See The Score for Brando and De Niro; Don't See Made at All; Hedwig's Not Quite as Bad
Brando and De Niro always promise creativity, definitive emotion, complex naturalism. Only a fool would prefer to take up offers by the week's other teams Kitano and Epps in Brother or Favreau and Vaughn in Made. Yet The Score is just as unoriginal as those other films; only the prospect of seeing Brando and De Niro, his heir apparent, on screen together for the first time gives The Score preeminence.
How many heist movies must the American public be expected to watch? And didn't we first come to value Brando and De Niro because they didn't do generic heist movies? Here's De Niro playing Nick Wells, a safecracker whose downtime is spent running a jazz nightclub in Montreal. He says he wants to live at peace but just like the reprobates in Sexy Beast, he's lured back into crime?stealing an antique French scepter stored in Montreal's Customs House. Brando plays Max, a flamboyant art dealer and fence who engineers the heist and brings on a young hotshot thief, Jack (Edward Norton). That's one no-bullshitter, one magician and one near-prodigy. But the story doesn't use these three distinct temperaments to make sense of the hoary characters; we're stuck watching superb actors do a film-noir version of reading the phone book.
When Max tells Nick, "I know you're still taking a shot at something," there's a slight chance that The Score might turn its subtext inside out and we'll see something as tricky as Brando's transformation of The Freshman?perhaps a satirical gloss on 21st-century moviemaking as crime, or acting as a racket where artists, such as the film's stars, are tempted to simply take the money and run. What an opportunity for redemption. The cast?including Angela Bassett as Nick's girlfriend Diane?always look each other in the eye, as if sharing a secret, definitely giving respect. They take The Score's folderol (routinely directed by Frank Oz) awfully seriously. Even Brando's charming improvisations go toward making scenes credible, almost momentous. Yet every possibility (Diane is described in the presskit as "an independent, cosmopolitan woman who travels the world as a flight attendant"?in other words a glorified waitress) is blanded out.
The Score's lame title proves the film's central lack of imagination. The most you can say for it is that it has the portentousness and stolid rhythms of a movie made for grownups. But why must "adult" and "mature" be synonyms for dull and banal? Besides, at this point movie culture mostly ignores adult sensibility. (The shame of critics' unenthusiastic reception of A.I. shows how readily the culture has acquiesced to adolescent taste. Critics rejected the film's seriousness; they didn't grasp that it is absolutely not a film for children?which I guess includes them.) That explains why The Score, in spite of its mature air, still is structured around the kind of crime plot thought to have commercial (i.e., adolescent) appeal. Nick clashes with Jack as opposing-generations, the veteran vs. the whippersnapper. This bogus rivalry is so lame it exposes a failure of intention and follow-through. Brando, De Niro, Norton and Bassett make the mistake of attempting to turn low-grade trash into art by the force of their brooding determination. But pomposity is no substitute for taste. The Score has that peculiar, newly observed pretense of so many recent B-movies passing for A-movies?we're not meant to mind that there's no depth to the goings-on. The model for The Score's fatuousness could very well be the solemn, woebegone Jackie Brown but Andre Techine's Thieves (about two roguish families both inside and outside the law confronting genetics, sex and destiny) had a richer story, one far more worthy of this film's stellar quartet.
If ever there was an occasion for an American remake of a French film this was it. Brando and De Niro's pairing may be reason enough to make a movie but the primary necessity?a theme?is missing. Wasn't that the ultimate lesson of Michael Mann's ridiculous Heat? Hopefully De Niro doesn't think the nonevent of his face-off scene with Pacino was anything that needed repeating?or that anybody in his right mind (that excludes Michael Mann-worshippers) would want to see duplicated. The Brando-De Niro summit is not as disappointing as Pacino shooting the breeze with De Niro in Heat?one of the most ludicrous films of the 90s and maybe the greatest casting disappointment ever. Brando reliably comes up with debonair little pantomimes and his familiar whimsical, recently self-conscious air. Looking like a Madame Tussaud's meltdown of Rod Steiger-Derek Jacobi-Truman Capote, he bluffs De Niro's observation, "You look like shit, what's your secret?" Later he answers the question "Have you lost your fucking mind?" with an insouciant "Me? Yeah, years ago." De Niro simply looks on and that's always worth looking at. He's so solid that something like warmth passes between him and Bassett during their insubstantial flirtations.
Norton's amazingly cocky. After all, this is his first All-Star Game. He enters, displaying Jack's audacious virtuosity, disguised as mentally handicapped. Then it hits you: Norton is doing Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man better than Hoffman did! Hoffman, a onetime acting legend, might deserve Norton's tribute yet nothing any of these good actors do in The Score is nearly so memorable or original as Hoffman's 1978 character study of a thief, Straight Time. For its era, Straight Time examined the same desperate social compulsions that Kevin Costner essayed in the underrated 3000 Miles to Graceland. Those films are proof that sometimes actors who flaunt their talent can do something of serious value. Otherwise they're no more than crooks, passing the scepter on to the next generation of knaves.
Directed by Jon Favreau
For pure, fatuous knavery, the best recent example is Made. Produced, written and directed by actors, it shows thespian egotism out of control. Jon Favreau and partner-in-crime Vince Vaughn mug around L.A., then NYC, working for the mob but barely escaping trouble. They're out-finessed by a nonactor, Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, who seems juiced to be playing his own kick-ass legend. Made winds up another unofficial sequel?in this case to the way overrated Swingers, which also starred Favreau and Vaughn. Tipping its hat to John Cassavetes buddy flicks, this tired comedy proves the paucity of ideas in Indie Land and in the Actors' Studio.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Wither the musical? That's the question?and the lament?after Baz Luhrmann's atrocious Moulin Rouge (Critic John Demetry rightly labeled Moulin Rouge "the worst movie to happen to pop culture since Pulp Fiction.") Hedwig and the Angry Inch is bad in an opposite way from Moulin Rouge: it substitutes minimalist punk-rock fervor and gender-bending camp for Luhrmann's ostentatious inanity. Still, there's no lack of arrogance in John Cameron Mitchell's decision to make his film directing/acting debut with this adaptation of his Off-Broadway play. And it's no less irritating to watch his on-the-job training than it was to suffer Luhrmann's practiced bombast.
Conceptually Hedwig's more respectable than Moulin Rouge. It's coherent at least; combining past musical eras and lip-glossing their political and sexual undercurrents. As Hansel, an East German refugee, Mitchell becomes Hedwig after a sex-change operation (to please an insensitive black American G.I.) leaves him stumped. Hedwig vents her life of rejections in a rock band playing American lounges while following the itinerary of a national tour by Tommy Gnossis (Michael Pitt), an androgynous rock star who pilfered Hedwig's act. The entire film is a house-of-mirrors pastiche, bridging nightclub enmity with East Village drag shows, expressing Hedwig's subcultural will to power. But not even Emily Hubley's fanciful animated passages make Hedwig's bitterness sufficiently appealing, dynamic or grand?a movie musical ought to beguile you with its rhythmic sensibility. In 1974, De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise was an immediate and thrilling response to glam rock. Mitchell simply shakes the same old glam-rock tambourine heard in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine.
As a film Hedwig and the Angry Inch's use of a rock format shows a particular intellectual preference that doesn't necessarily convey the subversive essence of contemporary sexual theater. In Ultra Naté's new music video Get It Up, there's much more cultural mileage in the sprightly nods to Warhol (especially Lonesome Cowboys) and Ultra Naté's own embrace of unorthodox sexual and racial utopias. Hedwig, unfortunately, shows the same contempt for Middle America as seen in the obnoxious, outdated music jokes of American Psycho?it's a sign of hip New York's parochial snobbery. But credit Mitchell's ruthlessness: Hedwig's snide "Kurt Cobain, that kid has got a future" is one of the film's best quasi-Vegas lines sure to stun the intended hip audience.
Too bad Mitchell isn't as derisive about his arty film influences. In the East German scenes, Hedwig's infatuation with the American G.I. and her racist "taste of power" aren't faux-Fassbinder, just false. (Ultra Naté automatically transcends such racial sentimentality.) Looking rather like a blonde Rachel Griffiths, Mitchell's kinda adorable when Hedwig gets so deep into a song she seems to be having a tantrum, but who wants to spend an hour and a half with that? Especially when the songs mostly sound the same.
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