Bewitched

Also: Bomb the System, Brothers, The Holy Girl, and McLibel.

Bewitched

Opens Fri., June 24, at Metro and others

Born into showbiz, writer-director Nora Ephron is enough of a movie classicist to prefer the golden era of stars over our current obsessions with meta and cultural recycling. On its face, this shiny, cheerful adaptation of the TV series Bewitched (1964–72) seems like the worst project for her sensibility (it was co-scripted with her sister, Delia, along with many prior writers). The premise is familiar to everyone on the planet—along with alien planets now watching the reruns 40 light years away. So instead of witch Samantha marrying mortal Darrin in standard sitcom format, we have actor Jack (Will Ferrell), recently demoted to the B-list, now starring in a new TV remake of the series. Determined to dominate the show, he commands that unknown Isabel (Nicole Kidman) be cast opposite him. Problem A: The two essentially fall in love at first sight. Problem B: She's also actually a witch.

It's a cute conceit—what might be called the Charlie Kaufman twist, which would be fine if it were Kaufman, not Ephron, calling the shots. Her Bewitched is a curiously affirmative affair, even though it's set in the snake pit of Hollywood. The big fantasy here is not that witches walk among us, but that niceness and sincerity can ultimately prevail on Sunset Boulevard. Ephron's pleasant if implausible good will is carried considerably by her stars: We never believe for a minute that Ferrell's character could be a jerk, nor that Kidman's would use underhanded tactics to land him. Everyone in the movie refers constantly to their love of the original show (except Isabel, whose father, played by Michael Caine, forbade her to watch), but I certainly don't remember Elizabeth Montgomery being quite so naive as Isabel about money or sex or men. ("What's a dick?" this innocent asks.) She's more like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz or Nurse Betty without the excuse of trauma and amnesia to explain how she guilelessly conquers Hollywood.

That's not to say Kidman can't be funny; she was rather maliciously delightful in To Die For. But any actress can wiggle her nose and wait for CGI to work her magic for her. Here she seems lost. We don't know where witches come from, why they can't watch television shows about witches (would Buffy count?), or what's the appeal of loving us mortals in squaresville. Her wardrobe and dream house in the Valley seem to have been forged from our television fantasies, but Bewitched only belatedly bores a pipeline from witch world to TV land, when Steve Carell arrives doing Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur. Funny enough, but did the Montgomery and Lynde estates really make it impossible to incorporate original footage into the movie? If you're going to be meta, be meta.

Ferrell is more unleashed than in Melinda and Melinda and more grown-up than in Kicking & Screaming, but Ephron's sunny tone saps him of some of his frantic, flailing power. He's funniest when in a panic, and she and Kidman are too quick to bail him out. Even though Jack is too warm and fuzzy as a character, certain isolated bits make the movie worth watching, like him ardently sniffing Isabel's purse and telling her, "Let's make love in a petting zoo, on the back of a killer whale at Sea World." Then there are the clips of Jack's failed movies on TV: An Onion for Willy, Atticus Rex, and Last Year in Katmandu; each one suggests a sketch you might prefer to Bewitched.

Ferrell and Kidman are most charming in a little midfilm montage on the empty TV Bewitched set—dancing, cavorting, being silly. Here's the safe ground between her unseen witch realm and his "normal" world that she craves but can't quite comprehend. For Ephron, at least, even if there's no magic left anyplace else, you can still find it on a Hollywood soundstage. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Bomb the System

Runs Fri., June 24–Thurs., June 30, at Grand Illusion

Dud to the System is more like it. Made in 2002, the movie consists of a hip-hop score, tripped-out drug moments, and writing on walls. It's like a music video gone wrong. Anthony, aka Blest (Mark Webber), is a white boy from the hood whose claim to fame comes from tagging (or graffiti, as it was once known). He and his friends, Buk 50 (Gano Grills) and Lune (Jade Yorker), use their misspent artistic energy to create their masterpieces on the walls of Manhattan. Meanwhile, the Vandal Squad, a corrupt duo of cops, tries to halt the tagging not with Officer Friendly tactics but by beating the crap out of local troublemakers. Sure, this crew of unruly scribblers is talented, but as Blest's love interest, Alex (Jaclyn DeSantis), points out, what's the purpose of spraying their John Hancocks all over town? Alex's own doodling dames use their talent to voice political views and stand up against injustice—finally some brains. Substitute the spray paint for rap, and you've got a carbon copy of 8 Mile, only it's about six miles short of a decent movie. (R) SARAH MCGUIRE

Brothers

Runs Fri., June 24–Thurs., June 30, at Varsity

Two different movies are fighting for control of this Danish diptych, and the wrong one wins. A quick setup establishes that responsible older sibling Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), a contented family man and army officer, is mightily resented for just those reasons by his ex-con brother, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Michael goes off to serve in Afghanistan, where his helicopter is promptly shot down by the Taliban. His wife, Sarah (Gladiator's Connie Nielsen), and family are told he's dead, leaving Jannik to reconsider all his prior rancor toward Michael. His own father's a drunk, Sarah is distraught, and suddenly this ne'er-do-well is left as the sole functioning adult in the family. This is the conventional melodramatic portion of Brothers. Meanwhile, we're not particularly surprised to learn that Michael is alive, being held captive in conditions somewhat similar to The Deer Hunter. This is the movie's more promising and topical strand—a well-meaning liberal, no Rambo, taken hostage by a bunch of brutal fanatics with no interest in growth, reconciliation, or healing. Somehow, Brothers put me in the same camp.

As Jannik sobers up and begins to help with Sarah's two young daughters, the movie's Coming Home tendencies appear inevitable—and indeed they are. The only surprise to the movie is how Michael behaves in Afghanistan to survive. Director Susanne Bier (Open Hearts) is content to let the film lurch along from one dramatic note card to the next: Forbidden kisses are delivered; a kitchen is built and wrecked (damn those cheap IKEA cabinets!); everyone keeps grabbing everyone else by the shoulders and slamming them into the walls (oops, time for another trip to Høme Depøt). Brothers can't decide what it's about—family, jealousy, war, or a veteran's post-traumatic stress disorder. More problematic than Sarah's having to choose between two brothers is Bier's inability to choose between themes.

No matter how good her cast, and it's pretty good, there's only so much you can do with soap-opera writing. Not that there's anything wrong with soap operas. But by making Afghanistan and the War on Terror a convenient backdrop to the kitchen wrecking and wall slamming, Brothers' credibility crashes like Michael's helicopter. (R) BRIAN MILLER

The Holy Girl

Runs Fri., June 24–Thurs., June 30, at Varsity

Lucrecia Martel's moody yet somehow sunny study of manias, religious and erotic, is curiously reserved, almost an act of cinematic jujitsu. In America, a movie about teenage Catholic girls, grown-up molesters, scandal, and gossipy betrayal would either be a smutty joke or a pulpy melodrama: Lolita meets American Pie via Mean Girls. But the Argentine auteur of La Ciénaga has a pure, calm heart. Her mini-classic treats every character with nonjudgmental interest: the spiritually and romantically questing 14-year-old Amalia (María Alché); the dirty old doctor (Carlos Belloso) who surreptitiously slips up behind her in a crowd and rubs her rump with his lump; the friends and relatives who spy and comment on one another's very public private lives in a hotel in the Andean foothills overrun by a medical convention.

Like the heroine of the underrated Saved!, this Holy Girl approaches her earliest sexual experience in spiritual terms: God has clearly sent this guy to her so she can save his troubled soul with her lusciously ripening flesh. Amalia is very into the sensual side of the equation, and her motives are at all times intriguingly ambiguous. Her face is sensitive, saintly, but also impish, her crooked grin as animated with wicked glee as the nose-wriggling enchantress in Bewitched. When she thinks in private about her public close encounter with the doc, she luxuriously touches herself. And yet the scene is respectful of her passions, both erotic and religious.

Nobody is a joke in Martel's intense little universe. The doc, a tormented married man, conducts a flirtation with the girl's mom (Mercedes Morán), who's interested—her ex-husband's just fathered twins, and she's grateful to feel like she's still in the game. Amalia's mom co-owns the hotel, though, so she's stressed with convention responsibilities. Like no other writer- director I can think of, Martel captures the low-intensity conflict that is real life, the constant off-center collisions, evasions, concatenating tiny events that add up to fate.

Her camera has the attention span of a hummingbird with equal interest in the entire ensemble cast. It's a quietly sexy, dreamy story, full of reveries and oblique revelations. When Amalia's best friend betrays her confidences to save herself from scandal, it provokes an elliptically implicit ending that reminds me of Purple Noon minus the murder. The finale is the storytelling equivalent of coitus interruptus, but I think you'll agree that it is, in context, perfect. You sure won't forget Alché's radiant face: She's Joan of Arc with a punkish, knowing smirk. (R) TIM APPELO

McLibel

Opens Fri., June 24, at Varsity

Before seeing this agitprop documentary, it helps to read the pamphlet that inspired the court case that inspired the film. "What's Wrong With McDonald's," created in 1986 by London Greenpeace, is viewable at www.McSpotlight.org, thanks to British activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris, who are also McLibel's unlikely heroes. The film is about McDonald's libel lawsuit against the duo, who distributed the pamphlet and ended up being formidable foes in court: The so-called McLibel case became the longest trial in British history. The tract that caused all the commotion focuses on its cardinal sins: bad nutrition, environmental abuse, deceptive marketing, animal cruelty, and awful working conditions.

Director Franny Armstrong is less savvy than Super Size Me's Morgan Spurlock, yet she makes some good choices. Chief among them: an extensive interview with Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, who credibly compares eating fast food to smoking (its impact on the health care system is delayed, and it's a doozy). He also cites the company's Orwellian training manual, which stresses "uniformity, conformity, and control." Armstrong supplies some much-needed dark humor by talking with Geoff Giuliano, who played Ronald McDonald in numerous television ads. With bitter remorse, Giuliano, now a vegetarian, compares his work to Nazi propaganda. Ouch.

What doesn't work in McLibel is similar to what flops in the pamphlet. Both lapse at times into propaganda themselves— perhaps a forgivable flaw, considering whom they're up against. Still, when Morris recites his court argument about McDonald's role in rain-forest destruction, we get footage of . . . trees being bulldozed. The opening sequence is an ill-advised Star Wars parody, and the "dramatic re-creations" of certain moments in court are staggeringly hokey.

Yet Morris and Steel are compelling figures, and by profiling them over 15 years, McLibel convincingly argues the merits of committed activism. Think about it: Two working-class Brits took on one of the richest, most powerful multinationals on earth, put up a hell of a fight, and made a real difference, reshaping British libel law for the better. You may not share Morris and Steel's brand of ardor, but it's likely to provoke a little of your own. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER

 
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