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Who Killed Tinkerbell?
By Laura Leon

Finding Neverland
Directed by Marc Forster

Just last year, Hollywood presented a majestic yet heartfelt Peter Pan that went begging for audiences, let alone critical acclaim. This year, as we head into the Oscar gate, many are emerging weepy-eyed and gratified from the treacly, uninspired film that is Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland. Go figure.

Based on the Alan Knee play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Finding Neverland purports to show us the inspiration behind the classic tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up. On the heels of a theatrical flop and in the throes of a loveless marriage, playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) saunters into the park and into the lives of the Llewellyn Davies family, headed by widow Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and populated by four adorable boys. All but one, Peter, fall head over heels for the eccentric Barrie’s imaginative play, and most of the film centers around his coaxing the Pan namesake out of his shell and into a world of emotion and creativity. (The fact that this selfsame Peter, fed up with the constant comparisons between him and Peter Pan, later committed suicide under a train is, perhaps blessedly, left out of the ending credits.)

Meanwhile, Mary Barrie (Radha Mitchell) sits at home, annoyed at her husband’s absence but usually more irked by his insouciant presence at dinners designed by her to improve her social standing. And Sylvia’s mother (Julia Christie) is none to happy to be supplanted by Barrie as the chief source of sustenance—in the manner of hope, not necessarily finances—to her daughter’s brood.

Through countless play dates involving pirate chases and cowboy shoot-’em-ups, the foundations of Peter Pan take shape, until, suddenly, we’re in rehearsals. Actually, these scenes provide some of the only true humor and joyousness, as the actors earnestly compliment their fellow who plays Nana the dog-nursemaid: “You really are a much better dog than a human.” Dark clouds, of course, threaten ominously, as Barrie’s producer frets about financing, Mary squawks about moving out, the kids break limbs and Sylvia develops that cough, the telltale cinematic sign of consumption and an early, tearjerking end. Trouble is, Winslet looks as healthy as a horse. Compound that with the fact that James’ and Sylvia’s unrequited—well, unconsummated—love is delicately hinted at, with everything being too above-board to even allow for a look of longing cast in each other’s direction. This leaves the viewer with the uncomfortable impression that James is a bit of an ass, forsaking the wife he’s married to in order to play house with a wife with whom he can only pretend. Not to mention the fact that, at the end of the day, James can leave the chaos of boys gone wild at bedtime for the deathlike quiet of his own abode.

There are some moments in which, visually at least, the filmmakers try to reignite that sense of wonder in all viewers, but they seem tacked on more for effect than as part of the story’s fabric. Depp, usually so charismatic, seems oddly reserved, as if his respect for J.M. Barrie, or Peter Pan, is so enormous that he’s humbled at the prospect of fleshing him out. He doesn’t really seem to be bristling at the bit put to him by, say, society or the critics or even his wife. He seems somewhat bored at everything, except the Llewellyn Davies children, and comes off as a bit of an eccentric, but we never get a sense of what it is he’s trying to escape, or avoid. What many may romanticize as wishing to keep his artistic freedom alive and flowing is, as depicted here, a weird obsession with avoiding reality. Rather than give us any glimpse of the complexities of Barrie, Forster relies on pat generalizations and pretty costumes, making Finding Neverland as disappointing as, well, a second-rate production of Peter Pan.

Pulp Non-Fiction

Alexander
Directed by Oliver Stone

Dying an ignoble death from fever before age 33, Alexander of Macedon was a monumental case of wasted greatness. So, too is Alexander the movie. Director Oliver Stone, known for tackling hubristic topics without blinking, would seem to be the right filmmaker for a full-tilt, birth-to-death epic on the unstoppable conqueror, whose armies mowed down everything in their path to the very ends of the known world. Yet something—actually, a lot of things—are appallingly awry. Despite more than two and a half hours of intense concentration on its subject, the film doesn’t give the slightest glimmer as to what Alexander might’ve been like as a person. The fact that not all that much is known about him shouldn’t have been a problem in a fictional medium. But for all the literal guts it shows onscreen, the film’s interpretation is noticeably gutless.

Our first view of Alexander (Colin Farrell) is of his last breath. Dropping the ring he’s been clutching in his hand (a direct lift from Citizen Kane), he dies without naming a successor, or saying anything at all. As happens throughout the film, the narrator, old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins, looking like he’s got sand fleas under his toga) drones on in dithering prose about Alexander, rather than letting the audience draw its own conclusions from Alexander himself. But then, most of what Alexander has to say is delivered in stiffly grandiose pronouncements, even when he’s speaking privately to his lifelong companion, Hephaistion (Jared Leto). Apparently, the three screenwriters (Stone and two cowriters in over their heads) missed the built-in narrative opportunities presented by the ever-present Hephaistion, who is relegated to background.

Before Alexander can take the great war machine developed by his father, King Philip (Val Kilmer), on the road, he must escape the smothering attentions of his mystic mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie), who, when she’s not slithering suggestively with her snakes, is continually scheming to turn Alexander against the brutish but honorable king and usurping Philip’s screen time. This hothouse childhood apparently was adapted from Mary Renault’s floridly Freudian novel, Fire From Heaven. Jolie revels in the role of a power-hungry seductress; unfortunately, it’s the most fully inhabited performance in the film, and she dominates not just her son but also the movie. Since Olympias was from a neighboring city-state, a Greek accent would’ve been more appropriate than the TV-psychic enunciation that drips from her lips like rabid foam. The film’s bewildering accents—the soldiers all have an Irish lilt—are nearly as jarring as Alexander’s bleached hair.

The film skips from Alexander’s psychologically fraught childhood to his kingship, conquest of Persia, and bloodthirsty foray to India. It’s a staggering cinematic undertaking, with a breathtaking aerial view of vast desert maneuvers; a wincingly gory battle in which the bladed wheels of Persian chariots make mincemeat of out of Greek foot soldiers, and a nearly psychedelic forest run-in between Greek cavalry and an Indian elephant brigade. But these large-scale, incredibly detailed conflicts give very little sense of Alexander’s tactical genius, or even of his astounding victories, since the jumbled choreography and crazed editing turn them into a circus of violence (undoubtedly, Stone intended to out-pulp the pulpy Gladiator). Screwed-up chronology undercuts the drama repeatedly; once ensconced as the grand poobah of Persia, Alexander spears one of his generals in what is meant to be an Act of Tragedy. Only we don’t find out the man’s import until afterward, in a truncated flashback.

The relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion is carefully, and cowardly, calibrated to go both ways. It can be viewed as romantic, or then again, Alexander’s single, passionate kiss to his bravest commander could be seen as an expression of deep friendship. (This is a divergence from Renault’s 1969 novel, which takes the most probable stance that the relationship was sexual). When Alexander kisses a Persian dancer he’s taken a shine to, it’s presented as a shock-value affront to his ethnocentric high command. Any doubts about Alexander’s heterosexuality are obliterated by his marriage to an Asian dancer, Roxane (a dreadful Rosario Dawson). Skirting outright racism, Roxane is caricatured as a noble savage who grunts when she talks and fights like a wild animal when Alexander tries to rape her, which he supposedly does because she looks like his mother. Yuck.

>From this appalling liberty (one thing that is known about Alexander is that far from being a rapist, he was atypically gallant toward women), the film charts an increasingly feverish course that shows that Stone can’t shake his druggy, 1960s points of reference even when working in the fourth century B.C. He whitewashes Alexander’s wholesale looting and colossally destructive drinking sprees; instead, he has the megalomaniac war junkie spouting on about uniting West with East, Greek with Persian, and Europe with Asia like some kind of hippie utopian. The dialogue is atrocious.

With so much going on, Farrell can’t be blamed for Alexander’s lack of a real personality. There is only a brief moment when the character stops burning with altruism long enough to elicit an emotional response, and that’s when he stands with Hephaistion at the end of the charted world in a daze of wanderlust. But mostly, his long bloody march into immortality feels like cinematic tyranny. When Alexander finally breathes his last, it’s cause for a sigh of relief.

—Ann Morrow

Thespians

Being Julia
Directed by István Szabó

Movies about theater people—
or movie people, for that matter—can be vastly entertaining, provided the hothouse delirium of self-involved actors and directors is played for comedy. (Think All About Eve or Sunset Blvd.) People who take themselves too seriously, presented in utter seriousness, is a recipe for dramatic embarrassment. Being Julia, a period picture set in 1930s London, features a marvelously self-deluded bunch: an aging actress in search of romance, an accommodating husband with his own side interests, a grasping young man playing the love game for prizes, a female producer who likes to watch starlets get rubdowns, and a brilliant, obnoxious ghost.

Julia (Annette Bening) is the 40-
something actress who, while still at the height of her stardom, finds herself pondering the inevitable abyss of mother and maiden-aunt parts. When she’s picked up by a brash, empty-headed American named Tom (Shaun Evans), her giddy delight is such that the audience can’t help but wonder if she’s even been laid before. Bening’s whole demeanor says “this sex business is marvelous good fun—I should do this more often.” Then the explanation seems obvious: She’s acting. This is a good part of the character’s charm, and the talented Bening’s achievement; we don’t know when Julia’s acting, because she doesn’t know herself.

Naturally, this affair sets off a daisy chain of couplings and uncouplings in which motives are never in doubt: The older people are consuming youth in the manner of caviar or fine champagne, and the younger folks are careering. This is more real than most “realism.”

Ronald Harwood (who wrote the screenplay for The Pianist) adapted W. Somerset Maugham’s novella, Theatre. While the esteemed Brit wrote serious novels (The Razor’s Edge) and spy stories, he had a real gift for comedy—and Being Julia is rife with cleverly constructed comic situations.

Pity, then, that Hungarian director István Szabó has so little feel for comedy. He
doesn’t muck it up badly enough to completely ruin the fun—certainly he doesn’t make any catastrophic mistakes akin to the ones that wrecked his last film, the Great War-Holocaust-Cold War drama
Sunshine—but he does dwell on the Pain of Heartache a bit more than is necessary.

That said, the last 15 minutes of Being Julia are among the funniest in any film this year. This sequence is set entirely onstage, in a play-within-the-play which Julia uses to exact comic revenge on her faithless lovers, younger rivals and time itself. Bening won’t get her proper due, but it’s an award-worthy performance that almost redeems everything else in the picture.

—Shawn Stone

I Think We’re Lost

National Treasure
Directed by Jon Turtletaub

It should have been a no-holds barred riff on great adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but National Treasure settles for trying hard to build up some steam. Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, one of a long line of conspiracy theorists who spend their lives, and reputations, searching for the lost treasure of the original freemasons. In this case, as anyone who has seen the previews knows—and if you haven’t, you have probably not been to a theater in six months—his search leads him to the Declaration of Independence, or, more specifically, to the backside of said document, wherein he hopes to find an invisible treasure map. Trouble is, Ben’s former partner Ian (Sean Bean) is two steps ahead of him.

Intertwining the race for the treasure with the need to salvage one of our country’s true jewels, National Treasure skips pell-mell across the Northeast, hopscotching over and through just about every historic monument you can imagine. On the one hand, it’s giddy, making one remember the trove of history and exciting narratives that went before us, while on the other, it’s downright terrifying, the thought that Independence Hall and Trinity Church and what have you can so easily be infiltrated. If “true” patriots like Ben are having such an easy time of it, imagine what our real enemies are finding.

Unfortunately, there’s a sense of ennui stinking up the joint, and it’s mostly coming from Cage, who cashiers the offbeat charm of his earlier films and instead appears to be phoning it in from somewhere else. In order for National Treasure to succeed, it must have at its center a hero we care about and whom we believe can, if necessary, combine amazing intellect with derring-do. Cage just doesn’t deliver, which is unfortunate given the fact that the filmmakers have provided him with an excellent foil in actress Diane Kruger, who plays archivist Dr. Abigail Chase. Kruger is smart, feisty, funny and sexy, a perfect sparring partner, love interest and partner in crime, but she’s playing against Cage’s woodenness. Jon Voight has a few fun moments as Ben’s embittered father, and Christopher Plummer does a really nice early turn as Ben’s grandfather and the teller of tales that burn in the imaginations of young boys and young-at-heart moviegoers. National Treasure is fun enough, but oh, what it could have been.

—Laura Leon


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