Tag Archives: F

AUTUMN IN NEW YORK

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F

The sap might not be streaming down the trees of Central Park in the innumerable scenes set there in Joan Chen’s slick but hollow sudser about a May-September romance between a middle-aged, woman-chasing restaurateur and a 22-year old girl doomed by illness (who just happens to be the daughter of one of his old flames), but it’s practically encrusted on the screens of auditoriums showing this monumental piece of treacle. Chen made a deeply affecting debut feature, the astonishingly assured “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl,” in 1998, but she’s stumbled badly with her first big-studio effort. Not a single moment of “Autumn in New York” rings remotely true, nor even one line of dialogue even slightly real, and it lurches from one Big Moment to the next so clumsily that one gets the feeling that large chunks of narrative were lopped out at the last moment (though that hardly seems cause for distress, given the quality of what remains). At once crushingly trite and oppressively maudlin, the picture has echoes old chestnuts like “Dark Victory” (1939) but utterly lacks the soapoperatic energy that enlivened such classic pieces of schmaltzy claptrap; instead, it’s just a dismal dirge.

One might have expected Julia Roberts to have teamed up with Richard Gere once more in a lugubrious weepie that could easily have been titled “Pretty Dying Woman,” but she probably passed either because she’s been down the terminally-ill lover route before (in 1991’s dreadful Joel Schumacher opus “Dying Young”) or because she quickly realized that although it’s the distaff partner who’s got heart trouble, the narrative is really centered on the guy. And so we watch Gere, that most self-absorbed of actors (if the myth of Narcissus is ever brought to the screen, he’s a cinch for the lead), overemoting balefully for some ninety minutes as an overaged Peter Pan who finally gains maturity by falling for a gal he can’t hold onto (his character, Will, even makes contact with the Daughter He Never Knew in the course of the narrative, showing how much he’s grown emotionally). Gere is supposed to be irresistible as a fellow whose flippancy turns first to woozy ardor and then to profound grief, but what he oozes here is hardly charm; even at the close, when he’s going crazy over his lover’s deteriorating condition, his pain seems to be all about himself rather than her, and in both his initial smugness and later distress he comes across as quite insufferable. Winona Ryder’s performance as perky, pitiful Charlotte is no less corrupt. She plays the character as though the poor girl were mentally impaired, alternately scrunching up her face embarrassingly to suggest naivete and beaming bug-eyed at the glitzy events to which Will escorts her as though she had never been out in public before–except, of course, for those moments when she overexerts herself and suddenly gets all weak and trembly. (Toward the close, of course, she takes to bed as Will summons a Supersurgeon, played by J.K. Simmons, the shrink from “Law and Order,” to save her. The incapacitation may not provide any relief to Charlotte but at least saves viewers from any more of her scrunchy faces.) The picture is pretty much a two-character affair, so the supporting players don’t have any great opportunity to make their mark; but Anthony LaPaglia gets a few smiles as Will’s sourpuss maitre d’, and Elaine Stritch is certainly noticeable–though hardly in a positive way–as Charlotte’s besotted grandmother. Jill Hennessy, another “Law and Order” player, appears as Will’s long-forgotten daughter, and Mary Beth Hurt shows up in a couple of brief scenes as Charlotte’s physician, but neither does anything beyond looking sad, which they do professionally enough.

One shouldn’t blame the actors too much, though. The material given them is so clearly subpar, and Chen’s direction so solemn and flaccid, that they never had a chance. Mushy and mawkish, with its hamfistedness accentuated by Changwei Gu’s prettified cinematography and Gabriel Yared’s gooey score (far too heavy on the harps), “Autumn in New York” is, in the final analysis, a failed tearjerker at whose denouement there probably won’t be a wet eye in the house. During one of their interminable outdoor chats in the picture, poor Charlotte remarks to Will that for the first time she can actually smell a recent rainfall. The odor emanating from the screen, however, will surely strike viewers as redolent of something far more pungent. By opening the flick in early August, MGM has merely insured that it will have vanished from theatres long before the coming of its titular season.

BATTLEFIELD EARTH

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And you thought “Dune” was bad. David Lynch’s sci-fi debacle
of 1985 might have been elephantine and opaque, but at least
it had an imaginative unifying vision. The same surely can’t
be said for this misbegotten mess apparently slapped together
from the shards of previous lousy movies by Roger Christian,
whose last flick, “Masterminds,” was so awful it put the feature
career of Patrick Stewart on long-term hold.

“Battefield Earth,” of course, is an adaptation of a novel by
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and represents the
fulfillment of a long-cherished dream by John Travolta, a
member of the group, to bring the story to the screen. It can
only have been a misplaced sense of piety that led the former
Kotter kid not only to embarrass himself in one of the
picture’s lead roles, but to have put up a sizable portion of
the production costs, too.

Travolta stars as Terl, the security head of a bunch of alien
thugs called Psychlos (they all look like more rubbery versions
of the Klingons) who, ca. 3000 A.D., have enslaved earth,
which they are systematically mining of its mineral resources.
Barry Pepper, an intense Johnny Depp lookalike, plays a
fellow coincidentally named Johnny, a wiry, bright hillsman
who is captured by the Psychlos after he ventures from his
high-altitude abode (the aliens supposedly can’t breathe in
such areas, I think) and, after gaining a position of
leadership among the imprisoned man-animals, as they’re called,
leads a last-ditch rebellion against the Psychlo tyranny which
targets the invaders’ home planet itself. (The plot is made
all the more convoluted but dull by having Terl recognize
Johnny’s unusual cleverness and force him to participate
in an illegal mining scheme whereby the Psychlo leader can
amass enough gold to win his return to his homeworld despite
political opposition to him there. This segment of the plot,
with its nefarious financial dealings, is about as fascinating
as all the back-story stuff about trade organizations and
taxes was in “The Phantom Menace,” seeming an even sillier
variant of the moronically comic Ferengi culture subplot from
“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”)

Incoherent when it isn’t simply dumb, the movie plays like a
wacky comic-book combination of “Independence Day” and
“Waterworld,” mixing the (lack of) intelligence of the former
with the grungy, post-holocaust style of the latter (or of
another Costnerian disaster, “The Postman”). (To be fair, the
finale, wherein the earthlings undertake their rebellion, also
steals a lot from the original “Star Wars,” aping in far too
many respects the assault on the Death Star which concluded
that flick; but that had already been recycled in
“Independence Day.”) And the grungy look of the picture,
along with its lamentably cheap-looking effects, gives it the
feel of one of those direct-to-video quickies shot amidst
the debris of some long-deserted factory-and-warehouse district.

The puerile plot isn’t salvaged by any of the performances.
Terl and his none-too-reliable lieutenant, played by Forest
Whitaker, are apparently supposed to be giants, but they look
about as realistic in terms of their size as the lumbering
embarrassments who usually grace the operatic stage in
productions of Wagner’s “Das Reingold.” Given their sadly
phony appearance, it’s no wonder that Travolta and Whitaker
try to enliven their scenes by hamming it up royally in a
sort of a failed alien Laurel-and-Hardy routine. Travolta
glowers, smirks, chortles and laughs maniacally at every
opportunity, and Whitaker Worf follows in his footsteps with
an equal lack of success. Pepper, on the other hand, engages
our sympathy not because we care about his character, but
because the amiable young actor must spend roughly a third of
his screen time being slapped, throttled and otherwise
brutalized by Travolta, another third running frantically
from Psychlo gunfire, and the remainder reciting lame,
juvenile dialogue that must have made keeping a straight face
nearly impossible. None of the supporting players make any
real impression, but it should be noted that women fare
particularly badly in the movie’s testosterone-laden
environment; Sabine Karsenti, who portrays Johnny’s beloved,
enters the action only to be captured and serve as a hostage
to insure his compliance with Terl’s dastardly schemes, and
no other female has more than a walk-on.

One could go on endlessly about the egregious holes in the
plot of “Battlefield Earth”: How does Johnny, who’s lived
all his life in a barbarous backwater, know how to read
English? Why does a Psychlo computer-instruction program
teach the lad about “Euclidean geometry”? How is it that
U.S. planes and missiles which have apparently been unused
for centuries are still in perfect running order for the
rebels to commandeer? How have the ruins of cities–even
copies of books found in half-razed libraries–survived
for so long? Why do the Psychlos value gold, a distinctly
terrestrial mode of exchange, anyway? But thinking about the
terrible thing too long will merely make one dizzy with
confusion and distaste. Suffice it to say that the first
major turkey of the summer season has arrived; the only
solace is the knowledge it won’t be around long.

There is, of course, one final issue raised by the movie. Some
have feared that it might be a piece of Scientology propaganda,
implanting secret messages into the skulls of the uninitiated.
I think there may be something to the notion that there are
subliminal directives at work here, because throughout the
screening I kept hearing a tiny voice in my head, saying
over and over, “Leave the theatre as quickly as possible, and
warn others to skip this stinker.” Of course, that message
might not have been what Hubbard and Travolta had in mind.