"Summer 1998 Video Round-up"


      I pretty much stopped going to the movies three or four years ago, because the entire process had become an aggravating pain in the ass. I never minded traveling to and from the theater, parking, paying, sticky floors or even over-priced candy and popcorn, if the movie was good. But to go through that routine and have the movie be bad, over and over and over, well . . . it became too much for me and I stopped going.

      Also, I became very weary of arguing about whatever movie was presently in the theaters, which people will oddly defend vociferously simply because it’s new (see my essay, "Reduced Expectations"). 

Nevertheless, I still have cable TV and video, and every now and then I will steep myself in all the recent films I did not go see in the theater, to make sure movies didn’t go and get good again while I wasn’t paying attention. In my last video barrage, I watched: "The Big Lebowski" (see the review), "Starship Troopers," "In & Out," "Copland," Phenomenon," "Jackie Brown," "Amistad," and the first half of "Kundun," as well as parts of quite a few other films which I subsequently bailed out on. 

      The best of this bunch would have to be "Amistad," because at least it’s about something, which none of the other films are. Quite frankly, I don’t think "Amistad" is a very good movie; it’s rather like a high-budget after-school special. Spielberg, always sticking his neck out and going for the provocative premise, boldly puts forth that – slavery is bad. Three seconds into the film I internally said, "I agree," and that was the end of the journey, the next two and a half hours simply repeating the point over and over again. Matthew McConaughey joins the ranks of actors like Kris Kristofferson and Gabriel Byrne as the new roaming hole in the screen, and Djimon Hounsou screams every single one of his lines at the top of his lungs, thus bludgeoning us with his sincerity. Anthony Hopkins is quite good, however, as John Quincy Adams and, as always in recent Spielberg films, Janus Kaminski’s photography is beautiful.

      "Starship Troopers" would, in my opinion, be the next best of this shabby lot. I could actually see a good movie lurking within the dull, simple-minded, clichéd exterior of this film. If the story were a parable or an allegory for the rise of Nazism (or any totalitarian system), and how quickly citizens will give up all of their rights and freedoms in the face of a common enemy, it might have been interesting. I think Paul Verhoven actually saw this parable (the costumes are very Nazi-like), and if he were still in Holland he might have pursued it. But, since he’d rather be a big Hollywood A-list director, the story is stripped of anything that might possibly represent an intelligent thought. Taken as a mindless Saturday afternoon sci-fi flick, "Starship Troopers" still fails miserably. If, in the future they are suggesting, we humans have an entire fleet of starships, we would certainly have better weapons than they have depicted, which are plain old rifles that fire plain old bullets. After it is very clearly established that it takes about 10,000 rounds to kill an alien bug (and there seem to be millions of these bugs), we can quickly deduce that humans are fucked and haven’t got a chance in hell. Excluding "Basic Instinct," for which I believe Verhoven was simply a hired gun, he seems to have a knack for casting extremely dull, attractive young people with no charisma or acting ability.

      "In & Out" is particularly offensive in that it is pretending to be provocative message movie, yet has absolutely nothing to say. Matt Dillon wins an Oscar and inexplicably reveals that his high school English teacher is gay, but he really isn’t, except that he really is. The film ends with the tried-and-true "Spartacus" gag of everyone stepping up and saying, "No, I’m Spartacus." In this case, they’re all saying, "No, I’m gay," except that none of them are gay and it doesn’t resolve anything in the story. This movie reeked to me of having been endlessly put through the Hollywood committee process, just like a food processor, until it was reduced to such extreme mush even the toothless can digest it.

      "Jackie Brown" was a particularly miserable picture. Whatever charm Elmore Leonard stories may have (and I have never found), they simply do not translate to the screen. This isn’t entirely true; several of Leonard’s early western stories made pretty good films (like "3:10 to Yuma"), and for some insane reason I rather like "The Ambassador" (Ellen Burstyn is quite good and so is Rock Hudson, in his final theatrical film). Nevertheless, none of Elmore Leonard’s other crime stories have ever made good films, and I daresay "Jackie Brown" is the worst of a bad lot. Every other director who has taken on filming Mr. Leonard has managed to bring their films in at less than two hours. Quentin Tarantino, however, needs over two and a half hours to tell this dull tale. It’s like watching Burt Reynolds’ terrible Elmore Leonard adaptation, "Stick," but with five extra reels! I believe that we are at an odd point in the history of film. As a director I don’t think Quentin Tarantino is talented enough to get a job on a syndicated TV show, yet he is one of Hollywood’s most respected directors, making high-profile features with stars in every part. Tarantino stages and shoots his scenes as though it were 1929, sound has just been invented, and cameras are the size of automobiles and far too big to move, so instead you just swivel the turret and change lenses. This is how you would end up going from a profile two-shot to flat profile close-ups, something Mr. Tarantino does constantly. Since 1929, though, cameras have become appreciably smaller and easier to move, and it has become standard practice to come around on the eye-line so that we can see more of the actor’s faces. Every TV director knows this information, but sadly, unless Quentin reads this, I suspect he never will.

      Thankfully, "Phenomenon" has shot right through me like a greasy hamburger. Although I could probably dredge it back up, I don’t want to.

      Everybody made a big stink out of Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough dramatic performance in "Copland." Instead of giving a three-dimensional performance, or even a two-dimensional performance, I’d say he’s giving about a .25%-dimensional performance. If he gave any less than he’s giving he’d fall asleep. This dimwitted cop makes Rocky Balboa look like a character from a Eugene O’Neil play. The rest of the film is like a Scorsese movie (DeNiro, Keitel, Liotta, Frank Vincent, Cathy Moriarty, though strangely, no Joe Pesci) but without Scorsese’s wit, style or pacing.

      The first half of Martin Scorsese’s "Kundun" is such a disaster I could not make it any further. I truly believe one of the biggest mistakes a director can make is switching actors for the same part to show the passage of time. As with many things in movies, you can generally get away with this shtick once, particularly if you don’t spend much time with the kid actor and get on to the real actor ASAP. In "Kundun," Scorsese switches actors for the Dalai Lama four or five times in the first act: there’s infant Dalai Lama, 2-year old Dalai Lama, 4-year old Dalai Lama, 8-year old Dalai Lama, etc. Every time you get used to an actor it switches to the next one. In 45 minutes I was worn out. I also think the main idea of the first act, finding the new Dalai Lama after the death of the previous one, is completely bungled. The basic idea is that these holy men go out searching the country for all the babies born on the day the Dalai Lama died. When they find the babies, they spread out a whole variety of items, some of which belonged to the Dalai Lama, some which did not. Can the baby tell which is which? Well, without seeing a baby or several babies fail at this test first, it means absolutely nothing to see the baby Dalai Lama choose the proper items. And so I bailed.

      I am now once again reassured in my position that I still do not have to return to my old movie-going ways. When filmmakers figure out how to make movies again, I’ll start going again.

—Josh Becker

Oct. 2, 1998