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Gambit Weekly The Sister, The Wife and The Winter from Hell

By Rick Barton

JULY 20, 1998: 

The Sister From Hell

FILM: The Opposite of Sex

STARRING: Christina Ricci, Martin Donovan


Back when The Opposite of Sex was poised to make its national debut on Memorial Day weekend, writer/director Don Roos was asked how it felt to be going head-to-head with the (erroneously) expected megahit Godzilla. Roos allowed as to how he wasn't afraid of the competition because his own main character was a whole lot scarier. Great line. And a great window into the quicksilver comic mind of a man who has made a splendid entertainment. Don't miss this little jewel.

The monumentally talented Christina Ricci stars in The Opposite of Sex as 16-year-old Dedee Truitt, the last person on Earth you'd want to meet in a dark alley -- not because she'd kill you, but because she'd be so mean to you, you'd decide to kill yourself. As the picture opens, Dedee takes leave from her trailer-trash Louisiana family and journeys uninvited and unannounced to Indiana to crash with her 38-year-old half-brother, Bill (Martin Donovan). A compassionate high school English teacher, Bill hardly deserves the intrusion of someone so vile as Dedee. Of course, Attila the Hun wouldn't deserve a relative like Dedee. Bill is gay and has a younger live-in lover named Matt (Ivan Sergei), but Bill's really still recovering from the AIDS death of Tom, his longtime companion. Dedee doesn't prove exactly sympathetic. First, she wrecks Bill's new relationship by seducing Matt. Then she convinces Matt to help her steal $10,000 from Bill. And to deter Bill from sending the authorities after her, she kidnaps Tom's urn of ashes, holds them hostage and threatens to pour them out in places far away.

What makes this zany stuff so funny is Dedee's wild mix of frankness and serpentine self-justification. In Dedee's worldview, the game is about survival, and anybody who lets you steamroll him deserves exactly what he gets. Dedee is the kind of young woman who will lie to your face and later taunt you for believing her lies. But good as Ricci is at wringing surprise laughs out of her incredible meanness, she actually has the picture stolen out from under her by Lisa Kudrow, who plays Lucia, the uptight Cassandra of the piece. Lucia is Tom's sister and Bill's high school faculty colleague and best friend. Lucia's actually in love with Bill, but she harbors no hopes of converting him to heterosexuality. Instead, she's resigned herself to life as an old maid and consoles herself with deadpan rants about the emptiness of sex. (Her tune changes when she finally has some with the local sheriff, played by Lyle Lovett). Lucia spots Dedee for a rat almost the moment they meet, but she's unable to convince anyone until it's too late. Roos has outfitted Kudrow with a score of crackerjack lines, and she knocks every one of them for a homer. The Opposite of Sex is a badly needed antidote to the typical summer fare. It's an inventively plotted picture that thrives on dialogue rather than explosions.

The Wife From Hell

FILM: Kurt and Courtney

DIRECTOR: Nick Broomfield

One can't help but feel sorry for Nick Broomfield. He's an award-winning documentarian who has previously made well-received films about comic Lily Tomlin, Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and serial killer Aileen Wuornos. And we believe him when he says he set out to make an objective documentary about the morose life and sad early death of grunge rocker Kurt Cobain. But what emerges in Kurt and Courtney is about as objective as a Rush Limbaugh commentary on anything Clinton. The film makes clear just why it became so biased, but that's no excuse. It is relentlessly unfair. And because it's so damned convincing, that's really unfortunate. The picture flays Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, so thoroughly, it would have been far more effective to have done so with an evenhanded scalpel than the blunt hatchet Broomfield wields.

Broomfield set out to document the circumstances of Cobain's depression and suicide. Naturally, he sought to interview Cobain's widow. But Love refused, and she soon began to exert her increasing influence to stop others from cooperating as well. Financing for the film from Showtime and MTV was abruptly withdrawn under pressure from Love. As a result, Broomfield was forced to turn to Love's enemies. And boy, does this woman have enemies. Among those who come forward to testify is a punk rocker named Roz who was involved with Love before she married Cobain. Roz and Courtney did not exactly part on amicable terms, and Roz saved notebooks in which Love outlined a course to fame and fortune for herself that involved attaching herself to a famous musician.

Another vehement Love detractor is private detective Tom Grant, who forthrightly believes Love had her husband murdered. He makes much of the fact that Cobain was massively stoned on heroin when he died and the inescapably troubling facts that neither the death weapon nor its bullets bore Cobain's fingerprints. In addition, Grant points out that Cobain's suicide note appears to have been altered at the end to include a loving farewell to his wife. Near the picture's conclusion, Broomfield talks with the nanny for Cobain and Love's daughter, Frances. The terrified and reluctant nanny says that Love was obsessed with her husband's will and often taunted him about his depression, daring him to kill himself.

Less credible witnesses include Love's odious father, Hank Harrison, who shows up to promote his book alleging that Love hired Cobain's killer. Watching Harrison, we certainly know where Courtney got both her instincts for self-promotion and her vengeful spirit. Elsewhere, Broomfield interviews a bizarre musician and pornographic performance artist named El Duce who claims that Love offered him $50,000 to "whack" her husband.

One can see precisely why Broomfield came to hate Courtney Love, even as he professes not to believe theories that she killed her husband. On the very eve of this year's Sundance Film Festival, Love succeeded in getting the festival to withdraw Kurt and Courtney from the competition by threatening a lawsuit. And Broomfield documents the death threats Love made against writer Lynn Hirschberg after Hirschberg's unflattering article on the singer/actress appeared in Vanity Fair.

But even if Broomfield's cause ultimately became the disparaging of Courtney Love, his approach needed much more subtlety. He intrudes far too much in his interviews, and his questions are much too leading. Often, he doesn't follow up when he should. El Duce claims to know who killed Cobain, but Broomfield neglects to ask him the person's identity. Broomfield does several interviews with Cobain's seemingly loving Aunt Mary but fails to ask why she didn't take him in when a psychologically fragile, teenage Cobain had to find shelter at a teacher's house and even under bridges.

In the end, nothing can excuse Broomfield's high-handed attempt to ambush Love at an ACLU banquet over her treatment of journalists. That accomplishes nothing more than making the filmmaker look petulant and unprofessional. Instead, he should have asked ACLU officials why they thought someone like Love was an appropriate spokesperson for their organization. And he definitely should have talked with someone like Milos Forman, who directed Love's acclaimed performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Broomfield convinces me that Courtney Love is a very bad person, and that's exactly why I fear his failure to let her supporters on camera will result in others letting her off the hook.

The Winter From Hell

FILM: The Winter Guest

STARRING: Emma Thompson, Phyllida Law

DIRECTOR: Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman's cinematic adaptation of Sharman MacDonald's play is set in a Scottish seaside town on a day so cold even the sea has frozen. This backdrop is perfect for wintry themes about love and death. Two elderly women (Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe) attend a funeral and confront their own mortality. Two young boys (Sean Biggerstaff and Douglas Murphy) cut school, hide out on a freezing beach and confess their fears. Two teenagers (Gary Hollywood and Arlene Cockburn) explore their adolescent sexuality. And most important, an aging mother (Phyllida Law) and her middle-age daughter (Emma Thompson) spend a day together wrestling with a lifetime's worth of issues about love, loyalty and the need for independence.

The filmmakers would have been better advised to have concentrated on the mother/daughter scenes alone. The picture is over-long and far too leisurely paced. The interactions of the other three pairs ring true enough but develop little momentum. But Law and Thompson (mother/daughter in real life, too) make this film worth seeing. They give magnificent, nuanced performances that speak wonders about the complications of loving and being loved.

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