Michael Bay’s Armageddon , from a screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams, story by Robert Roy Pool and Mr. Hensleigh and adaptation by Tony Gilory and Shane Salerno, is far from being the worst movie of the year, but it certainly works hard enough to be the most aggravating. In all the highly publicized marketing strategy associated with this would-be box-office “event,” no one at the Disney organization from producer Jerry Bruckheimer on down seemed to worry that Francophiles like me would be offended by the casual obliteration of Paris by a stray meteorite seemingly added to the mayhem fairly early on to keep the kiddie video game players in the audience awake during the frenetically tedious pre-disaster or, rather, near-miss proceedings. Environmentalists are also given short shrift in a nasty introduction to the film’s ultimate hero, oceanic oil driller Harry S. Stamper (Bruce Willis), who is seen hitting golf balls off his oil platform at an offending Greenpeace vessel. What wimps! The line between the character and the actor are somewhat blurred by the publicly espoused conservative stands of Mr. Willis. Oddly, I can’t help feeling a sneaky fondness and respect for him as the moral and emotional center of the most preposterous action melodramas, of which Armageddon is undeniably in a class by itself.
I had heard so much in advance about how silly Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck were as the love interest that I didn’t mind them half as much as I thought I should. Also better than the cinematic shambles of Armageddon deserve are Billy Bob Thornton as the coolheaded NASA chief honcho Dan Truman, Will Patton as Charles (Chick) Chapple, a poignantly failed husband and father seeking redemption in a dangerous mission, and Steve Buscemi as comically womanizing Rockhound, who, we are told with a straight face, eventually is stricken with space mania.
By now you probably know whether or not you should sell all your Disney stock. The domestic grosses for Godzilla and Deep Impact won’t hack it for this $140 million compendium of all the unforgettable moments from every buddy-buddy and big-bang flick you’ve ever seen or heard about. I was particularly struck by the one about the guy about to go on a suicide mission who gets knocked out by another nobler guy who wants to die instead, and thus have the audience love him even after the final fade-out.
I thought that one big obstacle to Armageddon on its projected passage to the box-office stratosphere ($52.9 million in its first five days) would have been the fact that most people don’t like Bruce Willis as much as I do, especially after he has announced his separation from Demi Moore, whom I also like more than most people do. It’s not that the audience is tired of the genre itself. What Independence Day had, and Armageddon doesn’t, is a monstrous enemy destroyed by sheer, cocksure attitude. What Titanic had, and Armageddon doesn’t, is a real-life catastrophe, the details of which have mesmerized people for more than 80 years. For all of Michael Bay’s MTV direction with its often mindlessly frenzied editing, for all of the jingoistic invocations of God and Country, for all of the stereotypical views of other races and other cultures, for all of the vulgarities spewed on the soundtrack to incite idiot laughter between explosions, Armageddon is much too nice and noble for the targeted bloodthirsty rabble.
I must confess that at times I found myself rooting for the meteor to hit the Earth and put us all out of our misery. The outer space special effects are boringly excruciating, and it is impossible to believe that anyone could survive all that roaring noise and speeding debris without at the very least having a nervous breakdown. It is not so much the waste of money represented by Armageddon that depresses me, as it is the absolute certainty that no one with money and power in the film industry will learn any lessons even if Armageddon joins Godzilla on the scrapheap.
There will be the usual roundup of suspects or scapegoats. A few producers will complain that Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Alicia Silverstone and Demi Moore have not panned out in their high-priced production deals, and the only answer is to give Leonardo DiCaprio $20 million or $30 million for his next picture. Meanwhile, the monsters of Jurassic Park are being warmed up for the next millennium. By then, we may look back on the soggier sentiments of Armageddon with a certain fondness. I must confess that I left the theater with a better taste in my mouth after Armageddon than I had after the sordid and mean-spirited goings-on in A Perfect Murder .
Carla’s Song Drowns in Its Message
Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song , from a screenplay by Paul Laverty, is lesser Loach, but, for all its lapses and lethargies, it is still more poetic and penetrating in its humanist realism than most movies on the current scene. The fact remains that Mr. Loach crosses over the line to hard-core agitprop advocacy with a dramatically undigested diatribe against the C.I.A., which, heaven knows, can be blamed for many of the world’s ills, particularly in Central America, the setting also of John Sayles’ more allegorical Men With Guns .
I first noted Mr. Loach’s lyrical talent in the service of life’s losers, in Poor Cow (1968), with a memorable performance by Carol White as a promiscuous working-class housewife in love with her thieving husband’s best friend played by Terrance Stamp, and Kes (1969), a fable of lower-class falconry as a metaphor for a working-class boy’s yearning for a less dismal environment. Mr. Loach worked extensively on British television through the 70’s and 80’s with the occasional feature film assignment, most notably the adventure yarn, Black Jack (1979).
He burst upon the world scene with three powerful working-class domestic narratives, Riff Raff (1991), Raining Stones (1993) and Ladybird, Ladybird (1994). The implicit political assumptions of these three reawakenings of social consciousness in Margaret Thatcher’s brutalized Britain was made explicit in his eloquent Spanish Civil War picture, Land and Freedom (1995), from a script by Jim Allen.
If Carla’s Song is less successful than the now-62-year-old Mr. Loach’s previous film forays to the left of the complacent center, it is not without its own privileged moments and poetic metaphors. The film begins on a double-decker bus driven by George (Robert Carlyle) in 1987 Glasgow. Coming to the aid of a young fare-beating Nicaraguan refugee named Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), George becomes deeply involved with her, both as a woman and as a cause, once he sees the signs of torture on her back. After a few local scenes in Glasgow, which, visitors have told me, is the most purely proletarian city in the British Isles, George hijacks his own bus to take Carla on a scenic trip to nearby Loch Lomond. But there the picturesque ends and the polemical begins with a mysteriously motivated trip by George and Carla to her native Nicaragua, where she begins a dangerous search for her missing lover, Antonio (Richard Loza).
George and Carla are assisted in their quest by Bradley (Scott Glenn), a disaffected former C.I.A. agent, who eventually reveals the depredations of the evil forces in the service of American corporations. Mr. Loach and his screenwriter Mr. Laverty have researched the subject thoroughly, and we respond at some level to the litany of Sandinistas and contras, so familiar to American ears after the televised Iran-contra hearings during the Reagan Administration. As impressive as Mr. Loach’s rendering of real-life contemporary Nicaragua as a stand-in of sorts for the more turbulent Nicaragua of a decade earlier, one must suspect that a great deal of irony and complexity has been sacrificed for the sake of dispensing propaganda. In the process, the characters are swallowed up by the “message.” The fact that Carla is played by a non-actress, however charming, is another handicap for a movie more documented than dramatized.
Rewind! Two Comedies Not to Be Missed
Des McAnuff’s Cousin Bette , from the screenplay by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr, based on the novel by Honoré de Balzac, and Ivan Reitman’s Six Days, Seven Nights , from the screenplay by Michael Browning, are two rollicking entertainments that have been glibly and grossly underrated during their brief runs. The raps against Cousin Bette have been that the movie is not faithful to the book, and that Jessica Lange is not ugly enough to play Bette. A completely faithful adaptation of Balzac’s cavalcade of Parisian follies would require at least an eight-hour mini-series, and “ugly” on the printed page is invariably translated as “plain” on the silver screen. Ms. Lange is plain enough and shrewdly vengeful enough to make a more than adequate Bette, and she is splendidly supported by saucy Elisabeth Shue as the flighty but shrewdly realistic courtesan and mediocre performer with a delectably bared derrière as her compensating attraction.
Hugh Laurie as the born-to-be-bankrupted aristocrat Hector, Bob Hoskins as the mercenary and lecherous Crevel, and Aden Young as the lazy Polish sculptor Wenceslas who becomes the hapless pawn of three women in turn form a trio of male moths hovering around the money-fueled flame of female beauty. The period proceedings are directed fluidly without ever becoming stodgy or overstuffed. Fun and feeling are very delicately balanced in this most promising screen directorial debut of theater director Des McAnuff.
As for Six Days, Seven Nights , Harrison Ford and Anne Heche make up the brightest and sharpest screwball comedy team I have seen in ages. Their expertly timed line readings are alone worth the price of admission.