Movie Reviews by Mark Leeper

Shine (1996) -- The Whole Wide World (1996)

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

Shine (1996)

SHINE is a study of the shattered
life of a child prodigy pianist whose father, a
Holocaust survivor, totally dominated and
controlled. While the film is supposed to be
uplifting in that David Helfgott could salvage
something of his life, it still seems to be
pitifully poor consolation and a tragic waste of a
life and of talent.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)
There are some minor spoilers in the plot description.

SHINE is a true story, a biography of a sort of local celebrity in Australia. The man is eccentric to the point of being nearly autistic but is also a brilliant pianist. David Helfgott is a man with many personal demons, some real and some imagined, who was a musical prodigy but could not face the pressures that a musical career placed on him. The greatest of all the pressures came from his father, a man of huge rages who wanted to control David like he would control a puppet.

As SHINE opens, we see David as just another schizoid wandering a city street like you might see in any big city. He is seen staring in at a small wine bar after closing time. The staff at first sees him as trouble, but find his quick staccato conversation endearing. They decide to give him a ride home. From there film flashes back to David's youth to show us the forces that created this apparent human wreckage. David is the son of Peter Helfgott, a Polish Jew whose entire family was murdered in the Holocaust. Peter survived, but hardly intact. Emotionally blasted by his loses he irrationally holds his new family in an iron grip. Out of an irrational fear of losing these new loved ones he refuses them the freedom of making any decisions for themselves, least of all decisions that may take them away from him. Peter Helfgott treats the members of his family as something between objects and pets. Criticism and even blows are administered on a daily basis while praise is reserved only for the most special of occasions. David, who has never known any other treatment accepts it and considers it natural. And through this treatment he is able to become an exceptional talent as a pianist, perhaps even brilliant. In spite of his family's low income and the crude facilities available locally, David is able to prove his talent in competition and even comes to the attention of the great Isaac Stern. But any attempt that David makes to go someplace to develop his talent is vetoed by his father. The film follows David as eventually he does get away and makes an effort to develop his great talent, but the struggle to escape his father has already too far weakened him and taken too much of a toll.

What is interesting in the film is the affect that music has on David. As a boy music is a negative influence on him, dragging him down into the strange psychological state he eventually reaches. He is eventually even forbidden to play the piano for fear of the effect it will have on him. Yet the same music is also what pulls him out of that slump, returning some semblance of a life and even a career to him. Also remarkable is how people seem to keep finding David endearing. In spite of his many problems and the infinite patience that is required for dealing with him, the adult David seems to have the charm somehow to attract admirers and people who are willing to care for him. The adult David strikes one as having an intelligent, but uncontrolled mind. He talks as fast as his fingers move playing the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, but he jumps from idea to idea and drops each for the next.

Top billing ironically goes to Armin Mueller-Stahl who plays Peter Helfgott. Mueller-Stahl is a good actor with a single characterization, but he rarely varies from that characterization and shows any breadth in his acting ability. The reason that the actor playing David does not get top billing is because it is shared among three actors: Alex Rafalowicz playing David as a boy, Noah Taylor plays him as a teenager, and Geoffrey Rush plays the adult version. Rush seems to be getting the most attention for the role, but all three are interesting actors. Other recognizable actors include John Gielgud, Lynn Redgrave, and Googie Withers. (Gielgud this year alone has been in GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, LOOKING FOR RICHARD, SHINE, THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, and HAMLET, in addition to doing voices in DRAGONHEART and THE LEOPARD SON. It is nice to see that he can find work!)

While it is possible to see this as a story of triumph over great odds, it seems like a weak triumph. It will be hard for most viewers to see much to admire in the adult David who must seems so incredibly hard to control. It seems like a small victory, and may leave the viewer a little dissatisfied with this as a story of redemption. I rate SHINE a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Just an afterthought: In part where SHINE falls down is in its allusion to what much of its audience will see as a mystery about great musical performances. It does not make clear to the audience just what makes one musical performance great. Any good record store will have two or three recordings of the "Rach 3." Presumably each of these will have every note that Rachmaninoff wrote, played exactly as the composer specified. And presumably the same is true of Helfgott's performance. The filmmaker knows that there is great variation in these performances but besides showing some (silent) sweat on David's brow and showing his emotional agony as he plays, the film leaves as a total mystery why David's is a performance more to be prized than any one of the many others. I am not sure I know the answer to this question and it certainly is something very germane to the film. The script dangles this very central issue in front of the viewer but makes little attempt to answer it.

The Whole Wide World (1996)

THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD tells the true
story of the nearly amorous, sometimes-touching,
relationship of a lackluster school teacher and a
mother-dominated pulp fiction writer in West Texas
in the 1930s. What gives the story its interest is
that the writer is Robert E. Howard, the creator of
Conan, King Kull, and Solomon Kane. This is a
well-textured observation of two very different
personalities in a story of contrasts: the
difference in personalities of the two main
characters, the difference in their writing styles,
and the differences between Howard and the
characters about whom he wrote. This slow-paced
film will not be to all tastes, but it creates its
period and tells us a great deal about writing in
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)

In 1934 Robert E. Howard's friends called him "the best pulp writer in the whole wide world." These days that title would more likely go to Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. P. Lovecraft. However, in some order, the next two names probably would be Walter Gibson and Robert E. Howard. Howard invented the popular genre of fantasy novel today called "Sword and Sorcery." His most popular character is, of course, Conan of Cimmeria (a.k.a. Conan the Barbarian) who with a powerful sword and a rudimentary intelligence fights the powers of Black Magic in a prehistoric world of monsters and sorcerers. (Of course, the sword was made more powerful and the intelligence more rudimentary in the 1982 John Milius film CONAN THE BARBARIAN and its 1984 sequel CONAN THE DESTROYER, both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.) But THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD is not the story of larger-than-life people and huge mystical events, it is more whimper than bang. In 1934 a schoolteacher and aspiring writer, Novalyne Price, met and got to know Bob Howard. Years later, in probably the only piece of her writing that ever got any attention, she told the story of that friendship in a memoir entitled ONE WHO WALKED ALONE. That memoir is the basis of THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD.

Price (played by Renee Zellweger who currently also has the co- starring role in JERRY MAGUIRE) is introduced to Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio) by a mutual friend. Most of the town of Cross Plains in rural West Texas think of Howard as being a little strange and unbalanced. The truth is that most of the town is probably right. Howard's life, other than his writing, is owned and jealously guarded by his sickly mother. Howard takes care of his mother is some ways that are more personal than most sons would and most of his world revolves around his mother. His one outlet is his typewriter where he turns what are little more than expanded adolescent fantasies into adventure prose, often shouting out that prose as he writes a story. Price intrudes on the relationship between the Howard and his mother to make friends with the twenty-eight-year- old writer. She maintains a relationship that goes little beyond the platonic with the stocky child-man. She herself would like to be a good writer in the classic sense and has a hard time telling Howard that he should aspire to writing more than his swaggering fantasies.

The great irony, of course, but one that the narrative never admits except by its very existence, is that Price is 180 degrees wrong. There can be as much art to writing an adolescent fantasy really well as there can be to describing the real world. Her own well-observed description of her dating period is of interest only in that it sheds light on the forces that formed the pulp fiction she looked down upon. On the other hand Howard perhaps in innocence never doubted that his swaggering stories were the gull-darnedest best writing around. And he was, in fact, writing a literature that once it was rediscovered in the 1960s would never be out of print and would be an inspiration to generations of writers. Price's position in the world of literature today is as a footnote, remembered as the woman who dated Howard and whose reminiscences gave us a look into his personal life. This subtext is more of interest than the actual text of the film.

Vincent D'Onofrio is already establish as one of our better feature actors. Since he played the doomed Private Pyle in FULL METAL JACKET he has had an enviable succession of character roles. Renee Zellweger is a graduate of horror films who has lucked into having two star-making roles (JERRY MAGUIRE being the other) on the screen in one Christmas season. This is Dan Ireland's first time directing, though he has produced, or executive-produced, such diverse films as the 1988 film TWISTER, PAPERHOUSE, and WHORE. He does a reasonable job, though fails to keep the characters consistently interesting. Occasionally he goes in for some hammy photography tricks like crudely darkening a strip at the top of the screen to create the effect of a darkened sky.

It is not clear that this film really stands well on its own. If it were a work of fiction it would just be a story of the dating between two people who were not really very interesting in the final analysis. THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD gives little feel for the sort of stories that Howard was writing at the time, except for their overwhelming silliness and juvenility. And certainly the stories will bear that interpretation. Where the story gets its real impetus is not from the endings that Price sees in the story, but in the beginnings that she does not appreciate. I give this film a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.


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