Holiday treats from Hollywood
The season for prestige flicks and blockbusters is here
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
As the year-end deadline for Oscar nominations approaches, Hollywood unwraps its so-called prestige pictures. And almost every major American director has jumped into the fray—including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Woody Allen and Gus Van Sant. Hollywood’s 12 days of Christmas also include three sequels, a James Bond blockbuster, a Jack Nicholson romantic comedy, and a Kevin Costner epic about a postapocalyptic postie. Maclean’s has previously reviewed Spielberg’s Amistad, Coppola’s The Rainmaker and Cameron’s Titanic. Scorsese’s Kundun, meanwhile, does not open in Canada until Jan. 16. Here is a sampling of Hollywood’s gift list:
Good Will Hunting The script began as a short story written by a struggling actor for a creative writing class at Harvard University. Matt Damon is no longer struggling. First, he made a splash as the young lawyer in The Rainmaker. Now, he stars opposite Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, based on the screenplay that Damon wrote at university with actor Ben Affleck, who plays his best friend in the film. Directed by Van Sant (To Die For), it is a dazzling piece of work.
Between writing and acting, the 27-yearold Damon displays a prodigious talent, and has the intelligence to carry off the lead role—as a young math genius named Will who works as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A delinquent from a rough neighborhood of South Boston, he is headed for jail on an assault charge when an M.I.T. math professor named Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgárd of Breaking the Waves) bails him out. Instead of doing time, Will agrees to undergo counselling with a therapist (Williams).
There are shades of the Dead Poets Society in the father-son bond that develops between Williams and the boy. But Good Will Hunt-
ing feels richer and more authentic. As an emotionally injured therapist, a pricklier version of his Oliver Sacks character in Awakenings,
Williams does his best work in years.
And as a headstrong student trying to win Will’s heart, British actress Minnie Driver (Grosse Pointe Blank) cuts a formidable swath through what is essentially a guy movie, a romance among men who hang out in bars, tell jokes and exchange high fives after cracking math formulas. Meanwhile, Van Sant, directing his first conventional narrative, skirts the edges of Hollywood formula without getting reduced to it.
Jackie Brown Three years after electrifying audiences with Pulp Fiction—and wearing out his welcome as an actor in a spate of indulgent cameos—Tarantino has finally delivered a new feature. Wisely, instead of trying to one-up Pulp Fiction’s flamboyance, he has produced a more modest film, one that forgoes directorial flash while staying rigorously faithful to the two sources that inspired it: the crime fiction of Elmore Leonard and the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. Many critics hailed 1995’s Get Shorty (starring John Travolta after his Pulp Fiction comeback) as the first movie to do Leonard justice. In fact,Get Shorty’s cartoonish style, though entertaining, failed to capture the understated realism of Leonard’s characters, who are always believable. But with Jackie Brown—based on the author’s 1995 novel Rum Punch— Tarantino has mastered Leonard’s dry voice with exacting fidelity.
Tarantino’s script does, however, take some cosmetic liberties with the book. As well as changing the title, he has shifted the setting from Miami to an area that he knows more intimately, the South Bay region of Los Angeles County. And he has changed the story’s white heroine into a black woman. By casting ’70s blaxploitation star Pam Grier as Jackie Brown—and stacking the sound track with vintage soul music—Tarantino has coupled his love for Leonard’s laid-back style with an homage to the retro cool of ’70s black pop culture. The dialogue, meanwhile, plays like syncopated jive, with the words “nigger” and “motherf-—” providing the backbeat. In fact, between the music and the script, Tarantino is practically directing the movie in blackface. “Nigger” is uttered dozens of times, which prompted Spike Lee to protest, ‘What does he want to be made— an honorary black man?”
The main character, Jackie Brown, is a flight attendant who gets caught smuggling cash and cocaine for a gunrunner named Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson). Facing a prison term, she agrees to set up Ordell in a sting operation for a federal agent named Ray (Michael Keaton). Jackie then lures the good-hearted Max, a bail bondsman, into helping her play Ordell and Ray off against each other. At stake is half a million dollars of Ordell’s cash that she plans to smuggle out of Mexico.
The plot unfolds as a competitive intelligence test, and in Leonard’s vision of the criminal mind, there is a fine line between smart and stupid. Those with failing grades include Ordell’s confederates—Melanie (Bridget Fonda), the pothead surfer girl, and Louis (Robert De Niro), the shambling ex-convict. The characters are all spot on, especially De Niro’s, a lazy psycho on a slow boil. But in reproducing every tic of the plot, and staying faithful to Leonard’s patient style, Tarantino has made a good movie that, at 155 minutes, is too long and somewhat unexciting. In the final act, the pace seriously lags. But for a director like Tarantino, taking the risk of boring his audience seems almost commendable.
As Good as It Gets The season’s designated romantic comedy. Jack Nicholson plays Melvin, a misanthropic author who makes a good living writing romance novels but seems to have no clue about how romance works in the real world. Melvin suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, which causes him to avoid cracks in the sidewalk, bring his own cutlery to restaurants and treat everyone who approaches him with sarcastic malice. The one person who puts up with him is Carol (Helen Hunt), a no-nonsense waitress who serves Melvin breakfast each day at his local diner. She is the single mother of an asthmatic child, and when Melvin uses his pull to find her a good doctor, that sparks a slow-burn romance fraught with dependency.
Against his better judgment, Melvin also helps out Simon (Greg Kinnear), a gay artist who lives next door in his Manhattan apartment building. After a brutal beating leaves Simon hospitalized, Melvin adopts his dog. Gradually the misanthropic writer, the gay painter and the waitress-mom come together in a skewed triangle. As Good As It Gets offers an odd mix of offbeat and old-fashioned. Director James L. Brooks ('Terms of Endearment) pushes the comedy with a slow, heavy-handed touch. He plays the glances and pauses for more than they are worth, giving Nicholson unlimited licence to mug—Jack practically writes his name with his eyebrows. Hunt is, as always, fabulous: smart, sexy and dead real. Her scenes with Nicholson are fun. Everything else seems beside the point, including the story of the battered, sensitive gay artist. And although the romance between Carol and the older curmudgeon is meant to be far-fetched, it is
never fully credible. As Good As It Gets is not bad, but could be better. And there is something vaguely creepy about that overworked twinkle in the eye of an aging actor—as Woody Allen has proven more than once.
Deconstructing Harry After coyly avoiding his own reflection in a string of comic fantasies, from Bullets over Broadway to Everybody Says I Love You, Allen has finally plunked himself back on the cinematic couch. Deconstructing Harry, the 27th movie he has written and directed, is one of the most nakedly confessional works of his career. This is Woody’s mea culpa movie. For the first time since Husbands and Wives (1992), the comedy is undercut by close-tothe-bone slices of self-revelation. It is as if Allen has taken everyone’s worst assumptions about him and cast himself as an utter reprobate—a jaded philanderer at the
wrong end of a custody battle whc spends the film wracked by guilt and selfloathing before finally basking in a very public redemption.
It is not a pretty sight.
The most routinely prolific of American film-makers has cast himself as a celebrated author, Harry Block, who is struggling with writer’s block (get it?) for the first time in his life. Harry is a sadder, more unsavory version of Woody’s old nebbish persona, complete with army jacket. He is surrounded by hysterical ex-wives horrified by the depths oí his betrayal. And he complains he has squandered everything on “lawyers and shrinks and whores.” With a knowingness that seems uncomfortably authentic, Harry rhapsodizes at great length about the marvels of sex-for-hire. “I still love whores,” he says. “They come over to the house, and you don’t have to discuss Proust or films.”
The sprawling narrative, which includes a Felliniesque excursion to hell with Billy Crystal serving as Satan, lacks Allen’s customary elegance. The dialogue is spiked with the kind of profanity that would seem nore at home in a Quentin Tarantino movie, ind with 85 speaking roles, it almost looks æ Allen is staging a rally of supportive ámeos—by stars including Robin Williams, udy Davis, Kirstie Alley, Elisabeth Shue, iichard Benjamin, Mariel Hemingway, Demi doore and Seinfelds Julia Louis-Dreyfus. One reason for the crowded cast is that the novie flips back and forth between the charters and their fictional versions in Harry’s autobiographical novel. (Alley portrays Carry’s last wife, Joan, a psychiatrist who lumps him after he sleeps with one of her paients; Moore plays Joan’s fictional counter>art.) It is an ingenious device. And Allen un:orks some heady one-liners—“Nihilism,
Almost every major director, from Scorsese to Tarantino, has a new movie
cynicism, sarcasm, orgasm!” a bitter ex-wife yells at Harry. “In France,” he replies, “you could run on that slogan and win.”
With its gratuitous wit, an inferior Woody Allen flick is still more entertaining than a lot of film comedy. But as a descent into Allen’s fretful psyche, this dirty, deconstructed Harry tells us more than we ever wanted to know. For fans only.
Tomorrow Never Dies James Bond, who has been around even longer than Woody Allen, is the most successful franchise in movie history. And, 35 years after Sean Connery started it all so humbly with Dr No, the latest Bond feature enjoys a dubious distinction: it offers the biggest product placement advertising in movie history. With glaring plugs for Absolut vodka and BMW, this late-model 007 sometimes seems more like a sales agent than a secret agent. But Tomorrow Never Dies is still the best, and brightest, Bond flick since Connery’s prime.
After his businesslike debut in GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan now seems more comfortable in the role. Jonathan Pryce makes a delicious villain as a media baron who tries to provoke a war between Britain and China as a marketing ploy for his new satellite broadcast system. And as a Chinese agent who teams up with 007 to save the world, Hong Kong action virtuoso Michelle Yeoh—the female Jackie Chan—puts a high-kicking spin on the Bond Girl stereotype.
Meanwhile, British-born film-maker Roger Spottiswoode directs with finesse, although the action suffers from the usual overkill. Less mayhem and more martinis would be preferable. But, from the dissolving nude silhou-
ettes in the opening credits to the finale in the South China Sea, Tomorrow is classic Bond.
One curious note. Titanic seems to have set the course of action this season. Tomorrow's plot turns on the dramatic sinking of a naval vessel, and a dangerous dive into the wreck. Both Tomorrow and Amistad have scenes of a woman being shackled to chains and thrown overboard to drown. And even Alien: Resurrection, a space movie, has an underwater chase scene.
Alien: Resurrection Extraterrestrial alien parasites have come a long way from those sticky pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). And the Alien franchise keeps incubating ickier, more fertile monsters with each instalment. The beauty of the first two Alien movies—directed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron—was that these things lurked within. They would hide, like a disease, waiting to surface. But in Alien: Resurrection, there is no suspense. The crea-
tures are caged behind Plexiglas in a mad scientist’s spaceship laboratory, and pretty soon the place is crawling with them. Offering new dimensions in drool, the movie is all action, no foreplay, an orgy of gelatinous ooze and splatter. As usual, Sigourney Weaver is impressive as the alien-busting Ripley—a clone with alien blood in her veins who forms a bond with an intergalactic Goody Two-shoes (Winona Ryder).
But the dialogue is all sound bite stuff that works better in the trailer. As for the action, Alien: Resurrection is not even a good rollercoaster ride. There are not enough ups and downs. It’s more like that old midway nausea machine called The Scrambler. And when-
ever French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet wants to push the action into overdrive, he shakes the camera until everything turns into an impressionist blur, or strobes the lights wildly enough to trigger seizures and migraines. Alien: Resurrection is just plain alienating. Scream 2 Dubbed Deconstructing Horror by one critic, director Wes Craven’s funny, self-referential sequel to his 1996 slasher movie features a film-class scene in which students ask if there are any exceptions to the rule that the sequel is never better than the original. Well, this one is. In its opening sequence, a killer lurks in a movie theatre where a riotous audience wearing Edvard Munch Scream masks watches the premiere of Stab, a movie based on the grisly murders in the original Scream. From then on, the campy, hall-of-mirrors humor never lets up. Ontario-born actress Neve Campbell, reprising her role as Sidney, the stalked heroine, plays it wonderfully straight. Courteney Cox is back as the brazenly ambitious TV journalist Gale Weathers. And Craven, delivering the thrills like an
electroshock impresario, offers a postmodern crash course in movie horror. Scream 2 is a scream.
Home Alone 3 Although none of the stars has returned from the previous two instalments, this marks another exception to the rule that sequels cannot surpass the original. In fact, this is the first Home Alone movie that parents can perhaps tolerate without cringing. Written by John Hughes, who created the series, and directed by his editor, Raja Gosnell, it follows the same basic formula of a solitary kid fighting off intruders with torturous booby traps. So what makes it better? First off, bratty Macaulay Culkin is not in it. Replacing him as the Terminator Tot is a loveable eight-year-old named Alex D. Linz. And instead of battling some crummy burglars, he is taking on a gang of Euro-terrorists. Also, the slapstick is funnier. And the cruelty, if this is possible, seems more good-natured. □