There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
For John Irvin to make a film like City of Industry is like the Rolling Stones recording a grunge album. Not that the British director has done a bad job with TV veteran Ken Solarz’s script, yet another tale of small-timers dealing with a heist’s bloody aftermath. But when a 20-year man like Irvin, whose work ranges from Dogs of War to A Month by the Lake, shows up on Tarantino’s turf, it’s an official announcement that the industry has successfully assimilated the neo-noir genre.
Solarz, who also co-produced, has said that he wanted to show a different L.A. from the one depicted in most films set in the city, but City of Industry doesn’t survey much uncharted territory. Its star is Harvey Keitel, practically the patron saint of neo-noir, and one of its principal locations, an abandoned oil refinery, played a crucial part in Raoul Walsh’s emblematic 1949 noir, White Heat. The film includes some African-American and Chinese-American gangsters, but they’re depicted as indistinguishable hordes, which is not exactly new either. And while Solarz and Irvin do find room for a strong woman amid all this free-ranging testosterone, for all her grit she’s better with needle and thread than a gun.
The film’s heist goes down in tony Palm Springs, where Lee Egan (Timothy Hutton) leads his much-older brother Roy (Keitel) out of retirement and into a jewelry store full of black-market diamonds being peddled by (of course) the Russian mob. Also entering the shop is Jorge Montana (Wade Dominguez), while outside is “wheelman” Skip (Stephen Dorff), a jumpy headbanger who’s principally interested in his own enrichment. The thieves get away clean, but Skip soon turns Lee and Jorge into a bloody mess. Roy escapes, and both he and Skip return to L.A. for a few rounds of cat-and-mouse.
Roy is implacable retribution to Skip’s ineffable evil, and that’s about the extent of the characterization. The adversaries don’t say much, which is for the best, since such occasional expository comments as Skip’s “nobody rips me off” are effectively redundant. Roy is a loner, of course, but chivalrous enough to forge an alliance with Jorge’s lovely, determined widow Rachel (Goldeneye Bondbabe Famke Janssen, who’s surprisingly believable). Skip is forever enlisting help, but he’s prepared to betray anyone at anytime. (His women are strippers, as disposable to him as they are to the plot.) In this context, Roy is a white knight, sure to fulfill his quest.
The movie doesn’t waste time trying to explain its characters, which gives it an agreeable efficiency. Still, the filmmakers sometimes have trouble distinguishing between local color and designer tints. Roy tracks Skip to the sounds of Tricky, Massive Attack, and Butter 08, and the film’s dirtball locations are a little too picturesque. Solarz and fellow producer Evzen Kolar met while trying to buy the remake rights to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur, and the film’s look occasionally betrays a French accent. Irvin is too much of a pro to make a truly stylish flick, though. City of Industry may be leaner and meaner than mainstream Hollywood product, but it’s not noticeably more vital or profound.
The Substance of Fire opened in New York just two weeks after Shine, but took some three months longer to arrive in Washington. That indicates an accurate reading of the films’ respective commercial potential. While both feature Jewish-émigré patriarchs tormented by their evasion of the Nazi concentration camps, Shine ends with sticky uplift, while The Substance of Fire offers only disaster for its strongest figure, the elegantly dislikable Isaac Geldhart (Ron Rifkin), and his three children, who are disappointing both in character and as characters.
Expanded by Jon Robin Baitz from his own play, which took place mostly in Isaac’s Gramercy Park apartment, the film opens with Isaac as a child, trying to catch bits of charred paper from the books the Nazis are burning in the courtyard below. When the scene shifts to contemporary Manhattan, the symbolism is obvious: Now an outlandishly fussy publisher, Isaac is still trying to save the printed word from the barbarians. But the savage who today poses the most immediate threat is his son Aaron (Tony Goldwyn), an M.B.A. who means to save his father’s publishing house from his father’s unmarketably somber taste. Isaac intends to publish an expensive four-volume account of Nazi medical atrocities, while Aaron’s choice is a potboiling gay-romance novel by his lover Val (Gil Bellows).
To save the company and publish Val’s book, Aaron enlists his siblings, who each inherited a piece of the company from their mother. Martin (Timothy Hutton again), who teaches landscape architecture at Vassar, probably thinks that he will never see a book as lovely as a tree. Sarah (typecast Sarah Jessica Parker), who appears on a dopey TV kids show, doesn’t read books at all. But Martin and Sarah like Val’s novel and dislike Dad’s imperious treatment of their brother, so in a boardroom showdown they turn their stock over to Aaron. Isaac does not react well.
Here’s where things get confusing. Isaac, who sets up a new company, shifts from distant and demanding to doddering and deranged. Martin, whose Hodgkin’s disease has returned after years of remission, volunteers to care for his father, sacrificing his own health. Isaac’s crusade to retain high standards and engage serious issues becomes the delusion of a crank, while family becomes the essential value and The Substance of Fire becomes thematically incoherent. All that director Daniel Sullivan (who also directed the play) can think to do is to wheel the camera into Gramercy Park itself.
Since Isaac (and Rifkin) dominates the proceedings, his sudden (and unconvincing) descent into senility leaves the film adrift. Isaac’s children may be more agreeable than he is, but they hardly offer a credible antithesis to their father’s fierce principles. The old ways crumble, but the new can’t replace them. That might be a convincing moral for a naturalistic drama, but Baitz’s script is altogether too contrived for such a haphazard outcome. The best thing that can be said for The Substance of Fire is that it conjures one character whose very existence is a rebuke to its aimlessness: Isaac would never have published a tale with a last act as flimsy as this one’s.
The characters in Everything Relative don’t just have issuesthey are issues. All but one college chums and all but one (not the same one) gay, these eight women talk like a slightly tattered lesbian-feminist pamphlet. “Whatever happened to our credo: The personal is political?,” asks one. Probably the same thing that happened to writer/director Sharon Pollack’s stilted, didactic dialogue, which offers an irony-free lesbian update of John Sayles’ considerably wittier The Return of the Secaucus Seven.
The thirtysomething women assemble for the bris (performed by a wisecracking Harvey Fierstein) of the son of mother Katie (Stacey Nelkin) and co-mother Victoria (Monica Bell). This couple seems pretty content, but Katie’s grandmothers still won’t accept that she’s gay, while Victoria can’t bring herself to come out at the office. Among their friends are six more problems: Still mourning her dead true love, Luce (Andrea Weber) can’t commit. She’s brought her latest flickering flame, Candy (Malindi Fickle), a “baby dyke” who doesn’t properly appreciate the time Luce and her pals spent on the lesbian-feminist barricades way back in the ’80s.
The other four women arrive unattached, at least temporarily. Ex-hooker Gina (Gabriella Messina) can’t settle down either, perhaps because of her sublimated love for Luce. Maria (Olivia Negron) married because she couldn’t stand being “ostracized” by her traditional Mexican-American family, but didn’t stick to the straight and narrow and is now fighting bitterly for the custody of her kids. It’s the first encounter since their breakup for Maria and Josie (Ellen McLaughlin), who’s given up booze but can’t forget Maria. Sarah (Carol Schneider), the straight one, is happily married but distressed by her inability to get pregnant.
The eight women soon become seven, when Luce banishes the callow Candy from the New England idyll that follows the bris. That leaves the others free to reminisce in a clumsily plot-advancing way as they cook, eat, swim, play softball, and gradually pair off. By the last night of the weekend, all the lesbians have found soulmates, leaving Sarah to masturbate as the others make love. Not that viewers will feel sorry for Sarah long; in this movie, all the major characters get what they want.
As they explore their problems in soul-baring dialogue, most of the women demonstrate utter ignorance of their own desires and motivations. Discussing someone else’s problems, however, they’re incredibly perceptive. This makes every significant exchange play like a psychological breakthrough, and banishes everyone’s hangups with numbing proficiency. When Maria blurts, “How can we not hate ourselves?,” it’s as if the line wandered in from another movie.
The intended audience for Everything Relative will probably be more interested in the milieu than the characterizations. Though glamorized slightly, as even small-budget movies tend to do, the circumstances are rendered convincingly and unsurprisingly. The only thing that confounded me was how badly the women play softball.CP