BARBARA WICKENS October 30 1995


BARBARA WICKENS October 30 1995

Constant cravings

Sex, drink, murder and war fuel four movies




Directed by Woody Allen

Ever since he scandalized his fans three years ago by betraying Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, it seems that Woody Allen has been dancing as fast as he can to regain the affection of his audience. After the embarrassing life-art coincidences of 1992’s Husbands and Wives, Allen has backed off from personal realism and turned out one innocuous farce after another: Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway—and now Mighty Aphrodite. This is Allen’s most broadly entertaining movie in a long time, a deliberate crowd pleaser. But once the laughter subsides, the fdm does not bear thinking about. And measured against such milestones as Annie Hall (1977) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1990), Mighty Aphrodite is mighty slight.

Allen plays Lennie, a New York City sportswriter married to a career-obsessed art gallery owner named Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter). While she falls for the charms of a sleazy client (Peter Weller), Lennie secretly tracks down their adopted son’s birth mother, only to discover that she is a prostitute, a prototypically dumb blond (Mira Sorvino). As the butt of Allen’s jokes, Sorvino is a riot. But her character—an endearingly stupid, almost wholesome hooker—is a dubious creation, to say the least. And while the director dotes on Sorvino,

Bonham Carter receives cruelly short shrift as the inattentive wife (a role that would have gone to Mia Farrow in the old days).

The movie’s most innovative gag involves a running commentary by a wisecracking Greek chorus Oed by F. Murray Abraham). It is a truly inspired touch. Otherwise, the movie is a throwback to Allen’s early physical comedy. And as he resurrects his nebbish act— squirming on the couch in a seduction scene like a ticklish pixie— there is something painfully desperate about it. In Mighty Aphrodite, one of America’s great directors finally gives in to all the fans who kept asking him to stop with the art and be a comedian again. He gets the laughs, but they have a hollow ring.


Directed by Mike Figgis

Typically these days, stories of alcoholics are fables of recovery. Not Leaving Las Vegas. This is an unrelenting drama of selfdestruction, the story of a writer who vows to drink himself to death and never looks back. It is based on a semi-autobiographical

novel by American John O’Brien that turned out to be a suicide note: the author killed himself just two weeks after learning that his novel was to be made into a movie. Leaving Las Vegas is not, however, as grim as it sounds. This is a trip to hell that takes time to drink in the scenery—it is passionate, lyrical, sexy, sometimes mordantly funny and, yes, intoxicating. When it is over, the impulse is not to swear off drinking, but to head to the nearest bar and order a double.

Nicholas Cage plays Ben, an alcoholic who packs up life and heads to Las Vegas for one final binge after being fired from his screenwriting job at a Hollywood studio. Cashing in his severance pay, he stocks up on liquor of every description. He drinks and drinks and drinks—in bars, in his motel room, behind the wheel of his car. One night, he picks up a hooker named Sera (Elisabeth Shue) and, after his sexual bravado proves to be a sham, they become friends, then soul mates. He places only one condition on their relationship: she must never ask him to stop drinking.

The movie, in a sense, asks the same thing of the audience. And that is strangely liberating. No matter how bleak and disturbing the story gets, the film’s absolute lack of moral restraint has an exhilarating effect. The story, after all, unfolds from Ben’s point of view, and Ben loves to drink. It is probably safe to say that no movie has ever shown a character guzzling so much liquor. Leaving Las Vegas offers the alcoholic equivalent of exaggerated screen violence. Warning—brutal drinking.

At the risk of going right over the top, Cage gives his most powerful performance to date. It is easy to rely on mannerisms when playing a drunk, but the actor brings a scary inner conviction to the role. And Shue skilfully sidesteps the clichés of playing a gorgeous hooker. Her Sera is attractive and tough, but she makes it viscerally clear that there is no glamor in prostitution.

In Leaving Las Vegas, drinking is sexier than sex. Painting the screen with the cocktail colors of Vegas, writer-director Michael Figgis (Internal Affairs) creates images of fluid, narcotic sensuality. Figgis also wrote and composed the sound track and—pushing the music into the foreground—he does not direct the movie so much as conduct it. There is very little plot, and what there is just drunkenly falls away. Sweetened with a few too many torch songs performed by Sting, the movie occasionally dissolves into pure ambience, a kind of cinematic lounge act. But when


tragedy finally breaks the spell, the emotional wallop is that much stronger.


Directed by Jon Amiel

If civilization accomplishes nothing else by the end of the millennium, at least it will have perfected the serial killer movie. As scripts explore the fine points of forensic pathology, the genre is becoming alarmingly sophisticated. The current hit Seven, in which the killer arranges his victims’ bodies in fetishistic displays, is the most ingenious serial murder movie in years. Copycat follows a similar formula: the killer, who sees himself as a visual artist, designs each murder scene as a tableau in a conceptual puzzle, planting elaborate clues for the police. Copycat offers nothing as diabolically brilliant as the final twist in Seven. But it is twisted. Clever, creepy and occasionally downright terrifying, Copycat preys on the scaredycat in everyone.

Helen (Sigourney Weaver) is an expert on serial killers who turns into a target.

After narrowly escaping a murder attempt by a leering psychopath (Harry Connick Jr., with bad teeth), she retreats into her lavish San Francisco home. A year later, she still has not ventured out her front door. Wired on pills, brandy and the Internet, Helen becomes an agoraphobiae, an extreme version of the terrified-womantrapped-alone-in-the-house. Which means, of course, that when the killer finally gets into the house, she is too scared to leave.

The villain is a sweet-faced young man (William McNamara) trying to make a name for himself by duplicating the crimes of famous serial killers, from the Boston Strangler to Ted Bundy. He, too, surfs the Internet, which is how he first invades Helen’s privacy. Cornered, she agrees to lend her expertise to a no-nonsense homicide cop (Holly Hunter) and her nice-guy partner (Dermot Mulroney).

Weaver tends to overplay the melodrama of her role as the embittered victim, spitting

out such lines as, “I’m the f-g muse of

serial killers—I’m their damned pin-up girl.” Hunter is more credible, playing the detective with cool efficiency. British director Jon Amiel (The Singing Detective) keeps the suspense taut, copycatting some classic thriller scare tactics (including a shower scene) and unleashing a few of his own.

At one point, Helen says of serial killers: “These guys are like viruses. There’s always some new mutation.” The same could be said of the movies about them. The killer

in Copycat quotes Murder by Numbers, a macabre song by the Police with the line, “You can turn murder into art.” Copycat begs the question: by celebrating the art of murder, could it inspire its own copycats? Now, that is scary.


Directed by Claude Lelouch

With his 1966 hit, A Man and a Woman, he had a generation of North Americans crooning that “da-ba-da-ba-da” tune and imagining themselves in a French movie. Now, after never living up to his early success, French director Claude Lelouch has created his most ambitious work. Les Misérables is a 3 ‘/4-hour epic that restages the panoramic 1845 novel by Victor Hugo in Nazi-occupied France. A wonderfully weathered Jean-Paul

Belmondo plays a valiant ex-boxer named Henri who becomes fascinated with Hugo’s novel and sees his life uncannily imitate that of its hero, Jean Valjean. Belmondo also plays Valjean in scenes from Les Misérables that are playfully woven through the film.

Henri’s story focuses on his efforts to help a Jewish lawyer, André (Michel Boujenah), and his ballerina wife, Elise (Alessandra Martines), to flee the Nazi scourge. It is André who introduces the illiterate Henri to Hugo’s novel, reading it to him as he tries to smuggle them out of the country. Set against the drama of betrayal and resistance in wartime France, the film swings whimsically back and forth between the comic and tragic, occasionally descending into hokum.

With all the characters serving as pawns of destiny (and of the movie’s elaborate conceit), there is not much room for psychological realism. Lelouch lays on the sentiment with a trowel. But the story, directed with an old-fashioned sense of spectacle, is strangely captivating. It may seem like a lot to ask an audience to read more than three hours of subtitles. With Les Misérables, however, the time is well spent. It is like curling up with an absorbing book, one that feels both foreign and familiar. □