Sleepers (1996), Michael Collins (1996), Trees Lounge (1996)
Also in this issue of Eclectica: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), Surviving Picasso (1996), The Lovemaster (1996), Swingers (1996)
How on earth did Kevin Bacon get top billing in a cast that includes Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, and Jason Patric -- just for starters? That's just one of the disturbing aspects of Sleepers (and I don't mean that in a bad way), Barry Levinson's new drama/thriller that finally redeems him for the idiocy of Disclosure and Toys.
Based on the extremely controversial novel, Sleepers tells what is purported to be a true story of revenge in Hell's Kitchen in New York City. Four early-teenaged friends (played as adults by Patric, Pitt, Ron Eldard, and Billy Crudup -- who I have to mention just because I like to say "Crudup") are sent to a juvenile center when a prank goes wrong and almost kills a bystander. The brutality that occurs in the center does not need to be expounded upon, but suffice it's very horrible, and that guard Sean Nokes (Bacon) is the baddest of the bad guys.
Flash forward 13 years to 1981, when a very non-reformed John and Tommy (Eldard and Crudup) run into Nokes in a neighborhood bar, and, on the spot, shoot him 6 times in front of 4 witnesses. When it goes to trial, a now-assistant D.A. Michael (Pitt) takes the case and decides it's time for payback to everyone from the bad-old days at the center.
Working with attorney Danny Snyder (Hoffman), their old neighborhood priest (DeNiro), old pal Carol (Minnie Driver), and newsman-in-training "Shakes" (Patric), Michael constructs an intricate plan to get the guys off the hook and bring down the juvenile center in the process -- by losing the case he is prosecuting.
If you've seen Goodfellas, you know what you're in for -- an overly-narrated epic saga about growing up in New York and the consequences of events that start when you're just a kid. And just like Scorcese, Levinson lays on the narration like butter on pancakes (all via Patric), and this gets old, fast.
But the point is that Sleepers is a very powerful story, and you never really notice that it's 2 1/2 hours long. The performances are universally good (although Eldard and Crudup basically have no lines), and seeing Dustin Hoffman as a long-haired alcoholic/failed attorney is quite a treat. DeNiro is excellent in showing his inner turmoil over whether or not to lie on the witness stand, and the kids (who I don't feel like naming right now) all pull off their parts just fine.
Sleepers has its share of technical goofs, like a whole lot of black-and-white flashbacks, slow-motion, fast-motion, surreal-motion, and other camera tricks that really detract from the story and don't belong here. Also in question is a really rotten score and a questionable choice of background "period" songs -- and you can blame veteran composer John Williams, if you can believe that.
Oh well, at least it's a very solid story that leaves you wondering... did it really happen? As for the moral of this little tale? This is all I can figure: Two wrongs don't make a right, but maybe 150 wrongs do. They might be right about that.
The time between 1916 and the 1920s saw the worst of a revolt that caused the creation the IRA and heightened the fight for independence between Ireland and the crown in London. At the head of this fight, like it or not, was Michael Collins, a demagogue/saboteur/freedom fighter that lived as a hero and died a martyr.
Read it once again -- this is *not* Braveheart. Braveheart took place something like 600 years earlier, and just a stone's throw across the North Channel, in Scotland.
Otherwise, it's the same movie, except Neil Jordan's paean to the Irish hero leaves much to be desired by the discriminating viewer. Jordan, best known for his masterpiece The Crying Game, really seems to be falling apart these days (did you stay awake during Interview with the Vampire?). Now he's back with Michael Collins, a rambling, 138-minute epic that could have easily been cut to 90, and has its good points and its bad -- but the bad really stick out like sore thumbs.
Using more scrolling title cards than I've ever seen before, at first I thought Michael Collins was going to be a read-along. But instead of incorporating this information about Collins (Liam Neeson) into the story, Jordan tacks on the printed Michael Collins at-a-glance biography and just plugs the movie full of the same sequence over and over again. (That sequence is this: the IRA guys are asleep, then the Brits come on a raid, then the IRA guys get away just in time. Whew!)
Then there's the what-on-earth-were-you-thinking decision to put Julia Roberts in this movie as Kitty Kiernan, the woman torn between Collins and his once-best friend Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn). Seriously, my Irish accent is better than Roberts's, and I'm from *Texas*.
The real story of Michael Collins may be a good one -- full of intrigue, infighting with the Irish President Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman), bloody war with the English, and a struggle to get the girl with the bad Irish accent. The problem is that Jordan tells the story like it's a history lesson, and a dull one at that. Yes, the movie's full of good acting (exception noted above), gory violence, and lavish sets (all of which are blown up by the end of the film), but it ends up being just another over-indulgent sermon by a misguided preacher.
Think of your $6.50 as an offering.
[The author of this review is not responsible for historical inaccuracies in either the film or this critique.]
Get this tagline for Trees Lounge: "A story about one man's search... for who knows what." That could describe quite well writer/director/star Steve Buscemi during his creation of this film, a quirky and melodramatic tragicomedy about... who knows what.
Buscemi plays Tommy, a regular guy in Long Island whose life is basically a series of alcoholic binges, sprinkled with failed love affairs, cheap drugs, and terminal unemployment. A parade of supporting characters (all played by Buscemi's personal friends) run in and out of his life, and everyone tries to make some sense of it all.
The Trees Lounge is the unfortunately-named bar where Tommy spends virtually all of his time. It's the kind of joint where a guy can walk into one night and come back out 20 years later, wondering where his life went. It's the kind of place you can almost smell -- or maybe that was just the movie theater's goo-encrusted floor.
I get the feeling that Trees Lounge is the movie that all filmmakers are secretly dying to make -- a personal portrait of simple life, nothing but depression all the way. The reason this kind of movie doesn't get made more often is because (1) no studio in their right mind would let someone do such a thing [case in point: Trees Lounge is being released by the only-recently-out-of-bankruptcy Orion Pictures], and (2) when you get down to brass tacks, not many people really want to make a movie about someone that's more pathetic than they are.
Still, I've got to admire Buscemi for doing it anyway. Buscemi has complained in interviews about having trouble writing the script for Trees Lounge, and it shows, but at least he doesn't let the self-pity get too thick, applying liberal doses of comedy to counter the tragic underscore of the film. Overall, he ends up with a picture that isn't half bad, but which just doesn't make for a light matinee and *certainly* isn't "fun for the whole family."
As a director, Buscemi isn't awful, but he isn't great. As far as his casting choices, they're fine, except for his breaking of the cardinal rule that Daniel Baldwin should never be allowed to be in a movie. Chloe Sevigny (KIDS) is a fun Lolita, and minor roles like Bronson Dudley's eternal barfly are a scream, and they really show Buscemi's knack for comedy. Let's hope he explores this a little more in his next offering.
P.S. Be sure to watch for the cameo by the faux-Reservoir Dogs (it's in the first five minutes).