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New Movies feature life in the past lane

June 03, 1998|By JASON MYERS

Jason Myers

The '90s must be an especially repellent decade. I could consider why, but I've spent enough time on the soap box lately.

I only notice that our most talented directors are refusing to set their films in the present. Last year's best film, "L.A. Confidential," evoked 1950s Los Angeles, while another praised picture, "Boogie Nights," was Paul Thomas Anderson's paean to '70s porn.

Maybe the '90s are just dull. Sure we've got children killing children on a daily basis, nuclear war brimming in Asia and the Spice Girls. But gone is that other trinity: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

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So we must rely on the movies to take us back to that beautiful era. Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist and iconoclast, was no groovy swinger. He maintained a certain equilibrium so he could write so marvelously about the long, strange trips he took.

I realize I'm writing in the past tense, and no, Thompson's not dead - at least not at the time of writing - but it's been 20 years since he wrote his masterpiece, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

Many critics have said this time span makes the Terry Gilliam film adaptation dated, but as long as we continue to be fascinated by specific times and cultures - and there were few times or cultures more specific than Vegas in the early '70s - I don't see how we can say works are antiquated. Yes, we've seen the '70s. We know all about Nixon and Vietnam and hallucinations (Oliver Stone has to be good for something). You can't patent an era, though, and few understood the drug culture and its byproducts like Thompson.

Gilliam has made sumptuous cinema of his text. A great visual stylist, Gilliam always has had an obsession for the odd - founding member of Monty Python, director of "Brazil" and "Twelve Monkeys" - and he vividly animates the elegance of Thompson's punchy prose.

The viewer feels the effects of the drugs on Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), and his "lawyer," Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), but more than that, he gets a sense of the larger world in which the two men live and let die.

Vietnam is constantly on the television in whichever hotel room the two happen to be at the moment, and their suites are anything but sweet.

This is a film of savage imagination, and its lead actors give fiercely realized performances. Depp's manic mannerisms seem at first to be mocking Thompson, but once you adapt to them, they take on an authenticity that is depictive of the artist.

Depp allows you to see the imagination at work behind the glazed eyes and dazed expressions. Del Toro delivers the true tour de force; bloated and ugly, he represents all the excess of his era.

There is no excess in "The Last Days of Disco," Whit Stillman's latest cerebral, cultured comedy. This is the last installment in his trilogy examining the strange and sardonic behavior of Manhattan yuppies. Stillman is ambitious to set his smart, sophisticated film in the site of an unnamed Studio 54. While everyone else is engaging in the mindless mania of disco music, designer drugs and drunken romantic larks, Stillman's den of dapper, overeducated men and women are microanalyzing relationships and Disney films - what other movie could you see where the main characters discuss the moral hues of "Lady and the Tramp?" Stillman's movies are like Woody Allen films without the Marxism - that's Groucho Marxism, by the way. There's no wild or wacky joy in his movies. They are clever, creative, and fiendishly intellectual.

"Metropolitan" remains his best work because in it, the characters were completely normal in their climate: going to debutante parties and talking after hours in spacious Manhattan apartments. "Barcelona" was a disappointment; it lacked the verbal verve and boasted a preposterous plot.

"The Last Days of Disco" begins slowly, and the characters are almost all obnoxious. Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are pretentious, pretty girls educated at Hampshire College, where they apparently learned to be snobbish, self-absorbed, and self-loving. They move into a railroad apartment together and party at night in an exclusive club. They talk to a select few snobbish, self-absorbed and self-loving men. Not much else happens. Stillman's film is static, and its only ecstatic moments come courtesy of the soundtrack, which does feature some lovely and luscious grooves.

You don't get attached to the characters in "Disco" nor in "Fear and Loathing." Indeed, the directors of both give their films a detached polish. Despite the ballistic close-ups and psychedelic imagery of "Fear and Loathing," and the introspective dialogue of "The Last Days of Disco," both films remain dark and distant. One is a jaded junkie; the other is pompous prep. While both are good for a few kicks, neither makes a close friend.

Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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