Review: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Director: Terry Gilliam

****

Some films pay homage, some films get remade and some are like Twelve Monkeys. Chris Marker’s little masterpiece La Jetée gets an expectedly downbeat redux in Terry Gilliam’s film, and proves a good template for remakes/adaptations by being incredibly faithful to the source material. Add in Bruce Willis, and you’re on to a winner.

La Jetée itself is probably one of the biggest proponents of that great cinematic device, the dystopian future. As in Marker’s short, most of mankind has been wiped out by a virus and the survivors that remain have been forced underground to survive. As seen in Brazil, Gilliam is a dab hand at blending the futuristic, the dystopian and the chaotic and, much like that film, the future of Twelve Monkeys is well realized though aesthetically grim. Amongst the futuristic refugees is James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner who can reduce his sentence by signing up for a time travel experiment and bringing back a sample of the virus to synthesize a cure. When the plan goes awry and Cole ends up in 1990, he is certified as insane when he tries to explain himself. Cole ends up in a mental institution under the watch of Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe), and where he befriends fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Pitt excels in a barrage of paranoid ramblings and nervous ticks, while Stowe’s initial cynicism melting into care for Cole makes her lack of a consistent career since all the more strange. Meanwhile, Willis turns in one of his best performances as the wronged and battered protagonist. After a few more failed attempts, Cole eventually ends up in 1996 and, with Railly’s help, discovers the truth about the virus and the group who released it, known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, now led by Goines and bent on destruction.

La Jetée was a downbeat film, but it overcame it with beautifully simple filmmaking technique and a runtime short enough to prevent the audience getting too down. Twelve Monkeys does get a little maudlin, but the movies have been telling us for years that the future is done for, so why worry? The future is grim, but Gilliam cleverly doesn’t make the present look much better. The virus was stolen from the laboratory owned by Goines’ father (Christopher Plummer), and once again our present selves become the architects of our future destruction. It’s not terribly optimistic, and key plot turns sometimes hinge on coincidence or happenstance, but Twelve Monkeys is brilliantly brash and bizarre, honouring Marker’s mini-opus whilst making a mark all of its own. Monkey see, monkey do, do see Monkeys.

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Review: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

**

If there is one subject that Stanley Kubrick’s work was never afraid to deal with, it’s sex. Whether it was Humphrey’s forbidden lust in Lolita or the violent rape in A Clockwork Orange, sexuality is a subject Kubrick confronted and in which he proved himself well versed. It’s such a pity then that what would turn out to be his final film, and one which dealt so specifically with sex, is so cold, cerebral and boring, exactly the opposite of what sex should be. Arguably, that was Kubrick’s point, but when you have the most famous and attractive celebrity couple of that time in your film, is a little sexual tension too much to ask?

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman separated not long after spending a year shooting with Kubrick and, watching the early scenes in Eyes Wide Shut, it’s not really surprising. In the roles of Dr. Bill and Alice Harford, a well-to-do pair of Manhattan socialites, Cruise and Kidman are put through the emotional wringer. They attend a classy Christmas party being hosted by their friend Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Amongst the dancing and champagne, they are both flirted with by members of the opposite sex. Once they get home, whilst undressing for bed, they have a marijuana-fuelled and frank conversation about their own sexual desires. In this one voyeuristic scene we get to the core of the film’s point: marriage, for all its pleasures, can be a hindrance to our true desires. Fidelity can both crush and be a crutch. So, after some great scenes and our lesson learned, can we go home now? Tragically, there’s another two hours to go. In these two hours, Bill goes on a psychosexual odyssey encompassing prostitutes, gay slurs, an unnecessary murder-mystery plotline and a now-infamous orgy scene that veers between funereal boredom and unintentional hilarity. Eyes Wide Shut may be trying to make an argument about the coldness of modern sexual mores, but Kubrick’s eye is far too distant and clinical for material that requires more emotional investment. Adapating Arthur Schnitzler’s novel ‘Traumnovelle’, Kubrick and co-writer Frederic Raphael emphasize the cerebral in the sexual, foregetting/foregoing the emotional. There is a certain queasy unease throughout Eyes Wide Shut on a par with a bad bout of indigestion, reflecting the heaving gasbag of sexual knowledge the film purports to be. Any explanations of the the scenes involving the costume-seller (Rade Serbedziga), his daughter (Leelee Sobieski) and those Japanese businessmen are welcome.

Kidman is a wonderfully heady tease, though Cruise has the bigger job here. He does fine, though his performance here lacks the gumption of his (ironically) unrepressed sex guru in Magnolia. Since these two are the definite focus of the film, it means reducing fine actors like Todd Field and Sydney Pollack to explanatory cyphers (a final conversation between Cruise and Pollack’s characters is unforgivably protracted). Since he produced, co-wrote and directed it, most of the blame must rest with the late lamented Kubrick. It’s painful to say, but his last film was a bad one. He attempted to make a probing dissertation on the gap between eroticism and fidelity, and ended up with a damp squib. It should get the blood pumping, but Eyes Wide Shut is flaccid. Like many of the perky breasts on display in the film, it looks great, but seems artificial once you try to get a feel of it.

Review: Clockers (1995)

Director: Spike Lee

***

Does Spike Lee need Ritalin? Looking back at his career, you have to wonder if he has a need to draw your attention to… well, whatever takes his fancy. In each of his films, there is a blatant need to signpost a problem or an obvious fact, or at least to sear some unforgettable images in the back of your mind.

It’s unlikely a jheri-curled John Turturro qualifies as such an image. However, said wig (only the second-best haircut of Turturro’s career after Barton Fink) is just one highlight in Lee’s 1995 crime drama Clockers. Turturro and Harvey Keitel play Detectives Mazilli and Klein, who are investigating the shooting of the owner of a burger joint. A ‘hood named Victor (Isaiah Washington) confesses, but the evidence points to his younger brother, ‘Strike’ (Mekhi Phifer). While Keitel’s Klein pressures Strike for more information, he is also under pressure from his mentor, gang boss Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo) to keep tight-lipped.

For a director whose subtlety is virtually non-existent, Lee exercises notable visual restraint in Clockers. DP Malik Hassan Sayeed uses a bright palette with a lot of natural light, and any directorial flourishes do not bleed into the production design; no garish outfits or neon-lit clubs here, no sir! However, there is a trade-off; instead of a garish look, we get a surprisingly clichéd gang story (courtesy of Lee and Richard Price, author of the source novel), complete with central conflicted hero. To top it off, Strike suffers from intestinal ulcers, which eventually result in him being hospitalised. A metaphor, you say? Clockers is very much aware of the time in which its set (Giuliani was recently elected at the time of shooting), and Lee’s love of NY is clear in how it is represented in the form of Strike, but it’s still a heavy-handed and preachy plot device. That said, Phifer is utterly magnetic as Strike; the stress of his situation is palpable, and is aided by solid support from Keitel and Lindo (incidentally, Keitel and John Tuturro were billed ahead of Phifer on the poster. Is it cos he is black? Lee’s probably pondered that one…). Clockers is a film of its time; relevant then, barely scraping by now on a clichéd tale and excellent performances. Lee will never be stale, but he needs to strive for deeper relevance lest his own repertoire should suffer that fate.

Review: Summer of Sam (1999)

Director: Spike Lee

**

The first scene of Summer of Sam shows the first two victims of David Berkowitz, the ‘Son of Sam’ (Michael Badalucco), sitting in a car preparing to go out to have fun in the balmy night in Pelham Bay. Before they or the audience know it, their blood is spattered all over the steering wheel and windscreen after several shots from Berkowitz’s .44 magnum. Spike Lee has made a serial killer movie, and it shows in every frame.

Truth be told, the serial killer aspect is only half the story. N.Y. 1977: Vinny (John Leguizamo) works as a coiffeur, is a demon on the dance floor and cheats on his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Not that his infidelity concerns him, though. Vinny is a repugnant little puke, and here we find the first problem with SOS. Our lead character is unlikeable, and our sympathies are such that we wouldn’t be too vexed if ‘Sam’ actually did kill him, as his drug-fuelled fears tell him could happen. Of more interest is Vinny’s friend Richie (Adrien Brody), a local boy just returned from London with spikes in his hair and punk in his blood. He and his girlfirend Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) are rockers, out of place amongst the Bronx youth who still grease their hair and dance to ABBA. Richie’s behaviour is enough to convince Vinny that Richie is the Son of Sam. Also convinced are local mafiosi, led by Ben Gazzara’s Luigi, who seek to return order to their panicked roost. Meanwhile, the summer is abnormally hot, power cuts are occurring and the rumors about Richie are spreading. Brody’s performance is at the centre of all this chaos, and he makes for a very sympathetic rocker. We know he’s not the killer; he just wants to enjoy his music. He’s made all the more likeable by the stupidity of the mob  and Vinny’s continued infidelity and general douchebaggery.

Lee is often noted for his lack of subtlety, and his style of filming makes him particularly unsuited to a film chronicling the events surrounding real murders (Fincher got it right with Zodiac seven years later). The ‘70s setting allows him to borrow (steal?) from Scorsese and PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights; the look is great, but it’s been done before (a tracking shot into a disco is none more Goodfellas). Meanwhile, the murders and other scenes involving Berkowitz are as gentle as a brick to the face. Few of the victims are referenced by name, and a scene where Berkowitz is addressed by a neighbour’s dog (voiced by John Tuturro) is so utterly bizarre that it flirts with parody. It may be based on Berkowitz’s own testimony, but it’s still goofy as hell. Lee’s reverence for certain events allows his stylistic eye plenty of opportunities, but robs the events of much pathos. Furthermore, Lee’s script (written with Victor Collichio and Michael Imperioli) delves too much into some characters’ lives (Vinny and Dionna’s attempts to get into Studio 54, and the sex-party aftermath) whilst other characters barely get a look in (Anthony LaPaglia’s detective hints at a backstory, but is never fleshed out).

There’s a certain amount of entertainment value to Summer of Sam; the colourful look and Brody’s performance couldn’t but engage. However, the human element is sacrificed for gloss and shock. There’s plenty of blood, but not much of a heart to pump it.

Review: Barton Fink (1991)

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

****

imageIt is easy to forget, in the post-No Country For Old Men haze, that there was a time when the Coen brothers weren’t the toast of the Academy. They were once a pair of outsiders looking in; they were armed with a surrealist eye, a quick wit and a healthy disdain for the Hollywood process. That disdain was best expressed in their 1991 Palme d’Or winner Barton Fink, a wonderful curio which looks and feels like a kitschy little flick before dovetailing into unexpectedly dark terrain.

The Coen’s cynicism is embodied in the idealist pile of neuroses that is the character of Barton Fink (John Tuturro), a playwright who is the hottest thing on the NY stage scene. Fink seeks to create a ‘theatre of the proletariat’, but that idealism is about to be swamped by an offer from a Hollywood studio to write a wrestling picture. Fink is a substitute for the Coens, as evidenced by his constant worry and the fact that (refreshingly) he does not allow himself to be corrupted by Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), the over-enthusiastic head of Capitol Pictures, an amalgam/pastiche of Selznick and Weinstein. The Coens doubtlessly had a lot of experiences to infuse in the character of Fink, and Tuturro makes for a likeably worried mensch. He’s surrounded by an esoteric ensemble, including Lerner (energetic), John Goodman (perky), Judy Davis (rigid) and John Mahoney (drunk).

Events barrel along until about the halfway point, when Barton Fink takes an eerie and bloody turn. As the tale of the everyman writer turns into a murder mystery, the events become more compelling and bizarre. The Coens have created the epitome of the writer in Fink, a bemused observer of events to be potentially filtered into art. In this example, he’s just getting a little too close to the action. The action really comes in this darker second half, meaning the first half of the film is a little too slow-burn, but it allows us time to wallow in the beautiful version of 1940s LA the Coens present. Barton’s hotel is a vaguely creepy art deco nightmare, whilst DP Roger Deakins shines the California sunshine constantly and brightly.

Barton Fink refuses to conform; it starts happily, slowly and easy to digest. Then, once the viewer is settled, it morphs into darkness and true cynicism. Expect no easy answers, no compromises and no lack of narrative and thematic meat to chew on. Expect the Coens at their most Coen-esque.

Review: Short Cuts (1993)

Director: Robert Altman

****

By the time Robert Altman received his fifth Academy Award nomination for directing Short Cuts, he had already established his reputation as a master of ensemble direction. If nothing else, Short Cuts consolidated that reputation, its breadth and scope handled with the sensitivity of a master craftsman at work.

Like previous Altman films, and most notably since in PT Anderson’s Magnolia, Short Cuts deals with the seemingly random intersections between seemingly disparate characters that seem to define life as we know it. When Doreen (Lily Tomlin) left for work one morning, did she expect to knock down a young boy named Casey (Zane Cassidy) with her car? Did she imagine the effect that would have on his parents (Bruce Davison and Andie McDowell)? And how the hell does she tolerate her slobby husband Earl (Tom Waits). These are but two storylines in a multi-tiered script by Altman and Frank Barhydt. Based on the stories of Raymond Carver, each story could make a film of its own (one segment about a group of fishermen who find a corpse in a river was inspired by the same story that inspired Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne), yet the script makes the most of the limited time it has (three hours isn’t a lot when you’ve got this many stories to cover). Every character gets an arc and a fair share of screentime. Dr. Wyman (Matthew Modine) takes the best of care of Casey in hospital, but his marriage to artist Marian (Julianne Moore) is crumbling, as is that of Marian’s sister Sherri (Madeline Stowe) and her husband, the unpleasant Gene (Tim Robbins). On the side, he’s seeing Betty (Frances McDormand), whose marriage to the impulsive ‘Stormy’ (Peter Gallagher) has rendered her an unstable single mom.

Neither Gene nor Betty is necessarily the most unpleasant character in Short Cuts (though their philandering and boorish ways would put them in most people’s Top 3 at least), and there is an argument to be made against watching tales of some truly repulsive people. Why didn’t Stuart (Fred Ward) and his fishing buddies report the body in the river immediately? Why does Jerry (Chris Penn) tolerate his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) working as a phone sex operator if it repulses him? And why is a baker (Lyle Lovett) so obsessed over a rejected cake? Again, this is just a small cross-section of stories. Altman shows us some very sad and pathetic people, but they’re truthful. Throughout Short Cuts, there is a refreshing honesty, as characters confront their miseries, frustrations and sexual misgivings. If you can’t identify with make-up artist Bill (Robert Downey Jr.) and his girlfriend Honey (Lili Taylor), you might like her parents, Doreen and Earl… aaaand we’re back where we started. Magnolia may have overtaken Altman’s opus as the definitive LA ensemble, and it may end on a terrible deus ex machina, but Short Cuts is still a bitter little slice of sun-ripened honesty, crafted with precision by a great director and with sterling performances throughout.

Review: Total Recall (1990)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

***

Despite being released in 1980, Raging Bull was considered the last of the great character pieces of 1970s American Cinema. In a similar vein, despite being released in 1990, Total Recall was really the last of those big, brash and usually pretty dumb 1980s actioners that defined, and were defined by, Arnold Schwarzenegger. This may be the first comparison made between Total Recall and Raging Bull. Let’s hope it’s the last.

Paul Verhoeven may be best known as Hollywood’s favourite soft-porn peddler, but there can be no doubt that he has a terrific sense of humour. Why else would he have allowed Arnie be cast in the lead role of Total Recall? Once again, hearing him mangle the English language like so many henchmen is a painful delight. Indeed, ‘painful delight’ is a perfect phrase to describe Total Recall in general. Freely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, Total Recall sees everyman Quaid (Arnie) go to the Rekall corporation to buy memories of a holiday to Mars. Unfortunately, the procedure goes awry and Quaid is exposed to buried memories of himself as a spy named Hauser who has information to bring down the evil Mars administrator Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). It’s silly enough, but it’s made even sillier when we see the fake memories are embellished by giving Hauser/Quaid a ridiculously gorgeous wife (Sharon Stone), and then proceeds to fight off goons with bloody abandon whilst evading head henchman Richter (a hammier-than-spam Michael Ironside). Cue a trip to Mars to team up with a feisty love interest (Rachel Ticotin) and defeat the bad guys.

At the very least, Total Recall has contributed some gems to the lexicon of ridiculously cheesy Arnie one-liners, most of which aren’t intended as such, but just sound funny in a thick and unemotional Austrian accent (“Give those people air!”). If Arnie underplays his role, it appears to have forced everyone else to overact, with Stone, Cox et al delivering half-baked dialogue (courtesy of Ronald Shussett, Dan O. Bannon and Gary Goldman) whilst chewing the scenery. Verhoeven’s work often boasts a satirical edge, but there are moments in Total Recall that are laugh-out-loud hilarious; whether Verhoeven recognised them as such is debatable, but it doesn’t diminish the entertainment factor. If Verhoeven’s trademark satire is sadly absent, his usual lack of restraint isn’t, as limbs are chopped off, blood is spilt and we’re introduced to women with three breasts. Whilst the morals are questionable and/or dated, the production values fare better. Simple sets combine with Oscar-winning special effects to create a colourful (if not quite credible) Martian landscape. Total Recall boasts shaky foundations (bad dialogue, scientific fallacy and Arnie having too many lines), but as brainless entertainment, it works like a dream.