Season of the Witches: Zombie, Johansson, Delpy, Pacino
By Fernando F. Croce

First, poor little Hannibal Lecter stranded in a Stalinist orphanage, now Michael Myers as a white-trash Oliver Twist. Boogeymen are better with their mysteries untouched, yet the new Halloween spends a good 45 minutes scrambling to explicate the "pure evil" that John Carpenter coolly summarized with a subjective tracking shot in the 1978 original. Still, the extra time is far from a total waste: The early sequences, tracing 10-year-old Michael's (Daeg Faerch) rise from pudgy-faced troubled kid to soulless killer, are caked with gore-auteur Rob Zombie's fascination with familial drives and blunt yet galvanizing morbidity (it's no accident that two songs featuring prominently are "Love Hurts" and "Don't Fear the Ripper"). Then again, who wouldn't turn psycho with Sheri Moon Zombie for a stripper-mom (holy oedipal anxiety, Batman!) and William Forsythe on the sofa as a frothing stepdaddy? Zombie's filmmaking has matured considerably since House of 1000 Corpses, and the intensity of Halloween's first sessions, including the introduction of Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) as an asylum specialist who's partly responsible for Michael's growth into a mute ogre (Tyler Mane) with an obsession for phony visages, leaves a pungent taste. When the murderer hacks his way to freedom toward the town where his little sister (Scout Taylor-Compton) lives, however, the horror increasingly dissipates into hysteria, viscera, and cameos by old-school horror staples (Brad Dourif, Ken Foree, Dee Wallace, Sid Haig, etc.). The masked fiend's protracted stalking of his sis in their decrepit house could have been as complex and passionate a dance of family and death as the nutty climax of The Devil's Rejects, but Zombie's fury is dulled by his veneration of the horror classic. Reverence doesn't suit him -- the cinema needs madmen.

*

Another moppet picks up carving machete and William Shatner mask when, near the end of The Nanny Diaries, he is deprived of both his puppy and his hot babysitter (Scarlett Johansson). I keed, I keed, although this facile adaptation of the bizarrely acclaimed "satire" of life as a New York City nanny could really use some blood. Johansson, born to wear satin and wield cigarette holders for De Palma, is here supposed to be some kind of poster-girl for earthy New Jersey pluck, fresh out of college and looking for herself while regarding her tenure as a sitter among Upper East Side aristos as an extension of her anthropology studies. She stumbles onto the position in Central Park, and soon is Mary Poppin' it over to the luxurious home of Mr. and Mrs. X (Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti), where she bonds with their pampered but lonely son and falls for the "Harvard Hottie" on the next floor (Chris Evans). The mix of indignation and envy which was the book's solitary interesting element gets sweetened for viewers who thought The Devil Wears Prada was way too hard-hitting for them; despite the spurious lip-service about how hard it is for people who don't look like Scarlett Johansson to serve the bluebloods, the picture is just a smug sitcom that ooohs and aaahs over the lacquered swank while dodging any chance for complexity (Linney, who delivered a superbly thorny account of maternal upheavals in The Squid and the Whale, gives an uncharacteristically skin-deep performance). The filmmakers, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, could blame their stagnant visuals on the influence of American Splendor's comic-book world, but have only themselves to blame for softening their own most intriguing ideas.

*

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are easily among my favorite American movies from the last 15 years, and it is the dedicated goal of 2 Days in Paris to curdle my warm memories of them. The culprit is star-director-writer-editor-composer Julie Delpy, so marvelously responsive under Richard Linklater's tender direction but here set on annihilating her own romantic persona in a shoddy, sour handheld-video excursion. Delpy comes to her native Paris from New York City with her boyfriend (Adam Goldberg), and the wackiness is on: Toss in undersized condoms, Da Vinci Code-crazed tourists, ostentatiously earthy parents (played by Delpy's real-life folks), racist cabbies, and still-photograph montages, and it becomes clear that the film's model isn't Eric Rohmer but the similarly aggravating Neil Simon comedy The Out-of-Towners. The main gag is that the couple keeps bumping into Delpy's ex-lovers, which allows Goldberg (who, in fuzzy beard and "Godard glasses," might be the Dylan that got dropped from Haynes's I'm Not There) to bring out his arsenal of gimmicky double-takes; Delpy, meanwhile, piles on the Diane Keatonisms until finally making the startling discovery that "it's not easy being in a relationship." There comes a point when the unpredictability and messiness of human affairs can no longer be used as excuses for abrasion, and raging vanity and undigested personal neurosis must step up to the plate. If Delpy wants to keep mining this personal vein, maybe she should switch genres -- her character's extended meltdown upon spotting a former beau at a café is the just kind of unspeakable horror Rob Zombie can only dream of.

*

Best known for its protest-triggering production and centerpiece status in Chuck Vito's The Celluloid Closet, William Friedkin's 1980 Cruising is getting the reissued-classic treatment and occasioning more than a bit of revisionist criticism: What the Gay News once branded "the most homophobic film in the history of the cinema" is now being defended by many as a final, misunderstood burst of '70s maverick filmmaking, The fisting-and-popper-fueled leather dens infiltrated by undercover cop Al Pacino in his hunt for a homo-killer are literal disco infernos, not that straights come off any better in Friedkin's eyes (any film that opens with Joe "Maniac" Spinell as a cop talking about killing his wife hardly qualifies as a case for the normalcy of hetero order). The great, uncloseted Robin Wood saw its portrayal of the S&M netherworld as an extension of a society built on noxious power games, but it's difficult not think of Friedkin staging the assignment's supposedly "ambiguous" effect on the hero as another one of his trademark transferences of evil, like the demon entering the priest in The Exorcist or Michael Shannon passing his madness onto Ashley Judd in Bug. I saw Cruising on VHS in the mid-1990s, and have felt no desire to see it again since; if it's worth revisiting, it's for the way its chilly homophobia is occasionally complicated by allegedly verité glimpses of irrepressible, pre-AIDS romping, the camera panning across a roomful of jolly, partying sodomites only to come to rest ominously on the silent, leathered-up figure watching in the corner.


Reviewed September 8, 2007.

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