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Movie reviews.

By Rick Barton

FEBRUARY 16, 1998: 

FILM: Great Expectations
STARRING: Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow
DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuaron

When Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations, the thrust of the story had to do with the education of a young man who had his priorities out of order. Dickens' Pip Pirrip is a poor orphan boy with aspirations of being a gentleman. But when an anonymous benefactor makes his dreams come true, he abandons his loyal friends and takes up the life of a dandy. Only when he loses his cash and has to work for a living does he come to understand the error of his ways, and only then are his nobler expectations realized. That's not quite how things work in Alfonso Cuaron's loosely adapted movie version. Pip has become Finnegan Bell (Ethan Hawke), a contemporary American Gulf Coast boy with an artistic gift. And the story has become almost exclusively a romance. Too bad.

Written by Mitch Glazer, this current Great Expectations retains a large number of elements from Dickens' (though most of the names have been changed) without retaining most any of Dickens' core concerns. We first meet Finn as a youngster (Jeremy James Kissner) about 10. He's living with his older sister, Maggie (Kim Dickens), and her handyman boyfriend, Joe (Chris Cooper). When Maggie runs off with another man, Joe undertakes Finn's rearing. Two critical things happen during Finn's childhood. In one scary episode, he helps an escaped con named Arthur Lustig (Robert DeNiro). In the other, he's invited by dotty heiress Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) to become the playmate of her niece Estella (Raquel Beaudene as a child, Gwyneth Paltrow as an adult). The years zip by. Finn and Estella grow up. As teens, they have a hot flirtation that doesn't quite amount to anything, and Estella heads off to New York, where her primary occupation seems to be "rich bitch." Disillusioned, Finn gives up his artistic ambitions and embraces his working-class roots.

Finn (Ethan Hawke) has Great Expectations for his relationship with Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), but they come to naught.
But then, out of nowhere, Finn is offered a one-person show at a tony New York gallery. The only problem is that he hasn't painted in years. Curious. Even more curiously, his anonymous benefactor has provided enough cash for him to paint. So he goes for it. And pretty soon, guess who's doffing bra and panties so Finn can paint her in the altogether. Yes, Estella, who even hangs around for some between-the-sheets action afterwards. Well, the show's a smash, Finn's rich, and he and Estella ought to be looking at wedding rings, no? Of course not. Too much running time left. And there's that snotty rich guy named Walter Plane (Hank Azaria) who Estella has been seeing.

Great Expectations is gorgeous to look at. The film has a burnished finish that makes everything appear to come from a page in Life magazine. And few (males, anyway) will have much trouble feasting their eyes on the comely Paltrow with her long legs, swan-like neck and face any sculptor would want to chisel into stone. The picture has other attributes as well. Cooper is winning as always. Nobody does salt-of-the-earth working-class guys any better. And Bancroft has a high old time chewing the scenery as daft Ms. Dinsmoor.

But in the final analysis, this picture doesn't work despite its high production values and attractive stars. The whole film is more like the kind of video collage you'd see on MTV than it is like a real fiction feature. The individual scenes don't hang together narratively and increasingly less so as the movie goes along. An ending sequence in which Lustig reappears is both thoroughly predictable -- why else would he have played such a part in Finn's boyhood? -- and utterly preposterous. It seems Lustig has been on the lam from mob hit guys for the better part of two decades, but when he shows his face to Finn, the thugs are right behind him. The scene where the mobsters stab Lustig is abysmally edited, and Finn's subsequent catatonic inaction makes us want to throttle him.

Even clumsier is the passage surrounding Joe's unannounced appearance at Finn's art exhibition. Here, the filmmakers seem to lose all control of their material. Joe has always been Finn's biggest fan, and Finn has always regarded Joe as something like a mix of father, uncle and big brother. Moreover, until this scene, where he shows up talking too loudly and flailing his arms, we have no reason to regard Joe as anything other than altogether sensible. Somehow, though, we're supposed to see Joe now as a clodhopping hick and Finn as embarrassed by him. But not a moment of this washes. At first we're confused, and when we grasp what the filmmakers are driving at, we're irritated.

Nothing in this flick, however, proves as off-key as the depiction of its heroine. We know that Ms. Dinsmoor has raised Estella to be a cruel tease, but that won't enable us to forgive much of her behavior in her adult years. Sure she's beautiful. But as my momma always said, "pretty is as pretty does." And Estella does ugly. She maintains a look in her eye that says "I'm so yummy I can treat you like dirt and you'll never stop coming back for more." That makes us want to slap that ever-present smirk right off her face, and it makes us want to pop Finn one in the kisser because she's right about him. What's most aggravating is that Estella seems programmed to dump on Finn even though she doesn't want to. That makes for some excruciating boy wants girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, but it doesn't make a lick of sense.

FILM: Kundun
STARRING: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese's Kundun is a film even more eye-pleasing than Great Expectations, and it's possessed of distinctly noble intentions. But it doesn't really work, either. Kundun is the story of the 14th Dalai Lama, the divine spiritual leader of Tibet considered by his followers to be the reincarnation of Buddha. The 14th Dalai Lama, still living today, was born in 1934 and has been in exile from his native land since the 1950s. This film dramatizes his early life and the events that led to his flight from Tibet into India.

Even at age 5, the young 14th Dalai Lama (center) is the spiritual leader of Tibet.
Written by Melissa Mathison, Kundun opens with the search for the reincarnate Buddha after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933. He is found in 1937 as a precocious 2-year-old boy named Tenzin Gyatso, living with his simple family in a small Tibetan village. Once the monks charged with identifying the new Dalai Lama have settled on Tenzin Gyatso, the boy and his entire family are relocated to the capital at Lhasa, and the child is systematically educated for his duties as spiritual and political leader of his people. The country is still ruled by a regency of elders, however, when, in the aftermath of the communist revolution of China, Mao Zedong reasserts China's ancient claim to Tibet. Hoping to rally the nation against the threat of a Chinese invasion, the regents invest the 15-year-old Dalai Lama with full power. But the invasion comes nonetheless, and Tibet proves largely powerless to resist. Wise beyond his years, the Dalai Lama has hoped to wait until at least age 18 before ascending to his throne, but he tries to lead his people even as a teenager. He is, unfortunately, condescended to by Mao all the while as the Tibetan population is brutalized by Chinese rule. Eventually, fearing for his life in the midst of an armed uprising, the Dalai Lama flees. This is where the film ends, but it is worth noting that the Dalai Lama's long non-violent struggle for human rights for his people won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and a legion of followers worldwide.

Admirable as the Dalai Lama is and lovingly made as this movie is, it's an overlong and ultimately frustrating piece of work. We remain confused throughout as Mathison's script evidently assumes knowledge on part of the viewer that the great majority of us lack. The picture has a nice warning against pride. And the series of young actors (Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, 2; Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, age 5; Gyurme Tethong, age 12; and Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, 15 and on) acquit themselves very nicely, making the Dalai Lama seem a man who manages to be both charismatic and genuinely humble at the same time -- no easy accomplishment.

I particularly like those moments when the Dalai Lama wonders whether the monks have indeed found the right boy. But as the slow-paced picture goes along, we are constantly running up against passages we can't understand. Why is the man who found the Dalai Lama, Reting Rinpoche (Sonam Phuntsok), first relieved of his duties and then sent to prison, where he ultimately dies under mysterious circumstances? What's going on when the Dalai Lama's father dies and his corpse is seemingly dismembered and fed to vultures? If this is a standard "burial" practice of the Tibetans, that needs to be made clear. Why does China want Tibet? Sure, we're in the habit of not liking the Communist Chinese, but what does Tibet have that the Chinese want? I'm not saying the Chinese lacked their scandalous reasons, only that the film doesn't reveal them. How did the Chinese get hold of the Dalai Lama's brother that they might send him on a mission of fratricide? And once the brother confesses his assignment, what happens to him? Most of all, what does the Dalai Lama mean when he protests the Chinese invasion by saying, "We were just about to change?" If that's a confession of malfeasance, we haven't seen it. And that's typical.

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