Written and directed by VINCENT GALLO Produced by CHRIS HANLEY Starring GALLO CHRISTINA RICCI ANJELICA HUSTON BEN GAZZARA KEVIN CORRIGAN and MICKEY ROURKE Released by Lions Gate Films At the Nuart
Directed by DAISY VON SCHERLER MAYER Written by MARK LEVIN and JENNIFER FLACKETT Based on the book by LUDWIG BEMELMANS Produced by SAUL COOPER and PANCHO KOHNER Starring FRANCES McDORMAND NIGEL HAWTHORNE HATTY JONES BEN DANIELS ARTURO VENEGAS and STÉPHANE AUDRAN Released by Tristar Pictures Citywide
Expect no silly love songs from Buffalo ’66, Vincent Gallo’s long, loud, more than semi-autobiographical tantrum dedicated to his warped youth in the underbelly of upstate New York. Fresh out of the slammer and desperate to take a leak, Billy Brown (Gallo) blunders into a dance studio, scoops up Layla (Christina Ricci), a total stranger, from her tap class, and browbeats the wall-eyed teenager into role-playing his sweetie for the benefit of his crazy parents.
Five minutes in the company of Janet and Jimmy Brown and you understand why their son hates the world as much as he hates himself. In between half-hearted imitations of welcoming in-law behavior, the couple reverts to appalling type. A rabid Buffalo Bills fan, Janet (cannily played by Anjelica Huston as a monstrous mutant from Laverne and Shirley) loses no time in gaily informing the slack-jawed Layla that she rues the day Billy was born because it caused her to miss the one Super Bowl that the Bills won. Jimmy (Ben Gazzara), who barely registers his wife and son except for the occasional impotent yell, sits in his undershirt reeking of disappointment, the dregs of long-forgotten appetites showing in his repeated efforts (“Daddy loves you!”) to entice Layla onto his lap. Now fully committed to embroidering Billy’s fiction with the ballooning fibs that she believes the second they’re out of her mouth, the young woman laps up Jimmy’s sad lip-synch of “Fools Rush In” with the guileless alacrity of a puppy.
Buffalo ’66 is Gallo’s first outing as a filmmaker — and as a writer, composer and star of some distinction. For a study in untrammeled lunacy, the movie is a highly constructed and tightly controlled work. An artist before he developed his acting career in off-Hollywood grunge indies like The Funeral, Gallo knows how to turn concept into composition. Tricked out with multiple insets that flash back to Billy’s dispiriting past, his brief glory as a bowling champion and the reasons he went to jail (the informant is Mickey Rourke, who is forging a thriving new career playing lowlifes sagging into seedy old age), the movie’s jagged, willfully grimy beauty is counterpointed with telling grace notes: the camera hovering around Layla’s still face through a stream of Billy’s invective, Layla breaking into a tap dance after she scores at the bowling alley, Layla and Billy lying stiffly at opposite ends of a motel bed.
As Billy, Gallo looks like a cadaver that’s been kissed awake and repossessed by the Antichrist. Hollow-eyed, bony, beaky, hipless and to all appearances fleshless, the actor’s tense frame bristles with a wily madness that, seemingly out of control, is actually carefully calibrated to compel our attention even as it drives us nuts. Billy, a man who has no idea what it is to be liked, let alone loved, has staggered through life bullying and leeching off other losers, such as his friend Goon (Kevin Corrigan, mostly seen in closeups of overhanging gut). The hatred he feigns for women (“Girls stink — they’re all backstabbers”) and his efforts to control them barely cover his deathly terror. When he makes off with the apparently malleable Layla, he has no idea that he’s met his match. Softening the truculent pout she perfected in The Ice Storm and The Opposite of Sex, Ricci plays Layla as a clueless ingénue with an underlying solidity that first heightens Billy’s panic, then gradually soothes it. Layla, resplendent in blue Maybelline, baby-blue Lycra and blue fishnet tights, is a simpleton who knows how to hold steady in love. Having made Billy the object of her affection, she clings to him like a limpet no matter how much verbal abuse he rains on her trusting, bleached-blond head.
Billy is a narcissistic monster, and if the compulsively repeated imperatives that cascade from his lips like some deranged parody of Pinter or Mamet serve as an irritant, they also fuel the propulsive force of Buffalo ’66, as naked and bitter an exhibition of self-pity as you’ve seen outside an Edward Albee play. The saving difference is that Gallo knows exactly how much amused distance to place between himself and his character, even as both trip all the way into hysteria.
Mesmerizing and often tiresome, Buffalo ’66 is at once a poem to Gallo’s craziness and a loud cackle at his own expense, energized by its insistence that the average victim is not a hero in the making, but a charmless, confused and dangerous creature. It’s also wildly ambivalent about love: Gallo shoves two alternate finales in our face, one of which contains a bloody catastrophe, the other a goofy deliverance. His intention is not that you take your choice, but that you bear witness to the hairline of luck, chance or the unwavering love of another that lies between salvation and the road to hell. By the end of this demented, fascinating and exasperating movie, Billy has earned his share of grudging sympathy. Unless you have a better character than I do, you may also want to stuff a sock in his mouth and put him down for his nap.
Given that the great charm of the Madeline books was not author Ludwig Bemelmans’ fairly routine stories about the little orphan that could, but his wonderfully offbeat illustrations, Madeline might have been better off as an animated feature. As it is, this pleasant but pedestrian live-action film has one great thing going for it in the shape of Hatty Jones, a tiny Brit with currant-bun eyes full of forthcoming transgression. Jones’ Madeline, the Parisian pupil who has only to say to herself “I can do anything” and the world climbs into her lap, is a wonderfully alert bit of business. Just as well, for there is no end of plot complications for Madeline to sort out. Directed with surprising restraint by Daisy von Scherler Mayer (Party Girl), Madeline strings together four of the Bemelmans books with the result that the movie feels patched together and episodic. In less than 90 minutes Madeline loses her appendix, gains a dog who saves her from drowning, saves the poor little rich boy next door (doe-eyed mini-dreamboat Kristian de la Osa) from abduction by his nasty tutor (Ben Daniels), and saves her school from being sold to foreign potentates.
Reset in time from 1939, when the original book was written, to the perky, pastel ’50s and shot on location in Paris (the sugary score is by Michel Legrand) with a mainly British cast, Madeline is clearly pointed at the international market. The little girls are unexceptionable; as Miss Clavel, the strict but loving nun who runs the school, Frances McDormand, apparently under the impression that she is in an animated feature, mugs up a storm, rolling her eyes and lifting her hands as if auditioning for Sister Act 3. Nigel Hawthorne, who understands that acting for kids is just acting, is wonderfully dour and sad, with a well-placed touch of silly, as the grim-faced widower Lord Covington (Lord Cucuface to the giggling girls) who wants to sell the school. Production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski (believe it or not, his last job was designing Gary Oldman’s ferociously glum Nil by Mouth) has done lovely, old-fashioned things with the school building. It remains only to see whether today’s little girls, schooled in Disney and unimpressed by the far more magical A Little Princess, will lift up their hearts for 12 little girls in two straight lines, however fancy the old house covered in vines.