Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

In Savannah, the lunatics don't wait for the moon to come out. They carry on night and day, partying, drinking, casting voodoo spells and walking invisible dogs. Or so it seems from the portrait of Savannah painted by director Clint Eastwood in *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. Based on John Berendt's best-selling book, the main plot of *Midnight* concerns the true crime story of antiques dealer Jim Williams, a wealthy, flamboyant smoothie who murdered his lover, a young hustler. But plots aside, and the plot is mostly an aside in this film, *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil* celebrates the colorful characters of Savannah -- Jim Williams included -- in a series of vignettes that highlight the high life of the eccentric Southern town.

John Kelso (John Cusack) arrives in the cypress draped town to write a magazine article about Williams' notorious annual Christmas party at Mercer House, former home of Savannah's own Johnny Mercer. A New Yorker, Kelso (a creation of the movie, and not a character in the book) mostly stares, stupefied, at the quirky antics of Savannah's drunken, heavily armed citizenry as they chatter, guzzle punch and produce small pistols from their party gowns. But when the party's over, Williams (Kevin Spacey) has shot and killed Billy Hanson (Jude Law), claiming self defense. (Savannah parties so relentlessly, even the crime scenes are catered.)

The murder supplies Kelso with an excuse to poke around town. It doesn't take much poking to turn up something weird and wonderful, and for the rest of the film, Kelso acts as an ersatz guide on a tour that includes layabouts and lounge singers, a toothless voodoo priestess (Irma P. Hall) communing with the dead Billy Hanson and a show stopping performance by drag queen The Lady Chablis (playing himself).

A breezy but sprawling and messy film, *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil* is enjoyable as a fanciful portrait of Savannah, but as courtroom drama or murder mystery, it's pretty lightweight. When it comes out that Williams is gay, he is excoriated by the town that once coveted his favor, a fact that is neither played up nor down, in particular. Ably defended by his sharp, good ol' boy lawyer Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), and junior detective Kelso, Williams stands trial, but the trial itself, aside from the presence of Williams' cat Shelton as a defense witness, is mostly boilerplate stuff, neither especially exciting nor surprising. Likewise Williams' moral slipperiness -- he tells different versions of his story to suit changing circumstances. This disturbs Kelso's moral compass, but is otherwise not very compelling because Williams is always more sympathetic and likable than his trashy, menacing victim. All of which makes for surprisingly little drama in a potentially highly dramatic story. *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*, scripted by John Lee Hancock, is a stone soup of a movie -- little supbplots are thrown into the pot as they are found, but there's no particular recipe, and neither the plot nor the soup ever thickens. The murder story seems almost an afterthought, a little salt thrown in at the very last.

Most of the performances are highly mannered in *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. When someone as outrageous as The Lady Chablis (think RuPaul without inhibitions) is in the house, everyone else is practically forced to ham it up, and ham it up they do. Spacey's Williams is an astute combination of languor and alertness, a sleeping cat ready to spring into action. Cusack's role is largely reactive -- he's a wide-eyed innocent trying to make sense of a freak show. The rest of the cast includes a lot of actors low profile enough and talented enough to look and sound like authentic Savannahians. This adds immeasurably to the fun of *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. Take away the boilerplate courtroom plot and what's left is something like an Errol Morris documentary -- a potboiler set in a strange, colorful little Southern town whose most famous citizen used to be a bulldog named Uga.


The Jackal (1997)

There are certain adjectives associated with political thrillers. They are the kinds of words, often followed by an exclamation point, that are featured prominently in advertisements for these films, words like "Taut!" and "Suspenseful!" and "A rollercoaster thrill-ride of edge-of-your-seat excitement!" None of those words apply to *The Jackal*. Not one. There are really only two words that acurately describe this soporific movie: BORE and ING. I would add an exclamation point to that, but it might give the misleading impression that there was something even remotely exciting about *The Jackal*. And there isn't.

A comatose remake of *The Day Of The Jackal* (1973), a taut, suspenseful, political thriller about an assassin hired to kill Charles DeGaulle, *The Jackal* features Bruce Willis as an assassin hired to kill the director of the FBI. Exciting, no? The director's name is Donald Brown, which is one of those generic names a writer would ordinarily use until he thinks of something more interesting. Apparently the unusually named screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer forgot to change Donald Brown's name to something interesting and exciting, and forgot to do the same for the movie as well.

"The Jackal," as the assassin is known, is a so-called master of disguises. He possesses a lot of wigs and an assortment of fake mustaches and phony identification papers which allow him to cleverly elude capture even though he always looks exactly like Bruce Willis in a bad wig. He is hired by a Russian mobster, disgruntled because his mobster brother was killed during a sting operation in a discotheque by Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora), a Russian operative working with the FBI in Moscow. "It's never easy taking a life..." the wise and noble FBI agent Carter Preston (Sidney Poitier) tells Koslova. So, after the brother kills one of his own henchmen by embedding an axe in his skull ("I took no joy in it..." he mopes), he hires "The Jackal" to exact his revenge.

Meanwhile, after exciting side trips to Helsinki and Montreal, the FBI and Koslova are back in the States after somehow uncovering the insidious plot to kill the director of the FBI. They enlist the help of Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere), an IRA sharpshooter imprisoned in Massachusetts on a weapons charge. Mulqueen and "The Jackal" have a history, having something to do with Isabella Zancona (Mathilda May) a beautiful Basque separatist. According to Koslova, "Basques live by the vendetta. If they hate someone, it is to the death. It is the same when they love someone." These are important facts to remember, because Isabella hates "The Jackal," and she loves Declan, so somebody is bound to wind up dead.

After about two hours of mind-numbing boredom, during which "The Jackal" carefully but impassively plans his job, and Declan attempts to figure out what his next move will be (something he does with amazing skill, but always about ten minutes too late), *The Jackal* finally lurches into second gear, where it stays until the bitter, boring end. The less than exciting climax features a textbook subway tunnel chase, a shootout with hostages, and a not very surprising surprise.

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones (*Rob Roy*), *The Jackal* is really a very bad movie. The dialogue is preposterous and the action is bloody but anemic. "The Jackal" is a totally formless character -- the movie is a lot more interested in his great big gun and minivan than in exploring why he is such a cold-blooded and passionless zombie. Willis could have played this one in his sleep, and one suspects he did. Gere's Irish brogue is serviceable, and he's appealing enough as Declan, but he doesn't have much to work with here -- the passionate IRA man has been done, and this movie covers nary an inch of new ground with the character. Basque separatists, on the other hand, are something you don't see a lot of in movies these days.

*The Jackal* is prime cheese -- Swiss cheese, with plot holes big enough to drive a minivan through, which makes for an insensible, pointless story full of meaningless details. If you can keep from nodding off, the movie is easy to follow, but that's only because *nothing ever happens*. You could sleep through the first two hours, wake up for the last five minutes and have no trouble figuring out what's going on, but that would only ruin a good nap.


Boogie Nights (1997)

There's a weird temporal convergence to *Boogie Nights*, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's chronicle of the rise and fall of a porn star. On the one hand, *Boogie Nights* attempts to recapture the hedonistic heyday of the late 70s, the pre-plague years when sex and drugs could seemingly be indulged without consequence. On the other hand, *Boogie Nights* as a *film* is very much influenced by the 90s, recalling both *Pulp Fiction* and *Trainspotting* (through which 70s film influences are filtered), with the attendant moral relativism, matter-of-fact decadence and depravity, and de riguer violence. In that world, only stupidity is a punishable sin. Then again, aspects of *Boogie Nights* have the moralistic ring of the 50s, with appropriate chastisement meted out to all wayward sinners.

This strange, anachronistic conflation of movie Zeitgeist and historical Zeitgeist is unsettling, because *Boogie Nights*, although largely about the 70s, is a film that never would have been made *in* the 70s. It leaves in its wake lingering questions about the relationship between movies as pop culture, and society. It's a chicken-and-egg quandary -- which came first, pop culture or Zeitgeist, or are they the same thing? It gets even more dicey when you jump back two decades and are forced to consider the changing social influence of cinema. Can a movie that is stylistically and narratively shaped by one era accurately reflect the psychological mood of another? *Boogie Nights* doesn't provide a conclusive argument for either side, because what starts out as a fresh, exciting, ecstatically stylish film eventually loses its way.

*Boogie Nights* begins on a night in 1977, with a visual plunge into the darkness of a California discotheque, where all the players are assembled. It is there that high school dropout Eddie Adams (Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg) first catches the discerning eye of porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, in a terrific, solid performance). Eddie's only talent is a generous natural endowment that Horner can readily appreciate ("Everyone is blessed with one special thing," Eddie modestly tells his admiring girlfriend). Horner, weary and paternal, is surrounded by his surrogate family: leading lady Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), sad and dysfunctionally maternal; Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who never removes her skates, even during her many sexual escapades; and porn stars Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), and Becky Barnett (Nicole Parker). What these characters all have in common is the guileless perspective of the big fish in a little pond-- they don't seem to realize that theirs is, at best, a low-rent, third-rate celebrity. Eddie shares their capacity for self-delusion. Oddly wholesome, gentle and polite, he's also familiar with Horner's work, and eager to be a star. When his Mom kicks him out of the house because she doesn't like his girlfriend (a very 70s, movie-of-the-week plot device), he gets his chance, and is quickly absorbed into the adult entertainment demimonde of sex, drugs and rock and roll. The wholesome California boy renames himself Dirk Diggler, drops his pants, and a star is born.

Dirk's career hangs on his hang, (extraordinary enough to attract attention even among Horner's jaded, seen-it-all film crew), and he quickly rises to the top of the skin flick scene, remaining boyishly wholesome despite the permanent house party atmosphere of his new life. As the decade winds down, Dirk's star continues to rise -- he's soon got his own bachelor pad and sports car, and life is a hedonistic joyride.

The decline begins on New Year's Eve, 1979, as drugs and violence assume a more prominent role in the lives of Dirk and company. This second half of *Boogie Nights* loses steam as it chronicles the rapid decline of the whole dysfunctional family (except Horner who is only forced to compromise his artistic integrity to the fiscally obsessed 80s, by switching from film to video). Part one of the movie is a giddy, camp-free slice o' life that, although about a small subculture, neatly captures the spirit of the late 70s and the post-war, eat, drink and be merry mood reflected in the pop culture of the period (whether life on Main Street was ever like that is an entirely different question). The nostalgia trip of *Boogie Nights* is far more titillating than the fairly discreet sex and nudity. The film is exacting in all its details, from Qiana shirts and platform heels to 8-track Hi-Fi and disco music, and seeing the horrible form-fitting pants and gigantic collars, the hideous furniture and ankle-spraining heels displayed with such earnestness, such conviction, is rather intoxicating. There's not a hint of condescension about all that tacky glitz in Anderson's film, and there's something strangely touching about the genuine fondness for, and sense of innocence about, these far from innocent fashion victims. That same sense of fondness and utter lack of camp pervades the often hilarious filmmaking scenes, with their amateurish acting and production values -- the movie respects the artistic pretensions of these pornographers, even while it fully exposes their aesthetic shortcomings. Thus, when the lives of these characters hit the skids, it is less tragic than disappointing -- there's something retributive about it that is out of place, as if Anderson forgot that their lives were already pretty sorry, that the glamor was just a facade plastered over empty, lonely lives.

This second half of *Boogie Nights* feels rigged from the start -- from the way the movie is neatly bisected into the last three years of the 70s and the first three years of the 80s (which it treats as mostly a 70s hangover, the inevitable morning after, with all the attendant regret), to the familiarity of the sudden, downhill path taken by virtually all of the characters. The story feels preordained in a way that mitigates against surprise, and almost negates the freshness, vividness and vibrancy of the first half of the film by creating a sense that it was there only to portend inevitable doom, as if time and history looked backwards and set these people up. This second part of *Boogie Nights* just doesn't ring true -- it *feels* like a movie (this is especially true of the tidy coda), whereas the first and far better half feels exuberantly real.


Wind in the Willows (1997)

One might expect a bit of imaginative anarchy, a touch of licentiousness from a movie featuring the Monty Python crew, even if it is a movie made wth kids in mind. And that's just what one gets in *The Wind In The Willows*, Pythoneer Terry Jones' adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's classic novel of anthropomorphic woodland dwellers. Many liberties are taken with the text, but it is altogether a fitting, if loose, adaptation that captures well the spirit of the book and its mix of human and animal characters, forest idyll and mechanical menace.

Jones is Mr. Toad -- just barely. Leaving less to makeup and more to the imagination, Toad and his mates Mole (Steve Coogan), Ratty (Eric Idle) and Badger (Nicol Williamson) are realized as mostly humanoid creatures. Toad has only a touch of green in his skin, although his tongue is quite long and adept. Ratty the river rat has a long, hairy tail and whiskers that jut out from his mustache, but his tweeds are always tidy, and he is uncommonly fond of picnics. Sad, timid Mole wears glasses, while bristly Badger sports big mutton chops and a bushy tail. The various humans in the tale generally occupy positions in law enforcement and motor car sales. One of the delights of *The Wind In The Willows* is the way that the distinction between humans and animals is so fuzzy -- at times, a big bushy tail peeking out from under hoop skirts is the only hint that a fair lady isn't quite what she seems. Nine out of ten residents in this neck of the woods is a rabbit, and although the species is equipped with long ears and cotton tails, they are most recognizable for their always amorous and forever multiplying ways.

*The Wind In The Willows* concerns, as does the book, Mr. Toad's utter obsession with motor cars. He's an appalling driver, which results in a great many crack ups, and the frequent need for new cars. T'is there the movie diverges rather sharply from the book, as Mr.Toad's financial salvation, the local weasel gang who are only too happy to assist him in funding his extravagant lifestyle, turn out to be somewhat more menacing than your average collection agency. The weasels, it seems, are woodland loan sharks, and they have plans to build a dog food factory on Toad's soon-to-be-forfeited ancestral estate. Naturally, being weasels, they are dangerous villains, with nasty little teeth and plans for world domination. Their black and red W logo looks suspiciously like the emblem of the Third Reich.

So while Ratty, Mole and Badger try to cure Toad of his motor mania, the fascist weasels scheme, laying waste to the woodland while they're at it. (A side trip to the local court features a hilarious apperance by John Cleese, demanding, as Toad's defense attorney, that the book be thrown, quite hard, at his car thieving client.) Adventures ensue, as adventures must, when the friends try to save Mr. Toad's home, and eventually, Mr. Toad himself, from a dog food factory fate.

Does *The Wind In The Willows* make trenchant, even educational points about protecting the environment and fighting totalitarianism? Does it advocate loyalty and friendship over narcissism, gluttony and materialism? Well, of course it does, but it has a great deal of fun doing it, which is to say, this is no *Sesame Street* outing. The unexpected frequently occurs, although, this being a movie mostly for kids, certain plot points are, like Toad's titanic tongue, rather obvious when revealed.

*The Wind In The Willows* makes fine and fanciful use of English scenery, castles and all. The cast, heavy on Pythoneers (Michael Palin is luminous and loopy as the know-it-all Sun) is kid-friendly, but the performances have a fun, devil-may-care audacity about them, coupled with an unexpected quantity of conviction for a bunch of blokes wearing tails and whiskers.