during wartime: (l-r) Badem and Morante in The Dancer
Atmosphere of Terror
By Ann Morrow
Directed by John Malkovich
America. The recent past.” That’s the enigmatic opening subtitle
to The Dancer Upstairs, the eerie and disturbingly
powerful directing debut of actor John Malkovich. Loosely
based on the pursuit and capture of Abimael Guzman, leader
of Peru’s Shining Path terrorist group, the film stars Javier
Bardem (an Oscar nominee for Before Night Falls)
as the stoical and relentless police captain Agustin Rejas.
Radiating grim determination, Bardem’s soulful performance
is the steely center of this grippingly literary but overly
A former lawyer who left the court system to more directly
combat criminality as a policeman, Lt. Rejas is promoted from
the border patrol to a captain’s job in the politically seething
capital (a thinly disguised Lima). A revolutionary coalition
led by a mysterious “prophet” known as Ezekial Abel Folk is
committing gruesome acts of terrorism among the populace,
starting with dead dogs hung by nooses and pinned with cryptic
messages drawn from the Bible and philosophers such as Kant.
Rejas comes under pressure from his military superior—a racist,
pigheaded henchman to the corrupt government—to find the culprit
before the upcoming elections. The film is most compelling
in its ambience of lurking danger, as the entire country is
caught up in the escalating tension between a repressive governmental
regime and the diabolically elusive terrorists.
Adapted from his novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, The Dancer
Upstairs tries, and nearly succeeds in, capturing the
nuances and inexorable pacing of a book-length investigation.
The tension convincingly builds to an excruciating pitch,
and the various aspects of Rejas’ life—his marriage to a shallow,
self-absorbed wife, his devotion to his young daughter, a
bizarre border incident from five years earlier—enter the
investigation with the palpable menace of a coiling, poisonous
snake. At times, the carefully subdued direction (Malkovich
relies too heavily on meaningfully prolonged closeups) and
dankly atmospheric cinematography work against the plot, slowing
the pursuit of Ezekial to a near-standstill even as the terrorism
mounts in barbarity. This densely conscientious approach to
the material eventually takes on more weight than a two-hour
movie can carry.
Following a lead, Rejas, who is half Indian, returns to his
rural homeland searching for clues. In the impoverished countryside,
the natives believe that Ezekial is an evil spirit, a theory
that becomes less far-fetched as the revolutionaries grow
in influence. Children are recruited as suicide bombers, and
government officials are executed in symbolically macabre
acts. Rejas doggedly continues his investigation, deflecting
the brutalities he witnesses with an articulate gallows humor.
But as the investigation begins to take its toll, Rejas finds
himself falling helplessly in love with his daughter’s ballet
teacher (Laura Morante), an idealistic free spirit.
Dancer Upstairs effectively ties together all of its allusive
strands into a disappointing ending. When the characters must
represent the tragedies of an entire country as well as the
sorrow of their own pasts, it is perhaps inevitable that their
final actions will come up short.
the Sabres Win the Stanley Cup
Directed by Tom
Jim Carrey, the rubberfaced, pratfall-prone comic marvel,
is back, and God’s got him. That’s great for the almighty,
but not quite as much fun for moviegoers.
Bruce Nolan (Carrey) is a frustrated news reporter for WKBW-TV
(a real station) in Buffalo. Bruce wants to be an anchor,
but he’s stuck on the “goofy news” beat—when we meet him,
he’s at a bakery covering Buffalo’s biggest cookie. He’s so
filled with jealousy and rage that he not only neglects his
loving girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston), he taunts and
curses God. As it turns out, God is not amused and decides
to teach Bruce a lesson.
As filmmaker James L. Brooks once commented, you have to get
God to play God. After years of portraying revered, powerful
authority figures that were alternately sensitive (Seven),
vengeful (Lean On Me) or omniscient (The Shawshank
Redemption), Morgan Freeman finally takes on the role
he was foreordained to play: God. A nice, generic, vaguely
Christian—minus any hint of Jesus—God. Just because Freeman
is the most obvious actor for the role doesn’t mean it works,
however. Dressed in a white suit that makes him look like
the owner of an especially profitable mortuary, this annoyed
deity takes Bruce to task for blasphemy and lack of gratitude.
Then he endows Bruce with his powers and strides off across
The audience knows this is a trick, but clueless Bruce revels
in cheap stunts like parting a bowl of tomato soup and getting
even with everyone who crossed him. There’s a certain weariness
in the knowledge that Bruce will inevitably undergo a Saul-like
revelation, though this divine intervention occurs on Route
5, not the Damascus Road.
The oddest thing about Bruce Almighty is that it’s
such a naked retread of Carrey’s earlier hits The Mask
and Liar, Liar. It has the schmuck-endowed-with-great-powers
element of the former, and the righteous moralizing of the
latter. While Carrey is loose-limbed and hilarious in his
half-improv’d scenes as a reporter, Bruce Almighty saves
its money shot for a dramatic and harrowing climax of riot
and retribution. There’s no truly brilliant comic setpiece
like the “Cuban Pete” number in The Mask, or the trial
scene in Liar, Liar. One of the funniest bits in the
film belongs to someone else: former Daily Show regular
Steven Carell, as a smarmy, rival newsman who starts speaking
in tongues on live TV.
If nothing else, the Buffalo-Niagara Chamber of Commerce must
love the film. Every day in Buffalo is bright with summer
sunshine, and the only place folks get precipitated on is
aboard the Maid of the Mist while steaming past Niagara Falls.
Though there is a fair amount of locally shot footage, it
would be remiss not to note that South Pasadena stands in
for the Queen City for much of the film. While Buffalo has
its own unique beauty, it sure ain’t South Pasadena—and neither
Freeman nor Carrey are suitable substitutes for God.
Directed by Andrew
Yet another uninspired, thoroughly unneeded remake, The
In-Laws takes a very pleasurable 1979 flick starring Peter
Falk and Alan Arkin and renders it nearly unrecognizable—not
always a bad thing—by stripping it of anything remotely smart,
funny or enjoyable.
Deep-undercover CIA agent Steve Tobias (Michael Douglas) is
a man with time-management issues. Not only must he thwart
the sale of a nuclear sub to a mad Frenchman, Thibidoux (Steve
Duchet), but he also has to meet his son’s new in-laws and
be around for the weekend’s rehearsal dinner and nuptials.
Making matters worse is the fact that the bride’s dad, podiatrist
Jerry Posner (Albert Brooks), inadvertently discovers Steve’s
line of work, thereupon becoming an unwilling associate/co-
conspirator in an unlikely espionage plot that includes—I
wouldn’t make this stuff up—deeply closeted Hitler types with
a thing for feet and red thong swimsuits.
Proving yet again that too many cooks spoil the broth, or
maybe that screenwriters today just can’t write, the screenplay
is by two hacks, Nat Mauldin and Ed Solomon. Whereas the first
In-Laws, written by Andrew Bergman, played things almost
as existential farce, aided immeasurably by Arkin’s supreme
deadpan and Falk’s intensity, this redo is played for the
cheapest laughs possible. What passes as wit is as follows:
Jerry, referring to Thibidoux’s imminent time in the clink,
says “I actually think he’ll like prison,” to which wizened
world agent Steve replies, “No, he’ll really like prison.
. . .” It’s a sign of this film’s rare subtlety that director
Andrew Fleming doesn’t have Brooks and Douglas doing the nudge,
nudge, wink, wink, in case some nitwit in the audience doesn’t
get that they’re joking about Thibidoux’s penchant for what
the film oh-so-wittily refers to as “fat cobra.”
Brooks delivers his stock-in-trade uptight white guy in over
his head with his usual aplomb, but he’s adrift in a narrative
without any sort of dramatic or even comedic moorings. Douglas,
known for portraying icy dominating types like Gordon Gecko,
thinks he’s hit jokester paydirt by playing this role like
a frenzied used car salesman. I’m so not buying this guy as
deep anything, other than deeply annoying. Candace Bergen
shows she’s willing to demean herself yet again (as in the
recent View From the Top) by playing the former Mrs.
Tobias, a tense harridan coping with mysticism and, one suspects,
faulty hormone-replacement therapy. And the bridal couple,
Ryan Reynolds and Lindsay Sloane, must cope with acting like
the Jewish American prince and princess they’re meant to be,
but Fleming doesn’t have balls enough to let that go for all
Oh, and did I mention the obligatory spiels about what constitutes
a good dad? Thankfully, the 1979 version was ever so pre-enabling/therapy-speak—yet
another reason to rent that instead of seeing this completely