Starring: Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Max von Sydow, Rick Yune, James Rebhorn, James Cromwell, Sam Shepard, Richard Jenkins
Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Images, Sensuality, and Brief Strong Language
In general, if you're making a somber romantic melodrama, it's best not to imitate Oliver Stone, especially not his controversial film "Natural Born Killers." Stone may be a good filmmaker, with "Patton" being a bonafide classic and "JFK" only a notch or two below (I'm not the world's biggest fan of "Wall Street," although I will freely admit that Michael Douglas deserved all the fame he got from playing Gordon Gekko), but "understated" isn't a word in his vocabulary. This is what happens when you take a Stone's approach to a slow-burn thriller: it's a disaster of epic proportions.
The film takes place shortly after WWII in a sleepy Northwestern town with a sizable Japanese population. Prejudice is still in evidence, although not as out in the open as in the Deep South. One morning, a boat has been found adrift in the harbor. The town sheriff (Jenkins) senses something amiss, and he and his deputy (Zac Orth) go aboard. Shortly thereafter, they pull aboard the body of the ship's owner, a man named Carl Heine Jr. (Eric Thal). Arrested for the crime is Kazuo Miyamoto (Yune), a local man and a war hero. Covering the story is Ishmael (ho ho) Chambers (Hawke), but of far greater interest to him is Kazuo's wife, Hatsue (Kudoh), with whom he fell in love with when he was a boy.
"Snow Falling on Cedars" was directed by Scott Hicks. He made the critically acclaimed biopic of pianist David Helfgott, which won Geoffrey Rush an Oscar. I didn't think the film was all that great, but that's beside the point. He's no hack, but based on this, I would have to say that he was actively trying to sabotage his own film. Either that, or he inhaled massive amounts of cocaine before every take. There's no gimmick that he doesn't use: flashbacks (and flashbacks of flashbacks), bizarre camera angles, constant voice-overs over little scenes from the past, asynchronous dialogue (the voice on the telephone starts moments after the human voice), slow motion, and so on. It's a mess. Forget being involved in the story, I was happy I was able to watch the movie without getting motion sick!
When the film slows down, it works. There is one scene that deals with the Japanese Americans being forced from their homes and sent to internment camps. It's an effective 20 minute segment, and I thought of the famous "Goodbye, Jews!" clip from "Schindler's List." It's not nearly as disturbing and sad, but it does have some real power. If only Hicks hadn't insisted on making this for the ADD crowd.
What can I say about the performances? Their best attempts to act were sabotaged by the director and the editor (Hank Corwin, who did indeed edit "Natural Born Killers." His first film, apparently). If Ethan Hawke has his flat moments, I'm going to absolve him of them because of it. He and the lovely Youki Kudoh don't have a lot of chemistry, but I'm guessing that Hicks and Corwin may have had something to do with it.
During the opening credits, I saw two names that gave me high expectations: Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. They are two of the smartest people in Hollywood, both having been behind some great films ("Jurassic Park" being one of them). They're married in real life and have their own production company. Both are producers, with Marshall occasionally directing ("Congo" and "Eight Below" are two of his films) and Kennedy being behind many of Steven Spielberg's films. These two are not amateurs. I don't know if they gave Hicks free reign to do whatever he wanted with his film, but the job of the producer is to make sure that things go smoothly and the film makes money. The film wasn't a success at the box office, and I'm not surprised why.
Just avoid this monstrosity.