Hungry? Skip Ravenous
We’ve had vampires in Brooklyn and werewolves in Central Park, but cannibals in California is a new one on me. Get ready for Ravenous , a bloody, pretentious and paralyzing bore about soldiers in 1847 who feast on each other like blue-plate specials, turning fellow officers into stews and spareribs. The point of this nauseating display of De gustibus non disputandum is that you’ll never order leg of lamb again once you’ve tasted thigh of second lieutenant.
The setting is a desolate military outpost in the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains where cowards and deserters are sent in the Mexican-American War. Eight actors on a journey to hell on ice are joined by Guy Pearce, the Australian pretty boy who was riveting as both a drag queen (in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert ) and a tough cop (in L.A. Confidential ). This time he plays a war hero dispatched to Fort Spencer, a filthy way station for weary travelers, as punishment for refusing to eat meat-a senseless plot ploy from which the film never recovers. At the fort he encounters one Indian squaw and a cast of drunks, addicts and morons that includes two of the most irritatingly mannered actors of the 1990′s-Jeremy Davies, who has played mumbling, weeping, stuttering imbeciles in at least four films in the past year, and Stephen Spinella, who fawns and mewls his way through a Southern accent so phony the audience laughs every time he opens his mouth.
Suddenly, inexplicably, they are joined by a half-frozen Scotsman (Robert Carlyle, from The Full Monty ) who has survived three months in the wilderness by eating his traveling companions. When a crew of men sets out on a mission to retrieve the corpses, the Scotsman goes berserk and slaughters everyone but Mr. Pearce, who finally gives in to his hunger pains and devours the raw kidneys of his best friend. Naturally, he is never the same. Chopped carrots are no substitute for chopped fingers, and the nails make great toothpicks.
Back at the fort, where the guest list grows smaller in every scene, everybody is too busy quoting Benjamin Franklin and Aristotle to believe the lurid tale. Then Mr. Carlyle shows up disguised as the new commanding officer with a dastardly plan to turn the remaining colonels and generals into barbecue until the spring thaw, when the fort will feature a new menu of appetizing tourists. (Donner party, your hors d’oeuvres are ready!) As the plot grows weirder and sicker by the minute, Mr. Carlyle nurses Mr. Pearce back to vitality with jugular vein cocktails and says, “It’s lonely being a cannibal-so tough making new friends,” and the whole thing builds to a violent battle to the death between the last two cannibals to see which one gets to be breakfast.
I’d like to tell you I’m making it all up, but even Antonia Bird, the director, doesn’t know if it’s a comedy, a melodrama, or a lurid horror film, so what do you expect from me? Ravenous begins with a quote (“Eat me!”) and moves swiftly into close-ups of men devouring plates of meat swimming in blood and there is vomiting throughout. The acting is dreadful, the pace is numbing, and bewilderment reigns. The stuff they choose to make movies about is a source of constant grim amazement. Wonders never cease, but they do sometimes cease to amuse. Bon appétit!
Planes, Trains, Runaway Grooms
With so many new actors hitting it lucky, so many agents packing and merchandising their talents like chewing gum, and so few quality movies for them to appear in, it’s understandable why they so often choose the wrong ones. This is what happens to Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock in Forces of Nature , a slender comedy that never goes for big laughs where small, benign chuckles will do.
He plays a buttoned-down, anal-retentive writer of blurbs on book jackets who is on his way to get married in Savannah, Ga. She plays a hippie with black toenail polish, tattooed navel and Vampira wig who squeezes into the seat next to his. In a series of disasters that follow, their plane crashes before it leaves the ground, they hitch a ride in the rental car of a druggie with a stash of pot and an expired driver’s license and they get busted. This labored movie (lazily directed by Bronwen Hughes, whose only previous experience was the dreadful Harriet the Spy ) chronicles the draining adventures of mismatched traveling companions and the not-so-irresistible wackos they encounter along the way while he tries to make his wedding on time. Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck might have made something of this square-vs.-free-soul scenario. Mr. Affleck and Ms. Bullock barely get by on their charm. If there’s any chemistry, it stayed in the lab.
Switching to Amtrak, they get rerouted to Chicago and stranded in a laundromat, where they’re robbed of all their money and credit cards. Broke and desperate with zero options, they invade a Miami-bound bus loaded with senior citizens on a condo-buying excursion, pretending to be newlyweds. On a motel layover, his best man (Steve Zahn) and his fiancée’s maid of honor (Meredith Scott Lynn) show up and discover them sharing a queen-size bed. Things are not much smoother down in Savannah, either. The bride (Maura Tierney) is hysterical, the wedding dress arrives damaged, her parents (Ronny Cox and Blythe Danner) have separated, and an old boyfriend shows up to claim squatter’s rights.
By the time Mr. Affleck ends up stripping in a gay disco to earn enough money to buy a wrecked car, I found myself checking my watch. But there’s still a hurricane on the way, as well as some concern about whether the film will ever end. Complicated and contrived, Forces of Nature is a film that wastes some good people, but it sort of grows on you, and Mr. Affleck is actually endearing as a confused, clean-cut conehead who realizes he still has a few wild oats to sow before he’s mature enough for marriage. Which girl he ends up with is your discovery to make.
“All you can do is commit to the people you love, hope for a little luck, and some good weather,” is Mr. Affleck’s character’s moral, but does it have to take two hours? It’s a harmless way to waste time, but with Y2K on the way, who has two hours to waste?
On Film, Harmonists Sound Better
In a curious (and, to my knowledge, unprecedented) stroke of timing, a movie and a Broadway show based on the same subject material have both opened in the same week. The movie, directed by Joseph Vilsmaier in German with subtitles, is The Harmonists . The play, co-directed by Patricia Birch and Susan Feldman, is Band in Berlin . Both explore the life and work of the Comedian Harmonists, a popular vocal group during Hitler’s rise to power that was beloved by millions of German music lovers and on its way to international fame when its career were halted because three of its six members were Jewish. If you only have the time, money and interest to see one version of their story, don’t miss the movie.
Richly textured and beautifully acted, The Harmonists is a deeply moving canvas of life in Berlin from 1927 to 1935, a time of unemployment, hunger and unstable politics when six broke and struggling musicians formed a unique show-business act using funny hats, corny songs and voices arranged in five-part harmonies like musical instruments. They rehearsed in a brothel, performed for everyone from the Gestapo to Hitler himself, and made more than 200 recordings. They even played Radio City Music Hall. Although their songs ran the gamut from Duke Ellington to the overture from The Barber of Seville , they specialized in harmless sentimental fluff of the “tra-la-la” variety.
The movie uses actual recordings of the group, evoking a sense of time and place, while meticulously examining the diverse lives and personalities of the five singers and their pianist. Harry Frommermann, the lyric baritone who founded the group, was the son of a cantor; Robert Biberti was a blond, strapping Aryan who sang bass, handled business affairs and stole Harry’s girlfriend; Ari Leschnikoff was the Bulgarian tenor and resident lothario; Erich Collin was the Jewish-born second tenor, baptized and raised as a gentile, a bon vivant who spoke seven languages fluently; Erwin Bootz was the 19-year-old accompanist, and Roman Cycowski was the happily married Polish Jew who, after fleeing the Nazis, ended up in Palm Springs, where he died in 1998 at the ripe old age of 97.
Life was peachy until this group of innocent people with no politics or prejudices at all was finally ruined and forced to disband with the cheers of a devastated country still echoing in their ears. The film has some powerful scenes of joy and tragedy. In one, a vicious anti-Semite from the Reich’s Ministry of Music threatens the group with extinction, and then asks them for an autograph. The film also restages their final sold-out concert in 1934, following the announcement that they would be forced to disband because of non-Aryan “racial impurity,” when the stunned audience fell silent, refused to leave the concert hall, then erupted in a wild and tearful standing ovation in support of the music they adored.
Such dramatic sweeps are only sketchily observed in Band in Berlin -the production opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on March 7-which is more of a cabaret act than a play. Using still photos of the period on a stage hung with swastikas adds an eerie authenticity, but 22 songs mostly translated into English and performed by Americans do not have the same impact. The effect is lulling. The skimpy text also leaves out some of the film’s most salient facts. (The group’s loyal accompanist later divorced his Jewish wife to save himself from persecution, and married the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi.)
Band in Berlin adds nothing to the film, but seeing The Harmonists contributes immensely to a fuller understanding of the play. Either way, another little-known chapter of a brutal history has come to life with compelling emotional force, and the Comedian Harmonists are finally getting the recognition they richly deserve. Heil, Harmonists! I say, as their music lives on.