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Love during wartime: (l-r) Badem and Morante in The Dancer Upstairs.

An Atmosphere of Terror
By Ann Morrow

The Dancer Upstairs
Directed by John Malkovich

‘Latin 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 methodical thriller.

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.

The 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.

...And the Sabres Win the Stanley Cup

Bruce Almighty
Directed by Tom Shadyac

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 Lake Erie.

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.

—Shawn Stone

Wedding-Bell Blahs

The In-Laws
Directed by Andrew Fleming

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 it’s worth.

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 insipid remake.

—Laura Leon

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