The Faculty directed by Robert Rodriguez
Hop in the Way Back Machine with me, dear Sherman, and we will revisit 1992. That was a year when hard-luck indie filmmaker stories still seemed fresh, and Robert Rodriguez trumped everybody. The struggling Austin auteur became an international sensation with El Mariachi, an amusing Tex-Mex Western spoof shot for $7000 or thereabouts, designed for sale to Mexican tv. Rodriguez scored part of the budget by hiring out his body for medical experiments. While promoting the 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 hot young turk in Hollywood. Rodriguez's behind-the-scenes story was freakish yet deeply corny: Here was a young man who wanted to be a filmmaker so badly that he literally sold his body to science. Like most Pod People movies, this one takes place in a somewhat isolated setting?a typical high school in a tiny Ohio town. The weirdness begins when the school's bullying football coach (Robert Patrick, the bad cyborg from Terminator 2) is visited by a shadowy figure after practice one day, then goes berserk and starts terrorizing other faculty members. The next morning, all the people who came into contact with the coach are behaving oddly, including principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth) and drama teacher Miss Olson (Piper Laurie). Things are not what they used to be. The apparently meager handful of smart students get hip to the fact that the world is seeming weirder and weirder; a shy English teacher (Famke Janssen) becomes more sexually confident; quiet Nurse Harper (Salma Hayek) becomes a vicious tool of the administration, giving suspicious ear exams to students called to her office over the loudspeaker. It's up to an intrepid band of seemingly mismatched teens to save the day. All have secret lives they either 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 team captain, Stan (Shawn Hatosy), wants to be an academic achiever. The wiseguy delinquent, Zeke (Josh Hartnett), sells homemade speed, fake IDs and condoms out of his car, but he's secretly a sensitive guy and a science wiz. Delilah (Jordana Brewster), the glamorous, bitchy cheerleading squad captain and newspaper editor, is a neurotic wreck who would rather wear glasses and put her hair up than look like a fashion plate every day. And so forth. Even if you don't get the message?conformity is bad, follow your muse, appearances can be deceiving?Williamson's screenplay makes sure to spell it out for you in big block letters. A history teacher (Daniel Von Bargen) lectures his students about how the Founding Fathers sought "conformity among the United States," and the English teacher encourages her students to expound on Robinson Crusoe's fear of loneliness. The script also ladles on the trademark self-aware, overwrought, Williamson-cute dialogue until The Faculty begins to sound like "The Beast with a Thousand Eyes" as rewritten by Clifford Odets. "The accepted social order is head-cheerleader-dates-star-quarterback," grouses Delilah when boyfriend Stan says he's quitting the team to concentrate on his studies. In a sociology textbook, maybe. Okay, I'm not being fair; some of the same things I liked about the Scream movies I disliked about The Faculty. But that was then and this is now, and repetition is the enemy of affection. The Scream movies were special things, so special they almost seemed like happy accidents. Williamson's scripts perfected a tricky tone director Wes Craven had been struggling toward for a decade, ever since the first Nightmare on Elm Street?a tone that mocked slasher pictures and teen romance even as it expressed an unabashed love of same. With their languorous Hans Zimmer scores and shimmering widescreen photography, the Scream movies allied themselves not just with 80s drive-in schlock, but with 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, grand or romantic. It's just here to cash in. Like a lot of handsomely produced horror movies, it smells of the assembly line, and while it flatters teenagers for their knowledge of pop culture, it draws its references from a very shallow pool of movies and tv shows, the majority of which were made after 1970. The Faculty feeds on its own inspirations, but the food is processed and sliced thin, each piece individually wrapped for easy viewer consumption. (There's even 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 was actually a ripoff of another sounds suspiciously like Williamson is trying to anticipate critics' objections before they are raised.) The film's style assimilates everything but retains nothing. It's a work of postmodern bulimia, scarfing down dozens and dozens of tropes from horror and sci-fi classics, cinematic and literary, and cheerfully puking them onto the audience: All three versions of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, the novella Who Goes There and both versions of The Thing, Robert E. Heinlein's The Puppetmaster, The X-Files, Jaws, Independence Day, the Alien movies, German expressionist horror pictures, schlocky Italian demon movies, Hong Kong supernatural thrillers, Jurassic Park, the collected works of Mr. Wes Craven?hell, I couldn't list all the winks and nods if I wanted to. Suffice to say that if a film is available in a video store and has some cachet with the video geeks and s.f.-horror convention regulars, Rodriguez references it for a good half-second before moving onto another reference, then another. He quotes everything and transforms nothing. Ideas from other movies are applied to this one like stickers being slapped on a skateboard. It's the same strategy Rodriguez employed in From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado, both of which at least had a kooky Southwestern comic book vibe that could be called personal and distinctive. Since El Mariachi, he's shown flashes of personality here and there?in the macho Catholic iconography, John Woo/spaghetti Western shootouts and softcore sex of Desperado, in his playful Showtime movie Roadracers (a remake) and in his zippy segment of the otherwise atrocious anthology movie Four Rooms. But he's getting sloppier and more disengaged as he goes along. He used to use music expressively, as aural counterpoint to the images; now he just lays alterna-rock singles down on the soundtrack willy-nilly. Since Desperado, he's shown less and less compositional sense. He doesn't plant the camera in exactly the right 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 million angles and gloms the pieces together in the editing room. It doesn't help that Rodriguez's postmodern gagman sensibility has come to seem less distinctive now. Thanks to the success of the Scream films, self-aware genre noodling has 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 Rodriguez to make an entire movie set in the real world that clearly meant something to him personally, or that was fueled by deep, raw, idiosyncratic feelings, like the whacked-out genre pictures of Scorsese, De Palma and the Coen brothers (and on a good day, Quentin Tarantino)? Can Rodriguez do anything besides mimic other directors with a twist or two? There was a time when I might have recommended The Faculty?maybe three years ago. But the bloom is off the rose now. Like Tarantino, fellow enfant terrible Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers) and so many other young directors who grew up watching cable and home video, Rodriguez has astonishing technical facility, but he hasn't convinced me he has anything on his mind except his laserdisc collection. Like comic strip images retained by a lump of Silly Putty, his references are 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 that he and his audience have the same movies in common. He has tried to get more personal, less junky movies off the ground?a biography of Selena that became the Gregory Nava picture, a film about Texas high school football based on H.G. Bissinger's nonfiction book Friday Night Lights?but for one reason or another, it hasn't happened. It better, and soon, otherwise even his fans may write him off as trite. The time when a director could build a long-term rep on stylish mimicry alone is fading fast, thank God, mainly because there are so many young directors doing it, and they all do it so well that nobody is impressed with it anymore. The age of cheap irony and promiscuous homage?an age that favored indiscriminate sampling over imagination and emotion?will end soon. Like an ugly, faddish suit, it will be shunted into a dark corner of the pop culture closet and removed years down the road only for purposes of ridicule. You are a gifted director and a budding artist, Robert Rodriguez, 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's young 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 possible light. The goal is to make audiences laugh and cry, in that order, and director Chris Columbus (Home Alone 1 & 2, Mrs. Doubtfire) sure knows how to do that. He's a good tearjerker director in the way that Russell Crowe's Bud White was a good interrogator in L.A. Confidential: He knows where to hit you. The thing is, Columbus probably didn't need to work us over quite so relentlessly (loud, sad, passionate orchestral music by John Williams, knee-jerk use of Motown ballads, a long and mercilessly sentimental deathbed scene that leads to a copout). I doubt the filmmaker knows how inherently effective this particular story is. It's Terms of Endearment all over again, with the central, star-driven personality conflict amped up, so that it obliterates subplots and steamrolls such storytelling niceties as rhythm and wit. Still, the idea of a mother effectively ceding responsibility for raising her children to the woman who replaced her has a postfeminist kick. It can't miss, and it doesn't. The performances almost save the day. Sarandon, who is looking more and more like Bette Davis in her All About Eve phase, gives the retired book editor Jackie a splendidly haughty and confident demeanor. She brooks no nonsense and takes delight in reminding other people that they will never be the parent she is. Her reaction when she finds out she's got cancer is exactly right; the doctor warns her that her kind of cancer has a 90 percent casualty rate, and Jackie replies that she'll just have to be one of the 10 percent, then. Roberts, who plays Jackie's rival Isabel, a fashion photographer, is as charming and radiant as always; like Tom Cruise, she's so attractive, likable and unfussy that people will probably take her comic timing for granted. Both actresses make these women strong 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 think because "her mouth is too big.") Ed Harris is just right as the man who must negotiate a truce between the women; too bad he all but vanishes in the final third of the movie. And young Jena Malone, so heartbreaking in Showtime's Bastard Out of Carolina and so tough and noble in Contact, turns in yet another great performance as Jackie's eldest child, 12-year-old Anna. Malone perfectly captures the emotional rollercoaster of the junior high school kid. Nothing happens to the family, as far as she's concerned; it's all happening to her. She's a creature of pure nerve endings; even perceived slights are enough to make her yell or cry. The film around her is contrived, but her performance is raw and real. Framed Man for 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 the loss of civil liberties, kind of a gonzo neorealist movie filmed with a nonprofessional cast, complete with simulated newsreel and stock footage. Incredibly, both Brownlow and his collaborator, Andrew Mollo, were teenagers when they made it. Winstanley is an historical drama set in 1649 about the Diggers, a religious sect headed by Gerard Winstanley. It's a little too fastidious for my taste, but still great to look at. Both prints are brand spanking new. The more I read about Patch Adams, the real-life inspiration for the hit Robin Williams film of the same name, the less sympathy I feel for the guy. A recent Washington Post profile of the saintly clown doctor was full of incredibly arrogant quotes from Adams, 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 clinic he's been trying to get going for the past 26 years. "We celebrate pain," Adams says, referring to all the negative reviews of the film. "Very rarely does a movie about love or compassion get a good review." If Patch Adams were really about love and compassion, instead of kissing the ass of its star and pandering to the audience, the guy would have a point. Also interesting are the rumblings, alluded to in the Post article and elsewhere, that the piles of loot that have been raised on behalf of Adams' Gesundheit! Institute seem to have mysteriously disappeared; the institute itself remains unfinished, though Adams himself apparently lives quite comfortably in a townhouse on a sizable salary. Also interesting is the fact that Adams' first wife (they were recently divorced), did not make it into the film. It appears that the portrait 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 the C train from Brooklyn last week to see The Faculty at the Chelsea West theater. Good thing, too: It gave me a chance to catch up on my movie poster graffiti. For some reason, the scrawls on the walls at the 23rd St. and 8th Ave. station are especially pointed and vicious. If you want to read dispatches from the moviegoing id, this is the place to do it. My favorite from last year was on a poster for the Billy Crystal movie My Giant, the one that showed Crystal being playfully hoisted aloft by his giant pal. Next to the comedian's smirking face, some joker had drawn a word balloon containing the following confession: "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 dumb ass women's movie." Written across Michael Keaton's wan mug on a Jack Frost poster: "You think my career's over yet?" At this particular subway stop, I am delighted to report that Patch Adams is represented by three posters of wistful Robin Williams, his big red clown nose being honked by an unseen child's hand?and all three posters were defaced. "I can't wait," read one. On the second poster, under the catchphrase "Laughter is contagious," someone had scrawled, "So is herpes." Best of all was the third poster, despoiled by a thought balloon emanating from Williams' head that revealed: "I can't wait to fuck this kid."