Red Corner: Richard Gere’s favor to the Dalai Lama?… Side Show’ s Double Feature

Gere Gladly SuffersThe People’s Court

The People’s Republic of China has obviously been wasting a lot of loony time and energy throwing chopsticks at the wrong people. Instead of threatening trade embargoes against the Walt Disney Company and Martin Scorsese, they should have waited for Red Corner. What the Chinese do to Richard Gere in this movie is worse than what they did to the Dalai Lama. In broader global terms, the film is also the worst public relations assault on a foreign country since Midnight Express wrecked tourism in Turkey. Once the world suffers through Red Corner , I doubt if anyone will want to visit China, even on a cruise ship.

Mr. Gere, whose personal antagonism toward China has been so well documented he’s considered an enemy of the state there, looks swell in gray hair, spectacles and tailored suits, playing a crackerjack attorney for an American entertainment conglomerate who arrives in Beijing to negotiate a deal for satellite TV. After concluding his sales package, which includes every conceivable form of trash except The Brady Bunch (pornography and violence are one thing, but big families are out), he takes in the sights, returns to his hotel with a party girl on his arm and wakes up the next morning covered with blood, with a corpse in his room.

The rest of the film catalogues in gruesome detail the horrors that await Americans abroad in a place where the judicial system is a labyrinth of chaos. Brutalized by police, denied access to a lawyer of his choice or even a phone call to the United States, and thrown stark naked into a jail so primitive it makes Alcatraz look like a Ritz-Carlton, he’s not even allowed to discuss his case with the American Embassy, which, by the way, offers no help on its own. Under arrest for a murder he did not commit, abandoned by his business colleagues and facing a death penalty, Mr. Gere presents a sympathetic portrait of a man whose tough, arrogant world of technology and business acumen is as useless as a cell phone under water. And the only person in China who believes his innocence is a court-appointed lady lawyer. The plot line-one man against a whole country and one slip of a girl who risks her own life to help him-must have looked good on paper. The result is cinematic chop suey.

Jon ( Fried Green Tomatoes ) Avnet is not a skillful enough director to tackle a subject as wacky and complex as the Chinese legal system, although I do admire that he and screenwriter Robert King have done such detailed homework. It’s fascinating to learn that in China the courtrooms are concrete bunkers with a drain in the floor, a party guilty of a capital offense is shot within a week of sentencing and the cost of the bullets is billed to his family. But aside from acting as a deterrent to ever wanting to go there, what good does so much research do if the story surrounding the data is contrived and unconvincing?

After Mr. Gere is almost beaten to death, he refuses to accept his lawyer’s guilty plea to save his life, insists on investigating the conspiracy that framed him, and then escapes, running madly through the fish markets and cobblestone alleys of a Beijing elaborately constructed on the sound stages of Culver City, and finally lands in the hallowed safety of the American Embassy. The audience applauds. Then you won’t believe what happens next. He turns himself back into the hands of his captors voluntarily, to protect the lady lawyer’s reputation. From this preposterous act of conscience, the movie never recovers and neither does the audience. Even if he had become a permanent “guest” of the embassy and an official embarrassment to Washington, it’s better than going back to face a firing squad. At least the food would be better, and he could get CNN. From this point on, Red Corner is such a mess you couldn’t straighten out the tangles with a spaghetti fork.

Mr. Gere may be the marquee draw, but the real star of this movie is Bai Ling, an enchantress who is the Audrey Hepburn of China. Graceful and fawnlike, she embodies in her almond-shaped eyes such integrity and intelligence as the lawyer torn between her country and her sense of justice that you don’t blame Mr. Gere for wanting to protect her from her own people. But in a country with half a billion men, where girl babies are a disgrace and there’s a one-child quota to every family, how come Mr. Gere’s fate lies in the hands of a lady lawyer and a Dragon Lady judge so evil and corrupt she makes Madame Nhu look like Margaret O’Brien?

The incredulity drags on. You know who the killers are from the first scene, but when you discover Mr. Gere has been framed for murder and tried by a kangaroo court, all because a gang of crackpots got a better TV deal from the Germans-well, you may want to ask for a ticket refund. Nothing can end this endurance test (or the trial) but another burst of gunfire in the courtroom from a benign, subsidiary character whose motivation is never explained. And when all is done, the movie ends by shamelessly stealing the final scene from Casablanca, with the sexes reversed.

Cancel my travel visa. They would all have been better off with The Brady Bunch.

Side Show’ s Double Feature

Double joy. Double dazzle. Side Show is the Broadway musical with two of everything. Including twice the entertainment value of almost anything else in town. Wheels oiled and pistons ground, it steams along at a marvelous pace, with lots of terrific songs and visually spectacular surprises. Despite all that-indeed, in addition to the production values-the titanic performances and dark inner life suggest a wider, ever pertinent scope: the desire and inability of the disenfranchised to make sense of the world around them. It leaves you moved, charged and cheering as few musicals do.

“Come look at the freaks/ Come gape at the geeks/ They’ll haunt you for weeks,” sings the barker outside the tawdry circus midway. Then the bleachers separate, the pink-and-white awning descends, and the sideshow begins. Monster babies, the man with rabies, the bearded lady and the reptile man have found their home, but in the middle of this seedy whirl the centerpiece attraction arrives, and the amazing true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese twins who were rescued from degradation in the middle of the Depression and catapulted first to vaudeville stardom on the Orpheum circuit and later to real celebrity in the Follies and Tod Browning’s classic movie Freaks, moves into your heart.

They were two women in the same body, but with very different personalities and dreams. One wanted to be normal, like everybody else, and the other craved applause and recognition for herself alone. They are played not as two women in one dress but as two disparate people simulating an attachment at the hip, while gorgeous, multitalented Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, the two stunning blondes who play them to perfection, turn into Betty Grable and Alice Faye right before your astonished eyes. This is one of the casting miracles of the 20th century. With clear, mellifluous voices lifted on high, they sound alike, and with their Technicolor smiles and platinum coifs, they look like identical twins, too. When they dance, they’re cleverly choreographed by Robert Longbottom, who also directed brilliantly, to move in place doing awesome, expressive things with their arms and legs while their hips remain touching. It’s a challenge no Broadway stars have ever faced, and I hope they like each other because there’s no escaping each other.

They are, literally and figuratively, joined at the hip. This is especially thrilling to see in a big Egyptian number called “We Share Everything”-double-digit Cleopatras surrounded by eight prancing pharaohs. The sublime score, by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, eschews rock for passionate melodies, comprehensible lyrics and pure magic. But beneath the razzmatazz, there is always the underlying tragedy of their plight, as one twin marries the man who loves her too little and the other twin loses the man who loves her too much. There are tears and soaring flights of ecstasy and in the end, when the stars take individual curtain calls, you can hear the roars of screaming, show-stopping applause a block away. Jeff McCarthy, Hugh Panaro and Norm Lewis, as the three men in their lives, are all magnificent in a show that throbs with so much vitality and imagination, you can’t absorb it all in just one visit.

Side Show is riveting, hypnotic and pulsing with artistry. It’s the kind of slow starter (mixed notices, a small advance sale) that deserves to build into the status of a smash hit, the way Titanic triumphed. It is, quite lavishly but honestly, nothing less than electrifying.

Red Corner: Richard Gere’s favor to the Dalai Lama?… Side Show’ s Double Feature