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Movie Reviews: Winter Film Reviews

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
staff reporter

As usual, in late December/early January, the studios, major and independent alike, send their big guns into the marketplace. The aim of these guns is, of course, Oscars and Golden Globes and Critics' Societies' awards and more importantly, anything which can provide free publicity and extra cash at the box office.

Those who read my reviews regularly or those who talked to me know that I have bemoaned this year as the worst in recent memory. Most of the highly anticipated works from major filmmakers ended up somewhere between mildly engaging (Saving Private Ryan) and downright unwatchable (Beloved). By the end of the year, the situation was dire, with the release of only a dozen really good movies and no masterpieces whatsoever.

Fortunately, the studios got their act together somewhat. Three movies below were both released as Oscar bait, and all of them are certainly recommendable. None of them are unqualified masterpieces, but because of the weak competition all of them will be seen on my top ten list for 1998.

Films are listed in the order of increasing preference.

A Civil Action

Written and directed by Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Jonathan Harr. With John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan.

If there was a movie last year with a more impeccable pedigree, I don't know of it each cast member has either received or been nominated for Oscars. Stephen Zaillian wrote spellbinding screenplay for Schindler's List and has also written and directed remarkable Searching for Bobby Fischer. Expectations were high when he started work on the true story of the Woburn pollution case, the story of two powerful companies being accused of dumping toxic chemicals into local water and causing a leukemia cluster, which resulted in the death of several children. As Schindler's List, it's a emotionally-charged story of guilt and redemption, with intriguing characters who refused to be labeled as heroes or villains.

So, what about the result? For about the first half an hour it's perfect I'm not exaggerating here. These first two reels are taut, gripping, dramatic and funny. With wit, style, and excellent pacing, Zaillian takes us on a highly engaging tour of personal injury law. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to think of a modern director who is such a wizard of pacing the beginning of A Civil Action is neither too slow nor too fast nor simply progressing from slow beginning to rapid closure. No, there is a peculiar rhythm to this sequence, ebbing and flowing, with the most standard and cliched shots such as a car zooming past the camera, turned into setups for terrific punchlines. John Travolta seems to having time of his life, playing Jan Schlichtmann, a charismatic and unscrupulous Boston lawyer, with a particular talent for earnest-faced lies. A truly remarkable supporting cast is every bit his match, and is as riveting to watch.

The next hour of the story relaxes a bit, when the movie shifts into the mode of a courtroom drama, replete with a search for clues, witness badgering, courtroom infighting and grandstanding. This material is as interesting to observe, yet there is a minor problem with it: the focus is shifting from the case to the people behind the case. If these people were the Woburn families who suffered tragic losses, this would have been understandable and, in one case when we are allowed to feel the pain, almost unbearably moving. However, these families aren't in the spotlight; it's Schlichtmann and his team that are center stage, and this doesn't quite feel right. It feels like a standard Hollywood tradition to examine law through the lawyers rather than through the victims, racism through well-intentioned white folks rather than through the persecuted people, etc. A Civil Action seems to be more interested in the financial plight of Schlichtmann and Co. who sink all of their money in the trial.

However, with the exception of this strange perspective shift, the film remains as sharp and carefully observed as before, most prominently so in William H. Macy's character as Schlichtmann's obsessed accountant, who resorts to more and more outlandish schemes to procure some financial assistance.

In the finale, the shift of the perspective becomes ultimately distracting. When the trial itself falls by the wayside, Travolta's attempts to play earnest end up being not quite as effective as him playing a slimeball, and some interesting story developments end up reduced to a screen caption. But it's not up to me to decide for the director/screenwriter what story he should have told; although I might wish for the different take on the same narrative, there's no arguing that, given the viewpoint, Zaillian's film is, ultimately, both uplifting and entertaining in the best sense of this word.

Shakespeare in Love

Directed by John Madden.

Written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

With Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson.

Last year's best period drama and possibly the best period drama ever was The Wings of the Dove; this year brought along Dangerous Beauty not quite in the same class, but still good. First, one was co-produced by David Parfit, who made himself quite an excellent resume, what with Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, as well as The Madness of King George. Dangerous Beauty was produced by Ed Zwick, the director of Glory and Courage Under Fire. Now the producers of these two combine their efforts with that of an excellent crew, resulting in a highly commendable film. If Shakespeare in Love doesn't quite soar as high as Dove, it's only because of somewhat staid direction. The rest of the film is truly grand.

The best part is, of course, the witty and funny script by Mark Norman (known largely for a megaflop Cutthroat Island) and veteran playwright Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). Together, they draw a portrait of genius as a young man, with sexual frustration, writer's block, and an acute syndrome of an empty wallet. You see, Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes, Ralph's younger brother) has sold his new play, a rollicking comedy Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter not to one, but to two theaters at once, and hasn't written a single word. The situation requires immediate attention, so Will sets out to seek a muse and finds her in theatre-loving Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow, and I'm required by the trade union of film critics to describe her as "glowing"). Romantic, dramatic, artistic, and financial complication ensue. The play ends up being not quite as funny as originally planned, and gets a slightly different title in the process and we see Great Literature being born.

There's rarely a film that can juggle that many balls in the air without dropping any of them. Norman and Stoppard create a gallery of comic personages, starting from befuddled theatre owner Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush, looking really funny), a hilariously ruthless moneylender. Hugh "The Money" Fennyman, a conceited lead actor Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck, again in the company of some Good Will) with a big sword and even bigger ego, astonishingly regal Queen Elizabeth (Judy Dench), and other assorted types. The screenplay is chock-full with gags, hidden and not so hidden Shakespearian quotation, and hilarious yet non-intrusive anachronism, like Will's confessor functioning like a shrink, a boat driver asking to read his play, or a mile-long list of people on the theatre bill, with the name of the author hardly to be found.

The look of the film is noteworthy as well; not only do we have uncanny verisimilitude in recreating Elizabethan England, with dirt liberally strewing the streets and chamber pots being emptied directly on the pedestrians' heads, but there's also gilt, lace, and fireworks of the royal court and the cheap splendor of stage costumes.

When the story turns toward romance, all restraint goes out of the window, and that's a good thing, since two leads are at their best when dealing with strong emotions. Fiennes, who looks a bit like The Artist Formerly Known But Not Anymore, makes Shakespeare's desire to speak in verse not only understandable but unavoidable. Paltrow is excellent for the first time since Emma.

Other aspects are top notch, like superlative costumes (from Dove's costume designer Sandy Powell), musical score, and editing. The only problem I have concerns John Madden's direction; it seems that he doesn't quite know how to put together a scene with distinct beginning, middle, and end, and overdoses a bit on the swooping spiraling camera moves.

But, ultimately, Shakespeare in Love ends being a really funny romantic drama, and showing nothing else than the genesis of true art from such humble beginnings as want, dirt, hate, envy, and lust as well as love and hope.

Re-reading Romeo and Juliet before seeing this one is not required, but highly recommended to increase your enjoyment.

A Simple Plan

Directed by Sam Raimi.

Written by Scott B. Smith, based on his novel.

With Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Brent Briscoe, Bridget Fonda.

I'm facing a complex problem: I need to communicate my admiration of a movie which made me feel rather rotten. A Simple Plan, to tell the truth, is downright bleak and depressing. It's riveting and illuminating, and it takes the viewers on a dizzying ride to the dark areas of human soul the fact that this descent is slow and deliberate and gradual doesn't make it any less revelatory.

Three buddies college-educated Hank (Bill Paxton), his loser brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's drinking buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe) come across a downed plane in a pristinely white showy landscape, with the pilot being pecked on by crows, and 4.4 million dollars stashed in a duffel bag.

The setup is nearly Fargoesque; and, were this film in the Coen brothers' hands, it would have been much more funnier and much less involving. No, A Simple Plan is directed by the enfant terrible of Ultimate Horror Experience, a hyperactive camera wiz Sam Raimi, also known as the creator of Xena: The Warrior Princess. If there were a more incongruous choice for the director, I don't know what it would be, although Nora Ephron does sounds even less suitable.

First surprise: Raimi proves himself to be a tightly controlled artist, never resorting to style-over-substance mode of operation, and taking care of the film's careful, deliberate pacing. The overdose of ominous symbolism, such as shots of dark crows, abandoned farm buildings, and purposelessly spinning windmills, does not end up distracting anyway.

Surprise two: Bill Paxton. The audience has every right to expect a great performance from Billy Bob Thornton, and he certainly delivers it here, as a none-too-bright Jacob, who slowly but surely progresses from the oafish comic relief to the story's truest moral compass. I'm still convinced that Thornton is not one person, but rather a team of talented actors, since the actor who played in Sling Blade looks nothing like the one from U Turn, who doesn't even resemble the guy from Armageddon, not to mention Primary Colors. No, Thornton delivers an Oscar caliber performance, but that's expected from him. The shock is that his co-star is every bit his equal.

Paxton surely made himself a stellar resume, appearing perhaps in as many blockbusters as Harrison Ford or Tom Hanks: he was in The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies, Apollo 13, Twister, and Titanic. Of course, he was never the main attraction, and he only once managed to create an indelible character (Aliens' Private "Game over, man!" Hudson). But here, he's remarkable. Using his trademark "decent, ordinary guy" persona to the highest effect and subverting it Paxton shows the black hole in the center of his character. As a particular grace note to his performance, Hank becomes more and more human, just as his actions turn from noble to selfish to horrifying.

Surprise three: the movie, with all its psychological depths, is highly watchable. With the exception of the middle section which centers on Lou, the least-developed character, and, thus, the least likable. and is somewhat flabby, A Simple Plan slowly but inexorably tightens the screws on its characters, achieving tension which is nearly unbearable.

Surprise four: this is not just a character drama/triller. It's also a parable about the dark side of American Dream, how the idea of making oneself prosperous from the ground up by picking up a stray 4.4 million, if they are found to be lying around turns horrifying, into a dreamily inescapable American Nightmare.