Holiday Feast

Our critics chew on the film trends of '05

While the going was good, though, it was very good. Beginning in the late 1970s, Merchant-Ivory became the gold standard for stately, well-spoken costume drama, quite often set in refined country houses surrounded by vast expanses of lawn and garden. Merchant and director Ivory were artistic partners (40 films) and life partners, but their relationship was immeasurably enhanced by writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote many of the screenplays. "It's a strange marriage," Merchant once observed. "I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American...a three-headed monster."

Detractors saw their films as pretentious pseudo-lit: At an early screening of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino ordered anyone who liked The Remains of the Day to "get the fuck out of here." But the huge audiences who embraced Merchant-Ivory's polished literacy, good manners and devotion to high craft continue to mourn the great producer's passing. (BG)

Like a Rock: Wrestlers Leap to the Screen

In September, UPN insisted that World Wrestling Entertainment remove the controversial Arab-American character Muhammed Hassan from its Smackdown broadcasts. One might have expected Hassan (in real life an Italian-American named Mark Copani) to resurface on USA network's Raw. Instead, Copani quit the business altogether to pursue movie stardom.

Blame The Rock. For years, wrestlers avoided the big screen for fear of being mocked like Hulk Hogan in Mr. Nanny. But then the "People's Champ" gets himself some good reviews, and now every ring giant is following suit. Bill Goldberg, whose wrestling persona was based on not talking much, appeared prominently in three films this year — as a convict with a big schlong in The Longest Yard, as an evil Father Christmas in Santa's Slay and as himself in Tom Arnold's The Kid and I. Also in The Longest Yard: Kevin Nash playing it effeminate, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, smartly tweaking his redneck-bully image.

The Rock made the best of bad projects in Be Cool and Doom, but his upcoming role in Richard Kelly's quirky Southland Tales should erase those memories. Ironically, he was outperformed in '05 by another self-proclaimed people's champion, Diamond Dallas Page, whose turn as a bounty hunter in The Devil's Rejects was equal to co-star Danny Trejo's.

In the pipeline: Eminem-wannabe-on-steroids John Cena recently wrapped the lead role in The Marine, horror-movie-inspired Kane actually gets his own horror movie called See No Evil, and Steve Austin stars in The Condemned. Copani, so far, remains unemployed. (LYT)

Failure to Adapt: Why Books Were Invented First

Hollywood served up no shortage of literary adaptations in '05, but only one of them — see Thumbsucker, as soon as possible — was an unqualified success. Even Andrew Adamson's Chronicles of Narnia, with its obviously digitized armies and its emotional disconnect from the material, was largely a disappointment. Sure, it has its charms (namely, a pair of adorable beavers), but most of the film is a bust, advertising its grandeur and its pathos rather than digging into the drama of either. But there were other notable letdowns.

Liev Schreiber, an actor respected for his intelligence and erudition, managed to botch his adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer's astounding debut novel. Schreiber stripped the book of its folkloric magical realism, then altered the plot's defining events so as to make no sense. What is supposed to be illumination becomes obfuscation, and what is supposed to be a brave look at the atrocities of the Holocaust becomes a sentimental apology for not having done so.

Equally plagued was Bee Season, an adaptation by Scott McGehee and David Siegel of the best-seller by Myla Goldberg. This film was over as soon as it was cast: Richard Gere is simply not believable as a towering Jewish patriarch, nor does Juliette Binoche make sense as his distant, obsessive wife. And instead of delving into the Kabbalistic teachings that are at the heart of the novel, the film merely dabs, attempting to paint the picture of a young girl's otherworldly talent for spelling with the use of clever graphics. That's lazy storytelling, and it doesn't work.

Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice won critical praise, and its first half hour is a lot of fun. But then it dissolves into such silly faux-romanticism that it entirely misses the point. Jane Austen was nothing if not arch: She saw the absurdity of her situation. To have no career and no hope of advancement other than marriage was not a happy state of affairs for a woman, and Elizabeth Bennet strains against it, even as she falls for the sullen, tight-assed Darcy. In Wright's version, both Elizabeth and Darcy melt into woozy teenagers, people who believe in True Love and trundle across hill and dale, tresses flying, to proclaim it. Feh.

Other dishonorable mentions include Steve Martin's syrupy Shopgirl, the overly chipper Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, and the generalized disaster of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. All are united by their primary achievement: reminding us of the power of books. (ML)

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