BY RODNEY WELCH
Here are some vittles for your VCR
If you're in the mood for a solid, well-made drama set in a snowy landscape and who the hell isn't these days, as winter approaches check out Fargo, the latest effort by the writing-directing team of Ethan and Joel Coen.
This is an odd recommendation coming from me, since I've generally been of the opinion that the Coens are the worst thing to happen to independent American cinema since Henry Jaglom.
I thought they made a pretty funny movie with Raising Arizona, but their little technical fetishes still got in the way. Miller's Crossing was a thin story buried in tin-eared Irish chatter. I wrote them off as film-school grads who make film-school films.
Fargo marks something of a forward leap. It's not entirely free of the Coens' trademark smug humor, but it doesn't have their usual pretentiousness either. It tells an old-fashioned story in a straightforward style, which is not a bad direction at this stage in their careers.
A car salesman, over his head in debt, hires a pair of third-rate thugs one a high-strung motormouth, one dumb as a post to kidnap his wife. He figures that his surly father-in-law (Harve Presnell), who is also his boss, will pay the ransom, of which the kidnappers will only get an agreed portion.
Almost immediately, things go wrong. Passing through the small town of Brainerd, the kidnappers kill a suspicious state trooper and two unfortunate witnesses.
Marge, Brainerd's very pregnant police chief, begins investigating the three killings. Her search inevitably compliates matters; what began as a simple kidnapping ends with a pile of bodies and blood sputtering on new-fallen snow. (Death by wood-chipper; now that's a twist.)
Marge, wonderfully played by Frances McDormiand, is the soul of the movie. Like a lot of the people in Brainerd, she's trusting, affable and perfectly practical-minded. She has a painter husband named Norm, whose goal in life is to have his work on a postage stamp, and she is as concerned about his work as he is about hers. (Their domestic life may be as sweet as you're likely to find in a modern movie.)
When a pathetic old high-school chum tries to put the make on her, she does him the favor of pretending not to notice; when she learns he lied to her, she affects more pity than censure. She's the picture of decency.
Her polar opposite is the lead kidnapper the kind of bug-eyed hysterical loser that can only be played by Steve Buscemi. Buscemi's character is clearly not from around these parts; he's a slack little punk who thinks nothing of hurling obscenities at a kindly parking lot attendant.
As small-town virtue slowly comes up against big city evil, Fargo plays like some joint effort between Frank Capra and Sam Peckinpah. It's a mixture that perfectly suits the Coen sensibility.
"The pure products of America go crazy," wrote William Carlos Williams. Underground artist Robert Crumb is a pure product, all right; the son of a doggedly dysfunctional home, he channeled his " id-driven" outrage into violent, obscene and borderline psychotic cartoons like "Zap!" and "Mr. Natural."
Terry Zwigoff's fascinating documentary shows us the many sides of Crumb, not the least being his family. Crumb himself emerges as a gentle but rather tortured paradox; a 1960s icon who prefers the blues to rock and roll which he calls "hideous" a loving dad, a butt fetishist, and a nerdy wisp of a man who is simply incapable of censoring his dark, comic vision, no matter how unsettling it gets.
Crumb is as compelling, disturbing and unforgettable as one of its subject's cartoons. One viewing is more than enough.
The Last Supper
"Can't we all just get along?" Rodney King famously asked. The answer, according to Stacy Title's bracingly brutal little fable, is bably not."
A group of smug, garden-variety grad school liberals find themselves in a jam after they invite a stranger to dinner. He turns out to represent everything they hate: he's racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and rather suddenly violent. Almost, but not quite, in self-defense, they kill him and soon realize that murdering politically incorrect dinner guests can be downright liberating.
Despite the setup, this isn't exactly a liberal bashing movie; The Last Supper is more about the impotence and inaction that liberals feel when it comes to making a difference. It also suggests that intolerance knows no bounds, and that there's a little Hitler in all of us.
Leaving Las Vegas
Mike Figgis' acclaimed film gave Nicolas Cage a well-deserved Oscar.
As Ben Sanderson, a down-on-his-heels screenwriter who resolves to drink himself to death, Cage delivers what may well be the most extraordinary portrayal of an alcoholic in film history. Cage has it all: pasty-faced sweat, sunken eyes, the broken eloquence of a wasted talent, and the overwhelming sense of uncontrollable addiction.
Figgis, who wrote and directed this adaptation of John O'Brien's novel, sets up the movie well. He puts us in Ben's crumbling world of streets and strip-bars, and even inside his head. We see him bumming money from an ex-friend, muttering purplish pornographic fantasies into his handheld recorder, and watch him chug-a-lug a bottle of liquor; then the sound goes dead, and you can feel yourself stumbling with Ben through the midnight neon haze.
Whenever the camera is on Cage whether he's fighting off the DTs by sloshing vodka into orange juice, or trying to shut a suitcase full of bottles it's as if you are in his skin. You may even return the movie feeling slightly hung over.
Unfortunately, Cage belongs in a story less sentimental than this one. When Ben hooks up with Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue (excellent, but too beautiful to pass as a hard-bitten hooker) the movie trades in gritty stupor for macho wet dream.
Sera, for no discernible reason, takes pity on Ben and offers to let him live with her. Her blithe, desperate attraction to Ben strains belief well past the suspension point. It isn't enough to say that these lives are so worn out that they will cling to any slim hope of salvation that comes along; trite nihilism won't cut it.
Cage's Ben is so far gone into his addiction that he alienates our sympathy, and there seems precious little that would distinguish him from Sera's usual johns, let alone endear him to her.
Cage and Shue make Leaving Las Vegas watchable, but even they are wasted in the end by Figgis' forced romanticism.
Rodney Welch lives in Elgin.