Callas Forever

Also: Christmas With the Kranks, Easy, and The Take.

Callas Forever

Opens Fri., Nov. 26, at Harvard Exit

Ballet de Paris had a huge success, years ago, with a froth of a ballet, La Croqueuse de Diamants, about a lady with a taste for life's glittering luxuries. I was crushed to learn that the French slang meant gold digger—the literal "diamond cruncher" was so vivid, so precise. Watching Callas Forever, the phrase came swimming back: Knowing absolutely the gem she's got with the role of Maria Callas, Fanny Ardant uses that sensual mouth and that strong jaw of hers and crunches it right up.

It has taken Franco Zeffirelli more than 20 years to create a suitable homage to his great friend, the diva assoulata, and it's as inventive as it is madly over-the-top. In an effort to suggest something about the intersection of life, love, and the rigor demanded of greatness, Zeffirelli has created a "fantasy" in which he allows Callas one last triumph, followed by a renunci-ation scene as poignant as any opera's.

He gives us Callas at 53 in the depths of depression, shut up in her sumptuous Paris apartment, knocking back pills by candlelight as she mimes to recordings made when her voice was at its prime—which it isn't here in 1977 (the year of her death). Fate comes in the person of an old pal, the marvelously jaded Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons), a promoter who presided over Callas' disastrous last concert in Japan. These days, suitably ponytailed, he's in Paris nursemaiding a spiraling punk-rock band and fending off reporters: "Disaster? The Titanic was a disaster. Get a sense of proportion."

Tipped off by a music journalist (Joan Plowright) that all is not well with their mutual friend, Kelly fights his way to Callas' inner sanctum and finds her a recluse, extravagantly "mourning who she is," and Aristotle Onassis (the lover who left her for Jacqueline Kennedy). When she derisively plays him a video of the Japan concert, he's struck by an idea, which he demonstrates to her the next day.

Larry's notion is to film her as Carmen, (a role that she once recorded fully but never performed), letting her play it, full-out, although she'll be lip-synching to a track of her earlier perfect voice. Skittish at first, Callas soon gets caught up by this new challenge, and we're into the full Zeffirelli Carmen, with cast, chorus, and every conceivable cliché about backstage love affairs and hissy fits.

The film project not only energizes Callas, it picks up the whole film. Zeffirelli reportedly hoped to make this film with "his diva" years ago, and even with this odd compromise, it's clear that it would have been as lush as his film of La Traviata (not a Callas project).

Playing her onstage in Terrence McNally's Master Class gave Ardant (8 Women) more than a year's preparation for the character. It allows her to do more than look spectacular and perfect her mannerisms; she goes for every facet of this stubborn, wounded legend. Right up there with her is Irons, marvelous in this deliciously offbeat role as a man as equally unlucky in love as Callas—although it hardly stops him from trying. In a movie with a little something for everyone, there are the sumptuous music sequences; then there's Irons, lithe and bronzed on a massage table. Ah, that Zeffirelli. (NR) SHEILA BENSON

Christmas With the Kranks

Opens Wed., Nov. 24, at Metro and others

Every holiday season, from here to eternity, it's a safe bet that Tim Allen will appear in yet another variation of his first Santa Clause movie . . . sporting a hat, a chubby-man suit, and a little extra facial hair. In Kranks,he may not actually be jolly St. Nick himself,but formula otherwise prevails: annoying slapstick comedy, mediocre plot, and the unmistakable odor of flop sweat. Perhaps for insurance purposes, the filmmakers throw in Jamie Lee Curtis (as Allen's wife) and Dan Aykroyd (as his Godfather-esque neighbor who controls their suburban cul-de-sac and dictates its yuletide decorations).

So good in the Freaky Friday remake, the hyperactive Curtis unfortunately shows little chemistry with Allen. The lame plot is derived from the popular John Grisham novel Skipping Christmas, which I hope is far more entertaining. The Kranks' only daughter departs for the Peace Corps, so parents Luther and Nora decide to forgo the annual holiday festivities and instead take an indulgent 10-day tropical cruise. (Cue scenes of them orange-ing their skin at tanning booths and Allen botoxing his face into an expressionless, drooling mask.) Apparently this small decision is enough to send the neighborhood into a frenzy, with predictable pratfalls ensuing— few of them actually funny.

And here's the big plot twist: Suddenly the Kranks learns that their daughter is indeed coming home for the holidays, leaving them only hours to transform their house into a winter wonderland. Will their neighbors—who are high on something, maybe holiday cheer—help them pull it all together? The answer is as inevitable as next season's Allen vehicle—perhaps a remake of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians?(PG) HEATHER LOGUE

Easy

Opens Fri., Nov. 26, at Varsity

I kept wishing Easy would be just a bit worse, so I could start my review thus: "Lousy is more like it." But writer-director Jane Weinstock's bid to woo viewers who jones for another Bridget isn't that bad. It's just that Weinstock is too easy on herself and her sex. Heroine Jamie (Marguerite Moreau) is half-Bridget, half-Gidget—a singleton dallying in a silly media job and desperate to land a real man. Improbably, despite her girl-next-adorable charm, perky-girl wit, winsome dimples, pinup figure, soulful eyes, button nose, batting eyelashes that could dry your hair, and habit of dropping trou within minutes of meeting a guy, she's never heard those three little words. Just an endless litany of cowardly brush-offs left on her answering machine.

Her annoyingly happily married sister (Emily Deschanel, Zooey's less pretty but also piercingly blue-eyed sister) despairs over her loser-magnet status. Fortunately, Jamie snares her hunky former college poetry professor (Naveen Andrews, the English Patient heartthrob now starring on TV's Lost) on his book tour to West L.A. It's plausible, but Weinstock makes it play bogus: She slams characters together in athletically erotic poses with the abandon of a kid playing house with Ken and bam-bam-Barbie dolls.

Besides looking sensational in said poses, Moreau nails a 26-year-old's sculptable sense of identity and shy pride at her career baby steps to success. Jamie's job is giving products naughty, clever names, which lands her on the minor TV comedy show of a mick named Mick (Brian F. O'Byrne). Her poet can't commit; should she boink the more attentive Mick, even though he's way homelier? And sister comes between Jamie and her mister? And she's impulsively decided to go celibate for 90 days?

A slowpoke soap, Easy keeps reshuffling the nookie deck as all dramatic tension leaks away like stale air from a punctured Oldenburg. The characters are all so sympathetic that one feels like kidnapping them from Weinstock's stock drama and spiriting them to a set with more smarts and spirit, like Sex and the City or Tales From the City, at least— anything where anyone has anything interestingly unexpected to say.

Yet you can't bear to walk out of Easy. You do want to make sure Jamie's OK before you leave her vulnerably cuddly curves at the mercy of all those well-meaning cads. As a career move, it works—somebody will snap up Moreau for a real movie. As a movie, it just passes the time. (R) TIM APPELO

The Take

Runs Fri., Nov. 26–Thurs., Dec. 9, at Northwest Film Forum

Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis' documentary opens with shots of a woman in threadbare designer clothes picking through garbage on a graffiti-encrusted thoroughfare, illustrating the message that Argentina was not a historically poor country but a once-prosperous nation impoverished by the IMF-recommended diddlings of its president, Carlos Menem. After Argentina's economy tanks in late 2001, shoving half the population under the poverty line and prompting corporate nabobs to stash their cash elsewhere, manufacturing plants become abandoned. In response, workers spawn a socialist wet-dream movement: tile cutters, seamstresses, and other assembly liners simply walk back to work and start running the businesses themselves.

Combining the commonsense lucidity of Klein's No Logo with an undertone of melancholy doggedness (there are more men crying than in most baseball films), The Take follows its characters through a national election that feels like an antipodean doppelgänger of our own. As one Argentine is quoted as saying: "We are the mirror to look into, the mistake to avoid." (NR) ED HALTER

Avi Lewis will introduce screenings Fri., Nov. 26, and Sat., Nov. 27, then conduct a Saturday panel discussion on activism and film.

 
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