Godzilla

Godzilla ’98 is big and it’s noisy, and while it’s not particularly good, it is just good enough. Yes, the storyline is stupefyingly unimaginative. No, there are no characters to speak of. For that matter, there are no performances to speak of. Meaning is in short supply — this version of the classic Gojira tale has none of the apocalyptic menace of the original monster, himself the physical manifestation of Japan’s post-World War II nuclear trauma.

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Who ever would have thought that Terry Gilliam, once the bane of Hollywood and every bit the deranged auteur, would evolve into such an astute observer of other people’s work? After his twisted dreams-and-the-dreamer “trilogy” of Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam seemed damn near unemployable. Never mind that Brazil is held by some to be one of the few masterpieces of the 1980s — after all, the bad blood between Gilliam and Universal on that project was so rancid that Gilliam took out an ad in Variety blasting then-studio head Sid Scheinberg for refusing to release the film.

And Munchhausen was an unqualified disaster. Even its admirers (me among them) have to admit that the film itself reveals the bloated, unfocused truth of its production, which was completely out of control. As the budget ballooned to proportions greater than those of any other film previously shot in Europe, whole sequences were scrapped and what remained had to be stitched together in less than optimal fashion. Still, Munchausen had its moments of great(ish)ness, making it all the more distressing that it seemed sure to seal the ultimate commercial fate of a truly visionary director.

How he got the go-ahead for his next project is anyone’s guess. Maybe it seemed safe enough to trust even a madman like Terry Gilliam with a Jeff Bridges/Robin Williams project. Richard LaGravenese’s script for The Fisher King mixed with Gilliam’s directorial style, which had never been craftier, to create an honest-to-god feel-good movie about the power of love and redemption. When the story, which had to do with an unlikely friendship and an even unlikelier rehabilitation, became a little too pat, the ensemble cast saved the day. And while Fisher King would never be described as a model of efficiency, Gilliam’s loping, almost lazy style is complemented by a handful of terrific set pieces driven by dialog, performance, an overwhelming sense of compassion, and a fascination with what it means to be human.

Incredibly, Gilliam wound up back at Universal for Twelve Monkeys. This time, the lunatic was given the keys to an asylum that housed no less a screen personage than Bruce Willis, with the newly-hot Brad Pitt in the role of supporting nutjob. For a reported budget around $30 million (cheap by the standards of Hollywood and Willis), Gilliam did the unthinkable — he delivered an expansive science fiction film that found its audience through a combination of star power and a tricky storyline. Never mind that the real trick of the screenplay was the simplicity of its gimmick (lifted by screenwriters David Webb and Janet Peoples from the avant garde SF classic, “La Jetée,” which Gilliam claims never to have seen); audiences left the theater scratching their heads, unable to quite get their minds around it. Gilliam’s deranged sense of story and eye for art direction turned Twelve Monkeys into a wrenching, psychotic, and heart-breaking experience.

Last year, he was drafted into the movie version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, originally developed for the screen by Alex Cox of Sid & Nancy fame. Fear and Loathing is the chronicle of an extended, endlessly replenished drug trip taken by Thompson surrogate Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his Samoan “attorney” (and adviser on all matters drug-related), known as Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, who got 40 pounds larger for the role). Arriving in Las Vegas on assignment to cover a desert bike race, Duke and the Doc quickly lose interest in the event and instead dedicate themselves to catalyzing a series of increasingly debaucherous experiences by ingesting samples from their traveling narcotics lab, including pot, mescaline, LSD, coke, ether, and god knows what else.

When it works, Fear and Loathing is exactly what it should be — a reckless and hysterical vision of America through disillusioned, drug-addled eyes. When it doesn’t work, it’s still a bizarre fantasia leagues removed from anything else that a Hollywood studio is likely to put on-screen this year. Unapologetic in its garish, matter-of-fact drugginess, with TV spots reportedly banned by (Disney-owned) ABC, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is proof that, occasionally, something bold, visceral and unexpected can make it into the multiplex underneath a studio imprimatur.

Fear and Loathing wallows in the middle American kitsch of Las Vegas, using hallucinogens as a device for subverting that sensibility and appropriating it as a private playground. The key joke of Fear and Loathing is that the world Duke and Gonzo are inhabiting bears only a passing resemblance to the world that the straight folks around them are in. And the film relies heavily on incisive, cynical narration drawn from Thompson’s book to drive home the point that this wild abandon was more than nihilism. It was about making a mockery of complacent, clueless America. The joke could hardly be so funny if Thompson, who crystallized the long strange trip in a piece originally published in Rolling Stone, hadn’t managed to turn it into a new American mythology.

There is no story, per se, and the only character development comes out of the sense that, with each passing scene, these two characters are a little further removed from the outside world, a little more desperately numb, and ever more paranoid. At one point, the good doctor begs Depp to kill him by dropping a tape deck into the bathtub just as “White Rabbit” swells to its climax. At another, Doc is trying to seduce a high-schooler named Lucy (Christina Ricci) who’s come to Vegas with a boatload of her hideous paintings of Barbra Streisand. They crash a local venue just as Debbie Reynolds launches into “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Throughout the entirety of the film, they have a little trouble walking — one such drug-addled sequence is introduced by a voice-over about the effects that a lot of ether can have on one’s motor skills. The resultant spectacle is a stand-out classic of physical comedy, owing as much to Monty Python as to Charlie Chaplin.

In fact, this is the film that establishes Depp firmly as an absolutely top-rank performer — all the more impressive that he comes to it straight from his carefully controlled, absolutely convincing performance in Donnie Brasco (and Jarmusch’s languid Dead Man before that). His dead-on imitation of a young Hunter S. Thompson is irritating for about 10 minutes, until you get used to the mannerisms and speech rhythms. Before long, he invites you completely into Duke’s world, making the audience complicit in this whacked-out escapade. Offered a new kind of chemical substance by the Doctor, Depp’s Duke scrutinizes the bottle, his typically hyper demeanor barely concealing an innocent, childlike enthusiasm. Del Toro makes a perfect brutish companion for this buddy movie, his Gonzo offering a standard of insanity against which the more in-control Duke can be compared.

It’s not a perfect film, but its disjointedness is actually sort of in tune with the tale’s overall mood. Gilliam can’t put a new spin on every escapade, and all this mugging around Vegas does start to seem a little repetitive. The film itself is lacking a perspective on its own events, which Gilliam provides by resorting to extensive narration drawn from Thompson’s prose. But maybe that’s the point — it certainly highlights the gap between the high-as-a-kite narrative and the very lucid observations that Thompson made afterwards. Most importantly, Gilliam manages to make the whole trip feel just right.

The show-stopping tricks up his sleeve include a few digital special effects that are deployed with wit and precision to delight an audience as expertly as any Hollywood picture. Tearing down the highway toward Vegas in a white Cadillac convertible, Duke sees bats in the sky, which are only reflected in the tinted lenses of his sunglasses. As he checks into his Vegas hotel, the desk clerk’s face distorts into a hideous grimace (it’s Katharine Helmond, who had a disgustingly similar role in Brazil) as the patterned carpeting crawls up other patrons’ legs. And famed critter creator Rob Bottin provides a whole loungeful of lizards, a hallucinogenic approximation of animal life on the Strip.

Even though such psychedelic interludes are delightful, I don’t think the picture glorifies drug-taking as an escape from reality. For one thing, Duke and Gonzo’s situation is seen as an exremely precarious one. For another, the film, like the book before it, is very much a period piece. It depicts an intense reaction to a specific moment in time and space without endorsing it. In Gilliam’s vision of Thompson’s version of Nixon’s America, the trippy hedonism of the 1960s is a dim light in the rear-view mirror, and the Vietnam war casts grey shadows across TV screens as well as the American psyche. Not only is it the end of an era, but it’s also a moment of realization that the idealism of the last decade has given way to a very different, sobering reality. This is the story of what happens when you refuse to be sobered.

The only precedents I can think of for this film are Easy Rider, for obvious reasons, and Mars Attacks!, which, sweartogod, has the same cheerfully destructive mindset. All three of the films see the enduring American aesthetic (exemplified in Easy Rider by rednecks with guns, and in Mars Attacks! and Fear and Loathing by Las Vegas itself) as the antithesis of critical thinking and creativity. Caustic, triste, and hilarious, Fear and Loathing is a real celebration of the American outsider.


Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam & Tony Grisoni
and Alex Cox & Tod Davies
Edited by Lesley Walker
Cinematography by Nicola Pecorini
Music by Ray Cooper
Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro
U.S., 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)

Bulworth

Warren Beatty is claiming that he got Bulworth made, basically, by not telling anybody at Fox what it was really about. I believe it. As the saying goes, they don’t make them like this anymore.

“They” are Hollywood, of course. Peter Biskind’s new book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, chronicles in detail the story of cutting-edge American filmmaking in the 1970s, arguing that those years were a rare time when the director held sway in Hollywood, enjoying the luxury of calling the shots against the studios. A key figure in Biskind’s study is Beatty himself, who ram-rodded Bonnie and Clyde through the production process, introducing a new, European-style film grammar in Hollywood. But by the early 1980s, the era of The Cotton Club and Heaven’s Gate, the fed-up executives found it within their rights to discipline their prodigal sons, returning the balance of power to the studio boardroom, where they felt it belonged.

It’s easy for someone of my generation (age: 28) not to realize that Beatty was a pivotal figure in that tumultuous period, given that his more recent appearances on-screen have been few and far between. Consider his post-Reds resume: Ishtar. Dick Tracy. Bugsy. Love Affair. At best, his work has been what you might call “interesting.” And at worst it’s unwatchable, a distressing case of aging Hollywood losing touch with what film can be.

Certainly none of Beatty’s recent projects could have hinted at the unhinged, exuberantly reckless and recklessly delightful new political parable that is Bulworth. If it’s a miracle that Beatty got this film made, it’s equally astonishing that it’s as good as it is. Bulworth is a headstrong dervish of a film, caroming this way and that from high comedy to lowbrow urban potboiler to impassioned tract. It’s two or three films all running at the same time, unafraid of offending and unashamed of being called naive. At heart, it’s a crazy-quilt fantasy dealing with the ideological crisis of American politics, racial divisions, and the continued subservience of the American lower class to the whims of big business.

Beatty directs himself as Jay Billington Bulworth, a long-incumbent California senator who’s wrapping up his 1996 campaign for re-election. Screening his own insipid campaign ads (in an office lit and dressed Godfather-style by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis), Bulworth is driven to depression by his own ingratiating persona. “We stand at the doorstep of the next millennium,” goes the vapid speech that he’s expected to deliver time and again to constituents over the weekend. It’s too much to bear for a politician who’s collapsing under the weight of his own political savvy. He’s clambered to the top of the world by selling his soul to the devil — who comes, in this film, in the guise of big business and corporate lobbyists.

Bulworth puts himself in the pocket of a huge insurance company, and scores a $10 million life insurance policy, payable to his daughter. He takes out a contract on his own life, with the stipulation that he be knocked off before the weekend is over. Sleepless and miserable to the point of delirium, Bulworth amiably hits the campaign trail in Los Angeles, giddy in the confidence that he’s breaking out of the political machine. In an appearance at a black church, Bulworth scraps his speech and admits that the Democratic party just doesn’t care about the African-American community. Stirring up the crowd with a grin and a shrug, he explains that the politicians are being held hostage by big business, which would just as soon pretend the inner city doesn’t exist. And anyway, where are the campaign contributions from lower-class black America? Case closed. “What are you gonna do,” Bulworth taunts. “Vote Republican?”

So his campaign advisors (including a seething, confused Oliver Platt) contort themselves into a helpless semblance of spin control as the senator cuts a swath of destruction through his own campaign. Arriving at a fundraiser for the entertainment community, Bulworth’s told that Lew Wasserman and Sid Scheinberg, giants of studio politics, have already left — but plenty of partygoers remain, and Bulworth cheerfully unloads on them about what a load of “crap” Hollywood movies are and praises his people for putting “the big Jews” on his schedule.

It gets stranger and stranger. A striking black woman (Halle Berry) sees Bulworth speak at the church and follows him, apparently curious to see what makes him tick. More than a little pleased with himself, Bulworth laps up her attention. He accompanies her to a nightclub where he dances wildly and, bizarrely, starts rapping. The politician thus discovers a new mode of communication, which he appropriates for a luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire (scandalizing his staid wife). Bulworth’s stirring the pot, and his profane, tell-it-like-it-is style is starting to catch on with the populace. Significantly, the senator has found a reason to go on living. But there’s still that little problem of Bulworth’s suicide contract, and the Italian guy with dark glasses who’s been dogging his every move …

It’s not easy to convey the mood of this film. It works expertly in a movie theater that’s packed to the gills and echoing with laughter. It’s probably best described as farce, revolving around the sweetly sincere presence of Beatty, who’s a terrible rapper but a cheerfully self-deprecating screen presence. Beatty’s hip-hop politico is over-the-top — but how else to parody the down-home verbal stylings of a Bill Clinton, or the grandfatherly ease of a Ronald Reagan? Most importantly, Beatty seems eager to parody himself, including his status as aging loverboy and his giddy vision of pain and exuberance in black culture. It’s an inspired performance, teetering on the brink of the abyss.

The whole film seems poised on that same edge. Bulworth looks like it underwent something more than a tune-up at the eleventh hour, with mismatched edits and out-of-sync dialogue indicating much post-production tweaking. It’s held together by scotch tape and rubber cement, with a big assist from the propulsive rap soundtrack that lays a blistering gloss over the ragged seams. Bulworth notes that rap music is a powerful cultural voice, and is a great example of how a serious pop soundtrack can sustain a film’s here-and-now mood — and its credibility. Ennio Morricone’s evocative inserts are more subtle punctuation, but it’s the rap songs that really propel this picture from episode to episode.

It’s a given that Beatty is open for criticism. His vision of inner-city Los Angeles is pretty beat, with street kids running drugs and packing heat, white cops busting their chops for no good reason, and smug crack dealers pontificating about how they’re the real businessmen of the ‘hood. But a “realistic” version of life in that neighborhood would be far too heavy-handed for Bulworth, which deals unapologetically in caricatures.

It’s also a little strange to watch Jay Billington Bulworth develop a fascination with the surface of black culture that can only parallel Warren Beatty’s. Beatty, of course, has long been one of Hollywood’s most famous liberals, and his obvious outrage over what’s become of American politics helps shape the whole of Bulworth into something more than its patchwork parts. Beatty’s film looks even better when you compare it to the relatively lifeless stuff that has passed for political satire recently — the smart but self-satisfied Wag the Dog, the toothless Primary Colors, or even the Sisyphean journalism of Michael Moore’s The Big One.

Bulworth is a roundhouse punch aimed at Washington’s complacent liberals, urging them to remember what it meant to work to change the system, rather than just to fit in. It’s also meant to raise the ire of voters, who aren’t likely to have any real choice at the polls in 2000. If Bulworth doesn’t have a lasting impact on the American electorate, it is Warren Beatty’s gift to Hollywood. If it can inspire other studio filmmakers to remember what it used to mean to make movies with a social conscience, well, wouldn’t that be something to see?


Directed by Warren Beatty
Written by Beatty and Jeremy Pikser
Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro
Production Design by Dean Tavoularis
Starring Beatty, Halle Berry, and Oliver Platt
USA, 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Deep Impact

Remember how critics and the Academy shat all over James Cameron when the former group claimed he couldn’t write his way out of a dime novel and the latter declined to honor him with an Oscar nomination for scripting Titanic? Well, barely six months after the fateful voyage of the big T, a pair of “real” screenwriters, Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) and Michael Tolkin (The Player), have hashed out a disaster movie screenplay so full of undisguised hokum and drivel that it makes Titanic look like Casablanca.

In the context of the current spate of disaster flicks, Deep Impact is just another movie about the end of the world, ho-hum. A comet the size of Mount Everest is discovered on a direct collision course with planet earth. A spacecraft has been built by the U.S. and Russia to try and head off catastrophe, but if the comet can’t be knocked off course by nukes, it will almost certainly spell the end of civilization.

Deep Impact nods toward the inevitable apocalyptic panic now and again, but mostly it’s interested in putting a bunch of cardboard characters through their dreary paces, a la any afternoon soap opera. There’s the daughter who’s torn between her estranged parents, there’s a crowd of handsome kids on a mission to save the planet, and there’s even (thank you, Mr. Cameron) a teenage romance. If these cliches were at least spun out with some aplomb, they could be charming. Instead, it’s all deja vu driving a movie that’s predictable, perfunctory and —worst — dull.

Téa Leoni (Flirting With Disaster) can’t carry this mess. After her character, a journalist for MSNBC (huh?) breaks the comet story in improbable fashion, her reward is a spot on the anchor desk. The problem with too many films that strive to be canny where the news media is concerned is a lack of authenticity. Certainly Leoni, with her leisurely drawl and eyes that look like she’s perpetually rising from a deep sleep, resembles no successful news anchor on the face of the planet. (Well, maybe one on MSNBC, but even that’s pushing it.)

Deep Impact doesn’t even try to make her a hero (even though she is, um, the main character). That job falls on the able shoulders of Robert Duvall, playing the spunky old mission commander on what turns out to be a fool’s errand. Hero or no, his part is woefully thin. Morgan Freeman is terrific as the President, but just when he gets up a good head of steam, the camera is liable to cut back to Leoni again, looking tired. Vanessa Redgrave, still a formidable actress when she finds a reason, has no reason for being here. In this context, seeing the very credible James Cromwell on-screen for three minutes, as the Secretary of the Treasury, is reason to cheer. Nobody else, not even Elijah Wood, makes an impression worth commenting on.

The only reason to watch this thing is for the admittedly spectacular special effects footage of New York City being crushed by huge comet-spawned tsunamis. But since New York plays pretty much no part in the rest of the film, the shots of skycrapers being toppled against one another seem completely gratuitous. What’s more, they flit by awfully quickly, like Dreamworks had its collective eye glued to the budget, fearful of overruns. And the final insult is that much of the “cool” stuff has already been featured prominently in trailers and TV spots.

Seasoned TV director Mimi Leder, whose big-screen debut was The Peacemaker, has now made her second perfectly competent but unexciting picture for Dreamworks SKG, the Hollywood start-up helmed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. If The Peacemaker seemed like a pitch for a James Bond movie that didn’t make the cut, Deep Impact plays like a TV miniseries that’s been hacked to the bone. All the most interesting bits —like the arrival at a network of caves being built underneath Missouri to hold a million Americans selected by lottery — are cut short before they can play a part in the story. Where’s the chaos of such an event? Where’s the society in tumult? Featured instead are gooey close-ups of babies’ faces, interminable conversations between people we don’t care about, and shots of couples staring lovingly into each other’s eyes and embracing in their final moments.

If you go, root for the comets.


Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin
Cinematography by Dietrich Lohmann
Starring Téa Leoni, Morgan Freeman, and Elijah Wood
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)
U.S.A., 1998

He Got Game

For a guy who doesn’t want to be called “the black Woody Allen,” Spike Lee sure invites the comparison. Look at his new movie, He Got Game, which opens with some gorgeous hoops-across-America photography of kids shooting baskets, all set to music by Aaron Copland. Barring a few songs by Public Enemy, the musical score to He Got Game is all Copland. It would be fairly unprecedented if Woody Allen hadn’t already done much the same thing, setting his rhapsody in Manhattan to music by great American composer George Gershwin. Continue reading

Nightwatch

With the U.S. release of Nightwatch, Deep Focus comes full circle. The very first review I wrote for the Internet was dashed off after I trekked halfway across Chicago, in the rain, to see a film festival screening of a little Danish horror movie that looked promising. That movie was Ole Bornedal’s Nattevagten, and it disappointed me so much that I dashed off a bitter review, hoping simply to warn others away from it should it begin a regular U.S. theatrical run. Continue reading

Species II

Species II is one of those movies that the studio was ashamed to screen for critics. This is dumb. True, I can’t imagine that there’s a critic in the world who could find more than one or two kind words for Species II. But since when does a movie about space aliens mating with human females depend on good notices? Memo to MGM: there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Just look what The New York Times wrote in its Saturday editions: “Species II … includes bloody murder, bloody births, exploding heads, partial nudity, shootings, simulated sex, monstrous couplings, profanity, foul language and bad parenting on the part of a U.S. senator.” Continue reading

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