Hype and holler

While not a movie year to go down in infamy, 1997 was still mostly full of hype and holler. If the annual yield is judged by how many great films came out, 1997 was a loser. If you factor in the number of films that brought fresh talents and fresh subjects to the screen, the crop is slightly better. Yet there was enough going on in the movies--enough good work, or at least enough interestingly bad work--to keep this critic in clover.

Herewith some notes on a year just past:

Happy ending
Probably the best American film of the year was L.A. Confidential, and its clean sweep of the critics' groups should (finally) help turn it into a box-office success. Its initial lack of commercial firepower was, I think, due to a combination of woes: First off, the film in its first run was released in too few theaters and not all at the same time throughout the country. It's also a film noir, and audiences have never quite cozied to the genre--even Chinatown was not a smash when first released. And the lack of stars in the cast may have hurt.

But one reason to hope L.A. Confidential does well is because it lacked major names (besides Kevin Spacey, who played a supporting role). Warner Bros. backed director and co-writer Curtis Hanson's decision to go with two near-unknowns for the leads: Australians Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. The studio's gamble paid off, and it deserves to. It's vital to the health of the film industry that movie companies be encouraged to go with offbeat or unknown casting choices, especially since so many new and talented actors are turning up in small independent movies.

A couple of films I liked that deserved better were Conspiracy Theory and Mimic. I'm not sure why the critics were so hostile to Conspiracy Theory--it features a manic, scattershot performance by Mel Gibson that's probably his best, and Julia Roberts is remarkable as his steadying, indulgent muse. (She's far better here than in the overrated My Best Friend's Wedding.) Despite some pulpy passages, it's a terrific thriller-romance with a valiant heart: By the end, Gibson's frantic energy is transformed into ardor.

Mimic is a giant bug picture, but its director, the Mexican Guillermo Del Toro, is a true movie poet, and he stages some sequences that are as creepy and suggestive as anything in the great silent horror classics by Murnau or Dreyer. Perhaps audiences have been so pummeled by the grand-scale glop of movies such as Men In Black and Starship Troopers--a glop I also enjoy--that the lyrical glop of Mimic seems wimpy in comparison.

Foreign matter
The most remarkable foreign language film of the year was Jan Troell's Hamsun, which was also far and away the best film of 1997--though it has yet to make it to Dallas. It's a masterpiece about a great subject: the enigma of the artist who's also a fascist. Yet the film also disappeared before it had a chance to shine: It played only two weeks in Los Angeles, never made it out of the city, and should be brought back; many more people wanted to see the film than had the opportunity to do so. As the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who became a Nazi collaborator in his 80s, Max Von Sydow gives the kind of performance that can truly be called a "summation." He draws on everything he's learned as an actor in more than 40 years of performing; it's one of the most remarkably detailed displays I've ever seen, right down to the slight tremor in Hamsun's hands.

The Belgian La Promesse, directed by the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which tells of a boy who betrays his father, was one of the rare films that merged fictional and documentary techniques into a seamless whole. But most of the foreign films with widespread audience appeal still favored corseted costume drama and sentimental exotica. The Japanese Shall We Dance? is a perfectly enjoyable weepie that looks like it was made to be re-made--in Hollywood. The British literary-adaptation mill turned out two Henry James productions: Washington Square, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh injects an incongruous modern neurosis into the story; and the more accomplished Wings of the Dove, which brings Helena Bonham Carter into the front ranks of actresses. (Next up: movies of The Golden Bowl and The Aspern Papers.)

I didn't care for The Sweet Hereafter, by Canada's Atom Egoyan, as much as most critics. It's an artful film, but it doesn't only dramatize a community tragedy; it seems to suggest that the tragedy was an emanation of the vacuousness of small-town life. The most annoying "art-house" hit of the year was The Full Monty, yet another British film about clubby working-class guys showing off how drearily delectable their lives are. The rage and passion and lyricism that informed movies about working-class life in Britain back in the '60s (for example, Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey) have been replaced by a remarkable harmlessness: Movies such as The Full Monty or Brassed Off seem as though they were made for the American market--or, to be more precise, the American tourist trade.

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.

For example: A Thousand Acres is a re-tooled King Lear in which Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, and Jason Robards take turns wearing long faces. The Myth of Fingerprints also boasts a first-rate cast--including Julianne Moore, Blythe Danner, and Hope Davis--and then sets them to nattering and moaning. It's like Etch-A-Sketch Eugene O'Neill.

Then there's The Ice Storm, in which suburban swingers from the '70s get it in the neck. It's payback time for all those crumbum parents who, neglecting their children, mate-swapped their way to purgatory. The Ice Storm is one chilly movie, but things couldn't have been so freeze-dried back then. If they were, nobody would have had any fun, and there would be no need for Puritanical purges like The Ice Storm.

At least one new movie, Gregg Mottola's The Daytrippers, features an extended family that actually resembles a real one. You couldn't ask for a more headache-inducing matriarch than Anne Meara, and, as her daughters, Parkey Posey and Hope Davis have just the right battle-fatigued look. The family members in The Daytrippers are a familiar horror, but Mottola is such an observant writer-director that they stop being horrible after a while. We can't stand apart from them because we are them. The togetherness in this movie is earned because it hasn't been tenderized for us.

The most unexpected of family-themed movies turned out to be Paul Thomas Anderson's porno-world epic Boogie Nights, where the family that screws together stays together. In the way it thumps for family values, it's probably the most conservative movie of the year. Of course, the togetherness on view in this film is just as rigged as the Otherness on view in a film like The Ice Storm. If Anderson had really gotten inside the hot-wired circuitry of the porn business, his "family" of skinflick luminaries (played by, among others, Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, and Don Cheadle) might not seem so cozy. But Anderson wants us to know that family is where you find it and redemption is at hand. Hallelujah!

Maybe if Boogie Nights had done better at the box office it could have been turned into a real daisy chain of a movie franchise. There actually was talk for a while of a Boogie Nights TV series--I would like to have seen the sponsors for that one.


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