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Upstairs, downstairs: Hoskins and Lopez in Maid in Manhattan.

A New Day Yesterday
By Shawn Stone

Maid in Manhattan
Directed by Wayne Wang

Maid in Manhattan is a 1930s-style romantic comedy replete with mistaken identities, luxurious settings and impossibly beautiful lovers. It is also, believe it or not, the first true post-Sept. 11 film. Also liberally laced with 1970s nostalgia, Maid stars Jennifer Lopez as a working-class heroine from the Bronx who wins the heart of Ralph Fiennes, as the scion of a glittering political family. Their fairy-tale romance—which culminates in a glamorous ball worthy of Cinderella—has a touch of the Brothers Grimm mixed with its Preston Sturges, and plays itself out in a gray New York City where the class war quietly rages and love thrives only in the margins.

After a year of deleting shots of the World Trade Center from films as disparate as Sidewalks of New York and Spider-man, Hollywood finally faces up to the city’s new skyline. Wayne Wang’s long, stately opening widescreen shot of Maid in Manhattan shows the new downtown under dark skies. This is an unusually sober note on which to begin a romantic comedy—it seems to say, here’s New York now, let’s roll the credits and get on with it.

Quickly taking his camera uptown, Wang shows us that the same clouds hover over Marisa Ventura (Lopez) and her 10-year-old son Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey). Ty’s a good kid, and Marisa’s a hardworking single mom. Wang shows this with admirable simplicity, in the not-so-simple act of getting ready for school and work: The pair negotiate the Bronx’s often daunting geography and a maze of city buses, all the while being patient and caring.

Marisa is a maid in a high-priced midtown hotel. The rooms are posh, but the bowels of the hotel, where the workers congregate, are claustrophobic (these scenes were shot on location at the Waldorf- Astoria). In the best ’30s tradition, there’s a strong undercurrent of working-class solidarity, humor and ambition: Marisa strives to move up to a better job. Given a freak opportunity to cross over to the other side, Marisa finds herself mistaken for a hotel guest by Senate candidate Chris Marshall (Fiennes). It’s a classic “meet cute.” The sparks fly and romance is kindled.

As evidenced in her earlier films, Lopez is careful about choosing her onscreen partners. Fiennes has the WASPish quality to play a liberal New York Republican à la former Mayor John Lindsay, and their onscreen chemistry is charming. Romantic comedy doesn’t work if the audience isn’t almost as infatuated as the lovers are; otherwise, we’d wonder why the big dummy can’t figure out that a single mom living in the Bronx is not also a guest in a $1,000-a-night suite. Lopez and Fiennes are given first-class support by Stanley Tucci, Natasha Richardson and Bob Hoskins (terrific as a proper English butler). Lopez herself is a compelling presence, equally convincing as domestic and princess. She’s also very aware of the material she chooses—what other leading female star could play this part?

The film has a ’70s vibe that is positively thematic. The soundtrack is packed with tunes by the likes of Paul Simon and the Pointer Sisters. The characters either echo figures from that troubled decade (like Fiennes’ Lindsay-type politico), or are obsessed with them: Ty studies Nixon, and must be the only kid in New York listening to Bread. The 1970s were the last time New York City faced a crisis challenging its continued viability. The final shot of the film proper has Lopez and Fiennes embracing in front of a prewar (World War II, that is) New York mural. The lovers kiss while, in the painting, the sun cuts through the black clouds over Manhattan. It’s a strange and sweet moment, as the filmmakers look nostalgically toward the future past.

Redemption

Heaven
Directed by Tom Tykwer

“You can’t just keep flying higher,” an instructor tells Filippo, a carabiniere engaged in a simulated helicopter flight over Turin. “How high can I fly?” he asks in return. Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi), we know from the start, is a romantic, a fact that is constantly onscreen in the form of Ribisi’s sad brown eyes, appearing here as pools of deep melancholy. At the same time, Philippa (a sublime Cate Blanchett) grimly packs a homemade bomb into a satchel and marches off to the tower office of an electronics company, where she places the bomb in a wastepaper basket in the president’s doorway. Due to an unforeseen but perfectly ordinary occurrence, the bomb explodes in an elevator.

In Heaven, the absorbing and lyrical new film by German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Filippo and Philippa—who not only have similar names but the same birthday—will connect on a level understood only by themselves. Other soulful connections are made in this European art film (in English with Italian subtitles), such as that between Tykwer and Krzysztof Kieslowski, the late Polish auteur (Blue, White and Red) whose preoccupation with the metaphysics of chance and choice can be discerned in Tykwer’s edgier sensibility. Heaven is from a script by Kieslowski (and his longtime collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz); Tykwer has applied his thrillerlike ingenuity to the master filmmaker’s classical formality to create a stirring visual sonnet, one with its feet planted firmly on the corrupt concrete of Turin by the oddly convincing plotting.

In a strong indication of the director’s visual prowess, Philippa has her back turned to the tower when the bomb explodes. She’s on the phone to the Turin police, who ignored her letters identifying the electronics honcho and the local druglord as one and the same. She is arrested and interrogated, revealing that she is not a terrorist but a grade-school teacher whose husband, a friend of the drug dealer’s, died of an overdose. Philippa speaks in English, according to her right as a British citizen, and the interrogation is translated by Filippo. When Philippa is informed that four innocent people died in the bombing, the full horror of her hubris cracks her hardened countenance wide open and shatters her soul, a process that plays out across Blanchett’s face in a tour-de-force of nonverbal emoting.

Philippa falls to the floor, and while trying to revive her, Filippo falls in love. It is the heedless, all-consuming first love of a sensitive young man (seven years younger than his inamorata) who is obviously not cut out to follow in his father’s footsteps as a police captain. Quiet and observant, Filippo senses that his colleagues on the take will see to it that Philippa does not make it to trial. Ribisi (Boiler Room), who usually drives his considerable talent straight over the top, goes in the opposite direction with the nearly silent Filippo, delivering a performance of delicately tuned understatement. With Philippa’s assent, Filippo plots her escape with a simple and resourceful plan contingent on the pure trust he shares with his younger brother.

On the lam in Tuscany, the couple fall more deeply in love as their chance for escape grows slimmer: Heaven, it turns out, is a love story, and the tensely dramatic first half can be considered as a prelude to the slower, dreamier (and to some viewers, perhaps meandering) second half, during which Tykwer composes many marvelous images, such as the long shot of the couple silhouetted upon a hilltop, curving toward each other like laurel bushes come to life (in Greek mythology, it’s usually the other way around). Instead of making her look like a condemned criminal, Blanchett’s shaved head gives her an even more otherworldly aura than she has as the flowing-haired elfin queen in the Lord of the Rings films. Meanwhile, soaring aerial shots of the Italian countryside conjure a geography untouched by veniality. Filippo, who had a tendency to wet his bed while growing up, and Philippa, who is prone to fainting spells, are both too fragile for the brutality of everyday life, a state of affairs that is conveyed with despairing brevity: “I no longer believe,” says Philippa.

Heaven is reminiscent of both the exhilarating stuntwork of Run Lola Run and the subdued intensity of Kieslowski’s Blue, a monochromatic masterpiece on loss and the redemptive power of love. Despite its rapturous attempts to break the bounds of conventional storytelling, Heaven has its share of earthbound missteps (Filippo’s instantaneous connection with the unconscious Philippa is less a random act of transcendence than a quick reworking of the bravura truck-accident scene of Tykwer’s The Princess and the Warrior). Still, this ethereally heartfelt film ends on a note of stirring catharsis that shows the poetry in daring to fly too high.

—Ann Morrow

Strike Up the Band

Drumline
Directed by Charles Stone III

It’s a sad day when Nickelodeon, the children-oriented television network, doesn’t promote the bejesus out of a film starring its very own star, Nick Cannon. How does Fox Films expect to get people to see Drumline, a movie that very clearly deserves an audience?

Drumline is a movie about a fascinating nugget of Americana, college band competitions whose contestant groups combine military precision with audacious flair and entertainment value. Written by Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Shepps, the movie comes off as one part ESPN documentary to two parts old-fashioned musical (think 42nd Street with tubas and funny uniforms). The basic plot is pure formula: Devon Miles (Cannon) earns a four-year drum scholarship to fictional Atlanta A&T. Arriving on campus, he’s turned off by the boot-camp environment that the group’s director, Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), uses to instill his guiding principal: “one band, one sound.” Drumline leader Sean (Leonard Roberts) is immediately threatened by Devon’s natural prowess, and the tension between these two percolates alongside that of Dr. Lee and the school’s director, who doesn’t care so much about musical excellence as he does about copying the booty-shaking, crowd-pleasing halftime spectacles employed by the school’s big rival, Morris Brown University. (To that school’s frenzied rendition of a Motown fave, Dr. Lee instructs his incredulous band to respond with The Flight of the Bumble Bee.)

It’s a no-brainer that Devon will have to give up his streetwise attitude and at least some of his individualism to be an integral part of the band, and you can guess pretty early on that he and Sean will overcome their differences, learn a lot about themselves and do what’s right for the good of the group. But it’s the way that director Charles Stone III handles these formulaic devices, and his willingness to devote much screen time to scenes of the band’s grueling preparations, that make Drumline not so much a hackneyed musical rehash as a keenly observed and highly entertaining pseudodocumentary. Reliable stereotypes make up Devon’s bandmates and girlfriend Laila (Zoe Saldana), but these stereotypes serve to underscore the basic point that the group is the most important thing. Also refreshing is the way the characters, particularly Dr. Lee, adhere to their discipline and don’t bend rules to allow star drummer Devon, who has been found out as not being able to read music, to play at the big showdown. Too often movies allow their young stars the chance to have it both ways—not so in Drumline, which really seems to be saying that raw talent is terrific, but you’ve got to have the educational and attitudinal chops to back it up.

Best of all, Stone allows ample room to let the musicians strut their stuff, particularly in the climactic final competition, which ultimately pits the drumlines of A&T and Morris Brown against each other. I defy anybody equipped with adequate hearing to sit still during the movie’s last 20 minutes, an awesome and exhilarating civil war of sorts that’s as much attitude and pride as it is music.

—Laura Leon

Captain, We’ve Lost the Warp Drive

Star Trek: Nemesis
Directed by Stuart Baird

The cleverness of the reversed/ mirrored letters in the introductory credits is not immediately apparent in what purports to be the last trek of the next generation. Unfortunately, the reason for the quirky graphics provides the scant interest and suspense for the first part of the film.

It’s probably a generational thing, but I never became attached to Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew aboard the starship Enterprise. Give me the cranky chemistry and humor of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty. Their banter served as a welcome counterpoint to the outlandishness of the plots, the didactic moralizing and the overuse of rubber masks and latex prosthetics on the ubiquitous humanoid aliens. However seriously Picard and company may approach their foes, their real nemeses remain curmudgeons like me who think the series never got much better than the crackling Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

That said, Nemesis is a decent entry as the 10th film in the series, and it does have a double-whammy ending that features an exciting crash and a moving sacrifice (doubtless inspired by Spock’s sacrifice in an earlier film). As usual, Data and Picard are the most interesting characters, and Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart are in particularly good form, with the later giving a less reverberating and more intimate performance than usual. The other crew members—Worf (Michael Dorn), Geordi (LeVar Burton) and Troi (Marina Sirtis)—are luggage that could easily be jettisoned for a sleeker ride. There’s no particular need for Jonathan Frakes’ officer Riker, who is about as real and engrossing as wood-grained Formica.

Romulans and Remans round out the characters, with the former making overtures of peace to the Federation, and a faction of the latter looking to destroy the Enterprise and then, of course, Earth. Heading that group is Shinzon (Tom Hardy), who turns out to be an evil clone of Picard—which leads to a consideration of nature versus nurture. Shinzon is embittered because he was relegated to a nasty life in the dilithium mines after plans were scrapped to use him for his original military purpose against the Federation. This central relationship in the film also becomes its biggest flaw: It is impossible to believe that the full-lipped, soft-featured Shinzon could be a copy of Picard (Where are digital effects when you really need them?). The casting of Hardy is ridiculous, and the dialogue nearly so, with Stewart rescuing lines about self-actualization from sounding like the “Be all that you can be” Army-recruitment slogan.

Complementing the Picard-Shinzon relationship is that between Data and B-4, an early version of the likable android. As Spiner plays both roles, this is much easier to accept; the problem here is that one periodically has trouble believing that Data is anything more than an aging actor wearing thick makeup that accentuates his wrinkles.

Despite its shortcomings, Nemesis eventually manages to be touching in ways that recall the acceptable sentimentality of best films in the series. It would be an honorable place to end the Enterprise franchise.

—Ralph Hammann


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