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Buffalo '66 (1998)
Loser cool with a heart. . .
Actor/Director/Writer Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66 is, on a superficial level, almost irritatingly 'indie' (i.e. that which seethes with artistic reaching and uses gritty film stock to prove it). Characters wear clothes best suited to an old Blind Melon video, dialogue is pungent and ironically repetitive, and gloomy weather endlessly hangs over everything, in what at first glance appears to be yet another entry into the 'loser chic' school of cinema.
But wait. . .
Instead of wearing its disaffected stance as a badge of credibility, Buffalo 66 uses it as a springboard to a far deeper, and very affecting, exploration of the psyche of human failure. Using Buffalo (and its poor, woeful Bills) as a backdrop and rather hilarious metaphor for missed opportunities and blown chances, Gallo picks at the protective, pseudo-celebratory scab that was Beck's 'Loser', and exposes the real pain of the loser.
Gallo is terrific as Billy, just released from a five-year prison stint after a 10,000 bet with a loanshark (played by that perennial loser Mickey Rourke, in fine scuzzy form) and a missed fieldgoal kick force him to take the fall for a crime to pay back his debt. Jimmy's first move is to kidnap a cherub named Layla (Christina Ricci, in an inspired performance), only to convince his parents, who've never known he was in jail, that he's married.
Angelica Huston and Ben Gazzara play Billy's unbalanced parents in a reunion scene which is at once uproariously funny and horrifyingly telling (they have exactly one childhood picture of Billy). Slowly, Buffalo 66 reveals itself to be a tragi-comic parade through an agonizing childhood and adolescence, one that still vividly and actively haunts Billy's present.
As a director, Gallo brilliantly employs his quirky visual playfulness to compliment the plot's unfolding, while never overstating his ideas (Oliver Stone, take heed). There is much that is funny, tragic, and startlingly beautiful in Buffalo 66, and it ranks as one of 1998's finest films.
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
The French Connection + The Love Bug = LW4
OK, it's easy to dump on the Lethal Weapon films; they've always been all swagger, few brains. But hasn't that always been the point? Drop the pretense of being in any way logical or (groan) 'reality-based', and simply deliver a well-crafted, well-played rush. We applaud Jackie Chan's sense of silly fun as much as his physicality, and Lethal Weapon 4 has got both in spades.
This installment finds the extended 'family' of Riggs (Gibson), Murtaugh (Glover), Leo (Pesci), and Lorna (Russo) joined by new faces Chris Rock and Jet Li, as a particularly nasty bad guy. The plot involves the smuggling of Chinese counterfeiters into the U.S. by a crime triad, but all that is really just a coathanger for the collection of action sequences and gags that director Richard Donner has skillfully assembled.
Like a predecessors, LW4 is an odd hybrid of The French Connection and The Love Bug (imagine LW5 with Herbie as Riggs, Dean Jones as Murtaugh and the late Buddy Hackett as Leo, but I digress). The chemistry between Gibson and Glover continues and, in spite of the often trite dialogue that is written for them, they infuse their exchanges with an infectious energy and enthusiasm.
What negative criticism I would level at LW4 regards the lack of darkness that so imbued the first two films. There were moments of real danger in those films that made the comedic elements seem astounding in their mere existence, let alone effectiveness. LW3 took a major step away from that, and towards a goofier, glossier, more (if you will) Love Bug-ier sheen, with lesser results. LW4 is an improvement on that film's formula, but someone should have remembered that Rigg's unhinged self-destructiveness was part of why the series was so compelling in the first place.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The Best Film of 1999
"Eyes Wide Shut" weaves its web of psychological carnage with a power that has nothing to do with taste, or preference. Kubrick's images are undeniable and very, very startling. The eye must watch. There is a remarkable trademark of Kubrick's that lies in his spacing of dialogue. It is never as simple as "He said" - cut to Her - "She said". That is the formula, but Kubrick always cuts away early. He leaves a discernible pause. This creates a note of discord (emphasized in the music score with its jarring one-note piano stabbings), in that everyone who speaks in his films appear to be studying one another. People speak in measured tones, but rarely communicate themselves well to one another. Many have spoken of Kubrick's "coldness" as a filmmaker, and it is true that he always keeps his characters at arm's length, distancing them from each other and us. But the reason behind this would appear to be that in doing so, the film's eye catches everything. Nothing gets overlooked in the heat of the moment, in the messiness of emotional embrace. We watch Kubrick's players watch.
I have heard tell of a comparison with "The Matrix", which I find especially perceptive. Here, the matrix is created by us, by our own psychological make-up. Which of course is more terrifying and pessimistic, as well as more truthful. While Kubrick unsettles with his world of penetrating observers, there are moments of participatory activity, but tellingly, it occurs in dream. Kidman's character is frightened by her dreams of actively humiliating and degrading her husband, more still because she secretly revels in it. Cruise, on the other hand, goes on a tripped-out 48 hour adventure in which he tries desperately to play the role of "outsider" his wife so desires, only to be discovered, revealed and publicly shamed. Kubrick's contrasts are obvious, but sooooo compelling: Kidman is active and cruel in her dream-life, Cruise is passive and reflective in his waking existence. As the film ultimately asks at its conclusion, is one more innocent than the other?
"Eyes Wide Shut" may not be the most optimistic portrayal of a marriage and its strengths, but Kubrick has again, and sadly for the last grand time, allowed us to see through his eyes a world where the notion of communication is not taken for granted. His people struggle to express, and seem all the more human for it. Let it be said that Kubrick's eyes were always wide open, and to the details most of us figured too mundane to truly appreciate. He will be greatly missed.