Opens Fri., Aug. 5, at Harvard Exit
Since Stripes recently found its way onto DVD, a whole new generation of filmgoers, not having known Bill Murray from Saturday Night Live in the '70s, may only associate him with the art-house cinema of Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and now Jim Jarmusch (see interview). I can just imagine the shock when they catch up with Caddyshack or Ghost Busters: Oh, you mean he was once actually meant to be funny? Next thing you know, they'll be saying the same about Jerry Lewis.
One thing about Flowers: It makes Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic seem like slapstick. Jarmusch uses Murray very well, but to very little effect. Don (Murray) spends what seems like the first half-hour of the picture sitting on the couch in his darkened suburban home, dressed in a track suit, doing nothing. It's like Yasujiro Ozu, but not in a good way. His younger girlfriend (Julie Delpy) is leaving this "over the hill Don Juan," which actually rouses him to his feet. Once she's gone, however, the couch beckons.
Then Don gets an anonymous letter on pink stationary informing him of "my hypothetical son," now about 19, apparently searching for his father. His amiably meddling Ethiopian neighbor (Jeffrey Wright) loves to play detective, so he compiles a dossier on four of Don's old lovers from 20 years past, and shoves him out on the road to locate the source of the letter. "I'm a stalker in a Taurus," Don complains, but it beats being a lump on the couch.
This is where things should perk up— a road trip across generic America, where Don visits his old flames (in order: Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, which leads us to believe Don was much handsomer two decades ago). Things begin well with Stone's character, a cheerfully lusty widow with a teenage daughter who doesn't even know why it's funny that she's been named Lolita. We smile inwardly with Don, who spots a few clues, then piles back in his Taurus for his next destination. But, really, it's all downhill after that. The other actresses are good, but your main impression is of Murray simply driving around to the mix tape Wright gave him (featuring Ethiopian rock and Ohio hipster pop by the Greenhornes). One requires a high tolerance for deadpan with a lack of incident, and you expect Don—and the movie—to get someplace eventually.
But his journey is an inward journey, and his growth—though I'm sure Jarmusch would never use that word—comes more in a sigh of recognition than with hugs, tears, and swelling music. Jarmusch has always been a minimalist, but Flowers is too much so—almost as inert as Don. Jarmusch's hipster lack of affect was a better joke in the Day-Glo '80s; the best response to the crassness of the Reagan era was, perhaps, to have no response. But now, what precisely is he not responding to? Don's inability to commit to a woman, let alone commit to movement, doesn't seem rooted in any kind of philosophy (though he is asked, eventually, if he's a wandering Zen master).
In its small, poignant way, the movie belongs more in the Bill Murray canon, not that of Jim Jarmusch. (One shelf is expanding, the other isn't.) His intensely restrained performance is like watching the rock gradually yield a sculpture within. Or a tombstone. As in The Life Aquatic or Lost in Translation, his character is looking backward, and not liking what he's made out of life. If there are 100 notes of resignation, Murray has sighed most of them since becoming, with Rushmore, the world-weary adopted father to a younger generation of film artists. Why do they love him so? A past master of irony, Murray hasn't now suddenly become sincere, the sad clown who cries. It may be instead that his alertness to random, alternate frequencies makes him more alert to life's randomness. Ironies can be both melancholy and funny, tragic and hilarious, and maybe an old joker knows that best.
Still, those qualities don't make Flowers powerfully tragic or profound. At the end you think, "I should've cared more." Just like Don. (R) BRIAN MILLER
Caterina in the Big City
Opens Fri., July 29, at Seven Gables
I'm sure there are countries in the world where Mean Girls, Heathers, and Thirteen haven't been dubbed into the native tongue and their lessons learned, but I'm equally sure Italy isn't one of them. For that reason, it's hard to understand why this tame, muddled, and derivative coming-of-age flick got made in the first place. Why it was sent back here, to the international center of teen-centric culture, is an even bigger mystery. Heroine Caterina (Alice Teghil), seemingly 12 or 13, isn't very interesting; her adjustment problems are hardly unique when her family moves from the sticks to Rome; and the cliques she must navigate are so ridiculous that their supposedly charismatic ringleaders would both be ostracized at any American high school (and probably end up eating together at the same outcasts' lunch table).
At her new school, Caterina is immediately asked, "Are you alternative or preppy?" Great, she's got to choose between being a '90s cliché and an '80s cliché. Making matters worse, the kids' politics, and those of their bickering parents, are stuck in the '60s. Fascism and communism are very much alive, as they may presently be in Italy, but they haven't aged well. Caterina hangs out with the alternative kids, then with the preppies, and it takes her far too long to see the obvious limitations to both camps. Meanwhile, her schoolteacher father (the ordinarily fine Sergio Castellitto, here utterly at sea) entertains fantasies of becoming a novelist now that he's returned to the cosmopolitan city of his youth. He embarrasses his daughter, and us, by importuning her new friends' well-connected parents with his manuscript, then ends up railing like a madman about Rome's clique of insiders—right and left, they're all the same—who will never let him in. He didn't learn this in high school?
Fortunately, Caterina is a little more resilient, but it takes her 90 minutes to find her place in the world—and by then, it's only a postscript to a movie you've seen 100 times before, and without the subtitles. But I bet Lindsay Lohan is cute dubbed into Italian; maybe it's on the Mean Girls DVD. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., Aug. 5, at Meridian and others
Suburbia inspires a particular kind of horror among Hollywood aesthetes, as if they're aware they are one failure away from posh Santa Monica digs and the ignominy of the Valley. As a result, every young Tim Burton wanna-be feels this compulsion to rip the lid off the teeming cauldron of dysfunction and pathology lurking in those tract houses and cul-de-sacs, and it's getting harder and harder for us to act surprised at the revelation. Seriously, where do these filmmakers imagine their audience comes from? We can't all live in West Hollywood and Lower Manhattan. TV is way ahead in this regard; shows like Desperate Housewives are beyond exposing the strange—they're embracing the strange. The Chumscrubber just treats it like a freak show, in which teenagers are the last sane beings on the planet.
Thus, when the best pal of high-school senior Dean (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell, with a half-credible American accent) commits suicide, Dean clams up emotionally, which makes his parents (Allison Janney and William Fichtner) sure there's something wrong with him, so they put him on stronger meds. Meanwhile, his younger brother (Rory Culkin) just plays video games; apparently he's the only one with any sense in the family. But Dean's dead pal was a dealer, and his cache of happy drugs is coveted by three teens—one of them a cute girl, played by Camilla Belle—who put the squeeze on Dean. When he refuses to cooperate, they kidnap his little brother. Ooops, or the kid they think is his brother, who turns out to be the son of the town cop (John Heard), who's hung up on his ex (Rita Wilson), who's about to marry the mayor (Ralph Fiennes). Oh, and the cute girl's mother is Carrie Anne Moss, doing a Mrs. Robinson act around the horndog kidnappers. And finally, the Chumscrubber, a character from comics and video games, also begins to insert himself into the story.
This might be amusing enough if young director Arie Posin and writer Zac Stanford weren't so sure they'd just discovered The Stepford Wives. Not only are they 30 years too late for that, they also insist on giving everything a bright-and-shiny echt-philosophical tone, like they'd invented satire, too. "There is a greater plan for us all," insists the increasingly whacked-out Fiennes (who's actually rather enjoyable for once, going gleefully nuts). But he gets to enjoy freaking out Wilson and grinning at the sky. The petulant teens just wrangle over the drugs, and the girl helps Dean get in touch, yes, with his feelings. (So Mom and Dad were right for once, but never mind that.)
I suppose that Posin and Stanford are reaching out to the Ritalin generation, trying to validate their suburban ennui as being new and fundamentally different than that of the grunge '90s and preppie '80s. (More likely, it'll just steer their audience toward The Breakfast Club or Donnie Darko on DVD.) If these young filmmakers really want to help, let them make better video games and leave the satire to grown-ups. (R) BRIAN MILLER
Runs Fri., Aug. 5–Thurs., Aug. 11, at Varsity
I bought my first peace medallion in the '60s at Sears because I was amused that Sears was so scared of the symbol that they altered it: The line down the center did not connect with the bottom of the circle; the jewelry division could make money off peace without actually admitting to supporting peace politics. The Sears peace symbol was a cross between the original and the Mercedes logo, which stands for greed, pure and simple.
The tension between seekers of peace and change and those who just want a nice piece of change is the driving idea of Hans Weingartner's film. Young Berlin leftists Jan (Goodbye Lenin's brilliant Daniel Brühl) and Peter (Stipe Erceg) are furious that the '60s generation sold out and let dreams of economic justice die, so they break into mansions and satirically rearrange the furniture—lynching statues of Venus and leaving notes ("Your Days of Plenty Are Numbered") signed "the Edukators." This, supposedly, will startle rich folks into being socialists.
The boys have a lot to learn. Scowling intellectual Jan squabbles with fun-loving Peter for heisting a $6,000 Rolex to fund a Barcelona getaway with girlfriend Jule (Julia Jentsch). How can they expect society to take them seriously and give up its bourgeois ways if they steal stuff? Peter winds up vacationing in Spain alone, though, because Jule has to work overtime in an upscale restaurant to pay off her $104,000 debt to a rich guy whose Mercedes she totaled after missing an insurance payment and losing her policy.
While Peter's away, Jule and Jan play, doing an Edukators number on the house of Jule's Mercedes creditor. Because she's an impulsive girl in love with two guys and he's an impractical dreamer under her spell (a nod to Jules and Jim), they fuck up, and wind up with a hostage: Fifty-year-old SDS-revolutionary-turned-$4.1-million-a-year-businessman Hardenberg (Burghart Klaussner). Peter returns to help them spirit Hardenberg to the remote alpine cabin of Jule's uncle, where they debate about justice and selling out.
This sounds boring, and it is simplistic, but Weingartner stages the debate intelligently—he busts everybody for self- delusion, including the kids. There are good moments of thriller tension, too. What makes the movie soar, though, is the marvelous acting, the sensitive, utterly realistic treatment of the young-love triangle, and the rueful fondness in Hardenberg's old eyes as he sees his younger self in theirs. The surprise ending is gimmicky, but the character study is consistently enthralling. The Edukators is educational—not intellectually, but emotionally. (NR) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., Aug. 5, at Metro and Uptown
There are only a handful of good movies about running (Chariots of Fire, Without Limits, The Jericho Mile), and Saint Ralph isn't one of them. That would be fine, if it were just a decent '50s Canadian coming-of-age flick, but it doesn't even reach that standard. A freshman at a Catholic high school, Ralph (Adam Butcher) has only his coma-case mother in the way of becoming an orphan. His father died in World War II, and he lies to his teachers about living with a chum instead of in his empty, depressing family house. A smart-ass whose chief extracurricular pursuit is wanking off, he gets sentenced to the cross-country team for insubordination, where he falls under the Nietzsche-reading tutelage of Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott). When a nurse (Jennifer Tilly) tells Ralph of his mom, "The doctors are saying it'll take a miracle to wake her up," he decides that winning the 1954 Boston Marathon would do the trick, and he begins training like "a martyr" (as he calls himself).
A bigger miracle would be for Saint Ralph to escape its melodramatic foundation, but the kid can't run that fast. Ralph is no Duddy Kravitz, and Butcher doesn't make him either annoying enough or cute enough to care about. The young actor is skinny but doesn't carry himself at all like an athlete. His teen high jinks—like spying on the women's locker room—would hardly be considered shocking in the '50s (although in '50s Canada, maybe). Campbell's priest isn't pushing the boundaries of subversion either, particularly when his rival faculty members seem to be stuck in the Inquisition era. (For a better treatment of Catholic excess and devotion, Household Saints or even Heaven Help Us are closer to the cross.) "Please tell me there's a rational explanation for this," says Tilly's nurse. Sorry, no.
The film's best character and performer is stuck on the margins: Claire (Tamara Hope), the girl Ralph has a crush on. He thinks dressing up in a suit and taking her on a date might score him a little nookie. Wrong, Ralph—what really turns this girl on is incense, Mass, and the full Latin liturgy. Her eager, innocent, and yet carnal arousal is the best thing about the movie. Instead of Ralph fanatically sacrificing his body to resurrect his mother, cheerful Claire has no problem reconciling the flesh and her spirit. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER
Save the Green Planet
Runs Fri., Aug. 5–Thurs., Aug. 11, at Northwest Film Forum
South Korean writer-director Jang Jun-hwan's 2003 stew of a suspense thriller overcooks half a dozen genres: police procedural, science fiction, noir, Western, melodrama, and martial arts. To complicate matters, the tone changes so often that if you leave to get popcorn, you may think you've walked into the wrong film when you return. It's a space-case retread of Silence of the Lambs: Rabid sci-fi fan Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-gyun) lives in a rural compound above an old mine; to fill his time, he keeps bees, builds mannequins, and plots revenge against his former employer, a mysterious chemical plant that seems to have poisoned his mother. After years of stalking the plant head, Kang Man-shik (Baek Yun-shik), Lee kidnaps him and, convinced Kang is an alien leader bent on destroying the Earth, proceeds to torture him. Is Lee insane? His treatment of Kang gets brutal enough to make the film less a farce than a mild horror flick.
Yet the bloody cat-and-mouse game between captor and captive—finally interrupted by two detectives—keeps careening into slapstick, leaving you hard-pressed not to laugh even as you cringe. Then, late in the movie, there's a stirring montage of Lee's horrendous youth, the cause of his eventual psychosis, and a hilarious Bible parody that conflates the legend of Atlantis with the story of Adam and Eve. Both sequences suggest that if the director had picked a genre—or at least limited himself to two or three—Planet could have been a lot more fun. Still, if you're a fan of wacky gross-out humor à la Evil Dead 2, you might get a kick out of this space oddity. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER