ALL THE PRETTY HORSES
It's impossible to know if Billy Bob Thornton succeeded in bringing Cormac McCarthy's great novel to the screen, at least in the film's present two-hour form. The widely reported contretemps between the director and Miramax Films, which is distributing the movie, resulted in it being taken away from Thornton and whittled down from his original four-hour cut. Although it's feasible that the longer version was unbearably slow (as Sling Blade showed, the director favors phlegmatic pacing and Important Moments), in its current incarnation, the film verges on incoherent; certainly, it is inconsequential. Matt Damon plays John Grady Cole, a young cowboy who heads off to Mexico from Texas after the death of his grandfather. Henry Thomas is his friend and fellow traveler, Rawlins, and the talented young actor Lucas Black plays the runaway Jimmy Blevins, less innocent than primitive, who joins them on the trail. What happens when the three cross into Mexico is shocking and profound. Ted Tally's screenplay winnows down the more easily translatable and material parts of the journey—a drunken interlude, days and nights of breaking horses, a nightmarishly surreal prison term—but it tells the story with prose and no poetry.
It also, less surprisingly, omits the politics—the novel is a saga of dangerous longing, for lost fathers and a lost America both, and it's rigorously unsentimental. That makes it interesting, but what makes it breathtaking is McCarthy's writing, which, with its lush and lapidary language, gets at a depth of meaning the characters can't articulate. They don't speak their minds or hearts because he does it for them. The book is rich in sensuous detail, and it's the mystery of the natural world surrounding the three boys that tells us the most about the worlds inside them. "He lay a long time listening to the others breathing in their sleep," McCarthy writes of Cole, "while he contemplated the wildness about him, the wildness within." But there's little opportunity to contemplate much of anything in this film, especially when every shot seems to last merely three or four beats. (The whole thing plays like an extended coming attractions; you keep waiting for it to actually begin.) And unlike the idyllic Pacific-island scenes in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, or the nocturnal river ride in Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, the world in the film seems less a place of wonder and terror than a backdrop to a soapy romance. In McCarthy's book, the sun is often blood-red; here, it simply shines.
AN EVERLASTING PIECE
During the mid-'80s, in the midst of the Troubles, two Belfast hairdressers employed in a hospital for the criminally insane enter the toupee business. Since this is meant to be an Irish comedy, albeit from an American director of expressly American films, what ensues is a little wordplay (Toupee or Not Toupee), a little more wackiness (one character wears panties like hairnets to keep the cigarette smoke out) and a whole load of shite. What inspired Barry Levinson, best known for his various Baltimore outings (Diner, et al.), films rooted in American places and mindsets, to make a movie set in Northern Ireland is anybody's guess. The unfunny screenplay is by Barry McEvoy, an Irish immigrant and actor who made a strong impression in Sidney Lumet's remake of Gloria and here exploits the Irish Republicans as grievously as do the British, with whom the film's sympathies finally lie. (McEvoy also plays one of the hairdressers, but not well.) While it's likely that Levinson's reasons for delving into this new territory are as banal as his movie, it is worth commenting on the fact that the Irish seem to have become this country's new cultural lawn jockeys. Given that our old models no longer rest easily on the vast expanse of the white collective imagination and that the Irish are so damn cute, what with their brogues, riverdancing and murderous civil war, perhaps it's inevitable. Still, after Waking Ned Devine, The Closer You Getad nauseum and ad infinitum, one might have thought that Levinson would have been too embarrassed to gnaw on the bones of a gimmick already sucked dry of marrow.
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The transformation of Gus Van Sant into a lesser Steven Spielberg has at last been realized with Finding Forrester, an aggressively bland exercise in industrial craft and audience coercion. The story is as familiar as that of Good Will Hunting, and indeed, the film is essentially a remake, set this time in New York instead of Boston, with Sean Connery in the Robin Williams role and newcomer Rob Brown taking on Matt Damon's part. (In the most promising metamorphosis, Ben Affleck is now Busta Rhymes.) Connery is the lost title figure, a shut-in and a drunk who, though Scottish by birth, wrote the great American novel some four decades earlier. Brown's character is worse yet, that of a brilliant basketball player and towering if untapped literary genius, a high schooler from the ghetto who dunks like Michael Jordan, writes like June Jordan and whose taste runs bold—Joyce, Mishima, er, de Sade. Connery is fine, as blustery and obvious as his character, but Brown has the thankless job of playing a saint, though unfortunately not one of those wild-eyed types running around in hair-shirts and inflamed with passion —the kid is as dull as dishwater. If you've seen Good Will Hunting or, for that matter, any American movie in which a leading black character is wearing a halo rather than a gun, and the white leading character is in need of redemption—you know the rest. (Screenwriter Mike Rich greases his assembly-line plot like a machinist.) As was proved by his remake of Psycho, one of the boldest conceptual gambits ever to be released by a major studio, Van Sant remains a provocative filmmaker. As Finding Forrester confirms, though, he just doesn't care enough not to look like a hack.
If this atmospheric Southern Gothic had been made without the benefit of any of its high-profile actors, it could easily have become a modest find, a film to discover privately in a second-run theater or on the video-store shelf. But its story is too small to justify the high-octane combination of Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes. Not that any of them are bad; Reeves, Ribisi and especially Blanchett are good, even good together. It's just that when taken together they strain at the story's flimsy architecture —you end up watching them, not their performances. Blanchett plays newly widowed Annie Wilson, a mother to three boys who, in a little room in her run-down house, reads cards for the neighbors, divining secrets and telling fortunes. Directed by Sam Raimi and written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (who together also wrote One False Move), the story is familiar in both right and wrong ways. As in all good horror movies, things go bang in the night the way that you want (at a press screening, the audience burst into well-disposed laughter when a character ran a bath), but the villain is uninspired and the plot is puffed up with filler, though not the ambient kind. A court scene drags interminably, and Ribisi's character, essentially a more tightly wound version of the simpleton Thornton played in Sling Blade, has no real reason to be in the film. Here, it's the creepily quiet stuff, the stuff that might be rushed over in a different movie—Annie shivering alone in bed or being visited by her dead grandmother as she hangs out the wash—that makes the film more than a generic distraction.
ALL THE PRETTY HORSES PLAYs countywide, starting mon.; AN EVERLASTING PIECE PLAYs countywide, starting mon.; FINDING FORRESTER is NOW PLAYING at selected theaters; THE GIFT is NOW PLAYING at selected theaters.