Career Girls (1997)

*Career Girls* hones in on that unfortunate tendency of humans to remember most vividly and inescapably the most painful and unpleasant things. So it isn't misty watercolor memories that Hannah and Annie, reunited six years after college, dwell on, but painful memories. They don't remember the good times, if they ever really had any. Instead, their psyches pick at the scabbed-over traumas of their volatile friendship in a series of sharp and poignant reminiscences, revealing, in the process, that it wasn't fun and games that solidified their friendship, but rather that they stuck together as they stuck it out through difficulties and emotional travails that are painfully familiar and ordinary.

The signature traits of a Mike Leigh film -- the writer-director seemingly feels no obligation to entertain as he tells a story, nor does he seem inclined to stray from the everyday matter of human existence -- are what make his films so fascinating and, oddly, entertaining. *Career Girls* is an engrossing, peripatetic little comedy that is far more bitter than sweet. Its laughs, tinged with regret, irony and disbelief, are the sort shared between friends who have seen the worst of each other, and, often enough, the worst of the world. Spending time with Hannah and Annie really is like spending time with old friends, people you know too much about and who know too much about you -- the sort of people who are altogether missing in the artificially attractive fantasy world of movies. *Career Girls* smacks of realism like a smack in the head.

Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Linda Steadman) meet when the latter answers an ad for a roommate in college. It's an umpromising start. Hannah, tall and gawky, tends to angrily spit out streams of words in a hyperkinetic rant. She's as indiscriminate as a volcano, spewing destruction in all directions, but at the same time, she's not intentionally vicious. Anger seems to rise up out of her and explode before she can stop it. Squeaky-voiced little Annie is nervous and twitchy. Unlike Hannah, her traumas erupt not in words but in physical symptoms -- she is quite literally an open wound. Allergic to everything, her face scarred by dermatitis, she nervously smokes between puffs on her asthma inhaler, carrying her head tilted downward, never making eye contact. Somehow, Hannah and Annie connect through their woundedness. Their friendship doesn't produce any radical or artificial transformations of character -- they are not altered by each other, but sustained by each other.

The slim plot of *Career Girls* involves their reunion six years after college, as Annie visits Hannah in London. At first uneasy, just as they were ten years earlier, they gradually, over the course of a weekend, become accustomed again to each other's quirks and rhythms, settling into the yin and yang of their relationship. The reunion brings back a flood of memories for both, and in the course of their travels together, they stumble upon old friends and enemies from their college days, most notably Ricky (Mark Benton), who is more painfully screwed up and unstable than Hannah and Annie put together.

The title *Career Girls* is a doubly ironic reference to unfulfilled hopes and gradual maturation. Neither Hannah, a college Engligh major, nor Annie, a psychology major, have careers. Neither are they still girls, having grown up as they grew apart, in mutually surprising transformations. Hannah and Annie have settled, without satisfaction, into office jobs, but both have a desire to move on to better, less ordinary lives. Their reunion, however, causes them to move in the past -- and not in order to effect some dramatic character change by film's end. In moving backwards more than forwards, *Career Girls* shows the tortured path by which two friends gradually arrived at who they now are -- as they catch up on six years apart, we catch up on their four years together.

*Career Girls* doesn't have the mawkish weepiness of Leigh's last film, the mother-daughter reuinion tale *Secrets and Lies*, nor does it share the soapish qualities of that film's story. *Career Girls* is simpler, and therefore much sharper in its focus. It is more satisfying as well, even though nothing dramatic happens, nothing in particular is resolved by film's end. *Career Girls* is an acute, brilliantly acted slice of life, rich and insightful, bright and witty, as it follows two remarkably unremarkable women through years of ordinary misery. A quietly moving film about the small victories and setbacks that serve as signposts on a journey without end, *Career Girls* leaves a lingering sense of emptiness when it's over. It is precisely the same feeling that accompanies saying goodbye to friends.


Cop Land (1997)

Remember when Sylvester Stallone used to act? It's been a while. Sometime back before he became a one-man sequel machine, before *Rocky VII* and *Rambo XIV* and all the variations on the theme of big, bellowing invincibility. About twenty years back, in fact, when he had a surprise hit in an influential little film about an underdog boxer achieving the American Dream. That was before the actor swapped character roles for caricature roles.

Stallone has gone big to go small in *Cop Land*, adding about 40 pounds of flab to his superhero frame to play Freddy Heflin, a small town sheriff with big city problems. This bit of stunt-casting backfires on both the actor and the film in this case, because Stallone has done such a thorough job of creating a movie persona around his pumped up physique that to see him flabby and ineffectual is a constant distraction -- one can't help but be conscious of his obvious bid for thespian respectability.

The search for respect is something Stallone has in common with Freddy, so it's a bit surprising that *Cop Land* isn't more effective and engaging. Freddy is the shambling, paunchy sheriff of Garrison, a tiny New Jersey town colonized by cops from New York's 37th Precinct. Appointed to his sinecure post by Garrison's founder, a shady cop named Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), Freddy is an NYPD wannabe; he lost the hearing in one ear after rescuing a girl from drowning, an act of heroism that cost him his dream. Now he's put down and pushed around by Garrison's clique of cops, shuffling about town doing good deeds and turning a blind eye, and a deaf ear, to the dirty deals going down around him.

Freddy is a sad, lonely man, an outsider in his own home, creeping around the edges, watching, but never participating. He spends most of his time under the George Washington Bridge, staring across the Hudson at the bright lights of the big city. All that begins to change when Garrison's tribe of cops starts to cannibalize itself. When Murray "Superboy" Babbage (Michael Rappaport), an off-duty officer, wrongfully shoots two joyriding teens after a traffic incident on the GWB, his precinct pals, including uncle Ray, make it look like he jumped from the bridge. From that point on, *Cop Land*'s plot meanders all over the map, turning on insurance fraud, murder, mobsters, marital infidelity, cops on the take, cops on the lam and cops on drugs. Freddy isn't so much in the middle of this muddle, but on the outside, trying to jam all the pieces together with his big sausage fingers.

The pieces don't really fit, making *Cop Land* disjointed and alienating. Writer-director James Mangold (*Heavy*) crafts a superficially precise story with *Cop Land* -- every tangent has an obvious set-up and follow-through, and all are weighted equally, as if a neat resolution could possibly tie everything together at the end. There are no red herrings here, no trails that don't lead precisely where they should, no incidents that don't point to some obvious wrongdoing. There's a whole lot of malfeasance in Garrison, all unrelated, much of it unlikely, but somehow, Freddy stumbles onto the whole shebang while looking for Murray.

All the complicated overplotting serves mostly as a distraction that tends to trivialize the real story of *Cop Land*, which is Freddy's internal struggle for truth, justice, redemption and self-respect. Freddy, suffering mightily from an inferiority complex, mopes and mopes until he's pushed into action. Even then he doesn't exactly spring into action, but sort of waddles into it, eventually realizing that he's more than equal to the big city cops, that he's actually better than they are. This character-driven part of the story is reminiscent of *Heavy*, Mangold's first (and better) feature about an overweight pizza chef who blossoms in crisis. *Cop Land* is a bigger film, but it lacks the quiet power of *Heavy*.

Freddy is the kind of role that requires really good, psychological acting. It's a subdued, subtle role where most of the action takes place behind an expressive, revealing face. Stallone only scratches the surface of the part, but he does achieve a touching humanity, which in itself is a refreshing change from the personality-free slabs of muscle he typically plays. With his hangdog face and nerdy uniform, Freddy is sad, sympathetic and likable, but Stallone never really comes alive in the role until the sheriff rather abruptly becomes a gun-toting, justice-wielding Old West-style lawman in the imaginative, nicely staged finale. Likewise Mangold's directing, which is fairly bland and workmanlike throughout the film, but finally sparks briefly to life at the end.

*Cop Land*'s all-star cast also includes Robert DeNiro as the jaded Internal Affairs investigator who stirs Freddy from his lethargy; Ray Liotta is Freddy's pal Figgis, a conflicted, one-man good cop/bad cop routine; Annabella Sciorra is the girl Freddy once rescued, now married to dirty cop Peter Berg. Stallone is the only actor in the bunch doing anything against type in *Cop Land*. DeNiro, Keitel and Liotta, in particular, are playing parts that they could do in their sleep.

The feeling that everybody is just going through the motions permeates *Cop Land*. The movie is essentially a modern-day psychological Western, complete with saloon, set in the wilds of suburban New Jersey. But *Cop Land* lacks the power, vitality and drama of that genre -- a drab raised ranch is a poor substitute for the OK Corral and there isn't a Gary Cooper in sight.


Spawn (1997)

In the earliest days of cinema, audiences would sit through anything just because moving pictures themselves were so new and fascinating. Thus, folks actually paid to see the Kinetoscope *Fred Ott's Sneeze*, in which one of Thomas Edison's mechanics sneezes. *La sortie des ouvriers de l'usine Lumiere* (*Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory*) is a primitive 1895 film, historically significant, somewhat lacking in drama, and a regular blockbuster in its day. Although the visual language and narrative conventions of cinema, which we now take for granted, were still being created in those early films, cinema then was limited more by primitive technology than a lack of imagination on the part of pioneer filmmakers.

Today, the reverse is true. A few years ago, a film with really spectacular and innovative special effects could get away with a fairly marginal story and still be visually exciting, because the technology was new enough that there was something on screen that had never been seen before. Computer animation has opened up a whole new world of possibilities in moviemaking and cinematic storytelling. Unfortunately, as often as not, film stories have failed to keep up with advances in special effects technology. Ironically, the technological innovations are usually ushered in by pretty good films (*The Abyss*, *Toy Story* and *Star Wars*, for example), only to be exploited by bad films which rely entirely on special effects to shore up a dull, vacuous story. *Spawn* is in this latter category.

The prologue to this yawn-fest is some silly claptrap about an army from hell burning down the gates of heaven (as if they wouldn't be fireproof -- please!). The Devil is apparently a sort of administrator who chooses to delegate rather than lead the army himself, so he sends his minion Clown (John Leguizamo) to recruit someone on Earth. Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is the unlucky winner. A government assassin, he is set up by his evil boss Wynn (Martin Sheen), a nutjob bent on world domination. Burnt to a crisp in a biological weapons factory explosion, Al dies and goes to hell. End of story? Oh, to be so lucky.

After five years in the fiery pit, which looks exactly like a computer generated cartoon version of Hell as Sid and Marty Krofft might envision it, Al is sent back to Earth, where a battle for his soul ensues. Clown wants him mad and evil and bent on revenge. An annoyingly cloying mentor type, a Saxon assassin named Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson), tries to steer him away from the dark side, so he can use his necroplasmic body armor for good. Assuming that the audience isn't sharp enough to get the *Star Wars* reference, the script makes a point of mentioning it. Likewise the references to *It's a Wonderful Life.* The influences this derivative movie doesn't mention are *Darkman*, *RoboCop* and *The Crow*, to name but a few.

So Spawn, as Al is now called, is all mad and irritable, and his skin hurts a lot, and Clown and Cogliostro keep pestering him, and his faithful dog Spaz follows him everywhere. Like everybody else from Hell, Spawn has a bad case of the vapors, and green fumes emanate from his body whenever he gets really steamed. Clown farts green fumes, which, of course, is the height of hilarity. Or at least, the height of hilarity in *Spawn*.

Based on the comic book series by Todd McFarlane, *Spawn*, written by director Mark A.Z. Dippe and Alan B. McElroy, shores up the confusing plot by relying on a comic book convention that is inappropriate to movies, even bad ones: characters who explain what's going on by talking to themselves out loud. Another handy source of plot exposition is the omniscient voiceover provided by Cogliostro, who also talks to himself rather a lot. These distracting bits of exposition are necessary to understanding *Spawn* because most of the action in the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the various plots. Spawn is supposed to kill Wynn, but he mostly flies around and admires his own neato necroplasmic abilities (a subtle hint to the audience that they, too, should be filled with admiration and awe). Meanwhile, Wynn is being used by Clown in a plot to release a killer virus that will wipe out the entire planet. Clown goes to an awful lot of trouble to do something that should be quite simple to do for a demon beast such as himself. And I don't know what the Devil's problem is, but he's so lame his mouth doesn't even move when he talks. It just hangs open and his big grey tongue wiggles a little. Which is exactly what a Sid and Marty Krofft Devil puppet would do, which is why the world of the Kroffts was so morally simple, and all of their shows were a half hour long.

*Spawn* is substantially longer, and has lots and lots of sophisticated computer-generated special effects, some of which are almost interesting. I liked Spawn's big red cape, which looked a bit like molten lava, or cinnamon ribbon candy. But most of the special effects in *Spawn*, like the silly scenes of Hell, are not only unbelievable, they're totally unimaginative and uninspired. The technology is squandered in service of a dumb story and dimensionless characters who are given absolutely nothing interesting to do or say. I would rather watch Fred Ott sneeze.

The opening and closing title sequences of *Spawn*, designed by Imaginary Forces, deserve mention. Jiggly, off-kilter and hard to read, they were visually aggressive and assaultive. The film stock itself seemed to be disintegrating, creating an unsettling sense of instability and descent which, coupled with the fiery images, were genuinely hellish and much more interesting than the movie sandwiched in between.