Bend It Like Beckham

dir. Gurinder Chadha
In the last couple of decades, while Hollywood has increasingly nose-dived into insufferable schmaltz, the Brits have gotten pretty good at making stylish--though satisfyingly middlebrow--feel-good comedies. They are movies that reflect just enough truth about the quotidian realities of modern post-imperial, multicultural Britain to make audiences feel both entertained and enlightened as they exit the theater. Bend It Like Beckham fits squarely into that mold. It is, essentially, a traditional coming-of-age story, though with a spicy ethnic twist: A hot Anglo-Indian teenage girl in outer London pursues her dream of professional soccer stardom against the wishes of her traditional Sikh parents--immigrants who, still steeped in Indian culture, are only concerned with her educational and marriage prospects, and consequently just don't get it. Stuff happens and challenges are overcome, and along the way said hot Indian babe finds cross-cultural friendship with hot English babe and true romance with Irish hunk. Mummy and Papa come around in the end, as we know they will, but the predictable conventionality of the plot structure is expertly obscured by the pleasures of the journey. It is all charming fluff and captivating if improbable lightness, of course, but for a feel-good comedy, there is no higher praise. SANDEEP KAUSHIK

Nowhere in Africa

dir. Caroline Link
One awful result of the Holocaust (aside from the obvious) is the rise of the Hollywood Holocaust Movie (HHM), in which millions of innocent people are hideously slaughtered, and everyone who's not slaughtered feels hideously guilty, and everyone who goes to see the movie gets a hideously sick feeling about it all, and all the actors get Academy Awards.

Anyway, thank God for movies like Nowhere in Africa, in which there are no gas chambers designed to look like showers, and no little girls in bright red coats walking through otherwise black-and-white scenes. Nowhere in Africa follows a rich Jewish family that leaves Germany in 1938 and moves to Africa. There they can avoid the Nazis, but have to deal with some other issues like, oh, the lack of water. Naturally, the characters all experience guilt (you just can't have a Holocaust movie without guilt), but there are also things here you never see in any movie, such as the scene in which a swarm of locusts plunder a field of maize. The hazards of humanity and the hazards of nature are not dissimilar, this movie argues, though (at two-and-a-half hours long) not very succinctly. Thankfully, the actor Merab Ninidze, who's very sexy, is in almost every scene. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

Ten

dir. Abbas Kiarostami
For an hour and a half, a dashboard camera is trained on one woman and the passengers she shuttles about in her car through the city of Tehran. The passengers include the woman's sister, a handful of her downtrodden friends, a prostitute whom she doesn't seem to know, and her own asshole of a teenage son. Their conversations--imperfect, elusive, drawn out, tangential, and sometimes irritatingly repetitive (which is to say, like most car ride conversations)--are the movie's substance.

Abbas Kiarostami, the popular and prominent Iranian director, does strikingly little visually, to great effect. Sometimes the camera only shows one character while the other character, to whom the first is talking, sits just outside of the frame. And structurally there is no discernible arc to the film: no beginning, no end. He simply invites us to invade the privacy of these lives, to glean what we can from what these people say to each other en route from one place to another: leaving a mausoleum, going to buy a cake, heading to a relative's house. In total, what emerges throughout the course of the 10 dialogues is a depiction of ordinary Iranian life, carried out in the most ordinary way: one woman, the people she surrounds herself with, and the things they talk about. There are faint glimpses of what is going on in the streets around them, but from their conversations you'd swear they could be any people, they could be anywhere. "You're like your father," the driver tells her son at one point. "He shut me away. He destroyed me." And the son talks back the way an American kid might--with imperious jabs: "You talk too much." "You're not letting me finish." "You stupid cow." CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

Morvern Callar

dir. Lynne Ramsay
It's sometime near Christmas when Morvern Callar finds her boyfriend's dead body under the tree. He has killed himself and left a rather diffident note ("Sorry, Morvern. Don't try to understand. It just seemed like the right thing to do..."), but has also left money for a funeral, plus Christmas presents and his unpublished novel. Morvern takes the money and goes to Spain with her silent, angry, somewhat ambivalent sort of grief.

Morvern Callar is not an engaging film--it is precisely the opposite of engaging. It refuses to engage, stubbornly holding you at arm's length. Which doesn't mean it's not good--it is, but its truths are hard-won and not terribly pleasant. At the center is a quiet cipher with a small, serious face: Samantha Morton, as Morvern, in another mostly silent role (at times you can't help but expect an oracular pronouncement, as if she were still the Minority Report pre-cog) in which gesture and slight rearrangement of her features are made to do a lot of hard work. Morvern drags her pain around with her, and there isn't anything--not money, friendship, sunny no-strings sex, or a couple of quietly amoral acts--that can set her free.

Nothing can make sense of a dead boyfriend, but was Morvern's life ever any different before her boyfriend's death? Don't most of us have some form of dead boyfriend at home? EMILY HALL

Tully

dir. Hilary Birmingham
A tiny movie about people with tiny lives, Tully quietly moves across the screen, affecting you at its own unobtrusive pace. The main characters are three men--Tully Coates Sr. and his two sons, Tully Jr. and Earl--who live a decidedly estrogen-free existence on their Nebraska farm, Tully Sr.'s wife having been killed in a car accident years ago. Tully Jr. (Anson Mount) is the town's lady's man, while his brother Earl is more sensitive. As for Tully Sr.: The patriarch chooses to spend his days toiling in the fields, and his nights mourning for his lost wife in the work shed.

Their rather uneventful lives are splintered, however, when a lien is put on the family farm due to some mysterious debts. What's more, Tully Jr. takes a liking to Earl's friend Ella (Julianne Nicholson), a college girl who finds herself drawn to the younger Tully even as she despises his reputation. Both problems lead to a slow-moving chaos, as long-stewing exasperations creep to the forefront, and the lives of all three men change considerably, albeit slowly.

Basically a mystery, as all is not as it seems with Tully Sr.'s long-lost wife, Tully is a fairly successful picture, able to pinch your emotions without leaving a bruise. Beautifully shot, with stellar performances (especially by Bob Burrus as the elder Tully), it's only drawback may be a sometimes near-glacial pace that at times seems to match the dullness of Nebraska farm-life reality. Then again, maybe I'm just an urban elitist. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time

dir. Thomas Riedelsheimer
Andy Goldsworthy makes things out of nature--icicles, shards of stone, leaf, thorn, tufts of sheep's wool--and lets nature take them apart. There is something both arrogant and humble at work here: the very Western wrestling of order out of chaos; the kind of acceptance of entropy associated with Zen. This is probably what makes Goldsworthy such a popular artist among the well-meaning; a glossy book of photographs of his work (the only way, really, to experience it--unless you happen to be hiking in Nova Scotia or rural Scotland, where he lives, and find the remnants of one of his cairns) graces the coffee table of every superliberal environmentalist you know.

But just because it's easy to like doesn't make it not good (one of the most difficult precepts of art to grasp); in fact, the work is better than any philosophy anyone--including the artist--tries to apply to it. After four unsuccessful attempts to build a stone cairn before the tide comes in, Goldsworthy mutters something about trying to understand the stone; such talk-to-the-earth blather would usually give me hives, except that after the fifth laborious (and finally successful) attempt the idea that the artist is changed by contact with the material acquires a sort of grace it didn't previously have. And Goldsworthy knows when to back off from an analogy, which he often does, with abrupt Scots gruffness.

Goldsworthy's projects are often witty: a chain of leaves, held together with thorns, snaking down a slow-moving river; a series of small holes, like secret entrances, in the ground; a waterfall turned red from iron rocks ground into pigment; a stone wall that undulates around trees rather than imposing a grid where a grid shouldn't go. For the most part, director Thomas Riedelsheimer gives this wit room to breathe, although the New Agey plinka plinka music is truly awful. Silence, I think, would have been more respectful, more surprising, more Goldsworthian. EMILY HALL

Spun

dir. Jonas Akerlund
With drugs still in the top five of our big pop culture fascinations, it's not difficult to make a cheap piece of eye candy based on an expensive batch of nose candy. With everything from the terribly high and mighty Traffic to Trainspotting's fashionable angle on dope addicts, there's no lack of cinematic dramatizations about your everyday junkie. The difficulty lies in making you care about what's being portrayed--an issue that movies like Permanent Midnight and Requiem for a Dream both delve into by looking at the factors that lead into, and stem from, serious drug use. The latest take on addicts, Spun, chooses to neither pass judgment on narcotics nor make you care about the people who devour them, instead turning 96 minutes about crystal meth addicts into a harmless collage of rootless characters.

Spun was directed by Swede Jonas Akerlund, a man better known for making music videos (Madonna, Prodigy, U2) than feature films, and his experience in the attention-span-deficient medium plays throughout this picture. The movie never settles on a plot, instead holding you captive inside the minds of a couple sleepless speed freaks. The loose-knit community includes Jason Schwartzman as Ross, the star burnout; Brittany Murphy as Nikki, an exotic dance tweaker; John Leguizamo as the paranoid dealer, Spider Mike; Mena Suvari as his cracked-out girlfriend; and Mickey Rourke as the cook who starts up makeshift meth labs. With cameos/supporting roles by everyone from Billy Corgan (who worked on the soundtrack) to Rob Halford, Debbie Harry, Eric Roberts, Patrick Fugit, and Alexis Arquette, the film works much like a music video, with its well-styled caricatures serving as placeholders for a storyline. By interweaving jittery edits, stuttered conversations, and animated trips throughout a couple days of constant snorting/shooting up, Spun gives speed freaks a hyperreal gloss that does little to puncture the reality of that lifestyle, but makes for a visually entertaining buzz that wears off the minute you leave the theater. JENNIFER MAERZ

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