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At the Movies

Unpredictable: Two movies rise above formula


If you’re weary of film violence and pretentious pornography, try out Spring Foward, a low-budget film with an Academy Award-worthy performance by Ned Beatty and another superlative acting job by Liev Schrieber, and find out if you’re ready to go cold turkey on conventional Hollywood narrative, jazzed up climaxes and easy conclusions.

“Spring Foward” is about two men in the New England Parks Department, an unlikely team who get to know and like each other during the course of a year. Murph (Beatty) is a shrewd, cheerful, non-judgmental man who has been married 45 years and is about to retire. Paul (Schrieber) tells Murph he has just spent 18 months in jail for armed robbery, and combines expressions of unworthiness with brief quotations from New Age texts he has been reading. Murph, upset by Paul’s frequent recourse to foul language, tells his young colleague that self-condemnation can be a kind of self-pity.

The movie is essentially a series of conversations between the two over the seasons -- often sly and semi-humorous, never didactic -- punctuated by brief codas showing everyday outdoor activities -- burning autumn leaves, kids playing street hockey.

Written and directed by playwright Tom Gilroy, “Spring Foward” has a sense of development but is intentionally slow-paced. The days are random, but we believe in the growing fondness between Murph and Paul. When a young woman schoolteacher (Peri Gilpin), encountered by chance, gives Paul a puppy and encourages him to phone her, Murph obligingly disappears. We’re so used to standard storytelling that we’re half disappointed we never see her again. “Spring Forward” isn’t out to solve Paul’s loneliness, however. Instead, it demonstrates the bond between its two main characters, and a final sequence in which Paul deals with a battered wife suggests that Murph’s mentoring has had effect.

The anguish underneath Murph’s easy friendliness is related to his gay son, who is dying. In keeping with the structure of the movie, we never meet him (or his mother). “Spring Foward’s” strongest scene takes place in front of a funeral parlor during the wake for the young man; Paul listens in silence to Murph’s remembrance of going to Mass with his 13-year-old son and becoming embarrassed when the boy leans on his shoulder. The movie doesn’t stop to preach, but it’s clear that Murph never heard Christ’s healing message.

If realistic minimalism may restrict the audience for “Spring Forward,” Bounce falls into a formulaic romanticism designed to expand it. The opening scenes at Chicago’s O’Hare airport lead to a sudden decision by self-centered advertising executive Buddy Amaral (Ben Affleck) to give up his plane ticket to Greg Janello, a young writer (Tony Goldwyn) eager to get back to his family in Los Angeles. (There is no special generosity behind this gesture -- it merely leaves Buddy free for a one-night stand with a Dallas businesswoman.) The plane crashes, Greg is among the more than 200 killed, and Buddy’s guilt-driven drinking brings him to a rehab center for recovering alcoholics. The subject is too serious for comedy, and the ensuing romance -- between Buddy and Greg’s widow, Abby (Gwyneth Paltrow) -- seems completely programmed.

Paltrow’s acting shows considerable nuance, not only in the moment when she learns of her husband’s death but in disclosing the complex emotions of a widow who finds herself both delighted and guilty over her growing interest in Buddy. Director/writer Don Roos makes the yuppie ambiance of the advertising agency appropriately cutthroat, but is a lot less successful in convincing us that Buddy himself, who calls himself a “people person,” has genuinely changed. In the final analysis, the predictability of the script and the excessive wholesomeness of Abby’s two little boys sink the whole project.

We are asked to get misty-eyed about another contemporary couple having a problem about making a serious commitment, but the absence of chemistry between Affleck and Paltrow makes it hard to care.

In contrast, the widely heralded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the real thing: a movie of often enchanting escapism, an exhibition of romantic excess that seems an appropriate accompaniment to scenes of flying swordplay. Suspension of disbelief is effortless -- you always knew you were weightless.

Director Ang Lee wittily summarizes his new movie as “Bruce Lee meets Jane Austen” -- reminding us of the speed of a Hong Kong action film and his earlier success with “Sense and Sensibility.”

Sony Pictures Classics plans to have “Crouching Tiger” in 300 theaters by Jan. 12, betting that it will go on to be an international hit. It was made in China in the Mandarin language, and though subtitles have been the death of mass appeal for years, I’m betting it won’t be much of a handicap this time. Though there is a complex plot, the movie’s appeal doesn’t depend on language.

We are in an unspecified past, and a cry goes up in a large house, “Master Li is here.” Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is seen, carrying a sword, Green Destiny, which is as great as Excalibur. The legendary sword-fighter hands over his weapon to Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), the wonderfully expressive woman warrior for whom he has long felt an unexpressed love. Shu Lien hastens to Beijing, first seen in an amazing panoramic shot, to place Green Destiny in safekeeping. Unfortunately, it is stolen almost immediately, and we are treated to a moonlit display of the skill of martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (“The Matrix”) as Shu Lien runs up walls and flies across rooftops in pursuit of the thief Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), who had killed Mu Bai’s master before the movie began.

At Beijing we also meet Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the self-absorbed young daughter of the provincial governor, who wants to avoid an arranged marriage and is entranced by the adventurous and independent life that Shu Lien represents. When the wagon train in which Jen is riding is attacked by bandits, Lo (Chang Chen), their dreadlocked leader, steals her comb, which impels Jen to mount a horse and pursue him through the desert. Their subsequent sword fight comes to suggest elaborate sexual foreplay. Lo wants Jen to stay with him, but she is torn between her attraction to this exciting figure and her feminist impulses for independence.

The gorgeous sets and cello solos bathe the movie’s complex plot with a sense of extravagance that combines humor and melancholy. The movie’s epic materials draw on ancient Chinese traditions and all the clichés of action films with a wonderful combination of respect and easy humor. We are in a timeless past.

Unfortunately the dialogue, which was a work of tireless international collaboration, often seems flat in its English subtitles. But it hardly seems to matter. Even if “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is not a great film, it is easily the most romantic vehicle to reach the screen in years.

Yeoh makes Shu Lien a three-dimensional character worthy of the greatest hero. The unspoken dedication and resolve in her eyes are as memorable as the final fight between Mu Bai and Jen that is poetically played out on swaying treetops.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000