The Beautiful Country
Opens Fri., July 15, at Metro
Indie über-producer Ed Pressman and cult director Terrence Malick are responsible for this skimpy film on an epic subject, the watery trek of a half-American Vietnamese boy to his GI dad's homeland, known in Vietnamese as "the beautiful country." I've never heard of the Oslo director they hired, Hans Petter Moland, and don't particularly want to hear from him again.
And yet, Country's important story does exert a certain fascination. It's best in its earliest scenes, Vietnam's poorer quarters as seen by a young half-Yankee teen, Binh (Damien Nguyen), known to his fellow citizens as "pig face" or "less than dust." After a tragic accident at a ritzy mansion where his mother cleans house, the 17-year-old flees with his toddler brother via a leaky boat to a prisonlike Malaysian refugee camp, then buys their way aboard a sinister freighter piloted by a half-moral captain (Tim Roth) and a subhuman trafficker, Snake Eyes (Temuera Morrison, Cmdr. Cody from Revenge of the Sith). En route, the refugees play a pop-culture game akin to Trivial Pursuit, I guess as a commentary on the hollowness of the culture they've risked all to reach.
After a hackneyed shipboard showdown or two, Binh's off to an oppressed workers' subterranean dorm in New York's Chinatown and a job as an overworked busboy. His pal from the voyage, Ling (Bai Ling), longs to be a singer. Forced into prostitution back in Saigon to pay her (and Binh's) way over, she doesn't fare much better at a karaoke joint frequented by Wall Street assholes. Disillusioned by Ling's fate and shocked by the revelation that he had been legally entitled all along to a free trip from Vietnam to America, so that his entire ordeal was needless, Binh lights out for Texas to find his blind Viet-vet dad (Nick Nolte).
The story gets steadily less credible as Vietnam recedes (and talk about a beautiful country!), while all the subsequent scenes of flight and relocation seem filched with a tired hack's hand from the film cliché file. Nolte's role makes no sense, and he delivers his usual pocketful of mumbles. But the plight of mixed-race kids like Binh is real, and Nguyen's performance is vivid. (R) TIM APPELO
Runs Fri., July 15–Thurs., July 21, at Varsity
Darwin would not be pleased about the current state of nature documentaries; they're undergoing some kind of population explosion, like lemmings, without regard to fitness or survival. Close on the heels—fins? feathers?—of Deep Blue and March of the Penguins, this French account of life's origins on Earth begins with an old black guy in a fire-lit cave: our narrator, since apparently they couldn't afford Morgan Freeman, or because he doesn't speak French. "My story is the history of the universe," he says. Oh, really? I didn't know we were living in a cave. And we're certainly not all solemn and French. Anyway, these passages of narration are like being stuck in the cellar with Tim Robbins in War of the Worlds—you'll do anything to escape, even if it means being gobbled up by a tripod. But, since his subject is how we're all formed out of the intergalactic dust and primordial ooze, evolving into more and more complex organisms with a hunger to survive, there's plenty of gobbling. Amoeba eat amoeba, fish eat crustaceans, lizards eat bugs. In this way, if it weren't for the boring old cave dude, Genesis would make for a fine school field trip—provided the curriculum is down with Darwin, not with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn or Seattle's wacky Discovery Institute. "Chaos," not intelligent design, is the operative principle at work.
Unsurprisingly from the makers of Microcosmos (1996), the best sequences here feel like Microcosmos 2—which is to say, everything that happens when the cave guy isn't around. The cinematography can be amazing, as when marine iguanas are head butting one another for the right to mate; or as sea horses snap at their prey in seaweed forests; or when a determined snake swallows an egg about three times its girth. You'd love to see this stuff on an IMAX screen—but, again, without the cave dude. (G) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., July 15, at Guild 45
You could consider Don Roos' new comedy the airbagged alternative to Crash—a whole bunch of nutty Los Angelenos, careeningly connected, lives in tumult, yet nothing really bad happens. And he lets you know that straightaway. The film opens with Lisa Kudrow running from some unknown distress when—bang!—she's hit by a car. In the first of many title cards he uses throughout Happy Endings, Roos assures us: "She's not dead." He'll continue the device through the rest of his overlapping stories, commenting directly on the action, adding back story (and future story) to his characters, making little jokes. It's too much—like experiencing the DVD commentary track before you're even done with the flick, an assertion of authorial control one associates more with literature or Godard movies. But Roos is sweet, not sour (or profound) like Godard, and he basically wants you to like everyone in his film, right down to the schemers, hustlers, and tramps.
Something of a muse for Roos since The Opposite of Sex, Kudrow plays Mamie, whose stepbrother, Charley (Steve Coogan), got her pregnant when they were teens. Unbeknownst to him, she gave up the baby for adoption. Now shaggy filmmaker Nicky (Jesse Bradford) approaches her with a blackmail scheme: He'll introduce her to her now-grown son if she lets him make a documentary about it. She and her lover, Javier (Bobby Cannavale), counter with a different (fake) subject—his life as a Mexican immigrant masseuse/gigolo to desperate housewives—so the three of them embark on a movie within a movie.
Meanwhile, at Charley's restaurant, gay drummer Otis (Jason Ritter) hooks up with conniving Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who offers to beard him for the sake of his rich, not-so-uptight father, Frank (a surprisingly good, underplayed Tom Arnold; see interview, p. 86), who's the real pot at the end of her rainbow. At the same time, Charley and his lover, Gil, suspect the new son of some lesbians (including Laura Dern) is actually from Gil's seed. So we have a guy unaware he's a father, who's looking for somebody else's son, while another son tries to keep his sexual identity a secret from his father. Roos keeps piling on the ironies—and the deceptions. Otis is lying; maybe the lesbians are lying (Charley has to lie to find out); Mamie lied to Charley; Jude is certainly a liar; Mamie and Javier are lying to Nicky, who seems to have no qualms about faking a documentary. And if you missed any of the significance of that, Roos has Jude sing Billy Joel's "Honesty" in a karaoke bar.
The overall effect is that Roos is a little too pleased with himself for creating what is, in essence, an indie soap opera. Happy Endings is pleasant enough, but not a lot deeper than the Billy Joel songbook. "Just the Way You Are" also gets a reprise from Gyllenhaal, who's the best thing about the movie—a smilingly amoral sexual mercenary. Apart from gun-waving auteur Nicky ("I have to get into AFI!"), everyone else is rather too compromised by their niceness. And Roos' commentary only reinforces this benign quality; rather than letting the actors or audience do the work, or leaving matters open to interpretation, he force-feeds the sugar. In the end, all happily blended families are alike, which is precisely why we don't need any more movies about them. (R) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., July 15, at Metro and others
Owen Wilson is like the kid hiding a piece of candy on his tongue who, when his parents demand he spit it out, manages to smile while keeping his mouth firmly clamped shut. He's got a secret, he's enjoying it, and he's not letting it go. With Vince Vaughn, the opposite is true: He chews with his mouth wide open throughout Wedding Crashers, laughing, joking, and shouting even as he wolfs down cake, champagne, and hors d'oeuvres. Good manners be damned, he wants everyone to know what a great time he's having.
That makes one of us. Both Wilson and Vaughn are at that cinematic-demographic sweet spot—likable frat boys grown up, but not too much, able to savor being in a comedy without the burden of being good parents or saving the Earth from aliens. You can't really tell how old these best buddies are; they seem to be lawyers in Washington, D.C., responsible without being too responsible, adults without really being adults. Their considerable charm carries you through the film's first 30 minutes—chatterbox male bonding, a long montage of their raucous wedding crashing and exuberant tail chasing, and then the fateful nuptials where they hook up with a pair of sisters (fathered by Christopher Walken)—whereupon the movie stops dead, and the fun along with it.
Once our boys reach Walken's Delaware estate (a kind of Kennedy/Ralph Lauren bizzaro world of gilded dysfunction), you realize quickly that the prior few bare breasts and "fucks" tossed around for the R rating are now going to be jettisoned in favor of growth, maturity, and, yes, love. Our two uncontrite swingers, kind of like Hope and Crosby on Viagra, are shackled to a date movie. Wilson falls for Rachel McAdams (The Notebook), while Vaughn tries to escape her "stage-five clinger" of a sister, Isla Fisher. Walken does nothing, and Jane Seymour is made to embarrass herself as his slutty, alcoholic wife. The comic centerpiece of this long, long weekend is Vaughn getting a hand job at the family dinner table, at which point viewers may want to sneak out to crash another movie playing at the same multiplex.
Yes, there's a cameo from a certain Old School star, which you guess as soon as Vaughn mentions his wedding-crashing mentor, but that's what DVD is for. In between Vaughn's "baby"-thises and "baby"-thats (which he seems to need to breathe) and the "I love you, man" moments between buddies, there's a telling little exchange where Wilson chides him, "Grow up here, Peter Pan." No, guys, please don't. (R) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., July 15, at Harvard Exit
You haven't seen anything like Sally Potter's new movie—not even in Sally Potter movies. The dialogue is in bouncy rhymed couplets, and the theme is perilously timely: the collision of male and female, underclass and upper class, the West and Islam. It's an intellectual head trip and a swoony passion play about how an uptight London embryologist archly named "She" (Joan Allen) gets her groove back thanks to a darkly handsome Lebanese exile doctor named "He" (Simon Abkarian).
We scarcely blame her for cheating on her cold, domestically AWOL womanizer of a British politico husband (Sam Neill, superb as ever), but we fret about the doctor: He's humiliatingly deprived of his professional identity, forced to work in a kitchen with a rainbow coalition of squabbling proles; to outsiders, He's just another Other. The man's hot-blooded, and he's got issues bound to erupt in their relationship.
The movie originated with what is still its finest scene, a noisy He-She argument in a parking garage. Their lines fuse their hearts in poetical form, like a very pissed-off Romeo and Juliet: "Terrorist!" "Bigot!" "Bitch!" It's marvelous to see political ideas so boldly made flesh, and the verse reminds me of Richard Wilbur's celebrated translations of Molière: winkingly witty, light on its metrical feet.
This effect is particularly strong when we're directly addressed by the film's most irresistible character, the married couple's housecleaner (Shirley Henderson), who gives us the what-the-butler-saw dirt on the affair and on society in general. (She calls herself a "dirt consultant.") Overall, the verse risks striking you as artificially affected in the more tortured moments, like the parking-garage tiff, but for me it worked intellectually and was entirely moving. I think the critics who've compared Yes to Dr. Seuss have tin ears (and they should respect Dr. Seuss more, too).
Nothing else in the film reaches the high-water mark of the central fight scene. To get there, Potter resorts to formula: The future lovers meet at a banquet where she's dining and he's working (the husband is off philandering). She invites him on a getaway to Cuba, that socialist paradise, and they do the beachy romance thing. His social ostracism gets on his nerves, and he takes it out on his high-status new girlfriend.
The romance is far more heartfelt and persuasive than what Hollywood typically dishes out, but there is a static quality to the story, not an organic progress to a climax (despite some authentic steam between the genius Allen and Abkarian). Potter (Orlando) is still a didactic essayist who uses film to get her not always nuanced views across.
Still, you try tackling the clash of civilizations in a romance epic. Even when a scene falls short of Potter's best, its vivid thought, palpable emotion, and extraordinary auteurist daredevil quality rivet one's interest. Shooting on a shoestring, she cleverly invents her own effects: turning the camera diagonally, shooting eight frames per second, and interspersing arty blur shots.
Most of the critical barrage of roses has fallen at Allen's feet (see interview, p. 86), and her performance deserves every aromatic petal. Yet He is even better. Abkarian has won prizes acting Molière in Paris, and he treats Potter's screenplay like it was a classic. In a quirky way, it is. (R) TIM APPELO