Eyes Wide Shut (The Cornfield #53)

We begin the year with a holiday picture, and a review from Film.com in 1999; this was written, as I say below, very quickly after seeing the film, and time has only enhanced my strong feeling for the movie. Having posted a number of things for the absurd idea of “the Cornfield,” I may step back a bit from that Sunday habit, although the Crop Duster diary and links will continue full force. In the spirit of this movie, have a dreamy New Year.

Cruise, the news, and framed picture (from the Overlook Hotel collection?)

You think being a film critic is easy, right? Try sitting down to write a review of the new Stanley Kubrick picture two hours after you’ve seen it, without a chance to mull, consider, or generally roam around inside the movie for a while. (Deadlines are tight, and I am guessing that Warner Bros. screened the film late for critics because the possibility of leaks, especially in this age of insta-reviewing, was too great.) Not just any Kubrick movie, either, but the last Kubrick movie we’ll ever see, unless he created some secret opus in the maddening twelve years that passed between the release of Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.

How is it? It’s Kubrick, for sure, and in often mesmerizing form. Eyes Wide Shut was widely rumored to be about sex, but this turns out to be wrong. There is much nudity, and a small amount of rutting (supposedly hotsy stuff between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman is very brief, and nothing that hasn’t been shown in the trailers). No, this film is about dreams and imaginings, and the way a fantasy might be as thrilling and as dangerous as reality. This film, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, is a dream-movie.

The opening of the film follows a very successful Manhattan couple, Bill and Alice Harford (Mr. and Mrs. Cruise), to a lavish party at the mansion of a high-rolling friend, Victor (Sydney Pollack). Bill flirts with two Gen-X tootsies as Alice enjoys a bizarre interlude with a dashing Hungarian (Sky Dumont — where on earth does Kubrick find these people?). Bill, a doctor, is called upstairs when Victor’s companion-for-hire (Julienne Davis) overdoses. The next night, the Harfords’ mutual teasing about their flirtations leads to Alice’s ferocious soliloquy about her erotic fantasy — never consummated — involving a man they met the summer before. This is enough to send Bill on a strange journey into a sexual underworld, both simple (an unexpected kiss from an acquaintance) and outlandish (a secret society of lethal swingers). It all happens the same night as Alice’s confession, after which nothing is the same for the Harfords. Cruise, who delivers an intensely committed performance, carries most of the narrative load in the film, yet Kidman’s two major scenes, her fantasy and an especially unsettling dream, are given a prominence by Kubrick that underscores their importance in the design.

And what a design Eyes Wide Shut has. It looks and moves like no other movie, except Kubrick’s previous films; thus a tony New York mansion uncannily resembles The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel. Some of the glacially paced conversations are puzzling even by Kubrick’s measured standards, but this film demands that you re-program your expectations of how a 1999 film hurtles along, and I found it very rewarding to be treated in a non-Armageddon way.

For the most part, the actors have that glazed quality that Kubrick evidently desired, which in many cases leads to a kind of mysterious neutrality: Todd Field as Bill’s med school friend, Marie Richardson as an ardent fan of Bill, Alan Cumming as a swishy desk clerk, Rade Sherbedgia as a corrupt owner of a costume store, and Leelee Sobieski as his jailbait daughter, who may be employed by her father in a particularly depraved way. Kubrick’s style with actors is sometimes derided as inhuman, but his methods capture a precise sense of the anxious, the banal, the fatuous. Cruise’s performance in the early reels is a superb look at bourgeois self-satisfaction, unction at its extreme; Harford’s civilized adieu to the poor nude junkie who has almost died at the party — “Goodnight, Mandy” — is supremely clueless.

The orgy sequence is sure to raise questions of just how out of touch Kubrick was toward the end of his life; some of it undeniably looks like decades-old Fellini, or Edgar Allan Poe’s rendition of the Playboy Club. Yet this is a film about fantasy, daydreams of danger; it’s easy to see this as a vision conjured up by a man who lived inside his own head for decades, a man ruled by anxieties and social awkwardness, who might wonder what it would be like to walk on the wild side, drop through the rabbit hole for one dangerous night. Repeatedly, we watch Bill Harford’s face as he strolls along a Greenwich Village street (by way of Kubrick’s London soundstage) or rides in a cab; is he enraged by thoughts of his wife’s erotic fantasies, or aroused by them? Or merely looking forward to the next liberating exploit? In any case, when was the last time a movie came to life by showing us the adventure of a man thinking?

Mission: Impossible II (The Cornfield #53)

I haven’t seen the new one yet. Instead, a 2000 Film.com review of the second installment.

The rap on the first Mission: Impossible movie was that nobody could understand the plot. Still, the picture was a worldwide blockbuster, so the problems of lucidity couldn’t have been that troubling, right? At least that’s the attitude seemingly copped by the makers of Mission: Impossible II, which free-falls into another scarcely comprehensible storyline right from the start.

In its bare bones, the plot shouldn’t be as murky as the first film. A scientist (Rade Sherbedgia) has developed both a deadly virus and its antidote. One or both of these falls into the hands of the bad guy, who happens to be a former IM agent (Dougray Scott). Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must get the liquids, destroy the virus, and save the world, or at least the population of Australia, where much of the movie is set.

That all seems clear enough, yet the movie doesn’t establish that satisfyingly simple “get the McGuffin” through-line that would allow us to sit back and enjoy the big splashy action sequences, which are the point of this kind of thing. Grafted onto the spy-jinks, without satisfactory payoff, is the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious: Ethan, under orders from the IM Mr. Big (Anthony Hopkins), enlists the villain’s ex-girlfriend (Thandie Newton) for the mission. First Hunt falls in love with her—in a daffy but highly enjoyable scene that may be the world’s first courtship by car chase—and then must send her back into the bed of the villain.

If the Notorious idea were developed, or if Cruise and Newton (who knows the impact of a come-hither look) had chemistry together, perhaps this might have given us that through-line. Instead, the movie lunges from set-piece to set-piece, most of which are very engagingly staged: Cruise’s alarming rock-climbing scene, a bungee-jump into a skyscraper’s air duct, and a finale staged on motorcycles. Director John Woo squeezes juice out of these scenes, happily tapping into that talent for absurd coincidence and operatic athleticism that sparked his Hong Kong triumphs. When Tom Cruise and Dougray Scott aim their motorcycles at each other in a mechanized version of a jousting match, it is movie madness of a grand order.

The problem is that the motion picture around these individual stunts is patently a committee-made artifact. It doesn’t speak well to Cruise’s ambitions as a producer-star in the Warren Beatty vein: Mission: Impossible II lacks a vision of how the whole enchilada is supposed to blend together. Neither credited screenwriter Robert Towne nor Cruise seems to realize that capping a scene by having a spy yank off a lifelike face-mask is effective once, maybe twice, in a single film, but gets damned redundant when it happens every half-hour. The desperation of just getting the story straight becomes obvious in scenes where a couple of characters will simply stand there and tell us what’s going to happen next, and why.

Even Cruise’s character is puzzling; I couldn’t figure out why he was smiling so much. There isn’t much of the ensemble fun that the original TV series offered, with Ving Rhames (returning from the first movie) and John Polson relegated to sideline duty. Meanwhile, a great actor like Brendan Gleeson is wasted—although his sideplot, in which it is revealed that the story isn’t really about destroying mankind but about getting good stock options, is amusing. Richard Roxburgh, channeling Martin Landau from North by Northwest, is far more threatening as a henchman than nominal villain Scott manages to be.

There are graceful Woo touches even outside the action scenes, like the swaying of sheep as a helicopter buzzes their pen in the Outback. But it’s not enough to get over the blandness. Cruise may believe that producing a movie is much like leading the Impossible Mission force: gathering high-priced specialists to work on their own business, carefully assembling and executing a plan. But there’s a lot to be said for a movie being the expression of a single determined, forceful, crazy personality, an idea which this film inadvertently proves.

Deep Impact (The Cornfield #51)

More near-misses lately in the world of asteroids and their relationship to Earth, prompting a visit to a Film.com review of the non-Armageddon from 1998. As it turned out, I was wrong about Armageddon not being just as much a soap opera as Deep Impact; read about the grisly results here. And MSNBC is still around, despite my skepticism.

The opening reels of Deep Impact are gripping enough to explain why Steven Spielberg got excited about this end-of-the-world property. A teenage amateur astronomer (Elijah Wood) spots a curious comet in the night sky, and sends a query to a pro (Charles Martin Smith), who takes a peek at the unidentified cosmic smear. (Sign of the times: Smith doesn’t look through a telescope, but at a computer screen.) It’s kind of like the cropduster scene from North by Northwest: the slow-dawning realization that the flying thing isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and that it’s heading straight for you. Except in this case it isn’t a cropduster, it’s an asteroid that will destroy all life on the planet Earth.

A year later, an enterprising MSNBC reporter (Tea Leoni) thinks she’s uncovered a White House scandal. (Will viewers in the future see this film and wonder if MSNBC was one of those made-up companies invented for dramatic purposes?) Actually, she’s stumbled across something only the president (Morgan Freeman) and his top advisors know: the asteroid is coming, and it’s a year away from impact. When the impending disaster goes public, the prez assures the populace that a space shuttle mission can plant some nuclear bombs on the surface of the asteroid before it gets to Earth.

The script, credited to Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, then veers into Apollo 13 territory, as we follow the progress of the space mission. This is a very nearly separate movie, with all sorts of forced tensions between Robert Duvall, the old-fashioned NASA pilot, and his younger crew (they include Ron Eldard, Blair Underwood, and Swingers guy Jon Favreau). There’s some suspense as the spaceship intersects the flying rock, and Duvall has his share of nice moments, but the real story is down on Earth. This shuttle material simply provides the hardware in a movie that is actually closer to The Day the Earth Stood Still than Independence Day.

On Earth, everybody prepares for the worst-case scenario. Caves have been dug in Missouri, with room for a million people to survive a couple of years, or until the heaviest part of the apocalypse is over. After the really important people are chosen, the Dr. Strangeloves of this world, there will be a lottery for the remaining 800,000 slots. The film focuses on two family units divided by this system. Leoni, chosen to be a survivor, tries to come to terms with her estranged parents (Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell). And Elijah Wood, chosen because he discovered the asteroid, faces the prospect of survival without his girlfriend.

This whole aspect of the film — that a disaster movie might also be what they used to call a “woman’s picture” — is worth exploring, but Deep Impact hedges its bets too much; the shuttle mission and the climactic effects distract from the (generally well-written) human drama. Spielberg, on board only as a producer, hands the directing reins to Mimi Leder, but there are flourishes that seem to be pure Spielberg: the asteroid caught in the reflection of a car window just before impact, for instance. But Leder, who made a fumbled job of The Peacemaker, does far more confidant work here, as the movie summons up its share of shivery moments. She can’t knit the different parts of the screenplay together, and the grand finale doesn’t really come off, despite some awesome effects work. Because Deep Impact wants to rise above the cheesy fun of an Independence Day, we can’t enjoy the giant tidal wave or the sight of the Statue of Liberty in smithereens; Leder and Spielberg don’t want us to cheer the disasters. Instead, the film aims for the somber sci-fi of Contact, and falls similarly short of its target.

End-of-the-world movies are a delicate business. Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach was able to work up some dark-night ruefulness, but that was largely because the disaster was our own fault (a nuclear winter). Perhaps it’s best if these kinds of things stick to the pulp of The Omega Man and its ilk. The notion of an asteroid hitting the earth is intrinsically goofy (though not at all impossible, as we now know), and doesn’t lend itself to sober soap opera. By all accounts, the upcoming asteroid movie Armageddon doesn’t make the same mistake.

Wilde (The Cornfield #50)

Anglo-Irish literary subjects are on my mind at the moment, and Oscar Wilde died on Nov. 30, 1900, and that’s about it justifying a look at a 1998 Film.com review of a rather disappointingly normal movie.

One of the elements of Wilde, the film bio of the great Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde, is the suggestion that the flamboyant writer was in fact something of a comfortable bourgeois, a man who loved his children and his pleasant home and his smoking jacket. Certainly the movie arranged around Wilde is decidedly non-radical. Of course Wilde’s dalliances with young men are depicted with frank detail — these are the 1990s, not Wilde’s 1890s. But in most respects this film is as fussy and stately as any movie biography from the Hollywood golden age. It’s The Life of Emile Zola with rent boys.

Which is all right. There are pleasures to be taken from such a traditional film, and Wilde has its share, chiefly in the lovely central performance by the comedian/actor/novelist Stephen Fry. The movie begins with a wonderfully offbeat sequence of Wilde touring the United States, sharing his bon mots with a group of filthy coal miners. The trajectory then travels through Wilde’s marriage to the mostly silent Constance (Jennifer Ehle, the merry-eyed actress from the BBC “Pride and Prejudice”) and his growing success with “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and his plays on the London stage. His fascination with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (perfectly captured by Jude Law) unrolls with predictable foreshadowings of doom. There’s even a scene between the two of them on the street, before they’ve met, when Wilde is struck by a thunderclap of fear at the sight of the young man.

Surprisingly, not much time is spent on the sensational trials that preceded Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexuality. We do get a strong sense of the toll of his two years in hard labor, eloquently caught by Fry’s performance. Even the sight of Wilde with his flowing locks shorn for jail is a very effective shock. Elsewhere, director Brian Gilbert (a solid filmmaker who’s never quite matched his debut picture, a little-seen delight called Sharma and Beyond) keeps the focus on Wilde’s superb one-liners and a portrait of the society in which the great man lived. Vanessa Redgrave suggests volumes in her brief scenes as Wilde’s mother, and Michael Sheen does what he can with the role of Wilde’s loyal friend Robbie Ross. Tom Wilkinson, as Bosie’s hateful father the Marquess of Queensberry (and the man whose public smearing of Wilde led to the disastrous trials), has one marvelous scene at dinner with Wilde, where the writer manages to seduce — in the social sense — the older man with flattery and attention. The movie flubs a great moment: Queensberry’s insulting note to Wilde accused the author of being a “Somdomite,” a tragi-comic misspelling. If you didn’t know the story already, you might miss that absurd historical detail.

Inevitably, and inadvertently, some of the movie plays like that old Monty Python sketch where Oscar Wilde exists only to one-up his associates in the creation of saucy zingers (“Your highness is like a stream of bat’s piss”). But when it works, it works nicely. When Wilde is released from prison, a broken man, he still has the elan to comment on the hat worn by the woman who picks him up at the gate. That’s heroism, in Wildean terms — to maintain one’s wit amidst heartbreak and chaos. Wilde had the depth to understand that style is not frippery or decoration; style is a way of being, and staying, alive.

Thirteen Days (The Cornfield #49)

We just passed the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which will serve as pretext for re-printing a 2000 Film.com review of a movie I found particularly annoying.

I think I’ll stick with The Missiles of October. That 1974 TV production (shot on video, if memory serves), starring William Devane as John F. Kennedy and Martin Sheen as Bobby Kennedy, brought the Cuban missile crisis to vivid life. It did so by easing up on the melodrama and leaning on facts. What a concept: that a series of conversations among men in suits could make for utterly gripping drama.

Something about the TV-ness of The Missiles of October, the tight focus of the small screen, the emphasis on talking heads in close-up, added to its impact. Now we have Thirteen Days, which blows the whole thing up, so to speak. This film covers the same material, but filtered through the perspective of Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), who was present at the innermost heart of that suspenseful fortnight in October 1962.

The generally solid Roger Donaldson directs a script by David Self, who wrote last year’s truly execrable remake of The Haunting. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that the basic events of the missile crisis would need goosing along, and the resulting movie has an unpleasant hyped-up attitude that keeps getting in the way of the story. One of the most egregious examples has to do with Adlai Stevenson, then the American ambassador to the United Nations, and the adminstration’s fears that he would not be tough enough on the Soviet Union when it came time to face off on the floor of the U.N. The film practically paints a yellow stripe down Stevenson’s back (“Nobody thinks he’s up to this,” warns RFK) in order to set up a cliffhanger.

Due, presumably, to Costner’s star (and producer) status, Thirteen Days occasionally makes O’Donnell look like the real hero of the situation; there are times when he is propping up both Jack (Bruce Greenwood) and Bobby (Steven Culp) like a personal coach talking a client through a patch of self-doubt. This seems skewed; on the other hand, one recalls the moment in the documentary The War Room when George Stephanopolous was seen cooing reassurances to Bill Clinton on election night. In general, the Pentagon representatives are conniving and war-hungry (led by Kevin Conway’s blustery Curtis LeMay), the Kennedy boys are noble, if conflicted. The one actor who seems to be digging at some kind of ambiguity in his character is Dylan Baker, an inspired choice as defense secretary Robert McNamara.

It is so difficult to portray characters as familiar as the Kennedys that Greenwood and Culp deserve credit for eventually blending into their roles. But oh, is it wince-inducing when they first begin speaking; their Boston accents immediately bring to mind political impressionists from the early 1960s. But you do get used to hearing them, which is more than you can say for Costner, whose New England honk could shred paper and set dogs to yelping. None of which would be any problem if Thirteen Days would simply play fair with the marvelous story it has to tell. Instead, this overdone project dissipates its energy in strange ways (sudden shifts to black-and-white, as though hailing the spirit of Oliver Stone and that other Costner JFK movie), and makes you wish its makers had shown the same restraint the government did during the crisis.

Tomcats (The Cornfield #48)

Welcome to hell: Tomcats

A Film.com review from 2001, this time hitting the nadir.

In the old days of stupid teen sex comedies, a certain amount of gratuitous female nudity was implicit in the purchase price of the ticket. One could expect a Peeping Tom scene involving the girls’ shower, for instance, or a never-to-be-seen-again starlet doffing her bikini top poolside. It’s not unreasonable to assume T&A in a Spring Break movie, is it? Yet here is how the culture has changed: aside from one F/X shot and a flash of anonymous cleavage in the end-credits outtakes roll, Tomcats contains no naked women. It is, however, obsessively interested in men’s bodies. I worry about this generation of young men, I really do.

The premise of the wretchedly unfunny Tomcats is that a group of guys, hateful idiots all, make a pact. They each contribute to a stock portfolio; the last unmarried man will take all the cash. After seven years in the Nineties bull market, the stake has grown to nearly half a million bucks, and two of the guys remain ball-and-chain-less. Since the callous stud played by Jake Busey is the kind of man capable of extolling the physical sensations in having sex with a woman while she’s vomiting out the car window, his buddy Jerry O’Connell comes across as the movie’s hero, even if he is a misogynistic goon in his own right.

O’Connell needs the money, because he’s deeply in debt to a Las Vegas mobster (played, curiously, by “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher). Although all the Tomcats appear to be wealthy—otherwise, how could we root for them?–O’Connell mysteriously can’t ask them for a loan. So he connives to get Busey married off before the Vegas bill comes due. This is where Shannon Elizabeth, the American Pie exchange student, enters the picture.

The writer-director, Gregory Poirier (whose writing credits include the suicide-inducing See Spot Run), appears motivated by the desire to see the philosophical insights of “The Man Show” translated to the big screen. Thus, a girlfriend is run over by a golf cart driven by O’Connell and Busey, a meek librarian is revealed to be a secret S&M dominatrix, and the sign of a good woman is always measured by her ability to drink as much Jagermeister as the guys.

Tomcats is like an X-ray revealing the floating anxieties of men, circa 2001. It begins with a Viagra joke, and moves on to fears/fantasies of wives turning lesbian, the terror of breast-feeding women, and finally testicular cancer. Played for laughs, of course, culminating in an extended sequence in which the excised body part is kicked around hospital hallways and finds its way into the cafeteria. I cannot describe the rest, because I cling to the remaining shreds of civilization I have left. Let’s leave Tomcats in the gutter where it belongs, and re-adjust the levels of cinematic hell, because Porky’s just got bumped up a notch.

Sweet November (The Cornfield #47)

At least one more Film.com review from 2001, this one a particularly flaccid remake.

Pat O’Connor’s directorial output has been sufficiently uneven (Cal on the plus side, Inventing the Abbotts on the other) that it is credible he could turn out something as monumentally silly as Sweet November. I, for one, find it hard to believe this film was not actually directed by Randal Kleiser, the delirious auteur of Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and the incomparable Summer Lovers. Surely the Kleiseresque signature is writ large across the walks on the beach, the close-ups of puppies, the rich Dark Victory-style explosion of melodrama halfway through…oh, just the whole overripe free-spiritedness of it all.

Truth be told, Kleiser would have made a more entertaining job of this mess. Sweet November is a re-do of a 1968 film, with Sandy Dennis in kook mode. The whole idea is Sixties-ish: a soulless advertising man has his life co-opted for a month by a flaky young woman, who’s in the habit of bringing men into her home for thirty days of spiritual rehab. One at a time, of course. November’s man is Nelson Moss (Keanu Reeves); he’s recently broken down while trying to sell a client on an inappropriately sexy campaign for marketing hot dogs. The scene is one of the funniest Reeves has ever played, although he reverts to his customary uncertainty thereafter. He meets free spirit Sara Deever (Charlize Theron) when he literally passes her the salami, a joke the movie doesn’t seem to have noticed.

Sara “liberates” dogs from a research laboratory, which appears to be her only occupation. When she convinces Nelson to move into her wacky San Francisco apartment, she urges him to dump his old friends, nags him about his habits, and gets rid of his clothes. Could somebody get the Saving Silverman guys at work on this woman? Nelson, for his part, is self-centered and humorless.

We spend two hours with these people.

It couldn’t get worse, but the big plot twist is yet to come. There’s very little else going on in the film; Greg Germann summons up some laughs as Nelson’s ad partner, but the movie strongly disapproves of him. Jason Isaacs, last seen massacring members of Mel Gibson’s family in The Patriot, is Sara’s best friend, who naturally would be a gay transvestite downstairs neighbor. (See? Randal Kleiser movie.)

Charlize Theron has charm and skill, but no actress could survive this role, which has the gravity and verisimilitude of a sketch from a late-sixties Nancy Sinatra TV special. Reunited with her Devil’s Advocate co-star, Theron looks as though she’s still trying to think of some way to animate Mr. Reeves. Since that corresponds to her character’s situation—joshing and cajoling a reluctant man into life—her casting is the only apt thing in this movie.

Freddy Got Fingered (The Cornfield #46)

We continue trolling for Film.com reviews from 2001. Incredibly, this is not the low point. I remember seeing the trailer for this film with a preview audience full of Tom Green’s demographic, and the forceful laughter they supplied to the jokes in the trailer had a kind of defiant quality, like “This is our guy, you old losers don’t get him, and every transgressive action on his part is part of our thing.” The way people might’ve laughed at Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, but without the skilled-comedian part. I thought that was the most interesting thing about Green’s brief run, during which he dated Drew Barrymore (thus the reference below).

Is Tom Green the Marcel Duchamp of the Britney Spears generation? Tempting to make such a comparison, especially with Freddy Got Fingered’s Dadaesque sausage/keyboard machine, but problems arise: 1) there is no correlative for the Drew Barrymore thing with Duchamp, and 2) Duchamp was actually funny. Perhaps it is better to call Green a performance artist, and leave it at that. He creates situations, happenings, and then lets them play out in excruciating detail.

This works, sometimes, on Green’s TV show. There is something undeniably liberating about seeing a fearless man with a microphone going up against the square world (cf. David Letterman’s legendary trip with a fruit basket to General Electric headquarters.) It does not work in the more demanding structure of a movie. Freddy Got Fingered has a plot to attend to, and actual characters, but it is more interested in the grotesque stunts that Green pulls on his MTV series than in creating movie stuff. For the record, Green plays a schlub from Portland, Oregon, who dreams of becoming an animator. His parents (Rip Torn and Julie Hagerty) send him off to L.A. in a new Chrysler Le Baron; he’ll work at a factory making cheese sandwiches while he tries to get into showbiz. (The scene you’ve seen thirty times in the TV commercials with Green wearing a “cheese helmet”? It’s not in the movie, except for the end-credits outtakes. Some of the funnier bits in the ads end up there.)

Green comes back, romances an oral-sex-obsessed doctor (Marisa Coughlan) in a wheelchair, and accuses his father of sexually molesting Green’s sibling—this is where the title comes in. Around this skeleton is Green’s bread and butter. He pulls a baby out of a childbirth patient and tears the umbilical cord off with his teeth. He licks a friend’s compound fracture. He grabs the enormous members of a horse and an elephant (the elephant dong is fake, I hope to god).

What makes this kind of skit astonishing (but still, not exactly funny) on Green’s TV show is the verisimilitude of the acts. In a movie, we know it’s phony, or most of it is—so when the movie Green covers himself in a roadkill deer, it isn’t as big a transgression as playing with a real raccoon carcass on the show. One moment would not be out of place in the shocking surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou: cross-cutting between horses copulating in a field and Green deliriously smashing food into his face. What does that mean? I don’t know, but it troubles me deeply.

(By the way, the preview audience for Freddy Got Fingered was full of people with their kids. Do not bring children to this movie unless you want them to have nightmares for weeks.)

Throughout the movie there is the spectacle of Green forcing things, of desperately willing something to happen when it is all too plain that nothing is happening. His character gets a piece of advice from a cartoon mogul (Anthony Michael Hall), which is surely something that Green himself has heard from the suits in the boardrooms: Looking at Green’s drawings, Hall patiently tells him, “There has to be something that happens that’s actually funny.” A hopelessly 20th century idea, for Tom Green has made a success of himself by ignoring that very advice.

The Dish (The Cornfield #45)

And another Film.com review from 2001. This movie is one of those unheralded little Aussie pictures (Love Serenade is another) that provide a large amount of feel-good.

The Dish comes to us from the Australian filmmaking group that made The Castle, a splendidly silly film (and a huge hit down under). They’ve come a long way from that film’s bumptious, frowzy style; The Dish has a much more elegant look, and a mellow tone that feels as reassuring as lead actor Sam Neill’s cardigan sweaters and pipe. It even has a gooey framing device, with an aged Neill visiting the site of his glory thirty years after the fact—one of the periodic off-key notes in this otherwise nice movie.

Neill plays Cliff Buxton, the head man at a giant satellite dish located on a sheep farm outside the provincial town of Parkes. His moment of glory comes during a week in July 1969, when the first American moon landing brings the spotlight briefly to Parkes: the satellite dish is the only one of its kind capable of beaming back live TV pictures of the moonwalk. This is the kind of “footnote to history” that seems made for the movies, served up with more than a dollop of Aussie national pride.

True to its theme, the movie offers plenty of absurd irrelevance alongside the important issues of whether the dish will actually work or not at the moment of truth (power outages, a windstorm, computer glitches—there are plenty of monkey wrenches thrown into the path of our intrepid scientists). Cliff’s crew includes a lovesick Shrinking Violet and a pugnacious engineer, the latter with a chip on his shoulder about the imperious American organization man (Patrick Warburton) sitting in during the crucial week.

Warburton (last seen adopting a noir attitude in The Woman Chaser) is terrific, neatly balancing the casual America confidence (or arrogance) with an essentially nice-guy core. The movie is like this: it stirs up enough petty conflicts to divert us, but basically everybody’s all right, and eventually all the characters tap into the awesome wonder of just what it is they are doing. Neill, who plays the watchful/wise John Wayne role from Rio Bravo here, has the job of reminding all concerned about the galactic importance of their job.

There’s also lots of whimsy, of the familiar Aussie variety, with the dithery townsfolk. Director Rob Sitch has a droll way with throwaway gags, such as a local band that bursts into the theme from “Hawaii Five-O” when they mean to be playing the U.S. national anthem. I have to confess that this movie’s niceness ultimately made my skin crawl a little—when it’s this insistent, it’s a problem. And need I mention the numbingly persistent soundtrack of Sixties pop hits, nearly all of which are used in other movies? (There are thousands of good songs available for these purposes! Please, people, give the Top Forty a rest.) If it weren’t so pushy about selling itself, The Dish might have been a very special movie.

Town & Country (The Cornfield #44)

I’m reprinting a few Film.com reviews from 2001. And besides, one had to address the unending demand for more material on Town & Country.

When Charlton Heston is the funniest thing in a comedy, you’ve got problems. Such is the case with Town & Country, the star-crossed film that strands a group of talented people in what appears to be a floating wax museum. This long-delayed, $80 million picture deserves to be reviewed not on its budget or its production problems but whether it provides a reasonable amount of diversion, so let us stick to what’s on the screen.

It’s still pretty bad. The movie opens in tired “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” form: Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton are fabulously rich Manhattan architects. In the opening moments, we learn that Beatty has strayed from his marriage, into a dalliance with Nastassja Kinski’s fantasy babe (i.e., she’s sexy, cheerful, and undemanding of anything other than the occasional afternoon liaison). The glamorous architects are friends with Garry Shandling and Goldie Hawn, whose marriage comes apart when Hawn spies Shandling in the midst of an affair.

The rest of the picture criss-crosses their problems. Beatty and Hawn go to Mississippi to check out her country home, and enjoy a brief coupling. Beatty and Shandling go to Sun Valley to relax at Shandling’s country cabin, where they meet up with a literary cashier (Jenna Elfman) and an apparently psychotic socialite (Andie MacDowell). Beatty visits MacDowell’s parents (a gun-toting Heston and Marian Seldes) at their Idaho lodge, where he and MacDowell snuggle in bed with a lot of stuffed animals with cutesy names. This is how Heston gets to the point of speaking the line, “I know Floppy well,” which was one of the only things in the movie that made me laugh.

Garry Shandling carves some moments out of this, by virtue of his signature stammering and whining. Hawn reminds us of her perky physique, which is undeniable, but Diane Keaton can’t do much of anything, having no character to play. There’s only the occasional flicker of directorial oddness from Peter Chelsom, who made Hear My Song and Funny Bones into delightful odes to directorial oddness.

The stitched-together feel is enhanced by Beatty’s spotty voiceover, which appears at the beginning and then disappears for about an hour. Eventually the movie comes around to a Beatty speech about fidelity and commitment (as in Love Affair, another toneless comedy on the same subject). It is tempting to conclude that this is the legendary womanizer’s way of publicly atoning for his past; but that’s a lot of money to spend for a confessional, especially one with so little entertainment value.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28 other followers