Originally posted 20 March 2000
Movies: Erin Brockovich, Reservoir Dogs, The Straight Story, Judy Berlin, The Long Goodbye, The Terminator
Whaddaya know? The feel-good hit of the year is about chromium poisoning!
Last night, after Korean food in midtown with my friends Mike and Kathy, I found myself at the Sonyplex on 68th Street, buying a ticket on a whim for the 11:15pm show of "Erin Brockovich." While waiting for the movie to begin, I began to regret my impulse purchase. I had seen the "Erin Brockovich" trailer six dozen times and figured I was familiar with every funny and affecting moment of the movie--and I'd just paid $9.50 to witness it all again. I had a headache, and the theater was stickier than a self-adhesive stamp. I anticipated a dreary movie experience.
"Erin Brockovich" won me over.
"Erin Brockovich" is not a Great Movie, but it is major entertainment. Julia Roberts stars the hell out of this flick; she is well-supported by Albert Finney, who plays her boss, and a lot of underwire bras. Steven Soderbergh ("Sex, Lies & Videotape," "Out of Sight") directed the movie. "Erin Brockovich" is proud to be based on the true story of the title character, a single mom with no money and no formal education who coerces her way into a job at a law firm and doggedly pursues a case against the regional water utility.
Although the movie tells its tale in obvious Big Hollywood style, replete with one-dimensional bad guys and dumbed-down hicks, it does something the silver screen hasn't seen since the "African Queen" sailed in 1951: it portrays a tough female character who creates a world around herself--and isn't penalized by the movie for her personality. Think Mae West as Tira in "I'm No Angel," Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson in "His Girl Friday" (1940) or Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance in "Bringing Up Baby" (1938).
At the same time, "Erin Brockovich" is not a flabby "women's movie" like "Hanging Up." It is flawed and cliched in several regards, but smart dialog and unusual relationships between the main characters keep the movie from mushing out. Plus, the romantic subplot is just that--a subplot, which is rarer than steak tartare in a Hollywood flick with a central female character.
Here's how "Erin Brockovich" scored on a scale of 1 - 10 in my categories of analysis:
*Gender: 9. In 1934, six of the 10 best-paid actors in Hollywood were women. In 1994, none were women. When Julia Roberts made "Pretty Woman" in 1990, Janet Maslin said that Roberts had the star quality of post-war actresses. Last year, Molly Haskell wrote in a New York Times article that Roberts' character in "Notting Hill" recalled the leading ladies of the 1930s and 40s. I didn't agree with either of those assessments. But "Erin Brockovich" certainly hits that "peel me a grape" note, and if it spurs the creation of more such flicks, I'll be a happy moviegoer.
*Race: 2. There are a few minor Mexican and black characters.
*Shoes: 4. The movie is obsessed with Erin's clothes, but gives her shoes relatively short shrift.
*Dogs: 0. Incredibly, none of the characters in this movie has a pooch.
*Do things blow up? 0. Erin loses her temper a lot, but she doesn't torch any objects.
Erin throws a few too many tantrums and feels the pain of a few too many victims of the water board's nefarious scheme. The story values money above pretty much everything else, and the credits include a "tattoo designer"--never a good sign. But "Erin Brockovich" is still an enjoyable watch, and if you just need a couple of hours of escapist viewing, I recommend it.
On Monday night, I met my neighbor Rich at the Film Forum to see "Reservoir Dogs." I had never seen it before because I'd been afraid of getting irreparably grossed out by the notorious ear-cutting scene; I am, after all, a gore wimp. But "Reservoir Dogs" was Quentin Tarantino's 1992 directorial debut (he wrote it, too), and his work has been influential enough to make me curious about this ballyhooed film.
Rich and I bought our tickets, then went to Aggie's for dinner (he had meatloaf w/mashed potatoes and veg; I had potato pancakes and a small salad). When we settled into the Film Forum for the movie, I asked Rich to warn me when the gross parts were coming up. This turned out to be unnecessary since "Reservoir Dogs"--the story of a heist gone bad--is violent throughout, and I wound up watching most of it through my fingers without any cautioning from Rich.
Seeing "Reservoir Dogs" reminded me of my disappointment with Tarantino: he incorporates terrific dialogue and deliciously tense scenarios into dumb-ass, gun-obsessed, machismo-spouting stories. I imagine that as a kid Tarantino soaked up hours of bad t.v. and B-movies. He is now regurgitating the themes of those shows with the addition of witty repartee. The resulting movies are sadly soulless.
Fortunately, in addition to a few slick snippets of banter, "Reservoir Dogs" features some good acting. Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth are particularly notable. Also, I like Harvey Keitel, but he pretty much faxes in this bad-boy routine. Taratino is in the movie, and he's a truly lousy actor (later proven with his excruciating performance in "Pulp Fiction"). Stay behind the camera, buddy.
Here's how "Reservoir Dogs" scored on a scale of 1 - 10 in my categories of analysis:
*Gender & Race: 0. The movie features one black character with a small part and a handful of very minor female characters. Screen time aside, Tarantino loves to portray vitriolic sexism and racism in his characters; he also likes to throw in a fucking ridiculous amount of swearing. I wouldn't have a problem with all this if he were doing it for some purpose other than supposed cool factor, but that ain't the case. It's tired, not clever.
*Shoes: 1. There is not enough footwear in this flick.
*Dogs: 0. None--despite the name!
*Do things blow up? 0. Things get way, way shot up, but amazingly, nothing is blown up.
You've probably already seen "Reservoir Dogs." If you haven't, don't go out of your way to do so. At this point in contemporary cinema, it is profoundly not worth it.
I missed "The Matrix"--a big action, sci-fi story--when it was out, and I have regretted the loss ever since. So I was thrilled when the flick appeared on a big screen in midtown two weeks ago, apparently because it's been nominated for a bunch of Oscars. My friend Laurie F. and I decided to go see it, and to have Sri Lankan food at a restaurant near the theater. Last Friday morning, I pulled up Moviefone.com to order tickets, and before I'd even finished my coffee, I made the harsh discovery that "The Matrix" had only been playing for a week, and it was already gone. I was crushed.
Laurie and I reworked our complex dinner-and-a-movie plans and decided instead to see "The Straight Story" at the Village East and to eat at a Vietnamese place downtown. Perhaps if we had not been in the mood for "The Matrix," we would have liked "The Straight Story" somewhat more. But, as the G-rated story of an older gentleman who drives across Iowa on a John Deere lawnmower to see his ailing brother, "The Straight Story" was pretty much the opposite of "The Matrix." We were a little bored.
"The Straight Story"--based on a true tale--is mildly corny and touching, and it moves along at riding-mower pace. It is not the typical fare from director David Lynch ("Eraserhead," "Blue Velvet"), but I hesitate to think how this film would have turned out in the hands of a sentiment jockey like Steven Spielberg. Richard Farnsworth is very good in the leading role. Sissy Spacek is fine as his daughter, but she has a distracting speech impediment.
*Gender: 5. Neither bad nor good.
*Race: 0. Movies set in the Midwest rarely have any non-white characters.
*Shoes: 3. Beat up work boots, a pair of black Nikes. Like that.
*Dogs: 3. There're a few dogs scattered throughout the movie.
*Do things blow up? 0. There are some fire scenes in the movie, but no explosions.
My grandfather recently e-mailed me his and my grandmother's criteria for movies: no excessive sex, no violence of any kind ("verbal, physical or psychological") as the raison d'etre for the film, no crummy actors and no overly complicated plots. "The Straight Story" might be the only live-action movie of the 1990s that meets their conditions. If your standards match theirs, and you're looking for a decent film with pleasing scenery, check out "The Straight Story."
After the movie, Laurie and I went to Cyclo for dinner. Laurie knows how to pronounce "gewurztraminer," so were able to order a bottle, and it was just right with Vietnamese food. For a full review of Cyclo, click over to Laurie's first-rate write-up (bathrooms included!). Laurie is an equity analyst covering the stocks of U.S. food companies, and she knows her way around a kitchen, so this review is not for nothing.
Two weeks ago, I went to see "Judy Berlin" with my neighbors Amy and Ilene. Edie Falco, one of the stars on the HBO hit "The Sopranos," is in it. Amy is a big fan of "The Sopranos," so she was psyched to see the film. Ilene wanted to see "My Dog Skip." We ridiculed her into seeing "Judy Berlin" with us. We might have been better off with Ilene's pick.
"Judy Berlin" is the first movie from director/writer Eric Mendelsohn. It is set in Babylon, Long Island, and it covers a day in the life of a half-dozen people who live in the town. Some of the acting is strong, but if I never see another film-school, suburban-alienation-fest again, it'll be too soon. Also, I sat alone because Amy and Ilene like to sit in the back of the theater (I have no problem splitting up for the actual viewing), and a weird woman sat four seats away from me and stared at me a lot during the movie. I was slightly freaked out.
I'm not going to bother scoring "Judy Berlin" in my categories of analysis.
"Judy Berlin" was playing in the theater underneath the Virgin Megastore (sic) at Broadway & 45th Street. Since Times Square is now a 24-hour tourist riot scene--Disney does Tiannamen Square!--we had to battle our way in and out of the premises. None of us liked the movie too much, but a pleasant dinner at a Japanese place in the West 40s improved our evening. Summary: even if you're a serious "Sopranos" fan, you can skip "Judy Berlin" with confidence.
Two-and-a-half weeks ago, Rich and I saw "The Long Goodbye" at the Film Forum. Before the movie, we went to Aggie's for dinner (Rich had meatloaf w/mashed potatoes and veg; I had potato pancakes and a small salad). Just to be clear, Aggie's is not good.
Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H," "The Player") made "The Long Goodbye" in 1973. It's based on a Raymond Chandler novel, and it stars Elliott Gould at a high point in his career. Gould plays Philip Marlowe, a Los Angeles private eye who investigates a friend's murder. He's quirky and wisecracking and fun to watch. The movie is quite 1973, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Here's how "The Long Goodbye" scored on a scale of 1 - 10 in my categories of analysis:
*Gender: 0. A sense of misogyny pervades Robert Altman's movies. "The Long Goodbye" is no exception.
*Race: 1. There's a minor goofy black character, and a couple of corrupt Mexican officials.
*Shoes: 2. For 1973, disappointing.
*Dogs: 3. A bunch of scrawny dogs are seen wandering around Tijuana.
*Do things blow up? 0. Nope.
"The Long Goodbye" was playing as part of the "Neo-noir" series at the Film Forum, and its cinematography is dark. I doubt it would translate well to video, so don't run out and rent it. If it's shown on a big screen near you, though, it's worth a few hours of your time for the sense of atmosphere. Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger has an uncredited role as a thug (and he flexes his pecs prominently).
Btw, as long as we're talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger, I caught "The Terminator" (1984) while playing Scrabble at my friend Billy's a couple of weeks ago. Even with its now-cheesy special effects, "The Terminator" rocks. Linda Hamilton has the worst haircut of all time, but she kicks ass. The story (co-written by director James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd) is great. There are dogs. And things blow up in a huge way. It's still marvelous.
Rent "The Terminator" to have your own private feel-good experience of 2000.