THE CRITICS FILM: Roll over and over, Beethoven

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Stephen Herek, the director of Mr Holland's Opus (grotesque subtitle: "A Symphony of Life". In which key, pray?), began his career by glamorising teenage idiocy in such slack-jawed comedies as Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead!. But now he is a man, and has put away childish things. Now he has gone back to school to glamorise those who try to hammer knowledge and discrimination into their bone-headed charges: secondary-school teachers. This would be wholly laudable, were it not that the idea of culture in which the film luxuriates is scarcely more adult than one which Bill and Ted might conceive. Though it pays due lip- service to Bach, Stravinsky and Coltrane, the reality is that Herek wants you to swoon in aesthetic rapture at "Stranger on the Shore".

Borrowing freely from It's a Wonderful Life and Goodbye, Mr Chips, Mr Holland's Opus (PG) is a lachrymose near-comedy about the doubtful contract Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) makes with his own life and energies. An aspiring composer, he takes a gig as a high-school music instructor to buy himself the time and money to nurse his talent. After a sullen month or so, he slowly learns how to instruct enthusiastically and democratically, then finds himself wedded to his humble job, and goes on to inspire generation after generation of students from the early Sixties to the present, all at the expense of his compositional powers.

In outline, this is quite a compelling theme, and a rich metaphor: who hasn't made a poor bargain for their gifts? But the film grubs tirelessly around for other kinds of pathos, too - the death of students in Vietnam, the irritatingly pat deafness of Holland's son (cue Beethoven lesson: Herek isn't terrified of the obvious), Holland's crush on a girl student, even the murder of John Lennon. It's as though Herek and his screenwriter, Patrick Sheane Duncan, were terrified that 15 minutes might pass without the audience blubbing, and the upshot is that there are long sequences in which Holland's creative plight goes AWOL so that we can all mist up. No one should need telling that an inspiring teacher is one of the finer beings on God's earth; the film's tacit philistinism is that it never tries to think past that pious recognition, and confront what it would have meant for a Stravinsky or a Coltrane to chuck it all in for 3B's exam results.

Within its lower-middlebrow confines, Mr Holland's Opus is an undeniably efficient tear-jerker, impeccably liberal, impeccably unthreatening, and Dreyfuss is such a humane presence that he almost carries the drama through its maudlin extremes. But Herek & Co have rotten taste - not just in high culture, but in pop, too. The most sickening episode has Holland crooning John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" to his son at a public concert; never mind the fact that the poor kid ought to be screaming with embarrassment, didn't anyone pause to reflect that this is one of Lennon's very worst songs?

It will spoil no one's enjoyment to reveal that the film ends with a school concert rendition of the titular opus: "An American Symphony" by Glenn Holland. In fact, it will probably enhance everyone's enjoyment to sprint out of the cinema just before Holland raises his baton, since the Opus (the briefest symphony in musical history) is the kind of tacky, drum-bass-and-electric-guitar, soaring-and-straining piffle used in shaving foam adverts. It sends the firm - and presumably, unintentional - signal: yes, as a composer, poor Mr Holland was a hopeless non-starter after all.

Bad call. The conclusion retrospectively strips the film of all the sense of waste it has fitfully tried to pile up: far from having laid his talent on the altar of teacherly altruism, Holland obviously had no real talent to sacrifice. If the film-makers had had the courage to fade to black just before the orchestra struck up, their movie might still have had the chance to haunt and sting. Given its context - Holland has just been sacked at the age of 60, in a round of education cuts - it should end with ambiguity and savage indignation. It settles for facile uplift.

Inspired pedagogy is also dear to the heart of Ridley Scott's White Squall (12), a drama based on the true story of a bunch of American boys who, in 1960, went on an educational cruise which was savagely cut short when their yacht ran into a storm. Several crew members died. As their skipper and chief moral tutor, Jeff Bridges is the apotheosis of every bronzed martinet with a heart you've seen in a thousand Marine Corps movies: he sets his jaw and intones elemental wisdoms: "Behold the power of the wind!" He is a walking homily on manliness and clean living.

The drama falls into three acts; a long opening section in which the motley lads become a lean, mean, united crew; the white squall itself; and a bathetic coda, in which Bridges is tried for incompetence and all the survivors wax touchy-feely. Were it not for the conspicuous element of nautical pornography, the movie would drag, but anyone with so much as a mild penchant for the pert curling of waves, the provocative straining of sheets in the breeze, the daring penetration of wave by prow, will soon be all of a lather. Scott's orchestration of the disaster sequence is highly skilled, and for anyone who has an inkling of just how difficult it is to shoot on water, there are passages of White Squall that are simply awesome. Scott has often been at his best with shipboard crises, whether on the Atlantic with Columbus or in deep space with the mining vessel Nostromo in Alien.

Another Hollywood product directed by a British ex-pat, the former editor Stuart Baird, Executive Decision (15) is one of the most enjoyable no-brainers to trot out of the stable of producer Joel Silver in a good many months. Premise: a gang of deranged Middle Eastern terrorists led by David Suchet have hijacked a 747 crammed with hostages, armed it with nerve gas, and are flying it straight at Washington, DC. Should the US shoot the plane down, or what? Thanks to a zippy new Stealth plane, security forces are able to sneak a bunch of commandos led by Steven Seagal (who dies gratifyingly early) on to its lower deck, and the fun begins.

Possibly nervous at the political insensitivity of making the villains another bunch of True Lies-style Islamic head-cases, the film trips over itself to provide a wholesome range of non-Wasp sympathy figures. Not only is the rescue team given a minutely calculated ethnic balance (one African-American, one Hispanic, one Asian ...), each of the other goodies belongs to a useful stereotype: the desk-jockey in a DJ (amusing if implausible casting for Kurt Russell), the studious fat bloke, the plucky air-hostess babe. There's even one sympathetic terrorist, just to show that, hey, being a loony Islamic hijacker doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad person. The fact that the outcome is not in doubt for a second seems not to hamper things at all.

For a film made by a dying man, Nigel Finch's Stonewall (15) displays a frivolity that borders on the heroic. One brief moment might stand as an emblem for the whole enterprise: LaMiranda, an apolitical drag queen (Guillermo Diaz), beaten and half-drowned by a gang of policemen, regains his/her dignity by shaking off the filthy water and pasting on lipstick. Some matters are too serious not to take lightly. The serious core of Stonewall is the small-scale gay riot that took place in Greenwich Village in 1969 - the night when the love that dared not speak its name started to shout it loud - and the lightness is Finch's decision to treat the background to this event as part love triangle, part period comedy, part fantastical lip-synched musical (to a perky set of early Sixties girlie- group hits like "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" which would have done wonders for Mr Holland and his Opus). Witty and knowing, the film also has a generosity of spirit which disarms any impulse to carp about its slight raggedness; anyway, as a former BBC colleague of Nigel Finch's, I feel less inclined to niggle than to regret his passing, and the loss of those features he would undoubtedly have gone on to make. He added, in every good sense, to the gaiety of nations.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.