The Sweet Hereafter (1998)

"We've all lost our children. They're dead to us -- something terrible has happened that's taken our children away." When Mitchell Stevens utters these words, he is pondering both his own estrangement from a drug addicted daughter and the terrible accident that killed nearly every child in the tiny town of Sam Dent. Stevens (Ian Holm), an ambulance chasing attorney, is in Sam Dent to convince the parents of the town that he can represent their grief and anger in a court of law.

Atom Egoyan's *The Sweet Hereafter* (based on Russell Banks' novel) is a haunting meditation on grief and loss, parenthood and responsibility, and the enigmatic forces -- the accidents -- that change lives. Stevens doesn't believe in accidents. Accountability is his mantra, responsibility something that can be quantified, yet his own life spirals out of control as he works on the survivors of Sam Dent. Threaded throughout *The Sweet Hereafter*'s interwoven tale of bereft parenthood, of Stevens and Sam Dent, is the haunting, far from innocent fairy tale "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," resonating with its own message of accountability.

The narrative of *The Sweet Hereafter* spirals, shifting through time, beginning after the accident, returning to it (in a horrifying, chilling scene), weaving back and forth from life before to life after. Sam Dent is a town that cherishes its children, a community united in their love for their offspring. Without their children they are divided, isolated by inexpressible grief, and divided still more by Stevens' lawsuit. By taking the town's children, death steals not just the future of Sam Dent, but the present as well. Sam Dent ceases to exist, disappears in an instant, leaving behind people who have nothing left but their own anguish and individual flaws. Stevens observes their grief, exploits it, but also feels a kinship with these people. He wants to do for the parents of Sam Dent what he cannot do for himself and his own family, and so he listens to them with both therapeutic detachment and an intense need to turn their grief into gold, to create something tangible, sensible and controllable out of a senseless and incomprehensible act of random destruction.

In the back and forth of *The Sweet Hereafter*, disparate events and relationships are linked, taking on new meanings in a morally complex mosaic. The incestuous love between a father and his enigmatic daughter (Sarah Polley), the affair between a motel keeper and the widowed mechanic (Bruce Greenwood) who witnesses the bus accident that kills his children, the bus driver (Gabrielle Rose) and her silent, disabled husband, and Stevens' memory of the near death of his infant daughter all become part of an ineffable mystery, as if, by some cosmic conspiracy, their sins and sufferings, their heroism and love can all be tied to a random coincidence of time, place and circumstance.

The cinematography by Paul Sarossy emphasizes the rift between exterior and interior lives, the indifferent natural world and the intense emotional landscape of the bereaved. The frozen white vastness of British Columbia, cold, sterile and, when you know the accident is coming, serenely, impersonally menacing, is set against the dark, cramped homes of survivors who clutch cups of tea and curl up in grief. The cold neutrality outside and the rawness of emotion inside bleed together, each intensifying the other until they meet in a single, empty, burning iciness. *The Sweet Hereafter* is physically chilling, emotionally haunting, a poetic elegy and a lyrical, mysterious meditation on love and loss, chance and fate, and paying the piper.


Good Will Hunting (1998)

Only in the movies are characters like Will Hunting encountered: a blue collar savant with sculpted biceps, he secretly solves complex math problems while pushing a broom at MIT. Back in his charmingly rundown south Boston flat, he devours books with the speed of Evelyn Wood, then cruises, boozes and brawls with his buddies. When he's arrested for the umpteenth time, he defends himself in court by citing obscure 19th century laws.

Will (Matt Damon) is an everyman Einstein dreamboat with a big chip on his shoulder that keeps him from connecting emotionally and achieving his full intellectual potential. Enter Gerard Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), a mathematics professor more than a little impressed by Will's math prowess. As Will's mentor, Lambeau feeds him math problems and assorted therapists -- willful Will is bored by the calculations and resistant to psychological rehabilitation. But he finally meets his match in Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), a community college psychology professor, grieving widower and wily homeboy from the old neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Will is involved with Skylar (Minnie Driver), a British med student with whom he can't quite connect because of his past as an abused orphan. Will Will learn to love? Will Sean crack Will's tough guy exterior to reveal the sensitive genius inside? Can Will teach his therapist to take chances again?

These are pretty much stock conflicts in the therapy movie game, and *Good Will Hunting* doesn't really cover any new territory in resolving them. Nonetheless, *Good Will Hunting*, cowritten by south Boston buddies Damon and Ben Affleck (in a supporting role as Will's best friend Chuckie), is rather enjoyable given how corny and utterly predictable it is. Will's therapeutic breakthrough is pure Hollywood: swift and abrupt, it happens just in time for him to tidy up all the loose ends in his life. Still, *Good Will Hunting* has it's moments of spark and originality, bits of prickly, low-rent roughness that are as satisfying as a good scratch after all the weepy male sensitivity training.

What really works in *Good Will Hunting* is the acting, which engages despite the underdeveloped characters and farfetched circumstances. The performances are nicely minimalist, as is Gus Van Sant's unobtrusive direction. Damon, in the sort of role young actors drool over, is quietly powerful as Will, a character who spars constantly, with both his fists and his words, and always pounds his opponent to pulp. Williams, whose roles can be divided into serious (beard) and comic (beardless), is unusually good in this beard role -- where he usually plays passionate and caring as loud and overly enthusiastic, here he is quiet and understated as a touchy-feely burnout who is uniquely capable of healing Will because the two of them are so much alike. Skarsgard's Lambeau is fairly one-note: an effete intellectual snob, he is in awe of Will, and determined to share the boy's brain with the world (for reasons that are not fully explored). Driver is occasionally allowed to sparkle, but she is largely wasted as Skylar, who spends too much time weeping and mooning over Will.

The working class demimonde of south Boston is effectively depicted, and the dialogue and story are most lively and realistic when Will and his buddies are together. They cruise aimlessly from pub to pub, drinking, jesting, and roughhousing, the banter snappy and funny, the Southie accent thick. Less effective is the portrayal of academia: community college coeds are extreme dullards while MIT students and professors alike are all nerdy eggheads (and, compared to Will, relative dunces). While it's all intended to make a point about the nature of good Will's character and conflict, the stereotyping, like so much else in the movie, is too black and white -- *Good Will Hunting* would be more interesting and believable with more color, and a few shades of grey.


The Postman (1998)

*The Postman* is not the worst movie I have ever seen, but I have seen a *lot* of really terrible movies. *The Postman* is overlong, boring, clumsy and laughable, and an utter waste of three hours, but it does have Bill. Bill is the Postman's mule, and a mighty fine ass he is. Poor Bill only survives the first 20 minutes of the movie, however, which is fortunate for the mule, but a real letdown for his fans.

The year is 2013, and the Postman (Kevin Costner) is a loner wandering the vast wasteland of a post-nuclear war America, which is exactly the same character Costner played in *Waterworld*, minus gills and water. The Postman is a Shakespearean "actor," moving from town to town performing plays with his mule in exchange for food. Bill is the better actor. Costner monotonously recites a dispassionate "Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this sun of York" as if he were reading a cereal box, but that Bill, he can really handle a sword.

Bill and the Postman are kidnapped and drafted into the United Army of Nathan Holn, which is the bunch who started the war and ruined the world. The Holnists, as they are called, are led by General Bethlehem (Will Patton, in the worst performance of 1997), a former copy machine salesman who also quotes Shakespeare, and commits numerous other misdeeds, as any villain must. Patton's bad acting is at the opposite end of the scale from Costner's: he egregiously overacts, adding meaningless pauses to his phrases and shouting a whole lot for emphasis where none is called for. "Who... is responsible... for that?" he bellows, pointing to an American flag. Then he repeats it about six times. Nothing gets Bethlehem's blood up like a flag.

After the Postman escapes from the Holnists, he finds a dead mailman and steals his uniform and mailbag, then makes his way to Pineview, where he delivers a pre-fin du monde letter to an old blind woman (Peggy Lipton), so everybody in town loves him. They give him food, and have a big ol' hoedown, with singing and dancing and guitar picking. It all looks and sounds pretty good for a post-apocalypse party -- there are pretty colored lights everywhere to frame Costner's noble visage, and mighty fine craftsmanship on the musical instruments, which is surprising since everybody in the world runs around dressed in rags and animal hides, the knowledge of weaving cloth and sewing garments apparently having escaped these goodly folks while the ability to make steel guitar strings did not. Pineviewers also have paper, and, more amazing, envelopes, with which they write many letters for the phony postman to deliver. This kind of inspires the Postman, who is a reluctant hero, this being one of two characters Costner plays (the other being reluctant sports hero). But the Postman is even more inspired by Abby (Olivia Williams), a comely young lass who wants to have his baby because her sweet husband is sterile on account of the mumps. The Postman delivers.

By bringing old mail, the Postman unwittingly gives the people hope, and they start thinking about the future and returning to a civilized society with real clothes. So when he leaves Pineview, the residents, led by a little girl, sing "America The Beautiful," which disturbs the fraudulent mailman and anyone else still conscious at this, the half way point in this sentimental marathon of mock patriotism and hollow idealism.

Meanwhile, Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate), having been greatly moved by the Postman's deceit, reopens the post office and starts all kinds of trouble, making Bethlehem even madder than usual. During a long interlude when the Postman and Abby are sequestered in a snowbound cabin, Ford starts up a postal service, and a whole bunch of *Teen Beat* pretty youngsters sign up to ride horses and deliver mail all over the northwest. The postal carriers are a bunch of little rabblerousers, spreading seditious propaganda and making people happy like good counterrevolutionaries should. Bethlehem responds with murder and mayhem, and the Postman, back from his sabbatical, arms the mail carriers with big automatic weapons. Ford is a little hothead, as rebels go, but the Postman is a born leader because he has the nicest sweater in America (a turtleneck) and his hair is always perfectly coiffed, feathering back with the noble breezes that kiss his princely brow as he rides his great stallion in the pursuit of life, liberty and on-time delivery.

At this point, two hours into it, the movie turns absurdly heroic, with Costner just oozing strained nobility. Slow motion happens (as if this movie needed to be slower), and there is more dancing and carrying on, along with explosions and executions and whatnot, and it is all the most uninspiring thing you could ever hope to see. After an interminable period of increasingly corny heroism and romanticism, the Postman rides into Bridge City, where Tom Petty (acting very badly, consistent with the dominant style of the movie) is mayor. Everybody in Bridge City has nicely styled hair and a little boy asks what a postman is, which makes them all tear up because what kind of horrible post-apocalypse world is it where innocent children have never gotten birthday cards from their grandmothers? It's not a post-apocalypse world worth living in, that's what kind, so the Postman decides to do something about it and he raises a big army, and the final showdown with Bethlehem, which is indescribably ridiculous and lame, occurs.

There is some very pretty scenery in *The Postman* (you can hardly go wrong with the American west), and the idea of written communication and mail delivery being the bedrock of civilisation is actually a pretty interesting one. The script by Eric Roth and Brian Helgelund (based on the best-selling novel by David Brin) is occasionally funny. More often than not, however, it is unintentionally funny, and not at all helped by Costner's sluggish and monotonous directing. To add insult to injury Costner sings on the soundtrack as the credits roll (John Sebastian's "You Didn't Have To Be So Nice") and he sings as well as he acts.

If only Bill had found that mailbag first.