Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Wrong Direction

By Jim Ridley, Donna Bowman, and Ron Wynn

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Film editing used to be so hard. All those images, all those unruly pieces that had to be fitted together just right, and for what? A dumb old meaning. But now you too can build your own hyperkinetic critique of a media-dazed society--simply by using the Oliver Stone Montage-O-Matic! Just slap together the following elements: an actor (say, Jo Ann Worley); a close-up of a body part (Jo Ann Worley's foot); a highway sign ("SLIPPERY WHEN WET"); a loaded religious image (Moses smashing the Ten Commandments); a scorpion (two, if they aren't all booked); and random stock footage (road kill, ceiling fans, Ed Ames on the Tonight Show). Add splattery filler and repeat every three minutes, and in no time you'll have Stone's new movie U-Turn.

U-Turn isn't just a lousy movie; it's one of those colossal stinkbombs, like Wild at Heart or Showgirls, that retroactively fouls a director's past work. In Stone's last movie, Nixon, the Montage-O-Matic functioned as a kind of celluloid sausage-grinder: The director shoved in showy cameos and specious docudrama and hokey time-lapse photography, and the machine spat out something much like sousemeat--a compression of unsavory ingredients into an unspeakable whole. But Stone could at least argue that his style was appropriate for Nixon, a public figure who was subjected to kinesthetic media bombardment--just like the serial-killer celebrities of Natural Born Killers and the trial-balloon conspiracies of JFK. No such claim holds for U-Turn, which is set in a sleepy small town where nobody even appears to own a TV. It's plainly not the country or the century that's suffering from an attention deficit; it's the director.

The plot of U-Turn is almost identical to the sleeper Red Rock West (and a dozen other noir thrillers before it): A stranger gets stuck in a scrubby desert town, catches the eye of a mysterious femme fatale, and soon winds up caught between her and her murderous husband. But Stone doesn't care about the story's dull familiarity; he's too busy changing film stocks and recycling other directors' leftover camera tricks--a Spike Lee dolly, a Sam Raimi zoom--to work up a shred of interest in the characters or the setting. The town seems to change size at whim; in one scene, it appears to have a single, flyblown spaghetti-western street, then it turns out to have a wealthy real-estate mogul and a half-dozen candidates for public office.

Some of the actors do surprisingly fine work in the midst of this nonsense: Sean Penn as the drifter antihero has a miserable why-me scowl that gets funnier as the movie goes along, and he has a couple of hilarious sparring matches with Billy Bob Thornton as a mush-mouthed menace of a crooked mechanic. Jennifer Lopez makes an effectively elusive siren, and Powers Boothe brings a quiet authority to his role as a sheriff. But they're lucky: They haven't been tricked out in goofy List of Adrian Messenger disguises, like Jon Voight's Halloween-costume Indian or Nick Nolte's false teeth. (Between Nolte and Thornton, the movie succeeds as a cautionary tale for proper dental care.)

Oliver Stone got his start working on low-budget horror movies and exploitation flicks, and he reportedly loves them still: Last year he executive-produced the savage little gem Freeway, a blood-soaked rewrite of Little Red Riding Hood. But U-Turn has a contemptuous feel, as if the director couldn't be bothered to focus his energies on such a trifling story. It's such a mess that it's being marketed now as a sort of ironic comedy, and about the 20th time you've seen the boom microphone drop into the frame, you're tempted to believe it.

Bad sign Sean Penn consults Jon Voight in an attempt to find out just how they ended up in Oliver Stone's lousy U-Turn. Photo by Zade Rosenthal.


The editing is the biggest joke--especially when Sean Penn turns black-and-white for no reason, or the moon hotfoots it across the sky for the third time, or the director suddenly cuts (why not?) to an elaborate stained-glass figure that bears no relevance to anything. In the past, Stone seemed to be trying to subvert the fundamental principle of film editing--that two images in juxtaposition create a separate meaning--but now we see he was just trying to salvage every scrap of celluloid from the cutting-room wastebasket. If nothing else, U-Turn proves that the Montage-O-Matic is capable of mulching all the crap Oliver Stone can shovel into it.--Jim Ridley


Reheated lambs

Great acting can often salvage a mediocre screenplay or inferior direction, but it seldom can elevate it, as the new thriller Kiss the Girls proves. In Gary Fleder's adaptation of the James Patterson novel, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd consistently demonstrate their formidable capabilities; they're even supported by above-par technical work, particularly the cinematography, which showcases the North Carolina forestry and terrain. But Kiss the Girls is missing a spark of originality or inspiration--and without it Freeman and Judd can't prop everything else up.

The story involves the search for a serial killer/collector by forensic expert Alex Cross (Freeman), who joins forces with a kick-boxing medical student (Judd), the killer's only captive to escape thus far. (The pairing takes place only after Cross has demonstrated the inevitable reluctance to team up with a civilian.) The two actors do have chemistry, and they're such pros that they forge a credible alliance without any sense of offscreen one-upmanship or competition. As the movie builds to a climax, their compiling of clues has some dramatic value. But Freeman did all this much better, and in far more gripping fashion, in 1995's Seven.

Perhaps it's a bit uncharitable to say there are no surprising twists in Kiss the Girls. But anyone who has read even one Erle Stanley Gardner or Walter Mosley novel will quickly anticipate the unfolding developments, and the finale doesn't come close to equaling the impact of its obvious forerunner, The Silence of the Lambs. The supporting cast, which includes Jay O. Sanders, Cary Elwes, and Tony Goldwyn, fails to add much sizzle, and Mark Isham's score is as unmemorable as his New Age stock-in-trade. Ultimately, Kiss the Girls ranks no higher than a mildly satisfying work like Ransom. It's far from Hollywood's worst, but it's also far from Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd's best.--Ron Wynn


Mismatch

There are at least two fish out of water in the new romantic comedy The Matchmaker. One is the heroine, Marcie, a wary American who finds herself in the middle of an Irish matchmaking festival. Marcie works for the reelection campaign of Sen. McGlory, who is courting Boston's Irish vote by searching for his photogenic roots in the old country. While she's trying to convince the locals that marriage isn't her aim, the innkeeper's in-law Sean is alternately annoying and attracting her.

The other fish out of water is the movie's star, Janeane Garofalo, who can't be blamed for snatching at stardom when it wafts her way; even so, she's sadly out of place in a story that alternates wackiness with gentle folk wisdom. Garofalo began her entertainment career as a cynical Gen-X standup comic, then brought her acerbic edge to TV and movies. Last year she had a success in The Truth About Cats and Dogs, an ugly-duckling Cinderella story that used her biting humor to good effect by suggesting that it hides deep insecurities. No such insightful characterization here. Garofalo is plopped down in the middle of a quaint Ireland populated with quaint Irish types, lovable stereotypes who sing, dance, drink, and fight their way right into our hearts. It's like watching Christian Slater play the lead in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain.

A little sarcastic comment on this setup would be welcome, but unfortunately Garofalo is whisked away, to the accompaniment of swelling strings and helicopter shots, to fall in love with Ireland and to regain the lust for life that she has presumably lost. Her attempts to look misty and romantic as pub crawlers croon tragic Celtic songs are wholly unconvincing, yet director Mark Joffe keeps cutting back to her uncomfortable face. Meanwhile, the senator and his sleazy campaign manager (Jay O. Sanders and Denis Leary) arrive in Ireland to muddy the plot and Marcie's motivations further. She suddenly becomes outraged by the senator's duplicity and blatant voter manipulation--the whole reason for her trip--as if she'd been a starry-eyed idealist when the movie opened. Then she has to lose her scruples again, so the movie can tear her away from Ireland and Sean (David O'Hara), setting up the inevitable tearful farewell and joyous reunion.

Garofalo showed an appealing, vulnerable side in The Truth About Cats and Dogs, one that lent humanity to her wisecracking outer shell. But I just can't buy her as a woman who melts at a scenic view. In truth, though, The Matchmaker, with its cloying sweetness and simplistic use of the Irish locale, would be crap with anyone in the lead. The "based on a screenplay by" credit in the opening roll is enough evidence for that. Let's hope better things are in store for Garofalo, who made it this far based on intelligence rather than on looks--a refreshing reversal of the usual order of things. She'll wither and die inside cookie-cutter scripts like this one.--Donna Bowman


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