Thursday, April 19, 2018

That Thing You Do! (1996)


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When I think of the quintessential baby-boomer movie star, I think most immediately of Tom Hanks. Throughout his long and illustrious career, he’s managed to take roles that most often embody the American postwar existence, from hapless astronaut in Apollo 13 to Cold War lawyer in Bridge of Spies to both homefront and warfront challengers in A League of Their Own and Saving Private Ryan, respectively. And then, of course, the title role in a film that spanned all those years in one neat package, Forrest Gump, directed, appropriately, by the quintessential baby boomer director, Robert Zemeckis. Who needs a history book, kids, you can just turn to Woody the Cowboy for a panoramic view of the last 50 years?

So it didn’t come as al that a surprise for me when Hanks took over the directorial reins for the first time 1996 and made That Thing You Do!,  a paean to American pop music in the mid 60s that was clearly influenced by a little band know as the Beatles. Thing chronicles the meteoric rise and not-so-meteoric fall of a fictional group know as the Wonders (originally the One-ders), who start out earnestly enough but fall prey to the trappings of fame and fortune. And what makes the movie such a pleasure to view is the giddy joy that director Hanks imparts into his work – every frame resonates with the passion he has for his material, from the immaculate attention to the period detail of 1964 to the electric sensation his characters (and we) feel upon hearing their title tune for the first time. It’s not just a celebration of this band but a full-throated salute to this phenomenon known as rock and roll, which, along with TV, is probably the greatest cultural touchstone of the boomer generation.

We begin in the modest hamlet of Erie, Pennsylvania, and we don’t waste any time with the very beginnings. There’s a band, and they have a song, and they need a drummer. (Their original percussionist takes a nasty fall and busts his arm.) Enter Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), who begrudgingly signs on, despite the fact that his heart belongs to jazz, not rock. But he’s hot with the sticks, and when he gives their song an uptempo lift, they win a local contest and record their song as a 45 record. Things pick up when they find a manager, who gets bigger venues for them to play, until finally – the Big Time – a scout for a major record label, Del Tone, signs them up and whisks them away to Hollywood. TV, movies, more songs, a recording contract all follow, but tension within the quintet starts to show. Jimmy, the lead singer, wants more creative control; Lenny can’t stay away from the women; T.D., the bassist, will soon join the Marines but already feels a part of the military; and Guy seems to be falling in love with Faye (Liv Tyler). In the end, all go their separate ways, but the scout (Tom Hanks) functions as a spiritual guide for the young drummer, telling him he’s the “smart one,” and blessing him in his future endeavors.

It’s clear from the casting of Scott as Guy, the drummer, that Tom Hanks’ work is, to a great degree, autobiographical. Scott is pretty much Hanks’ doppelganger as a young man (he’s got all the mannerisms uncannily down pat), and you can’t help but be reminded of early-80s Hanks with every shot. And Hanks’ role as scout/producer is pretty much a replica of his current self (an authoritarian but with a heart of gold and filled with sage wisdom), so in addition to the period commentary we also get a profound statement of lifelesson – the young heed the advice of their elders, particularly when they screw up and need advice more than ever. And whatever you do, don’t leave Liv Tyler all alone in a coffee shop before you go after your dream.

We’ve, of course, seen this formula before, most recently in the great film The Commitments. But it works, and it also likely reflects the reality of countless one-hit-wonder bands from the era (and today too), who had their 15 minutes of glory before retreating to the obscurity from whence they came. It’s a human story – one we can all too easily identify with – and it reveals the desire within us all to be popular, very popular, in as short a period of time as possible. Yet, it’s also indicative of a flaw in the human psyche: that we can never really appreciate success once we have it. We always want more, and that tends to be our downfall.

Philosophical meditation aside, this is a fun film, though, and this was such a labor of love for Hanks that he released an extended director’s cut as part of the DVD I watched. I, course, watched this version (I saw the original version when it came out), and what amazed me so was how good the excised footage wasl not of it felt extraneous to me at all, and the “epic” length was necessary to tell the full arc of this story. A good chunk of the cutting room scenes have to do with Guy’s would-be love interest, played by Charlise Theron, a superficial glamour goddess who prefers the company of her hunky dentist, but that stuff is funny. And because every scene is so lovingly crafted and handsomely mounted (I just loved looking at all the 60s furnishings and devices), it’s almost a crime not to ket any of it see the light of day.

Of course, this was still 1996, and any extended running times were reserved for the “important” films (Braveheart, Schindler’s List, etc), so Thing had to settle for an average 107 minutes. I remember liking it then, and appreciating its craftsmanship, but now I more appreciate the human elements, and I think it’s because there’s more of it. That and because I’m older.

Hanks as a writer too must be commended. His lines ride the balance between golden Hollywood crowd pleasing and idiosyncratic realism, a balance you need to attain for this sort of product. Once in a great while I felt a tad manipulated, but Hanks keeps the show going, and makes up for it with an incisive jab at show business here, an arresting dialogue there. And sometimes – silence – as when the band walks up on stage and faces an empty, 2,200 seat auditorium for the first time.

And let’s not forget the song, played several times throughout but maddeningly hummable. It passes the test – it could definitely have been a hit song. Probably even better than most.

Catch the director’s cut of this one. You won’t regret it.


Rating:  ***1/2



Saturday, January 20, 2018

Independence Day (1996)


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Fox picked this one for their 75th Anniversary set, no doubt based on the continued popularity it has enjoyed since its release over 20 years ago. (They even tried to reboot it as a franchise in 2015.) Let’s see if it’s meritorious…

Independence Day was Fox’s most hyped-up release for the 4th of July weekend of 1996 (Coincidence? I think not.) Without a whole heck of a lot of competition, it became in instant commercial hit. Fox must’ve breathed a sigh of relief; after al, it had been quite a while since we had a real bona fide alien invasion movie. One, of course, calls to mind the classics from the 50s – The Day the Earth Stood Still and War of the Worlds – films loaded with political metaphor but yet a lot of cheesy fun. They had all the trademarks f the decade’s sci-fi genre: stilted acting, dime-store sets and effects, incredible-but-we-don’t-care storylines, and tongue firmly planted inside cheek to make the whole thing work.

Independence Day is a sci-fi film, yes, but it’s hardly cheesy. It’s a 100-million-dollar extravaganza that takes itself seriously, very seriously. I mean, we’re pretty much talking about the end of the world here, and we get explosions, explosions and more explosions to drive the point home. The aliens have arrived and they don’t even have the time to send a cute robot like Gorp to send a message. They arrive with enough firepower to decimate every city on the globe, and America has to respond with everything its got – cruise missiles, fighter jets and even (gasp) nuclear weapons. This is what a visit from aliens’ looks like in 1996: nothing short of World War III.

And actually, when you look at it, Independence Day isn’t really like those sci-fi films fro the 50s at all. It’s structured more like a war movie, a big ensemble war movie like The Longest Day or Tora, Tora, Tora or The Winds of War, or for that matter a big disaster movie with a cast of thousands. (You know the kind with a movie poster that has all those boxes at the bottom? Oh, sorry millennials, you don’t remember.) In the beginning we get about six or seven story lines involving a dozen people or so from all across the nation, and then they come together once the shit hits the fan. I remember some critics attacking Day’s absence of any kind of dynamic or even characterized villains, but quite frankly it’s an irrelevant criticism. Independence Day has no desire to flesh out its baddies any more than most old WWII epics distinguished the Nazi’s, or than Irwin Allen personified a raging skyscraper fire.

So then we must judge the film on its own merits. How does it do as a modern day example of one of those “box” movies?

Meh.

I mean, it starts out promising. We start juggling stories right at the very beginning, and they are:
·   Jeff Goldbloom, a MIT scientist, who has discovered a signal from outer space, which he determines to be some sort of countdown. With his father (Judd Hirsch) in tow, he gains access to the Oval Office thanks to his former wife, a White House Communications Director.
·   Bill Paxton, the President of the United States, who has the awesome responsibility of keeping the country cool and composed whilst a mega-monolithic mothership hovers perniciously over the nation’s capital. He is aided by a straight thinking general (Robert Loggia) and sniveling, ill-advising Secretary of Defense.
·   Will Smith as a US air force pilot engaged to a stripper living in Las Vegas.
·   Randy Quaid as an alcoholic, crop-dusting Vietnam Vet on the outs with his biolgica children but making an attempt to reconnect. The town laughs at him and even makes him believe he was once abducted by aliens.

Well, remember that countdown? It’s not to ring in the New Year; the aliens use it to calibrate their mass destruction of every major American city, and millions perish in the ghastly infernos. The president has his crew narrowly escape aboard Air Fore One, and Smith’s stripper wife and children avert death themselves (the First Lady isn’t quite so lucky). Time for a counterattack, but the US armed forces discovers it’s firepower is no match for the aliens’ more advanced technology. Even nuclear weapons have no effect (yup, they used them, despite Goldbloom’s admonitions). The White House starts the blame game, and Hirsch even invokes Roswell as evidence that the government knew about the aliens’ last visit but did nothing about it. Wait a minute!

It turns out that not only did this happen but it could be of some use in the current situation. The daffy scientist in charge of the Roswell case has kept intact the original spaceship, and now has access to a live E.T. thanks to Smith. He seems a little too weird and a little too “excited” with all this chaos, so you know he’s gonna perish soon (he does, when he tries to operate on an alien that… put it his way… does not want to be operated on. But Goldbloom hatches a plan to use the Rosewell craft to infect the aliens with a cold virus, thereby debilitating their shields for just enough time to launch a full-frontal attack. The plan works, culminating in a Quaid’s self-sacrificial attack on the mothership, rendering the rest of the alien fleet completely powerless. The pres decreees that Independence Day shall henceforth be celebrated as a worldwide day of freedom, not from tyranny or oppression, but from annihilation. Hmmm, isn’t that just called…. survival?

Independence Day has a lot going for it. It’s well-paced and does a good job of shuffling back and forth through its bevy of stars. And it’s definitely highlighted by some noteworthy performances. Pullman plays a remarkably good job of playing the president as everyman – a regular Joe trying to lead the Free Word with all the foibles and insecurities of you or I. In one scene in which he must comfort his dying wife by lying, he transcends, and elevates, the material. And the double-team of nebbish Jeff Goldbloom and his kvetching dad as played by Judd Hirsh offers just the right amount of idiosyncratic charm to alleviate the intensity of their situation at just the right movements.

But for all of its aspirations and lofty intentions, Independence Day just feels empty. At the end of its bloated 2 ½ hour running time, and the fireworks are popping and the flags are waving, you’re left with the feeling of not feeling more. Sure, you can blame the predictable outcome or the mostly flat and sometimes overwrought characterizations, but I think this particular shortcoming has more to do with direction. Roland Emmerich, at the helm, lacks the sense of urgency that a director like James Cameron could impart (and it doesn’t help that his special effects look mostly shoddy either). Ironic, given the fact that most of the earth is destroyed here, but it’s destroyed by nameless slimeballs, and no real reason is given for their havoc, either (it’s briefly explained that they want to use up our natural resources). Sure, this counteracts my claim that their namelessness shouldn’t matter, but maybe it does for the sake of creating a hateful villain. All In know is, I wasn’t exactly as white-knuckle as I wished I were.

Still, it’s watchable, but it won’t go on my list of classics. See it once and get it over with, and don’t expect too, too much.


Rating:  ***


Friday, January 12, 2018

Waiting To Exhale (1995)


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This is a Fox selection, doubtless for its female, African-American cast  (you can tick two PC boxes with this one). But it was also a pretty eagerly awaited Christmas release in ’95, and it made money, not to mention giving us the smash Whitney Houston single “Shoop, Shoop.” But is it artistically meritorious? In a word… meh.

The film Waiting To Exhale was based on the bestselling book by Terry McMillian, and it was one of those books that so connected with a demographic – African-America females – that it pretty much became their bible for a good ten-year stretch. It was so thunderingly resonative because it depicted, in great, emotional detail, the conundrum of the modern black relationship: how can you find a good man when they’re either deadbeats or married? And why do affairs with the married ones always lead to heartbreak in the end? Ultimately, you turn to each other, and it’s this sisterhood, this unique social bond that you’re apt to find in beauty salons or sleepover parties, that dulls the pain, ant least for awhile. Exhale gave the rest of America a taste of this culture – in essence affirming, “We are here, and we got man problems like the rest of you!”

And now, the movie – Fox made damned sure it got the special treatment, hiring actor Forrest Whitaker to direct, and pop sensation Whitney Houston to play one of four lead heroines. Her role is Savannah, a TV producer who has man troubles – she’s falling head over heels with a married man who’s promised to leave his wife soon, very soon. Savannah’s mom thinks the guy is just peachy, but daughter dear just isn’t so sure. And the there’s Robin (Lela Rochon) who has.. man troubles. She’s just left one married man and now finds herself attracted to another. But will he leave his significant other? And is she – gasp! – pregnant too! And then there’s Gloria (Loretta Devine), who has… man troubles after finding out that her ex-husband is gay, thereby negating any chance of reconciliation, and finds hersef head over heels in love – apparently true love – with a new neighbor (Gregory Hines). And finally we have Bernadine (Angela Bassett), who has (oh, never kind). She’s pissed – I mean really pissed – that her husband has just announced he’s leaving her for a white woman and plans to keep everything in the divorce. But now, at rock bottom, she’s just found a sweet man (Wesley Snipes) whose wife is dying of cancer, and together they forge a platonic relationship (so far) of mutual love and respect.

First the good news. Whitaker does a fine, fluid job of shuttling throughout these four stories, allowing nearly equal time for each and having enough scenes of them together to foster a nice “touching base” sort of effect. And he sets a pitch-perfect tone too - we begin on New Year’s Eve as a radio DJ sets a smooth, slowjam type of vibe that imbues the film with at least one theme – slow down and relax, and your troubles will often take care of themselves. It undercuts a lot of more intense moments in Exhale, and makes it, well… entertaining for the most part. We damned well need a soulful Aretha song after Angela Bassett burns every living reminder of her slimeball husband in the backseat of his sports car.

Several of the performances are noteworthy too. Bassett has the showiest part – her Bernadette gets to storm and sneer and sniffle, often within the same scene. But she also excels at the quiet stuff too – notably during her scenes with Snipes where she often just stares at him, letting her reacting do the acting. And newcomer Rochon isn’t bad as a sexy single who starts out blithely content wiih her lifestyle, before it dawns on her that all those beddings fail to provide the peace in her life that she so desperately requires. Her funniest scene – a not-so-erotic tryst with a Ton-Loc wannabe, which starts out comic and then turns to a quiet, revealing moment. She becomes instantly likeable after this.

But despite its general success as entertainment there seems to be something missing from this work, particularly when you consider it as feminist tract. We’re just not getting the significance here, or, for that matter, a purpose. Individually, these women have stories to tell, and they each offer a tale about their woes in dealing with the opposite sex, but together they drift off into the ether, and it doesn’t help that none really has any sort of conclusion. (The last scene is a shot of all four gazing at New Years fireworks, just after commenting about a Roberta Flack song in the car.) Two of the stories are nearly identical in plot – Savannah and Robin’s respective not-leaving-my-wife love interests – and so neither comes off as strikingly important. Only the Bassett/Snipes story seems like it has something to say, but it lacks a third act – we don’t really know where they’re going, nor do they tell us.

This most likely wasn’t the case with the book, as literature is a medium in which the author, as a direct storyteller, is better able to impart a message. But with movies it’s the characters, and their speech and actions, which must do that. And despite a lot of soul-searching talks between the women and some fiery arguments between the men and women, the film version just simply fails to rise much above an ensemble chick-flick. Oh, it’s a well-done chick-flick, but a chick flick nonetheless.

And I’m sure that was not their intention. But if you go in with moderate expectations you’re likely not to be disappointed. And you’ll get to see at least a couple of fine performances. Oh, and don’t forget that soundtrack.

Rating:  ***





Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Brothers McMullen (1995)


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Another one of my choices, if for no other reason than that it was the very first Fox Searchlight Film – even though the official intro wouldn’t come along until later.

I first saw The Brothers McMullen back in the summer of ’95, after getting newly hired at a local TV station. With a windfall of brand-new, disposable income, I went to the movies and saw everything…. everything.

Fortunately, there was a lot of good stuff hitting the screens back then, because ’95 was smack-dab in the middle of the indie film boom of the 90s – a sort of cinematic renaissance ushered in by maestros like Tarantino and Soderbergh. And McMullen was a part of that indie subgenre of quality films made on the cheap, films that also included El Mariachi ($7,000) and Clerks (17,000). McMullen, with its comparatively lavish budget of $24,000, came with a success story typical of so many labors of love: writer/director, with a PA at Entertainment Tonight, made the film after-hours, using company equipment, and solicited his product to ET guest Robert Redford, the creator and organizer of the Sundance Film Festival. And the rest is history.

But back to me. I caught the flick at the Towne 16 in Egg Harbor Township. And, as usual for me back then, a recent NYU film school graduate, I admired the craftsmanship of the film and its low-budget earnestness while at the same time being bored by all its relationship talk. Yeah, I was single, and in my early-twenties – not that far removed from the late-twentysomethings that inhabit the McMullen world – but I literally had no clue about women, nor could I possess a real understanding of the interpersonal drama that fuels the film. Just a lot of blah-blah about pregnancy, affairs, marriage, dating, etc… Now where was Die Hard 3 playing?

Of course now, for better or worse, I’ve fought in the trenches of love, battle scars and all, and I have a far greater appreciation for the film. I get now what the brothers are going through, and observe with a knowing smile all the peaks and pitfalls that they find themselves in. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I am truly amazed at how much better The Brothers McMullen has become after 27 years!

It is, as the title implies, all about the Irish-American experience, specifically a trio of second-generation brothers, all in different relationship stages, whose pappy has recently died and whose mom has decided to return to the Emerald Isle for no apparent reason. The eldest bro, Jack, is married to a fine woman named Molly, but is tempted to cheat by a vixen named Ann. He’s got more troubles: his younger siblings want to move back in. Ne’er-do-well Barry needs a place because he’s just broken up, and his ex rented out their apt to a woman named Audrey (whom he’s interested in). And other bro Patrick, the staunchest Catholic among them, is engaged to a woman named Susan, but her plans to cohabitate don’t sit well with his morals, and he’s certainly not ready to marry. But is he just using his religion to cover up his fear of commitment?

Things go from bad to worse for the McMullen family. Jacks goes ahead with he affair, only to have his indiscretion discovered by Molly (the ol’ telltale condom). Pat goes crawling back to Susan, but the breaks up again at the prospect of cruising cross-country with an old “friend,” the local female auto mechanic. And Barry keeps after Audrey until they start something up, but his prospects out West as a screenwriter may mean their breakup. Ah, but never fear: Barry won’t repeat his father’s  sins (whom we discover to be a real louse), and makes a sacrifice for love. And Jack ends his tryst once and for all, with his wife willing to forgive and forget (yeah, right). All’s well that ends well, and so long as the Guinesses keep coming.

My salient reaction to the film this time around has to be that I enjoyed the film, and that enjoyment is mostly due to the fact that I liked these characters. And that’s really saying something for a film about people in their twenties talking about relationships. Mist films of this ilk – usually Hollywood productions – are excruciating to get through because their characters are so self-absorbed, and so self-consciously hip. Every time they open their mouths I just want to tune them out. But McMullen’s cast is comprised of real people, people who mostly say what they mean, and don’t have to make a zillion pop-cultural references to sound clever. And director Burns is smart enough to shuttle back and forth among the three stories with just enough frequency that each doesn’t get too labored. The common thread, of course, are the brothers with each other, ad their beers, which acts as sort of Greek Chorus several times throughout.

Of course, the “twist” here is that we’re talking about young Irish-Catholics, and how their religion often collides with the mores of post-sexual revolution America. Patrick probably epitomizes this the most: his guilt and confusion over how to deal with his marriage-ready Jewish fiancĂ© is played mostly comical but with a troubling undercurrent. And if ther breaking up, getting back together, breaking up pattern feels a bit unstructured, well, isn’t that how relationships are? They don’t always have the tidy rhythms of plot, and in a film like McMullen, they probably shouldn’t.

Ironically, it’s Burns own story that comes off as the weakest of the three. His Barry, who won’t ever settle down with one woman feels like old hat, and his neurotic ponderings and schticky voice-overs are entirely reminiscent of Woody Allen, a similarity none to accidental I’m sure. But all that could be forgiven were it mot for one neary fatal flaw – his casting of model and real-life girlfriend Maxine Brahns as his on-screen love interest (Audrey). She’s a poor actress – let me just say it outright – so poor in fact that it calls to mind Sofia Coppola’s amateur work in The Godfather III. Her scenes were the only ones that really called attention to its low-budgetry, something I hated being reminded of. Fortunately most of this occurs toward the end, after the dramatic heavy-lifting had already occurred by the rest of the far more accomplished cast.

Am I being too hard on her? Perhaps, but that’s only because I hold the rest of the film in such high regard. Everything about McMullen just feels pitch perfect – its style, its theme, its tone (adding just the right amount of Irish music to key scenes to tie it to the motherland). And there’s an earnestness, too, that imbues its indie cred with a sense of purpose. I was reminded of the early films of John Cassavettes as I enjoyed McMullen – here, as in those films, the stripping down of human life, and the laying bare of all its frailties and complexities, is what makes it such a necessary film. And  that’s one of the reasons we all go to the movies, isn’t it?

Burns would go on to direct more polished, mainstream flicks, but none would top the potency of his debut effort. Such seems to be the case with most directors. So skip She’s the One and No Looking Back and go with where it all began.


Rating:  ****




Sunday, December 3, 2017

Nell (1994)


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(My choice again, as this was a modest critical fave and got a few Oscar nods.)

In the 70s, Jodie Foster was a pre-teen wonderkund, making a name for herself with a couple of Scorcese classics and a Disney fan-fave. But the 80s were not he her decade; Hollywood din’t quite know what to do with her puckish charm and razor-sharp intellect. All that changed with The Accused and her subsequent Oscar win for Best Actress, and all that really changed with her-follow up, a little-known thriller named The Silence of the Lambs, and yet another Oscar win for it. By the mid-90s she was in the driver’s seat, and could pretty much pick whatever she wanted to peruse.

And so one project she opted for was an adaption of the play Idioglossia, producing it with her newly founded company, Egg Pictures. She placed herself in the lead role of Nell (also the film’s title), an illiterate backwoods woman who can communicate with a language known only to herself. Clearly Foster had an affinity with this character and this topic matter – it’s evident in her devotion to the role – and she was rewarded with another Oscar nomination, although no win. And the movie itself has much going for it; it entertains some pretty heady ideas about basic human rights and the “what’s best for…” argument, particularly where it pertains to those with special needs and uncivilized. But while Nell is hard not to like, it’s also hard to too get too excited about it. The material here feels just a bit thin to sustain a feature-length release.

Liam Neeson plays Jerry Lovell, a country doctor who discovers Nell, left alone after the sudden death of her elderly mother, in a remote North Carolina shack. Kicking and screaming at the first sight of a stranger, she appears to speak a language of gibberish, but Lovell is determined to “tame” her enough to be able to help her. He enlists the help of Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), an autism specialist, but when she arrives with a court order to institutionalize her, he responds with a court order of his own to prevent it. The judge withholds a verdict for three months, long enough for both doctors to study Nell and learn her language so he can render a more informed decision.
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Lovell and Olsen move out to the woods (she in a nice boat on the river) to study the “wild child,” and, through the use of monitoring devices, observation and sheer patience, begin to realize that Nell’s language isn’t that far removed from English – it actually turns out to be a very distorted dialect learned from her mother, who had suffered a severe speech-affecting stroke. Lovell, in particular, develops a rapport with Nell – after he realizes that Nell’s fear of men stems from her witnessing her other’s rape, he resolves to use her gender as a way of neutralizing that phobia. All goes well with the study (with both doctors seeming to develop romantic feelings for one another), until the outside world steps in; local boys learn about Nell and taunt and sexually harass her, followed by inevitable media coverage. Nell is brought to a psychiatric hospital with disastrous results, and her court appearance doesn’t look so good either. But Nell rises to the occasion with an unexpected attempt to speak – enough, evidently, for a judge to allow her independence, and in an epilogue five years later, she enjoys a reunion with the doctors, now married to each other, along with an extended family of locals. And she appears to speak better English too.

Nell has a lot of nice tings going. Planted in the luscious mountains of North Carolina (and filmed there too), the story makes use of its misty vistas – you can almost feel like you’re there too. The “bad guys” in the film – the psychologists who want to study Nell (we all know how that goes) – are depicted without too much caricature. Clearly the Olsen character, who becomes Lovell’s love interest, must be somewhere in the middle, and I admired her underplayed ambivalence. Only at the end does she truly demonstrate feelings toward her colleague, and even then it’s more a matter of professional course. Not every movie has to have a sun-drenched love scene halfway through.

And I liked the Lovell character a great deal – he, after all, affords the film its main theme about how civility keeps us from feeling free and truly alive, cognizant of what really matters. (A recurring picture of Nell standing on a river log, arms outstretched toward the heavens, is its representative image.) Neeson ably makes the character work, along with its dynamicism. His change is not quite as obvious as Olsen’s, but it’s there. And he even manages to rescue some scenes that could easily have been completely laughable, such as the moment when he needs to show Nell his penis so she’ll be less fearful of the “weapon” used against he mother. Or the scene where he and Olsen sweet-talk each other using Nell’s gobbledygook, the premise being that her tongue is more emotionally connective.

But Nell has some flaws too, director Michael Apted takes a leisurely pace in telling his tale, even when parts of the film require a stronger momentum (like the buildup to the court case and the threat by outside interlopers). As a matter of fact, the whole thing could benefit from being more tightly wound, and even featuring a bit more backstory for Lovel and Olson – why does he yearn for that freedom of spirit that he see’s in Nell; why does she stick so rigidly to her pedantry?

There’s also a few loose ends. The local sheriff’s wife has some psychiatric issues of her own that are never made clear, and we’re led to believe that perhaps she’s Nell’s long-lost sister, but that’s never ascertained. And then there’s the ending, which pushes the disbelief that we’ve been heretofore willing to suspend. Just before the judge will likely remand her to a hospital, Nell suddenly rises to the occasion with an impassioned quasi-coherent speech about love and interconnectivity. And suddenly we dissolve to the five-years-later epilogue, in which we must assume she’s legally won her independence and can live back where she belongs. Apted robs us of that payoff, that doesn’t have to be overdramatic but it does have to be there.

By and large, Nell just feels too TV-movie, despite some occasional cinematic elements. I will remember these characters, but only as flattened representations of characteristics, not as fully fleshed-out people in their own right. And for a play adaption that is all about character, that is important. Still, it’s worthwhile for some of the ideas it entertains.

 Rating:  ***







 
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