Opens Fri., Nov. 12, at Varsity
The first of two Woody Harrelson movies out this week (the other being the caper flick After the Sunset), this eagerly shambling orgo-tutorial espouses the value of all things hemp, natural, solar, and lactose-free. That milk contains "blood and pus" is one of the many slogans repeated along Harrelson's 2001 bike-and-bus journey from Seattle to Santa Barbara. His coastal jaunt, dubbed the Simple Organic Living (or SOL) tour, is modeled on Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, and he does indeed pay a respectful visit to the Oregon writer not long before his death. His merry crew includes a recovering junk-food addict, various environmental activists, a vegan chef, and a yoga instructor from Seattle. To accompany them in intimate video-diary form is definitely a sincerity overload, and the musical snippets from Bob Weir, Natalie Merchant, and others don't help.
Harrelson's goal, elaborated on various campus-speaking stops en route, is to encourage the notion of living "with a light footprint on the Earth," which is all very well and fine. His patchouli-scented collegiate audiences, however, along with the likely viewership of this film, are already walking with light, bare feet and bells on their toes. Go Further can't escape the feeling of preaching to the converted, and even the converted will soon find themselves bored with Harrelson's SOL-mates. The movie could benefit from some reality-TV stunts to leaven the lectures, but I guess it'd be un-PC to have anyone eat worms on a dare à la Fear Factor. (Indeed, we even visit a ranch where the things are raised.)
What with talk of Earth Day and the upside-down American flag that one of Harrelson's cycling buddies flies from his bike, the entire enterprise has a very retro vibe. Go Further is a time capsule of a film; the pre-9/11 era now seems as distant as the '60s. Who knew we'd ever feel nostalgic about biodiesel, algae "milk"-shakes, and worm farming? (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., Nov. 12, at Harvard Exit
Ian McEwan is the greatest living English novelist, and Roger Michell's Enduring Love is the best movie adaptation of McEwan yet. The 1997 book, though, was better in ways that stubbornly refuse to translate to film. Both open with a virtuosic bang. On the green breast of a steep Oxfordshire hillside, professorial Joe (Daniel Craig, the runtish but ruttish Ted of Sylvia) prepares to pop a champagne cork and pop the question to his sculptor girlfriend, Claire (Samantha Morton). Along bumps a runaway hot-air balloon with a boy trapped in the basket and his terrified grampa trying to stop it. Joe and other random picnickers pitch in as a gust sweeps the balloon into the perilous air. Somebody lets go of the rope; then everybody does, and one rescuer falls to a gorily plausible death.
All props to the idyllic-turned-horrific images of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and Michell's deft montage, but the scene was even more stunning as piercing words on the page. The gap between page and screen widens when we reach the meat of the story, the psychological effects of guilty trauma on Joe, his aborted marriage, and his Christian- maniac stalker, Jed (Rhys Ifans, from Michell's very different Notting Hill). Joe tortures himself, wondering if he was the one who let go first, dooming the last guy to let go. At dinner, his best friend, Robin (Bill Nighy, the shag-it-all rocker in Love Actually), comforts him. Obviously, Joe's heroism failed to save the guy—what he needs to do is let go now, emotionally, and get on with life.
Robin's a well-adjusted family man. Joe is a Darwinist-psychology aficionado of the worst sort, forever hectoring everyone about how love is an illusion and we're all just evil playthings of the vicious puppet-master DNA. He's the kind of guy who wrecks a dinner party by getting drunk and insulting his fiancée, then treats her still worse when alone.
Jed, who had also attempted to save the balloon, intrudes on Joe's misery with his own demented mystical theory that God used the tragedy to unite Joe with Jed. The title becomes a double pun: Can Joe and Claire's love endure? Can Joe endure Jed's stalker love?
Despite fine acting, the film succeeds only on a lowish thriller level. The Darwinist chat seems pasted on, whereas the book's intellectual debates bring ideas to life. Ifans plays a true-love believer with mad integrity, but there's no more to him than Fatal Attraction's bunny chef. The only completely effective performances are in bit parts: Nighy's nice guy and Helen McCrory as the victim's bitter widow, whose fate contains a stinger in the switcheroo ending.
Enduring Love is briskly efficient thriller cinema. But only as literature does the story soar to scary heights. (R) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., Nov. 12, at Crest
It's a pity the premise of P.S. is so stupid, because Laura Linney's star turn in it is so impressive, she might actually have nabbed that Oscar she so deserves. She plays Louise, a 39-year-old admissions officer for Columbia's graduate art school. Her love life's been a total loss since age 17, when her boyfriend, named F. Scott, died in a car crash. Then she married and divorced a professor (Gabriel Byrne) who's now a sad-eyed sex addict.
So it's only natural that when a frisky young painter coincidentally named F. Scott (Topher Grace) applies to Columbia, she invites him home, dives into a spray-on sundress, plies him with wine, and fucks his brains out, prompting the kid to exclaim, "That was awesome!"
Eh, it wasn't so good for me. Linney and Grace have real chemistry, and it's an unusually steamy coition, but the event is mired in a swamp of nonsense. It's OK to have admissions officers screw applicants in a movie, but then the movie has to incorporate this into some sort of story in which the pieces cohere, and P.S. calamitously declines to do so.
F. Scott resembles her dead ex, uses a phrase he used to use—is he a reincarnation? This possibility is raised and never settled. Though he appreciates getting into Columbia, and Louise, the living F. Scott is puzzled and resentful of his dead predecessor. Grace, the underrated That '70s Show star who brought satanic nonchalance to his druggie-teen role in Traffic, does semiangelic nonchalance brilliantly here. But he doesn't really have a character, so his effortless naturalism and sly charm come to nothing.
Linney somehow manages to carve a real woman out of the Styrofoam cliché the script imposes on her. When she faces her aging mug in the mirror, or jitteringly battles her cigarette habit, she makes patly imagined actions poignant. She keeps her character from going under even when preposterousness descends and increasingly pointless characters intrude: Louise's unhelpful mom (Lois Smith, another great wasted), piously recovering junkie brother (Paul Rudd), and rivalrous high-school best friend (Marcia Gay Harden, who's going to lose her Oscar-winning career if she doesn't lose at least half that maternity weight). Harden and Linney put some catty jazz into their fight over F. Scott's affections (see, they'd fought over the first F. Scott, too).
Alas, no episode connects intelligibly with any other. The formerly promising Rodger Dodger director Dylan Kidd stitches the idiotic scenes together with rhythm and visual and emotional skill, so that for many minutes, we're perfectly happy to watch the attractively talented co-stars do the romantic tango. Only when it dawns on us that the film has no intention of resolving any mystery, or even making one lick of sense for one minute, do we suddenly want to storm the booth and force the projectionist to put on a real Laura Linney movie. She deserves it, and so do we. (R) TIM APPELO
The Polar Express
Opens Fri., Nov. 12, at Metro and others
I remember being dazzled by the pure beauty of Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 story, and illustrations, every Christmas season. Although the high-tech computer-generated transformation from book to film isn't too disappointing, I still feel that one of my favorite holiday traditions has been tampered with in the worst way. All of those years that I used my own imagination to create characters and settings have been distorted and overridden by Robert Zemeckis' own vision of the story.
That said, the ability of the filmmakers to convert a 20-page children's book largely comprised of pictures into a feature film is incredible. The part-animated/part-live-action characters seem creepy at first but eventually grow on you. Actors wore elaborate motion-capture suits and reflectors that allowed their performances to be incorporated into computer animation; the effect is something like claymation. Fortunately, Van Allsburg's beautiful illustrations are vividly realized on the big screen. The all-star cast consists of, well, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks. He's the narrator, the main boy, the conductor, the mysterious hobo, Santa, and a couple other characters, too. Amazingly, it's not overkill. This Christmas, many children will fall in love with this film. I just hope it doesn't replace the book, and newly discovered imaginations, as well. (G) MICHELLE REINDAL
Since Otar Left . . .
Runs Fri., Nov. 12–Thurs., Nov. 18, at Northwest Film Forum
Stress-cracked mother-daughter symbiosis gets a thorough microscoping in first-timer Julie Bertuccelli's Otar, a French-Georgian indie that exists in a purposefully man-scarce mini-universe. The guys are either dead or expatriated; the remaining triple-gen family thread is hunkered down in Tbilisi amid decaying apartment buildings and flea-market capitalism. Ninety-year-old matriarch Eka (Esther Gorintin) refuses to surrender her self-determination or clear thinking, to the ongoing dismay of her sultry, intemperate daughter, Marina (Nino Khomassouridze). Granddaughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova) is a levelheaded and alert student barely distracted by boys. Postcards and late-night phone calls periodically reach them from Eka's beloved son, Otar, a struggling immigrant in Paris.
These three women are proud Francophile cosmopolitans who speak French to one another in anticipation of emigrating west. Bertuccelli is wholly concerned with their bond, and Otar's plot is completely dependent upon the surprises loved ones bring about when we're not looking. Otar has a wry edge, as when Eka's cranky Stalin nostalgia is counterpointed by the routine of an ER cardiologist who stands waiting for cash payment before proceeding. But its main triumph is textural: A dead-of-night trip to the toilet for Eka and Marina speaks volumes about the rhythms of their inner lives. Close-ups are rare, environments are thoroughly lived-in, and the action is a matter of unpredictable human im-pulse. Few recent films have so concisely and empathically limned the tensile fortitude of family in the new landscape of global displacement.
If Otar is, finally, a mite thin and predictably structured, that takes little away from the filmmaker and her cast, who work hard at fashioning the most outlandish special effect of all: believable human life. (NR) MICHAEL ATKINSON