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Eight Isn't Enough 

Michael Sragow finds eight good films, and countless condescending duds, in a year at the movies

Wednesday, Jan 6 1999
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Silver lining or slender thread? That question nags at me as I go over my best-of-the-year list. There were some terrific movies in 1998 -- eight, according to my count. But the average film keeps on getting worse. If movies remain as synthetic and incompetent as they are for the most part, audience derision may become a regular part of the film experience. During a radio-promoted screening of the Kurt Russell action spectacle Soldier, the recruited teenagers groaned when the hero's battles with genetically engineered warriors didn't even have the satisfying shape of a professional wrestling match. On my way out a couple of them saw a reporter's pad in my coat pocket and asked me, as an expert, "Was that supposed to be good?" It's a typical 1998 movie puzzler: Who would hire the director of 1997's abysmal Event Horizon (Paul Anderson) to do a second sci-fi blowout?

Soldier, at least, was a deserved bomb; inexplicably, hordes swarmed to the prefab shocks and yocks of Lethal Weapon 4 and Rush Hour (the latest innocuous Jackie Chan vehicle). Maybe the crowds were under the illusion that these films' respective hot young comics, Chris Rock and Chris Tucker, could rejuvenate tired action-movie tropes instead of just enlivening a spare minute or two. After all, we're in an era so desperate for redemption that schlockmeisters win acclaim for reviving the slasher movies of 20 years ago with a self-consciousness that passes for postmodernism. I couldn't bring myself to see Scream 2: The first one already felt like Scream 10. But I don't begrudge the pleasure of the teen audiences who do go. They want to howl and scream and grab the shoulder next to them just like their parents did.

What's dismaying is that the year's biggest box-office hit, Armageddon, isn't more literate -- or less slipshod -- than the smaller thrill machines. It's simply noisier and more relentlessly eye-popping. If the producers require a stupendous jolt, the filmmakers oblige by offing one city after another.

The coherence of any old Charlie Chan movie outstrips most of this year's critical and popular "successes." That includes semi-art films such as Pleasantville, which doesn't give even superficial impact to a daughter abandoning her brother and mother for a world inside a video tube, and its matching paperweight, The Truman Show, which never grapples with the idea that when its hero leaves his TV-studio universe, what he finds on the outside may depress him.

In their own confused ways, these films decry TV as the electronic opiate of the masses, transforming democracy into a dictatorship of cheap celebrity and putting a video scrim between modern man and "reality." But they don't generate the authority they need as movies. They don't have the narrative flow that used to be the hallmark of commercial filmmaking. And, ironically, it's the top dramas on television that have appropriated this movie legacy and extended it with more fluid and complicated on-screen storytelling. The ABC series The Practice, about an upstart Boston law firm, has far more emotional boldness and dramatic innovation than the deluxe, uninspired A Civil Action, which is also about an upstart Boston law firm.

Personality magazines (whether broadcast, print, or online) still support the idea that movies are more and more glamorous (and certainly more glamorous than TV), while newsweeklies cover the workings of executives such as Michael Eisner or Jeffrey Katzenberg as if they were Disney or Griffith. But what's refreshing about a goofy sleeper like There's Something About Mary is that it scrapes away the glitz: It proves that, for $175 million worth of ticket-buyers, a ragged film that simply meets its tickle quotient may be enough to sustain the filmgoing habit for a season or two.

The success of something as slight and cheerful as Mary should be heartening; instead, it's dangerous, because of Hollywood's shifting herd mentality. Executives who were rushing to launch Titanic-like extravaganzas a few months ago have been canceling ambitious projects and searching for their own low-budget gross-out comedies. Without fluky talents like Mary's Farrelly Brothers, whose guiding principle is to go where no other gagsters dared to go before, we'll get studio films with as little zest or visual dimension as any old indie.

One of the smaller disappointments of Warren Beatty's Bulworth was how ugly it was; after all, its cinematographer is the great Vittorio Storaro. Unfortunately, the film's drab, tired look was the outward expression of its depleted vitality. Beatty psyched himself up to dramatize a topic he cared about (campaign reform) in a guttural style meant to be dynamic and attention-getting. But he bet too much on the thin proposition that a white icon getting funky (and rapping badly) would amuse and enlighten an audience. And on its own questionable terms the film went soft. Its climactic political martyrdom was pure Tinseltown -- both sacrificial and self-adoring. It evoked more romantic melancholy than outrage; it's as if Beatty yearned to be a jiving Jacobin version of Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two L.A.'s.

Pundits pinned the failure of Bulworth and of Mike Nichols' strident, bloated Primary Colors on Americans' distaste for political comedy. But that didn't keep moviegoers from turning last winter's wild satire Wag the Dog (one of my '97 10 best) into a modest theatrical success and huge video hit. The polite dismissal of Wag the Dog on its first release -- it was pilloried for being far-fetched -- showed how out of touch the pundits have become. They focused on the scenario of a president deflecting attention from a peccadillo by fashioning a trumped-up war; they didn't realize that Wag the Dog was largely about how gullible they were, something that's since been proved by Kenneth Starr and Henry Hyde.

No movie has entered the zeitgeist since Wag the Dog, including Steven Spielberg's smash D-Day film Saving Private Ryan, despite the efforts of editorial writers and others to prop it up as a monument to American moral know-how. Last year Spielberg didn't get the praise he earned for Amistad, a genuinely noble film that made the strategic mistake of allying the director's usual dynamism to a thoughtful, modulated dignity. In Saving Private Ryan, he doesn't take that kind of chance: He piles on the carnage immediately and dots the attenuated narrative that follows with sure-fire "human" moments. Of course the subject gives him a great excuse. As Stephen E. Ambrose wrote in Citizen Soldiers, on the front lines, "There was no opportunity for subtlety." But the same stroke that's been hailed as a coup de cinema, staging D-Day without introducing us to the characters, undermines the movie from the outset. Spielberg does contrive some jaw-dropping shots, such as the first soldiers' heads being blown off as soon as the landing craft hits the beach. Indeed, Spielberg turns this sequence into a sensation-driven miasma just as surely as studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck tried to turn it into a patriotic pageant in The Longest Day (1962). But is that a leap forward? Because John Huston in his 1945 documentary The Battle of San Pietro so judiciously set the context for a bloody fight, the sight of a real soldier tragically cut down before his camera carries far more power than Spielberg's trompe l'oeil array of corpses. And the script for Saving Private Ryan is so weak and sentimental that it can't bridge the gaps between firestorms. Even the running gags are pitiful, like the bit about the definition of the word "FUBAR" or the mystery of Capt. Tom Hanks' civilian occupation -- something even the laziest viewer can guess early on. Despite its ostensible humanism, by the second hour this movie devolves into its own jumpy brand of video-game violence. Unlike Amistad, this film is tainted with condescension and bad faith; it's the kind of anti-war movie in which even the weepy-eyed misfit finally gets to pull the trigger. Spielberg doesn't even allow the audience to make its own emotional connection between the young soldier who survives the film's final military clash and the veteran in the framing story. He resorts to morphing between them -- a demeaning vulgarity of the sort that rarely invades Spielberg's work when he's trusting his (and his audience's) instincts.

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Michael Sragow

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