Darlings, you weren't wonderful


Kevin Jackson
Saturday 08 June 1996 23:02

Jon Avnet's Up Close & Personal (15) pretends to be concerned with a number of meaty issues - the hunger to excel, the eternal conflict between love and duty, the ever more urgent need to assert solid journalistic values in America's ever more frothy mass media. Actually, it's about hairdos. When Sallyann Atwater (Michelle Pfeiffer), an ingenue fresh from a Reno trailer park, first staggers into a low-rent televison station in Miami, she's sporting a miniature avalanche of blonde ringlets that the late Marc Bolan might have judged a trifle showy.

But as Sallyann, or "Tally" as she is soon nastily rechristened, fights her way up from spouting gauche inanities on local television news to spouting slick inanities on network news, her tresses undergo sympathetic mutation. From scene to scene, they grow shorter, straighter, neater and - a close approximation to a joke, this - into a jet-black hoplite's helmet, until her career finally attains the twin capstones of an honours ceremony and a consummately professional bob. Shamefully, the two most important credits on the movie are buried deep below "additional make-up'': "Ms Pfeiffer's hairstyles designed by Alan D'Angerio and Peter Owen." Take a bow, chaps.

Trichologists apart, it's hard to guess who would find this load of coiffures seductive. Reports that Up Close went to the top of the US box office must indicate either that audiences there will shell out to see Michelle Pfeiffer in a romantic role no matter how pedestrian its setting (an understandable weakness; she's dismayingly gorgeous even in those heavy-metal curls), or that decent date movies have been so thin on the ground lately that courting couples were pulled in by sheer frustration. The latter group will have been left only half-satisfied: although you could snog your way through most of it without losing track of the story, the on-screen smooching lacks all conviction.

Robert Redford, as Warren Justice - yes, Warren Justice; they might as well have thrown caution to the wind and called him Warren Peace - the supposedly brilliant newshound who is Tally's employer, mentor and lover, hasn't looked so somnambulistic since, oh, Legal Eagles. None of the character modes Redford tries out, from the Dorian Gray twinkle to the Bob Woodward jutted jaw, manages to coax anything like the requisite soppy feelings about Warren'n'Tally, and that amorous chill-out is more than the film can handle: you're left at a loose end, thinking grumpily about the plot.

After To Die For and Broadcast News and even, Lord help us, Natural Born Killers, it is remarkable to encounter a media movie that doesn't nurse the meekest scepticism about the ultimate value of boob-tube reportage, or the psyches of those who thrive in the medium, but Up Close & Personal is that beast. (I blame the screenwriters, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who deserve a slap on the wrist.) Its key sequence, much as in Oliver Stone's loopy diatribe, shows the coverage of a prison riot. Tally is conveniently trapped inside with her crew; Warren directs her from a mobile studio outside, typing laptop memoranda to himself of the kind of boil- in-a-bag wisdoms she should be speaking to camera. By the time the riot is over, there are corpses everywhere, Tally has fetching little smoke smuts on her make-up and Warren is nodding in admiration: his pupil has outgrown her master. At long last, she has become more glib than he is, capable of wrapping up each passing atrocity with the observation that at the end of the day, one thing is certain ... At the end of Up Close & Personal one thing is certain: you and your date will be better off tracking down a rep revival of His Girl Friday.

Complete the following sentence, which is the start of Demi Moore's voice- over from Now and Then (PG): "Thomas Wolfe once said ..." "Cogito ergo sum"? "Eat my shorts, dude"? "All right, officer, I'll come quietly"? No, Thomas said: "You can't go home again," and if you failed that pop quiz, you can't have been going to many American movies about life, love and the ties that bind in the last decade. Demi plays an upscale novelist (hence her natty way with recondite allusions) who is defying Mr Wolfe's maxim by Going Home Again to Indiana where she will meet her three best girl chums and provide the excuse for an extended flashback to the summer of 1970 - a summer suspiciously reminiscent, give or take a few Zeitgeist tokens, of the one frittered away by the boys in Stand By Me.

Besides Ms Moore, the present-day quartet is played by Rosie O'Donnell, Melanie Griffith (whose voice possesses a capacity to irritate out of all proportion to the number of lines she's given) and Rita Wilson; their 12-year-old counterparts are played by Gaby Hoffman, Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, Ashleigh Aston Moore. These younger ladies are fine, though the casting isn't always persuasive - the implication that Christina Ricci will grow up to look like Rosie O'Donnell seems a more dangerous cue for potential anorexics than a squadron of waif models. But then, the film isn't really targeted at girls: it's for uncensorious women, especially those now shuffling up to 40, who don't mind having their adolescences tidied up, gift-wrapped and handed back to them to the tune of "Sugar, Sugar". Nothing about this production suggests that its director, Lesli Linka Glatter, cut her teeth on NYPD Blue; an apprenticeship with Hallmark cards would be easier to credit.

Spike Lee's latest, Girl 6 (18), was roundly stomped by the critics on his home pitch, so it's good to report that it plays a bit better on foreign ground. While the plot may wander over the hills and far away in the last 30 minutes or so, and there's nothing much of a resolution for the (not very interesting) issues Lee and his screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks paddle around in, it does have some good things to offer, including an attractive performance from Theresa Randle, as a failed actress turned phone-sex girl who grows too fond of her work, and a gaudy patchwork of visual styles (cinematographer: Malik Hassan Sayeed) taking in tones as varied as grainy video and - out of the blue - fantasies based on Carmen Jones and the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons. Flimsy as it may be, it's a sight more enjoyable than Wes Craven's Vampire in Brooklyn (15), which brings high production values and low humour to the bloodsucking-brother routine familiar from Blacula et al. Eddie Murphy stars, if that is the appropriate verb; Angela Bassett somehow retains her dignity.

The director of The Confessional (15), Robert Lepage, enjoys a hefty reputation in international theatre; as if to pre-empt any slurs that his first venture into film-making is stagey, he has taken pains to render it as cinematic as possible, ballasting every sequence to sinking point with the gizmos they show you in film school - associative edits, form dissolves and mischievous reveals, as when blood slurping Psycho-fashion down a sink proves to be nothing more sinister (though nothing less sinister, either, in this spookily insinuating piece) than red paint.

Lepage's most frequent device is to use travelling shots as time-travelling shots, drifting without a cut from scenes in the present-tense of 1989 to the principal past tense of 1952, when Alfred Hitchcock was in Quebec to shoot I Confess - a film that bears, you may be less than astounded to hear, a certain degree of thematic similarity to the family plot that is unfurled in The Confessional. Hitchcock jokes crop up throughout - even the casting of Lothaire Bluteau, as the young man pursuing a mystery of paternity, appears like an act of homage to Norman Bates - though as Mr Hitchcock (amusingly played by Ron Burrage) notes, there's more Greek tragedy than suspense. Much as it used to be said that a gentleman should not be too well dressed, there's a note of dandyism in Lepage's sumptuous film-making that can be offputting; even so, the swagger is impressive.

Guiltrip (15), written and directed by Gerard Stembridge, is a micro- budgeted drama from Ireland about a day and night in the abusive marriage of Liam (Andrew Connolly, genuinely scary), an army corporal and all-round nasty piece of work, and his brutalised wife Tina (Jasmine Russell). It makes painful viewing, often intentionally.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14

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