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Into the white: Urgalaaq in The Fast Runner.

The Light at the End of the Earth
By Shawn Stone

The Fast Runner
Directed by Zacharias Kunuk

This remarkable Canadian/ Inuit-produced film retells a fable of good and evil from the centuries-old Inuit oral tradition, combining elements of the supernatural with more tangible human behaviors such as selfishness, greed, and lust. The film vividly dramatizes the conflict between two families, and the violent impact of their rivalry on a tightly knit community in an extreme natural environment.

An evil spirit descends on the community, and the ensuing drama plays out across three generations. One family, led by Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak), ascends to tribal rule through murder, while another, led by the great hunter Tulimaq (Felix Alaralak), is marginalized and made to suffer physical and social indignities. Insults are blunt and direct; the effects are cruel and to the point. (Sauri, for example, delights in giving Tulimaq the least appetizing leftovers.) The simmering rivalry continues, years later, between Sauri’s son Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), and Tulimaq’s sons Atanarjuat (Natar Urgalaaq) and Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innushuk).

Atanarjuat, whose name means “fast runner,” clearly is the wisest and most gifted of his generation. This generates jealousy in Oki, and the two fight over women, including Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) and Oki’s wily sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk). This cold war continues until Atanarjuat is finally driven away in a stunning chase sequence across a melting ice floe.

The deliberate pace of the film is matched to the physically demanding, difficult life in the frozen Arctic. Much of their time is taken up with hunting and maintaining shelter. (Considering the emphasis on meat in this society, and the amount of time given to butchering and eating game, the film is definitely not for the sqeamish.) We are shown every aspect of their lives, and come to understand the degree of cooporation required to live under such claustrophobic conditions. Conflicts are settled through traditional contests; there is a powerful scene of ritualized combat that is shocking in its brutality and simplicity. As for sexual intimacy, it’s hard to imagine anything more intimate than two brothers with multiple wives and children, sleeping in such close quarters.

If there is any drawback to the film, it is the digital photography. It does not capture the natural grandeur of the setting. If The Fast Runner didn’t clock in at nearly three hours, this might not have been so noticeable.The poor image quality is eventually wearying, and nature doesn’t get its due as a dramatic force. It is doubtful that the picture could have been made otherwise, however, as the cost of shooting on film is so much greater. We can only be grateful for the economic benefits of this inferior technology, because it allows us a look at this world from the Inuit perspective.

Who Farted?

Austin Powers in Goldmember
Directed by Jay Roach

Austin Powers in Goldmember opens with a flamboyant, star-studded spoof on John Woo’s Mission Impossible II. It’s a tough act to follow—too tough, it appears, even for that international man of mystery, Austin Powers (Mike Myers). Austin may have regained his mojo, but he’s definitely lost his zeitgeist: “Yeah, baby,” died a slow death during the last century. Now it’s 2002 and our man Austin is in Hollywood, overseeing the movie being made about his latest caper. But what really discombobulates the libidinous hero is time travel: He’s transported to 1975 to rescue his father (Michael Caine), who is in the seamy clutches of a Dutch disco dolly named Goldmember (Myers). Sad to say, Studio 69 is just not as funny as the swinging bachelor pads and Carnaby Street bohemia of the two previous Austin flicks. And Goldmember has an obnoxious accent and a solid-gold pee-pee, which causes his skin to peel off. He’s plenty gross without being even remotely humorous.

Goldmember is in league with Dr. Evil, whose scheme for world domination (code name: Preparation H) is a case of diminishing returns. Evil’s shtick was overextended in The Spy Who Shagged Me; here, it’s stretched out to tedious lengths. Evil’s retinue has nothing to add other than familiarity (or is that branding?), although Mini-Me (Verne Troyer) is now a major player. Except for one inspired scene utilizing his groin-high shadow behind a doctor’s curtain, eennie meanie Mini is mostly around for sheer freakishness. Also back in action is Fat Bastard (Myers) and his disgusting but unfunny brand of bathroom humor, whose punch lines center on genitalia with an obsessiveness that’s downright creepy.

Myers’ physical comedy as the foppish lady’s man is still potent, although his latest conquest, blaxploitation supervixen Foxy Cleopatra (Beyonce Knowles), is disappointingly underutilized (but don’t be surprised if “Up yours, jive-ass turkey!” becomes as inescapable as “Oh, behave”). Austin is forced to take a backseat to Myers’ menagerie—he’s a hanger-on in his own movie. Only Caine’s cameo as his randy father, Nigel Powers, saves the day. Even if Austin’s teenage fan base has no clue as to Caine’s supersleuth past in tough-guy classics like The Ipcress File and Get Carter, they should still be able to appreciate how Nigel’s campy savoir faire puts the fart jokes to shame.

—Ann Morrow

Strange Creatures

The Country Bears
Directed by Peter Hastings

One has to ask, Why?

Isn’t it bad enough that Hollywood producers get the green light to film big-screen adaptations of tele-junk food (i.e., Scooby Doo) that do nothing but coddle the warped nostalgia of baby boomers? Now we have The Country Bears, adapted not from a Saturday morning cartoon, but from a theme park attraction that probably only my Ozark-born, Branson-idolizing mother and her ilk truly enjoy. Written by Mark Perez and directed by Peter Hastings, this is the oddest, most stupefying movie I’ve ever seen. Musical talents such as John Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley contribute their chops to the Bears’ soundtrack, while stars like Elton John make bizarro cameos.

Ostensibly, this is a sort of Blues Brothers road movie in which the Country Bears (yes, they’re a band) try to stage a comeback show to save Country Bear Hall. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop contributed the creatures, and to be sure, they’re more lifelike than the movie’s actual human characters, who include Stephen Tobolowsky as Dad and Meagan Fey as Mom. Haley Joel Osment voices Beary Barrington, the 11-year-old raised by Dad and Mom as their own, who goes out to find his true identity and in the process becomes a Country Bear. Nowhere does the movie play with the idea that bears are in our midst: We’re unsure whether this is supposed to be normal, or whether it’s some weird freak of nature that exists in certain parts of the country.

Only Eli Marienthal, as Beary’s human wisecracking brother Dex, comes close to highlighting the warped nature of this enterprise. Christopher Walken as evil banker Reed Thimple resembles a character in a David Lynch movie, but director Hastings wants to keep things very saccharine, so the delicious underpinnings of Thimple’s machinations are adrift in a sea of sub-sitcom-level humor.

—Laura Leon


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