It’s an industry in which every inch of every moment matters. Working in a raw medium, the artists must maintain stamina to create their most convincing moods. And when an actor says, “I’m ready to shoot my scene right now!” it is best for the camera crew to oblige. The denizens of the adult film industry are the subject of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (B-), a sometimes glorious, sometimes tedious glimpse at a cottage industry in L.A. in the ’70’s and ’80’s. The ensemble of Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Heather Graham and Julianne Moore create a family even while casually shooting hardcore scenes and dealing with graphic situations. The film’s first half is as carefree as its second act is sometimes hard to watch. Ultimately it’s a triumph of acting and atmosphere, albeit short on plot.
They say that God is in the details. If this is the case, filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen find a multitude of moviemaking miracles in the strange terrain of Fargo (A-), a curious murder mystery full of sardonic humor, offbeat characters and unconventional wisdom. This is a great case of bleak chic, from the super-serious pregnant protagonist superbly played by Frances McDormand to ransoms, outlaws, a triple homicide and a wood chipper. In both their verbal and film language, the Coen Brothers’ Dakota pop is sure to take you where you’ve never been before.
Ben Stiller headlines an all-star cast in the hilarious domestic comedy of errors, David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster (A-). His adopted character’s cross-country search for his biological parents leads him hilariously into the arms of drug-dealers, FBI agents and a merry band of fellow travelers played by comic legends ranging from Lily Tomlin to George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore. Moore is outrageously tart playing against type. The story has a way of getting more and more perilous from what seemed like a pretty simple premise, and Russell’s dark searches within Pandora’s Box lead to some awfully funny findings about love and relationships in the modern age.
Jim Carrey steals the show in director Ben Stiller’s lame comedic indictment of a world saturated by television, The Cable Guy (C). The comedian’s highjinks are funny in parts, but the film’s weighty messages often blunt the laughter in all the wrong places.
Even weather girls get the blues as Nicole Kidman proves in Gus Van Sant’s dark comedy To Die For (B-). Kidman’s gleeful portrayal of a small-town seductress is a central reason to see this satire of the heights to which the ambitious will scale to achieve their visions of fame. Joaquin Phoenix and Matt Dillon are effective in supporting performances.
Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (B+) confronts our society of spectacle through a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde named Mickey and Mallory Knox. Living in their own kaleidoscopic world of crime and bloodshed, this deranged duo feeds off a hunger for fame and fortune and embarks on a cross-country spree of decadence that is matched by a creative series of full-tilt vignettes and vivid cinematography. Like Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange, Stone casts his antiheroes with spectacularly endearing actors (in this case, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis); all other characters are tiresome or unlikable. Just as Stone was becoming a bit pedantic, he reinvented himself with this film and truly asserted his power. Working from a Quentin Tarantino story, he strikes a dark balance in this thought-provoking and controversial stunner.
In the summer of 1994, acclaimed film director Robert Altman threw a huge bash in Paris during the peak of fashion paparazzi. Attracting hoards of celebrities and models to his ten-week gala, Altman unveiled a hyped-up hootenanny, establishing his reputation as the world’s premier party host. It’s unfortunate that Altman the auteur was making a film in the process. His clothes hangover posing as a fashion scene parody is Ready to Wear (C-), a deluded mis-mesh that could have benefited from a formal screenplay and perhaps a few short cuts. Stars galore from Kim Basinger to Julia Roberts to Cher to Sophia Loren in snippets of plot delight in moments but can’t stitch together the threadbare affair. Fashion aficionados may enjoy the glimpses of the pret-a-porter and some of the runway frivolity. Ultimately, though, Altman’s statement on this one is the lampshade still on his head.
Alan Parker examines the foibles of the human body in the comic farce The Road to Wellville (C+), pitting Anthony Hopkins as a Willy Wonka of a 1907 health sanitarium against naifs Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda. This episodic film often provides a tonic to the funny-bone but fails to find a remedy and resonance against any enduring central theme.
Danny Boyle’s wickedly witty thriller Shallow Grave (B+) features Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor as insular flatmates in search of a fourth, who turns out to have mysterious money and crime connections. Boyle is observant and twisty as his trio of antiheroes confronts some shades of gray that are murkier than ever surrounding their new domicile denizen. It’s entertaining and suspenseful.
Director Tony Scott’s film of an early Quentin Tarantino script, True Romance (D+) is unfortunately a misguided, mean-spirited action film that raises issues about a violent world without any rational backing or compelling message. It’s as if there’s an irony on the screenplay page that just didn’t translate to how Scott chose to direct it. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette don’t register in the leading roles in an aimless story about drug runs and double-crosses. The great supporting cast has its moments though including the ever-intriguing Christopher Walken as one of the villains and Brad Pitt as a stoner roommate who hilariously rarely leaves his sofa.
Director Robert Altman’s 1970’s classic Nashville is often described as “24 characters searching for a movie.” His Short Cuts (B) adds about ten more to the mix as it tells a panoramic story of interlocking characters adrift in modern-day Los Angeles. Lily Tomlin, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon and Julianne Moore are among the standouts in the ensemble cast. With so many short stories – some comedic, some tragic, some formal, some jazzy – the plot defies a Player-esque 25-word-or-less pitch. But at a Short three and a half hour running time, it’s an intriguing, ironic and insightful look at modern relationships.
Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (A-) is a startling drama, all taking place in the confines of a swanky restaurant in which the colors of the characters’ costumes change in each room. This allegory features Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon as the central couple. She is an abused wife (the husband evidently is a symbol of Margaret Thatcher) who falls into the hands of the so-called “lover,” who represents intellectual dissidents. A secret love affair ensues right under the same roof where the brooding husband holds court each night over his feast. Greenaway films the movie in fleshy primary colors and uses Michael Nyman’s orchestral music to propel the story forward during the course of a series of days. All sorts of deceit and decadence are on the menu as the film swells to its stirring conclusion. It’s an obsessive and amazing film, not for the easily offended.