In a fortnight that brings nearly a dozen Hollywood confections that don’t even have the power of a good yarn, Orlando director Sally Potter dares to unveil a movie that she claims “exists between reality and fiction.” With precedents as venerable as 8 1/2, Potter has made a film about a director who doesn’t want to make her next film. Instead, she takes tango lessons and then decides to turn her tango experiences into a movie. And “despite being, like many directors, quite camera shy,” she cast herself as the filmmaker. This gambit may not be as satisfying as it is audacious, but it opens doors that the makers of films like Titanic and Tomorrow Never Dies don’t even know exist.
Potter is not the first director of self-conscious art films to be fascinated by the dreamlike qualities of the movie musical; The Tango Lesson’s precedents include Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman, Chantal Akerman’s Window Shopping, and Jacques Rivette’s Up, Down, Fragile. (Potter also quotes the Jacob-and-the-angel scene from Godard’s Passion.) Of those films, however, only the first is rooted in autobiography, and none of them is so indulgent as to star the director and several professional dancers without acting experience. Shot in creamy black-and-white, The Tango Lesson plays like a documentary, threatened by occasional inserts of vividly colored fantasyscenes from Rage, the arch fashion-industry murder mystery Potter has decided she doesn’t want to make (and that her potential backers in Hollywood, depicted in a few acid scenes, don’t understand anyway). The motivation, Potter told the Village Voice, was to follow her carefully calculated Orlando with “something raw and intimate that didn’t have loads of costume changes and sets and English ironic detachment.”
Flitting from London to Paris to Buenos Aires to L.A., Potter meets Argentina-born, Paris-based dancer Pablo Veron, who becomes her mentor and her lover. (He’s less than ideal in both roles.) Potter is thrilled when she learns that Veron is also Jewish, but the dancer is less interested in reading Martin Buber than his partner is. Their fundamental disagreement, however, comes on the dance floor. Veron insists that women should “do nothing when you dance,” letting the man control the motion. “You destroy my freedom,” complains the director, who’s used to telling people what to do.
This conflict can be seen as a feminist parable, but it seems too specific to Potter and Veron to have that sort of resonance. Although Potter is a trained dancer who here intended boldly to do things she’d never done beforeincluding singing a song she wrote with avant-rock guitarist Fred Frithshe also seems pretty uptight; it’s easy to see why the sensual Veron would find her a problematic partner. Veron (with and without Potter) contributes some freewheeling dancesbeside the Seine, on an airport moving sidewalk, in his apartmentbut The Tango Lesson seldom achieves the blithe unreality of an MGM musical. Potter may have jettisoned her irony, but she still seems awfully English.
For those who imagine that the streets of Boston and Cambridge teem with John Kenneth Galbraith types, Good Will Hunting will be instructive. Rooted in insular, ethnically bristling South Boston, the film is a fairy tale, but one that benefits considerably from its authentically dark local color.
Good Will Hunting was written by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck before either had played his first starring role (in John Grisham’s The Rainmaker and Chasing Amy, respectively). The prince-and-the-pauper scenario imagines what it would be like to be the sort of working-class Boston kid that upscale Cambridge natives Damon and Affleck weren’t. Not just any working-class Boston kid, though: While Affleck’s Chuckie is merely an unusually attractive young construction worker, Damon’s Will Hunting is a genius. He works nights at MIT, washing the floor and anonymously solving the problems posted by mathematics professor Lambeau (Breaking the Waves’ Stellan Skarsgård).
When Lambeau finally discovers that the elusive savant is a janitor and not a student, he tries to develop Will’s gift. But Will is surly, unresponsive, and headed for jail. A hotheaded street-fighting enthusiast, Will has thrown too many punches for the court to look the other way. Lambeau tries to get probation for Will, but it comes with a provision Will rejects: psychiatric counseling. Desperate to find a shrink who can bond with the young man, Lambeau finally turns to an ex-friend, South Boston-reared Sean Maguire (an understated but still distracting Robin Williams). Meanwhile, the orphaned and abused Will is resisting his growing attachment to the perfect woman, good-humored Harvard medical student Skylar (Minnie Driver).
Damon and Affleck have written a remarkably conventional Hollywood entertainment, which becomes increasingly clear as Will’s therapy heals the doctor as much as the patient. Many aspects of the tale are highly implausible, from the always-empty Red Line trains Will rides to the young genius’s mastery of history, law, art, and philosophy (although he mispronounces Nietzsche) as well as math. At 20, Will has apparently read everything, yet we never see him read anything, even on those unpopulated subway rides. Seemingly a rebel without a cause, Will nonetheless recommends the work of leftist historian Howard Zinn.
If such moments seem contrived, the movie nonetheless has wit, charm, and an authenticity that goes beyond the genuine Boston-area locations. The script’s sense of camaraderie and youthful possibility seems real and is nicely rendered by director Gus Van Sant, in his most convincing work since Drugstore Cowboy. In just a few momentsa slo-mo playground skirmish, Skylar and Will’s frolic in a toy storeVan Sant provides an almost-European naturalness to a film that could have turned out as slick and lifeless as Phenomenon, John Travolta’s savant flick. Good Will Hunting may be a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but its wishes seem heartfelt.
Having been proclaimed a Major Director for making the intermittently clever Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino proved suspiciously uninterested in directing again. He turned instead to acting, appearing in a string of turkeys directed by friends and acquaintances; he also dusted off such old scripts as From Dusk Till Dawn and ganged up with some pals to make a dreary anthology flick, Four Rooms. After spending three years on such diversions, Tarantino has finally mustered a flashy script, a hot-and-cold cast (Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Pam Grier), and a ’70s soundtrack (Delfonics, Bobby Womack, Guess Who) to make…Get Shorty II.
Jackie Brown is sufficiently Tarantino-ish to pass as the work of the original rather than of one of his many imitators, but it’s not in the same league as the director’s previous features. In fact, although it is about violent L.A. lowlifes, it’s not even the same kind of movie as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Adapted by the director from Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, it’s a conventional sting picture.
Tarantino’s innovation was to make films about losers. Not beautiful losers, but dumb ones, guys whose earnest dissertations about such subjects as “Like a Virgin” and Parisian hamburgers revealed their fundamental disposability. That Jackie Brown is different can be deduced from its title. The movie is named for its heroine, a regional-airline flight attendant (Grier) who ferries cash for a big-talking L.A. gun dealer, Ordell Robbie (Jackson). Picked up by ATF agent Ray (Michael Keaton), Jackie is given the opportunity to avoid jail by helping the feds nail Ordell. She, however, thinks she can make a better deal for herself.
This is straightforward stuff, without the wild complications Tarantino has in the past acquisitioned from such films as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. (The story’s simplicity may also reflect the absence of former Tarantino collaborator Roger Avary, who felt he didn’t get enough credit for Pulp Fiction.) The principal narrative flourish is playing one crucial scenea cash handoff in a Southern California shopping mallthree times, with each sequence highlighting different characters: first Jackie, then Ordell’s dumb cronies Louis (De Niro) and Melanie (Bridget Fonda), and finally Jackie’s new pal Max (Robert Forster).
Even this gambit doesn’t explain why Jackie Brown, a 100-minute film at best, lasts two and a half hours. Neither the plot nor the characters justify such attention. It’s as if the only excuse the director could devise for the modesty of his material was to inflate it to epic length.
It wouldn’t be Tarantino without senseless killings, and Jackie Brown has a few. They’re not as bloody, however, as in his previous films. Most of them take place offscreen or in long shot, and only one involves spattered gore. The director packs most of the movie’s limited shock value into the dialogue he wrote for Ordell, who rarely goes a minute without calling someone (black or white) a “nigger.” The film’s only flamboyant major character, Ordell offers his theories on the impact of John Woo’s The Killer, how cops play “black against black,” and the value of having a white girlfriend. Such comments could incite some viewers, but the movie is mostly so laidback that its true muse seems to be not cool, laconic Jackie but chatty, bong-hitting Melanie.
He may not have thought of his career this way when he decided on his latest role, but Kevin Costner has been Hollywood’s post-man for almost a decade. Not only has he played the post-apocalyptic savior in his new film and its spiritual prequel, Waterworld, he also conquered America’s postmodern malaise in Field of Dreams and faced the native-American post-apocalypse in Dances With Wolves. So it’s hardly a surprise to find Costner directing and starring in a revisionist Western (like Wolves) set in a devastated future (like Waterworld’s) in which he inspires shell-shocked Americans to reaffirm their heartland values (like Field’s).
Indeed, the remarkable thing about The Postman is not its length, grandiosity, or narcissismCostner even joins Amy Grant in warbling the final-credits song, a becalmed version of “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”but its moral. This is a pro-government movie, which sets itself explicitly against the right-wing militia movement and implicitly against the free-market jackals of the Washington Post’s Op-Ed page. Adapted from David Brin’s novel by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and Brian Helgeland (Conspiracy Theory), the script argues that community is more valuable than individual freedom.
To make that point, the movie introduces its unnamed protagonist as a ’70s-style anti-hero. It’s 2013, and the man who is to become the Postman (Costner) is an itinerant loner who earns the occasional meal by performing half-remembered Shakespearean dialogue for the culturally amnesiac inhabitants of the rough settlements he visits. Though he tries to elude conflict, he’s briefly conscripted by the Holnists, an ad hoc army that wields the only significant power since the U.S. government perished in an unexplained catastrophe. Equal parts Aryan Nation brutes and Ayn Rand-reading door-to-door salesmen, the Holnists are led by the haughty, monstrous Gen. Bethlehem (Will Patton).
After he escapes those thugs, our hero finds a long-dead postman’s uniform and a bag of 15-year-old mail. Using these props, he convinces the residents of another settlement that the government has been restored. All the Postman wants is food, shelter, and refuge, especially after he impregnates beautiful, bullheaded Abby (Olivia Williams), who quickly seduces him because he’s one of the few men who’s not sterile. (This is the post-apocalypse version of Risky Business’ much-imitated sex-first/ romance-later formula.) The phony story of a restored government inspires a zealous young man who calls himself Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate in a thanklessly overearnest role). Ford actually establishes the regional postal service the Postman only feigned. When Ford’s letter carriers become the targets of the Holnists, the Postman finally decides that he has no choice but to join the fight he’s been avoiding.
Set in big-sky regions of Utah and Oregon, Costner’s movie makes the expected bows to John Ford (whose She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is in the Holnists’ limited film library), as well as to Kurosawa, Leone, and Eisenstein. Yet Costner’s grand cinematic gestures fail to impress, in part because they’re swaddled in James Newton Howard’s cheesy score. The central problem is that Costner’s blend of reactionary nativism and well-meaning liberalism is less smooth than in his previous epics: The film damns the Holnists for burning American flags and finds its heroes among civil-service workers. If such notions seem less than stirring, note that a sign identifies the address of one battle between the Postman and the Holnists as Washington Street. The man who danced with wolves is defending the same turf as the 8-year-old hero of Home Alone 3.CP