Cinema: It isn't big and it isn't clever. And it isn't bad either
Also showing: Enemy of the State (15) What Dreams May Come (15) The Mighty (PG)
Sunday 27 December 1998
Smith plays a hotshot DC lawyer whose life promptly falls apart when an old college friend slips him a McGuffin while being pursued to his death by mysterious men in suits. The film gathers momentum more slowly than you'd expect, and finally seems a little shapeless. But that works to its advantage: it feels twistier and more unpredictable than it actually is. Scott gets a good deal of mileage from the sped-up, spliced-in surveillance footage, and the aerial satellite shots lend an extra charge to the rooftop action, though someone should really tell him that shooting at a 45-degree angle gives the audience a stiff neck.
Enemy of the State is too concerned with showing you a good time to tap into primal anxieties. It eventually ditches you-are-being-watched dread for safe escapist stuff like buildings blowing up. Also, the bad guys are curiously non-threatening. A waxy-looking Jon Voight plays a megalomaniacal but not especially sinister National Security Agency head, and the other government operatives, most of them young computer-geek types, are even less villainous. The net result is fairly low-tension, and yet, as Hollywood product goes, satisfyingly off-kilter. Pray that Mr Bruckheimer doesn't try to mangle it into a formula.
Speaking of formulas, afterlife movies seldom stray far from safe New Agey terrain. With their beckoning tunnels of light and stairways to heaven, soothing mantras of it's-not-so-bad and it's-never-too-late, these films are primarily feelgood experiences, born of an understandable desire to rose-tint the unknown. But the bottomless trough of mystic swill that is Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come clearly has no conception of the paradigm's most basic requirements. At once light-headed and lugubrious, the film has a vision of the afterlife which makes death seem even more frightful than before.
It opens, nauseatingly, with Chris (Robin Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra) meeting cutely on a lake in the Alps, and quickly flashes forward to tragedy, killing off the couple's two young children in a car crash. Cut to a few years hence, and Chris perishes in similar fashion. In the first sign that the film might have been conceived in the proximity of some king-size spliffs, Cuba Gooding Jr then appears to the newly deceased Chris as a naked, out-of-focus smudge, turning pirouettes and spelling out the metaphysics of the great beyond in stubbornly unhelpful syllogisms. "If you're aware you exist, then you still do. That's why you're here."
Afterlife movies can often be counted on for a certain reductive clarity, reconfiguring matters of divine judgment and karmic payback in the reassuringly earthly vernacular of point systems and plea-bargains. But What Dreams May Come adopts a curiously laissez-faire philosophy: your heaven is what you make it (eg, heaven is an oil painting, heaven is a purple tree, heaven is your adolescent daughter transmogrified into a flight attendant - don't ask). Damnation, on the other hand, is strictly old- school (suicides go to hell), even if, as it turns out, Annie's version (yes, she kills herself) is a dilapidated mansion containing nothing more traumatising than the odd arachnid.
In the complete absence of romantic sparks, the film's insistence that love is stronger than death falls embarrassingly flat. Sciorra is bland, and particularly susceptible to fits of hysterical cackling (maybe those spliffs were on hand again). And Williams resorts to crinkly-faced simpering. Ward and screenwriter Ron Bass's attempts to bridge the numerous plot chasms consist mainly of blinding bursts of white light. And the over-the-top special effects are phantasmagorical without ever conveying wonder or enchantment.
A formulaic weepie directed by Peter Chelsom, The Mighty is about the friendship between two adolescent boys, Max (Elden Henson), a shy, slow- witted hulk, and Kevin (Kieran Culkin), a smart aleck with a degenerative bone disease. The two young leads are capable, and Sharon Stone (deglamorised, yet still radiant) does a decent job as Kevin's mum. But the boys' escapades are never especially involving, and a subplot concerning Max's evil father is tiresome. Chelsom's taste for offbeat whimsy suits the story, but more often than you'd hope, he takes the most sentimental option available.
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