Ivory and Ebony

The new James Ivory film, The White Countess, is the apparent last film of his longtime producer, the late Ismail Merchant. His longtime screenwriter, meanwhile, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has been supplanted for the occasion by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, whose The Remains of the Day was the basis for one of the better Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala collaborations. The present collaboration is not nearly as good, which is a bit of a puzzle, even conceding a somewhat stilted and pedantic script, because it had plenty of other reasons to be good.

It has, first, the masterly cinematographer, Wong Kar-wai's main man, Christopher Doyle. It has, second, a redolent romantic setting, Shanghai in the mid-to-late Thirties, a crossroads of political intrigue, a gathering spot for the fallen and the dissolute, an exotic ambience worthy of von Sternberg (cf. Shanghai Express and The Shanghai Gesture, to stay strictly in the vicinity). It has, third, Natasha Richardson, who is no Dietrich, nor even a Tierney, but is more of an actress than either, as a widowed and exiled Russian noble, now toiling in disrepute as a taxi dancer in a single "shabby" gown, battling at home for control of her daughter against her disapproving in-laws. Curiously -- fourth and fifth -- these are played by Richardson's blood relatives, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, mother and aunt, two of the rare actresses of their time who have allowed themselves to age naturally, and who in consequence, for all their wrinkles and sags, have remained recognizable as themselves. (Not to mention castable in period pieces.) And, sixth, it has Ralph Fiennes as a blind and also widowed American diplomat, once "the last hope for the League of Nations," but now dedicated to a less lofty goal, the creation of "the bar of my dreams," a place which will aim for "a kind of balance between the erotic and the tragic," to be financed with his winnings from the racetrack and hosted by, as well named after, the debased Russian noble, The White Countess of the title.

The unnatural volume of the actor's speech, however, whether meant as a comment on Ugly Americans or a comment on overcompensating blind people, emphasizes the falseness of his accent. And somehow the heady brew, on the whole, fails to come to a boil, remains stubbornly tepid, stubbornly placid, even upon entrance into the race-against-time climax, a cliffhanger with two kinds of love in peril, the maternal and the amorous. Ivory has never been a natural, always been an earnest and lately a capable striver, and here his discreetness, his obliqueness, of approach (his, or his self-willed cinematographer's) strives to be Wong-ian, more than Sternberg-ian, but he lacks the eye for it, the feel for it. Soft focus, smudged color, smeary light will not fill in a deficient atmosphere. The hero's blindness, all too clearly metaphorical ("Why do you have such heavy doors? You think they'll keep out the world?"), might be a broader metaphor than intended.

* * *

Last Holiday is the old, old -- fifty-six-year-old, to be exact -- Alec Guinness vehicle retailored to the expansive personality and physique of Queen Latifah. As a mousy cookware clerk at a department store in New Orleans, given three weeks to live and determined to blow her bank account on a dream vacation at the Grandhotel Pupp (pronounced "Poop") in Karlovy Vary, the actress shows a bit more than her usual capital-A attitude -- a reserve, a restraint, a wider range. That's hard to sustain, though, when she's doing things like snowboarding down a "black diamond" ski slope or BASE-jumping from the top of a hydroelectric dam. You go, girl. She is flatteringly photographed in the bargain, although the lighting that gives her (and a nonthreatening LL Cool J) a golden glow, gives the white folks jaundice and anemia.

One of those is the pre-eminent French actor of his generation, Gerard Depardieu, in a subordinate role as the hotel master chef who holds the secret of life: "Butter." This (after I so recently groused about the puny part in Munich for Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) is roughly tantamount to seeing a French comedy starring Firmine Richard wherein Robert De Niro would pop up intermittently, speaking broken subtitled French as a philosophical hotdog vendor. Wayne Wang, the director, appears to feel no urgency to correct the course that has led him away from The Joy Luck Club and Eat a Bowl of Tea toward Maid in Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie. Not the most credible source, in other words, for a moral homily on living without fear.

* * *

Glory Road, the directing debut of James Gartner, is yet another Disney raid on the annals of sport for an Inspirational True Story: the 1966 NCAA basketball final in which the upstart Miners of Texas Western (today, UTEP) sent out five blacks for the opening tip against the "basketball royalty" of the all-white Kentucky Wildcats. This story, within a larger story of sports in America as an agency of social change and collective consciousness-raising, is such an intrinsically good one (what took so long to get to it?) that it cannot really benefit from dramatization, or more particularly, Disneyfication. Nor can it benefit from its transformation into a visual accompaniment for a double-disc collection of golden oldies.

I well remember watching this game on television as a high-school student in a suburban Minneapolis school district that had exactly one black family in it. But since my pro team at the time, the Boston Celtics, had made history already by starting five blacks, it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be backing the Miners. I remember, too, just last year during March Madness, watching a CBS documentary on the same subject, Glory in Black and White, by which I was much more moved than by this formulaic fictionalization. (That documentary might have been the source of the clips sprinkled through the closing credits, wherein Pat Riley -- one of the stars for the Wildcats -- calls the game, with only the mildest hyperbole, "the Emancipation Proclamation of 1966.") Having seen that so recently, I can't even say that the feature film was a useful refresher.

It does depict some good practice sessions and good coaching lessons, with the dagger-eyed Josh Lucas as Don Haskins, the fifth-year coach at Texas Western, not first-year, as portrayed here, much less straight from coaching a high-school girls' team. (Ah, Hollywood.) And Jon Voight, in a putty nose to rival the one he wore as Howard Cosell in Ali, creates a sizable diversion in his comical but not disrespectful portrait of the old-school Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp. ("You're going to win this game," he assures his disarrayed troops in the desperate waning minutes. "Now go out there and make me a prophet.") And I was gratified by the couple of shots of UK black students huddled around a TV set in a dorm room and stifling their cheers for the opposition.

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