Crime in Counterpoint: Michael Mann on his Restored Masterpiece “Heat”

Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece, Heat, comes out this week in a brand-new, fully loaded and beautiful Blu-ray edition. To explore further what makes this epochal crime drama so special, I recently talked to the director.

The story of Heat was based on real-life personalities. There was real thief named Neil McCauley, and Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna was based on legendary Chicago cop Charlie Adamson. How close are they to the real-life models?

Hanna is fairly close to a combination of Charlie Adamson and a couple of other law enforcement people I’d known who were primarily hunters. Guys who, if you really asked them, “You have to tell me what motivates you, and you’re only allowed to say one thing,” their answer would not be, “To serve and protect.” They certainly have a moral compass, but that’s not the single motivating engine. It really has something to do with being at the tip of the spear. They’re predators, and the more difficult the target is, the more they’re attracted to it. Typically, they’re very self-aware. And that’s Hanna. As he says to Justine, “All I am is who I’m going after.” He’ll leave behind the wreckage of marriages, and he’ll never say, “Well, that just didn’t work out,” as if there’s some third-party responsibility. He’s the author of everything that happens to him in his life.

As for McCauley, what we borrowed from the actual Neil McCauley was his professionalism, and the high regard that Charlie had for him. Charlie would speak of him in glowing terms. “This guy was terrific. What a professional! We were sitting in Wieboldt’s department store in Chicago, and we had cut into the crew. We knew what they were gonna take down. We were inside the store when they were doing a burglary, going after the safe, which had a lot of cash in it. And one thing was out of place, and this guy walked away from months of preparation and investment!” Charlie admired that.

The characters are also quite forthright. They talk about how their minds work. Was that also true of the real-life people?

Yes. Charlie’s partner was Dennis Farina, who was a detective in Chicago when I first met him, during Thief. They lived a very aggressive life, and Charlie was very forthcoming. When he had contact with Neil McCauley, he looked forward to having a dialogue. And he’d be very flattering because he wanted Neil to be forthcoming. They’d have personal conversations: Do you have a woman? What’s your life like? What’s your life view?

There was an overt and an ulterior motive to Charlie doing that. The overt motive was that he was fascinated with McCauley, because the guy was great at what he did. The contradiction, that McCauley would blow him out of his socks without thinking twice about it, isn’t really a contradiction. The ulterior motive was that Charlie understood himself so well that he knew that his subconscious mind was picking up aspects of McCauley that he may not even recognize at the time. He knew there might be a critical moment three months later in which he would have to make a snap decision: Do I go left or do I go right? What behavior can I predict this guy is likely to do? He knew that, in those totally intuitive decisions, what he knew about McCauley would be a deciding factor. So he always wanted to accrue more information, get more in contact with him.

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This idea of predictive behavior — both the cops and the crooks in the film try to know as much as possible about everyone so that they can predict their next move — isn’t this a reflection of what actors and filmmakers do? Aren’t you essentially trying to predict how a character would act in these circumstances that you’ve created?

I’ve got a theory, which probably holds no water whatsoever, about why there’s so much genre content in media — meaning police stories, crime stories, so much of that. It’s because of the nature of the medium. Detectives detecting do what writers and directors do in the inverse: We have an idea for a character, and our character has origins that we invent. Those origins become an engine that causes him to do certain activities and express himself and have different attitudes based on who the character is. And then those activities have consequences and leave behind certain effects.

But a detective works all the way at the other end. He sees the remains of a crime — the leavings. He starts to work backwards to what happened. What was the activity? And if this was the activity, what could I discover about the motivations of the person whose identity I do not know? And how can those motivations allow me to predict his future activity, so that I can intercept him and find out who he is? So, if you’re a detective and there’s a burglary of, I don’t know, a retail fur store — this is a simplistic example — then you know that the motive of the thief is probably cash money. That means he’ll have to fence the furs. You can predict his behavior, and you start working fencers who fence furs. You work backwards. The process, even though it’s an inversion, is very similar.

You fill out the emotional lives of all these characters — not just the main two guys. Were you at all concerned at the time about how expansive the film was?

Not at all. That was my central ambition. I didn’t set out to do a genre piece that would conform to a set type. It’s not a cops-and-robbers film. To me, it’s human drama, period. And it’s a very ambitious film, but in its ambition it was to be two things. One was kind of a counterpoint: Could I pull off a very contrapuntal film in which there are really only two protagonists? The second was that I wanted to dimensionalize everybody — that everybody should have a life. Whether it’s Hanna and Justine, Neil and Eady, Chris and Charlene Shiherlis, Waingro and his psychosis, Breeden, the Dennis Haysbert character, Lilli … everybody had a life. That’s how I got emotionally engaged in them, and more invested in the outcome of what happened.

In the case of the two protagonists, Hanna and Neil McCauley, I separated them out because each is an engine that drives the thesis and the antithesis into the ending. I decided that only those two would be totally self-aware. That’s why they have a unique rapport. And the ambition behind this was: Can I have a drama in which, at the same time, we’re 100 percent invested in Neil McCauley getting away, and we’re also 100 percent invested in Hanna’s intercepting him? We don’t want the interception to occur, and yet we’re thrilled about the potential of it occurring, all at the same time.

But they really are two different people. McCauley was state-raised, angry and aggressive. And an autodidact in prison where — working on his body and his mind — he developed real discipline. And that’s his doctrine now: distance, no associations that can increase the risk of apprehension, with the plan to delay the emotional life he so desires — the Technicolor-Fiji ideal — till after he’s scored and splits.

There’s also another counterpoint in the film, between home life and work. Pacino’s scenes with Diane Venora are shot in these almost Antonioniesque angles, with a lot of flat surfaces and carefully composed shots. But when he’s out on the street, it’s a lot of handheld — we’re very close to him, in his head, as he’s surveying the terrain.

He is truly alive on the street. As he says to Justine, “All I am is who I’m going after,” after she says, “You think it could work out between us?” in the waiting room of the hospital. He’s not successful at home — that’s part of his prioritization. He’s most alive in that cool groove of deep concentration. That’s his inspiration: When he sees a piece of physical evidence and then he overhears a conversation, he puts two plus two plus two and it equals 11, 12 or 13, because he suddenly has an epiphany or he sees a pattern nobody else saw. That is his drug of choice, if you like.

There’s this scene when Hanna is out with the other cops and their families. He’s dancing with Justine, and he gets called away, to go check out the girl that Waingro has killed. At the crime scene, the girl’s mom shows up, and it’s an incredibly sad moment: Hanna goes to embrace her, and they suddenly start turning around, and it’s almost a dance — it’s basically the same dance he did with Justine. You see the kind of sacrifice that work involves — even dancing with his wife is taken over by the job.

Yes, and in the scene that follows, he gives Justine this sense that, when a tragedy occurs, he doesn’t close himself off to it and abstract it, the way a good homicide detective would. He absorbs it, because it feeds him information — even if it’s traumatic as hell. So he doesn’t stay distant to that mother’s anguish. He feels that pain, and he uses that. He’s a very unusual character.

You were working on the script for a long time — through the 1970s. How did it change over the years?

The big change was discovering what the ending should be. The contrapuntal ending: Hanna has just killed Neil McCauley, who is fortunate enough to pass away in the company of the man with whom he’s closest in a way, who’s the most like him and understands him the best. Once I realized that that’s how the movie should end, that meant I could build everything off of that. I never had that ending quite right that way, until whatever rewrite it was that led me to sit down with producer Art Linson in the Broadway Deli — which is no longer there, but it’s where Neil picks up Eady — and I asked him if he wanted to go produce this thing with me. He read it, came back and said, “You’re out of your fucking mind. You have to direct this.”

De Niro and Pacino give career-best performances here, but how were they different as actors to work with? Do they approach their characters differently?

Yes, but the differences are simply individualistic. We all come from the same basic place about building a character inside you, and being able to do what that character does — which then allows you to push even further. To say that an actor has one method of acting versus another method of acting is false with the guys I’ve worked with — who are the best. Pacino’s method of acting is the Pacino method, that’s it. For Al, it’s very much about internalizing the way somebody feels. He memorizes scenes two weeks before he’s gonna shoot them. He wants them to roll around in his consciousness. He’ll dream about them. And Bobby is terribly smart — brilliantly analytical. “Why does this guy do that?” and the specifics are all very important. You know, what he’s wearing — all that detail is very expressive of character and feeds something to him. Pacino’s less concerned about what he’s wearing.

I think my favorite moment with De Niro is this tiny little bit when he’s busted Ashley Judd for having an affair with Hank Azaria. They’re in the hotel room, and De Niro’s looking at her and says, sternly, “Clean up, go home.” And then he repeats it, “Clean up, go home.” It’s such an odd repetition, but it feels completely right for that moment.

It might be my favorite part of his performance. There’s something in that moment — he is 200 percent Neil McCauley. He is the boss of that crew. He’s taking responsibility. He’s being protective. “Clean up, go home”: I’ll keep the lie. I’ll keep the marital betrayal that I’ve just discovered, which potentially is dangerous to our security. And it turns out it is — because Pacino discovers Hank Azaria, and they use him to get to Ashley Judd.

The other little moment that always jumps out at me is the little grin De Niro gives right when he’s decided he’ll break with his pattern and go after Waingro. The thought process that passes through his face when he’s in the car, and then right at the end there’s just a little hint of a smile.

We shot that one night, I didn’t get it. We went back another night, I thought I had it. I didn’t have it, and we went back a third night. While we were out there at the airport, I’d say, “Let’s take an hour and go shoot that moment again.” And then we got it. [Laughs] It’s one of those really intangible things, but when you get it, it really pays off. Responding that way is a deviation from his discipline of distance and separation. It’s an error, but it’s thrilling to him — he’s responding viscerally, intuitively, spontaneously.

You very subtly underline the fact that it is an error by having Pacino say, right before that, “He’s gone, he’s left. I know how his mind works, and he’ll be gone by now.” That highlights the fact that McCauley has broken with the discipline that has kept him alive all these years.

Yeah, and then when Al goes to the hotel, what does he see? He sees a girl [Amy Brenneman], alone in a car. If he and De Niro hadn’t had the coffee-shop scene — if he hadn’t stopped to say, “I want to know more about you,” and had that face-to-face [during which De Niro tells him he has a girlfriend] — he wouldn’t have known about the girl in the car. And it may not be her. She may be somebody else. But the way she’s sitting there, alone in a car, it just clicks with something he learned during that coffee-shop scene.

In many scenes, the background feels vital to what’s happening emotionally. In Neil’s house, we see the waves in the background or the city lights stretching out into the distance. I know it’s often hard to keep the background in the shot while you’re trying to focus on actors, especially in night scenes. And I think this is one of the reasons why you turned to video in Collateral. Was it a challenge here?

The challenge wasn’t so much to keep the background in the shot as it was [figuring out] what is the physical environment in which to have a scene, so that it’ll impact how the audience is feeling and amplify what’s going on. It all starts with scene analysis: the dramatic content of the scene, what the scene is telling us, how should it make the audience feel. I want you to feel the alienation of somebody who has the absolute minimum in that place. He lives in a world of abstraction. That’s why I picked that location, with the ocean out the window. And the windows are kind of dirty, you know — he doesn’t pay much attention to maintenance. He’d probably have a fork and a knife and a spoon, a coffee maker, and that’s about it.

“Never do anything you can’t walk away from in 30 seconds flat if you see the heat coming around the corner.” Where did that line come from? Is it your line, or is it something you heard in your interactions with cops and ex-cons?

I’m trying to remember … I think it’s my line, from Charlie Adamson’s description about how Neil McCauley lived his life. Or how you’d have to live your life if you were gonna be as effective as you can possibly be as a professional thief. The more attachments you make, the more vulnerable you are. Get in a big romance, you run away to Brazil, after six months you have a bad night, you’re really lonely, you pick up the phone and call her — and they have you.

I’ve always wanted to ask you this: Were you ever a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films?

You know, actually I’m not. [Laughs]

People compare your work to his all the time.

I haven’t seen all of his films. I think he’s a very good director. I think it’s historically very interesting because they derive from American film noir cinema, so it’s kind of the French version of that. It’s like when I first heard English bands, in 1965. I’d been a big devotee of Chicago blues and spent a lot of time in 1961, ’62, and ’63 listening to Muddy Waters in his local bar — and these were not white blues joints. And to hear these British bands, like the Animals, trying to do this music … it always felt very derivative at best.


Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto Summons Up the Timeless, for Today

Remarkable as it seems, there’s still poetry to be found in the idea of kids tooling around with nothing much to do. Whether you grew up in a small town or a midsize-to-large city, in 1962, 1982, or 2002, you probably remember getting into a car, unwisely, with the first pal in your crowd to get a license, using a doctored ID to buy beer, and perhaps even committing the gravest sin against clean, healthy living: smoking.

Not all of those things happen in Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, Palo Alto, in which two upper-middle-class but otherwise average kids — played beautifully by Emma Roberts and newcomer Jack Kilmer — find their way to each other, the long way around. But the movie perfectly captures the vibe of late high school, in a way that’s both of its time and timeless. Palo Alto is set in the present, an era in which kids can text one another their whereabouts instead of having to walk or drive around aimlessly until they run into someone they know, or might want to know. Yet Coppola, who adapted the movie from James Franco’s book of short stories, quietly makes the case that our gadgets can’t save us from the eternal fear of not connecting. When a boy really likes a girl, he still has to bring himself to look directly at her. It’s all there in Coppola’s movie, the listlessness, the at once hyperkinetic and underwater-slow feeling of waiting for something to happen and fearing nothing ever will.

The plotlessness of Palo Alto is its own kind of structure, forming an irregular net studded with both golden promise and opportunities for its characters to make some very bad decisions. The movie opens in the middle, or in a middle: In a car parked in an otherwise deserted parking lot, its headlights fixed on the blankness of the wall in front of it, a pixie-faced strawberry-blond, Kilmer’s Teddy, answers the hypothetical questions posed by his best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), as the two pass a bottle of something or other back and forth. “If you were in olden times, what would you do?” Fred asks, though no answer Teddy might give will please him. Fred’s a pressure cooker waiting to blow, and though Teddy senses that, he sticks by his friend either out of loyalty or just because he doesn’t know what else to do.

There’s a girl Teddy likes, Roberts’s April. She seems to like Teddy back, but neither knows how to make anything happen. April, dressed in a little spring coat that makes her look like a modern suburban Audrey Hepburn, goes to a party and finds Teddy lounging outdoors with Fred. She plops into a chair nearby and the two proceed to fail to talk to each other, something like the way longtime married couples do. Then they go to a nearby cemetery and poke around, April at one point carving a heart into the bark of a tree. Fred comes along and behaves obnoxiously.

April is probably too distracted to start anything with Teddy, anyway: Her home life seems OK, though her stepfather (played by Val Kilmer, father of Jack), who appears to be ill and medicated to the gills on marijuana, insists on rewriting her school assignments for her. And her mother (Jacqui Getty, Coppola’s own mother), a woman who looks as if she sprang fully formed from a Pilates apparatus, seems attentive but is in truth checked out. (For young and old alike in Palo Alto, marijuana is one of the basic food groups.)

Meanwhile, April is getting the entirely wrong sort of attention from her soccer coach, the louche, rumpled Mr. B (Franco, in the kind of unstudied, perceptively shaded performance he used to give before he became more ubiquitous than hydrogen). Palo Alto doesn’t shy away from the danger of sex, or the likelihood that it will make people do stupid or immoral things. One of April’s schoolmates, a dreamy doe of a girl named Emily (played with Zen-like composure by a fine young actress named Zoe Levin), really likes sex but hasn’t yet gotten the hang of sharing it with the right people. She gives perhaps too much away to live wire Fred, though their mismatch is at least half tender.

Coppola’s filmmaking style, like a sidelong glance, is almost paradoxically shy and confident at once. She uses voiceover dialogue against, say, a sunny blur of trees as viewed from the passenger seat of a car, to keep the action moving between scenes, and not just as a way of explaining the obvious. Shot by relative newcomer Autumn Durald, the images have an old-school luminous clarity. There’s no shaky-cam nonsense to telegraph how confusing these characters’ lives are. Durald and Coppola know the movie doesn’t need it.

And though it’s hard to say from a debut whether a director has a gift for guiding actors, every performer here is so fully in tune with one another and the material that it’s safe to surmise Coppola may have the touch. Kilmer and Roberts are wondrous: As April, Roberts’s velvety gaze is both a challenge and a question mark; she’s perched on that perilous peak between schoolgirl innocence and young-woman worldliness, and though her judgment is sound, she still doesn’t know enough to trust it. And Kilmer’s Teddy is a slightly messed-up kid whose impulse toward kindness ultimately saves him. Still, you hold your breath every time he makes a wrong choice, or an almost-wrong one: He has the look of a punk cherub, and you don’t want to see him crash-land.

Partly because there’s so much confusion for these characters to navigate, they smoke — oh, how they smoke! — drawing nicotine and other assorted bearers of bad tidings deep into their healthy pink lungs. I can hear the anti-smoking police clucking right now, but damn, it’s lovely. Only the very young can get away with smoking (it’s a vampire that will begin sucking the life out of you around age 25), so the act symbolizes a specifically youthful kind of freedom: that of not yet having to care about dying. There are, after all, so many more immediate things to care about when you’re just trying to get the knack of living. Palo Alto is a movie of exceedingly delicate feeling, the kind you can make only when you’re very young or very old. Coppola — granddaughter of Francis Ford, niece of Sofia — is just 27, and her movie, for and about young people, breathes in deeply. But maybe it means even more when you’re on the other side of 50 and beginning to exhale: How could we ever have felt this way? How could we not?


Quicksilver Messenger Service

Eventually, Val Kilmer will star in a biopic about the Quicksilver Messenger Service, whose heavy penchant for drugs and 6/4 jazz time made them stars of the ’60s San Fran psychedelic scene. Fraught with tension after a gig at the Monterey Pop Festival, Quicksilver eventually dissolved into a successful solo career for front man Gary Duncan, one of few members not to get jailed for marijuana possession or die from an overdose. While the recently reunited jam band only features Duncan and bassist David Freiberg, look out for single “Gold and Silver,” a dizzying jazz-pop effort that mirrors Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” God knows they were probably high.

Mon., Aug. 10, 8 p.m., 2009


The Wedding Present’s El Rey

Critiquing music is all about confusing people. No joke—it’s a bunch of semi-arbitrary adjectives pieced together in an effort to make people go: “Wow, this guy must really know what he’s talking about, because I have no idea what he just said.” Sweeping guitars? Typically quixotic (and enjoyable) crooning about love or the lack thereof? Fuzzy landscapes painted by hearty percussion and sly bass lines? Really? What does that even mean? Well, whatever it means, that’s what encapsulates the Wedding Present’s latest LP.

Somewhat expectedly, El Rey sees frontman David Gedge reprising a career-long role reminiscent of Val Kilmer’s disguise-swapping virtuoso performance in his 1997 film The Saint. (An unexpected but totally clever reference that’s not that big a stretch, trust me.) Over the better part of two decades, the Weddoes have shifted from low-budget ’80s Euro-indie rock (1987’s George Best) to spiny, one-word-song-title jabs (1991’s Seamonsters) to gritty punk underscores (1996’s Saturnalia), all the while being driven (done in?) by their candy-filled indie-pop heartache center. Similar, really, to how Kilmer switches in and out of disguise in The Saint like some super-spy badass, insisting that he’s chasing his big payday while actually chasing something infinitely more important: himself. (See, totally clever.)

As emotionally tangential and sardonic as the rest of their discography, El Rey manages to skillfully dance in and around standard Wedding Present content: love and heartache. Guided by Gedge’s usual bumbling wit—“I could fall in love with you/And if I recall, she said, ‘I like you too’ ”—and solidified by finally having a mostly established band, this record is less impressive than their pre-’90s work, but better than anything since 1994, and generally a welcome addition to their already established résumé. Plus, if nothing else, they’re from London, which means everything they say sounds at least twice as smart as when you say it.


A Fistful of Pierogies

The first feature by the conceptual Polish artist Piotr Uklanski, Summer Love is a mock spaghetti western that manages to be both parody and homage, albeit less western than spaghetti. Or rather “kielbasa,” to use the term that’s been applied to the 50 or so amateur oat-operas made over the past two decades by Uklanski’s countryman Josef Klyk.

Beginning with its vertiginous opening shoot-out, Summer Love is characterized by some credibly mad filmmaking. Uklanski is adept at playing the angles, both in terms of camera placement and genre derangement. Val Kilmer is present as the obligatory American star: His character is known as the Wanted Man, and he’s a corpse, and a potentially valuable one, for the entire movie. The other players are drawn mainly from the Polish stage, although Boguslaw Linda, who plays the world-weary Sheriff, will be familiar to fans of Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski. The cast speaks heavily accented English and looks subtly off—too beaten-down to be real cowboys. (Uklanski is a student of iconography: His most famous piece is a photographic installation of glamorous male movie stars costumed in Nazi regalia.)

Summer Love, however cheerfully titled, is essentially an angst-ridden kammerspiel. The Stranger (Karel Roden) rides into town with the Wanted Man’s corpse and gambles away his bounty before he can even collect it. Most of the action is confined to a miserable one-room saloon amusingly named the French Palace—a place of buzzing flies and perpetual rain, where grizzled plug-uglies mumble into their vodka and make leering passes at the tough, ample barmaid (Katarzyna Figura). Space is elastic, with exterior locations cleverly constructed out of an abandoned quarry and what appears to be a stretch of Baltic beach doubling as the desert. The twangy musical score takes a respite from faux Morricone-isms to incorporate the deadpan insanity of Lorne Greene’s 1966 ballad “I Am a Gun.”

The western trappings become increasingly alien as the movie evolves, spasm by spasm, into a ritual played out around and about Kilmer’s increasingly mutilated body—the drama’s written in blood, sweat, and tears, among other bodily secretions, on the faux desert sands. With its scaffolding and half-wrecked buildings, Uklanski’s set comes to resemble a derelict performance site. The artist has a sardonic sense of apocalypse: Summer Love reaches its sodden climax when the gallows under construction for most of the movie comes crashing through the French Palace roof, and the Sheriff reduces the reward for the Wanted Man to a frugal $250.


Mamet conjures a worst-case scenario for the Bush twins

With Spartan, David Mamet takes on the digi-tech, hard-Clancy-core intel thriller most often inflated by Tony Scott and like-minded plodders, and typically he elevates it, botches it, and exploits it for searing political comment. Mamet is always the dilettante in any genre but his own: Spartan is structured, perhaps deliberately, like a drunken walk through a hedge maze, rife with dead ends, backtracking, and impatient short cuts. Still, he remains as interested in the severe moral relativism of masculine arenas as in their juicy patois. What’s more, he’s one of our great leftist cynics (Wag the Dog remains a formidably ballsy script sleepily directed), and however cheaply made, Spartan might be the most explicitly accusatory election-year release since 1992’s The Panama Deception.

It’s also, naturally, a good deal cheesier. The film starts out with espionage übermensch Val Kilmer training recruits and muttering Mametian aphorisms, graduates to a secret-service-trauma kidnapping (we’re not even told who the missing girl is for quite some time), and eventually becomes a wholesale conspiracy thriller involving white slavery and White House turpitude. Clearly the conceptual fulcrum, Kilmer’s Robert Scott is a seasoned, fearless, merciless “worker bee” who suddenly finds himself alone on a crusade, like the titular soldier. Kilmer’s familiar taciturnity—or is it disinterest?—defines Scott as merely an abstract idea with fast reflexes and a killer deadpan. But that’s all jake for honest B-movies, where outrageous subversion can come pulp-costumed in a clown suit full of plot holes.

Spartan boils down to Mamet daydreaming about the worst-case scenario for the Bush daugh-ters—the movie’s abduction crisis initiates the administration’s disposable-human strategy for re-election. (What we wouldn’t give for a reaction to the movie from the First Twins.) Mamet scrambles in a little Clintonian indiscretion and a Betty Fordian first lady, but there’s little question that he’s aiming this modest shoulder rocket at Bush-Cheney Corp., and that the moral gist of his wild tale is essentially true. By despairing of the military or intelligence communities rather than heroizing them, Mamet is quietly bucking the system—not just Hollywood, but the larger octopus, which will surely engineer the movie’s neglect just as congressmen blackmail broadcasting companies into suspending Howard Stern and federal tax dollars pour into faith-based institutions on their way to buying ticket blocks for The Passion of the Christ. We’ll take our counterprogramming where we can find it.


Bum and Coke

The slimmest interface with the fringes of the American pornopolis is what justifies the docudrama existence of Wonderland, a nervous-breakdown tribulation that retraces the 1981 Laurel Canyon murders involving, in one way or another, sex-industry über-schlong John Holmes. Mr. Wadd was little more than a junkie with a rep by the early ’80s, so what James Cox’s movie explores is an otherwise run-of-the-mill Los Angeles debacle of coke-zonked robbery and bloodshed. Does this smudge of celebrity residue make the incident crucial true-crime storytelling? Sincere and self-important, Cox and his co-writers clearly think so, dressing up their teary Holmesiad with digital front-page transitions, benchmark tunes, and that-was-the-summer-that-was nostalgia. The movie desperately seeks culture-moment iconicity, but barely acknowledges Holmes as an exploited freak in capitalism’s dankest subcellar. Instead, he’s merely a lovable, dreamy loser haphazardly hunting down the Big Score.

Val Kilmer, despite being six years older than his 1981 character, is far too robust and personality-plus to be convincing as Holmes, coming off instead as an ordinary post-noir anti-hero, lost and scrambling in Dopeville. That is, if you can get past Kilmer’s lingering Jim Morrison affect; Wonderland plays best as an imaginary scenario for the surviving Morrison’s addicted spinout among the bottom feeders in blow-era Hollywood. As if toggling between scag and trampled blow himself, Cox ricochets between tedium and music-video business, saturated and desaturated hues, Method mumbling and caricature, the Rashomon-style re-experience of sequences and sheer repetition. The movie is enthusiastically inhabited, particularly by Josh Lucas as the “Wonderland Avenue gang” ‘s snarlingly obnoxious frontman, Lisa Kudrow as Holmes’s estranged suburban wife, and M.C. Gainey as a grizzled fed. While Janeane Garofalo is relegated to the background and Christina Applegate is all but unseeable in the dealer-den shadows, Eric Bogosian makes a hilarious and fearsome Palestinian gangster, and Dylan McDermott reinvents himself as a biker-badass with a romantic streak.

No one’s to be trusted, of course, least of all Holmes, who may have played both ends against the middle in order to save himself. (The film comes to its own conclusions, remembering to splice in actual crime-scene photos during the climactic massacre; the real Holmes went into witness protection, dying of AIDS seven years later.) Jonesing for headlines and gossip-buzz, Wonderland is too look-Ma for its own good—the simple story of a doomed hop-hog over his head in bad shit could’ve hit the nerve if left to tell itself.

Also occupying the sex industry outskirts, Masato Harada’s 1997 teen odyssey Bounce Ko Gals follows a gaggle of harried, kogyaru-styled schoolgirl hookers who score in their school uniforms, sell their soiled underwear, do amateur porn in empty office spaces, and stun-gun suckers. Casting Tokyo as a neon wilderness thick with aged “perverts” and teenage pimps, the movie frames a critique of socially permissible pedophilia as indelible as Harada’s eavesdropping mise-en-scène. The characters—savvy man-hater Jonko (Hitomi Sato), blithering abortion vet Maru (Shin Yazawa), lanky manipulator Raku (Yasue Sato), unlucky innocent Lisa (Yukiko Okamoto), whose stolen passport and cash initiate the others’ long night of salvation—are often photographed from a natural distance, as they navigate man-heavy crowds. (Playing against type, Koji Yakusho co-stars as a flesh-peddling hotelier.) Filthy with on-location details and urban qualm, Harada’s movie has the micro-apocalyptic bite of an Asian-millennial If . . .


NY Mirror

Spanish designer Miguel Adrover floated into his Amy Spindler-cohosted Saks Fifth Avenue event the way every visionary/kook should: sporting long, braided hair, a pin-striped jacket, and a floor-length powder-blue skirt — very Mick Fleetwood meets Gwyneth Paltrow at a double bill of The Magic Christian and El Topo. When he settled down to earth, I asked the up-and-coming fashion-world darling if he feels he’s gotten a teeny bit too much publicity lately. “Right now, it looks like it,” Adrover said, as the paparazzi gathered like buzzards — though those weren’t the animals on my jaunty little mind at the moment. As is now legend, Adrover had just featured a live sheep on the runway, an audacious move that has every barnyard animal I know getting breast implants and trying to nab a modeling agent. The sheep made such a sensation that the human models (and Anna Nicole Smith) have been freaking that they might become obsolete or, worse, might have to stop bathing and waxing in order to compete with a new crop of wool-bearing quadrupeds. Of course the sheep went a bit nutty, too, and had to be cajoled back down the runway by his personal fluffer and stylist. “What happened to the poor thing?” I asked the quirkmeister, perhaps overdoing my concerned pout. “He got scared from the flashes,” Adrover told me. “Like I do,” he added, running like an anxious rabbit from the photographers — and me.

Abandoned and confused — I’m scared when there aren’t flashes — I sheepishly sought solace in Boy Gets Girl at the Manhattan Theatre Club, assuming it would be a fluffy romantic comedy for the Woolite crowd. Wrong! It’s a hard-hitting stalking drama, and though it heavy-handedly shows how the objectification of women robs them of their identity, at least the play’s thought-provoking — and not just because the comforting policewoman who makes multiple office visits seems as fantastical as Miguel Adrover’s fashion tips.

But the deeply moving documentary Southern Comfort has the ring of reality to it, its girl-becomes-boy-and-gets-boy-who-became-girl scenario making perfect sense when you get to know the all-accepting cast of lovable gender benders. At a party for the film at Vandam, the transsexual Lola Cola — who’s a lesbian now — told me, “I didn’t know if the film was very good. I thought, ‘Oh God, I look so hideous!'” Please! She could easily walk a runway, and not just for you know who.

And now, prance with me down memory lane for a treasure trove of Nick at Nite-style divas who’ve burst out of that giant TV set/jukebox in the sky and fallen right into my wild and woolly lap. First was Nell Carter, who’s tearing up the room at Feinstein’s — not just singing, but being a dominatrix (“Don’t look at my butt!”), cutely showing her insecurities (“How long have I been up here?” she asked, and one weirdo shot back, “Seventy-six minutes”), and spouting revelations (“I didn’t think Ain’t Misbehavin’ was going anywhere” — shades of Southern Comfort, no?). Robust, sassy, and cornet-voiced, Nell kicks ass on classic songs — so much so that you’ll forget she ever did The Match Game.

Another golden oldie — Jackie DeShannon, the blond belter best known for “What the World Needs Now Is Love” — just resurfaced, predictably prompting me to set up a bicoastal phoner to cheer her on. Jackie seems thrilled with the career renewal that’s spawned her new CD, You Know Me, especially since the last time around, she “felt like a child in the corner, suffering from emotional malnutrition.” This time, she’s finally been allowed to record without limits, and it’s exactly what the world needs now. “I’m not here to be a diva,” Jackie told me. “I’m sort of like Shaker furniture — those handmade jobs. I don’t like pretentious things. I’m more the paint-on jeans kind of girl.” So am I, and when we started impulsively duetting on “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Jackie nicely enough let me be Tammi Terrell!

I sang a different tune — “Chica, Chica, Boom, Chic” — with Charo, the long-running Spanish bombshell who wiggles, plays guitar, and turns up on more reruns of The Love Boat than there are donkeys lined up outside Elite. The “cuchi-cuchi” lady — the original Ricky Martin, in a way — is guest-starring in the Off-Broadway musical Pete ‘N’ Keely, a kitschy, TV-special spoof that’s definitely more suited to her talents than, say, Design for Living. In an interview at her Wyndham Hotel suite, Charo was expectedly vampy and campy, and it’s definitely not an act; until I corrected her, she actually thought the show was called Pete ‘N’ Kelly and is on Broadway!

“I am an international cucaracha,” she told me by way of a greeting. “I’ve been doing salsa since my cuchi-cuchi was only a gitchie-gitchie. I am mental!” She looked perfectly sane in a clingy white pants suit, her cascading hair and high heels practically doubling her 5′ 3″ frame. Her outfits in the show are “very conservative,” she said, then laughingly added, “but I really look like a $250 hooker!”

I offered to pay her double that if she explained why her English hasn’t improved one bit since the ’60s. “It’s getting worse,” Charo admitted. “That pisses me off. The problem is I only speak Spanish with my family. I say ‘hijo de puta,’ which means ‘son of a bitch.’ My son says, ‘Mother, you’re calling yourself a puta!'” (But a $250 one.) She feels her son looks like Val Kilmer, by the way — “but I never cuchi-cuchied Val Kilmer!”

All right, who does Charo think is humpable in Hollywood? “Everybody looks like shit,” she said. “Kevin Costner looks like a bookkeeper. Brad Pitt is too pretty. But Pierce Brosnan is very sexy!” A discussion of the muchachas inevitably led to Monica Lewinsky, about whom Charo insensitively said, “The only thing wrong with her is that her ass is bigger than Montana.” How about the little problem that Clinton’s married? “Well, nobody’s perfect!” exclaimed Charo, echoing the last line of Some Like It Cuchi-Cuchi. She’s mental!

And so’s Madonna — if we can move up to date — who surprised me with her letter to the L.A. Times defending Eminem‘s relentless horsing around with homophobia. Madonna seems so anxious to remain cool with the kids that she’s played havoc with the gay supporters she’s uplifted for years. I have a problem with her argument that Eminem’s just reflecting society (so do anti-Semitic demagogues) and that “at least he has an opinion” — as if whether gays deserve to be sliced up, even in a supposed pose or a joke, is up for debate. She could have said, “He’s brilliant and protected by free speech, but he should lay the fuck off my gay children!”

Finally, some undebatable dish: I hear Tom Cruise has been renting six rooms a night at a posh L.A. hotel. (I guess wifey got the house.) And what the packed house at the Garden’s big Vagina Monologues event didn’t know is that Calista Flockhart got her period at one extremely vivid point in the evening. I don’t care — I still want a vagina!


Do You Believe?

A pale, patchy amalgam of the year’s two unfairly reviled interplanetary adventures, Supernova and Mission to Mars, the lunkheaded Red Planet distinguishes itself with a touching pretense of scientific veracity. New Age mysticism is kept to a minimum, and the life-on-Mars discovery is as absurdly mundane as De Palma’s was histrionically Spielbergian. Such committed understatement can only be counterproductive in the sci-fi realm (star Val Kilmer, for the record, proudly classifies Red Planet as “science fact”).

An ungainly voice-over spells out the boilerplate premise: Earthly eco-disaster prompts deep-space colonization, and scientists dispatch clumps of algae to oxygenate the Martian atmosphere. When the green stuff mysteriously vanishes in 2050, NASA sends a manned expedition: tank-top-clad commander Carrie-Anne Moss, smirky engineer Kilmer, chiseled blowhard Benjamin Bratt, wisecracking geneticist, um, Tom Sizemore, and chin-strokingly spiritual elder Terence Stamp (who delivers the token what-if-God-was-a-spaceman rumination).

Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, a longtime Cronenberg collaborator, capably renders the mythologized dread of the pockmarked Martian surface—the Australian outback and Jordanian desert shot through blazing vermilion filters. But nothing here comes close to the Kubrick homages De Palma uncorked midway through Mission, and excepting a clamorous crash landing in which the male crew members are catapulted onto the planet in a giant pod, first-timer Antony Hoffman directs with a studious lack of imagination. The movie complies slavishly with the space-thriller model of cast attrition—the demises are, in predictable succession, quietly noble, accidental, karmic, and heroically gruesome. Kilmer complicates his line readings with a weirdly contemptuous Malkovich-affect; Moss remains in orbit for the duration, issuing panicky instructions to her shipwrecked crew (“Avoid pressing anything that says ‘Ignition’!”). As in The Matrix, her contained beatitude acquires a sudden auroral luminosity in the dying moments, crystallizing her role into a single, transcendent feat of hero resuscitation.

Based on the experiences of Navy man Carl Breshear, Men of Honor often seems less concerned with believability than Red Planet. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Breshear, a Kentucky sharecropper’s son who strives to become the first black deep-sea diver in American military history. “As a dramatist I sometimes took it up a level,” screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith explains in the press notes. Meaning he tells big honking lies—none more flagrant than the “composite” character of Master Chief Billy Sunday, Breshear’s racist-sadist nemesis (later repentant ally), played by an obliviously gung ho Robert De Niro. Smith and director George Tillman Jr. are less interested in credibly dramatizing a real-life story than in drawing belabored parallels and nurturing imagined bonds between Breshear and this preposterous caricature—in the process, the filmmakers at once coarsen and dilute a fascinating life into a lumpy puddle of punishing inspirational hokum.


Where Have All the Aliens Gone?

It used to be that sci-fi movie heroes and heroines were virtually assured of running into some kind of smart alien creatures. How often did the crew of the starship Enterprise find a planet that was not inhabited by either humanoids or creatures who looked like the prop guy in a monster costume?

Here on Earth, we could at least count on a UFO visit. Some of the visiting aliens, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wanted to take us over. Others, like the familiar gray-skinned, big-headed, anal-probe fans, seemed only to want to play a game of intergalactic grab-ass. From the messy, endlessly mutating beasts of the Alien series to the insect warriors of Starship Troopers to the CGI irritants of Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace to the guileless lizards-in-disguise of Galaxy Quest, our faraway friends and enemies had something in common with us: They were mobile, curious, and sentient. Science fiction can be scary (as in War of the Worlds), but it’s ultimately reassuring (as in E.T.) to imagine that there may be wise alien beings who can stop us from destroying ourselves. And if the E.T.’s fresh with us, we can always make like Sigourney Weaver and blow it out the airlock.

Now comes a nuclear-strength buzz kill from two scientists who believe that we may well be alone in the universe, aside from the equivalent of pond scum—boring space-cooties who couldn’t possibly build a spaceship, beam out mathematical messages, or bother to lust after Earth women. The “Rare Earth” hypothesis, put forward by a paleontologist and an astronomer in a new book of the same name, holds that certain unusual factors on Earth—such as its distance from the Sun, the right mix of carbon and oxygen, and our relatively large moon—have made biodiversity possible. Nonterrestrial complex life probably isn’t in the stars.

What are science-fiction movies going to do with this idea? Will we have to endure a spate of French existential science-fiction psychodramas, with Gauloise-puffing antiheroes bemoaning our lonely status in the universe? Will one-celled organisms get top billing in big summer blockbusters? As creepy as The Andromeda Strain was, a deadly space germ is no more frightening than any of the devastating plagues—AIDS, Ebola, the Spanish flu—that originated here on Earth.

Space aliens—like the ones in Invasion of the Body Snatchers—ought to have an agenda that goes beyond mere self-preservation. It’s not enough for an alien to be weird; it must be, in the immortal words of Richard Masur in The Thing, “weird and pissed off.”

Some recent movies got around the alien-being issue altogether: Supernova, Sphere, The Astronaut’s Wife, and Event Horizon featured astronauts driven insane by invisible, evil forces. But so what? That happens every day to anyone who uses Internet Explorer. Even if the Rare Earth theory is true, it’s not as though we are completely insulated from the rest of the universe. There are always rogue asteroids—à la Deep Impact and Armageddon. The same day Rare Earth was written about in The New York Times, the paper’s national section ran a report about yet another asteroid that has a chance of colliding with us. But in cinematic terms, the space-rock thing is over: A killer rock is not a plot, it’s an incident. Audiences knew from the moment Bruce Willis appeared onscreen in Armageddon that he’d get things sorted. Yet for two hours, we had to endure innumerable manufactured crises involving Ben Affleck’s fragile self-image.

Movies will probably never give up on the search for intelligent life in the universe. In the next few months, there will be two movies both seemingly inspired by the last big space story, the Mars landers: Mission to Mars, with the always-reliable Gary Sinise, and Red Planet, with the famously strange Val Kilmer. It’s not clear whether these movie astronauts will meet Martians. But Val Kilmer? There are some things even more frightening than monsters from space.