B.D.J. July 7 1997


B.D.J. July 7 1997

Adrenaline and aphrodisiacs


Finally, a good movie or two heat up the summer screen


It wondering launches is at this if one time they summer of are year in the blockbuster that wrong film after critics business. another, find As themselves Hollywood the critics cannot help raining on the parade. What is wrong with these people? Are they cinéphile snobs too overqualified to comprehend the simple joy of an explosion? Are they burnt out by special effects? Have they just seen too many movies? One exasperated Hollywood honcho recently went so far as to suggest there should be a separate class of critics to review action blockbusters. (Blockheads perhaps?) But there may be a simple explanation for the glut of bad reviews this summer: bad movies. For when a good one finally does come along—an action movie, no less—suddenly the critic no longer feels jaded.

FACE/OFF has all the familiar traits of other blockbusters—a preposterous premise, a black-humored sociopath, extravagant gunplay and cataclysmic plane and boat crashes. But after the lumbering Lost World, the campy Con Air, the snail-paced Speed 2, and the abysmal Batman & Robin, it arrives like a blast of adrenaline. Face/Off is the first summer action movie that is actually thrilling.

Directed by Hong Kong action virtuoso John Woo, it is also the most violent. And from the opening scene, which shows a woman being thrown from a plane during takeoff, then bouncing off the tarmac, it is clear that the violence will be neither politically correct nor socially redeeming. But it will be great fun. Woo choreographs the basic movements—the hail of bullets, the high-speed chase, the flying bodies and breaking glass—with astonishing finesse and exuberance. He favors balletic stunts over special effects. Carnage that would be overkill in the hands of a less-skilled director seems almost transcendent. And because the violence has such a graphic edge, the viewer is forced to ask why it seems so confoundingly beautiful.

Unlike the summer competition so far, Face/Off also offers a psychological side course. John Travolta and Nicolas Cage are diaboli-

cally matched as a cop and a criminal who end up swapping identities. Obsessed by vengeance, Los Angeles FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) has spent eight years tracking archrival Castor Troy (Cage), a terrorist whose victims include Archer’s five-year-old son. After finally capturing Troy, and putting him in a coma, Archer goes undercover to foil a bomb plot. Using a futuristic laser procedure, surgeons slice off Archer’s face and replace it with Troy’s, embedding a microchip in the larynx to alter his voice. Archer, now played by Cage, plants himself as an inmate of a high-tech prison to pry information from Troy’s psychotic brother. Troy, meanwhile, wakes up from his coma, overpowers the surgeons and forces them to give him Archer’s face. Troy, now played by Travolta, takes over the FBI agent’s identity, moves in with his wife and daughter, and traps the imprisoned cop in his criminal cover.

Though patently ludicrous, the conceit sets up a rich intrigue—and juicy acting opportunities for Travolta and Cage, who get to take turns playing hero and villain, impersonating each other as if from behind theatrical masks. An ingenious script fully exploits the comic irony. After escaping from prison, Archer gamely struggles to carry off Troy’s drug-fuelled lifestyle, which comes equipped with a rapacious girlfriend (Gina Gershon). Meanwhile, the flamboyant terrorist delights in rejuvenating the cop’s stalled sex life, to the consternation of his wife, Eve—played by Joan Allen {Nixon), who lends the outlandish plot some dramatic gravity.

Destruction, however, is the main event, from the opening plane crash to the climactic speedboat chase. Playing rhapsodic variations on the action formula, Woo makes a virtue of excess—when he stages a Mexican standoff, he has half a dozen people pointing guns at each other. Face/Off is in every sense a motion picture. And it moves with such mesmerizing flair that it is possible, at least momentarily, to suspend any moral qualms about making violence poetic.

But not everyone likes action movies. And in the shadow of the summer blockbusters, a number of small, independent films offer an alternative. Their distribution is often limited to major cities. They

hopscotch across the country with far less fanfare than the big studio pictures. But they are often more memorable.

FEMALE PERVERSIONS has a misleading title. No, it is not a B-movie. It is a Freudian and feminist odyssey into the wilds of gender, where the most wicked female perversion is bondage to bourgeois conformity. The film marks a stunning feature debut for writerdirector Susan Streitfeld, a Los Angeles agent turned film-maker. She based her script on American author Louise J. Kaplan’s 1991 bestseller, Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary, a series of psychoanalytic case studies exploring women’s sexuality. And Streitfeld’s fictional drama achieves a unique pitch of erotic power and behavioral complexity.

Tilda Swinton, the mercurial British actress who starred in the gender-bending Orlando,

portrays Eve, a high-powered California lawyer who suffers a crisis in self-esteem as she awaits nomination for a judgeship. Behind fragile veneer of overconfidence, Eve tries to maintain her composure with makeup, expensive lingerie and calculated sex. But she is haunted by fears that she is a fraud.

As Eve’s erotic fantasies spin out of control, she free-falls into a torrid affair with a lesbian psychiatrist (Karen Sillas). Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams) co-stars as Eve’s broke and bitterly envious sister, Madelyn, a kleptomaniac writing a thesis about a matriarchal society in rural Mexico. When Madelyn gets caught shoplifting, Eve runs to her rescue, and their worlds violently collide. As a study of class, power and gender, Female Perversions has a didactic streak. But Streitfeld also loves to dwell on nuance and texture, magnifying the rustle of stockings, and decoding body language. Slowly, she strips her characters’ defences. The sex, meanwhile, can get as explicit as the ideas, and even share the same bed—during one hot lovemaking scene, the camera catches a pillow sweetly embroidered with “Perversions are never what they seem to be.”

THE PILLOW BOOK explores sexual intelligence—and perversity—from another angle, one that belongs to a venerable tradition of male voyeurism. British director Peter Greenaway, a painter armed with a camera, marries the cerebral and the sensual with a peculiar rigor all his own. After the scatological mayhem of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and the Shakespearean fantasia of Prospero’s Books, Greenaway has refined his vision to create a more palatable confection.

The Pillow Book is a kind of literary skin flick—literally. A tale that explores the erotic potential of calligraphy, it is about a Japanese woman (Vivian Wu) obsessed by the ritual of handwriting on the human body. Greenaway has always venerated the nude, and here he casts a sensual spell with layered images of script being painted onto skin. Yes, there is also

a story, and a cast that includes Trainspotting star Ewan McGregor. But the beauty of The Pillow Book is in the brushstrokes.

ULEE'S GOLD, on the other hand, is a plain, homespun tale in the American realist tradition. It stars Easy Rider icon Peter Fonda, who makes a dignified comeback as Ulee, a reclusive beekeeper raising two granddaughters by himself in Florida. With a son in jail and a daughter-in-law on drugs, Ulee just wants to mind his own beeswax. But when two thugs come looking for some bank loot buried by his son, he has to act to protect his family.

With his meditative portrayal of Ulee, Fonda does a valiant job of reincarnating the quiet, stubborn honesty that his father, Henry, brought to the screen: Ulee’s most decisive act is not grabbing a gun. But writer-director Victor Nunez (Ruby in Paradise) lets the drama slide into honeyed sentiment. And his slow, understated style verges on sleepy. Ulee’s Gold offers an escape from action blockbusters, but it is the moviegoing equivalent of taking a monastic vow of silence. □