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Eight Is Enough

Silver lining or slender thread? That question nags at me as I go over my best-of-the-year list. There were some terrific movies in 1998 -- eight, according to my count. But the average film keeps on getting worse. If movies remain as synthetic and incompetent as they are for the most part, audience derision may become a regular part of the film experience. During a radio-promoted screening of the Kurt Russell action spectacle Soldier, the recruited teenagers groaned when the hero's battles with genetically engineered warriors didn't even have the satisfying shape of a professional wrestling match. On my way out a couple of them saw a reporter's pad in my coat pocket and asked me, as an expert, "Was that supposed to be good?" It's a typical 1998 movie puzzler: Who would hire the director of 1997's abysmal Event Horizon (Paul Anderson) to do a second sci-fi blowout?

Soldier, at least, was a deserved bomb; hordes inexplicably swarmed to the prefab shocks and yocks of Lethal Weapon 4 and Rush Hour (the latest innocuous Jackie Chan vehicle). Maybe the crowds were under the illusion that these films' respective hot young comics, Chris Rock and Chris Tucker, could rejuvenate tired action-movie tropes instead of just enlivening a spare minute or two. After all we're in an era so desperate for redemption that schlockmeisters win acclaim for reviving the slasher movies of 20 years ago with a self-consciousness that passes for postmodernism. I couldn't bring myself to see Scream 2: The first one already felt like Scream 10. But I don't begrudge the pleasure of the teen audiences who do go. They want to howl and scream and grab the shoulder next to them just like their parents did.

What's dismaying is that the year's biggest box-office hit, Armageddon, isn't more literate -- or less slipshod -- than the smaller thrill machines. It's simply noisier and more relentlessly eye-popping. If the producers require a stupendous jolt, the filmmakers oblige by offing one city after another.

The coherence of any old Charlie Chan movie outstrips most of this year's critical and popular "successes." That includes semi-art films such as Pleasantville, which doesn't give even superficial impact to a daughter abandoning her brother and mother for a world inside a video tube, and its matching paperweight, The Truman Show, which never grapples with the idea that when its hero leaves his TV-studio universe, what he finds on the outside may depress him.

In their own confused ways, these films decry TV as the electronic opiate of the masses, transforming democracy into a dictatorship of cheap celebrity and putting a video scrim between modern man and "reality." But they don't generate the authority they need as movies. They don't have the narrative flow that used to be the hallmark of commercial filmmaking. And, ironically, it's the top dramas on television that have appropriated this movie legacy and extended it with more fluid and complicated on-screen storytelling. The ABC series The Practice, about an upstart Boston law firm, has far more emotional boldness and dramatic innovation than the deluxe, uninspired A Civil Action, which is also about an upstart Boston law firm.

Personality magazines (whether broadcast, print, or online) still support the idea that movies are getting more and more glamorous (and certainly more glamorous than TV), while newsweeklies cover the workings of executives such as Michael Eisner or Jeffrey Katzenberg as if they were Disney or Griffith. But what's refreshing about a goofy sleeper like There's Something About Mary is that it scrapes away the glitz: It proves that, for $175 million-worth of ticket-buyers, a ragged film that simply meets its tickle quotient may be enough to sustain the filmgoing habit for a season or two.

The success of something as slight and cheerful as Mary should be heartening; instead it's dangerous, because of Hollywood's shifting herd mentality. Executives who were rushing to launch Titanic-like extravaganzas a few months ago have been canceling ambitious projects and searching for their own low-budget gross-out comedies. Without fluky talents like Mary's Farrelly Brothers, whose guiding principle is to go where no other gagster has dared to go before, we'll get studio films with as little zest or visual dimension as any old indie.

One of the smaller disappointments of Warren Beatty's Bulworth was how ugly it was; after all, its cinematographer is the great Vittorio Storaro. Unfortunately the film's drab, tired look was the outward expression of its depleted vitality. Beatty psyched himself up to dramatize a topic he cared about (campaign reform) in a guttural style meant to be dynamic and attention-getting. But he bet too much on the thin proposition that a white icon getting funky (and rapping badly) would amuse and enlighten an audience. And, on its own questionable terms, the film went soft. Its climactic political martyrdom was pure Tinseltown -- both sacrificial and self-adoring. It evoked more romantic melancholy than outrage; it's as if Beatty yearned to be a jiving-Jacobin version of Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two L.A.'s.

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Michael Sragow

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