In Smoke Signals, two young Indian men leave their reservation and take the first long trip of their lives in order to retrieve the ashes of one of the men’s father, who saved the life of the other one as a baby. That sounds pretty solemn, which is the last thing director Chris Eyre and writer Sherman Alexie intend. They want to replace the myth of American Indians as grave, taciturn hunters with a new one: Indians as the most ironic guys on the planet.
The film opens with the chatter of a local radio announcer, giving pointless traffic reports about the Coeur d’Alene reservation’s uncrowded roads. “It’s a good day to be indigenous,” the voice proclaims, and Smoke Signals would agree, even as it recounts all the reasons why that declaration is absurd: Poverty, alcoholism, and prejudice are just the most obvious of them.
Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) is the handsome, athletic, angry one. His father Arnold (Gary Farmer, also seen in Powwow Highway and Dead Man) left home when Victor was 12; Victor misses him, although he still broods on the beatings Arnold used to dispense when he was drunk, as he frequently was. Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) is slight, nerdy, and garrulous; he considers the most banal tales of everyday occurrences to be “fine examples of the oral tradition.” He lost his parents in a house fire, the first of the film’s many blazes, from which Arnold unwittingly saved him. (Told that he has done a good thing, the drunken Arnold responds, “I didn’t mean to.”)
Victor and Thomas have long had a strained relationship, in part because the latter insists on awkwardly articulating the issues the former would rather not discuss. When Victor gets a call informing him that his father has died, Thomas offers to finance Victor’s bus trip to Phoenixas long as he can come along. Grudgingly, Victor accepts, and the two bicker and bond their way to Arizona. Victor can barely abide another telling of the story of the day Arnold took Thomas to Denny’s, but he’s inclined to side with his childlike traveling companion when two white racists take the Indians’ seats on the bus.
At a bleak trailer park outside Phoenix, Victor and Thomas meets Arnold’s younger lover, Suzy Song (Irene Bedard, most prominent as the voice of Disney’s Pocahontas). Suzy tells Victor a few things he didn’t know about his father, preparing him for an epiphany that occurs on the trip back to Idaho. Victor’s resentment and sense of loss aren’t dispelled, but he becomes more accepting of both Arnold’s memory and Thomas’ chatter.
Hardly plot-intensive, Smoke Signals was adapted from a few of the stories in Alexie’s collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Its style is playful and discursive, allowing Thomas to deliver lighthearted asides on such subjects as the miracle of the frybread prepared on one occasion by Victor’s mother, Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal). Yet Eyre’s use of flashbacks is deft, establishing a mood in which both past and present are palpable.
Thomas’ parents died on 1976’s “Bicentennial weekend,” too late to be anything but an ironic sacrifice to the nation that was established atop the Indians’ land. Such sorrowful historyand B.C. Smith’s rather dramatic hard-rock scoreindicate that the film’s sensibility is not entirely sardonic. In his way, Thomas is doing his best to uphold the oral tradition he sometimes mocks. Smoke Signals is a modest film, in some ways underdeveloped, but it’s worthy of Thomas’ complex understanding of the power of storytelling. Asked if he wants to hear lies or the truth, he replies, “I want both.”
It doesn’t take a Titanic to demonstrate the commercial advantage of combining special-effects spectacle with the marginally subtler appeal of true romance. Indeed, Independence Day brought its young lovers together just before the male half of the couple headed into space to save the world. Armageddon features pretty much the same scene, which should quiet those skeptics who suspect the movie is merely a retread of May’s Deep Impact. In fact, Armageddon is a retread of almost every recent action picture, most notably director Michael Bay’s last film, The Rock.
As in Deep Impact, the central inconvenience is a space projectile headed toward Earth, where it’s expected to destroy all life”even bacteria,” notes level-headed NASA director Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton). Government types would never have the spunk to take on such an adversary, of course. Besides, NASA has calculated that the only way to knock the “global killer” off course is to explode a nuke deep inside it, which means a team of drillers must be sent to actually land on and drill into the asteroid. The best driller in the world is hotheaded Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), who’s currently on an oil platform in the South China Sea, where he’s trying to kill his lieutenant, A.J. (Ben Affleck), for sleeping with his daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler).
Despite this distraction, Harry is just the guy to drill the murderous space rock, and he’ll bring along a whole crew of charismatic losers who are rowdy and even unhinged, but guaranteed to rise to the occasion. Among them are science-genius nutcase Rockhound (Steve Buscemi) and Chick (Will Patton), who sees the mission as a chance to redeem himself with the young son who doesn’t know he exists. They’re sent into space with some uptight, disapproving NASA pilots; along the way, they stop at the Soviet space station and pick up a comic-relief Russian (Peter Stormare).
The sequence on the asteroid is undermined by lame special effects, as are unconvincing scenes of Paris and Shanghai being destroyed by meteorites. In fact, “Shanghai” seems bogus even before it’s destroyed; it looks like a set left over from a Fu Manchu flick. But then, as in Independence Day, the rest of the world exists only in quick inserts; the asteroid is an American problem that must be faced with American pluck and grit.
The script, attributed to Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams, although other names are credited with “story” and “adaptation,” offers the usual dirtball politics: The government is tight-assed, incompetent, and even evil, while Harry’s good ol’ boyswho want the feds to bring back eight-track tapes and excuse them from paying taxes ever againknow how to have a good time while nuking asteroids. Harry is introduced while hitting golf balls at a Greenpeace ship, and the grizzled guy who first spots the asteroid gets a big laugh by saying he’d like to name it after his wife, “a vicious life-sucking bitch.”
In this context, it’s hard to credit the love story, which includes cringeworthy scenes of A.J. playing with animal crackers on Grace’s bare stomach and singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” to his love in a quavering voice as he prepares to depart for the asteroid. Hilariously, Grace is allowed to hang out in NASA Mission Control while her dad and lover are in space, alternately choking back tears and demanding that the agency do better. “That’s my father up there!” she howls at one point. Despite being left behind, though, Grace is really one of the boys: When A.J. declares that he’s going to marry her, she daintily responds, “You bet your ass you will!”
I admit that the preceding comments unfairly emphasize such elements as plot and dialogue, neither of which are of much apparent interest to Bay. The director’s movies are really sound and light shows, characterized by hyperactive camera movements, a feverish editing rhythm, and overwhelming cacophony. Bay likes to stage scenes near heavy machinery or amid explosions, so that the actors are usually shouting at each other. The effect is to pump so much adrenaline into the action that at least some of it must seep into the audience.
Unlike The Rock, however, Armageddon is too diffuse to play as a rock video in which guns replace guitars. In fact, with numerous cuts to Grace looking decorative amid the swagger and mayhem, and plenty of Aerosmith (and Bon Jovi) on the soundtrack, the movie seems like a berserk flashback to Tyler’s first moment of MTV notoriety. Viewers might well conclude that Armageddon is the story of some brave outcasts who travel into outer space in order to restore the primacy of ’80s pop-metal.
If only Steven Soderbergh had made Out of Sight five years ago, when he was instead directing such flops as King of the Hill in an apparent attempt to prove that Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a fluke. Since then, both Barry Sonnenfeld and Quentin Tarantino have made crowd-pleasersGet Shorty and Jackie Brown, respectivelybased on Elmore Leonard novels. They make Soderbergh’s addendum, frisky as it is, seem a little stale.
For more than 40 years, Leonard’s writing has provided inspiration for tough-guy flicks directed by such estimable directors as Martin Ritt, John Frankenheimer, and, uh, Burt Reynolds. While most of the earliest ones were westerns, the three most recent screen adaptations are all urban, multiracial, and comically vicious. Both Get Shorty and Out of Sight were scripted by Scott Frank, and both feature cool, sexy white lowlifes in ritualized combat with black sociopaths.
In Out of Sight, the cool guy is Jack Foley (George Clooney), a prolific bank robber who prides himself on never using a gun. The bulk of the story takes place after Jack breaks out of a Florida prison, an exploit that’s most significant because it’s when he meets hot-blooded federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). Soderbergh flashes forward and back, though, to make this moderately arty caper-comedy seem more complicated than it is; the full significance of the opening scene, for example, isn’t revealed until halfway into the film. The director also signals some temporal transitions with freeze-frames, which contribute to the movie’s retro chic. (So does a score that includes Dean Martin and Esquivel.)
Jack meets Karen when he takes her hostage after the prison break, in which he’s assisted by his quiet, solid pal Buddy (Ving Rhames) and their blathering pothead accomplice Glenn (Steve Zahn). Cop and robber flirt as Karen joins the FBI in pursuing Jack, and the camera surveys both their bodiesJack in the bath, Karen stripping in a hotel roomwith PG-13 lasciviousness. (The movie’s rated R, but not for sex.) At the story’s end, the unanswered question is how many times Karen can let Jack get away before her cohorts get suspicious.
The other principal plot strand involves a plan to steal millions of dollars’ worth of uncut diamonds from the suburban Detroit home of financier Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks), a Michael Milken type who did time in a California prison with Jack, Buddy, and Glenn. The murderous Snoop (Don Cheadle) was incarcerated there, too, and also intends to get the gems. He’s really just on hand, though, to show by contrast what a nice, well-meaning criminal Jack isand to furnish some Tarantino-style gore-soaked yuks.
It might have benefited Soderbergh to get to this material first, but in fact he couldn’t have. Essential to Out of Sight’s appeal are its riffs on its predecessors, such as casting Get Shorty veteran Dennis Farina as Karen’s puckish dad and offering surprise cameos from two Jackie Brown players. In a scene that could easily be Tarantino’s, Jack and Karen bond initially while chatting about Faye Dunaway movies. Such self-conscious japery is not sufficiently sparkling to carry the film’s full 130 minutes, however. When some future movie brat writes a scene where his characters discuss ’90s Elmore Leonard adaptations, don’t expect Out of Sight to figure prominently in the conversation.CP