Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Two Mysteries

By Hadley Hury

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  John Avnet's direction of the new culture-clash thriller Red Corner is just what a movie about an unjust imprisonment has to be in order to remain a thriller and not become a claustrophobic psychological study. It is dramatically crisp, fluidly paced, and it has the oblique sensuousness that has given the best of Avnet's films a certain visual intrigue. (Anything with even plain good sense would be welcome after the director's recent fiasco with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, Up Close and Personal). In its lead roles, Red Corner has two actors who helpfully convey the story's tension of characters who seem somewhat glamorous loners and yet, at the same time, are "everyman" human beings caught in extraordinary circumstances. Richard Gere's character represents a large American communications/entertainment conglomerate about to close a deal in the shifting and shadowy landscape of Chinese business. He is framed for the murder of a well-connected Chinese model and summarily thrown into a justice system that prides itself on its harshness as a deterrent to crime and considers human rights a decadent western diversion. Bai Ling, an actor known primarily for her work in Chinese films, is the advocate appointed by the state to defend the accused. She takes on the case with the perfunctory attitude fostered by the system's presumption of guilt, but eventually not only comes to believe in his innocence but has to expose a high-level bureaucratic cover-up to prove it.

Jack Moore -- sophisticatedly bemused and attractive, a bit world-weary around his Armani frames, and ennobled by sadness (his wife and small daughter had been killed in an automobile accident several years before) -- is a role Gere has needed for some time. The actor has a limited range. Admirably, he has tried to stretch it; some of the results have been less than salutary. Gere is so distinctively a contemporary persona -- in his vocal expression, his physical carriage, even his repertory of facial expressions -- that his forays into historical drama have been among his least successful. (Remember King David and Sommersby?) Red Corner is tailor-made to Gere's strengths and allows as well a little room for growth. As he proved as far back as American Gigolo, Gere is a New Age sex symbol -- strong but gentle, respectful of women, politically liberal, soft-spoken, in possession of a mischievous smile, which he lets out on a leash almost self-deprecatingly but to no less compelling effect. In Red Corner, Moore's background and his current dilemma allow Gere to play his gentle masculinity card while simultaneously fighting for personal conscience and international justice. It's a strong performance, both thoughtful and juicy, and he is partnered beautifully by Ling in her American film debut. There is only one grating mistake on Avnet's part, a momentary relapse into "Up Close and Personal-itis": when Moore, having finally managed to escape to the safe haven of the U.S. Embassy, turns himself back over to the Chinese authorities because Ling's character has put her entire career on the line in his defense, we are inundated by some pompously architectonic camera work and a bathetic swell of Thomas Newman's soundtrack music. (The plot-line development takes a big enough tug on the viewer's suspension of disbelief without drawing such heraldic attention to it.)

Ling has tremendous dignity onscreen. We can see how Moore's initial fondness for this graceful woman would develop into a profound respect for a quietly courageous person in whose hands his fate hangs. By the last scene of the film, as if having slowly but surely developed in a photographer's darkroom, Ling emerges as a mesmerizing presence, leaving one to hope for future castings in American films. Her last line -- filled with a powerful, unresolved love for Moore, and her hope of helping to create a new China -- is likely to leave much of the audience in tears.

There are some theatre- and filmgoers who would walk across a freeway at five o'clock to hear Blythe Danner read a soup-can label from the median traffic barrier. Not only a superb actor, whose warmth and emotional instincts are matched by a wry intelligence, Danner is also a role model for middle age -- glamorous yet no-nonsense, both generous and shrewd; she seems to navigate her way through life with unostentatious moral incisiveness and a hyper-aware, yet somehow relaxed, sensitivity. Not to mention those eyes, that great ash-blonde hair, and the velvety rasp of one of the most alluring voices on stage or screen.

The affection and respect of her fans might well lead them into such odd venues because the fact is that Danner is, very sadly, hard to find. Other than in the occasional New York stage appearance (she has one Tony and has been thrice nominated) -- or at the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Summer Theatre Festival, where she reigns as an annual draw -- Danner may be enjoyed only infrequently. Woody Allen has coaxed her from time to time into his projects, and her interest in evolving talents leads her occasionally to small, independent films. Happily married to a successful network producer and mother of the fine young actor Gwyneth Paltrow, Danner is clearly undriven by her career.

One can only speculate as to why the spirit moved her to agree to appear in first-time writer/director Bart Freundlich's The Myth of Fingerprints. One is simply left to yearn to see her in something more compelling than a pretentious, derivative, rather precious drama about a family reunion at Thanksgiving. We may never know what Danner saw in the project, but she was not alone: Julianne Moore, Noah Wyle, Roy Scheider, Brian Kerwin, James LeGros, Michael Vartan, and Laurel Holloman also signed on. One can only assume that this roster is what got Fingerprints a world premiere at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. And perhaps they perceived something in Freundlich's potential that is not yet apparent. Anyone who can interest this lineup of talent in a "training-wheels" movie must have something.

However, all we get in this first effort is a rather painful waste of these adventurous and interesting actors. In the worst role of all, Scheider -- who is best when pushed away from type, in roles where his severe good looks are forced to break into joy or loquacity -- plays a dour, stone-faced Maine patriarch who is so petulant that we couldn't possibly care less about his cursorily indicated inner demons. It's like watching Roy Scheider do a parody of Roy Scheider. Danner is his curiously long-suffering wife. They are joined for an alternately cozy and strained Thanksgiving holiday by daughters Moore and Holloman and sons Wyle and Vartan, along with their significant others. Freundlich is no more skilled at handling the intimate ease of family humor when things are going well than he is with his portentously introduced flashbacks (or worse, expository dialogue) of the family skeletons. The Myth of Fingerprints seems equal parts bad Bergman, bad Chekhov, and bad TV Movie-of-the-Week; except for the odd moments of glory plucked out by an excellent cast, it's a fairly deadly brew.

Danner makes even her small, disconnected, underwritten scenes a cause for minor rejoicing. Although it seems a dire case of casting her pearls before swine, she can curve a vocal inflection unexpectedly at the last syllable or laugh almost gutturally after expressing some delicate sentiment, and, suddenly, this lifeless, self-serious little piece wakes up for a moment and sings. Students of acting should be made to watch this performance to see what a canny, feeling actor can do with next to nothing. Fans of Blythe Danner may take it as yet another of the crumbs for which we have learned, frustratingly, to settle.

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