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He’ll hook you up: Jagger in Elysian Fields.

Means to an End
By Laura Leon

The Man From Elysian Fields
Directed by George Hickenlooper

It must be Christmas and there must be a Santa if I get to review a movie starring both Mick Jagger and the late, great James Coburn. The Man From Elysian Fields, written by Phillip Jayson Lasker and directed by George Hickenlooper, is a rough gem, the kind of movie whose literate script, unconventional (for about half the movie) plot and solid ensemble cast hark back to a different time, or at least a different moviemaking country.

Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia at his mopiest) is a blocked author whose first book earned rave reviews before descending into the remainder bin at Barnes & Noble. Too ashamed to tell his trusting wife Dena (Julianna Marguilies) that his second effort has been flatly rejected by the publisher, and desperately in need of cash, Byron tentatively accepts help from Luther Fox (Jagger), the nattily dressed gentleman behind Elysian Fields, an escort service. Fox senses greatness in Tiller, so he assigns him Andrea Allcot (Olivia Williams). Byron and Andrea get along famously: Not only does Tiller forget his initial reluctance at the possible sexual aspect of his new job, but he gets to meet and work with Andrea’s husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tobias (Coburn). How lucky can a guy get?

Of course, while Byron’s fortunes and, er, other things are on the rise, Dena is unhappily waiting at home, literally in the dark. The most obvious question is, can Byron keep up the subterfuge long enough to complete his work with the dying Tobias and then return, financially solvent, to Dena and his son? Will he use his odd arrangement to break that writer’s block, or will he become a better person because of this sexually titillating experience? For most of the movie, Lasker and Hickenlooper are unconcerned with such patent quandaries; instead, with wry wit and dark humor, they present well fleshed-out characters sizing each other up and coming to unexpected, even shattering, moments of truth. This is best depicted in scenes between Byron and Tobias and between Byron and Luther. Both of the older men see something in Byron that sparks their imagination, however perverse. There are wondrous moments when, for instance, Tobias warns Byron to be cautious of women (like Dena) who love a man just for who he is, or when Luther assesses the feasibility of a successful escort having a stable family life.

Garcia’s melancholy, which used to be appealing but has grown just plain annoying, is used well here. Byron is a challenging role: He’s a very weak individual, the kind of writer who suffers angst over his morning latte and is too proud to get a “real” job in order to pay the rent. Nevertheless, the script deals honestly and even affectionately with the whole idea of the writing life, which is one of its quirky appeals.

This was Coburn’s last film, and even as it’s eerie listening to Tobias talk about his impending demise, it’s truly exhilarating to see the actor revel in such a witty, rich role. Williams is edgier than we’ve seen her, and Margulies, in what could have been the stereotypical wronged-wife role, displays a steely determination that undercuts any idea that she’s some starry-eyed sap. It’s Jagger, however, who is the linchpin of this vaguely Faustian tale—ah, if only they would have let it play out as such! His gnarled face can’t hide the fact that his character has developed a fancy for client Angelica Huston, and when she rejects his love, it is his chuckle more than her heartlessness that cuts us to the quick. Jagger has the film’s best lines (seconded closely by Michael Des Barres as a successful gigolo)—lines that play up the script’s best wit—but the finesse of his performance is laid to waste by the movie’s final act, where the filmmakers apparently decided they needed to make a moral to the story and remove its ambiguities (lushly evoked by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau).

Byron, it seems, must feel really, really sorry for what he’s done and must pay for his sins by having to do menial work: he may savor success only after it’s been drummed through his thick skull that he’s been a very naughty boy. It’s an abrupt and unwelcome shock coming on the heels of the delicious bacchanal that preceded.

Chihiro in Wonderland

Sprited Away
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

This latest animated film from Hayao Miyazaki, director of Princess Mononoke, is a triumph of imagination and storytelling. Ostensibly an adventure story about a modern-day Japanese girl transported to an alternate universe, Spirited Away is much more.

Chihiro and her parents are driving to their new home when her father takes a wrong turn. With a sense of being incontrovertibly right, he presses on, faster and faster, until they come upon a strange building. The girl wants to stay in the car, but her parents lead her through a long, dark archway entrance that opens into a kind of waiting room. Chihiro is frightened, but her parents are curious—they keep leading on and on, far across hills and fields to what seems like an abandoned theme park.

It’s a theme park all right, but not for humans. In a series of catastrophes that play out ingeniously on screen, Chihiro’s heedless parents are transformed into pigs, a deep river materializes to cut off her way back, and Chihiro finds herself a hunted girl in a world of fantastic spirits. These are not spirits as in ghosts, but rather spirit-gods who inhabit rivers, plants, and vegetables. When night falls, they come to relax, eat, and go to the bathhouse, which is the centerpiece of the park—and “stinking” humans are not welcome.

To survive, Chihiro finds herself working in the bathhouse, preparing mineral baths for beautifully grotesque creatures such as the walruslike radish-spirit, or the repulsive, crud-trailing Stink-God. Like Dorothy in Oz, Chihiro meets an amazing array of such beings: Haku, the sometime-boy, sometime-dragon who is both her friend and adversary; Yubaba, the witchlike crone who runs the bathhouse, and her equally bizarre twin sister, Zeniba; Kamaji, the eight-armed master of the boiler that heats the water; No-Face, a haunted spirit both sympathetic and dangerous; and Lin, the only other human in the place, who has little sympathy for the cranky girl.

The main narrative focus is on the girl’s attempts to have her parents turned back into humans and return home, but there is much more to Spirited Away than that. Simultaneously, it’s a drama about the 11-year-old Chihiro’s transformation from clinging brat to resourceful child; a portrait of humans as environmentally heedless and disconnected from the spirituality of nature; and a wondrous work of fantasy with ingeniously realized characters and arresting moments of beauty and terror.

Two vocal actors stand out: Daveigh Chase, voice of Chihiro, and Suzanne Pleshette, the voice of both Zeniba and Yubaba. Chase, the girl who most recently voiced Lilo in last summer’s Lilo & Stitch, takes the character to the screeching edge of tolerable, then modulates her approach as Chihiro matures. Pleshette is flat-out hilarious, wrenching every bit of comedy from her eccentric villains.

This is as rich an entertainment as has been released this year, for adults or kids. It’s downright mind-boggling that Walt Disney Pictures is treating Spirited Away like an art film—it deserves as wide a release as possible.

—Shawn Stone

Back to the Couch

Analyze That
Directed by Harold Ramis

Since the 1999 film Analyze This, and four seasons of The Sopranos, the novelty of a mafia kingpin being in psychotherapy has worn thin. No doubt Harold Ramis, who wrote the new screenplay, realized that about This and decided not to rely upon gangster Paul Vitti’s (Robert De Niro) dependence on Dr. Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal) to cure panic attacks that were impeding his ability run his business. That made for much arch humor, both in the analysis sessions and in the doctor-patient relationship. But this doesn’t happen in That, as Vitti merely needs Sobel to help him get out of prison for psychological reasons.

There’s not much to analyze in the sequel, which seems to suffer from the absence of Kenneth Lonergan on the writing team. The implausibility factor is high, and one can’t believe that prison officials would so threateningly force a nebish psychiatrist to take custody of a violence-prone prisoner. The plot that follows, which introduces the inane Reg Rogers as the director of a television series about a wiseguy, is carelessly contrived—just something on which to hang the shenanigans of an odd-couple buddy film. Indeed, one of the contrivances, a plot to steal gold, seems lifted from the frequently hilarious Peter Sellers film After the Fox. But it is only a case of petty larceny here.

Fortunately, the chemistry between De Niro and Crystal remains intact, and the film is often quite enjoyable despite the plot. Crystal has never been better than when paired with De Niro in the two Analyze films. His annoying smartass quirks gone and showoff histrionics contained, he is actually quite likeable, and manages to be believably funny in a scene of pure farce where Sobel attempts to eat and talk in a posh restaurant after he has overmedicated himself. There are even shades here of the great Sellers in Inspector Clouseau mode.

De Niro is better than he has been in many recent films (except Meet the Parents). Having shed some pounds and puffiness, he is actually acting with his eyes again and proves that his penchant with comedy (first revealed in Taxi Driver and perfected in The King of Comedy) is presently more durable and interesting than his knack for the burnt-out cops-and-robbers roles he has too often played of late. Here he is lean, mean, sensitive and fearless of parody, and Leonard Bernstein at his most demanding. Yes, to witness De Niro run through most of the key songs of West Side Story, especially, “I Feel Pretty,” is inspired comic madness.

Lisa Kudrow is also back from the original cast as Sobel’s wife, who has to adjust to the presence of Vitti as an unwelcome houseguest. As usual, she is flawless in her delivery and provides some hilarious comebacks to her male counterparts. Idiotically, her character is unceremoniously dropped in the patchwork plot. It’s a pity, since more domestic scenes with the curt Kudrow and fewer fatuous scenes with the cloying Rogers could have given the film a semblance of structure and cohesiveness.

—Ralph Hammann

The Soma Generation

Equilibrium
Directed by Kurt Wimmer

True to sci-fi tradition, Equi- librium, the ludicrously energized directing debut of screen hack Kurt Wimmer (Sphere), plumbs a subsocietal anxiety, and it’s a good one: What if the Prozac Nation became the only nation, a place where citizens were required to dose on an emotion-suppressing drug, thus eliminating war, murder, and Saturday night brawls at the corner bar? The result would probably not resemble Wimmer’s piecemeal rip-offs of such fascist fantasias as 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and The Matrix, but you’ve got to give the guy credit for asking.

In the not-too-distant aftermath of World War III, the omnisociety of Libria keeps its citizens in a state of highly productive conformity by daily injections of Prozium, which turns the populace into blank-faced automatons incapable of hatred, jealousy, lust, or any other havoc-wreaking impulse. This crime-free dystopia is governed by a drug corporation with the power to execute “sense offenders”: drug-free rebels who feel, and who collect stirring contraband such as music, books, and pets. Libria is patrolled by law enforcers called “clericks,” who are clinically trained in martial arts and weaponry, and who mow down women, children and puppies with maximum efficiency. The top enforcer is Clerick Preston (Christian Bale), who apparently was recruited from The Matrix or somewhere else where everyone has high cheekbones, chiseled pecs and a flair for wearing ultra-stylish trench coats. After executing his partner (Sean Bean) for possession of a battered Yeats paperback, Preston gets a new partner (Taye Diggs), who is equally chiseled—and much more ambitious. He’s just waiting for Preston to make a wrong move.

And Preston does. One morning, he drops his vial and misses a dose. He goes into a cold sweat and quietly awakens to the sensual world, staring rapturously at the sunrise and rearranging his minimalist desktop. As luck would have it, his next arrest is a fetching sense offender (Emily Watson), who points out to him that murder has not been eradicated, since he and colleagues kill people all the time. She doesn’t mention how the clericks are guilty of having emotions, too, namely envy, suspicion, and loyalty to the CEO-styled Master Clerick (Angus MacFadyen). But this major glitch in Wimmer’s sometimes thought-provoking pastiche doesn’t slow the ultraviolent action a whit. Preston undergoes a change of heart, but he infiltrates the underground rebellion with all the digital wizardry, slick art direction and terse dialog required of 21st-century sci-fi movies.

The over-the-top fight scenes rely more on high-speed editing than on choreography, and the climax—within the innermost sanctum of state power—is a silly attempt to give Orwell’s 1984 an upbeat conclusion. Still, this entertaining actioner makes its point: Who needs thought control in the brave new world of pharmacology? Wimmer also manages some deft touches, such as Preston’s eye contact with a rebel facing execution, and, more relevantly, the implication that his newfound emotions give him an edge sharper than that of any designer drug.

—Ann Morrow


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