Our New Year's number is a mother goose with three eggs tucked behind. It could be a sign of cryptic rhymes and unhatched possibilities--or maybe of silliness, tailed by a lot of nothing. Either way, I'm asking for a couple weeks' grace before this pictured future becomes the present; a thousand or so December releases are still clamoring in my brain.
Here's one I'd love to dump from the noggin: Frank Darabont's The Green Mile. Based on a serialized novel by Stephen King, this film towers above the past century's movies as a monument--a headstone, to be precise.
At the grave's foot is the rock upon which Hollywood was built, The Birth of a Nation: a three-hour film in which epic events become intimate through D.W. Griffith's artistry, and vicious through his race hatred. In The Green Mile, by contrast, events that are intimate (if not claustrophobic) are dragged out to epic length, in the name of a race love that's little better than hate. John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is a death-row inmate in thirties Mississippi: the biggest, strongest black man you ever saw. But look--the scary Negro isn't bad! A simple child of nature, J.C. really wants to die in the electric chair, so he can bear away the sins of the white men who throw the switch. Thank you, Stephen King and Frank Darabont. Now we know where Paul Robeson went wrong: He ought to have been an idiot.
And speaking of idiots: Here's a film directed by Julie Taymor. Though reputed to be a theatrical genius, she has made a hash of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, turning one of the stupidest plays ever written (I quote T.S. Eliot) into the dumbest movie of December '99.
Now, in Titus, hash is not just a dish served up at the climax. It's Taymor's specialty. She has made her name by mixing together the flavors of different places and epochs, laying out for her public a global brunch. So, in Titus, fascist chic gets served up with lost-world primitivism, Renaissance weeds with late-nineties kid's wear, to no more purpose than can be found in the reeling-drunk camera movements or dump-it-in-the-Cuisinart editing. Taymor's images, chronically baggy, reveal that she has neither innate camera talent nor the humility to learn that which nature did not supply. To judge from Anthony Hopkins's braying in the title role--he lurches through the film, screaming his way up a three-note scale--Taymor is equally clueless with actors.
But, speaking of unwatchable: Here's Girl, Interrupted. Directed by James Mangold, based on a memoir by Susanna Kaysen, this is the story of a young woman's long season in a Massachusetts mental hospital in the late sixties. Winona Ryder stars, while also serving as an executive producer--a conjunction that may explain why no other actor was allowed to occupy the frame with her. The movie plays as an exercise in photo-booth acting: two hours of Winona in close-up, mugging away.
I could say much the same about Alan Parker's plodding film version of Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes: Though playing a married couple, Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle cohabit the frame about four times in two and a half hours. (They somehow keep missing each other, while Parker and his co-screenwriter Laura Jones skirt past McCourt's bitter laughter.) Snow Falling on Cedars? The fanciest photo booth on record. Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh and Rick Yune pose singly within various lighting effects, while music crashes and breaks like the crool, crool sea. These washes of prettiness apparently have something to do with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Go ask Scott Hicks. He directed the mess.
And speaking of messes: Anthony Minghella, who could do as he pleased after The English Patient, has converted Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley into a muddle-headed, super-deluxe film. The best I can say is that Matt Damon does not disgrace himself, blinking and shucksing through the title role as a not-so-innocent American abroad. If you've seen René Clément's 1960 film of the same novel (known as Purple Noon), you probably will prefer the cold beauty of Alain Delon and the flair of a real movie director. (Clément gives you a giddy sequence of crime on the high seas; Minghella, a brawl on a dinghy.) What you'll miss most of all in the new version is the calculation of a psychopath. Minghella's Ripley, unlike Clément's, contains no abyss--just a banal hunger for love, and a style of improvisation that relies heavily on violence. You never shiver at this man; you just think, "Too bad Ben Affleck wasn't around in the fifties to keep the guy company."
But enough of bad movies. Here, in ascending order, are a few pictures that at least sparked my interest at year's end:
In Any Given Sunday, Oliver Stone has some fun translating Hollywood onto the football field. Al Pacino plays old-time pro coach Tony D'Amato, a guy who resembles an aging movie director. Fifteen years ago, he won football's equivalent of the Oscar. Today, he gets no respect from the money people, from the ladies in the bar (who now charge for something they used to give away free) and especially from the big-headed young players. Jamie Foxx plays the rising star--that is, the hot new quarterback who won't follow Tony's playbook.
When a football player comes at an opponent the way Stone approaches a scene, he's called for unnecessary roughness. Yet the actors seem to have enjoyed themselves, splashing around in the mud--and before Stone tacks on a half-dozen happy endings, he does throw into your face a bucket's worth of real, present-day racial animosity. That's precisely the stuff from which you're shielded by so many other films, from The Green Mile to Norman Jewison's misconceived The Hurricane--so the experience is pleasantly bracing.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is Errol Morris's documentary portrait of a self-taught American engineer who designed equipment for executions: a more efficient electric chair, an improved gallows, the machinery for lethal injections. Building upon this experience, Leuchter went to Auschwitz in 1988 on behalf of a Holocaust denier and conducted a "forensic investigation," which claimed that the camp had contained no gas chambers. His "Leuchter Report" has since circulated among pinheads of all nations.
Morris has been terrific at exposing Leuchter's attitudes. (Talking to the camera, Leuchter says he built execution equipment to spare the condemned needless suffering--but he seems most of all to have wanted to sanitize executions, so they wouldn't disgust prison guards and witnesses.) Morris has also done excellent work in bringing in a historian, Robert Jan van Pelt, to demolish Leuchter's conclusions. ("A victim of the myth of Sherlock Holmes" is van Pelt's exasperated description of "this fool.") The bad news is, Morris shoots like Oliver Stone. He can't stop fussing with the angles, the stock, the exposure, the camera speed. Somewhere amid these distractions, you lose Leuchter. Other people tack judgments onto him--he's just a little man, they say, led astray by vanity--but the subject is never allowed to unfold, as it did so strangely and movingly in Morris's Gates of Heaven.
If you're looking for that kind of astonishment, I would recommend instead one of December's few unalloyed pleasures: Man on the Moon. It's ostensibly the life story of Andy Kaufman: TV actor, burlesque wrestler, Elvis impersonator, song-and-dance man (as he called himself)--all in all, one of the strangest figures to pop up in American culture in the seventies. But since the film proposes that Kaufman had no identifiable self, the movie ends before it can begin. There is no life to tell.
With that as the fundamental gag, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have spun out another of their portraits of highly evocative American weirdos. First came Ed Wood; next, The People vs. Larry Flynt. Compared with these, Man on the Moon contributes little to the social and cultural history of America. But under the loving direction of Milos Forman, it takes a venerable theme--that life is a series of comedy skits--and makes it bubble into your brain. "What the hell was that?" you ask, as each moment goes pop. No time to answer; the next improbability is already upon you, acted out by Jim Carrey at his slickest. He performs the way a tissue of liquid encloses thin air: roundly, seamlessly, so that he's visible while verging on disappearance. Why didn't he get the lead in The Talented Mr. Ripley?
No--too dangerous. Only inventive filmmakers with unconventional minds would have made such a choice; so catch Carrey in Man on the Moon. Rejoice that such a talent is among us, and that filmmakers such as Forman, Alexander and Karaszewski know how to put him to use.
The rest is goose eggs.
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While I'm in a retrospective mood, here's a list of favorite films from the past year: Topsy-Turvy, Magnolia, Three Kings, After Life, Being John Malkovich, All About My Mother, Rosetta, Election, The Insider, The Dreamlife of Angels, A Moment of Innocence (released briefly and late in the United States in 1999), Time Regained (Raul Ruiz's miraculous film of Proust's final novel, not released in 1999), The Lovers on the Bridge (miraculously released, seven years late), Holy Smoke (Jane Campion's latest whatzit, to be reviewed when it's actually released), Boys Don't Cry, Buena Vista Social Club, The Rage: Carrie 2, Regret to Inform (to be broadcast on PBS, January 24), Summer of Sam, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Autumn Tale, Dick, Dogma, The Muse, West Beirut, The Limey, eXistenZ, Felicia's Journey, On the Ropes, The Apple, The Straight Story, Mystery Men, The City, Black Cat, White Cat, Dr. Akagi, Sweet and Lowdown and (of course) Man on the Moon. Any year that could toss up thirty-seven Best Films had something to recommend it. Here's hoping 2000 can do as well.