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Movie Reviews: DreamWorks movies show signs of Spielberg -- Moviemaker's summer offerings range from cold to lukewarm

Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) finally finds Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) a few days after D-day in Saving Private Ryan.

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

In the last three decades, Steven Spielberg has not only become the most profitable director of our time, but he has also created an entire movie studio, DreamWorks. As a producer, he had a hand in such commercial successes as Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies, and Men In Black. And this summer we have no less than four movies which in some way or other owe their existence to him. Soporific Deep Impact started the heat season at the box office in May, and July brought forth Spielberg-directed Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg-executive-produced The Mask of Zorro, and DreamWorks-financed Small Soldiers.

The latter three get my recommendation; however, these are not very enthusiastic recommendations, and I have major problems with each of the three movies. I'll go through them in a moment, in order of increasing preference, but first I'd like to note that there is another common thread uniting these three films. They are all about one thing-violence.

Saving Private Ryan

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Robert Rodat

With Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon

Certainly the weakest of the three reviewed here, and surprisingly so. After all, most major film critics in the country are predicting that Saving Private Ryan will sweep the Oscars come next spring, and many of them are putting it on par with Schindler's List. No such luck, unfortunately. Spielberg as a director plus World War II setting do not automatically a masterpiece make; it requires more - a good screenplay, for starters.

The story is quite straightforward (too much so for the nearly three-hour-long movie). On D-Day, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) parachutes behind enemy lines and is lost. The next day, it is discovered that all of Ryan's three brothers were recently killed in the war. To avoid the damaging public relations, the generals send eight people on a special mission: Led by their captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), they are to venture deep into war-torn France to find Ryan, "a needle in the pile of needles," and get him back to safety.

There are two things to recommend in Saving Private Ryan. First are the battle sequences, which have amazing you're-right-there realism. With an unflinching eye, Spielberg unleashes all the horrors of war on the screen, with blood, guts, and gore aplenty. Pushing the boundaries of it's R rating, the movie is ultra-realistic and hallucinatingly surreal at the same time. Putting to shame most of the modern action films, every battle scene is filmed in such a way that at every moment it's perfectly clear who is where, who is doing what, and who is shooting at whom.

The second excellent feature of this movie is the visuals. Both cinematography (by Janusz Kaminski) and production design (Thomas Sanders) combine to a stunning effect. The sights of bombed towns, with literally single walls remaining from buildings and streets strewn with rubble, are amazing, and Kaminski films all of it in faded, grainy, newsreel-quality footage, so that we all know that this is the way the war really looked.

The rest of Saving Private Ryan is mediocre. The story doesn't build toward anything, the few character arcs are either barely existent or utterly obvious, and the acting is passable at best. Most supporting actors are adequate, and not more. Even Tom Hanks is given a very schematic character, and all of his acting is limited to a couple of tedious method mannerisms. The one who comes off the best is Matt Damon, who appears on screen in the last third-but even he can't overcome the wooden dialogue. There is a scene where Ryan launches into a monologue about his older brother. This is clearly is supposed to be a character-defining scene, but the story Ryan tells is so improbable and told in such the wrong way that is comes off as something told by a clumsy liar.

I wouldn't have minded the film's weaknesses if it weren't so self-important and pretentious. With all that flag-waving and other patriotic imagery, endless (and meaningless) philosophical discussions, quotations from Abraham Lincoln, and tearful embraces fifty years later (in the utterly unnecessary framing scenes), it is a major disappointment that the film can't even present a convincing narrative. It doesn't work as historical fiction either; despite the wealth of clearly well-researched period details, it ends up presenting D-Day as a major turning point in World War II. Well, here's a historical trivia bit for you - the Americans didn't enter the war until it was three quarters over.

In the end, a good deal of Saving Private Ryan doesn't work, with Spielberg drowning every non-battle scene in schmaltz, with John Williams' highly intrusive score trying to push the emotional buttons, with Robert Rodat's dialogue sounding cliched and lifeless. Why, then, do I still recommend this movie?

Because of the battle scenes, and them alone. Spielberg's point clearly is "War is Hell" (Really? What a bold idea!), and he makes this point in about five minutes. However, the war scenes (especially the final grand confrontation) end up being actively enjoyable. Spielberg is too much of a showman not to let them be so, and he piles up explosions, shootouts, and stunts aplenty, turning the movie into an armrest-clenching extravaganza. In the end, the message I got from Saving Private Ryan was, paradoxically, "War is Hell, but it is sure exciting to watch."

A side note: At a risk of sounding sexist, I suspect that, as with all testosterone-filled action movies, female viewers will enjoy it much less than the males. I can't justify this opinion without conducting an opinion poll, but I strongly suspect it is correct.

The Mask of Zorro

Directed by Martin Campbell

Written by Terry Rossio, Ted Elliott, and John Eskow

With Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones

The Mask of Zorro certainly doesn't intend to preach that violence is bad. On the contrary, it is full of good old violence ("old" as in Douglas Fairbanks and Erroll Flynn old) - swordfighting and swashbuckling, punching and kicking, guns and explosions. All of this is put on very well, and is very enjoyable. If only this movie were a bit tighter: there is a lot going on, and it ends up being a bit too much.

The story concerns the legendary freedom fighter Zorro (you know, black mask, black hat, black horse, black moustache), who protects the rights of the people of California and battles the oppressors. It certainly doesn't matter why those oppressors are evil (they want to kill Zorro and they want California to become an independent country, which is evil enough, I think). In the action-packed prologue, Zorro (whose face we can't see behind the mask but who sounds suspiciously like Anthony Hopkins) dashingly appears from nowhere, dashingly saves the day, and dashingly rides off into the sunset, silhouetted against the setting sun very much like E.T.

But the sun is about to set on Zorro. Soon, he's arrested and thrown into the dungeon for twenty years. The bad guys also kidnap his baby daughter, whom they pamper variously while she's growing up (see how evil they are!). When Zorro finally gets out, he devotes himself to the task of revenge, but since he's now too old for this stuff, he picks a successor, a charming rogue Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas). Old Zorro trains Alejandro in the ABCs of being a legendary hero, and then young Zorro is off to battle the villains, ride the horses, and romance beautiful Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who happens to be his mentor's kidnapped daughter.

It is quite refreshing to see a big budget adventure which doesn't skimp on the character development and motivations; however, it errs a bit by providing too much of such stuff. There's nothing wrong per se in old Zorro growling something about revenge, but after five or so times it grows tedious. It also takes an awful lot of screen time-at 2 hours and 20 minutes, Zorro is a long sit, since the excitement is diluted by longer stretches of less inspired material.

This material, by the way, would have been even less exciting if it were delivered by less charismatic actors. Both Hopkins and Banderas plunge into the swashbuckling adventure with gusto, and deliver smashing performances. It's startling to see gray-haired Hopkins engaged in derring-do, and he pulls it off excellently. Banderas is as good, in a very different way - he deftly combines the essence of a romantic hero (macho demeanor, sparkling eyes, passionate grace) with goofy humor (witness his attempts to ride the horse, for example). Zeta-Jones appears somewhat late in the movie, and for a while the only thing she's requested to do is stand around and look irresistible. However, during the second half, she also has quite a bit to do: there's a dance, a swordfight, and a lot of running around during the climax.

The swordfights (and other fights) are the main reasons to see this movie. Martin Campbell (who also directed Goldeneye) is not a great director (the aforementioned dance sequence is totally mishandled by him, for one), but the fights - in all their sword-clanging, chandelier-swinging glory - make their way onto screen quite well, aided by impressive production design and James Horner's Hispanic-tinged score. I would not call the violence of The Mask of Zorro cartoonish; but it is clearly intended to serve as a source of enjoyment and not to be taken seriously.

Small Soldiers

Directed by Joe Dante

Written by Ted Elliott, Zak Penn, Adam Rifkin, Terry Rossio, and Gavin Scott

Animatronic designs and effects by Stan Winston

With Gregory Smith, Kirsten Dunst, Jay Mohr, Kevin Dunn, Denis Leary, and voices of Tommy Lee Jones and Frank Langella

Small Soldiers is directed by Joe Dante, former student and protege of Steven Spielberg, and the director of Gremlins. These two movies have much in common - the place is idealized suburbia, the nominal heroes are teenagers, and the disruptions (both good and bad ones) of the monotony come from the mysterious "outside." This time, instead of Gremlins' furry creatures, it's a truckload of toys - or, rather, action figures. The first releases from a toy company after being bought by a huge military corporation, GloboTech, these are not just simple toys: equipped with an inexhaustible power source and a high-tech microchip as a brain, these toys can walk, talk, learn - and fight. They are released as two product lines: the clean-cut and handsome Commander Elite, programmed to attack, and deformed monsters Gorgonites, programmed to be attacked. Of course, after about twenty minutes both are unleashed, and the war engulfs the land of Suburbia.

The results are spectacular. This is perhaps the first ever instance of totally seamless special effects (designed by legendary Stan Winston, who also worked on Aliens and Jurassic Park), which deftly combine animatronic toys and computer-generated ones. The technology has clearly developed a long way since Toy Story, and the toys here move as if they were real.

They not only move, they also wage a war, and Dante escalates the tension from minor conflicts and skirmishes to the major battles, all presented with gusto and clarity. Don't mistake this movie for the harmless kids' fantasy: the soldiers are small, but they are highly effective in converting harmless household tools into deadly weapons. There's a small bit with corn cob holders which is as effective as all the gore in Saving Private Ryan.

Which, unfortunately, brings me to the major problem I have with Small Soldiers. It's made - and is being advertised - as a kids' movie, but it is clearly inappropriate for young children (the PG-13 rating is richly deserved with all the warfare going on). The fact that the movie is geared at the younger generation also noticeably hurts the movie itself.

The major subplot (I would have called it plot, but it is much less compelling than the toys' story) concerns a bland teenage hero (Gregory Smith) who is psychologically wounded and can't connect with his father (Kevin Dunn). A lot of running time is spent on this gratingly tiresome subplot, and it certainly doesn't help that it's neither written nor acted convincingly. A parallel story - a tentative romance with a girl next door, played by Kirsten Dunst - works only a touch better, and all credit here goes to Dunst, who is, as usual, excellent. She's the only one who can stand her own against the raging special effects.

If you are able to sit through the teeth-grinding awfulness of these subplots, you will see that the rest of this movie is sharply written and seamlessly realized. It also has a surprisingly strong subtext which, appropriately enough, concerns violence in pop-culture and humans' susceptibility to it. Just listen to Major Chip Hazard, the Commando Elite leader (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), and you'll hear a mishmash of pop-culture cliches, military slogans, advertising mottos, and jingoistic war-mongering rhetoric. Everything that Chip Hazard says is, of course, meaningless (after all, the toys' notions of the world around them are skewed products of their military programming), but the Commandos act as pop-culture filters. And what they filter out of it is a spooky amount of violence.

The movie also cannily references other war movies (for example, Patton and Apocalypse Now), and carefully positions some of the action with the TV broadcasting war documentaries in the background. Thus, it blurs the lines between the toy war, the movie war, and the real war, presenting all three of them as coming from the same source - the infantile desire for meaningless destruction. By casting the Commando Elite as the villains, the movie carefully walks the line between using violence as entertainment and being a sharp criticism of such usage. It largely succeeds at both.

Quite a bit of edgy stuff for a summer fantasy. If they had the nerve to cut out about half an hour of pointless family bonding, Small Soldiers could have been an excellent movie. I still find it curious that it ended up being much more enjoyable than the heavy-handed ponderousness of Saving Private Ryan. Of course, when I'm writing this, Ryan is trouncing Soldiers at the box office. But if Ryan's profits fund one more picture as witty as Small Soldiers, I will consider it less of a disappointment.