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Teenage girls are causing a lot of trouble on local screens these days. In Stealing Beauty, a young woman (Liv Tyler) convulses a Tuscan artists’ haven; in the upcoming Heavy, another young woman (played by the same actress) does the same to a small-town diner. In this week’s entry, Carried Away, a high-school senior shakes up farm-belt society by seducing her teacher.
Carried Away was adapted from a novel by Jim Harrison (also the source of Legends of the Fall), and includes plenty of mythic Americana, including glimpses of a lone wolf (literal but also symbolic). It was directed, however, by Bruno Barreto, the Brazilian (now resident in L.A.) responsible for such sensuous Southern-hemisphere fare as Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. Largely ignoring the Hollywood conventions for such subject matter, he attempts to prove that even Swedish-Americans have unruly passions. He doesn’t entirely succeed, but Carried Away is smart about some things.
Joseph Svenden (Dennis Hopper) has walked with a limp since the childhood accident shown in the film’s opening scene. At 47, he still lives on the family farm, milking a solitary cow and caring for his dying mother (Julie Harris); he also teaches at the local two-room schoolhouse, which is set to be closed the following semester. He and the school’s other teacher, long-widowed Rosalee Henson (Amy Irving), are engaged in a lethargic romance that most of the locals assume will eventually lead to marriage.
This lukewarm understanding is threatened when Major Walker (Gary Busey) moves to town with his alcoholic wife and pretty 17-year-old daughter, Catherine (Amy Locane, also an adolescent object of lust in Lost Angels, Cry Baby, and School Ties). “There was once a beautiful girl,” reads a young girl in the classroom across the hall as Catherine enters the school, backlit with a veritable halo of Midwestern daylight. (The shadowy natural-light cinematography is by Declan Quinn, who shot Leaving Las Vegas in a very different style.)
While the Major, a keen gunman, enlists Joseph as his new hunting partner, Catherine lures him up to the hayloft and takes off her clothes. Joseph resists, but not for long; indeed, he’s rejuvenated and liberated by the affair. Soon, though, the reckless Catherine is playing footsie with Joseph in public, writing him suggestive notes, and pulling off her dress on back roads in broad daylight. Understandably, word of the relationship begins to get around.
This scenario offers not only plenty of opportunities for Locane to disrobe but also for her to embody the erogenous force that both disrupts and perpetuates life. Barreto doesn’t merely present the young-and-aerobicized view of eros, though: Hopper and Irving (the director’s wife) strip naked too, demonstrating how Catherine’s messy, unrestrained sexuality has emancipated Joseph and Rosalee.
Sexually emancipating your elders is dangerous work, and Ed Jones’ screenplay doesn’t do enough to protect Catherine. Switching abruptly from coquette to threat, Catherine is less an individual than a plot device. Joseph, Rosealee, and the Major are all compelling creations, and the exchanges between them are strongly written; particularly impressive is the scene where Joseph and the Major talk things over after the latter has discovered the teacher’s relationship with his daughter. (This is Busey’s best role in at least a decade.) The only character who is unpersuasive is the one who sparks all the others’ breakthroughs.
“You know why you like Catherine? It’s because she’s not even a person,” Rosealee tells Joseph, and the film seems to agree. However mythic they may appear in erotic dramas, though, teenage girls are people, which is where Barreto and Jones’s character drama breaks down. Catherine is the impetus for everything that happens in the film, but Carried Away rarely works when she’s on screen.
Just three weeks ago, The Rock presented Sean Connery as the British agent who knows the truth about the alleged alien spacecraft crash at Roswell, N.M.; now Independence Day supposes that Earth would have been better prepared for an alien invasion if only the U.S. military hadn’t hushed up the Roswell incident. Great minds think alike, and so do the minds who created this summer’s action movies, which draw on so many of the same precedents that they play like homework assignments from the same film-school writing class.
Independence Day includes such up-to-date elements as laptop computers and Harvey Fierstein, but it actually resembles quaint big-cast extravaganzas like How the West Was Won, made back when TV was first slobbering down Hollywood’s neck. (It also includes a clip from 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, the aliens-are-OK drama to which it provides a belated rejoinder.) As massive extraterrestrial ships position themselves over the world’s major cities, director and co-writer Roland Emmerich (Stargate) introduces characters around the globe (well, actually just the U.S.) whose destinies will be linked by the outworlders’ arrival.
In Washington, a young president (Bill Pullman) faces declining approval ratings, despite the sage counsel of his assistant, Connie (Margaret Colin). In New York, Connie’s still-smitten ex-husband, David (Jeff Goldblum), plays chess with his father, Julius (Judd Hirsch), before heading to his office, where he’s employed as a scientific genius. In California, alcoholic crop-duster Russ (Randy Quaid) sprays the wrong field and disappoints his three kids again. Nearby, Air Force pilot Steve (Will Smith) prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July with his girlfriend, who he really should have married by now. Just to demonstrate how seriously the filmmakers take all this, R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” plays.
While some are inclined to assume that the aliens are friendly, David deduces that they’re not; he discerns a hidden message being broadcast by the new arrivals and concludes they’re counting down to an attack. Although most of the world is panicked, somehow David and Julius manage to drive expeditiously to D.C., where David warns Connie (and incidentally the Prez). Just after the White House is evacuated, the world’s major cities are destroyed by the aliens’ attack. (Only New York, L.A., and D.C. rate on-screen devastation.) When the American pilots counterattack, they discover that the alien ships are protected by impenetrable shields.
Informed that the Roswell crash really did happen, the Prez, Connie, Julius, and David end up at the fabled Area 51, where they inspect the alien ship and the bodies of its three occupants. (These superintelligent mollusklike creatures are much more art-directed than the images of the supposed crash victims purveyed by the supermarket tabloids.) Soon, Steve and Russ arrive too, and the cast is assembled to execute a strategy for repelling the invaders. Victory depends on a playful (if obvious) cyber-age variation on The War of the Worlds—and on cracking the enemy’s computer system, just as in Mission: Impossible and Eraser.
Although Independence Day is not entirely unaware of its own ridiculousness, it has a curiously earnest side. If the movie’s special effects are barely space-age, its attitudes and dialogue seem even more old-fashioned. Before Steve and David embark on a fateful mission, the former gets married and the latter suggests that his father reacquaint himself with prayer. (That David hands Julius a Torah and a yarmulke doesn’t alter the fact that this moment is like something out of ’50s Hollywood.) The Prez, a former combat pilot, gives a rousing speech and then straps into a fighter-plane cockpit for the final attack; another pilot, about to turn kamikaze, tells ground control to “tell my children I love them very much.”
Given its retro spirit, it’s surprising the film doesn’t feature a bigger role for the insufferable Harry Connick Jr., who plays a pilot who dies early in the conflict. (The aliens play Butthole Surfers albums to him until he expires—no, wait, that’s what I’d do.) With its unapologetic declaration that only Americans can save the world—glimpsed briefly, fighters from other countries just get to say things like “it’s about bloody time”—Independence Day is more nostalgic for the golden age of American imperialism than enthusiastic for battling its bug-eyed-monster villains. Bring on the aliens, the filmmakers proclaim, so that we can bring back the ’50s.
The first few shots of Phenomenon feature a kitten perching on an old tire, an old hound dog sitting on a porch, and a bunny chewing on some lettuce. Feeling warm and fuzzy yet? If not, this comedy/romance/drama may prove a letdown. Director Jon (While You Were Sleeping) Turteltaub and writer Gerald (Sharkey’s Machine) DiPego push all the buttons, but not necessarily in the right order. Hyped as this years’ Forrest Gump, this cliché-fest will probably not rival that phenomenon, either culturally or financially.
Unlike Gump, Phenomenon’s hero is not beatifically clueless. After he sees a flash of light on the night of his 37th birthday, in fact, George Malley (John Travolta) becomes overwhelmingly aware. No longer able to sleep, he devours three to four books a day, masters foreign languages in minutes, and cracks secret codes in seconds. A regular guy from a small town in rural northern California, he applies his newly granted intelligence to everyday problems that have long frustrated him and his neighbors; as a remixed Peter Gabriel proclaims “I Have the Touch,” George masters solar power, invents a miracle fertilizer, and retrofits cars to run on agricultural methane. He’s no intellectual, just a genius.
George is a popular guy in town, with close friends that include Diana Ross–worshipping farmer Nate (Forest Whitaker, sweetly eccentric) and the town physician, Doc (Robert Duvall, gently crotchety). His principal dilemma is Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), the divorced mother of two elementary-school-age kids, who recently moved to the town to escape the amorous attentions of men; he loves her, but she keeps her distance.
As George discovers that he can predict earthquakes, move objects, and locate lost children with the power of his supercharged brain, many of his former friends begin to fear him. (This elementary plot development was better explored 35 years ago by the likes of The Fantastic Four and The Amazing X-Men, the first comic books to outfit their superheroes with alienation as well as tights.) Soon, it’s not just George’s neighbors who are suspicious: He’s arrested by the FBI for his playful busting of coded messages transmitted from the local Air Force base.
Like the Thing or the Hulk, George becomes surly and withdrawn, which makes him irresistible to Lace. After his release, she comes over to his house and—to an Aaron Neville/Robbie Robertson remake of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love”—shaves him and cuts his hair. Restored to woman’s natural role as the civilizer of the brilliant, unpredictable male, Lace is content, while George is redeemed. There’s one more plot complication, but it’s the one they don’t telegraph in the trailer, so I guess I’m not supposed to mention it.
As George enters a phase of mellow acceptance, he becomes a little bit Zen. He gives a speech extolling the “human spirit” and tells Lace’s kids that “everything is on its way to somewhere.” Perhaps the movie’s most revealing scene, however, is one in which some locals try to devise rational explanations for George’s demonstration of telekinetic power. Kindly old Doc becomes enraged, accusing the debunkers of trying “to prove the world is flat.” In the real world, though, there are rational explanations for displays of alleged telekinesis, and the people who find them are traditionally the opponents of flat-earthers. (Is this the right time to mention that Travolta is a Scientologist?) Turtletaub says he was attracted to the script because “so many films we see say, ‘Isn’t it great to be stupid?,’ ” but Phenomenon is hardly a brief for intelligence. In fact, it offers the customary Hollywood advice: Shut down your brain and open up your heart.CP