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Passion in a minor key: Magimel and Huppert in The Piano Teacher.

Distant Music
By Shawn Stone

The Piano Teacher
Directed by Michael Haneke

Saturated with the passionate music of Schubert, The Piano Teacher is a powerful drama about an artist on the edge of madness, and her tortured encounters with friends and lovers. Psychologically harrowing and intensely personal, the film is shattering in its impact.

Erika (Isabelle Huppert), a professor at a prestigious music school in Vienna, lives alone with her mother (Annie Girardot). In fact, though Erika is in her 40s, they even share a bedroom. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, the audience is shocked with their violent, twisted relationship. This family isn’t dysfunctional. It’s profoundly disturbed.

Mom is cruel, selfish, and controlling, while the daughter is self-absorbed and distant, keeping secrets we can only guess at (but not for long). Intriguingly, there is a sense of black comedy to their tragedy, as the film zeros in on the exaggerated pettiness with which this mother and daughter express both love and loathing. The comic edge does not make the film lighter; instead, it lends a mocking tone that reinforces the sense that change and reconciliation are not possible.

Erika’s relations with her students and colleagues are not much better, which neatly wipes out the sympathy her character earns for enduring a monstrous parent. Erika treats everyone with equal indifference, and is, at her friendliest, merely aloof. When she senses a weakness, as in a young virtuoso with perpetual stage fright, or when she catches another student with pornography, she is, just like her mother, direct and relentless. Her only outlet is music, and her infrequent opportunities to perform—she is, as the title suggests, primarily a piano teacher—are her only true emotional outlets.

It is at one such recital that she meets Walter (Benoit Magimel), a young university engineering student with a precocious talent for music. He is smitten by her passionate performance, and the attraction is mutual. There’s one little problem, however: Her sexual life, the film shows, consists of a dangerous and lonely masochism and voyeurism. If and when they get together, it’s clear there’s going to be a major conflict of expectations.

Huppert has made something of a career out of playing alienated, antisocial women, but Erika is easily the most extreme. Huppert has a wonderful gift for conveying thought through the smallest change in expression. (This is why her Madame Bovary was so was unconvincing: Huppert can’t play a stupid character.) This is one of her greatest performances. She’s fearless, playing harrowing scenes of Erika’s debasement without the slightest hint of self-congratulation for being so fearless. When Erika confronts her confused young lover with elaborate S&M scenarios, Huppert makes the character glow with an innocent, schoolgirl flirtatiousness. When, in a jealous rage, Erika commits an act of shocking violence toward a complete innocent, we see the depth of her desire for Walter.

As the film moves inexorably towards its shocking anticlimax, Erika becomes a tragic figure. If her final fate is not a surprise, the inability of anyone to see it coming is a chilling shock.

Paved With Good Intentions

Road to Perdition
Directed by Sam Mendes

“Sons were put on this earth to trouble their fathers,” advises John Rooney (Paul Newman), a crusty but likeable Irish godfather to his protégé, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks). Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel Road to Perdition is nothing if not a treatise on this theme, the idea that fathers and sons are in a perpetual struggle for survival and possible redemption. In this thread, Mendes’ film is a gem, as it does a beautiful job of depicting the tortured loyalties and troubled love that exist between Rooney and Sullivan, as well as between Michael and his own son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), and (by far the most problematic and fascinating), between Rooney and hair-trigger-tempered son Connor (Daniel Craig).

In case the title leaves you scrambling for your Webster’s, perdition is another word for eternal damnation, and the movie is rife with biblical references, particularly those that involve sibling rivalry and, of course, father-son conflict. The elder Rooney’s utter trust in and affection for Sullivan make the mercurial Connor that much more unhinged, and his betrayal of his would-be brother launches Sullivan into a vigilante-like crusade against the mob and the very man, John Rooney, who raised and supported him.

Against the backdrop of his father’s quest for vengeance is the tale of young Michael’s struggle to make sense of what his father does, and to figure out where he fits into the picture. Early in the movie, Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall do a smashing job of limning, with shadowy images and camera shots down long prisms of hallways, the mysteriousness of a father’s private life in the eyes of his young sons; we see Michael and brother Peter spying on Sullivan as he packs for a “business trip,” and witness the father’s close-lipped authority over the family. Indeed, Michael’s growing realization that Sullivan is involved in something sinister is perhaps more terrifying than any of the suspense that follows when the pair are being chased by menacing gunman Maguire (Jude Law).

Visually, Road to Perdition is up there with another gangster flick, Miller’s Crossing, and also Days of Heaven, in its purity of image, and the way the filmmakers use that image to stroke the fires of its meaty subjects. Hall makes evocative use of black overcoats, grim alleyways, foreboding hallways and, perhaps, too much rainfall. Hanks, playing very much against type, is effective as a man who knows too well the eternal price he’ll pay for his professionalism. Perhaps the only thing that can be said against his casting is that he doesn’t at all bring to mind Collins’ “archangel of death;” his menace plays more like the bulldog determination of one of David Mamet’s master salesmen rather than of somebody who volunteers to work for Capone contemporary Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci). Young Hoechlin is heartbreakingly realistic, and in a bit part as Sullivan’s doomed wife, Annie, Jennifer Jason Leigh epitomizes mother love, right down to a final, quick scene in which she is so completely right in her actions that it’s haunting. Newman as always is intriguing, but it’s hard to judge whether he’s delivered a masterful performance or he’s riveting because we are so fascinated by his aging process.

As with American Beauty, Mendes again proves his ability to fashion a beautiful-looking movie, but as with that Oscar-winning film, there are flaws in the heart of the production. With characters saturated in moral ambiguity, the movie is equally ambiguous in not really commenting on their dilemmas or suggesting a higher moral standard to judge them against. Mendes concentrates the tragic flow of the story in the visuals, but too often leaves the actual narrative lacking. It looks stunning, and Hanks’ unsmiling face can say a lot about what lies beneath the surface, but overall, the movie is a cold dish lacking the flash of humanity, heart or guts to make young Michael’s life more compelling. With the exception of Law’s weirdly fascinating death-stalker Maguire, whose actions one can never take for granted, Road to Perdition lacks the crucial elements that would make make the characters’ actions and decisions matter. Mendes’ gangster flick has been compared to the great old westerns, because both share a fascination with the possibility of redemption—but most of those westerns play like something other than visual beauty is at stake.

—Laura Leon

Leapin’ Lizards

Reign of Fire
Directed by Rob Bowman

Don’t dig too deep—you never know what’s lurking in the cinematic bowels of the earth. In last year’s The Fellowship of the Ring, it was a fire-breathing Balrog. In the dissimilarly Dark Agey Reign of Fire, it’s a fire-breathing dragon. The ancient beast is released by a construction crew tunneling under London in the year 2008. Young Quinn, son of the construction engineer (Alice Krige), is the only one to survive the dragon’s wrath at being awakened so rudely. Before you know it (the opening exposition is perfunctorily fast-paced), the entire planet has been incinerated by a nuclear war meant to exterminate the resulting plague of flying reptiles.

Reign of Fire may sound like a preposterous meld of Dungeons & Dragons and The Road Warrior, and indeed, it makes no bones about being heavily indebted to the latter. And granted, the word “dragon”—as opposed to, say “alien” or “terminator”—carries some pretty silly baggage. But as directed by Rob Bowman (credited with the better episodes of The X-Files), this apocalyptic survival tale is a total blast—and even a bit credible, creating its own Darwinian logic as it goes along. It also has sequences of sheer excitement and a rapturously forbidding set design; even sci-fi purists may find themselves caught up in Bowman’s chromatically bleak near-future (courtesy of Alien cinematographer Adrian Biddle), where children are schooled to keep one eye on the skies at all times.

Not that they see the sky very often. After fast-forwarding to 2020, the film finds Quinn a grown man (Christian Bale) and the leader of a starving commune hunkered down in a Northumberland castle. Apparently, after the nuclear winter, both humans and dragons began to repopulate, with the dragons reaching critical mass ahead of their food supply. That they prefer their human prey flame-broiled wreaks havoc on the surrounding countryside, not to mention the castle garden, and it’s a testament to the atmospheric talents of production designer Wolf Kroeger (The Mummy, The 13th Warrior) that a foray for smoked green tomatoes evolves into an eerie visual nightmare.

When an American squadron arrives in rumbling tanks, the sight deliberately evokes World War II. Bowman lays on the mythic overtones with a shovel, but it works. And so does a bald, ripped, and tattooed Matthew McConaughey as Van Zan, an impassioned and Patton-like dragon killer. The commandos’ lone helicopter is filmed descending from the sky like Excalibur rising from the lake, and justly so: The squadron’s method of slaying dragons from on high provides the most thrilling action sequence in recent memory. It helps that the dragons are realistically reptilian (horny-toad heads, alligator underbellies), and that Kroeger has the technical artistry to use their flame-shooting rampages for night scenes of grim medieval beauty. But unlike the monsters of Jurassic Park, the creatures here are not the whole show. Survival depends on teamwork, and Quinn and Van Zan have a few survivalist issues: Quinn puts the safety of his community first, while Van Zan wants to risk every able-bodied man in combat. In a departure from the fourth-grade dialogue of most actioners with a fantasy element, these beleaguered humans have vocabularies that encompass words like “triangulate” and “epidemiology.”

In one of the film’s intermittent flashes of wit, the castle children are entertained with a bare-boards play based on The Empire Strikes Back. It’s likely that the very same moviegoers who grew up with that movie will abandon its prequel, The Attack of the Clones, for the superior futuristic thrills of the attack of the dragons.

—Ann Morrow

Family Court

Like Mike
Directed by John Schultz

It takes a man to be a dad. I heard that public-service announcement on the radio the other day, just as I was going by a movie poster for About a Boy, which, curiously, has at its emotional center an outcast boy’s quest for a strong father figure. Imagine my surprise watching John Schultz’s Like Mike, ostensibly a kiddie basketball film, because this movie’s pivotal action, too, revolves not so much around court action but around orphan Calvin Cambridge’s need for a strong dad.

You gotta hand it to the NBA, which has produced a solidly entertaining film that a) delivers a wholesome, winsome summer tale for the entire family and b) cashes in on the immense popularity of the sport by parading a veritable who’s who of hoopsters onstage, while offering up some tightly edited action shots of slam dunks and jump shots. (NHL: Are you taking note?) Calvin is played winningly, if not with much depth, by the very personable young rapper Lil’ Bow Wow, who comes off as the perfect black preteen for mixed audiences: nonthreatening, cute in a normal way, just all-around decent.

Calvin lives with friends Murph (Jonathan Lipnicki) and Regina (Brenda Song) at a Dickensian orphanage run by a seeming descendent of Uriah Heap, Mr. Biddelman (Crispin Glover). Early shots show the boy being terrorized by bigger, tougher orphans like Ox (a very impressive Jesse Plemons), but all this changes when he comes across a pair of Nikes that may or may not have been worn by Michael Jordan. Suddenly, he got game—a phrase that screenwriters Michael Elliot and Jordan Moffett use way too often—and his freaky prowess attracts the attentions of Frank Bernard (Eugene Levy), beleaguered manager of the foundering L.A. Knights. Bernard convinces Coach Wagner (Robert Forster), spoiled star Tracey Reid (Morris Chestnut) and the rest of the team to go along with a plan to make Calvin a part of the team, thereby insuring packed arenas.

It’s inevitable that Calvin’s tenure in the NBA is about more than his ability to kick butt on court. Wagner forces Tracey to room with Calvin, in the hopes that the youngster will have a calming and humanizing effect on the selfish Reid. What’s surprising in this dopey, obvious set-up is how affecting the pairing of the earnest Bow Wow and the suave Chestnut is. Indeed, in another comparison to About a Boy, the duo’s duet to a DMX rap song is far funnier, and weirdly more compelling, than that of Hugh Grant’s and Nicholas Hoult’s pale duet of Killing Me Softly. The movie also scores big points by not depicting kids with sudden wealth doing things that kids probably wouldn’t do. Rather, Calvin uses his money to pig out on room service and to buy the kids at the orphanages motor scooters, which nicely come into play in the movie’s climactic chase scene. Like Mike foregoes the usual conceit in Hollywood movies that fame and fortune are everything, and instead focuses on an old-fashioned, yet somehow radical, notion that family and friendship are worth more than all the NBA championships in the world.

—L.L.


Reptile style: Irwin in The Crocodile Hunter.

Not Just a Croc

The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course
Directed by John Stainton

Granted, you could stay at home and watch the series The Crocodile Hunter on the Animal Planet channel for the price of your monthly cable bill, but then you’d miss out on the chills and thrills of The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course. Seriously. Scenes of title character and Australian naturalist Steve Irwin grappling with gigundo king brown snakes or pissed-off crocodiles had the members of my audience on the edges of our seats, our nails embedded in the flesh of our palms, while waiting for the seemingly inevitable attack by said critter on the star. It’s weirdly invigorating that such moments produced far more nervous tension and excitement than any number of special effects-laden scenes in countless other family movies of late.

Irwin plays like that poor dolt on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, the one who did all the dangerous work while host Marlin Perkins idly narrated things like “Now Jim will stick his head down the carnivorous, demented mountain lion’s mouth . . . ” The thing is, Irwin gets off on the danger and excitement, and his goofy enthusiasm rubs off. Together with partner and wife Terri Irwin, he shows us the offbeat beauty of deadly beasts while lecturing on the importance of conservation and respect for other species. Happily, director John Stainton and screenwriter Holly Goldberg Sloan don’t try to turn the Irwins into thespians; rather, they let the pair do their usual Animal Planet routine, and as such they come as natural and likeable, if quirky. The movie weaves a larger plot involving the CIA’s hunt for a spy capsule that has crash-landed into the Outback, and a persnickety cattle rancher’s own battle with the crocodile who swallowed said spy capsule, into the Irwins’ attempt to relocate the same crocodile to friendlier territory. All in all, the filmmakers handle their assignment neatly, and deliver something that is fun and educational to boot.

—L.L.

 


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