What marvels of ill assortment the film distributors perform when they dump their products at the close of the year in hope of award nominations. This December brings us the Bible, according to Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen; the adventures of a real-life Dublin criminal, as seen in CinemaScope and black-and-white; and a western, like which they don’t make ’em anymore. Also of note, in this far from exhaustive list, are an American morality tale in which brothers are separated by the love of money, and an English amorality tale in which sisters are drawn together by sex, illness and the finest in classical music.
To begin with the most venerable item on the list: On the theory that animation is the proper medium for dramatizing signs and wonders, DreamWorks SKG has given us an all-cartoon retelling of the Exodus, under the title The Prince of Egypt. The best I can say for the picture–and it’s saying a lot–is that DreamWorks had the good sense to respect a story that’s been sure-fire boffo for at least 2,700 years.
The screenplay (credited to Philip LaZebnik, with additional material by Nicholas Meyer) shows evidence of familiarity with both old puzzles and recent trends in Bible-reading. In keeping with Jewish feminism, for example, a strong role is reserved for Moses’ sister, the prophet Miriam (given an appropriately frank and forthright voice by Sandra Bullock). By contrast, Aaron, whose close association with the mass slaughter of livestock makes him a problematic figure for many modern readers, is pushed to the side–though his quickness of tongue is implicitly acknowledged, thanks to Jeff Goldblum’s voiceover. As for those ancient conundrums: How did Moses figure out he was an Israelite, when he’d grown up in Pharaoh’s palace? The filmmakers provide an ingenious solution involving an early, unruly appearance by Moses’ future wife Tzipporah (voice of Michelle Pfeiffer), augmented by the youthful talent for mischief-making of the prophet himself (voice of Val Kilmer).
But what about the animation? As directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, The Prince of Egypt features a handful of fine set pieces (such as a vision of the drowning of the Israelites’ babies, done as a pixilated bas-relief) but lacks the sustained inventiveness of the greatest cartoons. Still, the artwork is memorable if only for the obligatory comic song-and-dance, performed by two priests of Egypt (voices of Steve Martin and Martin Short). When first confronted by Moses in his character as an uncouth shepherd demanding freedom for his people, the priests unwisely assume he’s a trickster like them; and so they attempt to counter his genuine miracle with their standard hocus-pocus while singing a ditty titled “You’re Playing With the Big Boys Now.” What interests me about the sequence is its passing hint of self-knowledge on the part of the executive producer, Jeffrey Katzenberg. The priests’ magic is presented as if it’s showbiz high technology. Does this mean that high-tech DreamWorks might be on the wrong side of I Am That I Am?
Not on as wrong a side as Martin Cahill, the protagonist of John Boorman’s engrossing biopic The General. Cahill became famous in Ireland in the eighties for planning the robberies of supposedly impregnable treasure houses: a prominent jewelry store or the mansion of an art collector. If he happened to pass by a pinball parlor, he’d knock that over, too. Using beefy, sly-faced Brendan Gleeson as his lead, Boorman recounts Cahill’s exploits with astonishing skill. The General is impeccably directed; every camera placement, edit, tracking shot and lens choice is immediately, self-evidently right, and every performance is perfectly gauged with the rest to create a seamless ensemble. (That latter is a good trick, with Gleeson making the most of Cahill’s apparent love of hamming it up, and Jon Voight, in the role of Cahill’s police nemesis, exuding more than his usual aura of self-hate.) I only wish Boorman had made me understand why I should care about the vehicle for his perfect craft. The General does a fine job of proving that criminals aren’t nice people, even though they can be awfully clever. Have I heard that someplace before?
Another interesting, well-made picture that makes you ask “Why?” is The Hi-Lo Country, a western that comes to us as if from a time capsule. In fact, it does come from a time capsule. Soon after Max Evans published his 1961 novel of the same name, Sam Peckinpah began planning to turn the book into a movie. The project faltered, and faltered again, and kept faltering even after Peckinpah’s death, until the novel was put into the hands of Martin Scorsese and his co-producer, Barbara De Fina. They signed Stephen Frears to direct (having worked with him before, on The Grifters) and hired as screenwriter Walon Green, who had written Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
The handsome, absorbing, well-played and utterly anachronistic movie that resulted is distinguished most by its lack of irony. Billy Crudup plays Pete, a young, small-time cattle rancher in Hi-Lo, New Mexico, whose best friend is the old-fashioned cowboy Big Boy Matson (Woody Harrelson). The period is the late forties. The problem: land foreclosures (due to war profiteering) and the conversion of cattle ranching into big business, stranding the salt-of-the-earth types like Pete and Big Boy. Another problem: Pete and Big Boy are both crazy for breathlessly sultry Mona (Patricia Arquette), who happens to be married to the foreman for the biggest businessman in Hi-Lo. Since it’s taken till 1998 to bring this story to the screen, you might imagine that a certain homoerotic tension between Pete and Big Boy would by now have come to the surface. You also might expect a nineties film to mourn over the violence of the cowboys’ lives, without turning that mourning into a full-blown elegy. Yet The Hi-Lo Country comes across as an early-sixties western, down to the musical score by Carter Burwell (which sounds like vintage Jerry Goldsmith). You can tell it’s a contemporary picture only because the print is so fresh, and because Woody Harrelson was not available in 1963 to give the big, supremely confident lead performance.
A Simple Plan is also a movie based on a novel, one by Scott B. Smith (who himself adapted the book for the screen); but this one feels entirely up-to-date. On New Year’s Eve in a snowbound farm town, Hank (Bill Paxton) and his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) discover $4.4 million in cash, tucked into a small airplane that crashed in the woods. Sharing the discovery with them is Jacob’s buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe), the town drunk. But “sharing” is the wrong word. Squabbles erupt at once, bringing to the fore the tensions among the characters. We quickly see how Lou, by his mere proximity, keeps Jacob from looking like the worst loser around–a service that Jacob appreciates. How much he appreciates it doesn’t emerge until his loyalty is questioned by Hank, the college-educated, middle-class, happily married brother.
Would it surprise you to learn that Jacob might feel the occasional twinge of resentment? Probably not–but the complexity of the resentment, and its degree, become evident only through an extraordinary, protracted and bloody sequence in the middle of the film, in which director Sam Raimi plays the material for all it’s worth. The themes–sibling rivalry, social climbing and social falling, the evils wrought by the love of money–are of course time-honored; but A Simple Plan makes them into something as chillingly peculiar to late-nineties America as were the conventions of noir to the forties.
Last on this partial holiday slate is Hilary and Jackie, a film about lives that were as lawless in their way (and as real) as Martin Cahill’s, and as full of mutual resentments and dependencies as those of the brothers in A Simple Plan.
When I tell you that Jackie is the late cellist Jacqueline du Pré, you will know at once that the film is about a life cut short by illness. But unless you’ve read the memoir co-written by Jacqueline’s sister Hilary and her brother Tom–which I had not–you will be unprepared for the beyond-good-and-evil quality of their lives. Both du Pré girls started out as prodigies–Hilary on flute, Jacqueline on cello–but with Hilary as the star. Determined not to be left behind, little Jackie pushed herself to do better, overtook her sister and eventually became the sole du Pré with a concert career. The extraordinarily smart screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce recounts these events through Hilary’s eyes, up to and including a bout of outrageous, seemingly unforgivable behavior by Jackie. Then the movie doubles back on itself to show the missing episodes, through Jackie’s eyes; the behavior becomes, if not forgivable, then all too human.
Emily Watson, best known for her role in Breaking the Waves, plays Jackie, adding another half-cracked waif to her growing roster. It’s a nervy performance, which deserves all the praise and award nominations it no doubt will receive. But I hope viewers won’t overlook Rachel Griffiths as Hilary. In the less flashy role, she stands up beautifully to everything Watson can dish out–duplicating, in a way, the real-life dynamic between the characters.
With that–and a reminder to see Paul Schrader’s Affliction, which is the film that ought to win all the awards but probably won’t–I wish you a very happy solstice spent in the dark.