Absolute Power (1997)

*Absolute Power* stars Clint Eastwood as you’ve always seen him before. Luther Whitney, master jewel thief, loner, reluctant hero, man pushed too far, is pretty much like every other Eastwood character, only less vigorous and slightly nicer. Director Eastwood spends a good long time establishing Luther’s character: he has candlelit dinners with himself and spends countless hours sketching in museums, copying Renaissance masters; he can’t operate a VCR, he adores his estranged daughter, and he’s a brilliant burglar. A regular Renaissance man is he.

While robbing an enormous mansion belonging to the extremely rich and powerful Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall), Luther sees something he oughtn’t have: young, beautiful Mrs. Sullivan and a drunken lover engaging in rough sex that leads to murder. The lover turns out to be none other than Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman), villainous president of the United States. While wrestling with Mrs. Sullivan, the president screams, causing his Secret Service agents to shoot the unlucky woman, thereby forcing perpetually overwrought chief of staff Gloria Russell (Judy Davis) to clean things up. Why was the White House chief of staff dallying at one of the president’s dalliances? Certainly not because she’s cool in a crisis.

Luther steals a crucial piece of evidence before narrowly escaping the scene of the crimes. He sensibly decides to high-tail it out of the country. But being Clint Eastwood, he just can’t do that, especially after the president gets all hypocritical on national TV. So he embarks on a foolish and complex plan of retribution that involves half of Washington, while endangering the other half, including his daughter Kate (a tough prosecutor), in the process.

*Absolute Power* starts out preposterous, and gets increasingly more so as it shuffles slowly along to a less than thrilling climax. William Goldman’s screenplay, adapted from the novel by David Baldacci, glosses over absurd plot holes, and engages in more outright cover-ups than a Republican White House. At no point in this becalmed, befuddled thriller can anyone ever have any doubt about the outcome, so *Absolute Power* is never interesting or exciting. Instead, the movie has occasional fits of unimaginative violence, and is unusually repellant (almost as repellant as Eastwood’s last film, *The Bridges of Madison County*).

Both director and screenwriter seem far more concerned with highlighting the obvious -- Luther’s redemption (as if anyone doubted Eastwood’s innate heroism), and the government’s corruption (as if anyone doubted that, either) -- than with making *Absolute Power* a thriller. The mechanics of the plot, as well as all sense of mystery and danger, are virtually ignored in favor of what would have been character development if any of these characters were allowed to develop.

The characters in *Absolute Power* are so shallow and one dimensional that even the actors seem to have no interest in them. Davis plays Russell as if she thinks this is a comedy -- she’s all frantic tics and huffy scowls. The limit of this movie’s sense of humor was giving Russell an apartment at the Watergate, which might actually have been funny in another movie. Grim-faced Scott Glenn has nothing to work with as Secret Service agent Bill Burton, former hero turned murderer. Likewise Dennis Haysbert, as Burton’s partner Collin, who is little more than an inept, low-key psycho. As for Hackman, he succeeds in making Richmond utterly repulsive as the spineless, absolutely corrupt president, but being unlikable is Hackman’s stock-in-trade of late. Ed Harris plays police detective Seth Frank as a shuffling Columbo sort, sans cigar and brilliant insights.

Only Laura Linney, as Luther’s daughter Kate, is given any room to grow. For the most part, however, Kate serves as a plot device, Luther’s vulnerable, imperiled princess and his main motivation for getting down to business. (Eastwood gets credit, at least, for admitting that he’s old enough to have an adult daughter, as opposed to the usual half his age love interest.)

*Absolute Power* is neither interesting enough, nor plausible enough, to work as anything other than a golden years chapter in the life story of the Eastwood Archetype. He’s older, creakier, slower, a little wiser, now with refined tastes in art, music and wine. The scowl, clenched teeth, and pithy threat remain, but virtually in caricature form, as if transposed over the qualities possessed by the actor himself. Eastwood has proven he can do much better, so it’s strange and disappointing to see him in *Absolute Power*, doing little more than humorlessly impersonating himself.


Star Wars (1977)

They were the best of times, preceded by the worst of times. I vividly remember sitting in a movie theatre in Seattle, watching the first trailer for *Star Wars* back in 1977. It looked *really cool*. I was too young for R rated movies, but too old for G movies, and thus trapped in a PG landscape of dreary movies like *Silver Streak*, which my brother and I saw five times only because there was nothing else to see. The dismal *The Pink Panther Strikes Again* is where we saw that *Star Wars* trailer. We talked about it for weeks, waited for our salvation with eager anticipation. We weren’t the only ones.

May 1977, opening weekend, Seattle’s UA70 cinema. *Star Wars* is already an event. There are local and national news telecasts of the long lines of excited moviegoers. There is a vague sense that something important is happening, something bigger than just a cool new movie. As I walked into the theatre with my brother, someone handed us big blue buttons that read “May the Force be with you.” We didn’t yet know what it meant, and surely, no-one there that day had any way of knowing that that little phrase, along with just about everything else associated with *Star Wars*, would become a permanent part of the social landscape, while forever changing, for better or worse, the art and business of movie-making.

George Lucas probably didn’t figure on any of that. He was just trying to make an old fashioned space adventure with special effects that were a little better than state of the art. In that, he succeeded wildly. *Star Wars* was, at its release in 1977, light years ahead of anything that came before, even though it still utilized models and matting technology that was decades old. *Star Wars* made the old look new again.

*Star Wars: Special Edition*, with about five minutes of new film footage and a newly remastered digital soundtrack, takes advantage of the very latest in digital film technology. Lucas has inserted computer generated critters throughout the film, tweaked some of the special effects, and added a couple of scenes, at a cost of about $10 million. That same $10 mil made the entire movie back in 1977, a sum that about pays the catering cost on today’s effects-heavy adventure movies. Despite the tweaking, *Star Wars SE* is the same movie, with the same thrills and the same flaws, as the original.

*Star Wars* is still set in a white male universe; much of the dialogue is still wooden; John Williams’ score remains excessively bombastic, and those alien creatures in the Mos Isely cantina still look like guys in rubber costumes. It is still painfully obvious why Harrison Ford became a huge star, while Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher did not. On the other hand, the movie’s memorable, climactic battle scene is still truly thrilling, an astonishing technological triumph, a mindless rush of joy. Maybe it isn’t thrilling in quite the same way that it was in 1977, after the Bi-Centennial letdown, when our president diagnosed our national malaise, and we were still stinging from Vietnam and Watergate. Then, we were desperately bored, hungry for heroism, aching for thrills. *Star Wars* gave us everything we wanted, everything we needed, and the fact that it was a collective experience, a uniting experience, made it that much better. The Force was, at long last, with us, too.

As for Lucas’ new additions to the film, they distract as much as they enhance. (I’d like to report that the new edition looks and sounds way better than the original, but I can’t. The local theatre where I viewed *Star Wars SE* had tinny, mono sound and what looked to be both a bad print *and* a faulty projector bulb. It actually looked and sounded worse than I remember.) There’s a bit of irony, too, in the fact that even with the new digital fine-tuning, *Star Wars* remains a strikingly anti-technological movie. *Star Wars* at its heart is a story of old fashioned virtue battling cold, evil technology. Lucas was inspired by the adventure serials of the 30s and 40s, and the values of that age, minus some of the gee-whiz futurism, are evident in *Star Wars*. The heroes are essentially swashbucklers, cowboys in white hats, knights in shining armor, while the villains, led by man-in-black Darth Vader, all look alike, and all look like Nazis.

When young Luke Skywalker leaves his low-tech, sunny desert planet for the cold, dark reaches of space, it is to battle the totalitarian Empire’s most technologically advanced weapon, the Death Star (which, incidentally, is also the nickname of AT&T’s corporate logo). He travels in Han Solo’s broken-down freighter, along with a pair of fragile, limited robots (R2-D2 can’t talk, C-3PO can’t do anything else), and monkish mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan instructs Luke to harness the power of the Force, the ancient, heart-mind-soul-life of the Universe, and to use a light saber, “an elegant weapon of a more civilised age.” After rescuing plucky Princess Leia (what’s more old-fashioned than that?), Luke and the rebel forces ultimately beat the Death Star using technologically primitive (i.e. Earth circa 1977) weapons, and they do it because in their foolish, evil, technocentric hubris, the Empire thought their machine was invincible. The rebel spaceships are little more than hopped-up F-16’s, while the Empire has nifty, screamin’ Tie-fighters, but none of that matters because it is really Luke’s connection to the all-powerful Force, not computers and gizmos, that enables him to destroy the Death Star in the end, with a little help from his courageous, self-sacrificing friends.

Even stylistically, *Star Wars* contains remnants of an earlier age of filmmaking (long ago, in a galaxy far, far away...): Lucas used wipes to separate scenes, and the story is told in an episodic, stop-start serial style. *Star Wars* builds slowly, almost too slowly, like a movie set in a less hurried time, before it explodes in the last half hour into the fast-paced, high octane thrill machine that would eventually become the entire substance of later adventure movies.

In 1977, our biggest technological challenge seemed to be making big cars use less gas. The future was flat-lined. In today’s post-PC revolution age, we’ve come back around to a gee-whiz Futurama mindset, and a mixture of optimism, naivete and uneasiness about technology. In digitally “enhancing” *Star Wars*, it is as if Lucas were now buying into the very technocentrism that *Star Wars* warned against. In so doing, Lucas proves yet again that technology cannot conquer all. Better technology doesn’t equal better movies. The new improved *Star Wars* is just like the good old *Star Wars*, and no better for the added bytes.


Dante's Peak (1997)

Things are looking pretty good in the little town of Dante’s Peak. Nestled at the foot of a volcano of the same name, the charming town boasts a colorful Pioneer Days festival, the "best espresso east of Seattle," (the secret ingredient is sulphur!) and has just been named "second most desirable place to live" in the US. And if that weren’t good fortune enough, their lovely old volcano has been dormant for thousands of years, and a business tycoon is about to invest $18 million in the town. Yep, life is good.

Then again, maybe not. Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan), maverick volcanologist, thinks the town’s hot springs are a little *too* hot after a couple of skinny dippers get boiled. He’s not happy about the acidity of the water, or those hundreds of tiny earthquakes, either. Harry thinks Dante’s Peak is about to blow its top, and take the town with it. He quickly convinces mini-skirted mayor and espresso proprietess Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton) that there’s trouble brewing. But wouldn’t you know it? A bunch of greedy naysayers in the town council, spurred on by Harry’s conservative boss (damn that US Geological Service and their politico-economic agenda!), decide there’s nothing to worry about except plummeting property values. Will Dante’s Peak be the next Pompeii? Did Amity have a giant shark problem?

*Dante’s Peak* follows the *Jaws* model of suspense-building to the letter, with a cozy, unwitting populace (7,400 doomed souls) happily basking in ignorance while scientists make increasingly alarming discoveries, until the big climax occurs, with a volcanic eruption pretty much devouring and/or chasing everyone in sight. Unlike *Twister*, which offered nothing but tornado after exciting tornado, *Dante’s Peak* has a much slower boil, as everyone watches and waits for the big blowout. Fortunately, the down time is filled with thrilling, mildly informative geological work! It’s not all seismometers, sulphur and gas chromatography, however. There’s also Harry’s over-caffeinated, geeky fellow geologists, the kind of scientists who don’t mind dying so much as long as they get to "see the show." Apparently, being killed by a volcano is, to the volcanologist, the equivalent of dying in battle for a Klingon or samurai. They’re a noble breed, but with computers and advanced degrees. In addition to the gang of volcano watchers, there’s a stubborn, crusty, volcano-dwelling grandmother, a budding romance between Rachel and Harry, Rachel’s cute but troublesome kids, and a few mildly interesting excursions into the crater of the awakening volcano.

Most importantly, there are ample opportunities provided for Danteans to be jerks. This volcano, you see, isn’t just some faceless geological phenomenon, but a mountain with morality, a real fire and brimstone ethicist, nature as psycho slasher killer. As in the poet’s Purgatory, you can bet that everyone in *Dante’s Peak* will get what’s coming to them when this baby blows. The lascivious, the greedy, the foolhardy, the stubborn, the ignorant and the panicky, the mountain will claim them all.

Harry’s not just playing games when he sets up a row of tumbling dominoes -- he’s being prohetic. The whole town will crumble when the volcano erupts, and erupt it will. But this isn’t your garden variety Mt. St. Helens style eruption. I was in Seattle when St. Helens went, and it was about as exciting as snow (which was actually pretty exciting to us Seattleites in those pre-caffeinated, halcyon days before Starbucks coffee was invented). But Dante’s Peak is no mere ash-hole; when this volcano erupts, it’s about as thrilling as thrilling gets, a major disaster of epic proportions, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The four disasters of the apocalypse are visited upon the hapless inhabitants of Dante’s Peak: fire, flood, earthquake and eruption, with compound fractures, fender benders, lightning, acid-filled lakes, paraclastic clouds, blinding ashfall, giant rolling boulders, cave-ins and red hot lava thrown in for good measure, along with the most fantastic truck ride in the history of horseless carriages. Harry’s amazing truck defies the laws of physics, mechanics and nature. It’s all quite exhausting, and more than occasionally, downright ridiculous.

Leslie Bohem’s screenplay serves as both a major disaster movie, and a sly parody of disaster movies. Every cliche is played to the hilt, every possible mishap occurs, every impossible feat is accomplished. *Dante’s Peak* is a snicker-fest of absurdity hiding under a thick layer of heroics and special effects. That’s a good thing, because the special effects are not really all that special. Much of the climactic destruction in *Dante’s Peak* is obviously wrought on miniature models, although the computer graphics are pretty convincing. Realism, however, is altogether not this movie’s strong suit.


Paris Was A Woman (1997)

If it is true that behind every great man there is a woman, it may be equally true that one of them is hogging the spotlight. That was certainly the case in Paris in the early part of the century, when behind the great men, the literary and artistic titans, were equally great women, standing unquietly in their shadows. Gertrude Stein, Picasso’s first patron, Sylvia Beach, publisher and patron of Joyce, and countless others may be numbered among the influential but overshadowed Parisiennes of the period. Paris was a muse to the men who made it their home, the American expatriates and native Parisiens, but to the women of Paris, she was companion and liberator, an island of freedom in a world that did not always welcome their particular talents. Paris, Natalie Barney said, “is the only city where you can live and express yourself absolutely freely.” She meant, of course, the only city where a *woman* could live and express herself freely. And women did.

Based on Andrea Weiss’ book, *Paris Was A Woman* is a broad and comprehensive excursion through a forgotten Paris. Paris then, in the years between the wars, was an alluring haven to a new kind of woman: artistic, iconoclastic, intellectual, adventurous. Many were lesbians, seeking sexual freedom, while others were escaping the fetters of marriage, family and gender discrimination. Writers, painters, booksellers, they were at the very center of avant garde culture, of artistic life in Paris at a time when Paris was at the center of artistic life in the Western world. Yet so many of these women, recognized as equals in their own time, were virtually forgotten later, relegated to the back pages of cultural history. To find their contributions, one must read between the lines; *Paris Was A Woman* reads even deeper, like a secret history, full of scandal, romance, grand dreams and grander illusions, triumph, despair and forgotten treasures.

*Paris Was A Woman* draws concentric circles around two amazingly influential women: Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, whose neighboring bookshops, Shakespeare & Company and A. Monnier, were the epicenter of culture in Paris in this golden age, the very carefully tended cradle of Modernism. The two women, friends and companions, pioneered the concept of the lending library in France, lending books out of their shops to foster the appreciation of literature, and to benefit ordinary women who could rarely afford to buy books. The American Beach attracted English-speaking ex-pats, while Monnier’s shop drew Francophones, but the dedicated among the literati crossed the street both ways. Their circle of personal friends and salon regulars, most of whom were also nearby Left Bank neighbors, included Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Romaine Brooks, Giselle Freund, Djuna Barnes, Genet, Colette, and the usual suspects of Paris at the time: Picasso, Joyce, Eliot, and many others. *Paris Was A Woman* focuses on the women in that circle, neglecting their better-known male counterparts except where their fortunes are inextricably bound, as in the case of Beach, an early champion of Joyce, who went bankrupt publishing *Ulysses* only to have the author sell his book to Random House, or Stein, whose extensive personal collection of Picasso’s works served as a permanent, informal exhibition.

Using filmed interviews old and new, written excerpts, photographs, and remarkable home movies from the period, *Paris Was A Woman* is an absorbing retelling of the times, viewed through a different lens. The documentary is studded with precious jewels, too, like recordings of Stein reading poems in her smooth, rich contralto, and Natalie Barney’s housekeeper, confidante and nursemaid to heartbroken drunks and privy to everyone’s secrets, who offers simple and honest character assessments of an astonishing number of artistic giants.

If *Paris Was A Woman* has a flaw, it is that it is both too broad and frustratingly shallow, skimming the surface of too many fascinating lives. So many important women are recalled in such a short time -- any one of them alone could warrant an entire film -- that the result can be a bit sketchy, like a swift walk through a huge museum, offering all-too-brief views of a dazzling lost world, and leaving one hungering for more detail, more information and more depth. Yet the glimpses it offers are tantalizing, promising great riches upon further exploration. In that way, *Paris Was A Woman* serves as an interesting and provocative primer, a worthwhile first look at the overlooked.