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Images of Inhumanity
By Peter Hanson

Harrison’s Flowers
Directed by Elie Chouraqui

It’s an incongruous sight: A glamorous American woman, her face scarred from an assault and her whole figure dusted with residue from nearby bomb blasts, scouring the streets of the former Yugoslavia during Slobodan Milosevic’s apocalyptic rise to power. Yet the unexpected combination of this protagonist and this location is a potent one, for it helps viewers look at the horrors of the Serbo-Croatian conflict through new eyes. With out-of-her-element photo editor Sarah Lloyd as our guide, we see murder, rape and outright annihilation unfold before us—and like Sarah, we’re unable to do anything more than absorb the images and the hard lessons they teach.

Sarah is the heroine of Harrison’s Flowers, an offbeat but gripping drama that surmounts its immense shortcomings by infusing every image with the aesthetic and philosophy of wartime photojournalism. Director Elie Chouraqui, who also operated the camera for much of the film, captures the hellish, otherworldly feeling of walking through a war zone as a supposedly objective observer, so the most powerful scenes are those in which the movie camera simply takes in the bloody reality of how Milosevic’s brutal troops cut a swath through enemy soldiers and, especially, civilians.

The story is potent, if somewhat preposterous. Sarah (Andie MacDowell) is married to Newsweek photographer Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn). When Harrison disappears while on assignment in the former Yugoslavia, he’s presumed dead. But Sarah refuses to accept his death, so she travels to the combat zone and, accompanied by a trio of Harrison’s fellow photographers, tries to survive long enough to find her husband. Along the way, she and her guides witness gunfights, tank assaults, executions and other barbaric acts. Viewers don’t have much trouble relating to the stunned look that MacDowell wears on her face throughout most of the picture.

Aside from some clumsy editing and a jarringly underexposed sequence, the movie’s big problems involve its protagonist. Chouraqui and Didier le Pecheur cowrote the movie with a former photojournalist, Isabel Ellsen. But in not making Sarah a photographer, the writers rendered the character passive. Sarah instinctively snaps a few pictures here and there, but mostly she just follows others and occasionally stirs them with an inspirational remark about how badly she needs to find her lost love. Having the lead character become dead weight for a good 40 minutes is exacerbated by MacDowell’s inconsistent performance; while she has many truthful, affecting moments, she fades to nothingness whenever the screenwriters forget to give her things to do.

Luckily, MacDowell is surrounded by supremely talented costars. The three lensmen who escort her through what can only be described as living hell are played by Adrien Brody, Brendan Gleeson and Elias Koteas, each of whom brings a different flavor. Brody is the edgy daredevil who carries as many uppers and downers as he does rolls of film, Gleeson is the past-his-prime Irishman whose nerves get pushed past their limits, and Koteas is the cool-headed Pulitzer-winner whose gift for strategy would impress any military man. The journey these men take with MacDowell’s character is inherently episodic, but the credible intensity of the acting and the vividness of Chouraqui’s style makes each vignette new and frightening.

Harrison’s Flowers is in many ways a missed opportunity, but it’s a startling counterpoint to the other war movies clogging multiplex screens during this troubled time. By not affixing its viewpoint to either side of one of recent history’s bloodiest battles, the film allows viewers to immerse themselves in the inhumanity that rained down on the former Yugoslavia like the fearless photojournalists it depicts. Not a pleasant experience, but an enlightening one.

Warming Trend

Ice Age
Directed by Carlos Saldanha and Chris Wedge

Just as last year’s Monsters, Inc. did, Ice Age focuses on the efforts of a motley crew of straight-to-toy-market characters who try to return an adorable baby to its rightful home. Unlike Monsters, Inc., Ice Age is warm, engaging and thoroughly sure of its ability to please the entire family without resorting to the polar opposites of kiddie gross-out humor and what passes as adult intellectual wit.

Wooly mammoth Manfred (Ray Romano), seemingly on a suicide march toward the frozen tundra (we witness all the other creatures migrating south), becomes the unwilling protector of wired and wiry sloth Sid (John Leguizamo), who has clumsily destroyed the lunchtime delicacies of two ornery rhinos. At least I think they were rhinos—one thing about Ice Age is that some of the critters aren’t easily identified. Another thing is that title—hey, I’m no expert, having read Dashiel Hammett through ancient- history classes, but doesn’t the impending Ice Age signify the imminent demise of our protagonists? At any rate, Manny and Sid come across an adorable human baby whose mother has valiantly protected him from a pack of marauding saber-toothed tigers, and Sid convinces Manny that the only way he’ll skedaddle out of the big guy’s life is if Manny helps him return the baby to the humans.

For the remainder of the movie, which clocks in at a mere 75 minutes, Manny and Sid swap insults with each other and saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary), who has been sent by evil pack leader Soto (Goran Visnjic) to fetch the infant, but who convinces our travelers that he’s there to help. It’s a very straightforward story, enlivened by the occasional appearance of a squirrel whose quest to maintain ownership of an acorn is worthy of the best Pixar animated shorts. But the movie’s humor is quick and sly without being cynical, and had parents and children in the audience I saw Ice Age with in stitches. There’s something universally appealing about the idea of finding, or returning, home, and of disparate misfits banding together for a greater good. When you throw in exciting escape scenes involving molten lava and collapsing ice bridges, you have the best family feature of this new year.

—Laura Leon

In Love and War

Dark Blue World
Directed by Jan Sverák

Dark Blue World is actually a light blue world, with puffy white clouds. Up in the sky, the Czech pilots who flee to England to fight the Nazis during World War II find a purity of camaraderie that is much more elusive on the ground. And if German Luftwaffe occasionally strike from behind those marshmallow billows, the sky is still a less treacherous place than terra firma, where emotional landmines lie in wait at every turn.

Written by Oscar-winner Zdenek Sverák (Kolya) and directed by his son, Jan, Dark Blue World is an old-fashioned war movie (the title is taken from a ’40s torch song) that doesn’t have enough war in it. The events of 1939—squad leader Frantisek (Ondrej Vetchý) and his hotheaded young protégé, Karel (Krystof Hádek), escape from Czechoslovakia and grow close in the Royal Air Force—are seen in flashbacks from Frantisek’s imprisonment in a forced-labor camp, where he is sent by the Communists after returning home a hero. This grim perspective gives the film the weight of history, even for its many cloying scenes of the pilots gamboling in an English boot camp. But Frantisek’s gripping incarceration is only a framing device, and the film doesn’t live up to the powerful indictment of his fate.

Karel is shot down and parachutes into the arms of Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), the wife of a missing naval officer. He falls hard for her, but so does Frantisek. This unfortunate resemblance to Pearl Harbor is undeniable, but to its credit, Dark Blue World is a very different kind of film. Its low-tech dogfights are actually more exciting than a big-budget blowout: The planes don’t barrel through the sky like flying Humvees: They stall easily, run out of fuel quickly, and offer about as much protection as an egg carton. But the biggest difference is that this love triangle has characters who are poignant and believable, and their star-crossed misfortunes seem genuinely to be the result of a world turned upside down by war. It helps that destiny is carried on the winds of Czech fatalism rather than rank commercialism.

Still, the ambiguous ending raises a suspicion that the film was lopped off at the end instead of having its audience-pleasing England scenes edited down, a decision that might have been made in the hopes that Dark Blue World would ride in the wake of Pearl Harbor—a major tactical error.

—Ann Morrow

Shoot First, Write Jokes Later

Directed by Tom Dey

Showtime, a bullet-ridden com-edy with Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy, would like to be an affectionate parody of TV cop shows. It never seems sure which clichés to honor and which to spoof, though. Whenever there’s any puzzling ambiguity, the film rolls out the high-powered weaponry and platoons of stunt drivers to send billowing fireballs, cascades of shattered glass, and shards of flying metal across the streets of Los Angeles at high speeds. Better jokes for Murphy and De Niro would have been more diverting.

The film begins with an outlandishly botched bust, in which beat cop Trey (Eddie Murphy) and detective Mitch (Robert De Niro) manage to destroy lots of public property and look like fools on live television. In one of those “only in the movies” twists, their punishment is to become the stars of a reality TV cop show, Showtime. Naturally, they hate each other. The difference is in their attitudes toward being on TV. Mitch hates that too, but Trey is a frustrated actor absolutely delighted to have the camera on him all the time. Mitch even pretends to hate the show’s producer, Chase (Rene Russo, utterly wasted in a nothing part), but we know that won’t last.

The surprise is how well Murphy and De Niro work together. If only there were funnier material for them to work with. Still, there are moments. One would think that William Shatner’s self-parody shtick would be getting old by now, but not so. The one-time T.J. Hooker appears as himself, hired by the producers of the show to give Mitch and Trey tips on how to be a convincing TV cop. Shatner giving acting lessons to Murphy, as his very eager student, is a very funny bit. And it’s certainly amusing when Shatner passes judgment on Mitch/De Niro’s abysmal on-camera presence: “He’s the worst actor I’ve ever seen.”

In truth, De Niro is as funny as the material allows. He seems to be fitting comfortably into his new groove as a curmudgeonly presence in screen comedies, the former young hothead cooled to a permanent slow burn. But it’s Murphy, former star of the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, who’s really in tune with the material. Whether riffing on how his “Uncle Reggie” inspired him to become a policeman, or mimicking the standard dramatic expressions of TV cops, Murphy is consistently funny. His showpiece scene, in which he tricks a suspect into giving him information by posing as cable TV crusader for Black Justice, works like a charm, as if it were 1984 all over again.

Unfortunately, director Tom Dey keeps interrupting the comedy to blow stuff up. On paper, gun-running villain Vargas (Pedro Damian) likely seemed a good Tony Montana joke, and his product—an array of absurdly powerful, house-destroying weaponry—so outlandish the audience would have to laugh. Instead, both end up as tiresome clichés, presented too seriously for fun, but remaining much too ridiculous to take seriously. Dey does a bit better with his sly movie parodies (riffing on the climax from The Towering Inferno, for example), but they’re hard to appreciate through the violent din. Just like the rest of the film.

—Shawn Stone

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