FILMS

A mixed bouquet

Lovers, thugs and visionaries light up the screen

Brian D. Johnson February 5 1996
FILMS

A mixed bouquet

Lovers, thugs and visionaries light up the screen

Brian D. Johnson February 5 1996

A mixed bouquet

FILMS

Lovers, thugs and visionaries light up the screen

BED OF ROSES

Directed by Michael Goldenberg

What is wrong with this picture?

Many, many things. But one thing stands out, and becomes all too clear as the film drifts towards its contented conclusion: there is no story. Bed of Roses is a tale of Boy Meets Girl.

Period. The end. Lisa (Mary Stuart Masterson) is a Manhattan investment banker who receives an anonymous gift of flowers. The donor, Lewis (Christian Slater),

owns a flower shop, and has been discreetly stalking her. He comes on strong, but is really nice. She comes on weak, but is really nice. The only other significant character, Lisa’s typical New York Jewish girlfriend (Pamela Segall), is really, really nice.

Written and directed by American novice Michael Goldenberg, Bed of Roses offers thorn-free romance— there is no conflict, just a little hesitation. Although Lewis is perfect, Lisa is skittish about accepting his love because of a Big Dark Secret in her past. But the secret turns out to be so anticlimactic that even she apologizes for it.

No one needs downsized romantic comedy, not even in the ’90s. This low-rent valentine is not romantic enough, funny enough, or sexy enough. Bed of Roses is a first-date movie for couples dying to sleep together—literally, in the theatre.

RICHARD III

Directed by Richard Loncraine

When Shakespeare’s most notorious villain delivers a good chunk of his famous opening speech—“Now is the winter of our discontent”—while re-

lieving himself at a urinal, it soon be-

comes apparent that this latest adaptation of Richard III will be nothing if not adventurous.

In the name of accessibility and relevance, the film-makers have transplanted the Bard’s tale of treachery and murder to 1930s Europe. Richard, played by British Shakespeare veteran Sir Ian McKellen, is a fascist viper surrounded by black-shirted thugs, Hitlerian pageantry and armored infantry. And the action unfolds with stylized extravagance in a series of eccentric locations—the Tower where the little princes are

imprisoned is an abandoned power station on

the Thames, a brooding industrial monolith.

Shifting from obsequious charm to coldblooded cruelty in the flick of a forked tongue, McKellen is superb. And he is flanked by a strong cast—including Nigel Hawthorne as Richard’s ill-fated brother Clarence, and Maggie Smith as his mother. But it is jarring to see Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. playing Queen Elizabeth and her brother as Americans. And director Richard Loncraine’s cinematic conceits are so hectic—ending with a climactic chase scene on a factory catwalk—that Shakespeare’s drama loses its bearings. It gets silly. Still, McKellen’s flamboyant performance is worth seeing. At times, he looks like he is secretly dying to break into musical comedy—a Shakespearean Springtime for Hitler. Andrew Lloyd Webber, watch your back.

RESTORATION

Directed by Michael Hoffman

It is 1663. The Puritans are history, and England’s King Charles II has ushered in the Restoration, an era of scientific, social and

artistic exuberance. The debonair Robert Downey Jr. stars as Merivel, a debauched doctor who enjoys a giddy rise to affluence when King Charles (Sam Neill) makes him a royal favorite. More fool than physician, Merivel basks in the court’s decadent pleasures as the king awards him a title, a country estate and a paper bride—the King’s own mistress, Celia (Polly Walker). But when Merivel breaks the terms of the royal arrangement—by falling in love with her—he loses everything, and is forced to rediscover his vocation as a doctor.

Based on the award-winning 1989 novel by British author Rose Tremain, Restoration is an exceptionally lavish costume pageant. And Downey Jr.’s quicksilver charm is enjoyable, as long as he is playing the buffoon. But after his character’s fall from grace, the movie sobers up all too quickly, and becomes the earnest tale of a heroic doctor battling mental illness, the plague and the Great Fire of London. Merivel is Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa rolled into one—a stretch

even for Downey’s virtuoso talents.

American director Michael Hoffman (Soapdish) has flanked his star with an impressive battery of British thespians playing minor roles: Hugh Grant, Ian McKellen and David Thewlis. But he also has Meg Ryan playing a mental patient, and Meg Ryan simply does not belong in the 17th century. When she pops up, about halfway through the film, Restoration starts to lose credibility— and it is never restored.

MESMER

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

In reviewing this curious film about 18th-century German healer Franz Anton Mesmer, some critic somewhere will undoubtedly summon up the adjective derived from the subject and call it mesmerizing. Mystifying would be more accurate, and the mystery is how such fine talents could conspire to produce such a lame movie. The director of this Canada-Europe co-production is Ottawa-born Roger Spottiswoode, who made the taut political thriller Under Fire (1983). The script comes from Britain’s Dennis Potter (who died in 1994), the brilliant creator of

TV’s The Singing Detective. And the star is the flamboyant Alan Rickman, who has made a career of being mesmerizing in films ranging from Die Hard to Sense and Sensibility.

In Mesmer, Rickman plays a prima donna doctor who wins notoriety by channelling the “animal magnetism” of his patients. He seems to specialize in attractive women— principally a blind pianist named Maria (Amanda Ooms) who has trouble distinguishing between romance and therapy. Most of the drama consists of Mesmer’s treatment sessions, which involve a lot

of staring into space, aurastroking and orgasmic trembling. It is like watching adults playing doctor with their clothes on.

The conflict focuses on Mesmer’s feud with medical authorities (played by Canadian actors David Hemblen and Jan Rubes), who are fighting to preserve the dogma of the mindbody split. But the film-makers seem unsure whether their hero is a charlatan or a visionary, and out of the confusion they have fashioned a backhanded bodice ripper. Dithering between highminded intensity and campy selfparody, Rickman seems strangely adrift. Sometimes he mumbles inaudibly, like Marlon Brando on a bad day. In his big kissing scene, he holds his broad lips stubbornly immobile. He be-

haves like an actor who is making it up as he goes along—a star who, for lack of anything

better, is mesmerized by his own aura.

THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY

Directed by Steven M. Martin

Like Mesmer, Theremin is another tale of an innovator who became famous for manipulating magnetic fields. But it is a documentary, and far more compelling. The film’s subject is Prof. Leon Theremin, the Russian genius who pioneered electronic music in 1920 with his invention of an instrument that is played without being touched. The theremin, as is it is called, is a device encased in wood with two antennas. With subtle hand movements, a skilled player can pick out notes and weave the most intricate music imaginable. The instrument astounded audiences in concerts from Carnegie Hall to the Paris Opera House. And its ethereal sound was used to conjure up an eerie mood in such 1940s films as Spellbound and The Lost Weekend.

Written and directed by American filmmaker Steven M. Martin, the film traces Theremin’s amazing life with a sense of wonder, humor—and occasional horror. In 1938, the inventor was kidnapped in front of his Manhattan studio by Soviet agents, sent back to Russia and imprisoned for “anti-Soviet propaganda.” In the West, it was widely reported that he had been executed. In fact, working from a military prison, he pioneered the invention of the first surveillance bugs used in the Cold War. Martin discovered Theremin in Moscow in 1991, a 95-year-old retiree, and flew him back to Manhattan to reunite him with his former love interest, theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, then 81.

The film contains a spellbinding performance by Rockmore, who knits the air around the instrument with uncanny precision. Robert Moog explains how the theremin inspired his invention of the electronic synthesizer in the 1960s. And Beach Boy Brian Wilson surfs his choppy brain waves to explain how he included a theremin in the hit song Good Vibrations. The inventor himself died in 1993, at the age of 97. Funny, fasci-

nating and sweetly affectionate, Theremin is an amazing portrait of an unsung genius whose life strangely echoed a century of scientific triumph and human tragedy.

SHANGHAI TRIAD

Directed by Zhang Yimou

He is China’s most accomplished film-maker. She is its most radiant star. Together, director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li have created a wonderful body of work, ranging from the folk-tale romance of Red Sorghum (1988) to the Cultural Revolution saga of To Live (1994). Possessing the quiet power of revelation, each of Zhang’s films creates a world of its own, one that shows China—and Gong Li—in a fresh light Shanghai Triad is their seventh collaboration and the movie that marks the end of their seven-year off-screen romance. Ostensibly, it is a gangster story set amid the decadent glamor of 1930s Shanghai. But this is not Zhang’s answer to The Godfather. The mafia plot remains shadowy as the director focuses on the crime lord’s mistress, a vain but insecure showgirl named Xiao Jinbao (Gong), and the naïve peasant boy, Shuisheng (Wang Xiao Xiao), who becomes her servant Lacking the political ambition of his recent films, Shanghai Triad returns to the simple lyricism of Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Much of the action is witnessed through the widening eyes of the 14-year-old Shuisheng. And as the gangsters flee rivals in Shanghai to hide out on a small deserted island, decorous mafia intrigue gives way to a tragedy that is played out against the stark beauty of long grasses and heavy rains. The story, in the end, seems slow, confused and incomplete. But Gong’s Bette Davis-like portrayal of a doomed prima donna is a delight. And Zhang’s images—progressing from lacquered decadence to watercolor pathos—are exquisitely framed.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON