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Few viewers will be fooled by the opening scene of Mute Witness, in which a camera takes the viewpoint of a stalking psychokiller. It’s a joke that’s been executed before, notably by Brian DePalma’s Blow Out: The killer and his victim are actors, and their interaction is part of a blatantly low-budget slasher flick. British writer/director Anthony Waller has a few variations in mind, though, and here’s the first one: Callow, self-absorbed American director Andy (Evan Richards) is filming with a Russian crew in Moscow.
Given a gloomy, ominous ambience both by history and cinematographer Egon Werdin, Moscow is an important player in this low-budget thriller, the feature debut of a veteran TV-commercial director. In this city of rampaging corruption, makeup and special-effects expert Billy (Marina Sudina) doesn’t know who to trust after she mutely witnesses two crew members using the studio after hours for a little project of their own: a snuff film. Since Billy can’t summon a sound, her impulse to scream doesn’t give her away; she makes a little noise when she runs away, however, which leads to a 20-minute cat-and-mouse scene in the dim, cavernous Moscow studio building. Though not all of this sequence makes narrative or psychological sense, it’s bravura filmmaking nonetheless.
Billy manages to contact her sister Karen (Fay Ripley), who’s married to Andy, and to accuse the snuff filmmakers of murder. There’s no body, though, and the killers tell the cops that the “murder” was all done with special effects. Secreting the other crucial piece of evidence, they manage to switch their own reel with one of Andy’s, which the police dutifully process and screen for an American Embassy official and Russian supercop Alexander Larsen (Oleg Jankowskij). (This leads to the obvious, but still amusing, self-mocking joke.) Later, Billy allies with Larsen to battle the snuff filmmakers’ boss, the Reaper (a “mystery guest star” whose contribution was actually filmed years before the rest of Witness). But can even Larsen be trusted?
Though the Moscow location is distinctive, Waller’s conceits are only intermittently fresh. The plot features such routine devices as a supervaluable computer diskette, and Billy, in a classic slasher-movie miscalculation, decides to leave the murder scene and go back to her apartment alone.
Still, if Witness intentionally or unintentionally echoes every cyber/horror/effects thriller from F/X to Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Strange Days, few of its predecessors share the film’s economical wit. A good-natured exercise in making the best of low-budget imperatives, the film demonstrates both how to cast a Russian-accented actress as an American (make her character mute) and how an attractive young mute might attract attention when she’s under attack (open her bathrobe for her neighbor across the alley). Ultimately, the story is overwhelmed by plot twists and Wilbert Hirsch’s bombastic score, but what lingers is Billy’s resourcefulness and the scenario’s wittier moments. If having no money hasn’t kept Waller honest, it’s at least preserved his sense of humor.
An American family’s chaotic Thanksgiving get-together stewed in a traditional recipe of slapstick, sardonicism, and sentimentality, Home for the Holidays is Jodie Foster’s bid to make a John Hughes movie. Directing from a script by W.D. Richter, Foster pursues an agenda that’s only marginally more grown-up: Rather than focus on kids—of which there are only two on the premises—the film concentrates on adults behaving childishly. The result, however, is not appreciably more sophisticated.
Like many Hughes efforts, Holidays opens in Chicago. Forty-year-old art conservator Claudia (Holly Hunter) has just had a breakthrough, and is now enjoying total communion with the canvas she’s restoring to the tune of Santana’s “Evil Ways.” (Still to come are such pointlessly evocative oldies as “It’s Not Unusual,” “Theme From Shaft,” “Surfin’ Bird,” and “Piece of My Heart.”) Claudia’s concentration is broken by her boss, who summons her to his office to tell her she’s been laid off. Then her teen-age daughter Kitt (Claire Danes) drives her to the airport, where she chooses a no-standing zone to inform mom that she’s planning to lose her virginity while she’s home alone. Stressed and teary, Claudia calls her brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), who wasn’t planning to attend, and begs him (well, his answering machine) to reconsider.
In Baltimore, Claudia reunites with her parents, Adele and Henry (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning), and the family cat, who promptly throws up. Soon the manic, mischievous Tommy appears with a friend, Leo (Dylan McDermott); since Tommy is gay, some wonder if Leo is the replacement for Jack, Tommy’s longtime boyfriend. Next to arrive is eccentric Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin), who’s nursing an ancient crush on Henry that recalls the rival-sisters subplot from How to Make an American Quilt (which also starred Bancroft and Danes). The final guests are little-sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), her banker husband Walter (Steve Guttenberg), and their two children, Brittany Lace and Walter Jr. “Normal” and proud of it, these four are abused by everyone else, especially Tommy.
Somewhat artier than a Hughes film, this is divided into titled chapters—the final one, “The Point,” fails to make one—and features Altman-style overlapping dialogue. The fart, cat-vomit, and food-fight gags are not exactly elegant, though, and Tommy’s agenda turns out to be completely middle-class: He brought Leo to introduce to Claudia, and naturally the chemistry is perfect. Though Claudia resists her first romantic stirrings, it’s safe to assume she won’t battle the subsequent ones—especially when Holidays turns into French Kiss in its final scene.
The closest the film comes to a subversive notion is equating gay and straight monogamy. It’s Tommy, after all, who fixes up Claudia and Leo, and who calls home to ask how his “real family” is doing. Still, in offering blissful sexual union as the alternative to exasperating blood ties, Holidays ducks the question that holiday-shocked young monogamists have long asked: How do we avoid growing up to be our parents?
Maybe it’s because it’s in English. Maybe it’s the Masterpiece Theater sets, costumes, and score. Maybe it’s the pedestrian script by Christopher Hampton (who last butchered French literature with Dangerous Liaisons). Whatever the obstacle, Total Eclipse drains the vitality from the raging erotic and poetic passions of Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). If Rimbaud had anticipated that his life and work would ever seem so insipid, he would have split for Africa much sooner.
Versifying late-19th-century revolutionaries, Verlaine and Rimbaud still serve as punk-poet role models a century after their deaths. Patti Smith invoked the latter in the title song of her debut album, Horses, while her associate, born Tom Miller, adopted the former’s surname when he founded Television. There’s little sense of the duo’s world-shaking influence, however, in this account, directed with uncharacteristically bland competence by Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa; The Secret Garden). The film doesn’t shy from the more lurid aspects of the poets’ overheated love/hate affair: Rimbaud stabs Verlaine, Verlaine shoots Rimbaud, and they both down lots of absinthe between bouts of screwing. Still, Eclipse is no more vivid than most films about people who spend their time scribbling their thoughts on paper.
Though Rimbaud soon traded writing for adventuring (and died at 37 after spending his final years as a trader in Africa), it was his verse that earned the adolescent farm-boy an invitation to Paris from Verlaine, an established Symbolist poet 10 years his senior. (The age gap here seems greater, and in the scenes of the older Verlaine, the full-bearded Thewlis looks easily 20 years older than the 52 Verlaine was when he died.) On film, however, the two poets’ relationship comes down to charisma and sexual magnetism, neither of which DiCaprio provides in great quantities. (He’s pretty, but no prophet.) Indeed, Thewlis was a far more compellingly creepy seer in Naked than the man his Verlaine is supposed to be following here.
Attempting to establish him as something more than a brat, Hampton has outfitted his Rimbaud with a steady supply of nihilist witticisms: “The artists are more bourgeois than the fucking bourgeoisie,” he complains after urinating on the work of a mediocre poet (to Verlaine’s delight). “Don’t insult your victims by feeling sorry for them afterwards,” he instructs Verlaine after the older poet repents of having set afire the hair of his wealthy and surprisingly forgiving young wife Mathilde (Romane Bohringer). “Your mind is almost as ugly as your body,” he berates his lover after the two move to London.
“The only unbearable thing is that nothing is unbearable,” remarks Rimbaud shortly after capriciously stabbing Verlaine in the hand, and that world-weary quip could serve as the film’s epitaph. Holland and Hampton’s outrages—whether literary or behavioral—are never provocative enough. In 19th-century Europe, rebels with an anti-bourgeois cause really did change the world, but this film fails to make palpable that heady, perverse insurrection. Imprisoned in their period costumes, Eclipse‘s anti-heroes might as well be uncouth relations whose carriage broke down on their way to cameo appearances in Persuasion.