AMISTAD (A-3, R) focuses on a neglected piece of uplifting American history about the revolt of African slaves who overcame their Spanish captors on a ship off Cuba in 1839, only to wind up in a New England jail. This Steven Spielberg film describes the legal struggles of the legendary Cinque and his followers, eventually freed after an eloquent appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by a then-aged ex-president, John Quincy Adams, in probably his finest moment.
Beginning with a description of the revolt in a creative sequence lit by lightning strokes, the movie reflects the anxieties of the times, divided about the nature of man, the morality of slavery and the inevitable approaching war. The appeal of Adams (a virtuoso performance by Anthony Hopkins) is to the founding fathers the same dream of intrinsic human value and freedom that is to be cited later by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Spielberg is good at recreating the political complexities of the abolition movement and getting inside the psyches of Cinque (played superbly by West African Djimon Hounsou) and his followers with insight and humor. A Catholic judge plays a significant role. There is help from Morgan Freeman and Matthew McConaughey. The music is by John Williams. Recommended for mature youth and adults.
Photo © 1997 Paramount by Merie W. Wallace
Titanic is the ultimate special-effects movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as lovers on a ship bound for disaster.
TITANIC (A-3, PG-13): James Cameron's film focuses on the 1912 disaster in the North Atlantic, from iceberg-scraping to a sea of frozen corpses floating in the moonlight. This is the prototype vision of 20th-century horror: arrogant "unsinkable" technology gone wrong, stupidity (lifeboats sacrificed for deck space) in the face of the unforeseen, division (between rich and poor, male and female, coward and hero).
The British are almost too polite to say the ship is sinking, the band plays "cheery" music and "Nearer My God to Thee," a bravely determined priest calms a group with Hail Marys and passages from Scripture. The sophisticated sip brandy, and a mother tucks her children to bed for the last time.
It's awesome, fanatically detailed in three-plus hours and more than a little horrible. And that's not even to mention that this is the ultimate special-effects movie in an industry that has gone mad on the subject. In the end, the fictional Romeo and Juliet story (Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet) moves us by communicating a genuine sense of the power of true love. Much more than you expect and probably want, but worth seeing and pondering; a landmark film, for mature audiences.
THE WINGS OF THE DOVE
THE WINGS OF THE DOVE (A-3, R): In this sharp adaptation of a Henry James novel, set in England in the same period as Titanic, two lovers without money plot to gain a fortune by having the man woo a dying American heiress.
Unfortunately, he falls in love with her among the haunting canals of Venice. Fine performances, especially by Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache as the frustrated plotters. Greed loses ironically to conscience; recommended for adults.
THE RAINMAKER (A-3, PG-13): A young Memphis lawyer (Matt Damon) takes on a nasty insurance company and its well-oiled ace attorney (Jon Voight) for a client dying of leukemia. He defends a battered wife against her baseball bat-wielding husband. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it's David vs. Goliath in this John Grisham story that says all the trendy bad things about lawyers but concedes we need them. Satisfies the heart but stretches the belief system; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.
MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL
MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (A-3, R): The endless and notorious 1980's Jim Williams murder case in Savannah, made legendary by John Berendt's runaway best-seller, is brought to the screen with wit by Clint Eastwood. It is spiced by bizarre but affectionately etched characters, from the Lady Chablis, a charming and well-known local transvestite entertainer, to the voodoo priestess Minerva. John Cusack is solid as a puzzled New York journalist and Kevin Spacey is dignified and elegant as the mysterious Williams. A wry, unique but ultimately vaporous mystery story for adults.
MOVIES IN '97
The Best (of those reviewed here): Shine, The Crucible, Secrets and Lies, Sling Blade, Paradise Road, Men in Black, Ulee's Gold, In the Company of Men, L.A. Confidential, The Wings of the Dove, Amistad, Titanic.
Also Worth the Price: Rosewood, Breakdown, Night Falls on Manhattan, Contact, Seven Years in Tibet, Donnie Brasco, The Edge.
The Over-the-Rainbow Award for Best Use of Music: the awesome female choral singing of the theme from Dvorak's New World Symphony (Paradise Road). Runners-up: Rachmaninoff's Concerto #3 (Shine); everything from Bacharach to Kern (My Best Friend's Wedding). "Over the Rainbow" itself was used over a poignant shoot-out scene in Face/Off.
The Anthony Erbe Prize for Smarmiest Villain: Aaron Eckhart's arrogant misogynist trickster, Chad (In the Company of Men). A close second: Vincent Donofrio, as the farmer possessed by the space-alien bug (Men in Black).
The Jennifer Jones Award to the Actor Playing the Year's Saintliest Character (given only now and then): Diane Keaton (Marvin's Room) as the caregiver, herself a cancer patient, to whom the corporal works of mercy come easily and cheerfully.
Doting Grandfather Award (for best A-2 movie). This year, the focus was on older kids. The winner is Marvin's Room. Runners-up: Selena, Night Falls on Manhattan, Seven Years in Tibet.
Favorite Male Actor (unlikely to be Oscar-nominated): Timothy Spall as the compassionate portrait photographer (Secrets and Lies) who discovers in his work the means to save his soul.
Favorite Female Actor (unlikely to be Oscar-nominated): a tie between Christine Dunford, as the drug-troubled but revived daughter-in-law (Ulee's Gold), and Diane Venora as the skilled, courageous Russian (The Jackal).
The God's Footprints Award for Best Metaphors for Grace: The hand mirror reflecting sunlight that a caregiver uses to bring joy and magic to an aging Alzheimer's patient (Marvin's Room). Grandma's Sunday-afternoon meals and their sharing and sustenance-giving (Soul Food).
Lines to Remember: "I've given you my soul, leave me my name." (The condemned John Proctor in The Crucible)
"I'm not becoming like them....I am them." (Undercover F.B.I. agent, talking of his Mob associates, in Donnie Brasco)
"What if you're everything I hoped for and it turns out I'm not good enough for you?" (Heroine to hero, Night Falls on Manhattan)
"If you keep faking it enough, you may start believing it." (The Wings of the Dove)
Glenn Close's reading of the 23rd Psalm. (Paradise Road)
The Ebenezer Prize (to the movie bearing the most plot resemblance to A Christmas Carol): The Game.
Among Many Contributors to Film Culture Who Died in 1997: directors Fred Zinnemann (The Nun's Story, A Man for All Seasons), Bo Widerberg (Elvira Madigan) and Sam Fuller (The Big Red One); costumer Jean Louis; writer Dorothy Kingsley; cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; actors James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Burgess Meredith, Red Skelton, Sheldon Leonard, Toshiro Mifune, Brian Keith, Chris Farley.
Memorable Moments and Images: Helfgott's mid-concert breakdown (Shine), Jim Carrey wrestling with his office pen (Liar Liar), the shoot-out in the chapel full of Catholic icons and Latin on the soundtrack (in John Woo's wackily creative Face/Off), the finding of the body under the house (L.A. Confidential), Victoria and her daughters swimming in the royal pool in hats and long swimming dresses (Mrs. Brown), the ship of escaping slaves sailing face-to-face by a yacht full of affluent whites eating candlelight dinners to classical music (Amistad).
A GLANCE AT 1997
A GLANCE AT 1997: There were 59 sitcoms in prime time, up from 53 last year. Wish I could find a half dozen that were funny. Some critics argue that the cartoons (King of the Hill, The Simpsons) were the best. What seems to go wrong when real actors are employed?
More than anything else, TV is sports (in '97, it was Packers, Bulls, Marlins and Tiger Woods, among others), which is so attractive it's practically an occasion of sin, and news, which is mostly scary.
Consider the McVeigh and Nichols trials, Saddam, plunges of the stock market, the cloning of a sheep named Dolly, JonBenet Ramsey, the Louise Woodward trial, Andrew Cunanan, the shocking death of Princess Diana. In the case of Mother Teresa, it was sad for us, but for her it was the entry into paradise. The Pathfinder got to Mars, and we marveled at the septuplets in Des Moines.
Ted Turner gave $1 billion to the United Nations and Ellen DeGeneres came out. Fox paid $1.9 billion for The Family Channel, which put Rupert Murdoch into partnership with Pat and Tim Robertson. There was the Seinfeld case, in which it was decided that a man talking to a female co-worker about the language used on the show to describe intimate anatomical parts did not amount to sexual harassment.
Among major contributors who died: George Schaefer (Hallmark Hall of Fame), Robert Saudek (Omnibus), Brandon Tartikoff, Charles Kuralt, Pat Paulsen, James Michener, George Fenneman, Dennis James, director Michael O'Herlihy (Gunsmoke), producer Hy Averbach (M*A*S*H), Denver Pyle, Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
NIGHTLINE (ABC, nightly) paid tribute to the people of Lockerbie, Scotland, for their kindness to relatives of passengers on the doomed Pan Am Flight 103 for nine years. Out of rare Christian compassion, they have welcomed and comforted them. They also salvaged all personal belongings, laundered and sent them to the families. Nightline preserves what we would otherwise miss.