Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Comet's Tale

By Debbie Gilbert

MAY 18, 1998:  This summer there are two movies featuring a comet hurtling toward Earth, so you can take your pick: with testosterone or without. The pumped-up version, Armageddon starring Bruce Willis, hits theatres in July. The more nurturing alternative, Deep Impact, is on screens now. It’s the first big-budget science-fiction film directed by a woman, and it’s quite a change of pace.

At the helm is Mimi Leder, who won an Emmy for the famous “Love’s Labor Lost” episode of ER. Here, she attempts to blend action and apocalyptic sequences with small stories of people in desperate circumstances. Most of the time, it works.

Unlike other recent end-of-the-world pictures such as Independence Day, Deep Impact addresses the issue seriously, without winking at the audience. The premise on which it is based is not science fiction at all; just a few months ago – until astronomers hastily refigured their calculations – we thought our planet was facing this exact situation. And though we dodged the bullet that time, a comet will collide with Earth at some point in the future. So Deep Impact tries to enact a plausible scenario for how we’ll deal with this crisis, with science that holds together if you don’t examine it too closely.

In the United States, the government’s response is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. As President Tom Beck, Morgan Freeman inspires confidence. He’s grave yet kindly and he lays out the facts without raising false expectations. He makes it clear that there will be no doomsday profiteering or looting. “Work will go on,” he tells the American people. “You will pay your bills.”

In secret, the feds have been building a spacecraft called Messiah that will try to detonate warheads on the comet to deflect its course away from Earth. But if that doesn’t work, vast underground bunkers are being dug into the caves of Missouri, enough to hold 2 million people. Those with special expertise and knowledge vital to the country’s survival are selected, and the rest are chosen at random from the population. The catch: Only those under 50 will be drawn for the lottery, presumably because adults of child-bearing age will be needed. This government-playing-God maneuver is accepted with remarkable passivity by the public; you’d think there would be more social unrest, which the movie doesn’t show enough of.

Panicked citizens brace for cataclysm in Deep Impact.

Instead, in typical ER fashion, it dwells on several individual stories, some less interesting than others. When the action drags, the film is rescued by an amazing cast of actors. Robert Duvall has a humanizing role as an old astronaut – the last guy to walk on the moon – who is brought back to command the Messiah mission. Among the younger crewmembers, Mary McCormack is a standout as the shuttle pilot. Elijah Wood, one of the best child actors of the Nineties, has matured into a teenage heartthrob and is still doing fine work. James Cromwell makes the most of his cameo. Vanessa Redgrave, on the other hand, is wasted in a depressing role.

The single worst mistake in Deep Impact is the gross miscasting of Tea Leoni as a TV reporter. No network exec in his right mind would ever hire this colorless girl as an anchorwoman. Leoni is utterly lacking in warmth, humor, or charisma. She has all the effervescence of a schizophrenic doped up on Thorazine. Her voice is an inflectionless drone, her personality a cipher, and her hair looks like she cuts it herself with a kitchen knife. She’s not someone you’d look to for reassurance as the apocalypse approaches. Indeed, she’d have you reaching frantically for the remote to erase her from your TV screen.

But aside from this one misstep, Deep Impact is fairly well done. Though it’s not a special-effects-heavy film, there are two notable sequences. The landing on the comet’s surface is unusual, something that’s never really been depicted in movies before. And the tidal wave that inundates the Eastern seaboard is way cool – worth the price of admission.

Like Titanic, this film tries to balance out the disaster-epic thrills with intimate moments. Sometimes it descends almost to soap-opera level (especially in any scene involving Leoni and her boring family), but there are some instances of courage and sacrifice – particularly among characters whom we’ve come to know well enough that we’re saddened by their loss – that are genuinely moving.

Deep Impact isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an admirable effort and a worthwhile entertainment – if you can grit your teeth and sit through all those scenes with the lusterless Leoni. – Debbie Gilbert

For all who thought that screenwriter Joe Esterhasz had reached his nadir with the dispiriting raunch of Showgirls, his new film Burn! Hollywood! Burn! comes along to make us think again; that is, if one has nothing more entertaining to do. Things “better to do” than watch this tedious, vulgar, somewhat moronic bit of self-justification might include root canal surgery or having weasels chew one’s toes.

Esterhasz’s venture aspires to join the proud generic history of lampooning the back-stabbing greed and crassness of the Hollywood film industry, classics such as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Robert Altman’s The Player. These filmmakers, and others who have managed to draw a steely bead on the soullessness of Tinsel Town, have been in, but not of, the industry; although unsanctimonious and even capable of wry self-deprecation, they have sustained a bemused perspective from positions of carefully guarded craftsmanship on the margins of the tawdry spectacle. What gets in the way of Esterhasz’s objectivity, a fundamental ingredient for effective satire, is that he is too close to his subject. He may be uncomfortably close; that may not be, however, enough to liberate him, and it most certainly is not reason enough for us to pay to watch him foul his own nest with the bitter and uninteresting crudity of Burn! Hollywood! It is difficult to wax witty or insightful – much less make something approximating even implicit moral criticism – when the megalomania of your own loudly self-advertised, cutthroat dealmaking and your own last three or four egregiously tacky films offer compounding evidence of your own greed and crassness.

Joe Esterhasz comes a lot closer to deserving his recent consignment to Hollywood pariahdom, a turn of events which Burn! vapidly attempts to excoriate, than he ever did to earning the multimillion-dollar contract for giving the world Showgirls (which sum was awarded, by the culture that bred him, for having given the world Basic Instinct, a movie so cold and enervating that it is primarily remembered for a signature Esterhasz scene in which the writer shares his view that all we need to know about the history of feminism may be summarized in an off-camera crotch shot).

Burn! Hollywood! Burn! uses a film-within-a-film to cobble together its sophomoric, skit-like scenes, very few of which have anything even resembling a comic pay-off. Eric Idle plays a director named Alan Smithee, who has a film wrested away from him by his producers and re-cut into an abomination certain to be a blockbuster. Smithee has no recourse but to remove his name from the picture, a situation which, historically in the business, is addressed by the director being listed in the credits as Alan Smithee. Hence, the Idle character’s dilemma eventually drives him to stealing and hiding the only print of the film and to a heavily guarded behavioral health facility where he narrates the story in flashbacks. Whoopi Goldberg, Sylvester Stallone, and Jackie Chan star as themselves in the ill-fated action epic; they don’t get much to play in the way of amusing scenes, just heavy-handed bits that have the appearance of slumming.

Ryan O’Neal is surprisingly good as a sleazy producer. His comic instincts are adroit and his timing sharp; the credibility of his self-absorbed, unctuous character stands head and shoulders above the rest of these dire proceedings. Lately, whenever this golden-boy-who-went-nowhere has been given a chance, he has turned in an interesting performance. Perhaps Joe Esterhasz can draw some encouragement from this, that one can survive being a joke.

It should surprise no one that the strongest element of the small new Brit indy Nil by Mouth is the work of the actors. Not widely known at home, and virtually unknown here, the cast of this gritty tale of desperate living is superb; along with their own considerable talent, they are deployed here to great advantage by one of their own – Nil by Mouth is actor Gary Oldman’s auspicious (if bleak) first writing/directing project.

The aspect of the film that may prove audience-resistant is its uncompromising honesty. The story focuses on the slow corruption and inexorable violence with which drug addiction undermines a tenuous network of human lives in south London (with accents that may prove difficult even for Anglophilic American ears.) Nil by Mouth is not an easy film to watch, but for the patient, it may prove quite rewarding. It is unarguably well-made.

Oldman has a fine grasp of contemporary urban tensions, of the volatile mix of rough humor, rougher words, and out-of-control behaviors that seethe like crack liquefying in a spoon. His loping narrative style eloquently catches the moments of humanity that struggle to flourish in the midst of this prevailing hopelessness. The film’s characters live on the edge at every moment; it is part of their addiction, it is part of the high they more and more feverishly seek. It is also what wears them down, wrings them out, and tosses them aside like rinds.

Only occasionally does Oldman let a scene stretch or allow one of his colleagues to get a bit self-indulgent. Overall, both Oldman’s writing and his sensitive direction are models of stylistic efficiency and movingly articulated emotion. He and his fine actors achieve a naturalism so powerful that, in some moments, we feel as though we are watching an extraordinarily riveting documentary.

Leading this memorably charged ensemble are Charlie Creed-Miles as a mid-level dealer and user whose cumulative dissatisfactions with himself erupt dangerously for those around him: Kathy Burke as his long-suffering wife who finally draws a line, Laila Morse as her mother, and Ray Winstone as a life-of-the party loser whose future as a good-looking, employable young man has receded into a series of long, repetitious, drug-fueled anecdotes which still eke grudging amusement from his pals if they’re smashed enough but which, it is painfully clear, amuse him no longer at all. – Hadley Hury

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