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June 16, 2004 Volume 40 Issue 24
Cinema Reviewed This Week
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Indoor living

Here's Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her husband is old.
Here's Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her husband is old.
The Terminal
Director: Steven Spielberg (PG-13, 133 min.)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci

No one's idea of a final destination, airports are like earthly limbo: By definition and design, they're environments for people headed somewhere else. They're comfortable enough for an hour or two, but the charms of fast food, newsstand reading material, and padded rows of bucket seats exhaust themselves quickly, as anyone who's been forced to camp in an airport overnight will readily attest. So the idea of a character turning an airport into a home would almost be comedy enough to sustain a movie. And, until it becomes clear how much of the world finds its way beneath one airport's glass roof, it seems like Steven Spielberg's The Terminal plans to do only that.

Set almost entirely in the international wing of JFK, gateway to the U.S. for thousands each day, the film takes place during the accidental residency of a tourist (Tom Hanks) who, while vacationing from a Russian satellite nation, stumbles into a seemingly inescapable mass of red tape when his homeland's government falls in a military coup. Left with an invalid passport, he has little recourse but to stay put, however awkwardly he fits into his inhospitable new surroundings. The flipside of Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Catch Me If You Can, he's out of place in the one place he can never leave.

Scripted by Andrew Niccol, Sacha Gervasi, and Jeff Nathanson, The Terminal draws its inspiration from the true story of Iranian dissident Merhan Nasseri, who has been living in Paris' Charles De Gaulle airport since 1988 thanks, at least at first, to a series of political snafus. The film has much softer politics in mind, as it uses JFK as a stage to play out the American immigrant experience in miniature. At first confused, threatened, and hungry—think E.T. in out-of-fashion Eastern European clothing—Hanks becomes resourceful in order to survive, making friends with those who can help him and plugging into the airport economy by returning baggage carts for a quarter a pop. Spielberg gives the bulk of the movie over to this upward climb, and even fits love into the picture through Hanks' makeshift courtship of Catherine Zeta-Jones, a stewardess still in thrall to her latest affair with a married man. Told "America is closed" when he first tries to make his way out of the airport, and continually encouraged to move on and become someone else's problem by status-quo-minded customs chief Stanley Tucci, Hanks instead finds a little America inside, complete with the opportunity to pursue happiness, though there's no guarantee that he'll find it.

While it doesn't seem like there's much of a movie in the spectacle of a heavily accented Hanks working his way up through airport society while hanging out with airport employees Chi McBride, Diego Luna, and Wes Anderson stock player Kumar Pallana, Spielberg smartly gives himself over to such small pleasures. In the latest of a long string of memorable performances, Hanks balances wide-eyed confusion with innate shrewdness, finding a character who's both unfailingly sweet and nobody's fool. His story only starts to feel small when Spielberg has to wind things up and move past the little world Hanks has created. It's such a charming place by the end that it's hard to see the advantage in leaving it. —Keith Phipps



Around The World In 80 Days
Director: Frank Coraci (PG, 125 min.)
Cast: Steve Coogan, Jackie Chan, Jim Broadbent

The Day After Tomorrows and Van Helsings of the world have set the bar so low for mega-budgeted summer extravaganzas that sometimes a blockbuster can set itself apart simply by not sucking. That's the case with Around The World In 80 Days, a ramshackle but agreeable time-waster that reconfigures Jules Verne's 19th-century adventure novel as a Jackie Chan vehicle, with surprisingly enjoyable results.

As is often the case with Chan's American movies, a compatible partner for the international superstar's English-impaired antics is crucial. Having struck out with Claire Forlani (The Medallion) and Jennifer Love Hewitt (The Tuxedo), Chan fares much better with British television personality and indie-film scene-stealer Steve Coogan, an unexpected but inspired choice to play the film's absentminded inventor hero.

Brilliant enough to invent fantastical contraptions but not perceptive enough to realize that his suspiciously overeager new valet (Chan) may be fibbing about his French heritage, Coogan bets scenery-chewing science maven and stuffy blueblood snob Jim Broadbent that Coogan can travel around the world in 80 days. Broadbent—the contemptuous head of the aggregation of jowls and muttonchops that constitutes the Royal Academy Of Science—sends corrupt detective Ewen Bremner to stop Coogan and Chan from reaching their goal, a task further aided by the minions of an evil female Chinese warlord.

After a bumpy opening, Around The World settles into an easygoing rhythm. Part travelogue, part slapstick comedy, and part action extravaganza, the movie benefits from a likable tone and a quaint, refreshing optimism about the possibilities of progress, science, and technology. Coogan seems intent on single-handedly dragging the British Empire into the 20th century, and the film is sunny and boyishly exuberant enough to suggest that that's entirely for the best.

Around The World finds a winning formula: Chan provides the action, various exotic lands serve up props begging to be employed in Chan-style combat, Coogan brings the dry wit, a minor constellation of surprise guest stars provides razzle-dazzle, and a steady stream of mild chuckles helps the whole fandango fly by painlessly. —Nathan Rabin


The Chronicles Of Riddick
Director: David Twohy (PG-13, 109 min.)
Cast: Vin Diesel, Judi Dench, Thandie Newton

The 2000 film Pitch Black was a superior, economical genre exercise in the tough, unsentimental tradition of Walter Hill. It didn't demand a sequel, let alone a mega-budgeted space opus that boldly announces itself as the foundation for a sprawling science-fiction franchise. Where Pitch Black was an overachieving Alien knockoff, its sequel is an underachieving Star Wars wannabe.

As bloated and ponderous as its predecessor was lean and focused, Chronicles ups the stakes along with the budget while jettisoning just about everything that made Pitch Black stand out from other thrillers about weary humans battling nefarious space beasties. The film, which snagged a PG-13 rating in spite of constant carnage, finds Vin Diesel's wisecracking, muscle-bound killing machine simultaneously battling mercenaries out for the bounty on his head and an evil race determined to convert or kill everyone in its path—sort of like Scientologists, only not as sinister.

It's easy to see why filmmakers persist in going where George Lucas and company have profitably gone before, but Riddick's convoluted mythology, wooden dialogue, and interminable action sequences serve as a dispiriting reminder that for every Star Wars, there are two dozen Wing Commanders. Though not as dire as Battlefield Earth, Riddick is in spots silly, grungy, and misguided enough to inspire flashbacks. The evil zealots out to convert and/or kill Diesel just aren't frightening or intimidating, though it doesn't help that one looks like Hedwig And The Angry Inch's John Cameron Mitchell sans makeup and wig, while another sports a Billy Ray Cyrus-style space mullet.

Riddick's ending has a loopy charm, but it would be more forceful if it didn't follow a fight scene whose arc and moves suggest that it belongs on WWE's Intergalactic Smackdown. Of the supporting cast, only Thandie Newton—who plays a space-opera version of Lady Macbeth—makes much of an impression, and that has more to do with her form-fitting outfits than her character's personality. The camera adores her, but there's something sad about an ambitious, hugely expensive, special-effects-filled extravaganza whose only memorable aspect is a beautiful woman's cleavage. As befits a film with heavy-handed Shakespearean undertones, The Chronicles Of Riddick is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. —Nathan Rabin


Father And Son
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov (Not Rated, 84 min.)
Cast: Andrei Schetinin, Alexei Neymyshev
In Russian w/ subtitles

The second in a planned "family trilogy," following 1997's poetic dirge Mother And Son, Aleksandr Sokurov's Father And Son opens with heavy breathing and two sculpted, tangled male bodies, wrestling in the morning light. When the camera finally gets some distance, Sokurov settles on the strange and intimate image of a young father cradling his grown-up son like an infant, quietly calming him after a recurring nightmare. Following the film's première at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, the director balked at any suggestion of homoeroticism in their relationship, a reading he curtly attributed to "sick European minds." Not since Beau Travail has masculine ritual so clearly been made to seem like latent desire, yet it's probably best to take Sokurov at his word, especially in light of the earlier film. In both, the parent-child bond takes on an intensity that seems suspect at first glance and transcendent later, when the depth of the subjects' feelings for each other is clear enough to take at face value.

In contrast to the forest-bound Mother, which was photographed through overcast, hand-painted filters, Father And Son gleams in the warm, heavenly yellows of its Lisbon backdrop. Less a story than a situation, the film contends with a difficult transitional period in the lives of its title characters, who face the growing necessity of getting some distance from each other. Following in the footsteps of his father (Andrei Shchetinin), Alexei Nejmyshev is coming of age in military school and starting to look to the future, which may include a new partnership with girlfriend Marina Zasukhina, who brightens at the mention of having a son of their own. Still reeling from his wife's death, Shchetinin shares a rooftop apartment with Nejmyshev and takes comfort (and, yes, maybe something a little untoward) in seeing his wife's face reflected in his son's.

Father And Son is accessible by Sokurov's standards, at least as they were before the surprise arthouse hit Russian Ark. He still errs on the side of cryptic, but Father And Son allows its ambiguities to coexist with liberating beauty. Though its central relationship rhymes with the deep, at times disturbing family ties in Mother, the film opens up to the extraordinary splendor of its seaside locale, which Sokurov halos in an ethereal glow. The juxtaposition between the stifling interiors and the bright, airy exteriors underlines the necessity of change, however painful it may be for both men to split apart and experience the outside world. The overall mood is somber nonetheless, but Sokurov provides a much-needed break in the clouds. —Scott Tobias


Garfield: The Movie
Director: Peter Hewitt (PG, 80 min.)
Cast: Breckin Meyer, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Bill Murray

Computer-generated imagery has a solid track record of representing the worst part of terrible movies. In theory, at least, CGI opens up a thrilling new world of possibility for filmmakers, providing them with the tools to render onscreen anything their imaginations can conjure up. When it comes to creating characters, however, CGI is generally a crutch for those who've given the world Jar-Jar Binks, Lost In Space's chattering space-monkey, Van Helsing's monster mash-up, Kangaroo Jack, and two live-action Scooby Doo movies. Somehow, CGI bangs into a new low with Garfield: The Movie, the horrifically misguided feature-film adaptation of the comic strip that made Jim Davis' lasagna-munching misanthrope an icon of Monday-dreading secretaries the world over.

The popularity of Davis' strip represents the ultimate triumph of mediocrity, but even the cartoonist's competent hackwork deserves better than this. Uneventful enough to inspire nostalgia for the '80s era when seemingly every comedy had an obligatory diamond-smuggling subplot, Garfield centers on dog Odie's arrival at the home of the film's titular feline. Garfield initially views the interloper as a threat, especially after Odie prances around to a Black Eyed Peas song at a dog show, a triumph that somehow qualifies as front-page news.

This remarkable feat attracts the attention of a sinister, bumbling local television personality (Stephen Tobolowsky) who makes his living parading cute pets on camera, a perverse career choice for someone who despises animals. Tobolowsky kidnaps the dog, prompting a rescue mission from Garfield and a story that's little more than a maddening string of mile-wide plot holes. For example, Tobolowsky possesses a fantastical collar that can presumably turn any dog into a souped-up Rin Tin Tin. Why bother stealing someone else's dog, especially a minor celebrity, when the collar seems to be doing all the work? At least they got the voice right. Bill Murray lends the film's hero—who looks disturbingly like a mangy, sentient stuffed animal—his trademark slacker Zen, but the film strands him in a harrowing comic Sahara from which no life can emerge. —Nathan Rabin


Hard Goodbyes: My Father
Director: Penny Panayotopoulou (Not Rated, 113 min.)
Cast: Yorgos Karayannis, Stelios Mainas, Ioanna Tsirigouli
In Greek w/ subtitles

Everyone in mourning has objects that stir unwanted associations, everyday things that bring the loss to mind. In the case of 10-year-old Yorgos Karayannis in the Greek film Hard Goodbyes: My Father, one shines down on him every night. Karayannis begins the summer of 1969 with a promise from his traveling-salesman father (Stelios Mainas) that they'd take a trip to the moon after the Apollo astronauts made their own jaunt. He ends it knowing that the trip will have to wait. Never a household fixture, Mainas tries to make the most of his visits home, bonding with Karayannis while his less-forgiving wife (Ioanna Tsirigouli) and older son look on. When a car accident removes him from their lives permanently, his family members have to find their own ways of coping with the loss.

Karayannis has the least success. Blessed with a powerful imagination, he uses it to deny the death, carrying on conversations with his dead father, writing letters to his senile grandmother and signing his dad's name, scrapping with schoolmates, and so forth. In short, he's a mess, and it's to the credit of first-time director Penny Panayotopoulou that she captures his pain without resorting to sentiment.

Panayotopoulou's background in photography shows in the way she lets her chiaroscuro lighting mirror her characters' emotions. It also shows in the still-life quality that Hard Goodbyes never quite gets beyond. Though it makes sense not to impose too much structure on her subjects' grief, the formlessness eventually makes it drag. Fortunately, her well-chosen cast moves the narrative along when it gets stuck—particularly Karayannis, who carries the film. He's a sweet kid, but not a cute one, and when he lashes out, it's ugly, bringing all the family's unspoken tensions and uncontrolled grief to the surface. Unlike his Argentinean counterpart in the superficially similar Valentín, Karayannis doesn't spend the time between his own disappointments matchmaking and otherwise improving the lives of others. Maybe he would if he could, but, like everyone in his situation, he first wants the hurting to stop. —Keith Phipps


Risk/Reward
Director: Elizabeth Holder, Xan Parker (Not Rated, 88 min.)
Documentary

Early in Risk/Reward, a middling documentary about four women on Wall Street, a floor broker at the New York Stock Exchange drops a startling factoid: Of the 1,366 NYSE members at the time, 44 were women. For directors Elizabeth Holder and Xan Parker, this should be a major hook, an opportunity to document an imposing and hostile environment for women entering the workplace. How do they cope in the company of men, where the competitive atmosphere favors a virulent strain of bullishness? And what sort of character do they have to possess in order to gain authority and respect?

Though they spend ample time absorbing the high-energy clamor of the trading floor, Holder and Parker are less successful at deciphering its coded language than tracking the anxious lives of those who can speak it fluently. They also seem to lose interest quickly in their thesis about women seeking their "financial and psychological independence," which dissolves into something like a quartet of magazine profiles, some more compelling than others. For all the film's aggressive crosscutting, the individual stories would work just as well apart as together, because they pack less cumulative power when yoked awkwardly into one sweeping statement.

Filmed over the summer and fall of 2001, when it serendipitously overlapped with the post-Sept. 11 upheavals at home and in the marketplace, Risk/Reward follows four subjects who hold varying positions on Wall Street. Three of the four are already proven quantities: Louise Jones, a successful floor trader who holds one of those 44 female seats on the NYSE; Carol Warner Wilkes, a high-strung equity research analyst who's ranked among the best in the business; and Kimberly Euston, a foreign exchange dealer whose services are coveted by two different companies. The odd woman out is young Umber Ahmad, a Pakistani-American at Wharton Business School who spends the summer working a key internship at Morgan Stanley, where she hopes to land after graduation.

The three older women each balance work and motherhood, in two cases relying heavily on their husbands to play Mr. Mom. One quits to care for her first child, but the others are shackled to their desks by "golden handcuffs," sacrificing hours now so they can enjoy an early retirement down the road. Their devotion to their jobs is inspiring and sometimes a little bit crazy—Wilkes makes business calls from the maternity ward—but Risk/Reward is most engaging when it peeks into their home life. A thread that follows Jones from the phone booth where she was abandoned as a newborn to her proud adoptive parents would be enough for another documentary in itself. One life fully explored equals more than four revealed in part. —Scott Tobias


Saints And Sinners
Director: Abigail Honor (Not Rated, 78 min.)
Documentary

In the opening minutes of Abigail Honor's documentary Saints And Sinners, Edward DeBonis calls seven Catholic churches in New York City, trying to secure a date to marry his boyfriend, Vincent Maniscalco. It initially seems that DeBonis is incredibly naïve, or that Saints And Sinners is setting up to be a Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock-style stunt movie, with two gay men deliberately poking at the institutions of marriage to reveal pervasive prejudice. Before that can happen, though, Honor lets her subjects explain themselves, and Saints And Sinners rapidly becomes more chatty than pushy.

DeBonis and Maniscalco tell their coming-out stories (including DeBonis' previous experiment with marriage to a woman) and their falling-in-love anecdote (bonding over pool and The Smiths), and they go on to talk about the importance of the Catholic tradition in their lives. Soon, the couple is bickering over church decorations, what to wear, and what their first dance should be. Throughout Saints And Sinners, Honor operates under the principle that the specific details of one relationship are more universal than broad generalizations—even when that relationship is unconventional.

Still, Saints And Sinners is far from apolitical. DeBonis and Maniscalco talk a lot about Dignity, a gay and lesbian Catholic organization that has to celebrate Mass in non-Catholic churches, as second-class parishioners. And, though DeBonis and Maniscalco have good relationships with their families, some devout Catholic relatives worry about whether celebrating Mass with Dignity will get them in trouble with their home churches. (Their concern seems legitimate, given recent public debates about whether pro-choice politicians should be allowed to receive Communion.)

But by and large, this gay marriage isn't especially divisive, and Honor doesn't seek out dissenting voices, which means that while Saints And Sinners will strike some as a refreshingly even-toned social study, it's also a documentary heavy on talking heads and low on real drama. It's beautifully shot and deeply felt, but, for the most part, hearing a description of the film is as good as watching it. —Noel Murray


The Stepford Wives
Director: Frank Oz (PG-13, 93 min.)
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Glenn Close

So far, 2004 is shorter on cinematic sequels, remakes, and franchise expansions than most years, but the ones that have come out feel curiously anachronistic. What kind of time warp has a remake of the Ford Administration relic The Stepford Wives opening opposite a big-screen version of Garfield? Could a major motion picture of Webster be far behind? An outgrowth of the '70s backlash against the '60s in general, and feminism in particular, The Stepford Wives was originally a novel by high-concept scaremeister Ira Levin, the man responsible for Rosemary's Baby and the south-of-the-equator Hitler clone-athon The Boys From Brazil. Levin moved a lot of books in 1972, but the Connecticut community of Stepford truly became a synonym for suburban conformity and unspoken misogyny three years later, with the release of the film adaptation starring Katharine Ross as a hungry-minded consciousness-raising-session enthusiast who learns that her new neighborhood has more dead ends than its street plan suggests.

While no one would mistake the original Stepford Wives for a great movie, it still found ways to shake chills out of an absurd premise by making its metaphor the main event. Directed by Bryan Forbes from a straight-faced William Goldman script, it contains a whiff of camp in its scenes of sundress-clad grocery-store zombies, but in an era when "women's lib" had turned from a rallying cry to a dirty word, the whiff of truth is even more powerful. The new version by director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick at least gets the look right. Its Stepford residents have found a way to take the edge off life: They live in sprawling hillside estates, but keep the common touch with bake-offs and square-dance sessions. The men spend their days golfing or lounging in a private lodge, while the women invariably become model obedient housewives, whether they like it or not.

Stepping into the Ross role, Nicole Kidman stars as an edgy TV executive who retreats to Stepford with her husband Matthew Broderick after a mistake brings an end to her network's endless stream of cheaply produced reality shows. (Unfortunately, the film resists the opportunity for an easy happy ending by stopping the movie at that point.) Immediately appalled by the sheer suburbanity of her new home, Kidman finds even more to resist when she meets locals like Glenn Close, a smiling, Donna Reed-attired matriarch who leads her fellow Stepfordites in exercise routines modeled after household appliances. Sensing rottenness behind it all, Kidman enlists two equally suspicious residents—acerbic author Bette Midler and Roger Bart, the flamboyant partner of an embarrassed gay Republican—to investigate, eventually discovering that powerful community members have taken the principle of better living through technology to a new level.

There are at least a few suggestions that Rudnick and Oz knew they had to drag the story into the 21st century. As the neighborhood mastermind, Christopher Walken talks of "streamlining" a spouse's flaws, and the euphemism echoes Midler and Bart's jolly discussion of their favorite prescription-only mood-altering substances. Mostly, however, the film plays its suburban satire for broad, cheap, and only occasionally effective laughs. Then it changes its mind and shifts into drama, until, in a seemingly tacked-on (and logic-defying) ending, it shifts back. Maybe the scenes that seem to be missing from the herky-jerky (and openly troubled) final product fill in the blanks, but the remaining scenes still don't work. Rudnick is a wit, and his script allows everyone a decent one-liner or two. But the problem with one-liners is that they only last one line, leaving a whole movie around them that needs filling in. —Keith Phipps


Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat In Space
Director: t.o.L. (Not Rated, 92 min.)
Animated
In Japanese w/ subtitles

Given Japan's adoration of all things cute, childish, and whimsical, it's reasonable to expect a Japanese animated film about a huge-eyed anthropomorphic kitten who speaks in baby-talk to be simultaneously cloying and adorable. But Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat In Space defies expectations as thoroughly as it defies conventional storytelling. The film's titular character, a curvy bipedal kitty who looks like she stepped intact out of a Betty Boop cartoon circa 1933, is a feisty 1-year-old feline who smokes, steals, swears, and boldly proclaims her intent to take control of her own destiny by leaving her home, CatEarth, for Orion. She's also the viewer's window into a dizzyingly disconnected series of images that initially seem midway between an animation test and a test of the audience's will.

Tamala 2010 does have a plot, and an impressively intricate and high-minded one at that. But finding it takes patience, as well as the endurance to sit through an hour of dreamlike, disassociated scenes in which Tamala shoplifts, flirts, travels through space, investigates a museum, spouts non sequiturs, and converses with her "human mother," a videogame-playing woman wrapped in a giant snake. These scenes are presented randomly and without affect, among seemingly unrelated sequences involving a couple of cat drag queens and an aggressive dog who fetishizes a beribboned pet mouse. And they're backed by whispery, circular techno that offers no particular reason to believe the story is going anywhere. Until a character finally lays out the film's dystopic, philosophical themes in an extended monologue, Tamala 2010 proceeds with the image-focused associative illogic of the world's longest and slowest music video.

Mostly black and white, with occasional tints, Tamala 2010 mixes stark simplicity with an appealingly groovy psychedelic advertising aesthetic, layering simple, iconic images on top of each other until the whole approaches a complexity that any one element lacks. Its iconography is stolen equally from Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince," Disney's Silly Symphonies, Andy Warhol, modern anime, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis, among many other seeming influences. But its tone seems like a mixture of pencil-test abstraction and the semi-directed chaos of Ralph Bakshi's rough and random urban pictures. Living under the cold and watchful double-eye symbol of the oppressive, ubiquitous megacorporation Catty & Co., Tamala and her cerebral, hapless associate Michelangelo are caught in an Orwellian nightmare, but they seem as oblivious to that as they do to the larger picture. Maybe they'll gain perspective in the projected sequels, Tamala In Orion and Tatla, and their story will gain some sorely needed momentum. Lacking that, Tamala 2010 feels like either a singularly detail-organized dream, or an exceptionally formal drug trip. —Tasha Robinson


Word Wars
Director: Eric Chaikin, Julian Petrillo (Not Rated, 78 min.)
Cast: Documentary

The recent boom in televised non-athletic games—spelling bees, poker, and the like—is due in large part to the competitors, as well as distinctly cracked personalities. The documentary Word Wars addresses competitive Scrabble, and, like the bestseller Word Freak, it's more about the players than the game. Robotically digging in their letter bags, rearranging the letters on street signs in their heads, and memorizing legal letter combinations with little regard for what the words they form actually mean, high-level Scrabble players aren't so much smart and verbose as they are obsessive.

Word Wars co-director Eric Chaikin plays tournaments himself, and he knows the key figures. Yet the documentary he's assembled with filmmaking partner Julian Petrillo doesn't offer much insight into the particulars of tournament-level Scrabble. Aside from a detour into the history of the Scrabble dictionary and a little introduction to terms like "bingo" (the 50-point bonus for using all seven tiles in the rack), Word Wars is mostly concerned with showing how weird top players can be. Petrillo and Chaikin adopt a surprisingly mocking tone early on, playing up the contrast between these bug-eyed social misfits and the average citizens who share their hotels on tournament weekends. The movie has a bad case of the cutes, too, most notably when the directors edit interview footage to end on a laugh line. It could also use more inside information, like whether players take special pride in having their own style (say, preferring simple words to scientific terms), and how much they consider elements of strategy like laying down lesser-scoring words in order to block an opponent.

But Word Wars is ultimately as fascinating as it is frustrating. Even some of Petrillo and Chaikin's gimmicky effects—like floating animated letters resolving into combinations of words—are effective at demonstrating what goes through players' heads. And those players are undeniably magnetic in their oddity, from the cool-headed street competitors who spurn sanctioned contests to tourney regulars like the Maalox-swilling Joel Sherman and the foul-mouthed Black Nationalist Marlon Hill. Word Wars may not become the documentary hit that Spellbound was, because it's not as family-friendly—even the title comes from a semi-raunchy song by The Minutemen. But its depiction of Scrabble addicts playing practice games into the night and sweating out a rack full of vowels becomes affecting. Between the lines, it's really a portrait of the friendship that develops among those who flock to weekend tournaments to hang out with the only people who understand them. —Noel Murray


You'll Get Over It
Director: Fabrice Cazeneuve (Not Rated, 87 min.)
Cast: Julien Baumgartner, Julia Maraval, Jérémie Elkaïm
In French w/ subtitles

The French TV movie You'll Get Over It is receiving a theatrical release in America not because it's stylistically daring, but because it's a high-school coming-out story, and those are still rare enough to be in demand. Julien Baumgartner plays a 17-year-old swim-team standout with a sexy girlfriend (Julia Maraval) and a secret apartment where he meets local boys for afternoon trysts. When openly gay classmate Jérémie Elkaïm accidentally outs Baumgartner, the reactions from Maraval and from Baumgartner's family and friends push him into a corner. So he makes an unexpected decision: He comes clean and decides to live out his last year of high school uncloseted.

Even more unexpected is how well this decision turns out. Baumgartner's teammates spurn him, and some of his classmates taunt him, but his parents and teachers are incredibly understanding, and even Maraval stands by him (albeit somewhat grumpily). The drama in You'll Get Over It comes when everyone's understanding curdles into frustration, as Baumgartner grapples over just how gay he wants to be.

Director Fabrice Cazeneuve and screenwriter Vincent Molina (who loaned his name to the main character in a clear indication of the story's personal meaning) have whipped up a curious item: a gay-themed film that's somewhat hostile toward gays. Baumgartner feels increasingly pressured by Elkaïm and others in the gay world to be not just openly gay, but flamingly gay, making You'll Get Over It's portrait of Queer Nation a distressingly creepy one, full of rapaciously horny opportunists.

But though its milieu is often ugly and its story fairly soft, You'll Get Over It gets by thanks to its cast. The French film industry has a knack for finding attractive, expressive young actors, and this movie is no exception. Baumgartner and Maraval are both beautiful and petulant in equal measure, capturing precisely the way teenagers can be simultaneously lively and unknowable. —Noel Murray




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