Jackie Brown (1997)

The legions of Quentin Tarantino imitators always seem to miss the essential characteristics of a Tarantino film. Focusing on violence, Tarantinoesque movies are frequently more violent, both quantitatively and qualitiatively, than the genuine article. Violence in actual Tarantino films is oblique, suggested more than seen. Strongly suggested, granted, but it always occurs just outside the frame, or off at a distance, signified by a sound or a splatter of blood -- no victims clutching at blood-spurting arteries, no bullet-riddled dance of death. Someone's talking, and suddenly, they are not. A fine moment in *Jackie Brown* is a case in point: A gun dealer needs to eliminate a talkative employee. Convincing the gullible fellow to crawl inside the trunk of his car, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) drives around the block and disappears as the camera pulls way, way back. At a distance, a car appears and parks in a vacant lot, cloaked in darkness, only the song on the radio identifying it as Ordell's car. Shots are fired, but only two small flares are visible. Ordell drives away, as the same song ("Strawberry Letter 23") continues. No blood, no body, just two pops, and an old, innocuous pop tune with a fresh coat of taint.

*Jackie Brown* is full of fine, true Tarantino moments like that, moments built on small, cunning details. The director's first feature since the influential *Pulp Fiction*, *Jackie Brown* is based on Elmore Leonard's novel *Rum Punch*. It's a seamless adaptation (Tarantino has long acknowledged Leonard as an influence), full of the writer-director's distinctive, hyperactive hyperbole and visual flair. *Jackie Brown* makes obvious what is suggested by the handful of films written, but not directed, by Tarantino (*True Romance*, *Natural Born Killers*): Tarantino's unique and subtle visual style, his uncommon ability to pick out unlikely talent, his sense of timing and ear for the rhythms of speech and street dialects, and his immersion in film history are inimitable, elusive qualities that only emerge when all the elements are together. It isn't just the writing, or the acting, or the directing, but the whole magilla.

*Jackie Brown* is a dense, complicated, and thoroughly entertaining crime caper. Jackie (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant for Cabo Air, the worst airline in the industry. To make ends meets, she acts as a courier for Ordell, who keeps his funds in a Mexican bank. When she's busted by the ATF, Jackie, knowing that Ordell's plans for her don't include longterm survival, schemes to steal half a million from the gun dealer while pretending to sneak his money past the ATF. ATF agents Nicolet (Michael Keaton) and Dargus (Michael Bowen), meanwhile, think she's working for them.

*Jackie Brown* takes its sweet time getting to the heist, which is almost incidental to the elucidating, detailed study of the characters. The movie doesn't even get to Jackie for a good half hour or so, instead spending time with Ordell and his minions Louis (Robert DeNiro) and Melanie (Bridget Fonda). With the exception of movies about criminals (*The Godfather*, *Goodfellas*), it is the rare film that is so lavish and languorous in its devotion to the bad guy. Too many movies spend precious little time establishing any characters, and opt for off the shelf villlains with scars and accents and other telltale features that are supposed to substitute for personality and character. Ordell has a long ponytail and a skinny little braided beard, which give him the look of a kung fu movie villain, but he's more than a haircut baddie. Forever talking about guns, gun buyers, and the small fortune he's got stashed south of the border, Ordell is not psychopathic but frigidly businesslike -- he kills troublesome employees with all the conscience of a CEO plotting a round of layoffs. With a wink at anti media violence crusaders, Ordell is also a media-savvy entrepreneur: his top selling weapons are always the ones featured in the latest movies and TV shows.

Louis is none-too-bright, staring blank-faced while the garrulous Ordell pontificates. When she isn't provoking Ordell and Louis, Melanie, a beach bum stoner, gets high and watches TV all day in Ordell's beach-side condo.

All the time spent with Ordell and company doesn't make them remotely likable, but it makes Jackie so very likable by contrast. In Ordell's dog eat dog milieu, Jackie gets to be the crook *and* the heroine. Knowing Ordell so well, ethical shortcomings, quirks and all, reveals just how much Jackie is risking by double crossing him, and adds an excruciating sense of tension to the story once her scam finally gets under way.

Aiding Jackie is Max Cherry (Robert Forster), the bail bondsman Ordell hires to spring her from jail. Max, world-weary, ultra-cool and street smart, has a sweet spot for Jackie, which prompts him to help plot her early retirement with benefits. The complex sting, with Jackie scamming Ordell and duping the ATF has her risking life and freedom should anything go wrong. But Jackie, aside from being quick thinking and cool (even Ordell is a little intimidated), is desperate. She's middle aged and watching her already limited options get fewer and fewer, and she understandably feels little remorse about ripping off Ordell. The scheme she devises is so deliciously, deviously complicated that it is never entirely clear that she's really pulling it off -- it frequently looks like things are going terribly wrong.

*Jackie Brown* promises to resurrect the careers of Grier, 70's blaxploitation queen (*Foxy Brown*, *Coffy*), and Forster, who, for the most part has seen action in B movies. Grier, far less glamorous then usual, is really terrific as Jackie, playing a woman whose days as a hip, hot action babe left her smart, steely and tired. Forster is marvelously entertaining as a weary businessman, less ruthless than Ordell, but dealing with the same lowlifes. The two characters together, people with as much time behind as ahead of them, are fascinating in their maturity, their well-earned fatigue, their patience and self-possession, and their middle age cool.

Tarantino's love of crime genre literature and film is evident in *Jackie Brown*. Less flashy than Pulp Fiction, and slightly less perfect, *Jackie Brown* is nonetheless consistently entertaining and engrossing, a brisk, stylish film full of wit, smart writing, and shrewd, telling details. Accept no substitutes.


Titanic (1997)

A band of latter-day pirates plunders a ghost ship, invading its lonely, watery grave with cameras, lights and robotic submersibles. The ship lies still in the serene waters of the ocean floor, looking for all the world like a decaying green corpse, its skin falling slowly away in mossy strands. A silent piano grins like a skull with 88 crooked teeth. Here a footless boot, there a decapitated doll's head, haunting reminders of the 2,200 souls who once waltzed and skipped and swabbed the decks of the Titanic.

The pirates are modern treasure hunters seeking a legendary blue diamond called the heart of the ocean. Instead of the gem, they find the girl who wore it, now 101 years old. As Rose DeWitt Bukater (Gloria Stuart) recounts the voyage of the Titanic in flashback, hers is as much a tale of colliding worlds as of colliding ships and icebergs, an engrossing, mythic, fiercely romantic tale of young love and social class.

Writer-director James Cameron perfectly recreates the ocean liner Titanic with exacting, obsessive detail, but far from being merely a spectacular replica of the ship, a precise but detached reenactment of her first and final voyage, Cameron's film is devastatingly personal, a unique recreation of the full horror and human tragedy of the ship's sinking. Where once the unsinkable Titanic was an abstraction, an example of human hubris and its consequences, in *Titanic*, Cameron, a brilliant technical innovator infamous for his own hubris (as well as spectacular, expensive films), achieves, through a virtuosic accumulation of meaningful details, the individualization of virtually every passenger aboard the ship, creating a dense, rich tapestry of human experience, of passion and love, greed and selfishness, and terrible loss.

Amid the hustle and bustle of Southampton, as excited, awestruck passengers board the "ship of dreams," young Rose (Kate Winslet) is a virtual prisoner, boarding the Titanic in symbolic chains. She is being pushed by her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) into a loveless marriage with Cal (Billy Zane), destined to be the trophy wife of this callous, controlling and cruel man who is wealthy beyond imagination. Rose bristles at the restrictions of high society as much as the steerage passengers object to the pre-boarding lice inspections. Among the third class passengers is Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a vagabond artist who won his ticket to destiny in a card game. Jack is the resident dreamboat aboard the Titanic, charming, independent, carefree, and everything Rose, wilting in the hothouse atmosphere of a first class existence, wants to be. Like the proverbial two ships in the night, they will collide, with the desperate intensity of emotion only young lovers know.

From the start, *Titanic* is a story of the incompatibility of love and class distinction: the privileged rich are shallow and dull, obsessed with manners and appearances, while the poor are lively and down to earth. The decks of the ship recreate the strata of society, a microcosm for the larger world. Below decks, men sweat and toil in an inferno, shovelling coal into the fiery furnaces that will drive the massive engines. Above them, steerage passengers are crammed into tight quarters; second class is above them, and above all, the elegant accomodations of the first class passengers, the state rooms of Astors and Guggenheims. Rose will bring Jack up to her level, and he will take her down to his, their romantic union hinting at the dissolution of class demarcations that will come as the ship sinks and the literal barriers between the classes are crushed. Even the tragedy of the Titanic, the film makes clear, might have been avoided if not for class-conscious conspicuous consumption: laden with the luxurious trappings of wealth, the ship has too few lifeboats for its passengers and too small a rudder for its fast, powerful engines.

The swoony romance between Jack and Rose is the pure, old fashioned stuff of movies, but it effectively personalizes the disaster to come. Knowing that the Titanic will inevitably sink, knowing that Rose will surely survive the night of April 14, 1912, does not diminish at all the terrible sense of dread and suspense that permeates the film, for even before the catastrophic collision, there is a mood of aching and longing for these young lovers, two people for whom the very thought of separation is almost unbearable. Winslet and DiCaprio carry the full, enormous weight of the story ably -- from the first stirrings of love to fierce devotion and faith, Jack and Rose anchor the Titanic tragedy, reducing the scale of an almost incomprehensibly huge event, transcending history with experiences and emotions that are intensely personal and real.

When the iceberg finally rips into the ship, we know something about the other people on board the Titanic that night as well, something that transcends the abstractions of socio-economic class. There are parents and children, old couples well past the first hot blush of love; there are people in love with their own power, wealth and social position; and there are those who love the Titanic, men whose faith in technology and their own marvelous achievement is easily ripped asunder by the mountain of ice floating in the calm, dark sea. The destruction of the Titanic is excruciatingly played out, almost in real time, as the ship fills with icy water, slowly sinking into the North Atlantic, and the passengers remain largely oblivious to their impending doom. Early in the film, a computer animated recreation of the ship's sinking is studied by the treasure hunters -- it is a chilling portent of things to come, and one that will later guide the audience through each step of the sinking with terrible clarity.

For well over an hour, the horror of the Titanic disaster escalates, finally reaching a crescendo of hysteria and terror, the desperate screaming of passengers and the groaning of the ship, in her extended death throes, the only sounds in the eerily calm night. The flooding decks, the bursting of glass, the destruction of all the lovingly recreated details of the ship become merely symbolic -- what was once the soul and substance of our experience of the Titanic, a sort of detached, historical, technological perspective is made terribly real, replaced with a romantic ferocity as Rose and Jack fight to surive not for themselves but for the sake of true love and each other, as parents try to save their children, as the poor fight the rich for seats on the lifeboats, as the crew try to save the last vestiges of class that their ship once symbolized. As the ship of dreams goes down, crumbling, as the band plays "Nearer My God To Thee," *Titanic* remains fixed on individuals -- the enormity of the total loss is almost unfathomable, but not the loss of each and every person who falls into the icy North Atlantic. As Rose and Jack cling to the sinking ship, cleaving to each other, they come to represent everything that can be lost, everything that was lost that terrible night.

*Titanic* is a technical wonder, and a gorgeous, elegiac and poetic film that is haunting, moving and terrible to behold. This is art that makes life more real, that transforms historical facts and numbers into a meaningful, evocative and resonant accounting, a full measure of what was really lost to the dark sea that night.


Scream 2 (1997)

Absolutely no time is wasted in getting to the point of *Scream 2*: the first two actors to appear on screen are Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps. They're waiting in line for the sneak preview of *Stab*, the movie based on the book based on the Woodsboro murders (which were the subject of *Scream*), while Pinkett's Maureen complains that slasher films historically exclude African Americans, in addition to being sexploitative and too violent. Maureen, needless to say, is not long for this movie, but her death will be memorably twisted and chilling, and one of the sharpest, most ingenious bits of mayhem ever committed to celluloid.

But there's more. Before her untimely death, Maureen was a coed at the very college where *Scream* survivors Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) matriculate their days away. And thus, *Scream 2* exploits two stinky cheese trends in slasher movie history: college girls and sequels (e.g. *Sorority House Massacre* and *SHM 2: Nighty Nightmare*). "Sequels," Randy reminds his film studies class, "suck. The horror genre was destroyed by sequels." He's right, of course, except that *Scream 2* doesn't suck.

In the same way that *Scream* both skewered and profited by the rules and conventions of the horror genre, *Scream 2* successfully manipulates the trademarks of the subgenre of horror sequels: the body count will be higher, the death scenes bloodier and more elaborate, and someone will survive to make another sequel. And, as in *Scream*, ignorance of horror conventions inevitably leads to death while a firm grasp of the rules (never, never, never run up the stairs!) offers only scant protection to the potential victims of the psycho du jour.

Having proved with *Scream* that the combo of movie smarts, humor and horror could work in a big way, writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven are free to take the whole concept even further with the sequel, and they run like mad with it. *Scream 2* is even funnier and more self-aware than the original, hacking away at both the conventions of the genre and the motifs (like ubiquitous cell phones and media obsessed youth) of its progenitor.

A serial killer isn't the only one stalking fair Sidney this time: Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), chilly, hard-as-nails reporter who wrote the exploitative book that inspired the movie that inspired the copycat killer that killed the coed, etc. is also on hand, sniffing for a new story. She's being stalked herself by an idol-worshipping wannabe reporter (Laurie Metcalf). Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), now sporting a John Waynesque limp courtesy of the original killers, arrives on campus to protect Sidney, while Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), once falsely accused by Sidney, now politely pesters her in a desperate bid for his 15 minutes of fame. They're all possible killers, naturally, in addition to Sid's roommate Hallie (Elise Neal), a sorority pledge (which in itself makes her suspect), new boyfriend Derek (Jerry O'Connell) (the boyfriend did it last time) and film freak Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) (never trust the film buff). *Scream 2* belongs as much to the murder mystery genre as to the slasher-horror because it so adroitly juggles all of these characters, setting them up as suspects so effectively that only by being murdered can they eliminate themselves from the list of possible killers, which is a poor bargain given the lucrative potential of *Scream 3*.

The cast, fortified with a few ringers (*Buffy the Vampire Slayer* star Sarah Michelle Gellar is a doomed sorority sister), is whittled away by a knife-wielding maniac in most clever and imaginative ways as *Scream 2* hacks through idyllic Windsor College's list of future alumni donors. To reveal more would spoil the frightful surprises, but suffice it to say that *Scream 2* will, if nothing else, condition a Pavlovian response to the familiar electronic ring of the telephone through the most negative reinforcement imaginable.

As the climactic final scene is played out on the very college theatre stage where Sidney plays Cassandra, *Scream 2* achieves an elaborately over the top frenzy of meticulously plotted violence, self-referentiality, intentional staginess and hugely hammy acting (psycho killers always being the talkative type given to theatrical histrionics). Were it not for its acute pop culture hipness and the awareness on the part of the players that this is one of those weird life imitates art moments that only happens when art imitates life imitating art ("Life is life. It doesn't imitate anything," Randy boldly and foolishly declares), the scene might crumble under the weight of its own cleverness. Instead, it's a deliciously cheeky and smart denouement that dares to wink and nail the audience to their seats at the same time. In other words, it doesn't suck.


Eve's Bayou (1997)

The narrator of *Eve's Bayou* begins her tale with a startling confession: "The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old." Louis Batiste will indeed die before story's end, but in the potent family drama of *Eve's Bayou*, Louis is but a catalyst, a ghost who haunts his family even before he dies, inspiring in his own child both great love and the desire for murderous revenge.

Novice writer-director Kasi Lemmons has crafted a rich and intense drama in *Eve's Bayou*, mixing elements of classic tragedy and Creole Southern Gothic with the many and opposing spiritual influences at work in this dreamy tale of feminine power, of memory, love and family bonds and the slippery, mutable nature of truth.

In a Louisiana backwater, where the cypress trees are draped in Spanish moss and human emotions run as hot and thick as the steamy summer air, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett) catches her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) *in flagrante delicto* with Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson). Louis is the town doctor, a smooth talking philanderer and charming rogue irresistible to every woman in the parish but his angry, betrayed wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield). Eve is the first in her family to discover what everyone else in town knows, and what her mother already suspects: Louis' housecalls aren't always medically necessary. The discovery marks a turning point for Eve -- she views her father with growing suspicion despite his calm reassurances and easy, blameless manner, ready to believe the worst of him, feeling acutely his betrayal of her mother, and sensing in the man both his sexual strength and masculine vulnerability.

Eve's older sister Cisely (Meagan Good), her father's favorite child, finds her own relationship to Louis changing and growing more complex as she gets older. She assumes the wife's role, abandoned by Roz, of waiting up for the husband and father who always returns home late. As Eve is fiercely devoted to Cisely, Cisely is fiercely protective of Louis. Most protective of all is Roz, on the verge of a breakdown as she watches over her children with a knowing eye. Roz is aided by Louis' sister Mozelle Batiste (Debbi Morgan), a thrice widowed woman with the gift of sight, who is always tragically blind to her own future. Eve, too, has the gift of seeing the future, but it is her sister Cisely who has the more potent power, inherited from her father, of twisting lies like yarn and weaving them into self-serving new truths. And, like her father, Cisely's weakness is a sexuality she can neither understand nor control.

This already incendiary situation of opposing family loyalties and powers is further inflamed by the introduction of voodoo, practiced by both Mozelle and Elzora (Diahann Carroll), a fearsome, swamp-dwelling voodoo witch. Through the eyes of young Eve, the corporeal world and the spiritual world are seen as inextricably mixed -- the dead walk, invisibly and at will, in the world of the living, working their unseen influences. In the matriarchal world of *Eve's Bayou*, it is both the irresistible allure and the powerful wrath of women that will be Louis' undoing, but it is also clear to young Eve that voodoo, hatred and desire are potent enough to murder her father. There is little doubt that Eve has a hand in killing Louis, although exactly how she accomplishes the deed is left ambiguous.

That Lemmons keeps *Eve's Bayou* from veering into a simplistic, overwrought melodrama is quite an accomplishment. She guides the film, with its psychologically complex characters and atmospheric setting, with real delicacy and a Bergmanesque touch. There are no villains in *Eve's Bayou* -- each character is drawn with such loving precision and understanding that no sin, no weakness or abuse of power is unforgiveable. It would be too easy, given the early prediction of Louis' death, to simplistically draw him as an evil man in order to justify a preordained death. Likewise, to make of Eve a simple child unaware of her own abilities and actions. But both Eve and Louis are weak and strong, knowing and unwise, reckless and full of regrets -- it is Louis' ability to craft a lie and Eve's ability to believe one that ultimately results in a tragedy neither has the power to prevent.

Smollett's performance is fine and open -- her acting lacks the self-conscious cuteness of many child actors, and there's a real maturity, complexity and sense of understanding to her portrayal of Eve. Jackson's smooth, easy manner makes him an appealingly flawed man, a man who is hard to hate despite his infidelities and weaknesses. Debbi Morgan's performance is fiery and vivid -- she has never exhibited such force and vigor on screen. Mozelle has a pivotal role as a conduit between the living and the dead and Morgan plays it with serious conviction and without hamminess.

With cinematography by Amy Vincent, *Eve's Bayou* is visually rich and atmospheric, the gorgeous, dreamy landscape of the bayou echoing the otherworldly visions of the women who live there. It is also rich with intricate, complex drama, and suffused with tragedy and magic, spirituality and sensuality, as the Batiste women confront their weaknesses, exorcise their demons and embrace the strange powers that are their birthright.


Alien Resurrection (1997)

*Alien* was a movie experience I remember more vividly than most. Arriving at the theatre at the last minute, we were forced to sit in the front row where it looked and felt like the monster's acid saliva was dripping right on us. We were appropriately terrified, grossed out and thrilled. That film was full of striking images and characters that have since become part of the science fiction movie vernacular: blue collar space travellers, the dilapidated, low-tech ship, the creepy-crawly sci-noir atmosphere, and screaming baby aliens exploding out of chests at the dinner table. *Alien* in 1979 was a cool, dark, exhilarating reaction to the wholesomeness of *Star Wars* and its space cowboy imitators, and it succeeded in carving out a place in both pop culture consciousness and the crowded wrinkles of my brain.

*Alien* also succeeds where so many movie franchises fail, with sequels that are as good as, even better than, the original. While most sequels eventually lapse into unintentional self-parody, the *Alien* movies have always featured fine writing and influential directors who leave distinctive, frequently divergent stylistic imprints on the series. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (*The City of Lost Children*) is the latest director to make his mark, with one of the most original and thoughtful of the bunch. *Alien: Resurrection*, the fourth coming of the alien, is both stylishly creepy and surprisingly poignant, a scarifying and emotionally resonant film.

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) died in *Alien 3* (1992), sacrificing herself rather than allow the alien queen incubating inside her to live. Thanks to the endless possibilities of science fiction, she's back, 200 years later, in *Alien: Resurrection*, having been cloned by the United Systems Military. USM wants the alien fetus Ripley's clone incubates, and after eight cloning attempts, they succeed. There is, of course, a catch: during the cloning process, Ripley and the alien exchanged a bit of DNA, leaving Ripley a strangely predatory human with animal strength, blood that can melt metal, and a creepy psychic and emotional connection to the aliens.

A freighter ship, peopled by a crew of heavily armed smugglers, arrives with an illicit cargo just as scientist Gediman (the always weird and wonderful Brad Dourif) learns that the aliens he is breeding are quick to learn and difficult to tame, having picked up a few nasty traits from the genetic soup in which they were spawned. It isn't long before the aliens run amok, people are eviscerated, and Ripley and the smugglers are forced to fight their way to escape through the dark, deadly space station where metal grill walkways, with the attendant something-under-the-bed foreboding that is a hallmark of the *Alien* series, are still a prominent architectural feature (apparently ship designers are not troubled by alien infestations).

*Alien: Resurrection* revisits the maternal theme of James Cameron's *Aliens* (1986), and revisits it with a vengeance. Written by Joss Whedon (*Buffy the Vampire Slayer*), a twisted thread of freakish maternity runs throughout *Resurrection*: Ripley is surrogate mother to the alien queen, making her grandmother to all the alien spawn. Ripley wants to kill the patriarchal military figures who created both her and the aliens (the computer that controls the ship is known as "The Father"); the aliens want to kill their human progenitors, and every other biped on board, as well. It all makes for a very Greek family tragedy, as the severely dysfunctional alien clan battles to the death with the ersatz family of smugglers, Ripley caught in the middle, her loyalties divided and sorely tested. The consequences of patriarchal hubris are surprising and wrenchingly poignant: killing aliens is, for Ripley, no longer a simple matter of life or death because the line between humans and aliens has been blurred by human intervention.

Whedon's script is funny and witty, and loaded with surprising, imaginative moments of skin crawling dread, gory violence and inventive revelations about the aliens. After three movies, one might think that the ways in which aliens and humans kill each other had been exhausted, but this is apparently not so. *Alien: Resurrection* features devious, thinking aliens who plan ahead, lay traps, and, as always, unexpectedly emerge from under the floors. The cast of characters is also fresh, from the self-conscious, self-loathing auton (a rebellious robot built by other robots) to the lowlife smugglers. Particularly memorable are two *City of Lost Children* veterans: Ron Perlman, commandingly nasty as the testosteroneous, explosively capable brute Johner, and Dominique Pinon as the paralyzed Vriess. Weaver is striking, tough and fascinating as the ever-evolving Ripley. By comparison, Winona Ryder is a bit too pixie-ish as her doe-eyed nemesis-turned-compatriot -- she isn't very commanding squeaking orders at a crew of high caliber thugs.

Jeunet, with cinematographer Darius Khondji, maintains the visual obfuscation that enhances the sci-noir scariness of all *Alien* movies, but adds memorably freaky, Bosch-like images (a cloning lab scene is especially arresting). The director adds a soupcon of teasing, artful dread to the gory, gooey, deadly primordial moisture motif used effectively throughout the film. Whereas the often reviled but highly underrated *Alien 3* was extremely stylish but cold and austere, *Alien: Resurrection* is, despite the nifty stylization and slimy innards, the most emotionally charged and touching film of the series, a soulful family freakshow with a dark, broken heart.