Opens Fri., Aug. 8, at Varsity and Uptown
Buried by its studio (Miramax) after its Toronto Film Festival debut the week following Sept. 11, 2001, Soldiers is wholly out of stepand wholly welcomein the Bush II era of superpatriotism. It's set during the Bush I era of collapsed Cold War patriotism, as punch-drunk superpowers teeter exhaustedly in the ring, waiting for the Berlin Wall to fall in late '89. On a U.S. Army base in Stuttgart, supply clerk Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is a thoroughly amoral black marketeer (like M*A*S*H's Radar O'Reilly gone very, very bad) who observes how he and his fellow enlistees in the all-volunteer army are "criminals and dropouts . . . with nothing to kill but time." For Elwood, the service is a wildly profitable scam until his racket is threatened by a hard-ass sergeant (Scott Glenn) with a babely daughter (Anna Paquin).
Driving 200 kilometers per hour on the autobahn in his tricked-out Benz, Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on the stereo, Elwood and his interracial posse are the kind of criminals you root for in this unruly black satireparticularly when some violent Army thugs attempt to muscle in on a major smack deal. Swirling around them are ineffectual officers (e.g., a bewildered Ed Harris), bored and horny Army wives (e.g., a tragically Botox-ified Elizabeth McGovern), and a big war-games exercise that might threaten Elwood's arms-for-heroin score. Australian director Gregor Jordan barrels recklessly ahead with more energy than craft until the movie, quite literally, goes up in flames. Instead of an ending, it's like he pulled the pin on a grenade; the dramatic tension comes from wondering when it'll explode.
Some viewers may not want to see GIs shooting up, then shooting one other, but I suspect Soldiersbased on Robert O'Connor's 1993 novelis a movie Anthony Swofford (Jarhead) would approve of. Our boys in Iraq may be recruited from better stuff today, but guys like Elwood stand in a venerable military tradition: From King Rat to Three Kings, there's always going to be a crook in the ranks. (R) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., Aug. 8, at Egyptian
Young outcasts (i.e., gay boys and plump girls who worship Stephen Sondheim) get to commiserate in their otherness at a summer theater camp for kids. Writer/debut director Todd Graff and his drowsy editor Myron Kerstein muck up what is intended to be a socko openingjuxtaposing the performance of a soaring spiritual from The Gospel at Colonus with a young drag queen's beating at the hands of his high-school peersand it's all downhill from there. Graf gets a happy, hearty laugh here and there out of these kids' fearless earnestness (i.e., an ambitious teenage girl with a middle-aged wig belting out Sondheim's boozy, bitter "The Ladies Who Lunch"), but the film's tone is so inconsistent that you don't know whether he knows why it's funnyis this camp or camp? At any given time, the movie ineptly reaches to be Meatballs, Bring It On, and/or a particularly treacly TV Afterschool Special. It's a waste of what could've been a breezy summer vacation. (NR) STEVE WIECKING
Opens Fri., Aug. 8, at Guild 45 and others
I'm sure Ismail Merchant and James Ivory have a nice life in Paris, but in the 10 years since The Remains of the Day, they've been making stink bombs, most notably two set in Paris (about Jefferson and Picasso). So I was wary of their new adaptation of Diane Johnson's 1997 novel about American innocents in Paris. Too wary. The film is bookish, lacks their customary posh gloss, and has more characters and incidents than it can dramatize, but it's not a bad little bonbon.
Johnson originally wanted to cast Gwyneth Paltrow, but she says she was told Gwynnie was "pass頡nd too old." So Mssrs. M&I anchor the film with Kate Hudson as Isabel, a Santa Barbara girl arriving in Paris to visit her half- sister Roxy (Naomi Watts) the very day Roxy's weasly French husband (Melvile Poupaud) dumps her, pregnant. Soon Roxy is feuding with her snooty soon- to-be-ex-mother-in-law, Mme. Persand (grande dame Leslie Caron), over custody of her kids and a suddenly valuable family-owned painting. Watts is a past master of acting, but everyone else's roles upstage her weepy, generic grief.
We're more interested in Isabel's wide-eyed affairs with a bohemian youth (Romain Duris from L'Auberge Espagnole) and a suave old adulterous goat (Thierry Lhermitte) who happens to be Mme. Persand's brother. Then Isabel goes to work for an American writer (wise old Glenn Close), unaware that she once had an affair with the old goat when she was a young lamb.
A novel's worth of acute cultural- collision commentary won't fit into the slim form of the a screenplay, but what's here is choice. Its pleasantly overstuffed narrative is key to this movie's charm, although Bebe Neuwirth, Stephen Fry, Sam Waterston, and Stockard Channing are criminally underemployed in supporting roles. And Matthew Modine's crazed cuckold is so oddly at odds with the main story that he should've been named Deus X. Machina. But such flaws don't spoil Le Divorce, any more than Frenchmen's piggery spoils Isabel's flings. When all you're after is a taste of Paris, you can't get your heart broken. (PG-13) TIM APPELO
Opens Wed., Aug. 6, at Metro and others
Freaky Friday has been done before several times before. It has been a book, a movie (in 1976 with Jodie Foster), and a TV movie. And now it's a movie again. You'd think it'd get old eventually, but somehow Disney scrapes some decent fun out of its well-worn identity-swapping plot. This time, the mother (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been updated as a single, successful psychiatrist, not just a housewife. Daughter Anna (Lindsay Lohan) is still a rebellious teenager with a good heart. And the switch still makes for some laughs, as when Anna, in Mom's body, plays therapist to nutcase patients or takes revenge on her terror of a younger brother. (Though things get a little creepy when Anna's high-school crush falls for Annain her mom's body.) Friday's implicit message will certainly please the younger viewers: In an about-face from Mary Rodgers' 1972 young-adult perennial, in which the slightly selfish teenage girl realizes she's underestimated the grit it takes to get through a day in her mother's life, here Mom is the one who learns to appreciate how hard it is to be a teen. (PG) KENNEDY LEAVENS
Runs Fri., Aug. 8-Thurs., Aug. 14, at Varsity
Erica Jong published her Fear of Flying all the way back in 1973, and I'd hate to think that the fate of feminismso far as the supposedly liberating "zipless fuck" is concerned, anywaynow lies in the hands of Claire Denis. Thirty years have passed, and anonymous sex still seems worthy of writing about or filming? Call me a prude, but Friday Night is a prunewrinkled and old, not at all juicy or sensual. It's not the fault of Val鲩e Lemercier and Vincent Lindon, whose characters hook up for a one-night stand. Their performances, bodies, and sexuality are attractively, reassuringly adultnot like airbrushed porn stars or Hollywood A-list narcissists. She's stuck in a traffic jam and offers a ride to this craggily handsome, if taciturn, hitchhiker. There's not an immediate erotic charge between them (nor is the sex explicit later on), just some kind of tacit, comfortable acknowledgement: The moment is right; we like each other; we'll never see each other again; so why not?
At first, Denis (Beau Travail) simply lets the behavioral details accrue about Laure as she packs up her Paris apartment (apparently about to move in with her steady boyfriend), then rushes to make a dinner party before the fateful traffic jam. In the film's nearly wordless first 20 minutes, Denis just shows us this woman's routine like a documentary. There's a cute little bit when Laure uses her car window defogger to dry her hair, but then the quotidian turns deathly dull. We spend enough of our lives being stuck in traffic; we don't want to watch a movie about it.
Jean, when he gets in the car, doesn't add much to the excitement, though he handles a cigarette nicely. It'd be faster for him to walk, and less tedious for viewers, but then Denis wouldn't have a movie. (Gridlocked in my seat, I found myself wishing for a fiery conflagration and descent into violence as in Godard's Weekenda traffic jam with a point to it.) Denis gets the mood right as Laure savors her unhurried sexual freedom, but not the movement. The movie is stuck in park. (NR) B.R.M.
THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS
Opens Fri., Aug. 8, at Varsity and Uptown
Dentists started out as The Age of Grief, the jauntily haunting 1987 novella that made Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres) famous. Her original tale explains that 35 is the age of grief: It's when you finally get it"love ends, children are stolen, parents die feeling that their lives have been meaningless." It's a wonderful story, and I grieve the loss, as inevitable as death, incurred by translating it to the screen. Essentially, it's a film-proof philosophical internal monologue studded with truths about family life. Yet our local, very literary hero, Bainbridge Island director Alan Rudolph, does an amazing job of preserving much of its spirit of ramshackle spontaneity, bottomless everyday sorrow, and offhand humoreven some of the classic Smiley riff that begins, "Teeth outlast everything. Death is nothing to a tooth."
Understated quirkmeister Campbell Scott drills deep into the soul of Dr. Dave Hurst, a dentist sharing a practice with his wife, Dr. Dana (skyrocketing indie star Hope Davis, who lights up About Schmidt and, one hears, American Splendor). Dave knows their practice is going better than their passion, despite three adored daughters and upper-muddlecrass success. Dana pours her thwarted yearnings into a choral role in a one-night stand of Verdi's Nabucco. Backstage, Dave glimpses a caress suggesting there might be another one-or-more night stand in her life. Being more emotion-averse than she (which troubles their marriage), he won't confront her; instead, he's tormented by apparitions of what she might be doing in bed.
Another apparition is Denis Leary, playing Dave's most irritable patient: Dave hallucinates him ranting about Dana, giving caustic voice to his own discontent. This jarring device is based on what happens in the book, but it's an invasion of Smiley's contemplative world by Leary's patented shtick. Davis' character works better than the Scott/Leary doppelg䮧ers, because instead of externalizing her id and overspecifying her erotic complaints like a radio shock jock, the movie lets the mystery be.
This is one of Rudolph's best filmsand his second most normal after Mortal Thoughts. It's flawed, but I hope it's a hit. (R) T.A.