Originally posted 3 January 2000
Movies: In a Lonely Place, Tumbleweeds, Topsy-Turvy, Magnolia, Mr. Death, Cradle Will Rock
Happy New Year, y'all. It's January 2, 2000, and the world is still here. My computer continues to work, and I saw Paul Reiser and Jerry Seinfeld in Riverside Park yesterday, walking together and smoking cigars. Plus, in a late December frenzy, I stocked up enough toilet paper to last me a century. So we're off to a good start on this millennium. Here are some warnings and recommendations from the celluloid front to start your Future on the right foot.
How far wrong can you go with a movie whose main character is named "Dixon Steele"? Not far at all, as I learned when my friend Matthew and I went to see In a Lonely Place during the Film Forum's Columbia Archives festival. In a Lonely Place was made in 1950, and it stars Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. With L.A.-style noir filming (not to be confused with N.Y.- or S.F.-style noir) and the kind of nimble dialog found only in mid-century movies, In a Lonely Place transcends its dearth of dogs, interesting shoes and explosions. It's effective and unsentimental, and Matthew and I both liked it a lot. The movie has an easily forgettable title, so I suggest you write it down before you head (or click) off to the video store to rent it.
I saw Tumbleweeds and Topsy-Turvy with my neighbor Rich. Rich and I live a block apart, and we both own dogs. Those facts are about the only things we can agree on, and going to the movies together is an ordeal. Here's how it went for Tumbleweeds: I said I wanted to see Tumbleweeds. Rich said, "Okay, how about Boys Don't Cry"? I said I'd already seen that, so Rich said, "What about Film Forum?" I said that Tumbleweeds would be closing soon and I wanted to see it that night. He said, "Okay, it doesn't have Natalie Portman in it, does it?" I said no. We agreed to see Tumbleweeds.
We had a brief scuffle over whether to meet at the theater or walk down together (we agreed to meet there; I was coming from an appointment across town). We found each other in the lobby and bought our tickets. Rich militated for going to the deli next door to buy treats. We were hard-pressed to come to terms over Junior Mints. Once inside the theater, we found it nearly empty, so we were able to sit in the fifth row center without too much discussion of claustrophobia and the possibility of getting trampled by the crowds. The lights came down. We were subjected to two commercials before the movie began, giving everyone ample time to grouse about having paid $9.50 for this crap. Rich shifted in his seat audibly and frequently. One of the previews looked promising. Rich spilled too many Junior Mints into my hand. I ate them anyway.
Tumbleweeds is pretty decent. It's about a mom and her daughter, and although the story is fairly loose, the characters are nicely drawn and most of the acting is very good. The only notably weak actor is the director, Gavin O'Connor, who gives himself a pretty two-dimensional role to work with.
Here's how Tumbleweeds scored on a scale of 1 - 10 in my categories of analysis:
*Gender: 8. Tumbleweeds is directed by a man (and is written by a woman), and it has two strong female characters in its central roles. This is an unusual occurrence in ye oldde film business, and I applaud O'Connor for taking on this subject matter and doing a good job with it.
*Race: 0. I have to admit that, having seen the movie three weeks ago, and not having taken notes afterwards, I can't remember whether there are any people of color in the movie at all. Certainly, all of the major characters are played by white people.
*Shoes: 3. Strappy sandals, flip-flops, that sort of thing.
*Dogs: 2. One wet golden retriever is seen very briefly during a beach scene.
*Do things blow up? 0. Nope.
After the movie, Rich and I agreed on two things: we both thought Tumbleweeds was pretty good, and we were both hungry. After a long discourse from Rich on the deteriorated state of diners on the Upper West Side, we stopped in at the Shining Star. This was a mistake. Rich's steamed veggies were decent, but my Greek salad was disheartnening. I recommend Tumbleweeds, but steer clear of the Shining Star.
A few nights later, Rich convinced me to see Topsy-Turvy, which was playing at the Paris theater, near the Plaza Hotel. Topsy-Turvy is a slice-of-life style picture, ostensibly about the operetta writers Gilbert and Sullivan. I found the movie to focus unexpectedly little on either Gilbert or Sullivan, and barely at all on their relationship. In fact, Topsy-Turvy doesn't seem to be interested in deep characters or relationships generally, which is surprising, since it's directed by Mike Leigh, who usually makes great films about the minutia of personalities and relationships.
The movie has a handful of amusing scenes, some fun costumes, and some lovely William Morris wallpaper. And it's hard not to sing along with the music from the Mikado. But you see nearly the entire production of the Mikado during Topsy-Turvy, so the movie runs to two hours and 45 minutes, and with no actual story, it gets slow. The walk home was irritating because Rich loooooved Topsy-Turvy and I did not.
Here's how Topsy-Turvy scored on a scale of 1 - 10 in my categories of analysis:
*Gender: 4. This category would rate even lower (Sullivan's wife is portrayed as pining away for a baby) were it not for the fact that Gilbert's girlfriend cheerfully gets an abortion or two during the flick (offscreen). The very topic of abortion is so rarely seen in contemporary movies--let alone allowed on relatively uncomplicated terms--that Topsy-Turvy deserves credit for even the fleeting mention it includes.
*Shoes: 2. There are a lot of good clothes in this flick, but practically no shoes. Very disappointing.
*Dogs: 1. One hound is seen very much in passing in the opening scene.
*Do things blow up? 0. No such luck.
Despite my finding Topsy-Turvy to have neither soul nor momentum, Rich and pretty much every critic around really liked it. So if you're anything of a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, you should probably check it out.
The night before New Year's Eve, I went by myself to see Magnolia. The show was sold out, and it was dank in the theater. But I was happy to get the seat I wanted. And it's a good thing I liked my seat, because my ass was stuck in it for the entire three hours and eight minutes of Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson directed this flick, and since Boogie Nights is his only other major commercial release, it's surprising that he was given so much latitude in the final cut of Magnolia, which plays like one self-indulgent cliché after another.
I spent the whole movie waiting for the story to begin, but there's no there there in Magnolia. The big message is that--newsflash!--people cause each other pain. Anderson apparently felt no need for narrative, and this is pretty brassy, considering he has you sitting there for as long as it takes to drive from Manhattan to southern Vermont. And while much of the cast acts quite well (albeit in a tortured manner), I will never understand why people keep casting Tom Cruise in serious roles. This is a grave error, because he really can't act, and he is lousy in this movie. Also, everyfuckingbody in Magnolia curses up a storm, sounding ridiculous rather than real. I found the language not only distracting, but actually offensive.
I didn't spend all of Magnolia just groaning and losing the will to live. After all, the soundtrack by Aimee Mann rocks the house, and the movie has a professional, slick look. Ultimately, however, Magnolia doesn't deliver, and I cannot understand why it got so many positive reviews. Has nobody the guts to trash a movie anymore?
Here's how Magnolia scored on a scale of 1 - 10 in my categories of analysis:
*Gender: 2. There are female characters in the movie. That's about the most I can say.
*Race: 2. There are a few black and Latino characters in this movie. April Grace, a black woman, plays a very pulled-together television interviewer. After that, it's all downhill.
*Shoes: 0. None to speak of, but everyone in Magnolia has the most remarkably white teeth.
*Dogs: 5. A bunch of hounds swirl around the forever-dying Jason Robards.
*Do things blow up? 0. The movie has a pretty immature vision in general, so some explosions would have fit in nicely.
I didn't detest Magnolia, but it's sadly lacking in the elements that make a movie interesting. Janet Maslin, the NY Times reviewer who thought Eyes Wide Shut was terrific, really liked Magnolia. So if you liked that movie and you have three hours to kill, check out Magnolia. Otherwise, wait for Anderson's next effort and hope for improvement.
Last night, Rich and I went to see Mr. Death. It took us eight or nine phone calls to decide on when and where to see it and how to get tickets. In fact, we spent most of the afternoon trying to get to yes on the particulars of the evening. I think we need a better system. Our dysfunction aside, Mr. Death is an interesting flick. It's a documentary about Fred A. Leuchter Jr., engineer of prison execution equipment (electric chairs, gas chambers, etc.) and Holocaust revisionist. The movie was made by Errol Morris (director of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, and The Thin Blue Line, among others), and the movie gives thoughtful treatment to complex subject matter. Also on the plus side is the film's rich visual quality, achieved with interwoven stretches of straight-ahead filming and unusual cinematography. In addition, the movie has groovy opening credits.
Mr. Death obviously deals with difficult issues. Leuchter, however, is an odd character, and the film has many weird moments that could be interpreted as humorous. The people sitting directly behind me and Rich found nearly every scene of the film to be hilarious, and they laughed raucously throughout, commenting loudly on Leuchter's strangeness. Hardly anybody else in the theater laughed at all. I kept wanting to turn around and tell the rowdies to shut up, but they were behaving in such a way that the only appropriate thing to say would have been not "Can you keep it down?" but "Can you be different human beings?" or possibly, "You should really deal with your death issues." In a way, they exhibited much the same attitude towards death as Leuchter, and their behavior made the experience of the movie more poignant. I wonder if the movie usually elicits such varied responses; if you see it, let me know how the audience responds.
After Mr. Death, Rich and I walked home and stopped at the Utopia Diner in search of the perfect after-movie meal. Rich's egg-white omelet frightened me, and the Greek salad that I got was ghastly. So that's another place we'll never have to try again. If you believe you know who makes the best Greek salad on the Upper West Side, please let me know ASAP, especially if the venue is open 'round the clock.
This afternoon, Matthew and I met up to see Cradle Will Rock at the 68th Street Sonyplex. The theater was filled, and nearly everyone else there looked to be over 60 and the sort of people who like to rouse rabble at Community Board meetings. Judging from their behavior during the film, most of the audience members were also the type who like to debate, at top volume, the name of the actor onscreen, and whether that person is any good or not. I am probably going to be exactly like that in thirty years. Oy.
Matthew and I both found Cradle Will Rock to be so-so. It has nice politics, and it looks like a lot of the actors had fun making it. But the film lacks oomph, and the final scene is terribly annoying. Worse, it goes wanting for dogs and explosions, (although it does decently on gender and shoes, if not race).
This SMO is getting to be longer than the screenplay for Magnolia, so I'm going to end it here without a full-blown run down on Cradle Will Rock. But if you have a strong opinion about whether John or Joan Cusack is cuter, let me know. I can't decide.