ALL THE PRETTY HORSES
It’s impossible to know if Billy Bob Thornton succeeded in bringing Cormac McCarthy’s great novel to the screen, at least in the film’s present two-hour form. The widely reported contretemps between the director and Miramax Films, which is distributing the movie, resulted in it being taken away from Thornton and whittled down from his original four-hour cut. Although it’s feasible that the longer version was unbearably slow (as Sling Blade showed, the director favors phlegmatic pacing and Important Moments), in its current incarnation the film verges on incoherent; certainly it is inconsequential. Matt Damon plays John Grady Cole, a young cowboy who heads off to Mexico from Texas after the death of his grandfather. Henry Thomas is his friend and fellow traveler, Rawlins, and the talented young actor Lucas Black plays the runaway Jimmy Blevins, less innocent than primitive, who joins them on the trail. What happens when the three cross into Mexico is shocking and profound. Ted Tally’s screenplay winnows down the more easily translatable and material parts of the journey — a drunken interlude, days and nights of breaking horses, a nightmarishly surreal prison term — but it tells the story with prose and no poetry.
It also, less surprisingly, omits the politics — the novel is a saga of dangerous longing, for lost fathers and a lost America both, and it’s rigorously unsentimental. That makes it interesting, but what makes it breathtaking is McCarthy’s writing, which, with its lush and lapidary language, gets at a depth of meaning the characters can’t articulate. They don’t speak their minds or hearts, because he does it for them. The book is rich in sensuous detail, and it’s the mystery of the natural world surrounding the three boys that tells us the most about the worlds inside them. “He lay a long time listening to the others breathing in their sleep,” McCarthy writes of Cole, “while he contemplated the wildness about him, the wildness within.” But there’s little opportunity to contemplate much of anything in this film, especially when every shot seems to last merely three or four beats. (The whole thing plays like an extended coming attractions; you keep waiting for it to actually begin.) And unlike the idyllic Pacific-island scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, or the nocturnal river ride in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, the world in the film seems less a place of wonder and terror than a backdrop to a soapy romance. In McCarthy’s book the sun is often blood red; here it simply shines.
BEFORE NIGHT FALLS
In his memoir, Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas writes that he grew up “surrounded by trees, animals, apparitions, and people indifferent toward me. My existence was not even justified.” It’s not a statement of self-pity. In the lines that follow, the late Cuban writer makes it clear that the combination of the familial shrug, his own imagination and the unqualified embrace of nature (the farm animals that he played with, the trees that whispered their secrets to him) granted him a profound freedom. It’s what turned him into a sensualist whose rage at political oppression was both intellectual and spiritual, whose awe at rainstorms, great literature and male beauty flowed poetically through him. His was a slyly offhand humor that did more than just deliver a punch line; it encapsulated a pungent point. In one passage, he tells of the sundry livestock that bore the brunt of male libido on his family’s farm. Of a rooster that died after one such encounter, Arenas writes, it “died of shame from getting fucked.”
With the filmed adaptation of the book, ’80s-art-star-turned-director Julian Schnabel captures the spirit of Arenas’ words and life with surprising skill and unexpected artfulness. While the film is kept somewhat at a cool distance due to the thickly accented voice-over by leading man Javier Bardem (there are moments when it’s impossible to decipher what he’s saying), Bardem’s soulful performance and Schnabel’s sigh-inducing visuals are hypnotic; they convey the essence of its subject’s voice and richly contoured perspective. Little in Schnabel’s 1996 feature debut, Basquiat, gave proof that he had any real facility for filmmaking, and only the always-fantastic Jeffrey Wright in the title role made the film worth seeing.
In Before Night Falls, though, the director gracefully fuses performance, politics and style into a film that’s social commentary, coming-of-age tale and glimpse into the psyche of the artist all in one. Epic in scope and ambition, tracing Arenas’ journey from unwanted bastard to political prisoner to American exile, the film maintains a real sense of intimacy throughout. Credit for that goes largely to Bardem, whose liquid eyes are almost lethal in their emotional precision. He gives a delicate performance, one in which his sissy-sway stops short of caricature, conveying strength and vulnerability, wit and self-aware humor. His Arenas is fiercely intelligent, but never loses sight of the fact that he lives in his body.
Schnabel fills the screen with breathtaking images — raindrops sliding off leaves, a billowing hot-air balloon — and there is one scene in particular that is among the best in film this year. The young Arenas is being driven to a nightclub by his new beau (we see the trip in languid slow motion), who promptly abandons the writer to dance with a woman. There’s no dialogue, only sparse, evocative music that has an undertow of sadness. Elegantly dressed people dance and laugh on the crowded floor while Arenas watches wistfully, as another handsome young man approaches him for a dance. Desire is palpable. It’s a perfect moment, a captured memory — an elegy not only to a time gone by, but to the beauty and possibilities that would soon be vanquished. In the joy and heat of the exchanges — the lust, looming loss and whisper of melancholy behind the smiles — Schnabel has captured that which is both fleeting and eternal, the human life force in all its transcendent fragility.
AN EVERLASTING PIECE
During the mid-’80s, in the midst of the Troubles, two Belfast hairdressers employed in a hospital for the criminally insane enter the toupee business. Since this is meant to be an Irish comedy, albeit from an American director of expressly American films, what ensues is a little wordplay (Toupee or Not Toupee), a little more wackiness (one character wears panties like hairnets to keep the cigarette smoke out) and a whole load of shite. What inspired Barry Levinson, best known for his various Baltimore outings (Diner, et al.), films rooted in American places and mindsets, to make a movie set in Northern Ireland is anybody’s guess. The unfunny screenplay is by Barry McEvoy, an Irish immigrant and actor who made a strong impression in Sidney Lumet’s remake of Gloria and here exploits the Irish Republicans as grievously as do the British, with whom the film’s sympathies finally lie. (McEvoy also plays one of the hairdressers, but not well.) While it’s likely that Levinson’s reasons for delving into this new territory are as banal as his movie, it is worth commenting on the fact that the Irish seem to have become this country’s new cultural lawn jockeys. Given that our old models no longer rest easily on the vast expanse of the white collective imagination, and that the Irish are so damn cute, what with their brogues, riverdancing and murderous civil war, perhaps it’s inevitable. Still, after Waking Ned Devine, The Closer You Get ad nauseum and ad infinitum, one might have thought that Levinson would have been too embarrassed to gnaw on the bones of a gimmick already sucked dry of marrow.
The transformation of Gus Van Sant into a lesser Steven Spielberg has at last been realized with Finding Forrester, an aggressively bland exercise in industrial craft and audience coercion. The story is as familiar as that of Good Will Hunting, and indeed, the film is essentially a remake, set this time in New York instead of Boston, with Sean Connery in the Robin Williams role and newcomer Rob Brown taking on Matt Damon’s part. (In the most promising metamorphosis, Ben Affleck is now Busta Rhymes.) Connery is the lost title figure, a shut-in and a drunk who, though Scottish by birth, wrote the great American novel some four decades earlier. Brown’s character is worse yet, that of a brilliant basketball player and towering if untapped literary genius, a high schooler from the ghetto who dunks like Michael Jordan, writes like June Jordan and whose taste runs bold — Joyce, Mishima, er, de Sade. Connery is fine, as blustery and obvious as his character, but Brown has the thankless job of playing a saint, though unfortunately not one of those wild-eyed types running around in hair-shirts and inflamed with passion — the kid is as dull as dishwater. If you’ve seen Good Will Hunting or, for that matter, any American movie in which a leading black character is wearing a halo rather than a gun, and the white leading character is in need of redemption, you know the rest. (Screenwriter Mike Rich greases his assembly-line plot like a machinist.) As was proved by his remake of Psycho, one of the boldest conceptual gambits ever to be released by a major studio, Van Sant remains a provocative filmmaker. As Finding Forrester confirms, though, he just doesn’t care enough not to look like a hack.
If this atmospheric Southern gothic had been made without the benefit of any of its high-profile actors, it could easily have become a modest find, a film to discover privately in a second-run theater or on the video-store shelf. But its story is too small to justify the high-octane combination of Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes. Not that any of them are bad; Reeves, Ribisi and especially Blanchett are good, even good together. It’s just that when taken together they strain at the story’s flimsy architecture — you end up watching them, not their performances. Blanchett plays newly widowed Annie Wilson, a mother to three boys, who in a little room ä in her run-down house reads cards for the neighbors, divining secrets and telling fortunes. Directed by Sam Raimi and written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (who together also wrote One False Move), the story is familiar in both right and wrong ways. As in all good horror movies, things go bang in the night the way that you want (at a press screening, the audience burst into well-disposed laughter when a character ran a bath), but the villain is uninspired and the plot is puffed up with filler, though not the ambient kind. A court scene drags interminably, and Ribisi’s character, essentially a more tightly wound version of the simpleton Thornton played in Sling Blade, has no real reason to be in the film. Here, it’s the creepily quiet stuff, the stuff that might be rushed over in a different movie — Annie shivering alone in bed or being visited by her dead grandmother as she hangs out the wash — that makes the film more than a generic distraction.
Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, The Legend of 1900) has always been a master of cheap sentiment, but in his latest nostalgic ramble, he takes it to a new level. At the outset of World War II, in a small Italian town, 13-year-old Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) has fallen in love with Malèna (Monica Bellucci), a lush beauty whom Tornatore fetishizes long before we see her face, in a sequence detailing the intricacies of attaching stocking to garter belt. When her beloved soldier husband is reported killed in action, Malèna is stranded amid the town’s vicious gossips and lecherous menfolk. Over time, she is denounced in court by a jealous wife, molested by her attorney, reduced to whoring for occupying Germans, then beaten and shorn in the town square. At every turn, Renato, who is gradually growing into manhood, hides nearby, taking it all in with a wide-eyed expression of concern. If Tornatore was trying to craft some sort of metaphor for Italian fascism, he’s failed dismally, denouncing the town’s collusion in Malèna’s ruin — from actual aggression to passive non-action — when he himself has had such an important hand in her dehumanization. To position her tragedy as just another part of a boy’s wondrous coming of age betrays the filmmaker as someone more emotionally fucked than any of his previous work could have revealed.
Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is an ace FBI agent, but not quite a lady: Her clothes are stained, her hair unbrushed, her doe eyes hidden under heavy black frames. Slovenly and tough (she can hold her own against a male agent), Gracie is nevertheless chosen to go undercover as a beauty-pageant contestant to catch a mad bomber and, as the film intimates, learn a thing or two about being a woman. Bullock, despite intermittent glimmers of her trademark frisk, all but throws up her hands with the role, radiating the sullen frustration of an actor who’s seen her career devolve to the point where her character’s most crucial conflict is whether a makeover will take. (How mystifying, then, to discover that she is the movie’s producer!) The film’s concept of femininity would be offensive if the picture itself weren’t so pathetic. The screenplay is by Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas, who, among them, have written the ill-conceived Mary & Rhoda reunion as well as episodes of Family Ties and The Nanny, while director Donald Petrie, who made his debut with the sweet sleeper Mystic Pizza, has also helmed Grumpy Old Men, My Favorite Martian and Richie Rich. All of which gives you an idea of the bottom-of-the-barrel indignities visited upon Bullock, Michael Caine (as a gay pageant consultant) — and Benjamin Bratt, who, as Gracie’s FBI colleague, takes off his shirt.
NOWHERE TO HIDE
“Wasting time is what detectives do,” says Woo (Park Joong-Hoon) to his impatient partner, Kim (Jang Dong-Kun), as they wait to shake down a drug dealer for information about a vicious assassination-style killing. It’s an ironic line in a strikingly laconic film that itself has no patience for inactivity. Right from the opening fight scenes, which establish Woo and Kim as cops who prefer direct and violent confrontation — their weapon of choice is the baseball bat — Korean writer-director Lee Myung-Se doesn’t hesitate to strip away dialogue and plot, as if such elements were excess fat clogging the action film’s true heart. A hit at this year’s Sundance, where it screened in the World Cinema category, Nowhere To Hide is almost all hypnotic image and exhilarating movement. In following the two Inchon detectives from set piece to set piece as they pursue a murderer, Lee pulls out all the stylistic stops — slow-motion, fast-motion and step-motion photography, morphing, multiple film stocks, rapid-fire edits. In so doing, he dares his audience to complain about a lack of narrative substance while he’s so clearly and effectively confronting them with essence. Rain is a barrage of vertical lines; blood, in the Godardian sense, is just the color red. Which isn’t to say that Lee completely abandons meaning, at least with regard to investigating the nature of the genre. Throughout the film, Lee pays homage to John Woo’s operatic style, but, late in the story, when Kim falls into depression after killing a suspect, the sudden shift in tone — from the acceptance of police brutality as routine procedure — highlights the forced, theatrical quality of Woo’s brand of melodrama. Such baroque emotionalism is here presented as an alien presence, a distraction from the task at hand, which is nothing short of an attempt to achieve pure cinema.
O BROTHER, WHERE
In Preston Sturges’ classic Sullivan’s Travels, the film from which Joel and Ethan Coen derive the name of their latest feature, Joel McCrea’s comedy director sets out to commune with victims of the Depression before making his social-problem film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Along the way, McCrea’s bleeding heart learns that the downtrodden don’t want downer pictures, they just want to be entertained. Know-it-all filmmakers, the Coens regularly invert this lesson to give art-house audiences vacuum-sealed stories about poor folk (Raising Arizona), regional caricatures (Fargo) and lovable lowlifes (The Big Lebowski) whose ways of being in the world are given as inherently entertaining. When such characters escape the bounds of the Coens’ ironic clutches, it’s usually because the actors portraying them (Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, Jeff Bridges) have more faith in their personas than the filmmakers can muster. In George Clooney, who leads a ragged trio of escaped convicts (with John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson making up the remainder) on a picaresque sojourn through the Depression-era heartland, the Coens have an actor who takes his self-aggrandizing yokel at face value. Clooney’s Everett Ulysses McGill and his cohorts are never more than buffoons offered up for our amusement. And to be fair, O Brother is frequently amusing as a nostalgia-tinted tall tale about three losers who stumble into a series of American myths as they’re being born — Robert Johnson, “Babyface” Nelson, Huey Long — and who, with a touch of grace, become smalltime legends themselves. It’s also a faux musical, and this may be the Coens’ biggest misstep. While their framing of the Ku Klux Klan as a travesty of a Busby Berkeley number is a stroke of biting genius, the authentic, plaintive sounds of the bluegrass and gospel songs that elsewhere punctuate the story only heighten the one-dimensionality of O Brother’s central clowns. The songs stand as genuine period expressions of faith and camaraderie in the midst of turmoil. Too bad, then, that every laugh in the film comes with the nagging sense that it’s at some undeserving fool’s expense.
STATE AND MAIN
Several Americas collide in State and Main, a very funny new film written and directed by David Mamet. The place is rural Vermont, where a picturesque town has been taken over by a film company, there to make a period feature called The Old Mill. “Does it have to be a mill?” becomes the question when it’s discovered that the one in the town’s brochure actually burned down half a century before. The psychological Grand Canyon that divides Hollywood from the rest of the country fuels a wealth of fresh, fish-out-of-water satire in the same instant that, paradoxically, Mamet shows how movies succeed precisely because America is the land where everybody has a big fantasy and, on some level, wants to be a star — or at least enjoy what he imagines to be a star’s freedom (that being the most toxic fantasy of all). William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer, Alec Baldwin and Julia Stiles all harmonize wonderfully in the mix of farce and morality play that Mamet typically balances so well, as he piles a wide assortment of treacheries atop the eighth commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Plainly, this is a piece of advice the movie business never heeds enough. Mamet takes it to heart, and with a smile.
The crisis seems deceptively simple in retrospect — the Russians had planted a set of nuclear missiles in Cuba — but the danger was absolute to men who, when young, had risked their lives ridding the world of Hitler, among them U.S. President John F. Kennedy. For a fortnight in October of 1962, the world (to use a shopworn but still potent phrase) stood not only at the brink of war but of complete annihilation. Thirteen Days is a vivid and urgent chronicle of those two weeks, seen from the personal viewpoint of Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), who was a key aide to President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and lifelong chum of first brother and attorney general Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp). Writer David Self has clearly read and absorbed all the most thorough accounts of the crisis, and the result is a refreshing breakaway from both idolatry and cynicism. New Zealand–born director Roger Donaldson (Smash Palace, The Bounty, No Way Out) uses his native detachment well to regard these wildly mythologized figures as the rounded, flawed but fundamentally remarkable men they were. For the real struggle, he suggests, was not with the Soviets, who had basically strayed into a self-made trap. It was a cold ä war between violently opposed philosophies, represented at one end by the diplomatic stealth of the Kennedys and Adlai Stevenson (wonderfully played by Michael Fairman), versus the bomb-communism-to-hell lunacy of generals like Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway). Across this abyss stretched a WASP power structure from which the Kennedys were no less alienated. The intimate dialogue is sometimes wooden (“You’re president of the United States. The people can wait”), and Costner’s Boston accent sometimes sticks out like a licorice mustache. But Greenwood (whose boar-bristle voice projected such virile menace in The Sweet Hereafter) is an ideal JFK, and the film movingly dramatizes his heroism as being (like his arrogance) the byproduct of an agile intelligence. Sheer verbal acumen not only enabled the president and his brother to craft shrewd responses to Soviet threats, but freed them from the entrenched thinking of their own advisers. However brief JFK’s moment of glory, this film makes a persuasive case that he was, like FDR and Lincoln, above all a commander of language.
Adapted by Tom Stoppard from a screenplay by Jeanne Labrune, and directed by Roland Joffé, Vatel dramatizes the true story of Francois Vatel (Gérard Depardieu), the master steward to a 17th-century French country prince. When Louis XIV arrives with his court in tow for a three-day visit, the fate of the prince, a skilled general who is also deeply in debt, hinges on his steward’s extraordinary talent for entertaining — with France on the verge of war, a favorable impression could mean a military commission and monetary relief. Also a general of sorts, Vatel coordinates armies of cooks, craftsmen and performers to stage extravagant parties fit for a sun king. “Harmony and contrast, all beauty comes from these things,” he tells his apprentice. That idea is at the heart of the film, which is itself a fugue of balancing acts — between the splendor of the festivities and the dread that underlies them, between Vatel’s freedom to create and the servitude that compels him to create for others, even between the film’s carefully coordinated color scheme and Joffé’s fondness for parallel imagery. (A sequence with feet that begins the film is brilliantly matched to another at its end.) The symbolism can be less deft — caged birds, a deer hunt — and the filmmakers are not above corset-drama bed-hopping and back-stabbing. It’s more delicious than not, though, when the beds and backs belong to Uma Thurman, as a willful lady in waiting, Tim Roth, as a piquantly scheming Marquis, and Julian Sands, who endows Louis with a modicum of cunning as well as the requisite self-absorption.
ALL THE PRETTY HORSES | Written by TED TALLY | Based on the novel by CORMAC McCARTHY | Directed by BILLY BOB THORNTON Produced by THORNTON and ROBERT SALERNO Released by Miramax Films | Citywide
BEFORE NIGHT FALLS | Written by CUNNINGHAM O’KEEFE, LÁZARO GÓMEZ CARRILES and JULIAN SCHNABEL Based on the memoir by Reinaldo Arenas Directed by SCHNABEL | Produced by JON KILIK | Released by Fine Line Features At Sunset 5, Nu Wilshire, Playhouse 7
THE GIFT | Written by BILLY BOB THORNTON and TOM EPPERSON | Directed by SAM RAIMI Produced by JAMES JACKS, TOM ROSENBERG and GARY LUCCHESI | Released by Paramount Classics | Citywide
AN EVERLASTING PIECE | Written by BARRY McEVOY | Directed by BARRY LEVINSON Produced by MARK JOHNSON, LOUIS DiGIAIMO, JEROME O’CONNOR, LEVINSON and PAULA WEINSTEIN | Released by DreamWorks | At AMC Century City
FINDING FORRESTER | Written by MIKE RICH | Directed by GUS VAN SANT | Produced by SEAN CONNERY and RHONDA TOLLEFSON Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide
MALèNA | Written and directed by GIUSEPPE TORNATORE | Produced by HARVEY WEINSTEIN and CARLO BERNASCONI | Released by Miramax Films | At Landmark’s Cecchi Gori Fine Arts, Laemmle’s Santa Monica 4
MISS CONGENIALITY | Written by MARC LAWRENCE, KATIE FORD and CARYN LUCAS Directed by DONALD PETRIE | Produced by SANDRA BULLOCK | Released by Castle Rock Entertainment | Citywide
NOWHERE TO HIDE | Written and directed by Lee Myung-Se | Produced by CHUNG TAE-WON | Released by Lions Gate Films | At the Nuart; Friday-Thursday, December 22-28
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O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? | Written by ETHAN and JOEL COEN | Based on The Odyssey by HOMER | Directed by JOEL COEN Produced by ETHAN COEN | Released by Touchstone Pictures and Universal Pictures | At AMC Century City, Leammle’s Santa Monica 4, AMC Santa Monica
STATE AND MAIN | Written and directed by DAVID MAMET | Produced by SARAH GREEN Released by Fine Line Features | Citywide
THIRTEEN DAYS | Written by DAVID SELF Directed by ROGER DONALDSON | Produced by ARMYAN BERNSTEIN, PETER O. ALMOND and KEVIN COSTNER | Released by New Line Cinema | Citywide
VATEL | Adapted by TOM STOPPARD from the screenplay by JEANNE LABRUNE | Directed by ROLAND JOFFÉ | Produced by ALAIN GOLDMAN and JOFFÉ | Released by Miramax Films | At Laemmle’s Music Hall