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Blonde on blonde: Zellweger and Pfeiffer in White Oleander.

All About My Mothers
By Laura Leon

White Oleander
Directed by Peter Kosminsky

For decades now, there’s been a dearth of women’s pictures—you know, stories rooted in the concerns and problems of women. Let’s face it, Working Girl was really a guy’s wet dream about the girl next door. Women’s pictures were big in the ’30s and to a much lesser extent until the end of the studio era. Nowadays, film critics like Leonard Maltin refer to titles like Baby Face and Paid In Full as “B” or “three-hanky” movies. Indeed, it’s the rare writer who does not feel the need to excuse his admiration for the genre, or define it as some sort of guilty pleasure, like watching soaps or going to McDonalds.

White Oleander wants really hard to be a women’ picture—and the fact that the book on which it is based was an Oprah selection nearly guarantees that it can be. But director Peter Kosminsky also wants his movie to be respected as art, and the resulting tension screws up whatever chances this already-pretentious flick has. Ingrid Magnusson (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a beautiful egotist who believes that the mere fact of her being an artist should buy her a get-out-of-jail-free card when she offs her errant lover. Ensconced in a maximum security prison, she attempts to control all aspects of her daughter Astrid’s (Alison Lohman) life, thus ensuring that her sensitive teen is screwed from the git-go. In all seriousness, she intones (here Pfeiffer affects a basso voice) things like “Our beauty is our strength,” which I think might be the slogan for some kind of feminine hygiene product, and “We are Vikings,” albeit Vikings without the freedom to rape and pillage. Poor Astrid goes from foster home to foster home, meeting a casebook litany of women who no doubt will be appearing in the next Oprah book selection, Reasons Not to Adopt.

Glibness aside, the movie resonates only through the virtuoso performance of Lohman. Watching her sensitivity slide into a hardened shell is breathtaking without evoking that arty feeling of watching great acting. Lohman is particularly moving in a scene in which Ingrid, like a cat with a mouse, devastates the unwitting Claire (Rene Zellweger), an actress-foster mom who “practices feng shui.” Astrid tries with her eyes to warn Claire, and to beg a reprieve from Ingrid, all to no avail. We see her desperate hope for some sort of normalcy, which she has with Claire, being torn from her by a mother who refuses to admit that Astrid might be any different than herself.

Pfeiffer is very good in an atypical role, and the fact that her prison clothes look impossibly white doesn’t detract much from her performance. Throughout White Oleander, brilliantly colored shots, imbued in soft whites and vivid blues, intersperse the action, so much so that the movie usually looks more like a laundry commercial or outtakes from Blue Crush. Still, it gives Pfeiffer, Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn, as a stripper-turned-Bible-thumper, a chance to method act, and it gives audiences a tremendous opportunity to eyeball Lohman, truly a star in the making.

Love Hurts

Secretary
Directed by Steven Shainberg

A young woman walks into frame wearing a professional business suit and a bondage harness. With what seems like practiced efficiency, she pulls a letter out of a typewriter (with her teeth), pulls a file out of a drawer, prepares a cup of coffee, and disappears down a dimly lit, lushly carpeted hallway with a sexy smirk.

Flashback to six months earlier: The same woman, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), has just returned home from a stint in a mental institution. She runs up to her room and breathlessly digs her hands under the mattress, looking for something. She pulls out a sewing box decorated with butterflies and other cute girly-girl-style decorative stickers, and sighs with a palpable sense of relief. One might think it contains her Hello Kitty jewelry collection. Instead, the box proves to be full of razors, artists’ knives, and other surgical-sharp implements; her joy at the sight of these objects is chilling.

You might not think this strange series of events would be the beginning of a charming—if bent—romantic comedy, but it assuredly is. Lee is an emotional and psychological wreck who finds love and happiness through S & M.

Her journey to mental health begins when she answers a want ad for a secretarial position at a law firm. Lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader) is an eccentric. Aside from the fact that his office looks like a movie set, with weirdly dramatic lighting and coolly outrageous décor, his prescribed office policies are anachronistic to the point of lunacy: typed documents and paper files only, with no computers and no fax machines. As Lee is a superb typist, she raises his interest. When, after asking a series of very inappropriate personal questions—which Lee answers without visible emotion—the obviously beguiled lawyer hires her.

What ensues is a very peculiar courtship. He notices her wounds— physical and emotional—and she conforms to his strict, seemingly nonsensical requests. Every action, from typing to filing, becomes sexually charged. Gyllenhaal’s Lee is like a lovesick teenager learning to flirt, with her emotions always on edge. It’s an emotionally engaged performance. Spader’s lawyer is the exact opposite: closed-up and mysterious. He builds the character from the outside; his Mr. Grey is a series of perfectly orchestrated comic expressions and movements. The tension between the two approaches plays out beautifully on screen.

Mr. Grey is not the only man with romantic intentions toward Lee. Peter (Jeremy Davies, showing heretofore unexploited comedic flair), an old high school classmate, immediately begins wooing Lee: They “meet cute” at Lee’s sister’s wedding, and bond when comparing notes on their respective mental health issues. Whenever there is a glitch in her cryptic romance with the lawyer, Peter is around, like a stray dog.

Will the lawyer open up to his secretary? Will the secretary find ultimate satisfaction through spanking? Secretary cleverly twists the standard plot reversals and complications of conventional romantic comedy to its own uses. If the ending is testament to the redemptive power of love, it’s a cinematic redemption like no other before.

—Shawn Stone

Eternal Appeal

Tuck Everlasting
Directed by Jay Russell

Disney Studios are a lot of things—crass perhaps, in the way they often value marketing opportunities over cinematic excellence, and then again, cutting edge in their continued exploration of animation as a method of telling stories. The potential list of pros and cons could go on and on, and would largely depend on how enamored you may be of the Mouse House. But watching Tuck Everlasting, I found a new appreciation for Disney, because only this studio would have the nerve to heavily promote this gentle, family tale that raises intriguing questions about youth and the possibility of eternal life. Granted, Disney’s got in its corner two terribly appealing stars, Alex Bledel and Jonathan Jackson, both transplants from popular TV soaps, both guaranteed to resonate with young girls. But think about other first-rate family films—say, A Little Princess and The Iron Giant—whose producers didn’t have the guts to give them their just promotion, and you’ll see what I mean about Disney’s take with Tuck.

Based on the 1975 book by Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting centers around the coming of age of Winnie Foster (Bledel), whose age has moved from the literary 10 to a cinematic, and more appropriate for romance, 17. Stifled by her Edwardian parents’ view of what’s appropriate for young women, she runs off into the woods adjoining her house, where, lost, she comes upon Jesse (Jackson), his parents Angus (William Hurt) and Mae (Sissy Spacek) and melancholy brother Miles (Scott Bairstow). The Tucks, it seems, accidentally stumbled upon the fountain of youth—more like a spring at the base of an oak tree—and since drinking from it nearly 100 years ago, they (and their horse) have not aged, nor have they been rendered injured or dead from any variety of accident or war. With Winnie’s parents and a large search party combing the woods for her, the Tucks’ idyllic life is in danger of being destroyed. Even more menacing is the presence of The Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley), whose dogged tracking of Miles and Jesse spells a far more ominous danger.

Screenwriters Jeffrey Leister and James V. Hart combine elements of fairy-tale wonder with timeless themes of childhood’s end and nascent maturity, of life and death. There’s a bit of Hawthorne here, especially the multifaceted representation of nature and the idea of perfection. Angus’ discussions with Winnie about the downside of eternal life could have veered into new-age blather, but thanks largely to Hurt’s humble reading, is instead honest and heartbreaking. Clearly, Tuck Everlasting is more suited to a thinking child rather than one whose biggest middle-of-the-night mental knot to untie is whether, if given the choice, to watch Hey Arnold! or Rocket Power. Littler ones may find the sweet romance between Winnie and Jesse icky. But the ideas of life’s value, and of the dangers of a life not lived, will no doubt stick in the minds of anybody watching Tuck Everlasting. Like My Dog Skip (also directed by Jay Russell), the movie occupies that special niche—one with too few quality entries—of coming-of-age flicks that aren’t afraid to make the audience think and feel.

—L.L.

The Way You Move

The Transporter
Directed by Corey Yuen

Vin Diesel may be this year’s model of action hero, but snub-nosed Jason Statham is so technically advanced in ass-kicking modes that it’s like comparing the first Terminator to the third: He makes all previous versions obsolete. The astoundingly sinewy former Olympic diver transports The Transporter to a higher plane of Hong Kong-style actionfest. Statham plays Frank Martin, a retired Special Forces operative living quietly on the Cote d’Azur. Quiet like a coiled cobra, that is. He’s got a tidy little sideline going as a transporter of contraband: drugs, stolen goods, kidnapping victims, what have you. Meticulous and disciplined, Frank has three cardinal rules of the trade, and rule No. 3 is you don’t look in the package. When he breaks that rule, unzipping a duffel bag containing a beautiful young Chinese girl (spunky Qi Shu), guess what happens? All hell breaks loose, and the bad guys—all of them seemingly trained at the Crouching Tiger martial-arts academy—keep on coming.

Until the ending, which deflates like a puff adder, the plot is less predictable than you might think, even though the script is by Luc Besson and bears all of his hallmarks, including a lasciviously paternalistic attitude toward the lone female character. Frank’s granite sea-cliff abode is so chic, you just know it’s going to end up a pile of rubble. Even so, Frank’s unwilling involvement in a messy smuggling ring is tweaked with unexpected flourishes, like his relationship with the local police lieutenant (Francois Berleand). Although the lieutenant is quite sure Frank isn’t quite retired, there isn’t any animosity between them, just a wary mutual respect. The script is minimal in the chop-socky tradition, but would’ve been more effective if there had been more to go on both Frank and the lieutenant.

Not that many viewers are going to notice the plot: Directed by Hong Kong veteran Corey Yuen, the fight sequences and car-chase sequences and blowing-shit-up sequences unfold like high-speed performance art, given an edge of reality by Statham’s precision motion. The spectacular set pieces—one is set in a chateau stocked with axes—go so far over the top that they’re jokey, but Yuen gets the joke, underscoring the physical implausibility of his choreography with amelodic techno and rap. If John Woo is the ballet master of mayhem, than Yuen is the Twyla Tharp.

—Ann Morrow

Light and Sweet

Brown Sugar
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa

This self-described “hiphop rom-ance” is in fact an old-style movie love story dressed up in Armani and Phat Farm. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) and Dre (Taye Diggs) have been in love with hiphop as long as they’ve been in love with each other. The difference is that they celebrate the former, and sublimate the latter. So, instead of getting together, Dre, the sharp-dressed music executive, becomes engaged to the brainy-but-shallow lawyer Reese (Nicole Ari Parker), and Sidney, the writer, falls for the smooth moves of Kelby, a pro athlete (Boris Kodjoe). Naturally, both Sid and Dre have sidekicks—Queen Latifah and Mos Def, respectively—who hang around ridiculing their mutual romantic stupidity.

Lathan is rapidly establishing herself as a good-girl, sweetheart type; she wins the audience over long before she gets the leading man. As in Love and Basketball, Lathan plays a woman who is tough but vulnerable: Her ripped physique is in direct contrast to her repressed feelings. As Sidney, Lathan never cries, but she can radiate deep emotional hurt and confusion. As Dre, Diggs again proves himself a suave leading man with a gift for comedy. As a couple, they are convincing and appealing: He’s got just enough sensitivity to break through her wariness, and she’s sufficiently self-assured to meet his easy charm.

Unfortunately, too much of the hiphop subplot underwhelms. Like Almost Famous, this film looks at the music biz through rose-colored glasses. (It also exaggerates the splendor in which a music journalist would live: Sidney’s apartment would be perfectly affordable for the entire cast of the old Fox sitcom Living Single.) When the filmmakers try to bring in the issue of “selling out,” it’s singularly unconvincing: The sleazy record label Dre works for is too cheesy. No one, however craven, would try to sell that label’s lame rappers to the public—not even to clueless white kids. (And, let’s face it, white kids aren’t that clueless anymore.) On the other hand, the love that Dre and Sidney share for the music is as real as their feelings for each other. When they quote lines and beats from the early “golden age”—Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Slick Rick—it rings true.

Which brings up an interesting point. Black middle-class romance has already staked its claim to a mass movie audience; Brown Sugar isn’t unusual in this respect. But a film in which hiphop is something to be loved, not treated as a social problem, or exploited as a vehicle for slick screen violence—now that is new.

—S.S.


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