Cast Away for Christmas! … Poetry from a Cuban Prison

Cast Away for Christmas!

Ready or not, here they come: The Christmas movies are upon

us. This year, it is surprising how many good (and serious) ones there are, but

there is only one that I plan to see twice. Tom Hanks and director Robert

Zemeckis, reuniting for the first time since they both won Academy Awards for

the historic Forrest Gump , have now

turned their considerable talents and attention to Cast Away, a visual stunner and an emotional blockbuster that will

take your breath away. When it opens on Dec. 22, make an effort to be the first

in line. It is original, unique, exhilarating, heartbreaking and unforgettable.

Mr. Hanks is nothing short of miraculous as a Federal Express

executive whose job comes with a passport and a boarding pass. With the pacing

of an Uzi, he is first seen in Moscow, pushing the Russians through the drill

of how to get FedEx packages out of Russia with stopwatch timing. Hopping a jet

to a family Thanksgiving in Memphis, he barely has time to exchange early

Christmas presents with his fiancée (Helen Hunt) before she reluctantly drives

him to the airport for another FedEx business jaunt. “I’ll be right back” are

his parting words, but life has other plans.

This time, the plane goes down in the Pacific Ocean (the

plane crash is one of the most terrifying sequences ever captured on film), and

he’s miraculously washed to the shore of a deserted stretch of sand and rock

600 miles south of the Cook Islands. In one of the most harrowing scenarios in

modern filmmaking, this contemporary, technology-savvy and ambitious

businessman suddenly finds his life mortgaged by a twist of fate, and he is

literally deserted, abandoned and cast away from the civilized world for the

next four years. Sucking raindrops from leaves, existing on coconuts and

praying for rescue, the things he does to stay alive are so real (and Mr. Hanks

is such a believable artist) that you quickly forget he’s acting at all.

Using the contents of a few FedEx packages that washed

ashore with him in the wreckage, he makes a crude saw and a carving knife out

of the blades of a pair of ice skates and rope from video tapes. His sole

companion is a volleyball with a face painted in his own blood. This Robinson

Crusoe section of the film showcases the star at the top of his game as he

makes a desperate case for a man panic-stricken in the face of his own

mortality, and Mr. Zemeckis does a brilliant job of making you feel you are

living through every minute of it with him. In four years of the kind of

isolation that would drive most men to insanity, Mr. Hanks characteralsoloses55

pounds. By the time he finally makes one last move to survive and heads for the

open sea in a handmade raft, memories of Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea surface-but there is nothing derivative or

imitative about Cast Away.

Just when you think you can’t endure another crisis or sink

another hope, the film shifts into its third gear. Home at last in Memphis,

where he’s been given up for dead and eulogized, he faces an even

moredevastatingchallenge-a reunion with the fiancée who has since married

another man and made a new family of her own, but is still in love with the

lost-for-dead man who will always remain the love of her life. There are no

easy resolutions here, and the wisdom of the solid, unflagging screenplay by

William Broyles Jr. is in the way it gives the characters time to survive not

only the life-altering changes in their lives but to find their own inner strengths.

It is very much a film about survival, of both physical

ardor and the dignity of the human spirit. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it,

but I spent half the time in Cast Away

covering my eyes and the other half in tears. It’s a film of enormous impact and

inspired artistry that moves like a speeding train, with a titanic performance

by Tom Hanks that is admirable in its precision, humanity and the total lack of

histrionics with which he builds the mechanics of change and compromise into a

moving account of one man’s moral rebirth. It’s a great picture that revives my

faith in American filmmaking, worth its weight in gold statuettes come Oscar

night.

 

Poetry from a Cuban

Prison

Before Night Falls ,

based on the acclaimed autobiography by Cuban poet-novelist Reinaldo Arenas, is

another powerful film for the year-end must-see list, with a galvanizing

performance by Spanish heartthrob Javier Bardem as the revered author. Arenas

rose from a childhood of abject poverty to become Cuba’s most beloved literary

sensation, only to be imprisoned, tortured, hounded and driven out of the

country by Fidel Castro’s regime as a revolutionary and a homosexual. Directed

with passion and a myriad of flashing, colorful details by the

artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel, the film blazes with conviction and

conjures undeniable sympathy for the plight of an artist in peril, encompassing

the facts of Arenas’ troubled life in brief, illuminating flashes that

substitute for a strong narrative structure.

Joining the rebels to drive Batista out of Cuba, flourishing in the illegal sexual liaisons

with gay men that began to define his life and searching for a unique way to

express himself, Arenas learned at an early age the dangers of struggling to be

an expressive anarchist under Castro. With his manuscripts banned as subversive

propaganda, he was arrested on false charges of molesting underage boys, then

escaped his captors clad only in a bathing suit and fled Cuba in an inner tube.

Recaptured, he landed in prison, where pages

of his latest novel were smuggled out, one by one, in the rectum of a

transvestite (Johnny Depp, in the most daring role of his career). By 1980, he

appealed to the American Red Cross for help, declared himself a homosexual and

was finally granted an exit permit as part of Castro’s purge of criminals, gays

and mentally ill “undesirables,” and landed in Miami. At last a free man but

sick with AIDS, he died in Greenwich Village in 1990, at the age of 47. Before Night Falls, his autobiography,

was published three years later.

The film is brutally honest and uncompromising, and includes

one of the most shattering death scenes ever-a suicide assisted by his most

loyal friend, a straight Cuban immigrant who worked as a doorman. No bare

synopsis can do justice to a film of this impact. It’s a tragic portrait of a

man who endured terrible ordeals but never lost his unquenchable zest for

freedom-from persecution, from injustice and from ignorance. Mr. Schnabel has

done the poignant story justice, with gorgeous cinematography, slavish honesty

and a performance by Mr. Bardem that is positively pulverizing. (Opens Dec.

22.)

 

Why Mamet Shouldn’t

Direct

In David Mamet’s ill-conceived State and Main, a whining Hollywood film crew on a shoestring

budget that has already been run out of New Hampshire for non-payment of debts,

among other reasons that soon become obvious, invades a Norman Rockwell village

in Vermont. The town is so lazy and laid-back that the screeching neurotics

from La-La Land think they can save tons of money by taking the townsfolk for

all they’ve got. Big mistake.

The cracker-barrel locals are hardly Ma and Pa Kettles who

can be ripped off for the price of a Baby Ruth. In no time, the crafty old

mayor (Charles Durning) is demanding a profitable percent of the film’s

adjusted gross. The mayor’s wife (Patti LuPone) is suing for damages to her

1830 house. The picturesque location that is supposed to give the movie the

title The Old Mill is burned to the

ground by a disturbed teenager. The scriptwriter (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is

forced to rewrite whole scenes to please the temperamental Italian cameraman.

The brain-dead leading lady (Sarah Jessica Parker) refuses to do her nude scene

because she’s just found religion. The oversexed, boozed-up star (Alec Baldwin)

seduces a local teenager (Julia Stiles), smashes up a car at the corner of

State and Main and gets slapped with a charge of statutory rape.

What begins as a promising idea chock-full of possibilities

for culture-clash humor just drags on with much contrivance and little avail.

Mr. Mamet is not much of a director. He has no pacing skills, his scenes trail

away with no payoff, he doesn’t have a clue about what to do with actors and

his dialogue is often offensive and juvenile to the point of embarrassment.

When the obnoxious producer (David Paymer) asks the director on the verge of

nervous collapse (William H. Macy) how he’s getting along with these New

England bumpkins, he responds, “Like dykes and dogs!” I have no idea what that

means, but I suspect the line deserves a protest demonstration.

Mr. Mamet can’t decide whether he wants to be Frank Capra or

the Farrelly brothers. He succeeds only in wasting the time and talents of a

number of able performers, all of whom look like they’ve been kicked in the

shins by lewd Munchkins. State and Main

is a movie with a clubfoot. It has a couple of giggles and a few wry smiles,

but for a comedy it’s neither insightful nor funny enough to sustain its own

balance. Some sharp folks are involved, but the material is so stunningly lightweight

there’s precious little they can do to save it. (Opens Dec. 22.)