Opens Fri., Aug. 19, at Uptown
Nobody does repression like the Brits, and Natasha Richardson looks appropriately repressed and miserable at the beginning of Asylum. She plays Stella, who moves with her cold, careerist psychiatrist husband to an isolated English mental institution during the late 1950s. The problem is that she looks even more miserable after she's been sexually emancipated by a brooding inmate, Edgar (The Great Raid's Marton Csokas). The handsome pair are plainly meant for each other; there's little delay or suspense before their first rutting on the floor of a greenhouse. It's made all the more inevitable by Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellan), a resentful colleague and rival of Stella's husband (Hugh Bonneville from Iris). "I spend my life immersed in the passions of others," says Cleave, and Edgar is his most passionate lab rat.
By setting his 1996 source novel in the past, Patrick McGrath (Spider) knowingly borrowed an older set of conventions—the bored wife, the scandalous affair, the inevitably tragic outcome—as if recasting Lady Chatterley's Lover with people who'd never read D.H. Lawrence. On film, however, I'm not sure the '50s are distant enough to match those conventions. Mad love is one thing, but to fall for a guy who killed his wife out of pathological jealousy? Stella may be desperate, but no one should be that dumb. In the novel, her fate is related in flashback; here she blunders headlong through one trap after another set by evil Dr. Cleave. ("Arranging things is your forte," he's told.) Her motives we can understand: Edgar's a hunky artist who makes her feel alive. Meanwhile, her husband barely registers (there's a young son, too), and Cleave's motives—beyond job advancement—make no sense at all.
McGrath originally tangled the narrative between two conflicting, retrospective accounts (neither one of them reliable), and by making Cleave less the obvious villain. Here, by rolling the story out more conventionally, director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) dulls the drama. It also doesn't help that he plants so many clues along the way. (Inmate to Stella: "Are you joining us?")
That adultery can lead to catastrophe is hardly new or surprising. That's why I was unsurprised to learn that the conduit between McGrath and Mackenzie was screenwriter/playwright Patrick Marber, whose Closer made a similarly grim business of nookie-on-the-side. What's missing here is also what was missing from that film: You've got to lose your heart for love before you lose your mind. (R) BRIAN MILLER
À Tout de Suite
Runs Fri., Aug. 19–Thurs., Aug. 25, at Varsity
Back when gratuitous nudity still meant something, 40 or 50 years ago, there was a certain characteristic scene in films of the French New Wave: A propos of nothing, a cute young actress—maybe Bardot, maybe Moreau—would walk through the corner of the shot naked or emerge from the bath with her towel imperfectly (yet perfectly) held or streak past a half-open door while changing her outfit. The hero, of course, intent on important matters like smoking or drinking or planning a robbery, wouldn't get up to do anything about it. These flashes were there because the directors could get away with it, because audiences (especially Americans) loved these forbidden peep shows, and because they tweaked Hollywood prudery.
Based on a young female fugitive's memoir from the '70s, À Tout de Suite (Right Now) is full of these little bonus bits of nudity. It's part of director Benoît Jacquot's deliberate evocation of the nouvelle vague, which also includes filming in 16 mm black and white, jittery editing rhythms, handheld camera, minimal music and lighting, and deliberately adding old bits of stock footage (plus some new, mismatched video inserts) to heighten the artifice of his revival project. Lead actress Isild Le Besco (whose 19-year-old character, Lili, is only named in the credits) has the right body and face for his purposes; she's the kind of blank, undemonstrative, natural beauty who'd fit right into a genuine Godard or Truffaut piece. Neither she nor her bank-robbing lover (Ouassini Embarek) talks a lot as they flee Paris—where two died in his heist-gone-wrong—for Spain, Morocco, and Greece. A bit of voice-over here and there is all the slim story needs. "A vacation for all time," she calls their flight, in an affectless manner somewhat reminiscent of Sissy Spacek in Badlands.
Of course, there have been an awful lot of movies about doomed lovers on the run since Terrence Malick and since the French New Wave, and even those drew on a long Hollywood tradition before them. À Tout de Suite adds nothing to this tradition. It feels like a movie you've seen before, and Jacquot doesn't pretend otherwise. You can admire his economy, the period feel for 1975 (check out that Chicago album sitting on Lili's mantel), how Lili loves the handsome young robber without regard to his North African ancestry (though he, of course, never forgets it for a minute). You can even enjoy it a little, provided you understand from the outset that very little will happen—and certainly nothing, nudity included, that you don't expect. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
This Divided State
Runs Fri., Aug. 19–Thurs., Aug. 25, at Grand Illusion
Any documentary that has as its climax an appearance by Michael Moore—in this case, at Utah Valley State College in October of 2004—would seem to be riding the coattails of Fahrenheit 9/11. Yet for 25-year-old director Steven Greenstreet, Moore is simply a means of exploring town-gown relations in conservative Orem, Utah, whose official nickname is "Family City, U.S.A." When student leaders Jim Bassi and Joe Vogel invite Moore to speak on campus two weeks before the presidential election, they're faced with a backlash even they, as devout Mormons and longtime Orem residents, couldn't have anticipated.
Leading the charge to prevent Moore from speaking at UVSC is archconservative Kay Anderson, a man with an unusual understanding of the First Amendment: "Free speech works because most of us have the good sense to know when to keep our mouths shut." He's as oblivious to irony as the townspeople who compare Moore to Hitler. Vogel's sensible response: "He's certainly not a torturous dictator."
Neither is Sean Hannity, the smarmy Fox News host who visits UVSC shortly before Moore. He comes off as a textbook demagogue, playing the locals like a fiddle and promising to "Hannitize" any liberals in the crowd. Moore, when he finally arrives, isn't much better: He rallies campus Democrats while wearing a Utah Valley ball cap, then hits a few hot buttons—gay marriage, universal health care, environmental protection, and "ABB" (Anybody but Bush). He sounds like he's running for office, and the sum total of his message to UVSC is this: Vote for Kerry. It's an audacious thing to say in Utah County, where Republicans outnumber Dems 12 to one, yet State's most eye-opening messages are quieter ones: You can be pious, and even traditional, without turning into an anti-intellectual bigot; and liberals are just as capable of demonizing their enemies as conservatives are.
I'm not sure Moore and Hannity are two sides of the same coin, but neither of them proves nearly as enlightened as Vogel, who defends free speech to the end, wisely noting that Utah itself was founded by people "chased out of town" for their dissenting beliefs. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Opens Fri., Aug. 19, at Metro and others
The besetting sins of most crude youth comedies (Deuce Bigalow, you know who you are) are brainlessness, heartlessness, and contempt for character. The smart, kindly debut comedy of co-writer/director Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks) and co-writer/star Steve Carell (The Office) towers above most contenders because the hero is what E.M. Forster calls a round character, not a flat cardboard cutout. Carell researched real superannuated virgins and found that they're "just normal people who kind of slipped through the cracks"—or rather, didn't, and gave up on getting lucky. Poor 40ish Andy Stitzer (Carell) lives alone in an apartment festooned with his enormous collection of action figures, getting no action. In fact, symbolically, neither do they; if he takes them out of their plastic cases, they lose their value.
Andy's normal horndog co-workers at the electronics store (Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, and Romany Malco) find his unsheathed schwing intolerable. Not that they're doing so well themselves. Rudd's character is a mooning two-year virgin after his girlfriend dumped him—he gets drunk and harangues her on the store's videocam hooked up to the wall of wide screens, his pals tackling him before he can get the camera down his pants. Rogen's character advises garbage-dick behavior; Malco's advises garbage- dick behavior, gangsta-style. Be like David Caruso in Jade, they urge Andy, and set him up with a drunk (Leslie Mann), a nympho (Elizabeth Banks), and a transvestite ho.
When they set him up with a customer in the store (Catherine Keener), an eBay entrepreneur, her action-figure-intensive profession telegraphs the climactic deflowering to come (or rather, the anticlimactically quick climax followed by a lengthier session thereafter).
The guys' razzing routines feel real (including, alas, their recurrent "Know how I know you're gay?" riffs). Andy's erotic misadventures are funnier than, say, a guy getting caught shtupping a pie because they don't make him a figure of fun. Instead, they draw us into his plight. What male has never been mocked the day after a thwarted evening out by a morning erection that only wants to direct your pee where it should not be? Carell's hyped cinema verité chest-waxing scene didn't seem as uproarious to me as others seem to find it, but almost every painful-hilarious verbal exchange is first-rate. Even Keener transcends her famous ball-busting screen persona and registers real warmth.
The overall plot is a foregone conclusion, few scenes contain surprises, and Apatow does not have Spielberg's seductive moves when it comes to setting up scenes. It's a flaw that the hero's protracted virginity is a shtick with no plausible explanation or motivation. But what makes everybody here score, repeatedly, is sharp writing, hearty acting, superb comedy instincts, and seamless ensemble consciousness. (R) TIM APPELO
My Date With Drew
Opens Fri., Aug. 19, at Varsity
Roger & Me not only opened doors for a new, more raffish school of populist muckrakers but also suggested a novel approach for young directors seeking distribution. Stalk a celebrity—in Michael Moore's case, GM exec Roger Smith—and presto: You're a celebrity yourself. Here, aspiring filmmaker Brian Herzlinger assigns himself one month to snag a date with lifelong crush Drew Barrymore. (Circuit City's return policy expires after 30 days, and he plans to give the camera back.) Never mind that telling people you want a date with Drew for your movie is not the same as asking Drew for a date; Herzlinger's mugging is intermittently charming anyway, in part because his shit-eating grin and blind optimism would complement Barrymore's endearing naïveté. "I'm scared to death that I'm gonna look like an idiot," he tells his friends. (Too late.) Herzlinger visits Charlie's Angels scribe John August, an L.A. facialist to the stars, and Barrymore's clueless first cousin. He has difficulty booking Andy Dick but, oddly, no trouble securing an evening with Drew's ex-flame Corey Feldman. When our hero finally does get his moment in the sun—c'mon, would someone have bought the movie if he didn't?—My Date offers the surreal spectacle of pursuer and pursued pleasantly gabbing, obliviously immersed in a mutual PR stunt. It's only a matter of time before we see My Skirmish With Scarlett, My Cuddle With Keira, and My Lap Dance With Lindsay. (NR) BEN KENIGSBERG
Runs Fri., Aug. 19–Thurs., Aug. 25, at Varsity
Contrary to what everybody tells you, Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs is not a boring film. It's two boring films. The first is a series of pop-music concerts at London's Brixton Academy. The performers—Super Furry Animals, Primal Scream, the Dandy Warhols, Elbow, Von Bondies, Michael Nyman, and Franz Ferdinand—appear as themselves. Some of their tunes are catchy, but the shows are shot from way back, and the dull cinematography conveys a snoozy vibe.
But if you think the rock movie's bad, wait until you see the one that appears interspersed between the nine songs. It's the saggy saga of a tepid romance between Brixton concertgoers. Kieran O'Brien, an actor seen in Winterbottom's infinitely livelier 24 Hour Party People, plays a Brit named Matt. Model Margo Stilley, in the stillborn debut of her acting career, plays his poopsie Lisa, an American. Matt is a glaciologist whose job involves flying over Antarctica muttering to himself in voice-over about how love is like ice. His love sure is. Lisa has some sort of job, but her true calling is sitting around the flat between concerts, exchanging bottomlessly awful Winterbottom dialogue with Matt and languidly milking his dick. The romance half of 9 Songs could've been called 9 Shtups.
Winterbottom thinks we should revere him for the sheer audacity and philosophical profundity of their explicit shtuppings. I don't see why. Lots of French movies lately have incorporated unusually frank sex, but it's in the context of actual characters and stories. Matt and Lisa have nothing to say to each other, only they keep talking anyway. Never mind our indifference; not even they seem interested in their relationship, nor anything else. Lisa is dim, vain, and empty. "You are so boring today!" she tells Matt. She's right, and she's more boring than he. These two are passive as paramecia.
Though it might induce viewer suicide, 9 Songs would make a good future DVD combo with Last Days, because the worthlessness of its aimless anomie illustrates what's worthy in the anomie of Van Sant's latest films. Both feature aggressively motiveless rock kids wandering plotlessly, but Last Days is beautifully visually alert and there's philosophical method in its seemingly aleatory madness. That film exists to cast a consistent spell, evoke a dreamy netherworld, and implicitly reveal a character—not the Cobain-like hero, but the shadowy, Warhol-ish auteur behind him.
I don't know why 9 Songs exists. I wish it didn't. (NR) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., Aug. 19, at Metro and others
Paging Owen Wilson—Rachel McAdams is in danger! Throughout Red Eye, which will probably disappear from theaters even before Wedding Crashers marches victoriously to Labor Day, I kept hoping for Wilson to come to her rescue, blue Tiffany box in his tuxedo pocket. A genre twist into comedy could only improve this nitwit thriller, which can't even sustain its premise— McAdams held hostage on a passenger jet by 28 Days Later's Cillian Murphy—for half its very short length (80 minutes by my watch). Murphy is some sort of international assassination facilitator; she's a Miami hotel manager who can move his target to a more convenient death suite. One in-flight phone call, he tells her, and she can trade the life of her father (Brian Cox) for a U.S. official targeted by Slavic goons—not Arab, noooo, we wouldn't want to go there!—for reasons never explained.
In any normal suspense movie today, this trivial plot point would be solved by hacking: a few key strokes, hit enter, problem solved. Here, we must laboriously first establish that McAdams is a cute and capable customer-service pro (check); that Murphy is blue-eyed and ruthless on behalf of his patrons (check); and that "[air] travel is combat these days," as she's told (check). Oh, and she's got some kind of Secret in Her Past that will give her Hidden Reserves of Strength.
Somewhere in Red Eye, there's the germ of a good joke in pitting two service-industry types against each other ("We're both professionals"), especially when both seem to resent their employers. But I suppose Mr. & Mrs. Smith has already done that joke this summer—to death. The feeble script gives director Wes Craven nothing to work with on the plane, where passing notes (notes!) passes for excitement. Soon he lands the thing so that Murphy can chase McAdams around her dad's house while she locks door after door behind her. This wasn't even fresh 100 years ago in silent movies.
This movie deserves to be pirated by a cell phone camera so that someone can do a digital mash-up on the Internet. They can call the result Wedding Crashers 2: The Mile-High Club. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER
Runs Fri., Aug. 19–Thurs., Aug. 25, at Northwest Film Forum
World cinema's premier maker of mysterious objects, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Mysterious Object at Noon), is on a one-man mission to change the way we watch movies. Instructively titled, Malady is split down the middle between lovesick daydream and malarial delirium. An idyllic first half, which recounts in fleeting fragments the intensifying attraction between handsome soldier Keng and bashful farm boy Tong, gives way to a nocturnal folk tale that likewise traces an anatomy of desire, but this time with the soldier amid an unearthly menagerie of tiger spirits, phantom cattle, and an aphorism-dispensing baboon.
How do the two halves connect? Still, lulling, and pleasurably levitated as it may be, the first section is hardly straightforward or even explicable—right from the uneasy opening scene, in which an army troop cheerfully poses for photos with a dead body. Incidental mysteries pile up. Some are casually explained (why Tong, the civilian, sometimes dresses in military uniform), but most linger as gentle bafflements. Malady promotes new ways of seeing; what's more, it's a film that looks back at you. The characters have a habit of staring into the camera—a gesture that usually signifies complicity, though the effect is vaguely discomfiting here, since we're not sure what we're complicit in.
Keng and Tong's romance may be coy and tentative, but I can't think of another movie that depicts a same-sex relationship with such lovely matter-of-factness. They share an easy intimacy that grows increasingly erotic—entwining limbs in a movie theater and, in a startling scene that prefigures the imminent reversion to the animal state, submitting a possibly urine-stained hand to a taste test.
If Malady's first half is a sunny utopia clouded by intimations of disquiet (like the detour to an underground temple), the second, jungle half is about getting used to—or giving in to—the unbearable night. Like fearful, trembling Keng, the viewer is often stranded in blackness (and when your eyes adjust, what you see can be a shock). The rupture transmigrates the narrative into a mystical realm, but it's unclear if Keng and Tong have been banished or elevated to this plane of existence. Was their love too intense for the material world? Does the fulfillment of animal hungers require the cover of darkness? The film's mysteries are so cosmic that any attempt to ascribe allegory can seem puny. (NR) DENNIS LIM