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Movie Reviews: 54 and Rounders -- The last days of independent cinema

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Two years ago, four out of five Best Picture Oscar nominees were independently produced, including the eventual winner, The English Patient, from Miramax pictures. That was hailed as a stunning victory for the independent cinema which, without the financial and creative constraints imposed by the studio system, could be more daring, creative, and edgy.

Back then, many film critics predicted that the major studios would try to be more creative as well, in order to emulate the success of such studios as Miramax and October Films - if not for the artistic reasons, then at least for the financial ones. After all, something like Pulp Fiction (domestic gross around $100 million) looks like small fish compared to something like Independence Day (domestic gross around $300 million) - that is, until you realize that Pulp Fiction cost about one tenth of ID4 ($8 million versus $75 million), and thus represents a much better return on investment.

What happened was the reverse. The small studios got bought by the big ones (Miramax is now owned by Disney, October is owned by Universal, and the owners of Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics are obvious), and nowadays it is the independent movies which try to emulate their big-budget counterparts. The results are, as far as I'm concerned, depressing. Even the better low-budget movies this year demonstrate the notorious faults of Hollywood movies - unnecessary emphasis on the thriller aspects in Pi, and an almost total lack of characterization for the love interest in Buffalo '66 - and the latest two movies from Miramax are, simply, quite forgettable.

54

Directed and written by Mark Christopher

With Ryan Phillippe, Mike Myers, Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell

This is a story of human corruption, how greed and glamour snuff noble human impulses, and how bright idealism turns into something much less appealing, The story I'm talking about is not the story of 54 the movie (although it should have been) - it is the story of what happened to 54 the movie.

54 was originally supposed to be a chronicle of a downfall of Shane (Ryan Phillippe), a New Jersey teen, who comes to New York City, gets into the glitzy Studio 54, and then goes from visitor to busboy to bartender, while losing, step by step, his soul. However, this is not the movie I saw.

What I saw was something with the traces of editing scissors in almost every scene. I don't know whether it was the result of poor test screenings or an attempt to make a movie more palatable to the TV generation (after all, this is the movie with Mike Myers and Neve Campbell), but the movie was clearly assembled in the editing room without much regard to consistency, tone, or even common sense. The plot developments come from nowhere and make little to no sense - the characters amble aimlessly, and the subplots are dropped and picked up abruptly,

The relationship between Shane and his friends at 54, the married couple Anita (Salma Hayek) and Greg (Breckin Meyer), suffers the most. After a lot of screen time devoted to this subplot, it is dropped suddenly and completely about two thirds into the movie. At this point, the lukewarm romance between Shane and a small-time TV actress Julie (Neve Campbell, who is, as usual, very radiant and very forgettable) shifts into a higher gear, and infuses the movie with a weird wholesomeness, which really clashes with everything else.

In the end, the movie stops striving for any kind of narrative or character coherency, settling instead in the mood of dazed blandness. At least it's not painful to watch - at an anemic 89 minutes (including about ten minutes of credits, which list as many as 40 highly forgettable songs), it's not too boring to watch.

Only Mike Myers escapes the general listlessness. His first ever dramatic performance (as Steve Rubell, the owner and the patron saint of Studio 54) is something to remember. Ambling about in a drug-induced daze and behaving like a class nerd trying to throw the mother of all parties, Rubell is simultaneously a horrifying and a tragic figure. In the end, he's the only one whose fate matters to the viewers.

This is much more than I can say about the central character. Ryan Phillippe looks great, but his acting is almost non-existent, and his story - when I could gleam one - feels like a third-generation copy of the similar (but much superior) one in Boogie Nights.

As a matter of fact, 54 does achieve a seemingly impossible task - it makes the disco days of the seventies, with its copious amounts of drugs, sex, half-naked bodies, lurid costumes, and devil-may-care attitude, feel profoundly boring. I think I'll take the nineties, thank you.

Rounders

Directed by John Dahl

Written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman

With Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, Martin Landau, John Turturro, John Malkovich

Rounders is a more interesting case. This story about Mike (Matt Damon), a compulsive card player who tries to go straight, at least does one thing right - it takes the viewer into a strange and unfamiliar world (in this case, the illegal underground card houses in New York City), and unlike 54, makes it a fascinating journey. The milieu is the dimly lit rooms where people are perched, vulture-like, over the card tables; the language is rife with the argot of the gamblers (full of terms like "grinder," "check," "blind," "base deal," and "road show,"); the cinematography is weirdly yellow (a bit too much so), providing a jaundiced tint to the proceedings; and the characters are quite fascinating. There's a charming and compulsively dishonest Worm (Edward Norton); a stoically conservative gambler Joe Knish (John Turturro); and a quietly horrifying Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, turning in an excellent performance, but doing a horrible Russian accent which sounds nothing like the real thing).

As an anthropological piece, Rounders succeeds quite well; while it didn't make me any more interested in illegal poker than I was before I saw this movie (which is to say, not at all), I was admittedly quite fascinated to observe the card sharks and learn about the feeding and mating habits of this peculiar species. The film halfway succeeds as an exploration of a gambling addiction; while it doesn't care in the least to explain why is it that Mike can not resist cards (although I believe Damon's uncharacteristically bland performance is partly to blame here), it refreshingly doesn't treat it as a vice. As a story however, Rounders fails totally and completely.

Why oh why did the screenwriters feel the need to include the totally superfluous romantic subplot between Mike and his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol, playing an absolutely generic character)? A lot of time is spent on it, and this relationship ultimately doesn't matter in the least. Of course, the same is true about the film's central relationship, the one between Mike and Worm. For a while - as a matter of fact, for most of the time - it feels like an emotional center of the film, with Norton managing to make his scoundrel highly likable, and Damon warming up in their scenes together. As a result, it comes as a crushing disappointment when, toward the end of the movie, this potentially fascinating plot is reduced to a mere convenient plot device, and Worm totally disappears for all of the last act.

With the emotional backbone disappearing, the ending of Rounders pretty much disintegrates. Despite Mike's frequent voiceover pontification about poker being a game of skill rather than a game of luck, the final card game mostly turns on who gets the better hand, and the results of this game are utterly obvious from the opening title.

Allow me to sigh ruefully. The list of films I haven't enjoyed this year grows at an alarming rate; the only thing is left is the hope that sometime during next four months there will be at least some movies which would care more about art than about profit. Maybe they will be able to reach the state of true creative independence.