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Summing Up "Private Ryan"

An Entry of The Aisle Seat by Andy Dursin

There's a lot to discuss this week at the movies, so I won't waste much time diving right into a pair of films currently playing across the country. As for this coming weekend, the Drew Barrymore romance EVER AFTER looks fairly good, and has some promising word-of-mouth going for it. The movie's trailers are filled with Loreena McKennitt and techno tracks, but thankfully George Fenton is providing what could be a lovely fairy-tale score (to this point, Fenton has written the most memorable and replayed score of the year in my collection, DANGEROUS BEAUTY). Also out Friday is the spoof BASEKETBALL (music by "James Ira Newborn"!) and the well-received Disney remake of THE PARENT TRAP (score by Alan Silvestri). Coming next week are HALLOWEEN: H20 (music by Marco Beltrami plus whatever cues they left in by John Ottman) and the oft-reedited Brian DePalma thriller SNAKE EYES with Nicolas Cage and score by Ryiuchi Sakamoto.


SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (***1/2): Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, which graphically, vividly, and horrifyingly plunges the viewer into combat right from the start and only intermittently lets up for substantive dialogue exchanges, is not quite a masterpiece (like Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY), but it does come very close to being the "definitive war film" of WWII. Certainly as a depiction of war, the movie is as realistic as you'll ever see, though many viewers may ultimately be put off by the film's often detached emotional range and generally limited character development. However, on the level that the film is principally intended--a full-fledged reenactment of D-Day and the horrors implicit in all forms of combat--PRIVATE RYAN certainly achieves that ambition.

In the straightforward, almost simplistic plot written by Robert Rodat, Tom Hanks gives a commanding performance as an Army Captain assigned to seek out a missing Private (Matt Damon) whose brothers have all been killed elsewhere in combat. Hanks's platoon includes, among others, a meek interpreter who hasn't witnessed first-hand the nature of the fight (Jeremy Davies), a wise-cracking Private (Edward Burns), and a tough-nosed Sargent (Tom Sizemore), all of whom question self-sacrifice for the greater good of one individual. However, Hanks is pretty much the whole acting show here, portraying one of the few characters whose persona is fully delineated in the film.

The film's advertising would have you believe that this is an emotional, even sentimental, story of sacrifice and heroism, and while it has those elements on the surface, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is more concerned with the physical nature of combat, of death and destruction, than it is in the story of how Hanks's platoon finds Private Ryan to return him home. Viewers turning out to see a feel-good movie with Tom Hanks and Matt Damon will certainly be surprised by the bold violence and striking pseudo-documentary footage that Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have captured throughout the film. In fact, had the movie been made by any other director, RYAN would have justifiably received a NC-17 rating--the shots of dismemberment, decapitation, and even intestine-oozing victims are shocking and certainly will repel any squeamish viewer, yet the violence is necessary because Spielberg has aimed to capture the sacrifice of a generation of men whose stories in the cinema have often taken a backseat to countless Vietnam movies in the recent past. Here, finally, is a film that realistically illustrates the story of many Americans in WWII, a war that paved the way for freedom through the sacrifice of so many lives. The cause is never questioned but the price suffered is unquestionably, and shockingly, recounted.

Unsurprisingly, given the raw nature of the material, Spielberg's virtuoso filmmaking is evident throughout. Handheld camera and high-speed film are brilliantly used to place the viewer in the middle of combat--explosions, shells, and the ominous sound of approaching tanks whirl and whiz by the camera, which takes us into the fire like we're one of the characters. The filmmaker's pacing is so brisk that when Private Ryan turns up about an hour and forty-five minutes into the movie, it feels more like just a half-hour has passed. The opening D-Day sequence ranks right up there with any other memorable set-piece from Spielberg's canon, and the story's fast-moving momentum is sustained both by the gritty look of the picture and Michael Kahn's rapid-fire editing.

Ideologically, the film presents arguments about the good of saving one individual very early on, but soon abandons any subtext for the purpose of explicitly illustrating the battles Hanks's group becomes immersed in. Again, those looking for deep emotional exchanges and a fully developed collection of characters will be disappointed by the picture, yet it's clear Spielberg has--for the most part--stripped the film of sentimentality and heavy doses of emotion, even heroism, for the purposes of recreating the actual experience of being in war. It's closer to a documentary than a "movie" as such, with the set-pieces overwhelming what few breaks from the action there are.

Given that, there were still a few things that I found disappointing in the film. The Hollywood-ized bookending sequences, showing one of the characters as an old man visiting the cemetery at Normandy, are cornball and certainly play at odds with the rest of the picture. It is surprising that Spielberg exactly repeated the device of the SCHINDLER'S LIST finale, yet the way these scenes are shot, they come across as especially manipulative, like the director is trying too hard to push our buttons to elicit audience tears. It's unnecessary for the movie to end on such a pedestrian note, especially since what has come before feels so realistic, so painful--the movie is haunting enough to have such a standard, weak finale thrown on top of it (in fact, these scenes tend to adhere to the sentimentality of the film's trailers, which would have been appropriate only if the movie itself was made along similar lines). To think of the more restrained ways in which the film could have ended only magnifies the cliches inherent in those sappy scenes, which feel as if they've come from an entirely different movie.

The other area that could have been more impressive is the music, and particularly the use of John Williams's score. For the second straight time, Spielberg has under-utilized Williams's talents, spotting only sequences necessitating noble, reflective strings instead of multi-dimensional musical accompaniment. The choice to leave the battle scenes unscored was surely as much of a case of not wanting the music to be buried under the elaborate, effects-dominated sound design as it was a dramatic decision, but just as he did in AMISTAD, Spielberg's use of music becomes so predictable that it's all too apparent what Williams's function is in this movie. The sequence where the Army hierarchy discusses Ryan's predicament is also over-scored, just as all of Anthony Hopkins's scenes were in Spielberg's last picture. I can certainly understand Spielberg's decision not to sentimentalize the picture by over-using Williams's music, but he certainly didn't do Williams any favors by not allowing him to probe into the darker musical spectrum this material begs for. This had the potential to be another masterwork along the lines of Williams's complex BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY score, but falls far short of that mark because the composer wasn't given the chance to substantially contribute in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

Those quibbles aside, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is another triumph for Spielberg in that he has accomplished something few, if any, filmmakers have done before. The evocation of time and place, and what comprises all forms of combat--be it in groups, tanks, or even hand-to-hand fighting--are stunningly depicted in a film that will surely be remembered as one of the most realistic recreations of war ever placed on celluloid. As a Spielberg movie in the traditional sense, however, the undernourished screenplay places it on a par with the underrated AMISTAD, a movie that had its share of detractors but, for me, was just as powerful and even more resonant than this film. (166 mins, R; **1/2 score as it works in the film)

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (***): Partial as I may be to the Farrelly Brothers, who happen to be fellow Rhode Islanders (and who make that known often with references only southern New Englanders would understand), I don't feel too prejudiced by admitting that this is the funniest movie of 1998 so far.

Just as outrageous but perhaps not quite as offensive as the movie's word-of-mouth would have you believe, MARY defines and improves upon the Farrelly formula established in DUMB & DUMBER and its follow-up, KINGPIN: set-up the basic plot, develop a handful of leading characters, and then throw in as many alternately comedic and horrific situations as one could think of on top of it. With laughs that often scrape the bottom of the barrel of good taste, it'd be easy to be put off by the Farrelly comedy if their timing wasn't so perfect and their movies made in such good spirits.

How else, then, to accept this tale of a Rhode Island high-school nerd (Ben Stiller) who falls for the beautiful Mary (Cameron Diaz) but never gets to accompany her to the prom because his you-know-what gets stuck in his zipper. Years later, a friend (former Letterman regular Chris Elliott) convinces Stiller to seek out Diaz through a Providence investigator--the shady Matt Dillon--and it turns out Diaz is alive and well, living and working in Florida. Not that Dillon tells that to Stiller, since Dillon can see himself hooking up with Diaz, however improbable that may be (their sequences together provide some of the movie's biggest guffaws). Eventually Stiller and Diaz reunite, but only after a series of R-rated circumstances that should have most audiences in stitches. Of course, numerous sight-gags abound through it all, not the least of which involve alternative singer Jonathan Richman crooning the movie's plot in and out of every other scene (leading to one great final shot, no pun intended).

The Farrelly movies are longer than the pictures from the Zucker-Abrahams school of comedy, mainly because they attempt to establish character and build up to chaotic laughs instead of pacing the gags at a rapid-fire clip. That, however, doesn't make their films any less amusing than THE NAKED GUN, mainly because nothing is out of bounds for these filmmakers. Any scene that culminates in a ridiculous punchline is thrown in for the sake of getting a big laugh, and that includes having the obnoxious Dillon beat up on Diaz's mentally retarded brother's teammates during a flag football game, or having Diaz's mother (Markie Post) married to a street-talking black man.

Diaz and especially Dillon are both perfect for this material, though I found Stiller's nebbish to be a bit whiny and obnoxious, particularly as the film goes along. Still, they play the Farrelly's manic predicaments to a hilt, and the movie hits the mark more often than not. When it does, THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY provides as enjoyable, engaging, and downright funny a comedy as we're likely to see this year, and proves--when it comes to craziness--nobody does it better than the Farrelly Brothers. (R, 115 mins., *** soundtrack includes original score-songs by Jonathan Richman available on Capitol Records).


DARK CITY (**** for movie, *** for extras): Alex Proyas's visionary sci-fi fantasy is a noir-tinged puzzle worth unraveling, and New Line's DVD (out Tuesday) includes two audio commentaries and a theatrical trailer in addition to several still-frame supplements. Alas, the promised isolated score track by Trevor Jones didn't happen, but the commentaries alone--the filmmaker track is filled with fascinating insights (and a few shots at the studio!)--more than justify picking up this deluxe DVD release. $19.95 in most stores.

SPHERE (**1/2 for movie, *** for extras): Not nearly as much of a disaster as many reviews would lead you to believe, this is an intriguing sci-fi thriller that falls short of the mark but at least aims high enough to make the trip worthwhile. Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone are not very impressive as scientists investigating a newly discovered spaceship on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean floor, where director Barry Levinson stages a claustrophobic but consistently watchable sequence of predictably unusual Michael Chricton twists and turns. Warner's DVD is listing as low as $15 in many outlets, and the disc includes a brief FX featurette, trailer & TV spots, a crisp widescreen transfer, and a surprisingly frank commentary by Hoffman and co-star Samuel L.Jackson, both touching upon the various re-shoots the movie went through (including the compromised ending). Worth a look for sci-fi buffs.

THAT'S IT from here. See you next time at the movies! Until then, send all bricks and comments to

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