -- Michael Rapaport, Lili Taylor, and Adam Trese among them -- are stranded in this wasteland with absolutely nothing to play; let's hear your reading of a line like "I went to Heaven. They kicked me out." (You guessed it, that's Gabriel talking.) illtown even manages to make Taylor seem boring, which is quite a feat. The one redeeming moment: Kevin Corrigan's hilarious (and oddly touching) anecdote about his ex-wife. It's a long, steep drop from the remarkable Laws of Gravity (Gomez's debut) to this fiasco.

Next time (in all likelihood): The Big Lebowski, Funny Games, Men with Guns