Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Film Clips

JANUARY 4, 1999: 

AMERICAN HISTORY X. Films that tell me what to think are boring and insulting, and that's generally what I expect from movies that address race issues. That's not the case with American History X, and that alone makes it satisfying. It tells the story of Nazi skinhead Derek (a buff Edward Norton) and his turnaround while imprisoned for brutally murdering two black men. Largely told via beautifully shot black-and-white flashbacks, it focuses on the impact of Derek's hatred on his younger brother Daniel (the under-cast Edward Furlong). This gives the film resonance as it comments on how impressionable and willing to seek out simple answers we are when we're young, and we watch Daniel spout propaganda that's been fed to him by his brother and White Power guru Cameron (Stacy Keach). The film is also troubling, because much of the story revolves around hatemonger Derek and his clear articulations of his position; in this sense the revelatory ending has less of an impact. Also, Derek's turning point is the result of being raped by another skinhead, so his hatred for non-whites is simply transferred to the group he once supported rather than growing out of realizations about any wrongdoing on his part. The film is certainly thought-provoking in that it brings up more questions than it answers; and avoids the disingenuousness of having the final word on race relations summed up in two hours. --Higgins



ENEMY OF THE STATE. This tribute to Francis Ford Coppola's early masterpiece The Conversation takes the star of that film, Gene Hackman, and hands him a heavy-handed action script, Will Smith's bubbly Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes as a co-star, and lots of explosions in order to deaden any of the impact that Coppola's film had. Enemy of the State tries to raise questions about the surveillance society through a story wherein a young lawyer (Smith) is observed and undermined by the NSA, which utilizes every security camera and spy satellite in the world just to track one guy who's running around D.C. in his pajamas. For good measure, it throws in offensive stereotypes of Asians, Italians and Mexicans, as well as some unconvincing speeches, a cute little boy and a series of deus-ex-machina rescues. No doubt Coppola's aesthetic sensibilities are spinning in their grave. --DiGiovanna


GODS AND MONSTERS. Ian McKellen (check out his web site at www.mckellen.com, I swear to god) turns in another excellent performance in this sad and partly true story of early Hollywood director James Whale. Whale was the force behind Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (the latter being one of the best films of its era), who was used up and cast out by the Hollywood system. Recounting his memories of WWI, his monster movies, his life as a gay swinger in old Hollywood, and the debilitating illness that is causing his mind to flood with memories, Whale enchants and repulses his beautiful gardener, played by the heavily muscled Brendan Fraser. Whale's homosexuality strains their relations and provides a center point for director/writer Bill Condon's well-made story of a man who tries to create a monster that will destroy him. --DiGiovanna


HENRY FOOL. Director Hal Hartley has again triumphed, making a sad, comic, and extremely thoughtful film. It is this last feature that really sets Henry Fool apart from virtually everything that has come out of Hollywood in the last 10 years. Hartley respects his audience's intelligence, providing dialogue that's actually philosophical, rather than platitudinous, music that leaves space for the listener's own emotional response, and a sly acting style that puts the message into relief with subtle humor. This story of a garbage man turned international celebrity poet is surreal while still maintaining a strong connection to ordinary life, and is no doubt one of the best films of the year. --DiGiovanna


JACK FROST. Sitting through this family flick is kinda like flossing with piano wire. The bloody mess begins when Jack Frost (Michael Keaton), who's a perfect dad in every way except for the fact that he sometimes says "no" to his son in order to pursue his career as a blues singer, dies. Oddly enough, he dies after he decides that family should always come first--almost like he's being punished for believing the movie's message. A year later, Frost becomes a snowman due to a magical harmonica, which could have solved all the family's woes years ago if they'd known it was magical. Oh well. Now he's a snowman with a creepy rubberized computer-animated face, and "better a snow dad than no dad." With his twiggy arms, he finally teaches his son the game-winning hockey moves, and they bond. For unexplained reasons, this Snuffleupasnowman avoids everybody else from his life, including his hot mama of a wife played by Kelly Preston; perhaps he's worried she'll ask him to "Sing me a smile" again. It's nice that filmmakers can smoothly animate snowmen and whatnot, but when will they program computers to smooth out logic problems in the plot, like the fact that horny men aren't beating down Kelly Preston's door a year after her husband snuffs it? Or that Jack Frost lets his son risk his life trekking to the Colorado Rockies to keep dad from melting, when Frosty knows darned well he can't stick around anyway? Kids who have lost a parent may get something therapeutic from this poorly thought-out McMovie, but I'd recommend actual therapy. --Woodruff


LIVING OUT LOUD. This journey-of-self-realization flick has the same problem a lot of movies have these days: It's entertaining but annoying. The ever-charming Holly Hunter plays Judith Nelson, a wealthy doctor's wife who loses it when she discovers her husband is in love with a younger woman. She slowly pulls herself back together with the help of some quirky new friends, a saucy nightclub singer (Queen Latifah) and the building's elevator operator (Danny DeVito). The ad campaign for this movie points out that director Richard LaGravenese also wrote The Fisher King and the screenplay for The Bridges of Madison County, as though this were a good thing. Living Out Loud suffers from the same gut-kick episodes of sentimentality and overwrought meaning-of-life moments as in LaGravenese's earlier movies, cheap shots all of them. Does anyone really need a movie to show them how to connect more deeply with their fellow humans? Even so, this could have been a decent film if LaGravenese had cut out the kids-dying-of-cancer, crack-baby-rescue subplots. The performances are quite good and the story zips along; yet, at the end of it all, it feels awfully fake for a movie about "authenticity."--Richter


PRINCE OF EGYPT. The book was better. (But the previews were killer: The new Star Wars prequel; plus next summer's bizarre animated adventure Tarzan, which, to judge by the racy preview, may be the first Disney movie with a sex scene!) --Wadsworth


PSYCHO. Director Gus Van Sant has made a shot-by-shot edition of Hitchcock's 1960s masterpiece, a sort of 101 Strings version of your favorite hit. The result is a film that's interesting only in its pointlessness. Why mess with something as trashy and fine as Psycho, Gus? What's the big idea? The new Psycho features some updated props, like a Walkman; and an updated cast, like psychohunk Vince Vaughn, who plays Norman Bates as a big, knife-wielding sexpot. Hitchcock, that famous, repressed romantic, would blush in his grave if he could see his own Norman Bates waxing the bishop while spying on a girl through his peephole. It's wrong, oh so wrong! The title sequence, updated with some puke-green accents, is still stunning, as is Bernard Herrmann's sublime score. The rest is for the birds. --Richter


SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. Measure for measure, this is not playwright Tom Stoppard's best work. Still, it's a reasonably decent comedy of Eros, wherein young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) spends his midsummer's nights dreaming about the beautiful Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), trying to write Romeo and Juliet, and avoiding the vengeful Lord Wessex, who wants to kill Will for messing with his woman. All this stirs up a tempest in the court of Queen Elizabeth, played by perennial noble Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown). Say what you will about the witty use of Shakespeare's titles and plots in this script (slightly altered scenes from Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night form the basis for this story about a girl named Viola who dresses as a boy to get a part in Shakespeare's play), it's all much ado about nothing as there are too many long pauses between funny bits. Still, if you'd enjoy seeing lots of Paltrow and Fiennes, both of whom are attractive and talented young actors, then this film is as you like it. --DiGiovanna


YOU'VE GOT MAIL. Okay, let's clear this up: "You've got mail" is not grammatically correct. It is, in fact, redundant: it should be "You have mail," or even just "You've mail," if you want to give it a 19th-century feel. It's just the absence of 19th-century sensibilities that bugged me about this cute and intermittently funny romantic comedy. It tells the story of a petit bourgeois bookstore owner (Meg Ryan, who's maintained her pixie-like looks for far longer than should be naturally possible) who is driven out of business by a grand bourgeois owner of a chain of bookstores (Tom Hanks, who is either wearing a toupee or has an atrocious dye job, or both). Think they'll fall in love? While there's lots of sentimental whining about the loss of small businesses, I wondered why anyone should care when the exploited workers were as far removed from the means of production under one boss as the other. It's the hallmark of late 20th-century capitalism that production facilities have been moved away from the politically sensitized "first world" and into the emerging economies, where 19th-century conditions are not yet considered appalling and inhuman, and where child labor and cramped, dirty factories are far from the eyes of concerned do-gooders. Which isn't to say that a lot of people won't like You've Got Mail; if they liked Nora Ephron's other films (When Harry Met Sally and They Made Unchallenging Witty Comments for 90 Minutes Before Falling in Love, and Sleepless in a Very Cleaned-Up, Middle of the Road Version of Seattle). If so, then they'll have to like this one, as it's a virtual carbon copy of those earlier efforts...but why not read Volume I of Karl Marx's Kapital instead? It's informative and stars Meg Ryan as the bookish but sexy...oh, never mind. --DiGiovanna


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