Because it features a corpse and a disputed inheritance, Cookie’s Fortune might seem from a distance to be a murder mystery. But although this is one of Robert Altman’s simpler undertakings, it’s not precisely a genre exercise. If most of the movie’s characters don’t know how pipe-smoking Holly Springs, Miss., matriarch Jewel Mae “Cookie” Orcutt (Patricia Neal) died, it’s no secret to the viewer: She shot herself, as would have been perfectly clear to the police if Cookie’s uptight niece Camille (Glenn Close) hadn’t rearranged the scene in embarrassment at a suicide in the family. While the subsequent homicide investigation occupies the principal characters for most of the movie, the real family mysteries to be revealed have nothing directly to do with Cookie’s death.
Anne Rapp’s script is tidy and clever, if not profound, and provides an Altman-ready stable of eccentrics. In addition to Cookie and Camille, the central family comprises Camille’s clueless sister, Cora (Julianne Moore), and Cora’s moderately rebellious daughter, Emma (Liv Tyler), the town heartthrob, who’s just returned from an unexplained (and apparently unpleasant) adventure; almost family is the supernaturally amiable Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), an African-American handyman who lives in Cookie’s guest house and is close pals with Emma. There’s also an array of one-note characters, including a good-ole-boy cop (Ned Beatty); Emma’s dim lover, also a cop (Chris O’Donnell); the local catfish czar (Lyle Lovett); the town’s only lawyer (Donald Moffat); and a juke-joint owner (no less than Rufus “Walking the Dog” Thomas himself).
Nearly everyone in Holly Springs is agreeably laid-backwhich puts the burden of propelling the story on the overtly theatrical, blithely grasping Camille. Of course she’s histrionic: She oversees the plays at the local church and is currently rehearsing Salome by Oscar Wilde, perhaps not small-town Southern Christianity’s favorite playwrightwith Cora in the title role. Most of the movie’s major characters have a part, so naturally they’re all in Biblical costume the night that Cora’s impromptu intrigue (which has inadvertently gotten Willis accused of murdering Cookie) comes apart. One of the revelations that follows is of no discernible interest, but the other speaks to the film’s underlying theme.
Altman tries to be indulgent of these easygoing characters, although some curmudgeonly disdain shows through. Cookie’s Fortune is much more genial than its predecessor, Kansas City, with which it shares a fundamental concern. The previous film saluted jazz and Altman’s hometown, while this one trades saxophone cutting contests for simple slide-guitar riffs (played by Delta interlopers The Edge and David A. Stewart) and the urban ’30s for the rural ’90s. Both movies, however, turn on that abiding American wound: the legacy of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination.
Sounds grim, and in Kansas City it was; in that film, African-Americans protected their dignity by becoming ruthless gangsters. Cookie’s Fortune, however, views the black-white divide through an alternate lens. In sunny Holly Springs, only one high-strung white woman dares to disrupt the interracial utopia that is the local fishing spot. This is sentimental, of course, but Cookie’s Fortune is that rare Altman comedy that tries, perhaps against the director’s true nature, to end on a warmly optimistic note.
Watch only the reasonably engaging first chapter of Go and you might think that director-cinematographer Doug Liman has overcome the smarmy attitude and arch contrivances that rendered unbearable his 1996 breakthrough film, Swingers. But there are three more chapters to come, and by the time the second of them is over, most of the plot complications of Peter Berg’s hideous Very Bad Things have been redeployed.
Everything in John August’s script turns, more or less, on the drug deal that Ronna (Sarah Polley) tries to improvise on Christmas Eve. Ronna works as a checkout clerk in an L.A. supermarket that also employs her friends Claire (Katie Holmes) and Simon (Desmond Askew), who represents a relatively new type in American youth-culture flicks: the Brit who, rather than being reserved and sophisticated, is both exuberant and too clueless to live. Simon implores Ronna to take his shift so he can go to Vegas with an improbable group of friends, including cool black dude Marcus (Taye Diggs). She agrees, only to be approached by TV actors Adam (Scott Wolf) and Zack (Jay Mohr), who are looking for Ecstasy and claim that Simon is their usual source. Seeing a chance to get the cash to forestall her imminent eviction, Ronna attempts to score the drugs from Simon’s connection and make the deal with Adam and Zack, who are headed to a rave that’s one of the film’s connecting points. Ronna’s scheme, however, doesn’t go exactly as planned.
Ronna’s story re-emerges in the three additional installments, which are named, respectively, for principal characters Simon, Adam and Zack, and Claire. Their sagas seem a lot phonier than Ronna’s. Simon manages to shoot a strip-club bouncer, while Adam and Zack find themselves with the task of disposing of a bodyboth developments that too closely resemble ones in Very Bad Things. Throw in some bits of business about two amorous bridesmaids, gay infidelity, and a creepy Amway-like pitch, and Go soon has more sitcom shtick than rave-culture force.
In fact, Go is sure to disappoint ravers craving Hollywood validation. The movie may well have been named for a Moby track, and it opens with pulsating acid-disco inserts disrupting the venerable Columbia logo, but both the beats and Liman’s verve quickly flag after that. The encounter between Ronna’s over-dosed pal Mannie (Nathan Bexton) and a talking cat soon yields to the routine Tarantino-knockoff chatter of middle-aged tough guys and 20-something dimwits. As for the soundtrack, it includes Leftfield, Lionrock, and the obligatory Fatboy Slim, but the big event is a new No Doubt track, and when Liman really wants to get a car-chase scene Go-ing, he turns to Steppenwolf.
Since Simon Beaufoy wrote The Full Monty, it’s a safe bet going in that the giants in the Beaufoy-scripted Among Giants are not men. Like the working-class characters in other, more penetrating post-Thatcher British films, Beaufoy’s men are diminished by such impersonal forces as unemployment and deindustrialization. Any reference to giants would have to be as ironic as The Full Monty’s “triumph” of unemployed steelworkers posing as Chippendale’s strippers.
In fact, the title characters in Among Giants are electrical transmission towers, and the lesser beings among them represent another crop of unemployed Northerners. Ray (Pete Postlethwaite) has been hired to get the metal pylons painted in a hurry and on the cheap, with wages to be paid under the table. Ray’s young friend Steve (James Thornton) and some other guys with colorful working-class names like Weasel and Shovel sign on, accepting the impossible goal of painting 15 miles of towersall the way to Sheffieldin three months. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the transmission line has been temporarily deactivated, but the juice will begin to flow again soon, and anyone who doesn’t want to be fried will have to be off the spires when it does.
That sounds needlessly dramatic, but little else about Among Giants is. Painting is not the most dynamic of tasks, even when done by a group of well-meaning blokes singing “Stand by Me” on a high scaffold overlooking the bleakly beautiful Yorkshire moors. So Beaufoy and director Sam Miller (who, like Monty director Peter Cattaneo, is a British TV veteran) introduce sex, in the form of rock-climbing Australian wanderer Gerry (Rachel Griffiths). The visitor’s climbing skills impress Ray, who hires her to help paint. Soon the two are in bed together and Ray is talking about marriage, while jealous Steve broods and considers running away to Goa. But Ray is much older than Gerry and merely separated from his wife, and Gerry is rootless and restless.
The film attempts to conjure an aura of Rust Belt enchantment by advancing Ray and Gerry’s relationship atop electrical pylons and water towers, offering a blue-collar counterpoint to the glamorous heights where upscale cinematic amours usually transpire. This conceit isn’t altogether convincing, especially when Ray and Gerry rapturously skinny-dip near what appears to be a nuclear power plant. Still, the affair’s buildup is more compelling than its meltdown. Like the painting job, the romance doesn’t so much culminate as simply run out of time. Among Giants was written before The Full Monty, and although the earlier script shares the latter’s engagingly quirky characters and distinctive working-class milieu, it lacks its comic punch and narrative drive.
“Why seek extraordinary adventures,” asked director Vittorio De Sica, “when we are presented daily with artless people who are filled with real distress?” That rebuke could be directed toward today’s Hollywood’s moguls, or the ones of half a century ago, who were interested in bankrolling a De Sica film after the success of his Shoeshineprovided it featured an American star. Cary Grant was suggested, but De Sica rejected the American cash and stuck by his neorealist principles, recruiting chiseled nonactor Lamberto Maggiorani for the lead in The Bicycle Thief. The result couldn’t be ignored even in Hollywood: The movie, which the American Film Institute theater is presenting April 9-18 in a new 35 mm print, won the Best Foreign Film Oscar exactly 50 years ago.
The story could hardly be simpler: A long-jobless man gets work posting movie placards (featuring Rita Hayworth, no less) on the walls of Rome, but on his first day, the bicycle that’s essential to his job is stolen. The next morning, the man and his young son go searching for the bike, conducting a tour of postwar Rome that’s both impeccably documentary and profoundly evocative: a used-bike market, a soup kitchen, a church, a brothel, and a soccer stadium. Though never melodramatic, De Sica’s modest tale film has a shattering urgency. The extent of the protagonist’s desperation can be deduced from an accurate translation of the Italian title: Bicycle Thieves.CP