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Gangster No. 1 (2000)
What a mug! The evil-harlequin mask of Malcolm McDowell, so familiar from those bugeyed closeups of him "mounching lumpchiks of toast" in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, has aged into a fabulous ruin. And one of the pleasures of the glib, slick, cocky, brutal, shallow, and terrifically entertaining GANGSTER NO. 1 is in the realization that McDowell is the same McDowell--his voiceover has the same energetic sneer it had 31 years ago in CLOCKWORK. He's the same guy under a withered and weathered facade. As Gangster No. 1--a sociopath with a schoolgirl crush on his boss, spit-shined David Thewlis--McDowell brings you into the succulent pleasures of aged corruption and long-swallowed brutality. No. 1's nuttiness--a kind of belch of guilt, generally released in Francis Bacon-derivative silent screams--seems, for a while, like fun. Paul Bettany, playing Young No. 1, has a great, lizardlike, histrionic deadpan--he keeps telling his victims "Look into my eyes!" as if something scary and deep were hidden there. (Instead, there is zero--an effect Young No. 1 may be unaware of.) The movie takes such a jaunty and directorially piquant view of its own shin-kicking nihilism that you can't help but play along; until the moralizing but utterly earned finale sets you on your ear.
Not deep stuff--not even as deep as the superbly unself-reflective head-smackers who made up GOODFELLAS' crew. But Saffron Burrows, as a Cockney chanteuse who's mad in love with Thewlis' Mr. Big, brings you back to the days of much-posher-and-prettier-than-their-parts British character actresses. (Could Burrows in fact be the Susannah York of the millennium?) And the director, Paul McGuigan, and Bettany keep the joint jumpin'. Why did this get such a crummy release? There's been almost nothing this year as sheerly, undilutedly fun.
Outer and Inner Space (1966)
Andy and Edie's masterpiece
Norelco gave Warhol free video cameras to do with what he pleased--just so long as it would, natch, attract publicity. What he came up with is (with the color LUPE) the masterpiece of Edie Sedgwick's and Warhol's collaboration.
Consisting of two simultaneously projected side-by-side reels, each image features a "live" Edie, her head posed next to a video monitor on which appears a "video Edie." That is to say: four Edie heads in total. The sound kind of chuffles back and forth between left and right projections...one cannot tell entirely what is being spoken, by the on-tape or live Edie, but it seems to have something to do with outer space, medication, and, the quintessential subject, her disastrously messed-up family. In no other movie I can think of--not even Dreyer's JOAN OF ARC--is there such a strong sense of the expression of a human soul through the face (in this case, faces). Ponder the movie for years as a meditation on media-tion, doubled identity, or, as one critic put it, "wounded narcissism;" the plain and simple of it is that OUTER AND INNER SPACE ranks with the portraiture of Vermeer and Velasquez as a masterly extractor and interpreter of outer and inner life.
Harvard Man (2001)
Dostoevskian 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU
The new form James Toback minted in his still-sharp-looking 2000 BLACK AND WHITE--a sort-of-Godardian essay movie heavy on cultural politics, flamboyant improvisation, and Toback's sexual obsessions--got kicked to the curb when JT finally made his long-in-the-works autobiographical bildungsroman, which originated with Warren Beatty, and later languished in the fields of Leonardo DiCaprio. Supposedly cast by Mary Vernieu, the movie is really cast by Toback's weiner: what else explains the surrealism of Joey Lauren Adams as a Harvard philosophy professor (at 28!) lecturing undergraduates on Wittgenstein's distrust in the expressivity of language? Or, for that matter, Rebecca Gayheart as a hard-as-nails (but, of course, secretly bisexual) FBI agent?
In BLACK AND WHITE, Toback's zany stunt casting (Brooke Shields as Nick Broomfield! Brett Ratner as a sleazy hack filmmaker!) worked, because the director let 'em roll, baby, roll. Here, Toback seems to have patterned his dialogue scenes after HIS GIRL FRIDAY--and the editing gooses the rhythms even further, so every scene plays like a MAD TV parody of crystal-meth freaks having a 78-rpm conversation.
Adrian Grenier plays the hero, Alan, a Harvard point guard, philosophy freak, and cocksman extraordinaire, who greets mob goons and Martin Heidegger alike with the same cool, adult, always-unexpectedly-detached repose. He shocks everyone in every situation with his infinitely wise underreaction to everything. Grenier suggests a moist pretty-boy naif in a Truffaut or Assayas movie; only late in the day, when he overdoses on LSD, does he seem to be acting at all. (That's not meant in a good way.) He divides his bed time between a mobster's daughter (Sarah Michelle Gellar, going for indie street cred just in case SCOOBY DOO didn't turn out) and the aforementioned girl-philosopher-queen (played by Adams as a kind of baby-voiced, bulbous-nosed Diane Sawyer). When Alan has to shave points in a Harvard-Dartmouth game to help his folks in Kansas rebuild their house after a tornado (why this movie allusion?), he gets in trouble with the mob and the Feds--and, this being a Toback movie, it's only a four-way with Eric Stoltz and three hot tamales that can get Alan out of hot water.
Like Toback's other dud, THE PICK-UP ARTIST, HARVARD MAN seems to have been thought-over to death. Toback massaged this material for many years; the LSD material and even the mob stuff dates the movie, marks it as Toback's bittersweet homage to his early-sixties youth. Set in the present no doubt for economic reasons, the picture makes no sense; but worse, Toback's heart isn't in it. This miserable cast doesn't give him the charge of the astonishing mix of great actors, "interesting" actors and stunning nonactors that made up BLACK AND WHITE. As another Toback gem, the non-fiction THE BIG BANG, proves, he needs a party full of bright minds to get things sparking. Without cast, Toback's Dostoevskian torments quickly turn into congealed Cinemax sleaze--and that will be the elephant graveyard where this blooper will no doubt lie.
The Sum of All Fears (2002)
Clancy's dress rehearsal for 9/11 II?
Set, in part, in a post-nuclear Baltimore in which Ben Affleck runs purposefully through downwind-blowing fallout, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS is more than FAIL SAFE on a post-millennial, infrared-goggle setting. It represents an autumnal centerward drift on the part of America's cold-warrior pulpmaker, a late-Clinton-era spin of the ideological compass that at times is as technology-crazed and brutish as James Cameron at his most fervid, at other times waxing peacenik like a square, movie-of-the-week STRANGELOVE.
Affleck is an odd choice to replace the stolid planklike manliness of Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan--his shrugs, giggles and girly-ogling define him as quintessentially gen-x, the inverse of Ford's implacable efficiency. The notion of a Colin Powell-like Morgan Freeman, the wise and hardnosed Director of Central Intelligence, playing mentor to Affleck in both nuclear and romantic hardball is one of the movie's more charming fairy-tale conceits; the sumptuousness of the veteran Jerry Goldsmith's score assists the feeling of inhabiting a never-never land on which current paranoid tropes have been imprinted as if in a dream. There are queer felicities, such as James Cromwell's President's resemblance to the worst aspect of Bushes Sr. and Jr., and the elegant performance by the Putin-like Russian premier, who resembles an aging eighties British rock star. There are also oddities that seem exclusive to Clancy's patch of squaresville, like the romance between Affleck and a darn-smart nurse that makes the love duet in PEARL HARBOR look naturalistic. (Between PEARL HARBOR and SUM, Affleck seems to have his future role as 9-11 firefighter smooching a nurse en route to the holocaust sewn up.) The director, Phil Alden Robinson, better known for the New Age contortions of FIELD OF DREAMS, brings a standard-form Paramount-movie economy to the material, but one can't help walking away feeling a bit of a shudder that SUM's apocalyptic chess match between the U.S., Russians, and haughty Euro-Nazi terrorists was intended as blithe, ideologically uncoded, airport-novel fluff. The movie's seeming lack of position hides the fact that SUM is as potent an unconscious expression of our collective political fears as studio movies have produced in recent years.
Undercover Brother (2002)
More old-school politics than you would think
Just when the POOTIE TANGs and ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINSES seemed to suck the progressive marrow out of the
skeleton of the neo-blaxploitation movie, this broad comedy--Austin Powers with an Afro-Pick--from the unlikely
Imagine Entertainment brings back a whiff of anti-The Man
sentiment. It's pretty shocking when Undercover Brother (the not all
that funny Eddie Griffin) gets a brain-download of "white culture"--
which turns out to be episodes of MAJOR DAD and gallons of
mayonnaise. But then by the end, the White Hottie (Denise
Richards) and the Doofy White Intern (Doogie Howser) get to be
Honorary Down-with-the-Brown Kids too. Ah, the marketing
department! Before getting there, the movie, though only spottily
funny, is always surprising, overtly political, and specked with good
performances--even Billy Dee Williams, reprising Paul Winfield's
vision of a sellout Colin Powell from MARS ATTACKS!
The Lifetime version of BAD LIEUTENANT?
Al Pacino has become an overacting machine. For starters, as an L.A. cop in a heap of internal-affairs trouble, he puts on a Cajun accent more appropriate for a Paul Prud'homme biopic than a Hitchcockian policier. Why? Because it relieved the boredom, I guess; as does Pacino's insanely cliched habit of breaking up scenes by chewing gum. For one who should have learned something opposite DeNiro's elegant minimalism in Michael Mann's HEAT, Pacino has instead gone the opposite route. One feels as if an Actors' Studio Lifetime Achievement Show is playing inside his head 24 hours a day. Constantly aware of his Great Pacinoness, the man croons and whispers his lines as if every moment, no matter how routine, were an opportunity to thrum a big, fat bass and wiggle his fanny to the beat. He singlehandedly destroys this movie.
The director, Christopher Nolan, is a little overfond of brain-grinding sudden-switchup mysteries--genre exercises that are the cerebral equivalent of tongue-twisters. But he brings a quiet mastery of form to this picture, and some of his key notes--a chase across some waterbound logs, for example, or the final shootout--have the staccato grace of a set piece by Walter Hill at his peak. There is also an avid, eager performance by Hilary Swank as the Nancy Drew who is Pacino's junior sidekick in solving a murder in remotest Alaska; she tears into the dopy part with a sensual avidity that's admirable, even if it doesn't help the movie much. As a murderous mastermind, Robin Williams is perhaps more egregiously miscast than any actor since Lyle Lovett played the sadistic baker in SHORT CUTS; it's as if Mister Rogers stepped into Hannibal Lecter's facemask. The whole thing would be a compelling enough programmer if not for Pacino. His last good performance was in THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, where his goofy over-the-topness fit in just fine. Someone, please, team him with Adam Sandler, where his gifts will be put to good use.
Born to Win (1971)
The seventies' bleakest--and one of the best
One of the great joys of being a movie addict is loving unreasonably. There's probably no rational way to convey my adoration for this 1971 Ivan Passer movie, which was made for nothing back in the day when movies like this actually could get made and released--today, it'd be shot on digital video in someone's basement and never see the light of day. George Segal gives one of the performances of his career as J, a hairdresser turned heroin addict who vamps his way through the day with a torrent of improvised Lenny Bruce hipsterisms. Karen Black is the "straight," broken girl who falls in love with him for no good reason except that he's broken too--I can't think of a more haunting moment in a movie romance than the one where she drops him off in midtown Manhattan to score dope and implores, "J--remember to come back home." The movie fleetly conveys the romance, the soft-edgedness and wombiness of heroin--and then in short order takes you all the way down to the bitterest consequences. And it reminds you of the beauties of hard-knuckle, dirty-formica naturalism--pleasures unavailable to more stylized or more conceptual pictures. Has there ever been an actress as free as Karen Black? The way she lifts up ten fingers, over and over again, to count off the number of men she's slept with; or the strange little hair-bite she does when she oaths her love to Segal on the beach--everything is as fresh and unaffected and right as if it were playing out in your living room right this minute. The locations, the smoky, salty, funereal-blues soundtrack--Ivan Passer can't put a foot wrong in this movie. Why is this guy not being given all the work in the world? And why is this movie not acclaimed a masterpiece in a world where rusty chestnuts by Rafelson and Bogdanovich are still held in high esteem?
Godard's little meta masterpiece
A sort of peewee, home-movie CONTEMPT, GRANDEUR ET DECADENCE is Godard's look at what happens during the making of a cheapo TV movie--i.e., he took on an assignment to make a cheapo TV movie, and in typical fashion gave the process the skewer. The emphasis here is on the real faces and real voices of real people--actors seen in a poignant juxtaposition of their headshots and their real, peeved, fragile selves. One of the most energetic, funniest and oddly touching of recent Godards, this is extraordinarily hard to find, and worth the hunt.
Hollywood Ending (2002)
The cruelest, most selfish movie by a megalomaniacal geezer since Chaplin's COUNTESS IN HONG KONG!
By all rational standards Tea Leoni is a stunning woman. Those
piercing eyes, that ski-slope nose, the endless legs, the equal
parts patricianness, intelligence and restless energy that animate
her: in FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, the writer-director David O.
Russell knew how to use her almost-too-muchness for humor;
and in a big effects movie like DEEP IMPACT, the director, Mimi
Leder, understood how to let Leoni's natural radiance come
through the juggernaut of cosmic doom. In HOLLYWOOD ENDING, Leoni plays Woody Allen's ex-wife--a studio suit once
married to Allen's washed-up seventies director. And I cannot
recall a single movie--not even including romantic comedies shot
on digital video for no money--in which the female lead is given
fewer closeups than HOLLYWOOD ENDING. She's a skinny object
with a bobbing blond head appearing somewhere near the lower
right edge of the frame--the center of which is all about Wood,
Our national treasure has received withering, almost unconscionably cruel reviews for HOLLYWOOD ENDING--unconscionable, maybe, until you see the movie. Critics
seem to delight in Allen's aging and his physical decay. But there's
nothing fun, not even in a Schadenfreudeous way, in watching the
psychosomatically blind filmmaker played by Allen groping the
breast of an eager-for-sex Tiffany Amber Thiessen; or blindly
knocking over furniture or falling on the floor. A scene in which
Allen, in conversation with Leoni about an upcoming movie,
alternates composed chatter about his filmmaking choices with
jealous eruptions about her shallow studio-head fiancee, ranks as
the unfunniest moment in any Woody Allen movie. The great man
has reduced his entire cast to straight men feeding him set-up
lines. Everyone exists to serve the lovable hypochondriac's needs.
Allen, in an attempt at commercialism, served up boring treacle
like MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY and MIGHTY APHRODITE in the mid-nineties. Now he has done his make-nice job with
DreamWorks. One longs for him to return to the black bile of
DECONSTRUCTING HARRY and HUSBANDS AND WIVES--where, one suspects, his heart is, anyway. Allen recently
praised AMORES PERROS and Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN as his favorite recent pictures. Let those two paper plates of Mexican dog
food be a lesson to him. May he exorcise the spirit of Neil Simon
and replace it with the soul of Jodorowsky!
Jason X (2001)
You'd think by now they'd start having some fun with it, no?
There IS something amusing about a spaceship, 300 years in the
future, in which the crew of astronaut scientists are all teenagers
in belly shirts who are just dying to get it on. A cryogenically frozen,
then thawed, Jason Voorhees stalks the ship and hacks off heads
one by one. No suspense, no real gags--except the one in which
the stoic black sergeant gets run through from behind by Jason's
machete. "It'll take more than that to bring this old dog down!" he
barks. Another machete pierces through. "...That oughta do it!"
(Body slumps to floor.) Since the movie will make back its money
sheerly through the date-night trade, couldn't the filmmakers have
had some fun with this? Even the trademark FRIDAY THE 13TH
"Chik-chik-chik-chok-chok-chok" effect has been sampled and
processed and killed. This is one pathetic, if unmissed, casualty of