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Girl power: (l-r) Knightly and Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham.

The Persistence of Memory
By Ann Morrow

Ararat
Directed by Atom Egoyan

Mount Ararat, the symbol of ancestral Armenia, a homeland that is now part of Turkey, is the artistic beacon of Atom Egoyan’s fascinating new film on art and memory, Ararat. In it, a Canadian of Armenian descent, Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour as a stand-in for Egoyan) is making a film about the Armenian genocide of the World War I era. The shoot draws in several other people who have their own connection to the genocide, each representing its resonance for modern-day Armenians struggling with their ethnic heritage. The sometimes jarringly diverse storylines do not satisfactorily intersect, but that doesn’t diminish Ararat’s haunting power. Beautifully photographed and written, the film is a case of many parts being greater than the whole.

The most evocative parts are the movie-within-a-movie, a David Lean-style epic based on the real memoir of an American doctor (Bruce Greenwood) who goes up against a sadistic Turkish military commander (Elias Koteas) in a small village in the shadow of Ararat. The village is slaughtered (a true incident still denied by the Turkish government), and among the survivors are the young Arshile Gorky, who emigrated to America and became a painter. Gorky’s torment as he memorializes his beloved mother on canvas is one of the most memorable images in this visually powerful kaleidoscope.

After hearing her lecture on Gorky, Saroyan hires art historian Ani (Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan’s ravishing wife) as a consultant for the film. Ani, who was widowed twice, doesn’t understand the liberties taken in the script, although she herself rewrites her personal history to enlarge its meaning, a concept that is subtly expressed through the story of Gorky’s depiction of his mother’s hands. As Ani’s life changes, so does her lecture on the painter. The affair between Ani’s son and her stepdaughter, who are searching for the ghosts of their fathers, is too implosive to be relegated to subplot, but it succeeds as a near-biblical slant on the Armenian diaspora.

Another story of the genocide is told by the son, who is stopped by a customs inspector (Christopher Plummer) when he returns from the site of the massacre with film cans. The contraband film will be destroyed if opened. Using the power of oral storytelling, he beguiles the inspector, who is looking for meaning in his own life. The contents of the cans work like a mystery as the ancestral tale unfolds and intertwines with the movie, which has already been shot with a re-created Mount Ararat.

And then there’s the inspector’s son, who is involved with the actor playing the Turkish commander, and the mystery of Ani’s first husband, who may have committed suicide, as Gorky did. Instead of multiplying the meaning of a shared past, the random connections remain just that, random. Still, even the slightest vignettes contain a kernel of profundity. During the shoot, the literal-minded historian informs the crew that Mount Ararat could not have been visible from the doctor’s hut. The screenwriter (Eric Bogosian) explains that the artistic change is what’s known as poetic license. “And where do you get these licenses?” she asks. To which he answers: “Wherever you can.”

She Shoots, She . . . Ooh, Just Wide

Bend It Like Beckham
Directed by Gurinder Chadha

It seems that ethnic films, or at least films in which ethnic families are centerpieced, have gotten stuck in the sitcom mode. After such modern, decidedly cosmopolitan offerings as My Son the Fanatic, we’ve recently had the shrill My Big Fat Greek Wedding, whose overwhelming success has more to do with mediocre competition at the megaplex than with artistic brilliance. And now, we have Bend It Like Beckham, which is more enjoyable than Wedding, but plays on the same, somewhat tired schematic of the clash between Old World and New.

To be fair, Beckham, which was directed and cowritten (along with Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges) by Gurinder Chadha, is innately sensitive to its cultural stereotypes, so that while they are a part of the movie’s humor, they aren’t necessarily the butt of the joke. Jess (Parminder K. Nagra) lives to play soccer—more specifically, to bend it like David Beckham, the Manchester United star whose pictures festoon her walls, and whom is referred by her disapproving father (Arupam Kher) as “that bald guy.” But now that Jess’ older sister Pinky (Archie Panjobi) is getting married, their parents feel it’s time for their jock daughter to put away her boots and start thinking about marriage and university. They are so adamant on this point that Jess, when recruited by Jules (Keira Knightly) to play for an all-girls team, resorts to lying to them, saying she’s got a job in order to explain her frequent absences. No matter how many times Jess is found out, or how often her activities cause pseudo-comical repercussions (like when Pinky’s future in-laws think Jess is dating a white boy), she perseveres in her determination to play.

And so we have the age-old problem: Will Jess’s parents come to their senses, realize that she’s an incredible soccer player, and let her go to America to play? The filmmakers also give us romantic conflict, with Jess and Jules falling for their coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and if this weren’t enough, we have the parent-child conundrum in which the principals of this triangle have problems communicating with their Mums and Dads. Interestingly, and rather disturbingly, the two people who are most detrimental to both Jess’ and Jules’ aspirations are their old-fashioned mothers.

Chadha intersperses sprightly scenes of females practicing soccer to a backbeat of English pop, and ultimately concludes her girl-power epic with the grudging acknowledgement that while sports may be the answer for some girls, the more traditional route taken by a very happy Pinky is sort of OK, too. Ultimately, the movie is little more than the cinematic equivalent of a granola bar: It’s not junk, but it’s not exactly all it’s hyped up to be.

—Laura Leon

A Site to Remember

Ghosts of the Abyss
Directed by James Cameron

Director James Cameron’s first film since Titanic is about . . . the Titanic. Apparently, the guy just can’t move on. This 3-D documentary was filmed at the actual site of the wreck, at the bottom of the sea, with specially designed digital cameras modified to withstand the 6,000-pounds-per-square-inch pressures of the deep. The filmmakers and scientists traveled in Russian-built three-person submarines that allowed them to get right up next to what’s left of the grand ocean liner, and used expensive, technically dazzling mini-robots (nicknamed “Jake” and “Elwood”) to go inside the wreck and see what’s left of the Titanic’s grandeur. The 3-D process itself is a new, custom-designed (by Sony) system that, Cameron claims, is greater and more realistic than any previous processes. All geeky technical details (and boasting) aside, Ghosts of the Abyss presents indelible images of desolate beauty.

Bathed in the artificial light provided by the filmmakers’ equipment, and seen through the murk of the sea, the visual effect is truly ghostly. The ship itself is being consumed by metal-eating bacteria; tendrils of rot extend from the railings and ornamental grillwork. The surprise is that there is wood, fabric and glass still intact—from a man’s hat to a drinking glass to the spectacular stained-glass windows in the first-class dining room. To give the audience a sense of the wreck’s proportion, actors in period costumes are deftly superimposed over the actual ruins, as are digital re-creations of what the ship originally looked like.

As for the 3-D effect, it’s not bad. The 3-D is poor in long shots, excellent in medium shots, and occasionally headache-inducing, depending on the placement of objects within the frame. It’s most effective, happily, in the footage of the wreck itself, and most distracting in the onboard scenes. Cameron has fun with it: A moment in which a mechanical claw reaches out towards the viewer’s face is startling, and great showmanship. And, yes, you have to wear the glasses.

Less effective is the “gee-whiz” narration provided by actor Bill Paxton. It takes away from the power of the images. Also, someone should have reminded Cameron that the act of exploring the wreck isn’t as interesting as the Titanic itself.

Was it worth the trip? Since the Titanic will probably collapse in on itself in the next 70 to 100 years, the answer is yes. Despite the drawbacks, Ghosts of the Abyss is a monument to both the Titanic tragedy and a filmmaker’s passion.

—Shawn Stone

You’re Almost a Big Boy Now

Anger Management
Directed by Peter Segal

Adam Sandler is trying to grow up, but his jokes won’t let him. In Anger Management, Sandler replaces his trademark manchild persona with a repressed, neurotic adult character. He is clearly trying to build on the critical breakthrough (but commercial flop) Punch-Drunk Love, in which Sandler played a recognizable human being for the first time. Sandler deserves credit for not making Big Daddy 2 as a panicked response to his fans’ rejection, but he’s not fully praiseworthy yet. To a large extent, Anger Management is a step forward, but old habits die hard—too many of the jokes are embarrassing, and the narrative is as self-contradictory and unstructured as a Saturday Night Live skit.

Dave (Sandler) is the kind of quiet guy pushy people exploit. His boss (Kurt Fuller) dumps on him and takes credit for his work, even sending him off to a conference on short notice. When Dave tries to claim his assigned seat on the plane out of town, he is rebuffed by the slick, rude guy who beat him to it. Instead, he finds himself seated next to the boorish Buddy (Jack Nicholson), who laughs too loud and makes horribly inappropriate comments. At Buddy’s prompting, Dave gets into a dispute with a flight attendant that escalates absurdly into Dave’s being stun-gunned, arrested and charged with assault—despite the fact he never even raised his voice.

As punishment, a hanging judge (the late Lynne Thigpen) sentences Dave to an intensive anger-management course with—surprise—Buddy, who turns out to be an anger-management guru. To get to the root of the problem, Buddy turns Dave’s life upside down: Dave is forced to stand up to his boss, confront his childhood nemesis, and fully express his love for his long-suffering girlfriend (Marisa Tomei).

The problem is that none of this fits together in a way that makes sense. We’re never sure whether the anger-management scheme is a setup, or that Buddy really is rich, successful and crazy enough to bully the court system and work his unconventional therapies on ultraviolent lunatics.

Sandler must know this, but doesn’t care. He just makes sure the jokes keep coming thick and fast. Some are great, some are good and too many are ghastly. (Memo to Sandler: Lesbian porn-star jokes are out.) His talented cast of character actors (including John Turturro, Luis Guzmán, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) help, but it’s Nicholson who makes the film work. About Schmidt must have rejuvenated the old thespian, as there’s only good ham on display here. Nicholson’s mercurial comic performance seems to inspire his costar as well, as Sandler is consistently entertaining.

If the film’s climax is an embarrassing spectacle at Yankee Stadium with a gang of Yankees, Robert Merrill and Rudy Giuliani, one can at least contemplate an earlier, hilarious scene in which Sandler and Nicholson, stopped in traffic in the middle of a bridge, sang “I Feel Pretty.” Sandler may strike out too many times in Anger Management, but his average is improving.

—Shawn Stone


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