After Only You, the sticky 1994 Marisa Tomei/Robert Downey Jr. romantic comedy, viewers have every right to be suspicious of a film that begins with a woman rushing to an airport in her wedding gown for an impulsive trans-Atlantic flight. That’s how writer/director Fina Torres’ Celestial Clockwork opens, although its heroine flies from Caracas to Paris rather than Pittsburgh to Rome. The respective itineraries are the least of the differences between these films, however. Where Only You bludgeoned caprice into a coma, Clockwork manages to sustain its delicate whimsy. Torres’ film is the airiest of soufflés, but one that never falls.
Clockwork is a Cinderella story, both literally and figuratively. Having abandoned her almost-husband at the altar for never-explained reasons, Ana (Belle Epoque’s Ariadna Gil) arrives in Paris without prospects. She goes to the apartment of a friend of a friend, who promptly takes her in. Soon she’s adopted by the fortunetelling waiter at a local cafe, Armand (Frédéric Longbois); a psychoanalyst who consults her patients via closed-circuit TV and who frequents the cafe, Alcanie (Evelyne Didi); a Caribbean witch doctor, Toutou (Hidegar Garcia Madriz); and a Russian-émigré voice teacher, Grigorieff (Michel Debrane). For Ana is a fledgling opera singer, and she’s serendipitously come to Paris just in time for the auditions for a production of Rossini’s Cinderella being mounted by Italian film director Italo Medici (Lluis Homar).
Ana faces but two obstacles: Her immigration status and the antagonism of one of her new roommates, Celeste (Pauline at the Beach bathing beauty Arielle Dombasle, who has aged into evil-stepsister parts). Celeste takes an instant dislike to the lovely, sweet-natured Ana, and her hostility increases when she realizes the newcomer might get the coveted part in Cinderella. A pretentious video/performance artist with singing aspirations of her own, Celeste sets out to sabotage Ana’s career. While telling Medici that the lithe, dark-haired singer is a “fat Latin American,” she informs Ana that the director is looking for a blue-eyed blonde for the part. As in Diva, a salient operatic cassette snakes through Paris, while Ana’s attempts to avoid the immigration authorities also prevent her from meeting Medici. In a movie so well stocked with good omens and benevolent characters, however, it can be assumed that Ana’s dreams will ultimately be attained.
Torres, a Venezuelan who has long lived in Paris, depicts her adopted city as a suitably enchanted setting for a modern fairy tale. Most of her characters are mystics, clairvoyants, astrologers, or shamans, and many are also gay or bisexual. (These two threads become entangled when Toutou brews a potion to make Ana return Alcanie’s love for her, which leads to the most discreet of sex scenes.) Clockwork blithely engages in Francocentric cultural stereotyping, and it’s worth noting that this immigrant fantasyland is populated largely by people of European descent; the Arabs and Africans seen in films that take a less sanguine view of the Parisian melting point (Hate, for example) are invisible here.
The tone Torres conjures is very fragile, and those who are unwilling to meet her halfway may find Clockwork positively annoying. Still, this effervescent comedy does a number of crucial things right, notably maintaining a pace so brisk that the mood doesn’t have time to go flat. (The film is only 85 minutes long.) Most important is Gil, who really does seem like the sort of unassumingly charming woman who could arrive in a new city and captivate everyone she meets. By managing to seem natural in the midst of all this amiably silly contrivance, Gil makes the film plausible emotionally—which is clearly the only mode in which Torres intends it to work.
Director John Carpenter has apparently been thinking a lot about the fate of Los Angeles in the years since his films stopped making money. The ruined city he’s envisioned for Escape From L.A., however, is not an especially bold critique of the Hollywood that’s left him behind. Indeed, the subtext of this jokey sequel to the 15-year-old Escape From New York is that while Hollywood has been destroyed, its attitudes remain intact.
Credited to Carpenter, producer Debra Hill, and star Kurt Russell, the script posits an America that’s been divided between the twin fears of the upscale Hollywood hedonist: Latino gangs control L.A., while the rest of the country is run by a Christian-rightist dictator modeled on Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. On one side, anarchy, on the other, a 3,000-mile-wide no-smoking, no-drinking, no-sex zone. (Also banned is red meat, a curious prohibition for people who take Genesis’ dominion-over-the-beasts line literally.)
This Escape is set in 2013, after the massive earthquake that transformed what’s left of L.A. into an island. Those adjudged criminal under the new America’s draconian moral order are deported to this isle, where their survival is unlikely. Recently, though, the president’s daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) has actually traveled to L.A. on purpose, beguiled by the sexual charisma of Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), the Che Guevera–style local strongman. And with her she has taken the remote control for an orbiting weapon system that can shut down all the world’s electronic devices, a development that has the president (Cliff Robertson) and his advisers (Stacey Keach and Michelle Forbes) in a panic. Their solution is Snake Plissken (Russell), who in his Escape From New York togs still looks like Jim Morrison as a gunslinger. If the original movie was “Light My Fire,” however, the sequel is “The Soft Parade.” Everything that was supposed to be ominous the first time around is farcical the second.
Snake’s told that he must travel to L.A., nab the remote control, and bring it back to the American authorities within 10 hours; any longer and he’ll die from the virus with which they’ve infected him. Escape isn’t predicated on suspense, however. Before Snake even arrives in L.A., as his minisubmarine zooms through the San Fernando Sea, a great white shark darts upward to reveal the Universal Studios sign. There’s plenty of gunfire and explosions to come, but that in-joke sets the tone.
The essential gag is that Hollywood hasn’t been totally destroyed, it’s just been deprived of fresh blood and thus become as desiccated as Carpenter’s career. Snake meets several exploitation-flick has-beens, including Peter Fonda as an aging surfer and Pam Grier as a gangleader. He has several encounters with Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi), a local fixer who talks like a Hollywood agent, and one with the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Bruce Campbell), a cosmetic surgeon who runs a ghoulish face-lift cult with designs on the nonsilicone breasts of a woman deported to L.A. for being a Muslim (Valeria Golino). After Snake triumphs in a bout of gladiatorial hoops, Eddie reminds us that “this town loves a winner.”
Considering that Carpenter hasn’t been a winner in some time, Escape could have been a lot more bitter than it is. Indeed, its Mad-magazine tone is fairly endearing, as are the exceptionally cheesy special effects. There’s also obvious affection to Carpenter’s invocations of The Wizard of Oz and Disneyland (here called Happy Kingdom). Amiability is not the point of satire, though, and most of the movie’s barbs are fairly dull. It was clever of Carpenter to realize that an Escape sequel could only play as a comedy, but it would have been even cannier to collaborate with writers who could have crafted some jokes that rise above the level of Hot Shots! and RoboCop 2.
Since it was directed by the former Francis Ford Coppola, Jack deserves a few words: It’s terrible. To elaborate, the latest film from the director of the epic Apocalypse Now and The Godfather cycle is small-screen in style and soul, complete with such sitcom stars as Bill Cosby, Fran Drescher, and Michael McKean in supporting parts. Ex-Mork Robin Williams plays the title role, a 10-year-old who looks 40 because of a rare medical condition. This premise, devised by recent NYU Film School graduates James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau, combines the themes of Big and Phenomenon: Jack allows Williams to act childish yet again, while his quadruple-speed life emphasizes the fleetingness of existence. Coppola has dedicated the film to his son Gia, who died young, and has said he identifies with Jack’s initial estrangement from his peers. But Coppola and his regulars (Diane Lane as Jack’s mom, production designer Dean Tavoularis) have failed to make anything remotely human from the script’s mechanical mawkishness.CP