Hopin the Way Back Machine with me, dear Sherman, and we will revisit 1992. Thatwas a year when hard-luck indie filmmaker stories still seemed fresh, and RobertRodriguez trumped everybody. The struggling Austin auteur became an internationalsensation with El Mariachi, an amusing Tex-Mex Western spoof shot for$7000 or thereabouts, designed for sale to Mexican tv. Rodriguez scored partof the budget by hiring out his body for medical experiments. While promotingthe picture, he retold the guinea pig story to every entertainment journalist with a pulse, cementing his indie street cred for all time and becoming a hotyoung turk in Hollywood. Rodriguez's behind-the-scenes story was freakishyet deeply corny: Here was a young man who wanted to be a filmmaker so badlythat he literally sold his body to science.
Like most Pod People movies,this one takes place in a somewhat isolated setting?a typical high schoolin a tiny Ohio town. The weirdness begins when the school's bullying football coach (Robert Patrick, the bad cyborg from Terminator 2) is visitedby a shadowy figure after practice one day, then goes berserk and starts terrorizingother faculty members. The next morning, all the people who came into contactwith the coach are behaving oddly, including principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth)and drama teacher Miss Olson (Piper Laurie). Things are not what they used tobe. The apparently meager handful of smart students get hip to the fact thatthe world is seeming weirder and weirder; a shy English teacher (Famke Janssen) becomes more sexually confident; quiet Nurse Harper (Salma Hayek) becomes avicious tool of the administration, giving suspicious ear exams to studentscalled to her office over the loudspeaker. It's up to an intrepidband of seemingly mismatched teens to save the day. All have secret lives theyeither don't show or have only recently discovered. A runty little nerd(Elijah Wood) is actually quite brave, independent and resourceful. Stokeley(Clea Duvall), the black-clad, science-fiction-reading, Fairuza Balk-looking"lesbian," is actually straight and digs football. The football teamcaptain, Stan (Shawn Hatosy), wants to be an academic achiever. The wiseguydelinquent, Zeke (Josh Hartnett), sells homemade speed, fake IDs and condomsout of his car, but he's secretly a sensitive guy and a science wiz. Delilah(Jordana Brewster), the glamorous, bitchy cheerleading squad captain and newspapereditor, is a neurotic wreck who would rather wear glasses and put her hair upthan look like a fashion plate every day. And so forth. Even if you don'tget the message?conformity is bad, follow your muse, appearances can be deceiving?Williamson's screenplay makes sure to spell it out for youin big block letters. A history teacher (Daniel Von Bargen) lectures his studentsabout how the Founding Fathers sought "conformity among the United States,"and the English teacher encourages her students to expound on Robinson Crusoe'sfear of loneliness. The script also ladles on the trademark self-aware, overwrought,Williamson-cute dialogue until The Faculty begins to sound like "TheBeast with a Thousand Eyes" as rewritten by Clifford Odets. "The accepted social order is head-cheerleader-dates-star-quarterback," grouses Delilahwhen boyfriend Stan says he's quitting the team to concentrate on his studies.In a sociology textbook, maybe. Okay, I'm not beingfair; some of the same things I liked about the Scream movies I dislikedabout The Faculty. But that was then and this is now, and repetitionis the enemy of affection. The Scream movies were special things, sospecial they almost seemed like happy accidents. Williamson's scripts perfecteda tricky tone director Wes Craven had been struggling toward for a decade, eversince the first Nightmare on Elm Street?a tone that mocked slasherpictures and teen romance even as it expressed an unabashed love of same. Withtheir languorous Hans Zimmer scores and shimmering widescreen photography, theScream movies allied themselves not just with 80s drive-in schlock, butwith kiss-me-or-I'll-die high school weepies like Rebel Without A Cause.In comparison, The Faculty doesn't even pretend to be silly, grandor romantic. It's just here to cash in. Like a lot of handsomely producedhorror movies, it smells of the assembly line, and while it flatters teenagersfor their knowledge of pop culture, it draws its references from a very shallowpool of movies and tv shows, the majority of which were made after 1970. TheFaculty feeds on its own inspirations, but the food is processed and slicedthin, each piece individually wrapped for easy viewer consumption. (There'seven a scene near the middle where other pod movies and novels are discussed.There's a clever twist at the end, but all the talk of how one story wasactually a ripoff of another sounds suspiciously like Williamson is trying toanticipate critics' objections before they are raised.) The film's style assimilateseverything but retains nothing. It's a work of postmodern bulimia, scarfingdown dozens and dozens of tropes from horror and sci-fi classics, cinematicand literary, and cheerfully puking them onto the audience: All three versionsof Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, the novella Who Goes There andboth versions of The Thing, Robert E. Heinlein's The Puppetmaster,The X-Files, Jaws, Independence Day, the Alienmovies, German expressionist horror pictures, schlocky Italian demon movies,Hong Kong supernatural thrillers, Jurassic Park, the collected worksof Mr. Wes Craven?hell, I couldn't list all the winks and nods ifI wanted to. Suffice to say that if a film is available in a video store andhas some cachet with the video geeks and s.f.-horror convention regulars, Rodriguezreferences it for a good half-second before moving onto another reference, thenanother. He quotes everything and transforms nothing. Ideas from other moviesare applied to this one like stickers being slapped on a skateboard. It's the same strategyRodriguez employed in From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado, bothof which at least had a kooky Southwestern comic book vibe that could be calledpersonal and distinctive. Since El Mariachi, he's shown flashesof personality here and there?in the macho Catholic iconography, John Woo/spaghettiWestern shootouts and softcore sex of Desperado, in his playful Showtimemovie Roadracers (a remake) and in his zippy segment of the otherwiseatrocious anthology movie Four Rooms. But he's getting sloppierand more disengaged as he goes along. He used to use music expressively, asaural counterpoint to the images; now he just lays alterna-rock singles downon the soundtrack willy-nilly. Since Desperado, he's shown lessand less compositional sense. He doesn't plant the camera in exactly theright place anymore, so that you chuckle at the loony rightness of the shot;he just follows the actors around with a Steadicam and films them from a millionangles and gloms the pieces together in the editing room. It doesn't helpthat Rodriguez's postmodern gagman sensibility has come to seem less distinctivenow. Thanks to the success of the Scream films, self-aware genre noodlinghas become the house style of mainstream horror instead of a sly aberration.Clearly it's time to bail out of this particular wagon. Would it kill Rodriguezto make an entire movie set in the real world that clearly meant something tohim personally, or that was fueled by deep, raw, idiosyncratic feelings, likethe whacked-out genre pictures of Scorsese, De Palma and the Coen brothers (andon a good day, Quentin Tarantino)? Can Rodriguez do anything besides mimic otherdirectors with a twist or two? There was a time when Imight have recommended The Faculty?maybe three years ago. But thebloom is off the rose now. Like Tarantino, fellow enfant terrible Antoine Fuqua(The Replacement Killers) and so many other young directors who grewup watching cable and home video, Rodriguez has astonishing technical facility,but he hasn't convinced me he has anything on his mind except his laserdisccollection. Like comic strip images retained by a lump of Silly Putty, his referencesare easily acquired and impermanent; give them a squeeze and they disappear.The homages are like ticket stubs he carries around in his pocket to prove thathe and his audience have the same movies in common. He has tried to get morepersonal, less junky movies off the ground?a biography of Selena that becamethe Gregory Nava picture, a film about Texas high school football based on H.G. Bissinger's nonfiction book Friday Night Lights?but for onereason or another, it hasn't happened. It better, and soon, otherwise evenhis fans may write him off as trite. The time when a director could build along-term rep on stylish mimicry alone is fading fast, thank God, mainly becausethere are so many young directors doing it, and they all do it so well thatnobody is impressed with it anymore. The age of cheap irony and promiscuoushomage?an age that favored indiscriminate sampling over imagination andemotion?will end soon. Like an ugly, faddish suit, it will be shunted intoa dark corner of the pop culture closet and removed years down the road onlyfor purposes of ridicule. You are a gifted director and a budding artist, RobertRodriguez, and we know you are capable of real feeling. Prove it.
Stepmom directed by Chris Columbus
Stepmom,about a dying, middle-aged divorcee (Susan Sarandon) who teaches her ex-husband'syoung wife (Julia Roberts) how to be a good mother, isn't unwatchable.It's ham-handed and crass, but it works, and unlike Patch Adams,it has more on its mind besides presenting the star in the most flattering possiblelight. The goal is to make audiences laugh and cry, in that order, and directorChris Columbus (Home Alone 1 & 2, Mrs. Doubtfire) sure knowshow to do that. He's a good tearjerker director in the way that RussellCrowe's Bud White was a good interrogator in L.A. Confidential:He knows where to hit you. The thing is, Columbus probably didn't needto work us over quite so relentlessly (loud, sad, passionate orchestral music by John Williams, knee-jerk use of Motown ballads, a long and mercilessly sentimentaldeathbed scene that leads to a copout). I doubt the filmmaker knows how inherentlyeffective this particular story is. It's Terms of Endearment allover again, with the central, star-driven personality conflict amped up, sothat it obliterates subplots and steamrolls such storytelling niceties as rhythmand wit. Still, the idea of a mother effectively ceding responsibility for raisingher children to the woman who replaced her has a postfeminist kick. It can'tmiss, and it doesn't. The performances almostsave the day. Sarandon, who is looking more and more like Bette Davis in herAll About Eve phase, gives the retired book editor Jackie a splendidlyhaughty and confident demeanor. She brooks no nonsense and takes delight inreminding other people that they will never be the parent she is. Her reactionwhen she finds out she's got cancer is exactly right; the doctor warnsher that her kind of cancer has a 90 percent casualty rate, and Jackie repliesthat she'll just have to be one of the 10 percent, then. Roberts, who plays Jackie'srival Isabel, a fashion photographer, is as charming and radiant as always;like Tom Cruise, she's so attractive, likable and unfussy that people willprobably take her comic timing for granted. Both actresses make these womenstrong to the point of pigheadedness; each permits the other to score points.Their bitchy banter has a close-to-the-bone quality that's refreshing.(Jackie even gripes that Isabel isn't as beautiful as people seem to thinkbecause "her mouth is too big.") Ed Harris is just right as the manwho must negotiate a truce between the women; too bad he all but vanishes inthe final third of the movie. And young Jena Malone, soheartbreaking in Showtime's Bastard Out of Carolina and so toughand noble in Contact, turns in yet another great performance as Jackie'seldest child, 12-year-old Anna. Malone perfectly captures the emotional rollercoasterof the junior high school kid. Nothing happens to the family, as far as she'sconcerned; it's all happening to her. She's a creature of purenerve endings; even perceived slights are enough to make her yell or cry. Thefilm around her is contrived, but her performance is raw and real. Framed Manfor all seasons: It Happened Here (1963) and Winstanley (1975),two fiction features by movie historian, documentarian and restorer Kevin Brownlow,will screen Jan. 8-14 at Film Forum, and both are worth seeing. The former,though set in World War II-era Britain, is a Cold War-era nightmare about theloss of civil liberties, kind of a gonzo neorealist movie filmed with a nonprofessionalcast, complete with simulated newsreel and stock footage. Incredibly, both Brownlowand his collaborator, Andrew Mollo, were teenagers when they made it. Winstanleyis an historical drama set in 1649 about the Diggers, a religious sect headedby Gerard Winstanley. It's a little too fastidious for my taste, but stillgreat to look at. Both prints are brand spanking new. The more I read about PatchAdams, the real-life inspiration for the hit Robin Williams film of the samename, the less sympathy I feel for the guy. A recent Washington Postprofile of the saintly clown doctor was full of incredibly arrogant quotes fromAdams, who concedes the movie has almost nothing to do with him, but is happy it's out there because it will make a lot of money for the free cliniche's been trying to get going for the past 26 years. "We celebratepain," Adams says, referring to all the negative reviews of the film. "Veryrarely does a movie about love or compassion get a good review." If PatchAdams were really about love and compassion, instead of kissing the assof its star and pandering to the audience, the guy would have a point. Also interesting are therumblings, alluded to in the Post article and elsewhere, that the pilesof loot that have been raised on behalf of Adams' Gesundheit! Instituteseem to have mysteriously disappeared; the institute itself remains unfinished,though Adams himself apparently lives quite comfortably in a townhouse on asizable salary. Also interesting is the fact that Adams' first wife (theywere recently divorced), did not make it into the film. It appears that theportrait of the flaky, myopic, self-involved Adams painted by the movie is accurate, thought not in the way the star or his collaborators intended. To the walls. I took theC train from Brooklyn last week to see The Faculty at the Chelsea Westtheater. Good thing, too: It gave me a chance to catch up on my movie postergraffiti. For some reason, the scrawls on the walls at the 23rd St. and 8thAve. station are especially pointed and vicious. If you want to read dispatchesfrom the moviegoing id, this is the place to do it. My favorite from last yearwas on a poster for the Billy Crystal movie My Giant, the one that showedCrystal being playfully hoisted aloft by his giant pal. Next to the comedian's smirking face, some joker had drawn a word balloon containing the followingconfession: "I'll never win an Oscar?but I can host 'em!" From a Stepmom poster,written over Susan Sarandon's saintly face: "Oh great another dumbass women's movie." Written across Michael Keaton's wan mug ona Jack Frost poster: "You think my career's over yet?" At this particular subwaystop, I am delighted to report that Patch Adams is represented by threeposters of wistful Robin Williams, his big red clown nose being honked by anunseen child's hand?and all three posters were defaced. "I can'twait," read one. On the second poster, under the catchphrase "Laughteris contagious," someone had scrawled, "So is herpes." Best ofall was the third poster, despoiled by a thought balloon emanating from Williams'head that revealed: "I can't wait to fuck this kid."