Films Seen March 2000

Keeping the Faith (Edward Norton): C+

England's edgiest actors, when they turn auteur, all seem to want to emulate Ken Loach or Mike Leigh or Alan Clarke; Norton, on the evidence of his remarkably shallow directorial debut, longs with all of his heart to be...Ron Howard. Not what I was expecting from the star of Fight Club and The People vs. Larry Flynt and American History X, I must say, but if lightweight dramedy (much of it indistinguishable from the kind of thing Garry Marshall might get excited about) is what he's into, so be it; let me suggest, however, that he work next time on sustaining a coherent tone, rather than vacillating between lowbrow yuks (pratfalls, erotic dream sequences, religious leaders who jump butt-first into the holy water when their robes catch on fire) and achingly sincere soap-opera dialogue (Ben Stiller is a genius, and Jenna Elfman's growing on me, but I hope I never have to watch the two of them debate the perils and rewards of interfaith dating with a straight face again as long as I live). The premise is so fundamentally ludicrous -- it's virtually "so this priest and this rabbi walk into a bar," as a brief prologue acknowledges -- that it could only have worked as an all-out farce, and the film is most successful when it's unabashedly comic -- when Stiller's tossing off one-liners about the Kosher Nostra, or during a hilarious set-piece featuring Ken Leung as a wily karaoke salesman. More often than not, however, it's exactly what the print ads make it look like. Don't say I didn't warn you. [TONY #238]

The Filth and the Fury (Julien Temple): B+

Captures the anarchic, in-your-face, fuck-you-and-the-horse-you're-doubtless-screwing-in your-spare-time energy of the Sex Pistols so successfully that it feels faintly absurd to write anything sober or thoughtful about it. Juxtaposing archival band footage with everything from stop-motion dinosaur flicks to Laurence Olivier's on-screen portrayal of Richard III, Temple depicts the Pistols' tempestuous two-year history via sensory assault, so that the movie often feels less like a documentary than like a prolonged, vaguely coherent soapbox rant. (That's a compliment.) Much of it looks as if it's been assembled from a third-generation video dupe that's been stored under somebody's bed for the past 20 years, entirely appropriate given the band's proto-grunge aesthetic; on the rare occasions when we actually see the person who's speaking, he's invariably shrouded in shadows, faceless, as if these guys were protected federal witnesses rather than aging rock legends. All in all, a fine effort by everybody concerned; go see it, or I'll smash your bleedin' face in, mate. [TONY #236]

Joe Gould's Secret (Stanley Tucci): B

A great opportunity semi-squandered -- Tucci doesn't quite seem to recognize his story's strengths, opting instead to overindulge Ian Holm's admittedly inspired scenery-chewing -- but there's so much rich, fascinating stuff here that the thematic and structural sketchiness didn't trouble me as much as it might have in a less bountiful picture. The titular secret is fairly easy to guess, even if you're completely unfamiliar (as I was) with Gould's history and/or Joseph Mitchell's legendary career at the New Yorker; but then, the film is a nostalgic character study, not a mystery, and the scenes featuring the two Joes, which constitute the bulk of its running time, are a sublime juxtaposition of the courtly and the cantankerous. (Tucci's droll, deliberately distant performance is sure to be underrated; I'm also fond of his playfulness behind the lens, manifested here in a resolutely static shot in which he and Holm alternately lean in and out of frame, with both occasionally disappearing entirely -- it's like a letterboxing devotee's worst nightmare.) Unfortunately, it's a character study that ultimately studies the wrong character; Joe Mitchell ought by rights to have been its sole protagonist, and the movie stumbles whenever it abandons his well-meaning, unconsciously destructive solicitude in favor of further Gould-related antics. I'm a sucker for the period and the parlance, however, and if Howard Hawks' definition of a successful movie -- "three good scenes; no bad scenes" -- is to be our touchstone, I think this one just barely qualifies. [TONY #237]

Me Myself I (Pip Karmel): C

Gosh, I wonder what my life would be like today if I hadn't opted to see this bland, uninspired compendium of every switched-identity wish-fulfillment movie ever made? Surely my doppelgänger in this hypothetical alternate universe has more respect for Rachel Griffiths' judgment in choosing scripts (though I believe he, too, sat through all of Così, poor bastard); odds are he's emitted several fewer heavy sighs and indulged in a bit less impatient finger-drumming as well. Nothing especially wrong with it, I suppose; nothing whatsoever right, though. [TONY #237]

High Fidelity (Stephen Frears): B+

The title is unbelievably apt: locale switcheroo notwithstanding (book = London; film = Chicago), this is perhaps the most doggedly faithful adaptation of a novel ever, with Cusack reciting great whopping chunks of Hornby's text almost verbatim -- and directly to the lens, no less, à la Alfie or Ferris Bueller. Incredibly, this potentially alienating device more or less works; with another actor in the role -- just about any other actor -- I suspect it might have been disastrous, but Cusack's specialty is confessional, straight-talking, fundamentally guileless characters (Lloyd Dobler being the epitome), and somehow it feels completely natural each time he addresses the audience. The book, for those who haven't read it, is a hilariously sarcastic portrait of a particular phylum of young adult males -- the one to which I myself belong, I should probably disclose/confess -- and Frears & Co. have done a superb job of translating its snarky wit and hierarchy-obsessed worldview to the screen, albeit with one rather glaring exception. The exception's name is Iben Hjejle (also currently starring in Mifune), and she's talented and attractive and hard-working and -- like Ione Skye before her -- just not remotely the kind of woman with whom a John Cusack character would ever in a million years be smitten. Since the relationship between Rob and Laura is the heart of the book, and is even more clearly intended to be the heart of the movie, this absence of chemistry is a wee bit problematic; the milieu in which the pair flounder is so engaging, however, and Hornby's observations so trivially trenchant, that I found myself in a remarkably forgiving mood as the credits rolled. And two Supporting Actor slots on this year's survey ballot are hereby reserved for Mssrs. Jack Black and Todd Louiso, who are marvelously abrasive and awkward, respectively, as Cusack's pathetic co-workers. Tenacious D fans, in particular, should queue up early on opening day. [TONY #236]

Waking the Dead (Keith Gordon): C

Here's how this movie begins: Billy Crudup is sitting at home in front of the TV set, watching the news, and there's a report about a terrorist bombing in which a young American woman has been killed, and after some obligatory journalistic yadda-blah the woman is tentatively identified as Jennifer Connelly, and a picture of Connelly smiling prettily appears on Crudup's TV screen, and Crudup immediately turns ashen and begins clawing his face with his hands and hyperventilating and repeating various shell-shocked variations on "oh dear god no no no"...and then, just before the screen fades to white and the film title appears, the camera pans with immense significance from Connelly's beaming mug on the TV screen to a framed photograph of Connelly on a shelf in Crudup's living room. Just in case we'd mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that he'd just realized that he'd neglected to turn off the coffee machine back at the office. [TONY #235]

All I Wanna Do! (Sarah Kernochan): C+

Some of y'all may possibly remember this one as Strike!, as it seems to have been released somewhere in North America under that title back in the fall of '98. Kernochan wrote the terrific, little-seen Sand/Chopin romp Impromptu, so my hopes were high; turns out her directorial debut is a bizarre, intriguing misfire, in which the usual coming-of-age hijinks are the spoonful of sugar that helps a fairly didactic proto-feminist melodrama go down. Truth be told, I thought the preachy half was the more effective, if only because Kernochan's heart was clearly in it; some of the more traditional genre stuff -- mass vomiting at a social function; a contest in which a group of preppies vie to be photographed exposing the largest pair of breasts on campus -- seemed to me to be pandering to a hypothetical teen male audience. (The film is being self-distributed, allegedly because a movie aimed primarily at young girls is commercial suicide.) Cast very solid, though the film was shot so long ago that bit players like Rachael Leigh Cook have gone on to bigger (if not better) things; Gaby Hoffmann, in particular, looks like she might successfully make the transition into adult roles one day. [TONY #235]

The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski): B-

Amazing how much pizzazz a novel milieu (cheap pun unintended) can lend to even the mustiest scenario; bibliophiles should see this movie merely to luxuriate vicariously in its forbidding library sets, and to enjoy insert after insert of respectful hands carefully turning very crisp pages. Polanski buffs, too, are advised to ignore the dire reviews and hit at least a bargain matinee or something, because the man's still got it...or a decent-sized hunk of it, anyway, which is more than most of today's tyros can muster. Despite the occasional wink or snicker, The Ninth Gate exudes an air of self-confident professionalism and devil-may-care dexterity (cheap pun half-intended) that feels like a throwback to another era; it may not be Rosemary's Baby, but for a while it feels like it could be, and the approximation alone is thrilling. My hopes that the whole thing would ultimately make some semblance of narrative and/or emotional sense were cruelly dashed, it's true, and of course Polanski still suffers from the sad delusion that his wife is the most alluring creature on the face of the earth; but if you're in the right mood for a little deadpan hokum and a lot of semi-anachronistic craftsmanship, you could do considerably worse. Oh, and Depp is terrific, as usual; fucker even looks good in a goatee.

What Planet Are You From? (Mike Nichols): C-

The one where the loud-vibrating-artificial-penis gag is funny the first couple of times at best; thanks for asking. By all rights this should have been the year's biggest disaster, but apparently word of its ineptitude somehow failed to reach Annette Bening, who turns in a performance considerably more engaging and nuanced than the one for which she's currently Oscar-nominated. Greg Kinnear has a few enjoyably smarmy moments, too -- if we're very lucky, he'll never play a sensitive artist with a lovable pooch again -- and any movie in which Ben Kingsley is repeatedly flushed down an airplane toilet can't really be a complete waste of time.

My Little Business (Pierre Jolivet): B

a·mi·a·ble (adj.) 1. Good-natured; friendly: an amiable couple. 2. Pleasant; agreeable. [from Lat "amicus," friend.] Syns: affable, agreeable, complaisant, cordial, easygoing, genial, good-natured. [No distributor]

8 ½ Women (Peter Greenaway): C+

Very Greenawayesque, to be sure -- which is to say that his fans (and I count myself among them) will find a few things to treasure, dreadful advance word notwithstanding -- but this really isn't one of his better conceits, as male sexual fantasies are so inherently silly that they don't require much in the way of ironic exploration. That said, the opening reel or two are actually quite promising, so much so that I began to wonder wherefore all the opprobrium; John Standing and Matthew Delamere know exactly how to deliver Greenaway's drolly provocative dialogue (= with dry nonchalance), and Emmenthal Sr. is the closest approximation of an actual character in one of this director's films since Georgina and Albert arrived at Le Hollandais a decade ago. Once the eponymous gals start arriving on the scene, however -- the less said about that fraction, the better, by the way -- the picture gradually devolves into a mishmash of half-baked carnal absurdity; that they're clearly intended to function as broad stereotypes doesn't make them any less boring, and the inevitable formal repetitions seem tiresome rather than talismanic this time around. But if you're absolutely dying to see Toni Collette naked but for a wimple, or Amanda Plummer naked astride a horse, or Polly Walker naked for roughly half the running time of a commercial feature...well, one of the advantages of being a Greenaway fan is that it sounds fairly plausible when you pull the old "I mostly read it for the informative articles" routine. [Opens 10 May 2000 in NYC.]

Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma): D

"Oh, Jim, if only your wife Maggie hadn't died a lingering and horrible death, bumming you out to such an extent that you wound up losing the command of the Mars I spacecraft to me, your best pal Luke, which is a particular tragedy since going to Mars had been a dream of yours since early childhood, if I remember correctly, which I trust that I do because we're such good friends, Jim, and you know that I'd give anything to let you go in my place but you've been grounded due to emotional instability, as you know, and your wife's name is Maggie and she's dead as a doornail and it's a goddamn shame and my name is Luke, by the way, I'm your best friend and I'm going to Mars tomorrow instead of you, sorry about that." [TONY #234]

Anxiety (Manoel de Oliveira): D

Another snail-paced, ponderous, hollowly beautiful ornament from world cinema's reigning geezer. Biographical sketches invariably mention that he's the only director still working who began in the silent era, but never bother to add that the movies he's making nowadays are among the talkiest in history, generally consisting of attractive mannequins (the guy even managed to make M. Mastroianni dull -- not to mention C. and her mom) reciting turgid philosophical essays at each other. By about the second reel of this one, I was already so consumed with ennui that I began double-checking equations visible on a blackboard behind two of the characters, just to see if they were correct (they were); while I don't actually maintain a list of aesthetic criteria per se, "must not make mathematics seem wildly exciting by comparison" would certainly be right on up there if I did. [No distributor; don't hold your breath.]

The Idiots (Lars von Trier): C-

Intriguing idea; exasperating execution. It might have worked had some tension manifested itself between the spassers' stated objectives and their unconscious motivations, but in fact both are equally repugnant, pace the film's several eloquent defenders. Are we meant to feel contemptuous of Paprika Steen's rather polite yuppie merely because she doesn't want total strangers -- never mind the number of digits in their IQs -- romping in her garden on a daily basis? Would you?* Granted, Stoffer and his cohorts are eventually revealed as cowardly and complacent, but it's a flaccid, thoroughly unsatisfying payoff -- partly because nobody in the climactic scene apart from saintly Bess (oops, I mean Karen) behaves in a remotely credible way, but mostly because the film's third act only overtly confirms what's been readily apparent since frame one. Ideological misgivings aside, much of the film is simply tedious, its protagonists the most vacuous and unpleasantly self-absorbed group to hit the screen since The Mod Squad. (Come to think of it, switch the titles of those two pictures and both would still be completely accurate.) Consequently, my only complaint about the black bars that periodically appear to protect America's fragile little minds from the sight of human genitalia is that they're way, way too small. To achieve the desired effect, close your eyes. Or just bolt. [Opens summer 2000 in NYC.]

* (These nauseatingly self-righteous provocations put me in mind of a movie called War Zone -- not the Tim Roth film -- that I never actually saw but despise nonetheless on the basis of various reviews I read, which I realize isn't exactly fair but then neither is life itself so chill out. Anyway, the director of this documentary/screed, Maggie Hadleigh-West, apparently spends the entire movie strolling about city streets in revealing outfits for the express purpose of castigating any man gauche enough to make an even vaguely flattering remark. Not that I endorse the "hey hot mama gimme a smile" method of friendly introduction, but bullshit like this does the cause no favors.)

The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami): B-

Superlative filmmaking, every shot a quiet stunner (I especially loved one in which two characters walk away from the camera, talking, while the shadow of a woman hanging laundry plays unobtrusively on a foreground wall); Kiarostami's use of spatial dynamics is the most remarkable I've seen since maybe the climax of Carlito's Way, with the protagonist repeatedly traversing a labyrinth that seems to mock his frazzled psyche at every step. Unfortunately, the object of the director's subtle scorn is, essentially, yours truly: the film implicitly criticizes Behzad for not being in touch with nature/simplicity/beauty, and as a diehard urbanite with a hankering for complexity and concrete, I spent most of its running time feeling extremely defensive (though I'm down with the anti-cell-phone motif in a big way). Maybe that's just me...but I can't imagine that I'll be the only one frustrated by Kiarostami's increasing indulgence of a phenomenon that I once referred to as "equivocation overload"; I'm generally in favor of movies that gradually and tantalizingly parcel out key info, but when the picture actually ends and I'm still not sure what the hell was going on -- in this case, who the main character is and what exactly he's doing in this village -- the whole affair starts to seem unnecessarily coy. Too much in-your-face symbolism for my taste, too, with the final shot a particular annoyance. In short: formal aspects brilliant; actual content ehhh...and I still care much more about the latter than the former, I'm afraid. Those with the inverse inclination will eat it up. [Opens summer 2000 in NYC.]

Genghis Blues (Roko Belic): B+

Oh boy, a documentary about Tuvan throat-music...but it's actually pretty inspiring (not a word I often use) watching blind bluesman Paul Pena -- among other accomplishments, he's the guy who wrote the stellar Steve Miller Band hit "Jet Airliner" -- demonstrate his improbable mastery of another culture's decidedly exotic (to Western ears) vocal technique for the appreciation of the locals. Basically it plays like the coolest vacation footage that friends have ever coerced you into watching; there's a tendency toward self-congratulation, it's true, but that's balanced by glimpses of Pena's ongoing battle with depression, culminating in a distressing "scene" in which he worries that he may start abusing his hosts if he can't get his hands on a prescription refill. Much better than the infomercial called Buena Vista Social Club, certainly; now I have something to root for in this category on Oscar night. Kind of a bummer that nonfiction films almost invariably look like crap these days, though -- understandable, I suppose, given the greater physical versatility and relative inexpensiveness (English needs a better word for this) of video, but regrettable nonetheless.

The Little Thief (Érick Zonca): C+

Nobody loves you when you're down and out...excepting of course leftist French-speaking filmmakers, who will earnestly fetishize your misery for the righteous delectation of upscale arthouse patrons munching on lemon bundt cake. (The lemon bundt cake at Film Forum is quite delicious, incidentally.) Okay, that's churlish and unfair, but I grow exceedingly weary of movies that do little more than document a few shitty hours or days in the wretched life of some sensitive-but-misunderstood youth(s), and I can't for the life of me understand why people who want to tackle issues of social dysfunction don't look to La Promesse to see how much more gripping such didacticism can be when placed in service of a bona-fide plot. (I swear I'm gonna write a full-blown valediction to Plot one of these days.) This one just kinda meanders along its very familiar path, skillfully made but faintly absurd; a sexual assault near the close seemed more obligatory than inevitable, and I docked it half a grade for a denouement so impossibly and incongruously sunny (especially coming hard on the heels of the most hideously realistic throat-slashing I've ever seen on film) that I initially assumed it must be one of those dying-fantasy twists à la The Last Temptation of Christ and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." On the other hand, I rather liked "Alone," the 1996 Zonca short that preceded it; perhaps half an hour of miserabilism is all that I can stomach.