Last week I fretted that a nice, small film such as A Pure Formality would get lost in the stampede of ticket buyers in the throes of Batfever. I was half-right. Over the weekend of June 23-25, A Pure Formality registered as a mere blip on the winged rodent's radar. But in other parts of the country a pair of small, independent films -- the made-in-the-U.S.A. Smoke and the made-in-Italy The Postman -- held their own on a screen-by-screen basis with Pocahontas and Batman Forever. In fact, Smoke smoked them all, averaging more money per screen than either the comic book come to life or the Indian princess reduced to a cartoon. The Postman delivered a fourth-place finish in the per-screen bonanza. Granted, both Batman Forever and Pocahontas played on 100 times as many screens as Smoke and 75 times as many as The Postman, but it's nice to see that exhibitors willing to take a chance on smaller films needn't take a corresponding financial bath -- and that even at the height of big-budget special-effects season there's still a market for movies without multimillion-dollar advertising budgets and merchandising tie-ins and steroid-or-silicone-pumped stars.
The actors -- notably leads Harvey Keitel and William Hurt -- throw off most of the sparks in Smoke. Director Wayne Wang wrung tears without remorse in 1993's weepfest The Joy Luck Club, adapted from Amy Tan's novel of the same name. This time out he collaborates with another novelist, Paul Auster (The Music of Chance), and the resulting movie appeals more to the intellect than to the lacrimal glands.
Plot takes a back seat to verbal sparring in Smoke, although the two main characters in this episodic ensemble piece don't so much argue as they bullshit. Novelist Paul Benjamin (Hurt) -- any similarities to Auster are purely coincidental, we're sure -- has been unable to write since his pregnant wife got caught in the crossfire of a botched robbery while she exited his favorite cigar store four years ago; however, Paul's writer's block doesn't prevent him holding forth on the history of smoking. Auggie (Harvey Keitel), the cigar store owner, has a story for every occasion A when he isn't quoting Shakespeare ("Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow..."), scheming to wholesale a shipment of illegal Cuban stogies, or snapping black-and-white photographs of his little corner of Brooklyn with a camera he stole from an old lady years earlier.
There's some business about a black teenager (Harold Perrineau, Jr.) who saves the writer's life and attempts to reconcile with the father who abandoned him (Forest Whitaker), and a subplot involving the re-emergence of an old flame of Auggie's (Stockard Channing). But the story meanders by design, and serves primarily as an excuse for character development and dialogue, some of which feels stilted and some of which feels so natural you'll swear it had to have been improvised. For better or for worse, this is a movie about words, about talking and listening. Smoke never really catches fire, but Keitel and Hurt do their damnedest to get into your eyes.
The power of words also gives the captivating The Postman much of its allure. The year is 1952. Renowned Chilean poet-in-exile Pablo Neruda (wise old Philippe Noiret) has been granted sanctuary by the Italian government on a dazzling Mediterranean island off the coast of Naples. Bundles of mail addressed to Neruda precede the beloved poet's arrival on the island. But the local postmaster is no match for the voluminous correspondence sent to the island's most famous new resident, so he hires Mario Ruoppolo (the thoroughly disarming Massimo Troisi), the son of a fisherman, to lend him a hand. Mario jumps at the chance to abandon his father's ship, and quickly seizes the opportunity to capitalize on his close contact with Neruda to improve his standing with the young women of the island.
An unlikely friendship develops; Mario succumbs to the charms of Neruda's poetry and, thusly intoxicated, falls madly in love with the so-beautiful-she's-unapproachable Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta). In a variation on the Cyrano theme, Mario enlists his poet-mentor's help in seducing Beatrice. "Poetry doesn't belong to those who write it, but to those who need it," he rationalizes.
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Like Smoke, the The Postman benefits from first-rate performances. Philippe Noiret is probably best-known outside of his native France for his performance as the venerable projectionist in Cinema Paradiso. But the crusty Frenchman with the hangdog face and perpetual scowl offset by a telltale mischievous gleam in his eye is always a pleasure to watch. And Massimo Troisi, regarded by many as Italy's finest actor, is in fine form as well, in what turned out to be his final performance. Troisi died of heart failure the day after principal photography for The Postman wrapped. The 41-year-old actor postponed a potentially life-saving transplant in order to complete the film; fittingly, his work here may well have been the best of Troisi's tragically short career.
In sharp contrast to Smoke and The Postman, words have no place in the bafflingly bad Judge Dredd. In yet another movie based on a British cult comic book hero (imagine Tank Girl minus the soundtrack, the pop-culture references, Lori Petty's sexy punk delivery, and most of the humor), noted Miami civic booster Sly Stallone plays judge, jury, and executioner in corrupt, crime-ridden Mega-City One. As such he gets to shoot a bunch of bad guys with impunity, sort of like Dirty Harry with a silly costume. The film opens promisingly: Young director Danny Cannon finds a tongue-in-cheek tone that plays the whole bigger-than-life Rocky-Rambo-Demolition Man persona against itself, as Stallone wades into the middle of a fierce gun battle between violent squatters and two pinned-down fellow cops. He comes across like a half-Robocop, half-Patton hybrid, a guy made fearless by his own misguided delusions of invulnerability (the fictional character behaving as if he was impervious to bullets, the actor accepting roles that practically beg bad reviews). But Cannon and screenwriters William Wisher and Steven E. de Souza quickly move on to their goofy, disconnected, master-criminal-bent-on-world-domination story line, recycling bits from Outland, Blade Runner, Total Recall, Robocop, and just about every other sci-fi movie ever made. For comic relief they saddle Stallone's justice-of-the-piece with an obsequious, helpless sidekick, played like a second-rate comedian desperately begging for laughs by yet another unfunny Saturday Night Live refugee, Rob Schneider ("The Richmeister"). Schneider's shameless mugging makes Joe Pesci's performance in Lethal Weapon 3 look like a model of restraint by comparison. It's all downhill from there. Sly, promise us you took this role only to raise enough money to build a film studio in Miami, and we'll refrain from the obvious "dreadful" puns.
With Apollo 13, Tom Hanks and Ron Howard go from Splash to splashdown in their second collaboration. Their 1984 boy-meets-mermaid story delivered a promising box-office hit for both actor and director; in recent years, Hanks's career has gone into orbit, while Howard's trajectory has tailed off substantially. But Opie's star should rise again on the success of this riveting retelling of the ill-fated 1970 moon shot. Howard faithfully adheres to real-life Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell's book, Lost Moon, the former astronaut's account of the aborted mission. While Howard succumbs to his penchant to oversentimentalize (way too many cutaways to tense and crying family members), he wrings nail-biting suspense out of a story that, after all, just about everybody knows the ending to.
And yet I think Apollo 13 is one of the best movies I've seen that's based on a recent real-life event -- maybe just a tearful-wife shot away from the standard set by All the President's Men. The film may not generate renewed funding for the space program or motivate young people to want to become astronauts the way the Dustin Hoffman-Robert Redford movie swelled the ranks of journalism schools across the country, but it's a true story well-told, one with all the inherent drama of Greek tragedy. Apollo 13 works for me because after peeling away all the media hype, technical complexity, engineering mastery, macho derring-do, and ramifications for the space program, it still boils down to one of the most basic stories and universal themes of them all: I want to go home.