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All Movie Reviews

by Lucius Shepard
April 3, 2001

A wintry day in Portland, and I betook myself to the local multiplex to pass a few hours in my search for cinematic perfection. The lobby was, as usual, fairly empty, populated by a smattering of pimply Caucasian youths in black trousers and starched shirts who stared vacantly at bubbling vats of orange and purple liquid, while visions of personal high Quake scores danced in their heads. It took the little lady at the concession counter three tries to get my change right—my feeling was that the Education President had his work cut out for him. As I passed doorway after doorway surmounted by signs announcing the film playing within, I felt a curious pull from each of the doors, as if the product within were exerting a kind of gravity designed to drag in the braindead. Thank God, I was immune.

My viewing choice that day was Enemy at the Gates, a film by Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose) that focused on the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bleakest and bloodiest chapters of World War II. The battle was in actuality a war within a war and was fought mostly in the ruins of that city for 180 days, serving to blunt the German advance into Russia. Annaud's script seeks to lay credit for the Russian victory at the feet of one Vassili Zaitzev (Jude Law), a shepherd from the Urals whose skill as a sniper demoralizes the German officer cadre. Despite this simplistic thesis, the scenario provides the ground upon which a top-notch thriller might have been mounted. Unfortunately, this potential remains unrealized.

Enemy begins promisingly enough with Zaitzev's entry into the battle, arriving on a troop train, and then, packed into a rickety-looking boat with other fresh recruits, crossing the Volga into the smoke and fury of Stalingrad, all rendered in horrific, smoldering, corpse-ridden detail by Annaud's camera. Many of Zaitzev's fellows panic at the sight of the burning city and dive into the river, whereupon they are shot by Russian officers; but the little shepherd boy, trained by his grandfather as a marksman, remains calm. Even when forced by superiors to enter the battle without a weapon, he proceeds with determination, and eventually, after snatching up a rifle belonging to a fallen comrade, he succeeds in potting half-a-dozen Germans hidden in a ruined building. This attracts the interest of Commander Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a Soviet public relations officer, who in turn brings him to the attention of Nikita Kruschev (an underused Bob Hoskins). Kruschev and Danilov need to manufacture heroes in order to lift the spirits of Stalingrad's defenders, and they turn Zaitzev into a 40s version of a media darling. As young Vassili picks off German officers by the dozens, his picture comes to be featured in newspapers throughout the country and he begins to receive fan mail. His notoriety irritates the Nazi general staff, and they decide to dispatch the taciturn and grizzled Major Koenig (Ed Harris), head of the German sniper school, to kill him. A film that focuses on a duel between two master snipers has by necessity a structural kinship with submarine movies. In each, two skilled operatives, invisible to one another, must study their opponent's habits and seek to outthink rather than outfight him. During the film's first hour, Annaud does a more than credible job of establishing the requisite oppressive atmosphere and tension. We are shown the ultra-cautious day-to-day activities of the sniper teams and learn tidbits of lore regarding their deadly trade—for instance, in winter snipers customarily fill their mouths with snow so as not to give away their positions with puffs of frozen breath. Once Koenig enters the fray, it becomes clear that he is by far the better man of the two duelists. As members of Zaitzev's team are one-by-one slaughtered by Koenig's Annie Oakley-class marksmanship, it would appear that the Soviet hero is doomed. This further elevates the tension. How will our boy survive? Annaud's answer to this question, sad to say, is the movie's undoing. At the beginning of the second hour, he decides to elevate what has thus far been a mild mutual attraction between Zaitzev and Tania Chernova (Rachel Weiss) into a grand passion, then tosses in a Tania-infatuated Danilov to form a triangle, thus dissipating all the tension he has so painstakingly achieved.

The romance between Tania and Vassili proceeds at what seems a rather leisurely pace, when one considers that each day the defenders of Stalingrad woke to the knowledge that they well might not live to see another morning. According to diaries and various other sources, on any given night during the battle, male and female soldiers, goaded by the fevers of war and desperation, commonly had sex in the aisles of the crowded barracks. Tania and Vassili do, indeed, have sex in the barracks, but they manage this surreptitiously, while others sleep around them, and though this semi-clandestine act does serve to communicate a degree of desperation, it scarcely matches the animalistic level of fear displayed by their brothers-and-sisters-in-arms. To keep Koenig occupied while Vassili and Tania flirt and finally consummate, Annaud inserts a frail sub-plot concerning a wee Russian shoeshine boy, a pale, soulful tyke who pals up with the deadly major and is so transparently a spy, one begins to suspect that Koenig's inability to perceive the fact and his minimalist speech patterns are both the result of drug abuse. By the time these two threads have become fully realized, I was no longer much involved in the film. I could see exactly how the ending would develop. Danilov, tormented by the green-eyed monster, would betray Zaitzev, and thus inadvertently expose Tania to death or dishonor, or perhaps cause her to lose the expensive cosmetics that had throughout kept her looking like the poster girl for the Stalingrad War-obics Fitness Video. In the meantime, Koenig would at last tumble to the shoeshine boy's perfidy and whack him in some gruesome manner, thereby justifying his bloody fate. And ultimately, overborne by guilt at his treachery, Danilov would sacrifice himself in some ludicrous fashion that would allow Zaitzev to triumph, love to reign supreme, and the Hollywood Gods to smirk at having transformed Stalingrad into a date movie.

Why watch any more of this crud was my feeling. After tossing my empty box of Goobers at the screen, I hied myself out into the lobby of the multiplex and zipped up my jacket, preparing to brave the cold and the rain; but just then my eye was caught by the alluring title Exit Wounds suspended in brightly lit letters above a nearby door. It cast a winking sugary light that spoke to my soul in a most peculiar way: Mmmm, I thought with a sort of doltish delectation. Steven Seagal. Maybe, I told myself, a bit of the old ultraviolence would cleanse the palette. I slipped into the theater just in time to see Sgt. Orrin Bird (Seagal) save the Vice-President of the United States by throwing him off a bridge into a river. Cool. This exactly reflected my feelings concerning all vice-presidents—don't hurt 'em, but drop 'em off something every once in a while to keep them alert so they can perform as vital partners with the President in our democratic process . . . Yes, indeedy! But after the initial opening blast of hurt and boom boom, I grew deflated. Leathery, bloated, with more creases circling his neck than an ancient redwood trunk has rings, Seagal looked like a man who would be more comfortable doing an AARP commercial than kicking some giant Asiatic guy through a glass wall. His martial artistry was now the creation of careful editing—I imagined him on the set, having his foot jacked up to eye level, with an RN holding a cortisone injection hovering just off-camera. Some of the dialog, taken from the source novel by John Westerberg, was funny, even trenchant, but watching Seagal's arthritic aikido was simply too depressing, and eventually I wandered out into the lobby again, only to be attracted by yet another sign. More than attracted. I was bedazzled, pumped full of daft anticipation and tongue-lolling eagerness. What was happening to me? The name of the film on the sign was Heartbreakers. Mmm. Sigourney Weaver.

Alas, this story of mother-and-daughter con artists (mom marries 'em, daughter seduces 'em, mom divorces 'em and gets a humongus settlement) soon suffered a myocardial infarction caused by inept timing and a lame script.

Once again I hit the lobby and struggled toward the exit, only to be seduced by Traffic, which proved to have all the dramatic verve of an ABC Afterschool Special. The British miniseries that provided the source material was a zillion times better. Once free of Traffic's puny spell, I fell prey to the call of Hannibal. Ridley Scott's Florence is even prettier than his Rome, and judging by his recent personal appearances, Sir Anthony Hopkins' Lecter is hardly a leap from the humorless dead-eyed thespian who showed up at the Oscars as a presenter. There followed The Mexican (an Oscar for Julia, and nothing for Brad? Whass up with that? He's every bit the actor she is. Maybe even better. Time, I say, to give the Academy a pants-down spanking!). Then it was off to Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (the Coen Brothers join the long line of Yankees who have sought to write with humorous condescension about the South and as a consequence wound up looking like dorks). Then Chocolat ("Let's make a witling faux-French farce about chocolate and sex and we'll pull in all the cretins who think Ms. Gabriel Garcia Marquez Lite, Isabella Allende, is a real writer"). And finally, Finding Forrester (invaluable life lesson to be had from this one. Take Sean Connery to an empty baseball park, then—later—have him stand behind you and yell, "Pound the keys!" Literary greatness will be yours).

I staggered out into the lobby, having watched segments of half-a-billion dollars' worth of mind-fogging, dimwitted, uniformly loathsome product, my mind afire with questions such as how come Sigourney Weaver's breasts keep migrating north?, and whatever happened to Gus Van Sant? Can Catherine Zeta-Jones out-act a bag of kitty litter?, and why would you hire Ed Harris for a movie, give him about seven lines, and then have him spend most of his screen time sitting around wearing a half-smile and a Nazi uniform, looking as if he had just smoked a blunt? And this to every theater that runs the message featuring the little girl from The Bicentennial Man as a gruff-voiced cowboy who warns us not to smoke or talk . . . Don't you realize that by continuing to show this unbelievably annoying commercial for proper theater behavior, you're setting up the kid as the target for a million stalkers? I was trembling, nauseated. My heart was doing poly-rhythms. I doubted that my depleted physical resources could stand another spirit-blighting hit of Hollywood gunge. A man's kindly bespectacled face appeared in my field of vision and a hand grasped my arm and helped me to my feet—I hadn't realized that I had fallen.

The man took my pulse, asked me to open my mouth, and after a cursory examination, said, "MPT."

"Huh?" I said.

"Multiplexitois," he replied. "Caused by overexposure to cinematic mediocrity. Causes something of a lemming syndrome in the victim. Compels him to watch movie after movie until all tolerance and critical acumen are stripped away." He gave me an encouraging pat on the shoulder. "Don't worry. It's rarely fatal. However, if I were you, I'd get out of here. A really bad movie could be dangerous for you." He handed me a card good for two free Kurosawa videos. "Take two and call me in the morning," he said. "You should be fine." Thank God, I thought as he walked away, that there was nothing left to see.

But I was wrong.

As I headed for the exit, my eye fell to a sign above a theater tucked away in the corner of the multiplex, a door opening into a darkness thicker and deeper than any I had that afternoon engaged. I tried to hold myself back, but I was being sucked in as surely as I might had I drawn too near a collapsed star. I understood this was a darkness from which I might never emerge, and I called out to the teenaged staff, some of whom were pretending to sweep up, others gaping at the blinking lights of the digital posters. Only a few, perhaps those who had some primitive command of English, even looked my way. One—an asthenic youth with the words NIHIL spelled out by pimples on his pasty brow—opened his lipless mouth to expose snaggly yellow fangs and laughed. None of the rest showed any sign of response. I was a goner. I could think of nothing apart from bad movies and the terrible actors who populated them. I had a disorienting vision of Michael Douglas clenching his jaw muscle, a movement by which he expresses the entire range of his emotions, and I wondered if, apart from citizens of the planet Metron, anyone really had a last name such as Zeta. As I passed beneath the sign, I looked up and caught a last glimpse of the words that would contrive my critical epitaph and conveyed the quintessential horror toward which I was being dragged: Dude, Where's My Car?