El Crimen Perfecto
Opens Fri., Sept. 23, at Harvard Exit
Following last year's paella Western 800 Bullets, Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia continues his streak of caustic social satires framed as send-ups of Hollywood genre clichés. In the pitch-dark comedy, a smug ladies' man (Guillermo Toledo) accidentally kills his slimy boss and is blackmailed into an affair with the homely colleague who helps dispose of the corpse. The plot's surreal contrivances and flashy movie references render it at once hermetic (most of the action takes place inside an enormous department store) and allusive (Hitchcock and Buñuel quotes abound). And having a butt-ugly female lead (Mónica Cervera) might count as daring, if only de la Iglesia hadn't gone on to self-consciously mock the rule that movie stars must always look unnaturally perfect. At its most ludicrously self-referential, the film achieves the perfect meta-moment when Toledo, seeking pointers on how to get away with murder, buys a copy of Dial M for Murder (released in Spain as Perfect Crime) and notices the title scans incorrectly as Ferpect Crime. (NR) JORGE MORALES
Everything Is Illuminated
Opens Fri., Sept. 23, at Uptown
Elijah Wood looks worried, but not in the usual "Will Gollum kill me in my sleep to steal the One Ring?" kind of way. The expression is meant to convey the concerns of his American tourist character, Jonathan Safran Foer, traveling among the anti-Semites of rural Ukraine in search of his grandfather's shtetl, destroyed in the Holocaust, and the woman who saved Grandpa Safran from the Nazis. In Liev Schreiber's adaptation of Foer's novel, however, Wood's endearingly quiet, fretful quality comes across as, "Will this crazy Russian actor/musician with bad teeth steal the movie from me?"
The answer is yes, and that's not a bad thing, since Illuminated works best as a comic buddy picture: the meek, bespectacled New York writer, who dresses like a mortician and obsessively Ziplocs various tokens and clues into plastic baggies, forced to befriend a loud-mouthed Slavic hip-hop clown, Alex (Eugene Hutz), his translator and tour guide. There's a certain Jim Jarmusch road-movie vibe as Alex and Jonathan pile into an ancient Trabant with Alex's taciturn grandfather and "officious seeing-eye bitch" of a dog (required because the grandfather insists he's blind, even though he's also driving). Schreiber finds low-key humor in Jonathan's vegetarianism and fear of dogs (though he employs too many cute cutaways to Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., a well-trained border collie), plus Alex's highly irregular and highly entertaining English.
Not that Foer's 2002 debut novel is mere picaresque. Very ambitious, largely successful, and somewhat cloying, it's a serious, fragmented meditation on memory and identity, divided between his family history—reaching back to the 18th century—and Alex's very up-to-date, malapropism-filled commentary. In the book, Jonathan and Alex have equal narrative weight. Here, Jonathan is relegated to mostly watchful silence, leaving Wood (see interview, p. 76) mainly with the job of reacting, and Hutz the task of becoming a star. (The Ukrainian gypsy-punk leader of the band Gogol Bordello has got some of the same swagger and soulfulness of a young Travolta, and Schreiber even tosses in a nod to Saturday Night Fever.)
Directing his first feature, Schreiber presumably wanted to avoid getting bogged down in a Semitic Roots that would be further complicated by Foer's Borges-like prism. So he keeps most of the movie in the present, concentrating on Jonathan's search, with just a few childhood flashbacks and recollections of World War II. All roads lead to the two grandfathers (Alex's and Jonathan's) in a reductive yet satisfying way. For Schreiber, it's a sensible, abridged approach to Foer's expansiveness: Everything Is Illuminated, yes, but not everything can be included. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER
A History of Violence
Opens Fri., Sept. 23, at Meridian
David Cronenberg wants to have his critique and eat it, too. His ideas are pretty simple in History (which is based on a comic book, in fact), and he goes about filming them in a simple yet sneaky manner. Viggo Mortensen plays a nice guy named Tom, who lives in a nice Indiana town with his nice wife (Maria Bello) and two nice kids. Can you see where this is headed? Cronenberg has made a career (Crash, Spider, Naked Lunch) out of exploring the flip side of normalcy, and History is no exception. A Canadian, he has some things to tell us about those white picket fences and polite Midwestern smiles below the border. It turns out that the expanse south of the 49th Parallel is a teeming cauldron of lies, crime, and, yes, violence.
Well, call me naive, call me American, but how exactly is this news? History begins with so cheerful and idyllic a setup—Tom runs a diner full of friendly customers, lovely wife Edie is a lawyer, the kids are doing just great!—that I expected Mortensen to bend down and find a severed human ear in the grass. David Lynch has been to this small town before and with a lot more art. Cronenberg acts with all the portentousness due an artist, but History is merely a thriller—and a good one—wearing shoulder pads and heel lifts.
So, when a pair of killers attempt to rob Tom's diner, he shows some surprising abilities not connected with flipping eggs. He's soon all over the evening news, "an American hero," when a new and different kind of thug sits down at the counter. The menacing Carl (Ed Harris) had his face messed up, we later learn, by someone sticking barbed wire where a contact lens properly belongs. He calls Tom "Joey" and insists they know each other from Philadelphia. Tom says no. So who's telling the truth? Edie wants to believe her husband, but Carl persists, threatening their family.
Meanwhile, their teenage "wimp son" Jack (Ashton Holmes) is being bullied at school. These locker-room taunting and beating scenes are done so ineptly that you can be sure Cronenberg spent his high-school afternoons with the drama club, not on the playing field. (See! See the pathology and violence of the baseball diamond!) Jack tries to talk his way out of confrontations, but sometimes talk isn't enough. He's his father's son, but which father—Tom or Joey? (At the same time, Edie finds herself a little turned on by this Joey idea—has she been committing adultery with her own husband?)
More than that, I won't say. While History doesn't have many surprises, there are some crude pleasures to its path (including a funny William Hurt with a mook Philly accent). But here's my bias: I like my comic-book movies flat, not philosophical: Sin City over Batman Begins. Cronenberg tries to have it both ways in this parable, and he ends up creating something comparable to Road to Perdition, another pulp adaptation overinked with profundity. (R) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., Sept. 23, at Metro and others
Like the 2001 Pulitzer-and Tony-winning play it came from, the movie of David Auburn's drama (adapted by him and Arthur Miller's daughter Rebecca) opens with a killer scene I can't describe too much or I'll spoil it. So I'll just give the story's bare bones. Gwyneth Paltrow (reprising her triumphant stage turn in the London production) plays Catherine, a troubled 25-year-old Chicagoan who dropped out of college to nurse her dad (Anthony Hopkins), a math genius who "revolutionized the field twice before he was 22" and promptly went bonkers. Under her care, he passionately scribbled insights into a zillion notebooks.
Is his third revolutionary mathematical proof somewhere in those notebooks? After he dies, his most devoted grad student (Jake Gyllenhaal) plows through them all to winnow the gold from the ravings, and he thinks he may have found the proof of a lifetime. But after Catherine's sister Claire (Hope Davis), a New York success machine who supported her dad and kid sis for years, comes home for his funeral, it emerges that Catherine may actually be the true author of the proof in question. Even though she barely attended a few months of college. Who wrote it? Will Catherine knuckle under to expensive- sensible-shoes tyrant Claire? Will Catherine and the grad student shtup?
Auburn has considerable skill in crafting rat-a-tat natural dialogue, winning characters, and intriguingly tense confrontations. Paltrow, Davis, and Gyllenhaal show enormous skill in fleshing out his characters; Hopkins is just OK, mostly coasting. Paltrow is kind of like her Sylvia Plath part, only with more gumption. But all the talent fizzles, because the play is intellectually bankrupt. Catherine is like an infinitely less convincing version of the girl genius in Arcadia, the proof is just a MacGuffin, and the tale runs out of plot within 45 minutes and ends unsatisfyingly. It has not one idea in its head. However artful, Proof is just a goof. (PG-13) TIM APPELO
A State of Mind
Runs Fri., Sept. 23–Thurs., Sept. 29, at Grand Illusion
Daniel Gordon's documentary study of North Korea's 2003 Mass Games, a stadium-sized gymnastics extravaganza touted as "the largest choreographed spectacle in the world," could never have been made by a U.S. filmmaker. As the British director quickly discovers, hatred for all things American is state policy in North Korea, which helps keeps the citizenry tethered to its rigid Communist regime.
Though he claims North Korean authorities did not interfere with the making of State, Gordon is careful to keep politics out of the film. His insistence on neutrality is unnerving, since by most accounts— including journalist Jasper Becker's recent Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea—the totalitarian government is among the most brutal and corrupt on Earth. It's the director's prerogative not to dwell on this point, but covering the Mass Games without political comment seems a little like reporting on the 1936 Berlin Olympics as though they were happening in Lake Placid.
Gordon focuses on two young gymnasts, ages 13 and 11, who are training for the games. Both girls practice twirls, leaps, and somersaults for at least two hours a day—even when it's 20 degrees below zero (Celsius), and even when they're hurt. Explaining her excitement about performing for Kim Jong Il, one of the girls refers to him as "our general, to whom the whole world looks up."
There's little to do but gape when Gordon finally shows us the games. Mass is right—80,000 gymnasts literalize the Communist principle of group mentality, becoming an ocean of color and movement. As the athletes leap and tumble, 12,000 schoolchildren operate a giant mobile mosaic that depicts the rise of North Korean Communism. Bizarrely, the director accompanies the entire sequence with "Silence," a radio hit by the Vancouver goth-pop group Delerium. Perhaps Gordon means to make the spectacle more appealing to Westerners, but it's a strange time for him to put his stamp on things, and the song brings incongruously to mind North Korea's history of permanently "silencing" antigovernment protesters. Though one of Gordon's interviewees acknowledges that life in North Korea can be difficult, the director appears detached from the country's problems. In the end, he lets us escape into the games' epic pageantry, but it's an empty, almost sinister kind of escape. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER
Opens Fri., Sept. 23, at Metro and Uptown
Mike Mills' adaptation of Walter Kirn's autobiographical 1999 novel has the gentle off-kilter charm of early Cameron Crowe, or of the late indie rocker Elliott Smith, who contributed to the soundtrack. Newcomer and Sundance prizewinner Lou Pucci plays Justin, the 17-year-old hero whose shaky sense of self keeps him from renouncing the childish comfort of thumb sucking. (Kirn was also a thumbsucker into his teens, but now he's a big-gun critic whose thumb can crush reputations in Time and The New York Times.) Justin's rivalrous, self-doubting ex-jock dad (Vincent D'Onofrio) is peeved about his son's thumb habit, but once the kid starts outtalking all contenders on teacher Vince Vaughn's debate team, he's a changed man. Keanu Reeves redefines himself as the thumbsucker's hugely amusing New Age dentist, and Tilda Swinton is luminous as Justin's mom, a rehab nurse who treats a TV star (the marvelous Benjamin Bratt) who's more arrested and obsessive-compulsive than her son. Chase Offerle is a small wonder as Justin's more normal and therefore overlooked kid brother, and Kelli Garner is elusively alluring as Rebecca, Justin's not-quite-a-girlfriend.
Thumbsucker is fumbling and tentative, but this is its glory. Its events seem improbable (despite being autobiographically based), yet their dreamy drift carries us along soothingly, effortlessly propelled by Smith's vulnerable warble and Polyphonic Spree's mildly narcotizing harmonies—call it choral hydrate. (Before this first feature, designer/director Mills made commercials and music videos for Air and other bands, plus acclaimed shorts like Architecture of Reassurance.) Beaverton, Ore., provides a misty suburban sense of place, and intensive rehearsals got the actors deep into a naturalistic groove. Pucci rises out of his pallid passivity just enough to assert a vivid identity through his many changes: from thumb addict to born-again Ritalin achiever to dazed and confused stoner to—well, we'll keep his finale a secret. It's a star-quality performance, with hints of early River Phoenix and Leo DiCaprio. When he discovers why Rebecca makes him wear a blindfold during sex, his reaction is perfect.
Some critics have pegged Thumbsucker as a kind of Donnie Darko lite, but that's misleading. Justin's alienation is only almost eerie, redeemed by sweetness and a style of dramatic understatement that catches you off guard. Justin is sui generis, and funny in a smarter way than most teen comedies could imagine, because they don't respect the teenage soul. (R) TIM APPELO
Runs Fri., Sept. 23–Thurs., Sept. 29, at Varsity
I don't know why, but something about this tedious German movie made me want to go out and buy a shovel, then dig a shaft exactly 7 meters deep and 145 meters long to secretly access my favorite local coffee shop. The Tunnel begins in late 1961 as the Berlin Wall goes up. East German dissident and champion swimmer Harry (Heino Ferch) escapes with a false passport, but swears to go back to rescue his sister. Much digging ensues. Now I love a movie about digging as much as the next spelunker, and I suppose The Tunnel belongs in the same subterranean canon as Holes, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Blind Shaft, The Core, The Cave, The Great Escape, and Ace in the Hole. We're not talking about depth in the qualitative sense but, well, depth. And The Tunnel has depth—forgive me—in spades.
The Tunnel is based on a true story that was documented by NBC at the time. I'd love to see that original black-and-white footage, which this movie sometimes mimics with its actors, and I'll bet the original story and its participants were more interesting than this lot. Since the Berlin Wall toppled 16 years ago, The Tunnel feels like a plodding You Are There–style docudrama created to teach schoolkids about ancient, pre-MTV history. It was, in fact, made for German television in 2001 as a two-night presentation. This version still runs two hours and 40 minutes, which is a long time to spend underground.
For this reason, The Tunnel's best scenes take place in equally oppressive daylight—the paranoid sense of friends spying on friends, and neighbors on neighbors, in the GDR; and one wrenching scene where an East German dashes to be with his West German girlfriend and is shot and dies within her hearing, but not her sight, on the other side of the concrete barrier. If nothing else, considered as a feel-good history lesson, The Tunnel certainly makes you glad the wall is gone. (NR) BRIAN MILLER