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(Metroland, Jan. 10, 2001)

"What's my name?!!"

At a couple of significant points in "Ali," Michael Mann's epic treatment of a colorful stretch in the life of legendary pugilist Muhammad Ali, the title character barks this question like a boast and a challenge rolled into one. Yet whether he's asking the question to goad a crowd into chanting or to persuade an opponent to show respect, we get the impression that Ali also is asking the question of himself. This is appropriate and surprising, and it reflects how Mann steers clear of the trap facing filmmakers who explore the lives of overfamiliar figures: Since viewers all know who Ali is, the movie illustrates the chain of events through which Ali came to understand himself.

Mann, whose last foray into stylized nonfiction was the absorbing whistleblower tale "The Insider," loses the forest for the trees several times during "Ali," getting carried away with eye-catching imagery, music-video-style passages, and, of course, reenactments of famous boxing matches. Yet the film's most transcendent moments -- during which the director successfully takes us inside the ideological conflicts that permeated this stormy chapter in Ali's life -- compensate for the movie's excesses. "Ali" is too long, too loud, too thorough, and just plain too much, but the more-is-more treatment suits this story about a man whose witty boasting is as notorious as his fleet footwork.

The picture begins with the young, cocky Cassius Clay Jr. winning the heavyweight championship of the world from Sonny Liston in 1964, and ends with him reclaiming the championship from George Foreman in 1974, by which point Clay was renamed Muhammad Ali. Along the way, the quick-witted combatant undergoes a series of transformations, evolving from an up-and-coming athlete to a politicized icon. The overstuffed movie dramatizes Ali's relationships with several major characters, including doomed black-rights activist Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), opportunistic Nation of Islam functionary Herbert Muhammad (Barry Shabaka Henley), troubled right-hand man Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx), and caustic sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight).

As in "The Insider" and "Heat," Mann uses a spectrum of characters to bring out different aspects of his protagonist, and the weakest link in this intricate approach to characterization is the director's halfhearted approach to defining the women in Ali's life. Yet even some of the male characters get lost because Mann consolidates so much material into 158 minutes; the director's approach has never seemed more haphazardly impressionistic than it does here. Sometimes Mann's loose style works wonders, as when we hear Ali think a line to himself before he utters it, and sometimes the style is merely self-conscious, as when handheld video footage is cut into the fight sequences. Mann's creativity and intelligence brim over throughout the film, so viewers spend almost as much time engaging the storyteller as they do his subject.

The screenplay, by Mann and several collaborators, has about a zillion interesting ideas and cutting lines -- slick fight promoter Don King is described as a man who "talks black, lives white, and sees green" -- yet it too suffers for the excess of the filmmaker's approach. The story zigs and zags into several intriguing subplots, which makes for vibrant moments but dilutes the impact of the principal narrative.

Because the director's imprint is so visible on every frame of the film, Smith's performance ends up taking a backseat to Mann's stylization. Yet it's an excellent, engaged performance; in addition to bulking up to approximate Ali's brawn and modulating his normally precise diction to match the fighter's raw but deliberate cadences, Smith gets inside the character's myriad moral quandaries. A climactic scene in which Ali realizes he's been elevated to demigod status by African fans is wonderfully ambiguous, and Smith nails both the scene's strange gravity and the heavy burden his character wears thereafter. Had Mann's filmmaking achieved the clarity of Smith's performance, "Ali" would have been a knockout instead of a draw.


"Apocalypse Now Redux"
(Metroland, Sept. 20, 2001)

It may seem unfortunate that "Apocalypse Now Redux," an extended version of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 epic about the Vietnam War, went into wide distribution the same week that Americans confronted a real apocalypse. But in a way, the timing is apt. With nearly 50 minutes of restored scenes broadening the reach of Coppola's visionary meditation on man's inhumanity to man, the film is more provocative than ever, and sadly topical. As America's leaders talk about gearing up for war, it's enlightening to revisit a combat film that's in some ways as insane as war itself. And while few viewers may be in the mood to watch orgiastic scenes of destruction and slaughter, it's hard to walk out of "Apocalypse Now Redux" feeling good about the idea of bombing foreign enemies back to the Stone Age.

For those unfamiliar with the picture, "Apocalypse Now" is Coppola's loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness." In the movie, unbalanced Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent to Cambodia to assassinate the even more unbalanced Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has merged units of American and Asian fighters into a savage armada prone to beheadings and other terrorist tactics. Among the many pungent metaphors in the picture is the hypocrisy of America determining that one of its killers has developed too great a thirst for blood. If you've ever seen the 1979 version of the picture, you know it's a phantasmagoria of hypnotic music, hallucinatory imagery, and haunting violence. It also has divided audiences for years: Vast numbers of people consider it an expressionist masterpiece, while perhaps even more find it unwatchable and pretentious.

Those put off by the original version will be even more appalled by the new one, and, accordingly, those fascinated by the original will find the film's new facets intriguing. Among the many key scenes added for the new release are a depressing vignette in which "Playboy" models in Vietnam to entertain troops become stranded and trade sex for fuel; and a funny sequence in which Willard's crew steals a surfboard from nutty Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who remains the picture's best-realized character. The most important restoration is a long sequence that stops the movie dead just before Brando makes his first appearance, a series of scenes set at a French plantation near the Cambodian border.

At the plantation, landowner Hubert de Marais (Christian Marquand) expounds at great length about the arrogance of America's involvement in Vietnam. "We fight to keep what is ours," he says of the beleaguered French who live in Southeast Asia. "You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history." While draining on a dramatic level because it moves slowly, the plantation sequence adds a layer of intellectual discourse to the mostly emotional texture of the film. It's intriguing to travel back in time and get a closer look at where Coppola's head was at when he made "Apocalypse" -- and frightening to be once again reminded of how obsessively the director attacked his troubling subject.

For while "Apocalypse Now," especially the "Redux" version, is an ambitious exploration of the nature and futility of war, it also is a deeply personal document. As has been recounted in books and movies, particularly the excellent documentary "Hearts of Darkness," Coppola set out to wage war against war itself when he commenced production on "Apocalypse Now." By the end of the torturous process, he was waging war against his own demons: hubris, megalomania, narcissism. These same demons, it's worth nothing, often spur men to war. In light of that parallel, and in the context of recent tumultuous events, plunging back into the mire of Coppola's anguish is a way of rediscovering how easily violence and the desire for vengeance can strangle reason.


"Before Sunset"
(Film Threat, July 3, 2004 -- Los Angeles Film Festival)

Nine years ago, director Richard Linklater and his adventurous collaborators crafted one of the most delicate cinematic romances of recent years. "Before Sunrise" was a talky, heady, swoony ode to young love that also served as a snapshot of Generation X's slippery transition into adulthood. It was a unique piece of work, and when production of the sequel was announced, it was easy to imagine the new picture both failing to recapture the magic of the original and even tarnishing the memory of that film. That "Before Sunset" complements and in many ways surpasses its predecessor is but one of the great accomplishments of this wonderful film.

Whereas "Before Sunrise" leavened its talkiness with jumps in time and with vignettes involving peripheral characters, the sequel is an uninterrupted 80-minute dialogue between two richly imagined and performed characters. In an era when so many arthouse flicks are indie in the flimsiest sense - "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Bend It Like Beckham" sure didn't challenge their audiences - "Before Sunset" is a reminder of what a maverick filmmaker can accomplish by stripping away the excesses of mainstream cinema. The irony, of course, is that "Before Sunset" is an indie from a studio: It's the debut film of Warner Bros.' new specialty division, Warner Independent Pictures.

In the original film, brainy American slacker Jesse (Ethan Hawke) met a gorgeous, equally smart Frenchwoman named Celine (Julie Delpy) on the last day of a European trip. They walked and talked through Vienna, then parted on uncertain terms. The new movie picks up nine years later, with Jesse in Paris for a book tour promoting his novel inspired by his brief encounter with Celine. She shows up at the book singing, and they walk and talk through Paris. The most obvious mark of integrity in this picture is that the film doesn't surround the Jesse-Celine conversation with anything other than the sights and sounds of the City of Lights. This creates a powerful intimacy.

Linklater and Kim Krizan, cowriters of the original, wrote the story for "Before Sunset," and the screenplay is credited to Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. The actors' close involvement with the material shows in every scene, because their performances are so effortless and beguiling that the veil between actor and character all but disappears. Yet instead of feeling like navel-gazing muck in which the actors and director vocalize their interior monologues, the film has distinct structure, momentum, and focus. Linklater and his collaborators know exactly the story they're after, and exactly how to tell that story. Amazingly, this picture containing almost nothing but two people talking never wanders onto tangents -- as the first film did -- but rather grooves steadily toward its conclusion with a uniquely cinematic urgency.

The new film doesn't try to recapture the incandescent romance of the original, because, as the characters discuss with great eloquence, Jesse and Celine have lost the ability to live inside pure love. The characters were likeably narcissistic the first time out, and now they have more expansive views of the universe. Jesse is a philosopher grounded by his role as a father, and Celine is an idealist validated by her work as an environmentalist. Each is bitter about having lost their ability to dream recklessly of a better world.

It would do a disservice to the picture's elegant narrative to say much more about how the Jesse-Celine dynamic advances in this entry, but it's not giving anything away to note the movie's uniformly smart and often funny dialogue. Hawke casually spouts gems like this line about his character's book being a best-seller: "Most people haven't read 'Moby-Dick,' so why should I give a shit?" Delpy encapsulates the romantic problems facing modern, independent women in a terrific meltdown scene set in the back of a car.

Hawke has never been this loose and endearing, not even in "Before Sunrise" -- during which he displayed a number of affectations that suited the character. And while he sports the alarmingly gaunt look he's had in his last few movies, Hawke seems more alive onscreen in "Before Sunset" than he ever has. If Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater return to the material again in another decade, Jesse could easily emerge as the great creation of Hawke's career. While some of his other archetypal Gen-X roles, notably in "Reality Bites," are well-executed interpretations of ideas rooted in Hollywood artificiality, this character is a pure depiction of the ambivalence that defines so many thirtysomethings. As Jesse says in the new movie, "I feel like I'm designed to be slightly dissatisfied with everything." Preach on, my brother.

Delpy is, to use that most hackneyed critical word, a revelation. She's on fire from frame one, shifting gracefully from rants about favorite lefty topics (corporate arrogance, gun violence) to poetic observations about past lovers. Now that Delpy (and Celine) have more years and life experiences behind them, the actress and the character are even more appealing than before. Celine drifted into abstraction in the first movie -- she was, after all, a Gallic dream girl occupying center stage in a romantic fantasy. Now she's a complete person. Hell, she even sings! Delpy performs one of her own compositions onscreen, and more of her songs appear on the soundtrack. And really, that meltdown must be seen to be believed. The vigor with which Delpy moves through Celine's mood swings in that scene, and in the picture as a whole, is mesmerizing.

While the picture is by its nature an acting showcase, Linklater's sure hand is the reason the material comes together. He couldn't possibly do more to get out of the way of his actors, because his camera style is utterly without vanity. Filmed primarily with over-the-shoulder angles and with long, Woody Allen-style tracking shots, "Before Sunset" is deceptively simple. The real craftsmanship shows in the architecture of the story, and in the deft ways Linklater connects the new film to the original. For instance, "Before Sunrise" had a good deal of amusing and pointed content pertaining to Jesse being an "ugly American" who speaks only one language. That has evolved into the new movie's material about Jesse being an armchair progressive who just bitches about world problems, while Celine actually does something about those problems through her environmental work.

But don't let all of this talk of representing a generation, addressing political issues, and verbalizing the subtleties of romantic strife give you the idea that "Before Sunset" totally lacks the erotic glow of the first picture. It's hard to imagine a bigger turn-on in movies this year than a particular moment when Celine catches Jesse by surprise. As they ride a tour boat along the Seine, with the soaring towers of Notre Dame rising nearby, she wistfully recalls the way the sun caught the red hairs in his brunet goatee the morning after their unforgettable night nine years ago.

Linklater ends the new picture on another ambiguous note, but the ending is so perfect that it's tempting to hold one's breath waiting to see where Jesse and Celine find themselves in 2013.


"Black Hawk Down"
(Metroland, Jan. 24, 2002)

"In Somalia, killing is negotiation," a captured militia leader explains to U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Garrison (Sam Shepard). While this may seem like macho boasting, the prisoner's words turn out to be prophetic. Throughout "Black Hawk Down," Ridley Scott's blistering new war movie, scores of American soldiers feel the deadly sting of the militia's "negotiation" as they move through a heavily fortified combat zone. Based on a real-life event that occurred in 1993, the picture is a haunting indictment of American hubris.

Against a complicated sociopolitical backdrop that mostly is relegated to the subtext of the story, a group of 123 American soldiers is sent into the city of Mogadishu to capture two high-ranking militia leaders from a densely populated area that's completely controlled by the enemy. Garrison tells the mission's commanders that the action should take 30 minutes from beginning to end, but the enemy's unexpected resolve -- and a series of sloppy mishaps on the part of the Americans -- turn the invasion into a disaster. Before long, two U.S. helicopters are shot down and dozens of American soldiers are trapped in city streets that the Somalis use like shooting galleries. The ensuing carnage is stupefying.

Working from a book by Mark Bowden, screenwriters Ken Nolan and Steven Zaillian tell the story primarily from the viewpoint of the embattled foot soldiers, although they offer a useful prelude that sets up the stakes of the battle, and vignettes of Garrison back at headquarters. The picture is concerned primarily with what it felt like to be a desperately outnumbered American trapped in an unforgiving foreign locale. Well-armed enemy snipers and infantrymen lurk behind every corner, so the soldiers are on constant life-and-death alert for an exhausting 15 hours. Viewers are taken deep inside the visceral experience of this bloodbath, which claimed the lives of 18 Americans and a staggering 1,000 Somalis.

By focusing on combat instead of sentiment, Scott presents a movie that's like the first 20 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" stretched out to two and a half hours. The absence of clichéd material -- commanders' paternal affection for their troops, soldiers trying to "understand" the enemy -- is welcome. Rather than making a statement about war, "Black Hawk Down" simply presents an impressionistic interpretation of war. As often happens in Scott's films, characterization takes a backseat to sensation and spectacle. Still, given how difficult it is for any director to ensure that a fast-moving picture about characters who look virtually the same makes sense, Scott does a terrific job of differentiating the personalities and experiences of his principal characters.

The soul of the movie is Sgt. Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), a well-liked but untried unit leader who tries to balance humanity and duty, and Hartnett sculpts a deeply felt performance as a man who matures in step with what's asked of him. A dozen or so other actors make strong impressions, including newcomer Eric Bana, as a macho commando who backs up his bluster with deadly resolve and skill, and Tom Sizemore, who seems born to play put-upon field commanders. Brits Ewan McGregor and Jason Isaacs bury their accents to convincingly play a desk jockey-turned-soldier and a tough Texan, respectively, and William Fichtner, portraying a commando constantly questioning his orders, adds another flawless performance to his resume.

But this really is Scott's show, and the movies' preeminent visual stylist moves his artistry to yet another high plateau with "Black Hawk Down." Scott comes closer than he ever has to meshing documentary-like realism with the sophisticated photography for which he is known, and he actually benefits from the pared-back human interaction of the screenplay. "Black Hawk Down" allows him to revel in his superhuman gift for creating images, and sidestep his limited ability to illustrate how people relate to each other. What's more, the director hasn't made anything this socially relevant since "Thelma & Louise" more than a decade ago.


"Collateral Damage"
(Metroland, Feb. 14, 2002)

It's hard to imagine something more distasteful than "Collateral Damage" becoming a part of America's healing process. The new Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick was to be released last fall, but was delayed because the terrorist-themed plot seemed too insensitive after Sept. 11. The world is apparently now ready to cheer the annihilation of onscreen terrorists, so Warner Bros. released "Collateral Damage" last Friday, and it beat weak competition to emerge as the weekend's top moneymaker. But it turns out the movie should have been shelved for a reason other than its coincidental relationship to current events: It's crap.

Admittedly, it's foolish to expect much from a Schwarzenegger flick these days. Returns on the Austrian muscleman's pictures diminished steadily during the late '90s, so lately the best he can cobble together are hackneyed scripts, directors recovering from flops, and generic costars. Sure, it's been reported that he'll get $30 million for the third "Terminator" movie, but that's because the producers don't have to pay for director James Cameron or even series costar Edward Furlong, neither of whom are returning. In "Collateral Damage," the only name actors besides Schwarzenegger are John Turturro and John Leguizamo, whose roles are little more than cameos.

Schwarzenegger plays Gordy Brewer, a fireman whose wife and child are killed when a Colombian terrorist called "The Wolf" blows up a building in downtown L.A. Politicians drop the ball on prosecuting the killer, opting instead to seek justice through diplomatic channels. Gordy takes matters into his own hands, traveling to South America to hunt and kill the mysterious guerilla leader. In a typically stupid scene, the hero survives a preposterous leap into a raging waterfall, recycling a device that "Collateral Damage" director Andrew Davis used in "The Fugitive."

Characters survive cataclysmic explosions, make insanely convenient last-minute discoveries, and perform stunts that violate every known physical law. In the heyday of overblown action movies, the era of "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon," this silliness was fun, especially when leavened with humor. But after more than a decade of mindless action pictures, fun and humor have been drained from the formula. Watching "Collateral Damage" is as perfunctory a process as making it must have been.

And then there's the terrorist angle. The Wolf would have been just another colorless villain prior to Sept. 11 -- we're never clearly told, for instance, what the Wolf fights for -- but now the villain is symbolic of America's demon du jour. Some folks may dig watching Schwarzenegger, that mythic projection of our feelings of jingoistic virility, knock the Wolf around like a punching bag. But this movie underlines how violence begets violence, and how blind hatred begets blind hatred. Warner Bros. is pitching "Collateral Damage" as a fantasy image of how American can wriggle free of its current troubles, but it's really just another glorification of bestial urges.


"Death to Smoochy"
(Metroland, April 4, 2002)

"There's a lot of kids and junkies out there who are depending on me," Sheldon Mopes declares emphatically. Sheldon is a granola-crunching hippie with an acoustic guitar and a dream of making the world better, but he takes an unusual route toward social change. He's a professional children's entertainer who dresses in a pink rhino suit and calls himself Smoochy. The good news is that he has a choice time slot on a kiddie-TV network, but the bad news is that his new bosses couldn't care less about Sheldon's agenda of healing junkies and nurturing youths. Oh, and Sheldon's got another problem: The guy who used to have his time slot wants him dead.

This darkly satirical plot is the juice behind "Death to Smoochy," an incredibly uneven new comedy from director Danny DeVito. The movie fails on many levels, and its script is so erratic that characters abruptly change into completely different people whenever the story necessitates a tonal shift, but "Death to Smoochy" is loaded with edgy humor and laugh-out-loud moments. If you're willing to overlook the movie's massive problems, strap yourself in for a wickedly good time.

The picture's greatest strength is costar Edward Norton, who plays Sheldon. One of the most reliable and versatile talents in Hollywood, Norton nails every aspect of his character, from the earnestness that fills Sheldon whenever he puts on his Smoochy suit to the repressed anger burning in the character's offscreen persona. Given how inconsistent the other characters are -- and given Norton's reported history of tinkering with how his roles are written -- chances are we have the actor to thank for the fact that Sheldon is the only person in this movie who makes sense start to finish.

The movie's nominal star, Robin Williams, plays kid-TV host Rainbow Randolph, who gets busted for taking bribes in exchange for featuring particular tots on his show. When his time slot is given to Sheldon, Randolph turns into a homicidal alcoholic. It's fun to watch Williams go dark after seeing him in so many cuddly roles, but you can sense the touchy-feely guy trying to break out from the psycho, which undercuts the humor. It doesn't help that some of the tricks Randolph pulls on Sheldon stretch credibility way past the breaking point.

Another big problem is the character played by Catherine Keener, a TV exec who initially regards Sheldon as a simp whom she can manipulate, but who gets turned from an antagonist to a love interest with only the flimsiest of justifications. Jon Stewart, Harvey Fierstein, and, stepping in front of the camera, DeVito are similarly shortchanged by silly roles. Enduring character player Vincent Schiavelli at least gets a priceless exit line.

This movie's weaknesses may well outnumber its strengths, but its best moments are memorable, and they usually involve Norton. In one of his finest scenes, Norton captures the sickly sensitivity that pervades Smoochy's style of children's entertainment with a song that Norton cowrote with screenwriter Adam Resnick: With nary a trace of irony, the man in the pink rhino suit sings "My Stepdad's Not Mean (He's Just Adjusting)."


"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"
(Film Threat, Jan. 26, 2005 -- Sundance Film Festival)

For those who considered "Fahrenheit 9/11" last year's most successful horror movie, here comes "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," another terrifying examination of the hubris with which the Bushies and their Big Oil cronies are raping America.

Adapted from the book of the same name, "Enron" meticulously tracks the rise and fall of Enron boss Kenneth Lay and his second-in-command, Jeffrey Skilling, while also delving into the grotesque activities of their various lieutenants. It's not saying anything new to remark that this is the story of a monstrous violation of the public trust, but knowing the basic framework of this cautionary tale doesn't diminish the documentary's drama and revelatory power.

Writer-director Alex Gibney presents the string of events that led to Enron's collapse with surgical precision, and in so doing creates a disturbing conspiracy thriller. He kicks off with the suicide of Enron executive Cliff Baxter, then backtracks to explore how Baxter was just the most obvious tragedy in a catastrophe of epic proportions. For those keeping track, the key stats are that Enron's collapse put 20,000 workers out on their asses, and caused more than $3 billion in pension and retirement benefits to disappear.

Why did it happen? The obvious answer is that Lay, Skilling and their cohorts got greedy, but that's only part of the story. As the subtitle indicates, the top guys at Enron weren't dummies, so it's not as if they pulled a fast one and hoped no one would notice. They exploited loopholes in existing business law -- and created new business models -- with the intent of defrauding the public in plain sight.

Gibney allows Enron apologists to posit that Lay and Skilling were in their ways emblematic American businessmen because of their ruthless pursuit of the bottom line, which amplifies the idea that these men might have made valuable contributions to society had they possessed, you know, consciences. This enables the picture to go beyond a recap of a recent news story and blossom into a thoughtful critique of the capitalist ideal; after all, it's a short leap from telling employees to make money to telling them to make money by any means necessary.

The picture details how Enron's first step into the moral abyss was employing something called "mark-to-market accounting," wherein companies declare projected profits the day a deal is signed. So when Enron decided to build a massive power plant in India, for instance, the company documented the income it expected to collect once the plant was completed as profit. Little problem -- India has such widespread poverty that consumers could never possibly afford the energy Enron was selling. The factory was never completed, but executives involved in its erection pocketed gigantic bonuses because the fake profits pushed Enron's stock price into the stratosphere.

The company's arrogance reached insane levels when Enron jumped into the deregulated energy market in California. As is revealed in chilling audiotapes featuring conversations between power-plant operators and Enron traders, the company actually caused blackouts in order to drive up its energy price, then turned the juice back on once the price-gouging was in place. The picture even proposes that the Enron-fueled energy "crisis" was the reason for Gov. Gray Davis' recall, which means Enron's at least partly to blame for the ascendance of the Governator. It's a wonder Californians haven't lynched Lay by this point.

Gibney also illuminates the insidious relationship between the Bush family and the Enron empire. This picture documents George W. Bush's corruption almost as sharply as "Fahrenheit 9/11," especially in one choice bit: At the height of California's energy crisis, Bush says he won't intervene, adding that "The best way we can help California is to be good citizens." Huh?

While it's easy to embrace Gibney's picture as a blue-state screed, "Enron" actually aims higher than that. By providing incisive portraits of the key players, it also scores as an examination of how the greed inherent to the capitalist model enables troubled personalities to run amok when the proper checks and balances aren't in place. Skilling is portrayed as a former overweight nerd whose pride rested in his confidence in being smarter than peers, so when he grew up, got in shape, and accumulated power, he became a monster with an ax to grind. Worse, he cashed in $200 million in stocks and quit just before the shit hit the fan; as one betrayed coworker notes, his unexpected departure was akin to Jim Jones serving everyone the Kool-Aid and then not drinking any himself.

Powerful on many levels at once, "Enron" couldn't be more necessary as we wade into the muck of a second Bush term -- an era in which corporations will undoubtedly be given even more leeway with which to rob the American public. It's only by understanding what went wrong that we can hope to recognize the warning signs next time.


(Metroland, March 7, 2002)

The most startling scene in "Iris," the story of Iris Murdoch's battle with Alzheimer's disease, isn't one depicting the famed British novelist's deterioration. Rather, it's a harsh moment in which her husband, John Bayley, snaps after long months of doting on his ailing spouse. Suddenly seized by old doubts that he's not good enough for the grand dame he married, John shrieks that he won Iris' hand despite competition from other suitors, but this is his reward: a nearly vegetative figure who can barely speak and has virtually no perception of reality. "I don't want you," he wails. "I hate you!"

Such blistering moments raise "Iris" above the norm of disease-themed pictures, and the credit goes entirely to the quartet of actors who enact the delicate dance of John's tumultuous life with Iris. In wistful flashbacks, Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville play Iris and John during their passionate courtship. And in taut present-day scenes, Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent take over the roles. Based on Bayley's memoir of Murdoch, the picture draws a parallel between the bumpy road that led to the couple's marriage and the even-rougher path the lovers walk when Iris' mind is ravaged by disease.

The content of the Alzheimer's scenes is as rough as expected, but director Richard Eyre's style is so polite and polished that the most rugged moments lose some of their edge. Even when we see aged Iris relieving herself onto a newspaper in the living room of her squalid home, Eyre keeps a reserved distance that prevents viewers from feeling the moment in their bones. Eyre's direction, in fact, is often at odds with the power of the four leading performances. The director never shies from a chance to photograph Winslet's naked form, but he often averts his camera from emotional nakedness. It's a testament to the force of the lead performances that the actors are able to push through this directorial veneer and create moments of tremendous intimacy.

In the youthful scenes, Winslet portrays Iris as a fiercely independent writer who's utterly without vanity in some respects -- she skinny-dips in a river, oblivious to ogling passersby -- but intensely protective of her art. Young John, conversely, is happy to discuss his own writerly exploits, but so stingy with his emotions that he has a pronounced stutter. Watching these two characters find the commonalities of their open minds and open hearts is as heartwarming as watching their subsequent fates is heart-wrenching.

More importantly, the vigor of the Winslet scenes provides a context that keeps the Dench sequences out of movie-of-the-week territory. Because Eyre regularly cuts to moments of young Iris' surprising willfulness, viewers are constantly reminded of what's being lost in the present-day storyline. The intercutting also takes a deeper meaning when aging John snaps at his wife, because he reveals that he never felt like he truly extracted his bride from the private world she occupied when he met her. The surprise of John's breakdown is not that his patience has a limit, but rather that the same quality which made him fall in love with Iris -- her irrepressible individualism -- created such feelings of inadequacy that he harbors doubts about her devotion.

This, then, is what differentiates "Iris" from "Rain Man" and its pandering ilk: Although the film has plenty of scenes dramatizing how far Iris falls into decrepitude, the picture is inherently about the vagaries of love, not the vagaries of disease. And instead of merely tossing platitudes about fidelity at the audience, the movie finds ways to show that love is a journey, a challenge, even sometimes a test.


(Metroland, Nov. 1, 2001)
As told to Peter Hanson

You humans are so silly. It's not so much that you're primitive and warlike and arrogant -- that's to be expected from a species so low on the evolutionary chain. What kills us is the way you keep telling stories about us, or rather stories about what you think we're like, without making any attempt to understand us. Look at this new parable "K-PAX," in which a mental patient played by Kevin Spacey contends that he's actually from the planet K-PAX, which sounds more like a breakfast cereal than a celestial body. All the fancy language about how K-PAXians travel by riding beams of light can't disguise the fact that the character looks as normal as the doctor assigned to cure him, who's played by Jeff Bridges.

Remember when Bridges played a benevolent alien back in "Starman"? Or when Michael Rennie played one in "The Day the Earth Stood Still"? In those stories, we're portrayed as saints from beyond the stars who travel to Earth so we can study humans in all their imperfections. Fat lot of good that does us. The military went after Bridges in "Starman" and Rennie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," even though all those spacemen were trying to do was open your eyes to the ways in which you waste your lives and your planet. Spacey tries to do the same thing in "K-PAX," spreading joy and hope around a mental ward and even stirring long-buried emotions in the heart of his shrink. Come to think of it, he's more like a therapist than the actual therapist.

Do you begin to see the pattern? Do you really think that we sit around on our home planets, with our super-advanced technology and our super-evolved attitudes, and can't come up with anything better to do than schlep to Earth so we can get shot at or shot up by primates? And do you really think the biggest thrill in the universe is dragging our asses to the Milky Way so we can engender touchy-feely transformations in whichever humans bother to listen to what we have to say?

Of course not, because movies like "K-PAX" and "Starman" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" aren't about aliens -- that's why we're not offended that Michael Rennie walked around in a suit that looked like pressed tinfoil, or annoyed that Spacey apparently forgot to pack a comb or razor before zipping through space, even though he obviously took the time to buy an expensive pair of sunglasses. (At least when Bridges played an alien, he showed that we can be as buff as any of you. Thanks, Jeff.) These movies are about humans, so the aliens in these movies are just proxy humans whose slight remove from earthly reality allows them to pontificate about how precious life is.

Sure, life is precious and all that, but since your history has proven that you don't listen when your homegrown saints try to spread the message -- you still blow each other up over nonsense -- don't you think we know our words are going to fall on deaf ears? So do us a favor. Stop telling stories in which beatific, enigmatic wanderers from other worlds, whether real or imagined, get their kicks by condescending to humans. Just go back to what you're good at, and make more stuff like "Basic Instinct" and "Die Hard." Since you're obviously not interested in making movies that examine what we're about, stick with making movies that tell us what you're about.


"Last Night"
(Metroland, April 13, 2000)

What would you do if you found out the world's going to end in six hours? Would you throw law and order to the wind, becoming a criminal with nothing to lose? Would you indulge your fantasies, pursuing sex, drugs, and rock & roll because you won't have to deal with the consequences? Or would you simply continue living the way you have been, enjoying what little time you have left?

These are the questions explored by writer-director-star Don McKellar in "Last Night," a peculiar and soft-spoken fantasy made in Canada in 1998 but little-seen in America until this month, when it was released on video. McKellar is familiar to arthouse moviegoers for his appearances in such films as "Exotica" and "eXistenZ," but he's also developing an extraordinary resume of behind-the-camera accomplishments -- "Last Night" is his third directorial effort, and he cowrote (but did not direct) "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" and "The Red Violin."

McKellar brings the same humanism to his pre-apocalyptic story that he did to "Glenn Gould" and "The Red Violin." Unlike other filmmakers, who explored end-of-the-world hysteria in pictures such as "When Time Ran Out" and "Deep Impact," McKellar mostly relegates looters and zanies to the background of his film, instead focusing on everyday people who try to retain their composure in their final hours. The picture ignores other conventions of the pre-apocalyptic genre -- for instance, we're never told why the world is ending -- because McKellar is interested in how characters react to the situation, rather than the situation itself.

At the center of the probing film is Patrick Wheeler (McKellar), an architect who has grown distant from his religious, suburban family. The picture follows his travels as he tries to find solitude during the last six hours of Earth's existence, but also frequently veers off to explore subplots involving characters who cross Patrick's path. In an important early vignette, Patrick treks from downtown Toronto to the city's suburbs, where his fragile mother is celebrating the apocalypse with a mock-Christmas party. The tension that we see between Patrick, the family's introspective black sheep, and his relatives makes a poignant statement suggesting that not even extraordinary circumstances can affect long-brewing dysfunction.

As both filmmaker and leading man, McKellar makes interesting choices in his depiction of Patrick. By building the story around an individual who has difficulty connecting with other people, McKellar adds metaphorical heft to his film, implying that the world is ending not because of any natural or supernatural phenomenon, but because people no longer know how to live simply or happily.

The characters with whom Patrick interacts add to this metaphorical material. Sandra (played with touching desperation by Sandra Oh) is an addled young woman who wants to hook up with her husband so they can commit suicide together; Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) is a libidinous bachelor devoting the last phase of his life to enjoying as many different sexual experiences as possible. The powerful implication is that all of these characters are facing death by running away from life, a behavioral oxymoron that says a great deal about the inhumanity of contemporary existence. In a typically believable detail, one of Patrick's older relatives observes the aimless scurrying of those around her by saying "I've invested 80 years in this life. Children don't know what they're missing."

"Last Night" doesn't simply present existential exchanges, however; the film has elements of erotica, humor, nostalgia, and, as noted earlier, family drama. On many levels, it's a remarkable film because of its perceptiveness and humanity. Where it falters, and where it may tire some viewers, is in its treatment of its ticking-clock premise. Because McKellar merely uses the end of the world as a gimmick for revealing characters and making observations about society, anyone eager for nail-biting suspense will be disappointed until the movie's last scenes. But anyone eager to accompany McKellar through his intriguing investigation of the human condition will be glad they went along for this darkly compelling ride.


"Pearl Harbor"
(Metroland, May 31, 2001)

To give his movie "Titanic" an extra dose of reality, director James Cameron hopped in a submersible and dove into the Atlantic for shots of the real "RMS Titanic," located a whopping 12,000 feet beneath the waves. But when director Michael Bay mimicked Cameron's effort by grabbing shots of the real "U.S.S. Arizona" for his new movie, "Pearl Harbor," his undersea voyage took him only 40 feet beneath the surface. The difference between the two epics is telling, because "Pearl Harbor" is jaw-droppingly shallow compared to "Titanic" -- and "Titanic" was as deep as a greeting card.

A lumbering, pointless spectacle that cost a reported $140 million and drags across three hours, "Pearl Harbor" is a contrived attempt to splice the tragic romance of "Titanic" into the jingoistic, ultra-realistic combat drama of "Saving Private Ryan." The movie is broken into three distinct sections: The first hour or so builds up to the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base on Dec. 7, 1941, which precipitated America's entrance into World War II; the second hour illustrates the attack and its immediate aftermath; and the concluding sequence shows America's retaliatory air attack on Tokyo. The storyline connecting these sections is a romantic triangle involving two American pilots and the nurse whom both of them love.

Bay, the slickster behind "Armageddon," fills the movie with his usual pretty pictures. Employing dynamic low angles, color-boosting lens filters, quick cuts, and logic-defying visual devices -- my favorite is the revolving door that moves as fast as a propeller even though no one's pushing it -- Bay makes every scene in "Pearl Harbor" as tasty and colorful as a slice of birthday cake. His prettification, which extended to casting vapid beauties in key roles, subverts the dramatic impact of every scene. Bay's only good visual idea was using distorted, soft-focus imagery for a scene of wounded soldiers entering a naval hospital after the attack, but even that device becomes tired from overuse.

The dueling flyboys (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) are patriotic studs whose behavior is so predictable that they seem like robots: They bond as kids, enter the military together, piss off their superiors with daredevil flying, quarrel when a hottie comes between them, and overcome their differences long enough to kill several "Jap bastards" after Pearl Harbor is attacked. The movie's portrayal of the Japanese is just as annoying. Hollywood's favorite Japanese character actor, Mako, gets nice chunks of screen time during the first two hours as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. He's played as a pragmatist, which is an interesting contrast to the gung-ho bluster of the American characters. Yet Japanese characters all but disappear from the movie after the Pearl Harbor attack, when the movie shifts into fist-pumping combat mode.

Viewers who simply want to see stuff explode will find plenty to enjoy. The re-creation of the attack is impressive, although the number of shots ripped off from "Titanic" is staggering -- Bay even includes a Cameron-style image of a man falling onto a giant boat propeller. But the carnage gets boring, because the filmmakers fail to present interesting or involving characters, and the drama of watching 3,000 people die is cheapened when the heroes hop in their planes for a quick, ridiculous dogfight with Japanese pilots over the harbor.

Because of their massive budget and the availability of computer-generated special effects, Bay and his collaborators had a unique opportunity to commemorate what Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- portrayed briefly but effectively in "Pearl Harbor" by Jon Voight -- termed "a date which will live in infamy." But they squandered that opportunity by sacrificing character, logic, drama, compassion, and history on the altar of cheap thrills.


"The Pledge"
(Metroland, Jan. 25, 2001)

Sean Penn faced an uphill battle when he decided to tell the story of police detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), who, on the day of his retirement party, promises a bereaved mother that he'll find the person who killed her child -- hence the title of Jerry's story, "The Pledge." We've seen countless movies that begin with similar setups, so it's a daunting challenge to find a fresh resolution to these familiar narrative issues. Yet screenwriters Jerry Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, working from a novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt, gave Penn enough unexpected twists and unflinching darkness that he had room to craft something human, real, and mythically bleak.

When we meet Jerry, he seems lonely and a bit disconnected. In one of Penn's characteristically subtle touches, Nicholson is framed in closeup, with retirement revelers in the background, and the actor is out of focus; his image doesn't sharpen, metaphorically, until his senses light upon a new murder case. As we learn later in the movie, Jerry has so defined himself by his career that there's nothing left to him except work-related obsession. Penn finds numerous expressive, almost painfully evocative ways to depict the costs that Jerry has paid for focusing on his job. More importantly, Penn and his collaborators build such a convincing reality around Jerry that our discoveries about the character feel fresh, when in fact we've seen such people onscreen many times before.

The plot, which is a tough little engine pushing us further and further into Jerry's character, begins with the discovery of a murdered child. After a short investigation, Jerry's younger counterpart, Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), finds the simple-minded drifter who was seen leaving the scene of the crime, Native American Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio Del Toro). Stan massages a confession from the disturbed Toby, thereby closing the case, but Jerry still has unanswered questions. After Jerry retires, the case burns in him so deeply that he relocates to the town where he believes the real killer lives. The drama of this engrossing film is watching Jerry try to balance his old and new lives, and seeing how this balancing act affects the people around him.

Just as Penn persuasively puts across the cliché at the heart of his narrative, he gently coaxes us into believing in the myriad characters who float through the story. Penn lets the members of his remarkable ensemble cast breathe, so nearly every time we meet a character, the actor playing that character gets a long moment to talk, behave, or otherwise illustrate the role he or she is playing. This painstaking approach pays off gloriously, because by ensuring that even bit roles have credibility and weight, Penn subtly creates a momentum of reality and drama, along the way filling his film with little epiphanies and explosions.

It's difficult to pick a standout from a cast that includes the above-named players as well as Robin Wright Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, and others, but Mickey Rourke -- who lately has been trying to rehabilitate his offscreen image -- does something absolutely remarkable during his one scene. He plays a father whom Jerry interviews for background about local abductions, and Rourke slips into and out of soul-shaking sadness with such clarity and power that he blows Nicholson off the screen.

Given how campy some of Nicholson's recent performances have been, it would seem that all that would be required to overpower Nicholson would be a little restraint. But the actor, who hasn't appeared onscreen since 1997's "As Good As It Gets," gives one of his most understated performances ever. Recalling the internalized intensity that he used to play Eugene O'Neill in "Reds," Nicholson shows the emotions seething inside his character by employing tiny gestures, eye movements, and changes of facial expression; just as Penn draws us into the character by revealing the world in which he lives, Nicholson seduces us by showing the world inside Jerry.

"The Pledge" has its shortcomings, of course. Penn's imagery is sometimes pretentious and vague, and as good as the movie's moments are, there's probably a little fat to be trimmed here and there. But the bold manner in which Penn and Nicholson plunge into the dark places of their story is humble, reverential, and right.


"Series 7: The Contenders"
(Metroland, Dec. 20, 2001)

"Normally, I don't like car chases. I think they're tacky, and innocent people can get hurt. But this nurse has gotta be stopped. She's a fuckin' psycho."

Welcome to the world of Dawn Lagarto, reigning champion of a brutal reality show called "The Contenders," in which the stakes are a whole lot higher than getting booted out of Africa by the tribal council. In this show, points are scored by killing other contestants, and the only way to escape being killed yourself is to knock off everyone else playing the game. This twisted take on America's fetishistic interests in competition and violence is the premise of "Series 7: The Contenders," possibly the best no-budget gimmick movie since "The Blair Witch Project."

"Series 7" just hit video after scoring at festivals but failing to land a substantial theatrical release, perhaps owing to its amateurish look (it was shot on video), and its unrelentingly dark subject matter. The movie opens, for instance, with eight-months-pregnant Dawn (Brooke Smith) waddling into a convenience store, then abruptly blowing the brains out of the customer at the counter. After grabbing her victim's gun, she nonchalantly asks the stupefied clerk: "Do you have any bean dip?"

A great deal has been written about the morbid nature of reality shows like "Survivor" and "Fear Factor," in which everyday people strive for fame and fortune by humiliating and, to a certain degree, endangering themselves. Pundits have suggested that reality shows could easily evolve into mass-marketed snuff films if the possibility of death is introduced to raise the stakes -- and the ratings. So Daniel Minahan's "Series 7" is both a ferocious satire of contemporary appetites and a cautionary tale of where those appetites could lead us.

The picture is filled with an eclectic roster of characters, all of whom reveal themselves by the way they play the game. Dawn is a loner who trusts no one, so she has persevered long enough to kill 10 competitors; the nurse she chases, Connie (Marylouise Burke), is a frumpy everywoman whose ability to shut off her emotions in the operating room allows her to coldly pick off competitors; and so on. Perhaps the unlikeliest of the contenders is 18-year-old Lindsay (Merrit Weaver), who gets egged on by her parents; at one point, mom and dad give a pep talk in the family SUV, goading their daughter to wipe out an opponent.

The juiciest subplot in the movie stems from the fact that one of Dawn's competitors is her high-school boyfriend, Jeffrey (Glenn Fitzgerald), whom she hasn't seen in 15 years. The two were the resident goth kids in their Newbury, Conn., school, and the movie features the experimental video the two characters made while they were students. As the black-clothed and black-coiffed youths romp around in music-video-type scenes layered with cheesy video effects, Joy Division's song "Love Will Tear Us Apart" adds a wonderfully prophetic -- and appropriately self-conscious -- counterpoint. Watching these two characters relate to each other is touching and creepy at the same time.

The movie itself is alternately frightening and funny as hell. This is comedy of the blackest possible order, because the jokes come from the absurdity of the situation, from the sleazy things the characters do to protect themselves, and especially from the heartless narration layered over the movie. Among the announcer's most delectable sound bites: "Can Jeff really change from an ex-gay pacifist to a fierce contender?"

It's easy to pick this movie apart -- there are a couple of gaping plot holes, the ending feels forced, and a few scenes that should be scary aren't -- but Minahan nails the numbing sensationalism of reality TV so perfectly that it's easy to overlook the picture's shortcomings. In one of the film's most sharpest touches, for instance, every time we see Jeff -- who purports to be anti-violence -- he's watching some ultraviolent show on TV. Just like the people who make "Survivor" and its clones popular, he's so desensitized to inhumane entertainment that he doesn't even know he's propagating the genre.


"The Thin Red Line"
(Metroland, Jan. 21, 1999)

As the point man for a platoon of American soldiers cautiously treads through a fog-drenched Guadalcanal jungle, Japanese soldiers appear as silhouettes in the mist ahead of him, like noise disturbing a dream. A moment later, the battle is joined in a wordless flurry of stabbing, shooting, burning, and screaming. All the while, gentle electronic music flows on the soundtrack with the insistence of running water, a soothing counterpoint to the carnage onscreen.

This sequence, which occurs late in writer-director Terrence Malick's epic cinematic poem "The Thin Red Line," hits viewers in the last place they expect to be affected by a combat scene. Instead of aiming for viewers' guts with explosive gore or their hearts with naked tragedy, Malick targets viewers' minds with unexpected juxtapositions and the off-the-cuff grace of his images. In Malick's hands, all the men, guns, and death involved in the U.S. Army's pivotal World War II attack on Guadalcanal are colors that he spreads as intuitively -- and, sometimes, as arbitrarily -- as an abstract painter. His touch is cold and his relationship to the film's story dispassionate, so "The Thin Red Line" is more an opaque collection of sensations than a compelling drama.

Malick's impressionistic, scattershot approach results in excessively long scenes, muddy screen direction, and distracting cameos by stars including John Travolta and George Clooney, whose characters drift through the film like faint signals interrupting a radio broadcast. What "The Thin Red Line" lacks in cohesion, though, it has in ambition. Malick's adaptation of James Jones' novel is a multi-layered, intellectualized journey in which man's casual brutality to himself and his environment is explored through lofty dialogue, hypnotically beautiful tableaux, and a storyline as fluid and unpredictable as mercury.

Amid all the breathtaking shots, trippy montage sequences, and Beckett-like voiceovers, a few recognizable human elements appear. Foremost is Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), whom we first meet when he's gone AWOL to commune with Guadalcanal's primitive indigenous population. Despite the violence that surrounds him when he rejoins his colleagues, Witt talks persuasively about the soul's connection to the earth and how recognizing that connection elevated his consciousness; Witt's quiet sermons are the device through which Malick addresses most of the movie's central themes.

Among the less introspective characters who surround the angelic Witt, Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte) is the most familiar type -- he's an ambitious officer willing and even eager to sacrifice his men in order to achieve a victory significant enough to distinguish his command. Whereas Caviezel's performance stands out for its understatement, Nolte's tightly wound energy and saliva-drenched rants are chilling in their intensity. Aside from Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), a noble officer who gets caught in the undertow of Tall's unstoppable ambition, most of the other characters feel vague. They're color bands in a spectrum, not individuals.

The plot that binds these characters to a common goal is made nebulous by Malick's proclivity for wandering away from scenes whenever something beautiful catches his eye, whether it's a half-lit Staros desperately praying in his tent, a fluorescent-colored lizard inching up a tree, or a wave of sunlight brightening an overcast scene as a cloud rolls by. Malick, who hasn't made a film in 20 years and seems intoxicated by such modern toys as Steadicams and remote-controlled camera cranes, pours these scattered images into his film the way an alchemist mixes chemicals, yet somehow the elements never synthesize into anything more solid than an ethereal mood.

But that's probably the point here, if Malick's aggressive adherence to his less-is-more scripting is any clue to his intentions. Like an artist who blithely splashes oils onto a canvas and says he's captured the way he sees the universe, Malick throws images and sounds onto the screen with only his secret muse guiding his hand. "The Thin Red Line" is the kind of art that reveals itself in viewers' subconscious as a stream of impressions and sensations, and is best appreciated when one is swimming inside its rich abstractions and numbing excesses. Trying to define it after the fact brings the often unfathomable film down to a plane other than the one on which it exists.


"Twist of Faith"
(Film Threat, Jan. 26, 2005 -- Sundance Film Festival)

With his round face, broad smile and convivial manner, Father Dennis Gray easily won the confidence of his young students. Teaching at a Catholic school in Toledo in the 1980s, he befriended a group of teenage boys who happily accepted his invitations for playful weekends at the priest's lakehouse. But play was not the only thing the boys experienced in the company of the good Father Gray.

"Twist of Faith," a potent and meditative new documentary, explores the impact of Gray's improprieties by following several months in the life of one of his victims. By putting a single, very recognizably human face onto the scandal that has ravaged the Catholic community, "Twist of Faith" personalizes the overwhelming statistics and unthinkable violations. This isn't a story about how thousands of youths were betrayed by the institution that was supposed to protect them; this is a bruising chronicle of how one life was damaged nearly to the point of ruin.

The picture introduces us to Tony Comes, a Toledo fireman who superficially exudes confident virility. He's a plain-spoken father of two in his 30s, but he carries the burden of Gray's abuse through every part of his life and his marriage. In a particularly wrenching passage, he and his wife, Wendy, explain how each fights back visions of Gray during sex. And in the movie's most excruciating scene, Tony struggles through tears while explaining his abuse to his 8-year-old daughter.

As the documentary unfolds, Tony becomes emboldened to seek justice when the first major wave of sex-abuse lawsuits against priests hits the news. He not only files a lawsuit against Gray and the Toledo diocese, but he signs his name to the suit and submits to media interviews about the case. While this bold move helps Tony renew bonds with childhood friends who also suffered abuse, it rends his family. Wendy converted to Catholicism before they married, and she becomes torn between standing by her husband and adhering to the faith that plays a crucial role in her life. Watching Tony and Wendy wrestle with the ways in which their marital identity is entwined with Catholicism is punishing.

Even tougher is witnessing a tearful confrontation between Tony and his mother, who is even more steadfast in her devotion to the church than Wendy. When Tony tells his mother that the money she puts into the collection plate every Sunday helps pay the attorneys who are fighting his lawsuit, it's a shattering exchange made all the more intense by her cavalier dismissal of his pain.

Director Kirby Dick employs a useful device, lately in vogue because of reality TV -- the first-person video diary. He gave cameras to his subjects so they could speak their minds in moments of quiet and vulnerability, then wove those private words in with news footage and conventional reportage. The filmmaker finds a potent way of making Gray a presence in the movie, because he splices pieces of the priest's videotaped deposition into various parts of the picture. It's eerie to watch the stone-faced man casually answer innocuous questions -- and then awkwardly deflect difficult ones on the advice of his offscreen counsel. Just watching his non-reactions as the interviewer describes the acts of which he's accused is unnerving and strangely illuminating. In fact, one of the deposition segments offers a window into the psyche of a real-life monster: "I don't think I ever believed in hell," Gray says.

"Twist of Faith" is aptly named, because the most powerful thread in the story is Tony's conflicted relationship with the church. Even with his suffering perpetually close to the surface, he raises his children Catholic, and struggles to differentiate his feelings toward Gray from his loyalty to the church. Yet when the diocese lies to him in order to protect Gray and itself, he's shaken to the point of nearly throwing away one of the things that got him through his ordeal.

Dick doesn't even try to offer impartiality; his film is an all-out attack on the church that employs such rules as "mental reservation," an obscure loophole in the Catholic canon that authorizes priests to lie if doing so protects the church. What's most memorable about "Twist of Faith" is that Tony never arrives at the same unconditional stance. He doesn't have that luxury. Catholicism has such a powerful hold over his family that he might well find himself abandoned if he walked away from the institution that wronged him. This is a troubling and unresolvable quandary, and certainly one Tony isn't alone in facing.



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