Films Seen July 2000

Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom): C

Just ordinary people with their everyday problems. Too ordinary and too everyday for my taste, alas -- been-there-saw-that levels alarmingly high (I predicted exactly which tentative grace note the film would end on, roughly an hour beforehand), and Winterbottom's juxtaposition of Dogma-style immediacy and tricked-up expressionism seems more like a distraction from the script's inadequacies than like any kind of coherent vision. Performances nothing special, either -- competent, certainly, but little more. Underwhelming all around, really. What are people are so excited about? You'd think nobody'd ever made an ensemble piece about sub/urban alienation centered around three sisters before.

Cecil B. Demented (John Waters): C

Not so much a movie as an extremely long, sporadically witty promo for the Independent Film Channel. Waters has never been much of a visual stylist, and he's certainly no deep thinker (not to say that he's stupid, mind, but his movies aren't remotely about ideas); it's as a provocateur, not as an auteur, that we value him. Now that folks as diverse as the Farrelly Bros and Todd Solondz have usurped his role as trangression's point man, however, his work seems flat, uninspired, oddly devoid of purpose. (See Dennis Harvey's fine piece in the new Film Comment for a more in-depth exploration of JW's perhaps inevitable obsolescence.) Lately, he seems content merely to spin his once-anarchic wheels, offering lame, sub-Leno gags about Patch Adams: The Director's Cut and verging more often than not into circle jerk territory; when no fewer than ten (10) of Demented's cronies stepped forward, one at a time, and proudly displayed a tattoo featuring the name of a prominent indie icon (everybody from Herschell Gordon Lewis to Spike Lee), I felt like I ought to be taking notes -- and for a class I'd audited many years previously, no less. Melanie Griffith has a little fun with her image makeover as a trash-talkin', budget-scornin', autonomy-espousin' cinematic freedom fighter, and Stephen Dorff is at least consistently manic, but this paean to the spirit of guerrilla cinema amounts to little more than a weary battle cry directed at its director's numerous successors. Cecil be devoid. [TONY #255]

Hollow Man (Paul Verhoeven): B

Satisfyingly nasty, from its startling, gruesome opening scene until just before the requisite overextended climax (another tedious exercise in serial spontaneous resuscitation). Verhoeven's presence admittedly feels a bit muted here, his subversion of Hollywood tropes rather perfunctory -- though it can't be an accident that ostensible heroes E. Shue (reverting to the prettily bland quality that she perfected for Cocktail) and J. Brolin Jr. (looking for all the world as if he's mistakenly wandered onto the set from a fitting for a GQ layout) both come across as more vacant than the eye sockets of Bacon's latex life mask, whereas Bacon's performance gets more and more vivid even as his temperament grows more and more vicious. Sporting a smile that forever seems to be on the verge of curling into a sneer (and often does), the Kevster has always excelled at lending a touch of humanity to flawed, fundamentally unsympathetic protagonists; the visionary genius/arrogant jerk he plays here might be an older version of Fenwick, the intelligent but immature layabout he played in Diner. Needless to say, his invisible dude pays for his transgressions...but the movie celebrates the character's anarchic impulses all the same, and I must confess that I got a guilt-edged charge from its brand of sadistic mischief. Special effects are pretty keen, too, both in the transformation sequences and in the numerous inventive ways that Bacon's familiar features are revealed after he vanishes -- I'd expected little more than a voiceover, but he's very much present. Ultimately, Hollow Man does seem a little, yeah, hollow -- certainly it lacks the emotional pull of David Cronenberg's superficially similar remake of The Fly -- but it diverted me while I was watching it, and that's all that I ever ask. [TONY #254]

State and Main (David Mamet): A

[Review withheld until first public or critics' screening; I was kindly permitted to attend one set up only for feature editors and other bigwigs. But this is the funniest movie I've seen in years -- sort of a sweet-natured variation on his equally hilarious Speed-the-Plow. It's about purity. Go you Huskies!] [Opens 22 December 2000 in NYC.]

Space Cowboys (Clint Eastwood): C+

Clint, buddy, please, as a favor to me: read the damn scripts! Certainly there's no denying your mastery of the medium, and your semi-anachronistic instincts are a national treasure; but really, the sow's ear thing has gotta stop -- in case you haven't noticed, your last few purses wound up being constructed from something a lot less sumptuous than silk. And this latest one begins so sublimely, too, with Lennie Niehaus' elegiac, Unforgivenesque guitar noodling accompanying a lovely view of the earth as seen from outer space, over which you superimpose the film's title -- adjective and noun evoked by image and sound, respectively. Gave me chills. Ditto the subsequent shot of a flat, arid b&w landscape, quiet and still until a jet plane unexpectedly roars into the frame from the distant horizon, so quickly that it vanished almost before its contour had registered on my retinas. Elegant, confident...perfect. Then the characters started talking, and the plot kicked in, and phfft. Honestly, I stuck with this one for quite a while -- giving you the benefit of the doubt; trying not to wince at all the generic codger humor (Sutherland's dirty-old-man routine gets tiresome fast, for the record); overlooking the rather obvious fact that Tommy Lee Jones is a good decade younger than the rest of Team Daedalus; enjoying the easy, grizzled rapport among a group of actors who've collectively appeared in over 300 feature films and have nothing left to prove. But I'm afraid you lost me completely with that third-act plot twist. You know what I'm talking about: the big Skylab-related revelation that turns the picture into a melanin-free version of Armageddon. 'Fess up: did you make even a token effort to establish any kind of real-world plausibility? Or were you afraid -- and rightly so, I might add -- that if anybody looked at that part of the screenplay too closely, they'd discover that the movie's basic premise was suspect? And did you bother to check out the CVs of the dudes who wrote this mess? One of them was responsible for Muppets from Space! He specializes in STUPID SPACE MOVIES! You need to know these things. You need help. Please, hire an assistant who can distinguish between good writing and bad. You only have a few movies left. [TONY #254]

New Waterford Girl (Allan Moyle): B

Let's see: the protagonist is a small, dark, intense girl given to fits of melancholy. Her new friend/nemesis, blonde and vivacious, flaunts her contempt for societal convention and spends much of the film clocking people who incur her wrath. Can't say for sure, since I strenuously avoided the object of comparison (Oscar or no, Angelina Jolie in feisty mode makes me itch), but isn't this basically New Waterford Girl, Interrupted? No matter: while Sheila Fish's coming-of-age scenario -- small-town rebel seeks escape, adventure, adulthood -- doesn't exactly till new soil, her sharp, singularly witty (and plainly autobiographical) script compensates with a strong sense of locale (suggested tourism slogan: "Cape Breton -- Dreary, but Evocatively So!"), a wealth of wonderfully offbeat details, and a welcome tendency to veer in unexpected directions. Moyle and his cast wisely refrain from playing wink-wink games with the audience, allowing them to sell such potentially precious conceits as Lou's ability to determine a man's guilt or innocence via a single punch; even the film's loopiest moments are staged with near-Bressonian rigor, to hilarious effect. Late in the film, our distraught heroine pleads to the heavens for a sign, just any kind of a sign...whereupon a strange young man wanders into frame, apparently out of nowhere, explaining with great significance that the sweater he's wearing happens to be the very same one that his mother had on when she died, right after eating a peanut butter sandwich. As he saunters away, she turns to her pal, furrowing her brow: "That wasn't actually helpful, was it?" Maybe not, but it made my day. [TONY #253]

The Tao of Steve (Jenniphr Goodman): C+

Word on the street was that Donal Logue handily walks away with this Sundance fave, and yes indeed he does -- though that's largely because the film itself, made with enthusiasm aplenty but little narrative imagination and zero visual flair, is so generically featherweight, so determinedly flimsy, that only Logue's extra girth prevents it from blowing away in a light Santa Fe wind. Co-written by the director's sister (CAUTION! CAUTION!) -- who also plays the female lead (WARNING! WARNING!) -- in collaboration with the guy who inspired the main character (ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!), it turns out to be yet another tale of arrested adolescence, featuring a scheming but fundamentally decent lothario who learns to express emotional vulnerability once he meets the right woman; apart from the size of its protagonist (is it supposed to be a revelation that overweight guys can manage to get laid by being sufficiently witty and charming?) and the titular romantic philosophy (basically an XY variation on The Rules, emphasizing detachment, apathy, and the actually-not-entirely-unsound notion that "we pursue those things which retreat from us"), there's little to distinguish it from the approximately 50 similar low-budget indies each year that screen twice at the IFFM before being consigned for eternity to a shelf in somebody's garage. Good for a few laughs, I'll concede (though it's probably significant that I can't recall a single one of them a week later), but mostly it follows a very familiar trajectory in an utterly nondescript manner; even Logue's roguish, immensely appealing (but undemanding) performance gradually wears thin. (I suspect it'll be overpraised, simply because he's a new face -- at least in a role of this, uh, magnitude -- and we're unaccustomed to his mannerisms.) Not a bad movie, just a thoroughly innocuous one : you'll smile, you'll shrug, you'll have to stop and think for a moment five years hence when somebody asks whether you saw it. Presuming anybody would even bother to ask, that is. [TONY #254]

Nurse Betty (Neil LaBute): C+

Sure, Being There was a fine comic fable -- "full of savagely witty comments on American life in the television age," per Maltin -- but really, wouldn't it have been just that much more enthralling had Chance the gardener been unwittingly on the run from a couple of squabbling hitmen? If there were drugs stashed in the trunk of his car? Adds some much-needed edge, no? {Sigh.} LaBute, directing somebody's else script for the first time, seems confused about whether he's making another subversive arthouse picture or a bit of high-concept fluff, and winds up fumbling with aspects of both, though only the contrived, crowd-pleasing elements really work. Chief among these is a truly inspired, deliciously extended sequence in which Betty's delusion is misinterpreted, Kosinski-style, as the unconventional audition of a very committed and persistent Method actor, culminating in a knuckle-biter of a meltdown that provides the solipsistic catharsis I'd expected from The Truman Show. Terrific stuff, particularly Zellweger's intense, increasingly disturbing performance; unfortunately, it follows an hour or more of tiresome setup -- jam-packed with irritatingly trite comments on American life in the television age (an age America is arguably no longer in, or at least beginning to move out of); attenuated by frequent cutaways to the screen's latest pair of squabbling hitmen (whatever the hell Chris Rock is doing, he should have been doing something else); and just generally other than involving. (Plus, there's something fundamentally wrong with a Neil LaBute movie in which you're relieved when Aaron Eckhart disappears from view; that he was better utilized in Erin Brockovich is one of the year's least pleasant surprises.) Persistent attempt to thematically rhyme Charlie's idealization of Betty with Betty's idealization of Dr. David Ravell comes off as painfully self-conscious; revelation at film's end, despite being expertly foreshadowed, comes off as desperately ad hoc. Pretty flimsy, really...yet that one sequence refuses to vacate my brain, and I'm likely to see the film again if it turns up at Toronto (yes, I'm going this year), just to re-experience those 15 minutes. Make of that what you will. [Opens September 2000 in New York City.]

Chuck & Buck (Miguel Arteta): C+

[slight spoiler, but you'd have to be pretty dim not to see it coming]

Unquestionably a crock -- and a hideously ugly crock at that, its murky medium and long shots making the Digital Revolution feel more like a threat than a promise -- but what kind of crock depends upon which of two possible movies actor/screenwriter Mike White was attempting to make. If he began with the premise of two men who'd experimented sexually as children, one of whom still desires the other in adulthood, then infantilizing the aggressor was a chickenshit move, clearly designed to elicit easy sympathy. (I'm seeing comparisons made to Rupert Pupkin, but the genius of De Niro's characterization is that Rupert never ever ever ever ever comes across as adorable or misunderstood.) On the other hand, if the point of departure was the theme of arrested adolescence, made literal in the form of man-child Buck and his longing to return to carefree days of endless oodley oodley oodley fun fun fun (whoever wrote that song is dead meat, by the way -- reverberated in my brain all weekend long, and even repeated and potentially inflammable substitutions of Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" couldn't exorcise the damn thing), then introducing the sexual element was unforgivably crass -- little more than a misguided attempt to give what's essentially a small, delicate story some indie-cool "edge." Either way, the result is glaringly phony (although considerably less so than Arteta's previous effort, thankfully), culminating in a ludicrous, because-the-script-says-so climax that simply would not happen as depicted, period, no arguments, didn't even buy it. (Chris Weitz's passive, monotonous performance as the film's shallow object of desire doesn't help matters; he so successfully voids Charles of any interior life that he has nothing to give when his big moment finally arrives.) Most irritating of all, however, are the numerous scenes depicting the creation of Hank & Frank...because, miraculously, they work like a charm (apart from being hideously ugly, I mean), thus making it impossible for me to do the full-on Bristol stomp that catharsis demands. Every time Lupe Ontiveros appeared onscreen as house manager Beverly, effortlessly juxtaposing maternal warmth and deadpan attitude, I prayed that the narrative would abandon the two tedious title characters and follow her around instead. Movie acting doesn't get much more oodley oodley.

What Lies Beneath (Robert Zemeckis): C-

Grade's a bit misleading, as it's really more of a B-/D- split...or, to (a) put it another way and (b) offer the hard-up DreamWorks publicity department a potential blurb, this is "far and away the best crappy movie I've seen so far this year!" Derivative proficiency and hackneyed clumsiness duke it out throughout acts I and II, with Zemeckis's expertly deliberate pacing and Pfeiffer's superbly volatile performance establishing an atmosphere of palpable unease that's only occasionally undermined by clunky exposition and laughably blatant setups for forthcoming twists. (One extra to another, of a drug that causes motor paralysis in mice: "So, does this work on all mammals?") As matters turn from suggestive to explicit, however, plausibility and coherence gurgle down the drain; the climax, in which a perfectly ordinary character abruptly metamorphoses into an indestructible horror-movie psychopath, must be seen to be derisively hooted at. I spent practically the entire picture on the edge of my seat -- sometimes due to a shift in posture provoked by nervous tension, but more often because of my increasing desire to flee the theater before something really stupid happened. Note to self: trust instincts. [TONY #252]

Girl on the Bridge (Patrice Leconte): C

Stylish enough, I suppose -- it's a pleasure, if nothing else, to see b&w photography that actually emphasizes the blacks and whites, unlike the sepia-inflected variety that seems to be in favor nowadays -- but also fatally muddled, tossing every imaginable ingredient into the cauldron in the vain hope of cooking up something truly magical. Our theme is pretty clearly The Nature of Chance ("What was your first clue, o paragon of perspicacity?" "Well, I confess that the words "la chance" made little impression upon me the first six or seven thousand times that they were spoken aloud, but once the number hit quintuple digits, my interpretative gears began a-meshin'..."), but it's not enough, apparently, that plucky, downtrodden human target Vanessa Paradis have a knack for winning at the roulette wheel. No, she and brooding cutlery-hurler Daniel Auteuil (he won the César for this?!) also share a hokey telepathic bond, which -- as luck would have it, one might suggest, were one feeling more charitable than I -- mysteriously surfaces just when the narrative seems to be running out of steam. The slew of portentous coincidences, meanwhile, suggests that screenwriter Serge Frydman is working with a definition of "luck" culled from the same dictionary consulted by Alanis Morrisette vis-à-vis "irony." Just a lot of fanciful huffing and puffing, to little effect -- though I'll long treasure the memory of the film's unintentionally hilarious metaphorical sex scene, with Paradis moaning and thrashing in ecstasy each time one of Auteuil's knives thwacks into the wood just scant centimeters from her quivering flesh. (At least Cronenberg knew that people masturbating while watching crash-test footage was ludicrous.) A lot depends, in fact, upon whether or not you're captivated by the allegedly incandescent visage of Ms. Paradis; I spent the whole movie trying to decide whether her cheekbones are more or less prominent than Johnny Depp's, and whether the two of them ever wound each other when necking. [TONY #253]

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (François Ozon): C+

So much for the auteur theory. I doubt that even the most ardent Francophile could identify this schematic portrait of romantic sadomasochism as Ozon's handiwork, were the credits elided; anybody possessing even the most cursory familiarity with Fassbinder's tender, grotesque gallery of victims and misanthropes, on the other hand, could peg it as an adaptation or homage inside of ten minutes. Based on juvenilia -- the play was unproduced during Fassbinder's lifetime, and for good reason -- it's interesting mostly as evidence of how early the director's singular sensibility was formed; the addition of a thin Ozon layer (e.g., he's made one character a M --> F transsexual) notwithstanding, Water Drops follows the standard RWF trajectory to the letter: naïve protagonist encounters sadistic, predatory bastard(s); enters unrewarding life of voluntary submission; briefly considers escape (actual escape attempt optional); winds up dead and unmourned. (A brief, amusing musical interlude that's featured in the film's trailer seems to exist largely to be featured in the film's trailer.) Performances, needless to say, are exemplary -- Anna Thomson's dolorous castoff in particular -- and I'll even confess, in the Way the Hell More than You Wanted to Know Dept., that this is the first movie since Pola X to bring me to, uh, full mast right there in the theater. (No unsimulated blowjobs, but Ludivine Sagnier removes her clothes virtually the second she appears onscreen, and never quite manages to replace them.) Doesn't remotely transcend its theatrical origin, though -- single location, endless jabber -- and a little of Fassbinder's matter-of-fact cruelty goes rather a long way, at least for me. After a while, the feeling is more like water drops on immobilized forehead. [TONY #251]