The Oscars and Others
I Didn't Have to Analyze This
Horror in 1999
American Beauty Is Rosey
Scorsese Brings Out the Best
End of Days Is, Dogma Isn't
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Last year will not go down as a year of great films. There were too many re-makes that didn't make it, blown up TV shows that belonged on the small tube, and sequels. I probably attended fewer films last year than at any time in the last 20 years.
There are, however, two good films out there for your viewing pleasure.
John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love" is funny, sexy and authentic. It is funny to see an Elizabethan actor and playwright (Joseph Fiennes--yes, the brother of Ralph--as Will Shakespeare) trying to woo a highborn maiden (Gwyneth Paltrow). The scenes of their "forbidden love," as an actor she is dressed as a man often too, are quite hot. And thanks to the script of Marc Norman and especially Tom Stoppard ("Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" and "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet"), it was authentic in speech and in situation.
No, unlike Judi Dench's perfectly realized Queen
Elizabeth, no one was thinking of throwing his cloak down to provide a
dry walkway for an impoverished playwright trying to write "Romeo and Ethel,
the Pirate's Daughter." Shakespeare was scrambling for a living,
just like any New York writer-director in the alternate film world today.
The sets and costumes are both gorgeous and functional. The script is filled with jokes for those who are familiar with Shakespeare's works and with a lively plot filled with romance and excitement for all.
It is truly a film for the whole family unless the Elizabethan dialog throws you. And if it does, you are probably not reading this review in Chicago's Near North News.
Madden, whose previous films have included "Mrs. Brown" (1997) with Judi Dench (who has a lock on assertive British female monarch roles) as Queen Victoria, is in the running for the Oscars with this entertaining film. True, he does use Elizabeth as the "deus ex machina" to solve a plot problem. But, unlike my more theoretical critical brethren, I can accept it on the grounds that this is a comedy and the solution gets a laugh. That's what impoverished playwrights do to become affluent playwrights.
The other good film out there is Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line."
Malick, whose last film was the memorable "Days of Heaven" (1978), took James Jones' 1962 novel about the battle of Guadalcanal and used it for a visual exploration of the meaning of life and death. Unlike Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," there are no set speeches that remind you a bit of all of those World War II films which seemed to require them.
No, just like in "Days of Heaven," it is the visual images of tranquility--e.g. the film opens with two AWOL soldiers living it up in a South Pacific paradise--and natural beauty--plants, flowers, living creatures--which your mind will retain. How can humankind spend so much time and energy killing when our visit to this planet is such a short one?
No, it is not an anti-war film. It simply is a pro-human film. The joys of life--sex, natural beauty, the first impressions of a child--are juxtaposed in a meaningful way with the hatred that war engenders. Men are seen making hard decisions, spending lives to gain goals; they are not condemned for it. These decisions are seen as a necessity.
There is a different context thrown up against this necessity of death, the necessity of life.
John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Nick Nolte--all have significant roles and do well. But it is Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Ben Chaplin and others who, as the anonymous grunts, carry the film and will make it shine in your mind.
The Oscars are back again, and, this year, the
Academy has made some good harvests from a meager crop. Two of the
films which I had praised recently as two of the best in town--John Madden's
"Shakespeare in Love" and Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" are both
up for Best Picture and Best Director.
I praised both Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and Kapur's "Elizabeth," though I still think only Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth has a three-dimensional role. It is noteworthy than she was the only performer in the film also nominated for an Oscar.
It is also noteworthy that although Tom Hanks was nominated again for Best Actor, in "Ryan," Edward Burns was not nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Now, if you saw the film, can you imagine Hanks' characterization succeeding if it were not for Burns' wise-cracking private? I think not.
Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful" ("La Vita `e Bella"), that strange mix of delightful light comedy and a German death camp, is up for Best Picture and Best Actor for Benigni. I guess it is decisions like that one which put me in the same category as Dustin Hoffman and George C. Scott. So many good films and good performers go unrecognized that you just can't care who walks away with the little bald man.
For example, though Brenda Blethyn as the sexually aggressive mother in Herman's "Little Voice" was a wonderful choice for Best Supporting Actress, why was Michael Caine left out for Blethyn's aging Alfie-like boy friend? Has Caine's age and financial success caused him to be snubbed? Who cares? He gave a great performance in "Little Voice."
Looking at the films in the theaters is always dismal this time of year. If you have seen most of the Oscar picks and some of the better independent films, you usually have slim pickings in February.
I had great hopes for Brian Helgeland's "Payback" as I really enjoy Mel Gibson's work. But, instead of making Gibson a really "bad guy," Gibson's Porter is just the sort of bad taste character who stiffs waitresses and takes a person's last cigarette.
Compared to the thinly drawn gangster characters played by William Devane, Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn--Gibson's Porter is Mr. Wonderful. An actor who played such a good Hamlet should have held out for a better script, though its action sequences are well edited.
Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" could have used a better script too. The arrogant young swine hero, played by Jason Schwartzman, tramples all over everyone around him. One is supposed to feel sorry for him because he comes from a working class background, something which he goes to great lengths to hide. When this young Sgt. Bilko falls from his great heights at his prestigious private high school, I laughed.
I kept laughing at Bill Murray as a twisted millionaire. He was good, but, essentially, he had a supporting role. If you are a Bill Murray fan as I am, I guess you will see this film.
Olivia Williams as the lovely Rosemary Cross was
delightful. You may remember her if you, like me, were one of the few to
see Kevin Costner's "The Postman," in which she played the woman who wished
to be inseminated by Kevin Costner. She also starred in a British
TV version of Jane Austin's "Emma."
by Bob Blackwood
Harold Ramis' new comedy "Analyze This" is very funny. The plot is not unique--a mob boss seeks help from a psychiatrist to deal with his problems. We saw it in a made-for-tv film, 1997 I believe, called "The Don's Analyst," which had its moments. We are seeing it on HBO as "The Sopranos," a show that is worth watching.
Ken Lonergan's script, as modified by Peter Tolan, has been around for almost four years. As Ramis frankly admitted in an interview situation, he was casting for this film when "The Sopranos" was casting. As he puts it, "It's an idea whose time has come."
The best part of the idea is that Ramis has made another funny movie. The audience roared, and I was with them all the way. Now if you think back at some of the films which Ramis has directed, some lacked the complexity of his best film, "Groundhog Day" (1993). But who can forget "Caddyshack" (1980), "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983) and "Multiplicity" (1996) among others?
Billy Crystal as the psychiatrist in "Analyze This" is restrained and somber, until the sequence in which he attempts to portray a gangster. Robert DeNiro shows he has not lost his comic timing. He will break you up with his delivery even though the content runs a bit thin at the end. They certainly worked well together. Lisa Kudrow, Joe Viterelli and Chazz Palminteri were just fine.
And Ramis was certainly correct to hold the running time to 103 minutes. He leaves the crowd laughing.
Luis Mandoki's "Message in a Bottle" presents some problems as well as some delights to me. Kevin Costner as a closed-mouth widower mourning his beloved is appropriately cast. He does not have to deliver extended monologues or dialogues, and that is fine. He looks and acts the part.
Robin Wright Penn--who you may remember from "The Crossing Guard" (1995), "Forrest Gump" (1994) or "State of Grace" (1990)--is very beautiful. It is a joy to watch expressions flow over her face. She reacts well as well as acts well in her role as a divorced woman seeking the man who wrote a touching letter to his departed wife which she found in a bottle by the seashore.
Paul Newman comes off the best, however, as the gruff father of the Costner character. He has the best role in the film. He is outspoken, wise and terribly vulnerable. Everyone in the audience relates to him. He comes out well in this mix.
So what is my problem with the film? It is the ending. Instead of developing the relationship between Costner and Wright's characters, we get a tear-jerker. Worse yet, it is a tear-jerker brought about by chance. I thought Hollywood stopped making those films in the 1940's. Apparently, I am mistaken about that.
My thanks to Darren Sodikoff and the staff
at Hess, Newmark, Owens, Wolf for the film clips of Oscar nominees for
Wright College's "Oscar Picks 1999." Rosa Blasi, the daughter of
my "Oscar Picks" co-host Dr. Rocco Blasi, should be in the Philippines
starring in Roger Spottiswoode's "Noriega: God's Favorite" as you read
John Waters' "Pecker" is a funny film, except to the most uptight viewers. Yes, the central character (Edward Furlong) is a teenage photographer, who becomes the new darling of the New York art set. No, the title refers to the photographer's eating habits as a child, not to anything else (shame on you and shame on Waters for being cutesy).
Yes, it is a bit sentimental. If Frank Capra had gay and Lesbian strippers in his films, he might have been John Waters. I don't think we will ever get another "A Wonderful Life" by Waters, who gave us "Pink Flamingos" (1972). But rather than saying Waters is going mainstream, I think we can say that, thanks to the alternate film circuit, which Waters has helped create, there is now a channel in the mainstream for quirky humor that has a strong local base.
Waters has always used Baltimore as the background for such films as "Cry-Baby" and "Hairspray." As the lyrics go in "The Music Man," Waters "knows the territory." Almost every sequence of "Pecker" successfully mines a new vein in that territory or portrays a local character delightfully.
Christina Ricci (the charming dark daughter from "The Addams Family" series) is just right as the laundromat-manager-obsessed girl friend of Pecker. If she continues to do meaty character parts like this one, rather than take a chance on empty romantic comedies, Ricci may have a long career in the business.
John Frankenheimer's "Ronin" is the best action film and the best espionage film that I have seen this year. His editing is tight, and the story unravels to reveal a complex plot in contemporary France. He shows us two driving sequences that match the best car sequences in Yates' "Bullitt" (1968) and Friedkin's "The French Connection" (1971). Frankenheimer may have been making up for "French Connection II," which he did in 1975.
Robert De Niro is at his best as the almost anonymous "Sam." There appears to be more than a touch of Sam Spade in his hard-boiled character who does not open up much to women. There also are other similarities to "The Maltese Falcon" in the structure of this script.
Jean Reno, the tall man familiar to you from Besson's "The Professional" (1994) and other, more limited action films, finally has another film which permits him to develop a character.
Natascha McElhone as Deidre, seemingly an IRA operator, but take no appearances for granted in this film, does a good job with a very limited role. I hope to see more of her talents in the future.
Mark Christopher's "54," based on the New York disco Studio 54, is a very interesting film. Many viewers cannot watch a film in which there is no sympathetic character for them to identify with. There are none here. The film is a collection of predators and hookers of both sexes.
The best performance is Michael Myers as Steve Rubell, the manager of 54 who died in his 30's. He is mean; he is funky. And Myers shows it all. It is also very ironic and very funny, but you have to keep your distance. View the characters as creeps, not as role models.
David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" is a challenge. You may have liked his 1996 "Crash," about people with sexual desires during automobile crashes; I avoided it as possibly the most violent example of coitus interruptus. I certainly liked his sly humor in his 1991 "Naked Lunch," based on Burroughs' novel. There is also some satire of corporate style and manners in "eXistenZ," but the challenge is still there.
The challenge in "eXistenZ" is to stay awake during some of the most vapid dialog in this century. The characters may or may not be in an elaborate virtual reality game. The big question to the characters is, "Is it reality or is it part of the game." The big question for members of the audience is, "Dear, would you please stop snoring?" It's rude to wake up the people in the next row.
The characters in the film seem to have no real control on the characters they play in the game. Therefore, you don't care about them at all. Jennifer Jason Leigh is totally wasted. Jude Law has his mouth open, but no meaningful lines emerge during the entire film. In his cameo, Willem Dafoe smiles well, but, since the previous film I saw him in was "Speed II," if he keeps picking films this well I may be seeing this very talented actor as the straightman in a TV series based on "Bedtime for Bonzo."
The Wachowski Brothers (Larry and Andy) have given us another sort of game in "The Matrix," but this one moves fast and looks good. Keanu Reeves moves well with an awareness of computer graphics and other special effects. He leaves most of the meaningful dialog to Laurence Fishburne, always a good idea. Carrie-Anne Moss was vibrant and assertive.
The plot concerns the leader of a band of human rebels (Fishburne) who need some computer wizard (Reeves) who can overcome a world dominated by Artificial Intelligences. The movie is just fun to watch. It runs for over two hours, but you don't notice it. It is edited well.
If you are a computer wizard, you will enjoy the film. If, like myself, you occasionally just like a good action film without the usual clichés, you will go for "The Matrix," which shows what two directors from Chicago can do when given Australian locations and a year of filmmaking.
If you like what could have been a good action film weighed down by some incompetent acting, try James Foley's "The Corruptor." The Hong Kong action star Yun-Fat Chow ("The Replacement Killers") is a corrupt cop in Chinatown. His English is very limited, but Yun-Fat Chow moves well. Whether with leaps or subtle hand gestures, he is a good actor.
Mark Wahlberg plays an honest young cop sent in
to clean up Chinatown. Wahlberg did a fine job in "Boogie Nights,"
but, after seeing this film, you begin to wonder if that part of a mindless
young stud was not written for him. During the whole film, he gives
a performance with the fluidity of a block of cement. The director
should have said, "Smile here, Mark. Look sad here, Mark. Wake
Michael Hoffman's "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream" was fun. I have always felt that the casting of Puck, the mischievous elf who enchants various people, is the key to a good production of this summer confection. Stanley Tucci is a great Puck, at times sly, at times guilty, but at all times a scene stealer.
As Titania, Michelle Pfeiffer never looked lovelier, though the special effects were a help there too, which is certainly appropriate for the queen of the fairies. Kevin Kline milked Bottom's role for every laugh, just as he is supposed to do. The mechanicals' play of "Pyramus and Thisbe" was never funnier.
And Calista Flockhart as Helena works just fine; she looked at times the modern career woman trying to make sense out of a senseless series of romantic encounters, possibly as in her TV show "Ally McBeal." Anna Friel as Hermia was appropriately love-crazy. Dominic West as Lysander and Christian Bale as Demetrius bear promise of future good performances.
Unfortunately, Rupert Everett as Oberon did not get to deliver the kind of really dark menace which this role can produce. So often, the dark aspect of the land of Faerie, which was at times a mirror image of the politics of the Elizabethan Court, is avoided in productions of this play.
In any case, Michael Hoffman has a winner here for those readers who can appreciate Shakespeare's whimsy. My only drawback was about the sound during the first 15 minutes of the film, but that may be due to the sound system of the theater.
by Bob Blackwood
Do you remember the golden glow of the 18th century interiors in Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" (1975)? Kubrick went to great pains with special lowlight film to duplicate the candle lighting of gambling "hells." You'll find a similar golden glow in most sequences of his latest and last film, "Eyes Wide Shut," starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Sydney Pollack.
As always, whether it is a Marine Corps book camp from his last film, "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), or the war-room of the Pentagon in "Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964), he can certainly set a scene and create a mood. The Hellfire Club-like setting of a group of masked degenerates in a mansion is done with golden lighting, red velvety fabrics and a lot of minor keys being vamped on the piano.
Kubrick certainly gets your attention in this tale of sexual obsession, but he does not get much else. It is based on Arthur Schnitzler's novel from the Twenties, "Traumnovelle." But the events in the film are not a dream novel. They have the tedious pacing of reality, a reality matched with repetition, extremely slow delivery of all speeches, almost a parody of David Mamet at his worst.
How I would have loved to write a wonderful review of Kubrick's last film, but I would have had to see another film or maybe another cut of this one. I have read that some scenes with Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh were deleted; I did not see either actor in the film. I suspect Kubrick made those deletions, however, as he was very jealous about his creative prerogative.
The film screens at almost three hours.
How I wished it had been cut, so that the effect of the tension could have
been prolonged. I did enjoy some of the mystery, and Kubrick's ability
to construct a sequence. Instead, thanks to his self-indulgence,
I saw a very oldtime American movie about an upper middle-class American
married couple (doctor and wife) who think about cheating on each other,
but they do not do it.
But this couple is not like the horny adman from Wilder's "The Seven Year Itch" (1955). "Eyes Wide Shut" is not a comedy; it is sort of a sinister soap opera.
Cruise is still trying those boyish takes, on occasion, particularly in the head-to-head sequence with Sidney Pollack as the multi-millionaire member of the degenerate club. Pollack walked away with that sequence, though I think he was genuinely trying to work with Cruise.
Kidman's character came across as a bit more sympathetic because of her visual yoking with her seven-year-old daughter in a number of sequences. Otherwise, neither the doctor nor his wife merited any sympathy. They were just a couple of jaded yuppies who get frightened by a taste of harsh reality. Stanley, I am glad that you made your reputation before this turkey gobbled.
by Bob Blackwood
Moviegoing is a solitary pursuit in my life. I love talking about a film afterwards, but I don't really enjoy whispered commentary to any great extent. I don't need the audience to lead me to a conclusion. If it is on the screen and on the sound track, I will get it.
True, comedies are helped by laughs from the audience, but the sort of comedies that are earning guffaws in the contemporary Chicago movie theaters are broad sexploitation flicks like "There's Something about Mary." I think the dog who attacked an actor's private parts showed the greatest acting subtlety in that film. In any case, if you did not know "Blair Witch" was a horror film and walked in toward the end, the screams in the audience would tell you what's going on.
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's "The Blair Witch Project" has for its premise that three filmmakers disappeared in the New England woods looking for the alleged Blair witch, and their film and videotapes were found a year later.
There are two keys to the success of this film.
First, the alternation between the color videotape and the black and white 16mm footage gives you the rough cut "real life" effect of the documentary "cinema verite'" style without the tedium of a documentary subject--e.g. following rock and roll musicians on the road from town to town as they degenerate and squabble with each other. The roughness of the cut requires you, the audience member, to jump in and make the transitions, make the connections about what is happening.
Most Hollywood films are seamless, creating an illusion of reality, a continuity, which all, including the very slow, can follow. Myrick and Sanchez's film was shot for $20,000. I don't know what it cost to edit it, though it is well done.
Secondly, the characters are as thin as a piece of paper and just as plain. Their audience can identify with them easily. Their speech is a collection of clichés that many audience members use every day. One of the most profound comments was, "That's fuckin' so not cool." William Shakespeare, eat your heart out.
The characters are faced with death in the wilderness. Do they set traps for the enemy? No. Do they arm themselves for combat? No. What do they do? They whine.
They whine because they are hungry, but they do not search for food. They whine because they are lost. But one of them loses the map because they could not read it correctly. And they whine because they are tired at night, and the enemy keeps them up. But no one thinks of traveling at night and sleeping by day. There is a north star, kids.
They are spoiled bougeoise bunglers. They act stupidly, and they deserve what they get. Their leader, the woman director of the documentary film, leads the audience's response as she grows more hysterical. The pitch of her voice grows higher and higher as she acts dumber and dumber.
What's good about the film? What is good about it is that it does not show you too much. Like Robert Wise's version of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting" (1963), which starred Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, the fear is induced mostly by sound, by the characters' reactions and by camera movements rather than by special effects. The formula still works.
And it is one of the reasons why "The Blair Witch Project" is making a lot of money.
The new formula is to lay on those special effects, more and more of them as the film rolls. The problem is, the formula does not always work. We have Jan de Bont's most recent version of "The Haunting" (1999) to prove my point. De Bont has Dreamworks and others to bring him the latest in special effects. What is the result?
He shows us too much. He dissipates the fear, the tension, before it can grow to a high pitch. The acting by Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and, particularly, by Lili Taylor is fine, but the desire to spend millions on images, just because they could do it, resulted in a disappointing film. Too much is explained to the audience; too little is felt.
The plethora of horror films may be due to two factors: the Millennium fears and the Hollywood studios' need to play with their latest toy, special effects. The third horror film in this review, Renny Harlin's "Deep Blue Sea," has its share of special effects, but they are not obtrusive. And the film is not too long.
Harlin, an action director ("Cutthroat Island," "Cliffhanger," "Die Hard 2"), keeps it moving. His mad scientist, the attractive Saffron Burrows, she of chiseled features who must be obeyed, and his hero, Thomas Jane (the 90's Johnny Weissmuller), deal with a team of large sharks whose I.Q.'s have been heightened by the mad doctor. Both of these characters, unlike the "Blair Witch" characters, only make one stupid move each in this tale of death and near-death on the open sea. Samuel Jackson looks good as an entrepreneur, and LL Cool J steals the show.
If your air conditioner breaks down, you won't
fall asleep watching this shark tale. And it is done so well that
you don't even need the "dum, dumm, dummm" shark theme from Spielberg's
"Jaws" (1975). You know they're out there. And you know they're hungry.
Sam Mendes' "American Beauty" reminds me of why I keep going to see films instead of spending all my time watching plays. "American Beauty" reflects our society, our dreams, our concerns about our families. And this is Mendes' first film. And he is a British theater director to boot, not an American.
Of course, he had a very good original script by an American, Alan Ball, who has worked as an executive on some American TV shows--"Cybill" and "Oh Grow Up." Dream Works was behind the project, and it really jelled.
Kevin Spacey has a wonderful role as a 42-year-old man rejecting his meaningless advertising agency job and remorselessly facing a mid-life crisis. His voiceover opening of the film is just a bit reminiscent of the foreshadowing of Wilder's wiseguy screenwriter in "Sunset Boulevard." Spacey gets to say what so many middle-aged men in the corporate world have on their minds both to his boss and to his family.
His wife, played by Annette Bening as a self-programming real estate salesperson, does not enjoy his company, but prefers the sleazy company of a mentor in her business. Although she is a monster, she provokes a lot of laughs, yet we do not see her by the end as a completely selfish person, though darn close.
Young Thora Birch as their daughter is wonderful as a young woman who is ritually excluded from parental concern and then gushed over to overcompensate. Her boyfriend, deadpanned by Wes Bentley as an only occasionally unhinged photographer/videographer, has a wonderfully rich role as well. Chris Cooper, the sheriff from "Lone Star," and Allison Janney, as Bentley's parents, are great parodies of an uptight military officer and his long-suffering wife.
If you were expecting a lot of sex between adults and teens or teens and teens in "American Beauty," you may be disappointed in this film, though Angela Hayes as "the" young model is quite luscious. The director emphasizes relationships rather than cheap thrills. Conrad Hall, the septuagenarian director of photography, shows an incredible eye in composing his shots to get a maximum response from the audience.
The lighting, the editing, the precise choice of music are memorable. Everything works here to support the actors' performances from the richness of the deep red rose petals to the well chosen simple backgrounds. What art, what fun!
In contrast to the originality of "American Beauty," the last time I saw the plot of David Russell's "Three Kings," it was called John Ford's "Three Godfathers" (1948) with three outlaws with a big heist in the desert starring John Wayne in George Clooney's role, Harry Carey, Jr. in Mark Walberg's and Pedro Armendariz in Ice Cube's role. Richard Boleslawski shot the same plot with the same title, "Three Godfathers," in 1936.
Of course, Boleslawski was simply following the trail of John Ford who had shot the same plot with Harry Carey, Sr. in 1919 as a silent film called "Marked Men." Who says Hollywood does not innovate? They set "Three Kings" in the desert of Iraq, not in California this time.
And George Clooney finally got a role in which he could be a good guy and smile a lot without Michelle Pfeiffer around. And Mark Wahlberg found a role in which he can be a young parent, instead of a mindless young stud. And Ice Cube gets to be a genuine hero instead of a gangsta. The film was almost a program picture, the kind that used to be banished to the bottom of a double bill, but I did enjoy the graphic computer footage of how bullets injure their victims.
The only good things I can say about Peter Kassovitz's
"Jakob the Liar" is that Robin Williams does create pathos in his tale
of a Warsaw ghetto denizen pushed against the wall to provide hope against
despair, and the sets and costumes seemed to work well. More development
of the characters and more complexity of the narrative are called for in
When you think of Martin Scorsese's films, do you think of these first? "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Raging Bull" (1980), "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988)? I usually do, and when I do I remember that Paul Schrader worked on the scripts for all of them.
Now some folks are not happy with Scorsese's latest film, "Bringing Out the Dead" with Nicolas Cage and Patricia Arquette. Some folks really do not like black comedy that is this black. Let's face it; you have to have a strange sense of humor to survive as a paramedic in New York City or Chicago. And when I look at the series of 20 films that Schrader scripted or co-scripted, I do not see any successful comedies jumping out at me.
So those folks who say Scorsese was looking for a money-maker are mistaken. You don't pick Paul Schrader to do a comedy. Maybe a psychotic loner feaking out in Manhattan, a broken-down boxer facing disaster, or Jesus Christ having his problems, yes; go to Schrader. If you want laughs, you go for Harold Ramis, not Paul Schrader, a man raised in the Calvinist tradition and linked to suffering and redemption.
Yet Scorsese is always concerned with redemption too--whether it is Jesus Christ or a coked-up gangster ("Goodfellas" 1990). Maybe that is why they both create films with strong central characters, people who can bear grief.
Well, since "Bringing Out the Dead" is a black comedy, is it funny? Yes, it is not always razor sharp in the narrative--though when it is not, we hear Scorsese's own New York voice over the two-way radio as the dispatcher for the ambulance Cage is driving. Cage's character is beat, lacking in sleep, starved for affection, but trying his best to do the right thing.
Cage's character does not turn to violence to vent his frustration--as does his partner played by Tom Sizemore. Nor does Cage have the religious beliefs of Ving Rhames, another partner, nor the trust in the system of his other partner played by John Goodman. Cage is just doing the best he can, one night at a time. Sometimes his world is turned upside down (literally in the camera), but he does his best to be a decent person, even with whackos that have done him harm.
Is this a message picture then? Well, if it is, it is a message that only those who have been in purgatory will laugh at. Maybe it best resembles "The Last Temptation of Christ," except Cage's character seems a little more approachable than the symbol-bound Christ played by the talented Willem Dafoe, but Cage sure is driving through our mean streets. As the poet W. H. Auden observed, this is the Age of Anxiety.
Rob Reiner's "The Story of Us" contains a number of laughs, reminding us that both Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer have wonderful comic timing. Willis, whom we have been seeing with a gun in each hand lately, reminds us of why we liked him as the wisecracking helper to Cybill Shepherd on TV's "Moonlighting."
Peter Hyams' "End of Days" is Arnold's comeback. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a role reminiscent of "Eraser" (1996), where he was also guarding a woman in distress, is up against the ultimate enemy, Satan. Needless to say, Satan comes off second.
Having said that, you might think that I should write off the film as another formula picture, but I would not be so fast to do it. First of all, Hyams not only directed the film but shot it. Its special effects are on the money. Its pacing will keep you interested--no time for a refill on the Coke from the refreshment stand.
Hyams' "The Relic" (1997) and "Timecop" (1994) were also first rate. No, they are not going to change your life, but they will keep you interested for the length of the film, which is more than I can say about most films. I hear the word "auteur" in the air. I am sure some graduate student is trying to get Hyams on the phone for an interview for his or her dissertation.
Not only is the pacing excellent, but "End of Days" has Gabriel Byrne, the Irish actor who since "Miller's Crossing" (1990) has been one of the hardest working and best performing actors on the screen. No, the films were not all winners, but Byrne always looked good.
In this film, Byrne is Satan. He is not the high flown international lawyer Satan of Al Pacino in "The Devil's Advocate" (1997). No, he is the wiseguy gangster Satan, the kind you'll find in any neighborhood of Chicago. Whenever Byrne is on-screen, all eyes are on him. Whether it is a quip or a bit of magic he uses in an attempt to father the antiChrist, you are moved.
Arnold is appropriately muscular, playing a burned out bodyguard. The last minute conversion to active Christianity is expected, visually acceptable if not credible. Let's face it, Arnold is no Gabriel Byrne. In this film, he is lucky to be a stand-in for St. Michael.
Kevin Smith's "Dogma" is fun. It too has that end of the millennium flavor as two angels (not devils, just terribly naughty) prepare to end the world by gaining a plenary indulgence. Now, Kevin Smith, who wrote the screenplay, made the same error as Martin Luther, according to my Catholic theology class. He confuses a plenary indulgence with forgiveness of sins. You have to get the forgiveness first, Kevin, before you can achieve the remission of your punishment in purgatory via a plenary indulgence.
These angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) were not only naughty--Damon drinking alcohol, Affleck hanging out with the attractive Linda Fiorentino, plus Affleck saying nasty things about the Lord--but they needed to sit down with an old parish priest who could set them straight. Thank the Lord the film had George Carlin as Cardinal Glick (sort of a "What Makes Sammy Run" kind of papal prince), a man of the cloth who could have sold anything on Madison Avenue but cares less about humanity.
This film has a lot of laughs, maybe too many, a little more plot would be better. When you recall that Kevin Smith has made a lot of funny films with cheap laughs--"Chasing Amy" (1997), "Mallrats" (1995) and "Clerks" (1994)--you can recognize that his laughs are more expensive now. It was one step above "There's Something about Mary" (1998); at least most of the punches were above the belt.
I do find it interesting that most of the religion
I have been forced to ingest these days in my career as a film critic has
been through action films, comedies and horror films. It is very
difficult, as Von Stroheim mentions, to believe in anyone praying on camera.
I guess it is very difficult to sell a picture with a religious message
in Hollywood that doesn't involve automatic weapons, parodies or hot-blooded
demons from the crypt rending human flesh. Ah well, Pasolini come
back with "The Gospel according to St. Matthew" (1966) and the other three
gospels too; your Marxism is forgiven and forgotten.