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For better and for worse: (l-r) Levy and O’Hara in A Mighty Wind.

Deconstructing Doris
By Shawn Stone

Down With Love
Directed by Peyton Reed

Down With Love is an eye- popping, retro comedy set in a fairy-tale New York City of 1962. It combines the revisionism of a film like Far From Heaven with the absurdity of the Austin Powers series to make something unique: a sex comedy with its mind above the belt.

Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) is the stylish young author of a daring sex guide for women, Down With Love. In her book, she explains how a woman can forget about love, treat sex as men do and obtain a career—thereby having a happy life. She’s supposed to be profiled by woman-chasing magazine writer Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), but the uninterested Block would rather chase skirts than interview a woman he imagines as a man-hating “spinster.” (He hasn’t seen her yet, and doesn’t realize she’s a “dish.”)

As in the Doris Day-Rock Hudson sex comedies spoofed by the film, Novak and Block become enemies locked in a no-holds-barred, duplicitous battle of the sexes. No weapon is too devious: Fake identities, false sincerity and outrageous flirting prove as devastating as any smart bomb. The actors have a ball with this inspired silliness, especially Zellweger and David Hyde Pierce, who plays Peter, Catcher’s publisher and outlandishly neurotic best friend. Zellweger deftly spices her own comic style with nods to Miss Day (she has Doris’ trademark double-take down cold). Pierce—who plays the Tony Randall role, though Randall does appear briefly—steals the film with his perfect timing and inspired slapstick.

The candy-colored look of Down With Love is as important as the actors and story: The garish pink and blue clothes worn by the gals and guys, for example, not-so-subtly mirror their infantile behavior. It’s not just the retro-on-acid clothes, either: The outrageous set designs are hyperfaithful to the period’s films.

The ultimate effect of this delirious art direction reinforces the film’s subversive bent, and functions as a kind of anti- nostalgia—unlike, say, The Sting, which celebrated the fashions and cinema of the ’30s, Down With Love gleefully demolishes the ’60s sex comedy and its attitudes toward men, women and relationships.

As noted, the film reproduces the farcical plots of the Day-Hudson films—but only to a point. Just when you think every neat storyline is going to be tied together in a big pink bow, the filmmakers rip each one to shreds instead. In one long, uninterrupted monologue, Zellweger’s character—who turns out not to be the person she seemed—pours her heart out, sends the film careening into an unexpected direction and, incidentally, deconstructs both the plot of the film and the sexual politics of the prefeminist era. This is daring screenwriting, sensible direction and fine acting.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a happy ending; it’s just not the ending one would have expected. Down With Love succeeds because it plays with issues of feminism and postfeminism with wit and insight, and—unlike the Austin Powers trilogy—truly engages the films being spoofed.

Ghost of a Mind

Spider
Directed by David Cronenberg

In the rundown parlor of a ramshackle halfway house in London’s working-class East End, Spider (Ralph Fiennes), a schizophrenic just released from an asylum, pieces together a jigsaw puzzle with remarkable speed and dexterity. When he nears completion, however, he grows impatient and frustrated—and scatters the pieces to the floor in a paroxysm of rage. It’s a deceptively straightforward metaphor for Spider’s own unsuccessful attempts to piece together the truth about a horrific tragedy from his childhood.

As he wanders around his old neighborhood, Spider starts to have visions of his past. His father (Gabriel Byrne) was a plumber and a friendly bloke; his mum (Miranda Richardson) was a prim-but-sweet homemaker. Or were they? In other memories, his father is a mean drunk who has clandestine liaisons with a crude tart (also played by Richardson).

There’s no sci-fi overlay to this film or outlandish perversity—in other words, it’s not like the usual David Cronenberg film (Crash, Dead Ringers, The Fly). More than ever before, Cronenberg relies on his actors to take center stage. Fiennes is in every scene, and his portrayal of the broken, scattered Spider is superb. Richardson is as good, if not better; embodying the various versions of Spider’s “mum,” she shows great range. (Her prosthetic teeth when she’s the whore is the only nod to Cronenberg’s taste for the physically grotesque.)

The film never tries to fool the audience with Spider’s hallucinations and memories; unlike A Beautiful Mind, there’s no smug moment when you realize that you’ve been had. These “flashbacks” have an almost Christmas Carol quality, as Spider is in the middle of the action, unseen by his parents and younger self. He’s a ghost in his own mind. He’s also the author of these scenes, muttering bits of conversation immediately repeated by the people in his mind.

As Spider tries to make sense of the central tragedy of his childhood, Cronenberg takes us deeper into the character’s self- protecting delusions, and he trusts the audience to sort out what’s real and what isn’t. Eventually, it’s clear that we can trust only fragments of what Spider remembers—he incorporates bits of the “real” world into his memories, creating a web of truth and lies.

In many ways, Spider is the most uncomplicated, emotionally direct film Cronenberg has yet made. The psychological shadings are complex, but the storytelling is admirably stripped-down. Like the puzzle Spider isn’t able—or willing—to complete, the audience is ultimately unable to put together what really happened. Cronenberg and Fiennes, however, make sure that we are in full understanding and sympathy for the man and his tragic fate.

—Shawn Stone

Exiles in Paradise

Nowhere in Africa
Directed by Caroline Link

In the years leading up to the Holocaust, the untamed vistas of Kenya seemed as remote from Nazi Germany as another planet. That state of harsh but idyllic remove didn’t last long for the Redlichs, a family of assimilated German Jews who emigrated to East Africa in 1938. Based on the autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, Nowhere in Africa tells the true story of the Redlichs’ tumultuous adaptation to life in Kenya, as told through the eyes of Regina Redlich (Lea Kurka), a young girl whose earliest memories are scarred by the sight of her beautiful mother, Jettel (Juliane Köhler), being knocked to the ground by a Nazi soldier on a snowy day.

Regina’s dashing father, Walter (Merab Ninidze), a lawyer who read the writing on the wall after being disbarred by the Nazis, leaves for Africa first. He gets a job as a tenant farmer to an Afrikaner landowner, and promptly comes down with malaria. He is nursed back to health by the farm’s cook, Owuor (Sidede Oryulo), a wise and cheerful Masai. Jettel and little Regina follow six months later, although Jettel, like the rest of the Redlichs’ extended bourgeois family, is convinced that the Nazi movement will soon blow over. Instead of bringing mosquito netting, as Walter requests, she disembarks with a bolt of beautiful fabric for a new dress. She is both charmed and appalled by the country and its people, and becomes furious with Walter for his pessimism and ineptitude as a farmer. The clash between Walter’s hard-hearted but necessary realism and Jettel’s spoiled naiveté provides much of the film’s emotional intricacy.

Just as Jettel is adjusting to her new circumstances (Regina takes to her adopted homeland like a fish to water), the war reaches Kenya, and the Redlichs and other Jewish refugees are rounded up by the British as enemy aliens. Link deftly expands from the isolation of the countryside to the colorful bustle of Nairobi, now a bubbling pot of Africans, British, and Indians. Although the film does not achieve the gravitational sweep of an epic, Link captures both the intimacy of a family under duress and the larger forces shaping their destiny. And while the lush cinematography occasionally takes on the burnished glow of a Ralph Lauren layout, airbrushing its views of the colonized Masai, Link also makes an admirable effort not to relegate the proud Owuor and his people into mere background.

If anything, Nowhere in Africa, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is too much of a good thing. Walter and Jettel grow apart, and then find their way back to passion. Regina adapts to her anti- Semitic boarding school just as adroitly as she did to life in the bush. The war continues to throw the Redlichs into conflict, until the viewer may feel the film becoming as long as a day spent toiling in the shimmering fields. Still, a tinge of weariness is a small price to pay for being swept up in this luminous and vividly human odyssey.

—Ann Morrow

Down the Rabbit Hole Again

The Matrix Reloaded
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

The challenge for sequels— especially the sequel to an out-of the-blue hit like The Matrix—is how to offer audiences more of the same while making it different, and sucking in new fans to boot. For The Matrix Reloaded—the middle installment of Andy and Larry Wachowski’s cyberpunk triptych—the challenge has been met, and all too well. Unlike the dynamically philosophical original, which imploded on moviegoers like spontaneous combustion, the follow-up is calculated right down to the lozenge sunglasses worn by the Twins (black-belt brothers Neil and Adam Rayment), a pair of deadly ghosts in the machine. More conceptual than mystical, Reloaded is intended to rock the socks off of all comers, and therein lies its most disappointing programmatic glitch.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t a blast—it is. This pan-millennium kung-fu adventure pushes the envelope on computerized filmmaking into the stratosphere. The sensational fight choreography (by Yuen Woping of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) is so fluidly loaded with kinetic inversions and imaginative carnage that it would take whole pages to describe them. Suffice it to say that camera angling is more inventive than anything yet seen on celluloid, and the digital wizardry is nearly flawless. The film’s blockbuster intentions, however, are not quite as sophisticated.

Reloaded picks up with the original triumvirate of Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss), Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) not long after part one. The machine-controlled matrix is still holding the human population captive in bioenergy-producing pods, and the rebel forces of Zion—a primordial gathering place with a taste for 2002 techno music—are preparing for invasion. The strategic conflict lies between Morpheus, who needs only two ships, and the rebel council, who engage in the usual naysaying of sci-fi councils. Only the crew of the renegade Nebuchadnezzar know that Neo, the Chosen One, has honed his innate metaphysical abilities to the point where he can fly through cyberspace like a speeding bullet. The superhero references are, unfortunately, intentional.

The original’s atmosphere of sinister isolation, which focused on a coalition of unrelated strangers united only by their mysterious cause, has given way to a more demographic-friendly rebellion. Even the penultimate lone wolf Morpheus now has a relationship, with his former squeeze, Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), captain of a Zion defense ship. Of all the newcomers, Niobe is the most effectively fierce, as well as a force to be reckoned with in the cyber-cool wardrobe department.

Just as The Matrix was about belief, Reloaded is about choice, specifically, Neo’s choice, which he is told he has already made, even though he does not yet know what the choices are. The Walchowskis’ cerebral overlays are not as mind-blowingly integrated into the story as the first time—and how could they be, with part three on the way?—but nevertheless, Reloaded does produce a solidly intellectual “Wow,” that dims only when compared to the original’s more interesting “Why?”

—Ann Morrow


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