This Week's Attractions

COCK AND BULL STORY

Opens Fri., Nov. 7, at Varsity

Billy Hayes spent five years in a Turkish prison for drug smuggling, and his subsequent book became the basis for 1978's Midnight Express. Now that he's had a good quarter-century of freedom, he's made a homoerotic boxing film starring and executive produced by Beverly Hills 90210's Brian Austin Green. Any chance of planting some hash on Hayes and incarcerating him in Istanbul for another five years should be grabbed immediately.

Directing and adapting his own woeful script from some deservedly obscure play, Hayes is so uncertain in his handling of this material that it's anyone's guess which way it swings. With echoes of everything from Marty to Mean Streets, Hayes' heroes are two scruffy nobodies just tryin' to break out of their urban squalor. Travis (Bret Roberts) is a promising pugilist who may or may not be gay. Jacko (Green, saying "fuck" a lot and real proud of it) is the hair-trigger, no-goodnik buddy who may or may not care. The crux here, hinted at in slo-mo close-ups of embattled boxing shorts, is that Travis always pops a boner during clinches in the ring, a fact alternately treated as incredibly sensual and incitement to bloody violence. If Hayes had the skill to muck around in such gray areas of the male psyche, he might be on to something; he doesn't, and he's not.

He's even less capable of keeping a narrative under control. Among many other ill-defined characters simmering in this motley stew are a ubiquitous detective (Sam Scarber, understandably confused) and Travis' sometime girlfriend (Wendy Fowler, terrible), whom he allows the repellent Jacko to accost. A gay-bashing bit is embarrassingly mishandled, to say nothing of an inexplicable scene in which Green is strung up half-naked in a nightclub. And, no sports fans, there's nothing sexy on display here. It's all bull and no cock. (NR) STEVE WIECKING

ELEPHANT

Opens Fri., Nov. 7, at Uptown

After Columbine, Gus Van Sant wanted to direct a made-for-TV movie that would explore the motivation of the killer kids. Craven networks wouldn't bite, but HBO fearlessly gave Van Sant the nod, and he responded by tossing out the script and real-world specificity in favor of this disconcertingly dreamy fable, cast mostly with nonprofessional Portland high-school kids who can effortlessly get emotionally naked for the camera. (Long before, Van Sant scrapped his biopic about Harvey Milk because its scripts inevitably turned into a movie-star vehicle. He was right: In life-inspired pictures like Dog Day Afternoon, people aren't really cheering the character; they're cheering Al Pacino. The starlight distracts from tragedy.)

Here, Van Sant's kids perform shaped improvisations based on their own life stories, inserted into an ordinary school day invaded by the killers' fantasy. One killer is named Eric, not to echo Columbine killer Eric Harris, but because the actor is named Eric Deulen. The other killer, Alex, is played by Alex Frost, who was noodling a little Beethoven on the set one dayso Van Sant incorporated soothing Beethoven tunes into the plot and soundtrack. In this way, Elephant is like a blank Warhol documentary; as we simply observe these youngsters stroll down hallways toward their destiny, enacting classic rituals. A football hunk nuzzles his steady as envious girls watch. A nerd girl gets in trouble for refusing to wear gym clothes in gym. Three Heathers-ish biddies gossip in the lunchroom, then go bulimic in the bathrooma weirdly Clueless-toned comic scene.

Two-thirds of the movie comprises disconnected vignettes shown from various kids' perspectives in the 20 minutes before the shootings; the final third gives us the last day or so of the killers' lives. We see some of the same events from different points of view, but not in an attempt to triangulate what really happened, as in Reversal of Fortune. Van Sant isn't out to explain anything here; he just drops little hints: jocks tormenting Alex with a spitball, and the killers playing morbid video games, erotically bonding in the shower, and ordering guns on the Internet. Van Sant has fled reality into a gauzy fantasy subtly permeated by grief.

What the hell does he mean by this exercise in ducking all journalistic inquiry into cause and effect? He recently told Portland's new alterna-paper, Organ, that Elephant responds to Columbine not through documentary; it's "more of a song about it or a dirge or a poem about it." He compared the film to a "tincture," one of the substances homeopathic medicine uses to apply a tiny bit of a disease to stimulate healing: "[It's] like a remedy that you pour on something. It sort of works that way on your mind." Elephant does worknot in the sense of healing any actual wounds, but by casting an eerie spell. The violence is distanced, the characters made both naturalistic and abstract, kind of like the spectral last act of the Spalding Gray Our Town. It's not true, but it's beautiful. (R) TIM APPELO

ELF

Opens Fri., Nov. 7, at Metro and others

So Will Ferrell follows up Old School's Frank the Tank, the most memorably lewd, original comic powder keg since Vince Vaughn's Trent in Swingers, by stuffing himself into friggin' yellow elf tights and slumming with Bob Newhart and Jimmy Caan in a fish-out-of-water kid- flick "extolling" the Christmas spirit via run-amok product placement?! And Jon Favreau, the caustic brain behind Swingers and Made, is the director responsible for this feel-good PG treacle? IT BOGGLES THE GODDAMN MIND . . . that Elf ultimately almost doesn't suck.

The lackor at least the occasional postponementof suckage has everything to do with SNL refugee Ferrell, who somehow managed to leave Chris Kattan in the bowels of hell post-A Night at the Roxbury and suddenly has the potential to be a comic megadraw alongside fellow ex-sketchmen Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. I haven't yet seen Elf's screenplay posted on the Web, but it seems unimaginable that, oh, 90 percent of Ferrell's lines weren't ad-libbed. He's so frantic, off the cuff, and self-aware that the few scenes without himmost purloining A Christmas Carolwilt, decompose, and ultimately flat-out reek.

Elf's concept is nauseatingly cutesy. Santa Claus doles out presents at an orphanage; a wee one crawls into his sack of toys, winds up at the North Pole, and is subsequently raised by Newhart's introverted elder elf. Eight zillion sight gags constitute the first act, in which a giant-sized Ferrell bangs his head into low ceilings, squats on miniature crappers, and botches even the most remedial toy-making duties. Newhart finally reveals that Ferrell isn't a real elf, but a human born out of wedlock to Caan, now a distant, terse Manhattan publishing-house exec. Cue plot: Elf goes to big, bad N.Y.C.; hilarity supposedly ensues.

Thanks to Ferrell, it occasionally does. He manages to make a predictable affinity for snuggles, Santa, and sugar hilariously postmoderneven when downing an entire refreshing, delicious two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola. Yup, can't beat the real thing. Even Ferrell's got to sell it; it's the Holiday-wood way. (PG) ANDREW BONAZELLI

JAPÓN

Runs Fri., Nov. 7-Thurs., Nov. 13, at Grand Illusion

Funny, mournful, weird, Carlos Reygadas' Japón is the new Mexican cinema's wiggiest manifestation to date. Its saturnine, nameless protagonist (Alejandro Ferretis) leaves Mexico City for the rim of the vast Sierra Tarahumara canyon. It's a spot where his family vacationed when he was a child, and it is where he has decided to commit suicide. The self-condemned man listens to Bach on his Walkman. He goes outside to paint. He takes a walk down the road and meets a local who calls him a "nosy bastard." He smokes marijuana (politely offering a toke to his landlady). He lies on his narrow bed and masturbates. He dreams of the sea. He fondles his gun but doesn't shoot himself.

Amazingly shot in 16mm CinemaScope, Japón's deliberate pace and considered pantheism, as well as its intimations of Christian sacrifice, show the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky. But more eccentric than overweening, less cosmic than intractable, its allegorical aspect is almost always subsumed in a material sense of the film as object. This movie feels arduously made and newly exhumed, having the aspect ratio and warm, bleached tinge of a vintage spaghetti Western. With its sensationally rugged landscape and a backbeat of animal-kingdom cruelty, Japón is pure, if perverse, Nature Channel. Yet just when the film seems poised to fall apart, the apocalypse that follows allows a complicated tracking shot that pivots and prowls over the remains of the day. The jaw-dropping capper to a panoramic movie, filled with unexpected maneuvers, this final shot could itself be considered among the wonders of creation. (NR) J. HOBERMAN

LOVE ACTUALLY

Opens Fri., Nov. 7, at Pacific Place and others

The holiday season can inspire toxic shock syndrome, and this premature Christmas-themed British virus will send many singletons to the hospitalperhaps fatally. It represents the directorial debut of screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, plus TV's Mr. Bean and Blackadder), and it's a very, very bad movie. Bad, but well packaged and castenough so that many people will love it and make it a hit. The plot is a nightmare, overlapping between just some of these overlapping actors in overlapping roles: Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton, Alan Rickman, Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things) . . . it pleases me simply to type their names.

Viewing them is a different matter. Curtis conspires to link them all in a countdown-to-Christmas plot in which some relationships will be sealed and others sundered. It's all about love, duh, set to carols, contrivance, and corn. Grant falls for a secretary; Firth falls for a maid; Thompson mopes about her marriage; and Neeson's cutesy-cute stepson suffers the pangs of puppy love and yuletide pageantry. None of this is pretty to watch. All of it is rendered at a sub-TV level of obviousness. Britain has long observed a kind of parity between television and film that I endorse (good writing and storytelling should be the goal, after all, not special effects), but here the small-scaleness is crushing. Several familiar (to Brits) TV faces flit about the screen, which will cause Americans to think, "What the hell is she doing with Hugh Grant?" (Answer: grinning and floundering.)

Curtis is a guy who, being a writer by trade, should depend on a typewriter to make his points. Instead, inexplicably, he surrenders the entire movie to a jukebox. Why bother writing a scene when you can simply cue up the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Otis Redding, the Bay City Rollers, the Beach Boys . . . or Kelly Clarkson? In this way, Actually succumbs to what might be called the Rob Reiner school of directing: Making a good movie is hard, but buying the rights to a Top-40 tune is easy.

Only two performances tower above the treacle. With thinning blond hair and even thinner scruples, Bill Nighy plays a 50-something has-been rocker (Keith Richards gone Eurovision) gleefully selling his soul for a No. 1 holiday hit. His emotional directness and self-pleased avarice signal everything that's missing from this syrupy swamp. Then there's Heike Makatsch as the secretary infatuated with Rickman, her boss. She does everything in her power to seduce the guyand I mean everything!down to a devil's horns and fishnet getup at the office Christmas party. The mistletoe looms! The woman demands to be kissed! And yet nothing happens. Rickman is here married to Thompson, and both are icons of British cinema, so nothing untoward can occur. Some may find holiday consolation that happy families are preserved, and new ones formed, but by the end of Actually, I only remembered Makatsch's red, longing lips and thought, What a waste. (R) BRIAN MILLER

THE SINGING DETECTIVE

Opens Fri., Nov. 7, at Uptown

Like everybody else, I feel sorry for Robert Downey Jr., but I don't go out and make a movie for him. If the guy wants a comeback, let the material honor his tremendous, squandered talent. While Sean Penn nimbly hops between perches with Altman, Allen, and Eastwood (his talons clenching ever closer to that overdue, inevitable Oscar), his acting contemporary and peer must make do with this unnecessary, cheap, and clangingly bad remake of a BBC miniseries that doesn't need remaking.

Writer Dennis Potter was the auteur behind the 1986 original starring Michael Gambon, and you'll be heartened to know it's now on DVD at Scarecrowso good it's worth buying and viewing again and again. Potter, a genius who died in 1994, wrote this screenplay, but there's a big difference between astringent early Potter (Pennies From Heaven) and garbled late Potter (Cold Lazarus). Unfortunately, Downey, producer Mel Gibson, and director Stuart Gordon got the short end of the stick.

As before, Detective concerns a misanthropic pulp-fiction writer in the grips of a horrific fit of psoriatic arthritis that confines him to a hospital bed. In his delirium, he reimagines and replots an old dime novel that his estranged wife may or may not be scheming to sell to Hollywood without his consent. More important, it's his childhood memories that infuse the mixed-up pages; life and art intermingle to dizzying effect; and the tension resolvesor at least expresses itself, since nothing can ever really be resolvedin the lip-synched musical numbers that punctuate the story. The BBC original looked back to the crooning '40s from the Thatcherite '80s; here we jag back to the Gene Vincent '50s from I don't know when. Everything's a temporal muddle, despite the best efforts of Downey, Robin Wright Penn (as the wife), Jeremy Northam (as the villain), and Joe Polito and Adrian Brody (as the comic henchmen who don't fit in either time period).

Downey proves his resurgent talent; in a bald cap, Gibson is a surprisingly warm and affable gnome as a psychiatrist; but everything else is horribly, horribly wrong. All parties concerned are guilty of having better taste than judgment. You can almost hear the Hollywood-hating Potter cackling from the gravehe got paid for the same project twice and reaped all the acclaim for the first. Talk about a great exit. (R) B.R.M.

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