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The Luck of the Irish
By Shawn Stone

Directed by John Crowley

Intermission is a sharp, entertaining little picture in the snarky post-Trainspotting vein. Though there aren’t any drugs involved, the story is packed with kinky sex, violence, sociopathology and bodily eruptions. (And terrific jokes, when you can understand the assorted thick, Irish dialects.) In its romantic merry-go-round storyline, Intermission even has an echo of a higher-browed product like Love Actually. The important difference is a matter of attitude. Fate—with a capital F—controls the intertwined lives of the hapless characters while wearing a really nasty smirk.

John (Cillian Murphy) loves Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald), who is shacked up with married banker Sam (Michael McElhatton), who has just dumped his wife Noeleen (Dierdre O’Kane). Noeleen is left with an as-yet-unexpressed rage, which is exceeded only by the anger and bitterness of almost every other character in the film. They’re all pissed off, from quick-witted thug Lehiff (Colin Farrell) to bus driver Mick (Brian F. O’Byrne) to romantically dumped-on Sally (Shirley Henderson) to retail drones Oscar (David Wilmot) and John. (You remember John—he’s the guy in love with Dierdre.) The only completely happy person is a widow with good memories.

All this misery is funny—and, in its clever way, much more interesting than if this material were played for drama. The superb cast is in on the joke, too. Farrell, who, as the biggest star, gets to employ the most impenetrable accent, indulges the violent side of his bad-boy persona in a way Hollywood wouldn’t allow. Colm Meaney (of recent Star Trek fame) has a ball as a violent, pretty-good cop who considerably overestimates his own intelligence and skills. Everyone digs into each character’s unhappiness with visible delight.

There are even a few really funny cinema in-jokes, including the Italian Job-style (1969 version) fate of the bus driver, and the final plot twist in the confrontation between the cop and the thug. The latter is a very wicked John Ford-meets-the-Farrelly-brothers bit of absurdism. There’s a Shakespearian touch, too, in the person of a vengeful little boy who, through gleeful malice, ruins a few lives—and saves one, too, which makes him more Puck than punk.

The trick to a film like this, in which anything is likely to happen, is in not letting just anything happen. Whimsy, as a mood, is harder to sustain than gloom. When Lehiff pulls two other characters into a really stupid kidnapping plan, the film comes dangerously close to collapsing under the weight of a seriousness it hasn’t earned. Happily, the filmmakers pull back, and the series of coincidences that cause the plan to fall apart are inspired in their stupidity. As in a Shakespearian comedy, everyone gets exactly what they deserve, whether it’s a happy romance or a grievous set of injuries.

Unlikely friends: (l-r) Boulanger and Sharif in Monsieur Ibrahim.

Father Figure

Monsieur Ibrahim
Directed by François Dupeyron

It’s a cliché, but, like many clichés, very often true: Movie stars are born, not made. Sure, the dentist, the plastic surgeon and the acting coach can add polish and technique, but there must be a natural magnetism in the performer. Looks don’t really factor into it, as neither Edward G. Robinson nor Kathy Bates—to offer up past and present examples—would win a beauty contest. They’re both electric screen presences, however.

Omar Sharif, who came out of self-imposed retirement to play the title role in this film, is a movie star. One scene in Monsieur Ibrahim is proof. He plays an immigrant shopkeeper; Bridget Bardot (French superstar Isabelle Adjani in a cameo), filming a scene on location outside his shop, comes in for water. Ibrahim not only overcharges her for the bottle, he charms her into being happy to pay more. It doesn’t matter that Sharif’s no longer young or dashing. It’s easy to believe his character could beguile Bardot.

All this is primarily to explain that it is mainly Sharif’s presence that holds together this charming, if slight film about the father-son relationship between an elderly Muslim man and a teenage Jewish boy in 1963 Paris.

Moses (Pierre Boulanger) is an unloved teen, and the prime cause of this is his gloomy, overcritical father (Gilbert Melki). Pops, who seems to have never recovered from being abandoned by his wife, feels no connection his son. He runs the kid down at every opportunity: Moses spends too much on food, listens to the wrong music, isn’t smart enough to read the right books, and is a pale shadow of his long-gone older brother, Paulie.

Moses, however, is doing his best to raise himself. Through thrift, theft and guile, he manages to afford visits to the neighborhood hookers—all of whom have hearts of gold—and to bluff them into believing he’s at least 16 years old. (Apparently, this is the legal age to purchase sex in France).

One of the people Moses steals from is Ibrahim, who isn’t fooled. Instead of chastising the boy, Ibrahim helps him out. The lonely old man obviously sees something good in the boy, and offers him advice on women, work, religion and means to happiness. The fact that they are from two often diametrically opposed religious groups is neither under- nor overplayed.

Much of the film is made up of small moments, as Moses—Ibrahim calls him “Momo,” and the name sticks—fumbles his way toward maturity. The film has a pleasing lightness, and manages to sustain this mood almost until the end.

If Monsieur Ibrahim ultimately ends on an artificial note, the filmmakers can be forgiven. There’s enough style, and grace, to make up for the lack of substance.

—Shawn Stone

Texas-Sized Tedium

The Alamo
Directed by John Lee Hancock

The 1836 Siege of the Alamo lasted 13 days. The movie The Alamo, which presents the famous battle with the thoroughness of a thesis paper, seems to occur in real time. Overstuffed and ponderously paced, John Lee Hancock’s historically reverential treatment would’ve worked much better as a miniseries. As is, this valiant effort is sunk by the director’s scholarly intentions and a wandering dramatic focus. Constructed as a flashback, the film opens with a panning survey of the dead bodies littering the Alamo (an old church outfitted with cannons) and then proceeds to give each corpse its very own aura of impending doom.

Out of a multitude of legendary personages, only Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) comes to life. The famous pioneer, washed up as a politician and tiring of his status as a living legend, makes the best of a very bad situation while Thornton conveys his backwoods charisma and underlying world-weariness. Crossing paths with his old pal Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) at an aristocrat’s soiree in Tennessee, Crockett takes him up on his offer of free land in San Antonio. Meanwhile, the famous Indian fighter Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) is butting heads with the garrison’s new colonel, William Travis (Patrick Wilson). The swaggering Bowie (Patric is too broody an actor for this outsized role), who commands the rabble-rousing volunteers, is the only one who seems to realize that the isolated territory—a peaceable community of Americans and Mexicans who call themselves Texians—is not at all safe from attack by the Mexican Army. That’s because the army is under the command of president-turned-dictator Santa Anna (scenery chomper Emilio Echevarria), “the Napoleon of the West.”

Bad Santa Anna not only dresses his troops in ridiculous continental uniforms, he also wants the land-grabbing Anglos out of his country. Although he is caricatured as a vain sadist, the general’s autocratic pomp provides the film with some much needed pizzazz—the many close-ups of Bowie’s hunting knife and Houston’s whiskey guzzling just don’t cut it. Relying on personal anecdotes on the combatants for background and then building the tension at a snail’s pace, The Alamo is furthered slowed by interludes of sentimental, Edward Zwick-style cinematography—with crescendos even before the first rifle volley. What’s meant as a nerve-wracking lull before the onslaught comes off as sheer tedium.

While Houston strategizes in the States, Santa Anna leisurely marches on the Alamo, where the pretentious Travis grows up in a hurry, Bowie slowly succumbs to consumption, and Crockett keeps up morale while privately wondering how he ever got into this mess. The audience wonders, too. Why doesn’t the United States just buy the land? Where are the reinforcements? What’s so militarily advantageous about the old missionary grounds, anyway? And when is the dishy Mexican ally (Jordi Molla) getting back in the action? The only moment of excitement for over an hour is when sharpshooter Crockett picks off Santa Anna’s epaulet with his Winchester.

The Alamo is fairly well written—Hancock, who contributed to the script, penned A Perfect World, a minor masterpiece also set in Texas—and smartly ends on a note of uplift by following the fall of the Alamo with the decisive Battle of San Jacinto, which, not incidentally, justifies the clunky inclusion of Houston (Quaid is miserably miscast). But though the film admirably incorporates the views of all sides—the rebellious Texians, various Mexican army officers, and two black slaves caught in the middle—it fails to generate any sense of historical imperative. Playing it both ways—the Alamo as senseless carnage and noble sacrifice—isn’t a very involving perspective, no matter how many dead bodies pile up.

—Ann Morrow

I Put a Spell on You

Ella Enchanted
Directed by Tommy O’Haver

Fans of Gail Carson Levine’s novel for young adults, Ella Enchanted, might be a little taken aback by Tommy O’Haver’s loose translation of the tale of a plucky, if beleaguered heroine who breaks the usual fairy-tale mold to find happiness and inner strength. But with no fewer than five screenwriters, I guess that’s to be expected.

That said, however, Ella Enchanted is no slouch, or even a pale imitation. Ella of Frell (Anne Hathaway), a lovely maiden, bears the unsatisfactory gift of her ditzy godmother Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox)—total, unequivocal obedience. What seemed like a good idea for an infant (“Go to sleep now, lambie!”) doesn’t translate so well in adulthood, especially when wicked stepsisters Hattie (Lucy Punch) and Olive (Jennifer Higham) figure it out. The resultant cruelty they heap on our wretched heroine—culminating in her utter callousness to her longtime best friend—causes Ella to resolve to find Lucinda and demand she take back her gift.

In best storybook tradition, Ella’s path toward redemption is littered with ogres, giants, elves, an evil prince regent and a handsome prince, Charmont (Hugh Dancy), who is beleaguered by hordes of screaming teenyboppers who follow his every move in the latest editions of Medieval Teen magazine. Unlike those other girls, though, Ella is unimpressed with Char, preferring instead once she crosses his path to question his—actually, his uncle Edgar’s (Cary Elwes)—inhumane policies, which require the giants to work the land and the elves to take work as performers.

Ella Enchanted’s obvious debt to the still superior The Princess Bride is evident not just in the way the script pokes fun at fairy-tale plot devices, but in the casting of Elwes—the dreamy Wesley-turned-Dread Captain Robert of the 1987 film—as the despicable Edgar, a role the actor plays with great aplomb. The many special effects—showing us, for instance, an Ella who is commanded to freeze in mid-air, or, à la Princess Fiona, do a number of Matrix-type moves—make this movie feel a lot like Shrek, and indeed, the audience leaves the theater feeling joyful and lighthearted, much the same way we did when we first beheld Mike Meyers’ loveable ogre. Despite the debts that it owes, the movie also deftly treads new ground, particularly in its ever-so-pointed political ripostes, making Ella Enchanted an intelligent choice not just for its target audience of young adults, but their little siblings and parents as well.

—Laura Leon

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