Day-Lewis K.O.’s Xmas Heavyweights
Instead of traditional year-end salvation, the 1997 Hollywood Santa delivered thistles and burrs. In the explosion of new movies this holiday season, an amazing number of bombs have been dropped that are alarmingly bereft of charm, excitement and commercial appeal. Except for Titanic, Good Will Hunting and As Good as It Gets , there isn’t much good will toward men. I’ve made my list, checked it twice and, frankly, I’m shocked.
Of all the bombs, The Postman is pure plutonium , the size of the one they dropped on Hiroshima. Until you see Kevin Costner as a futuristic Shakespearean actor, you only think you’ve seen bad. A futuristic cross between King Lear and Jesse James trying to deliver the mail in a post-apocalyptic Waterworld with sand dunes, he puts the ham back in Hamlet. For what they spent on ugly sandals, they could have financed a cure for cancer. The year is 2013, the place is the great salt flats of Utah, and wars and plagues have wiped out the world. (In only 16 years?) Such artifacts as a pack of Marlboros take on the symbolic importance of that tomato in Waterworld , and an old issue of Playboy can buy you your own uncontaminated sperm bank. Mr. Costner, who also unwisely produced and directed this flatulent fiasco, gets captured by a feudal army and enslaved in a desert mine where he is forced to eat donkey meat and watch endless reruns of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music . One day, while escaping a lion (in Utah?), he finds a deserted United States mail truck and spends the next three hours delivering old postcards to walled cities, reviving dreams of democracy, restoring hope to Planet Earth and inspiring little children to become mail carriers and sing “America the Beautiful.” Before the villains track him down and spoil the fun, he’s negotiating peace treaties, impregnating women and posing as a representative of the newly formed United States Government, simultaneously protecting the world from a fascist dictator named Bethlehem. It has to be seen to be believed, but that statement is not intended as a recommendation. All I can tell you is that the future landscape of America, in a postscript set in the year 2043, looks like a Troy Donahue-Sandra Dee movie, and nobody ever buys stamps. By the time somebody asks the question, “How much mail can a dead postman deliver?” the movie has taken on both the dialogue and the dimension of a light bulb joke. It seems to have been written by Abe Burrows, but the laughs are unintentional and the movie is obsolete before it even opens, thanks to e-mail.
Jackie Brown , clocking in at two and a half hours, is unthinkable, unwatchable and unfit for lepers , affirming my belief that if Hollywood has turned into a banquet of fools, Quentin Tarantino is surely at the head of the idiot table. Pam Grier, as the foxy felon in the title, plays a cocaine-smuggling, money-laundering 45-year-old airline stewardess who looks like 45 miles of bad tarmac. In this meandering bore, she outwits a Federal agent (Michael Keaton), a murderous gun-runner (Samuel L. Jackson) and his bimbo mistress (Bridget Fonda), a bail bondsman (Robert Forster) and a brain-dead petty crook (Robert De Niro) to steal a million dollars in a Vuitton bag. Looking like Lady Chablis, the ugly drag queen in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , Ms. Grier goes to impossible lengths to prove that stewardesses are an endangered species ready for a union strike. The point of the movie is simple: Sixteen thousand a year and health insurance benefits are not enough to keep an old broad in tequila sunrises. The point could have been made in 30 minutes, but Mr. Tarantino, who learned everything he knows from old videos, needs time for dialogue like “You come in here on a Saturday night, you must need nigger repellent.” There’s plenty of trashy talk, but no energy or movement, and fans of Pulp Fiction will be dismayed by the rambling incoherence of it all. Choppily edited, whole scenes make no sense at all. Poor Bridget Fonda has nothing to do but lie around smoking dope and watching TV, while Samuel L. Jackson is forced to say all the moronic stuff, like “My ass may be dumb, but I ain’t no dumb ass.” The blacks all talk like Amos and Andy on speed. Everyone else in Jackie Brown talks like he or she has been lobotomized.
For her splendid, wry and wrenching performance in Afterglow , Julie Christie won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best actress of 1997, but I wouldn’t take any bets on how many people will see her. The movie is an ordeal. It’s a tedious tale, slow as a New Year’s Eve party in a mental ward, about two miserable married couples in Montreal. Lucky and Phyllis (Nick Nolte and the ageless Ms. Christie) have been heading for the rocks since their only daughter deserted them, over an argument, years ago. Lucky is an aging contractor who stays in business with the help of satisfied female clients. He does marvels with their plumbing. Phyllis is a B-movie actress who lives in the past, watching her old bombs on TV and enduring Lucky’s affairs with no interest in reviving their loveless marriage. Across town, there’s Jeffrey and Marianne (Jonny Lee Miller and Lara Flynn Boyle). He’s a handsome, self-centered corporate whiz-kid with no interest in sex. She’s frustrated and wants a baby. They all find in each other’s spouses the elements missing in their own marriages. After what seems like an eternity of whining, Lucky impregnates Marianne, Jeffrey falls off a bridge, and everything ends up in fisticuffs in the bar of the Ritz Hotel while the ghastly Tom Waits growls and gargles his way through a song from West Side Story . The only memorable line in the film is “The hardest part is finding out too late that none of it lasts.” Ms. Christie delivers it sadly, wisely and shatteringly. A great performance, in a dreary disappointment.
Kundun is the second movie in one year about the Dalai Lama when nobody even wanted to see one. Martin Scorsese’s film is the one without Brad Pitt. In fact, all parts (except for a few Chinese generals) are played by nonprofessional Tibetans, while Tibet is played by Morocco. Mr. Scorsese manages to make an impossible project come alive as he chronicles 18 years in the life of the 14th Holy Leader, covering a lot of the same ground as Seven Years in Tibet , but with more cinematic brilliance. Taken from his humble village at the age of 2 and transported to the Holy City of Lhasa, the Dalai Lama sneaked forbidden treats, tested his parents to see how much he could get away with, was crazy about cars and cowboy movies, and learned about the outside world from reading Life magazines. One of the most charming scenes shows him writing a letter to President Harry Truman asking for help when his country was invaded by the Chinese Communist armies of Mao Zedong. The movie is an arduous risk, beautifully shot, but conveying more information about Buddhism than the average filmgoer is likely to care about. And the final hour, when Chairman Mao tries unsuccessfully to convince Kundun that religion is the poison opiate of the people, lacks momentum, and interest wanes. Still, Kundun is never less than human and opulent, the work of a real director with a vision, often as inspiring as it is inspired.
Better still, there is The Boxer , a movingly sober account of the Irish “troubles” today that shows people in Belfast trying to make peace instead of war. Daniel Day-Lewis is marvelous in the title role, playing a reformed Irish Republican Army terrorist who returns after 14 years in prison with a change of heart. Belfast is in a cease-fire mode, though the city is a ruin full of junkies, thieves and angry survivors who can’t forget. Mr. Day-Lewis’ character, who was once the most promising boxer in Ulster, finds self-respect coaching kids in a nonsectarian community center, revives his own career in the ring, rekindles hope among the younger generation and resurrects an old love affair with the girl he left behind (Emily Watson). The film is about regeneration and the value of dignity, and it is beautifully and sensitively acted, skillfully directed and written by Jim Sheridan, and stages a stirring reunion for the same creative team responsible for My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father . From the chrysalis of arrogant, pretentious, self-serving year-end movies that serve no purpose beyond keeping millions of moviegoers alienated, at least Kundun and The Boxer are films that stretch, involve and embrace us with artistry and substance. And a better, more fulfilling New Year to all.
Here, by popular demand, is my list of the 10 best films of 1997:
1. L.A. Confidential
3. The Ice Storm
4. Good Will Hunting
5. Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown
7. The Boxer
8. Alive and Kicking
9. As Good as It Gets
10. The Wings of the Dove