Danny Deckchair

Also: La Dolce Vita, Tae Guk Gi, Time of the Wolf, and Twist.

Danny Deckchair

Opens Fri., Sept. 3, at Metro

Nobody is a better makeover candidate than Rhys Ifans. In Charlie Kaufman's sex fantasy Human Nature, he magically metamorphosed from hairy, leg-humping apeman to ascot-clad opera snob (proving that opera snobs are all repressed leg-humpers at heart). This time, he's a hairy, layabout Sydney bricklayer not likely getting laid much lately by his ambitious girlfriend (twinkle-dimpled Justine Clark). She yearns to dump him for dreams of big money and TV fame. He just wants to get away to the bush for a camping holiday. She makes him host a barbecue at their home instead.

Defiantly, he ties a bouquet of weather balloons to an aluminum deck chair at the party, cuts the ropes, and streaks for the stratosphere. His flight is brief. The point of the movie is his inadvertent relocation to a remote Aussie village improbably out of touch with broadcast media. Clarence is a prelapsarian place, yet corruptly led and in need of a sleepy-eyed saint to fall out of the sky and save it.

Danny and his deck chair crash-land in a tree in the yard of Clarence's meter maid, Glenda (Miranda Otto). Otto (best known as LOTR's Eowyn) played the apeman's ooh-la-la French lab assistant in Human Nature, but here she's walking sexual frustration in a constricting uniform. When Danny inquires discreetly whether she's free to take a scooter ride, the maid is made. Soon he's clean-shaven, no longer an urban loser but a rural politico rallying the little people (and the little woman) to challenge the big guys in a pallid approximation of Capra-corn populism. Danny's original girlfriend and her TV crew track him down in a toothless spoof of media madness.

Otto is charming, Clark is amusingly crass, and Ifans is always an actor worth watching, but the fable is like Toll House cookies cooked according to boring formula- except they used too much sugar and took it out of the oven too soon. It goes down easy only if you're desperate for a summer treat and not one to gag on lukewarm goo. (PG-13) TIM APPELO

La Dolce Vita

Opens Fri., Sept. 3, at Varsity

Frolic in the Trevi Fountain with a wet movie star! Dodge roadsters on the wicked Via Veneto! Witness Jesus streaking over the Roman skyline like Superman! Stampede with the paparrazi! Visit St. Peter's and hookers, clowns, and poets, nightclubs stocked with wellborn bimbos! Pray for Anita Ekberg to fall out of her dress so those breasts can knock you senseless! Thrill as director Federico Fellini falls out of his abstemious, early neorealist mode and into the plush surrealistic pillow of his mature style at the turn of the 1960s. The climactic orgy is famous, but it can't hold a Roman candle to the frantically encyclopedic score by Nino Rota. If you miss this sparkling new print of the best movie Fellini ever made, you'll never know what the sweet life really is. TIM APPELO

Tae Guk Gi

Opens Fri., Sept. 3, at Meridian

Having already broken box-office records in its native South Korea, Tae Guk Gi could stand for decades as that country's Gone With the Wind, though its graphic violence and occasional sentimentality bring Saving Private Ryan to mind instead. Even the premise feels similar: In 1950, the South Korean army drafts two brothers for the war against the communist North (aka the Korean War). The stronger-willed brother, Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun), makes it his personal mission to deliver his brainy, peaceable sibling, Jin-seok (Won Bin), from harm-whatever the cost. And the cost is high: Erstwhile shoe-shine boy Jin-tae becomes a feral, bloodthirsty monster, and Jin-seok regards his transformation with horror and disgust. Tae Guk Gi avoids the usual war-movie pitfall of humanizing one army while allowing the opposition to remain faceless. When one character crosses over to the communist side, we learn what we've suspected all along: North Korea's soldiers are young, confused, and scared totally shitless, just like their South Korean counterparts. Electrified by two amazing lead performances and framed by an aging veteran's visit to a relative's grave (like Ryan), this is a wrenchingly realistic portrait of a conflict many Americans know about only through M*A*S*H. NEAL SCHINDLER

Time of the Wolf

Runs Fri., Sept. 3 Thurs., Sept. 16, at Grand Illusion

I know, I know! You've had it up to here with apocalypse movies and Dogme films. Even if you wound up admiring Dogville, you still wanted to strangle Lars von Trier for pummeling your skull with three solid hours of his haughty contempt. And once you've seen one end of the world, you feel like you've seen 'em all.

No, you haven't. Austrian Michael Haneke, whose The Piano Teacher gave von Trier a run for his pretentious S&M money, has suffused his own Dogme-style apocalypse drama with a startlingly humane tenderness—despite such brutal-realist touches as a horse stabbed to death, apparently for real, on camera. The apocalypse—something vague involving a poisoned environment and the Social Darwinist reversion to chaos—happens off camera, just before we meet the bourgeois family of Anne (Isabelle Huppert) fleeing town for their woodsy cabin. Once inside, they're confronted by another refugee family who got there first. Anne's man (Daniel Duval) offers to share, but the interloper dad guns him down.

Anne wipes the blood from her eyes and stumbles out into the nightmare-scape with teenage daughter Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and her kid brother Ben (Lucas Biscombe), equipped with little more than a bicycle, a lighter, and the steely determination that beams from Huppert's hard-to-read, hard-chick face.

The stripped-down Dogme-esque style movingly renders the ruin of civilization (even though guns and murder are Dogme no-no's). Bonfires of cows flickeringly illuminate the night and dance mockingly in the refugees' wide, terrified eyes. When Ben disappears from a barn they've camped in, Anne hunts for him with an improvised hay torch that keeps burning her fingers. Forget about watching this one on DVD: You need the big screen to glimpse the ghostly shapes staggering evocatively in the murk.

Anne's clan happens upon a train station where ragtag refugees submit to a thuggish, Dubya-style leader (Olivier Gourmet). It all sounds generic: the roving horsemen of the apocalypse doling out precious water; the trading of sex for crumbs. But it plays like it's really happening, to real people with real moral stakes. Eva falls for a feral teen in the woods (Hakim Taleb), but he's a bitter survivalist, not a sweetheart. Morality has to be improvised, imperfectly, like Huppert's torch. And religion rears its ugly head: Refugees talk about the Just Ones, 36 saints roaming the remnant of humanity, perhaps saving all by setting themselves ablaze.

Wolf is no chase flick, like 28 Days. It's all about haunting images, scenes that rhyme thematically, souls that yearn in the blackness. It has what distinguishes apocalypse stories like 12 Monkeys and Earth Abides: overwhelming grief lit up by sparks of hope and courage. (NR) TIM APPELO

Twist

Opens Fri, Sept. 3, at Varsity

Give Jacob Tierney points for even believing a homo Oliver Twist was a good idea. In his hands, Dickens' account of wayward pickpockets in Victorian England becomes a merciless look at homeless gay hustlers in modern-day Toronto. That sounds just awful, I know, but the writer-director initially spins it in a way that convincingly explores the same dark, reckless anguish that propelled the people in Dickens' society. If only Tierney had granted us a little bit of light.

Dickens' story now centers on Dodge (Nick Stahl), a junkie who ropes baby-faced Oliver (Joshua Close), a runaway foster child, into prostitution by sidling up to him in an all-night donut shop and asking, "You live around here?" The visibly imploding Stahl, doing his best work since In the Bedroom, is believably at wit's end-a furious kid who's freezing out on the streets and determined to do anything to curry favor in the hustlers' hostel being run by Fagin (Gary Farmer). Even the brutish Fagin is just another desperate lackey: He'll hit the boys, sure, but only because he's beholden to Bill, the head pimp whose name is on everyone's lips but who is never seen or heard on-screen (it's a smart touch that turns the villain into an ominous sort of Keyser Soze).

Tierney is also clever enough to reimagine Nancy (Michele-Barbara Pelletier), Dickens' blowsy broad with a heart of gold, as a battered waitress, and he successfully captures the stale, isolated air of dead-end diners in ice-cold Canada. After a while, unfortunately, it's all stale air, and steeped in lurid contrivance (maybe I'm old- fashioned, but I don't know how necessary it was to have a degraded Dodge fellate his own brother). The movie lacks dramatic contrast; it's resolutely grim in a way that renders all the unpleasantness inert. Even the most desolate among us have a laugh now and then, yet everyone here insists on mumbling somberly to indicate how gritty this all is. The muted affection between Dodge and Oliver never gets to blossom, and by removing the trampled spirit Dickens gave to his Nancy, Tierney's waitress is just a solemn cipher-you don't quite believe her doomed sacrifice on Oliver's behalf. Maybe that dour monotony is Tierney's point, and he's done a fine job of getting us to shake our heads at all the misery. He can't expect to break our hearts, though, without showing us at least a glimpse of the life that's just beyond it. STEVE WIECKING

 
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