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McDowell redivivus
13 July 2002
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.
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Andy and Edie's masterpiece
6 July 2002
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 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.
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Harvard Man (2001)
5 July 2002
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.
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Clancy's dress rehearsal for 9/11 II?
4 July 2002
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.
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More old-school politics than you would think
1 July 2002
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!
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Insomnia (2002)
The Lifetime version of BAD LIEUTENANT?
30 June 2002
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.
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Born to Win (1971)
The seventies' bleakest--and one of the best
27 June 2002
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?
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Godard's little meta masterpiece
19 May 2002
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.
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The cruelest, most selfish movie by a megalomaniacal geezer since Chaplin's COUNTESS IN HONG KONG!
7 May 2002
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,

Wood, 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!
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Jason X (2001)
You'd think by now they'd start having some fun with it, no?
7 May 2002
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

Hollywood's franchise-mania.
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The kind of turbid ethical drama they used to make. In 1976.
22 April 2002
Up until its bogus everything-must-go ending (insanely belying the movie's honest grapple beforehand with the impossibility of avoiding selling out), CHANGING LANES brings you back to gritty, downbound dramas of ethics circa late-seventies--no-exit pictures like Ulu Grosbard's STRAIGHT TIME and Sidney Lumet's PRINCE OF THE CITY. It starts as an almost abstract fantasia on the differences between two Americans: a white guy (Ben Affleck) who lives in a glass tower of a law office with fake Alex Katzes on the world; at the end of a hard day he comes home to Amanda Peet and a present--his father-in-law's old forty-foot yacht, thrown him as a bonus. The second American is a black guy (Samuel L. Jackson) grappling with his sobriety, wrestling his Rageaholic Issues, and trying to buy a house to keep his estranged wife and kids nearby. White and Black collide, literally, on the FDR Drive, and the rest of the movie Aristotelianly tracks their crosses and double-crosses and triple-crosses in the course of a single wearying, life-wrecking day.

Unlike the "issue" TV CHANGING LANES sometimes feels like, the work of the screenwriters, Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin (one suspects Tolkin rewrote the younger writer) has a feeling of uncanny end-of-nineties accuracy--unsteady fat cats feeling their cooked books coming home to roost, and have-nots getting steadily angrier at their have-notness. All the details are pleasurably right, down to the tinkly, Bryn Mawr voice Amanda Peet puts on to read a Paddy Chayefsky-like speech informing her callow husband that indeed, the world is corrupt, and why did he think she was with him anyhow? The director, Roger Michell (who made the passably pleasing NOTTING HILL) doesn't seem headed for the big leagues, but deploys one extremely useful stylistic device: big, algae-oid, wobbly soft closeups that harden into focus, of a sort, when the faces loom close to the lens. You'd think this shtik would exhaust quickly; it doesn't. The images get at the theme of the movie: the tireless pressures of the way the world is organized to get people to do the wrong thing over and over again. Tolkin, Taylor, Michell and company essay this hardheadedly, unsentimentally, more probingly than you expected; then they blow it with that candy-handing ending. It was, I guess, probably the only way the movie could get made--especially under the shockingly conservative aegis of Paramount Pictures.
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Time Out (2001)
Stupor of a salesman
21 April 2002
Playing authority figures in dark suits, the actor Stellan Skarsgard always suggests a noble melancholy, a weatherbeaten soul underneath his Swedish-oil-exec good looks. William H. Macy has made a career out of essaying the disappointments of pride-in-professionalism white men. Aurelien Recoing, the hero of Laurent Cantet's L'EMPLOI DU TEMPS, doesn't summon the instant empathy we feel for those actors. Cantet is a schematist in the style of Arthur Miller: without Miller's cornballs, but also without his visceral punch. Recoing's very body seems to be a manifestation of Cantet's two-sided patness. From the front, Recoing has some of the bland, boyish-haired handsomeness of a Skarsgard or a young Klaus Maria Brandauer. From the back, balding and bearlike-hulking, Recoing is a monster or a wreck. Cantet's movies--old-school, slowly downhill-rolling tragedies about the inhumanity of late capitalism--use Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomies for thudding dramatic effects.

Recoing's Vincent has lost his job as a management consultant. Instead of getting another one, he drives around, hangs out in office-building lobbies and hotel bars, and generally dresses and comports like an upper-middle-class Frenchman. When he starts dreaming up a fantasy job--bringing bucks to developing markets in the Third World via the U.N.--he starts taking money from all-too-eager friends to invest. Then a middle-class mobster is onto Vincent's scheme. And from there...before you can say FARGO, the cards come tumblin' down.

Like Cantet's last movie, HUMAN RESOURCES, we are meant to hate the game, not the player, and to believe that a rigged, soulless system has robbed Cantet's characters of their capacity to experience joy on earth. But what does this character want, exactly? At one moment, he seems to genuinely wish he had the idealistic U.N. job--something, at his stage of life, with his background in the for-profit world, he could never attain. At other moments he seems to want to drive around the snowy countryside and listen to golden oldies. At still others, he seems to enjoy, a la Kevin Spacey in AMERICAN BEAUTY, the undemanding work of selling hot stereos and toasters for his mafia friend. And yet Cantet has designed the movie to make it seem as if the need for status, for patriarchal prestige, has led Vincent into the fantasy land that is his undoing. The ending--a softer landing than you might be expecting--is meant to be soul-chilling.

But what's the big whip? Everyone has dreamed of a life of aimless rambling; those who have it never seem very happy with it. (Cantet could've tested his ideas if he had bought Vincent a ticket to a lazybones' paradise.) And Cantet underlines the irony that Vincent's hustling to keep himself in non-work is in itself a more than full-time job. Cantet's movies struggle for a Miller-like inevitability, but they always fail to persuade on a human level; his crushed heroes seem more constructs than creatures. One brilliantly observant (and shudder-inducingly cruel) moment: Vincent's wife catches on to his ruse when he brings a buddy from the office to dinner--a pockmarked hustler who is too low-class to inhabit the highflown world Vincent pretends to have a berth in. The jig is up for Vincent because his wife's snob meter goes off. Too bad nothing else is as acutely examined or observant.
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If two famous chicks referring to their "sweet-smelling punani{s}" make you laugh...
14 April 2002
Like many people who have reviewed this movie, let me open by saying: I love Cameron Diaz. I love the feckless rager of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and VANILLA SKY. I love the stellar beauty that lights up MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING and THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. I love her goofiness, her un-vanity, her friendliness, her fierceness, and her inexplicable pride in that little bony rump.

But as with all people we love, there is a version of them we love... not so much. Here, it's the she-stoops-to-conquer Cameron. The forced Cameron, the diving-in-the-mainstream Cameron, doesn't want to say it, but the maybe-she-actually-enjoys-this-stupid-crap Cameron. That is to say, the Cameron of CHARLIE'S ANGELS and THE SWEETEST THING.

The friend I saw SWEETEST with marched out saying, "That was literally the worst movie I've ever seen!" Well, it isn't--but I have a feeling the studio powers, and maybe some kind soul, like his agent or mother, will send the director Roger Kumble back to remedial comedy class. (Or maybe just recommend he...stick to "dramas.") The writer, Nancy Pimental (who was awesomely handed $1,750,000 for this non-script) hands Kumble at least the opportunity for various build-up-and-deliver sight gags, and Kumble fumbles--drops, shatters, steps on and kills--each and every single one. When Selma Blair, as the "plain"-est and ho-iest of the trio of chickies who are our heroines, takes a Lewinsky-like stained dress to the dry cleaners, and a troupe of kids on a field trip marches in, your Blake Edwards detector tells you that a big set piece is coming that will top and further top itself. It doesn't--Kumble seems to cut away in mid-gag.

The gimmick of the movie is: SEX AND THE CITY with Farrelly Brothers gross-out gags. Sexist or no, there's an unseemliness in watching three thirtyish-looking women play out the kind of icky teen-comedy slapstick that unfurls here. When Christina Applegate squats on a dirty urinal in a men's room to take a leak, while Diaz gets poked in the eye with a dingus through a gloryhole--well, you just wish these women had better ways to make a paycheck this size.

There were a bunch of twelve-year-old girls tittering happily at the horrible mess that is this movie, but one has to wonder how a movie this slipshod, insubstantial and, worst of all, charm-free got made. THE SWEETEST THING is TOMCATS or SAVING SILVERMAN with estrogen--only Sony produced this one in A-list, shoot-the-works mode. The sanest explanation I can find is that the sensibility of the movie--JAP-y, narcissistic, boneheaded, and in no way movie-ish--is the sensibility of the members of the sweeter sex running Hollywood.
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The school they tore down to build the old school
13 April 2002
As the clunky exposition that kicks off this Real-Life Mystery

unfolds, one is reminded of Peter Bogdanovich the arch

antiquarian of AT LONG LAST LOVE and NICKELODEON. And as

William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) introduces his

guests to his new yacht for a weekend of debauchery, cynical

sniping, and murder, one senses one is in Gosford Park without

the guidance of Robert Altman: Bogdanovich's classical-Hollywood instincts are to pin every element of a scene

onto the screen; spontaneity and leakage are not in his repertoire.

The movie starts to feel like an Altman picture for which they hired

the wrong old seventies dude.

But once the gracefulness of Bogdanovich's old-old-school style

takes hold, you learn to appreciate the stateliness, the fine

detailing, and the unusual directorial commitment to character in

even the most perfunctory roles. A riff on Hearst's alleged murder

of the silent-movie pioneer Thomas Ince, the picture plants itself,

mythologically speaking, in relation to CITIZEN KANE as

GOODFELLAS is to THE GODFATHER: c'est a dire, an affectionate

debunk. You appreciate the time Bogdanovich takes with the small

character of Ince's mistress, who yearns to be publicly accepted

as his other--a plot device given ripe human flesh by Bogdanovich

and the actress. And most of all you have to step back in

admiration of the movie's decidedly un-Kane-like Hearst: a sacred

monster composed of equal parts boyish romantic ardor and

smug, rectitudinous savagery. As played in a career-topping

performance by Edward Herrmann, Hearst redeems the stagy

creakiness of the writing and lends the picture a tragic dimension.

As pleasurable as Bogdanovich's craftsmanship is, the dominant

emotion of the movie is bitterness: the picture is as sour a

rendering of Hollywood soul-snatching as TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (of which this sometimes feels like a less

hysterical variant). The ending out-bleaks Bogdanovich's SAINT

JACK. The old pro couldn't figure out what to do with that pixie

dynamo Kirsten Dunst (too Method, too raw for Bogdanovich's

white-telephone stylization) but he figured out almost everything

else--even ways to make unplayable scenes work. One hopes, in

an age of McG's, that Bogdanovich will be given more opportunities to make like his golden-age heroes and show the

whippersnappers how it's done.
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Human Nature (2001)
Multiple misunderstoods
13 April 2002
The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman--the only non-director screenwriter to be crowned an auteur in...ever, maybe?--has been rather unfortunately compared to the likes of Monty Python and Tom Stoppard. Higher-falutin folk, the kinsmen of Pauline Kael, have likened him this time out to John Guare, Christopher Durang and David O. Russell--an unsavory and unholy trinity if ever there was one. But Kaufman is much more interesting than that. This nature-versus-nurture farce may have plot construction that reminds middlebrows of their favorite Broadway smarty-pantses, but in essence the picture is closer to Marco Ferreri's flatulating comedies and Dusan Makavejev's back-to-the-body splatter heroics. Patricia Arquette is cursed by her body: she's hairy as an ape. Piqued at God, she decides to go "back to nature," and live as the apes live. Her human-civilized training won't let her go all the way, and so she becomes a nature writer--a seemingly Rosseauian profession that is also a total unconscious betrayal of her natural "freeness." Horny and unloved, she is set up with Tim Robbins as a control-crazed, scientific Miss Manners who teaches laboratory mice to eat with the right fork. The two of them discover an apish man grunting in the wilds of Echo Park--and soon enough the chase is on, with romantic entanglements and switchoffs that make the parallelogram of partners in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH look antique, Scribean. HUMAN NATURE is not, as some other dopy Kaelian critics have carped, a sixties-style back-to-nature movie. (How did they miss the climactic scene in which Arquette tries to use electric-shock techniques, just like Robbins', to de-civilize the Ape Man and bring him back to Nature?) It does, however, use the metaphor of nature/nurture as a template for all the ways lovers make each other conform; and the way society makes us all chin up and salute. As in his forthcoming ADAPTATION, Kaufman's opinion of the ultimate value of all human endeavor is cheeringly bleak. In HUMAN NATURE, "civilization" is represented by an ape man in a plexiglass cage reading MOBY DICK to the crackle of a fake fireplace; and nature is a fallen place, unreturnable-to, the 21st-century cyber-citizen's joke. All that is "human nature," Kaufman tells us, is the desire to burrow your genitals into someone else's. And Kaufman comes up with a picture of Civilization that's as pungent as any of Stanley Kubrick's similar critiques: the Ape-Man grinding his hips against a sixth-grade slide projector's images of naughty seventies porn--and then receiving a punitive electric shock that sends him hurtling across the room. The director, Michel Gondry, does not do a good job with the material. He was clearly stuck in an impossible bind. If he followed the appropriate path cleared by Spike Jonze in MALKOVICH--rendering Kaufman's whimseys in a dank, cruddy naturalistic, offhand style--he would seem no more than an imitator; instead he did what one feared Jonze would do--he has music-video'd up the script. And so Arquette, singing an Alan Menken-like paean to the unconditional love found in nature, does it against obviously tinny back projection that might work fine in a Bjork video, but here seems cloying, little-kiddish, sub-Wes-Anderson-y. Ditto the performance by that inevitable condescender and cartooner, Tim Robbins: he never plays a role, he lobs spitballs at it. Kaufman's gags, line by line, are not as sharp as they were in MALKOVICH; but the combination of highbrow literary techniques, and extreme abjection and cruelty, is almost identical. Kaufman makes 95% of the Writer's Guild of America look like slothful, bottom-feeding shmoes. Wait till you see ADAPTATION--a clever fellow's flabbergasting home run. In the mean time, please tell a friend that this guy is nothing like Tom Stoppard, or whatever innocently "clever" poetaster he is routinely compared to. This guy means it for real.
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Panic Room (2002)
7 April 2002
The director, David Fincher, doesn't care who you root for; doesn't care if the heroine's little girl dies of diabetic shock; doesn't care if the righteous black man gets away in the end; doesn't care if the kinda-bad ex-husband gets his bones broken. He frankly doesn't give a rat's fat ass about much of anything except keeping the images as dark and monochromatic as Gordon Willis in the halcyon days of Don Corleone. Which, in these dog days, is fine with me. The premise is simple: Jodie Foster and Little Daughter are trapped in the high-tech (or so it seems) "panic room" of a pricy Upper East Side "townstone" while a troika of hoodlums tries to get in and kill them. The blunt basicness of this conception allows Fincher time and space to focus on the things that mean a lot to him: like making Jodie's ten-year-old kiddie seem like a budding brainy lipstick lesbian. (Fincher's close study of the perverse snarkiness of John Schlesinger pays off here.) The movie peels away all the touchy-feely "humane" layers of Hollywood moviemaking to get to a highly formalized abstraction not seen much on cineplex walls since the first release of ZABRISKIE POINT. This can make the picture seem schematic, bloodless, and devoid of idiosyncrasy and warmth. And yet and still: in the words of Jerry Lewis' lawyer in THE KING OF COMEDY: "Who cayuhs? WHO CAYYYUUHS?"
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Haneke builds self-annihilating-movie machine
30 March 2002
She leaks! (Fountains of snot, excited-girl-juice, puke, excited-girl- slobber, and just plain red blood geyser from her like the dancing torrents in Cirque de Soleil's "O.") She reeks! (When not suffering from puke-breath--a crazy-girl malady known to all bulimics and serial antidepressant-chewers--her body, we are told, just..."gives off odor.") She's every clamped-down badass Anti-Mom you ever hated. She's Nurse Ratched beating time on a tick-tock metronome. She's the voice on the other end at the phone company turning you down without a hint of sorrow in her "I'm so sorry." She's every cold, unfeeling, control-crazed female boss, teacher, authority figure you've ever had--and this time, Michael Haneke is going to get payback. He's going to show you things you didn't see when she was torturing you in uniform.

Well, what is there to show? Mostly, hypocrisy--not conscious two-facedness, but the sadder, furtive, ratlike scuttling of a woman whom Control-Mania has turned into the trembliest sort of closet perv. (There is a very funny moment when the Piano Teacher, busted, walks away from a teenybopper she has peeping-tommed with the head-erect, proud-mary posture she uses to stride away from the piano grand.) La Pianiste (played by Isabelle Huppert) seems to meet her match in a talented young pianist. But what's going to happen? Is he going to crumble under her sadistic, mean-mommy thumb, or, like the hero of VENUS IN FURS, will he "now become the hammer, she the anvil"?

THE PIANO TEACHER is the shrillest, most unapologetically straight-up woman-hating film in many a year; but there is a bit more to it than that. Start with the primary instrument of Haneke's payback against the withholding women of the world--Isabelle Huppert's face. There seems to be a law, a kindly one, that says that French beauties become Great Actresses when they lose their looks. It wasn't true of Catherine Deneuve (who, at least, was a great movie star and a great object in her heyday) and it isn't true of Isabelle Huppert, about whom Kael once memorable wrote that there are many reasons not to go to movies nowadays, but the omnipresence of Huppert in them ranks among the first. Haneke double-deals: he pretends that the movie is an AUTUMN SONATA- style vehicle for a Huppert tour-de-force performance (it is, in fact, at many moments a conscious parody of Bergman's film) and at the same time gets eepy-creepy mileage off the appearance of Huppert's awful decline. That freckly farm-girl face with those oddly open eyes that once seemed an invitation to raunchy fun now has curdled to a point nearing Sissy Spacek's unself-protected "honesty." And the character of the Piano Teacher--psychologically enslaved by a meanie mommy who makes her sleep in the same bed--seems to be both reflected in and mocked by Huppert's ruined looks. ("You had your chance when you were hot," Haneke's camera seems to sneer at her, "and look at you now!")

Though the whole movie seems a set-up to beat on this iron-fisted negator of maternality, a few surprising moments worthy of the wrinkles in a Strindberg play leak in. After the Piano Teacher sees her Adonis comforting a nervous female student, Huppert grinds broken glass and pours it into the female's coat pocket. When the Adonis figures out that the Teacher is the mutilator of the girl's hand, he runs into the ladies' bathroom where she is arousedly tinkling. We expect he will kick the stall door down and beat her silly--instead, he leaps up to the top of the stall door, peers over, and initiates some helplessly aroused sex-play. And later, when the Piano Teacher tries to control this impulsive making-out, the Adonis recovers his dignity by doing jumping, running-in-place, and Jake LaMottaish speed-boxing maneuvers, right in Huppert's face--a reminder of his superior youth and vigor that one-ups her brainier forms of control.

THE PIANO TEACHER gets at some interesting issues about sex and control: When does giving it up just mean another, reordered form of controlling everything? But Haneke's approach is closer to the brazen rape-fantasy of a slasher movie than anything more...what? "Serious"? Meditative? Haneke lives in a world where bitches get what they deserve, whether it's the twittering bourgeois mom (who plays an even more pathetic twittering bourgeois mom in THE PIANO TEACHER) getting dumped in the river with a sardonic "Ciao bella!," or the pain-seeking Pianiste getting way more than she bargained for.

At moments, THE PIANO TEACHER seems to be a parody of an art movie--or of other people's art movies. (When Haneke uses the music Kubrick used for Redmond Barry's approach to Lady Lyndon to accompany Huppert's Kleenex-worship in the porn shop, one has to think the effect is conscious.) Haneke digs assiduously, and sometimes flips a scene in directions you couldn't have expected. But mostly the movie seems to be made of unsweet revenge. For his highbrow trimmings, Haneke seems to identify with the mean young jocks who terrorize the helpless in his pictures. Haneke can rationalize and pontificate all he pleases; but the audience can feel where an artist's deepest affections lie.
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Resident Evil (2002)
Milla Jovovovovovich's thunder thighs as sign of genre decay
28 March 2002
They are rather blockish--though not so noisome, in one's attempt

to sop up Lara Croftian porno/violent kicks, as the perpetual On

Our Backs-covergirl lip-sneer of Michelle Rodriguez, who peaked

with the poster for GIRLFIGHT and has not changed a whit since.

Video games traffic in magics of geography. Movies shpritz

together an alchemy of character, story, and "the privileged

moment." They are generally not about going from room to room to

room to room (and when they are, the results are as bad as FOUR


This one starts out as a creepy anti-corporate number (quick

studies of CAPRICORN ONE and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR are evident) and then turns into some zany, Fulci-as-Xbox high

gore style as characters are literally made into mincemeat with

lasers and attacked by (why didn't anyone else think of this?)

zombie dogs.

Then it just gets dumb, dumber, dumbest; the movie has the

distinction of featuring the worst zombie performances in any

movie ever. The bug-eyed Italians in CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD

are Burt Lancaster in THE LEOPARD by way of contrast.
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Ordet (1955)
Ersatz piety for jaded nonbelievers
22 March 2002
There is a recording from the mid-seventies that is the going thing among jaded new-music hipsters. Released under the title "The Langley Schools Project," it documents a group of junior-high-school students in mid-seventies rural Canada performing, in what sounds like an airy gymnasium, various pop standards of that moment such as "Band on the Run" and Eagles hits. The highlight is a quintessentially Canadian-sounding, melancholy eleven-year-old girl performing a solo version of "Desperado." The contrast between her prim, geeky, almost lisping diction, and the coke-spoon-necklace sleaziness of Don Henley's song (directed at, unbeknownst to the child, a serially promiscuous L.A. woman), is elusively heartbreaking. The popularity of "Langley" suggests a new wrinkle in the matrix of the post-ironic world: the desire to snicker, eighties-style, at unself-conscious cheesiness, rerouted now toward a grim, feeling-ful nod at the sincere. The hipster seeks to laugh at Larry (Bud) Melman but the superego intervenes; instead, Sideburnio finds himself daubing tears at Melman's overweight, his eager-to-please smile, his elevator-operator effeminacy. It becomes as if the desire to condescend never existed at all A similar impulse is at play in the reverence for the late works of the Danish director Carl Dreyer. This scowling monk's daunting late oeuvre has come into play again as it has been revived, with post-postmodern makeover, in the works of that favorite ranking egghead, Lars Von Trier. Dreyer's ORDET can be seen as the champagne bottle broken over the bow of Von Trier's misogyny. Here, an old, reverent Protestant father refuses to allow his son to marry the girl next door--only because her father differs with him in theological matters. (The father is not even a non-believer--just a quibbler.) The unrelenting father also has an insane son who believes he is the risen Jesus; and an earthy, pregnant daughter, supposedly the movie's antidote to the other characters' religiosity. When the pregnant daughter takes ill, miracles, it is clear, are on their way. But beforehand Dreyer renders the simple story, recorded on film during the Second World War with Victor Sjostrom as the rigid dad, in the manner of a movie put together by a convocation of Lutheran pastors. The flat lighting, the beard-stroking acting by the old men, and in particular Dreyer's bizarre insistence on long takes unified by clumsy 180-degree pans, suggest a roomful of very tall Scandinavian men baffled by the instruction manual for ten collection plates' worth of camera equipment. We know this is deliberate. Dreyer's JOAN OF ARC contains some of the most controlled visual effects in a silent (art) film--albeit, considering Dreyer's reliance on leering Brueghelian uglies, repellent effects. Dreyer wants to have and eat two rather unpleasant slices of cake. On the one hand, he wants to fake a sort of Sunday-school simplicity--hence the Ed Wooden acting, the amateurish pause-taking and the bearded anarchist's defiance of "conventional movie pace." On the other, he drenches this rather simple tale of a duel between human ego and more-than-human belief in a punishing art-consciousness that guarantees no one will derive the spiritual lessons Dreyer pretends to impart--except fans of the critical theories of Paul Schrader. Simply sitting through the picture to its final, ridiculous payoff is an unfair taxation One oddity about the picture: the thing Von Trier seemed to glom onto the hardest here is the movie's unconscious misogyny--one of the minor miracles of the picture's climax is the handing-off of a young girl to the old man's brood of gelid, morose Christers. What is meant to appear to be a gift seems like a blood sacrifice. (Von Trier took this so fully to the bank he now appears to be doing a Jerry Lee Lewis-style duet on grand piano with Dario Argento.) The other oddity is the big miracle--a moment so foully sentimental and dishonest it puts the blackest lies of Frank Capra and Walt Disney to shame. Why do pointy-headed, Cahiers du Cinema types fasten so gaily onto this movie? Because, like "Langley," it seems respectably dour and sincere and vulnerably puttin'-it-out-there, and at the same time satisfies the Harmony Korine oogy-boogy factor. Dreyer's whole approach is not merely earnest, it's creepily earnest. (And, in its last act, it is revealed to be dishonestly earnest.) I think I may have liked the state of things more when hipsters just openly sniggered at hicks.
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Chop Suey (2001)
The delusion artist
5 March 2002
Bruce Weber's movies are the upscale gay man's version of those Starbucks jazz CD's. There's something authentic in there somewhere, but in the making it's been banalized out of existence Everything in Weber-World reeks of white terrycloth bathrobes, running with terriers on the beach, cheekbones, white teeth, gaily laughing women in pajamas, and all the other images that are permanently encoded in our brain as Polo-specific. Weber can be photographing a thalidomide wino or the desiccated face of a seventyish Robert Mitchum, and somehow it all comes out like the glossy welcome brochure at an A-list hotel. CHOP SUEY purports to spread wider and dig deeper as it is Weber's record of his obsession with Peter Johnson, a high-school athlete Weber commemorated in torrential, Dantean detail. But Weber continues to pretend that he's only interested in "beauty"--and that his interest in Johnson stems from the wrestler's being what Weber could never be (beautiful, I guess). There's no sex in Weber's voiceover explanation of his Aschenbach-like dwelling on this gorgeous nobody, and thus Weber is able not to be homosexual. Weber plunges into denial as passionately as he falls into reverie. He means for the movie to be a fantasist's autobiography, and also a highly self-conscious arrangement of Weber in the history of American photography (quotes from Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Larry Clark abound). But what comes across is a guy who is trapped in an upmarket carnival of surfaces. Weber is more interested in his Josh Hartnettesque models' torsos and legs than even in their faces; for Weber, pornography is not a projection of a psychological state but simply a record of physical perfection. He seems to throw uglinesses at us in this movie as a means, again, of denying his own predilections. He may enjoy presenting us with an old, ugly female cabaret singer, or the mummylike visage of Diana Vreeland, but he certainly has no interest in copulating with them. So why put up this front of "romanticism"? There's nothing romantic about the movie--maybe partly because, unlike masturbatory artists from Genet to Larry Clark, Weber doesn't investigate or push or worry his desires. He doesn't even take them at face value. He fanatically perfumes them. This makes everything feel hollow, personalityless, and fake--just like the stuff Weber makes at his day job.
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Last Orders (2001)
Wotjesoy, guvna?
24 February 2002
Surely there must have been something more substantial to

Graham Swift's Booker Prize-wining novel than this: three friends

(Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings and Tom Courtenay) pile into a

new Mercedes with a dead friend's son (Ray Winstone) to deliver

the friend's ashes into a certain favorite spot on the Atlantic.

Regrets are voiced, never-have-guessed sins are aired, and life,

and its opposite, are gotten on with, sighingly, sadly, but


No, not much that's fresh: except the continuous efforts of the late

lamented Life of the Party (Michael Caine) to fix up his single friend

(a po-faced Hoskins) with every cute young girl in sight. And the

image of the nearly gen-x Winstone surlily holding his own, and

then some, with the bright lights of the angry-young-man era. And

maybe just seeing Hoskins play such a diminuendo'd, unaggressive, normal-life-loving guy--an absolute first in the

gallery of Hoskins little people. The real pleasure to be had,

though, is in the director Fred Schepisi's handling of the material.

A perennial first-choice of post-Kael critics in the United States,

Schepisi reveals that he actually is as good as they say he is. His

elegant widescreen compositions, and his collaboration with the

composer in particular, reveal an oft-forgotten mastery. Memo to

Harvey Weinstein: Take away some of Lasse Hallstrom's gigs and

give them to Schepisi.
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Finally--a really good bad movie!
24 February 2002
While thankfully never tongue-in-cheek, QUEEN OF THE DAMNED

suggests that if its makers knew you were giggling, they wouldn't

be insulted. It jumps off from one premise of Anne Rice's "Vampire

Chronicles"--the undead as rock star--and riffs off in it into a

bansheelike frenzy that suggests the commingling of BEYOND

THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, the godawful DRACULA 2000, and

one of Joel Silver's VH1-looking William Castle retreads.

The coolest moment comes when Aaliyah, as a vampire goddess

dressed like a Nubian priest but talking like Bela Lugosi, saunters

into a bar filled with morose, gray-faced vampires, and turns the

seedy dive into a human ashtray. The notion of a sneering,

perpetually bored, CK1-style rocker as covert bloodsucker is given

a thorough going-over. Critics spanked this baby as if they wanted

every fright picture to be a sobersided David Fincher number. Well,

I don't.
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Crossroads (I) (2002)
Crash course in Britney semiotics
17 February 2002
1. When not seen in digitally candied music-video light, body

appears to have augmented-breast and liposucted-abdomen

indices. Could be angry-lustful-old-man projection onto the


2. When a 20-year-old Super-Star with the emotional development

of a 12-year-old decides not to make a flossy, sugary Hollywood

teen movie and instead decides to make a Gritty Indie Thing, this

is what you get.

3. The one moment of "genuineness"--as opposed to unaffectedness, naturalness and relaxation, which are all there in

abundance--in the Super-Star Performance comes when her hard

exterior cracks and she bursts into tears. Bursts too quickly, too:

indice of Emotional Needs Long Pent-Up by Driving Type-A


4. The woman who plays the aging, blowsy, semi-jowly nymphomaniac on Sex and the City plays the Super-Star's mother.

One must think that this is a cruel joke on the star.

5. Taryn Manning, lyrical Super-Genius Real Actor in the Lili Taylor

and Juliette Lewis modes, steals scenes, and in the end (no

doubt with the permission of Paramount Pictures, MTV Films, and

probably the Super-Star Herself) usurps the entire movie. And yet,

time and time again, the Gritty Indie Girl's character is made to

defer, to literally get up and move into the back seat, so that the

Super-Star's character can, literally, assume the limelight. One

must consider this to be an expression of the Super-Star's Guilt

and Subsequent Anger in Re: the Marginalization of "Real" Music

by Prepackaged Pop Schlock such as the product her handlers

make using her as a marketing tool.

6. The Super-Star's character's Growth-Arc is defined by the

progress of a poem-turned-song called "Not a Girl, Not Yet a

Woman." The Growth-Arc of poem-turned-song is calibrated as

carefully and rigorously as that of "Sympathy for the Devil" in the

Jean-Luc Godard film of the same name. One comes away from

the final version of the poem feeling that its genesis was the

Super-Star's frustration in describing her target demographic in a

meeting with the abovementioned marketing advisers.

7. Pains have been taken to move the Super-Star's presentation

away from the X-treme Diva terrain of Glitter and Mahogany. It is not

altogether clear whether this is an aesthetically or commercially

astute judgment.

8. One comes away from the picture with the Schadenfreude-filled

realization that one has spent its entire running time wondering

about slash fantasizing when the Super-Star will reach her

expiration date and descend into Whitney Mariah Valleys of

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Rollerball (2002)
Long way down (one bad thing)
11 February 2002
For a primer in everything that's wrong with Hollywood movies,

enjoy this 95-minute seminar from onetime action-movie maestro

John McTiernan, who may not top his LAST ACTION HERO work

here, but comes close to a tie with TOMB RAIDER for most vapid

big-budget blockbuster of recent times.

There's a granule of a good idea at work here: a WWF-style circus

erected in the ruins of a post-Soviet Second World economy in

Somethingorotheristan. The Vince McMahon of this scavenger

ecosystem is Jean Reno, whose accent totters from the Slavonian

to the West Gauloise: Chris Klein is ze pretty-boy Americain who

discovers that the x-treme game of Rollerball is really a front for

corporately sponsored murders of star athletes for high

ratings--and guess who's next!

With LL Cool J as an unbelievably retro Black Friend Who Relays

Plot Information and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, wearing a gnarly

scar on her face as if to justify her rampant toplessness, the

movie, especially in its first third, plays as if it were directed by a

computer-assembled focus group comprised of twelve-year-old

boys addicted to Do The Dew commercials. In the most obnoxious, most grotesquely produced, and most interesting

section of the movie, McTiernan tries to set up a circus of

bloodsport grotesquerie that's part manly-man cable show, part

Oliver Stone wigout and part "A.I." Flesh Fair. Once the movie

settles into its (absurd) plot, the bad acting of Chris Klein, who

suggests a smile painted on a broomstick, and the hideous

international-coproduction-ness of it all (Jean Reno laughing--laughing fiendishly!) overwhelms one's sense of humor.

This is not a good-bad movie. Kirk Kerkorian, heal thyself.
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Viva redivivus
6 February 2002
Viva is triumphant in this 1967 Warhol picture, in which the

Warholness shades over into Paul Morrissey-ness, as if the two of

them got stuck in Jeff Goldberg's transporter from THE FLY and

turned into Warhissey.

There's some stranded-performers-paddling-about stuff that's

more evocative of bad Morrissey than bad Warhol; you might want

to think about ankling after the virtuoso 20-minute opening, in

which a no doubt speed-addled Viva goes on one of the funniest,

most pingingly articulate stream-of-consciousness rants I've ever

encountered anywhere--in movies, books, stand-up, or life. Her

perceptions are like a scorpion's pincers and her timing might

make Richard Pryor blush. Trashy faded royalty, either clinging to

delusions of grandeur or giving it up in a blowsy-old-broad

blowout: that's the quintessence of Warhissey. And Viva serves it

up for you hundred proof, filling the glass so full it runs over and

spills on the bar. The kid knew how to save the day--what a

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