Movie Reviews

by Mark Leeper

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) -- Evita (1996)
Jackie Chan's First Strike (1996) -- The Relic (1996)

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

This is a high-level and frequently
very rushed look at the career of wildcat
pornographer Larry Flynt with emphasis on his
battle against government censorship. Milos Forman
gives us a more superficial treatment of the legal
issues to make way for a familiar doomed love story
and other more salable aspects of Flynt's career.
In doing so he makes this a much less engaging
film, albeit more profitable, than it might have been.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4).

As portrayed in this new film, the first directed by Milos Forman in seven years, Larry Flynt is a free spirit who spent most of his life drifting. He makes the decision to publish a magazine with pictures of the dancers at his sleazy Cincinnati strip club, just as a publicity stunt, after that things pretty much just happen to him. The magazine become popular; Flynt becomes rich and famous filling the demand; the local government decides to prosecute him; his cause becomes a major civil liberties case; he becomes a national figure in the anti- censorship movement. In the course of all this he occasionally tries to make decisions that will change the course of his life and his magazine, but none of these decisions ever sticks. He decides to have his Hustler magazine mix fundamentalist Christianity with pornography, but somehow the combination just does not sell. Flynt fires the entire executive staff of his own magazine only to be ignored. He decides that he and his wife, Althea, should kick their drug habits and though he succeeds himself, he finds he has no control over her. Flynt seems to want to scuttle himself when he to be as uncooperative as possible with his lawyer, but his defense goes on in spite of himself, all the way to the Supreme Court. During all of this Flynt shows no admirable traits at all beyond loyalty to Althea.

The film opens with a prologue set in the early 1950s in Kentucky where a young Larry Flynt is already giving the public what it wants by making and selling his own moonshine. Cut to two decades later and Flynt is running the Hustler Club in Cincinnati. He has the idea to have a magazine to promote his club. Once that is in place he decides to make his Hustler magazine what Playboy is not, a magazine overtly aimed at the shotguns and pickups types who come to his club. While at his club he meets dancer Althea Leasure (Courtney Love) who shows immediate romantic interest in Flynt. The publicity says that Flynt is an unlikely hero for a film and that is a true statement. But the hero of the film is Alan Isaacman the civil liberties lawyer who took his principle of defending the First Amendment to the Supreme Court in Flynt's name, often frustratingly sabotaged by the childish antics of Flynt himself. Had there been some nobility shown in Althea beyond her initial loyalty to Flynt, she might have made an interesting character. But eventually she will show herself to be even weaker than her husband.

Forman tells the story of Larry Flynt, but never gives us much of an emotional investment in his character. Flynt is never anything but selfish in the course of the film. With other characters his love for Althea might have been touching, but only occasionally is there any chemistry between the two of them or any feeling that it is good that these two people have found each other. Interestingly Courtney Love made her film debut in Sid and Nancy, in some ways a very similar film with very similar problems. Forman may have seen parallels between Flynt and McMurphy in his One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but he was able to capture an emotional core and a nobility in McMurphy that seems lacking in Flynt. Even when his lawyer is winning in court, Flynt seems determined to play the Bad Boy and to derail the proceedings. Forman's telling of the story of Flynt moves too quickly with too little explanation of what is going on. Flynt will be in jail in one scene and out the next organizing a free speech rally without explanation of how he got out of jail. Other obvious production details seem to be ignored. Edward Norton, playing the idealist lawyer, seems not to age at all over the course of the many years the film covers (not including the prologue).

Woody Harrelson will probably never be a great actor. Here Flynt is supposed to behave in an eccentric manner, and Harrelson does. Flynt is supposed to be superficial and have a fly-weight intellect easily influenced by others, and Harrelson does that sufficiently too. And he is supposed to be juvenile in unexpected places, and he is. On the surface this does not seem like a difficult role to play and Harrelson is just fine. Curiously he is out-performed by the much less experienced Courtney Love as Althea.

The People vs. Larry Flynt has positioned itself to be an engaging film on the meaning of the First Amendment of the constitution. It also is supposed to be a little titillating, though in a style much more subdued than is Flynt's enthusiastic approach. Frankly the film does a better job of the former than the latter.

I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Evita (1996)

The on-again, off-again history of attempts
to bring this Webber and Rice musical to
the screen finally culminates in a spectacular film
starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan
Pryce. By now the music is mostly familiar. The
politics are superficially explained, but the
visuals give the film a great epic feel. It is hard
to imagine Madonna will ever have as powerful
a role or be as good in another film.
Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 4 positive, 4 negative, 3 mixed

Eva Peron was dead 26 years before the musical was produced, and it took nearly as long, 19 more years, for that musical to be filmed. It is not clear why the film should be made even now or why the people at Disney thought the American public would be interested in this story of the attractive, blond, and politically-active wife of a controversial reformer President who is popular among the poor but disliked by the rich, the military, and the Right Wing.

Like the play EVITA, the film opens in 1952 with the announcement of the death of Eva Peron. The film then tells in flashback the life story of Eva, supposedly related by Che (Antonio Banderas). Che is every bit as omnipresent here as he was in the musical, but in Alan Parker's film version he is no longer a research chemist developing an insecticide, he is now just sort of a one-man voice of public opinion. (This creates something of a problem with the lyrics of some of the songs. They have images of images of dying insects that now seem to come out of nowhere.) Eva is the illegitimate daughter of a prosperous middle class man. Her life is forged in bitterness by her father's other family refusing to acknowledge her existence or letting her attend her own father's funeral. Her being forcibly ejected from the church is the film's most powerful scene. At age fifteen, still filled with venom, she sleeps with popular singer visiting her village. Seeing this as an opportunity she attaches herself like a lamprey to the singer forcing him to take her to Buenos Aires. In spite of bad treatment, she works her way up a human ladder of men, trading her way up until she allies herself to the powerful and politically ambitious Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce). Juan unexpectedly finds himself caught between Eva on one side and the Army and the wealthy of Argentina on the other. It is a moot point which side has a greater loathing of the other. But "Little Eva" brings with her an overwhelming payload of political support from the Descamisados--the poor, "shirtless" workers and Juan rides their support to the Presidency--a very stormy trip.

Madonna Louise Ciccone has not had a very distinguished acting career up to this point but finally seems cast perfectly in a role. Madonna not only resembles Eva Person, both have notoriety for a somewhat salacious background. The biggest drawback to casting Madonna in the role is that she is 38--five years older than Eva Peron was even at her death--and the days are long past when Madonna could reasonably play the fifteen-year-old Eva. Antonio Banderas is transformed from chemist into a sort of narrator and Greek chorus and that causes some problems with his character. It is not clear what his point of view means or if it is even consistent. When Che was envisioned as a real human, he could change his mind about Eva without it being a story problem. But can a narrator or a chorus change his mind in the course of a story? It is not usually done. Ironically the Banderas character has far more lines than does the much more literal character of Pryce. Through much of the film Pryce has only to look good. I was surprised when Pryce speaks toward the middle of the film and I realized that we have not heard his voice in quite a while.

Evita looks like a very expensive production and Parker has used his budget very cleverly in some cases to make a film that looks extremely extravagant. In some cases it appears he had a whole scene setup with a crowd on the screen only for the length of one line of a song. In fact there are some clever reuses of settings which may or may not be disguised to offset the cost. Part of the spectacle was made possible undoubtedly only because of the comparative low cost of filming in Argentina and Hungary. The two sets of scenes flow together seamlessly. We get to see some impressively-scaled political rallies or major street riots. Camerawork is by Darius Khondji who previously filmed Delicatessen, Se7en, and the amazing City of Lost Children. His camera is at its most impressive in the long-shots. Too often on the close-ups are plagued by bad synchronization between the singing and the lip movements. Some images go by often too quickly to be completely understood, including what looks like a sort of surrealistic ballroom dance on the occasion of the death of Eva. Webber's and Tim Rice's play gives us only a superficial view of Peronist politics, but then one does not expect an operetta to have the historical content of a Gettysburg. We never really see much of Eva Peron's politics beyond her allying herself to the Descamisados and avenging herself against the middle classes. Andrew Lloyd Webber apparently could not resist the opportunity to write one new song eligible for the Academy Award race. That song is "You Must Love Me," and if you want to hear it you must listen carefully. It is such a bland and lackluster piece of music it can slip right by the viewer unnoticed. It sounds more like a bridging piece of music than a song of the caliber of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina."

As a history film, EVITA is limited by the perfunctory musical script on which it is based, but the look of the film is dazzling.

I rate the film a high +2 the -4 to +4 scale.

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