Films Seen May 2000

Groove (Greg Harrison): C+

"Are you feeling it?" commands the tagline, cleverly disguised as a rhetorical question. Um...not really, no. Despite being set almost entirely at a throbbing warehouse rave, Harrison's night-in-the-life drama only sporadically captures the reckless urgency that positively permeated Go; unless you find the sight of a lot of people hopping up and down to a metronomic beat inherently exciting, large chunks of the movie may inspire more snoozing than grooving. That nothing especially significant ever happens, plotwise, isn't really the issue; the film's obvious progenitors, American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, are similarly casual and discursive, and both Owen Gleiberman (in the ads) and the filmmakers themselves (in the press kit) explicitly make the comparison. But while Lucas's film looked back at the '50s from the vantage point of the '70s, and Linklater's reflected on the '70s from the vantage point of the '90s, Groove is reminiscing about last week from the vantage point of just the other day; Harrison lacks the critical distance necessary to encapsulate an era, or to say anything incisive about the characters and their milieu. Instead, he winds up trafficking in tired follow-your-heart truisms -- that is, whenever he isn't leaning heavily on the soundtrack's technophilic thud-thud-thud.* Nor does the large cast of unknowns seem to include any future Harrison Fords or Matthew McConaugheys...although Hamish Linklater (no relation, I presume) does make a surprisingly charming dweeb, and Ari Gold, in a minor role as the crowd's resident pharmaceutical connoisseur, evinces the pleasantly supercilious air of somebody who knows that he's paying necessary dues (and/or the rent). A Hollywood icon, no; the next Buscemi or Zahn, quite possibly. That I feel; remember, folks, you read it here first. [TONY#246]

* (Speaking of which: could somebody kindly explain to your pseudohumble, partyphobic correspondent (since the movie is far too hip to bother) exactly what characteristic it is that distinguishes a "great" DJ? Various real-life spinners appear as themselves -- a fellow named John Digweed, in particular, is portrayed as some kind of legendary icon, the turntable's equivalent of Michael Jordan -- and I'm afraid that whatever musical alchemy they were performing escaped me entirely. Each of them in turn performs at least one arcane mixmaster maneuver, fiddling with the knobs on the control board until the onscreen crowd explodes in rhythmic ecstasy: "First, he was playing one record; now, he's playing an entirely different record!" If I suggest that electronica as a genre is so homogeneous that segues are virtually impossible to fuck up, do I sound impossibly antediluvian? [Note: that last question really is rhetorical; I've already got total strangers from faraway countries making me mix tapes, so no further proselytizing is required.])

Mission: Impossible II (John Woo): C+

More like Face/Off II, really, what with its absurd reliance on gotcha!s in which sci-fi latex masks are triumphantly peeled off; I kept hoping that one of these physiognectomies would reveal our hero to be Chow Yun-fat in disguise, but no such luck. Swagger though he may, Cruise is just too puppy-dog pretty and earnestly sensitive to convince as one of Woo's hypermacho icons; watching him strut in slo-mo past a flame-filled doorway is like watching "Weird Al" Yankovic mimic some musician's impossibly cool dance move, except that in this case it's clearly not intended to be funny. Woo, meanwhile, has retreated from the operatic melodrama of his last picture (and his early work) to the clumsy bombast of Broken Arrow -- and, far worse, has devoted mondo screen time to a heterosexual romance in which he clearly has zero interest. Not that I begrudge the guy an opportunity to expand his repertoire, but twisted love/hate relationships between tortured, taciturn dudes are what he excels at; my impression is that he couldn't care less about the entire female gender, and poor Thandie Newton is given nothing to do here but repeatedly bat her eyes and bare her navel. Only one brief moment feels like Woo running on all cylinders, and it's utterly innocuous: A woman's scarf flutters from her neck in a strong wind; a man deftly snatches it in midair and places it back over her shoulders. Doesn't sound like much, I know, but for about ten seconds the film comes miraculously alive; every frame feels charged with possibility. Then the moment passes, and it's back to inane dialogue like: "We just rolled a snowball and tossed it into hell; now we'll see how much of a chance it has." Forget it, Mike -- it's Hollywood. [TONY #244]

Running Free (Sergei Bodrov): D+

Further proof that America won the Cold War: we're somehow able to coerce great Russian directors to come to Hollywood and make dire, formulaic tripe bearing no resemblance to the work that presumably attracted the studio's attention in the first place. Essentially an equine remake of The Bear -- Annaud acted as producer -- Running Free is as nauseatingly saccharine as its title (not that Hoofbeats, the previous choice, sent my pulse a-racin'), and so completely moribund that I predict even the four-year-olds who are its apparent target audience will be first looking around for the remote control and then dashing into the aisles to play improvised games twice as creative as anything flickering on the screen above their heads. I went in naïvely hoping for another Prisoner of the Mountains; after five minutes of listening to a plainly bored Lukas Haas intoning Lucky's internal Little Golden Book monologue ("I had to find my mother. I had to find her!"), I would've been happy with another Tango & Cash. [TONY #245]

Croupier (Mike Hodges): C+

Possible me is stoopid, but several key elements of this elegant psychodrama seem to make as much sense as hitting on a hard 18 against the dealer's six. Like: since when do prospective burglars need to enlist the assistance of one of their target's employees in order to create a freakin' diversion? (Dudes, you don't need an "inside man" -- just hit some random guy in the jaw, save yourself ten large!) Or like: can anybody explain to me how and why the major supporting character who winds up in the morgue kicked el bucketo grande? Is the movie being coy, or pointlessly ambiguous, or cutely ironic, or what the hell? (Let's not even address the subject of the lovelorn cop who briefly wanders in to proffer the emotional climax of a previously nonexistent subplot.) And like: yo, I couldn't tell whether our smugly detached protagonist had changed/grown/learned something as a result of his several adventures, or whether this was supposed to be one of those "dot dot dot" endings (per C. Durang) wherein the moral is that people never fucking change/grow/learn. So dumb and pathetic did I feel afterwards that, in an unprecedented move, I actually struck up a conversation with a group of complete strangers at the theater...but they were even more perplexed than I was, not only unable to answer my questions but eager to suggest a few posers of their own. So then I asked a really smart guy I know who'd kinda liked the movie whether he'd made heads or tails of the plot. Nay, as it turns out; he was mostly grooving on the cynical atmosphere and identifying with the hero's tendency to think of himself in the third person. In desperation, I turned to Regina, who has no website to which I can direct you but trust me when I say that she's not easily baffled by narrative complexity or subtlety; her verdict: "Cheat, cheat, cheat." So I give up. Memorably shifty work by Clive Owen in the lead, and lord knows I was quickly consumed by visions of ditching my writing gig for a life of flinging unwanted face cards at gullible Las Vegas tourists; when it comes to movies as thoroughly story-dependent as this one, though, I like a helping of meat and potatoes underneath all the gravy.

Small Time Crooks (Woody Allen): C

You know how feeble and sad the Stones sound nowadays when they attempt to tear up the joint with their umpteenth rendition of "Brown Sugar" or "Street Fighting Man"? The Woodman's return to the style (if not the look -- thank you, Zhao Fei) of his broad, gag-heavy, helium-voiced-alien-pleasing yukfests of yore yields a similar cringe quotient; incredibly, it wound up making me feel vaguely nostalgic for his insufferable ersatz-Ingmar phase. Yeah, Another Woman and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy were a chore to sit through, but at least there was the consolation of knowing that the imitative fallacy was to blame, and that a "real" Woody picture, true to his own skewed sensibility, might be just around the corner. Watching the guy perform an anemic imitation of his early triumphs, on the other hand, is actively depressing -- he's not merely misguided, he's mediocre. The first act, in particular, flat-out reeks, taking a mildly inspired bit that might've occupied three minutes of Take the Money and Run and stretching it out for a laborious, painfully unamusing half-hour of sub-"Honeymooners" bickering. (By the way, Woody Allen:Ralph Kramden::Denise Richards:nuclear physicist.) Nor is the condescending series of highbrow v. lowbrow juxtapositions that follows much of an improvement -- although the dinner-party sequence does feature a handful of genuinely funny moments, thanks largely to Tracey Ullman's breathlessly daft attempts at upper-crust etiquette ("have you tried your finger bowl yet?!"). Then there's the near-geriatric factor: watching 64-year-old Allen bumbling around performing carefully timed slapstick is less uproarious than unnerving, as you begin to fear that his character might be undergoing hip replacement surgery in the very next scene. Sweet and Lowdown, in which Sean Penn played a Woody surrogate without appropriating his director's mannerisms, was a step in the right direction; this one, alas, represents those fabled two steps back. [TONY #243]

Dinosaur (Ralph Zondag & Eric Leighton): C-

THRILL! to the harrowing but fun-filled tale of a great many skilled computer experts sitting at roughly 550 workstations and devoting some 3.2 million processing hours to a project with elements that would ultimately occupy a colossal 45 terabytes of disk space. GENUFLECT! before the technological wizardry involved in placing computer-animated characters seamlessly into digitally enhanced live-action landscapes -- a task so difficult and expensive and time-consuming that it would be not just churlish but downright unseemly to ask why exactly anybody would want to accomplish it in the first place. MARVEL! at the unprecedented disparity between the degree of energy and imagination expended on a film's look (oodles) vs. that expended on its script (nada). RECALL! having seen the whole orphan-raised-by-a-different-species setup in another Disney cartoon, not so long ago it seems, wasn't it just last summer in fact? GASP! at the chutzpah of Disney's President of Feature Animation, Thomas Schumacher -- apparently either less than 12 years old or recovering nicely from his 1988 coma -- as he claims in the press notes that this is the first time that dinosaurs have ever been portrayed sympathetically in a motion picture, much less in a feature-length work of animation sporting a virtually identical plot and made by a former Disney employee whose name rhymes with 'truth.' NUDGE! the dude next to you who's already fallen asleep and is emitting snores that sound eerily like a gasoline-powered lawnmower that won't quite start goddammit. BLESS! the fine folks at Pixar for not eroding our kids' tender cerebral cortices with soulless, homogenized crap like this. [TONY #243]

Hamlet (Michael Almereyda): B

Far more clever than affecting, like most self-consciously mannered updates of the classics, but allowances must be made for a conceit as exceptionally witty as Almereyda's: Denmark is here a multinational conglomerate rather than a beleaguered nation-state, and the "something rotten" sensed by the gloomy heir to its throne can be seen blinking or heard beeping in the background of every frame. It's The Wind Will Bury Us. To my regret, I never did get around to seeing Baz Luhrmann's contemporary rendition of Romeo + Juliet -- must rent that one of these days -- but the impression I get from bits I've caught here and there is of something keyed-up, ostentatiously loud and frenetic; whereas Almereyda, as you might expect given both his moody oeuvre and the more oppressive material, goes the opposite route, de-emphasizing the text (I'd estimate that less than half of the play survives -- no players, no gravedigger, no Act I Scene I, etc.) in favor of atmospheric visual collages in which the dramatis personae are frequently dwarfed by the spoils of capitalism. Regular theatregoers get this stuff ad nauseam, of course, but even the terribly jaded may dig on the unique perspective that editing -- yes, editing, Mike Figgis! -- brings to the postmodern party. Plus, it's simply the funniest, wittiest damn Hamlet you're ever likely to see, as bizarre a notion as that may initially seem. Already infamous is the III.i soliloquy, which Hawke delivers while wandering down the aisle of a Blockbuster Video outlet, signs reading ACTION mocking him from all sides -- but there are at least a dozen other moments that are equally inspired: Hamlet's "get thee to a nunnery" harangue transformed into a series of pissed-off messages on Ophelia's answering machine; avant-garde animator Lewis Klahr's funny/disturbing depiction of The Mousetrap (the experimental short film's the thing wherein he'll catch the conscience of the king); Elizabethan dialogue interrupted by the disembodied voice of Eartha Kitt, inviting Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to buckle up for safety. (That last one may only work for New Yorkers.) Cast pretty variable: Hawke neither an embarrassment nor especially memorable; Sam Shepard a surprisingly forceful and imposing Ghost; Steve Zahn very very Steve Zahn as I think it was Rosencrantz but my press notes seem to have disappeared; Bill Murray so ideally cast as Polonius that people who haven't seen his performance break into a grin merely upon hearing of its existence. Hardly definitive, and by no means a proper introduction to the play, but if you know that the fourth word following "Alas, poor Yorick" is not "well" but "Horatio," to the multiplex, go. [TONY #242]