Opens Fri., May 6, at Guild 45 and others
Paul Haggis is like Stanley Kramer with a brain. His social-problem dramas are taking over the dumbed-down movie universe. His arguably overrated Million Dollar Baby script ignited a political firestorm, and now he co-writes and directs a smarter, more important film about race than Spike Lee has ever managed. Props to star and co-producer Don Cheadle for making Crash happen.
Cheadle leads an ensemble of morally ambiguous racists in L.A., where parallel worlds occasionally collide, inevitably involving cars. The interlocking stories recall Short Cuts and Magnolia, but they mesh more smoothly into a better-crafted whole. As police detective Graham, Cheadle rescues himself from the niceness that menaces his movie persona. He's a good cop, but he makes appalling comments to his Hispanic squeeze and police partner (Jennifer Esposito). In the moody-as-Mulholland Drive opening, he stumbles upon a gruesome scene at a car crash; then we flash back to the day before and learn about all the colliding lives that inadvertently conspired to produce the bloody upshot.
Practically every role cries out for Oscar attention. The rapper Ludacris and Larenz Tate outdo the nattering hit men of Pulp Fiction as they bicker amusingly about whether L.A. is one huge conspiracy against blacks; Tate's chip-on-the-shoulder character insists that buses have big windows strictly to humiliate black passengers. He claims the white couple walking ahead of them automatically assumes two black youths must be thugs. See that racist white bitch flinch? Then they mug the couple, take their keys, and steal their Navigator.
The mugged pair turns out to be the county's district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his pampered wife (Sandra Bullock). She's bitter because her flinching prescience about those two muggers might make people think she's racist. In fact, she is racist. The part solves Bullock's niceness problem brilliantly—this lady ain't Miss Congeniality.
Meet a second ritzy couple in a fancy car: a TV director (Terrence Howard) and his half-looped arm-candy wife (Thandie Newton). They're the least streety blacks you could meet; even so, they're stopped by a racist cop (Matt Dillon). He uses the excuse of her drunken mouthiness to search her for weapons, finger-fucking her under her skirt to humiliate her husband. Often, but never more so than here, Haggis achieves the mind-fucking effect that Neil LaBute is forever after, only LaBute is just malevolently rubbing our noses in a caricature of human nature, while Haggis is analyzing it.
Haggis—who was once carjacked himself while driving with his wife—also complicates the picture. Dillon is a racist, and also a loving son to his dying dad and a hero at a crash site. When he harangues a black medical bureaucrat who probably would give his ailing dad a break if she weren't being harangued by a racist honky, we grasp that his bitterness is a mind-forged manacle. He's his own first victim.
Crash isn't all black and white. It's about America's rainbow coalition of self-sabotaging hatred. The smashup of a semiliterate Iranian shopkeeper and his Hispanic locksmith is perhaps the most excruciatingly plausible of the film's collisions. You could accuse Haggis of overusing coincidences, and maybe the parallel narratives that I find lifelike will strike you as schematic. There is a kind of messy greatness that Magnolia nobly strives and fails to achieve that the tidier Crash doesn't go for. Ultimately, it is a formula film, only the formula is original and highly combustible. You won't hear more fiendishly articulate dialogue on-screen any time soon. And you'll probably leave the theater spoiling for an argument. Drive safely. (R) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., May 6, at Metro
In the rain and from a God's-eye view of Rome, we see an accident at a confluence of streets: everything gray-blue except for the shocking red of a motorbike crash helmet and the blood pouring from the young woman victim. It's veteran actor Sergio Castellitto's bravura opening for his second film as a director, which he's adapted with his wife, Margaret Mazzantini, from her novel Don't Move. He plays the central character, a rich, gifted surgeon, who plunges deeper and deeper into what the press notes call "an abyss of love, cowardice, and pity."
Presumably, in such a yeasty artistic marriage, it would be gauche for Castellitto to ask his wife a few hard questions about her motivation for surgeon Timoteo's moral and sexual descent. The underpinnings of rot among rich and cultured Romans must simply be a given. (As the film keeps reminding us, this is still the country of 8 1/2, La Notte, and La Strada.) Out here in the audience, however, watching Timoteo wallowing in almost orgiastic self-pity for two-plus hours, anything concrete might be helpful.
On the surface, there's plenty: the 15-year old accident victim at death's door is Timoteo's only child, Angela, coincidentally brought to his hospital, while his wife, Elsa (Claudia Gerini), frantically flies home from a business trip. Staring into the rain, his mind goes back—and forth—to before Angela was born, and to the other cataclysmic event of his life: his meeting with Italia (the electrifying and nearly unrecognizable Penélope Cruz), a snaggle-toothed, half-Albanian cleaning woman he meets one hot afternoon after his car breaks down in the dusty outskirts of Rome.
In a part of town where "nothing works," including phones and mechanics, her honest offer to Timoteo of a working phone is repaid with rape on her shabby apartment floor. And there you have it: the seeds of an inexplicable, mounting passion. Whether his brutishness is a perfect fit for her pathetic need to be wanted is anyone's guess. What's sure is that we're watching the annihilation of one sweet soul by the overwhelming ego of another. The film seems to suggest that the power of Italia's love is redemptive, but sacrificial might be a better word. As for redemption, during the time that Timoteo writhes and moans about his torment, pushing Italia away, rushing manically back to her, he makes two women pregnant and lies to them both.
Castellitto, in actor's heaven, revels in every soul-shredding moment, and Gerini is just fine as a wife hardened by what she's agreed to overlook. However, without Cruz, this would just be thoroughly overcooked melodrama. She has dug deep and created a character of astonishing power and imagination, a monumental force of nature, with a heel-jarring wobbly walk, a voice ranging from a screech to a rasp, and volcanic sexual abandon. Cruz alone may be reason enough to put up with Timoteo's wretched mewlings; it depends on your stomach for truly crazy love. (NR) SHEILA BENSON
Runs Fri., May 6–Thurs., May 12, at Varsity
Here's a pickup line for women to try: "I just want to live! To live and to dance and to fuck! And not just with one guy!" Strangely, it doesn't work on Cahit (Birol Ünel), a 40-ish Hamburg slacker with no more ambition than drinking, listening to loud rock music, and picking up bottles for a living. He's hardly promising material as a boyfriend, let alone a husband, but twentysomething Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) propositions him in earnest to be her partner in an open marriage. Her motives are less than loving: She just wants to escape from the household of her conservative Turkish immigrant parents, and from her loutish brother, who beats her for even looking at a man. Cahit would give her chaste respectability, she reasons, since her parents would permit her to marry a fellow Turk. There won't be any sex, she cautions him, but she'll cook and clean up when she's not out slutting around the local discothèques.
Cahit and Sibel don't meet cute—they collide in a mental ward while recovering from suicide attempts. Ingenue actress Kekilli, however, is very cute; she's got showstopper curves and train-wreck eyes. You can see why young Turkish-German writer/director Fatih Akin discovered her on the street; you can also see why Cahit, once he submits to a parental grilling and awkward wedding ceremony, begins to question his charitable impulse. Sure, he rescued Sibel from further beatings, but now who's going to rescue him from constant sexual temptation? That she gives his ratty punk pad a complete home makeover ("It's like a chick-bomb exploded in here!") and takes him out dancing only lends to the torture. Sometimes a guy doesn't want to see a girl's new pierced navel and small-of-the- back tattoo; life is less complicated for a melancholy, solitary drunk. (There are hints of Cahit's previous, unhappy marriage but never a full explanation.)
Given all the European anxiety about immigration, Islam, and admitting Turkey to the EU, it's no surprise that Head-On has been a big hit and a prizewinner in Germany. (The subtitled dialogue's in German, Turkish, and a smattering of English.) Refreshingly, however, the politics are mainly sexual: Cahit feels increasingly jealous of Sibel's catting around, and Sibel takes a simmering dislike to Cahit's hairdresser girlfriend. You see traces of the old country, and old customs, in the way Sibel's brother cracks his knuckles around her—he's ready to break her nose again, or worse, if she shames the family one more time. When Sibel drags Cahit to a family gathering six months into their sham marriage, he outrages his male in-laws by suggesting they fuck their wives instead of the local whores. More than his words, his bad Turkish accent offends them. What happened to his native tongue? "I threw it away," he says curtly.
German xenophobia is another matter— almost a given, like the weather. Cahit and Sibel have a run-in with a racist bus driver, and there's the sense that they only socialize with fellow outcasts, nightclubbers, and Turks who also feel stranded between Anatolian tradition and the new, money-grubbing Europe. Director Akin is no kinder to his kinsmen in Germany than in Istanbul, where the second half of the movie takes place; a brutal patriarchy and sexual double standards offer no respite to Sibel. She's free on the dance floor and in the bedroom, but almost no place else. Cahit grudgingly identifies more with Germany, feeling no loyalty to his homeland until—following an act of violence and its consequences—he has to find Sibel in Istanbul.
Full of sex, cocaine, and music (including regular performance interludes by folk musicians alongside the Bosporus), Head-On's got more jagged, jumpy vitality than any film I've yet seen this year. The storytelling rhythms can be a little jarring, almost like early Spike Lee, but this seems true to the disconnect of Cahit's and Sibel's lives. There's nothing smooth on the immigrant's path; and love, when it finally arrives, is more like a car wreck than a happy destination. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., May 6, at Harvard Exit
Another stale title being dusted off the Miramax shelf before the departure of the Weinstein brothers from the Disney empire, this 2002 Dutch drama features all the inconvenience of World War II without any effort to show the reality of that conflict. It's basically an epistolary novel—apparently a best seller in the Netherlands, words that thrill the heart—about cruelly separated fraternal twins, in which the chief dramatic action is whether this letter or that postcard will get delivered between them. Stamp collectors, this is the movie for you.
For the rest of us, Lotte and Anna are nice but not very interesting characters, portrayed as children, adults, and old women by three sets of actresses. For the dull middle of the film (as opposed to the dull beginning and the dull conclusion), Lotte is played by Thekla Reuten and Anna by Nadja Uhl. When their loving, wealthy German parents die in 1925, 6-year-old Lotte gets rescued by kindly, affluent Dutch relatives, while Anna is raised by brutish German cousins who keep her out of school and treat her like a farm animal. In a less-than-classic behavioral study—nature versus nurture—both girls turn out to be nice but bland. However, both have excellent penmanship.
Alas, certain letters never get delivered, then Hitler invades Holland, by which point Lotte's engaged to a Jewish music student and Anna's a maid in a hoch-Nazi household. Now it's not such a good idea that they find each other's addresses. Anna snares a cute Austrian boyfriend who inconveniently serves in the SS. Meanwhile, Lotte's thinking about converting to Judaism. Once so close, how could they possibly get along now? The contemporary portion of the story, as aged Lotte and Anna meet by chance at a spa, then shuffle through the longest, slowest park visit in cinema history, hints at a grudge between them, which flashbacks gradually reveal.
The rap against Miramax co-founder Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein is that he unfairly acquires, impounds, and reedits foreign movies for the U.S. market. Well, Twin Sisters didn't get enough scissoring. And you can't add footage that doesn't exist. It's the kind of movie where people talk about Auschwitz and the Eastern Front, and you expect the logical next scene to be in the gas chambers or at the Battle of Stalingrad. Instead: another letter, another missed connection, another twist that, yes, keeps the sisters apart.
By the time estranged old Anna pleads to Lotte, "We've both been victims of circumstance," you know exactly how she feels. (R) BRIAN MILLER