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MORIARTY’S CHRISTMAS RAMPAGE Concludes (For Now) With Mainstream Mayhem, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, and THIRTEEN DAYS!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

This might take a little while, a couple of runs at the subject. As I take my first pause, it is Wednesday night, it has been a full day of movie viewing, and now I’m sitting in one dark corner of the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills with my compatriots. We’ve ordered scotch (required after watching the Kennedys drink their way through THIRTEEN DAYS) and we’re lighting up our illicit Romeo y Julietas, preparing to relax and reflect on what we’ve soaked up on this long Cuban-themed day.

Wednesday began just before 1:00 at the Sunset 5. For those of you who aren’t in Los Angeles, this is one of the big arthouse theaters in town. It’s just a few blocks from the Moriarty Labs, and it’s where everything ends up playing, even the most obscure titles. Some films get relegated just to midnight on the weekends or special morning shows on Sunday, but they get screen time, and that’s what ultimately matters. Right now, they’re one of the few theaters playing Fine Line’s new release BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, and we were surprised by how empty the theater was after how packed each of the limited-run films we’ve seen this week has been. I’d read basically nothing about this movie, but with Javier Bardem showing up on many critics’ lists as one of the best performances of the year, this one found its way onto my must-see list.

Somebody owes me a freakin’ apology.

This is a biopic about Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, starting with his birth in 1943 and tracing him through his entire tortured existence until his AIDS-related death in 1990. As a homosexual and an outspoken critic of Castro, his life in Cuba was tremendously difficult, filled with persecution. He attempted to escape a number of times, but was ultimately exiled from the country in a massive purge of subversive elements in the mid-‘80s. The film would seem like a perfect way to explore the way art gives wings to not only the artist, but to the audience. It would seem like a provocative vehicle to explore the notion of maintaining your voice even in the face of profound difficulty. It would seem like a perfect case to show the way people cut loose in celebration in the face of death, the way rebellion can be the only sane act in times of oppression. It would seem like a fitting showcase to make the case for Arenas as an important voice in world literature. Instead, it’s a self-important piece of garbage with a terrifically unlikable character at the center of things, two vile hours in which we’re treated to misery and hardships without relent, one loathsome image after another. I think that much of the praise that’s been undeservingly lavished on this film is because critics are afraid to take issue with a film about this subject matter for fear of being seen as homophobic, but this isn’t what I’d call strong gay cinema. Don’t think I’m dismissing it out of some knee-jerk sense of distaste. I’d be deeply offended by the portrayal of the Cuban homosexual scene in this movie if I were gay, since every gay character comes across as degenerate and immoral and untrustworthy. This is as seedy an underworld as I’ve seen portrayed in film, and it’s not a world I’d ever willingly visit again.

When IL POSTINO was released, it spurred a revived interest in the work of Pablo Neruda around the world, and for good reason. In that film, the case was made for the romantic power of Neruda’s words, and audiences were left wanting more at the end of the film. Having seen BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, I can’t imagine ever picking up a book of Arenas’ work. It comes across as preachy and oblique and mundane. There’s not one bit of poetry that’s quoted in this film that inspired me to examine his work any further. Arenas himself doesn’t come across as a sympathetic figure in any way. Yes, he’s roughed up on several occasions because he’s gay. Yes, he lives much of his life in poverty. Yes, prison seems unpleasant. But there are many people who have suffered worse, and there aren’t intolerably oppressive films dedicated to their pain. Arenas isn’t a particularly inspirational figure as he moves through the film. Every time things get hard, he tries to kill himself. He never really stands up to his oppressors. He renounces his own identity as a homosexual. He renounces his own work. He compromises himself at every turn, anything to save his skin. In the end, even his compromise and cowardice don’t help him. It’s a simple spelling error that gets him out of the country and into America, an accident that saves his life. Once he arrives in the States, the film feels like it’s drawn to a natural close, a moment of victory for the artist, but that’s not enough for director Julian Schnabel. Instead, we’re treated to Arenas and his slow descent into the nightmare of AIDS, something that only ends when he finally succeeds in taking his own life.

I know, I know... with a description like that, it’s GOT to be "the feel-good Christmas hit of the year," right?

In my review earlier this week, I wrote about how Helen Hunt throws CAST AWAY out of balance due to the relatively small size of her role. BEFORE NIGHT FALLS suffers from that in a major way. Sean Penn, Michael Wincott, and Johnny Depp all show up playing insignificant roles in the film for no apparent reason. Actually, Depp plays two different roles, and all that does is serve to confuse the audience. There’s doesn’t seem to be a point to him playing these two specific roles. It’s more like a bit of stunt casting that didn’t pay off, and one’s left wondering how Schnabel talked them into appearing in the movie. It certainly couldn’t have been because they thought they would be challenged by what they had to do. I have a feeling this was presented to them as a worthy cause celebre, a way to pay honor to this forgotten literary lion. If that’s the case, then they got rooked just as badly as I did, and I’m sorry on their behalf.

The film reaches for visual poetry throughout, but Schnabel’s not a good enough director to pull off what he seems to be trying for. The film lurches from episode to episode without any connective tissue, and there are slips in and out of reality that are handled with ham fists. The worst thing about the movie is that sense of missed opportunity. I wanted to give myself over to it. I wanted to get a glimpse at Cuba during and after the revolution, a place and time that’s shrouded in a sort of romantic mystery, hazy impressions formed from behind the embargo wall. The world that Schnabel paints just doesn’t work, though. It keeps us on the outside, holds the audience at arm’s length. He tosses on as much grime and general seediness as possible, but to no real effect. He also doesn’t seem to be able to help his actors at all, leaving them adrift in this world of filth and depression. If Javier Bardem was a magnetic actor, the film might at least work as a study of a flawed character, but he’s a blank. Physically, he looks like someone stuck Raul Julia and Tony Shaloub in the Brundlechamber from THE FLY, but he doesn’t have 1/10th the charisma of either of those men. Basically, he’s got three modes of expression in the film: prancing, moping, and crying. We’re treated to at least one of these modes per scene, and occasionally we get a combination of them. Long stretches of the film seem to consist mainly of him lounging around in his unnervingly tiny Speedo, his heavy-lidded eyes impossible to read.

I don’t think I’ve come close to conveying the depths of my dislike for this picture, but I’m going to have to move on. There’s only so much rancor I can work up for a film that fails this completely. I thought Schnabel’s first film, BASQUIAT, was forgettable except for the dynamic work of Jeffrey Wright. This time out, there’s nothing to hold onto. Trust me... two hours will feel like ten if you take it upon yourself to see BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, a movie as oppressive as the prisons it depicts.

Thanks to some of the muted praise I’ve heard on this site and in other places, I went into our next film, THIRTEEN DAYS, with a very low sense of expectation. As a result, I ended up enjoying the film enormously. There’s not much plot summary necessary. It’s the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, told from the vantage point of Kenny O’ Donnell, an advisor to the Kennedys. The screenplay by David Self is tight and intelligent in the way it takes the facts of the situation and layers them into a dramatically gripping narrative. Even if you’ve studied these events and are intimately familiar with the way things went down, you’ll find yourself pulled in by the filmmaking. Several other reviewers on this site have slagged Roger Donaldson, and although I don’t think his work here is genius (his random use of black and white strikes me as a particularly weak move), it’s the best he’s ever done. He’s generous with his actors, and as a result, we’re treated to one of the best ensembles of the year.

One of the most frequently portrayed Presidents in film is John F. Kennedy, thanks to what seems an endless parade of TV movies over the last 20 years, and since Kennedy was one of most documented Presidents in terms of film and TV during his own lifetime, we’re able to make comparisons that can be merciless. Actors frequently find themselves falling back on a collection of familiar mannerisms, exaggerating that famous accent for effect. In this film, Bruce Greenwood steps up as one of the finest character actors we’ve got working, something fans of Atom Egoyan films have suspected for a while, delivering the single finest performance as JFK that I’ve seen. He nailed all the nuance of the role without ever once giving in to the familiar tricks. We all know by now about the constant pain that "Bad Back Jack" found himself in, and Greenwood definitely suggests that in the pinched body language, the way he’s always trying to find a comfortable chair, but it’s never something he brings to the surface, never something he says out loud. The accent he uses is accurate, but it’s subtle. He doesn’t turn it up and lay it on thick, the way so many actors have done in the past. Even Greenwood’s appearance is accurate in ways that an exact makeup recontruction couldn’t manage. Greenwood is the same kind of guy as Kennedy, and they share the same sort of rugged good looks scrubbed clean, dressed up in respectability. Steven Culp is just as good in his role as Bobby Kennedy, and there’s a great sense of brotherhood between them. You believe that these two have a history, that there are shared secrets between them. The way they communicate with silent looks, small gestures, the way Bobby lets himself be cast as "bad cop" time and time again, the way they draw together as a united front when under pressure... these are the small touches that convince us of the relationship, and Culp and Greenwood are ideal together.

For about the first ten minutes of the film, I was afraid I’d have to write an essay about Kevin "Weak Link" Costner crippling an otherwise outstanding ensemble, but all the problems I had with him at the beginning of the film evaporated as it wore on. I still wouldn’t ask Costner to coach me on learning an accent, especially not a Boston one, but after a while, it was the passion of his performance that won me over. Costner’s smart enough to know that Kenny O’Donnell isn’t the hero of this film, and he doesn’t try to control each moment he’s onscreen. Instead, he serves as our eyes into the thing, and he does a great job painting a picture of someone who gives his all to allow someone else to be great. It’s a potentially thankless role, both in real life and in the film, and Costner finds grace notes to play that distinguish his effort.

The thing that makes this film stand out for me is the portrait of power it offers, a rare one in American cinema. Instead of offering us a fictional President beating the crap out of terrorists in a manufactured, phony scenario, we’re treated to a glimpse at the enormous weight of real power. The film serves as a lesson in just how difficult it can be to negotiate these tricky political waters, just how masters there are being served in each decision made. Realizing that Kruschev and Kennedy couldn’t just pick up the phone and talk this thing through is terrifying. Everything had to be interpreted as it happened, each event pushing us one step closer to the unimaginable. The film is smart enough to not offer us a superhero disguised as JFK. That would be insulting. We all know that he was flawed and human, and it’s more impressive to see someone we recognize ourselves in do the right thing. The film is most fascinating as a game of historical "what if?", especially in light of the election we’ve just survived. Trying to imagine Richard Nixon at the helm during the crisis, or either of the two candidates we were offered this time around, only leads one to a greater appreciation of just what qualities we look for in those who lead.

With the smell of those Cuban cigars now just a memory, I sit here, getting ready to leave for my New Year’s festivities, and I find myself struggling to work up the will to finish off my account of my moviegoing adventures in the past week. After the rather weighty double-feature of BEFORE NIGHT FALLS and THIRTEEN DAYS, the Gekko Sister and myself decided to try lighter fare for our night out on Thursday. She was excited to see CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, but when we tried to get into the IMAX screen up at Universal’s Citywalk, it was already sold out. Instead, we decided to try some of the more overtly commercial films playing. So it was that I found myself sitting through the first hour of MISS CONGENIALITY. Dear... sweet... God. What is wrong with Sandra Bullock? She’s so likeable onscreen, and she makes such lousy movies, time and time again. This one’s got to be right at the bottom of the list, though. There’s nothing appealing about the film. It looks like the whole thing was shot through a slice of ham, or like it was beamed in from 1983. The supporting cast is full of comic actors who have proven they’re not above chewing the scenery for laughs, but even Shatner, Caine, and Candice Bergen find themselves stranded by the lack of anything interesting to do or say. Marc Lawrence, the "screenwriter" of this thing, is also responsible for THE OUT OF TOWNERS remake, FORCES OF NATURE, and LIFE WITH MIKEY. Isn’t there someone policing these matters? Shouldn’t you be forced to apologize publicly after this many crimes against the audience? Finally, after an hour of the torture, I couldn’t take it anymore.

We found our way upstairs to a showing of THE FAMILY MAN that was starting, figuring anything had to be better than the film we’d just suffered through. At least I can report that Tea Leoni is appealing and deserves to be signed up for something good immediately. She seems determined to bring honesty to the film, and there’s several moments where she seems to bring Nicolas Cage down to earth, where he actually seems engaged, where we catch a glimpse of the actor he used to be. They’re fleeting moments, though, thanks to the pedestrian script by David Diamond and David Weissman. This is the very definition of cookie-cutter work, seemingly assembled from other better movies. For a lesson in how execution is everything, watch GROUNDHOG DAY and this film back to back. Both films are comic fantasy fables. Both films depend on a serious leap of faith if you’re going to believe what you’re watching. But Danny Rubin’s script for GROUNDHOG DAY is smart and funny and original in all the ways FAMILY MAN is not. Another problem with FAMILY MAN is just how seriously it seems to take itself. Brett Ratner ladles on the gloss with both hands, and Danny Elfman contributes his single worst score, sugary and obvious and annoying. By the film’s end, I was ready to jump up and run out of the theater, not because it was a miserable movie, but because it was merely mediocre. This is the kind of film people are talking about when they use "mainstream" as a dirty word.

Let’s see what’s left on my list, even after seeing nine movies in less than a week:

(in no particular order)POLLACK, YI YI (A ONE AND A TWO), ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, TIGERLAND, BILLY ELLIOTT, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, MALENA, DRACULA 2000 (just because the Talk Backers say I have to), CHOCOLAT, and WHAT WOMEN WANT.

Man, it’s depressing to look at how slight a dent I made in my initial list. I’m going to try to keep the pace up, but I’m also still gearing up for Sundance and a whole slew of special AICN projects that will take place in January. It’s going to be a busy month. One solution would be for me to stop seeing CROUCHING TIGER over and over, but that would mean I’d have to stop seeing CROUCHING TIGER over and over... and that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

If I don’t have a chance to post anything else before midnight, and chances are I won’t, then let me take this opportunity to wish you all a Happy New Year, full of joy and peace and kick-ass movies every time you go to the theater. To my mind, there’s no greater wish I could make for you.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback
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  • Dec. 31, 2000, 8:46 p.m. CST

    happy

    by phatjacck

    happy new years everybody!!!...even you, harry

  • Dec. 31, 2000, 9:42 p.m. CST

    First Post of 2001

    by Flaparoo

    HAPPY NEW YEARS!!!!

  • Dec. 31, 2000, 10:21 p.m. CST

    Thanks!

    by 855K Scoville

    I enjoyed reading these insightful reviews. Way to go!

  • Dec. 31, 2000, 10:25 p.m. CST

    avoid dracula

    by Valcom17485

    please avoid this debacle, it skews the legend of dracula into a hamfisted tangent! jonny lee miller is a void on screen there is no chemistry between anyone on screen and the dialog was at time laughable. at the end, when dracula began fighting matrix style....thats when i walked out. don't see it moriarty, this is one talkbacker that strongly warns against it!

  • Dec. 31, 2000, 11:34 p.m. CST

    Guess I'll take a pass then..

    by Lizzybeth

    I heard all the same buzz on Before Night Falls, I was even going to bring that up on the 2001 preview. Huh. Guess I'll save that one for video. Oh, and I'll warn you one more time, Moriarity -- the way you feel about Before Night Falls? I feel that way about What Women Want. It's thoroughly, utterly vile. Maybe all you men won't see it that way, but let me warn you: if you think you can take your little girlfriends to this movie to convince them you're all sensitive and understanding, think again.

  • Jan. 1, 2001, 10:15 a.m. CST

    Before Night Falls=Requiem for a Dream

    by PoxyVonSinister

    Your desription of Before Night Falls sums up EXACTLY how I felt towards Requiem for a Dream. Unrelenting suffering with absoluetly no redeeming qualities whatsoever, nobody to like or even empathize with because everyone brings their suffering on themselves with no effort to change the situation. Hey, did you see the LOTR trailer on 13 Days?

  • Jan. 1, 2001, 11:27 a.m. CST

    All my writing teachers disagree with Averon

    by 855K Scoville

    Averon advises Moriarty to use phrases like "I didn't like", or "It didn't affect me like I hoped." *Every* writing teacher I've ever had, from elementary school through grad school, has advised against such phrases, and similar phrases like "in my opinion". My teachers have belittled such phrases as being boring to read, child-like, redundant, stating the obvious, and possibly egomaniacal (for using first person pov without need). In particular, my teachers point out that when a reader reads "Chocolate cake is delicious", what else would that be, other than an opinion? Duh!

  • Jan. 1, 2001, 5:11 p.m. CST

    Dracula 2000 was worth the money.

    by Freakonaut

    Who fucking cares if Dracula 2000 was not a serious, well written horror movie? If it were buzzed or advertised as such I can understand the annoyance of the shlock in that movie, but when you see something called Dracula 2000 from a guy like Wes Craven then you have to expect going in that what you are seeing will not be Oscar material. I saw the movie somewhat begrudgingly and enjoyed myself immensely. The casting was absolutely perfect for the roles, and although the acting and dialouge was lacking to the pace of the film, I was completely entertained, and that is the point

  • Jan. 1, 2001, 5:49 p.m. CST

    Castaway and Tom Wanks

    by Nodrog

    Im sorry but Tom Wanks is the most overrated lump of sorry assed shit that it makes me sick. I refuse to watch him ever again after the debacle that was Philidelphia. The Burbs fine, Big fine but dont make hime out to be a good actor cos hes so fucking far from that.

  • Jan. 1, 2001, 6:01 p.m. CST

    Noting The Improbable Use Of "Fetid" In Averon's Post.....

    by mrbeaks

    Looks like someone is putting their brand new Merriam-Webster's 'Word-A-Day' Calendar to good use. If nothing else, the malcontents that frequent these talkbacks have at least developed a practical streak. As for the review(s), it's good to know there are others out there who found BEFORE NIGHT FALLS unworthy of its hype (though I'm still in disagreement with Moriarty over STATE AND MAIN, but, rather than take him to task for writing his essay in the classic manner, I'll simply understand that a difference of opinion is what makes the world go 'round, while referring to Mori, with apologies to Corky St. Clair, as a "bastard person.")

  • Jan. 1, 2001, 10:43 p.m. CST

    Well, Moriarty, you just may have saved me $8.50 with your BNF r

    by Lenny Nero

    I was going to see it tonight, but the combination of this review and my lack of energy stopped me. Thanks.

  • Jan. 2, 2001, 7:19 a.m. CST

    Cuban cigars. . .

    by RenoNevada2000

    M- If you like the Romeoes y Juliets give the Monte Cristos a try. Nice and smooth.- Reno

  • Jan. 2, 2001, 10:05 a.m. CST

    Sometimes history repeats itself...

    by Fatal Discharge

    ...Costner's horrendous accent in Robin Hood King Of Thieves - now this, and Schnabel's underwhelming film Basquiat was boring and featured unlikeable characters - and now this.