And Justice for Most

After a short deliberation, I have reached a verdict: This fall movie season, though barely half over, already has acquitted itself as one of the most successful in recent memory. Led by The Usual Suspects (my early frontrunner for movie of the year), with the current fall crop Hollywood has made up for the quality that was sorely missing from this past summer's sorry lineup. And the uptick in class hasn't been limited to foreign and art films. Movies such as Clockers, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Seven proved that big box-office names and innovative, intelligent filmmaking are not mutually exclusive. Add to those pictures smaller, edgier offerings such as Living in Oblivion, The Brothers McMullen, and Party Girl, and finally, for the first time in eons, the serious moviegoer faces an abundance of interesting options at the local multiplex.

We are in the midst of a veritable deluge of good cinema, and the blessed downpour shows no signs of relenting, with three new A-list films guaranteed to make a splash: Get Shorty, To Die For, and Nadja.

"Rough business, this movie business," opines Chili Palmer, the wiseguy hero of Get Shorty, the screen version of Elmore "Dutch" Leonard's irresistible Mob-meets-Hollywood novel. "I may have to go back to loansharking to take a rest."

No one knows better just how rough the movie business can be than Elmore Leonard. It took nearly two decades for Tinseltown finally to do justice to one of his books. Many filmmakers have attempted to bring Leonard's character-driven novels to the big screen. However, only about half of those projects have made it beyond the preliminary development stage. And none of the pictures that actually have made it to the theaters have generated a fraction of the humor, excitement, and suspense of the Leonard books from which they're drawn. Meanwhile the master of contemporary American crime fiction has watched a steady stream of well-meaning actors and directors botch project after project based on his work. The Burt Reynolds-Candice Bergen pairing behind 1985's atrocious Stick qualifies as a prime example. Neither the 1987 Donald Sutherland vehicle The Rosary Murders nor Abel Ferrara's 1989 Cat Chaser was much of an improvement.

Leonard himself once theorized that this inability to adapt his prose to film reflected Hollywood's failure to appreciate the subtleties of characterization and dialogue that distinguish his writing. Get Shorty changes all that. Shorty director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family) cut his teeth as cinematographer to Joel and Ethan Coen, a pair of innovative moviemakers who know a thing or two about mixing together dry humor, quirky character development, and crime. Sonnenfeld apparently paid attention to a lot more than just aperture openings while manning the cameras on the Coens' Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller's Crossing. And with Get Shorty the student's work surpasses the teachers'. The movie adroitly blends Leonard trademarks -- offbeat humor, staccato banter, and likable, idiosyncratic heroes -- into a thoroughly winning whole.

John Travolta's resurgent career will benefit even more from his rock-solid portrayal of Chili Palmer, a Miami loanshark who, while pursuing a welshing client through Las Vegas, agrees to take a side trip to L.A. to do a little free-lance collections work for a casino. Soon Chili finds himself knee-deep in shady financiers, wheeler-dealers, double-crossers, down-on-their-luck directors, and underappreciated B-movie starlets. The repartee comes fast and funny, the action punches furiously forward, and the supporting cast members put such indelible stamps on their characters that you half expect to see them chasing each other down the sidewalk as you exit the movie theater. Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, and Danny De Vito all get their share of memorable moments and sweet scenes, but Delroy Lindo (who also was great in Clockers) and Dennis Farina nearly steal the show as a pair of gun-toting heavies who want a spoonful of Chili's action. With the possible exception of The Usual Suspects, Get Shorty boasts the best ensemble acting since Pulp Fiction, to which it no doubt will be compared.

Shorty makes it look so simple: crisp plotting, juicy dialogue, nimble cinematography, pitch-perfect performances, a playful yet suspenseful tone. You can't help but wonder why it took Hollywood so long to get it right. A faithful satire drawn from a vintage Elmore Leonard novel A it's a concept so obvious that even a small-time Miami shylock could appreciate it.

Remember high school teacher (and FSU grad) Pamela Smart? She seduced a couple of her male students and cajoled them into murdering her husband. Take that case, change the seductress's occupation from teacher to aspiring TV personality, filter it through the jaundiced eye of Buck Henry, and you've got To Die For, one of the wickedest, darkest comedies to come down the pike in many a moon -- part Heathers, part Serial Mom.

Director Gus Van Sant more than redeems himself for the debacle of last year's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues with this perverse, cynical assault on America's obsession with the media and its addiction to celebrity. Nicole Kidman shines as never before -- this is far and away the best performance of her career -- as Suzanne Stone, a small-town girl with great legs and a willingness to spread them for anyone she thinks might help her realize her dream to become the next Barbara Walters. "What's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching?" Suzanne wonders. She attacks her first job A as a sort of gal Friday at a local cable-access TV station A with a gusto bordering on fanaticism. Before the station manager knows what hit him, Suzanne has worked her way into a regular job in front of the cameras as the station's weather girl.

Storm clouds form when Suzanne's regular-guy husband Larry (Matt Dillon in low-key charming mode), who supported her career enthusiastically at first, expresses doubts that her weather-babe gig will ever lead to anything better. And when he pushes her to think about raising a family, Suzanne takes a course of action that reveals the murderous soul behind the lethal gams and killer smile.

Without having read the Joyce Maynard novel of the same name from which To Die For was taken, I find it hard to divine how much of the movie's scathingly dry humor and barbed satire flowed from screenwriter Buck Henry's pen and how much from Maynard's. Small matter -- the final result does them both proud. In Suzanne Stone they have created a perfect heroine-villainess to reflect the reality of media-altered, fame-crazed modern America. And the film's ending -- without giving too much away, let's just say Ronald Goldman's grieving parents might derive some comfort from it -- ranks as, in this reviewer's jaundiced opinion, one of the nastiest, funniest, and most satisfying ever. Even though recent real-life events have proven otherwise, it's comforting to believe for a moment that fame is no defense against justice.

Just when you think vampire movies have been done to death, along comes Nadja, writer-director Michael (Another Girl Another Planet) Almereyda's hallucinatory, hypnotic postmodern variation on the bloodsucking theme. Almereyda's moody black-and-white meditation feels more like a heroin dream than a horror flick.

Elina Lowensohn -- who appeared in Another Girl and recently played one of the leads in Hal Hartley's Amateur, appearing opposite her Nadja costar Martin Donovan -- plays the title role here, a love-starved member of the undead whose complex emotions render her all too human. Nadja comes from a supernaturally dysfunctional family and is herself forever haunted by "the pain of fleeting joy." L”wensohn cements her status as independent cinema's Garbo with this performance. Few, if any, actresses working today can go deliciously, unselfconsciously over-the-top -- to the point where you almost wince at the melodramatic overacting -- and then bail themselves out with a downcast look, unconventional phrasing, or an achingly vulnerable glance. Lowensohn pulls it off.

In addition to Lowensohn and Donovan, Peter Fonda rides easily through his role as a hyper vampire killer looking to pound a stake through Nadja's heart. It's been quite a while since Fonda could sink his teeth into a part so well-tailored to his peculiar talents; the actor's comic timing has never been better.

But the star of this film is really Almereyda's lush black-and-white photography, which evokes the era of great silent films. The writer-director incorporates film stock shot on a $45 toy camera (called Pixelvision and manufactured by Fisher-Price) that gives certain scenes a mysterious abstract look. The resulting sequences are blurred and hazy, as if they've just bubbled up from the subconscious. When the director backs his low-tech, bargain-basement special effect with the melancholy musical meanderings of Portishead, the atmosphere fairly congeals with portent. In the final analysis, atmospherics and acting separate Nadja from all the other suckers out there.


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