Henry Bromell’s Panic ,
from his own screenplay, is so much better than its plot sounds that it takes
its place as one of the revelatory viewing experiences of the new year. Alex
(William H. Macy) is a hit man with a midlife crisis so acute that he goes to a
shrink for relief. Sound a bit like Analyze
This with a subplot of The Sopranos
thrown in? It’s not. For one thing, the distinctively chiseled look of the
movie is thoroughly original. For another, the characters are driven deeper and
deeper into their hitherto repressed psyches until they explode with epiphanies
What makes Alex an unusually Freudian hit man is his intense
relationship with his domineering father, Michael (Donald Sutherland). It was
his father who trained Alex to kill squirrels when he was little, and as Alex
grew up under his father’s tutelage, he learned to kill people cleanly and
efficiently. Though he is married with a child, Alex is not allowed by his
father to reveal what the “family business” really is to his wife, Martha
(Tracey Ullman), and his 6-year-old boy, Sammy (David Dorfman). Yet his mother,
Deidre (Barbara Bain), knows all the family secrets and enjoys all the perks
the family enjoys thanks to the contract-killing fees. One comparatively
unexplored element of the narrative is the minuscule mail-order business Alex
pretends is the sole source of his income. By neglecting this fount of easy
satiric laughs, Mr. Bromell shows that he is after bigger game and deeper
When Alex confides in his mother about his visit to a
shrink, he pleads with her not to tell his father-which she immediately does,
with a maddening indifference to her son’s painful vulnerability to his
father’s hectoring and bullying.
The plot thickens considerably when Alex’s father gives him
a new assignment, and it turns out to be his shrink. Alex understandably drags
his feet, despite his father’s constant teasing. Not only has Alex become
attached to Dr. Josh (John Ritter) and his probing insights, he has also found
relief from his troublesome family in Sarah (Neve Campbell), a troublesome
analysand he met in the waiting room.
Despite his helpless
infatuation with Sarah, Alex finds he cannot leave his wife and little boy,
with whom he has one of those magically mature relationships one finds on the
screen more and more often these days. The level of child acting and child
affect has risen to stratospheric levels in recent years, and Panic is no exception. Indeed, Mr. Bromell
constructs his shattering climax around Alex’s horrified discovery that his
father has taken Sammy out for an instructive lesson on killing squirrels.
What finally happens to the characters in Panic is gently moving and ironic, but nothing seems forced or contrived. A noted
writer of fiction and quality television dramas, Mr. Bromell displays a gift
for building characters from the inside out, so that everything they do,
however bizarre, seems consistent with who and what they are. Yet I never knew
what was going to happen next, and that is the mark of a masterful screen
storyteller. Mr. Macy and Mr. Sutherland have never been more effectively
wedded to their roles.
The creative credits for The
Million Dollar Hotel are curiously intermingled with the numerous producer
credits. Hence, veteran German cutting-edge director
Wim Wenders is billed as the director-producer, Nicholas Klein as the
screenwriter-producer and rock star Bono as the co-producer and also the
story’s co-creator. Bruce Davey and Deepak Nayar are merely producers, and
Ulrich Felsberg is aboard as an executive producer. This multiplicity of
credits is not unusual in this age of endless vanities, but seldom (if ever)
has a broth with so many cooks, and a cast so full of real and virtual
celebrities, spoiled into a concoction as excruciatingly bad as The Million Dollar Hotel . The only
mystery is how a superstar like Mel Gibson allowed himself to be enmeshed in
such a pseudo-avant-garde mishmash.
I must acknowledge at this point that I have never been an
admirer of Mr. Wenders’ elaborate exercises in faux-naïf sentimentality,
through which love and friendship seek to find fruition in a corrupt and
uncaring world. But in the past I could appreciate at least the shrewd
crowd-pleasing competence of Paris, Texas
(1984) and Wings of Desire (1987).
Mr. Wenders has been making movies since 1970, and one must thereby concede him
the virtues of sincerity and persistence. But the duration and durability of
his career are no excuse for the total disaster of The Million Dollar Hotel .
The plot, such as it is, concerns a murder investigation
conducted by initially robotic Agent Skinner (Mel Gibson), hampered
conspicuously by a neck brace. The alleged murder of a junkie (Tim Roth)
occurred on the roof of the Million Dollar Hotel, from which the junkie jumped
or was pushed to his death. Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies), the junkie’s roommate, is
one of the prime suspects, the leading character, the random narrator and, in
short, the poltergeist of the piece, but Mr. Davies gives one of the most
ill-advised performances that I have ever seen or heard in English-language
entertainment. He just goes on and on, twitching, grimacing, contorting and
making animal sounds and gestures that are his and his alone.
Tom Tom has a fitful romance going on with Eloise (Milla
Jovovich), who is clinically disturbed-but next to Tom Tom, she appears to be
the soul of sanity and lucidity. Among the other delusional occupants of the
hotel are Geronimo (Jimmy Smits), a suspiciously nihilistic Native American
“painter” who simply smears black tar over paintings he has stolen; Dixie
(Peter Stormare), a Beatles fanatic who insists he wrote many of their songs
and never got credit for it; and Vivien (Amanda Plummer), a pushy would-be
femme fatale claiming that the dead junkie wanted to marry her.
There is nothing new about the ironic idea underlying the
film’s structure, which is simply that the people inside the asylum are less
crazed than the supposedly “normal” people outside. This stuff was very chic
back in the 60′s, but it is a very tired conceit in the new millennium. But the
concept is not primarily what is at fault with the movie, but rather the
confused and chaotic execution. At times it seems as though Mr. Wenders has
become obsessed with his real-life locale, a seedy hotel now known as the
Frontier Hotel, with its old Million Dollar Hotel logos still emblazoned on the
roof. The problem is that the characters drown in the allegorical flow of the
imagery, and nothing can revive them. It is best to pretend that this film
never happened, and its performers, including those mentioned above, can hope
that nobody saw it.
Ullmann’s Swipe at Adultery
Liv Ullmann’s Faithless ,
from a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman, reminds us that Mr. Bergman launched his
film career in 1944 as a screenwriter for Alf Sjöberg’s Torment ( Hets in Sweden).
Mr. Bergman was then only 26 years old, but the metaphysical morbidity of his
career was already in place. Now Mr. Bergman is close to 83, and two of his
three recent screenplays have been directed by Ms. Ullmann, his ex-lover and
one of the most luminous actresses in his gallery of beauties. Indeed, if
anyone were emotionally and spiritually qualified to direct the master’s winter
tale of his own turbulent married life, it would be Ms. Ullmann.
Erland Josephson, another recent Bergman regular, plays an
aging screenwriter and director (Bergman himself) who conjures up memories of
the characters in his ongoing family saga. The events unfold with a new
generation of Swedish performers, most prominently Lena Endre, who serves as
Marianne Vogler, Bergman the character’s Muse of Memory. Marianne is a
successful actress happily married to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), an orchestra
conductor much in demand for overseas concerts, and devoted to her young,
affectionate daughter, Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). But is the marriage so
perfect? Apparently not, since Marianne almost absent-mindedly drifts into an
affair with family friend David (Krister Henriksson), a film director
(conceivably an earlier version of Mr. Bergman) notorious for his tendency to
enter into unstable, neurotic relationships.
Ms. Ullmann and Mr. Bergman seem to be saying something
about the pitfalls of married life in the artistic community. In previous films
dealing with the marital woes of Mr. Bergman’s parents in the shadow of the
Church, the emphasis was on the penalties accruing from the stifling
repressiveness of religion. But in Faithless ,
the comparative license accorded artists in their bohemian frolics and carefree
work schedules creates its own obstacles to commitment and fidelity. One
wonders if Mr. Bergman would have made Marianne more sympathetic than Ms.
Ullmann does if he had directed Faithless
himself. As it is, Ms. Ullmann brings Isabelle, the pain-ridden daughter, front
and center, in mute judgment of her frivolous and irresponsible mother.
Nonetheless, the Ullmann-Bergman collaboration extends the
mortal chain of the Ingmarian universe to present times. There is nothing casual
or even pleasurable about adultery here. If anything, it is a little ridiculous
at some moments, and piercingly painful at others. There is always a price to
pay, and yet there is never a suggestion that any other course of action would
be more fruitful. Suffering of one kind or
another is inevitable given the inexorably ticking clock to eternity.
See and enjoy, as we have done for so long with the Nordic Pirates of
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