Archive for November 1996

The Crucible

November 27, 1996

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a high-school standard, has been sold to us since 1953 as the American equal of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Miller’s play remains the only major American dramatization of the 1692 Salem witch hysteria, and that’s a shame. In 1953, The Crucible struck many as a comment on Senator McCarthy’s communist “witch-hunts.” The new movie version reveals the play as what it always was: a melodrama about a married guy who shouldn’t have dallied with a vengeful girl. Miller took a huge liberty with the facts. In his story, the girl, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), is 17; her married lover, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), is around 35. In fact, John was 60 in 1692; Abigail was only 11. Obviously, there was no affair. The problem isn’t that Miller diddled with the facts; it’s that his diddling reduces the Salem tragedy to “Hell hath no fury like a teenage girl scorned.”

Director Nicholas Hytner opens with a group of girls dancing and carrying on around a fire. One of them is Abigail, caught red-handed (and red-lipped) after drinking blood in a love ritual. The girls are quick to blame their Satanic behavior on the big bad guy himself: they claim to have been bewitched by a score of villagers, and Abigail accuses John’s wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) of putting horrible spells on her. It’s Abigail’s revenge on Elizabeth, who ended the affair. Miller also wrote the script, and Hytner treats the old master’s text with at least as much reverence as the pious Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) shows for the word of God. Hytner knocks himself out trying to make the play cinematic, but Miller hasn’t made the play into a screenplay. At one point, Abigail simply vanishes, and her departure is explained by a line of dialogue. In a movie, we expect to see, not to be told.

Hytner’s previous film, The Madness of King George, was the polar opposite of The Crucible: it was an exuberant, intelligent entertainment full of terrific performances. This time, Hytner is asleep at the wheel. The actors, with four exceptions, spend their time shrieking and spitting at the camera. Ryder comes off the worst: she looks the part, but whenever she opens her mouth, it’s over. To be fair, she also gets the most unsayable lines: “I look for John Proctor who put knowledge in my heart,” etc.

Joan Allen (Nixon) gives yet another quietly great performance as the repressed Elizabeth; she makes you wish that Miller had given her more to do. Rob Campbell (Unforgiven) is low-key and smart as the visiting Reverend Hale, who slowly realizes how insane Salem is becoming, and Karron Graves, a newcomer to movies, brings some poignancy to the pivotal role of the Proctors’ frightened servant Mary Warren. But the main reason to see The Crucible is Paul Scofield as the grim inquisitor Judge Danforth. His line readings are lasers slicing through Miller’s murky drama. In the film’s best moment, Scofield’s judge slam-dunks Parris with the precisely inflected “Mr. Parris, you are a … brainless man.” Without him, The Crucible would be as humorless as a Puritan.

The English Patient

November 16, 1996

picture-of-kristin-scott-thomas-in-the-english-patient-1996--large-pictureThere seems to be no middle ground with Michael Ondaatje’s popular novel The English Patient: either you can’t put it down, or you put it down after two pages and never pick it up again. As someone in the latter group, I was still eager to see the film version. Often, the most compulsively readable books become unwatchable movies (Sleepers), while the most wildly unreadable books blossom into enthralling cinema (Naked Lunch).

Writer-director Anthony Minghella’s film of The English Patient makes me want to take another crack at the book. I’ve read that Minghella is faithful to Ondaatje’s plot and time-hopping narrative, and he has found visual equivalents of the famously luscious prose that hooked so many readers (and stood between me and the story). The mysteries and surprises are still there (I will reveal none), but the romance is more central.

At its core, this is the story of a man who risks everything and loses it. We meet the “English patient” of the title (Ralph Fiennes), burned almost beyond recognition after his plane is shot down in the North African desert during World War II. In the last days of the war, he is tended in a wrecked monastery by the kindly nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche). He says he remembers nothing; his frequent flashbacks prove otherwise.

The patient, it turns out, is a Hungarian count named Almásy. Before the war, Almásy works with British cartographers mapping the sands of the Sahara. There he meets the alluring but married Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). A howling sandstorm finds them cooped up tight in a jeep; it’s the start of a beautiful relationship, and a neat metaphor for the way their lives will continue to be sand-blasted by the fates.

Half of the movie is Almásy’s bed-ridden reverie, and I expected the nurse Hana to fall in love with her scarred but yearning patient, competing with Katharine’s memory. Not so. Instead, Hana finds love with the sensitive mine-patroller Kip (Naveen Andrews), and Willem Dafoe turns up as a saturnine thief who warns Hana not to put a halo on Almásy any time soon.

Minghella, best known for the honestly moving Truly Madly Deeply, doesn’t shy away from overwhelming romance; he runs toward it with a clear head. And clear eyes: photographed by John Seale, this is easily the most ravishing film of the year. The sand seems to drench the actors in deep golden light; the sky is a rich, muted blue, like a still and suspended sea.

If there’s a flaw, it lies with Binoche, a capable but rather opaque actress (as she was in Blue). Otherwise, the cast is impeccable. Kristin Scott Thomas finally gets the major role she deserves, and she plays it eagerly and elegantly. Ralph Fiennes, playing both an evasive, obsessed lover and a shattered wreck of a man, powerfully fuses Almásy’s past and present. Almásy thinks he can read anything: foreign languages, maps, Herodotus, people. What he can’t read, tragically, is himself. And in the end he is a map of scars read by Hana. Some would credit Ondaatje for the compelling story. Duly noted. But praise is equally due Anthony Minghella for making it a fine movie.

Ransom

November 8, 1996

Ransom_2As a director, Ron Howard must aspire to be a baby-boomer Howard Hawks: he skips from genre to genre, usually not stumbling — but not making much of a mark, either. He has discipline but no particular temperament or vision. Solid and competent as they are, Howard’s movies are polite guests in our consciousness, never daring to mess up the rug. And in a thriller about kidnapping and parental terror, that’s not good.

Ransom, the surefire hit starring Mel Gibson, starts out as a hard-driving nail-biter. Airline magnate Tom Mullen (Gibson) enjoys the high life without guilt. He has a beautiful wife (Rene Russo, who’s underused) and doting son (Brawley Nolte). Now watch it all fall down. The son is whisked away by scruffy hoods who want to soak Tom for $2 million. The parents become hysterical and call in the FBI.

And the movie, quite unavoidably, becomes Guys With Phones. I’m serious — I’ve never seen another mainstream Hollywood movie so dependent on zooms into ringing phones. Tom spends much screen time negotiating, pleading, and arguing with the head kidnapper, renegade cop Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise). There’s more talk than the wispy story can bear, and before long it collapses. Hyperactive yet uneventful, Ransom is one of the most unthrilling thrillers imaginable.

And yet …. If there’s one theme that links some of Ron Howard’s recent work (Parenthood, The Paper, Apollo 13 to a small extent), it’s anxiety about threats to the ideal family. Ransom is a horror movie for affluent parents, and at times it works fairly well as a study of a husband and father cracking under pressure. Tom is very rudely emasculated by the faceless, jeering kidnappers who resent his fortune. He does stupid, grandstanding things because he doesn’t know what else to do.

Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise (oh, please) were also on Howard’s short list to play Tom Mullen, but I doubt we’d have bought them in the role. Ford would have been too glum, Cruise too callow. Mel Gibson specializes in heroes who can be rubbed raw and driven around the bend, and Ransom gives him a work-out. In one moment I won’t forget, Tom seems to devolve into a wailing infant after he thinks his son has been killed. Gibson goes naked here the way Jack Nicholson did in The Crossing Guard.

But then it’s back to the rusty mechanics of the thriller. The script was largely written by Richard Price (Clockers), who has never seemed comfortable with this kind of point-A-to-point-B stuff, and it shows in the amazingly lumpy climax. Price wants to humanize the kidnappers, and we see tensions between Jimmy and his girlfriend (Lili Taylor). But Price can’t flesh them out, and we don’t know why Jimmy wants $2 million. He’s just a boogeyman scaring the nice rich people.

I can marginally recommend Ransom because Gibson does sharp work, and Sinise and Taylor find some of the truth that Price and Howard neglect to include. But what we have here are (A) desperate, violent kidnappers and (B) people arguing about how the ransom should be handled. There’s a great movie in such material. That movie, by the way, was Fargo.

Mother Night

November 1, 1996

A fine, melancholy adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel, with Nick Nolte in peak, vulnerable form as the tormented hero Howard W. Campbell Jr. An American who grew up in Germany, Howard enjoys a posh life as a playwright and husband of the daughter (the excellent Sheryl Lee) of a high-ranking Nazi. Then an American agent (John Goodman) approaches Howard with a proposition: Howard will go on the radio and deliver hateful anti-Semetic rants, ostensibly to boost Nazi morale; the speeches are actually encoded with messages to the Allies. After the war, Howard shuffles through life, a typically morose and absurdist Vonnegut hero: the American government can’t acknowledge his valor as a spy, so he has to go into hiding, where he meets many betrayers and also neo-Nazi American fans of his radio “work.” Director Keith Gordon’s work is clean and unpretentious, continuing his interest in themes of non-conformity and grace under pressure. Only weakness: Gordon’s style may be too realistic for some of Vonnegut’s plot, which hinges a bit too much on coincidence. Still well worth your time. With fine support by Alan Arkin, Arye Gross, Kirsten Dunst, Frankie Faison, and David Strathairn. Vonnegut has a cameo on a crowded New York street.

The Funeral

November 1, 1996

Abel Ferrara’s Depression-era gangster drama deserves kudos for its period look and solid cast, but the overwritten and faux-philosophical script (another dud by frequent Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John) sinks it fast. It begins with a wake for a slain young hood (Vincent Gallo), who, according to the flashbacks, was dabbling in Communism and threatened to squelch a deal between his family and local Gotti prototype Benicio Del Toro. Gallo’s older brothers Christopher Walken, a somber and conflicted don, and Chris Penn, a mercurial psycho from the Joe Pesci mold, try to find out who killed Gallo and what to do about it. Eventually we discover who killed him and why, and it’s both anticlimactic and unconvincing.

This is strictly a manly-man movie: Gallo’s widow has a bare minimum of dialogue, as does Penn’s long-suffering wife (Isabella Rossellini, who looks good, anyway). On the other hand, Annabella Sciorra (also one of the producers — coincidence?) gets more dialogue than anyone except Walken, and they’re both destroyed by the lines they do get. For no reason and with no preparation, Walken turns into a sort of Catholic theorist (“God made the world; I’m just makin’ do with what I got”), while Sciorra gets an egregious scene in which she says she used to go to college and then blurts out tearfully, “I have ideas!” That puts her one up on this movie.

Penn overplays his hand from the get-go; he seems to be trying out for The Lou Costello Story, and he’s stuck in a vicious rape scene that cribs from Bad Lieutenant. (He does have a strong, lusty singing voice in one of his few happy scenes at a drunken bash.) The only actor I enjoyed was David Patrick Kelly in a too-brief cameo as a fervent Communist tub-thumper. Score by Joe Delia; cinematography by Ken Kelsch. Also with Gretchen Mol, John Ventimiglia, and Ferrara regulars Paul Hipp (who was Jesus in ‘Bad Lieutenant’) and Victor Argo.


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