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The Boston Phoenix Beyond Paranoia

Hollywood offers a summer of disasters and diversions.

By Peter Keough

MAY 26, 1998:  Paramount has the summer's masterpiece on its hands, and that has the studio terrified. Peter Weir's (opens June 5) features Jim Carrey, but the star of the film is not the mugging, mega-box-office guarantor, it's the concept. In an era when the line between reality and its media representation seems irrevocably blurred, when conspiracy theories are everyday life not just for fringe cults but for anyone with a television, a film about a regular guy who discovers his life is a hit TV series seems a lot closer to the zeitgeist than does Godzilla.

The Truman Show is getting excellent notices, including one all but describing it as the Second Coming by Esquire critic David Thomson (who's quoted at full length in the ads). So what's the problem? Summer movies are not supposed to be smart, and Jim Carrey is supposed to be dumb, or at least nonstop hilarious. But in fact The Truman Show is on to something, with its lingering suggestion that things are not what they seem, that the truth is indeed out there, and that it's lot more entertaining than what appears to be real, or than the all-too-literal special-effects extravaganzas that are foisted on us as diverting illusions.

Hollywood will nonetheless be spending the summer, as usual, trying to convince us that there's more to life than paranoia. Traditional fare returns in the form of Doomsday scenarios, testosterone-and-effects-driven action flicks, dumb comedies, and remakes. And in a nod to the pubescent female demographic that raised Titanic, a handful of formidable heroines will challenge the boys for dominance of the screen.


The Truman is out there

In The Truman Show, one guy discovers his life is a TV show watched by millions; with The X-Files (June 19), millions of viewers believe a TV show is reality. Whether they will continue to believe, or watch, depends on whether director Rob Bowman can reveal enough to titillate without disillusioning. The details are secret, of course, though it seems special agents Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson), abetted and/or opposed by a cast including Blythe Danner, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and ex-Mission Impossible team member Martin Landau, investigate an Oklahoma City-style federal-office building explosion and . . .

More esoteric and low-budget are the truths sought out in local filmmaker Darren Aronofsky's Pi (July 24). The elusive geometric symbol is just one of the enigmas in this black-and-white story of a reclusive mathematician torn between Wall Street types who want to exploit his deciphering genius for profit and a cabalistic sect out to attain Ultimate Truth. No wonder the guy gets headaches.

Nightmares, not headaches, are the complaint of Annette Bening in In Dreams (sometime in September). After a family tragedy, she suspects that her vivid dreams are mirroring the deeds of serial killer Robert Downey Jr. Sounding a little like Eyes of Laura Mars, The Silence of the Lambs, and screenwriter Bruce Robinson's previous dud, Jennifer 8, this thriller should benefit from the inventive direction of Neil Jordan and a cast that includes Aidan Quinn and Stephen Rea.

An auteur's hand should also be evident in Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes (August 7), which looks like a return to his Blow Out prime as corrupt cop Nicolas Cage gets wind of a plot to assassinate the Secretary of Defense during a prizefight in Atlantic City. He joins up with officer Gary Sinise to foil the scheme; adding an apocalyptic edge to the proceedings (à la Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man) is an approaching hurricane.

A shaky alliance is at the heart of F. Gary Gray's The Negotiator (July 31), in which Chicago police hostage negotiator Samuel L. Jackson is framed in a murder. To clear himself he reverses roles and takes some hostages of his own. Enter fellow negotiator and former Keyser Souse Kevin Spacey to sort things out -- for good or ill.

For some of the paranoia celebrations coming out this summer there seems to be a conspiracy to mine old movies and television series for ideas. Andrew Davis tries to return to The Fugitive form with A Perfect Murder (June 5), imitating the master Alfred Hitchcock with this remake of Dial M for Murder starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. L.A. Confidential screenwriter Brian Helgeland further indulges his noirish streak with Payback (August 7), a retread of John Boorman's Point Blank starring Mel Gibson as a hood betrayed by wife Deborah Kara Unger and best friend Gregg Henry. And though the '60s may endure in Jeremiah Chechik's adaptation of the classic secret-agent series The Avengers (August 14), the rest of the world may not, since Sean Connery's "deranged meteorologist" is threatening it with a weather system that makes El Niño look like a sun shower; Ralph Fiennes's Steed and Uma Thurman's Emma Peel intervene.


The end of the world as we know it

For many, colliding asteroids or cataclysmic storms are superfluous; the world ended with the death of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. In his controversial documentary Kurt and Courtney (June 12) Nick Broomfield looks into the circumstances of Cobain's success and seeming suicide -- in which he implicates Cobain's wife, Courtney Love. No surprise that she's tried to get an injunction against the film.

For others, the end came with the death of disco, and they can find consolation in a pair of pictures about the fin de siècle of the '70s. Whit Stillman applies his blithe if stilted wit to The Last Days of Disco (May 29), with Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Matt Keeslar, Robert Sean Leonard, and Jennifer Beals as recent college grads. And Mark Christopher explores the demise of the title demi-monde in 54 (August 7), which stars Mike Myers (as the club's owner), Ryan Phillippe, Neve Campbell, and Salma Hayek.

For those unconvinced by the comet in Deep Impact, however, only another taste of the real thing will do. The AIDS-metaphor scenario gets a new twist in James Cameron associate John Bruno's Virus (August 14), in which an alien power determines that the disease is us and endeavors to eradicate it. Fortunately, Jamie Lee Curtis in Sigourney Weaver mode goads fellow empowered woman Joanna Pacula and token males William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland into a desperate, f/x-enhanced fight to the death.

The boys are back in force, though, in Michael Bay's Armageddon (July 3). Unlike Deep Impact, which focused on the media coverage of and passive human response to its cataclysmic encounter with a celestial object, this doomsday entry emphasizes payback, not reconciliation. Die Hard expert Bruce Willis leads fellow roughnecks Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Will Patton, and Steve Buscemi plus token female Liv Tyler in a mission to nuke a Texas-sized asteroid before it can singe any of those whiners back on earth.


The company of men

The mission of the testosterone-enhanced team in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (July 24) is more life-affirming than that of Armageddon, but just as macho. Tom Hanks heads a squad of commandos including Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, and Jeremy Davies out to rescue footsoldier Matt Damon, who's lost on the post-D-Day battlefield. It's a PR ploy -- all four of Damon siblings have been killed in action, and the Army wants to boost morale -- but for the combatants and, Spielberg hopes, for the audience, the consequences are very real.

In Spielberg's other DreamWorks summer offering, Joe Dante's Small Soldiers (July 10), the troops are not only not female, they're not even human. It's Toy Story with guns as a Pentagon computerized-weapons project gets scrambled with a line of kids' action figures. Expect them to do battle with the Godzilla merchandising in a fast-food outlet near you.

All's not completely lost for women in the kick-ass department. Rene Russo rejoins Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, and newcomer Chris Rock in Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon IV (July 10). Antonio Banderas gets back-up from Catherine Zeta-Jones in Mask of Zorro (July 17), as mentor Anthony Hopkins looks on approvingly. And don't you think all the concern about Anne Heche in the comedy/action/romance Six Days, Seven Nights (June 12) is misdirected? Of the two leads, Harrison Ford would seem the less convincing in a love story.


Female troubles

Nevertheless, it's a sad commentary when a summer's only truly strong female character turns up in the re-release of a 60-year-old movie -- Gone with the Wind (June 26). Or is a cartoon character, as Disney animation expands its ethnographic appeal with Mulan (June 19), a kind of Chinese Joan of Arc with Eddie Murphy voicing a friendly dragon. Or emerges from children's stories, with Drew Barrymore vying with wicked stepmother Anjelica Huston in Ever After: A Cinderella Story (July 31) and Hatty Jones as the runty but undaunted Parisian schoolgirl in Daisy von Scherler Mayer's adaptation of Ludwig Bemelmans's classic series Madeline (July 10).

But in the cinematic here-and-now we're stuck with Meg Ryan in Forrest Whitaker's Hope Floats (May 29). Dumped by her husband, she flees back to Texas with her daughter to live with mom Gena Rowlands. There she finds hope in the form of local lothario Harry Connick Jr. No Scarlett O'Hara, she.

More promising is a suddenly nubile Christina Ricci as a kind of a Lolita with a vengeance in two subversive-seeming summer movies. She co-stars with director Vincent Gallo in Buffalo 66 (June 26) as an underage tapdancer who outwits her kidnapper. And in The Opposite of Sex (opening not set), she plays a ruthless 15-year-old who's nothing but trouble for her visiting half-brother Martin Donovan and his lover Ivan Sergei.


Carrey on

Meanwhile, who will provide the gross-out comedy this summer if Jim Carrey is no longer talking to the animals, let alone through his anus? His collaborators Peter and Bobby Farrelly offer There's Something About Mary (July 15), in which Matt Dillon and Ben Stiller vie for Cameron Diaz, who wears a hair gel the disgusting ingredients of which are a secret as closely guarded as the plot of The X-Files. Could this be the first love story with fart jokes?

The Airplane!/The Naked Gun contingent are back also, in various configurations. Jim Abrahams spoofs the mob/Merchant Ivory genres in Jane Austen's Mafia (July 24), which stars the late Lloyd Bridges, Christina Applegate, and Jay Mohr. Naked Gun scripter Pat Proft lampoons The Fugitive and its kind in Wrongfully Accused (August 7), which stars the inevitable Leslie Nielsen in the title role. The newest names in scatological comedy get screen time in David Zucker's BASEketball (July 31), in which South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone invent a wacky new fusion sport.

And though there'll be no replacing Ace Ventura, Eddie Murphy takes to the animals in the remake of Dr. Dolittle (June 26), with Albert Brooks, Chris Rock, John Leguizamo, and Garry Shandling providing the voices of a tiger, a guinea pig, a pigeon, and a rat. In a summer featuring the solipsistic fantasies of The Truman Show and The X-Files, this won't be hard to swallow at all.


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