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DECEMBER 28, 1998: 

The Last Emperor

Once, long ago, there was a land called Manchuria, ruled by an emperor, who lived in a Forbidden City surrounded by huge red walls, attended by hundreds of eunuchs and courtesans, and made wealthy by centuries of pillaging. When the last known Emperor of Manchuria, Pu Yi, ascended the throne in 1908, he was three years old. At six, he was forced to abdicate, and at 19, he was ousted from his palaces with his two wives. Though later returned to his throne as a puppet monarch of the Japanese-controlled state of Manchukuo, he was then captured by the Russian army and spent 10 years in a Chinese prison -- only to be freed at the dawn of the Cultural Revolution.

Bernardo Bertolucci's opulent 1988 epic swept the Oscars and captivated the Western audiences for whom it was fashioned. At nearly three hours, this film was considered equal parts heroic biography and lyric eye candy. Now, restored to its full length (219 minutes), The Last Emperor's romantic hue is darker-edged than before: with more scenes of Pu Yi's time in prison, more details of the intricate political web that manipulated and betrayed him, more newsreel footage of the opium wars, Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima, more vintage cars and silk kimonos, more bicycles, more bayonets, more Mao -- more of what made this one of the most provocative and stunningly beautiful films of the past 20 years.

-- Peg Aloi


Stepmom

Of all the films that addressed dying this year -- One True Thing, What Dreams May Come, Jack Frost -- Chris Columbus's Stepmom may be the only one in which the Big Moment can't come fast enough.

Susan Sarandon plays Jackie, the prototypically perfect mom who clashes with Isabel (Julia Roberts), the young, fashion-photographer girlfriend of her ex-husband (Ed Harris). The two women hiss and claw at each other in a series of protracted run-ins that would lead you to believe Isabel is the only babysitter in the Manhattan area. Meanwhile, Jackie's two kids (Jena Malone and Liam Aiken) act out precociously and ask a lot of uncomfortable questions about love. But when Jackie discovers she has cancer, the clan must reconsider their strained relationships and -- yawn -- work to become a family.

Yes, Sarandon's Jackie is so self-righteous, so annoying, that to be rid of her almost seems a good thing. And though the acting isn't atrocious, the script (five writers share credit) crams in every divorce and terminal-illness cliché known to humankind. Stepmom's a weepie, all right -- the kind that makes you cry when you realize it's only half over.

-- Alicia Potter


Shakespeare in Love

At first, John Madden's film seems to play strictly to the groundlings. We're in London in the '90s -- the 1590s, though the film's deliberate postmodern anachronisms might make you think otherwise -- and Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), owner of the Rose Theatre, is trying to reassure moneylender Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) that the upcoming production from hot new prospect William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) will rake in enough at the box office to pay off his debt. Fennyman responds by having his stooges burn Henslowe's feet. Shakespeare, meanwhile, unhappy in love and blocked in his writing, complains on a couch to his Woody Allenish therapist about his "broken quill." Add to this that everyone except the love interests has bad teeth and the background features as much crud and offal as silk and brocade and you have a shaggy-dog Bardic farce that resembles more There's Something About Mary than A Midsummer's Night Dream.

Yet from this dross Shakespeare weaves a confection of scintillating wit and aesthetic resonance, a process that is pretty much the theme of the film, which was co-written by Tom Stoppard at his impish Rosencrantz and Guildenstern best. While torturing himself over his latest work, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, Will falls in love with the unapproachable Lady Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is secretly acting in his theater company disguised as a boy. Their love dialogues and misadventures have a familiar ring -- they are in fact the rough drafts of the lines and scenes to be immortalized not only in the play about star-crossed lovers Will is daily revising, but in future works like Twelfth Night and The Tempest. Although determinedly lightweight, Shakespeare in Love is a self-reflexive ode to the power of art and love that at times is worthy of its namesake.

-- Peter Keough


Patch Adams

Laughter may or may not be the best medicine, but the repeated sight of Robin Williams wearing a red rubber enema bulb on his nose can get emetic. He's portraying the real-life Hunter "Patch" Adams, a former psychiatric patient turned medical student and crusader for a more humanized way of treating the ill. Set in the early '70s, the film offers montages of a sanctimonious, not terribly funny Adams doing shtick for kids in the cancer ward and having run-ins with Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton), the cardboard villain who believes doctors should be demigods and not clowns and is determined to get Patch dismissed from the university.

Adams wins the hearts of everyone else, however -- in particular that of fellow student Carin (Monica Potter), an uptight careerist who finally succumbs to his slapstick charm and joins him in forming a free clinic. That and her after-hours tryst with him prove her undoing, but this is no more than a footnote in the overbearing onslaught of Robin Williams being funny and good. Watching Patch Adams is like being bedridden and suffering the further indignity of a caregiver who is self-righteous and thinks he's a comedian.

-- Peter Keough


Mighty Joe Young

The 1949 version of Mighty Joe Young was itself a knockoff of King Kong. This new Disney version doesn't tamper with the formula so much as it tapers the rough edges in an effort to make the chest-pounding adventure more family-friendly.

The film begins with a Gorillas in the Mist-type prologue before jumping forward 12 years to find Bill Paxton leading a safari expedition to capture the legendary giant (two tons) gorilla. Paxton wants to remove the majestic beast from the threat of poachers and set him up on a posh nature reserve in California. Complicating matters is Charlize Theron's beautiful jungle girl, Joe's soul mate from birth and the only human who can communicate with him. The plot is spurred on by the nefarious actions of a poacher with an Ahab complex and a battery of money-hungry scientists who want to exploit Joe. Naturally all this puts a burr under the towering simian's skin, causing him to break free and go ape in LA's concrete jungle.

The FX and animatronics that conjure Joe are fantastically seamless, but this remake lacks the rugged camp of the original. Paxton swaggers through the film as a scene-stealing swashbuckler; Theron is left to pose in spaghetti-string tops, hang at the center of a man-beast love triangle, and speak insipid baby talk to the big gorilla.

-- Tom Meek


Down in the Delta

Poet Maya Angelou makes her feature directorial debut with this uplifting but flawed saga about the preservation of family. The film stars a wildly expressive Alfre Woodard as Loretta, a young, jobless mother whose rock-bottom self-esteem marks her an easy target for the temptations of her poor Chicago 'hood. Her high-minded mama (Mary Alice), however, won't brook it, so she ships Loretta and her kin to Biloxi to spend a Mississippi summer with rumble-throated Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.) and his Alzheimer's-stricken wife (Esther Rolle).

Loretta's awkward adjustment amid the willows and white clapboards is wholly predictable, yet first-time screenwriter Myron Goble plies an affecting twist or two, most notably the haunting lore behind a family heirloom, a candelabra named Nathan. Still, the film serves up many clunky moments, in part the result of Angelou's green camerawork (she previously directed plays and documentaries) and the story's earnest attempt to cram in too many issues -- addiction, guns, job reform, class frictions. Such leaden exposition doesn't sink the story, though; as in Angelou's verse, the themes of heritage and humanity resound.

-- Alicia Potter


Dancing at Lughnasa

The Irish spirit may be a battleground between a pagan past and an imposed Christianity, but too often the artistic result is a sentimental reconciliation. Such is the case in Brian Friel's acclaimed play Dancing at Lughnasa, which has been adapted with some flair for the screen by Pat O'Connor. The film begins dutifully enough with a black-and-white flashback of a priest observing African tribal celebrations before settling comfortably into a stagebound iteration of the original's programmatic bromides. Father Jack (a genuinely touching Michael Gambon), the priest in question, returns to his tiny Donegal village to be greeted by his doting five sisters. There's flinty schoolmarm Kate (Meryl Streep), long-suffering but gay-hearted Agnes (Brid Brennan), stolid Maggie (Kathy Burke), "simple" Rose (Sophie Thompson), and the youngest, rebellious Christine (Catherine McCormack), along with her illegitimate son Michael, an adult version of whom provides the bland, retrospective voiceover narrative.

Father Jack has, unfortunately, been rendered dotty by his encounter with the heart of dimness, and his scandalous incapacity adds one more burden to the teetering Mundy household, whose members are harried by economic hardship and social ostracism. The title refers to the ancient Irish harvest festival (celebrated August 1, in honor of the god Lugh) -- should the girls join in and kick up their heels in the face of their snooty neighbors? Neither the gods nor the God-fearing get a fair shake in this turgid rehash of Olde Soddisms.

-- Peter Keough



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