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September 18, 1999 2:00 AM
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TORONTO REVIEW: Wang and Portman Give Direction, Charm to "Anywhere"

TORONTO REVIEW: Wang and Portman Give Direction, Charm to "Anywhere"

by Ray Pride




Even when the films are imperfect, the eclecticism of Wayne Wang's
career charms. After the solid success of "The Joy Luck Club," he turned
to the Paul Auster-penned Miramax arthouse bauble, "Smoke" (and its
companion lark, "Blue in the Face"), then returned to Hong Kong for
"Chinese Box."


1998's "Chinese Box" is one of the great cinematic city symphonies,
fully capturing the look and sound of the streets of Hong Kong 1997,
even if the romance between Jeremy Irons and Gong Li is as frigid as
relations between the Crown and China at that time. Yet its
semi-improvisational production is something few directors would have
tackled after successes for both Disney's Touchstone and Miramax
divisions.


Wang's back to studio finance and distribution with his eleventh
feature, 20th Century Fox's "Anywhere but Here," and it's sleek, likable work. We
follow the path of Anne August, a mercurial teenage daughter (Natalie
Portman
) who cringes at her bawdy, slightly off-center mother Adele's
(Susan Sarandon) every social faux pas or unceasing capacity for
misunderstanding and denial.


Even with her hair tucked under a baseball cap in the opening scenes as
Adele and Anne hightail it from Wisconsin to Los Angeles to pursue
Adele's cracked dreams, Portman is criminally beautiful. After the
visual overkill of all that Queen Amidala froufrou, Portman should
demand she merely be allowed to be, to perform, to smile that smile of
hers, to look toward her fellow actors and listen sweetly. She's
reportedly a reluctant star, ready to chuck an acting career at any
time. Let's hope she's not just in George Lucas' contract work, because
she's fine here.


Sarandon, playing a colorful but essentially bad mom, is more than
matched by Portman. Hers is star acting, rather than actorish acting. In
each role, but for the misbegotten "Phantom Menace," Portman seems to
have been born a great contemporary destined-for-the-screen performer,
inhabiting a role with as few devices as the likes of Clint Eastwood.
Look at what she suggests with the slightest nudge of an eyebrow, a
tickle at the corner of her lips, a bubble of spit caught between her
bright white teeth in the broadest of smiles. She is a metaphor of
adolescence, youth and beauty at every turn and a wonder to behold --
for her presence as much as her maturing beauty.


Wang remains alert to the need for patience in character-driven
storytelling. There's a scene where Sarandon is scrubbing out a kitchen
sink, up on the counter, feet in the basin, where the few extra beats
that Wang allows Sarandon to murmur to herself mean everything. In
studio films, plot is necessary, stars are indispensable, and poise is
rare. Wang and D.P. Roger Deakins frame a scene, let the actors go giddy
with Alvin Sargent's sharp dialogue (adapted from Mona Simpson's
well-regarded novel) and the result is poignant, old-fashioned
entertainment.


There are hints of other influences cherished by Wang. There's a sweet
confrontation between mother and daughter when the subject of teenage
sex is first brought up. Portman lounges on a mattress on the floor,
indicating they're broke, but also allowing the scene to play out with
the camera at crouching, tatami-mat height, as many scenes do in the
family dramas of the Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu.


Deakins' cinematography is creamy aptness: Los Angeles light, a
pearlescent thing that can bleach or blind or, other times of day, color
and flatter, is captured at unusual and appropriate times of day. Wang
and Deakins' Los Angeles convinces. But that will hardly be noticed by
audiences. As a two-hander for two of Hollywood's best and most striking
actresses, eyes will ping-pong across the Panavision frame, eager to
soak up what fleeting expressions, what sudden smiles, what seeming
authenticity Sarandon, Portman and Wang will have committed to film in
the instant to come and the instant that follows. The mother-daughter
tension is ideal for widescreen, and Wang serves his actresses well and
thus the story, and the audience, in turn.


[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to FILMMAKER Magazine and longtime film
critic for Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies for many other
publications, including Playboy Online. He is also a screenwriter and
filmmaker.]

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