Volume 3, Number 11
This Week's Reviews: Dark Days, Heartbreakers, Enemy at the Gates, Pollock, Panic.
This Week's Omissions: Benjamin Smoke, Exit Wounds.
(Dir: Marc Singer, Appearences by Tommy, Dee, Greg, Ralph, Henry, Julio, Clarence, Brian, Ronnie, Tito, and Lee)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Marc Singer has lived in America for six years -- five of them underground with the homeless of New York City. But, unlike most of those there, he did it as a choice. Coming to the underground with a camera in hand, Singer has made a documentation of the people that live in the subway -- their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their lives.
"Nobody in his right mind would come down here," states one of the denizens -- he moved here in the Amtrak tunnel because being homeless on the surface of the city leaves a chance of disease, thievery, and murder. Plus, thanks to some very able neighbors, he has electricity and an ability to get water. For those living in these small shacks of loose wood and carboard, life is much more livable than in Central Park or on a street corner.
Take Tommy, who came to New York after running away from his abusive father and unloving mother when he was sixteen. Nowhere did anyone open their arms to him during his journey from the south to Manhattan -- the first place that ever became his true home was his two-story house underground, well known in the neighborhood as the best house around. He has all the amenities of grounded life -- the utilities, a bathroom, furniture, and three dogs. By selling the cans he picks up, he can make enough money to feed himself and get some crack for the weekend.
And that is the underlying story to nearly everyone in the tunnels -- bad choices, usually involving drugs, have brought them to this state. Some have an addiction that cannot lose, some have spent much of their life in jail, and some just could not come to terms with the life that fate had given them. Ralph went to prison for robbery, came out for the birth of his daughter, and was back in before she was even out of the hospital. While in his second stint in jail, Ralph learned that his daughter had been raped and brutally murdered at the age of 9.
These people live in an environment that they humbly call home -- they even take pride in most of their actions, whether it be stealing kosher beef for food or selling gay porn for money. Some do not feel that they are homeless, they are merely a subculture of the sheltered. When people consider that this film was made without a single participant going to jail or dying of a disease is remarkable, but they seem unfettered by the risks and social environment they are subjected to.
Dark Days takes a keen eye on these people and deserves herald for that. Few people know of this society -- Singer learned of them in a small news report -- and that is the main focus of the making of this film, to bring an unknown society to light. However flawed the film may be, and it certainly has some problems in the editing structuring of the confessionals, it is remarkable for latching onto something that had not really been dealt with over the last few years. The only film that comes close, to my recollection, is Leos Caraxs Lovers on the Bridge, a fiction encounter between two homeless people living on the Pont Neuf during its reconstruction. Even though that film lacked the background of being absolutely true to life, it nevertheless felt more realistic than Dark Days.
I respect Singer, and thank him for bringing this story
to the screen. His way of doing it is enough to celebrate alone. Yet, with five
years worth of footage, I find it hard to believe that he does not have more to show
beyond the repetitions of drugs ending life. In the wake of Traffic and Requiem
for a Dream, we have caught on to the fact that drugs are bad -- and at least those
films rammed the moral into our heads in a much less sedated way.
(Dir: David Mirkin, Starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ray Liotta, Jason Lee, Gene Hackman, Anne Bancroft, Sarah Silverman, Michael Hitchcock, Nora Dunn, Jeffrey Jones, Ricky Jay, and Stacey Travis)
BY: DAVID PERRY
From the director of Romy and Micheles High School Reunion and the writers of Liar Liar comes this equally funny, though less charming excursion into heist comedy. Mixing Anywhere But Here with House of Games (and even sharing Anywhere composer Danny Elfman and House actor Ricky Jay), Heartbreakers delivers a comedy that we are not accustomed to -- funny comedy in the Spring. With the exception of Shooting Gallerys When Brendan Met Trudy, the comedy genre is a bit, well, limp in this always-lackluster season.
But Heartbreakers is a deviation from the rule. What occurs in the film is far from revolutionary by cinematic standards, but at least it is a March release that does no make the audience cringe. With a comedic style more akin to Analyze This than See Spot Run, Heartbreakers delivers laughs that do not feel pushed or old hat -- in fact, the film is far fresher than most of its contemporaries in the genre.
Max (Weaver) and Page (Hewitt) are a mother-daughter team of con women. They go into restaurants with broken glass for free dinner; they spray water on hotel floors and slip to get a free room. But their forte is getting men to marry Max and then seduce Page, thereby voiding the marriage and making divorce a very profitable experience. When the film begins, Max has just married Dean (Liotta), a lowlife hood that has made a nice living stripping cars of parts. Max marries him, abstains from sex until the wedding night and then falls asleep before they can consummate the relationship. Then, upon arrive at work, his huge sexual urges are too much for him when his recently hired and scantily clad secretary enters -- just moments before Max come in to catch them in flagrante delicto. Max and Page have just schemed their way into a huge settlement and a nice Mercedes.
But, as is always the case, Page has come to the age where she wants to be free from her mothers grasp. They agreed that this would be their final ruse together, but a run in with the IRS leaves Page with nothing to start her own life and conspiracies. So, much to the happiness of Max, Page agrees to do one more deal. They fight over the victim: Page wants a mamas boy socialite; Max wants an extravagantly rich tobacco kingpin. Max makes the final decision and they begin work on William B. Tensy (Hackman), whose life of cigarette smoking has done its toll on his 70-year-old body.
Of course, being the insubordinate youth, Page continues on her quest for the socialite while Max is seducing Tensy as a Russian temptress. However, the attempt falls flat and Page instead finds that she can get something out of local bar owner Jack (Lee), who has a deal pending for the purchase of his prime location land. The only problem is that Max senses her daughter actually falling in love with Jack -- a definite no-no in this business.
Sigourney Weaver has been on a semi-roll over the past few years. Save from Alien: Resurrection, she has consistently chosen characters that are less the he-woman types of her early career. I like seeing her prove herself in comedies like Galaxy Quest, Dave, and Heartbreakers, in dramas like The Ice Storm, Death and the Maiden, and A Map of the World. She is truly a fine actress -- a far cry from the dominatrix that was present in the early 1980s. I always felt that something great was going to come of her after 1988s double feature of Gorillas in the Mist and Working Girl.
On the other side of the acting spectrum, though, is Jennifer Love Hewitt. Watching her in this film, dressed in some interesting apparel, there is no question why she has a career -- it certainly isnt dependent on her acting. Yet, she does hold her own here, far better than the scream-a-thons that we got with I Know What You Did Last Summer and its neednt-be-mentioned sequel. She doesnt take risks like her former TV costar (from Party of Five) Neve Campbell, but she doesnt really need to either. She is a taste of the moment and could have a nice career for a while.
The real secret to this film is in its supporting cast. Ray Liotta, believe it or not, makes up for the ghastly work he did in Hannibal last month. The GoodFellas star actually comes out of this film looking better than he has since the 1990 Scorsese film. This is not as notable as that performance, but it is a far superior mugging at the camera than he had done since. Coupled with a hilarious turn from the always-enjoyable Gene Hackman, the two main supporting performers actually steal the show at times from their lead actresses.
Heartbreakers will break no great barriers this
year, it will create no huge star power for any of its stars, it probably wont even
do that well in box office gross, but it is a perfect distraction in this limbo between
Oscar caliber films and summer blockbusters. If you happen to live in a city that has
already brought in Pollock, The House of Mirth, or Sound and Fury,
Heartbreakers is not a bad distraction.
|Enemy at the Gates
(Dir: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Starring Jude Law, Ed Harris, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Bob Hoskins, Ron Perlman, Gabriel Thomson, Eva Mattes, Matthias Habich, Sophie Rois, and Mikhail Matveyev)
BY: DAVID PERRY
After the siege of Stalingrad, a hero of the Russia was created. His name was Vassily Zaitsev, a precision sniper from the Ural hills that came in and killed some 40 German officers in just 10 days. During the entire Battle of Stalingrad, Zaitsev would kill over 140 -- many would say that the creation of a Russian hero and the propaganda that followed was the reason that the Soviets held off the Germans for so long, even though they were dying in alarming rates.
The new film Enemy at the Gates is about Zaitsev (portrayed here by Law) and the duel he would soon have with his German counterpart. The story is that the SS sent Colonel Heinz Thorwald (Harris) to kill Zaitsev when they began losing all these officers. For several days, the two snipers took turns as predator and prey when looking to kill the other. The film remains with Zaitsev, though Thorwalds name has been curiously changed to Koenig. Throw into the mix a zealous army propaganda writer Danilov (Fiennes), and a young female officer named Tania (Weisz) and you have a completely unneeded subplot (Danilov was really a person in Zaitsevs saga, Tania is fictitious).
Enemy at the Gates never really gets beyond its one major impediment: the melodramatic subplot. More Titanic than Saving Private Ryan, the love triangle is closer to annoying than compelling. When we are yearning for some great sequence between Zaitsev and nom de plume Koenig -- and there are some great ones -- we are instead treated to some more uninteresting quarrel or sex detat that literally leaves the audience in wonderment as to why the filmmakers thought that the already gripping story was in need of something to stir it up. This new history screams contrivance and leaves the audience screaming for the doors.
But we are kept in our seat for one major reason: the real story, the sniper duel, is too compelling to be left aside. It kind of saddens me that our society has made this story of WWII heroism nearly unknown simply due to the fact that the good guy is our old Cold War enemy. Back when we finally opened back up to the German nationalist filmmakers, the Cold War was still raging and Russians were far from an important plot device. One might think that the continued love of Tolstoy or Doctor Zhivago would make this more accessable, but, of course, we are not as approving of modern enemies as historical heroes as we are of classic literature from them. Hey, when will a Cuba or Iraq become acceptable again?
Where the film falters in the screenwriting devices by Alain Godard and director Jean-Jacques Annaud (who worked together before on Wings of Courage and The Name of the Rose), it makes up for in its visual glory. The Annaud direction, along with the Robert Fraisse cinematography and Noëlle Boisson editing (all of whom last worked together on Seven Years in Tibet), create a war epic that can be compared to Saving Private Ryan. While its drama is closer to A Bridge Too Far, the war action is as good as The Longest Day.
Painstakingly realized, Stalingrad is brought to all its glory in this film and it serves as the films centerpiece. From the opening battle to the crumbling factories that fill the rest of the film, Annaud and his crew have made a World War II film that literally feels like the time, not like some big budget set (though, Enemy at the Gates stands with the biggest budget on a European film ever, a rather laughable by our standards $85 million -- heh, I dare Michael Bay to make a film that costs that much). While I do not really support the film in some of the bigger categories, I do think that Paramount should make sure that the film gains the attention of Academy voters in the technical categories (as well as the score by James Horner) come 2001s Oscar campaign season.
The always respectable Jude Law and Ed Harris (hmm, with a chance at an Oscar for Pollock, a DVD for The Rock, and a wide release for Enemy at the Gates, this is a big week for old Ed) come out of the film unscathed, though costars Fiennes and Weisz further prove themselves as two of Europes lesser exports (respect as I may brother Ralph, Joseph has yet to give me something that really felt like more than a wide-eyed reading of a script).
Still, for a film this auspicious, it hurts me to have
regrets about it. The story of Vassily Zaitsev is a great one that is definitely
cinematic. Unfortunately, the powers that be decided to bring in that old cinematic
pretense of melodrama to sour an otherwise splendid film.
(Dir: Ed Harris, Starring Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Amy Madigan, Jeffrey Tambor, Bud Cort, Jennifer Connelly, John Heard, Val Kilmer, Stephanie Seymour, Tom Bower, Robert Knott, Matthew Sussman, Sada Thompson, Norbert Weisser, Sally Murphy, Molly Regan, Rebecca Wisocky, Moss Roberts, Eduardo Machado, and Katherine Wallach)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Jackson Pollocks painted as he lived -- a variable movement with no real trajectory to speak of. His paintings, especially in his early years, were large creations that amassed colors with a repetition that came closer wallpaper than oil on a canvas. His life, especially in his later years, was endless days of boozing and raging in a consistent order. When Pollock finally died behind the wheel of his Buick convertible, he had fattened up, lost a great deal of respect from the art world, and, most of all, loathed not only himself but also his long loving wife Lee Krasner.
Ed Harris has been interested in bringing this painful life to the screen for over a decade. He has always bore a resemblance to the painter (his father sent him Pollocks biography only because he thought his son looked a great deal like the picture on the cover), but whats more important is that he has long created characterizations that could come into the same dinner table conversation as Jackson Pollock. The heroic John Glenn in The Right Stuff, worried Gene Kranz in Apollo 13, assured Heinz Thorwald (inexplicably renamed Major Koenig) in Enemy at the Gates, and controlling E. Howard Hunt in Nixon -- all are real people that took control of their situation and made the most of them. Pollock is, perhaps, the first one to fail in his battle with himself -- the others, though having as much support as Pollock, used their support much more to their advantage.
The way Harris plays Pollock is in the same form that people regularly look at artists -- people so struck by inner demons that they could only bring their inner beauty on something other than their social charm. Jackson Pollock saw solace in a bottle, and often he made a fool of himself because of it, whether it be urinating in the fireplace of his patron Peggy Guggenheim (Madigan) or overturning a thanksgiving dinner. Did this help his painting? There is no real way to tell, but it certainly did not hurt it.
But it did hurt one person: Lee Krasner. Portrayed here by Marcia Gay Harden, Krasner gave up her own chance at fame by taking on a relationship with Jackson Pollock. She saw the beauty in his works well before everyone else caught on and she stood beside him even when his alcoholism became unbearable. Nevertheless, he never reciprocated that love from Lee, she gave her all for him and he turned it into paint on a canvas -- we never really feel his love of her within the bounds of this cinematic biography. We can certainly sense all the love and hope that Lee has for her husband, but can only wonder why she never gets any of it back. When he sits in a drunken stupor, screaming over her decision to not have a baby, crashing bottles to the ground, or hitting on a temptress sitting beside him, we truly feel for her statement that he is killing her. While she is left in the background as people remark on the sensational works of her husband, he too leaves her to sit and watch without the acknowledgement of her faithfulness.
Jackson Pollock was less a victim of the times, and more one of his own doing. He imploded thanks first to his jealous attempt to surpass Pablo Picasso and then his attempt to outdo his earlier self. The film has occasional visits from Willem DeKooning (Kilmer) and Clement Greenberg (Tambor), constant reminders that those early supporters would be first to turn upon his success and never came back during the years of collapse.
Ed Harris does an incredible job here, focusing in as much on Pollocks work ethic as on his social habits. The sequences in which we watch Harris as Pollock at work show the fine actor and director Ed Harris is. We really feel that we are in on the magic that is going from Pollocks hand to the canvas. When he drips some paint onto the floor and discovers the splatter-and-drip style that would make him famous, we really feel that we are present to a landmark moment.
And Harris is just as notable in his moments of drunken fits. When we watch him crumble into the fat slob of his last years, it is easy to believe that Harris too has deconstructed into this demeanor. He actually reminded me of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.
However much people may gush on the Harris performance, though, the real heart for me was in Marcia Gay Harden. I dont even care for her that much, but she does as much in her role here as shes done in her entire career. She brings the emotional balance to the film that is needed. Had the film resigned Lee Krasner to the background as Pollock did, we would only see a film on a destitute soul. Knowing the love behind Pollock and the great future that Krasner would lead keeps the film from disappearing into a hole of depression -- all thanks to Hardens remarkable turn.
Pollock will probably not be an audience
favorite -- its dark and rather cynical story about life, love, and success is not Erin
Brockovich or Chocolat, but it is an important story to tell. Most
biographies turn their subjects into saints, Pollock, like Before Night Falls
a few months ago, does not and is the better for it. I would have loved for the film
to delve a little more into Krasners later life (musings that Harden is a lead is
incorrect, the film shuffles her place between lead and supporting only to focus in only
on Pollock towards the end) but I think that it is a great chance for people to get to
know art and its creators. As we watch Harris as Pollock huddled over a paint-splattered
canvas, we are brought in on the artistic moment -- both the moment for Jackson Pollock
and the moment for Ed Harris.
(Dir: Henry Bromell, Starring William H. Macy, Donald Sutherland, Neve Campbell, Tracey Ullman, John Ritter, David Dorfman, Barbara Bain, Miguel Sandoval, Nicholle Tom, Erica Ortega, Steve Moreno, Greg Pitts, Steve Valentine, and Nick Cassavettes)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Henry Bromell has spent his career writing for dramatic television. Based on his directorial debut, Panic, it is no surprise that his writing was behind two of televisions better shows over the last decade, Northern Exposure and Chicago Hope. Panic seethes of assured and weighty intentions. Films do not usually take on characters and scenarios in the same way.
Alex (Macy) is a mild-mannered individual -- he lives in suburbia, with wife Martha (Ullman) and son Sammy (Dorfman) with a nice little business selling lawn ornaments, kitchen gee gaws, sexual aids, things like that. But we learn that his dour demeanor is not from the life of an in-home retailer -- as he sits in a psychiatrists office, he tells that he is a hit man. This is not really a job that he likes, but it is something that he has been made to do. His father was a hit man, and thanks to his mother, they have set up a process in which dad gets the customers and Alex makes the kills.
This has begun to torment Alex, he is torn between his domineering parents and the life he would like to live with his wife and son. They do not know what Alex does for a living, but they do sense that he is not happy -- Martha sure he is having an affair, Sammy sure he is depressed -- its all in the disposition he brings with those sad eyes. Pops (Sutherland) is an interesting character -- he took Alex out on his first hunt when he was a small child and made him kill a squirrel with, of all things, a Walther PPK -- and now he expects Alex to forever serve the family business. The idea of his son giving away everything to a shrink is a huge blow.
Alex is going through a bit of a midlife crisis -- he wont admit to it (he wont even admit to being at midlife yet), but it is an easy deduction by Sarah (Campbell), the young nymph who sits with him in the waiting room for their respective psychiatrists. She is struggling with her sexuality, but can easily see through the façade of sexual anguish found in others, most notably Alex. When she asks if he is one of those middle-aged guys who's tired of his marriage and thinks maybe a beautiful young thing could help him out, he remains quiet, probably because hes wondering the same thing.
William H. Macy has made a career out of playing people that have been stepped on their entire lives. Becoming one of the most successful character actors, his long face has graced some of the best films made in the last 10 years. Working from his roots with master playwright and friend David Mamet, Macy does as much with his woeful eyes then most actors can do in a long monologue. Macy is at a level of greatness that can only compare to someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor that has created a collection of left-of-the-center characters that have never been allowed to the inner circle. The secret to Macys characters is that they are let into the circle just so that the in-crowd can use them.
This is probably his best work since Fargo, another doormat that yearns to get out of the social and familial blockades surrounding him. The scenes between him and his father are mesmerizing -- you can feel the self-loathing that goes through Macy with each remark from Sutherland. It is much like the Nick Nolte-James Coburn relationship in 1998s Affliction, though Macy feels more worthless than Noltes character is.
Because of the films unusual release structure (it premiered at Sundance in 2000 before fighting a losing battle for a distributor and heading to Showtime only to finally end up in theatres for a spring 2001 release) will leave it without eligibility for Oscar consideration next year. This pains me a great deal -- I would love to see a strong push for Macy to receive a Best Actor nomination (on top of consideration for the Bryan Tyler score, the Jeff Jur cinematography, and Bromell for his screenplay and direction).
For me, Im counting Panic as 2001 release
and already marking it down for a strong possibility to make my top ten list.