Say what you will about Liquid Sky, there’s no other movie like it. Shot largely in a nightclub that feels warmed to sweltering by big costumes and body heat and a crowded penthouse apartment with a killer view of the Empire State Building (and a UFO on the porch), it mashes up an annoyingly slack New Wave fashion show with a New York sci-fi story about aliens who crave heroin and/or human orgasms cooked up by frisky Russian immigrant writer, director and co-editor Slava Tsukerman.
Oliver Stone’s mean little thriller about dope, guns, and fucking in the California sun is enough fun to watch that, for about half of its running time, I didn’t care that it has little else going for it. An Oliver Stone screenplay used to bring with it a wild-eyed bid for topicality — films like Salvador and Scarface stood not just as provocation but also as snapshots of their era. Savages nods briefly in the direction of politics, with a sidelong reference to the presumably inevitable three-years-hence legalization of the kind of hard-to-get, THC-rich substance that’s the speciality of sexed-up potheads Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who get rich quick on their killer weed by day, then kick polyamorous squeeze Ophelia (Blake Lively) back and forth between them like a hacky-sack by night. Shit gets real when a Mexican drug cartel takes an interest in their business acumen and offers them a partnership they’d love to refuse.
One of the most powerful moments in Scarface is the culmination of a violent, perfectly judged sequence of events crafted for maximum impact by screenwriter Oliver Stone and staged with ferocious efficiency by director Brian De Palma. It takes place at the end of a night when Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster, a feisty little hard-on named Tony Montana, has survived an attempt on his life that left him with a bullet in his shoulder. He has overseen the execution of his boss, who was behind the hit. He has shot dead a corrupt cop who was extorting his cash and favours. And he has just been upstairs to collect from between satin sheets his boss’s woman, a sleek blonde dressed in white who is his prize. The camera zooms out from a medium close-up on Pacino’s face as, still bleeding, arm in a sling, exhaustion writ large across his face, Tony Montana peers through 20-foot-tall glass windows, staring dumbly into a Giorgio Moroder sunrise as an advertising blimp floats over the water, its pithy slogan an empty promise of greatness yet to come: “The World Is Yours….”
Coming on like he had something to prove, Steven Soderbergh managed to release not one but two world-beating films this year. Erin Brockovich was pretty good, an extremely well-directed movie of the week with a delightful-for-a-change Julia Roberts in the title role. But Traffic is a relatively deep and highly entertaining epic about the hypocrisies and futilities inherent in the American war on drugs. Transplanted to the U.S. and Mexico from a British TV miniseries set in the U.K. and Pakistan, Traffic dismantles U.S. drug policy with an acumen rarely seen in recent mainstream film. Distinguished by outstanding performances (particularly from Benicio del Toro and the great Don Cheadle) and superior storytelling strategy, the whole project is dragged down somewhat by contriving to make Drug Czar Michael Douglas’s daughter a goggle-eyed dope fiend and by Soderbergh’s overly stylized cinematographic strategy. Quibbles aside, the rest of the picture is an exciting message movie that proves Hollywood can still make exciting message movies. So bring ’em on, folks.
The most striking thing about Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, Pi, was not its sci-fi-for-mathematicians gimmick, but its aesthetic. Here was a low-budget filmmaker who gave the impression that not only did he not want millions of dollars from Uncle Weinstein, but he had no use for production values. As I write this, he’s just been tapped by Warner Bros. for the Batman franchise, but never mind. His first feature showed a dedication to the celluloid image that made me eager to see what his next step would be.