A mainstream popcorn thriller without a dash of wit isn't much fun; a thriller that winks at you incessantly isn't much of a thrill. The challenge for studio directors and screenwriters working in the ubiquitous action-comedy genre is to find the right balance between tension and release. Two that teeter deftly on that high wire are The Legend of Zorro (Columbia) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Warner Bros.).
Zorro is misnamed, since it's less about the "legend" than what happens when the legend goes home and gets yelled at by his wife. (The Incredibles is probably going to end up as the new template for superhero movies.) It seems that Don Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Banderas) has been spending way too much time crossing swords (and leaping, and pirouetting, and somersaulting) on behalf of U.S. statehood for California, and not enough time with his wife, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and son (Adrian Alonso).
This is a slap to both Zorro and the audience, since Elena was the niece of the last guy (Anthony Hopkins) to carve Z's in peoples' foreheads and ought to know the drill. (Was she his niece? Maybe she was his stepdaughter. I can't remember much about the 1998 The Mask of Zorro apart from the moment when the unknown Zeta-Jones came onscreen and I blacked out.) Anyway, the pair's estrangement is basically a way to kick-start the plot and, later, goose it along with some good nasty banter. There's even a Noel-Cowardesque bit in which the exes back into each other on a balcony and let out twin cries of horror.
The plot revolves around California statehood and the murderous opposition of an unholy cabal of white supremacists, Confederates, and French diabolists with the 1850 equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. That would be quite enough for one thriller, but there's also the matter of Elena, who seems to have fallen for a French count (Rufus Sewell, not stretching himself) with a grand chateau and a spooky Mrs. Danvers housekeeper. The script (credited to Johnston McCully, Alex Kurtzman, and Robert Orci) is so busy and well orchestrated—there's even a dollop of Notorious—that you probably won't even ask why the bad guys need the deed to the ranch of a nice Mexican peasant family. No Western bad guys can ever pass a peasant family's ranch without coveting it, comprende?
The director, Martin Campbell, veers too far in the direction of camp in the picture's first big action sequence, putting Zorro's gleeful acrobatics on a Gene Kelly-like pedestal. But in the rest of the battles/chases he gets the mixture just right. Doubtless taking his cues from executive producer Steven Spielberg, Campbell keeps you one step in back of the action: close enough to register the props ("Hmmm, there's a rope… there's a plank… there's a scaffold…") but far enough behind to be surprised by the order (and the rate) in which they come into play. He's aided by Cecilia Montiel's sets, a riot of ropes and planks and scaffolds—and pulleys, and swinging buckets, and makeshift wooden bridges. You get all that, plus burning barns and runaway trains—yet this isn't the profligate, computer-generated hash-action of Steven Sommers (of The Mummy and Van Helsing). The staging and editing (by Stuart Baird) would make the Ringling brothers whoop in admiration. And this is one of the rare action films in which the top bad guy, the runner-up bad guy, and the bad guy you hate for no other reason than that he's bald and mute and has a mean-looking cleaver up his sleeve get comeuppances that are worthy of them.
Good as it is, The Legend of Zorro would be a hollow feat without leads who are drop-dead-gorgeous movie stars and spectacular clowns. Watch the way Banderas uses his body (and hair) in his drunk scene: He's still an acrobat, but with his heart splintered and circuits misfiring. (His huge, smoldering horse snorts in disgust at Zorro's' buckled frame.) Watch how Zeta-Jones sways airily, innocently above that magnificent bosom before those almond eyes flash and she delivers a haymaker to the jaw of some upstart. A friend recently said she wanted to cry when she showed her kids The Princess Bride, because the princess stood by and watched while the hero got bashed around. Seeing The Legend of Zorro, it hit me that Zeta-Jones has now raised the bar impossibly high for damsels in semi-distress. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lynndie England: You've come a long way, baby.
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout) has come a long way, too. Fifteen years ago, his name was regularly invoked as proof of the lamentable state of screenwriting—and the big bucks that came in its wake. At a party I once breezily dismissed his work in front of an executive who (I didn't know) had dated him. The surprise was that she didn't deliver a Zeta-Jones-like haymaker to my jaw. She said, thoughtfully, "Shane is angry, and he understands how to make audiences angry, too." She was dead-on. Lethal Weapon works because, almost from the first scene, we share Mel Gibson's rage at the victimization of a young woman, and much of the suspense comes from waiting for his overcautious partner to share it, too—and consent to wanton violence. Black's big payday—The Last Boy Scout—operated on many of the same principles and might have worked even better than Lethal Weapon with a director less fancy (and inept) than Tony Scott.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang suggests that Black hasn't purged that anger—only that he now has some perspective and knows how to control it. For all the (accurate) descriptions of the film as a postmodern parodic pastiche of L.A. noir (which was, in itself, extremely self-conscious), it's also something more serious: the story of a man (Robert Downey Jr.) called upon to avenge the casual and often murderous exploitation of young women. The jokey narration ("My name is Harry Lockhart and I'll be your narrator") leavens the grim narrative at the movie's heart, but it's that dose of righteous fury that gives it a pulse.
The comic surface of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is all polished brilliance, with surprisingly few dull patches. It's hard to imagine a more ingenious back story: A thief on the run from the cops (who killed his partner), Harry blunders into a film audition and, after he brings a Methody realism to the grieving character's lines, is shipped off to Hollywood. And there's the movie: thrills, farce, and genuine emotion appropriated by Hollywood in all its frenetic superficiality. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang deconstructs itself as it goes along, with the narrator making fun of the conventions of the genre and the Robert McKee-ruled business of screenwriting—all while stopping well short of a Charlie Kaufman implosion. No, Harry and the private eye he hooks up with, Perry (Val Kilmer, mining amusing new veins of weirdness), find themselves embroiled in a real mystery, with real danger and a good bang-bang climactic shootout.
The movie doesn't deliver in the kiss-kiss department, though. Black writes sharp lines for the unpredictable Dark Girl (vividly played by Michelle Monaghan), but he doesn't get very deep inside her head. He has a strange (but probably typical, in Hollywood) way of objectifying women at the same time he's burning with outrage at their maltreatment. Something vaguely similar happens with gays, too. Much is made of Perry's homosexuality and how it leads his macho-thug opponents to underestimate him. Five jokes on the subject would have made the point. Twenty suggests that someone has a lot of unexamined heterosexual anxiety.
Downey spins joyfully back and forth between farce and realism. Is there any leading man more fun to watch? Even in the darkest days of his addiction, I never heard stories about diva behavior or lazy work: He was always trying to top himself, and he gets better and better. James Toback in Two Girls and a Guy nailed something in his personality: the way he uses his big teddy bear eyes to put on a cute show, yet keeps something morbid in reserve. He's dodgy—but too honest an actor to keep this struggle under wraps. Downey's Harry is the perfect mascot for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: an innocent riddled with self-disgust.
Where No Star Trek Actor Has Gone Before: What a shock 10 years ago to amble down to breakfast at a lovely Savannah B & B and find myself across the communal table from ... Mr. Sulu—and with a young man who was clearly his lover! You can't tell from Star Trek that George Takei is a hugely theatrical presence, with a voice that ricochets off walls and a deep laugh. I didn't acknowledge his celebrity or ask him about Star Trek—or the Japanese detention camp in which he spent part of his youth. We talked about the architecture and culture of Savannah, and he was remarkably observant (and friendly). He said he was on his way to the Renaissance Weekend at Hilton Head—the legendary conference for the best and the brightest. I went upstairs and told my girlfriend (a late riser) that I'd just had breakfast with Mr. Sulu, that he was gay, and that he was going up to spend the weekend with Bill and Hillary Clinton and a lot of other important intellectuals. She said, "Uh-huh," and chalked this up to one too many mint juleps the night before. It was very satisfying to pick up the paper a few days later and read about the conference, attended by the Clintons, Robert Reich, etc., etc.—"and, oddly," the reporter wrote, "George Takei from Star Trek."
So it wasn't a dream.
I've been itching to write about this for years. … Congratulations, Mr. Takei, for being as unashamed as you were that morning, and for boldly entering this, our final cultural frontier for public figures.
Tagline of the Month: "Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the only person you can't be without."
Any idea what the movie could be? I'll give you a hint. The poster also says, "From the beloved author of Sense and Sensibility …"
Maybe we should have a contest to see who can top that. You know: "A bite of a cookie begins a terrifying journey of life and death!"
Meanwhile, if you're in the neighborhood of Charlottesville, Va., I'm here at the Virginia Film Festival moderating two panels: the first on Saturday night with Sissy Spacek, Kathy Baker, and writer-director Rodrigo Garcia of Nine Lives, a new omnibus drama that shatteringly demonstrates the emotional power of single, sustained takes; and a panel Sunday afternoon on the modern perils of indie distribution, featuring directors of six worthy American movies without distribution and the distributors who love (but not enough to fall for) them. Come say, "Hey." Nicolas Cage couldn't have found a more natural fit than David Spritz, the title character of The Weather Man (Paramount). Cage is a very entertaining actor, but he's not much of an inter-actor. A showboater who lovingly cultivates his own idiosyncracies (I once called him a "role stylist"), he gravitates to solipsists—men who are emotionally at sea and find themselves, at a crucial juncture in their lives, reaching out forlornly through the fog. That's certainly the case with Spritz, who changed his name from "Spritzel" at his TV station's request (a lot of weathermen adopt cute meteorological names like "Storm") and feels shallow and ridiculous in his new persona—especially when passers-by repeat his stupid catchphrases or inexplicably bombard him with Slurpees or Big Gulps.
Spritz is having one of the most naked existential crises I've seen in a movie—and, folks, I've seen 'em all. In his state of chaos, he can't get anywhere near the wavelength of his heavy daughter (Gemmenne de la Pena) or pothead son (Nicholas Hoult), both of whom are rapidly approaching their own crisis points. He wants desperately to get back with his ex-wife, Noreen (Hope Davis), but she's fed up with his self-centered spaciness: She doesn't trust him to take care of her—rightly. And his father, Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine), a famous novelist, has just been diagnosed with lymphoma, and uses the occasion to remind his son, again and again, that it's time to become a responsible adult.
Steven Conrad's script is—with the exception of one subplot—superb. He makes David's narration wry and extremely funny without mitigating the film's essential bleakness, and the squirm scenes aren't reflexive, the way they are (this year, especially) in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The embarrassments come from David's wildly imperfect stabs at expressing his true feelings—his behavior in stark contrast to the gravity of his father, a miracle of self-discipline and centeredness. (Despite a spotty American accent—Why do English actors playing Yanks have to hit those "r's" so harrrd?—Caine does it again: His gravity and self-containment are perfect.)
The one grace note in this symphony of despair is that Cage's Spritz is terrific on television. True, he's not a meteorologist, but we can see (on omnipresent monitors) that he's a master at engaging the viewer's eye: It makes sense that he's a finalist for a gig on a national morning show. But reading the weather comes easily to David; it doesn't stretch him. He knows his talent is minor and disposable—he even likens it to fast food. (A fast-food motif runs through the film, with key scenes taking place around Arby's, Wendy's, and Starbucks.) He can't chuck his dreams of becoming a novelist like his dad—or of doing something, anything, more meaningful. The movie builds to an unusually double-edged epiphany, a downbeat variation on "accept who you are." It's finally about chucking your dreams, if for no other reason than to help you make peace with the real world—and maybe (although this isn't spelled out) to be a good father and husband.
The Weather Man is a fine movie, beautifully acted, but it isn't easy to love—or to watch. It's a parade of miseries, made even more miserable by Gore Verbinski's direction. Best known for Pirates of the Caribbean and The Ring, Verbinski is a skilled and thoughtful filmmaker, but he tends to come up with one big visual idea and stick to it. The movie takes place in a snowy Chicago, and there isn't a smidge of red or green in sight. The palette of the cinematographer Phedon Papamichael is all white and gray and ice blue, with droning ambient music (by Hans Zimmer). And apart from Spritz's slouch, the screen is full of hard lines—bare straight trees, faceless skyscrapers, metal desks, and glass partitions.
The film is so perfectly worked out that it's suffocating. When David became obsessed with archery, my Metaphor Meter began to click: Archery makes physical the idea that David is trying to find his focus, to straighten himself out in a universe of swirling winds and unpredictible currents. And Cage is a little suffocating, too: Good as he is at lurching around with his eyes shocked open and arms spread beseechingly, he's too familiar a spectacle. As always, the Cage stands alone.
Now for that unfortunate subplot that I mentioned above—which is probably a spoiler: When David's teenage son is wooed and then accosted by a creepy pedophile drug counselor (Gil Bellows), the way this absent father proves himself is by beating the guy up.
Let me be clear: I have no moral problem with beating up pedophiles. I would like to beat up one myself. In fact, life would be simpler if we could all prove our worth and devotion to our loved ones by finding predatory pedophiles to beat up. Thank heaven there aren't enough of them to go around—except in movies, where they slither in on cue to demonstrate how righteous violence has a way of cutting cleanly through spiritual and interpersonal tangles. The beat-up-the-pedophile bit belongs in a different kind of film, in which the characters aren't so black-and-white and the resolutions so tidy. Which means it will probably be the multiplex audience's favorite scene… 3:33 p.m. PT
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