Waiting to Exhale
"Still Breathing" reaches the screen at last
By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman
MAY 4, 1998: For about 48 hours, James Robinson reckons, Miramax had him convinced he was the future king of independent cinema. Last year, a Miramax executive in New York sat him down and waved a wand in front of his face. Told him how much she loved his movie. Said he'd find the company a great place to work. Dropped phrases like "multi-picture deal." There was only one catch: Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein had to see the movie at his home in Connecticut without an audience--the worst possible screening conditions for a romantic comedy.
"Remember Fail Safe?" says Robinson, an affable, animated sort who talks excitedly with his hands. In a small suite at the Hermitage Hotel, as his composer Paul Mills looks on laughing, he mimics President Henry Fonda placing a phone call to post-nuke Manhattan: " 'Hello, New York?...rrrrrrrr.' " Reflecting on days of unreturned calls and unanswered messages, the director realizes that he didn't even spend 48 hours in the buzz bin. "I was a big shot at Miramax for about 12 or 13 hours," he revises.
One suspects they'd return his calls now. Robinson's first feature, a deft and disarmingly gentle comedy-drama called Still Breathing, has been generating strong word of mouth since it played the closing night of last year's South by Southwest festival in Austin. After months of frustration and waiting, Robinson and Mills--the latter a curly-haired, bearded Franklin resident whose delicate score is one of the movie's many pleasures--now see their movie positioned as a sleeper hit for romance-starved audiences.
When Still Breathing premieres in local theaters Friday, as part of a five-city platform release before it breaks out nationally later in the month, it arrives bearing stacks of enthusiastic notices, a proven box-office draw on the marquee, and the promotional clout of a major distributor. And it's exactly the same movie other distributors and major festivals passed on 18 months ago.
Still Breathing starts off with a premise befitting a thriller: A San Antonio street performer, Fletcher McBracken, has a premonition of a woman, a gun, a struggle, and the word "FORMOSA" written in neon. The dream takes over his waking thoughts. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a streetwise cookie named Roz fleeces rich Romeos with a high-stakes scam too good to give away. She too is tormented by visions--only hers involve ivy, a scrape on the knee, and an unprecedented sense of security.
From there, however, the movie sets float on a current of oddball humor, interlocked coincidences, and mystical sweetness. What opens as yet another film-noir rip becomes an airy romantic comedy that takes its tone from the sun-dappled San Antonio neighborhoods, the drift of the nearby river, and the lilt of Chopin's "Berceuse," which the director describes as "a narcotic piece of music that's what falling in love sounds like." Ultimately, it's a less raucous, more willowy version of the Preston Sturges gem The Lady Eve, whose hard comic edges and rat-a-tat pace are sorely missed in the film's waning moments.
Instead, Still Breathing offers an all-or-nothing love story, which turns out to be all the sexier for not having any onscreen sex; lush cinematography by John Thomas, who photographed Whit Stillman's droll comedies Metropolitan and Barcelona; and an engagingly offbeat supporting cast that meshes Celeste Holm, Michael McKean, and performance artist Ann Magnuson with Lou Rawls and guitar wizard Junior Brown in his film debut. (He plays a strange Texan, a real stretch.) Above all, it has two captivating lead performances: by Joanna Going, whose previous roles in Inventing the Abbotts and Phantoms only hinted at her gamine charm as Roz; and by Brendan Fraser, whose sneaky comic timing and instant likability are among the movie's most pleasing assets.
Robinson, a self-described Air Force brat who grew up in Texas, wrote the script about five years ago, partly in reaction to the L.A. riots. "In Los Angeles, control is everything because the city is out of control," he explains, hugging a throw pillow on one of the Hermitage's sofas. "The earth shakes, and the hills burst into flames; you never know what's going to happen. I find people either just give in and live a chaotic life or they try to carve out little niches of control." He pitched the script to various studios, none of whom wanted him to direct. At his lowest ebb, he even considered writing a shoot-'em-up cheapie when an associate sniffed out some investment money in Burma.
"I sat down and wrote an outline," he recalls, "and I thought, 'You know, I wouldn't even go to see this! I'm Mr. Sentimental Movie Guy!' Everyone's so frantic just to get a film made. If you've got a project going, you're someone. And if you don't, you're no one, or you're a has-been. There's all this frantic activity trying to convince people something's actually happening."
The backing of a single Seattle movie buff got the movie financed and completed by December 1996. Then the frustration began anew. Although Still Breathing picked up excellent notices at festivals around the country, it was rejected outright by Sundance, still smarting from its disastrous overhyping of the Castle Rock weeper The Spitfire Grill. Sundance's attitude was typical. Indie distributors thought the unabashedly romantic story was too commercial; mainstream distribs thought it lacked the violent chic of prevailing indie trends.
"We were in this Valley of the Unknown Indie Film, where there's no hit men, [none of the] usual indie trappings," Robinson says. Adds Mills, a successful contemporary-Christian producer who has worked with Robinson on several projects, "The indies think it's too Hollywood, and Hollywood thinks it's too indie."
Nevertheless, Robinson was given hope by the success of Like Water for Chocolate, one of the biggest-grossing foreign films ever released in America. When he asked friends why they'd seen the film six or seven times, they told him they liked its sense of magic and family. "That's the kind of thing you can do on a low budget, without a lot of special effects or movie stars," Robinson says. It helped that his wife, production designer Denise Pizzini, served on both Still Breathing and the earlier film.
It was Fraser's success last year in George of the Jungle, a surprise $100 million blockbuster, that triggered a new wave of interest in Still Breathing. After October Films was sold last year to the Universal conglomerate, the arthouse distributor began trawling for independent films with mainstream appeal, and last August the company picked up Still Breathing. Mills' score will be featured on a soundtrack album, alongside cuts by Junior Brown, Morphine, and Augie Meyers (though not by the late-'60s Nashville grrl-group The Feminine Complex, whose music plays onscreen in a barroom scene).
"Paul has a really good career ahead of him," says the director, his sneakers scuffing the carpet just a few inches from Mills' well-tooled cowboy boots. "I may try to drag him away from Franklin." Robinson has already drafted Mills for his next film, which he describes as a tragic romance set against the backdrop of the music industry in Los Angeles, South Texas--and Guatemala. It doesn't sound likely to charm the studios who passed on Still Breathing, and it isn't meant to.
"My theory is, we've all sat through a lot of movies," James Robinson explains, leaning forward with a movie nut's natural exuberance. "Don't you hate it when, 10 minutes in, you go, 'Oh, I've seen that before.' You've paid six dollars. Don't you wanna see the unexpected, especially when you're doing a romance and you're dealing with 50 years of convention?" He pauses for just a moment's breath, still breathing. "I just wanted to write a movie that would be one of my favorite movies."
Hit out of luckIn the opening minutes of The Big Hit, a young, down-on-his-luck hit man, played by Mark Wahlberg, goes through his daily workout of curls and shadow-boxing; he puts in a warrior's training to prepare for yet another contract killing. As I watched him practice his kung-fu chops, I thought, "We need to have another war, and soon." Anything to populate our screens with a different kind of protagonist than the buff murder junkies who have captured the imaginations of young filmmakers.
The filmmakers in question here are director Kirk Wong (a Hong Kong action-cinema vet) and screenwriter Ben Ramsey (whose only previous credits are as an actor in Caged Heat 3000). The film they have imagined is clever in concept, galling in execution. Wahlberg and Lou Diamond Phillips costar as the leaders of a team of assassins in the employ of a callous mob boss (Avery Brooks). Desperate for money to support his two golddigging girlfriends (Lela Rochon and Christina Applegate), Wahlberg signs on to help with an unauthorized kidnapping. Unfortunately, the kidnapee (the charming China Chow) turns out to be the godfather's goddaughter, and before Wahlberg and his partners know it, the wrecking crew has been retained to off the culprits (i.e. them).
Wahlberg and Phillips are both engaging, and the film has some funny moments, but unlike the similarly themed Grosse Pointe Blank, The Big Hit doesn't have the layer of satire that makes the black humor palatable. It doesn't seem to be about anything, save its own style. Plus, the film's tone jumps all over the scale. Ramsey's script intercuts wacky video-store clerks with sudden, cold-blooded murder. Meanwhile, Wong's action sequences are like abstract art installations--a man breakdances on the floor while firing his weapon, there's an explosion, another man bungee-jumps ahead of the fireball, and the audience scratches its collective head.
Blame for The Big Hit belongs mostly to Quentin Tarantino, I suppose--both for his infusion of pulpy kitsch into the mainstream, and for his successful integration of action clichs and mundanity. But as we've learned countless times over the past three years, there's only one Tarantino. He set the main caper in Jackie Brown in the food court of a shopping mall, and he achieved the desired effect of making us see both criminals and Things Remembered stores in a new light. In The Big Hit, Kirk Wong shows Mark Wahlberg trying to keep a pack of dogs away from a dismembered corpse while simultaneously dodging his shrill Jewish in-laws-to-be, but the whole scene seems merely contrived.
Some critics blame the general rage for crime on Tarantino, but his gabby gangsters were preceded in the popular culture by, among other things, the comic books of Frank Miller, who reimagined Daredevil and Batman into realms where heroes and villains were united in their bloodlust. Frequently, his ruthless bad guys were cooler than his superheroes. Scratch a budding screenwriter today, and you'll find somebody who spent eighth-grade social studies doodling futuristic, comics-inspired arsenals.
Over the closing credits, the soundtrack blares Buck-o-Nine's cover of "I'm the Man"--Joe Jackson's song about the insidiousness of fads, and how they debase the human spirit. In The Big Hit, the song is played to celebrate Wahlberg's triumph as another hip, ironic antihero in a string of hip, ironic antiheroes. There's an irony there that even the hipsters weren't prepared for.
Mind over manorVirginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway poses a challenge to the filmmaker: conveying cinematically a story that takes place largely inside the protagonist's head. The action occurs on one June day in 1923, as Clarissa Dalloway (played by Vanessa Redgrave) prepares for a party. The sight of a small detail, like a flower, sets her to reminiscing about a youthful summer years ago, when she rejected her ardent suitor Peter in favor of the more conventional Richard Dalloway, an aspiring politician. Now Richard is a member of Parliament, and Clarissa's sole joy comes in providing opportunities for her guests to feel amusing and amused.
Director Marleen Gorris, who made the Oscar-winning Dutch film Antonia's Line, uses voice-overs to reflect Clarissa's quickly changing moods, sudden fears, and unspoken joys. This conventional solution to the problem of filming the novel becomes an artistic instrument in the hands of Redgrave, whose elegance and transparent emotions communicate her character's wistful disappointment just as Woolf would have wished. Clarissa's flights of memory are handled through flashback scenes, in which Natascha McElhone portrays the heroine with the eager enthusiasm of youth. She plays tennis, goes boating, has deep conversations about the abolition of private property with her friend Sally, and obviously cannot foresee an end to her attractive naivet.
Intercut with Clarissa's story is a day in the life of a shell-shocked young man who has returned from the Italian front only to relive the death of his comrade over and over. Although on its surface easier to dramatize than the main story line, this secondary plot clearly doesn't capture Gorris' imagination; it lacks the feminist themes she finds so attractive in the first. Until the two intersect, as Clarissa stands on her balcony between heaven and earth, the second story fails to achieve much resonance.
Yet, unlike her work in the tiringly doctrinaire Antonia's Line, Gorris' direction of Mrs. Dalloway has a depth and subtlety befitting the material. The tale of female potential as yet unrealized, of opportunities lost and intimacy betrayed, is a far worthier subject for a feminist filmmaker than the simple triumph of the X chromosome over the Y. In the moment of the edit between McElhone's outgoing beauty and Redgrave's luminous interiority, all that needs to be known about Clarissa's lost possibilities hangs in the air.
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