Films

Hollywood looks back in anger, and love

As the year and the millennium come down to the wire, the movies get serious with tales of war, strife and passion

Brian D. Johnson December 13 1999
Films

Hollywood looks back in anger, and love

As the year and the millennium come down to the wire, the movies get serious with tales of war, strife and passion

Brian D. Johnson December 13 1999

Hollywood looks back in anger, and love

As the year and the millennium come down to the wire, the movies get serious with tales of war, strife and passion

Films

Brian D. Johnson

December is the cruellest month at the movies. It's when Hollywood releases its most serious pictures, so that they’ll be fresh in the minds of Oscar voters. And this season’s fare is more serious than ever. Anyone seeking a big-screen escape from holiday stress should be prepared for war, holocaust, abortion, incest, bigotry, cancer, mental illness, incarceration, execution and doomed romance. But apparently, the worst is behind us. As the world looks ahead to the new millennium, the movies are busy looking back: Hollywood has never been more enamoured of the past. The vast majority of this month’s releases—a dozen—are period dramas set in the 20th century: The Green Mile, The Hurricane, The End of the Affair, Sunshine, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Cider House Rules, Man on the Moon, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anna and the King, Liberty Heights, Cradle Will Rock and Girl, Interrupted. A partial survey:

Two of the season’s clearest Oscar contenders are epic

prison dramas about noble black men in jail on dubious murder raps. While The Hurricane tells the true story of boxer Rubin Carter’s wrongful conviction and the Canadians who fought to free him (Macleans, Dec. 6), The Green Mile offers a fanciful tale from the gothic imagination of Stephen King. Clocking in at three hours plus, this tale of death row inmates awaiting the electric chair is the season’s longest movie. But it is juiced with enough high-voltage entertainment that it never feels like a life sentence.

The Green Mile sets some curious benchmarks. It offers what is perhaps the most prolonged and horrific electric-chair scene ever filmed: the inmate literally burns to a crisp. This also has to be the only movie ever made in which the hero— a prison guard played by Tom Hanks—spends the first hour in excruciating pain from a bladder infection. And it must set a screen record for urination scenes, including several with Hanks, one of a guard wetting himself in fear and one of a prisoner spraying a guard. It’s a wonder they didn’t call it The Golden Mile.

The tide, in fact, refers to a stretch of green linoleum leading from the jail cells to the electric chair. And the movie, set in the Depression-era South, plays as a mix of moral melodrama, sentimental fable and supernatural yarn—Dead Man Walking meets Sling Blade with gonzo special effects. Hanks is superb as Paul, the conscientious master of death row. As his

jowls get heavier and his eyes beadier, the actor is much more palatable as a prison guard than a romantic lead. His inmates constitute a rainbow coalition of the damned: a white psychopath, a sad native, a cute Cajun—and a slow-witted, seven-foot black man with magical healing powers, played with irresistible sensitivity by Michael Clarke Duncan.

The gentle giant shares the screen with a pet mouse named Mr. Jangles, who learns circus tricks from the Cajun. If all this sounds a bit much, it is. But Frank Darabont—adapting his second Stephen King prison novel after The Shawshank Redemption (1994)—directs with impressive power. He has the Spielberg touch. And although The Green Miles tale of mice and men lacks the emotional force of The Hurricane, it lights up the issue of capital punishment like a Christmas tree.

For those seeking something cooler and quieter, Irish writer-director Neil Jordan has come up with a lovely adaptation of Graham Greenes 1951 novel, The End of the Af-

fair. Of Greenes two dozen books and plays, this is perhaps his most autobiographical, a tale of jealousy inspired by the authors ill-fated love affair with a married Catholic woman. Just as Canadian director Patricia Rozema delved into Jane Austens diaries and letters to reinvent Mansfield Park, Jordan has done the same with Greene. But aside from juggling the chronology—and humidifying the narrative with lots of rain and sex—his adaptation is relatively faithful to the book.

The perennially haunted Ralph Fiennes is on familiar ground as novelist Maurice Bendrix, an embittered lover engaged in romantic espionage. Bendrix hires a private detective to find out if the woman who inexplicably ended her affair with him during the Blitz is now cheating on her husband with yet another man. Irish actor Stephen Rea plays against type as the cuckolded husband, a prim English civil servant. As the duplicitous wife, Julianne Moore cuts to the quick with her usual delicacy. And Ian Hart politely steals his scenes as the absurdly formal cockney detective.

Shot with sombre beauty and emotional restraint, The End of the Affair marks a change of pace for the director of The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire and The Butcher Boy. It is a literary romance that plays like a more English English Patient—spare, intimate and largely indoors. The camera makes a fetish of the written word, from the jabbing keys of Bendrixs typewriter to the soul-searching journal of the woman he loves. Jordan has captured the essence of Greene’s wry tragedy, a diabolical contest between jealousy and faith in which writing explains everything and solves nothing.

Fiennes takes on a more demanding assignment in Sunshine. Directed by Hungary’s Istvan Szabo and produced by Canadas Robert Lantos, this monumental saga spans three generations of a Jewish family in Budapest against the backdrop of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Holocaust and Communist repression. Playing three successive characters—grandfather, father and son—Fiennes delivers a virtuoso performance. And there are some unforgettable scenes, from a fencing match at the Berlin Olympics to an icy crucifixion in a Nazi death camp. History bleeds through every frame of Sunshine's three-hour saga. But the script—which Szabo loosely based on his own family—loses momentum by the third act. Love interests are whisked in and out before we get to know them. And in the end, the sense of noble tragedy turns in on the movie itself, which is almost crushed under the weight of its own ambition.

Pacing again proves to be a problem in Snow Falling on Cedars, another tale of discrimination rooted in the Second World War. Set on a Pacific Northwest island in 1950, it stars Ethan Hawke as reporter Ishmael Chambers, who becomes embroiled in a murder trial that opens up old wounds. The accused is an American of Japanese descent whose family was interned after Pearl Harbor, and who is now married to Chambers’s childhood sweetheart (Youki Kudoh). Adapting David Guterson’s 1994 best-seller, Australian director Scott Hicks follows up the success of Shine (1996) with a movie that strains for cinematic pedigree. As he layers his lacquerbox narrative with flashbacks, shrouded in images of the Pacific coast, he almost loses the story in the fog. And the snow falling on those damn cedars does not fall nearly fast enough.

With so many movies looking back on this century, Hollywood has never seemed so enamoured of the past

The Cider House Rules offers another literary saga about a young American grappling with moral issues. Based on the 1985 novel by John Irving, who also wrote the script, it is a sentimental odyssey that takes its hero from a New England orphanage to an apple orchard and back during the 1940s. Homer, played by the personable Tobey Maguire, grows up in the orphanage under the care of Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), an unconventional patriarch who performs abortions on the side.

As he comes of age, Homer hitches a ride with a young couple, finds a new life picking apples with black labourers—and falls in love with Candy (Charlize Theron) while her husband is at war.

Irving has undergone his own 13-year odyssey to turn The Cider House Rules into a movie. His various scripts have passed through the hands of four directors, including Canadas Phillip Borsos (The Grey Fox), who died in 1995. Inheriting the project, Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) has crafted a sturdy, handsome picture. It is an engaging movie busding with incident, but Hallstrom’s stately direction tends to drag, and the orphanage scenes play heavily on pathos.

Sentiment is the currency of the season, and it crops up in the most unexpected places. Even Cradle Will Rock, a slice of socialist history, is not immune. Directed by Tim Robbins, the film tracks the tme story of Orson Welles directing his Federal Theatre Project troupe in an anti-capitalist musical that gets closed down by the U.S. government on the eve of its première. It is a fascinating story with a rousing finale. But despite such talents as Susan Sarandon, Vanessa Redgrave, Bill Murray and Joan Cusack, the characters are like card-

board cutouts in a diorama of socialist realism. It’s All True, Toronto playwright Jason Sherman’s recent dramatization of the same subject, was far more effective.

Man on the Moon, Milos Forman’s hody anticipated biopic about comedian Andy Kaufman, presents another case of subversion and Hollywood sentiment working at cross-purposes. Jim Carrey crafts an accurate and affectionate portrait of Kaufman, an uncontainable performer who bent the rules of television on shows ranging from Taxi to Saturday Night Live. And as a homage to Kaufman, who died of cancer in 1984, the

movie serves as an entertaining hits package of his most memorable routines, from wrestling women to lipsynching the theme from Mighty Mouse.

But the giddy thrill of doing hostile comedy on live television loses something in the translation to a slick Hollywood movie. The film, which plays like a clone of Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt—complete with Courtney Love as the love interest—never penetrates the enigma of Kaufman’s character. And for Carrey, the role cuts dangerously close to home. Re-enacting Kaufman’s kamikaze stand-up routines, the sort of thing Carrey did before becoming a star, the actor has, in effect, reverted to being an impressionist.

Amid the angst of a season in which even comedy gets serious, there is still some unadulterated holiday cheer. Toy Story 2 is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of family entertainment. The script is witty, the computer animation sharper than ever, and Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are both back in the saddle as the voices ofWoody and Buzz Lightyear. Meanwhile, Stuart Little does for talking mice what Babe did for talking pigs. With Mr. Jangles as a mini mascot on death row, Carrey crooning “Here I come to save the day,” and Geena Davis acting with rodents in Stuart Little, the last Hollywood star of the millennium may be a Christmas mouse. E3