Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Movie Reviews in Brief

By Jim Ridley, Donna Bowman, and Noel Murray

JUNE 15, 1998: 

Blood and sand

Hollywood promoters are trying to convince us that we're entering a new era of huge films with huge subjects (and huge budgets and huge running times). If only Hollywood could add one more item to the list of epic qualifications: larger-than-life heroes. Lawrence of Arabia, showing Monday through Thursday at the Watkins Belcourt, represents the pinnacle of an earlier epic tradition, one that exalted complicated and pivotal figures in history and made them the fulcra of enormous filmmaking endeavors.

Director David Lean plucked from obscurity a young actor with burning blue eyes, Peter O'Toole, and made him a star as T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who became the leader of an Arab revolution during World War I. The enigmatic Lawrence had long fascinated biographers and historians, but making a successful film out of his complex, contradictory story required the services of England's very best talents: screenwriter Robert Bolt, cinematographer Freddie Young, composer Maurice Jarre. After two years of filming in the Arabian desert, they produced a majestic vision of one man against the endless sandy horizon, bridging heaven and earth to call down cosmic forces in a single fantastic, fleeting moment.

Many critics complain that Lawrence is historically inaccurate, that it fails to depict intelligibly the forces of war, and that its portrait of Lawrence himself is selective. Yet Lean understands that art is a selection of possibilities for realization out of the infinite and chaotic environment; it is not and never has been simple dramatization, recreation, or hagiography. His film, made in 1962, prefigures the rise of the antihero in the cinema of the late 1960s and '70s. Lawrence goes to Arabia almost by accident, proves himself to the Bedouin tribes (represented by Omar Sharif's Ali) by sheer instinct, and falls fatally in love with the desert--which, as an Englishman, he cannot possibly survive. His heroism is in spite of himself: He has no outstanding qualities other than his unsuitability for army life. Yet Lean believes, and makes us believe, that astounding forces of necessity and chance converge on this slender figure, raise him up to lead armies and nations, and then cruelly abandon him.

To see the 221 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia in a theater, in all its widescreen glory, is to fall in love. Lean portrays the national character of the British--their inability to see past small details, their amused incomprehension of other cultures, and their tenacious Anglocentrism--with great warmth and good humor. Ancillary characters played by Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, and Alec Guinness have a dry wit that enlivens Young's tableau-like compositions. Jarre's music swells unforgettably; Arabia is beautiful in its timeless emptiness. Yet it is earnest, bloodthirsty, suicidal Lawrence who captures our hearts.

The neo-epics of the '90s betray no understanding of T.E. Lawrence's appeal. Perhaps we suspect, but do not want to admit, that if heroism catches us as it does Lawrence, it will be by accident and beyond all our imaginings.

--Donna Bowman


Sharp cookie

Despite an original script by John Grisham, The Gingerbread Man somehow managed to avoid popular success earlier this year. It deserved better. Directed by Robert Altman, who specializes in offbeat takes on popular genres, The Gingerbread Man stars Kenneth Branagh as Rick McGruder, a barely likable Savannah defense attorney who decides to help a young waitress (Embeth Davidtz) with her seemingly insane father (Robert Duvall). After the father escapes from a mental institution, McGruder's children disappear, and he must outrun the law to find both the kids and the truth as a hurricane approaches.

In the hands of any other director, The Gingerbread Man's familiar terrain would be routine and unproblematic. But Altman sees the story as a framework for dark broodings on how the real world--faceless, tempestuous, and immune to manipulation--shatters our illusions of personal control. He makes a virtue of Changwei Gu's murky, muddy photography and reveals the ruddy clubbishness of McGruder's law offices to be as artificial as a theme park. And Kenneth Branagh is a revelation as a good ol' boy whose amiable chatter conceals a fundamental lack of interest in other human beings. His terror as his life spins off-kilter will stay with the viewer long after the details of Grisham's plot have been forgotten.

--Donna Bowman


Hope sinks

Hope Floats opens with a biting piece of satire--a Ricki Lake-esque talk show on which Sandra Bullock is informed that her husband has been sleeping with her best friend. The live studio audience hoots while Bullock tries to put on a brave face; in the audience, her 8-year-old daughter (Mae Whitman) sobs uncontrollably. Soon enough, the two of them move back to the small Texas town where Bullock grew up. While Bullock contemplates a new romance with Harry Connick Jr. and tries to ignore the gossip of all the townsfolk who resent her days as a local beauty queen, her kid deals with a new school, new friends, and the absence of her beloved father.

Directed competently, if not especially stylishly, by Forest Whitaker, Hope Floats is routine soaper material, and the attempts at "eccentric" local color--a taxidermist mother (Gena Rowlands) who talks in aphorisms, a boy who likes to dress up as animals--play like they were ripped from the script of a failed sitcom pilot. Also, the movie hinges on a spurious premise: that people secretly hope for the comeuppance of their more popular high-school classmates (as if anyone still thinks about them at all). But Whitman almost makes the film worth seeing; her reactions to the heartbreak and silliness around her have a genuine quality that the rest of the film cannot muster.

--Noel Murray


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