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Some movies are delivered D.O.A., and the latest unfortunate example is An Awfully Big Adventure, which had been pronounced a box-office “loser” by Entertainment Weekly before it even opened in Washington. Apparently spooked by unsympathetic reviews in the national mainstream media—sentiments echoed in the Post when the film arrived here last Friday—Fine Line is throwing Adventure away. Washington City Paper wasn’t even informed that the film would open last week, so a full review couldn’t be scheduled. It’s probably too late to note that Adventure is darkly hilarious, deeply resonant, and very nearly a masterpiece.
This is director Mike Newell’s (and star Hugh Grant’s) anti-follow-up to Four Weddings and a Funeral, and those expecting the fluff of the earlier film may be distressed. Where Weddings offered a genially updated, fundamentally traditional endorsement of the sanctity of matrimony, Adventure coolly watches various families (simulated and real) rip themselves to pieces. Adapted by Charles Wood from Beryl Bainbridge’s semiautobiographical novel, the film confronts some major taboos while daring to present a cast—quite literally, since most of the action is set backstage at a shabby British theater—of dislikable and disturbing characters.
It’s extremely refreshing to watch a film where Grant is not trying to be engaging—and his elegantly barbed disdain here is enough to banish Nine Months‘ treacly aftertaste—but that’s not the principal appeal of this dark, deft comedy. Adventure is the coming-of-age story of Stella Bradshaw (Georgina Cates), a teen-ager who gets an apprenticeship with a popular theater company in late-’40s Liverpool. Abandoned to her active imagination and her working-class aunt and uncle by the mother who deserted her as an infant, 16-year-old Stella is a fascinating mix of blunt calculation and dreamy self-delusion. She’s the sort of sheltered naif who nonetheless has a flair for four-letter words—even ones whose meaning she doesn’t know.
Stella is sometimes shown talking to her runaway mother on the phone, but it’s father surrogates with which she’s exceptionally well furnished. Her earnest but uncomprehending uncle (Alun Armstrong) arranges the position at the theater, where Stella falls under the influence of Meredith Potter (Grant), the company’s bitter, biting artistic director, and later, P.L. O’Hara (Alan Rickman), Potter’s nemesis and “the best Captain Hook there’s ever been.” In order to divest herself of her virginity, Stella sleeps with O’Hara, the actor summoned to play Hook after the original performer is injured. As she impulsively blurts while in bed with O’Hara, however, the man Stella truly loves is Potter; that the director is gay is just one of the many things that the self-absorbed Stella doesn’t notice about him.
There’s a wealth of oppositions here: In addition to the rivalry between Potter and O’Hara—each of whom takes advantage of Stella in his own way—the actor plays both Mr. Darling and Hook, the good father (to echo the title of a previous Newell effort) and the bad. Significantly, it’s when O’Hara is applying his Mr. Darling makeup that he has a major confrontation with Potter. Meanwhile, offstage, the desperate-to-grow-up Stella is manning the flashlight and mirror that represents Tinkerbell, the fairy who signifies childhood’s innocent beliefs.
The plot’s kicker is dangerously (even classically) melodramatic, and the mannered (but impeccably so) performances are in the British theatrical tradition. Among the film’s many sources of tension, however, is Newell’s elliptical cinematic style. Thematically, the film contrasts Peter Pan‘s fantastic “awfully big adventure” with Stella’s quotidian one; narratively, it plays the stage’s big, empty gestures against film’s small, telling intimations.
Adventure is hardly a solemn movie, but it is a demanding one. I first saw it on video, and initially had difficulty getting its terse rhythm; watching it again at the Dupont after it opened revealed nuances lost on video, and proved not at all redundant. Unlike some of Grant’s recent projects, this is the sort of smart, rich film that rewards repeat viewings. It’s also quite funny, although its refusal to telegraph the gags—imagine what Chris Columbus would have done, for example, with the inability of many of the cast members to get Stella’s name right—seems to have already cost it the Four Weddings crowd. Adventure‘s subtlety will serve it well in the long run, but in the short term the film may be left for dead by a system that demands more blatant, less inventive entertainments.
Another fable of headstrong youth derived from a book, Unstrung Heroes is the account of a moderately eccentric family blessed/cursed with a genuinely bizarre set of bachelor uncles. Richard LaGravenese’s script takes enormous liberties with its source, the childhood memoir of former Baltimore City Paper writer Franz Lidz, eliminating two uncles and a stepmother among other inconveniences. The only thing that doesn’t ring true, however, is the decision to move the early-’60s story from New York and Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
Diane Keaton makes her fiction-film directorial debut here, mixing mainstream sentiment and ethnic idiosyncrasy to surprisingly winning effect. By itself, the tale of a boy and his dying mother would be hopelessly lachrymose, but the Lidzes’ array of defiant nonconformities guarantees that this is no Terms of Endearment. Not only is patriarch Sidney (John Turturro) a Spinoza-quoting inventor with few practical skills, but his brothers Danny (Michael Richards) and Arthur (Maury Chaykin) are, respectively, a raving paranoid and a childlike scavenger. While the former watches out for McCarthyites and anti-Semites—“Idaho is Cherokee for Jew-hater,” he proclaims—the latter continues to enlarge his collection of “all the lost balls in the city.” The only adult Lidz who’s close to normal is Selma (Andie MacDowell), and she’s dying of cancer.
It’s to avoid watching his mother’s decline that Steven (Nathan Watt) runs away from home to live with his uncles. Embracing their oddities to his mother’s horror—“He’s becoming one of them!” she laments—Steven becomes an expert ball-retriever and counter-conspiracy plotter. He sings the Internationale when his classmates recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and particularly upsets his parents by accepting two of Danny’s suggestions: that he be bar mitzvahed and that he change his name to Franz.
Almost none of this happens the same way in the movie as it did in the book, but I don’t think LaGravenese has done Lidz a disservice. Indeed, the film’s condensation and compression mostly improve this yarn—though, inevitably, they also sweeten it. Like such Hollywood hokum as Benny & Joon, Heroes makes schizophrenia awfully cuddly, but then the book doesn’t really capture the uncles’ plight either. Both Lidz and Keaton focus on the suffering and loss of Steven/Franz (and, tangentially, his little sister Sandy); as they might well seem to a 10-year-old, the uncles are more forces of nature than human beings with their own anguished interior lives.
The storm sewer where Arthur and Steven (not yet Franz) go to catch lost “bouncy balls” is the film’s emblematic location: It’s a sunny, peaceful refuge where the flow of children’s toys is not hindered by less savory detritus. With the seamless ensemble playing—even MacDowell is cogent for a change—paralleling the intimacy of the family, Heroes is a beguiling mixture of peculiar comedy and everyday tragedy. For the time it takes to unspool, at least, this valentine to the weirder Lidzes actually manages to argue that America is a great place to be a weirdo.
In 1979, Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu, replacing the black-and-white horror of Murnau’s seminal 1922 vampire film with full-color rapture. Now writer/director Michael Almereyda’s Nadja transmutes the material into a black-and-white even more low-tech than the original: Much of this film was shot in Pixelvision, the Fisher-Price kiddie-camera format that has survived its failure as a children’s toy to become an avant-gardists’ favorite. Some of the Pixelvision footage is pretty rapturous too, but—this being a downtown New York film and all—it’s undercut by deadpan humor.
Eroticism and irony are uneasy partners, and in Nadja they sometimes cancel each other out. With a big boost from My Bloody Valentine’s swirling sound, the opening montage is mesmerizing, and there are subsequent sequences that are equally striking. Almereyda not only echoes Murnau’s rudimentary special effects—grotesque shadows, negative footage—he fits them into a contemporary style in which their lyricism is rejuvenated.
The film’s wit, however, is considerably less fresh. Overloaded with hip, Nadja features Peter Fonda (who seems to be playing Dennis Hopper) as vampire hunter Van Helsing, executive producer David Lynch as a morgue attendant, and Hal Hartley regulars Elina Löwensohn and Martin Donovan as, respectively, Dracula’s daughter Nadja and Van Helsing’s nephew Jim. This is a film in which a vampire bemoans the lack of late-night restaurants back home (“Europe is a village”) and a vampire fighter notes that Dracula in his final days was like Elvis (“the magic was gone”). It comes as no surprise to learn that Almereyda wrote the script for David Salle’s arch Search and Destroy.
Nadja is a weary vampire, contemplating some sort of transfiguration when she hears that Van Helsing has driven a stake through the old man’s heart. She decides to inform her estranged twin brother Edgar (Jared Harris), but first runs into Jim’s wife, Lucy (Galaxy Craze, who insists that’s her given name). The two share a carnal Pixelvision romp, although the blood that flows doesn’t come from Lucy’s neck; before kissing her new acquaintance, Nadja rubs Lucy’s lips with the latter’s own menstrual blood. After this encounter, Lucy exhibits signs of incipient vampirism, which inspire Van Helsing and Jim all the more in their search for Nadja and Edgar. The latter turns out to be in Brooklyn, where he’s comatose due to his refusal to partake of human blood, and in the care of the devoted Cassandra (Suzy Amis). Eventually, all these characters end up in Romania, much as in Bram Stoker’s novel.
In fact, though, Nadja never escapes from New York. The film contrasts attitudes as it does formats, slipping from Pixelvision to 35mm and sliding from ecstatic to smartass, but it never strays far from Jim and Lucy’s Manhattan apartment, home to the sort of ironic death-trippers who put a Dracula ornament on their Christmas tree. The music of My Bloody Valentine, Portishead, and Simon Fisher Turner (a frequent Derek Jarman collaborator) helps set the mood for the poetic passages, but the jokier ones have no such assistance—or appeal. As pure erotic reverie, Nadja might have proved tiresome, but as currently configured the film’s most exuberant moments are undermined by routine hipster spoofing.
Showgirls seems a merely functional title for director Paul Verhoeven and scripter Joe Eszterhas’ latest meditation on women who kiss other women and brandish sharp implements, but then this is a merely functional movie. I would have preferred something a bit more Roger Corman—Vigilante Whore, say—but in truth the film is rarely lurid enough to justify it.
That’s not to say Showgirls doesn’t provide a smorgasbord of NC-17 flesh. This is, after all, a film about women who dance naked or nearly naked, and most of the scenes take place either backstage or onstage. The effect is more picturesque than erotic, however. Heroine Nomi Malone (sitcom survivor Elizabeth Berkley) is so concerned that her career as a pole and lap dancer not be confused with prostitution that she refuses the advances of low-rent strip-club patrons, discreet Asian businessmen, and a sincere African-American (and Alvin Ailey-trained) choreographer; when she finally gets a gig in a big Vegas revue, both entertainment director Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) and star dancer Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) want to get her in bed—well, it’s the pool, actually—but only one succeeds.
Like Adventure, Showgirls is the story of a young woman’s education: Nomi learns, basically, that Vegas is sleazy. Though she’s a tough chick hiding a big secret (which turns out to be less of a shocker than intended), Nomi is naive about the city’s aristocracy. For this protracted moral tale to end, she must realize that such icons as Andrew Carver (a Michael Bolton-style long-haired crooner) are venal. Since Berkley’s performance is more acrobatic than emotive, however, it’s hard to discern that anything has registered behind her stubbornly intent, heavily made-up face. As a service to the viewer, she pulls a knife on or spits in the face of people she has come to disrespect, while tongue-kissing those with which she has reached rapprochement.
Like the possibly murderous bisexual babe at the heart of Basic Instinct, Nomi is presumably an object of fascination to the middle-aged Verhoeven and Eszterhas. Aggressively sexual and overtly ambitious, Nomi may not know how to pronounce “Versace” but she has “great tits” (in Cristal’s estimation) and attitude to match. Her body aside, though, Berkley is not a compelling screen presence, while Eszterhas’ scenario is substantially more perfunctory than the one he devised for the movie’s R-rated predecessor, Flashdance. Only a few quirky asides—monkeys loose in the dancers’ dressing room, Nomi and Cristal’s reminiscence about the joys of eating doggie chow—enliven this account of a not-very-innocent in America’s Sodom. Showgirls may be a turning point in Hollywood’s marketing of NC-17 fare, but even Verhoeven and Eszterhas seem a little weary of their explorations of this particular frontier.