Sunday, July 19, 2009

Legends of the Fall (1994) [R] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli, written in 1995.

Legends of the Fall is the sort of epic melodrama that only Hollywood can do this well. It's a spectacle more than a show, with soaring moments of triumph and tragedy. Words like restraint and subtle are meaningless in this context. The latest offering from Edward Zwick, the director of Glory is the kind of movie that doesn't require much effort to surrender to and enjoy.

At the center of Susan Shilliday and Bill Wittliff's script are the three Ludlow brothers: Alfred (Aidan Quinn), the oldest and most straight-laced; Tristan (Brad Pitt), the middle child with a special affinity for nature; and Samuel (Henry Thomas), the youngest and most idealistic. The family's patriarch is Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), an officer who left the U.S. Army when he disagreed with the treatment of the Indians. The four men, along with an assortment of friends, live in the Montana Rockies, away from the trappings -- if not the presence -- of civilization.

It would be difficult to find any more affectionate and caring brothers than Alfred, Tristan, and Samuel -- until one woman turns all three lives upside down. Hailing from Boston, Susannah (Julia Ormond) is engaged to Samuel. However, the impending marriage can't prevent both of his brothers from falling for her, and she for at least one of them.

America's entrance into World War One -- and the consequential bloody price -- concludes the introductory portion of the film and unwraps the real meat of the drama. Beyond this point, tangled passions rise in a tide of betrayal and jealousy. Few crimes, whether of the heart or the body, are left unavenged. There are deaths -- some expected and some sudden -- and births. Lost opportunities give rise to mournful reflections on what might have been. And, at the end of it all, exists one final catharsis.

There is nothing deep about Legends of the Fall. Its few themes (such as the innate corruption of government) are kept in the background, giving prominence to characterization and storyline. Needless to say, this is an extravagant production, with sumptuous visuals (credit cinematographer John Toll) and a rich score (by James Horner). In look and feel, it is much like Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans.

Brad Pitt, a modern-day James Dean, brings a wealth of melancholy to his role of Tristan, the fulcrum for at least three of the film's major tragedies. The character's comings and goings represent the openings and closings of chapters. Even when Tristan isn't on screen, the movie is invariably about him. It takes little guessing to realize that his love affair with Susannah is central to everything that transpires.

Supporting Pitt is a fine cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, and newcomer Julia Ormond, whose role here offers a taste of things to come (she's in a lot of upcoming films, including a remake of Sabrina and the latest Camelot retelling with Sean Connery and Richard Gere). However, all of these actors, regardless of how respected, must (and do) surrender center stage to Pitt when he's on hand. The spotlight is his.

Manipulation is a part of any melodrama, and Legends of the Fall is no exception. In this case, however, the entertainment offered far outweighs any momentary recognition that the director is tweaking our emotions. A film maker who can pull this off once -- not to mention twice (here, as in Glory) -- deserves both respect and admiration.

It seems that there are perennial attempts at this sort of grand-scale motion picture, each with ambitions as big as the mountains that form the backdrop. Because it's so easy to overdo melodrama, successes are rare. Thankfully, there are few missteps in Legends of the Fall. You don't have to be a critic, or even have a critical perspective, to be entertained by this film.

Labels: drama, romance, tragedy, war, western

Love Affair (1994) [PG-13] *****

This is a wonderful romance. It's also a beautiful expression of Warren Beatty's love for Annette Bening. Beatty plays Mike Gambril, an aging sports figure and playboy, who admits that he's never been faithful to anyone. Bening plays Terry McKay, a singer and teacher. They meet on a flight to Sydney that is forced to land on a remote South Pacific atoll. By chance they are near the Tahitian island of Moorea, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Mike's aunt Ginny, played by the legendary Katharine Hepburn, lives on Moorea, and Mike takes Terry to visit her.

The film's first pivotal scene takes place between Ginny and Terry. The two women are talking about people in general, and Mike in particular, and comparing them to swans, which are unremittingly faithful and ducks, which are not only promiscuous, but terribly indiscreet. Ginny suggests that while Mike appears to be a duck, he may be the ugly duckling that doesn't realize he is a swan. It is this observation that causes Terry to think about the possibility that Mike could be faithful to her, and worthy of her love, and encourages her to take a chance on him. It isn't much of a stretch to think that Bening could have gone through the same thought process when considering Beatty as a husband. This is a movie with many lessons to teach. The casting is great. Katharine Hepburn is terrific and Annette Bening is radiant. The soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful.

Labels: comedy, drama, romance
Internet Movie Database
Tomatometer (critics=31, viewers=69)

Intersection (1994) [R] ***

Richard Gere is perfectly cast as Vincent Eastman, 42-year-old Vancouver, B.C. celebrity architect. Vincent is an impulsive, self-indulgent, indecisive, forgetful, egotistical prima donna, whose success is mainly the result of his business partnership with his frigid, controlling wife Sally (Sharon Stone). Sally provides the structure and the stability in their corporate marriage with a child. She also has the architectural client list provided her wealthy father Neal (Martin Landau). Now after 16 years of marriage, Sally's personality bores Vincent; he is having a mid-life crisis and believes he has found the fire and sexual compatibility he's been craving, in red-haired, free-spirited Vancouver journalist Olivia Marshak (Lolita Davidovich). Vincent is torn between Sally and Olivia, torn between his responsibility to Sally and their teenage daughter Meaghan (Jennifer Morrison), and his desire to immerse himself in the passion and freedom of his new relationship with Olivia. And how will it end? Regardless of his choice, someone will be hurt.

This is a classic story – the love triangle with the tragic ending – and in order for it to work, we have to believe in the three characters, so we care about what happens to them. Unfortunately, there is nothing exceptional about the screenplay, direction, production values or the acting, and, as a result, the film critics were not kind to this motion picture. In addition, Intersection is a remake of a critically acclaimed 1970 French film Les choses de la vie (The Things of Life), and this remake suffers by comparison. Regardless, fans of Gere, Stone and Davidovich will very likely be satisfied with this film.

Labels: drama, romance, tragedy
Internet Movie Database
Tomatometer (critics=7, viewers=41)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Santa Clause (1994) [PG] ***

Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) does marketing for a children's toy company. He and his ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson) share custody of their son Charlie (Eric Lloyd) - and Christmas Eve is Scott's time with his son. Later that night, after they've gone to sleep, Charlie hears noises on the roof and wakes Scott. It's Santa Claus with his sleigh and reindeer, and when Scott startles him, Santa falls off the roof and passes on to the next world. Scott finds Santa's card, which says: If something should happen to me, put on my suit. The reindeer will know what to do.

At Charlie's pleading, Scott puts on Santa's suit, and spends the rest of Christmas Eve night delivering toys around the world. Later, at the North Pole, Scott and Charlie meet the elves and see Santa's workshop. When Scott resists the idea that he's the new Santa, head elf Bernard (David Krumholtz) shows him the fine print on Santa's card, which includes the Santa clause, the legal clause clearly stating that, by his actions, Scott has waived his rights to his previous identity and is now Santa Claus. Charlie loves the idea that his dad is the new Santa, but it takes Scott nearly a year to accept his new identity, and complete the transformation from cynical, hard-headed marketing man to soft, child-loving Santa, the icon of selfless gift-giving.

The screenplay is inspired, the musical score is lovely, and the casting is outstanding, especially Tim Allen, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz and Judge Reinhold as Dr. Neil Miller, Laura's psychiatrist husband. Because The Santa Clause gives a reasonable explanation for each of the logical arguments against the existence of Santa Claus - all those children, all those toys, one night, one sleigh, eight flying reindeer, etc., etc. - this film is perfect for children of all ages. If you love the wonderful idea of Santa Claus, don't miss The Santa Clause.

Labels: christmas, comedy, drama, family, fantasy
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 57/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=60, viewers=62)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Speechless (1994) [PG-13] ***

Julia Mann (Geena Davis) and Kevin Vallick (Michael Keaton) are insomniacs who are staying at the same hotel in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They meet while fighting over the last bottle of Nytol sleeping pills in the hotel gift shop, and their first date is an all-night drive south to the Mexican border for breakfast burritos. Kevin says he's a Hollywood sitcom writer, and Julia says she's a reporter, but they really are speechwriters for rival candidates in the race for a U.S. Senate seat.

While Kevin and Julia clearly are attracted to one another, they don't discover the truth about each other until they both appear as guests at a local school's Career Day. Both feel deceived by the other, and the not-so-subtle barbs they toss at one another threaten to end their blossoming romance. However, their attraction is so strong that they can't stay away from each other, and since campaign rules forbid their socializing, they have to keep their relationship secret. To make matters worse, Julia's ex-fiance, celebrity reporter Baghdad Bob Freed (Christopher Reeve) arrives with an engagement ring for Julia, and Kevin's boss Annette (Bonnie Bedelia), who is also his ex-wife, is growing jealous of Kevin's reporter friend.

Michael Keaton and Geena Davis have great timing together, both for physical comedy and for comedic dialog, and they also have great romantic chemistry. The soundtrack is outstanding and there's a happy ending. If you like light romantic comedy, with more comedy than romance - films like Forget Paris, Only You, and He Said, She Said - then you will really enjoy Speechless.

Labels: comedy, politics, romance
Internet Movie Database
Tomatometer (critics=12, viewers=34)