It’s hard to tell actual stories about people whose lives are in holding patterns, because the synopsis is all, “Ned lied on the sofa and farted and nothing else happened, the end.” (That screenplay is called Garden State, by Mr. Zachary Anastasia Braff.) Better to start at the end of the stasis period, in which the house is on fire and Ned actually has to do something. Writer-director Josh Boone populates Stuck in Love with smart characters breaking from emotional holding patterns of varying contours. William Borgens (Greg Kinnear) is a two-time PEN/Faulkner Award–winning author who still stalks his ex-wife two years after their divorce, and who pays his children to keep journals so that they’ll focus on their own writing instead of working entry-level service jobs. His daughter, Samantha (Lily Collins), is an avowed cynic who rejects men who evince any kind of sincerity or good intentions, and his son, Rusty (Nat Wolff), is a high school introvert who stays home to write poems on Friday nights. William can’t write anymore, living vicariously through the creative lives of his kids, a metaphor for the stasis of his life without ex-wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly), who struggles with her estrangement from Samantha. They’re all living inside burning houses, and it’s the job of the rest of the film’s characters to yell and wave their arms to warn them, including a cameo by Stephen King as himself, in a brief scene that evokes the method naturalism of his Jordy Verrill character in Creepshow.
Already a blogosphere punching bag for right-wing Christians, Creation—about Charles Darwin’s writing of On the Origin of Species—commits the sin of thoughtfulness, and is quite moving in the process. Director Jon Amiel, working from a screenplay by John Collee, injects flashes of artsy craftsmanship (time-lapse photography depicting a bird’s body decaying and being absorbed into the Earth) in an otherwise visually lovely, solidly tasteful period piece. The Darwin we meet is trying—and failing—to come to terms with grief over the death of his favorite daughter (he has three other children), which wreaks havoc on every aspect of his life. Paul Bettany is note-perfect as Darwin, whether shading in grief, showing the erotic heat beneath his love for his wife (played by Bettany’s real-life partner, Jennifer Connelly; they have palpable chemistry), or perfectly essaying the torturous nature of channeling ideas into words. The film’s title speaks not only to the issue of evolution versus creation, but also to what it means to be a person of the mind. Creation‘s power lies in its layers, in the way it makes distinctions between religion and faith, and how it beautifully (save for one clunky bit of overexplanation) lays out the similarities between religion and science, from the healing power of water to the “curses” issued even upon true believers.
Forget all the goblins and magic crystal balls—the most unbelievable part of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth is when Jennifer Connelly can’t get her baby brother to stop crying. What baby wouldn’t love her? Though we suppose if it weren’t for the annoying tot, Connelly’s character, Sarah, would never have met the skin-tight-pants-wearing Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), who steals her brother and gives her 13 hours to find him. Surprisingly, Bowie wasn’t the first choice for the ’86 fantasy flick, populated mainly by Henson’s incredible puppets—Sting and Michael Jackson were also in the running for the role. But we can’t quite imagine either of them singing “Magic Dance” with quite the same tripped-out panache. You’ll get a chance to sing with the Goblin King tonight at this Labyrinth Sing-along, featuring trivia, free beer, and prizes for anyone who comes in costume.
Fri., Sept. 25, 11 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 26, 11 p.m., 2009
As in the original 1951 film by Robert Wise (and more or less ignoring Harry Bates’s original pulp short story “Farewell to the Master”), the arrival on Earth of a near-omnipotent being named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) is met with a trigger-happy response. Only the widowed Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) has faith that making friends with the alien might be in the best interests of humanity. But she may not be correct: Unlike Michael Rennie’s mostly benevolent Klaatu, version 2.0 is pissed at humanity for trashing the planet, and comes prepared to wipe us all out. The problem with this new The Day the Earth Stood Still isn’t so much in the execution of director Scott Derrickson, who pulls off quite a few compelling sequences and, best of all, doesn’t screw around too much with Klaatu’s giant robot Gort (at least until Gort suddenly turns into a cloud of tiny robot insects that arbitrarily eat whatever the plot calls for). No, the problem here is that there are no big ideas: The original Day was both a condemnation of Cold War military paranoia and an allegorical Christ tale, with Klaatu dying for our sins before being resurrected and ascending into the heavens, warning that he’ll be back with the apocalypse if humanity doesn’t shape up. There are plenty of ways to bring similar themes into play here: Klaatu as Bush figure, perhaps, invading because of our weapons of mass destruction? Instead, it’s never clear quite what his problem is.
Welcome to a world of goblins, flatulent bogs, and David Bowie scantily clad in tights so tight that your eyes can’t help but go down there. Sunshine at Midnight presents a four-day screening of Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth, a puppet-filled fantasy world that stars 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, sister to her toddler stepbrother whom she wishes away to the Goblin King. Well, it so happens that His Majesty, played by a wigged-out, cosmetically perfected Bowie, grants her wish and the only way she can get the chubby babe back is to go through his labyrinth. The pre-CG special effects are a trip to watch, but our imagination runs a little too rampant at the scenes where Bowie, dressed in that creamy tight hosiery of his, spins those crystal clear balls in his hands.
Nov. 27-29, midnight, 2008
I gave up after about 100 pages of John Burnham Schwartz’s 1998 novel Reservation Road, a typically overwritten and contrived slice of mass-market literary pablum that hopscotches between the points-of-view of three people—the grieving mom, the grieving dad, and the perpetrator— involved in the hit-and-run death of a 10-year-old boy on the titular stretch of Connecticut blacktop. I wanted to give up on director Terry George’s new film version even sooner, pretty much right from its picture-postcard opening images of sailboats on late-summer water, Red Sox fans cheering the team through the 2004 post-season, and smiling suburban families enjoying a children’s concert in an inviting park. These people—call them “ordinary,” if you will—are much too happy for something awful not to befall them before the first reel is over; and George, who previously directed the equally crude and obvious Hotel Rwanda, is far too clumsy a filmmaker to disguise his true intentions.
Yes, Reservation Road is one of those movies where the characters suffer early and often. This starts the moment that lawyer Dwight Arno (Mark
Ruffalo) plows his SUV into the body of Josh Learner (Sean Curley) outside of a roadside gas station while the boy’s parents, college professor Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly), look on in helpless horror. Dwight, who’s carrying a roof-rack worth of emotional baggage—contentious ex (Mira Sorvino), 11-year-old son (Eddie Alderson) caught in the crossfire—stops for a second, then thinks better (or worse) of it and speeds off into the darkness. By the time, a few scenes later, that Ethan unknowingly hires Dwight to be his advocate in the ongoing search for his son’s killer, you may rightly start to wonder if perhaps John Burnham Schwartz (who shares screenplay credit with George) is not just a flowery nom de plume for one Paul Haggis.
Will Dwight’s guilty conscience speak up before Ethan figures things out and goes all Jodie Foster on him? While we await the answer with something less than breathless anticipation, the bathos piles up like autumn leaves. Scenes invariably begin or end with someone crying, blaming himself/herself for events beyond his/her control (Ethan for his son’s death, Grace for Ethan’s limp dick in the sack), and other assorted hysterics. Still to come: the obligatory Googling of victim-support groups; the gruff indifference of the police; the mildewed bromides about how violence begets violence; and, in one particularly rancid attempt at post-9/11 “relevance,” a sequence in which Ethan takes to stalking the Saudi diplomat he is convinced was behind the wheel of that phantom SUV.
The actors—especially Ruffalo, who has a unique aptitude for playing wounded, inarticulate American males—soldier through as best they can. What, though, is an actress as resourceful as Connelly meant to make of a part that asks her to bite her lip bravely before finally exploding in an aria of “My son is dead! I’m trying to figure out how to live!” Reservation Road itself may twist and turn into the New England night, but emotionally and dramatically, the movie that bears its name is a dead end. At least, for what it’s worth, the Sox still win the Series.
“T.I.A.,” mutters Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), slouched across a bar in Sierra Leone. It is 1999. As the West obsesses over Clinton’s blowjob, the West African nation is mired in a savage civil war. Our hero, a world-weary soldier of fortune, has struck up a conversation with Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a foxy idealist reporting on the blood-diamond trade for an American newsweekly. As the ground operative of a vast conspiracy to exploit the country’s unrest in the harvesting of precious stones, Danny holds the key to her story—holds it, most conveniently, in a little red notebook he keeps tucked against his cold black heart.
T.I.A., baby. Danny sizes up the lady journalist with his jaded blue eyes. They have witnessed too much on the dark continent to shed a tear. Apartheid, civil war, tribal conflict, human slaughter, global indifference, unquenchable hatred, unimaginable cruelty—yes . . . this is Africa!
Well, yes and no. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way, but a more appropriate acronym in this case would go something like T.I.A.P.U.O.M.A.A.C.Y.W.B.T.T.S.S.O.B.W.P.W.S.H.A.T.I.G.R.B.S.T.W.N.A./O.V.A.: This Is Africa Propped Up Once More As A Colorful Yet Wrenching Backdrop To The Stupid Story Of Boring White People Whose Sham Heroics Are Thrown Into Greater Relief By Surrounding Them With Noble And/Or Vicious Africans.
Directed by Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai) from a screenplay by the author of that legendary sociopolitical treatise K-PAX (Charles Leavitt), Blood Diamond assembles three refugees from central casting around the quest for an egg-sized pink diamond. When Revolutionary United Front rebels rampage through his village, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is wrenched from his family and put to work mining diamonds. Pulling what looks like a giant, rusty crack pipe from the river, Solomon retrieves the rock and sets about hiding it when government soldiers bust in and cart everyone off to jail. Word of the diamond soon reaches Danny, himself imprisoned for the possession of criminally ridiculous blond highlights, and a scheme is hatched to get rich or die trying.
The holy trinity of African adventure-flick clichés—the amoral mercenary, the righteous native, the idealistic reporter—is soon completed by the arrival of Maddy, and everyone heads off into the picturesque jungles, slums, and refugee camps of war-torn Sierra Leone. Endless stretches of witless torpor are interrupted by jarring assaults of violence; the bland Oscar bait of
the season bristles to life only at the touch of mass murder. Workmanlike at best, Zwick’s generic epic chops show newfound verve whenever there’s a deadly set piece to mount: eight-year-old RUF agents mowing down women with AK-47s, innocents shredded to pieces in the crossfire, limbs severed, buildings detonated, cars aflame, shrapnel whizzing through flesh.
It’s remarkable that a movie presumably opposed to Western exploitation of Africa exhibits a heartbeat only when slaughtering its anonymous, dark-skinned extras. To be sure, there’s splendid momentum to the havoc here, a real thrill in the quickness of death leaping from the jungle, machine gun fire rattling through the ominous bass of gangsta rap. Such excitements would be less unsettling had their spark lit on any larger idea than “Whoa, shit is messed up in Africa.” If Zwick and Leavitt intend to draw any parallel with American city life—the crack pipe in the river, the dropping of the word bling—it gets smothered in the tedium of an oppressively cornball script.
De Beers can relax; the only indignation stirred up by Blood Diamond won’t be among those who worry about where their jewelry came from, but with audiences incensed by facile politics and bad storytelling. “You might catch a minute of this on CNN,” says Maddy of the surrounding horrors, “between sports and weather.” After she is confronted by the spectacle of a million refugees, her voice gathers gravitas and declares, “It’s a like a whole nation has gone . . . homeless.” Connelly is so ready for her “I Am African” poster.
A gothic horror redesigned in modernist architecture, Dark Water literalizes the truism that New York real estate is a nightmare. In the wake of an angry divorce, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) treks beyond Manhattan with daughter Ceci (refreshingly non-Aryan Ariel Gade), but doesn’t quite make it to the boroughs, settling for a one-bedroom in that most enigmatic of neighborhoods, Roosevelt Island. Her building’s brutalist concrete hallways echo mysteriously; the neighbors seem to consist largely of a pair of wan, pin-eyed, catcalling skateboarders; Ceci suddenly exhibits a compulsion to run away and play dollies at the rooftop’s edge; and a blotch of dark liquid seepage looms malevolently on the living-room ceiling. But at $900 a month and with a five-minute subway to midtown, what’s not to love?
Turns out that the artfully asymmetrical patch of water damage (which is not so ugly, really—kind of like a Philip Guston done in india ink) bespeaks a demonic presence, whose evil whispers drip down along with the black water from the apartment above. Gotham renters will undoubtedly sympathize as Dahlia descends into apartment-maintenance- fueled madness. Her claustrophobia spreads beyond the boxy flat; new to the city, Dahlia spends many of her adult-contact hours with a familiar trilogy of metropolitan frustrations: a duplicitous, carbohydrate-faced realtor (John C. Reilly); the terse, vaguely Balkan superintendent, Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite, whose tongue occasionally migrates into Highland brogue); and an equally neurotic divorce lawyer (Tim Roth). The city apparently undergoes an unprecedented monsoon season, incarcerating its inhabitants in never
While this Walter Salles–directed adaptation of Ringu auteur Hideo Nakata’s Japanese original painstakingly summons a miasmic atmosphere of urban-development anomie, it fails to deliver the narrative thrill twists its origins would promise. A subplot involving Dahlia’s submerged childhood memories never quite resolves into the intended maternal-abandonment theme, though most of the film’s shocks are all too easily predicated on scenes in which mother leaves child momentarily unattended. Ceci’s imaginary-friend hauntings recall toddler-based spookiness seen in the recent Amityville Horror remake—traceable back at least as far as Poltergeist and The Shining—but Rosemary’s Baby may be Dark Water‘s true sick-building-syndrome ancestor, the Dakota’s creakings foreshadowing Roosevelt Island’s leakings. Whereas Mia Farrow’s paranoid ingenue finds hell in other people, Connelly’s single mom suggests a more radically insulated loneliness. Indeed, the film’s best moments are ones of doubled interiority, collapsing the mental and spatial, particularly one climactic scene of watery oblivion, which pushes this tendency into audiovisual abstraction.
It took him 30 years to pay it off and it took me eight months to fuck it up,” sighs Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), in re House of Sand and Fog‘s titular Bay Area abode, which she inherited from her father. Former Iranian army colonel Behrani (Ben Kingsley) has bought the place, at auction, for a pittance. Behrani moves in, refurbishes, and plans to flip for profit, so that at last he and his long-suffering wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) can enjoy the more refined life they knew in Iran. Airlessly melodramatic, full of moral brow-furrowing, this adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s novel nevertheless does a great service in shining a light on a silent disease affecting 10 if not 12 Americans: envelopophobia, the fear of opening one’s mail.
Reeling from a wrecked marriage and wobbly from rehab, Kathy lacks the will to sift through the correspondence that filters through her door slot, realizing that she’s failed to follow up on an erroneous tax request only when county officials wade through those improbable envelopes to evict her. Cop Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), with kindness and/or lust in his heart, semi-stalks her as she relocates to a fleabag motel and then her car. He leaves his family, shacks up with this unwitting femme fatale, and begins to menace the new inhabitants with misplaced Proposition 187 vigor. House is a tale of two cleaners on a collision course: Kathy vacuums other people’s swank digs, and Behrani harpoons roadside trash, a gig ill-befitting his résumé. All ramrod posture and martial punctilio, he parks his Benz at a hotel garage, and changes into an immaculate suit before coming home to his family. He works the night shift at a convenience store, scrupulously entering the price of the Snickers he snacks on. These early glimpses of Behrani’s secret, scrimped life have a simple power that the film soon dissipates.
Kingsley lends Behrani a soupçon of Sexy Beast fury. He’s utterly convincing but less than compelling, due to a lopsided plot that tries to drum up sympathy for the Kathy-Lester axis with all the subtlety of Neil Peart playing “Taps.” After one of too many climactic scenes (Kathy attempts suicide twice in about 10 minutes), the viewer senses not the inevitable gears of tragedy, but the clunky manipulations of plot, and the sorry fate awaiting everyone in this foggy House is less wrenching than acted. Lesson: Open your mail!
A movie about club-kid leader turned killer Michael Alig is starting to roll, but you know how movies about beautiful minds can be. So, as the only observer not on drugs at the time, let me uncork my own reminiscences of Alig in hopes of getting everyone out of a proverbial K-hole.
In his party days—the mid ’80s to mid ’90s—Alig was a charismatic presence with a naughty streak that made him simultaneously compelling and unnerving. He was a genius and the devil, and in ’88, I wrote about his and the club kids’ “Cult of crazy fashion and petulance. They . . . are terminally superficial, have dubious aesthetic values, and are master manipulators, exploiters, and, thank God, partiers.” I even compared Alig and company to the Manson family!
Alig and his then boyfriend, Keoki, were nuisances, but colorful ones, and suddenly, at Tunnel in ’87, whenever I heard “Michael! Michael!” it was him everyone was calling for. A whole legion of fractured fairy-tale characters was begging for his attention, and if the new-style Mother Goose approved, he assigned them new names and personas, and granted them a place in the commercial circus of clubland.
Aware of his rising stature, Alig threw a “Changing of the Guard” party at Red Zone, marking the transition from old school to nouvelle. But he knew how to cater to the dinosaurs too, giving us titles at his King and Queen of New York pageants and trophies at the Glammies (his ragtag clubbie-awards ceremony). He also had me judge annual Filthy Mouth contests, at which people screamed obscenities for cash prizes, and I gladly contributed to the revelry, enjoying the nyah-nyah goofiness of it all. I even posed semi-nude for an Alig invite that had giant—well, medium-sized—cardboard lips covering my privates, next to the caption “The lips on my cock could be yours if you come to Michael’s party!”
And his not-for-prime-time ideas kept coming—like an all-clubbie “Vogue” video he submitted to MTV and an airtight “disco truck” packed with club kids who ended up, breathless, at one of his party sites. Zaniest of all were the outlaw bashes—illegal descents into subway stations and a McDonald’s, which were left buried in sequins and drug dust. After one such blur, Alig ran from the police in a comical escape right out of the Keystone Cops. But he was more like Willy Wonka, giving the kids a factory of rambunctious thrills to play in, if only on his terms.
Disco 2000—his initially pre-Giuliani Wednesday night Limelight event—was a rude debauch with all sexualities blending under the great god Ecstasy. AIDS was other people’s problem. Everything was other people’s problem. Eventually, the weekly soiree became host to an Unnatural Acts revue, wherein an amputee danced until his wooden leg fell off, at which point a wasted girl from the audience humped both the stump and the prosthesis. Another enterprising young lady once took the stage to insert soda bottles into her various orifices—but she paled next to the guy who drank his own piss, ages before Urinetown made wee-wee theater legit.
Drunk with power, Alig promoted Julie Jewels, a wan teen with a fake Russian accent, and against all odds he got her to be “it girl” for a few minutes. Mostly, Alig pushed himself and even agreed to get a “downtown makedown” in the Voice in ’91, letting us make him over into a conservative door-to-door salesman. “The bad seed in cha-cha heels,” I wrote, “Alig will do anything to get a response, even if that response is the deafening sound that accompanies projectile vomiting. He’s an arrested child who should be arrested . . . a cute little dolly that ends up biting your head off.” But obviously, I was still attracted to his moxie and his frenzied, correctness-hating attempts to kill boredom and stir up some fun.
And oh, the memories. Once, Alig—wearing a ski mask—kept trying to unzip my pants and go down on me in a limo. I knew he wasn’t turned on—it was just one more Unnatural Acts routine, another lips-on-my-cock shtick—and I pushed him away in bemused horror. Hardly anybody else put boundaries on him, though he was definitely screaming out for some. He’d probably ignore them anyway; I once saw him try to push pills into an unamused friend’s mouth—and if that failed, honey, he’d just spike the punch bowl.
As the years passed, he wore ass-exposing rag-doll/clown outfits, also revealing more menace behind the glee. One night, when I caught him mocking me to a friend, he grinned and said, “How do you know we’re making fun of you?” Another time, he called me to gloat that shock rocker GG Allin had OD’d and died. (Alig claimed he’d just taped a talk show with Allin, on which the performer had vowed to commit suicide. Now Alig was sure the show would get lots of publicity!) By the time Alig sold a German kid as an indentured sex slave to another promoter, his marketing concepts had become beyond twisted (and I hear it wasn’t just one kid he pimped).
In December ’95, I agreed to go to Alig’s apartment to plan some historical club society he’d cooked up. He was practically incoherent, talking even faster than usual and running into the bathroom with a stream of boys that kept arriving without introduction. In late March ’96, he called me to plant the item that he’d been fired from the Limelight, but he gave trumped-up reasons, saying owner Peter Gatien‘s jealous girlfriend had the cops padlock his apartment and he was now homeless and suicidal. A source claimed Alig had busted out of an imposed rehab stint and was still drug ridden. And club kids were murmuring darker secrets—that Alig and roommate Freeze had supposedly killed drug dealer Angel Melendez in a money scuffle—but they’d add, “You didn’t hear it from me.” He still held power over them, and though I railed against them for this unspeakable outrage, I forgot that he’d long had power over me, too.
By the time Alig sent out a party invite joking about the murder, a lot of people wanted to kill him (especially since a source was floating a more premeditated version of the killing). I kept trashing him in print, and one time Alig unconvincingly called to say, “I’m trying to figure out what this item means.” Meanwhile, the cops were lying low since there wasn’t a body—and besides, if there was, it would be that of a gay Hispanic club-kid druggie. When they finally found their hacked-up evidence, Alig was on the guest list for lockup and didn’t care for the non-VIP treatment (though in later setups, he boasted to friends about all the sex and other privileges). He wrote me a 10-page letter asking for a reference to help with his sentencing, but I was too busy on the phone with his mother, who cried about prison injustice, calling again the very next day to ask, “What have you done for Michael?”
In ’98, Alig wrote a pal that he meditates in jail and “everyone thinks I worship the devil.” But his religion was still marketing; from his cell, he asked me for photos for a memoir (then called Pleasure Junkie: The Last Straw) and casting advice for his movie. Even more hilariously, he said he wanted to direct! In retrospect, Alig felt he was a shy boy who overcompensated—a lot—and in ’99, he more specifically blamed gayness for his ruin. He wrote in his hometown Indiana paper that the urban gay lifestyle is out of control and, self-destructively, “I dealt with that by medicating myself with drugs.” Oh well, I still had my sweeter memories, like him trying to pull me into a pool at Tunnel or running a Project X chart of all the clubbies he thought had gotten hepatitis from each other. Those were the days—no, really. Now Hollywood?
Oscar bonus: Here are some of the thoughts that hit me, in chronological order, while watching all four-plus hours of the Oscars: Tom Cruise suddenly has a beard—no, not Penelope. . . . Why is he serving up so much windy rationale, explaining that the awards are more important than ever? We’re watching, aren’t we? . . . Jennifer Connelly should put down her written speech and give us some emotion, even if she has to fake it. We want a little hysteria, if you please. . . . There are so many gays up there, John Nash must be either gagging or getting turned on. . . . This Cirque du Soleil shit in the aisles would be ridiculous even if it did have something to do with the movies. . . . Jim Broadbent was indeed the best supporting actor this year, so I’m not gonna go the “They just didn’t want to see Sir Ian kiss the boyfriend” route. I just hope the boyfriend doesn’t end up with Broadbent now. . . . Every time Whoopi makes a black joke, they cut to Will and Jada‘s reaction. . . . Wait, Cirque du Soleil has taken over the main stage. Help!…The Sidney Poitier tribute is gorgeous, but they’re leaving out the fact that he ultimately got tired of playing what amounted to a positive stereotype—the noble Negro who came to dinner and convinced the racists that blacks are OK. That’s too complicated for Oscar. . . . Tonight is the first time anyone, including the people who wrote them, has heard any of these five songs from hell. . . . Barbra must have had the neck done—it’s finally showing. . . . Halle‘s win is magnificent and historic, but she’s losing control up there, going even beyond Sally Field in her newly validated delirium. There must be some middle ground between Jennifer Connelly and this. . . . Psycho Denzel beat schizo Russell and retard Sean. Yay! . . . Despite that, the Beautiful Mind backlash had no effect whatsoever—in fact, Hollywood clearly was glad the gay stuff was cut out. . . . All right, Halle, you’re welcome!