Dark and Stormy Nights

Robert Altman’s meta-noir; Alfonso Cuarón’s neo-Dickens; Antoine Fuqua’s not-Woo.

The Gingerbread Man
Directed by Robert Altman
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Great Expectations
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
20th Century Fox

The Replacement Killers
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Columbia Pictures

Fifteen minutes into The Gingerbread Man, the Robert Altman thriller based on a story by John Grisham, I found myself scribbling in my notebook, “Robert Altman is God!!” Here, amid the seemingly aimless hubbub, the muddy narrative, the loose framing, and the faraway characters, a sense of place–Savannah–had begun to emerge, and also a free-floating anxiety: No one knows what’s under the surface of these people; no one knows anything. The scary side of the city featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has never been captured with such brusque poetry, and Altman seems to pull the portrait out of his hat.

At the precise moment that I was declaring (really revisiting) my reverence for the great director, the elderly couple sitting next to me was grumbling:

“I can’t understand a word they’re saying. Can you understand a word they’re saying?””I don’t know what’s going on.””Stupid movie.” “What’s going on?” “Do you want to go?”

I stifled an urge to whisper, “If you leave now, you can catch the Matlock rerun”–which would have been snotty but not completely off the point. Matlock is what they expected, and what they got was Altman’s Matlock: the same sort of sub-noir story line but with the camera moved back a clinical distance and the soundtrack rendered clangorous, disharmonic. The Gingerbread Man is to Matlock what The Rite of Spring is to the Rockettes.

It’s also, to be honest, only a fair-to-middling mystery. I guessed the ending–not just the major revelations, but who would live and who would die–in the first half-hour, and I’m no Matlock. But the movie is still a delight, a fascinatingly strange and chaotic ballet set to familiar noir motifs. Altman had me hooked from the credits, in which the camera cruises high above an eerie topography–both parched and veined with swamps–while the composer, Mark Isham, serves up off-the-beat thumps and hollow brass gongs, and fragments of cell-phone conversations remain just on the far side of audibility. Altman makes you work to pick up dialogue, to follow the threads, to figure out–always after the fact–just what people’s motivations were. His framing is the least insistent of any major director, which is especially radical in a genre where audiences are accustomed to having their gaze directed. The actors seem caught on the fly; they give performances that don’t seem like performances, and are the richer for it.

Kenneth Branagh has never been finer, and that’s saying something. As Rick Magruder, a Savannah defense attorney famed for keeping scum bags out of prison, he’s a strutting cock, a chain-smoking hothead who thinks with his pecker. The character stays remote and self-involved and a bit of a fool, and because Branagh never asks for sympathy, I found myself giving him plenty, much as I’ve given my sympathy to another Southern peckerhead with spotty morals who’s been in the news of late. Anyway, it’s hard to tsk-tsk the man when his chief motivation is bedding Embeth Davidtz (as Mallory Doss), a dark-eyed, neurasthenic enigma with the South’s most willowy gams. Seemingly terrorized by her hooting-mad, derelict father (Robert Duvall, in a hilarious cameo), Doss doffs her duds at the first opportunity and promptly has the hapless attorney on a very tight retainer. The brilliant cinematographer, Changwei Gu, shoots her nude through a doorway of hanging beads, and in close-up through a fogged, rain-drizzled windshield; he keeps her simultaneously naked and veiled, and the effect is both alluring and unnerving.

A ctors are reborn in Altman movies. That’s Daryl Hannah as Branagh’s associate, sporting dark hair, thick glasses, and a sensibly reticent demeanor. In one stroke, this underrated actress takes herself out of the blond-airhead class. As a dissolute, party-hearty private investigator, Robert Downey Jr. seizes his drug-addled image–and dances with it. He’s wonderful and he’s worrisome. A lot of big-deal movie stars could walk into an open manhole and our lives would not be appreciably poorer. But whatever must be done to keep this man alive and working–regularly scheduled rehabs, full-time minders, a religious conversion–should be done, and done now.

Altman exploits Downey’s image like the cold SOB he probably is. There’s something arrogant about this director’s refusal to pander–but it’s a splendid arrogance. An Altman film is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get–nougat or arsenic. So you stay braced, alert. Unlike most contemporary cinema, you don’t leave an Altman movie feeling dumber than when you went in.

Where Altman keeps you at a distance, the Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess) pulls you deep inside his characters’ heads. Already, Cuarón is one of the most accomplished subjective filmmakers alive. Through his camera, the external world becomes transfigured by emotion, so that everything–even what might not be literally true–seems real. What better director to film a Dickens novel? Cuarón’s Great Expectations, which has been updated to Gulf Coast Florida and the New York art world of the ‘80s and given a rock ’n’ roll backbeat, is fluid and lyrical and thoroughly transporting. I’ve read the Dickens original over and over and seen all the previous adaptations, yet I didn’t for an instant yearn for 19th-century London–at least, not until the movie had ended, when I was scratching my head over why it finally seemed so un-Dickensianly miniature.

The good stuff first. The hero is no longer Pip but Finn, who is frolicking in the waves among the gulls when a shackled and bloodied escaped killer (Robert De Niro) erupts from the water and forces him to bring food and drink and a tool for cutting chains. When Finn returns, the scene has an eye-popping storybook terror, with its cocked frames, its sharp reeds standing out from the deep black night sky, and with De Niro giving the young boy that patented sour-stomach-bogeyman grimace.

A fter the convict overture, we learn that Finn–who has a gift for drawing and painting–lives with his sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) and brother-in-law Joe (Chris Cooper) in a ramshackle house by the gulf. Joe catches fish and Maggie gets laid by other guys–and splits. What happens then is an enchanting blend of old and new, as Finn is summoned to the manse of Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), a filthy-rich ex-socialite driven mad by her abandonment, decades earlier, by a wayward fiance. But it’s Dinsmoor’s niece, Estella, who becomes the focus of Finn’s fantasy life–and art.

The little blonde is pretty but no enchantress–she’s too glum and snooty. Growing up to be Gwyneth Paltrow makes her more bewitching but no less blank. Paltrow, as ever, is inhumanly gorgeous, like some Close Encounters of the Third Kind creature, with that elongated neck and those stringy limbs, that big face with its faintly mocking beatitude. I can’t decide if the woman is an actress, since she’s able to get by so easily without doing all that much. Paltrow certainly doesn’t appear to have suffered for her art: Unlike other screen beauties–Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Madeleine Stowe–she doesn’t seem to have any interesting neuroses to ply. In Great Expectations, she never makes the leap from erotic object to flesh-and-blood human, and that’s not just the fault of the script and director. We’re told of Estella’s inner struggle–of the tug of war between the punishing cock-tease that her aunt has engineered her to be and her inherent decency–but the conflict isn’t palpable in Paltrow’s paltry performance.

N or does the grown-up Finn (Ethan Hawke) develop much stature. When an anonymous benefactor provides him with the means to travel to New York and show his paintings at a SoHo gallery, he goes somewhat mulishly. He never becomes absorbed into the art world and its black-clad poseurs, always remaining a glassy-eyed outsider. Finn’s awkwardness keeps him inoffensive, but it thoroughly obviates the dramatic arc that’s the whole point of Dickens’ novel: If success doesn’t change Finn for the worse, then his rejection of the high life doesn’t entail the same kind of sacrifices–or come as a consequence of some harrowing epiphany. And so the movie, after a miniclimax or two, just comes to an end, suddenly smaller than the sum of its parts.

Great Expectations is magical anyway–just this side of surreal. Finn tells us that Dinsmoor’s room “smelled like dead flowers and cat piss,” and I mean no disrespect when I say that Bancroft’s performance evokes those same aromas. Those dreading a standard-issue, musty Miss Havisham will be delighted by this flamboyantly posturing, pantsuit-clad crone with her face cream and “chica-boom” slang. Bancroft is so spectacularly abrasive that it’s scandalous that she doesn’t get the incendiary comeuppance of Dickens’ novel–that objective-correlative finale in which the seething, dried-out harridan spontaneously combusts.

H ong Kong action fans hoping for spontaneous combustion from the American debut of superstar Chow Yun-Fat might want to turn their weapons on the producers. On the evidence of The Replacement Killers, they seem bent on turning the most galvanic figure of Hong Kong action cinema into a pallid family man–domesticating him in all senses. Chow, for those who haven’t caught his act in any number of John Woo and Ringo Lam shoot-’em-ups, is one of those poker-faced, can’t-catch-me, artillery-wielding supermarksmen who can blow away 50 bad guys without removing his sunglasses or the toothpick from his mouth. He strikes poses reminiscent of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood, but his tiny smile lets you know he’s having a blast, and he seems more human than all his American action models put together.

In The Replacement Killers, he’s a decent fellow, devoted to his mother and sister, forced by an underworld kingpin (Kenneth Tsang) to travel to the United States to assassinate people. The saintly assassin draws the line at shooting a little boy, however, so the kingpin, along with Jürgen Prochnow and other killers with scarred-in-hell faces, comes after him with Uzis, rocket-launchers, and so on. The director, Antoine Fuqua, a veteran of Coolio music videos, does a passable slow-motion Woo imitation (Woo is one of the executive producers), but the plot and dialogue are Brand X, and Chow–by turns courtly, worried, and earnest–has nothing of the rock ’n’ roll bad boy that put him on the map. He’s likable, but he only comes alive with a gun in each hand, spinning round and round, firing front and back, the tails of his jacket flapping.

The movie’s chief pleasure is Mira Sorvino as a wise-ass passport forger who can detonate an insult with throaty, Bacall-like precision and then leap into gun battles with hell-for-leather abandon. Her part makes no sense, but watching those long limbs flying through the air, I never felt like complaining. Davidtz, Paltrow, Sorvino–it’s a banner month for leg men.