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Ulee's Gold (1997)
A pure and modest domestic drama
Victor Nunez's naturalistic study of good sense, ULEE'S GOLD, is about an aging, reclusive beekeeper whose Floridian life and family are threatened by an unexpected brush with violent thieves. It's a pure and modest domestic drama, with a stark, intense reality that gets deep under your skin. The keeper works diligently, like a bee, to survive, but also approaches the kinks of life in the same assiduous way as he deals with his bees. This double metaphor provides a sturdy noetic foundation that pays off surprisingly well. There are depictions of emotional chaos that are genuinely unsettling-you may find some scenes very painful. Nothing feels overcalculated, so that even the thug scenes do not thrill, but startle you with their authenticity. Like Nunez's previous film, RUBY IN PARADISE, ULEE'S GOLD records a region's undercurrents with a bombed-out vitality. Peter Fonda is remarkable as the beekeeper (named Ulee, short for Ulysses), both coldly responsible and curiously sensitive; when Nunez concentrates on his craggy, tired face, you sense there are thousands of stories behind every wrinkle.
Happy Gilmore (1996)
There is tyranny in stupidity
Recently I screened Adam Sandler's THE WATERBOY, and quickly concluded that the movie is completely throwaway, a bland knockoff of Sandler's earlier debacle HAPPY GILMORE. Yet, I see that the movie is setting box-office records, and the high school boys I work with are lauding it as some kind of comedic standard. Am I missing something?
To investigate this possibility, I re-viewed Sandler's first hit, BILLY MADISON, and also HAPPY GILMORE, in which Sandler plays a bellicose dimwit who wants to become a professional hockey player but discovers his slapshot is more effective on the golf course. With a brash temper and an extraordinary long drive of over 400 yards, Happy becomes the star of the current pro golf tour. The premise of the movie (and its single joke) is that while Sandler behaves like a juvenile, precocious jerk, he shakes up the stuffy golf establishment and produces some desirable demographics for the television ratings. Essentially, the sheer spectacle of his rantings is meant as a babbling apologia for nonsense. This is what makes Gilmore the best representation of Sandler's on-screen persona, and so I'd like to briefly discuss HAPPY GILMORE in terms of its implicit cultural impact.
Gilmore joins the tour reluctantly, motivated by the IRS confiscation of his grandmother's house. While she quietly waits at a nursing home, Happy brassily tries to claim enough prize money to buy her house back. We're supposed to laugh at Happy's nonconformity, the way he curses out golf balls when they don't drop. Yet when the movie eventually sentimentalizes Happy's rivalry with a pompous pro named Shooter McGavin, it becomes not anarchic iconography, but just another dumb, predictable sports movie-one that has disturbing cultural implications.
Sandler is the ingratiating performer from "Saturday Night Live" known for his beaming ignorance and babyish vocal inflections. His entire act seems derogatory in a post-modern way, as if he's asking the audience why it wastes its time watching him. Sandler doesn't act, he grins like a moron, yells a lot, and clobbers things. Like Jim Carrey, he views a movie set as the most glorious playground ever. Making a movie allows Sandler to revel in the fact that he can do anything he wants. Unfortunately, what he wants to do is indulge his pathetic junior-high fantasies. HAPPY GILMORE is an exercise in wish-fulfillment for Sandler's lewd and violent creepiness. Sandler wants to punch out hecklers and an alligator? Write it into the script! Sandler wants a scantily-clad girl on his arm? Create a sexy dream sequence!
It's easy to berate and dismiss them for their infantile idiocy, but movies like HAPPY GILMORE and THE WATERBOY don't just tell dumb jokes-they take on a spirit of sophomoric iconoclasm that is insultingly oppressive. Recent brainless travesties, like DUMB AND DUMBER, IN THE ARMY NOW, ACE VENTURA: WHEN NATURE CALLS, and Sandler's own BILLY MADISON, depict a fraudulent mythology of acceptable rage, impatience, and violence. They are tediously bawdy and cartoonishly brutal. Unlike Chris Farley's movies (which share some of their inanity), these ninnyfests make no attempt to appeal to an audience's good nature. Instead, they gleefully wallow in their mean-spirited adolescence, relying on audiences that confuse crassness with craftiness.
These movies skewer intelligence, knowledge, and sincerity in the name of the crude common man. Gilmore becomes the champion of everyone alienated by elitism: it is class warfare led by simpletons. Their revolution consists of revenge; revenge through cruelty and humiliation. Most dismaying is that these movies actually seem to believe in their implication that the sympathetic little man is always a moronic freak. That's a harmful double lie: First, intelligence (or lack thereof) is not a mark of social status. Second, there are no little men-people are all the same size. There is tyranny in stupidity.
The best moment in HAPPY GILMORE comes while Gilmore is participating in the Pepsi Pro-Am. Paired with Bob Barker, an increasingly agitated Happy knocks the game-show legend flat on his back. That's a typical gag in movies like this (abrupt violence as humor), but when Barker rises and proceeds to pummel Gilmore the joke is turned in on itself. Suddenly we're witnessing Sandler's hateful malice backfiring on him, and the movie earns its sole laugh.
Lee's most mature work
In 1995 I considered Spike Lee's gritty CLOCKERS one of the year's best films; recently I spotted its video in a clearance bin and picked it up. Upon re-viewing, I am struck again by its complexity. It is the first urban drama to depict inner-city race relations with the intricacy such a pervasive cultural issue demands. On the surface it resembles a whodunit, but its main concern is how drugs and violence contaminate entire communities, dramatized in the collapse of one African-American youth's life. (He chokes up blood the way some of us sweat.) This process is observed by a predominantly white police force that makes hollow attempts to keep order, and refuses to intervene with the community's gradual decline.
Instead of characters with overt prejudices and plain racial allegiances-characters that are sterile symbols of bigotry rather than credible humans guilty of it-Lee gives us characters of casual racism. Most representative of this is Harvey Keitel's Rocco Klein, a white detective who cannot understand the culture surrounding him, which is a culture of narcotics, violence, and black-on-black crime. On his beat, drugs are less a problem than a lifestyle, murder resolves the tiniest of disagreements, and young mothers valiantly but vainly battle the influence young dealers have on their sons. Klein views the inner-city with contempt, but deep down he knows all the whores and dealers are human beings, too.
Klein is introduced at the scene of a homicide, where the police handle the gruesome death with a clinical sense of detachment, cracking bad jokes and asking the bloodied corpse questions. Is it just a job, or is it racism? For Klein, it's both: he needs the gallows humor to psychologically deal with this culture of depravity. What's fascinating about CLOCKERS is Lee's willingness-and guts-to present Klein, despite his prejudice, as the film's hero. Lee understands that casual racism is simply endemic and inescapable in American culture. What he appreciates is Klein's ability to transcend his own prejudice and finally do the right thing.
The film is all artifice, but in the best way
It ends with two young lovers riding the sinking ship as if it were a drowning bucking bronco, yet the unembarrassed hyperbole of director James Cameron doesn't injure TITANIC. The film is all artifice, but in the best way. Cameron vigilantly captures the horrifying details of modern history's most infamous disaster, and consistently shapes his scenes with the ideas of dread, class, and blind arrogance in mind. Despite the rather clunky script and histrionic acting, the film becomes some kind of alarmist masterpiece about an event of painful cultural humbling.
This is large-scale blazon as art, which begs the question: Can the idea of historical tragedy get across in a spectacle, an inherently exhibitionist and factitious form of cinema? Surface pageantry will capsize thematic ambitions without granting a final gasp. Here, though, Cameron's gluttonous temperament binds itself to an extravagant action rhythm with a sharper sense of suffering, and for the first time he seems to understand his characters as much as he does the machines and carnage.
There's nothing enigmatic about the relationship between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a third-class vagabond, and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a high-society debutante ensnared by her snob-fiancé, but the ripe vibrancy shared between Jack and Rose points toward a future that will never come for most of the passengers. The film isn't exactly tasteful-Cameron is all too willing to kowtow to the morbid fascination of catastrophe-but it feels classy, and the extraordinary special effects take on a certain elegance.
In fact, I would argue without reservation that TITANIC is the greatest visual-effects movie ever made. Miraculously, Cameron uses those effects-and his own eye for thrilling aesthetics-to magnify the youthful romance at the story's center into a contemporary romantic tragedy. The film's final third, in which the passengers gradually begin to realize their peril while the boat slowly sinks, ranks as wide-eyed spectacle that cleverly mines adolescent infatuation as a springboard for authentic terror and nightmare shock. As Jack and Rose cling to a wreckage rapidly being sucked under the icy waves, the moment isn't quite heroic. Instead, their frantic stab at survival makes your stomach sink, too.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Killer arachnids threaten the entire human race in STARSHIP TROOPERS, a repetitive, ghastly tale adapted from Robert A. Heinlein's futuristic novel, but could just as easily have been last year's hit video game. Governed by a blithely homogenized police state, Earth responds by sending hundreds of thousands of young, pretty soldiers to die learning the harsh realities of intergalactic war.
Director Paul Verhoeven cracks Orwellian jokes about fascism (sanitized news reports are comically propagandistic about mass carnage), but it's a witless, transparent facade. The submissive human soldiers-the good guys-all think alike, and are happier for it. (It makes them better warriors, and as they are slaughtered, they die happy, too.) Yes, Verhoeven wants his satirical jibes, but he wants his jingoistic heroism even more. As these grinning ciphers lunge enthusiastically into suicidal battle, we are meant to cheer their "courage" in the name of the state. Therefore, the movie essentially embraces mindless conformity. This obvious contradiction is damaging enough to make one realize that Verhoeven's satire and symbolism actually make the picture worse. If it was just another trashy, slam-bang actioner, it wouldn't offend so much.
Moreover, Verhoeven tries to find the comedy of gore, directing the battle scenes as a form of pop-sadism. The extreme violence-heads lopped off and smashed in, torsos ripped into multiple parts-is staged and timed as wacky slapstick. There's a jeering pessimism somewhere in that, but Verhoeven ignores it.
The action relies on childish gigantism rather than genuine tension or dread, and most of it is unremarkable. The massive amount of expensive computer effects have such a vise-like grip on the events that nothing seems unexpected or shocking. STARSHIP TROOPERS is like an expensive, cumbersome toy quickly sentenced to the shelf. It's too much trouble to actually play with, so it just sits there, accumulating dust.
As Good as It Gets (1997)
An insubstantial put-on
A goofy romantic entertainment like AS GOOD AS IT GETS is the kind of earnest Hollywood "crowd-pleaser" that no one used to mistake for art. But with its high industry and audience acclaim, you may feel like a cynic if you don't quite believe in Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt as a romantic duo. Like AMISTAD, the film skillfully preys on your emotional vulnerabilities. If you're like me, though, and prefer to respond to movies with ALL your senses and faculties--to free yourself to enjoy a movie on truer terms--it's all right to feel irritated.
The movie has an idea, but it's a dippy one. Nicholson is Melvin Udall, a selfish, mean-spirited obsessive-compulsive who melts for a noble single mother named Carol (Helen Hunt). For an hour, writer-director James L. Brooks generously allows the actors to take risks with their characters, and the film gracefully glides between modest human comedy and affecting drama. However, Nicholson and Hunt don't match up, and once they hit the road with starving-artist Greg Kinnear, Brooks struggles to find a suitable tone. He doesn't succeed, partly because we're left asking why Carol should settle for such a caustic jerk.
Look closely, and you'll also notice that Brooks treats Melvin more like a traveling sideshow than as a person (his anti-gay tirades are almost delightful character quirks). To Brooks, Melvin's acrimony isn't just benign, it's endearing. AS GOOD AS IT GETS is an insubstantial put-on, a sincere fakery of "human relationships." Yet Nicholson, in a teasingly churlish and amusing performance, misbehaves mightily. His eyes widen simply at the prospect of verbal combat.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
A lushly gratifying story
Curtis Hanson obviously believes adapting James Ellroy's novel is his chance at bringing off a classic, so he aims high. Conceived in the manner of Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is set in '50s Los Angeles, where sleaze and scandal prowl their way through a police force wearied by its amoral neighbor, Hollywood. A shocking multiple-homicide occurs, and the uneasy investigation prompts two very different cops-one a by-the-book strait-lace, the other a callous fist-for-hire-to look more closely at the web of sex, corruption, celebrity, and violence they exist in everyday.
This is a movie that understands how corruption breeds from within, but also the consequences of naive nobility. Hanson engulfs his heroes in pessimism, and then watches them slither their way out. The fun of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, though, is in the labyrinthine plotting. Nothing is clear-cut, and so Hanson keeps springing delirious surprises on us. He doesn't possess Polanski's sandy vision of cynicism and wickedness as cancerous power, but despite the film's surface gloss, he tells a lushly gratifying story.
Kevin Spacey, as a bored detective infatuated with Hollywood glamour, and Guy Pearce, as the precinct's foremost careerist, deliver convincing, intelligent performances. Yet it is Russell Crowe, as the brutish, hot-tempered cop who begins to trust his brains as much as his brawn, who commands the film's center. Both despicable and noble, Crowe is a grand barbarian in the tradition of Robert Mitchum, so blinkered he's more human than anyone else in the film.
The Game (1997)
THE GAME is pure pleasure. Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, an upscale Scrooge placed into the Game, an elaborate series of sudden life experiences of escalating danger and intensity. The director, David Fincher, has made a movie about a man stripped of the security affluence and power provide. Yet he's done it by tweaking the protocol of film noir to serve his own cynical ideas about contemporary cultural-claustrophobia; the horror is how completely a "recreational" service can usurp a man's life and make it the corporation's plaything.
Fincher knows how silly this premise is, because he's also made a deftly existential, hall-of-mirrors stump-puzzle in which style and conviction count more than credibility. Are the Game's anonymous strategists trying to con Van Orton? Harm him? Which life events are games, and which are just life?
The mad-kick answers are far more satisfying than expected, with Fincher crafting the illusory suspense into a leisure-class nightmare of panic and confusion. Twisting a wealth-fixated Yuppie into a neo-noir hero is a shrewd move-exactly how much space is there between an icy investment banker and a laconic, Mitchumesque loner? This injection of modernity lends the film a surprising comedic thrust. We keep laughing that the control-freak is being controlled in ways never dreamed up by himself; the Game is so perversely ingenious and ruthless, even he's impressed.
G.I. Jane (1997)
It puts the squeeze on you
From the opening frames, the politicized G.I. JANE puts the squeeze on you. In an experiment spearheaded by a crusading U.S. senator (Anne Bancroft), Demi Moore is Jordan O'Neil, a Navy officer vying to become the first female Navy SEAL. To director Ridley Scott, the relentless training is more seductively fierce than actual war. As the recruits endure recklessly absurd trials of brute strength and mental persistence, Scott turns the training into a torturous, masochistic test of self-will. He presents a rain-soaked, color-impaired vision of "harrowing" brutality, using his artist's eye to immaculately pose the abusive action. The grim, nightmarish style is somewhat ridiculous-the training is, after all, NOT war, but glorified make-believe.
Moore, though, is surprisingly game for the grueling demands of the role. When Jordan rejects the Navy's "policy" of special treatment and double standards for female recruits, it's as if Moore herself is asking to finally be taken seriously as a performer. Shorn of her star vanity and doing one-armed push-ups, she's determined to beat the odds, and actually act for the first time. We sense Jordan's tenacity, appreciate her attempt to prove herself more than just a feminist symbol, and understand her vexation at being treated differently than "the guys." Her face bloodied and bruised, her hair shaved to a stubble, Moore throws herself into the movie, and comes out tough-as-nails and more likable than ever before.
The movie itself is quite predictable-of course Jordan will eventually prove herself in a genuine combat situation. But it's also pure propaganda. Should American women be allowed in combat? Obviously many women are physically and mentally capable of battle. So the movie declares, but who disagrees? That's not really the issue. The arguments forbidding women from combat are not about inferiority, but practicality. (For example, no amount of social engineering will eliminate the inevitable sexual tension from integrated platoons. You can't shut down sex drives through legislation.) Scott never addresses these non-sexist reasons-doesn't even acknowledge them-and offers instead all the usual, immaterial pieties like "How strong do you have to be to pull a trigger?" A better director would probe deeper, and question the underlying reasons for how the military is structured. For example, why are men assumed to be the primary warriors, and why are women allowed to fight only under special qualifications and political motivations?
The script is prone to making nonsense analogies, such as comparing the military's current "discrimination" against women to how blacks were treated by the Navy at one time. It wants to compare what is considered two prejudices, without recognizing that a correlation between them simply doesn't exist. There are no relevant biological differences between black men and white men, while there are indeed relevant differences between the male and female bodies. As part of its idealism, the film ignores certain realities, which is an act that comes across as blind ignorance rather than enlightenment, or even dramatic license.
Deceitfully, G.I. JANE is also propaganda of a distinctly MALE variety. The suspense is driven by conventionally masculine questions: Will Jordan survive her master-chief's vile attack on her ego? Will she defy the senator after being sold out for political votes? Will she get to blow up lots of stuff? Most unsettling, however, is that Jordan ultimately becomes a worthy warrior not by establishing herself as physically fit, but because she claims to have a penis, too. In denying that she has different parts, Jordan willingly purges herself of her femininity. Isn't that a form of self-imposed sexism? G.I. JANE professes a desire for gender equality, but ironically sanctions instead a merging of the sexes where maleness is preferable.
The Full Monty (1997)
A seductive, playful piece of comic gumption
The Full Monty offers a seductive, playful piece of comic gumption: Six unemployed steel workers become amateur male strippers, baring themselves as an antidote to the dole. The title is British slang for "buck naked," but the film isn't about nudity, or lust, exactly. It takes as its subject the free-falling sense of desperation provoked by unemployment. As these flaccid bodies strive to exude "sexiness," director Peter Cattaneo turns their struggle into a blue-collared survival reflex, which yields a thin yet agreeable amount of emotional weight.
Robert Carlyle plays a bitter but devoted divorced father trying to meet his support payments so his son will trust him, and Mark Addy just wants to provide for his nurturing wife, who worries about the secret G-string buried in her flabby husband's underwear drawer.
Suffering ritual-humiliation for the sake of loved ones, these men pawn their dignity for economic survival. Cattaneo allows the script to hint at the social and fiscal conditions endured by the working-class under Thatcher, but mostly he avoids politicizing the material. Instead, he aims for rowdy, laugh-out-loud passages about awkward pseudo-debauchery. Perhaps The Full Monty settles for rather broad, coarse humor, but it has intensely pleasing charms and Cattaneo gives it an unexpected deadpan consistency. He exposes the comedy of shame, and then the comedy of shamelessness.
The Apostle (1997)
Closer to a real live Christian than Hollywood gives us
IN DEFENSE OF THE APOSTLE:
As Michael Medved and many religious conservatives have observed, Hollywood routinely vilifies devout Christians as hateful, dangerous zealots, both low-brow and ignorant. This well-founded complaint, though, is actually a protest against stupid scripts, against stories that employ sensational stereotypes because they are an easy way to mask an absence of ideas. Inadvertently, such gross exaggeration cheapens differences, and ignores the valid and sensible reasons people have for holding disparate worldviews. With films like THE RAPTURE taking frequent and egregious aim at them, Christians (currently joined by Arabs, homosexuals, Italians, and Republicans) have cause to be offended. Last year, however, partly to satisfy a lifelong passion and partly to apologize for Hollywood's insensitivity, Robert Duvall directed, acted in, and self-financed THE APOSTLE, a marvelously intelligent drama about living life as a human and as a Christian in a world full of temptation. As a practising Christian and cinephile, I not only appreciated Duvall's gesture, but admired his artistic achievement as well.
Yet now I see that THE APOSTLE is being attacked in some Christian circles. While reviewing these criticisms, I realized that the carping is grounded in expectations unfulfilled, rather than in thoughtful analysis. The movie's protagonist, Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, is a gifted Pentecostal minister who commits a terrible crime, undergoes a spiritual crisis, and does not arrive at the kind of "redemption" that usually occurs in religious plays. THE APOSTLE isn't about redemption, though. Instead, it takes on themes far more elaborate than the platitudes about grace and repentance typical of most "Christian" movies. This is a film about religion and sin, to be sure, but more importantly, it's about how God and the love of Jesus relate to the everyday human condition.
Rather than the idealistic version many fundamentalists would prefer, Sonny is a flawed Christian, and this is what makes some Christian viewers uneasy. Sanitized entertainment aside, are fictional saints more compelling than actual human beings, with all their mistakes, flaws, and misguided thoughts? Central to Christian doctrine is that all people are sinners and "fall short of the glory of God," and indeed, the prideful Sonny fits the description. His mistakes are admitted; this is a fallen man who does not rationalize his actions and who struggles mightily with his heart. This is a man who is working on his personal life but experiences serious setbacks. What Christian cannot relate? Or are we to believe, despite what Scripture claims, that all Christians are sinless and free from temptation? Furthermore, is it honest to depict the quest for righteousness as an easy task? To me, THE APOSTLE achieves dramatic intensity and Christian relevance because it acknowledges the battle between the Holy Spirit and man's sin nature that, according to Scripture, occurs within the heart of all Christians. Duvall's creation of Sonny is closer to a real live Christian than Hollywood has produced in decades. He gets us thinking about how theology should and can affect our daily actions.
Yet, critic Chris Stamper complains in the fundamentalist magazine WORLD that the film is "unsubtle" and "silly." Reading his entire review, I noticed that a serious discussion of Duvall's intentions and complex themes is glaringly missing. Is it possible that Stamper, uncomfortable with the portrayal of Sonny's flaws, is searching for a way-any way-to condemn the film without actually calling it blasphemous? He certainly does substitute shallow vitriol for moral commentary. Why? Perhaps this decision allows him to attack the movie without sacrificing his "intellectual" credibility as a film critic. It doesn't work, though, because the moment he chose not to think the film through, he willingly relinquished that credibility. Like many critics who feign superiority when they have nothing valuable to say, Stamper cloaks his own critical shortcomings with puerile snideness.
This dismissive approach is disturbingly common in so-called "religious" film criticism (for proof, read Medved's take on THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which tries to disarm the film by calling attention to "idiotic touches" like Harvey Keitel's "bozo" wig rather than to its pensive theological questioning). This superficiality, however, preaches only to the converted. Such a know-nothing, trite form of moralizing validates stereotypical perceptions of Christians, and gives the movie industry no reason to offer more fair-minded films like THE APOSTLE.
A skeleton of the original
Now that I've finally seen the new PSYCHO, I feel the critics who demanded to know "Why?" are clearly vindicated. Gus Van Sant's nearly shot-for-shot "replica" of the seminal 1960 thriller must contend with a major Hitch: This gimmick is like watching a skeleton of the original. Surely it retains some impact--but that's residue left over from Hitchcock's work, not Van Sant's. (The cinematography and editing are no less effective for having been swiped by Van Sant.)
Of course this remake does not damage the original film. Since no one can deprive us of it, Hitchcock's version will always stand as a great film, regardless of the numerous sequels and remakes. Defenders rightly point out that Shakespeare is frequently adapted again and again, and painters are often praised for imitating the masters. Yet, why pay for an imitation Monet when an original is freely available at no additional cost? Van Sant's particular experiment, while no doubt exciting and enjoyable for the cast and crew, offers very little for paying audiences. The actors are well-cast and submit acceptable work, but they are nevertheless hopelessly constricted by Van Sant's decision to "replicate" rather than "reinvent." (At no point can they make these characters their "own.")
This PSYCHO is not a new interpretation nor an invigorating update. It is a superficial gloss, and a meaningless cinematic exercise of filmmakers playing dress-up. Viewing it is like looking at an X-ray rather than an actual human, and just as impersonal.