Films

Smart and sultry

Clever fare breaks the summer mould

Brian D. Johnson July 1 1998
Films

Smart and sultry

Clever fare breaks the summer mould

Brian D. Johnson July 1 1998

Smart and sultry

Films

Clever fare breaks the summer mould

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Perhaps it is El Niño. Or an alien micro-organism borne by killer bees. But whatever the cause, it sounds like a case for The X-Files. Something weird is going on with summer movies. At a time when the big screen is traditionally ruled by dumb blockbusters, there has been a freak outbreak of intelligence. A couple of early blockbusters are still out there, lingering like space junk after noisy launches. But Deep Impacts, tale of families sulking on the eve of destruction was a bore. And the overhyped Godzilla faces early extinction at the box office, proving that size is not all that matters.

Smartness, it appears, matters too. And the season’s two smartest pictures are both ingenious satires of a corporate America that worships size over substance. The Truman Show, a shrewd Orwellian fable about the dictatorship of television, proves it is possible to make a hit movie without underestimating the intelligence of the audience. And, though less popular, Bulworth is the most fiercely subversive comedy to emerge from Hollywood in recent memory. Warren Beatty’s outrageous assault on politicians, the media and the studio system that bankrolled him make Wag the Dog and Primary Colors seem tame by comparison.

Even some of the new formula flicks are enlivened by stabs of insolent wit. In The XFiles, the summer’s self-consciously cool blockbuster, FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) urinates in an alley against a movie poster for Independence Day. And in the silly but diverting Six Days, Seven Nights,

out-of-the-closet actress Anne Heche creates hetero chemistry out of a casting controversy—holding her own in romantic repartee with Harrison Ford.

For once, men and women seem fairly matched on screen. And often women have the upper hand. Take Jennifer Lopez, who delivers a smoldering performance opposite George Clooney in Out of Sight—which, despite any claims about The X-Files, qualifies as the season’s coolest movie. Based on Elmore Leonard’s 1996 novel, it is a sexy, sophisticated intrigue about an escaped convict (Clooney) and a federal marshal (Lopez) who pursue an offside romance when they should be shooting each other.

Picking up where Get Shorty and Jackie Brown left off, Out of Sight elevates the delicate art of adapting Elmore Leonard to a new level. Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape) directs with a subtle hand. Accenting the narrative with freeze-frames, jump cuts and flashbacks, he forces the viewer to pay attention. Buying Clooney as a criminal is not easy, but after the disastrous Batman & Robin, his charisma finally works on the big screen. And Lopez, who performs with lethal poise, wears her role like nitroglycerine lip gloss.

At a time when testosterone usually rules the screen, this summer there is also a flurry of compelling independent films with uncontainable female protagonists—The Opposite of Sex, The Last Days of Disco, High Art and Under the Skin. In The Opposite of Sex, Christina Ricci (The Addams Family, The Ice Storm) plays Dedee, a teenage runaway who seduces her brother’s supposedly gay boyfriend, steals the ashes of his previous boyfriend who died of AIDS, then hits the road armed and pregnant. Directed by screenwriter Don Roos (Single White Female), this corrosive satire is riddled with sharp observations about sex. According to Dedee, “Sex always ends in kids, or disease or, like, relationships—I want the opposite of all that.” Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), the embittered sister of the AIDS victim, says: “I don’t get sex—I’d rather have a back rub, or a great shampoo.” And Carl (Lyle Lovett), the cop who falls for her, suggests: “Say the point of sex isn’t recreation or procreation. Say it’s concentration—say it’s supposed to focus your attention on the person you’re sleeping with.”

With even the stupid characters sounding unnaturally eloquent, the smart-ass dialogue can undermine the drama. And the overworked plot often just gets in the way. But as a slightly pudgy fille fatale, Ricci is a malicious delight. And behind the cynicism there is enough joy in The Opposite of Sex to make it worth the trouble.

The Last Days of Disco is another satirical comedy of manners, though with a gentler sting. Set in ’80s Manhattan, it is the final

FILMS_

instalment in writer-director Whit Stillman’s semi-autobiographical trilogy (after Metropolitan and Barcelona). This time, he examines the narcissism of a preppie generation adrift between the worlds of book publishing and disco dancing. He directs in a flat style that seems awfully wooden at first, especially when he has characters conversing in a disco without ever raising their voices. But Stillman’s wit has a sly momentum, and the performances ring true. A deliciously catty Kate Beckinsale and a vacantly demure Cloë

Sevigny play roommates vying for dubious men—and for promotions to associateeditor. Light years from Boogie Nights, this must be the most bookish disco movie ever made, one where words have more cachet than sex and drugs combined.

Not so with High Art. Sex ’n’ drugs have a seductive allure in director Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature, a drama about an editor at a photography magazine (Radha Mitchell) who takes a walk on the wild side with a smack-snorting lesbian photographer

(Ally Sheedy). What with The Horse Whisperer and Six Days, Seven Nights, magazine editor seems to be the profession of choice for romantic heroines seeking adventure. But High Art is about romantics on heroin—a sensual, narcotic trip into transgression. The camera adores Mitchell, a lovelier, less irritating Mariel Hemingway. And a rake-thin Sheedy—utterly convincing as an artist in control of her habit—is a long way from her brat pack days in The Breakfast Club.

But for those craving total escape from the hothouse passions of American movies, the Brits can always be counted on to provide a cold shower of realism. With Under the Skin, a descent into one woman’s emotional hell, writer-director Carine Adler makes a feature debut that ranks with the best work of her English compatriot Mike Leigh (Naked). Iris (Samantha Morton), a 19-yearold misfit, becomes unhinged after the untimely death of her mother (Rita Tushingham). Resentful of her married and pregnant sister, Rose (Claire Rushbrook), she drifts into a self-destructive spiral. Donning her mother’s wig and fur coat, Iris submits to a string of casual, compulsive and degrading liaisons with unsavory men. True to its title, Under the Skin is a more intimate, less lurid Breaking the Waves—by turns harrowing, grimly erotic, and oddly uplifting.

At the other extreme from such edgy adult fare, Hollywood offers a quasi-feminist heroine in a cartoon that parents will be able to watch without wincing. Muían recasts a 2,000-year-old Chinese legend in the Disney mould. A cross between Pocahontas and Joan of Arc, Muían is a young girl who goes to war in male disguise, secretly taking the place of her ailing father. The music is bland. And the characters, who include a dumbhunk hero and a wiseacre dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, are formulaic. But the art borrows beautifully from traditional Chinese brushwork—this is Kundun for kids. And, in portraying the Huns as monstrous villains, Disney has finally found a race that it can demonize with impunity.

Meanwhile on the blockbuster front, as the world awaits Armaggedon (due on July 1), The X-Files tries to corner the market on the end of the world as we know it. The movie is modestly entertaining. But, in trying to split the difference between action and deadpan wit, it seems to labor under the identity crisis of the TV show, and its star. When Mulder, the Hamlet of paranormal investigators, agonizes over whether he should quit the FBI, it could be Duchovny talking about quitting the series. As for the unexpressed romance between Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson), it generates some amusing comic tension, leading to the threshold of a kiss. But as the movie succumbs to action clichés, Scully is reduced to a damsel in distress. The loose ends never do come together. And the famous intelligence of The X-Files—whether alien or human—looks suspiciously like a hoax. □