Volume 2, Number 29
This Week's Reviews: Loser, What Lies Beneath, Jules and Jim, Jesus' Son.
This Week's Omissions: The In Crowd, Pokémon the Movie 2000.
(Dir: Amy Heckerling, Starring Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari, Greg Kinnear, Thomas Sadoski, Zak Orth, Jimmi Simpson, Dan Aykroyd, Darrin Brown, Twink Caplan, and Andy Dick)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Amy Heckerling has made two great films, both centering on characters in high school. Loser was supposed to be a Clueless or Fast Times at Ridgemont High in college, but it fails to ever come near its predecessors.
Heckerling has never really been a great filmmaker, but those two earlier films have at least given me some respect for her. I'll live with Look Who's Talking or National Lampoon's European Vacation (neither of which are horrible films, just not that good) by remembering that she introduced me to Spicolli and Cher. I guess that she introduces me to Paul with Loser, but I'd just as soon rather forget the introduction.
Paul is a sweet, goofy character, much like Brad in Fast Times and Tai in Clueless. His utter removal from the world in front of him and his personal dreams make him a likable person on the page. But then the characterization by Jason Biggs comes in. Looking like Adam Sandler before losing the baby fat, Biggs makes Paul so goofy that you feel bad for him, but cannot really care about him.
When Paul is walked on by everyone that he meets in New York while attending a NYU inspired university, he just lets it go. Dormmates throw you out? Oh well. Scholarship on the line? Que sara sara. Date does not make it? C'est la vie.
He is far from his small Midwestern town, where everyone is lovably rotund and horses are tied to the side of the house (and Minnesota residents were offended by Fargo and Drop Dead Gorgeous!?). There, he finds the brave new world called Manhattan, and is used thanks to his gullibility and yearning to fit in.
There are only five other characters in this film besides Paul, everyone else is a mere cameo (Dan Akroyd as Paul's father, Andy Dick as a civil servant). The person that is most important, not to mention nicest, to Paul is Dora (Suvari). Dora takes the time to get to know Paul, something that is really important to the fish out of water. Soon Paul falls in love with Dora, but she is too blinded by her affair with a professor that she cannot see Paul's advances.
The professor in question is a bad guy -- just like every other character in this film. The count is 20% of New York good, 80% bad. Like Paul's three dormmates, Professor Alcott (Kinnear) uses Paul inadvertently to make Dora more malleable to his needs (i.e. a servant).
Paul's three dormmates are nondescript bad guys. They would be the gang lead by Roman Polanski in Chinatown, the overzealous producers of Network, or the vicious Mexican roadmen in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre -- just not nearly as interesting. All the audience needs to know about Chris, Adam, and Noah is that they are rich, pampered, self-centered, cruel date rapists. Do we need to know more? For character development yes, but that does not occur.
The only characters that have anything left after their performers take shape are Professor Alcott and Dora. Both Kinnear and Suvari have come onto their own over the past few years, and it is just too bad that this is where the work has come up to.
There is a charm to the film, that is one thing that I must give it, and it does have some fine moments, but most of the film is an all out bore. I'd say that Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet seemed shorter, even with the intermission.
But the real problem is that this film is not funny. Besides some nice musings from Greg Kinnear, a couple one-liners (the "heavy machinery" line is priceless), and a fine scene with David Spade on date movies (When Harry Met Sally... vs. The Piano) there is nothing really funny here. Too bad, one might expect that Amy Heckerling would have something funny to throw out every once and a while.
So much of this film comes off as cliché, which is what it is. The scenes have been mapped out countless times by now. Fast Times invented the high school film as we know it, Clueless enriched it, Loser merely mellows it, much to my dismay. Even the title cards at the end could be seen a mile away.
Sometimes films are titled in a way that make critics
jump for joy. A title like Loser or Drop Dead Gorgeous do all the
work -- the only thing we have to do is construe the title into a so-called witty
pan. I'm not the biggest fan of doing this, it's just too easy. So, I'm not
going to make some smart remark on Loser living up to its name. To
paraphrase Cher in Clueless: Amy Heckerling, do you prefer "cliché
victim" or "originality challenged"?
|What Lies Beneath
(Dir: Robert Zemeckis, Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford, Amber Valletta, Diana Scarwid, Miranda Otto, James Remar, Victoria Birdwell, Joe Morton, and Katherine Towne)
BY: DAVID PERRY
From the beginning, What Lies Beneath is a Hitchcock film, tried and true. This, the third Hitchcockian film in recent years, is not the best, but it sure is the closest to the master. Where American Psycho was like Frenzy and The Talented Mr. Ripley was like To Catch a Thief, What Lies Beneath carries over a vast list of Hitchcock films. Off the top of my head, there's Rear Window, Spellbound, Suspicion, Marnie, Psycho, Dial M For Murder, Vertigo, and Rebecca. Brian De Palma would be proud.
Towards the end of the film, it becomes less Hitchcock and more Adrian Lyne and Tim Burton. There's no way anyone can watch the final thirty minutes without thinking of Fatal Attraction (though the comparisons are not merely secluded to that period) and I'd swear the final scene was filmed by Tim Burton. I mean it -- I'd put money on it.
What Lies Beneath begins with the introduction of Norman and Claire Spencer, a happy couple living in their beautiful lakefront home. Norman (Ford) is an accomplished geneticist living in the shadow of his highly successful father, Claire (Pfeiffer) a former cellist, giving up the instrument to raise a home with Norman.
Claire daughter from an earlier marriage leaves for college and the two are left in the house to themselves. Right away, Claire's imagination goes in the air. After some unusual occurrences next door, Claire becomes sure that their neighbor (fine character actor Remar) has killed his wife. This is further pushed as a spirit begins to haunt the house.
Of course, there is much more to this film. The Rear Window motif is only half of the story, but the rest is better if unknown to the viewer. Unfortunately that is not the belief of the marketing execs over at DreamWorks, who made trailers that give away major plot points that would be better as surprises. This is not to say that the entire film is ruined, but the first half certainly is.
Michelle Pfeiffer gives a great performance here, a perfect role for her. This is what we've been missing from her in recent roles, dynamic vulnerability. In the grand fashion of blonde Hitchcock beauties, Pfeiffer makes Claire Spencer both believable and removed.
The last time we saw Harrison Ford was Random Hearts, where his was the least of the cast. He received quite a bit of flack for that film, where critics lambasted it for being just-plain-dull. (I happened to have respected the film, but that is beside the point.) Here Ford is back to form, but in a different way. While there are moments in which that Air Force One side show, most of what we see is a change of pace. To completely cover his character would not do justice to the film, but needless to say, Norman Spencer is no John Book, Jack Ryan, Han Solo, or Indiana Jones.
One of the best things about this film is the score from Alan Silvestri. Fine scores from Silvestri are few and far between (of the 70 or so films that he's scored, I'd only admit to working on 5), but when he hits the mark, he does it perfectly. Music for Volcano, Practical Magic, Judge Dredd, and Super Mario Bros. are almost forgivable thanks to his suites for this and Forrest Gump. He's like a composing version of Michael Cimino.
Robert Zemeckis has never really remained in one single genre, but on many. His films have covered everything from John Hughes teen comedy (Back to the Future) to Preston Sturges screw-ball comedy (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), from Robert Altman American epic (Forrest Gump) to Steven Spielberg science fiction (Contact). Here he has the chance to do Hitchcock, and succeeds.
Zemeckis (whose greatest achievement to this day besides Forrest Gump is a Tales from the Crypt episode with a CGI Humphrey Bogart [doing a little Curtiz evidently]) has proven himself over the years. His years as a Spielberg acolyte have paid off ten fold, and he still has the range that he had from the very beginning. The only films that can be called horrible are Death Becomes Her and I Wanna Hold Your Hand, in which it seemed like the whole experience was too overwhelming for him.
With What Lies Beneath, his directorial ability comes out. Sure he has a master to base it on, but there are really some incredible moments in this film that were not straight rip-offs of Hitchcock. He and cinematographer Don Burgess take the camera in worlds of bliss and horror, never really stretching too far out.
Watching this film is, at times, like a chance to wonder what it would be like if Hitchcock had made it. There's the emotionally weak female and the loving but nevertheless mysterious male -- hey, we've got perfect roles for Marnie's Tippi Hedren and Suspicion's Cary Grant. Then there are the supporting characters, a all-too-witty psychologist (Morton), a quirky female friend (Scarwid), and the mysterious ghost -- call up the agents of Spellbound's Claude Rains, Psycho's Patricia Hitchcock, and Vertigo's Kim Novak.
Hitchcock would have had so much fun with this film, and
it would have surely been better. He did deal with this film once, his first
American feature Rebecca. There Joan Fontaine feels she is haunted by a
ghost, who may be there more for her husband than for her. To make this film would
have been like throwing his films into a mixing pot and creating a masterpiece.
There would be a different ending, without a doubt -- he knew that the supernatural is
more interesting when it always remains an ambiguous MacGuffin. That's what made him
the Master of Suspense, the Macabre, and the MacGuffin.
|Jules and Jim
(Dir: François Truffaut, Starring Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre, Boris Bassiak, Sabine Haudepin, Vanna Urbino, Marie Dubois, Christiane Wagner, and Michel Subor)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"What counts are the delicate and ambiguous relationships among the three, the stuff of a good novel. One of the most beautiful modern novels I know is Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché, which shows how, over a lifetime, two friends and the woman companion they share love one another with tenderness and almost no harshness, thanks to an esthetic morality constantly reconsidered. The Naked Dawn is the first film that has made me think that Jules et Jim could be done as a film."
François Truffaut wrote that in his review of Edgar Ulmer's The Naked Dawn in 1956. Story has it that Henri-Pierre Roché read the reference to his novel in the review and befriended Truffaut. Three years later the film critic would make his first film, The 400 Blows; then in 1961, he proved that Jules et Jim could indeed be made into a film.
Watching Truffaut's Jules et Jim again is like a regular visit from an old couple. Their stories are always the same, but they are just as engaging the tenth time as they were the first. For almost fifty years, it has enlightened movie fans and normal audiences, Frenchmen and Americans, friends and lovers. I've seen it only once in a theatre, but for those two hours, I was in complete bliss.
I imagine that is how the critic-turned-director felt when he read Jules et Jim and, more importantly to the world, had that revelation while watching The Naked Dawn. The movie is a joyous experience, but one so laden with Truffaut's personal touches that it's hard to not feel like, perhaps, he is the ancestor of this hypothetical couple, the family member they have based most of their actions on emulating. This is no Antoine Doinel story, where the audience feels like they are really watching Jean-Pierre Leaud act as their faithful filmmaker, but Jules et Jim plays a semi-autobiographical dream that Truffaut might have once had (interestingly, Jules et Jim fits perfectly into a section of Truffaut's essay collection, The Films in My Life, named "What Do Critics Dream About?").
Oskar Werner is Jules (Marcello Mastroiani), Henri Serre is Jim, and Jeanne Moreau is Catherine, probably the most well known ménage à trois ever put on film. Jules is a almost melancholy Austrian visiting Montparnasse to become a bohemian; his guide is Jim, an extroverted Frenchman will a barrage of sexual partners to share with his new friend. But everything changes when Catherine walks into the picture -- remembering the breathtaking image of a woman's face on an ancient statue, Jules is immediately swept into a love for this woman unlike he has felt for any other woman.
Catherine, the wispy woman of the Seine, is liberated more than she is a liberator, though. While she does bring Jules out of his hibernation, her openness to her emotions makes it clear that she wants more, namely Jim.
War is a highly important side to Jules et Jim. Halfway through, the two men are sent away to opposing sides of World War I -- Jules waiting for the birth of his daughter by Catherine, Jim waiting for the frightening day when he goes against his best friend, either by killing him on the field or by taking his wife. After the birth of their child Sabine (Haudepin), the destructive side of Catherine comes into play -- not only is she willing to give everything to change her domesticity (a state that even Jules cannot stand), but to bring a finality to her problems.
Jeanne Moreau was already a well known actress when she made Jules et Jim, but her place as an icon of French cinema was created on the set of Truffaut's film. A pouty character actress for Antonioni, Moreau showed in this film that she was light and willing to let herself float from one place to another instead of the melancholy side Antonioni was more interested in. To this day, most people connect her face to the French New Wave because of her work as Catherine.
Jules et Jim is not a particularly happy film in
its story, and, yet, it stands as one of the most joyous and life-affirming experiences
ever put on celluloid. François Truffaut made his third film into a costume drama --
something that seemed askance for his Nouvelle Vague brothers -- and created the movie
that will probably forever mark his career. People return to the movie constantly because
there is a sense of meaning behind it -- that life is full of lemons, and that
existentialist rebuke may be the only way to go. Revisiting the movie is pleasurable in
the least carnal way, and that is why Jules et Jim, that old married couple, is invited
back into our lives whenever we need them.
(Dir: Alison Maclean, Starring Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Jack Black, Denis Leary, Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper, Will Patton, Greg Germann, Yvette Mercedes, John Ventimiglia, Michael Shannon, and Ben Shenkman)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Jesus' Son could easily be seen as yet another drug addict film. Isn't that the easiest way to disregard a film -- to toss it off as yet another so-and-so film? But that does not hold up here, this film has so much light heartedness and sweetness that it could never be seen as another Drugstore Cowboy.
Addiction is a favorite for cinema, whether it be drugs (Naked Lunch, Trainspotting), alcohol (Barfly, Leaving Las Vegas), or sex (Crash, 8½ Women), and Jesus' Son is fine with where it is. For that reason, the film never goes towards pretentiousness or holier-than-thou stances that cover so many of the addiction films. Jesus' Son is, in all its artsy moments, for sheer entertainment.
Many could cite that there's more than the eyes can see to this film, which is not necessarily untrue, but the real appeal of the film is that it is, in its own way, joyous. Do we really need another scene of people wasting away in agony for another hit of cocaine or heroin? Screenwriters Elizabeth Cuthrell, Oren Moverman, and David Urrutia understand that the kicking the habit scene is old, real old. When the protagonist goes to detox there is no scene of his dying for some more heroin, instead we see him getting to know a withered old addict (Hopper) as he helps the man shave.
The protagonist here is Fuckhead (Crudup), the lead character of a series of short stories by Denis Johnson. Fuckhead gets his name from a chap named McInnes (The Sopranos' Ventimiglia) after he is caught with McInnes' girl, Michelle (Morton). Normally a name like this would be short lived, but, as coworker Georgie (Black) tells him following a major accident on Fuckhead's part, "it just has to stick."
Fuckhead turns out with Michelle some time later, after McInnes has a run in with a fellow called Dundun (Shannon). Their relationship is abnormal from the beginning, and it never quite hits a sane moment. She is a heroin addict, and he is all too willing to follow her -- he is the Sid to her Nancy. The two go along, strung out at various times, and hoping to stop at others.
There is a time when the two are supposed to be a clean, the period in which Michelle is pregnant. But, as we learn from an uproarious scene, Fuckhead cannot help but pilfer the drugs at the hospital he works for. One night, he and Georgie are all hopped up on whatever pills they could find when a man comes in with a hunting knife in his right eye. For the doctors this is a tough task, but ne'er-do-well Georgie is luckily on the case.
So much of this film seems like small vignettes, and that is how it should be. To make this a straight lateral story might have ruined the effect. The way Fuckhead will introduce a sequence without really knowing where it falls in the story is not only disarming, but also very intriguing. There's a type of mythology to Fuckhead's story and he is more than willing to throw it out to those that will listen. Otherwise it would be like Pulp Fiction's three stories remaining lateral throughout, intercutting between (what you'd get would probably be a amped up, in-your-face version of Robert Altman's Short Cuts).
Jesus' Son has an approach by director Alison Maclean of a sketchy thought, and it could never work any other way. To look at this film through the gritty lens of Martin Scorsese or absurdist lens of David Lynch would not do justice to the film. What she gives us comes off as over the top, but not irredeemable.
The real heart of the film is Samantha Morton, who's so good at this role that one can only hope for a second Oscar nomination. Her performance in last year's Sweet and Lowdown grabbed attention for being sweet and sincere -- here she has neither of those traits. To me, her grandiose range here, from fragile to frightening, makes this her best performance yet. After finding a small following in niche films like This is the Sea and Under the Skin, she has been on a long enough road to know such a fluid charge.
Small side note: Morton has to have given one of the best American accents ever done by a British actress. As I sat there watching her, I actually started to think that my belief that she was from England was incorrect, and that she was really an American.
Billy Crudup has had a bad time making up for some early mistakes in his career (read Inventing the Abbots), but performances in more appreciated and smaller fare has made him one of the better actors to come out of the late 1990's. His performance in Without Limits as Steve Prefontaine still lingers in my mind, and he out does that with Jesus' Son. His Fuckhead is so sweet that you can only love him. The charming attempt to be a the person that everyone wants him to be (at a nursing home: "We want to see you touching the patients" which leads to seeing him arbitrarily grabbing patients with a championed grasp) leaves the viewer loving Fuckhead, even when his lousy luck leads to some horrible mistakes.
And this is not some allegory with a loser named Fuckhead standing as the son of Jesus -- the title comes from a Velvet Underground song called "Heroin." From that, we are to see this as people unable to meet the abilities and achievements of their fathers -- what son could meet his paternal pressure if his father was Jesus?
That brings in the question as to what that means to this
story. One can only guess that father is meant as a teacher and guide. In that
case, Michelle is Fuckhead's father, teaching and guiding into a life of heroin.
Luckily for Fuckhead, he too could never live up to his "father's" ability.