dir. James Marsh
The King stars Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, and for many filmgoers, that's enough. Having amassed a track record of well-regarded art films that also became hits, Bernal has grown into an article of international enchantment, building an old-school, actor-as-artist movie career in the process. Many young stars might've dazzled in The Motorcycle Diaries, channeling the burgeoning passion of the man who would be Che, but how many could've followed it up as Bad Education's shape-shifting Zahara? With his dewy masculinity, natural androgyny, and jarringly goofy smile—which regularly shatters the mystique like a supermodel's fart—Bernal occupies a space in the cinematic universe all his own.
Which brings us to The King, starring Bernal in his first English-speaking role: Elvis, the long-lost illegitimate son of an evangelical preacher (William Hurt), whom Elvis tracks down with dreams of reconciliation. When dad resists, Elvis sets about dismantling his father's righteous life—slowly, strategically, mercilessly. Nodding toward Terrence Malick's Badlands in both style (minimalist naturalism) and substance (the morality of immorality), The King boasts rich subject matter and some thrilling twists, but the would-be Malickian spell is repeatedly broken by James Marsh's and Milo Addica's script, which imbues its father-son leads with a fair amount of grit while leaving other major characters to starve on stereotypes. Bernal has a number of good, creepy scenes (and a reasonably sturdy Amurican accint), but even he begins to look bored as the film's slow burn remains forever on the edge of fizzling out. DAVID SCHMADER
dir. Patrick Creadon
Among the recent profusion of lexically inclined documentaries—from Word Wars and Scrabylon, about the world of competitive Scrabble, to the breakout Spellbound, about pint-size spelling champions—Wordplay is by far the fussiest. A mild introduction to crossword puzzles and those who love them, the documentary rustles up some talent to combat the Alzheimer's-warding stereotype: Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart (who tries to inject some zaniness into the proceedings), the Indigo Girls, plus an upstart competitive-crossword solver who's still (gasp!) an undergraduate. We get to see Merl Reagle in action, designing a crossword puzzle from scratch (though we don't follow him to the end, which is presumably the most interesting part), and enjoy an amiable chat with New York Times puzzle maven Will Shortz.
The predominant personality trait on display here—typified by sweetheart serial loser Ellen Ripstein (who has been known, I later learned, by the hilariously inapt epithet "Susan Lucci of crossword puzzles")—is niceness. Compared to the genre prototypes, Wordplay is conspicuously lacking in crazy characters. Are crossword puzzlers, who must pay attention to popular culture and current events, necessarily less bizarre than their obsessive board-game-playing counterparts? Are they simply less social, and so more subdued? Whatever the case, the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which fills the space in the film where the climax should be, is punishingly uneventful.
I am led to believe, based on a March 2002 New Yorker piece, that there are lunatics lurking in the crossword fringes. But they are not mustachioed Midwestern types like Shortz (whose burgeoning personality cult Wordplay is clearly meant to inflame). Unlike Shortz, these people did not major in "enigmatology"; are not permitted to regale listeners on NPR; and can't lay claim to the accomplishment of creating a puzzle that proclaimed either Bob Dole or Clinton the winner of the 1996 election, depending on how the surrounding clues were filled in. He's proud of that trick, but hearing him recall it doesn't make for engrossing filmmaking. Remember the guy with gastrointestinal distress in Word Wars who's always spitting in a cup? Or the spasmodic kid in Spellbound? Wordplay needs characters like that. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Park Chan-wook
In terms of formal control and sheer filmmaking prowess, Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) is so far out in front of his contemporaries that it isn't even funny. Unfortunately, the relentless sourness of his output to date is even less chuckle inducing. To steal a line about Wolverine, another fanboy fave, he's the best at what he does, but what he does isn't very nice.
Lady Vengeance, the director's final entry in his thematically linked Revenge trilogy, has an awful lot to live up—and down—to, and more than delivers in both regards. From the brilliantly composed opening credits onward, this is pulp moviemaking at its most mesmerizing —the kind of glorious sensory rush that you can only get when a supremely confident director fully kicks out the jams. Submerged within the flash, however, is a nihilistic worldview that may be even more curdled than its predecessors.
Told in a blizzard of flashbacks, fast-forwards, and sideways digressions, the story follows a beautiful convict (an angelic Lee Yeong-ae) sent behind bars for her involvement in a horrendously botched kidnapping. Released after a decade, she sets her avenging sights on the crime's mastermind (Oldboy's Choi Min-sik), enlisting a number of her former cellmates (and, more worryingly, the parents of previous victims) in her dirty deed. The rampant bloodshed and sadism with which the filmmaker first made his name is largely delivered offscreen this time around, but that makes the thematic ugliness feel even more invasive. As the above should indicate, I'm still deeply ambivalent over whether the genius of Park's form ultimately trumps my considerable misgivings over his content. One thing is undeniable, though: When it comes to this director's films, audacious ain't hardly the word. ANDREW WRIGHT
Fall to Grace
dir. Mari Marchbanks
This painfully ordinary indie tearjerker—one of the first films from delightful wacko Mark Cuban's Truly Indie distribution model—is one of those movies with 14,000 characters whose lives overlap and intersect in surprising yet meaningful ways to teach us all a lesson about the power of community. Fall to Grace concerns families in decay, the ties that bind, and plain folks just tryin' to get by.
There's Sarah, emotionally wounded and running with a bad crowd, whose pitiful but kind father is in hock to her drug-dealing rhinoceros of an uncle. Across the street lives the beautiful Kristofer, devoted basketball player and Sarah enthusiast, whose Georgian-immigrant parents struggle with the choice between selling pirozhki or drugs. There's a cop, a minimart owner, and some smalltime hoods. There's me, falling asleep.
The film wants to be incisive drama (it wants it so bad!), but writer-director Mari Marchbanks's script is soggy and familiar. Surprisingly, though, I did laugh a lot during Fall to Grace, and not always out of spite. Sarah's loser boyfriend, Roger, has some top-notch moments of dry stoner wit, and Alexei Rostropovich, Kristofer's down-and-out dad, is an unintentional comedy goldmine. One furry hat short of a Cossack-dancing, pirozhki-juggling Russian caricature, Alexei is obsessed with his childhood in the traveling circus. "The people l oved our show," he reminisces, "The clowns were so famous." And later, "In Russia, my father was famous. He was famous clown." A Georgian acquaintance responds, "Your father was best clown in the world!" Alexei nods grimly. Yes. Yes he was. LINDY WEST
dir. Vondie Curtis-Hall
The problem with B movies these days is that they all seem ashamed to be Bs. The new urban thriller Waist Deep would most likely have made for a decent late-night Cinemax staple, but its stabs at higher significance only bring on the giggles.
The setup is thus: A security-guard parolee (Tyrese Gibson) goes plumb loco after his son is kidnapped. Given three days to come up with the ransom, he teams up with a peripherally connected hot mama (Meagan Good) to rip off a series of local gangsters. As far as revenge scenarios go, this is serviceable enough, if more than a little transparent (note to aspiring screenwriters: If you want your heroes to be thought of as a new modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, there's probably a subtler way than having a supporting character call them "a new modern-day Bonnie and Clyde"), but things get hopelessly botched in the execution. Although undeniably easy on the eyes, Gibson is not exactly the most expressive of actors, and watching him clank through the more emotive scenes like Der Golem leaves one pining for the chops of a Seagal or Van Damme.
Hampered by this lead weight of a central performance, director Vondie Curtis-Hall (previously responsible for the underrated Gridlock'd, as well as, uh, Mariah Carey's Glitter) is unable to find a style that sticks, variously moving the camera at nauseating tilt-a-whirl speeds, laying on copious crunk to mask transitions, or inserting pretension into the unlikeliest of places (a postcoital confession appears to be drawn directly from the hoary film-school staple Hiroshima mon amour). The results had the preview audience howling, presumably not with approval. ANDREW WRIGHT
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