THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT - THE CRUCIBLE
THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY - CITIZEN RUTH
TURBULENCE - SOME MOTHER'S SON
THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT
"The People vs. Larry Flynt," directed by the great Czech filmmaker Milos Forman, stars Woody Harrelson as the title character - a sleazy, flesh-peddling strip club owner who parlayed raunchiness into the multi-million dollar Hustler empire and became, through circumstance, a major proponent of the First Amendment right to the freedom of expression.
Alternative rock star Courtney Love makes her starring debut as Althea Leasure, the underage stripper who became Flynt's lover, wife and business partner before succumbing to AIDS in 1983.
The film follows Larry Flynt's beginnings as an adolescent moonshiner, through his rather amazing career as sleaze-meister, a redeemed Christian, and, finally, a crusader of the Constitution, ending in his Supreme Court victory against the Reverend Jerry Falwell and the so-called Moral Majority.
Any film about pornography and sleaze, directed by Milos Forman, starts off with high points from me. "The People vs. Larry Flynt" does not disappoint, almost, at all.
Up front, I have to say that this an actors movie. All the trappings of First Amendment rights and the battle to maintain these rights in a reactionary, self righteous society takes a back seat to the performances of Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Ed Norton and a bevy of supporting characters.
Woody Harrelson (who would have thunk it when watching him on Cheers) is proving himself to be one capable actor, possibly only under capable directors such as Forman and Oliver Stone ("Natural Born Killers"), possibly because he CAN act. Here, as Larry Flynt, Harrelson starts off slowly, but builds steadily Flynt's character until the line between the actor and the character blurs. In the last half of the movie, I believed I was watching the man, not the actor. Damn good job by Harrelson that may or may not garner an Oscar nom. He will get more serious attention in the future.
Courtney Love gives a truly outstanding performance as Althea Flynt. In the hands of a master such as Forman, Love delivers a powerful and believable performance as a young woman drawn to the sleaze of Larry Flynt, mainly because he is her kindred spirit in that sleaze. Altheas dedication to Flynt, the man and the business, is well drawn and without any falseness. If Madonna is nominated, for "Evita," over Courtney Love, it will be one of Hollywood's grander screwups.
Edward Norton, who blew me away in his debut as the psycho in last years "Primal Fear," plays a composite of lawyers involved with Flynt over the years, including the real Alan Isaacman. Nortons boyish looks belie the inherent acting ability portrayed here. He is convincing as Flynt's longtime friend and legal advisor and gives a very effective speech before the Supreme Court in the film's climax. Edward Norton is an actor to watch for in the coming years.
Other supporting cast, such as "Good Day, New York" correspondent, Donna Hanover, in a terrific debut as evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton , who briefly turned Flynt toward Christ, and political consultant James Carville, making his acting debut as Simon Leis, Flynt's opponent in early legal battles, are examples of exemplary casting. Also notable is Harrelson's real-life brother, as Larry Flynt's brother and business partner.
The rest of the supporting cast, such as a Vincent Schiavelli and Crispin Glover, were not only miscast, they hurt the scenes they are in. A mixed bag of support, some very good, some not.
Milos Forman ("One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest," "Amadeus") is a masterful filmmaker and it shows here. He draws terrific performances from much of his cast and deftly conveys the screenplay to the screen.
The screenplay, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is rich in detail and dialogue. Alexander and Karaszewski also showed an adeptness with biographies with their script for Tim Burton's "Ed Wood."
I have one not-so-minor problem with "The People vs. Larry Flyn"t: it doesnt go far enough in conveying the utter sleaziness that Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine represented. Some of you may have seen Hustler, but I can safely bet that most have not. For the uninitiated, Larry Flynt is portrayed as a working class Hugh Hefner, with a working class version of Playboy. He was anything but a Hefner clone. The purification of raunch that represented Flynt takes the edge off of what could have been a terrifically edgy film.
Because of this, I give "The People vs. Larry Flynt" an A-.
Czech director Milos Forman ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus") has directed an American classic with "The People vs. Larry Flynt." I must state right up front, however, that this should not be considered a Larry Flynt bio-pic, but a piece of American Pop - at least that's how I'm viewing it. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose last script lionized another oddball outsider, Ed Wood, have portrayed Flynt almost as a naif who happens to be a shrewd businessman faithful to his friends, madly in love with his wife, Althea Leasure, and a crusading proponent of free speech. I'm sure there are plenty of people (the Reverend Jerry Falwell aside) who would love to air a sleezier, darker, nastier more self-serving picture of the man (as is the case with a former security man and brother-in-law in the February issue of Penthouse).
"The People vs. Larry Flynt" is essentially about two things - Larry Flynt's fight for his first amendment rights and the love story between him and Althea. Flynt's head for business is established in 1952 Kentucky where he was a child moonshine bootlegger. The grown up Flynt (Woody Harrelson) enjoys running a strip club and the employees who dance there. He decides to promote his Hustler club via newsletter consisting of nude shots of his dancers, but the printer informs him that without any textual content, he'd be arrested for distributing pornography. Voila - the birth of Hustler magazine.
There are three terrific performances from the three principals in "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Woody Harrelson loses himself in the role, particularly in the latter part of the film after Flynt's paralyzed by an attempted assassin's bullet. I found myself watching Larry Flynt, not Woody Harrelson. Courtney Love is as good as all the hype around her performance says - she's a either natural actress or Althea Leasure's soulmate. Edward Norton ("Primal Fear") impresses again as Flynt's lawyer - a very mature performance from a very boyish looking young actor. All three performances are strong contenders for an Oscar nomination.
Also of note is Donna Hanover, a newswoman, as the strangely seductive Ruth Carter Stapleton, helping Flynt be born again. James Cromwell ("Babe") appears as Flynt adversary Charles Keating (later of the savings and loan scandal) and Bill Clinton's campaign advisor James Carville debuts as a county prosecutor. Flynt himself appears as Judge Morrisey, who presided over Flynt's first obscenity trial.
The film is funny, epic, tragic and brashly colorful in a 70's period way. The film's locations include Flynt's actual Hollywood mansion and publishing offices.
My one small nit with "The People vs. Larry Flynt" is that there are several scenes which are too abruputly editted throughout the midsection of the film which broke me out of the movie experience. Otherwise, I was totally wrapped up in Forman's American fable.
THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY
Continuing with the 19th century literature onslought begun with 3 Jane Austen film adaptations in the past year, Australian director Jane Campion ("The Piano") brings Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady" to the screen. Nicole Kidman stars as American Isabel Archer an independent young woman with a large inheritance who's moved to Europe to experience more of the world. Her curiousity allows her to be led by a manipulative friend with a shady agenda, Barbara Hershey's Madame Merle, into the arms of a dark dilettante, John Malkovich's Gilbert Osmond.
"The Portrait of a Lady" is a complex story, gorgeously shot, moodily symbolic and erotic. Jane Campion is proving that she can stand easily in the pantheon of world class directors, and I, for one, would love to see her nab a second Best Director Oscar nod.
I'm a bit perplexed why this film hasn't received more accolades - I've seem some negative response based on comparison with the source material. I'll state right here that I've never read the book (although my appetite to do so has now been whetted), so I'm judging the film simply on its own merits.
The film begins oddly, with an opening credit sequence of modern women shot in black and white, as well as color, in sisterly groups of staring into the camera - there's almost a hint of lesbian overtones. Here Campion announces that her interpretation of the story will bear her distinctive mark.
Isabel Archer, in an attempt to mark her independence, makes a perverse choice that will bring her nothing but unhappiness.
Nicole Kidman is fine as Isabel, but I doubt this role will garner her an Oscar nomination even though she was unjustly overlooked last year. James Malkovich is typecast as the perversely dark charmer who revels in emotional abuse, but he is good at these types of roles and plays this one quietly.
The standout in the cast is Martin Donovan as Isabel's sickly cousin Ralph, one of her three, more upstanding admirers. He's a Victorian embodiment of the 'if you love them, set them free' school of thought. He reminded me of Jeff Bridges at his most haunted best - maybe even better!
Barbara Hershey does some fine work as the duplicitous Madame Merle, who finally sinks into despair as she witnesses the pain brought about by her actions.
John Geilgud is also outstanding - he makes a strong impression in two small scenes. When left alone with his son Ralph, he immediately indulges himself in a forbidden cigarette (Gielgud's pale face and white hair framed in smoke - a beautiful, haunting image).
Another brilliant scene takes place at a ball. While the black-clad matron Isabel politically juggles her stepdaughter's two suitors, plump Italian women in lavish costumes pass out to her left and right - the coldness of an arranged marriage juxataposed against the fever of passion.
The film wraps with triumphantly, if obliquely, in a gothically bleak snowy England after the false sunshine of Italy. The film's beautiful cinematography and locations are complimented by a hauntingly romantic score.
Normally, as a film critic, I can divorce the guy in me and just watch a film on the critic level. Sometime, as in "Portrait of a Lady," I watch the film as both a critic and a guy, which causes me great confusion.
As Robin, the film critic, I watch "Portrait..." and note the detail and attention given to costume, set design, photography, writing, acting and direction, and see a finely crafted work with solid credits all around.
The acting is uniformly first rate from top to bottom - especially the performance given by Martin Donovan as Nicole Kidman's cousin and admirer, Ralph. Very subtly, he builds on the viewer's and cousin Isabel's (Kidman) affections so that, by the end, you're rooting for him to get the girl. Too bad he dies. Blame the Henry James novel for that.
The key actors, Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich (making a career as a slimy sex symbol) and Barbara Hershey, are very good. Not great, through no fault of their own, but still very good.
My only problem with the film, as Robin, the film critic, is that the story is too involved for the acting. The actors are trying so hard to do justice to the story that I never was able to get too deep into the motivations of the characters they portray. I think its the wealth of information being conveyed that overshadows the actors efforts.
Technically, especially the photography alluded to in the title - some of the shots are, in fact, as visually stunning as genuine portraits - this is a top notch affair.
Again, as Robin, the film critic, I find Portrait of a Lady to be one of the years best and give it an A-.
Now, to Robin, the guy: its over two hours long, theres no gratuitous violence or nudity (nudity is symbolic here, at best - guys don't do symbolic). No guns. No good guys/bad guys. No explosions. No shootouts. Just a lot of talking. Hey, this isn't the kind of movie for A Guy to see, is it? Decidedly not.
Robin, the guy, gives it a C+, but that doesn't count. Robin, the critic, still gives "Portrait of a Lady" an A-.
In "Turbulence," it's Christmas Eve and only a handful of passengers are on board the 747 bound for LA from New York. I t looks like an easy flight for the crew, until four federal marshals, accompanying psycho serial killer, Ryan Weaver, played by Ray Liotta, and psycho bankrobber, Stubbs, played by Brandon Gleeson (Mel Gibsons sidekick, Hamish, in "Braveheart") arrive on board, dampening any holiday cheer.
As the flight approaches a Level 6 (on a grade of 1 to 6) storm, things get interesting in the passenger cabin as Stubbs decides to change the order of things. The ensuing melee results in the death of Stubbs, the four Feds and both pilots, leaving Weaver to stalk the kind of prey he likes - the frightened, confused flight attendant, Teri Halloran, played by Lauren Holly.
A cat and mouse suspense story follows with Teri desperately trying to land the plane, while Weaver, just as desperately, trying to crash the 747 into LAX and go out in a blaze of glory.
Well, there are bad films and there are "bad" films. The former kind, films like "Jingle All The Way," "Dear God," "High School High" or "Mixed Nuts" are just plain bad. If you saw them, unless I warned you first, I feel sad for you. You wasted your time and money.
Then there are "bad" films, such as "Turbulence" and last year's "The Substitute," starring Tom Berringer. These movies stack implausibility upon implausibility in such a god-awfully groaning way that you simply have to laugh. Coupling the real humor the filmmakers were injecting into the story and dialogue with the silliness of the scripts stupidity makes this a not bad bit of mindless entertainment.
To its credit, "Turbulence" spends a good amount of the on-screen cash on the terrific special effects, from the computer derived external shots of the 747 flying through a most violent storm, to the giant gimbals used to turn a life size 747 passenger cabin a full 360 degrees - with actors on board!
With the exception of Ray Liotta, who seemed to have a hell of a good time mugging it up for the camera, there really is not a lot of substance to the acting here. Lauren Holly, too often, gives the image of a deer caught in the headlights on the road - her performance will be compared with Karen Black's from "Airport '75."
"Turbulence" is a no-brain hoot if you have absolutely nothing of worth to do as an alternate choice. Go to a matinee to see it on the big screen, or wait for rental.
Teri Halloran, in the end, does find her man, you'll be glad to know.
I give "Turbulence" a guilty C+
This film's been panned, but I thought it was a hoot! "Turbulence" is one of those so-bad-it's-almost good kind of entertainments. In fact, it's far funnier than most of the so-called comedies that ended the year ("Dear God," "Jingle All the Way").
The stage of unbelievability is set when a Christmas Eve 747 flight from New York City to L.A. has only about a half dozen passengers. Until, that is, a convicted armed robber and a lonely-hearts serial killer (Ray Liotta) are brought on board by four federal marshalls.
Flight attendant Lauren Holly, just dumped by her fiance, is vulnerable and only wants to meet a nice guy - why, just the type of woman Liotta's serial killer preys on!
The dumb-as-a-post pilot and co-pilot are killed in short order while the plane's heading into a level 6 storm with a serial killer who means to thumb his nose at the autorities by ensuring the plane will crash into a heavily populated area. This, of course, results in officials making a decision to send out a jet fighter to shoot the commerical airliner down. As if she doesn't have enough problems on her hands, Lauren Holly must attempt to land the plane safely with the radio assistance of a noble and handsome British pilot played by Ben Cross.
The special effects are pretty good for such a silly plot, especially during the hilarious climax when Holly's first landing attempt is aborted after a low swoop over a parking garage gets a Ford truck stuck to the plane's landing gear.
Ray Liotta chews scenery and swills Mumm Cordon Rouge throughout! Lauren Holly looks terrified! The ground crew is conflicted!
It may have been dumb, but it was a guilty pleasure.
I find it odd that Nicolas Hytner's first two films both deal with mob hysteria in less enlightened times - what a strange theme.
"The Crucible," like "The Portrait of a Lady," is very well acted, but the standout performances come from the supporting cast. Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder are both solid in the lead roles. Joan Allen, however, could very well score another Best Supporting Actress nomination (after last year's recognition for her Pat Nixon) as Elizabeth Proctor, a devoutly religious woman whose sexual coldness has left the door open for her husband's infidelity. Paul Scofield turns out another finely shaded performance as the judge sent in from Boston to attend to the witchcraft trials. Rob Campbell (who had a supporting role in "The Unforgiven") is a surprise as the investigator who is the audience's representative - he's one of the few that begins to devine the truth amid accusations. Elizabeth Lawrence is Rebecca Nurse, the community's conscience. Peter Vaughan is strong as Giles Corey, a neighbor and friend to the Proctors. Karron Graves makes an impressive debut as Mary Warren, the teenage girl who dares to tell the truth about Abigail Williams and her followers.
"The Crucible" was shot on Hog Island off the coast of Massachusetts and painstaking attention has been paid to period detail, right down to dental cosmetics.
Although Arthur Miller originally used the story of the Salem witchcraft trials to criticize the McCarthy era, "The Crucible" is a timeless story of corruption, greed, suspicion and religious fanaticism.
I'm not a big play fan, but "The Crucible" is one of those few plays that I have read a number of times. I love Arthur Miller's metaphor of the Salem witch hunt for the other, Red-tinted, kind of McCarthyesque witch-hunting that strangled the United States at the time of the play's writing in the early fifties.
I was pleased to see, with Miller adapting his own play, that the integrity of his indictment against misled tyranny, no matter how just, remains intact in director Nicolas Hytner's telling.
Complementing the excellent screenplay of "The Crucible," are a number of good and better performances, especially in supporting roles, excellent period costume and set design - an entire 17 century Pilgrim village was built on location on Hog Island, about 45 minutes from Boston - and photography. The tremendous attention to historical detail is right up there on the screen and is some of the best I have seen.
Stars Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis are solid, but not outstanding.
Joan Allen gives a great performance as a woman who loves her husband, but cant overcome her Puritan upbringing to give him the physical love he desires, driving him, John Proctor, briefly into the arms of the conniving Abigail Williams, played by Ryder. Allen, as she overcomes her hurt and understands her husband's love, gives ranges of emotion and understanding that are palpable to the viewer.
Paul Scofield, as Judge Danforth, does a notable job as the jurist assigned responsibility for stamping out the devil across "every inch" of Massachusetts. He portrays an honestly religious, if misguided, man of the cloth.
"The Crucible" is a solid, entertaining period piece that gets top tech credits and has some exceptional acting, earning it a deserved B+.
In a surprising first feature, director and co-writer Alexander Payne, stabs straight into the heartland of America with "Citizen Ruth," a satire using the abortion issue as its focus, but really striking at fanaticism in all forms as its target.
Laura Dern plays Ruth Stoops, a hopeless drifter who has a penchant for "huffing," inhaling the aerosol propellants in things like spray paint and driveway sealer. When she is arrested for this abuse for the 16th time, AND she's found to be pregnant, she is charged with endangering a fetus and is to serve a hefty sentence - that is, until the judge offers clemency if she gets rid of her "problem."
Here begins the satire as the fanatical fringe elements on both sides of the abortion issue do battle, with the brain damaged, but not stupid, Ruth at its center.
This is a very impressive feature debut for Alexander Payne that benefits from a tremendously talented cast, with an Oscar caliber performance from Laura Dern.
Dern, who looks a wreck through most of the film, puts it on the line as the totally self absorbed, selfish, and really screwed up substance abuser, Ruth. Like Harrelson does in "Larry Flynt," Dern gives a performance that has you believing that a Ruth Stoops can exist in our world. She is funny, conniving, pathetic, smart and stupid at varying times and degrees. Her dives into substance abuse are strikingly handled both through Dern's acting and the notable camera work.
Supporting cast, headed by Swoosie Kurtz, Kutwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Tippi Hedrin and Burt Reynolds all lend good comic turns as the fanatics vying for Ruths fetus, if not her soul.
The script, written by director Payne and Jim Taylor, takes its satirical shots at a whole spectrum of politics, from the homophobic, right wing reactionary pro-lifers to the ultra left femi-Nazis pro-choice faction. It puts the fanatical fringes in their deserved light, showing just how absurd mindless causes can be.
Placing Ruth at the center of this maelstrom helps take the edge of the extremists, showing how meaningless their causes really are. If Ruth, the focus of their beliefs, doesn't care, how can they, possibly, justify their cause? Ruth walks out of the picture while both sides do battle, and it doesn't matter - its not he object of the cause thats important, just the cause.
"Citizen Ruth" is an amusing, thoughtful satire and a very good effort for a feature debut. Laura Dern shines out in a solid film. She's one of my favored contenders for a best actress nomination. Its her best, hardest hitting work to date.
I give "Citizen Ruth" a B
We get another standout female performance from Laura Dern as Ruth Stoops in "Citizen Ruth." What a crowded field for Best Actress consideration this year - I could nominate 10 worthy performances! Dern gives one of the best even of those, though, as the painfully clueless, totally irresponsible and selfish Stoops. The most amazing thing about her work is that you'll be routing for her by the end of the film, as she rejects both the pro-lifers' and pro-choicers' attempts to use her to 'send their messages.'
The directorial and screenwriting debut of Alexander Payne is a witty look at how fanaticism turns well intentioned people into raving lunatics who eventually lose sight of their cause in their campaign to 'win.'
Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith are the falsely sunner pro-lifers (baby savers in this film's lingo). Their faction is led by Burt Reynolds as Blaine Gibbons in an oily performance that recalls his work in "Striptease." In an uproariously jaw-dropping display of ego and bad taste, Gibbons keeps as his flunky a suspicously effeminate adolescent, Eric, who Gibbons saved from an abortion. Eric tests the temperature of Gibbons' massage oil by shaking a few drops from a baby's bottle onto his wrist before applying it to the back of Blaine's neck!
Swoozie Kurtz and Kelly Preston are the liberal, moon goddess worshipping lesbian pro-choicers. Their leader is Tippi Hedren as Jessica Weiss, a woman so shallow, she describes Ruth as heroic upon meeting her.
Dianne Ladd makes a surprise and uncreditted appearance as Ruth's Mom (Ladd is Dern's mother).
"Citizen Ruth" is a very original comedy highlighted by beautifully odd comic accents. When Ruth is first brought into the home of the baby savers, she relaxes in a bath and entertains herself by enjoying alternating eye views of her toe in the bathtub faucet, a scene that's not only funny, but defines just how much of Ruth's brain has been destroyed by her chemical inhalations.
Unfortunately, the very well-realized satire comes to its end a bit weakly. You know where Payne's headed and it's the right way to go, but it could have used a sharp punchline to wrap.
SOME MOTHER'S SON
Using the 1981 hunger strike and subsequent election to Parliament of IRA martyr Bobby Sands as its core story, "Some Mother's Son" stars Helen Mirren as Kathleen Quigley, an apolitical teacher and mother in Northern Ireland whose son, Gerry, has fervently embraced the cause of the IRA.
Gerry's terrorist activities, and subsequent arrest, conviction and imprisonment in the notorious prison, The Maze, thrusts him, and Kathleen, into the thick of the things surrounding the British government's revised policy of treating IRA inmates as criminals, not political prisoners, in an attempt to defuse their popular influence outside.
Irish actress, Fionulla Flannigan, appears as Annie Higgins, a pro-IRA mother whose son, Frankie, is also embroiled in the strike. Unlike Kathleen, Annie is dedicated to the cause, no matter what the cost - even the life of her son.
Dealing with similar circumstances as last falls film, "Michael Collins," "Some Mother's Son" thrusts the viewer into the political fray of the 70's Northern Ireland conflict. "Some Mother's Son" shows a deeply felt conviction to the real politics, then and now, in Ireland, and does it better than the more ambitious "Michael Collins."
Helen Mirren and Fionulla Ferguson, as the mothers representing two sides the same political coin, are outstanding. Mirren is powerful in her role as the apolitical one whose sole concern is the safe, healthy return of her son to his former freedom. Fionulla Ferguson is, if anything, even more powerful in her role as the activist mother willing to sacrifice her son for the IRA cause. I'm surprised Ferguson has not garnered more award attention.
"Some Mother's Son" also benefits from the thing that hurt "Michael Collins": the depth and breadth of the supporting cast is full and rich, right down to the sneaky little English toady working behind the scenes to screw things up for the prisoners. It's this attention to character detail that make a film like this worth seeing.
Tech credits are solid.
The subject matter is selective in its appeal. For me, it appeals.
"Some Mother's Son" doesn't try on as grand a scale as Michael Collins but it succeeds just as well. I give it a B, the same grade I gave Collins.
"Some Mother's Son" is an effective film to make one think about the 'Irish problem.' Are the IRA freedom fighters or terrorists, heroes or hoodlums?
Told through the eyes of an apolitical Belfast mother (the splendid Helen Mirren) who is horrified to discover her son's involved with the IRA and was involved in the shooting of a British soldier ('he was trying to kill ME, Ma'), "Some Mother's Son" makes a nice companion piece to 1994's "In the Name of the Father." The film uses the historical context of the Bobby Sands hunger strike to present its story. Mirren's character is contrasted by another mother played by Fionulla Ferguson, a heart-on-her- sleeve IRA supporter who's son was arrested with Mirren's son. The two become friends even though just about everything they stand for is in conflict. One of the strenths of "Some Mother's Son" is how believable this friendship is. The two womens' acceptance of each other underscores the conflicting emotions the view has while watching the film.
All in all, I thought "Some Mother's Son" was a much more effective film about Irish/British politics than the earlier, more publicized and more overrated "Michael Collins."
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