Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Class Dismissed

Teen terrormeister Kevin Williamson gets an F

By Noel Murray

AUGUST 30, 1999:  To watch Teaching Mrs. Tingle is to have all the joy and enthusiasm slurped from your body, like the last bit of syrup from the stubborn ice at the bottom of a Frozen Coke. The film is one of those all-too-common Hollywood boondoggles. A studio throws a pile of money at a creator that it wants to keep happy, and the creator, convinced that the pile of money is a sign of peerless genius, proceeds to make a movie so witless that it could only have been assembled by nodders afraid to tell the peerless genius that his picture was dead before it left the printed page.

The creator in question is Kevin Williamson, who helped put Dimension Films on the map with his script for Scream. Dimension is a division of Miramax, a company that is notoriously proprietary about the talents it promotes (e.g., Quentin Tarantino, Gwyneth Paltrow). Taking note of Williamson's success away from the fold (I Know What You Did Last Summer, TV's Dawson's Creek), Dimension lured Williamson back by allowing him a shot at the director's chair.

Teaching Mrs. Tingle continues the John-Hughes-meets-John-Carpenter aesthetic of Williamson's previous films. An A-student from a poor family (Katie Holmes)--as well as her actress-wannabe friend (Marisa Coughlan) and their mutual bad-boy crush (Barry Watson)--is accused of cheating by the meanest teacher in school (Helen Mirren). While attempting to reason with nasty Mrs. Tingle, a series of mishaps ensue, and soon they have their teacher bound and gagged.

What happens next? Essentially, nothing. Mrs. Tingle's shallow villainy is neither explained nor expanded. (Is it a classist thing?) The teens' one-concept personalities are not developed. There's not a single surprising or insightful moment in Teaching Mrs. Tingle--all the characters are who they are from frame one to frame last. Williamson made his rep on his smart dialogue for young people, but here it sounds like he just cribbed lines from Saved By the Bell.

It's hardly worth enumerating all the ways that this film is phony, but let's start with the driving premise. We're to believe that if Katie Holmes (who combines the worst acting traits of Liv Tyler and Drew Barrymore) doesn't make valedictorian, she won't get "the big scholarship," and so will be forced to skip college and follow her mother into life as a waitress in their middle-of-nowhere (and, might I add, quite charming) small town. Apparently, this is a world with no Merit Scholarships or Pell Grants, where a bright young person's future rests with an inexplicably capricious history teacher.

This simplistic setup might survive a broad comedy or a campy horror flick, but Teaching Mrs. Tingle, whatever its genre origins, ends up as dewy-eyed melodrama. If the audience doesn't believe the motivations of the characters, if we can't connect with their problems, pretty soon we start wondering what's making that rumbling noise from the theater next door.

Surely, these problems were present in the original script, just as surely as Kevin Williamson must've been convinced that he could fill in the gaps in his own work through inspired direction. Maybe next time. As for Dimension/Miramax, their loyalty tends to extend as far as the bottom line, so it's unlikely they'll scramble for Williamson in the future. After all, Teaching Mrs. Tingle is more than just a bad movie--it's bad business.


California Dreaming

With The Nutty Professor and Doctor Doolittle, Eddie Murphy established a new paradigm for the Eddie Murphy movie. Unlike the hard-R action pictures and edgy comedies that made him famous, the new Eddie Murphy movie is family-friendly, relies heavily on computer-generated effects, and features classic stories taken from children's literature or children's movies.

But Murphy's latest movie, Bowfinger, isn't really an Eddie Murphy movie. He may have a starring role, but Bowfinger is a Steve Martin movie in the lovable tradition of L.A. Story, Martin's sweet-natured, surreal satire on California life. Even so, Murphy's talents get a chance to shine, and the tone of the film isn't all that different from his other recent ventures.

The left coast hasn't gotten any more logical since 1991, when Martin wrote himself the part of a weatherman who tapes his forecasts in advance and talks to electronic highway-advisory signs. In his return to La-La Land, he plays a would-be producer named Bowfinger who's going to make an action movie starring actor Kit Ramsey (Murphy), whether Ramsey knows it or not. Murphy plays a dual role, as Ramsey and his errand-boy double, and delivers a perfect spoof of his own stardom.

The usual Hollywood satire is bitter at its core, portraying stars, producers, and studio execs as venal (or at best, stupid) slimeballs out to stomp on artists' tender dreams--think The Player or The Big Picture. But what gives Bowfinger its surprising appeal is Martin's conviction that the system is full of naive, trusting people who just want to make magic up there on the screen. Bowfinger, his accountant-slash-screenwriter, his corn-fed female lead, and his crew of Mexican illegals dream of entertaining the world with their tale of waterborne aliens, Chubby Rain. Even Ramsey, a million-megawatt action star with all the trimmings, doesn't come across as a money-loving jerk. As his counselors at Mind Head (a Scientology-like group) remind him, he's only trying to "keep it together" in the face of paranoia and delusion. The only villain in the piece is Terence Stamp as a Mind Head leader with a celebrity meal ticket.

Bowfinger delivers some big laughs with the same kind of Mel Brooksian sight gags and set pieces that filled L.A. Story. But even when the laughter tapers off, as it often does, Martin's script is sustained by its refreshing refusal to pass judgment on these characters or their business. An actress sleeping her way to a bigger part isn't the end of the world; audiences like crappy action movies; Hollywood is crazy, but maybe it works for some people. Martin's essential optimism makes the movies he writes as sunny as the L.A. weather forecast. His costar Murphy may have needed reinvention a couple of times in his career, but thank goodness Martin is still the same. --Donna Bowman


Lapsarian Dance

Pity the poor reviewer who exhausts his breath exhorting his fellow moviegoers to take a chance on foreign or independent films--only to have them take his advice and check out The Loss of Sexual Innocence. In art-movie terms, this hodgepodge of pretty pictures and laughable symbolism is pretty much an extinction-level event: It's the kind of stinker that steers unwary viewers clear of arthouses for life.

Which is unfair for many reasons--not the least of which is that The Loss of Sexual Innocence can get megaplex bookings because it's hooked up with a name distributor, Sony Classics, while better movies drift around unnoticed like lost planes without a runway. And it's clear that the only reason a name distributor picked this up is because it came from a name director, Mike Figgis; had a couple of mid-level stars, Julian Sands and Saffron Burrows; and had enough nudity to make it marginally sellable. Even as pretentious as the title is--it reeks of nickel-beer night at a poetry slam--it'll at least prick up your ears on MovieFone. But that's what makes the whole thing so frustrating: seeing art-movie distribution governed by the same decrepit considerations that clog the megaplexes.

The Loss of Sexual Innocence seems meant as an emptying of writer-director Figgis' notebook, a grab-bag of story fragments, images, and dream sequences presented as the jumbled thoughts and memories of a British filmmaker (Sands). That the movie starts off without a plot is its most striking feature--the mood of languid disconnection and erotic anticipation is initially tantalizing, and Benoit Delhomme's sepia-toned camerawork is impressive. However, after a series of self-contained tidbits that are less notebook entries than wastebasket scraps, the movie eventually whittles down to parallel (awful) storylines: Sands' venture into unspoiled Africa with a film crew, and Adam and Eve's movement through paradise toward original sin.

Did I mention the twins separated by nuns? The dream sequence in which Sands' wife finishes the ironing in one room and commences stripping onstage to a jazz combo in the next? The Nazis with snarling dogs who chase Adam and Eve into the arms of paparazzi beneath a giant neon cross? Each squiggle is so vapid and sophomoric in itself that you don't care about finding connections between them--the opposite effect of a difficult, deliberately mystifying work like Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique (a likely influence), whose patterns and themes resonate more each time you watch it. By contrast, Figgis' ideas tend to boil down to fortune-cookie stuffers like "nature good, man evil."

Figgis made one great movie, Leaving Las Vegas, amidst an all-but-unbroken string of windy misfires, and one suspects its source material kept the writer-director on track for once. Ironically, the success of that focused, controlled film got him the clout and the genius's mantle to make something this awkwardly self-indulgent--for all its posturing, it looks and sounds like the gauzy thesis of a trust-fund dilettante. Unlike a lot of better art movies you won't get to see, though, at least it's playing in local theaters--which probably has a lot to do with its title. If smaller distributors learn to play this game, steel yourself for Grand Sexual Illusion, The Third Sexual Man, or Taste of Sexual Cherry. --Jim Ridley


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