Movie Reviews by Mark Leeper

The English Patient (1996) -- Ransom (1956 & 1996)

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

The English Patient (1996)

In the late days of World War II in
Italy a badly burned patient is the center of two
love stories, one that led up to his plane crash,
one that is going on while he is cared for. This
is a long and a lushly produced romance with a few
surprises along the way. The photography and the
period feel are a definite advantage. This is a
film that is at once thoughtful and sensuous,
though it may not pack the emotional impact it
wants to with all audiences.
Rating: +2 (-4 to +4)

A biplane flies over the North African desert, the pilot alert, the passenger, a beautiful woman draped sensuously over the side of the cockpit. The plane flies too close to a German position below and they fire at invader overhead. The plane bursts into flames. The pilot tries to pull out the woman in front of him but ends up being badly burned himself as the plane crashes. Some passing Arabs rescue the badly-burned man and take him to a hospital. The man cannot tell the medics what his name is or how he came to be flying over the desert. The story advances in two lines, one of the disfigured patient (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his relationship with Hana (Juliette Binoche), a Canadian nurse who more or less adopts the dying man. Hana is a little shell-shocked herself as anybody that she grows to care about dies or is killed soon after. Feeling almost cursed she forms a close attachment to the scarred patient who is apparently dying anyway. Hana transports the patient to an abandoned farmhouse near Leghorn/Livorno and begins tending him full- time. Soon they are joined a the farmhouse by Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) who takes a strange interest in the scarred man and at times seems to know something of the patient's past. They are joined by two more residents, bomb disposal experts.

The flashback story starts in 1938 before the war and leads up to the plane crash. The man who will be the patient is Count Laszlo Almasy, a handsome young man in the employ of the British government. Based in Cairo, Almasy is taking part in a project to map the uncharted regions of the North African desert. He makes friends with Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton (Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas). Together they discover in the desert a cave with paintings of great archeological significance. This throws Laszlo and Katherine together frequently and though they try hard to ignore each other, but there is a sexual tension between them and they will inevitably be drawn together. The film is based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje, who was born in Sri Lanka and educated in England, but lives in Canada. Anthony Minghella wrote and directed this adaptation.

Ralph Fiennes gives a cool and controlled performance as he always seems to do. As in his other films he cuts a dashing figure but underplays rather than overplaying. Even in scenes that should call for deep emotion, his performances are muted and controlled. He lets the viewer read emotion into his actions and but for the exception of a few scenes, that is true for most of the cast of THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Kristen Scott Thomas is radiant in the desert but uninvolving, more an icon and an image than a fully developed character. She seems more willing to bare her body than her emotions. Though she has more screen time than Binoche, I suspect, she never exhibits a personality that goes much beyond bland. Binoche is sort of the ideal nurse, but we see little of what makes her fixate on this one patient. Still we are able to react with her in ways we cannot with the other three leads.

John Seale photographs the story, using pleasant aerial photography and sprawling views of the desert. There is an effective scene of a sandstorm. Minghella takes the image of the Swimming Man, from the cave found in the desert, and uses it as an image repeatedly as if it has for him specific meaning. In fact he opens the film with the image of the Swimming Man. He must be seeing Almasy as being in some way the Swimming Man. It is a mysterious visual image to make as important as it is in the visuals. Its meaning remains a matter of conjecture for the audience. For the most part Minghella places emotional barriers between the characters and the audience, all but Binoche. For the most part these figures remain as untouchable and unemotional as the swimming figures on the cave wall. Then surprisingly toward the end of the film Minghella does give us one very tense, almost melodramatic, scene. It seem almost a throwaway and out of place.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT is a truly adult love story, generally well- crafted if a little uninvolving. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Ransom (1956 and 1996)

The father of a kidnapped boy has an
unorthodox way of handling the situation. By
modern standards, the original film seems a little
reticent to show action. In part that is because
it was adapted from a television play and today
strikes one as being a little stagy and set-bound
It had a very simple plot, with only one little
twist. The new film uses the twist as a
springboard and goes to the other extreme with
chases, gunfire, and several plot twists--some more
welcome than others. The result is a very
different approach to the same material. Though
the two films would appeal to very different
audiences, neither the original nor the remake
really stands out. I would give both of them the
same, just okay, rating.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)

The coming attraction showed Mel Gibson getting on television and making a statement to the people who had kidnapped his son. "This is a remake of a Glenn Ford movie," I whispered to my wife. I had seen virtually the same scene a film on television in the mid-1960s. I remember at the time I did not think that film was as exciting as I had hoped. But could I figure out what that earlier film was called? It was not difficult. My copy of Maltin listed RANSOM as a 1956 film starring Glenn Ford and Donna Reed. I just barely remembered the original. Luckily the 1956 version ran on a cable station and I got a chance to see it a second time. One thing I had no reason to notice in the 1960s but impressed me when I saw it recently was that RANSOM (1956) was written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum; one source said it was a remake of a television play. I am actually a bit surprised the original was as low-key as it was with those two authors. Cyril Hume is most familiar to me for writing the films FORBIDDEN PLANET and THE INVISIBLE BOY. Richard Maibaum is second only to Ian Fleming for making James Bond a household name. Maibaum either wrote or co-wrote all but about three or four of the Bond films and the ones he did not write I generally consider some of the worst of the series. Most of the James Bond screen persona and its continuity from film to film is Maibaum's doing, interpreting from the novels. Yet the 1956 film is a low-key story built on personalities.

In RANSOM (1956) the CEO of vacuum cleaner company is faced with handling the situation when his son is kidnapped--off-camera--from the boy's school. The focus of this film is the suspense and a bit of social comment. He and the police try to decide what the best strategy is to deal with the kidnappers and complicated by his wife's mental breakdown under the stress. He finds that there is a moral way to deal with the kidnappers and to increase the chances that his son is returned alive. In the original film that solution to his problem is really the climax of the action. The remake uses that decision as only the springboard for its real story. It asks, if the abductee's father really took the same unorthodox approach, would it work and what would happen next? The new film examines the consequences of his action in much greater detail, but at the same time throws in a lot of often mindless action and violence. It would be difficult to find a better measuring stick of how tastes in film have changed over forty years than to compare the quiet black-and-white original with the explosive and bloody remake.

Neither lead character is average, but the Glenn Ford father is a lot more believable. He is a fairly ordinary businessman, well-off but a lot like thousands of rather plain leaders of rather modest companies without much of a public image. Mel Gibson's version of the same role is the dashing and sexy founder of a new airline who through his (somewhat narcissist) television ads is a familiar (and ruggedly handsome) face to millions of people. In the first film the police tell the father that he has hard decisions to make but that paying the ransom does not really improve on his son's chances. The emphasis here is that the man is a professional decision-maker and he has to make some hard and very complex decisions about what to do about the kidnapping. The police lay out the facts and make no recommendations, though it is clear that to discourage future kidnappings they would probably prefer the father not pay the ransom. In the remake the writers wanted to paint the Gibson character as an indomitable maverick so, somewhat out of character, Delroy Lindo tells Gibson very definitely that he should pay off the kidnappers and Gibson decides a very different strategy from what the police are recommending. The original film wanted to put the audience in the father's role, to show them what it must be like to have a loved one kidnapped and to get them thinking what they would do. Gibson's character definitely is not there for realistic identification value. He is a hero and a mechanism to allow a twisty plot, some exciting chases and gunfights, and some bright red stage blood to be pumped. As the wife in the original, Donna Reed has a bit of a mental breakdown under the fear of losing her son. This ups the ante on the Glenn Ford father and makes his decisions all the harder. As a 1990s woman, Rene Russo has her own ideas about how to get her son back. She is angered and fierce and a long way from breaking down like the weak Donna Reed mother did. In the original the kidnappers are not the focus of the film and remain unseen in the film.

Neither Mel Gibson nor Glenn Ford played their father rolls significantly differently from their previous roles. Except for his profession, Gibson is playing much the same character as he played in the LETHAL WEAPON films. Rene Russo has a little acting to do, but her role is definitely a secondary one and not particularly demanding. Of four parents in two films the only actor whose part was a stretch from previous work was Donna Reed. It is not easy to play a weak character, slowly disintegrating, without going into King Lear-ish histrionics. It also makes for a role that often does not get much respect. It took a remake to show how good her acting was in the original and how different it was from here standard roles in pieces like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and "The Donna Reed Show." If there are any real acting honors in the remake they go to Gary Sinese as a policeman who is involved in the kidnapping case. I could not help thinking throughout the film how much more intriguing the film would have been if he and Gibson would have traded roles and Sinese could have worked more drama into the father's role. It would be a real gamble with the gross, but it would be a film that people would want to see again.

The new scriptwriters Richard Price and Alexander Ignon have taken a very personal look at a very realistic situation and turned it into a slick 1990s action fantasy. The first film had a lot to say about relationships and about how a fairly average person handles the most stressful situations he will ever know. The film is also a very simple and straightforward story. The remake with its car-fire and gun-chases also has a lot more unexpected twists and a much cleverer plot that takes a clear-eyed hero though a thrilling adventure with his own son as a prize. The one really common thread in the approach is that each has negative things to say about how the media turns private crises into public media events. Each film has virtues that the other lacks, but on balance they make films about equally good, just in very different ways and for very different audiences. Intentionally the remake is a film that can be appreciated by a twelve-year-old. The original, not being violent or bloody, with no car chases or gunfire, and stressing only human drama can probably be recommended only to an adult audience. I rate each about a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.


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