City Paper is not for tourists
Among the moot questions regarding the sequel to 1994’s The Crow: Will Vincent Perez equal the performance of the late Brandon Lee? Is it faithful to J.D. O’Barr’s comic-book series? Are we talking about the same crow? Is the movie any good?
More than such site-specific exercises as buddy comedies, action thrillers, down noir star turns, or coming-of-age weepies—all of which occupy a universally recognizable place in the cultural landscape—The Crow and its brood (prepare for a third) stand as shining examples of the if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing genre picture. Taste is an irrational mistress, as unheeding of niceties like “quality” and “decency” as she is of outside influences like “other people’s scorn.” You don’t have to have good taste to like some stuff and dislike other, with the instinctive “Feh!” that accompanies some peoples’ reactions to, say, chestnuts.
Which is all to say that if you’re a sucker for the pale, elegant, teenage mysteries of Goth, City of Angels is pretty good. The loss of Lee is mitigated slightly by the fact that his legacy lives effortlessly on in Perez and anyone else who ventures to don a butter-soft, floor-length black leather coat. But then, I happen to think that any thin, muscular guy dressed in black tatters and wearing post-apocalyptic Pierrot face paint is a hot number. European star Perez’s accent gives him the same lilting, stranger-in-a-strange-land vulnerability that Isabella Rossellini’s foreign awkwardness gave her in Blue Velvet, and Perez (probably) wasn’t even sleeping with the director. Added to that, he sports a fluffy post-apocalyptic Gidget hairstyle that’s rather touching; you’re not sure he knows what’s on his head.
Actually, everyone on display here, in what’s left of a depopulated Los Angeles, is a “foreigner,” insofar as the city can no longer make a place for its citizens. The steaming, blasted, rag-and-bone L.A. of the sequel looks great—shot in Halloween black-and-chemical-fire-orange, the city is a rubble-strewn obstacle course of creepy cornershops and tattoo parlors, damp tunnels and brick walls, and high-rises in a state of deconstruction, their girders gaping like ribs. It bears a recognizable relation to the L.A. of today, which so few dystopic speculative visions do—Blade Runner aside, of course—and it isn’t caught up in any of the myths and fantasies the city seems to export to less highly reflective environments. (It’s only a city—get over it.) After all, the Detroit of the first Crow was just as damned, just as desperate, and only marginally less glamorously so, and the premise for its nightmarish hi-jinks—Devil’s Night—is based on a real Detroit tradition.
Left over from the original is young Sarah (Mia Kirshner), the semi-abandoned child who witnessed the murders of Eric and Shelley and Eric’s subsequent return accompanied by a scary black bird. Now she’s grown, very bleak and beautiful, plagued by bad dreams, and working as a tattoo artist for kindly old Ian Dury. Thrashing around in her decaying loft—swathed with drapery and lousy with candles—she has visions of a man (Perez) and his little son, menaced, murdered, and finally bound by rope at the bottom of some body of water. The man, whose fitting name is Ashe, was torn apart by a gang of ruthless meanies after accidentally witnessing them being ruthlessly mean, and naturally a crow brings him back, via Sarah, to avenge the death of his son.
City of Angels’ worst flaw is its depiction of the bad guys, which is even more ridiculous than the first movie’s laughable crime boss and his gang of dim thugs. As Judah, (Law & Order’s) Richard Brooks is asked to lurk around his towering domain wearing nothing but a canvas sarong, while elaborately tricked-out S&M devotees helplessly enact their pitiful hot-wax fantasies all around him. Meanwhile, his gang of numbingly stupid goons cackles, snurfles some unnamed drug, howls at the moon, and displays a fondness for toying with its victims in that irksome way scriptwriters seem to like when they can’t think of ways to give baddies actual personalities. The fact that this crew is of a bit higher quality than the original—it involves Thuy Trang, one of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, as a kid-killing dominatrix and Iggy Pop as, well, a skinny, ugly jerk with prominent neck veins—provides only the valuable insight that Iggy does blow up good, something I’d always suspected.
But City of Angels does not bear dwelling upon; it should be admired on a purely sensual basis. Its great look harbors flashes of downright brilliance—the smiley-scary logo on Judah’s drug envelopes, a horrific revelation involving one of Sarah’s paintings—and the costume designer is a genius. Most of the costumes, a combination of finely fitted trappings of motorcycle and bondage gear with glamorous rags of heavy Goth futurismo, strike the eye as more silhouettes and afterimages than pieces of clothing. Kirshner wears a series of charming corsets—one sports a tiny, very stiff peplum, like a tutu found in the rubble after the Blitz—and looks utterly natural all the while.
Visual interest aside, however, the movie isn’t engaging. There are chases aplenty, many explosions, no shortage of people hurling themselves through glass, and a climactic if illogical confrontation on the skeleton-choked streets during a Day of the Dead celebration. But it’s all sort of ho-hummy, and it’s hard to say why. Pope is a music-video director, so he may have trouble sustaining tension at any length. (City of Angels is a record-settingly brief 80 minutes; even if you hate it, it’s not quite a waste of time.) But working on videos has taught him good habits, like showing the component parts of a confusing fight clearly, and not pretending that the hapless cameraman is caught in the struggle. Like working with the fakey look of his sets to indicate that we’re in a fakey-looking city like L.A., and not trying to pass them off as grittily realistic. And as long as he’s interested in exploiting the hipper ends of genre flicks, he’ll have a ready audience with suckers like me.
The Stupids isn’t a failure because the family of the title is stupid; film has a long and noble history of making very funny movies about dummies. The problem with The Stupids is that they are not, in fact, stupid—they are insane. It’s not through any fault of Dad (Tom Arnold), Mom (Jessica Lundy), and the two little Stupids that audiences don’t seem to know when to laugh, or why; they’re just your average family of four, living in a tidy, flower-bedecked brick house and wondering what kind of fiendish mastermind would make off with innocent folks’ garbage week after week. Director John Landis, on the other hand, should know how to posit a world in which such people can exist, but he doesn’t bother.
So the same family whose pets are cartoony Claymation stumbles onto a nefarious plot involving disgruntled members of the U.S. military selling secret high-tech weaponry to various world leaders. As in other movies in which realistic forces of evil meet cartoonish heroes to confusing or nauseating effect—I’m thinking of The Mask and Toys—our heroes aren’t situated in their universe in such a way that we can agree that it matters what happens to them. But they cannot plausibly exist in a world that contains both a totally anthropomorphized, computer-generated “dog” and an evil colonel who surrounds himself with photos of Ollie North and Newt Gingrich.
Their stupidity is actually an obstinate inability to recognize the rudiments of modern American culture, mixed with suspiciously resourceful and complex powers of imagination. The script does not ask them to react to the world around them as would, for example, one of our pals from Dumb & Dumber, who were truly stupid and darn funny to boot. The Stupids are merely crazy, getting everything deliberately wrong and then spinning elaborate fancies to make sense of their own nonsense. In fact, a vivid depiction of Dad’s explanation of the conspiracy the family believes it faces is pretty cute, if not actually amusing.
They’re like mythical comic strip characters—the Upside-Downies or the Wrong-Way Four Who Live Next Door—who stumbled into another story, one with lots of policemen and dangerous explosives. Neither of these, unfortunately, is any good.CP