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Innocent no more: Cristiano in I’m Not Scared.

This Boy’s Life
By Laura Leon

I’m Not Scared
Directed by Gabriele Salvatores

From the director of Mediter raneo comes I’m Not Scared, a haunting coming-of-age story posing—quite aptly—as a thriller. Amid the brilliant yellows and golds of fields of wheat, 10-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) plays with his equally ragtag friends games that mimic the pecking order of adulthood. One boy in particular, called Skull, takes delight in humiliating those weaker than him, and in an early scene, brutal for its honesty and its evocation of what cruelties children inflict upon each other, his sadism nearly rules the day until Michele, a weaver of stories, bravely intercedes. These children inhabit a world that, for all the beauty of the wheat, is barren and desolate, seemingly forgotten on the prairies of Italy. The ocean, apparently close by, remains unseen, as if it, too, can’t be bothered with Michele’s shabby town and its hope-deprived inhabitants.

Things change in a big way when Michele, playing near the crumbling ruins of a house in the fields, stumbles upon an imprisoned boy, Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro). At first shocked, then horrified, he nevertheless keeps returning to Filippo, gradually building trust with him, but all the while wondering how he came to be here, and who is behind his kidnapping. The answers to these questions begin to crystallize when he sees Filippo’s mother make an impassioned televised plea to the kidnappers. Within moments, conversations that Michele has overheard between his parents and their friends, as well as their seemingly simple actions, take on enormous import. As Michele frantically seeks to save Filippo, he struggles to make sense of a new, murkier reality.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, I’m Not Scared garnered an R rating. Having read a bit about the movie, as well as the 1978 novel on which is it based (written by Niccolo Ammaniti), I was surprised at this—and a little worried. After all, I was accompanied by my movie-savvy 8-year old, with whom I’ve cringed through many an inappropriate moment in supposedly family-friendly PG films. The only real savagery in I’m Not Scared, however, is at best implied, as when Michele discovers his father’s boss’s revolver, and at worst, the sort mentioned above, where children devise mean ways to taunt each other. The sense of horror and fear that pervades the film is visceral, a growing dread in one’s gut, the dread of awareness. Michele’s play-filled days are forever changed by his discovery of what surrounds him and, indeed, what is part of him.

In essence, I’m Not Scared is about loss of innocence, and Salvatores underscores this theme not only through Michele, but through Michele’s lovely, worn mother Anna (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). “When you are big, you must leave this place,” she tearfully instructs her beloved firstborn, and we sense, before the utter loss of her own hope, the last glimpse of it in the dream that Michele will find peace elsewhere. Equally haunting are scenes in which the town’s children hover together in the town square with darkness descending, while their parents confer behind closed doors, or when one outstretched hand reaches across a seemingly endless chasm of darkness toward another. This is a lovely and resonant movie, whose panoramic prettiness only deepens the sense of wonder and of loss felt by its characters.

Don’t Forget Your Parka

The Day After Tomorrow
Directed by Roland Emmerich

There’s really no reason for all the fuss around The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster flick about global warming that blows up sound scientific principles to preposterous proportions. Yes, the film’s dire warnings on “abrupt climate change,” presented by dour paleo-climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), are tensely realistic, but the premise, a near-instantaneous ice age brought on by melting polar ice caps, causing high-velocity hail stones in Tokyo, snow storms in New Delhi, and rampaging, quadruple tornadoes in Los Angeles, is pure end-of-the-world entertainment (with nary a mention of fossil-fuel- burning vehicles).

Actually though, the scientific stuff—North Atlantic currents thrown off course, colliding air masses, critical desalination points—is rather involving, and the resulting cataclysms are spectacularly rendered. On the West Coast, gale winds rip up the HOLLYWOOD sign letter by letter; on the East, a skyscraper is sheared in half, leaving a janitor to open a 40-floor door onto thin air. The most imaginative sequences, such as the drowning of the Statue of Liberty in a massive typhoon and the electrical storm engulfing the Capital, achieve the picturesque realism of a graphic novel. The big power failure here is with the film’s human nature: Director and co-writer Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) is a terrific technician, but he’s got a freeze-dried sense of storytelling. While survivors head for the New York City Public Library like rats scurrying for driftwood, the audience must endure one too many contrived emotional crises.

Jack’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is traveling with a debate team, is one of the library refugees. A work-obsessed, inattentive dad, Jack is determined to spend quality time with Sam at the last, and so he sets off from Washington, D.C., by snowshoe, with two very stupid colleagues, to rescue his strapping, brainy son, who is happily braving escaped timber wolves on his own rescue mission on behalf of an attractive teammate (Emily Rossum). Further annoyance is provided by Jack’s doctor wife (bland Sela Ward) and her vigil over a young cancer patient who is inexplicably abandoned when the hospital is evacuated. Meanwhile, we don’t see nearly enough of Ian Holm as a jocularly fatalistic scientist who serves as the canary in the polar mine shaft.

Somewhat true to life, the White House, caught without an adequate forecast model, refuses to acknowledge the severity of the problem. Dick Cheney look-alike Kenneth Welsh as the all-powerful VP (to Perry King’s window-dressing president) gives the best, or at least the sliest, performance in the movie, adding immeasurably to the film’s tongue-in-cheek resolution. The ending may be played for liberal snickers, but it’s to Emmerich’s credit that he relies on trade agreements rather than the usual nuclear blast (a la Armageddon, The Core, etc.) to save the Northern Hemisphere. And the moral of this quasi-cautionary tale is a refreshingly simple one: In case of ice age, keep an ice pick handy.

—Ann Morrow

East Is East

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring
Directed by Ki-duk Kim

Universality is a lovely concept. It’s useful to study myths and religious traditions across the world and through history. The Korean-made Buddhist fable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring is the fascinating, moving and at times violent story of one monk’s life. It’s easy to find some “universal” truths in it. However, a moviegoer with no background in Buddhist traditions or thought is likely to come out of this film as mystified as a non-Christian walking out of The Passion of the Christ.

As the title implies, the film presents the monk’s life as a series of seasons. Spring finds him as a child (Jong-ho Kim), under the care and tutelage of an old monk (Young-soo Oh). They live a happy life on a small, handsome floating monastery on a clear, beautiful lake. The lake is at the bottom of a dramatic valley surrounded by spectacular mountains; a rowboat serves as their conveyance.

The child is a child, innocent and curious. While he shows attentiveness to his studies, and affection when playing with the monk’s dog, he has a typical kid cruel streak. In one striking parable, he ties stones to a few small, defenseless animals with childish glee. The old monk observes, and teaches the kid a harsh, but satisfying and useful, lesson.

Spring is followed by summer, naturally, and the story finds the now-teenage monk (Jae-kyung Seo) settled into his life of prayer with the older monk. The dog is gone, replaced by a rooster. Settled, that is, until a teenage girl (Yeo-jin Hay) arrives, looking for a cure for her illness. The older monk diagnoses melancholy. It proves to be something simpler than that, as the two healthy youngsters, cooped up on what essentially is a small houseboat, do what comes naturally. Of course, there are consequences.

It is also at this point that the seemingly centuries-old setting turns out be contemporary. A nice directorial touch by Ki-duk Kim, underlining the timelessness of a way of life.

Spring ends with the old monk warning the teenage monk that lust leads to possessiveness and murder. And from that point on, I could follow along, but didn’t really get the point of the action. Fall brings murder. Winter brings contrition. Spring brings a new cycle of life.

The cinematography is first-rate. The compositions and camera movements are striking and well thought out. The acting is excellent. There’s even a charming cat with a beguiling meow. If you’re not spiritually hip to the action, however, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring is just a lot of weather.

—Shawn Stone

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