Birth

Also: End of the Century, Lightning in a Bottle, Saw, and Undertow.

Birth

Opens Fri., Oct. 29, at Metro and others

A small boy with pinchable cheeks shows up at a fancy Upper East Side apartment and announces to Anna (Nicole Kidman, looking like a famished elf), a young widow about to remarry, that he's the reincarnation of her long-dead husband. He knows every detail of their past lives together; after much resistance, he even convinces her that he's the genuine article. This pisses off, then freaks out, her snooty, old-money family (which is headed by an amusingly acidic matriarch Lauren Bacall). The plot thickens languidly until—after a decent interval—a dismally inconsequential truth is revealed. Tricked out in fatally tasteful cinematography of the kind you see in commercials where not much is being sold beyond a supposedly enviable lifestyle, with a breathy screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière and a self-important score, Birth may be the most futile application of cinematic and acting skill I've seen all year. A little Twilight Zone flummery would have livened up the proceedings considerably. What Jonathan Glazer, who made the spry gangster film Sexy Beast, was thinking when he cooked up this preening nonsense is anybody's guess, but notwithstanding the movie's glam ensemble (including a welcome return by Anne Heche), I suspect its descent to DVD will be as rushed and furtive as its theatrical release. (R) ELLA TAYLOR

End of the Century

Opens Fri., Oct. 29, at Varsity

In this new documentary, Ramones art director Arturo Vega recalls Johnny Rotten crashing the band's green room in London and then furtively asking where the band was—not because he was in a hurry to introduce himself, but because he was afraid the Ramones, who seemed as much like a gang as a punk-rock band, would beat him up for having come in through the window. Apart from a few such anecdotes, Century doesn't hold a lot of surprises. That the band, whose essential charm was that they perpetually looked as though the cat had just dragged them in, had an art director might be news to some, and the bulk of the stories, like Vega's, are engaging and funny regardless of whether or not they've already been told. The Ramones cut new passageways in popular music, no question about it, and they were characters of the highest order, too.

For debut filmmakers Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, the documentary is a labor of love (the two met as teenagers much in the same way the Ramones did; they shared a love for the anti–Donnie and Marie punk of the '70s). The look and feel, then, is nostalgic as well as raw, but the aesthetic suits the subject quite well. Although the vintage live clips are heavily cut and spliced with less-dynamic interviews, they're highly enjoyable just the same—so long as you don't blink and miss them. Gramaglia and Fields got to Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny before their recent deaths, so much of what cuts into the concert footage is vital and welcome. Although Century also features a fair amount of commentary from some supporting characters (latter-day drummers, childhood friends, and a few quick oddities like Rob Zombie), this isn't one of those music docs that has to rely on random-but-famous fans in order to tell a story.

The band was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 (tape of the ceremony bookends the film), and drummer Tommy Ramone is the only original band member still standing. If only for those reasons alone, it's a good time to look back and recall how much the Ramones went through in their road to ruin. Century ought to please fans enormously—and any punk-rock fan who isn't a Ramones fan isn't a punk-rock fan at all. (NR) LAURA CASSIDY

Lightning in a Bottle

Opens Fri., Oct. 29, at Varsity

This documentation of the Scorsese- catalyzed 2003 Tribute to the Blues concert at Radio City offers a bumper crop of tasty bits. Performances both lighthearted and smokin', backstage interviews, and archival footage projected on the hall's jumbotrons create an energetic gloss of blues history. Credit for compelling montaging goes to director Antoine Fuqua, who moves things beyond hero worship. We get a snip of Odetta admonishing the band for drowning out Ruth Brown (the fur-fezzed Brown, who regained her voice after a stroke, cracks, "I'm so glad to get the gig, I'll scream!"); a sit-down with robust raconteur Solomon Burke, who describes the sub-chitlin "neckbone circuit"; and a B.B. King recollection of getting heckled by a young crowd. Training Day's Fuqua conjures kinesis where possible considering he's dealing with some real old folks—not to mention an audience whose overwhelming paleness can't help but trigger reflection on the racial politics of blues fetishization.

Rock partisans get a bone with the inclusion of John Fogerty and Aerosmith, who boogie energetically but hardly thrill. And neosoulers are placated with contributions from India.Arie and Macy Gray. But if heyday glimpses (a clip of Hubert Sumlin backing Howlin' Wolf) sometimes trump present-day tribute (Sumlin backing David Johansen, who camps up "Killing Floor"), highlights include a jam on "Voodoo Child" between a torqued-up Angélique Kidjo and a delighted Buddy Guy, and a Shemekia Copeland–Robert Cray duet on Bobby "Blue" Bland's "I Pity the Fool." Coif awards go to James Blood Ulmer's topknot dreads and Natalie Cole's growing-out weave, which she caresses while growling a line about store-bought hair. (PG-13) LAURA SINAGRA

Saw

Opens Fri., Oct. 29, at Metro and others

The set design in this horror film—particularly the "prehistoric" subterranean bathroom where its protagonists find themselves chained—is Oscar-caliber, which is peculiar, since everything else about it could sweep the Razzies. Rookie screenwriters (and boy, does it show) James Wan and Leigh Whannell have delivered the deathblow to the already long played-out "preaching serial killer" genre via this histrionic, derivative gorefest. Directed by Wan, Saw will fulfill its destiny as a slasher cult classic, all right . . . the day Mystery Science Theater 3000 gets renewed.

The setup is like the beginning of a joke between Goths: So a surgeon and a deadbeat photographer wake up shackled to opposite ends of a shit-smeared commode with an apparent suicide victim lying facedown in blood in the middle. Pretty cool premise, especially if you're among the millions who haven't seen 1997's overlooked Cube, which began almost identically, and similarly required its characters to combine wits to sidestep lethal booby traps. But I digress. The taciturn doctor (Cary Elwes) and the "comic foil" shutterbug (a wretched, whimpering Whannell) have been outfitted with a variety of macabre resources to facilitate their escapes, or deaths, if they choose. Like Se7en's John Doe, our villain's ritualistic slaughters have an overarching, convoluted message. Like the Scream killer(s), he employs menacing voice distortion to dictate directions. Like the antagonists in The Game, he employs a porcelain clown to torment his "jigsaw pieces." The only remotely original quirk here is the MO: He develops ridiculously elaborate mechanisms that force his victims to do the dirty work for him, among them barbed-wire mazes and "reverse bear traps" attached to the jaw.

The two captives ponder their conundrum ineffectually and artlessly until the final 15 minutes, when we're rewarded for the preceding inanity with the least intimidating kidnapper/murderer ever, a riotously bad Elwes committing career suicide, and a bona fide Shyamalan Twist that would be kinda sweet if it weren't totally fucking physiologically impossible. All this said, should someone like Spawn creator Todd McFarlane deem it necessary to make an action-figure playset out of the bathroom, I'd buy it. (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI

Undertow

Opens Fri., Oct. 29, at Metro

The third film by skyrocketing 29-year-old director David Gordon Green is the most paradoxical movie of the year. It's bad in the worst way, yet it trails clouds of glory and authentic stink from a Georgia pigsty. It's so gothic, at times it's comic: Green's Southern types not only have the pigsty just outside the rotting manse and decaying cars in the yard, but the cars are illogically located right there inside the pigsty, up to their rusty fenders in shit. His imaginative landscape is down-home, shot in Savannah's picturesquely decrepit shacks and junkyards, right on down the red dirt road behind the old Faulkner place. But he's also more airy-fairy than the most out-there European deconstruction hack you can name and can't pronounce.

Undertow starts out like a David Lynch remake of Tom Sawyer. Rapscallion teen Chris (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot) chucks a rock through his gal pal's window, flees her pappy's shotgun, and leaps off a rooftop onto a board with a nail in it. When he pounds the nail over his bare foot to form a nail-and-board impromptu shoe, instead of yanking it out, and continues running with the board stuck to his foot, you know you're in Green country: It's intense, but more like a fable than the white-trash thriller it pretends to be.

Chris is acting out because his gal pal's dumped him, so he's got no company but his grim pappy, John (Dermot Mulroney); his sickly kid brother, Tim (Devon Alan); and the hawgs. Tim evidently hasn't read the actual recent New York Times article titled "Southern Practice of Eating Dirt Said to Be Waning." He whiles away his time munching mud, with house paint for dessert, then upchucking all over the homestead.

When John's brother, Deel (Josh Lucas), abruptly shows up after years incommunicado in jail, John warns him, "Watch your step there—Tim's got a rough stomach." Deel has a lifelong habit of stepping in it. John stole Deel's girlfriend years back, and come to think of it, Chris looks more like Deel than John. And Deel feels John stole his half of their dad's gold coins. You know Deel's up to no good because he drives like the Dukes of Hazzard and crinkles his dimples when he's mad. Also, whenever he shows up, the Philip Glass soundtrack gets even more pompously ominous.

The Deel-John conflict rips off East of Eden, but it's too arch to be mythic. When the boys take off with the sack of gold with Deel hot on their barefoot heels, it's supposed to be like Night of the Hunter, but there's no haunted poetry. When the boys fall in with some runaways camped in abandoned ruined buildings, Green does achieve some affecting flavor: a blend of Gus Van Sant's tales of castaway kids casting about for alterna-families and the inarticulate yearnings of drifters in Terence Malick flicks. (Malick co-produced Undertow). Alas, what the kid scenes more resemble is the dumb Angelina Jolie film Foxfire.

Some of the pretentiously poetical dialogue has an appealing surrealist style, and the flick's rich in quirky characters—like a dentally challenged shopgirl sweet on Deel, and a weirdo tow-truck driver. The minor characters have no excuse to be there, and really, neither do the major ones. The whole chase premise is a transparent contrivance, too; nobody gives a rip about the gold, including you. Green's trying to trick you into sitting through a plotless experimental film by getting it up in rural-thriller drag. It's pretty, and a legitimate auteurist statement. And a flop. (R) TIM APPELO

 
comments powered by Disqus