Hoffman Mumbles, Mad City Fumbles . . . Anastasia : Beauty And the Mad Priest

Hoffman Mumbles,(11)Mad City Fumbles

Dustin Hoffman is so weird in Mad City ; he mumbles incoherently through the entire movie at a sound level so low it could lull mollusks to sleep. It’s a numbing annoyance only a sleepwalker can appreciate, but it’s just one of the problems that plague this misguided attempt by gritty Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras to examine the abuse of media power in America. Frankly, I’m tired of foreigners who move to Hollywood to make movies on our own turf about how awful we are. I still haven’t recovered from Mr. Costa-Gavras’ laughable Ku Klux Klan melodrama Betrayed . He turns vital issues into clichés, piling on contrivances so phony you go away walleyed with disbelief.

Having just lived through the media slobber surrounding the Cambridge nanny case, the O.J. Simpson trial and the death of the Princess of Wales, we already know how TV cameras can turn a news event into a circus sideshow disproportionate to its value, swaying public opinion in the process. Mad City sets out to investigate this technological-age phenomenon, but gets so derailed in its cross-purposes that it ends up making skeptics of us all. Billy Wilder addressed the same theme much better with Kirk Douglas as the power-crazed reporter turning a mine cave-in into a media blitz in The Big Carnival . Mr. Wilder was foreign-born, too, but a much more gifted and persuasive director.

Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman) is a TV news reporter with questionable ethics who will do anything for a story, even if he has to make it up. He specializes in rumor, conjecture and innuendo. He once worked in network news, but disgraced himself on camera and lost his job, ending up in a small town in California, disillusioned and bored. Max longs to find that one big story that will take him back to Rockefeller Center, and he gets his chance while covering a routine story at the local history museum. The museum is financially distressed, and budget cuts have resulted in the sacking of several employees. While Max is in the men’s room mumbling to his penis (I’m not kidding), a simple-minded security guard named Sam Baily (John Travolta), who has been laid off, wanders in, stressed out and confused, with a gun and a pile of dynamite, hoping to convince the icy museum curator (Blythe Danner) to listen to his problems and give him his job back. In the panic that ensues, Sam accidentally wounds another guard and takes the curator and a tour of visiting schoolchildren hostage.

Mr. Hoffman seizes the chance to be a big shot, not only taking advantage of a dangerous situation by turning it into headline news, but also manipulating the nervous, scared working-class slob Mr. Travolta plays, as well as the police, the gathering crowds and the other members of the press. One thing leads to another, and before you can say 60 Minutes , an average guy with a family to support, terrified of losing his house and his insurance benefits, has been turned into a cross between the Oklahoma Bomber and the Terminator in living rooms from coast to coast.

Before it all comes to a tragic, predictable close, the press has trampled Mr. Travolta’s wife’s flower beds, climbed through windows into the wounded guard’s hospital room, played the race card and attracted a slick news anchor from New York (Alan Alda) who wants to horn in on Max’s story, promising him his own network show in exchange for an exclusive interview over Larry King, who, by the way, is also on hand to provide his own sleazy, two-faced exaggeration of actual events. All poor, deluded Mr. Travolta wants to do is apologize and go home. As the object of the nation’s growing hatred, he’s busy inside the museum delighting the children, ordering pizza, blowing bubbles with his bubble gum, and telling stories about cowboys and Indians. But Mr. Hoffman won’t let the story end until he creates a freak show of T-shirt vendors, nut cases, weirdo cults, neo-Nazis and civil liberties attorneys, all battling for a piece of the action. He even edits tapes to change the wording in interviews for sensationalism. And then, in a preposterous twist of screenwriting incredulity, he switches gears, suffers a sudden attack of guilt and integrity that doesn’t jell, and goes for heroics. To buy any of this, you need a suspension of disbelief that stretches from here to Kansas.

This is serious stuff, about the power of television and the enormous control it has over our lives. The media does abuse that power to twist stories beyond their social relevance for ratings numbers, but with so many cable systems competing for stories, no solitary reporter ever has the supreme autonomy to dominate a single event the way Mr. Hoffman does, no matter how ambitious he may be. Under the circumstances, it’s easy for Mr. Travolta to steal the show; he’s all over the place while his co-star whispers and mutters so inaudibly you need subtitles. If this is acting, bring back Steve Reeves in Hercules . Whatever happened to the Costa-Gavras of such tough, galvanizing human-rights milestones as Z and Missing ? Maybe television does distort, embellish and fabricate facts, but so does Mad City . They should call this one Mad Audience .

Anastasia : Beauty(11)And the Mad Priest

In the world of animation, can anyone top the Walt Disney Company? You betcha. Wait till you see Anastasia from 20th-Century Fox. The familiar story of the search for the last surviving Romanov princess has been turned into a sophisticated brew of music, romance and adventure that will enchant the kids and enthrall the grown-ups, and the art work is so brilliant, it looks three-dimensional. The timeless story was last told with Ingrid Bergman, although my favorite is still the TV production with Julie Harris. This Anastasia takes the magic and thrills to the drawing boards, recreating first the grandeur and elegance of Czar Nicholas’ palace in 1916, then the evil curse of the mad monk Rasputin that cast a shadow of terror over the Romanovs and led to the Russian Revolution. Every moppet in the audience will identify with the frightened 8-year-old Anastasia, who survived her family’s bloody massacre and was left behind in a raging blizzard at the St. Petersburg railway station. And this is all before the credits!

Ten years later, you get Communist Russia, with hundreds of peasants turned comrades, singing and dancing the czardas in the streets and squares. Anastasia, raised as an orphan named Anya, falls into the hands of a handsome con artist named Dimitri, who takes her to Paris, where she finally meets the Grand Duchess Marie in the famous recognition scene that changes her life forever. But there’s more excitement and peril to come as the ghost of the evil Rasputin returns to wreak havoc on everyone in sight. It’s a sumptuous entertainment, but the biggest thrill is the drawings. The boarded-up Winter Palace has light filtering through its arched cathedral windows as ghosts from the past glide across the polished floors. From the snowy steppes to the wedding-cake sparkle of Paris, from forest waterfalls to a heart-stopping chase on a runaway train, you forget you are looking at an animator’s cels and sense the position of a real camera, with shots from above and below to add ballast, depth and focus. There’s even a ferocious storm at sea lashing the decks of a freighter ship with waves, and a lavish ball that could have easily been directed by Vincente Minnelli in an M-G-M musical.

The songs are more beautiful than the usual silly ditties in Disney flicks. The casting is perfect. Meg Ryan gives the voice of Anastasia spunk and courage. John Cusack is exactly as the romantic Dimitri should be. Bernadette Peters is a plummy and dotty Aunt Sophie. And Angela Lansbury brings to the Grand Duchess Marie an imperial elegance that is marvelous. For the kids, there’s Anastasia’s adorable dog and Rasputin’s dingy bat to keep them entertained. Forget about little mermaids and lion kings. Anastasia is about real people living a great adventurous love story on an epic scale that I predict will leave everyone cheering, from 8 to 80.