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Tuesday, 2 December 1997

Gattaca

Here's a quick test: Name four science fiction movies that made you think. Contact, 2001, Blade Runner, and... well, Independence Day was pretty good at making you think you'd wasted your money. Sadly, while SF in general becomes more relevant every day, in the movies technology means mindless special effects and the future is a great place to blow stuff up. That's what makes Gattaca stand out: A science fiction movie without special effects is rare enough, but when it's more concerned with ideas than action, you'd better make sure you haven't wandered into an old Twilight Zone retrospective by mistake.

In this version of the future, tinkering with your kids genetic nature to create perfect offspring is common practice, which may be good news for the superkids but it's a bit of a downer for those conceived the old-fashioned way. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) was dealt a bad hand from birth, but despite his bad eyesight and heart problems, he refuses to let his imperfections and society's discrimination defeat his dream to go into space. To get inside the rocket-launching Gattaca corporation, Vincent takes on the genetic persona of the perfect but crippled Jerome (Jude Law): He may have to carry samples of Jerome's urine for tests and sprinkle his hair and skin flakes everywhere he goes, but for Vincent that's a small price to pay to get into space. But when the only person at Gattaca who suspected 'Jerome' wasn't all he said he was is found murdered - with Vincent's eyelash on site - a week before Vincent's leaving for Titan, the police investigation seems certain to leave him firmly earth-bound.

As a murder mystery this is uncompelling, and as a romance - with the icy Uma Thurman as a sub standard Gattaca staffer who falls for what she believes is top-grade genetic material - it's far from memorable, but its creepy vision of an antiseptic future populated by sallow-faced pretty boys in tailored suits saves it from complete failure. A world where your every move can be tracked and your life is mapped out at birth is a pretty worrying (and frighteningly likely) prospect, and here it's played for all it's worth - it's just a shame that the rest of this film is so forgettable. Gattaca is different and interesting enough to make it worth a look, but it's more of a curio than a classic.

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#154)

The Glimmer Man

Marlon Brando is back and he's kicking heads in The Glimmer Man... oh wait, that's Steven Seagal. Yep, the fattest man in action is even heftier in his latest outing, and to hide it he's wearing even stranger jackets and lots of black (tip for Steve: You can put a black sheet over a couch, but it still looks like a couch - and so do you). Still, he's the man to beat when it comes to slapping guys around and impaling them on anything that just happens to be around, and fans'll be glad to know he doesn't hold back on either. Then again, going by his rapidly expanding waistline (he eats dinner on-camera here), Seagal's not one to hold back on anything, especially if there's salt on it.

Story-wise it's Steven Seagal meets Seven: It's raining a lot, there's a serial killer called 'The Family Man' on the loose, and two miss-matched cops team up to track him down - only here the serial killer's got something to do with the Russian mob, there's an evil conspiracy to frame one of the cops (Seagal) for the killings, and the other cop (Keenen Ivory Wayans) gets to say lines like "I'm gonna go suck on some deer penis". All the usual Seagal elements are here - everyone says how great he is (Wayans says "He took 'em out like Bruce Lee, only better." - maybe he meant "fatter"), he craps on about the wisdom of the East, he wears love beads and jackets made out of tinfoil, he's got a mysterious CIA hitman past, and he slaps people around a lot.

The problems start when they introduce a plot, because when Seagal's idea of conducting a freelance autopsy involves cutting out a dead woman's breast implants you know this isn't exactly Silence of the Lambs. The editing during the fight scenes is so incoherent they make no sense at all so they fit in well with the plot, though you've got to give points to a movie with a credit card that cuts peoples throats and overall they're still more interesting than a Barbra Streisand film. This may be just as silly and mindlessly enjoyable as all of Seagal's other films, but it's obvious he's just marking time 'till he achieves his dream role - Jabba the Hut in the new Star Wars movies. Hey, he's already got the chins for it.

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#132)

Grace of my Heart


From the mid fifties through to the late sixties the Brill building in New York was the home of a thriving musical community, and no-one was more vital to its' stream of hit records than songwriters like Enda Buxton (Illeana Douglas). She left Philadelphia for New York with the hope of becoming a singer, but manager Joel Millner (John Turturro) wanted her for her songs, and before long she was churning out the hits for $150 a week. She also became Denise Waverly - her rich-girl past didn't sit well with her gritty urban lyrics - and it was as Denise that she met Howard (Eric Stoltz) who was first her writing partner, then her husband, then the father of her child, then - after he cheated on her - her ex-husband. And that was just the first in a very long series of heartbreaks as she travelled through the music business during the sixties - she'd write hit after hit, she'd make friends out of enemies (Patsy Kensit), she'd marry a spaced-out teen idol (Matt Dillon), but she'd never be happy until she could sing her own songs.

This tale of triumph over (a lot of) tragedy is perhaps a bit too downbeat for some, though there are quite a few laughs scattered throughout, and not just from the appalling hairstyles on the heads of the male cast. On the surface this may not look like a chick flick, despite writer/director Allison Anders being responsible for films like Gas Food Lodging and Mia Vida Loca, but any film where all the male romantic interests are scum (well, maybe not complete scum, but not exactly good guys either) sure isn't a film for the guys, but at least this has a lot more to it than something like Waiting to Exhale. Buxton's story, while interesting, is never really involving enough to draw you in despite a great performance from Douglas (after a while her heartbreak becomes a little too predictable), but the music's catchy, the acting's fine, and overall this is likeable enough to make it worth a look. Anyway, where else are you going to see J Mascis, someone playing the theremin, and Bridget Fonda in a cameo as a lesbian in the same film?

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte #133)

Monday, 10 February 1997

Oscar and Lucinda

Oscar and Lucinda is the kind of Australian film we don't see much of these days. Intelligent and quirky we get plenty of, and this has those qualities in spades, but it's also set in Australia's past - that place strip-minded by countless period dramas until the slightest mention of it has audiences wincing from sudden Sigrid Thornton flashbacks. Then again, if those period pieces had been made with half the spark and class of this film by Gillian (Little Women, The Last Days of Chez Nous) Armstrong, perhaps seeing a horse and cart travelling down a dusty track wouldn't automatically send audiences to sleep.

While Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) is growing up independent and headstrong in outback Australia in the mid-1800's, on the other side of the world in England shy and quirky Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) has received his calling from God: To become an Anglican minister. It's while following this path that he first discovers the joys of gambling, an activity he sees as being far from sinful so long as it's done solely to help the poor. Back in Australia Lucinda's on her own with a sizeable fortune after the death of her mother, and a life-long fascination with glass soon sees her buying the Prince Rupert glassworks in Sydney town.

Before long she's also swept up by the thrill of gambling, and it's after a trip to England to purchase the latest glass-blowing equipment that the film's two characters finally meet, as a guilt-ridden and water-phobic Oscar happens to be on the same ship heading to Australia, fleeing England as penance for his uncontrolled gambling. But he soon finds things for him aren't that much different in Australia, with only his stifled love for Lucinda keeping him out of the pit of gambling-related despair he sought to escape. Fired with passion, he comes up with a grand, crazy scheme: To build a church out of glass and transport it north to the rough'n ready town of Belligen. It's a tragedy waiting to happen, and for Oscar it doesn't wait long.

For a movie about characters fired by passion, this is more a film of the head than the heart. Based on the Booker-prise winning novel by Peter Carey, it suffers from a common problem with translating books to film: So much of making the cross-over successfully hangs on calculating what to remove and condense that often getting the story right wins out over capturing the feel. That's not to say this is just a dry, intellectual exercise - Fiennes and Blanchett both give fine performances, with the red-haired and fidgety Fiennes compelling from start to finish - but there's never any real chemistry between them, and without it all the twists and turns and symbolism of the story never really take hold. Armstrong's created a beautiful and never boring film packed with often suprising imagery, but despite it's many pluses it's just a little too cold at heart to ever really warm to.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte)