Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Rick Yune, James Cromwell, Richard Jenkins, James Rebhorn, Sam Shepard, Max von Sydow, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Written by: Scott Hicks, Ron Bass, based on a novel by David Guterson
Directed by: Scott Hicks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images, sensuality and brief strong language
Running Time: 127
Date: 09/12/1999

Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)

2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Scott Hicks returns from his hit Shine (1996) with another of this season's Cliff's Notes movies, in which a studio buys a popular novel and trys to adapt it as closely as possible. The usual result is that fans of the book are disappointed, people who have never read the book are bored, and everyone pretends to like it because it has literary clout. The studios attempt this formula year after year and rarely pull off a film worth the price of admission.

Snow Falling on Cedars at least approaches a kind of cinema. The story is told through numerous flashbacks, flash-forwards, and cross-cuts (similar to Pulp Fiction and the recent The End of the Affair). The central character is more or less a journalist named Ishmael Chambers, played by Ethan Hawke. He's the son of a radical newspaper editor who stood against the horrible treatment of the Japanese-Americans at the start of World War II. Now another Japanese-American (Rick Yune) is on trial for murder, and only Ishmael knows the truth. But he's secretly in love with the man's wife (Youki Kudoh) and is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. One spark of life in this film is the defendant's great scene-stealing lawyer, played by Max Von Sydow, who may get an Oscar nomination for this performance.

There's no doubt that Snow Falling on Cedars looks great, with its snowy cinematography by Robert Richardson (JFK and this year's excellent Bringing Out the Dead). And it's great to see an uncomfortable section of our own history portrayed in a major film. But the content just isn't fleshed out here. I'm sure the novel itself (which I haven't read) has plenty of content, but Hicks' delicate, reverential treatment of it renders a flat and dead film. I'll be a happy man when Hollywood's worship of the novel ends and real filmmaking returns.

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