Bad Guy

Also: Ice Princess, It's Easier for a Camel, Schultze Gets the Blues, Sky Blue, and The Upside of Anger.

Bad Guy

Opens Fri., March 18, at Northwest Film Forum

Imagine if Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster had actually gotten together in Taxi Driver, and you'll have some idea how this 2001 South Korean film works. The violent obsessive stalker here is a pimp, Han-gi (Cho Je-hyun), who scarcely utters a word the entire movie. (The huge scar on his throat gives you some idea why and speaks volumes about his character.) The girl he falls for, virginal 21-year-old student Sun-hwa (Seo Won), isn't yet a hooker, but never underestimate the transformative power of love. So smitten with Sun-hwa is Han-gi that he forces a kiss upon her in the park; then, rebuffed and humiliated, he conspires to make a whore of her. And does.

Hey, I like a good romance, too, and Bad Guy does observe certain conventions of the genre. There are scenes on a beach, rain-slickened streets bathed in neon, and lots of long, smoldering stares. Most of the latter, of course, come as Han-gi impotently peers through a see-through mirror while Sun-hwa tearfully services her clients. (By this time, she's confined to a brothel by debts she can never repay.) His vengeance is so complete, so powerful, so possessive and overwhelming that it begins to look like . . . love?

Either you'll go along with that premise by director Kim Ki-duk or you won't. His last film to make it stateside, the monks-on-an-island art-house hit Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall . . . and Spring, couldn't have been more different—on its serene surface. But there was some violent sexual obsession there, too, only off-camera. Here, Kim generally refuses to look away. The whorehouse scenes aren't terribly graphic, but they are disturbing; and the violence—inflicted by fist, brick, knife, glass shard, and even a folded-up poster—will make you squirm. (For comic relief, Han-gi occasionally beats up his two loyal flunkies.)

Though acted sympathetically, codependent Sun-hwa is never convincing as a character. (Han-gi, scarily, seems all too real.) Repellent in some regards, Bad Guy is more of a dark fairy tale than a conventional story; its pimps and hos can almost be seen as archetypes, like wolves and princesses in an enchanted world. Here, however, there's nothing magical awaiting when one ventures through the looking glass. (R) BRIAN MILLER

Ice Princess

Opens Fri., March 18, at area theaters

With its familiar and talented actresses, including Kim Cattrall (playing a skating coach, of all things) and Joan Cusack, one might hope that this simple story about a young, scholarly girl (Michelle Trachtenberg) with dreams of being a famous figure skater would at least be bearable. Unfortunately, Princess can't even match those modest expectations. The plot lacks imagination and substance: Brainy high-schooler decides to try ice-skating to impress Harvard recruiters, puts eyeliner on for a show and realizes she's beautiful, falls for the boy who drives the Zamboni, and finally reconciles with her strict, disapproving mother (Cusack). Worse, Trachtenberg's teen heroine can only be described as annoyingly lackluster. (If Harvard doesn't work out, there's always community college.)

It's one thing to suspend your belief in gravity for The Matrix, another to accept that Trachtenberg could land a triple axel within weeks of going to the rink and without any training (apart from her mathematical equations that work out the physics of the maneuver). One of the movie's big plot turns comes when Cusack discovers ice skates hidden in Trachtenberg's book bag. Princess would've been a lot more interesting if she'd found some normal teenage contraband there, like crack. (G) HEATHER LOGUE

It's Easier for a Camel

Runs Fri., March 18–Thurs., March 24, at Grand Illusion

The ungainly title of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's 2003 directorial debut is taken from the famous passage in the Gospel of Mark, yet Camel isn't a spiritual film; class guilt is the only higher principle its characters can agree on.

Tedeschi, who regularly acts in French and Italian films, plays Federica, the middle child of a filthy-rich Italian family living in Paris. Since guilt is merely an issue, not a premise, she adds a few pinches of conflict, starting with Federica's boyfriend, Pierre, who resents her wealth. When Federica finds out her mother once cheated on her father, Pierre sniffs that his mother was far too busy cleaning rich people's houses to even have time for an affair. Her mother fesses up to cheating because her father is dying, which leads, in turn, to the usual mix of grief, moneygrubbing, and bitterness—nothing you couldn't find on The O.C. Between family squabbles, Federica pumps her local priest for the Big Answers, not unlike Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby.

Federica emerges as a likable heroine, prone to the kind of benign self-absorption that often develops in children of privilege, yet her struggle with the moral ramifications of wealth rings false. Tedeschi never makes up her mind about the family's fortune, its supposed Achilles' heel. No one seems particularly tainted by it, so when the film ends on a slightly dark note, it doesn't make sense. Gilmore Girls offers harsher, funnier satire of the rich; if Tedeschi intended Camel as an earnest look at the upper class, its light, romantic tone betrays her. Like Federica's dialogue with her priest, Camel not only fails to provide answers, it barely manages to ask any meaningful questions. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER

Schultze Gets the Blues

Opens Fri., March 18, at Metro

Torture to sit through, this German comedy consists of silent, morose scenes and tedious deadpan tableaux calculated to tickle scholars from the Jarmusch/ Kaurismäki school of minimalism. Writer-director Michael Schorr means us to snicker at his hero, an obese, taciturn proletarian newly retired from the salt mines. Schultze (a trollish Horst Krause) plays traditional polkas on his accordion; he goes fishing with his fellow retirees, snappish, middle-aged men who spout insults like, "You Prussians . . . you need some Saxon personality!" A chance exposure to zydeco music on the radio shakes Schultze up a bit. Despite his conservatism, he finds the Cajun rhythms have infected his soul. Zydeco motifs creep into Schultze's staid little polkas; musically, there's no turning back. He eventually forsakes the fatherland for Louisiana backwaters.

Ironically, Schorr uses almost no music in the film. If you're expecting generous dollops of bayou boogie, forget it. We only hear snippets at widely spaced intervals. Early on, when miners stand singing in a semicircle, Schorr positions the camera outside looking in through a window, as if to frame the retirement ritual under glass. Over the end credits, he simply treats us to the sound of gales blowing.

Otherwise, cinematographer Axel Schneppat composes a few stunning shots: a denuded, strip-mined mountain reflected on a vast lake surface; a letterboxed scrim of couples dancing to the sound of cicadas' night songs on the river. There's lovely footage of a frond-topped bayou, an ethereal waterscape through which Schultze, alone and serenely lost, pilots a blue tugboat. These dreamlike images make a microphone bobbing into the frame during an airport sequence almost forgivable. (PG) N.P. THOMPSON

Sky Blue

Runs Fri., March 18–Thurs., March 24, at Varsity

People used to kid about blurbs hailing "the finest Senegalese documentary of 1992." That said, I can, with a clear conscience, hail Sky Blue (aka Wonderful Days) as "the best full-length Korean animated film of 2003." It's dull, it's derivative, it's undistinguished, but it is the best because it is the first and only full-length Korean anime. If your interest in the field is inclusive to a fault, that, and that alone, might warrant a viewing.

Korean artists have been doing the scut work of Japanese (and American) animation studios for decades, so they're thoroughly familiar with the plot and character conventions of the genre, and writer-director Moon Saeng-Kim has mined their depths, without coming up with a single fresh angle of his own. Obvious knockoffs of Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll, and a dozen other hit animes elbow each other for screen time. The cute-kid sidekick from a hundred Saturday serials turns up; there's even a cute alien animal lifted wholesale from Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds.

The plot, if you can call it that, is similarly cobbled together from tropes worn thin in a dozen better examples of the fecund futuristic eco-disaster anime, but I have to grant that its central premise is appallingly unique. It seems that some inhabitants of an increasingly poisoned planet have sealed themselves off in a utopian biosphere that actually grows by absorbing pollution; it's now running low on pollution, so its inhabitants need to figure out a way of increasing pollution, even if it leads to the total demise of the planet. You think that's feeble? Wait till you see how badly it's articulated.

I've been racking my brain for something positive to say about Sky Blue, but I can only think of one. It's under 90 minutes long. (NR) ROGER DOWNEY

The Upside of Anger

Opens Fri., March 18, at Pacific Place

Joan Allen is an acting genius, but few people would've pegged her as a movie comedian. Most honored for stage roles (e.g., The Heidi Chronicles), she has a stagey precision that can read as brittleness on-screen. That quality helped her brilliant Pat Nixon impression steal Oliver Stone's biopic from co-star Anthony Hopkins, but it muted her rightful star turn as a presidential candidate in The Contender. And as theatergoers know, she's also startlingly prettier in real life than on camera.

But now Allen's on a roll, with five films in two years, and Upside should make her a true movie star. Writer-director Mike Binder was in The Contender's cast, and he created the part of cast-off, pissed-off wife Terry Wolfmeyer to fit her tics to a tee. Terry is brittle, but this is her strength as much as her weakness. Most movies keep Allen on the sidelines of the action, but here she seizes center stage, behaving badly, forcing everybody to come to terms with her on her own shamelessly unreasonable terms.

Instead of doing what movie moms are supposed to when a spouse disappears without warning, self-sacrificingly looking after her four daughters' happiness, Terry lashes out at them and dives into a bottomless highball. She's a movie alkie—booze isn't a real disease, just a cute vice that licenses entertaining tantrums. (If you think Sideways trivializes alcoholism, you'll hate this film.) Dramatically, though, it works. Terry is a fit successor to Shirley MacLaine's Aurora in Terms of Endearment, appealing because she's appalling. And funny.

It wouldn't work if she didn't have Kevin Costner to kick around. Costner plays her neighbor and drinking buddy, Denny, a former (very former) baseball star now reduced to nattering on talk radio and signing baseballs for a modest living. The sozzled raillery of their courtship is winkingly ironic, in peril of slipping into preciousness, but they save every dangerous scene with perfect pitch and timing. Costner's self-mocking tone—whatever egomania it belies in real life—nicely balances Allen's harsher, more self-loathing style. Their perverse chemistry, exceptional charm, and absolute skill wring consistent laughs from line after line.

There's one strong subplot among too many limp ones. By striking coincidence, it stars Binder as Denny's ingénue- chasing radio producer, who gives Terry's hottie daughter (Bellevue-born Erika Christensen, from Traffic) her first job, with sexual benefits (for him). The bits about their affair, Terry's reaction, and the radio-station milieu are funny, and sometimes touching. The stuff about the other daughters—dancer Keri Russell's anorexia, Alicia Witt's shotgun wedding, and Evan Rachel Wood's too-high junior-high courtship—is all lame. Those damn kids! Ignore them is what I say—along with the dumb voice-overs, herky-jerky construction, and ridiculously improbable last-act lapse into tragedy.

Speaking as an adult, this is the most richly satisfying movie I've seen in months. The grown-ups are what count here, and the jokes grow out of character rather than contrivance. The upside of Upside easily trumps the downside. (R) TIM APPELO

 
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