Hype and holler

The best of 1997 was OK, but sometimes the worst was better

Performance art
Worth singling out this year are a number of performances that may get lost in the Oscar shuffle: Mike Nichols in The Designated Mourner gives an astonishing display of world-weary cynicism; I've rarely seen an actor deliver lines so effortlessly--as though they came right out of him. Al Pacino high-key and low-key, in The Devil's Advocate and Donnie Brasco respectively, was a sight to see.

In The Red Corner, the luminous Chinese actress Bai Ling has a grace and alertness that seems ready-made for the camera. The same is true for Hope Davis in The Daytrippers. As the talent-challenged theatrical impresario in Waiting For Guffman, Christopher Guest gives one of the funniest strutting-peacock performances I've ever seen. And, for all the hoo-ha about Robert Duvall in The Apostle, which opens in Dallas January 30, I would rather single out from that film John Beasley as the black preacher whose reticence is more eloquent than any holy-roller holler.

Wrong direction
This was one of those years in which some of the most gifted directors around seemed to be marking time. Francis Ford Coppola's John Grisham's The Rainmaker--don't you hate these possessory titles?--was moderately entertaining and eminently forgettable. David Lynch's Lost Highway had some of his old visual flair and spectral suggestiveness, but was so incoherent it came across as a private joke. Roger Spottiswoode, a great director who hasn't worked on material truly worthy of him since Under Fire, needed a commercial hit to stay in the game, and I hope Tomorrow Never Dies, a not-bad Bond bash, does it for him.

Gillian Armstrong, who had a strong success with Little Women and made a great film with High Tide, comes through in Oscar and Lucinda (which opens in Dallas February 6) with a beautifully crafted film of enameled emptiness. Mike Figgis was overrated for Leaving Las Vegas, but his moody-blues malaise in that film is miles ahead of the disaster that is One Night Stand. Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown does a pretty good job serving Elmore Leonard but a less effective job serving himself.

The Commies are back!
After rooting around unsuccessfully for many a post-Cold War year trying to find villains to replace the Commies, Hollywood has taken the imaginative leap of targeting...Commies! Admittedly it's difficult to find a suitable replacement: Just about every racial and ethnic group is off-limits, and you can only go up against intergalactic goop so many times.

The return of the Commies, in films ranging from The Saint and Air Force One (Russian variety) to Seven Years in Tibet and The Red Corner and the forthcoming Kundun (Chinese variety) is like a trip down memory lane. It's a villainy we can relate to. Besides, who else can be targeted with impunity anymore? There are Southern white racists, of course, but they don't have the same heft--and besides, who wants to see any more John Grisham movies?

The presidency is back!
If the Commies are back, we need a strong leader to fight them, right? But here the picture gets a little fuzzy. This is the Clinton era, after all. If one believes, as I do, that movies reflect the presidential eras in which they're made, then the great presidential movie of our time is not Air Force One, with Harrison Ford's growl going up against Gary Oldman's borscht-thick accent, but Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, co-scripted by David Mamet, in which a phony war is ostensibly staged in Albania by a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to divert the country's attention from a presidential indiscretion with a chicklette. (Along with Grosse Point Blank, it's the comedy of the year.)

There doesn't seem to be any middle ground now when it comes to presidents in the movies: Either they're clenched-jawed types like Harrison Ford or they're scumbag dalliers like Gene Hackman in Absolute Power or the faceless president we glimpse only from the back in Wag the Dog. Even Nigel Hawthorne's Martin Van Buren in Spielberg's dripping waxworks Amistad comes across as a loon; Hawthorne has brought his Madness of King George act stateside.

Since Americans are often at their best when they don't take themselves, or their presidents, too seriously, I hope that Wag the Dog and not Air Force One is the coming order. For one thing, it's an infinitely better movie, but it also has a high-flying, revue-sketch irreverence that is closer to how Americans these days actually relate to their government. It isn't until you see a movie as "smart" as Wag the Dog that you realize how dumb and pontificating most other movies are--and how deprived you've been.

Family reunion
With national pride comes family pride. For a few years now, our screens have been filling up with movies about families, but lately the uplift has downshifted. While it's still OK to show black families celebrating their togetherness (Soul Food), white families are breaking apart like dry leaves. It seems all those homilies about home and hearth were a lie. The problem with most of the current crop of family-themed movies is that they never move beyond the shock factor. We in the audience are more wised-up than the filmmakers, and that's never much fun.

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