3 items from 1998
A stunning new dark comedy from filmmaker Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Dollhouse"), "Happiness" rocks, shocks and reels the viewer into the decidedly unhappy lives of a dozen or so middle-class denizens of New Jersey.
This is a limited-release hot potato that should draw big crowds, but its probing, sometimes blunt approach to sensitive subject matters that are mostly taboo in mainstream film poses a major marketing and publicity challenge.
With an uncomfortable atmosphere from the opening scene in a restaurant, in which sweet thirtysomething Joy (Jane Adams) breaks up with beefy loser Andy (Jon Lovitz), "Happiness" has a jerky but engaging rhythm that unpredictably connects a multigenerational gaggle of flawed adults and impressionable children around the quest for the titular state of being.
The only significant flaw in such an unexpectedly ambitious film is the long running time, with the final section dragging a bit.
Unlucky in love and career, Joy is the subject of concern to her sisters, who tend to conspire in keeping secrets and critical thoughts from her.
Helen Lara Flynn Boyle) is a successful writer with a variety of lovers, who complains of the pressures of being famous. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is married with three children and appears to have the perfect middle-class life, but her stiff, dull psychiatrist husband Bill (Dylan Baker) has violent dreams and oldest son Billy (Dylan Baker) has reached the age where he's picking up naughty words at school.
Helen's neighbor Allan Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a chunky lonely-heart with a vivid fantasy life that includes very impure thoughts about her. He makes random calls to women for the purposes of getting off and unexpectedly finds her interested, which for this shy guy is not the ticket to bliss. His other neighbor, Kristina (Camryn Manheim), appears at his door at odd moments, but she's too much like him and he meanly brushes her off. He eventually turns to her in a moment of crisis, and she reveals her nasty secret.
Perhaps the least interesting story line involves the three sisters' separating parents (Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara), who are staying in the family's condo in Boca Raton. But it hardly amounts to wasted screen time. In a virtuoso bit of storytelling, when a potential resolution or happy ending appears for a character, the tables are turned with bittersweet results.
The most sensitive material in a film that is constantly surprising in its ability to rip down the facades characters hide behind, involves seemingly sexless Bill and his growing attraction to young boys. At ease talking with son Billy about sex, Bill becomes a devious serial rapist with dire consequences. In an incredible scene near the end, he admits his guilt and does not apologize to Billy, with both actors leaving one breathless with admiration.
Much of the film leaves one in stitches, but the cumulative effect is disturbing and unforgettably honest in the exploration of sexual attitudes, deficiencies and sad fantasies of the characters. There are also a few jokes about ejaculation and graphic language that will not amuse everyone, but Solondz has bravely taken on important themes and depicts situations that audiences will be talking about for a long time.
A rambling tale populated by eccentrics and caricatures behaving in obnoxious fashion, "Buffalo '66" is quirky enough to give the illusion of being significant. It will no doubt achieve a certain amount of hip and cult status, but mainstream audiences that may be attracted by the top-flight cast will be mostly irritated. Recently unspooled at New Directors/New Films, it will be released commercially in the summer.
Gallo plays the central role of Billy Brown, who has just been released from prison. The first 15 minutes of the film are concerned with Billy's efforts to find a place to urinate, with Gallo running frantically around the city of Buffalo grabbing his crotch. He ducks into a ballet class, where he spots the sexy Layla (a quite grown-up Christina Ricci) and kidnaps her.
It seems that Billy has been deceiving his parents as to his whereabouts for the past five years, and he forces Layla to play the role of his wife. The parents (Ben Gazzara, Anjelica Huston) are less-than-demonstrative toward their son but greet their "daughter-in-law" with open arms -- in the case of the father, a little too open. A long, awkward dinner ensues, with Billy's mother making it quite clear that she would rather be watching the Bills football game.
The pair then embark on a road trip and go bowling, eat at Denny's, stay at a cheap hotel and generally bond. Along the way, Billy prepares for a suicidal mission of revenge upon the man he blames for the circumstances that sent him to prison, but he is ultimately redeemed by Layla's unconditional love.
Gallo's Billy, full of verbal tics and confrontational mannerisms, is one of the more unsympathetic, annoying lead characters in recent memory, with an obnoxiousness so complete it practically reaches a form of purity. It's hard to imagine what Layla sees in him, though she doesn't seem too on the ball either. In any case, we form absolutely no emotional connection to anyone onscreen.
Gallo applies a heavy directorial hand to the proceedings, with some of his stylistic flourishes more effective than others. The picture was shot using reversal stock, resulting in supersaturated colors that, while conveying the lack of visual appeal of Gallo's settings, are tough to look at for two hours. Much better is the effective picture-within-a-picture framing device he employs to depict the story's many flashbacks.
The film lurches from one unengaging scene to another, with many of its quirky characters embodied by familiar faces, including Mickey Rourke, Kevin Corrigan, Rosanna Arquette and Jan-Michael Vincent.
Lions Gate Films
Director-composer-original story: Vincent Gallo
Screenplay: Vincent Gallo, Alison Bagnall
Producer: Chris Hanley
Executive producers: Michael Paseornek,
Director of photography: Lance Acord
Editor: Curtiss Clayton
Billy Brown: Vincent Gallo
Layla: Christina Ricci
Janet Brown: Anjelica Huston
Jimmy Brown: Ben Gazzara
Goon: Kevin Corrigan
Bookie: Mickey Rourke
Wendy: Rosanna Arquette
Sonny: Jan-Michael Vincent
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating
A David Mamet film rated PG? Who's conning who?
Earning kudos when it bowed at the recent Toronto and Sundance festivals, "The Spanish Prisoner" is not as profane or arresting as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker's best work. It's also not as engaging for a number of reasons, from questionable casting to Mamet's conservative direction.
Sony Pictures Classics has a tough sell, but with critical support withstanding, "The Spanish Prisoner" could post impressive numbers in limited release.
The literate, subtle thriller stars Campbell Scott as an inventor involved in a big-league scam, with veterans Ben Gazzara and Steve Martin playing powerful businessmen and Rebecca Pidgeon as the sly Gal Friday.
Scott and Pidgeon (Mamet's wife) give it their best shot, but their chemistry is not the hottest, and one struggles to stay interested in his career dilemma and her persistent wooing.
Creator of an unexplained "process" that will mean real big profits for his employers, Joe (Scott) is concerned about recognition and compensation, but his boss (Gazzara) keeps making vague promises.
A seeming chance meeting with wealthy Jimmy (Martin) sets Joe on a dangerous course. His ego gets the better of him and he makes one tremendous boo-boo, but, to be fair, his guileless character is dealt a crooked hand all movie long.
While perky Susan (Pidgeon) comes on to him and helps him get through some rough spots, Joe is just smart enough to muck up some elaborate plans when he realizes that he's been had.
With Carter Burwell's score helping out, the film tries to sustain a murky atmosphere. Mamet's trademark dialogue is handled well by most of the cast, but the lackluster visual style and occasionally clunky editing mostly undermine the experience.
THE SPANISH PRISONER
Sony Pictures Classics
Sweetland Films presents
a Jean Doumanian production
A David Mamet film
Executive producer:J.E. Beaucaire
Co-executive producer:Letty Aronson
Director of photography:Gabriel Beristain
Production designer:Tim Galvin
Costume designer:Susan Lyall
Casting:Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden
Joe Ross:Campbell Scott
Susan Ricci:Rebecca Pidgeon
Jimmy Bell:Steve Martin
George Lang:Ricky Jay
Running time -- 110 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
3 items from 1998
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