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Nashville Scene The Unheard Music

"Hilary and Jackie" transcends the musty musical biopic

By Donna Bowman, Noel Murray, and Jim Ridley

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  The psychobiography has come a long way since Hollywood sensationalized the nervous breakdown in films like The Three Faces of Eve. Several recent films have used strikingly expressionistic effects to depict the interior dramas of real people as vividly as their external actions. Heavenly Creatures painted the childhood fantasies of novelist Anne Perry in bright, computer-generated detail; Shine opened up the head of a troubled musical prodigy in the middle of a performance. Now Hilary and Jackie brings the mysterious inner world of cellist Jacqueline du Pre to the screen, and thereby sheds sympathetic light on her bizarre behavior.

Anand Tucker's film takes its halved structure from its subject matter two sisters leading vastly different lives, yet still connected by a sibling bond. Hilary's half details how the older sister (Rachel Griffiths) goes from family star to an also-ran, choosing life with her husband and children when it becomes clear that Jacqueline (Emily Watson) has a lock on the limelight. Through her eyes, we see Jackie's fame explode. When Hilary welcomes her sister in full flight from media, marriage, and music, Jackie attempts to usurp her family life with the most intimate of emotional blackmail.

Then in Jackie's segment, we get a glimpse of why this heralded superstar of classical music might have behaved so badly. Whisked away on an endless international concert tour almost before her childhood is over, applauded by adoring audiences for every eccentric outburst of temper, in thrall to the cello that has made her famous and denied her the ordinary pleasures of life and love, Jackie has no chance at normality. The onset of multiple sclerosis in her prime steals even her ability to make music, reducing her to an object of pity as she bangs a drum during a children's concert.

While the true story of Jacqueline du Pre--according to the account by Hilary and brother Piers, on which this film is based--has plenty of conflict and controversy simply in its factual details, Hilary and Jackie isn't merely an interpretation of selected facts. Strongly cinematic, fantastical elements send tremors through the story's historical underpinnings: Cello strings vibrate in resonance with memory, elegant gowns wait in midair to be inhabited. Whenever the movie threatens to become too deeply mired in real events, the world of feeling and dreams that these images evoke reemerges to infuse the story with meaning.

Due to disagreement among those who own the rights to Jacqueline du Pre's celebrated recordings, only one of her actual performances appears on the film's soundtrack. But because Hilary and Jackie isn't really about the music per se, but rather takes as its subject the wrenching effect that artistic genius has on two individuals, the omission doesn't diminish the story's power. The movie's final image, expressing the powerful desire to reach back from life's end and provide comfort along the journey, is a leap out of biography and into a realm of cinematic truth.

--Donna Bowman



Teenage headhunting

As the current (and coming) explosion of teen films and TV series shows, every generation will eventually get The Breakfast Club it deserves. Unfortunately, the revived genre lacks a guiding hand as distinctive and playful as that of its guru, John Hughes. Whatever one's complaints about Hughes' warped social vision--from the lack of African Americans sharing his dream to his weird ideas of what constitutes poverty--there's no denying that his inventive screwball style supported characters that were funny, flawed, and imbued with believable aches. The new breed in Varsity Blues and She's All That is less complicated, and hence less interesting. Their problems might be solved if they found the right soda.

I live in a part of the world untouched by the WB network and Dawson's Creek, so my first real exposure to actor James Van Der Beek (a.k.a. Dawson) came when he so ably hosted Saturday Night Live. He's a versatile performer with a raffish charm, and with any luck he'll soon be in much better films than Varsity Blues, the MTV-produced high-school football drama currently playing to packed houses of giggling adolescents.

Not that Varsity Blues is flat awful; in fact, it's entertaining in an overheated, bad-Texas-accent, sports-clichés-on-top-of-teen-angst-clichés, sex-ed-teacher-who-moonlights-as-a-stripper, who-will-win-the-big-game, will-Dawson-get-into-an-Ivy-League-school (and will-he-ever-finish-that-Vonnegut-book-he-always-lugs-around) kind of way. But it wastes an opportunity to comment on the bizarre society that surrounds Texas high-school football, collapsing instead into the standard underdog-makes-good formula.

Thank goodness for Van Der Beek, whose knowing smile can sell anything--even the asinine offense that he invents and that drives his team to the district championship. If I take one thing away from Varsity Blues, it will be this brilliant piece of football philosophy: forget the fundamentals, and play every down as though it were third-and-27.

Before the teen-pic trend stumbles, someone should assemble an all-star team of the standout youngsters--Van Der Beek, Nick Stahl from Disturbing Behavior, Seth Green from Can't Hardly Wait, and the complete cast of The Faculty. In the meantime, major-league scouts might want to check out the work of Freddie Prinze Jr. in She's All That--an otherwise weak, underimagined high-school version of Pygmalion.

Prinze plays a popular kid who, on a bet, agrees to date frumpy art-lover Rachael Leigh Cook and transform her into a prom queen--a metamorphosis that, in quintessential sexpot/librarian style, consists of taking off her glasses and getting her to let her hair down. She's All That is aggressively situational: Characters behave as they do so the filmmakers can shoot any scene they have in mind, regardless of whether it fits. Hence the virtual absence of teachers in this faux high school; the inexplicable hostility that the popular kids display toward the inoffensive, comfortably middle-class Cook; and the surprising acceptance of unexceptional soccer jock Prinze into Dartmouth, Yale, and Harvard.

Only two elements marginally redeem She's All That--the affable Prinze, and a prom dance choreographed to Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafella Skank." But even these shiny spots can't cover for the film's overall dinginess, or the uncomfortable feeling that the preteens who watch this film are learning that deceit, drinking, and conformity at all costs are the norm for high-schoolers. On second thought, let's hope neither She's All That nor Varsity Blues is The Breakfast Club this generation deserves.

--Noel Murray



Rushmore

In Rushmore, the 15-year-old hero stages a school production of Serpico, in which kids swagger around chomping cigarettes and lipping off cop-show style. Payback isn't quite as mature, but it's about as convincing. A remake of John Boorman's rat-a-tat '67 gangster thriller Point Blank, itself part of a (then) new breed of pomo penny dreadful, Payback comes equipped with all the macho hardware, kinky sadism, and trash-talking that pulp lovers crave. But the result isn't so much hard-boiled as overcooked--it looks and sounds like a role-playing game for Lawrence Tierney wannabes.

In Point Blank, Lee Marvin's thuggish antihero was named Walker--fitting for a guy who was always slamming forward, even when the movie kept tossing his splintered past back in his ugly mug. In Payback the character's called Porter, and that's how Mel Gibson plays him--as the low man on the totem pole, a scowling, downtrodden schlep. Porter's two-timing wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and turncoat buddy (Gregg Henry) plugged him in the back after a robbery and stole his $70,000 split of the take. Now Porter's back, and he wants his dough back pronto from "the Outfit," a crime syndicate with enough middle-management deadwood for a month of Dilbert. When the corporation refuses, Porter gets a pistol and starts making layoffs.

The director/coscreenwriter, Brian Helgeland, was apparently drawn to the material because he's seen every caper movie ever made--and that's the trouble. More than the Monogram Studios homages of the French New Wave (whose thumbprints are all over Point Blank), more even than Pulp Fiction or its exasperating imitators, Payback represents the ultimate removal of the crime movie from any relationship to actual crime. Every puff of cigarette smoke, every wise-guy witticism has been filtered through decades of late-late shows. The retro posing is fun for awhile, but the nonstop jokiness wears out faster than a Buddy Faro marathon.

Especially when it's coupled with endless shootings, gougings, and beatings. They're bloody and painful as hell, yet they're photographed in that same desaturated blue you find in Nike ads and on MTV. Then they're punctuated with sub-James Bond wisecracks. It's supposed to be so brutal it's a trip, and it might be for someone who's missed the past 10 years of hipper-than-thou crime movies. Somebody gets kicked in the head, and then we hear Dean Martin sing "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?" The movie's a 100-minute commercial for its own coolness.

Point Blank was criticized for getting off on Walker's unapologetic viciousness, and indeed it does. But at least its Resnais-derived fracturing of time and in-your-face brutality conveyed the destructive impact of real-world violence. There's no real world to destroy in Payback: The locations and props, right down to the rotary phones, have been borrowed from a '70s detective show. There are no real people either. Every man's a killer, every woman's a whore, every Asian is yellow peril. James Coburn is genuinely funny as an avuncular mob functionary, and ER's Maria Bello outclasses her obligatory rape-bait role. But otherwise, Payback is no more fun than watching the cardboard ducks in a shooting gallery blow each other away.

--Jim Ridley


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