Chasing Amy (1997)

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. There are complications, as usual, but not the usual complications. This girl is a lesbian. When she says she just wants to be friends, she *really* means it.

The unlikelihood of love has been the jumping off point for many a romantic movie, whether it be a comedy or a multiple-kleenex sudser. *Chasing Amy* is a little bit of both, with a modern twist.

Holden (Ben Affleck) and Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) are both comic book artists, both scruffy cute Gen-Xers, both from New Jersey. When they meet at a comics convention, Holden instantly falls for Alyssa. Like any dutiful puppy in love, he follows her to a lesbian club in Manhattan, his best buddy and writing partner Banky (Jason Lee) in tow. There, to Banky’s delight, Holden discovers the awful truth about the girl of his dreams.

Friendship follows, then love, then separation, as Holden discovers that the truth is even more awful than he ever imagined. In spite of its odd characters and knotty, unconventional relationships, there’s a lot about *Chasing Amy* that is extremely conventional. Much of the humor derives from the sheer shock value of hearing someone actually saying, out loud, things that are not spoken of in polite company. Writer-director Kevin Smith (*Clerks*) is far from polite, as usual, and pound for pound, his dialogue is the crudest and dirtiest around, featuring extended riffs on oral sex, gay sex -- in general, sex. But outrageousness aside, the thoughts expressed by the characters in *Chasing Amy* are, by and large, fairly orthodox as they try to comprehend lifestyles they can’t quite understand. Homophobia, heterophobia, jealousy, curiosity and titillation -- the veneer of ultra-hip sexual liberation barely conceals the fact that this is really just good old fashioned missionary position middle America speaking (although these particular kids all blame their hang-ups on Catholic upbringings).

Smith has it both ways in *Chasing Amy*, on the one hand looking askance at the misanthropic, homophobic macho frat boy posturing of his characters, having a little fun at their expense, while wringing most of his laughs out of their potty-mouth raunchiness. Smith wallows in the hetero male fascination with lesbians that is frequently exploited in movies. The difference is that the lads in *Chasing Amy* freely admit, and rather proudly, that they get off on it. Unlike the single-minded boy’s club atmosphere of *Clerks*, however, *Chasing Amy* also includes an element of swoony romanticism, and a few decidedly Hallmark moments. Smith’s own on-screen alter-ego, the taciturn Silent Bob (a fixture in *Clerks* and *Mallrats*) turns out in *Chasing Amy* to be a mushy romantic at heart, while his constant companion Jay (Jason Mewes) remains the apoplectic, sex-obsessed spewer of raunchy spiels. They represent the opposing sides and sentiments of the movie -- crudely, distastefully hilarious, and rainbow sappy.

Yet for all the adolescent banter and sentimentality, *Chasing Amy* is the most emotionally mature work Smith has produced to date. There are agonizing moments of raw, real emotion and excruciating stupidity, insensitivity and confusion. Holden and Alyssa really struggle with their relationship, their friends, and themselves. *Chasing Amy* fixes its focus on sexual politics and love at their messiest, as problems for the heart and mind, and it wrestles with the double standards and foibles (all male, naturally) that can undermine even true love.

Smith’s style of writing is arch and verbose, showy and unapologetically indecent. His characters talk and talk and talk. And then they talk some more. The talking is interspersed with more talking, the occasional rant, the prolonged spiel. It is diametrically opposed to the current action-bloated arcade-style embraced by Hollywood, where a three word speech is the ideal and four words is considered too long. You will never hear someone talk, non-stop, for minutes on end in such a movie, but you’ll hear it in *Chasing Amy*, where the speech and the spiel are everything.

All that chatter is a challenge for the actors, and they rise to it most of the time. Adams is particularly effective as Alyssa, an unlikely combination of baby voice and cutie-pie-verging-on-sultry-blonde looks. The most emotionally wrenching scenes of *Chasing Amy* belong to Adams, and she handles them with ease. Affleck’s laid back Holden is often overshadowed by his flashier friends, Banky, Jay and Silent Bob, and especially Hooper (Dwight Ewell), a scene-stealer as a gay black man posing as a militant white-hater.

The ideas in *Chasing Amy* aren’t entirely revolutionary -- at heart this is a fairly standard boy-meets-girl love story. Smith’s voice is unique, however, and you won’t hear anything remotely like his dialogue anywhere else. As a filmmaker, he also has tremendous patience, allowing scenes to go on and on and on, taking a circuitous path to the payoff, be it an insight or a laugh.


Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Oh, how times change. One day, you’re flipping out, ditching your prom date and disappearing. Ten years later, you’re coolly picking off bike-riding assassins while talking to your secretary on the phone. At least that’s what happens if you’re Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack), hitman for hire.

Everything seems ducky for Martin until his efficiently cunning secretary Marcella (Joan Cusack) schedules him for a hit in his home town of Grosse Pointe, a tony Detroit ‘burb. The job coincides with Martin’s ten year high school reunion, and puts him in too-close-for-comfort proximity with Debi (Minnie Driver), the stood-up prom date, the love of his life, the girl he can’t get over. As it turns out, Debi never quite got over being stood up, either. She’s a little bitter after all these years, and she doesn’t mind showing it. To complicate matters more, fellow assassin the Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) is hounding Martin to join the hitman union he’s organizing. Membership is not optional, and Martin soon has four exterminators after him. As if that weren’t enough, he’s in the throes of an existential crisis, and his terrified shrink (Alan Arkin) hates him.

Like the Mann said, you can’t go home again.

With brisk direction by George Armitage, and a smart, witty script (by neophytes Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink and John Cusack), *Grosse Pointe Blank* is a buoyantly black, deadpan comedy that bubbles with angst. Deftly balancing on a razor’s edge between comedy and mayhem, *Grosse Pointe Blank* erupts into violence without losing sight of the ridiculous, as the boy most likely to asassinate struggles to reconcile past and present, make up with Debi, and fend off psychos while surrounded by the various losers of the class of ‘86 in a morally bankrupt world of manicured lawns and inconvenience stores.

Cusack and Driver play nicely off each other -- they’re like magnets, both attracted and repelled, and their scenes together have a crackling intensity. Martin is arch and cool on the outside, but a mess of conflict and emotion on the inside. Likewise Debi, who, lacking the professional training and moral flexibility of the hitman, isn’t quite as deft at hiding her bruised feelings. The romantic comedy slides easily into black comedy and two-fisted gunfights as Martin calmly fends off assassins and discusses the pros and cons of unionization with Aykroyd’s blunt Grocer, as psychotically earnest as Joe Friday, with a haircut to match. Jeremy Piven does a nice turn as Paul, Martin’s high school chum turned zealous real estate broker, while Joan Cusack is a delight as Martin’s martinet secretary.

Even when it isn’t completely surprising, which isn’t very often, *Grosse Pointe Blank* is exuberantly original, fresh and funny, a disarmingly, charmingly breezy, straight-faced comedy that proves there are actually worse things than high school reunions, but not many.

Anaconda (1997)

A documentary film crew chugs along the Amazon River in search of a lost tribe of snake worshippers called the people of the mist. A mad snake poacher cruises the same waters hunting a giant anaconda. A giant anaconda, hungrier than any snake in the history of snakes, and twice as long as the longest anaconda, slithers the murky waters in search of a meal. It all adds up: jungle setting plus naive explorers plus weird guide plus primitive tribe plus giant reptile equals B movie.

*Anaconda* would like you to think it’s a jungle *Jaws*, a mosquito-bitten *Moby Dick*, but don’t let the big teeth fool you. This is strictly a by-the-numbers effort, a derivative, competent knockoff that amuses only by being preposterously implausible.

Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz), a doctor of something or other, leads this doomed expedition along with girlfriend Terri Flores, a fresh out of film school documentarian. Her faithful sidekick and cameraman from the ‘hood is Danny (Ice Cube); Denise (Kari Salin) and Gary (Owen Wilson) are the randy sound crew. Also along for the ride is Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde), a prissy Brit narrator who sips wine and chips golf balls into the river when he isn’t whining and cringing. Things go from dumb to dumber when the gang rescues Paul Sarone (Jon Voight), a shipwrecked Paraguayan poacher and ex-priest with a mile-wide wacky streak. After ten minutes with this lot, I was rooting for the snake.

Alas, the snake doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie, during which time Sarone gets crazier and crazier, and Cale lapses into a coma after being stung by a deadly giant wasp while scuba diving. It must have been one of those Amazonian oxygen tank wasps. That kind of thing will happen in the tropics. Anyhow, Sarone saves Cale using the hoariest trick in the book, ye olde ballpoint pen tracheotomy, and Cale spends the rest of the cruise safely ensconced in his cabin, comatose, like the audience.

Meanwhile, creepy old Sarone is left to villainize the ship in the absence of the anaconda. With his mumbly, vaguely latin accent and constant leer, Voight really gives Sarone his all, endangering the very rain forest with his campy, Brando-esque scenery chewing. It is clear that Sarone is supposed to out-Ahab Ahab with his ophidian obsession (I especially enjoyed his cooing over the \\leedle bebby snakes\\ that rained down in the boat after he blew up their nest). What isn’t exactly clear is why Sarone wants to catch the giant anaconda, except that it’s worth a lot of money, which isn’t really very obsessive or Ahabby, but he was once bitten by a big snake (he was no doubt asking for it), and that’s as close to an explanation of motive as *Anaconda* will get. Sarone recruits Gary, the dumb surfer dude, and together they commandeer the boat and go serpent fishing, which is only a good idea because it finally gets the snake into the movie, which will inevitably be followed by the shrinking of the cast.

Meanwhile, the snake, now that it has found the floating buffet, is ready to exploit all the various mishaps that force the clumsy shipmates into the water (even though this 40 foot snake is much bigger than the boat and unlike, say, Bruce the shark, can actually climb aboard any time it feels like a light snack). The embattled fictional filmmakers must now contend with a kooky poacher and a bloodthirsty snake, and *Anaconda* finally gets underway, providing about ten minutes worth of excitement. *Anaconda* doesn’t do anything particularly innovative or original (although the snake esophagus-eye view of a victim being swallowed isn’t bad), but the action gets fast and bloody in its predictable way. And if you’re cheering for the snake, like I was, there’s some inherent tension in knowing things will go badly, like they always do in the human versus giant reptile genre.

There are actually two snakes in *Anaconda*, an animatronic snake and a CGI snake. The animatronic snake is extremely convincing, with glowing red LED eyes and a pink, fleshy, fangy mouth. The computer graphic snake is phony and cartoonish as it climbs trees, rears out of the water and lunges at its prey, coiling itself like a wayward garden hose, twirling and crushing its hapless victim, who cannot scream as his eyeballs pop out ("When you can’t breathe, you can’t scream" promises the ad copy for *Anaconda*, echoing *Alien*’s "In space, no-one can hear you scream." Obviously, the ultimate nightmare for the Hollywood ad copy writer is being rendered mute, although the rest of us would consider not being able to vocalize the least of our worries as we’re being crushed to death). The snake itself screams an eerie, Godzilla sort of screech as it lunges at its lunch, so there is no shortage of screaming in *Anaconda*, if you go in for that sort of thing.

The best thing about *Anaconda* is that it, unlike the snake, is short. This is an Etch-A-Sketch movie -- shake your head and it completely disappears from your memory.


Kama Sutra (1997)

An attractive cast, exotic locale and provocative title are about all that *Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love*, has going for it. While that’s more than a lot of movies can boast, it is far from enough. Writer-director Mira Nair’s sudsy tale of sexual politics and obsession in 16th century India is boring and insubstantial despite the acres of tawny, well-formed flesh on view.

*Kama Sutra* is the saga of two women, girlhood friends Maya (Indira Varma) and Tara (Sarita Choudhury), who grow up to be rivals. Tara marries a king (Naveen Andrews of *The English Patient*); Maya becomes the same king’s chief courtesan, and the object of his obsessive love, after she, in a pique of envy, seduces him on his wedding night. Meanwhile, Maya falls in love with a sculptor (Ramon Tikaram), who is also obsessed by her beauty. You need a flow-chart to follow the complicated love paths in *Kama Sutra*: the king loves Maya, Maya loves the sculptor, Tara might love the king (although her first and only sexual experience was brief and unpleasant because she was untrained in the ways of Kama Sutra, the 4th century manual of erotic arts), and the sculptor loves Maya. So, the king and the sculptor are rivals for a woman who loves only one of them, and Maya and Tara are rivals for a man neither of them really loves. Everybody is miserable, including Maya, who *is* trained in Kama Sutra, and skillfully and enjoyably makes love to the king, the sculptor *and* Tara.

In between all the erotic shenanigans, which are neither as frequent nor as innovative as the title might lead some to hope, Maya is instructed in the philosophy of the Kama Sutra, which apparently amounts to this: real love, unlike physical love, is mysterious and complicated and there are no rules.

*Kama Sutra* has a certain *National Geographic* quality to it. The scenery and cinematography are beautiful, with everything bathed in a radiant saffron light, while the people in these scenes have a certain distant exoticism, like the naked inhabitants of some foreign culture who arrive camouflaged not by a plain brown wrapper, but under the guise of anthropology. Despite the inherent splendor of India’s landscape and architecture, *Kama Sutra* falls victim to the very anachronism that helps make Hercules movies so ridiculous (the ones set amid the *ruins* of ancient Greece, which were neither ruined nor ancient when ol’ Herc was battling monsters there): four centuries ago, the beautiful temples and castles on view in *Kama Sutra* were probably not decayed and blackened by acid rain.

Despite the soap operatic intrigues, the performances in *Kama Sutra* are generally quite restrained. Andrews’ selfish king is indolent and debauched, addicted to opium, addicted to sex, and disinterested in the affairs of his state; he’s a prime candidate for a twelve-step program (although as things turn out in *Kama Sutra*, he probably won’t have the time). Tikaram is part Fabio, part sensitive guy, long-haired and tightly muscled, virile but tender and soulful in contrast to the treacherous king. Varma is voluptuous and regal as Maya, a love goddess whose power over men brings a tempest of misery and tragedy, while she remains the sad, serene center of the storm. Choudhury’s Tara is essentially a huffy, spiteful Valley Girl, fighting for the captain of the football team.

The melodramatic, sudsy plot of *Kama Sutra* is an uncompelling distraction from the gauzy, languorous visual sensuality of the film. *Kama Sutra* disproves its own thesis, such as it is, about the transcendence of soulful love over physical love, by surrounding an emotionally vacant and unengaging core with a lavish, gorgeous, and slightly more interesting physical spectacle.