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If nothing else, see 'Seven Years' for the scenery

Scenes from

Brad Pitt plays underwhelming part

October 28, 1997
Web posted at: 8:20 p.m. EST (0120 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- You've probably heard rumors that a lot of people in the movie industry are soulless partiers with no respect for the old-fashioned virtues of peace, love, and understanding.

Well, don't give too much weight to reports of the call-girling, sucker-punching, coke-snorting side of things. What Hollywood is most concerned with nowadays is the well-being of the gentle, prostrate people of Tibet.

Martin Scorsese is putting the finishing touches on "Kundun," his long-anticipated account of the Dalai Lama's rise to Dalai Lama-ness, but director Jean-Jacques Annaud has beaten Marty to the, um, punch.

Annaud's "Seven Years in Tibet" stars Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, a real-life Austrian mountaineer who gets arrested by the British Army in 1939 after failing to scale a Himalayan peak. He is thrown into a prisoner-of-war camp, makes a daring escape, journeys across a horrendous variety of tundra, and winds up best buddies with the teen-age Dalai Lama.

And Pitt looks positively cute as a button while he does it. (Not surprisingly, David Thewlis, the actor who makes the grueling trip with Pitt, is the one who ends up with the requisite frostbitten toes).

I have to be honest: I wasn't looking forward to sitting through this one.

I don't need movie stars to point me toward the path of enlightenment, and, even if they managed to push me in the right direction, I'd probably head the other way out of sheer spite. All in all, though, this is not a bad film. Not great, but not bad, either. It has its heart in the right place, and there's a minimum of overt preaching. And, of course, there's magnificent scenery, in this case the Andes mountains of Argentina standing in for the Himalayas.

A sizable chunk of "Seven Years in Tibet" is about trying to climb across those gorgeous peaks, and this, oddly enough, is the portion of the film that contains the most spiritual resonance.

Annaud heightens the tension as Pitt and his climbing partners dangle above icy gorges, by taking the opposite approach of most current directors ... a good idea if ever there was one.

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He never resorts to over-elaborate cutting, and there's no music. You see real guys swinging above real ice caps while gusty winds fill the soundtrack.

In one quick sequence, this establishes man's insignificance in the universal scheme of things and, at the same time, gives the audience real neat movie stuff to oooh and ahhh over. It doesn't advance the plot an inch, but that's okay. The plot never gets around to advancing all that much anyway.

Pitt has limited range

There are two major problems here, and, unfortunately, they both center on Brad Pitt. When he first showed up in the movies, I didn't care for him much. It seemed to me that his breakthrough performance in "Thelma and Louise" centered solely on his stomach muscles and his teeth, but since then he's shown an admirable tendency to take on riskier roles.

How he managed to make a smirking fly fisherman interesting in "A River Runs Through It" is beyond me, but he pulled it off, and, repugnant as the movie is, he's pretty cool in "Seven."

He's misfired quite a few times over the years (as in "Interview with the Boring Guy Who Should Visit a Tanning Salon"), but he keeps on plugging away, refusing to be pigeonholed as a mere pretty boy.

Unlike Keanu Reeves, who couldn't give a believable performance as a tomato in a fourth-grade "basic food groups" skit, Pitt has some real talent, but his range seems limited.

His physical being takes a major journey in "Seven Years in Tibet," but his spirit never seems to be seated anywhere but at the head table at Spago.

And he gets no help from the script.

Dalai Lama an unlikely theater draw

Regardless of Richard Gere or Sharon Stone's propensity toward holding cocktail parties for him, the Dalai Lama is not exactly going to pack fannies into cineplexes in Iowa.

There are no Tibetan movie stars, so Hollywood has to come up with a story centering around a cute white guy (guess who), who sort of circles around the Dalai Lama until there's no way to avoid dealing with China's brutal massacre of the Tibetan people.

"Seven Years in Tibet" really wants to be, and should be, about the people who were living a peaceful, centered existence before Pitt's character ever showed up, but that's very risky territory in the high stakes poker game that is modern American filmmaking.

Scorsese's production, by contrast, takes a gamble by featuring no American actors whatsoever (sorry, no Joe Pesci chanting).

It'll be interesting to see if audiences will give it a go with no marquee names to pull them in. My guess is they'll stay away in droves, but it's worth a try. The sheer economic bravery of it all might be enough to make it interesting.

"Seven Years in Tibet" contains one bloody mountaineering accident, a couple of battle scenes and some icky frostbite, but that's about it for offensiveness. Honorable but flawed, your kids will get far more out of it than another Jim Carrey video. PG-13. 134 minutes.

 
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