Monday, September 18, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

If this year’s Oscars had to be held next week (and I don’t mean to suggest I can’t wait until March) it looks to me like the best actress race would be between Renee Zellweger, Thora Birch, Kirsten Dunst and Piper Perabo. The combined age of whom might just about amount to a Judi Dench. Hollywood’s always criticized for giving the younger women all the breaks, but this is something new. Especially as none of the four had to pretend to be in love with Michael Douglas, or with any other contemporary of their grandfathers (well, Birch in Ghost World hooks up with Steve Buscemi, but that’s hardly the same thing).

Piper Perabo

Perabo is in the current Lost and Delirious, a Canadian film about a doomed affair between two teenage boarding-school girls. In their top floor dormitory, she and Jessica Pare share an idyllic rapport, and a bed, until they’re discovered together. Pare quickly turns stridently heterosexual to safeguard her reputation. Perabo, whose character is stamped from the first scene as a potentially out of control self-dramatizer, quickly goes over the edge – accosting Pare with Shakespearean monologues in the library, challenging her new boyfriend to a duel with real swords, and yelling abuse in all directions.

If I had an impressionable teenage daughter with a touch of the turbulent poet about her, I definitely wouldn’t want her going near this film until she’d made it safely into her twenties. Resembling a slightly softer Angelina Jolie (who did win an Oscar for burning through a very similar role in Girl Interrupted) and radiating as much misplaced self-assurance. Perabo makes breakdown look like the only way to go. The movie devotes itself to her at the cost of almost anything else – she’s allowed to rant and pose long after the teachers should have sought serious help, and her special relationship with a hawk in the forest is too easy a symbol of the primal force she embodies. She’s quite excellent, and she’s certainly charismatic, but in an abstract kind of way. Still, give her a few years, and Piper Perabo may be the next Julia Roberts.

Apocalypse Now Redux

I don’t suppose Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux will be eligible for any Oscars this year (on its first release, in 1979, it lost to Kramer vs. Kramer – how dumb does that seem now?) Coppola and editor Walter Murch have gone back to the Vietnam epic, brushing up the image and sound quality and adding some fifty minutes of new scenes, bringing the total running time to three and a half hours. I haven’t watched the original for many years, so I’m not well-equipped to carry out a before-and-after comparison (critical opinion seems generally in favour of the new material, although with some strong dissenters too). But I do agree with the pack that Redux is the most impressive American movie to be released this year.

It's an engrossing spectacle, of course – especially in the early part of the film where Coppola feverishly orchestrates helicopters and explosions and people into an evocation of war that’s too beautiful and vivid to be quite real. In his famous performance, Robert Duvall is almost excessively charismatic as the brutally effective Colonel Kilgore, razing villages as if as an afterthought while indulging his passion for surfing: an absurdist approach that might have worn thin if pursued for the entire movie. As it continues, the film tones down its potentially cartoonish edge, but hones in on the intense incongruity and confusion that are rather brashly contained in the Duvall scenes.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard, sent to travel up-river with a small group, in search of an army colonel who’s deserted and now leads a strange community in the depths of the jungle. In one of the newly-added sequences, they encounter two Playboy bunnies, stranded after their promotion tour helicopter ran out of fuel. Later, they find a French family holding out on a plantation long after all others have left, still dressing formally for dinner and engaging in conversation as though caught in a time warp. These sequences make Redux less of a pure war film and more an abstract meditation on political, cultural and psychological confusion (with Vietnam being one of the all-time great media for such a project); leading more inevitably now to the famously murky finale where Sheen finds the missing Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.

Kurtz is viewed by his followers as a great man, but the main mouthpiece for this is Dennis Hopper’s character – a standard-issue 60’s hippie photographer – suggesting that Kurtz’ power lies mainly in the very idea of transcendence (or dropping out). Brando’s most famous line from the movie is his final apparent indictment of war “the horror…the horror…,” but if Kurtz is mad, it seems attributable as much to excessive introspection as to his experiences in themselves. “It’s judgment that defeats us,” he says in one of his monologues, and at another point: “You have the right to kill me, but not to judge me.” The movie damns judgment, and makes it almost impossible to render. Just when Sheen should deliver some closure to himself and to us, he becomes incomprehensible.

The film uses fades and slow dissolves and mist to hide the basic linearity of its structure (they encounter one incident, then travel on up the river for a few minutes and encounter another): it ultimately generates the sense of a world turned on its head. It’s no great shakes as politics or analysis, and its energy sometimes seems touched by naivete, but no other current film has even half as much going on.

The Others

I suppose my list of Oscar contenders should also have included Nicole Kidman – especially since Moulin Rouge and her new film The Others constitute two separate chances (if the Oscars are as sentimental as some say, then the break-up with Tom Cruise may constitute a third). But I thought she was swallowed up amid the technical cartwheels of Moulin Rouge, and she’s quite cold and unemotive in The Others. Not that this isn’t what the film, a well-crafted haunted house story, needs. But despite the effective mood and pacing and the nicely sprung surprise ending, it’s hard to get really excited about a movie with so little emotional depth. And Kidman never does anything at all unexpected in it. I’d like to see her carry off a role in which “delirious” was a major concept, but I can’t imagine it.

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