Dust to Glory

Also: Eros, The Exiles, Living Life, Off the Map, Sahara, and Schizo.

Dust to Glory

Opens Fri., April 8, at Egyptian

There are some movies that should be more like video games, not less. This brainlessly boosterish, insider's-view documentary about the Baja 1000 off-road race occasionally gets the XBox vibe right: buggies bouncing down washboard roads within a hairbreadth of crashing; POV shots over the hood as spectators and motorists—the race is run on open roads—scramble out of the way; when racers overtake one another on the single-track roads, rather than politely honking, they simply bash into the slower car's rear bumper, like Mad Max. Unfortunately, the movie was directed by an enthusiast (Dana Brown, Step Into Liquid), not by a programmer at Electronic Arts. For this reason, rather than concentrating on the sport's two salient qualities, speed and risk, Dust fills half its length with static interview blather about fathers and sons bonding, the grandeur and tradition of the event, and even a short vignette with the racers, yes, "giving back" to some Mexican orphans.

The wonder is that, for a spectacle endangering Mexican lives and livestock since 1967, scarcely a word of Spanish is heard. One or two competitors have Hispanic surnames and accents, but the voices of fans who line the race course—within dangerous inches of the speeding vehicles—are entirely absent. In its self-congratulatory yahoo way, Dust is a movie by and about gringos who view Mexico as essentially one big, lawless racetrack. (The funniest moment comes when some cops actually pull over a caravan of racers in a speed trap; imperialism is briefly arrested.)

A couple old clips indicate Steve McQueen and James Garner once competed in the event; otherwise, a blur of similar-looking and similar-talking white guys makes it impossible to distinguish between, or care about, any of the present-day racers. For a template of how to entertainingly document an unfamiliar sport to us multiplex masses, check out Stacy Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, whose approach Brown could simply and beneficially have copied.

Yet Dust does offer a few bizarrely amusing contradictions. One competitor rhapsodizes about the sounds of whales and seals in Baja—which he hears while helmeted within his screaming race car? Another calls his fellow contestants "a band of brothers," except for the part about liberating Europe from the Nazis, I guess. And finally the biggest paradox of all: Why is this movie opening in Seattle instead of Spanaway or Kent? (PG) BRIAN MILLER

Eros

Runs Fri., April 8–Thurs., April 14, at Varsity

With the international cartel of Michelangelo Antonioni, Steven Soderbergh, and Wong Kar-wai tackling such a juicy subject in this anthology film, you'd probably expect a pretty fantastic hour-and-one-half of heady, steamy cinema. Unfortunately, you only get about 45 minutes' worth of good stuff—thanks mainly to the younger generation.

The Dangerous Thread of Things, Antonioni's segment, is the most high-modernist of the three, and it's also the most displeasingly abstract. Although it follows, more or less, the unraveling love story of Christopher and Cloë and Christopher's brief tryst with a woman named Linda, the constant jumps in time and space leave it feeling both hackneyed and overambitious. In typical Antonioni fashion, there's lots of pretentious dialogue spoken into the dead air. At the end of the story, Cloë dances naked on the beach with Linda. No matter if it's meant to be some kind of metaphor, it's just embarrassing—as if Antonioni, at 93, has just discovered a rave.

Wong Kar-wai's The Hand is far more evocative and stylish, and it tells a better story. Zhang is a quiet tailor's apprentice whose first client, Ms. Hua (Gong Li), is a gorgeous and mysterious mistress—and a very important client of his boss. It's shot in a New Wave, noirish style and set in 1963, much like Wong's In the Mood for Love. You really feel the push and pull between Zhang's shyness and his arousal as he constructs intricate, lovely dresses for Ms. Hua over the years, through periods good and bad for both of them.

The third installment slumps by comparison. Soderbergh's Equilibrium is interesting mainly because its stars—the comic but not manly Robert Downey Jr. and wry, curmudgeonly Alan Arkin—are essentially carrying the action of an "erotic" short with all talk and no women. As patient and therapist respectively, their dynamic is engaging and strong, but moviegoers expecting Soderbergh's sexy urbanism will be left pretty cold.

In fact, it's best if viewers don't see Eros hoping for too much steamy thoughtfulness —or thoughtfulness at all. Ardent fans of Antonioni's might do OK, if they're fortified with their fandom. Outside of The Hand, there's nothing here to inspire our ardor. (NR) LAURA CASSIDY

The Exiles

Runs Fri., April 8–Thurs., April 14, at Northwest Film Forum

Something of a historical footnote to Los Angeles Plays Itself (which played last week at the NWFF), this forgotten 1961 indie is set largely in L.A.'s working-class Bunker Hill district, since razed for office towers. It's a lost film in a lost neighborhood full of lost people; you can't get much more forlorn than that. Shot over three years without location sound by Kent MacKenzie, the lovely black-and-white footage has the kind of vérité feel usually associated with documentaries, the French New Wave, or (during the same era of American cinema) Cassavetes. The Exiles is part documentary, part drama, as it follows three American Indians through one long, dark night of the soul. Its three principals, Yvonne, Homer, and Tommy, were nonactors from different tribes basically re-enacting scenes from their own uprooted lives. They provide voice-overs and occasional post-synch dialogue that doesn't feel sprung from a movie script, but more like an interview with a social worker—which, in some sense, MacKenzie perhaps was. (He made only one other feature and died in 1980.)

There are shamefully few movies about Native Americans. Since the '60s, most have been revisionist Westerns that lacquer Indians with solemnity and sentimentality. The Exiles offers no such nobility or symbolism. Pregnant Yvonne shops, wanders, gazes through store windows, goes to a movie, and wonders if her child's life will be any different than hers. Homer, follows his buddies from bar to card game to liquor store, occasionally thinking of his parents back on the reservation. (There's a short flashback to his childhood.) Tommy is just looking for kicks—booze, cigarettes, women, and even a fight, anything for some action.

The Exiles is essentially a film about hanging out; no mention is made of jobs and little of money. These are lives of suspension between night and day, work and idleness, the reservation and the city. Loitering becomes almost an act of defiance, if not bravery. "Time is just time to me," says Tommy. And of the ordinary folks with jobs who can't drink all night? "They want to be like me."

Yvonne muses, "Seems like my prayers were never answered," but at least she's got the baby. The Exiles doesn't present that as false hope, any more than it knocks Tommy's frantic partying. Maybe they're deluded and maybe they aren't. Homer's goal is to "just get out there and be free, where nobody's watching you." The Exiles' structure echoes this vagueness and dislocation; each of the three main characters is on a quest of sorts, even while sensing the search will lead to nothing. The long journey from Arizona is over; now they're in a kind of limbo, endlessly walking in a ghost world called Los Angeles. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Living Life

Opens Fri., April 8, at Metro

Days before the school year ends, the worst thing that could possibly happen happens to 17-year-old Jason (Benjamin P. Garman) of Seattle. His gorgeous girlfriend, Kate (Mara Hansen), wins a scholarship to a summer precollege program in California. She's been telling him she loves him for the entire two years they've been dating. Now, he feels so desperate, he may actually have to tell her he loves her in return. Will he see her in September or lose her to a summer love?

Abruptly, it turns out she may lose him first. Jason gets a tummy ache that turns out to be cancer. He swears best friend Kyle (Patrick Chu) to secrecy and concentrates on juggling four life projects: chemotherapy; dates with Kate as if nothing were the matter; teen summer idylls at picturesque Seattle landmarks; last-minute bonding with his amateur magician grandpa, who's been AWOL from the family since Jason was 9; nudging his bitter dad to forgive grandpa and restore the family circle; and learning magic so he can delight the little kids at the Swedish Hospital cancer unit. Their angel smiles make him feel his brief life has made a difference in the world.

Patch Adams fans may find this uplifting fable satisfyingly tear-inducing. But most fans will find it more fabulous that 19-year-old writer/director Jesse Harris wrote Living Life and became a self-made teen mogul to get it produced. He talked the WigglyWorld/Northwest Film Forum folks into helping, kicked in his own college fund, cast actors with real-world credits (check out Chu in the forthcoming Sundance hit Thumbsucker), and crafted the most coherent out-of-nowhere local feature debut you ever saw. Write what you know, they say, so Harris incorporated his own experiences as a volunteer magician at Swedish, his timely knowledge of the high-school psyche, and his ability to charm Ballard officials into letting him film all over the place for no fees.

Harris has some of what he needs to know about Hollywood formulas down pat. It's all about wish fulfillment, and also wish-thwarting: our stricken hero's girlfriend goes ballistic when chemo makes him miss dates; and his dad is recalcitrant about his Parent Trap–like stratagems to make him fall into grandpa's arms.

Harris also has a lot to learn. His dialogue is Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder, telegraphing every clichéd plot point and windily belaboring the visually obvious in a manner akin to Mad magazine's "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions." The engine of narrative is the deferred revelation of information; Harris simply lays it all on us with suspense-snuffing, impetus-killing straightforwardness. There is not one instant of surprise in the film, making it inferior to many less coherent local indies (e.g., the Everett-spawned Evergreen or any number of cracked-kaleidoscope NWFF epics) that do score a spontaneous scene or three.

But emotionally blunt formula filmmaking is the name of the Hollywood game (plus Nietzschean will to power), and Harris may well have a future in showbiz. I only hope that, in addition to big bucks and all the babes he can juggle, he acquires the knack for finding moments without nailing them to the wooden floor. Then he may make what all aspiring young Spielbergs yearn for: a film with some real life in it. (NR) TIM APPELO

Off the Map

Opens Fri., April 8, at Metro

You can have Joan Allen drunk and ornery in The Upside of Anger, or you can see her serenely gardening in the nude in this somnolent '70s-set stage adaptation. Living off the grid in the New Mexico desert with husband and daughter, her hippie earth momma character, Arlene, is the kind of woman who makes her own preserves, scavenges housewares from the junkyard, and cries over dead coyotes. She's powerfully attractive and wise, as if she knows every page of the Whole Earth Catalog, the kind of woman who'd make you think, hey, maybe I could pack up and move to a commune. Raising alpacas and eating lentils wouldn't be so bad with Joan Allen around.

Being her daughter, however, is a different story—and Map is chiefly the story of Arlene's precocious 11-year-old, Bo (Valentina de Angelis), who wants to escape "this hell-hole [for] someplace normal." Her narration is fairly constant, as if she's stepping into a spot-lit soliloquy (the movie is based on a play by Joan Ackerman and is directed by thespian Campbell Scott). Badly in need of a sibling to torture her, only-child Bo is a little Miss Smartypants who gins up phony complaint letters to earn free corporate samples by mail. She's the annoying distaff version of the Michael J. Fox character on Family Ties—a schemer and a scoffer who will, inevitably, learn a few life lessons from her more soulful parents. Problem is, her artist father, Charley (Sam Elliott), is incapacitated by depression, and no daughter is going to take advice from her mother.

Enter IRS agent William (Jim True-Frost), who arrives to audit the Groden family, falls ill, and finally takes up residence with them. (Hey—it's the '70s; I'm sure this kind of thing happened all the time, even without Joan Allen gardening in the nude.) Lost and confused, William is just what Bo needs: a project. Ever resourceful and organized, she wants to be his executive secretary. Unfortunately, he wakes from his fever with different plans. Bo despairs, "Someone who I had perceived as a link to the outside world had, in fact, been subsumed by the quicksand of mine."

Ackerman has adapted her own 1994 play, so one can only assume she respects the clunky language and airless pauses of her original property. Declaratory and obvious, Map is the kind of affair where you're expected not to laugh at lines like, "That evening we went and sat with the coyote." In fact, the film's only laugh comes when a delivery guy asks of the extended Groden clan, "Are you all on mushrooms or something?" It would've been a better movie if the answer were yes. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Sahara

Opens Fri., April 8, at Meridian and others

Though my notes don't support the notion, the dialogue in this belated adaptation of a 1992 Clive Cussler adventure novel boils down to "Hang on!" and "I got your back!" It doesn't really matter if treasure hunters Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn never use those phrases. If the movie were subtitled, that's what they would be saying. Though they have laptops, satellite phones, and liberal concerns about global pollution and plague in sub-Saharan Africa, the two buddies belong to that bygone era of he-man pulp novels, to which the Bond movies added clean sheets, sex, and dry martinis. Sahara feels like an old Camel cigarette ad come to life—except no one would risk their perfect white teeth by smoking.

The character of Dirk Pitt (McConaughey) first appeared in print in 1973, yet Sahara dates itself further with a Civil War prologue in which a Confederate ironclad escapes those damn Yankees with a cargo of gold. Flash forward a century and a half, and McConaughey's trying to convince everyone, including his cigar-chomping boss, William H. Macy (modeling his performance on David Mamet), that the "ghost ship" went up the Niger river into Mali. There, Penélope Cruz is a World Health Organization doctor discovering an ebolalike plague; she first appears wearing Tina Fey's glasses, so we know she's smart.

Not so the movie, whose soundtrack weirdly consists of '70s album rock. Is time running backward as they head upriver? Toss in a reference to looting in Iraq, and Sahara's sensibilities get even more scrambled. For McConaughey and Zahn, it's Raiders of the Lost Confederate Ark Full of Gold, a chance for boat chases, fistfights, and narrow escapes ("Hang on!"). For Cruz, it's Outbreak in the Tropical Zone, an occasion for quivering compassion, rubber gloves, and putting water samples in test tubes. Sahara can't figure out whether Africa is a mere backdrop for its neocolonial roller-coaster ride or whether we're supposed to take the Darfur-inspired genocide subplot seriously. (That part, I'm guessing, won't make it into the video game.)

McConaughey, with stubble, white suit, and turquoise jewelry, looks like a Key West gigolo—all poses and panache. He could've stepped out of a Banana Republic or J. Peterman catalog, with dialogue to match. It doesn't help that a Jeep figures so prominently in the movie or that the movie figures so prominently in the Jeep ads—eventually the two become indistinguishable. Zahn plays the goofball sidekick with dead-eyed professionalism; you can imagine his agent telling him, "Relax, take the money, there will never be a sequel." Cruz, again failing to make an impression in an English-language movie, seems enormously pleased to be riding a camel in one scene. The camel, sensibly, looks sheepish. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Schizo

Runs Fri., April 8–Thurs., April 14, at Varsity

"Schizo" is the nickname of 15-year-old Mustafa (Olzhas Nussupaev), who has some unknown mental affliction. He seems OK to us, just sullen and passive as a paramecium. He lives with his mom and her snazzy bastard of a gangster lover in the startlingly otherworldly wastes of Kazakhstan. The boy worships the black-jacket thug, who fatefully teaches him to ride a motorcycle but never bothers to learn his name. The boy is useful: The thug cowers behind Dumpsters at unemployed-worker hangouts while Schizo recruits mooks for brutal prizefights—this is Fight Club without the grandiose self-delusion. These guys fight because they're broke: In the early '90s, the dissolving Soviet Union has just left their country in picturesquely futile ruins, and the only alternative to getting a fist facial is stealing wires off telephone poles for chump change.

One fighter dies, begging Schizo to take his meager winnings to the mother of his 5-year-old son, who lives in a shack in what looks like a suburb of Dogville. The woman, about 28, has a saintly limp like Lois Smith in East of Eden, a face like Sissy Spacek, and a tongue like the Catwoman's lash. Schizo likes how she looks in translucent underwear. Smitten and determined to support her, he conspires to double cross the crooked local fight promoter by putting a ringer in the ring.

I can't really spoil the suspense of the how the crime plot plays out, because there isn't any. The love plot is barely there, and Schizo's mumble-mouth bonding with the Spacek lookalike's young son pallidly rehashes Shane and too thumpingly rebukes the motorcyclist thug's bad bonding with Schizo. Nussupaev—a Kazakh orphan—is a cipher, not an actor. There is an annoyingly trudging quality to the tale, and the style of director/co-writer Guka Omarova is as lollygagging and deadpan as her star.

But I guarantee this will be the only fight movie you'll ever see where an actor couldn't remember his lines because he'd just been pounded witless and woke up not even remembering he was in a movie. Schizo has much of what made the best Italian neorealist films great: deep feeling, rooted characters, a landscape at once realistic and fable-magical, bleak and exquisite. Kazakhstan is full of places Hollywood could never imagine: strangely unbombed yet bombed-out-looking high-rises, corrugated tin sheds like alien tree houses, vast unfinished dams, a Road Warrior world that owes no debt to that film or any other. The people say pulpy, not unforeseen, things, but their characters are so unfamiliar that they supply the electric jolt of unexpectedness the plot lacks. For that reason, the familiar noirish plot hooks us, and the upshot satisfies. What you most remember is the film's look, which packs a Kazahk wallop. (NR) TIM APPELO

 
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