Holiday films offer a little something for everybody

Brian D. Johnson December 21 1998


Holiday films offer a little something for everybody

Brian D. Johnson December 21 1998



Brian D. Johnson

Holiday films offer a little something for everybody

As the year winds down, Hollywood unwraps its annual gift pack of holiday movies. As usual, it’s a mixed blessing. There are zippy romantic comedies about star-crossed lovers playing hide-and-seek (You’ve Got Mail, Shakespeare in Love), and nifty thrillers about nice guys capable of murdering innocent people (A Simple Plan, Psycho). In a season when family values have box-office value, there are also sentimental journeys into motherhood—Julia Roberts inherits the kids from Susan Sarandon in Stepmom—and fatherhood—

Michael Keaton is reduced from Batman to Snowman in the children’s fable Jack Frost.

But above all, this is a Christmas of movies haunted by the ghost of Hollywood past. Psycho and You’ve Got Mail are both crafty clones of previous hits. Mighty Joe Young remakes King Kong as a kiddie ride, with Charlize Theron taming a 4V2-m gorilla. Robin Williams recycles his sensitive-healer routine in Patch Adams. And while Star Trek: Insurrection takes the Enterprise warhorse up for yet another spin, The Prince of Egypt turns the Ten Commandments into a high-minded cartoon. And for those seeking greener pastures, far from the madding crowd of Hollywood, Waking Ned Devine and Dancing at

Lughnasa offer Celtic retreats in the Irish countryside.

With the approach of the new year, the studios also position films to be fresh in the minds of voters at the Academy Awards next March. It is doubtful any of the new releases can eclipse the Oscar power of Saving Private Ryan—with the possible exception of The Thin Red Line, starring Sean Penn. Directed by legendary recluse Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven )—back in action after a 20-year hiatus—it is the season’s most keenly anticipated film. But although it is being slipped into some U.S. theatres this month before the Oscar deadline, it does not open in Canada until Jan. 8.

A survey of the holiday films opening by Christmas: You’ve Got Mail, a surefire hit, is an example of Hollywood inbreeding at its best. It is both a remake and a sequel. The story template was lifted from the 1940 romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. But the movie also serves as an unofficial sequel to the 1993 hit Sleepless in Seattle— another enjoyable but sexless masquerade by Nora Ephron in which Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan go a-courting without really connecting until the final scene.

You’ve Got Mail, which has been dubbed Sleepless in Cyberspace, is about two Manhattan booksellers, Joe (Hanks) and Kathleen (Ryan),

who fall in love online. Tapping back and forth on their laptops, they conduct an anonymous correspondence without realizing they are natural enemies. Kathleen owns a small, independent children’s bookshop. Joe owns the city’s largest chain of book superstores, and his new outlet threatens to drive Kathleen out of business. While the callous tycoon and the caring entrepreneur do battle in public, they become romantically entwined via modem. Both have conveniently dispensable lovers. Kathleen’s boyfriend (Greg Kinnear) is a Luddite newspaper columnist who collects typewriters, and Joe’s partner (Parker Posey) is a predatory book editor who might have stepped right out of a New Yorker-cartoon cocktail party.

Between the book business and the epistolary romance, Ephron has crafted a movie rich with writing references. Joe promises Kathleen “a bouquet of sharpened pencils,” and their most dynamic scene is a typing duet, a laptop dance conducted live online. The film is also riddled with satirical jabs at mega-bookstores that shortchange literary fiction while seducing customers with square-

footage, deep armchairs and fancy coffee—a “themepark, multi-level, bring-books-to-the-world mochaccinoland,” as Kathleen calls it.

But Ephron is a better writer than a director, and the movie’s prickly wit is far more sophisticated than its cozy romance, which tends to fall back on formula. Whenever Ephron needs to carry off an emotional turn of the plot, she tends to abandon dialogue and paste in a sappy musical interlude. The romance is also extremely onesided. Joe discovers his pen pal’s identity much sooner than she does, which gives him the upper hand. It is refreshing to see Hanks, the perennial nice guy, finally playing a jerk. But as Joe smugly manoeuvres his quarry into position, he never really redeems himself. Ryan, bouncing around the apartment in flannel pajamas, looks as cute as a bunny, and just as helpless. She plays an independent woman who melts into a lovely puddle. Still, the movie, like its stars, is eminently likable. It is a safe date movie, and not unlike one of those megabookstores—a bright, comfy franchise where you can disappear for a couple of hours to browse through magazines you would never think of buying.

Shakespeare in Love is another romantic masquerade, but one set in the days when love letters flowed from a quill instead of a keyboard. It is the summer of 1593 in Elizabethan London. A young, hot-blooded William Shakespeare Qoseph Fiennes) is paralyzed by writer’s block as he tries to meet a deadline for a new play, a romantic comedy titled Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter. The man needs a muse. And he finds one in Lady Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), a comely aristocrat who has a desperate ambition to be an actor in a society that prohibits women from appearing onstage. Disguising herself as a man, she wins the part of Romeo, then tumbles into an illicit affair with Will, who draws on their passion to turn his comedy into the tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Viola is also the Dark Lady who inspires his sonnets and the Viola of Twelfth Night.

Co-written by playwright Tom Stoppard—who turned Hamlet inside-out with Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—the script is truly ingenious. Jiving with wit, wordplay and the odd riff of iambic pentameter, the dialogue trips off the tongue like ersatz Shakespeare. The movie, which skips between buoyant farce and flat-out romance, has terrific fun at the Bard’s expense, without making a mockery of him. It portrays Shakespeare as a journeyman actor who writes by the seat of his pants. He borrows plot ideas from his rival, dramatist Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett). And on the set his producers treat him with a dismissive scorn worthy of Hollywood—“he’s just the writer.”

The notion that being madly in love makes writing a snap requires a major leap of poetic licence (ask any writer). But Paltrow and Fiennes (Ralph’s kid brother) make a hot couple, and they have some luxurious love scenes—the film could be called Shakespeare in Bed. The top-notch cast also includes Geoffrey Rush as a brow-beaten theatre manager, Ben Affleck as a star actor, Colin Firth as Viola’s venal fiancé—and Judi Dench, who blows everyone off the screen as a shrewd, crisply sardonic Queen Elizabeth. The film’s director, John Madden, first cast Dench as Queen Victoria in last year’s Mrs. Brown, and she holds court with terrifying authority and Solomonic wisdom. Her brisk performance is the royal icing on a sublimely clever confection that manages to be substantial and frothy all at once. Virtual Shakespeare.

Psycho recycles an old master of a more recent vintage. Alfred Hitchcock was no Shakespeare, but to many people the idea of remaking Hitch’s 1960 classic is sacrilege. Gus

Spiner in Star Trek: Insurrection; Streep (right) in Dancing at Lughnasa: a mixed blessing of big-screen offerings

Van Sant’s Psycho, however, is not a remake so much as a colour replica, like Warhol’s iconic silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe. Mimicking the original film almost shot-for-shot in a contemporary setting, Van Sant has not tried to improve on Psycho. Rather, it is as if a bandleader has faithfully reinterpreted an old standard with a new set of players. And within that frame of counterfeit fidelity, the differences become fascinating. It’s remarkable that no one has ever tried anything like this before—the supreme irony is that Van Sant’s Psycho is defiantly original.

The movie lacks the stark terror of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. And as Norman Bates, Vince Vaughn is nowhere near as creepy as Anthony Perkins. But he brings his own cowboy swagger to the role, with a sweet laugh and a congealing coldness behind the eyes. (This being the ’90s, he also masturbates while peering through the peephole—one of the few obvious revisions to the original.) Anne Heche, in a mandarin-orange dress, lends her skittish energy to the Janet Leigh role of shower victim Marion Crane. And William H. Macy plays the private eye with retro flair. As Marion’s lover, however, Viggo Mortensen comes across as a bland stud muffin, and, as her sister, an unusually vacant Julianne Moore appears distracted.

The drama sometimes seems flattened by the contrivance that has gone into it. But the scary jolts that ambush the viewer still work. And from the first shock of lime green in the opening titles to a final credit thanking John Woo for the use of his kitchen knife, Van Sant’s pet project is a seductive curiosity. Colouring Hitchcock’s black-andwhite world with a tautly controlled palette, he has crafted a vivid commentary on a classic. And the whole body-snatcher exercise of replication adds a new level of eeriness—a zombie-like chill. But only someone who has never seen the original can judge if the Van Sant movie stands on its own.

Since Hitchcock’s film, several generations of slasher flicks have bathed the screen in blood. Next to them, Psycho—even in colour— seems restrained. A Simple Plan is a more modern brand of thriller. But it, too, is a character drama that relies on long stretches of suspense punctuated by a few quick stabs of violence. For director Sam Raimi—whose work ranges from the low-budget horror of The Evil Dead (1983) to the gonzo gunslinging of The Quick and the Dead (1995)—A Simple Plan marks a gentrification of style. Reminiscent of a Coen brothers film, it is set in the snowy wastes of rural Minnesota, with whiteout conditions worthy of Fargo and a plot that slow-drips guilt into a spreading bloodstain.

Three men stumble across the snow-covered wreck of a private plane that has crashed in the woods. Inside, they find $4.4 million. Lou (Brent Briscoe), a beer-swilling redneck, and his slow-witted buddy, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), want to keep the money. “It’s the American Dream in a goddam gym bag,” growls Lou, with a little more finesse than his character warrants. The responsible, middle-class Hank (Bill Paxton), an accountant whose wife is about to give birth, resists the idea—but finally agrees to it only if he can keep the cash and decide when it is safe to divvy it up.

Based on his own novel, Scott B. Smith’s script takes some psychological shortcuts that are hard to buy. Bridget Fonda has a thankless role as Hank’s grasping wife, who slowly erodes his conscience. Also, the ending seems too pat. But this snowbound Treasure of the Sierra Madre has a lot to recommend it. Billy Bob Thornton is wonderful as the warmhearted naif who is wiser than he first appears—an endearing

loser with taped-up glasses, a goofy thatch of hair, and an all-accepting smile that seems to distill emotion out of thin air. He could be distant cousin to Thornton’s Sling Blade persona, although the actor himself is barely recognizable in Jacob’s slack, sensual features.

As for Paxton, he is grimly convincing in the role of the upstanding citizen who learns to rationalize evil, one sin at a time. And Raimi makes it all click beautifully, executing A Simple Plan with sharp pacing and a coolly sinister eye. After a string of black comedies about men digging themselves deeper and deeper into moral debt—from Happiness to Very Bad Things—Raimi has delivered the dramatic flipside. And after a year of watching Bill Clinton swim through quicksand, the slippery complications of A Simple Plan strike perilously close to home.

Of course, many people go to the movies to get as far away from this world as possible. And the season offers a variety of escapist getaways, flicks that conjure up an exotic land, a far-off galaxy—or a world religion. Ever since Cecil B. DeMille sent Moses up the mountain, filming God has been the ultimate power trip for Hollywood’s movers and shakers, which might explain why Steven Spielberg’s Dream Works studio went straight to the Bible in challenging Disney with its first animated feature. Inspired by the book of Exodus, The Prince of Egypt tells the story of Moses, from his ride through the bulrushes to his delivery of the Ten Commandments after leading his people out of bondage. Lavishly animated yet strangely soulless, the drama centres on the conflict between Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) and the man he thinks is his brother—Ramses (Ralph Fiennes), the pharaoh’s heir. The celebrity voices include Michelle Pfeiffer as the shepherdess who marries Moses, Sandra Bullock as his sister, and Jeff Goldblum as his Hebrew brother. Steve Martin and Martin Short add a burlesque touch as the pharaoh’s vaudevillian magicians, who are violently upstaged by Jehovah.

Scene from The Prince of Egypt; Thornton, Paxton (left) in A Simple Plan: a high-minded cartoon

Depicting God as a special effect, the animators delivers His greatest hits—the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire. And the animation is dazzling. It includes a dream sequence of marching hieroglyphs and a musical montage that riffles through the various plagues with insidious beauty. But this is a truncated epic. At the end, Moses suddenly appears with the stone tablets as if he has just ordered them up from McDonalds. No golden calf, no idols, no debauchery. He is giving the Ten Commandments to a sinless tribe that does not appear to need them. Aimed at adults as well as children, The Prince of Egypt has a sanctimonious tone. The characters are stiff. In the Disney mould, the drama is hobbled by a lot of would-be show tunes. And after the computer-animated marvels of A Bug’s Life, it feels terribly stodgy, a cartoon without wit.

Star Trek: Insurrection tells another story of a chosen people, but on a sillier scale. It is about an alien race called the Ba’ku, a colony of 600 Utopians who have rejected technology and live in a kind of wholeearth kibbutz—they farm without machinery on an unspoiled planet that looks a lot like Earth. After a malfunction causes the android Data (Brent Spiner) to run amok in their commune, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his Enterprise crew investigate. They uncover a conspiracy to evict the Ba’ku from their planet, which is bathed in radiation that reverses aging. A race of dying, wrinkled imperialists wants to take over the planet so they can stop having daily facelifts. Yes, Star Trek: Insurrection has a certain comic charm, and is the only action movie out there this season. But the action is anticlimactic. And what’s the deal with the “insurrection”? There is no insurrection, just a little armed resistance. It is fitting that the ninth Star Trek movie (the second with the Next Generation crew) has a geriatric theme. The franchise looks as rickety as the Enterprise flight deck in a meteor shower. But maybe that is the secret to its longevity.

At this rate, the Star Trek movies could regress all the way back to the campy hokum of the original TV series. This one is strictly for hard-core fans.

While Hollywood releases dominated the holiday season, a few plucky non-American movies are bidding for a piece of the box office. Waking Ned Devine is a little diversion from Ireland that has being hailed as a populist gem, this year’s The Full Monty. It is a sweet comic fable set in an idyllic hamlet on the Irish coast, where a man named Ned Devine wins the national lottery, then drops dead from the shock, still clutching the ticket in his hand. A jovial old sod named Jackie (Ian Bannen) persuades his friend Michael (David Kelly) to impersonate the dead man in order to claim the prize. Then, as the lottery official comes to visit, they mobilize the whole village to go along with the fraud.

Waking Ned Devine is a broad, crowdpleasing farce, but it requires a certain tolerance for blarney. In his feature debut, writerdirector Kirk Jones lays on more twinkly-eyed charm than a barrel full of leprechauns. Filmed in postcard-pretty scenery, this is a movie populated by eccentrics—including a grouchy hag in a motorized wheelchair, and a pig farmer whose odour repels the local beauty who loves him. For those who find nothing funnier than the sight of two grumpy old men skinny-dipping—or a wizened coot riding a motorbike stark naked—it may be just the ticket.

Dancing at Lughnasa offers a more wistful excursion into the Irish countryside. Adapted from Dubliner Brian Friel’s Tony Award-winning play, it is about five sisters in a croft scrabbling to survive the hard times of the 1930s. Adding a flawless Irish brogue to her encyclopedia of accents, Meryl Streep is the film’s only star. But she modestly assimilates herself into a superb ensemble cast. Streep plays a priggish schoolmarm in a sisterhood that includes the irreverent Maggie (Kathy Burke), the hardy Agnes (Brid Brennan), the simpleminded Rose (Sophie Thompson) and the lovely Christina (Catherine McCormack). Two male visitors set the drama in motion: Gerry (Rhys Ifans), the father of Christina’s illegitimate boy, makes an amorous pit stop before dashing off to the Spanish Civil War, and brother Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest, is back from Africa after going native and slightly mad. Director Pat O’Connor takes the play outdoors, with picnics and heathen fires in the hills, but perhaps at the expense of deflating the dramatic intensity. Despite outstanding performances, the story lacks the heft to make a satisfying movie.

For those willing to venture beyond accents into subtitles, The Celebration is one of the year’s most brilliant and provocative films. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s darkly comic drama—a limited art-house release—is the excoriating portrait of a family celebrating the 60th birthday of its patriarch at his country manor. As his eldest son exposes the family’s incestuous past at the dinner table, the chain reaction is devastating. Filmed in a rigorous vérité style, The Celebration is the ideal antidote to an overdose of repressive family cheer. Closer to home, Quebec’s August 32nd on Earth provides an Antonioni-like excursion into the white expanse of Utah’s salt flats. After surviving a car crash, a Montreal actress (Pascale Bussières) cancels a trip to Italy and hauls her best friend (Alexis Martin) off to the nearest desert to conceive a child. The story is slight. But Denis Villeneuve’s feature debut—and Canada’s official Oscar candidate in the foreign-language category—is a film of arresting beauty. As unrequited lovers in a blank landscape, Bussières and Martin work a wry alchemy. And with Robert Charlebois voicing urgent emotion on the sound track, August 32nd’s existential odyssey delivers a white Christmas in a sun-baked desert. □