Films Seen June 2000

Getting to Know You (Lisanne Skyler): C+

"A film so fragile and uncompromising that you want to throw your arms around it and protect it from the jerks who won't know how special it is," says Amy Taubin of this Joyce Carol Oates adaptation...and while she's mistakenly employed the second person instead of the first, her instincts are basically sound, as I'm just enough of a jerk to point out that it's exactly the kind of movie that you'd expect Taubin to feel protective of, which is to say (i) a sensitive portrait of (ii) an adolescent girl with (iii) a troubled family life that's (iv) thematically echoed by (v) various tales-within-the-tale that were (vi) also adapted from stories by Oates. A little too fragile for my taste, frankly, what with its rookie's reliance on shots of the protagonist staring pensively out the window or into the middle distance (though I appreciated the occasional respite from Heather Matarazzo's perpetually startled vocal cadence; is it just me, or is she our generation's Shelley Duvall -- not so much an actor per se as a usefully unself-conscious incarnation of a quality that most true actors have difficulty evincing?). More to the point, it's really a fragile short film padded out to feature length via a flimsy Scheherazade device; only the flashback material really sings, and even that's largely thanks to the performances (especially Bebe Neuwirth's brief but riveting portrait of maternal denial) rather than to the material itself, which is disappointingly plain and familiar when divorced from Oates' careful prose. Oh, and that little puppy dog's ears are oddly asymmetrical, and haven't we seen the pattern on yonder butterfly's wings like a zillion times already? Wait, I think I see a homely orphan I can trip with my cane...

The Five Senses (Jeremy Podeswa): C

"Concept picture" may not be a phrase in common parlance -- I can't recall ever having encountered it before, in fact, so it's possible that I just this moment coined it -- but there's no denying that a cinematic equivalent to the infamous "concept album" exists, nor that their perception:pretension ratios are roughly identical: a dozen Pictures from an Exhibitions for every Tommy. Yes, Kieslowski managed to pull off this kind of conceptual stunt in high style -- twice, in fact -- but his ideas (developed in collaboration with Krzysztof Piesiewicz) were so rich that each one was capable of sustaining an entire feature all by its lonesome, and so extraordinarily subtle that somebody watching The Decalogue or Trois Couleurs for the first time, sans titles and in random order, might well struggle to determine which episode represents which commandment or Revolutionary ideal. Podeswa's ideas, by contrast, are so utterly banal, so pathetically first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head, that there's nothing to do but sit there ticking off each of the characters on a mental sensory-perception checklist. Hmm, that bespectacled teen misanthrope appears to be a closet voyeur; she must be Vision. Soundcheck: looks like Dr. Sensitivity is gradually going deaf. (Never fear -- one of those wise'n'compassionate movie hookers will help him learn to appreciate his other gifts.) And who's this? Why, it's Gabrielle Rose, as a massage therapist who can't "handle" her own daughter, dropping by to make the whole affair that much more blatantly Egoyanesque. And Mary-Louise Parker's a baker whose culinary creations look magnificent...but taste awful! Irony! And am I losing my mind, or did Daniel MacIvor just open a bottle of perfume, take a whiff, and gasp, stricken, "It smells"? Individually, each of the stories may be unbearably trite; experienced in concert, however, as all five pointlessly ricochet off of one another via the kind of "mysterious" interconnection that's apparently in vogue at the moment (oh, I see, Sound works right down the hall from Touch, who's Vision's mom and one of Smell's clients...), when you put them all together in a tastefully intricate mosaic of pure, wait, they're still unbearably trite, actually. My bad. [TONY #251]

Me, Myself & Irene (Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly): C+

How I wish that les frères Farrelly would work even half as strenuously at evoking laughter (= unexpected incongruity) as they do at evoking gasps (= "I can't believe I'm actually seeing this!"). While no comedy starring Jim Carrey in taffy-stretching mode could be a complete waste of celluloid (he said authoritatively, despite having skipped the reportedly dismal Ace Ventura sequel), this one here is pretty pro forma, especially since we've seen the actor's manic-depressive routine twice before, both times with a more sympathetic milquetoast (Stanley Ipkiss, Edward Nygma) and a more outrageous id-manifestation (The Mask, The Riddler). Supporting cast utterly wasted: Renée Zellweger stands around looking spunky; Chris Cooper stands around looking dyspeptic; Robert Forster stands around looking desperately for any sign of Tarantino approaching with another career-defining role. Bonus points allotted for (a) hiring Rex Allen Jr. as narrator, thereby triggering Pavlovian feelings of good cheer in gen-xers brought up on Charlotte's Web and "The Wonderful World of Disney," which featured the equally avuncular baritone of Rex Allen Sr.; (b) tossing an Enrico Fermi joke (!!!) into the midst of all the tired masturbation and defecation gags; and (c) identifying every single bit player by both photo and name in the closing credits, an act of generosity -- even if they are all personal friends of the directors, as I suspect -- that actually made me a little weepy. Not a good sign, though, when the most affecting aspect of your movie involves transcending contractual obligations.

Trixie (Alan Rudolph): C-

Welcome to malaprop hell, where Emily Watson's "private defective" wears out her laboriously garbled welcome in two takes of a land snail. (If that sorry attempt at wit amused you, go get in line immediately.) Used sparingly and deftly, inadvertent wordplay can be a pleasure, as Chico Marx demonstrated repeatedly; used incessantly, however -- and when I say "incessantly," I'm talking literally every other line Trixie speaks, and did I mention that Trixie's in every single scene? -- it becomes tiresome in a big ol' fuckin' hurry. That Rudolph doesn't give a damn about his sketchy political-conspiracy plot isn't disastrous per se; like the Coens in The Big Lebowski, he clearly means to put a refreshing, postmodern spin on the private-dick genre, and Trixie functions largely as a paean to its heroine's wide-eyed determination and linguistic gymnastics. Alas, unlike The Dude, she's not half as much fun as her creator intended -- in part because Watson relies too heavily on the mock-infantile mannerisms she developed for her roles in Breaking the Waves and Hilary and Jackie, but mostly because the nonstop avalanche of cutesy verbal gaffes acts something like Robin Williams in his mondo-ingratiating mode, overwhelming everything in its path with its fervent need to Entertain. Nolte's Senator Avery, too, is a concept in search of a context; according to the press kit, virtually all of his dialogue was lifted verbatim from real-life political speeches -- but unless you know that in advance, all you hear is random sound-bite gibberish, its satirical content unintelligible. Cliché or not, it's a fundamental rule of comedy: never beat a dead horse in the mouth. [TONY #249]

The Perfect Storm (Wolfgang Petersen): D+

Were it strictly a matter of the inane dialogue ("There are no goodbyes -- only love"), the connect-the-dots characterization (Clooney needs to prove that he's still Got What It Takes; Wahlberg's torn between his love for his woman and his love for the open sea; Reilly and Fichtner hate each other's guts for no apparent reason), and the indifferent special effects (you've already seen the movie's one genuinely potent image, in which the Andrea Gail clings to a humongous wave like a remora to the belly of a tiger shark), we'd merely be talking about a lame-ass movie, your typical Hollywood hackwork. What makes it truly wretched, well-nigh unwatchable, is its makers' complete misunderstanding of the crucial distinction between the prosaic and literary definitions of the word "tragedy" (a distinction I can't address without verging into spoiler territory, so if you don't want to know what happens, I suggest you abandon ship immediately, even if it means grabbing somebody else's kid like evil Billy Zane in Titanic). Who the hell imagined that Junger's book could possibly make a movie? Watching a group of people struggling, and ultimately failing, to survive may inspire the occasional throat lump (although James Horner's pushy, maudlin score tends to counteract any emotional involvement), but since both psychological complexity and narrative drive are in short supply, the film essentially amounts to disaster porn -- we might as well be watching a bunch of guys who jumped out of a plane with faulty parachutes, desperately flapping their arms for two hours (lots of slo-mo, I guess) before finally hitting terra firma with a sickening splat. It'd be different had they died heroically, trying to save someone else's lives (the real heroes are the rescue personnel, relegated to an ineffectual subplot and played by anonymous drones); or if their deaths were capital-T Tragic, the result of some compelling moral weakness. Instead, all we get are hapless victims dying noble Hollywood deaths as strings swell and the slow dissolve to the memorial service commences. Drama requires active participants; all The Perfect Storm offers are pawns for the F/X people to drench. [TONY #249]

Praise (John Curran): B

Exquisitely acted, slightly anticlimactic two-handers are apparently in season this summer, with Curran's seedy, forthright portrait of romantic self-destruction serving as ideal counterpoint to the more urbane, discreet longing that permeates Frédéric Fonteyne's forthcoming An Affair of Love. The latter's (American) title, as previously discussed, is a craven marketing decision, worthy of scorn; the former's, on the other hand, must be vestigial, as the word 'praise' doesn't really resonate, ironically or otherwise, with anything that happens onscreen. More damagingly, some essential element of Andrew McGahan's source novel -- most likely Gordon's interior monologue, occasionally presented here in voiceover -- seems to have been lost in translation, even though McGahan himself did the honors; the narrative kinda dissipates just when it ought to be picking up steam, and ultimately the whole thing seems defiantly pointless, in the manner of autobiographical first novels generally: "This is what happened to me, and I don't really give a rat's ass whether you're interested or not." That we are interested, by and large, can be attributed almost entirely to a pair of remarkably uninhibited performances: newcomers Sacha Horler and Peter Fenton inhabit their characters with such intense, fearless honesty that the movie rarely feels draggy or digressive. All the ingredients are in place for your typical Australian quirkfest -- he's a cretin; she's a nympho; bake until sardonic crust is golden brown and serve with a soupçon of condescension -- but additional, often tantalizingly contradictory facets of their personalities emerge throughout, especially during the course of some of the most memorably blunt sex scenes in recent memory. Curran's presence behind the lens remains appropriately modest -- there's no distracting check-out-my-mise-en-scène nonsense -- and while Praise doesn't amount to much more than a first-rate character study, it's not as if we're exactly smothered in those at the moment. Besides, you've gotta admire a picture that features a double take performed by a man poised between a woman's thighs, followed by the line: "I know -- my clit's huge." [TONY #249]

Alice and Martin (André Téchiné): C+

Withholding key information is always a calculated risk, and I'm afraid that what we have here, at bottom, is a pretty drastic miscalculation: when the (interminable) expository flashback finally kicks in, roughly two-thirds of the way through the picture, the events depicted therein inspire neither dawning comprehension nor startled gasps -- merely a series of thumb-twiddling reactions ranging from "no duh" to "big whoop." As is so often the case -- Hard Eight is another textbook example -- the Big Revelation at the heart of the narrative is just too flimsy and banal to support the weight of all the mystery and intrigue that have been piled atop it; replacing the vague allusions with concrete details only proves how structurally unsound the edifice has been all along. In this instance, the problem is exacerbated by thematic wooziness, as nobody involved seems to have come to a firm decision regarding what the movie's ultimately supposed to be about. Certainly the title's no help, since the relationship between Alice and Martin is neither properly established ("If you still want me, I'm yours," announces Alice out of the blue one day; what we're subsequently told is love looks an awful lot like pity, if not boredom) nor exhaustively explored. Instead, we flit back and forth among half a dozen characters, each one fully inhabited and worth spending time with (save Martin, who's smothered by his backstory), as they wander helplessly through a Pirandellian landscape sans discernible meaning. (Again, I except the laughable Freudian parody that is Martin. I mean, just for example, couldn't his emotional breakdown have maybe been precipitated by something a tad less Psych 101 than the news of his impending fatherhood? "Psst! Martin! Remember your father...?") Téchiné directs the bejeezus out of the thing, miraculously sustaining a charged, arrestingly off-kilter atmosphere; his fluid technique succeeds for quite some time in creating the illusion of something potentially mesmerizing lurking just around the corner. It's my sad duty to reveal that what's actually around the corner is: a bakery, a greengrocer's, two mailboxes, and some very pretty trees. [Opens 21 July 2000 in NYC.]

Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier): B+

Anybody who loved Breaking the Waves, but actively dislikes Dancer in the Dark, had best go back and take a fresh look at the former. And Variety's Derek Elley, who proclaimed the latter "artistically bankrupt on almost every level," apparently dozed through all of Björk's scenes -- a bit tricky, since she's almost never off-camera, but there's no other possible explanation. Good god almighty. [TONY review]

Sunshine (István Szabó): C

Guess this is probably the wave of the global-economic future: a movie spanning roughly six decades of 20th-century Hungarian history, made by a renowned Hungarian director, shot on location in Hungary (among other European countries) by a Hungarian crew, featuring a largely Hungarian cast of extras and supporting players who dance in the background to the tune of Hungarian standards, and starring those very Hungarian actors Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz, and Deborah Kara Unger. Still, I doubt that substituting authentic, homegrown talent and adding subtitles would really have helped much, since the project was conceived from the get-go as one of those deadly multigenerational epics in which sympathetically ineffectual characters are tossed mercilessly about by the Winds of Socio-Political Change; it's the kind of movie where you spend most of the "personal" interludes ("I love you...but not like a sister!") mentally thumbing through chapters of half-forgotten history textbooks, trying to recall which calamity is up next on the misery hit parade. Granted, a few Chinese examples of the genre -- particularly 1994's double-whammy of The Blue Kite and To Live -- have their passionate defenders, but it all looks like miniseries material to me: well-meaning, intelligent, and dramatically inert this-then-that-then-this-then-that. Glad to finally get a gander at Jennifer Ehle, though [sjl: absolutely yes on P&P], who turns out to be a dead ringer for the young Meryl Streep (moreso in temperament than in appearance); and William Hurt gives a remarkably forceful (and surprisingly lucid) performance as a Communist honcho betrayed by Fiennes' final incarnation. Ain't no sunshine when they're gone, alas.

Humanité (Bruno Dumont): C

Painfully painstaking -- the cinematic equivalent of one of those rooms that's filled with furniture on which nobody's allowed to sit, books with spines that have never been cracked, air so musty you can practically feel the molecules settling on your skin. Greenaway takes a lot of flak for being clinical and pretentious, but at least he's got a playful streak (look at The Falls or Drowning by Numbers); Dumont, on the other hand, comes across as an arthouse bully, shoving your face into what he considers reality (oh boy, another movie in which sex is portrayed as something people do in lieu of stabbing each other with hunting knives) and demanding your acquiescence. Nobody seems to have noticed, but he's somehow inadvertently reversed his titles: the word "humanity," aggressively definitive whether concrete or abstract, fits his stultifying debut like the proverbial glove, while the borderline-autistic protagonist of this equally obdurate slab of Art, like our alleged Lord'n'Savior, is Just Too Darn Sensitive for This World. ("Aaaauuugghhhhh!!" he screams into the void, overwhelmed by life's unceasing depravity. "Aaaauuugghhhhh!!") My interpretation of the oh-so-ambiguous ending appears to be unique, at least based on the dozen or so reviews I've read so far: stylistically, the film may call to mind Bresson or Tarkovsky, but its story is a(n even more) ponderous variation on The Green Mile. (No, seriously. Think about it for a few minutes before you scoff.) In the end, though, any debate about the identity of the killer or the details of the murder investigation is utterly irrelevant, as Dumont's primary agenda is nothing less than a précis of the nature of freakin' existence. Granted, I'm not temperamentally drawn to movies that ostentatiously wrestle with grandiose themes -- Bergman's pictures, for instance, with few exceptions, leave me utterly cold -- but Humanité may be the single most oppressive "masterpiece" I've ever seen, so contemptuous of its audience that some folks have mistaken that contempt for integrity. Its sole asset, and saving grace, is Dumont's keen eye for composition...but a corpse remains dead no matter how beautifully you frame it. [TONY #247]

Shanghai Noon (Tom Dey): B-

Pretty mediocre as a Jackie Chan vehicle -- humdrum stunts, endless mugging -- but worth seeing as the latest chapter in The Adventures of Dignan (this month's episode: Dignan Out West!) Granted, the film's set in 1881, and the character's referred to as Roy O'Bannon here, but his laidback twang -- sort of California-surfer-meets-Texas-ranchhand -- and cockeyed optimism are straight out of Bottle Rocket, and I'd be willing to wager that Wilson improvised at least half of his dialogue on the set. More exciting than the movie itself, for me, was eavesdropping on the audience's who-the-hell-was-that?! conversations in the lobby; a few people vaguely remembered him from Armageddon, but for most of them it was as if he'd come out of nowhere -- kind of like the buzz when Michael Keaton stole Night Shift out from under poor Henry Winkler's nose, for those of you who were around at the time. (It's alarming to think that babies born in 1982 are now college frosh. Am I that old?) Shanghai Noon may well make Wilson a star...which means more big paychecks for him, which very likely means more Wes Anderson movies for us, and Wilson & Anderson aren't prone to relying on pee-pee jokes, or to juxtaposing their comic hijinks with superficial lectures about historical injustices (e.g., the use of Chinese slave labor to build a transcontinental railroad), so it's all good, really. My vote for the next installment: Dignan Goes Hawaiian. Preferably opposite Reese Witherspoon.

BookWars (Jason Rosette): B

Briefly considered recusing myself from reviewing this documentary portrait of New York's street booksellers, since approximately 10-15% of my personal library was purchased from its subjects, almost of all of whom I recognized and a couple of whom I've chatted with at some length. (Rosette concentrates on the tome-hawkers who ply their trade in front of NYU's Bobst Library, which I visited several times a day for years and still walk past at least twice per week.) Always kinda wondered about their lives, if only fleetingly: Are they homeless? desperate scavengers? antisocial bibliophiles? Turns out it varies from table to table, and while Rosette's attempt to coax pathos and drama out of Giuliani's quality-of-living campaign-cum-crackdown isn't entirely successful -- I'm fuzzy on why the First Amendment permits citizens to sell books on the street without a license or permit, whereas every other variety of vendor is subject to legal restrictions -- the idiosyncratic personalities of the warriors themselves makes for compulsively watchable, uh, videomaking. (Actually, it looks comparatively decent, though it probably helped that I watched it on tape.) These guys may look like counterculture casualties, with their glassy stares and scruffy beards, but most of them are surprisingly erudite, far more knowledgeable about their merchandise than the average Barnes & Noble staffer -- and not that much pricklier, really, when you get right down to it. (Oddly, Rosette's laconic narration never addresses the obvious racial divide: the guys on W. 4th St tend to be white and formally educated, whereas the Sixth Ave. sellers, who deal more in magazines than paperbacks, are primarily black and...let's call them "less fortunate."*) A dude named Peter, in particular, evinces a tantalizing, unforgettable mix of literary savvy and ingenuous eccentricity; rummaging for new stock at a garage sale, waxing critical about various authors and genres, he suddenly spies a ceramic toad and places it carefully atop the several volumes cradled in his arms. "I collect toads," he explains to the lens. And indeed he does, as a later visit to his apartment makes clear. Not all of them are ceramic. [TONY #246]

* ("There's something a tiny bit arrogant about people walking around feeling sorry for other people they consider 'less fortunate.' Are the more fortunate really so terrific? Do you want some much richer guy saying, 'Poor Tom Townsend doesn't even own a winter jacket. Well -- I can't go to any more parties!'?")

Chicken Run (Peter Lord & Nick Park): B

Sometimes I wonder whether it might not be useful -- or at least semi-illuminating -- for me to provide an "expected" grade in addition to the actual grade, thus allowing y'all to distinguish at a glance between the 'B' I gave to, say, South Park (expected grade: C-) and the 'B' I'm allotting to Aardman's long-awaited debut feature (expected grade: A). Technically speaking, I guess I like them about equally well, but it sure doesn't feel as if I do; South Park, its various flaws and excesses notwithstanding, occupies a special place in my heart reserved for movies that challenged my preconceptions, whereas I walked out of Chicken Run -- a fun little picture, quite entertaining, definitely worth your hard-earned cash -- feeling slightly dejected, simply because it rarely achieves the demented lunacy of Park's Wallace & Gromit shorts. The film's Plasticine splendor is as distinctive and immediately recognizable as its characters' goggle-eyed expressions, and much of the humor is indisputably English-dry (thrusting cocky, aggressive Mel Gibson amidst the imperturbable likes of Julie Sawalha and Jane Horrocks was an inspired idea), but Karey Kirkpatrick's script -- based on a promising story concept by the directors -- feels disappointingly pedestrian and machine-tooled -- not surprising, really, given that his previous credits include Disney's thoroughly conventional The Rescuers Down Under and Henry Selick's disappointing adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, as well as the direct-to-vid classic Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves. Somebody stop this guy from corrupting the world's few remaining stop-motion geniuses! But really, I'm being grumpier than necessary: there's plenty of well-timed comedy (even if the jokes sometimes seem more appropriate for the Muppets -- Nick and Fetcher, the rats who procure necessary tools in exchange for eggs, function much like Statler and Waldorf, watching the action from a distance and tossing off bad puns: "Look, it's poultry in motion! Heh heh heh!"); clever allusions to prison-break classics like The Great Escape abound (the montage of failed attempts that accompanies the opening credits is the sequence that most resembles Park's previous work); and the lovingly detailed sets would win an Oscar in a hypothetical world in which animation isn't deliberately marginalized. It's not necessarily the film's fault that I was hoping for something as deliriously wacked-out as a lunar fridge that dreams of a skiing holiday, or a diabolical penguin inexpertly disguised as a chicken ("HAVE YOU SEEN THIS CHICKEN?"). [TONY #248]