Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, The Magdalene Sisters, and More

GIGANTIC: A TALE OF TWO JOHNS

Runs Fri., Aug. 15-Thurs., Aug. 21, at Varsity

Other than a few unbearable segues where director A.J. Schnack enlists stars like Andy Richter, Janeane Garofalo, and Michael McKean for painful recitations of They Might Be Giants lyrics, this is a refreshingly unpretentious documentary about the largely unsung alt-rock pioneers. John Flansburgh and John Linnell are portrayed as down-to-earth aesthetes too modest to overanalyze their longevity; luckily, Schnack's stable of personalities is psyched to do so, especially smitten NPR luminaries Sarah Vowell and Ira Glass. Gigantic traces TMBG's evolution from accordion 'n' acoustic art duo to inexplicable mid-'80s, MTV sore-thumb sensation to full-on "sellout" rock quintet and authors of the goddamn Malcolm in the Middle theme. Incredibly, the Giants' fan base ceiling keeps rising, but the basement-level foundation remains junior-high kids. The doc's most touching, bittersweet moment: a home video of a Manhattan in-store at midnight Sept. 10, 2001, during which those kids enthusiastically clap along to love letter "New York City." (NR) ANDREW BONAZELLI

GRIND

Opens Fri., Aug. 15, at Meridian and others

Some people might like Grind, but they'll have to be skateboarders who don't mind abundant potty humor, demeaning pickup lines, the objectification of women, and a premise that might've been conceived by a 13-year-old boy. I'm not that demographic. This mind-numbing faux documentary chronicles the misadventures of four teenage boys who follow a pro skateboarding tour around the country in the hopes of catching the eye of their elusive hero (Jason London). While Grind's two main characters (Mike Vogel and Adam Brody) are likable, their pair of sidekicks (Vince Vielof and Joey Kern) are repellent. As for the skating, the cast seems to know what it's doing; and if that's your thing, then, um, go check it out, yo. Just don't bring your girlfriend. Oh, that's rightyou don't have one. (PG-13) KENNEDY LEAVENS

THE MAGDALENE SISTERS

Opens Fri., Aug. 15, at Metro

The best, most vital part of Sisters is the opening, which introduces three protagonists as Seabiscuit does, only faster. At a Dublin wedding circa 1964, searing images tell the tale as a randy cousin lures Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) upstairs. She unwisely reports the rape. Grown-ups exchange aghast glances. At an orphanage, Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) trades saucy looks and sassy words with the boys at the fence. In a hospital, Rose (Dorothy Duffy) begs her da to look at her love child.

The penalty for getting raped, ogled, or pregnant is the same: imprisonment in the Magdalene Asylums, a chain of Irish laundries that exploited 30,000 "fallen" women for almost 100 years until 1996. Writer/director Peter Mullan (Orphans) gruelingly depicts their torment by Mother Superior Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) and her still more sadistic, sexually predatory colleagues. The most vivid laundress is Noone, whose debut in movies is big news: We'll see more of those giant eyes and plump, come-hither-and-I'll-bite-you lips. It's all effectively grisly, but events go nowhere after the strong start. In Sisters' one-sided drama, the nuns are as simple as a windup Nunzilla toy barking sparks. Mullan crafts a scary sermon, but he's preaching to the choir. (R) TIM APPELO

IN THE MIRROR OF MAYA DEREN

Runs Fri., Aug. 15-Sun., Aug. 17, at Little Theatre

If you draw a blank on pioneering independent filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961), don't fret. Even her groundbreaking 14-minute black-and-white Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), seething with sexuality and symbolism, screens rarely now. Then, her striking image made her the avant-garde's icon: a pure Botticelli fox with an aureole of curls, gazing imperturbably at the world as if through a scrim.

Any distance from Deren collapses with this exquisitely made, thoroughly researched, and mesmerizing documentary account of a visionary who almost literally leaps from the screen. Director Martina Kudlacek gives Deren's fellow Greenwich Villagers the chance for one last hurrah, and what emerges from these lovers, husbands, mentors, subjects, and fellow artists is worshipful, bitchy, probing, admiring, but never dull.

Usually the unabashed center of her silent, dreamlike short films, Deren is revealed as a fiery force of nature as well as a wide-ranging artist who won the first film Guggenheim. Her tragically short life began in Kiev, "with the Revolution," and ended at 44, possibly as a result of her "vitamin" shots (actually speed), but also because, habitually broke, she'd buy film before food.

Finding her calling with her first Bolex (and second husband, Alexander Hammid, a gentle Czech filmmaker who shot Meshes and still speaks of her lovingly here), Deren became fascinated with how film breaks down time, among other barriers. "The strength of men is their great sense of immediacy," she comments in her harsh, little-girl voice. "Women's strength is a sense of waiting . . . of becoming."

Four decades after her death, in viewing excerpts from her films in Mirror, it's odd how Deren's seekers and dream messengers wear the sandals and little black dresses of the day. It's obvious that they should have been as unfettered as Deren, whom we later glimpse reclining magnificently in near-nakedness. (NR) SHEILA BENSON

OPEN RANGE

Opens Fri., Aug. 15, at Meridian and others

Hoping for a career comeback on the cheap, after his costly string of non- Western debacles, Kevin Costner returns, in ploddingly, cornily agreeable fashion, with Open Range, where land and sky seem awfully similar to his last success, Dances With Wolves. The time is 1882, with the frontier fast closing, and Costner plays a Civil War vet turned cattle driver employed by sage old Robert Duvall (who makes "son of a bitch" sound like cowboy poetry of the highest order). These two act as ma and pa to their two junior hands (including Y Tu Mam᠔ambi鮼/I>'s Diego Luna), but their itinerant family is threatened by a murderous rancher (Englishman Michael Gambon, playing a Snidely O'Whiplash villain) opposed to their free-grazing ways.

Range is as simple as oats but lacks the economy of, say, an old episode of Bonanza. You know there's a big gunfight coming, but it takes 135 minutes to get there. Save for one embarrassing Civil War post-traumatic-stress-disorder scene, Costner generally resists the urge to psychologize his characters. As he dwells on an endangered American prairie framed by sky and distant mountains (actually Alberta), he creates a clunky but respectable TNT Westernno surprises, easy morality, lonely spinster (Annette Bening, deserving far better), happy ending, plus yep-and-nope dialogue that probably adds up to 10 script pages total. Befitting its laconic, trail-dusted sentimentalism, the movie even features more cute-dog shots than Benji.

So is Costner back? Some critics and moviegoers won't want to give him the chance after Waterworld and The Postman. (When his cowpoke says, "I'm trying to put some bad times behind me, only they won't stay put," he might as well be talking about his own career.) But since he doesn't treat Range's simple story for much more than it is (a pastiche of High Noon and Shane), I'd say Costner's back enough to start adapting the complete works of Larry McMurtry for cable provided he could get Duvall to co-star in them all to help counterbalance his pompous tendencies. (That, and say "son of a bitch" a lot.) I reckon that'd make for a long, slow, and not unpleasant ride into the sunset, pardner. (R) BRIAN MILLER

PASSIONADA

Opens Fri., Aug. 15, at Metro and others

It pains me to pan Passionada, because I'm a passionate fan of director Dan Ireland (see interview, p. 82). And there are good things in it. He and lenser Claudio Rocha make the New Bedford, Mass., setting look lovely (though Texas has a more magical glow in Ireland's The Whole Wide World, newly released on DVD). He can suffuse a film with more sweetness than Cameron Crowe, and he has a knack for casting: indie great Teresa Russell and Cassavetes vet Seymour Cassel as a rich couple; Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter) as a raffish gambler who sponges off them; Greek/Italian siren Sophia Milos (CSI and The Sopranos) as the widow the gambler's wooing; and the talented Lupe Ontiveros as the mother-in-law who wants her to cease mourning and remarry, already. But this movie could've been called My Small, Slow Portuguese Courtship. The script, by a travel writer and a reformed ICM agent, is ham-fisted, rhythmless. Director and cast overlay a beguiling charm upon poorly conceived characters doing improbable yet predictable things. I weep to say it, but even Gigli is better. (PG-13) TIM APPELO

UPTOWN GIRLS

Opens Fri., Aug. 15, at Pacific Place and others

Brittany Murphy plays the immature 22-year-old daughter of a late rock star who, cut off from her parent's estate, gets a job nannying a spoiled, uptight Manhattan 8-year-old (simpering Dakota Fanning, Sean Penn's daughter in I Am Sam) with a detached, career-minded mother (Heather Locklear, looking great but out of place off the small screen). Nanny and nannied have their inevitable conflicts (Fanning digs Mozart while Murphy wants to rock), but each finally teaches the other how to act her age. (Although you don't believe that either girl truly sees the error of her ways.) Sounds safe, cutesy, and formulaic, right? Don't be deceived: This is no Clueless-type charmer that you can bring your nieces to. There are some dark subplots, especially when it comes to the nanny's chaotic personal life. With a not-very-jokey suicide attempt, party scenes straight out of Cruel Intentions, and a creepy visit to a deserted Coney Island, this flick is neither funny nor feel-good. (PG-13) K.L.

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