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What People Need

By John Rodat


Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

There’s a good chance that if you’ve heard anything at all about Shortbus, what you’ve heard is misleading; because what you’ve likely heard is that it is a sexually explicit film depicting acts rarely, if ever, seen outside of the genre daintily referred to as “stroke films.”

What you have likely heard, I should point out, is absolutely true—just misleading.

For all the controversy it may stir up, Shortbus is neither an essentially pornographic nor a fundamentally shocking film. It’s the story of a group of mostly young, mostly pretty, New York City residents grappling with their neuroses, and the ways in which those issues play out in their respective relationships. Writer-director John Cameron Mitchell and the film’s actors are to be commended for their willingness to expand the cinematic scope through which we ordinarily view the repercussions of such common onscreen conflict. But once you get past the filmed penetration, the auto-fellatio, the three-way gay oral sex and the money shots, it’s a pretty conventional—though enjoyable, often quite funny and touching—film.

James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) are a young gay couple who, after several years of monogamy, have decided to open their relationship to include other sexual partners. Before taking such action, they discuss the plan with Sofia (Sook Yin-Lee), a couples’ counselor whose own relationship is troubled by her inability to experience orgasm. After confessing her dilemma to the couple, Sofia accepts their invitation to Shortbus, a performance space-cum-sexual salon in Brooklyn. (The name refers to the busses used by public schools to transport the comparatively smaller population of special-needs students.)

There, Sofia—and later her husband, Rob (Raphael Barker)—meet a motley collection of punk-rock libertines, side-show glamour queens, bois, grrrls, transgendered goths and the former mayor of New York. All of whom, it is made comically and poignantly clear, are searching for something that will help them to connect and to escape loneliness and the shame that can come with it.

Mitchell and cast used a workshopped-improv technique derived from the writings of directors Robert Altman and Mike Leigh to formulate the loose script, and the technique greatly benefits the feel of the flick. The dialogue and acting are believable and natural. The characters are full and nuanced; it’s their very sadness—and they are that, sad and messed-up—that gives the many comic moments their warmth and impact. In fact, the one completely failed comedic bit is an extended, slapstick-y bout of physical comedy, untied to either character or reality, that just made me cringe.

The conventional nature of the film is highlighted by its ending, an only faintly ambiguous happy ending. Up until the movie’s conclusion, it treats sex frankly as an integral and value-neutral aspect of the human experience—an aspect with equal capacity to harm or heal. Shortbus wraps up with an enjoyable musical celebration that implies a kind of positivity that, given the characters’ previous complexity and evident damage, seems overhopeful and naive. Just like movies with fewer blow jobs.

She Will Survive

The Queen

Directed by Stephen Frears

The tragic death of England’s Princess Diana was one of the weirder public spectacles of the 1990s. A crystallization of all the madness related to a tabloid-driven celebrity culture, her death by paparazzi and subsequent deification seemed to erupt from nowhere.

Of course, however, it came from somewhere. The frenzy should have been easy to predict, if one absorbed the relentless coverage of Diana by the press as something more than media wallpaper, and realized that millions of the public identified with her plight as an exiled, abused former royal. The fact that the masses idolized a much better bred, much less stupid, and considerably more compassionate version of Paris Hilton may be lamentable, but it is a fact—a fact that the rest of Britain’s royal establishment, from the sovereign herself on down to the lowest cook in the castle, was blithely ignorant of.

That’s the delicious comic insight of The Queen: At their moment of greatest political peril, the royals were the most clueless, tone-deaf, out-of-touch people in the world. While crowds left flowers in front of Buckingham Palace, the royals stayed out of sight at their remote Scottish castle. While England wept, they hunted stag.

At heart, The Queen is both a personal tragedy and a political comedy. Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) has given up her life to the crown. Certainly there are a lot of cushy perks with the job—millions in income, excellent housing, an army of servants, packs of pretty, inbred pets—but it does require the sublimation of most of her personal desires in favor of a regimented, and very public, way of life. Plus, she’s married to the comically unpleasant Prince Philip (a pitch-perfect James Cromwell) and mother to the comically spineless Prince Charles (Alex Jennings). The tragicomedy comes when Elizabeth realizes that her subjects are more attached to the memory of a dead, jet- setting celebrity princess than they are to her and her nearly 50 years of service.

Mirren uses all of her considerable talent to make this both poignant and funny. Elizabeth II is one of the most familiar and unknowable world figures, a frozen smile with big eyeglasses and an oversized handbag. Mirren does something that one would have thought impossible: She makes Elizabeth II fascinating and, well, sexy. Mirren makes the most of the role’s constraints, making each glance, each gesture significant. They might as well start polishing her Oscar.

The political comedy comes in the person of newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and his Karl Rove-like advisor Alistair Campbell (Mark Bazeley). Blair immediately senses that Diana’s death is an occasion of national importance, and Campbell comes up with the appropriate PR line: “the people’s princess.” (There’s a great moment, after Blair’s spin on Diana earns public acclaim, when Campbell smirks at Blair and says, “People’s princess—you owe me, mate!”) As the public anger grows, Blair’s increasingly impatient attempts to make the queen realize that she needs to make some kind of public statement are met with royal disdain and anger—Elizabeth swats him away as if he were an untrained pup.

Of course, the royals survived the Diana kafuffle, and it looks like Elizabeth will outlast yet another prime minister. A political irony, or the will of God? Elizabeth, as is pointed out in the film, was raised to believe that she is indeed queen by divine sanction; one doubts that her belief in this has been shaken.

—Shawn Stone

Am I hearing voices? Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction.

What Next?

Stranger Than Fiction

Directed by Marc Forster

You know that Stranger Than Fiction isn’t your run-of-the-mill, technology-laden movie when its main character, bland taxman Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), explains that the voice he hears narrating his life is speaking in the third-person omniscient. Or when Harold, with help from literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), disseminates clues to determine whether the story that the Voice—actually, author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson)—is dictating is a comedy, meaning it will likely end in marriage to pert baker Ana Pasquale (Maggie Gyllenhaal) or, unfortunately for Crick, a tragedy concluding with his demise.

Much like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Stranger Than Fiction traffics in the metaphysical. In this instance, two parallel plot lines threaten to verge and collide in a way which, depending on how you look at it, could be disastrous. However, that which is unhappy for one person (in this case Harold Crick) could be a great triumph for literature. Eiffel is an author suffering from a decade-long writer’s block, so her publishers hire an assistant (played by Queen Latifah) to finish the job of killing off her main character, Harold. Karen is the type of author who visualizes each aspect of her character’s actions, so she’ll stand on the edge of a table, for instance, imagining a suicidal plummet from a skyscraper. Once she finally meets up with the real-life Harold, she is traumatized by the realization that her pen is just as mighty as the sword, or a push off that skyscraper.

Meanwhile, Harold tries mightily to infuse meaning into his dreary existence—which up until the emergence of the Voice has been a series of numerical equations—in much the way somebody might deal with a fatal medical diagnosis. He takes up the guitar and woos Ms. Pasquale. The beauty of the Zach Helm’s script is that, in its originality, we are constantly unaware of what’s about to happen, even as we are completely immersed in questions and themes that are generally more literary than cinematic. Somehow, the result isn’t talky or bookish; rather, it has just the right touch of comic whimsy that ultimately makes Stranger Than Fiction very satisfying.

—Laura Leon



Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

In Morocco, two American tourists, Susan (Cate Blanchett) and her husband Richard (Brad Pitt), squabble despondently. In the desert, young goat herders with a rifle shoot at coyotes. In San Diego, a Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) with two young children in her care is told she cannot leave for the day to attend her son’s wedding. In Tokyo, a deaf schoolgirl, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), acts out against her distant father with anger. In Babel, time, location, and events are shuffled and rearranged to show the ripple effect of individual actions on a global scale. These events do not occur simultaneously, but they are causally interrelated, unbeknownst to the people who are being affected.

As a feat of filmmaking, Babel is remarkable—the plot eddies and flows without interruption, and the choreography is often astonishing. One wouldn’t expect less from director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, whose previous collaborations, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, were critical hits praised for the emotional power of their interlocking storylines. And yet their new film, more ambitious and larger in scale, is a depressing experience with little to recommend it other than its technical merits (notably the acting, editing and soundtracking).

The pivotal event is a careless rifle shot. It hits the window of the tour bus, wounding Susan in the neck. Richard carries her to an impoverished village, receiving help from the villagers while the American embassy sets off rumors of a terrorist strike that makes international news. After a visit from the police, Chieko acts out her unhappiness with dangerous sexual behavior; while driving back from Mexico, the nanny and her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) are treated with hostility by the border guards. The risk factor for all the characters escalates by the hour.

Many of the sequences in Babel are compelling enough to stand as short films. Chieko and her friends run into a clique of attractive boys and drink and take drugs with them. The subdued cinematography becomes dazzling as she enters a club packed with dancers moving to music that she can’t hear but can feel. In a different hemisphere, in more ways than one, Susan’s life drains away as an ambulance is delayed by the embassy, and she panics at the sight of the village doctor’s crude needle and thread. The film crackles with tension throughout—even the wedding causes apprehension as the guests get reckless and the children run loose.

The harmonic convergence of the different storylines is impressive but punishing. Iñárritu’s prolonged emphasis on tension and on the ugliness of some of the characters’ extremities is difficult to sit through, and relieved only by the stellar acting (especially Kikuchi’s). The film’s grimness is accentuated by contrivance: Susan’s life-threatening removal from the tour bus appears to be unnecessary and overly clumsy, and a police interrogation of a gentle old goat herder is inexplicably brutal. Despite its title, language (and cultural) barriers don’t seem to be the problem; when the nanny and her nephew are stopped at the border, it’s the lack of a single word that gets them into trouble, even though she speaks fluent English. The artificial inflation of small errors in judgment is the film’s fatal flaw, since it detracts from the narrative’s fateful pyramid of random occurrences. Even the relief of the film’s neatly synchronized ending is extended into an endurance test.

—Ann Morrow

Return of the Soldier

Harsh Times

Directed by David Ayer

Christian Bale likes to play on-the-edge antiheroes. He’s already created at least one iconic horror villain, in American Psycho, and convincingly portrayed the comic-book-clever duality of the dark knight in Batman Begins. That he would want to play Jim Davis, an ex-Army Ranger and Afghan war vet with a boatload of psychological problems and vicious habits, is a given. Harsh Times, the which chronicles one awful weekend in the life of a damaged vet, gives Bale—who also served as one of the film’s executive producers—another opportunity to play freaky-crazy. The question is, should he have taken it?

Writer-director David Ayer has been responsible for some of the more testosterone-fueled screenplays of the last decade, including the glossy, big-budget action flick The Fast and the Furious and the bad-cop-from-hell drama Training Day. The latter was a sharply plotted, deliberately nasty look at some particularly vile characters in a nightmarish, smog-covered Los Angeles.

Harsh Times, Ayer’s directorial debut, is Training Day redux, minus the intricate plot. It’s more of a mood piece, set, again, in an L.A. that’s a mild form of hell on earth—a place where senseless violence and cruel, offhand deception is part of the fabric of daily life.

The parallels to a war zone are not subtle.

Ayer revels in ugly visuals and impossibly tense situations. You can see what attracted Bale to the project; the filmmaker and actor share the same fascination for characters and situations that are almost out of control, and the same pleasure in imbuing each scene with the possibility of emotional and physical violence.

Sometimes, having an actor and filmmaker on the same wavelength to such an intense degree is ideal. Harsh Times, however, is not one of those happy collaborations. The problem isn’t that the film is too violent and unpredictable. That works. It’s that, about 20 minutes in, it’s absolutely clear what Ayer is trying to say about the psychological damage that can be inflicted in wartime, and it’s brutally obvious how the picture has to end. The earnestness of Ayer’s (and Bale’s) outrage makes Harsh Times admirable, and, at the same time, trite.

The film’s female characters don’t help. Jim’s Mexican girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull) is an idealized Madonna figure, while his friend Mike’s (Freddy Rodriguez) fiancée Sylvia (Eva Longoria) is something between a cardboard harpy and a mere plot device. It doesn’t help that Longoria can’t convey the slightest hint of the ’hood in her turn as an up-from-the-streets lawyer.

Better is the slick Department of Homeland Security recruiter (the reliably sharp J.K. Simmons) who tempts Jim with a return to a life of murder and mayhem. As per the filmmaker’s point of view, the government black-ops guys are all devils; the problem is that they’re better company for the audience than Harsh Times’ antihero. It’s not likely that the audience is supposed to wish the protagonist were dead.

—Shawn Stone

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