A lot of talented people are involved in this atrocity in one way or anothernot only French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, whose doomed relationship forms the core of the plot, but writer Christopher Hampton, director Agnieszka Holland, and lead actors Leonardo DiCaprio (Rimbaud), David Thewlis (Verlaine), and Romane Bohringerso it’s hard to know who to blame. I suspect that Hampton is the guiltiest party: piling on the lurid, middlebrow, middle-class shock values inherent in the material, and jettisoning practically all the poetry of both writers, he comes up with a script that’s well-nigh impossible to transcend. This isn’t exactly boring, but for anybody who cares about these actors and much of the earlier work of Holland, it’s a painful lesson in how far gifted people can go in deluding themselves. (JR)
Here’s something to wrestle with: a PhD candidate in philosophy at NYU becomes a raving and ravenous Greenwich Village vampire and junkie — the two conditions are seen as interchangeable — while contemplating the victims of the Vietnam War and Nazi extermination camps and then promptly receives absolution. The dumbest, most pretentious script of 1995 is served up straight, with absolute sincerity and triple-distilled formal and thematic purity, by what may be the most beautiful and powerful direction in any American feature this year. The direction is by Abel Ferrara, working with his frequent screenwriter Nicholas St. John. Ken Kelsch’s nocturnal black-and-white cinematography is sometimes even breathtaking enough to justify the Dostoyevskian conceits of the dialogue (”The entire world’s a graveyard, and we’re the predators picking at the bones”), and the performances by Lili Taylor as the grad student and Christopher Walken (in only one scene) as a fellow vampire have comparable voltage. The mood of Catholic despair and excess is often close to that of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, but it’s even more metaphysical and delirious. At the Berlin film festival, Ferrara maintained that St. John studied philosophy at Heidelberg, though some of the seminar dialogue here sounds like he must have made it through on college outlines. No matter: without exactly transcending the awful material, Ferrara puts it across with astonishing poetry and conviction. With Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco, Paul Calderon, Kathryn Erbe, and Michael Imperioli. Fine Arts, Pipers Alley.
A blank, baby-faced hunk (Jason Priestley) who works as a bookie is reluctantly promoted by a new gang boss (Robert Loggia) to become a hit man, and then has some trouble adjusting to the fact that he’s so good at it. I suppose the point of this black comedy is how willing all of us are nowadays to accommodate ourselves to murder. It’s the material for Swiftian satire, but writer-director M. Wallace Wolodarsky, a TV veteran, isn’t up to the job. In order for this to have a pointed moral position, one has to believe in the characters on some level, and only Peter Riegert, as the hero’s mentor, and Janeane Garofalo, in a small part as a hooker, come close to earning belief. Most of the performances and much of the mise en scene are stiff, and the laugh cues in the horribly banal and TV-like music score discouraged me even from smiling. One more indication of what Tarantino’s pervasive influence has wrought: this seems to tip its hat to him in a gag about blood on a new car’s leather upholstery. Maybe you’ll bust a gut, but I doubt it. With Kimberly Williams and Jay Kogen. Michael J. Fox, one of the producers, has a cameo. (JR)
I’ve never read Jane Austen’s last novel (1818), and I’m not generally attracted to film adaptations of classic English literaturemost of which, even at their best, seem like Cliffs Notes versions. But Roger Michell’s first feature (1995), scripted by Nick Dear, is a lot fresher and more engaging than the usual department-store windows of Merchant-Ivory: it makes us care about the characters rather than the sets and costumes. Set in 1814, with the British navy just back from the Napoleonic wars, it concerns the gradual reunion of Captain Frederick Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds) and Anne Elliot (Amanda Root), who’d been engaged seven years before. The secondary castincluding Simon Russell Beale, Sophie Thompson, Corin Redgrave, Susan Fleetwood, and Fiona Shawis especially effective. (JR)