Cinema: At long last, Hal Hartley grows up at last
Sunday 15 November 1998
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (18)
The Knowledge of Healing (U)
The Odd Couple II (15)
Left Luggage (PG)
Hope Floats (PG)
Something has happened to Hal Hartley. He has stopped trying to be cool. Run through his back catalogue, and you'll only encounter characters who are strangely dislocated both from the world and from each other. In Flirt, Dwight Ewell is more interested in his shoes than his lover. In Amateur, Martin Donovan can't even remember who he is. Hartley loves to con you into believing that the fundamental emptiness of his protagonists is somehow evidence of profundity. But it generally isn't.
Henry Fool, however, draws a line under this tendency. It takes the bare bones of the plot of Hartley's first feature, The Unbelievable Truth (1989) - a mysterious stranger turns up in a small community and changes the lives of an eccentric family - and adds some live, twitching flesh. Believe it or not, Hartley seems to have made a film with real people in it.
It doesn't happen all at once. We begin in flat, familiar territory: Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) is a taciturn garbage- man who lives with his nymphomaniac sister, Fay (Parker Posey), and his over- medicated mother (Maria Porter) in a nameless American town. Enter Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), an enigmatic author, who rents their cellar in order to finish his memoirs. One night, he gives Simon a pencil and notebook to write down his own thoughts. By morning, a great work of modern literature is lying on the kitchen table, and everybody has to adjust to the possibility that the simple Simon they knew might actually be a genius. A mute woman reads the manuscript and bursts into song; his mother reads it and kills herself; Camille Paglia goes on TV to hail it as a classic. In the ugly, uncomfortable movement of its plot, Hartley gives us the ugly, uncomfortable spectacle of two-dimensional characters turning into three-dimensional ones.
Half-way through, you suddenly realise that this film is Hartley's creepy riposte to Good Will Hunting.This fleshing-out process is a painful one: Ryan's Henry, for instance, begins the film as a wild-eyed bohemian caricature. He's like Coleridge would have been if his mother kept him locked in the garage and raised him on a diet of Doritos and Kestrel lager. Ryan approaches the part with dissolute gusto: he leers at schoolgirls, declaims his self-pity and swoops his head about like the talkies were never invented. The success of Simon's book, however, compels him to abandon this pretence. After an extraordinary scene in which he proposes marriage to Fay during a noisy attack of diarrhoea, the harsh business of real life forces itself upon him. By the story's end, he has become embittered by literary failure, oppressed by his criminal record, and panicked by the demands of fatherhood. As you watch him sitting forlornly on a bar stool, wondering where his life went, you feel yourself giving a damn. It's not a sensation that this director has ever inspired before. Someone should tell Mrs Hartley that her son finally grew up.
Like much of his previous work, Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a magnificent failure - a baroque folly constructed as a monument to his own mad imagination. Based on Hunter S Thompson's book, the plot tells how journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) drive to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. They binge on mescalin, marijuana, ether, LSD and adrenochrone, and befriend an under-age girl (Christina Ricci) who paints portraits of Barbra Streisand. And that's it.
Thompson's book is the canonical text of gonzo journalism, that improvisational school of reporting that makes the writer a boozed-up, biased participant in his own story. But Gilliam is no Gonzo cineaste: his vision is too curlicued and lavish to look like a product of the counterculture. He's more like William Beckford than William Burroughs. Even the trashed hotel rooms have that studied, elaborate aesthetic that you associate with his Monty Python animations or the retro technologies of his science fiction. His movie is hamstrung by its failure to solve one central problem: how do you film druggy Seventies radicalism and make it look like a worthwhile exercise - especially now it seems self-indulgent, cruel, and more complacently middle-class than the establishment which it once aimed to frustrate?
The performances, however, hit the right note. Depp plays Thompson's alter ego Raoul with a tremendous cock-eyed energy, blinking blankly through a pair of acid-yellow shades, champing at his plastic cigarette holder, and waddling about like a barbiturate- soaked version of Foghorn Leghorn. And Del Toro's doctor is a wonderfully baffled debauchee with a prodigious belly and crazy narrow eyes. Any resemblance to Terry Gilliam circa 1971 is, we must assume, completely coincidental.
I was more impressed by the sanguine decadence of Blade, the bastard son of those Seventies-set Hammer horrors in which Christopher Lee abandoned Transylvania to preside over doped-up vampire orgies in contemporary London. The scene is New York in the near future, and the coolest of the undead are gathering for a blood-drenched rave beneath a Manhattan abattoir. They have, of course, reckoned without Wesley Snipes, the fearless vampire-killer, Blade - whose black trenchcoat surges constantly on a slo-mo breeze that nobody else seems able to feel. Stephen Norrington's film is premium-grade schlock that really appealed to my inner schoolboy - the slightly twisted one who pulled the wings off flies. It is the most irresistible kind of nonsense: squeezed into hilarious fetish pants, Snipes as pumped-up hero uses battle tactics that would have tickled Professor Van Helsing in all the right places. He fires off garlic-tipped silver bullets, and takes on his enemies hand-to-hand with a strange kind of martial-arts vogueing that makes him look like a Greenwich Village leather queen, circa 1977.
The rest of the cast are great fun too. Blade is assisted by a one-legged roadie (Kris Kristofferson) and a sexy haematologist with big Pam Grier hair, played by N'Bushe ("nuh-boo-shay") Wright. Representing the forces of darkness, runty sex-piglet Stephen Dorff does a magnificently sleazy turn as a pint-sized vampire princelet, and his hoydenish consort Traci Lords (a porn star at 15, but doesn't like to mention it these days, now she's a serious actress) gamely refuses to let her complete lack of talent occlude her full-blooded performance. Much better than any of the dreary summer blockbusters that hit cinemas this year, Blade has the full bag: exploitation, blaxploitation, coy homoerotics, evil flying skeletons. And - best of all - the hero's Christian name turns out to be Eric. Bloody marvellous.
Deepa Mehta's Fire is a blazingly intelligent sexual melodrama that explores the tensions between liberalism and tradition in the modern Indian family. And, in a quieter way than Blade, it's edge-of-the-seat stuff. Will Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda) discover that his new wife Sita (Nandita Das) is having an affair with his mother, Radha (Shabana Azmi)? Will Sita discover that Ashok has a mistress, Julie (Alice Poon)? Will Radha discover that her servant, Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), masturbates in front of her mute mother-in-law, Biji (Kushal Rekhi)? It's slightly farther east than EastEnders, but the pleasures are the same.
The Knowledge of Healing is a 90-minute infomercial for Tibetan medicine, in which the Dalai Lama - who looks more and more like Phil Silvers with every passing day - is wheeled on to wave the flag for the ancient chemotherapies of his homeland. Unfortunately, Franz Reichle's film is about as rigorous and impartial as The Mysterious World of Paul McKenna, and so leaves you feeling that the whole discipline is a thousand-year-old racket. I was particularly disturbed by a scene in which its star, Dr Tenzin Choedrak, boasts about how Chernobyl victims are just snapping up his silver-rich "jewel pills." Nobody, of course, asks how much cash he's making.
The stars of The Odd Couple II could do with a shot of Dr Choedrak's cure-all. Reunited 30 years after the original, they are predictably geriatric: Walter Matthau looks like a sock puppet that's been chewed by a dog, and Jack Lemmon has taken on a waxiness of which a cosmetic embalmer would be proud. The film, scripted by Neil Simon, breaks Psycho 2's record for cinema's longest-delayed sequel. But its connections with his original screenplay are negligible. If Matthau and Lemmon weren't playing characters called Oscar and Felix, this would be "Grumpy Old Men 3". Still, there's a certain amount of pleasure to be had from the fact that they can still walk and speak at the same time.
Just space to note this week's other releases. Erik Skjoldbjrg's Insomnia is a police thriller starring Stellan Skarsgard as a sweaty detective involved in an average murder-and-corruption plot. But the unusual setting of the movie - north Norway, during the season of white nights - gives it a headachey intensity that's hard to dismiss. Left Luggage is an uneven moral fable set in the Hassidic Jewish quarter of 1970s Antwerp, clumsily directed by Jeroen Krabbe - who seems incapable of preventing most of his performers (Laura Fraser, Topol, Miriam Margolyes) from committing dreadful crimes of overacting. Finally, Forest Whitaker's Hope Floats is clearly a must-see - but only if your favourite actress is Sandra Bullock, and your favourite stylistic mode is sick-bucket sentimentality.
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