NOVEMBER 17, 1997:
D: Errol Morris; with Ray Mendez, Rodney Brooks, George Mendonça, Dave Hoover.
(PG, 82 min.)
To say that Errol Morris is the most original talent working in the field of documentary filmmaking today is merely one inadequate means of describing the brilliance of his new feature film Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. For Morris is not so much a documentarian as an essayist, one who employs the methodology of outwardly-focused nonfiction filmmaking to make extremely personal objects of self-expression. Nowhere has this been more true than in his new film, which uses studies of four discrete individuals as the raw material for a broader contemplation of the ontology of human achievement -- in all its glory and folly. At least, that's one of the things that Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is about. There are many, many other themes -- ideas that reveal themselves in the flash of an edit; commonalities, contrasts, and discoveries that rise from the synaptic hurly-burly of Morris' literal three-ring circus. For, as Morris has described it, Fast, Cheap is the ultimate "low-concept film," one that resists all possibilities of a one-line summary. Ostensibly, Morris has gathered four different "weird animal stories," both in terms of the obsessed men who grapple with and against nature to create their life's work and also the strange creatures they tame. Morris' eccentric subjects include George Mendonça, a topiary gardener who has painstakingly devoted his life to trimming one garden of hedges and trees into the shapes of animals; Dave Hoover, a lion tamer who idolizes the legendary circus performer Clyde Beatty; Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. scientist who has designed large insect-like walking devices that can operate free of human instruction; and Ray Mendez, who studies the life cycles and social structures of the tiny, hairless, underground mole-rats. Patterns emerge as Morris cross-cuts between each of these men's tales and then blends in footage from old circus and adventure movies as well as the stupendous camerawork of longtime Oliver Stone cinematographer Robert Richardson, whose combination of film stocks and processing (everything from fine-grained to grainy 35mm, 16mm, Hi-8, infrared, color, and black-and-white) creates a rich palette of tones and images from which to choose. Also helping out in this regard are the contributions of editors Karen Schmeer and Shondra Merrill, and the elliptical music score by Alloy Orchestra member Caleb Sampson. Quixotic ambitions and practical instincts merge with ancient myths and futuristic notions in this highly expressionistic documentary essay. Morris may stir up more concepts than one mere film can comfortably contain, but Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is no ordinary movie. For 82 minutes, we are happy to be awash in Morris' contemplations and are simultaneously sparked into contributing more of our own. For a brief while the universe seems to have found a certain serenity and a glorious respite from ubiquitous pace of "fast, cheap, and out of control."
D: Paul Thomas Anderson; with Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Jay, Nicole Ari Parker, Robert Ridgely, Luiz Guzman, Alfred Molina, Thomas Jane.
(R, 147 min.)
From the second it begins, Boogie Nights seizes your senses and pulls you right in: no turning back, no time for debate, no regrets. You're in for the whole ride (and it's a long one at nearly two and a half hours), but you wouldn't dream of having it any other way. As the opening shot of Boogie Nights whooshes us into its disco world (much like the intoxicating long-take restaurant scene in GoodFellas), resistance proves futile. We hopelessly surrender to the dazzling neon and the propulsive music and the sight of Burt Reynolds giving the whole scene his thumbs up. Set during the waning years of the Seventies and the early Eighties, Boogie Nights focuses on a tight cluster of people who are involved in what is euphemistically called the adult film industry. It's a propitious moment for porn films: The late Seventies held out a small window of expectation that pornos were actually on the verge of becoming semi-respectable entertainment, a hope that was again shoved behind closed doors as the home video revolution of the early Eighties radically altered the industry's modus operandi. That's the cultural bedrock that grounds this period piece, a bedrock that includes wonderful attention to the period details of set design, costuming, music, and dialogue. Yet the movie is no socio-cultural abstract; Boogie Nights at heart is the story about a group of characters and the de facto family that emerges from their relationship. A stunning ensemble of actors is essential to creating this seamless world. As Jack Horner the porn director with artistic aspirations, Reynolds turns in the smoothest and most controlled performance of his career; Wahlberg, as the story's central figure, once again proves that he's more than just a billboard underwear jockey (and this story about the transformation of busboy Eddie Adams into self-invented porn superstar Dirk Diggler is only a jockstrap removed from the Marky Mark aka Mark Walhberg saga); Moore, Macy, Graham, Cheadle, Reilly, Hoffman, Ridgely, and Molina all should be singled out for their finely etched turns but to do so would come at the expense of so many others. Paul Thomas Anderson has managed to astonish the world with his sophomore effort. His debut film (the solid and stylish modern noir twister Hard Eight) gave little notice of the attention-grabber his follow-up would become. Anderson brings the right amount of humor, observational distance, and visual discretion to subject matter that most certainly would be instead easier to deal with in a salacious and voyeuristic manner. Anderson clearly invokes numerous films by such filmmakers as Scorsese and Altman as models for his multi-charactered subculture study. And it all works nearly perfectly for the first hour or so, but then some of the one-dimensionality of the characters and the schematic nature of the narrative become more evident. Each of the characters is given one or two bits of business that they carry with them from scene to scene, from year to year, but none of them ever expands much beyond these narrow parameters. A better model for Anderson might be something like Jonathan Demme's Citizens Band, a movie that puts the emphasis on the sense of community that's formed by characters existing on society's fringes rather than the fringe characters who evolve from the previously established communities in films such as Nashville and Mean Streets. And while Boogie Nights remains refreshingly nonjudgmental about its characters, an overly simplistic moralism nevertheless governs the story's overall path: Those who reach great heights must also experience great depths and the only thing that can save these individuals is their ultimate acceptance of the supremacy of "the family." Still, most of these hesitations are fodder for post-screening rumination. Boogie Nights will keep you going 'til morn.
D: Sidney Lumet; with James Spader, Helen Mirren, Kyra Sedgwick, Albert Brooks, Wallace Shawn, Jeffrey Wright, Anne Bancroft.
(R, 109 min.)
Critical Care should be quickly put out of its misery and tagged clearly with a big "Do Not Resuscitate" order. Sidney Lumet has directed many great films over the years (Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico) and others not so great (The Morning After, The Wiz, and the recent Night Falls on Manhattan), but none of them are as downright godawful as this new one, Lumet's 41st. This comedically edged drama about the inadequacies of the modern medical establishment bludgeons rather than skewers its subject matter. Presumably, Lumet was tempted to this stiff by the Network-like possibilities inherent in Steven Schwartz's script. Both films use major American institutions to stage battles royal between the eternal forces of altruistic agendas versus the almighty dollar. But whereas Network was a focused and barbed assault on the television industry, Critical Care is a heavy-handed and none-too-humorous drubbing of the modern health care system. Schwartz's screenplay makes Paddy Chayefsky's scripts for Network and The Hospital look positively subtle by comparison. At the center of Critical Care is James Spader as Dr. Werner Ernst, a second-year resident working in the ICU unit of a top-flight urban medical center. He jeopardizes the future of his promising career when he follows his penis into an ill-advised sexual liaison with the tempting daughter (Sedgwick) of one of his terminally ill patients. As a result, Ernst becomes a human football yanked between two sisters litigating for control of their father's medical affairs, as well as an unwitting pawn in an extremely profitable and routine insurance scam and servant of a system that knows everything about how to preserve a body through artificial life support but nothing of the reasons why. Helen Mirren brings a large measure of humanity to her role as (apparently) the only nurse on duty in the hospital. Others do not fare as well. A heavily made-up Albert Brooks, as the absent-minded, alcoholic hospital director, Dr. Butz, looks and sounds as though he were Mark Twain performing a vaudeville sketch (in an office in another wing of the hospital that looks nothing like the structure in which everything else takes place). Wallace Shawn has an even stickier task of playing a hallucination, one of Satan's little helpers, complete with bad costume and dreadful dialogue. Transparent as a hospital gown, Critical Care is destined to quickly flatline.
D: Kasi Lemmons; with Lynn Whitfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Jurnee Smollett, Debbi Morgan, Vondie Curtis Hall, Meagan Good.
(R, 107 min.)
One startling line, spoken in the opening minute by a calm-voiced young female narrator, deeply sets the story's hook: "The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old." With her audience's full attention assured, first-time director Kasi Lemmons then proceeds to unravel a spellbinding, powerfully seductive tale that blends Southern Gothic magical realism and disturbing family drama with the flair of a born storytelling genius. Lemmons' self-penned script concerns a family of slaves' descendants who by the 1960s have risen to middle-class prominence in a small Louisiana town called Eve's Bayou. The father, Louis Batiste (Jackson) is a complex character, loving and responsible as a parent and provider, but also a shameless philanderer whose nightly "house calls" to local women are an open secret around town. Louis' flagrant tomcatting steadily undercuts his marriage to beautiful, cultured Roz (Whitfield) and adds an uneasy layer of psychodrama to his relationships with daughters Cisely (Morgan) and Eve (Smollett). Cisely, a rebellious adolescent with a big-time Electra Complex, resolves to monopolize daddy's cheating heart with feminine wiles while her psychically gifted younger sibling concludes that black magic, not sweetness, is required to change his ways. Like Tennessee Williams, whose better works have already been cited as inspiration for this film, Lemmons is able to tap the romantic mystique of the old South while largely skirting the inherent dangers of camp and cliché. For all the Spanish moss, hoodoo-voodoo, and ambient female hysteria in Eve's Bayou, there's also a remarkable amount of deep psychological truth here about the dark complexities of relationships between men and women, and between parents and children. The acting is strong across the board, with Jackson especially impressive as a man of infinite contradictions, many of which remain unresolved until the end. Smollett, a remarkable young actress with all of Anna Paquin's native talent and less of her annoying showiness, is equally terrific as Eve. But the most impressive showing is by Lemmons. A modestly successful actress previously best known for playing Jodie Foster's roommate in The Silence of the Lambs, nothing in her career to date has hinted at the masterful and fully mature directorial talent she displays in this fresh, original first film. In a movie year already highlighted by the emergence of bold new talents like Neil LaBute and Paul Thomas Anderson, Kasi Lemmons is further cause for celebration.
D: Jon Avnet; with Richard Gere, Bai Ling, Bradley Whitford, Byron Mann, James Hong, Peter Donat, Tsai Chin, Tzi Ma, Richard Venture.
(R, 122 min.)
From the producer of all three Mighty Ducks films comes this bloated courtroom harangue against Red China, big business, and lawyers. Granted, Gere may have been attracted to the project by the script's decidedly unflattering portrayal of the Chinese government. The actor's ongoing and laudable crusade to draw attention to China's woeful treatment of occupied Tibet may have moved him to hop onboard Red Corner before he realized what a stale courtroom drama the film actually is. Personal politics aside, Avnet's film is a tedious bore, filled with improbable goings-on and a weak mystery involving corporate greed that seems as though it was thrown together over sushi one night. Gere plays Jack Moore, an American attorney in Beijing sent to hammer out a distribution deal for American television shows behind the bamboo curtain. There's competition from a German rival, but Moore appears to have the deal fairly well sewn up when he picks up a beautiful Chinese girl in a bar one night and wakes the next morning to find her dead beside him and himself behind bars. His protests fall on deaf ears, and it becomes apparent that even the U.S. Embassy is hard pressed to aid his case. To make matters worse, no Chinese lawyer will touch his case, fearing repercussions and possible execution. Only Shen Yuelin (Ling), the court-appointed defense attorney, can help him, although at first she believes (as does everybody else, it seems) that he is indeed guilty of murder. Once the pair begin to work together, however, a deeper and more insidious mystery becomes apparent, as frequently happens in films like this. Gere, for his part, looks as though he's sleepwalking through the role, and not just because of his perpetually tousled hair. His character Jack comes off as an unsympathetic lead, and so, toward the third act, when he makes a desperate bid for freedom and flees through the streets toward the lone American flag atop the U.S. Embassy only to give himself back over to the Chinese a few minutes later, you can't help but stifle a chuckle: That's not how it's done. Absurdities such as this abound, and though Red Corner certainly seems to have its heart in the right place, it rarely has anything else there simultaneously. Its wheedling, pedantic tone is grating, and by the time the final credits roll, its stridently moralistic tone is enough to make your eyes bleed.
D: Ang Lee; with Kevin Klein, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Jamey Sheridan, Adam Hann-Byrd, Elijah Wood, Henry Czerny.
(R, 102 min.)
The emotional deep freeze experienced by a group of characters in New Canaan, Connecticut over the 1973 Thanksgiving holiday weekend is the subject of The Ice Storm. The aptly named film, adapted by producer-turned-screenwriter James Schamus from the novel by Rick Moody, gets so many of the outward trappings and small period details so wondrously right that the sheer accumulation of "correct touches" threatens to obscure the thinness of the story and the off-putting empathetic void which these characters inhabit. The WASPy sterility of their upper-middle-class lives is, in part, what the movie posits as the problem, but in so doing The Ice Storm never much allows the audience to warm up to its characters. The absence of heat is this drama's fatal flaw. The performances are terrific, nevertheless, as the movie goes about the task of paralleling the stunted emotional lives of the adults and children of two neighboring families while Watergate, wife-swapping, and drug experimentation dominate their social arena 10 years following the demise of Camelot. Trodding through this familiar Updike/Cheever suburban turf is Kevin Klein as family man Ben Hood, who is having an unsatisfactory adulterous affair with his neighbor Janey Carver (Weaver). Janey's husband Jim (Sheridan) is frequently away on business but Ben's wife Elena (Allen) has grown increasingly suspicious. Ben and Elena's daughter Wendy (Ricci) is sexually experimenting with both the Carver boys (Wood and Hann-Byrd), while her brother Paul (Maguire) is enamored with a rich girl from his prep school. All these micro-dramas coalesce and come to a head during the course of one long evening that also plays host to the area's worst ice storm in 30 years. Sometimes, as in the case of the ice storm, the movie's intentions are overly literal and obvious; yet most of the time we are left to infer meaning from slight triggers and cues. This is because, by and large, these are characters who are too genteel and over-pedigreed to say (or always even know) exactly what they mean. For example, Ben's way of discussing the facts of life with Paul is to advise him not to masturbate in the shower because it wastes water and electricity. Or when Janey catches Wendy playing "show me yours, I'll show you mine" with her youngest son, her alarmed impulse is to lecture Wendy about Margaret Mead and the Samoans. By following his award-winning Sense and Sensibility (which was produced and co-written by longtime collaborator James Schamus) with this American period piece, director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman) is fast proving himself a cultural chameleon. But with The Ice Storm, Lee seems to have emphasized the details of cultural accuracy over the rudiments of telling a gripping drama.
D: Michael Caton-Jones; with Richard Gere, Bruce Willis, Sidney Poitier, Diane Venora.
(R, 124 min.)
About the best that can be said for The Jackal is that it does full justice to the concept of a cinematic battle of wits between Bruce Willis and Richard Gere. This remake of Fred Zinnemann's well-regarded Day of the Jackal (1973) not only fails to match the modest entertainment value of Frederick Forsyth's workmanlike source novel, but actually moves into late contention for the title of 1997's most tedious movie. Planet Hollywood co-owner Willis, looking every bit the fat and prosperous restaurateur, is the title character, a sort Demi-god (as it were) among hit men. Hired by a Russian-based gangster to kill the FBI director, he's pursued by an American G-man (Poitier), a Russian military policewoman (Venora), and the good guys' secret weapon, an Irish Republican Army sniper (Gere), who's giving them the benefit of his terrorist savvy in exchange for a chance to get out of prison. One benefit of letting a hyphen-surnamed Scotsman with strong art/highbrow mainstream credentials (Caton-Jones' highest-profile films are Scandal and Rob Roy) helm an action movie is that we're spared many of the genre's muscle-headed clichés. The downside, though, is that there's not much visceral excitement here either. The story is heavy on talk -- stultifyingly dull talk at that -- and seems to neither gain nor lose intensity as it follows the Jackal through an excruciatingly prolonged series of preparations for the hit. It doesn't even work as a detective procedural. Most of the deduction is done by nameless FBI spooks who periodically burst into rooms to report the latest developments on the case. The accumulating malaise leads viewers to crankily ponder questions such as why a supposedly ultra-discreet hit man would discuss his mission on a cell phone, even blithely answering as "Jackal." And why, after charging the Russki Godfather $70 million to do the murder, would he then be forced to buy his own fake ID and machine-gun tripod from low-level black marketeers? But then, better to obsess on these points than to pay close attention to the acting, which is often stunningly awful. Gere (who, it must be said, has by far the most vacuous lines in the film) is painful to watch as he grimaces, winces, and robotically postures in halfhearted efforts to conjure up some semblance of dramatic affect. Poitier mainly knits his brow and blusters, while the panda-like Willis shuffles nonchalantly through a series of laughable disguise changes, reminiscent of nothing so much as Chevy Chase's Fletch with an assault rifle. The general cluelessness extends even to the musical score, which is dominated by a weirdly inappropriate mix of faux-industrial and pop electronica sounds. The Jackal may not be the worst movie out there now, but with theatres full of more appealing choices, I'd recommend giving this dog a wide berth.
D: Jon Amiel; with Bill Murray, Peter Gallagher, Joanne Whalley, Richard Wilson, Alfred Molina, John Standing.
(PG, 95 min.)
Whither Bill Murray's career? The pockmarked comedian's last substantial role was in Groundhog Day some four years ago (Mad Dog and Glory, made that same year, doesn't count seeing as absolutely nobody remembers it). Since then he's been virtually off the map. Murray has always struck me as an acquired taste -- while other early Saturday Night Live cast members such as Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain have mastered the art of mediocre films and episodic television, Murray has stuck to his creative guns, more or less, which has caused his career to sputter. This new comedy from the director of Sommersby is hardly up to the actor's usual wry, smarmy wit; it's all broad slapstick and double-entendre triple takes, more Dudley Moore than Bill Murray. Here he plays a bumbling naïf, Wallace Ritchie, who arrives unannounced in London on his birthday to pay a call on his banker brother James (Gallagher). Much to his chagrin, James is hosting an important dinner party that night, and instead hustles Wallace off to enjoy the nightlife in the form of the "Theatre of Life," a bizarre, audience-participation guerrilla theatre group not unlike that seen in the recent Michael Douglas thriller The Game. Wallace, however, answers the wrong phone call at the wrong time and instead unknowingly becomes involved in a convoluted plot to blow up UN representatives at a banquet. As Wallace stumbles blithely along with gun in hand (he thinks it's fake) and the body count rises (he thinks they're actors), both Russian and British assassins and spies track his every move in the mistaken belief that he's some sort of American super-agent. Along the way, he manages to connect romantically with a leggy spy (Whalley) and dodge enough firepower to bring down 007. Both Amiel and Murray have broken down the gates of the ham factory here: The Man Who Knew Too Little is less a standard comedy than it is a classic British farce, and Murray is acting with all the stops out, mugging shamelessly, and using those wicked eyebrows and monstrous widow's peak to fine effect. Unfortunately, the film's overall silliness drags it down. There are only so many variations on the mistaken identity theme than you can pull out of material like this, and Amiel, it seems, is not the person for the job. Granted, when Murray's firing on all cylinders, he's unlike any other comic working today. Here, he's Cary Grant's dumber brother by way of Hitchcock (the film's title is a direct Hitchcock allusion), the Wrong Man who muddles through nonetheless. It's not Murray's best work by a long shot; it's far too broad for his seamlessly unctuous, wheedling comedy, but it is a painless enough way to kill 90 minutes or so, if that's what you're aiming for.
D: Mike Figgis; with Wesley Snipes, Nastassja Kinski, Kyle MacLachlan, Ming-Na Wen, Robert Downey, Jr, Thomas Hayden Church, John Ratzenberger.
(R, 102 min.)
In this new film from Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), Wesley Snipes plays Max Carlyle, a successful, thirtysomething director of television commercials in Los Angeles. At first glance, Max appears to have it all: a gorgeous, loving wife (Wen) and kids, snazzy career, and impeccable fashion sense. He's the Nineties American Dream taken to its next logical level, and he's happy, to boot. While in New York City to visit his old friend Charlie (Downey, Jr.), an HIV-positive performance artist, Max meets Karen (Kinski). She's a beautiful, somewhat waif-like woman, who is also married, and the meeting is entirely by chance and very brief (she helps him get an ink stain out of his shirt). But later, after a traffic snarl prevents Max from catching his plane home, he re-encounters Karen -- the two take in a string quartet and pass the time with drinks and quiet, unobtrusive conversation -- and before you can say "bad idea," it's the next morning. They've spent the night together in one-time-only carnal bliss, following which Max promptly returns to L.A. Once home, his wife suspects nothing (although the family dog has other ideas) and Max is, apparently, ready to let the incident fade from memory. It doesn't, though; with one night of passion (and the specter of Charlie's plummet into full-blown AIDS), Max suddenly begins to re-evaluate his life and the choices he's made and has yet to make. As Charlie bluntly puts it, "Life is not a dress rehearsal, this is the real thing." Max's meditation on what he wants, what he needs, and what's best for him may seem a tad selfish, but Figgis goes to great lengths to make everyone vastly sympathetic. Despite the fact that Max has cheated on his obviously loving wife (though Wen tends to play the character shrilly at times), he's still a decent guy, struggling with an unebbing attraction to an unobtainable woman and blithely confused as to where to head from there. When he returns to New York for Charlie's final days, fate steps in and Karen coincidentally reappears. That's pushing the limits of an audience's suspension of disbelief, but Figgis isn't concerned with that. The politics of relationships and second chances are his mission here, and he handles the job ably. As the two couples struggle to come to terms with Charlie's passing, things grind inexorably towards Change. Figgis' resolution is abrupt; the final scene comes out of nowhere and smacks of "Now what do we do?" but even that can't temper the deep territory the director has covered in the previous 90 minutes. It's a thoughtful (and thought-provoking) glimpse into modern relationships and, if nothing else, a guaranteed conversation-starter over post-screening cappuccinos.
D: Jonathan Nossiter; with David Suchet, Lisa Harrow, Larry Pine, Jared Harris, Joe Grifasi.
(Not Rated, 93 min.)
Late morning hush. Sweet waking dreams. Traffic lights presiding silently over empty streets, and a day's respite from the oppressive gravity of purpose. For most of us, Sunday is the essence of freedom. But for Oliver (Suchet) and the rest of the guys at his dingy homeless shelter in Queens, it's just another meaningless 12-hour slog between waking and the 8 o'clock lock-in. "The days engulf me," admits paunchy, middle-aged Oliver, a once prosperous IBM salaryman reduced to living on the streets. "It's as if every day is Sunday." But everything changes one morning when he meets Madeleine (Harrow), a married English actress whose career has free-fallen from the Royal Shakespeare Company to bit parts in bad horror movies. She mistakes Oliver for a famous movie director named Martin Delacorta and he, emboldened by her quirky but undeniable sexual allure, plays along, eventually following her home and having sex with her on the floor of her apartment. So begins one of the oddest, most affecting movie love stories of the year. In this suprising 1997 Sundance grand jury prize winner, director Jonathan Nossiter conjures improbable magic from the seemingly incompatible elements of documentary realism, earnest social protest, relentless symbol-mongering and, most importantly, a breathtaking tenderness toward his characters that reminds us how absent that vital quality is from most popular art. Over the course of one day, Oliver and Madeleine bare their respective souls through a strange game in which they pretend Oliver really is Delacorta, and that he's living at the shelter to research a movie. This lie, which we're never sure the somewhat unbalanced Madeleine fully acknowledges as such, provides a way for both to make the most painful confessions while retaining a certain protective distance from their reality. Adding to the uneasy power of the narrative are a vague sense of looming danger (in part from Madeleine's neurotically frazzled husband) and puzzling bits of information that repeatedly change the way we perceive both of the lovers. Willful artiness rears its head at fairly regular intervals. Why does Nossiter have the weather change in almost every scene -- snowing one minute, then sunny, then overcast again? What's the symbolic import of all those mangy potted plants Madeleine is collecting? Could it even be that Oliver actually is some kind of artist? In the end, none of those annoyances and unanswered questions really matter. The performances by Suchet (previously best known as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot in the PBS teleplays) and Harrow (The Last Days of Chez Nous) are so brave and so naked and the compassionate, inquiring humanity of the script so fully involving that most viewers will reach out to match Nossiter's faith with their own. Virtues like these should carry Nossiter far beyond the end of his infatuation with stylistic contrivance.