Wag the Dog

Robert De Niro plays a presidential spin doctor spurred into action after a sex scandal threatens to destroy his boss’s chances for reelection. He flies to southern California, engaging a flamboyant Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman, reportedly lampooning Robert Evans) to help fake a war in Albania that will make the president shine again. Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s script is gleefully hyperbolic without ever straying from its political target–the gulf war is repeatedly cited as the conspirators debate what the American public will swallow. Wag the Dog falters only in coming up with an adequate curtain closer (and in keeping both public response and the president out of frame, which makes the proceedings more theoretical than is necessary). Otherwise this is hilarious, deadly stuff, sparked by the cynical gusto of the two leads as well as the fascinating technical display of how TV “documentary evidence” can be digitally manufactured inside a studio. Barry Levinson directed with a reasonable amount of panache; with Kirsten Dunst, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Andrea Martin, and Willie Nelson. Starts next Friday, January 2. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.

Published on 26 Dec 1997 in Featured Texts, by jrosenbaum

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The Sweet Hereafter

Adapting a beautiful novel by Russell Banks, Atom Egoyan (Exotica) may finally have bitten off a little more than he can chew, but the power and reach of this undertaking are still formidable. At the tragic center of the story are the deaths of many children in a small town when a school bus spins out of control and sinks into a frozen lake (depicted in an extraordinary single shot that calls to mind a Brueghel landscape) and what this threatens to do to the community, especially after a big-city lawyer (a miscast, albeit effective, Ian Holm) turns up and tries to initiate litigation. Egoyan restructures Banks’s novel (which is narrated by several characters in turn and proceeds chronologically) into the kind of mosaic narrative used in his recent features and in most of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novels (in which several different time frames and narrative lines are intercut and proceed simultaneously). He also adds some material about the Pied Piper, capturing the essence of some parts of the book but simplifying most of the characters and making the mountainous setting more mythical. Virtually all of Egoyan’s features revolve around emotional traumas, but this one seems less obsessive–for good and ill. Ever since Calendar, Egoyan has grown in stature by confronting the real world rather than phantasmic allegories, making the pain less narcissistic and more explicitly concerned with the way we live together. The Sweet Hereafter is no exception, and this film has potent things to say about communal ties and the repressive machinations of capitalism that can sever them. Fine Arts. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.

Published on 26 Dec 1997 in Featured Texts, by jrosenbaum

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Deceiver

Tim Roth, the disturbed offspring of a well-to-do Charleston family, is a prime suspect in the brutal murder of a prostitute (Renee Zellweger), and two detectives (Chris Penn and Michael Rooker) hope that a series of polygraph interrogations will pin him down. This is a fair-to-middling psychological thriller by the writing-directing team of Jonas and Josh Pate, relatively easy to watch and even easier to forget. Watch for cameos by Ellen Burstyn, Rosanna Arquette, and Mark Damon. (JR)

Published on 16 Dec 1997 in Featured Texts, by admin

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Good Will Hunting

Goodwill, in fact, is mainly what this muted drama has, along with premises that suggest a therapeutic fairy tale and the warmth of Gus Van Sant’s laid-back direction. Young mathematics genius Will Hunting (cowriter Matt Damon) works as a janitor at MIT, where a math professor (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers him and makes him see a therapist (a subdued Robin Williams). Scripted with Ben Affleck (who plays the hero’s best friend), and assisted by a charismatic performance by Minnie Driver, this is good, solid work that never achieves either the art or poignance of Van Sant’s earlier and more personal projects (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), though it’s clearly superior to something like Dead Poets Society. 126 min. (JR)

Published on 16 Dec 1997 in Featured Texts, by admin

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