Hard Rain, The Tango Lesson, Fallen
By Rick Barton
FEBRUARY 9, 1998:
Outside, this winter has been wet and dreary. Inside -- inside the area's movie houses, anyway -- it's been worse. January and February are historically pretty good months for movie-watching in New Orleans because all the hyped movies of the Christmas season are commonly settling out into the watchable and the already departed, and local exhibitors are scrambling for replacement product while the industry runs ads for the Oscar hopefuls. As a result, we usually get a nice menu of independent films this time of year -- small, character-centered pictures that couldn't find screens earlier.
But something entirely different happened this year. First, at Christmas, Hollywood delivered its strongest lineup in years. As Good as It Gets, Wag the Dog, Deconstructing Harry, Amistad, Good Will Hunting and Jackie Brown all are well worth viewing. Even that most Hollywood of movies, Titanic, is a winner. But as a consequence, the anticipated series of independent features hasn't appeared. Among the new releases, Hollywood is serving up leftovers. And the only new independent film around is an astonishing loser. For your viewing pleasure, consider something other than the unholy trio of Fallen, Hard Rain and The Tango Lesson.
Gregory Hoblit's Fallen is the story of a good-hearted cop facing an unfathomable evil. John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) has caught a deranged serial killer named Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas). Just before Reese is executed, he swears vengeance against Hobbes from beyond the grave. Then we watch as Reese's evil spirit is passed along to his executioner through a touch. Eventually, Hobbes determines that Reese was the host for Azazel, a "mortal demon." Azazel can be killed, but it's no easy business because he can speed from person to person through a series of touches. So before Hobbes can concoct a plan to trap him, Azazel has done some really rotten stuff. At the end, you don't know if the demon will show up as Hobbes' icy boss, Stanton (Donald Sutherland), or beloved partner, Jonesy (John Goodman).
Well, Fallen is stupid enough in grand conception. I'm always irritated at movies in which otherwise normal people agree to accept supernatural explanations for things without so much as a chill running up their spines. But this is a script that asks Hobbes to behave like an utter nitwit even as it expects us to respect him. When a wave of copycat murders breaks out after Reese's execution, and when the killer always calls to threaten Hobbes from the murder site, most men, even most tough cops, would take a few precautions. In contrast, Hobbes walks the streets of New York after midnight without looking over his shoulder. I keep thinking he deserves tormenting.
Lots of movies like this require their heroes to behave stupidly, but Fallen finds a variety of ways to irritate. It concocts an almost thoroughly pointless subplot about Hobbes becoming a suspect in the copycat killings. The sole purpose of this is to cast suspicion on Stanton, who's so cold he makes your teeth chatter. But why? It's as if the filmmakers have forgotten that we know who Azazel is and we know he's not Stanton, at least not at the time of the copycat murders.
Most annoying is the script's glib decision to change its own rules. At first, Azazel can only be transmitted by touch. But all of a sudden in the middle of the picture, he can move from body to body without a touch. And we realize that everything is a momentary contrivance. That's why Reese continues to act like a homicidal maniac even after Azazel has passed into the executioner. That's why Azazel stays in Reese for a series of murders and gets captured but later switches hosts all the time. That's why Azazel doesn't kill Hobbes on the many occasions that he could. That's why we even see the trick-ending coming a mile away. Which is at least the distance you should keep from this one.
Mikael Salomon's Hard Rain avoids the supernatural and still turns out narratively soggy. The ridiculous plot works this way: Charlie (Ed Asner) and Tom (Christian Slater) are driving an armored car carrying $3 million through the rain when they get caught in a flood. Then they get held up by calm Jim (Morgan Freeman), geeky Mr. Mehlor (Dann Florek), nutty Kenny (Michael Goorjian) and token minority Ray (Ricky Harris). Charlie gets dead. Tom gets away with the dough. Then he gets arrested by the sheriff (Randy Quaid) for being a looter, though there's no evidence for that and a lot of evidence for his being an armored car driver. Oh, yes, there's also a girl named Karen (Minnie Driver) who doesn't even have the decency to wear her wet T-shirt without a bra.
The usual hokum prevails. Water rises here with the speed of a tumbler being filled from a wide open tap. One minute the jail is the only dry spot in town, the next minute Tom is breathing through a tube stuck out the air vent at the top of his cell. Pretty soon everybody's riding around in speedboats and jet skis, driving through the halls of the high school and up over rooftops. Karen knows just the right grate to unscrew from the top of the jailhouse (doesn't that mean it must rain in?) to save Tom, though why she suddenly has the inclination is an enduring mystery. The bad guys can always find Tom wherever he's hiding, even if they have to employ ESP (that's Especially Sloppy Plotting).
And then -- and then -- everybody changes sides. But the sheriff and his team become murdering rapists, and Jim becomes Tom and Karen's ally, a man who believes so strongly in the sanctity of life now that he won't kill the sheriff even though the sheriff has spent a whole lot of time trying to kill him. I might just laugh this picture off as purely pathetic, but it actually has a message to deliver: A little larceny isn't really all that bad a thing, now is it? Yes, I'm afraid it is. So don't let this picture rip you off.
FILM: The Tango Lesson
But if you just have to experience REALLY BAD CINEMA, your best (worst?) choice is British filmmaker Sally Potter's The Tango Lesson. Written by Sally Potter, directed by Sally Potter, choreographed by Sally Potter and starring Sally Potter, The Tango Lesson is the story of Sally Potter. In The Tango Lesson, Sally Potter plays Sally Potter, a London screenwriter, film director, dancer and choreographer making a film called The Tango Lesson. Well, actually, as the picture opens, Sally Potter is trying to write and direct a picture called Rage (which is an emotion she does manage to elicit in this movie), but she's doing a bad job on her script (think about that!) and decides to distract herself by popping over to Paris for tango lessons from the world's greatest tango dancer, Pablo Veron (played with amazing accuracy by Pablo Veron).
So they dance a while. And Pablo Veron is impatient. And Sally Potter jets off to Argentina to take lessons from some other guys. Man, the British film industry must pay top pound. Sally Potter gets better, returns to Paris and is soon performing on stage with Pablo Veron. So they share. And you know what they discover. They belong to the same religious group. Neither one believes in God, but it's so special to belong to the same religious group. So they cry. They are soulmates.
Unfortunately, as a tango dancer, Sally Potter is a thoroughly terrible film director. And when Pablo Veron tells her so, she teaches him a lesson for being so cruel (if honest). She determines to put him a movie that she will direct and therefore have the opportunity to tell him that as an actor, even one playing himself, he's a sweaty, flashy tango dancer that you keep wanting to punch in the kisser. And so they make The Tango Lesson, which is all about everything we've already seen, and dammit if we don't have to watch it all over again. Yep, when they discover that they belong to the same religious group, they cry all over again, though neither has found a reason yet to believe in God. At the end, they dance, and as they dance, Sally Potter breaks into song. I was so astonished I almost choked laughing.
I will say this, however: The Tango Lesson, an unparalleled exercise in narcissism, has reaffirmed my faith in God. If there were no God, this film might have gone on forever here on Earth as it surely does in hell.
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