Oscar-winners aren’t having much luck these days. From Hilary Swank and Geoffrey Rush to Angelina Jolie and Russell Crowe, they all seem jinxed. Out in the galaxy of the Governator, when that lucky old sun’s got nothing to do, it leaves them brain-fried. How else to explain Halle Berry in an idiotic dumpster haul called Gothika? Labeled as a scary supernatural thriller by overrated French actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz, it has no thrills and wouldn’t scare a 6-year-old on Halloween-but like all of the critics at the screening I attended, you might find it inadvertently hilarious.
The undeniably stunning Ms. Berry, stripped of all traces of comely appeal, not to mention cover-girl glamour, plays Dr. Miranda Grey, a psychologist in the psycho ward of an antediluvian women’s prison where the lights are always going out and the generator doesn’t work. Her patients are all criminally insane, but Penélope Cruz, who still sounds like Rita Moreno playing Googie Gomez, poses a special problem. She insists Satan is visiting her nightly and raping her in her cell: “He entered me like a flower of pain, filled me with fire, making me burn from the inside out.” The dialogue is feverish and the laughs start early. Anyway, every time she thinks about looking for a better line of work, like flapping waffles at IHOP, she gets a fresh pep talk about probing deeper into the minds and souls of lunatics from her husband (Charles S. Dutton), who is the chief administrator of the cracker factory and patron saint of the loonies. Leaving work in the pouring rain one night, she narrowly misses crashing into a girl in a night gown on a bridge and smashes her car in a ditch. When she wakes up in a padded cell, her husband has been slashed to death in a pool of blood, she’s the chief murder suspect, and now she’s locked in the wacko ward herself, in the custody of the peculiar doctor (Robert Downey Jr.) who once tried to put the make on her in the never-ending blackouts. The staff hates her because she was married to the boss. The patients hate her because she used to be their doctor. In an overcrowded shower filled with naked women, she’s stabbed 35 times with a surgeon’s scalpel, and the wounds on her arm spell out the same cryptic words (“Not Alone”) that were scrawled in blood at her husband’s murder scene. Dr. Miranda doesn’t believe in the paranormal, but the attacker is the girl on the bridge, who turns out to be dead for four years. Why is her ghost coming back from beyond the grave? Why is the devil raping the women inmates in the cracker factory? Why doesn’t anybody pay the electric bill? Gothika is too dopey to provide answers that could ever be construed as acceptable logic to anyone except M. Night Shyamalan. What the movie does provide is a lot of laughable opportunities for Halle Berry to hide her beauty behind a parade of grotesque expressions and scream her head off in a mental ward that makes what Olivia de Havilland went through in The Snake Pit look like a tea party down the rabbit hole with the Mad Hatter. Her first day out of solitary, and wouldn’t you think she’d head for a steak, a martini and a clean tank top? No, she sets out for a deserted barn with a trap door leading to an underground torture chamber. “You have to stop these delusions, Miranda.” “I’m not deluded-I’m possessed!” If you can hear what’s going on over the laughter and the audience talking back to the actors, you might be interested to know that, in the end, the doctor watches a bus drive through a little boy whose face peers from a missing-child poster on the street corner. Clearly, there’s a job waiting for Halle Berry at Family Services.
As a rule, I’m not keen on cartoons in general, or the old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies that used to plague Saturday movie matinees in particular. I generally headed for the bathroom during Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, treating them as impertinent intrusions while I waited for Bogart, Davis and Stanwyck. They’re b-b-b-back, as Elmer Fudd would say, and they all have their own tables in the studio commissary. Bugs now attends stockholders’ meetings, while Daffy has become a faded action hero and nobody has a clue what to do with Tweety Pie. Looney Tunes: Back in Action blends animation with real people in a cockeyed script by Larry Doyle that looks and sounds like they made it up as they went along. Brendan Fraser plays a Warners security guard who wants to be a stunt man. When his father, a movie star famous for playing secret agents (played by former James Bond Timothy Dalton), is kidnapped by a gang of retarded spies headed by a lisping, limp-wristed crime boss (Steve Martin, in the most embarrassing performance of his life), Mr. Fraser-who is clearly slumming for big bucks-leaves Burbank for Vegas (wouldn’t you?) to save him. What a crime to see the talented star of Gods and Monsters and The Quiet American fritter away his time and trash his talent on this kind of candy corn. His acting consists mainly of ducking flying objects and landing imaginary punches in the paunch. Jenna Elfman, who is clearly trying to prove that there can still be a career after TV’s Dharma and Greg , tags along, with Bugs, Daffy, Porky Pig, Sylvester the cat and Yosemite Sam in tow. The plot has something to do with Dad, who is really a spy, battling the imbecilic crooks in pursuit of a blue diamond that can change people into monkey slaves like Margaret Hamilton’s household staff in Oz, thus threatening the world population in the kind of crisis that can only be fully enjoyed by children after a kindergarten nap. The movie switches to Paris just so the cartoon characters can crawl around inside the Impressionist paintings on the walls of the Louvre. Otherwise, there isn’t much space, dimension or depth perception to rave about. But a few inside jokes are worth a chuckle, as director Joe Dante sends up Psycho, Batman and Star Wars and Bugs Bunny fights the dark evils of the Force (“Eh … what’s up, Darth?”) Did I mention the chuckles are very small chuckles indeed? This is a movie costing untold millions of dollars for no valuable reason except to entertain 7-year-olds after school. It should only be reviewed by a 7-year-old movie critic, and I will gladly provide a portion of this space if you know one.
On the opposite side of the coin (and a few light years away in terms of originality and imagination), the French animated feature The Triplets of Belleville simmers with bizarre humor and awesome attention to visual and aural detail. Set in a heightened postwar world of bulbous pedestrians, eerie, rubbery frogs and the haunting whine of a hurtling commuter train, this enchanting film by Sylvain Chomet casts an irresistible spell over the senses.
Madame Souza lives with her lonely, melancholy nebbish grandson Champion on a hill outside Paris. One day she answers his dreams by giving him a tricycle. Years pass. As the city sprouts up around the house, the pudgy little misfit grows into a lean, serene cycling fiend on two wheels. Champion is such a great cyclist that he enters the Tour de France, but is kidnapped in the middle of the race by menacing strangers in black leather jackets. In the film’s most beautiful sequence, Grandma and her faithful hound Bruno track the villains across the Atlantic to a glistening, towering Gallic version of New York City called Belleville. In this mythic megalopolis, the penniless Madame Souza and Bruno are rescued by the Belleville triplets, an eccentric trio of 1930’s music-hall singers who were once a famous cabaret act. Now they’re three old crones who have fallen on hard times but haven’t lost their sense of rhythm. The triplets make music with the sounds of a vacuum cleaner, rustling newspapers, and by scraping the shelves of their empty refrigerator. Imagine Macbeth’s witches doing the jitterbug.
With a vigorous nod to Jacques Tati, the movie is built around tempos and contrasts of sound and image. Digital technology creates a hilarious television montage of ancient vaudeville stars, featuring Josephine Baker’s bananas and Fred Astaire tap dancing until his exhausted shoes detach from his feet and eat him alive. The skyscrapers move, Champion’s calf muscles bulge like huge sacks of potatoes, and the inhabitants of Belleville are obese from the indulgences of capitalism. They all come to life in three dimensions, along with a chase through the narrow canyons of the city shot from dizzying heights, and even a massive train wreck. With virtually no dialogue, the stellar sound design does the talking, while the visual style is based on a combination of mime, Grand Guignol, Edward Gorey drawings and the amusing oils of Ludwig Bemelmans. The 3-D characters are exaggerated Katzenjammer Kids. Champion is a composite of strangely angelic concentration and the catatonic result of mind-altering drugs. The club-footed Madame Souza is a touching, feisty powerhouse with one leg that is longer than the other and a whistle to keep the world in line. The massive, square-shouldered French Mafiosi who imprison and torture Champion resemble walking armoires. Their purpose: an illegal gambling amusement using cycle slaves that looks like a sadistic video game. Musical notes emerge from household objects. A catchy score by Benoît Charest is inspired by the music of jazz legend Django Reinhardt. The impressive journey across the ocean is accompanied by Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. The postwar era is evoked through a warm palette of antiqued browns and beiges. Cinematic pop-culture references create nostalgic ambiance instead of in-jokes. As sophisticated and awesome as animated films can get, The Triplets of Belleville is everything the brainless Looney Tunes movie doesn’t have the intelligence or courage to be. Instead of pandering to kids, this remarkable co-production from France, Canada and Belgium elevates their minds and stimulates their imaginations, creating a truly captivating world unto itself that can be seen and applauded by audiences of every age. Simply marvelous.
Barbara Brussell is a new singer with wit, style, warmth, drive and impeccable musical taste. She also has incredible chops. You can catch her every Friday night in November at Danny’s Skylight Room on West 46th Street. She will captivate you. Without losing any of its humor, she finds a brand-new way to act the subtext of Ado Annie’s “I Cain’t Say No,” and she can twist your heart into the shape of saltwater taffy on the exquisite ballad “Strangers Once Again”. She treats music like architecture-slowly, meticulously building songs by Harold Arlen, John Bucchino, Tommy Wolf, Craig Carnelia, Cole Porter and others, brick by brick, until the mortar is in place and a total mood is created. Her voice is a happy voice, with a husky edge that can be sexy and slap-happy at the same time. Every number bears her unique stamp, and that includes the surprising aria “This Is My Beloved” from Kismet , performed in an introspective style refreshingly devoid of the usual histrionics. Whether she’s examining Joni Mitchell or Oscar Hammerstein, she holds notes on descriptive words the way a great actor breaks up the thought patterns in a monologue. The voice is sunny, the arrangements are definitively B.B. (Before Barbra), and any singer who moves from Marc Blitzstein to Joni Mitchell in a matter of pulse beats has got to be called sophisticated. In a cabaret world that is glumly turning nightmarish, Barbara Brussell is a dream come true.