Disasters waiting to happen

CINEMA: Tarantino and `Titantic', Spielberg and Scorsese: Hollywood's bag for 1998 is pretty mixed, reckons David Thomson
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The Independent Culture
December is a cruel month for American movie critics, which may account for why so many of them have no family life to speak of. Sooner or later, you have to choose between Home Alone 3 and being home alone - which is a sadder plight if you're 45, and less likely to be turned into a smash movie. The problem is that so many films open in December, not just to feed off the holiday train (more or less nothing except football and skiing will happen in the land between 25 December and 5 January), but to qualify for Oscar consideration next March. So critics are seeing two or three a day sometimes, trying to separate their scrawled notes from the dark. Nearly all the movies in question won't open in Britain until 1998, but that's no reason to spare you a swift round-up of what was (on paper) a very promising season.

John Grisham's The Rainmaker is Francis Coppola's most satisfying entertainment since ... well, let kindness sweep that sentence away. It's about a young lawyer in Memphis fighting a litigation case against a greedy, corrupt insurance company. He wins, but at the expense of his faith in the law. What that leaves is a juicy, cliche-happy courtroom melodrama that then neatly exploits America's current contempt for all things lawyerly. It's well made, in a decent, obvious way; there are robust performances - especially from Jon Voight (a remade actor) as the bad lawyer; and you get to have your cake and eat it - a regimen that helps explain audience obesity (the outward symptom of too little critical thinking).

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is Clint Eastwood trying to capture the Savannah of John Berendt's best-selling book. It has two smart actors, John Cusack and Kevin Spacey, but it's a serious failure, and proof again that Clint's comfortable range is no wider than his eyes when he's vexed.

All the films (bar one) this season are too long. Martin Scorsese's Kundun is only two hours and eight minutes, but it is the movie that is most too long. With Philip Glass's droning music and authentic Tibetan instruments that match the timbre of snoring, the very placid, pious story of the Dalai Lama's life makes sleep nearly irresistible. Yes, it's beautiful, and probably true to history and landscape (it uses north Africa as opposed to Tibet). But Scorsese needs to believe in his characters, and here only the strain of effort is apparent. A disaster.

The courts allowed Steven Spielberg's Amistad to open, yet he still faces charges that the film plagiarises a book about the 1839 slave ship revolt, with the mutinous s1aves swept up on an American shore and taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Amistad is impasto and shallow at the same time, overdone, overwrought and under-thought. For this alleged Schindler's List for blacks actually sends its blacks back to Africa. Anthony Hopkins, as former president John Quincy Adams, further demonstrates his appetite for baked ham.

Wag the Dog, with a script co-written by David Mamet and directed by Barry Levinson, ought to be funnier than it is. Robert De Niro plays a political spin controller who arranges a small war to divert attention from a president's sexual scandal - in reality, of course, it would be a big war. The film comes to life when he hires a movie producer to help with the "pageant" - this role allows Dustin Hoffman to give a brilliant, fond impersonation of the fabled producer Robert Evans (a coup that maybe 5,000 people in the world will appreciate, but none more than Evans, in whom scandal has not yet vanquished self-love).

As Good as it Gets is James Brooks reunited with Jack Nicholson in a comedy that never lets the audience settle down. Jack plays a misanthrope - which isn't natural casting. But he's too good not to make sense of it. Meanwhile, Helen Hunt, playing a hapless waitress, steals the picture.

The biggie, of course, is James Cameron's Titanic (12; opens 23 Jan), costing well over $200 million, postponed from the summer, and prompting all manner of Hollywood moralising over excessive budgets. All valid, but who'll stop the rain when the "problem" is just a matter of Hollywood people paying themselves too much? The film turns out to be an epic (in the best sense), a human story set against a famous and spectacular crisis. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are excellent as the lovers. You cry; lots of people drown. I think audiences will buy it, and I wouldn't be surprised if it got Best Picture.

Yet, for myself, I'd give that award to Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry or Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. Audiences don't like The Ice Storm, but it's a true tragedy about family life in the 1970s. The Allen is one of his best pictures ever, about a novelist who turns his life into books and so is hated or feared by those who know him. It's all about Woody, of course, but this time the narcissistic whimsy is gone. There's real anger and pain instead, wild humour, and a sense that in all his travails, somehow this guy has got better. And the film isn't too long - I wanted more.

Jackie Brown was not just awaited. Critics all over the world are lined up bursting to take revenge for their excessive praise of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. They are also full of righteous dismay at how long it has taken Tarantino to make another film - as if a young man didn't have the right to heed the earlier critical advice that he grow up, or older. Well, here's his next film, and it's a small genre piece (though still 20 minutes too long). What genre? - black movies. It's hilarious, intricate, less violent than the first films, fonder of ordinary experience, and the work of a film-maker. Is this the best third movie ever made? Want to argue, without a reference book?

Anything else? Yes, Boogie Nights (18; 16 Jan) opened here in the autumn but it's still playing, and it's enjoyable, overlong and over-praised. And then there's The Postman, which no critic seems to have seen. It's Kevin Costner as a post-apocalypse postman, saving the world. The word of mouth is that it's so bad, the studio won't show it. So Costner has been doing promo by "subtly" reporting that "maybe" he and Diana - yes, that Diana - were going to do a sequel to The Bodyguard.

In his dreams? Or hers? It's no sillier than many of the movies we get. !