[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, January 6, 1999]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
Terrence Malick’s breathlessly anticipated return to the director’s chair The Thin Red Line rewrites the World War II platoon genre much the same way his directorial debut, Badlands, drove the ‘outlaw couple road film’ onto rarely explored backroads of the American unconscious. As the second ambitious war epic to emerge in the last year it’s bound to comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s much-lauded Saving Private Ryan, which plunged audiences into the overwhelming carnage of D-Day before settling into a platoon film narrative.
for Mr. Showbiz, December 25, 1998]
Set the wayback
machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago,
written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have
not been available for years.
Few films have aroused higher expectations than The Thin Red Line, the first movie written and directed by Terrence Malick since he unveiled Days of Heaven twenty years ago. Days of Heaven contained some of the most rapturous and mysterious images ever to shimmer on-screen. What people have tended to forget is that it also featured characters who hovered between the inchoate and the opaque, and a narrative in which cause and effect were sometimes elusive even within the minimal plot. Those virtues and liabilities are both on abundant display in Malick’s latest.
There was a time when you’d have gotten blank stares if you’d declared Brian Wilson, original Beach Boy and surf-sound hitmaker, a musical genius. That changed a couple of decades ago, about the time he was freed from the smothering control of the “radical psychotherapist” Dr. Eugene Landy, and when the 1966 album Pet Sounds was belatedly recognized as a pop-music masterpiece.
Love & Mercy is built on those two periods. It parallels the boyish enthusiasm and free-flowing creative drive of young visionary Wilson (Paul Dano) and the fragile, terrified older Wilson (John Cusack), and it manages to capture a lot of history in those few years without slipping into a portrait of heroes and villains.
Being John Malkovich, a mindgame of a bizarre fantasy ostensibly about a marionette puppeteer who discovers a hidden tunnel that carries spelunkers into the mind of actor John Malkovich (played by John Malkovich) where they vicariously enjoy his life for their alotted 15 minutes, was released in 1999, at a time when our obsession with celebrity was mainly fed by gossip magazines and entertainment programs and the new paradigm of reality TV had was just about to explode. Over a decade later, as intrusions into the private lives of entertainment stars has reached new depths thanks to portable video devices and hackers targeting celebrity cell phones, and a longer reach thanks to a proliferations of bottom-feeding websites, it is as timely and topical as ever.
Because Being John Malkovich, the debut feature from both director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, takes identity theft to an existential level (forget hacking into cell phones, they’re hacking into someone’s mind!), but it is not really about celebrity stalking, or obsession, or even envy. It has been called quirky, clever, funny, and satirical, and it is all that, but behind all of the madcap invention and creative playfulness is a terrible sadness, a portrait of people so miserable in their own skins that they will do almost anything to become someone else. That it presents them with such humor and imagination and, yes, even empathy makes it all the more devastating portrait of the human condition. What better way to explore the vicious things we do for love than through laughter?
John Cusack’s sad-sack marionette Craig Schwartz could be the poster boy for the self-absorbed artist, shaggy and self-important and unemployed, defiantly creating chamber dramas and performance art pieces in his miniature stages. They are at once rarified expressions of angst (his performances are as much modern dance as puppet plays) and wish fulfillment fantasies: tortured art from the tortured artist acting out the life he’s unable to live. Kaufman’s subsequent films are filled with simulacra of lives, from the fading memories of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the elaborate theatrical recreations nestled one within another of Synecdoche, New York, and characters who, unable to control their own lives, resort to obsessively revisiting their past and fix it, erase it, or simply observe. It all springs from here.
The Raven casts Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) as a P.I. of sorts, a not entirely surprising role for the writer credited with inventing detective fiction. During the final week of his life, the down-and-out writer teams up with the Baltimore police to hunt down a killer who copycats grisly homicides based on Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
It’s possible to glimpse the skeleton of a meaty plot-that-might-have-been, had a real filmmaker gifted with dark wit and intelligence taken on this story. Instead of a meandering mess bereft of suspense or significance, The Raven might have been a smart, Cronenbergian horror movie about the unwholesome, even fatal, umbilical connections among writers, critics, muses and rabid fans. Fertile ground for perversity, murder and madness, if only director James McTeigue and company had been able to see further than a low-rent mash-up of Seven and Saw.
The director who stitched The Raven together has no idea how to frame or compose a scene, let alone “grow” a film organically. Always MIA in McTeigue’s movies (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) are visual logic, coherence and any sense of cinematic grace, though noisy pretensions abound. Take this especially egregious example of klutzy cutting, pacing and continuity: A black-clad, skull-masked figure on horseback surges into the middle of a masquerade ball where Poe, clad in the colors of the night, waltzes with his pastel lady love. In one fell swoop, McTeigue blows the kinetic power of the huge, ebon animal exploding into space reserved for civilized dress-up and play, a variation on the terror Poe mines in “The Masque of the Red Death.” Maybe the jackrabbit camerawork is meant to give Poe and Emily time to just … disappear. Because, cut, it’s next morning, and our hero’s announcing that Emily was kidnapped at the ball. Excuse me, how and when did that happen? Did Poe decide he needed a potty break after the Grim Reaper steeplechase?