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Too beautiful for this story: Witherspoon in Vanity Fair.

A Tigress Declawed
By Laura Leon

Vanity Fair
Directed by Mira Nair

It’s a peculiarity that American readers, many of whom have probably never read William Makepeace Thackeray, presume that his Vanity Fair is something lightweight and pleasant, like the magazine, and that its main character, Becky Sharp, is a plucky heroine who won’t let low birth or lack of wealth impede her progression through high society. This assumption blithely ignores the reality, referenced by the author himself, that this is a novel without a hero. Vanity Fair, modeled after the marketplace in which property and honor are traded in John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, is peopled by characters who are not interested in truth, but who deceive themselves and waste lives in pursuit of false ideals, wealth and position. While Becky, one of literature’s greatest creations, is witty, smart and resourceful, she’s also calculating and unfeeling, equally capable of using the likes of dull-witted but kindly Amelia Sedley or the powerful Marquess of Steyne to get what she wants.

Director Mira Nair has taken this great, if disturbing, story and placed it against an opulent backdrop, reflecting the trade epicenter that London was in the early 1800s. Vivid scarlet reds, emerald greens and violets create a visual splendor, at once reminding the viewer of the importance of fashion as social indicator and exemplifying the cultural influence of exotic British-controlled territories in India and Asia. Indeed, one of Nair’s strengths is her ability, perhaps given her Indian background, to delicately expose the hard facts and subtle nuances of the English class system.

Becky (Reese Witherspoon), daughter of an opera singer and an artist, befriends Amelia (Romola Garai) in an attempt to avoid having to work as governess to Lord Pitt Crowley (Bob Hoskins). Unfortunately for the schemer, Amelia’s intended, the snobbish George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), sees right through her, and puts an end to her initial bid for glory. Becky ultimately marries Rawdon Crowley (James Purefoy), which succeeds in getting him disinherited from his wealthy aunt Matilda (Eileen Atkins). The majority of the film follows Becky’s attempts at gaining social footing, amid the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo and its aftermath. Along the way, Nair inserts snippets involving the various Crowleys, as well as the widowed Amelia and her infatuated suitor, Major Dobbin (Rhys Ifins).

Whenever reviewing a movie that is based on a book, particularly a book that I’ve enjoyed immensely, I sometimes find it difficult to juggle my personal feeling that perhaps the movie should be faithful to the book, with my acknowledged respect for filmmakers who make a personal imprint on a source material. Having said that, however, I can’t help being annoyed and vastly underwhelmed by what Nair has accomplished. This is not just because she has neutered the tart-tongued Becky, making her a sort of Horatia Alger of the early empire, but because she’s removed most of the novel’s social barb and critical bite in favor of a sweeping romance—albeit one without much passion. From the first scene (one not in the book) in which 10-year-old Becky drives a hard bargain in a sale of her mother’s portrait, Nair presents her heroine as that plucky individual who, doggamit, is going to poke a finger in the eye of a haughty society that looks down upon her. This decidedly American point of view is simply out of place in a movie set in Great Britain during and after the Napoleonic wars. Moreover, Nair’s vision, abetted by a screenplay by Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes, posits Becky as a spiritual twin to the fiery Scarlett O’Hara. This is so noticeable that during the scene in which Rawdon, having been betrayed by Becky’s greed, bids adieu, I cringed for fear that I’d hear lines like “But, Rawdon, what will I do, where will I go?” and “Frankly, my dear Becky, I don’t give a damn.”

With her ample (through pregnancy) figure, delightfully expressive face, and precise comic timing, Witherspoon makes a game try at emboldening Becky, but is ultimately hamstrung by the writing and direction. One can’t help but wonder what she could have done had the filmmakers allowed her to show some of the character’s acid side. Still, with the exception of veteran scene stealers Hoskins and Atkins, she’s about all there is to interest us in a movie populated by pretty-boy actors (these guys are military?) and visual doppelgangers to Gone With The Wind—the post Waterloo scene, in particular, is a direct riff off the scene, in the 1939 movie, in which thousands of dead and dying litter the Atlanta train station.

The movie almost rises to a level of scathing commentary, or at least dynamism, when Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) emerges from the shadows to act as Becky’s puppeteer. This sinister, cunning socialite, who all too readily offers Becky the keys to her presumed kingdom, lays to rest any and all social deceptions in a blistering verbal assault on his wife and daughters, who initially refuse his request to invite Becky to dinner. In the entire movie, this is the only scene with any crackle or zest. Ironically, Vanity Fair is a story about people for whom the truth bears no weight, holds no meaning; it would seem that the same holds true for the filmmakers.

Tapestry of Slaughter

The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi
Directed by Takeshi Kitano

If you thought Tarantino’s Kill Bill flicks were weird and wonderful, you’re likely to be enthralled by The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi, a Japanese film that entertainingly riffs on the trademarks of pulp samurai movies, buoyed by director Takeshi Kitano’s delirious artistic talents. Zatôichi is a blind samurai who travels the country under the guise of a humble masseur with a fondness for gambling (the character is a staple of Japanese pop culture). His real mission is to protect the poor from oppression, which he does with blood-gushing dexterity: His cane does double duty as a sheath for his lethal sword as he seemingly hones in on his opponents with radar-like hearing. In Takeshi Kitano’s version (the writer-director also stars as the stoical Zatôichi), the typically convoluted plot is distinguished by its emotional richness. Zatôichi can also be considered as an art film of sorts, due to its beautifully bizarre aesthetics.

Set in the samurai era (the meticulous production is the furthest thing from kitsch), Zatôichi consists of three intertwining stories. First is the masseur’s arrival in a village under the dominion of a cruel and rapacious Boss, who himself is under fealty to an even crueler overlord, the mysterious Lord Sakai. Zatôichi is taken in by a kindly peasant woman (Michiyo Ookusu) who is being impoverished by the protection money she must pay out to the Boss’s heartless yakuza. Zatôichi strikes up a friendship with her hapless nephew, a fellow gambler who provides the film with much of its oddball comic relief. Meanwhile, the Boss hires a new “bodyguard,” a surpassingly deadly ronin (Tadanobu Asano, “the Asian Johnny Depp”) who needs money for his sick wife. After countless casualties—all dispatched with crisply swift and inventive fight choreography—Zatôichi and the bodyguard will thrillingly battle to the death.

But before that, Zatôichi and his sidekick encounter two geishas who are not who they seem to be. The film flashes back to the geishas’ childhood and how they were orphaned by a crime boss and learned to survive by luring and robbing unsuspecting clients. This subplot gives the film an undercurrent of tragedy that justifies the high body count and all of its spurting, severed limbs and cleverly slashed flesh.

As the various characters intersect, Kitano punctuates the proceedings with unexpected bursts of artistry, some of it tied to the strangely syncopated score. At one point, farmers in a rice paddy swing their hoes in unison to the music like beat poetry. And the tale of the geishas comes complete with Kabuki routines. Even so, the joyful ending appears out of nowhere as the characters come together in a musical finale that Michael Flatley would be proud of. Like a great deal else in Zatôichi, it has to be seen to be believed.

—Ann Morrow

Boredom, Shoes and Cell Phones

Wicker Park
Directed by Paul McGuigan

Wicker Park is in Chicago. Wicker Park is not only a park, but a trendy neighborhood, with its own chi-chi restaurant and whole streets of shabby-chic apartments. These are the settings for the movie Wicker Park, and they receive just as many lingering close-ups as the four characters, who are supposedly caught up in a thriller but are actually caught up in nothing more than their own stupidity and veniality. According to the credits, Wicker Park is a remake of the hit French thriller L’Appartement, but it must be a very loose adaptation, because Vincent Cassell would never appear in anything this lame.

Cassell’s character is now Matthew (Josh Hartnett), a photographer who lies a lot. So does his friend Luke (Matthew Lillard), who runs a trendy shoe store. So does Alex (Rose Byrne), an actress whom Matthew mistakes for his lost love, Lisa (Diane Kruger), a dancer who left him without a trace two years previous. Matthew’s undiminished love for Lisa hasn’t stopped him from becoming engaged, however, and his engagement doesn’t stop him from a one-nighter with Alex. But something sure stopped director Paul McGuigan from filming the “romantic thriller” of the ad campaign, because there’s nothing remotely sexy or suspenseful in this boring round robin of shoes, lies and cell phones.

Matthew first meets Lisa in the shoe store. They fall in love with an intensity that can only be conveyed by emptily pretty, music-video-style montages passing as flashbacks. When Matthew catches a glimpse of Lisa in a restaurant, he follows her to a phone booth, but all that is remains is her perfume and a hotel-room key. Assuming it is hers, he enters the room . . . where he promptly falls asleep. Later, he steals an apartment key, and believing it to be Lisa’s, he lets himself in. Incredibly, the woman who lives there does not call the police. Even more incredibly, Matthew doesn’t notice that Lisa is back in Wicker Park. And Lisa hasn’t an inkling that Matthew is looking for her, because of nonstop near misses and coincidences and misunderstandings, most of them tediously unbelievable, and none of them within a sliding door of the stardusted chance encounters of Next Stop Wonderland, a film that deserves better than to be the inspiration for McGuigan’s obvious contrivances.

Matthew is so desperate to reconnect with Lisa, he’ll do anything, including duping his fiancée and snooping on Alex. Anything, that is, other than something sensible like attending dance recitals. Although Matthew is photographed as a brooding poet—one especially fake scene has him brooding in a driving storm of fake snow, with billows of fake steam pouring from his nostrils—his repugnant actions generate more alarm than sympathy.

And since the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance is completely uninteresting, the audience is left to wonder about other things, such as whether Hartnett is even blander here than he was in Pearl Harbor, and if Kruger’s German accent is even more noticeable than when she played Helen in Troy. And why does Lillard, who can be very funny when he’s not in Scooby Doo-doo, pick such lousy scripts? And how much did the Drake Hotel pay for its product placement within the plot? But the most pressing question of all is: When will this commercialized slop finally be over?

—Ann Morrow

The Balloonatic

Danny Deckchair
Directed by Jeff Balsmeyer

It would be unfair to dismiss Danny Deckchair for its whimsical premise. The idea of a fellow tying enough helium balloons to a backyard chair to send him aloft for hundreds of miles, away from his miserable suburb to a bucolic paradise and a really cute chick, is perfectly charming. Or, more to the point, could have been perfectly charming. This Australian would-be romantic comedy is, however, obvious and dull.

Danny (Rhys Ifans) has nothing but a holiday on his mind. The construction worker is so lost in dreams of camping that he stumbles into, and is submerged in, cement—twice in one week. His significant other, Trudy (Justine Clarke), does not share his enthusiasm for camping, however, and when her career as a real-estate agent takes off, she scuttles their trip to the great outdoors. Thus, Danny’s frustration, and his whimsical notion of escape, à la Dorothy from Oz, from urban Sydney to the great unknown.

The whole film is based on Ifans’ persona as a lovable nut. Ever since his bit as Hugh Grant’s wacky pal in Notting Hill gained the actor a measure of fame, Ifans has played variations on the dopey innocent in films like the Charlie Kaufmann misfire Human Nature. Which is perfectly fine—he’s good at it. This film tries to broaden the appeal—he becomes a regular Joe, or, as this is Australia, a regular Bruce—but does so in embarrassing ways; for example, he is turned into a Mr. Smith-type political neophyte, and his speech extolling the virtues of the little guy is an embarrassment.

On the bright side, Ifans takes some good pratfalls, and Clarke, as his social-climbing girlfriend, has an appealing, slutty vivaciousness. That’s about it. . . . Oh, and the scenery is nice. In a misfire like Danny Deckchair, you enjoy what you can.

—Shawn Stone

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