A CIVIL ACTION
A CIVIL ACTION (A-2,
PG-13): This is the Era of the Lawyersas heroes, as significant
villains, as knights-errant for good or evil. They engage in our titanic
battles. They risk lives, careers, fortunes. They determine truth,
who wins, who loses, who gets the money, who inherits the land.
Symptomatic of the
times is a film like A Civil Action, in which the most stupefyingly
tedious and complicated matters on the judicial calendar become the
meat of popular shoot-out melodrama, using words instead of bullets.
This John Travolta hit movie offers a kind of mythic showdown of lawyers
struggling for their own soulsas well as the soul of America. It's
also the essential American story: the eternal combat between big
bad capitalism and little-guy victims.
The story is cut from
1980's reality. Families living near a stream in a blue-collar Boston
suburb (Woburn) are afflicted by an unusual epidemic of leukemia.
When a small firm of personal-injury lawyers discovers that nearby
polluters are subsidiaries of major corporations, it goes after the
companies with the deep pockets.
The hero, Jay Schlictmann,
played by Travolta, is at first in it just for the money. He becomes
a hero because it becomes a moral issue for him, a matter of justice,
even when he and his reluctant partners have to mortgage everything
to keep the case going.
They're the underdogs,
and it's David vs. Goliath. The guilt exposed here is criminal neglect
and general abuse caused by the power of wealth. Jay sacrifices everything,
eventually, for justice. Even more sympathetic and courageous are
the workday victims (movingly acted by Kathleen Quinlan and others)
who have no choice about their sacrifices.
Steve Zaillian (debut film: Searching for Bobby Fischer) boils
Jonathan Harr's huge book down to its heartthe hired-gun skills
and tactics of the courtroom pros who bring lawsuits and defend them.
As the folksy veteran
legal gunslinger for one of the conglomerates, Robert Duvall is a
major challenge for the good guys. Sidney Pollack is also outstanding
as a corporate hotshot who pulls class and Harvard-education credentials
to intimidate Travolta.
In one of the movie's
insightful moments, Duvall and Travolta sit in the courtroom hallway
awaiting the verdict, trying to hammer out a settlement. "We're like
kings," Duvall says, "deciding the fates of others and counting the
money." Exactly. Recommended for youth and adults.
THIN RED LINE
THE THIN RED LINE (A-3,
R) is poetic, thoughtful and yet a typically tough end-of-the-century
war film. Reclusive genius writer-director Terrence (Days of Heaven)
Malick's first movie in 20 years follows a battalion of G.I.'s landing
on Japanese-held Guadalcanal in the Pacific in 1942-43, winning several
horrendous battles with heavy casualties before shipping out. The
familiar motif is "War-is-hell," and the issue is "What did it all
The nearly three-hour
movie focuses on daylight frontal assaults on grassy hills dominated
at the crest by stubborn Japanese machine guns. The action is brutally
real, comparable to the famous Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private
Ryan. The camera seems to float up the hills beside and behind
the troops, and the anguished aftermath is varied rage and compassion
for living enemy soldiers.
A score of characters
survive the translation from James Jones's novel, chiefly the gentle,
brave nonconformist Pvt. Witt (luminous Jim Caviezel in the role every
actor in Hollywood wanted), who argues the mysteries of good/evil
and immortality with the valorous but cynical Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn)
throughout the battle.
Witt is a natural philosopher of hope who (despite the horror) is
struck by the beauty of nature and the innocence of the islanders,
constantly explored by Malick's cameras.
Witt has questions
but ultimately believes in a better world beyond this one. Welsh believes
only in the here and now. Like most movies that speculate about life's
meaning, God is silent. Despite some ambiguity, despair seems to win.
Ben Chaplin is riveting
as a soldier obsessed (and supported) by memories of his wife. Another
key figure is "regular army" Col. Tall (Oscar-level work by Nick Nolte),
one of a long line of military madmen in movies. He drives the men
up the hill without rest or water, at least partly to serve his own
ambition. His dogged foe (played with understandable disbelief by
Elias Koteas) is a captain, a lawyer in civilian life, who flat out
refuses to lead his men (his symbolic sons) to certain death.
Although famous names
(John Travolta, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack) have
fine cameo moments, Red Line is notable less for actors than
for images (fast-tracking violence and haunted faces mostly, but also
trees, animals, sun) and contemplation: "This great evil,...what seed,
what root did it come from?...Does it help the grass to grow and the
sun to shine?...Does its darkness grow in me, too?" Dark, lovely,
unique war film but not quite satisfying; worth seeing for thoughtful
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
(A-3, R): In this affectionate tribute to the master of all playwrights,
young Will Shakespeare, trying to write a dumb commercial-hit comedy
and stressed by writer's block, falls for a beautiful aristocrat.
He will sadly lose her to an arranged marriage typical of the time.
Events intertwine with and clearly inspire his writing of his first
great tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. (The movie ends with its debut
staging in an early version of the Globe Theatre.)
This is mostly speculation
and whimsy by writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, since little is
known of Shakespeare's life. But it's a clever concoction, weaving
late 16th-century social realities and funny stuff about show biz.
Enduring icons of the period range from Elizabeth I (a witty cameo
by Judi Dench) to Kit Marlowe and Richard Burbage (who was to play
most of the bard's great roles). Best of all, it gives a face and
personality (intense, dark-eyed Joseph Fiennes) to the ever-shadowy
Shakespeare, who can now become "real" to the movie generation.
Will's love, Viola
(Gwyneth Paltrow), is smitten with the stageforbidden to females
at the time. She costumes herselfnot very convincinglyto play
Romeo in the potboiler Will is crafting to save the company from bankruptcy
and physical threats from creditors. There is much comical rowdiness
and gender-disguising typical of Shakespeare. The tragic mood of R&Jand
its reflection in Will's and Viola's livessurges and moves.
The film's value to
drama and history students, including sharp commentary on the status
of women and moral hypocrisy, needs to be balanced by the bawdiness
of the stage folks and the romantic 1990's-ish treatment of the sexual
affair. (The bard's Romeo and Juliet were, of course, married and
so overwhelmed by exuberance they were not required to make love in
front of us to impress us.)
Yet the rich detail
and quality of director John (Mrs. Brown) Madden's vision dominate.
When in an ironic twist the about-to-leave-forever Viola comes back to save the show, there's not a dry eye among
the groundlings (or us). Recommended for mature audiences.
YOU'VE GOT MAIL (A-3,
PG): Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks reprise their upbeat strangers-connect
romance from Sleepless in Seattle in this slick, enjoyable
remake of The Shop Around the Corner, a genteel 1940 Jimmy
Stewart movie. The Internet is almost providentially trendy as a place
for strangers to meet anonymously; the Manhattan bookstore wars (little
shop vs. conglomerate) seem a fresh, relevant context for even a light
treatment of literary and human-value conflict.
In the end, however,
love is allowed unrealistically to sweep other issues aside. Another
note of caution: This is a late 1990's love story. Both principals
begin the story with live-in lovers, and their readiness to sneak
off to the Net for chummy chats with other partners is not necessarily
cute and sympathetic. Satisfactory for mature viewers.
60 MINUTES II
60 MINUTES II (CBS,
Wednesdays): The granddaddy of the TV magazine shows remains solid
in its much-hyped expansion to a second night. This is true even in
a year when there isn't much good to say about the ever-burgeoning
mag shows, which are mostly trending to trash items or reality-based
The editors tend to
pick stories that are "significantly scary" but not common knowledge
(Russia's secret plutonium city, kids in danger from anesthetics in
dental procedures), strong human interest with a moral dimension (wrongly
convicted people in prison, Eurasian children of American G.I.'s)
or just plain bizarre but picturesque (young rogue elephants whose
behavior is improved when they're put together with adult male role
The original 60
Minutes specializes in mature, credible reporters. In its offspring,
only the effort to replace Andy Rooney with young Andys (wry, trivial,
negative) has been problematic. We suggest the editors listen to radio's
All Things Considered, which offers the brightest short essays
by an endless supply of undiscovered wits.
QUESTIONS: Michael Jordan
seems to be a nice fellow, but why is he treated like a god in the
media when he is just a guy with a talent for playing a game, for
which he's already been rewarded with an income surpassing that of
many small countries?
Why do TV shows always
run major credits before an episode starts, making it hard
to match actors (especially guest stars) with roles, and other credits
at the end in a fast scroll on a half-screen alongside a noisy promo
for the show coming up?
Why are all those kids
in white running through sunny golden fields in pure joy (it seems
like heaven at the very least) because Sprint has cheap long-distance
rates on weekends?