Dot the I

Also: Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, In My Country, Marrying the Mafia, The Nomi Song, Paper Clips, and Walk on Water.

Dot the I

Runs Fri., March 25–Thurs., March 31, at Varsity

A funny thing happens in the middle of a "hen party" at a snazzy French restaurant in London. The bride-to-be being feted, Carmen (Natalia Verbeke), is instructed by the snooty headwaiter that, according to French tradition, she is obliged to find the handsomest man in the place and plant a big fat kiss on him, to bid formal farewell to her swinging single life. She scans the place and chooses Kit (Gael García Bernal). The whole place applauds. But as their kiss goes on and on, it gets downright awkward. People quit clapping and start staring. Aghast at her unexpected passion, Carmen pulls free of Kit's lips and flees into the street, with him in hot pursuit. As Carmen tells Kit later, where she comes from (Spain), they have a saying: A kiss is the dot on the "i" of love (cariño). These two start dotting with a vengeance.

Her proper English fiancé, Barnaby (James D'Arcy), senses something's amiss. D'Arcy's kindly, faunlike face was perfect when he played Jack Aubrey's first lieutenant in Master and Commander, and it's good for his spindly rich-kid role here. Barnaby means well for Carmen, but all the money in the world can't make up for the drabness of her banging Barnaby in his blingy boudoir out of premarital duty versus hitting the orgasm jackpot after sneaking to Kit's starving-actor garret. That's why Mary McCarthy stayed married, after all—so she could have someone to cheat on.

Except that Carmen gets no pleasure from it, only guilt. She's just a passionate, flamenco-dancing girl. She never asked to be named after an opera tart! How could her life ever get so complicated?

Then she discovers that the men in her life are keeping dark secrets—even Kit's Wayne and Garth–like stoner cohorts are in on the mazelike nest of conspiracies. Yet true hearts are mixed up in all this, too. An exceedingly complicated but more or less comprehensible series of chases, betrayals, and switcheroos ensues, jauntily shot by Almodóvar's and Ghost World'scinematographer, Affonso Beato.

Alas, Dot's contrived plot goes over the top, leaving emotion behind. Verbeke (Jump Tomorrow) can't act and speak English at the same time. Her passionate Spanish nature just looks silly, even when she's off the flamenco stage. At least she's killer cute; Bernal has somehow lost his looks since Bad Education, and his animal magnetism. D'Arcy comes off like a teenager in the school play—he's not acting, he's trying to act like he's acting. In all, first-time writer/director Matthew Parkhill gets a passing grade on this technical exercise—more like a C-minus than an I. (R) TIM APPELO

Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine

Runs Fri., March 25–Thurs., March 31, at Varsity

Arriving by coincidence just after chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov announced his retirement from the game, this 2003 documentary finds the rueful world champion obsessing over a 1997 match he wishes he'd never played. Why make a movie about a contest that, even six years later, was old news? Director Vikram Jayanti is basically trying to weave a conspiracy flick out of Kasparov's embarrassing loss to the IBM-designed "Deep Blue" supercomputer. And Kasparov—obviously a man still holding a grudge inside that enormous brain of his—is only too willing to play the part of the hero caught up in a dark net of corporate intrigue and under-the-table trickery.

None of the movie's insinuations and vague allegations is remotely convincing, but that never stopped Oliver Stone. It's even possible to imagine that Stone could've used crazy camera techniques, baroque re-enactments, and probably the music of the Doors to rewrite chess history in an entertainingly fraudulent fashion. I can see Nick Nolte, Tommy Lee Jones, and maybe Kevin Bacon as the evil IBM engineers messing with the head of Kasparov (played perhaps by Kevin Costner or Charlie Sheen or Colin Farrell). Their scheme to raise the company's stock price—as actually happened—by winning the rigged match would involve gay prostitutes, drug-smuggling contras, Indian shamans, the JFK assassination, insider trading, the war in Vietnam, professional football, and Alexander the Great. In other words, ride the snake.

Alas, Game Over is not that snake. The IBM guys all seem nerdy and decent. A sympathetic Kasparov mutters that he was pitted against "this terrible, faceless monster." Talking heads and "chess journalists"— a new field to me—comment on the match. There are some low-quality video clips of the event, held in a New York hotel. But why bother? Eight years later, the game is now over for Kasparov (who's apparently going into Russian politics as a fierce opponent of Putin), as it is for IBM, which is getting out of the PC business and is nobody's idea of a good stock pick.

It's still possible that a great movie about chess, or Kasparov, could be made, but it will take a better mind than Jayanti's, or Stone's, to create it. Hey, what's Deep Blue doing these days anyway? (NR) BRIAN MILLER

In My Country

Opens Fri., March 25, at Metro

A is for apartheid. B is for brutality. C is for compassion. A pretty but vacuous soap opera that trivializes South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with a pretty but vacuous romance between Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche, In My Country spoon-feeds its message in increments that would gag a grade-schooler. It's set in 1995, soon after President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu established the TRC to conduct hearings that, in essence, traded truth for forgiveness. In open court, murderers, torturers, and rapists—most of them white men who once wore government uniforms—confessed their horrific crimes to the families of predominately black victims. The former were generally spared prison sentences in the bargain; the latter got to learn where their loved ones were buried and how they died.

Based on the 2000 book Country of My Skull by South African writer Antjie Krog (who here becomes Anna, Binoche's character), this dramatization incorporates actual TRC testimony, re-enacted as journalists watch. These scenes are by far the most powerful in the movie; they should've simply scrapped the rest of the script and filmed the court transcripts. (Then, however, you'd have the infinitely superior, prize-winning documentary on the same subject, Long Night's Journey Into Day.) Also in the press gallery with white liberal Anna is Washington Post reporter Langston (Jackson), whom others brand "Malcolm X" for his angry certitude about white complicity with the old regime, which he compares to Nazi Germany. For him, there's no such thing as simply "following orders" or looking the other way. As an intermediary between the two, Anna's cheerful assistant, Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), hints at dark historical truths neither outsider fully understands.

Though the inevitable affair between the two married journalists is bunk (and so tame even Wal-Mart couldn't object to the interracial bedroom scenes on the DVD), Jackson is more credible when interviewing Brendan Gleeson, who plays a sadistic former colonel promising to incriminate his higher-ups. Jackson's lust for a big story, an exclusive, towers over his lust for Binoche's quiveringly sensitive poet/journalist (whose radio dispatches provide the film's insipid voice-overs). She's just a fling, while he's after the front page, but Country insists on conflating the two.

Between Jackson's sourness and Binoche's sweetness (plus lame Franco-Afrikaans accent), there's not a lot of room for director John Boorman (Hope and Glory, Deliverance) to maneuver. The script's earnest pedagogy promotes "ubuntu," or harmony, and slogans— instead of writing—like "No more lies." If the film were honest with itself and stripped away the TRC dressing, the result would be good old trash like The Thorn Birds. (R) BRIAN MILLER

Marrying the Mafia

Runs Fri., March 25–Thurs., March 31, at Grand Illusion

It's easy to see why Marrying the Mafia was Korea's No. 1 box-office hit in 2002. It's slick, shiny, and funny in a muggingly obvious fashion; the actors are supercute; and the premise is titillatingly faux subversive: Buttoned-down attorney Park (Jeong Joon-ho) from Seoul National (read: Harvard times 10) visits a disco after a hard day at the dot-com office, and the next morning finds himself unbuttoned in bed by Jang (Kim Jeong-eun), the delectable daughter of a mob boss. Neither has any memory of how they got there. Her dad and rambunctious brothers take a sudden and intense interest in setting a wedding date, even when her virginity test comes back positive. A Harvard-equivalent lawyer is handy to have in the family when your job is breaking the law.

You don't have to know much about Korean customs to get the jokes, though it helps to remember that elders have more say over young lovers than they do in the West. It's interesting how the movie slyly aims to please both young erotic rebels and their conservative parents. However, nothing else is interesting about the predictable clashes of her crass mob clan and his uptight upper-crust folks, the brothers' inventive ploys to bring the lovers together (cut the power to an elevator and slip a snake inside, send each a thoughtful present from the other), or the predestined ending. There are also two gratuitous but not too violent mob fights with baseball bats and two superfluous subplots (one about Jang's catfights with Park's longtime fiancée; the other concerning her big brother's adulterous courtship of his son's teacher), which work less well. But how else could they have made the spindly main plot last two hours?

Jung and Kim are unbelievably adorable, and Marrying the Mafia is no worse than standard Hollywood fare. That means it's bad. (NR) TIM APPELO

The Nomi Song

Opens Fri., March 25, at Northwest Film Forum

In Almodóvar's All About My Mother, a transgendered ex-prostitute says, "You are more authentic the more you are closer to what you've dreamed you are." It's a sentiment with which many gay men can identify, and it was certainly the case with Klaus Nomi (1944–1983), who dreamed he was an alien from outer space. When he finally became one, the adamant artifice revealed more about him than the "real" person behind the mask ever did. Director Andrew Horn's empathetic documentary captures both the enigma and the very recognizable dreamer who hypnotized the avant-garde of New York's early 1980s new-wave scene.

"A lot of us came [to New York] to be stars on our own terms," says performance artist Ann Magnuson, one of several articulate irregulars who knew and comment on Nomi. It's a major strength of Horn's film that in commemorating Nomi, it also reclaims the supposedly shallow '80s as a breathless, ridiculously glittery experiment in art for art's sake. With an abundance of archival footage, the documentary traces Nomi's rise from Elvis fan/opera usher in his native Germany to robotic, androgynous jester staking a claim at Max's Kansas City with white face, black lips, space suit, and an arresting, ethereal countertenor. Horn has deftly located the most exhilarating message of Nomi's rise—that the more this oddball embraced his otherness, the more things fell into place for him: A rock band was quickly formed to encircle his private pop operatics, and soon, in a choice clip, Nomi was singing backup for Bowie on Saturday Night Live, his triumphant falsetto nearly eclipsing even Ziggy Stardust.

If the movie lags, it's because shows like VH-1's Behind the Music have made us all too familiar with rock-star arcs. But the film never loses sight of Nomi's humanity and touchingly focuses on the loneliness and fragility that were also key components of his otherworldly facade. Love was hard for him to find, but AIDS was not, and its stigma in those early days kept many close friends from him at the end.

Nevertheless, the documentary is determinedly a celebration of spirit. "As far as I was concerned," says one of Nomi's relatives. "Klaus himself never changed." And, of course, he never did, despite the outrageous excess. To paraphrase Sunset Blvd., it was just life that got smaller. (NR) STEVE WIECKING

Paper Clips

Opens Fri., March 25, at Uptown

The Holocaust is Jewish culture's ultimate sacred cow, yet few Jews, let alone non-Jews, ask themselves how the subject is being taught in schools. Is it being done effectively? What could be done to improve it?

This sweet-natured documentary, about a rural Tennessee school that starts a Holocaust curriculum and gets more than it bargained for, addresses these questions. It begins when Whitwell Middle School's assistant principal, David Smith, returns from an education conference with the notion of teaching the Holocaust as a tolerance lesson for the town, where nearly everyone's white and Protestant. It's this simple, broad approach to the subject that allows the curriculum to snowball into a community project. WMS begins collecting paper clips—worn by Norwegians during World War II to express their resistance to Nazism—to memorialize the 6 million Jews and 5 million gays, Roma (or Gypsies), and Jehovah's Witnesses murdered by the Third Reich. Celebrities and ordinary people begin contributing clips to the cause; it soon becomes clear that Whitwell, in poverty since the collapse of the local mining industry, needed the morale boost at least as much as the 11 million victims needed to be remembered.

Where some might see trivialization in genocide reduced to a crafts project, directors Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab see only uplift. (This explains their iffy decision to set much of the film to Charlie Barnett's gooey Copland rip-off score.) When WMS tries to acquire a German cattle car used to transport Jews to Auschwitz, I sensed good intentions and good taste parting ways. Yet the resulting monument—the car, on a stretch of track, filled with 11 million paper clips—is powerful. It's also fitting: Judaism has considerable respect for numerology and symbolism. The substance behind the symbols emerges when a group of Holocaust survivors visits Whitwell. Suddenly, the paper clips and drippy music melt away, leaving only urgency: These members of the last living generation of survivors are pained to relive their memories yet movingly relieved to have such an eager, innocent audience—likely one of the last they'll ever have.

Paper Clips is an above-average educational film, the sort of thing middle schools could show at assemblies. And if it affects schoolchildren across the country even a fraction of the way this project affected the kids of Whitwell, whom the film depicts walking and talking like future Holocaust scholars, then I'm genuinely glad it was made. (G) NEAL SCHINDLER

Walk on Water

Opens Fri., March 25, at Harvard Exit

Anyone who appreciated director Eytan Fox's slight, disarming gay-Israeli- soldiers-in-love story, Yossi and Jagger, will find even richer merits in his latest effort—and forgive some similar faults.

Water follows troubled Mossad agent Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi, whose charismatic gravity evokes Clive Owen), an Israeli assassin still dealing with the suicide of his wife. He's sent to a kibbutz to ingratiate himself into the lives of Pia Himmelman (Carolina Peters) and her brother Axel (Knut Berger), who's visiting from Berlin, the grandchildren of a Nazi war criminal the government is seeking. Posing as a tour guide, Eyal is ordered to glean information about their grandfather's whereabouts, then "get to him before God does." As Pia is busy with chores, Eyal spends most of his time with Axel, a gay, Zen-like liberal who is as open to others as Eyal is shut; he even hooks up with an Arab he meets at a club, which appalls the conservative, initially homophobic Eyal.

The compelling clash of values and ideologies here has the casual heft of reality; it reminds you how few movie characters live such full, conscious lives. Unlikely buddies Eyal and Axel are both bearing the burden of past and present, even if they're not at all in agreement about what that weight means. When Axel wonders what kind of private Arab passions could motivate suicide bombings in Israel, Eyal snaps back, "What's to think? They're animals."

Fox moves the story forward with great economy, though with the same earnest life affirmations that made Yossi a trifle obvious. "Your heart needs to be like it's clean from the inside," says Axel, playfully attempting to trod across the Sea of Galilee, "Then you can walk on water." (Yeah, thanks, Axel.) The movie could've used fewer platitudes and more suspense about the impending assassination when Grandpa Himmelman is eventually located.

But it's obvious Fox has more than genre concerns on his mind. As such, Water is quite affecting and flooded with fine detail, including the liberation that most of us receive from popular music, from Springsteen to folk dances to disco remixes. When Eyal finally does encounter the decrepit Nazi Himmelman, it's a chilling moment—and a measure of the film's accomplishment that we, too, would like to move forward into a brighter future. (NR) STEVE WIECKING

 
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