Wednesday, April 05, 2006

First thoughts: April 7 releases

Aghast at its pornography and political broadsides, the Russian censor reportedly wanted to slash Ilya Khrzanovsky's 4 (Leisure Time Features) from 126 minutes to 40. Viewers abroad, subjected to its frequently nightmarish assault on the senses, may wish that the cutter got it down to about 20 minutes. Not a film that operates with any set vocabulary, the movie bespeaks a terrible foreboding about the sorry state of the former Soviet Union, but not without a certain bitter comedy--and some spectacular matings of sound and image, as at the beginning, when heavy machinery scarily interrupts the lazy meanderings of four dogs (seen repeatedly in the course of the story), and in a later sequence where military conscripts are forced onto planes and flown to an unknown destination, a scene that rivals CATCH-22 at a fraction of its cost (picture).

Story is subordinate to impact, its meaning open to interpretation. [Outside of some fleshy, unappetizing nudity, the porn is largely in the censor's mind, however.]Three strangers--a piano tuner, a prostitute, and a meat wholesaler--meet at a bar, and talk and boast. The piano tuner runs afoul of the police; the meat seller, a few rungs up the economic ladder, contends with his elderly father and confronts a strange rash of piglets born fully rounded. In arguably the strangest thread, the young hooker attends her sister's funeral at a primitive outpost, where toothless, laughing old crones, high on rotgut liquor, mash bread with their teeth and turn the masticated chaw into dolls. The likelihood of the film grossing $200 million Stateside is low.

Written by the noted post-modernist Vladimir Sorokin, 4 (a debut feature for its brash 30-year-old director) is clearly for specialized tastes, and I can't imagine a second visit, much less four, anytime soon. But it does have the integrity of its despair, a cry--half-angry, half-laughter--at the abyss surrounding its characters.

An actor of firm and honorable conviction, Peter Mullan lifts ON A CLEAR DAY (Focus Features) from the rut of FULL MONTY knockoffs. You know the drill: Downtrodden Brits, facing further misery heaped upon their undistinguished lives, begin a cycle of self-improvement (to the consternation and, eventually, amazement of their friends and family) and come out swinging. It's a template that's been keeping the country's film industry alive since MONTY, with all-actress versions (CALENDAR GIRLS), biopic adaptations (MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS), and transvestite overhauls (the forthcoming KINKY BOOTS).

Gaby Dellal's new film (if the word "new" can accurately be applied to such a familiar formula) casts Mullan as Frank, a suddenly unemployed Glaswegian who, at age 55, decides to swim the English Channel--an ambition he keeps from his wife, Joan (Brenda Blethyn), and estranged son, Rob (Jamie Sives). There will, as you might imagine, be a "sea change" in his attitude (I swiped that witticism from the press kit) but not before a few fart, fat, and willy jokes from his mates (including Billy Boyd from the LORD OF THE RINGS cycle) and a lot of mild, kitchen-sink uplift as Joan realizes her own private dream and Frank dips his toes into the water in preparation for the 20-mile swim.

Mullan certainly looks the part of a would-be channel swimmer, just as he disappeared into the dissipation of the alcoholic he played in Ken Loach's MY NAME IS JOE, which won him the best actor award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. More importantly, he lives it; in his performance, you feel how all of Frank's resentments and anxieties have been welling up within him, and how difficult it is for him to, umm, "channel" them into something more positive. Less mannered than usual, Blethyn responds with a matched set of conflicting emotions; they convince as a long-married couple who intuit everything but have forgotten simpler ways to communicate. "When you aspire to something extraordinary, you can find the hero within," the promotional materials preen, but the real achievement in their performances is to find something believably ordinary and commonplace in their portrayals.

Among the other actors, I enjoyed, however briefly, the appearances of the luminous Jodhi May, from A WORLD APART and LAST OF THE MOHICANS, as Frank's daughter-in-law, Angela. It's Mullan, though, who gives this overworked scenario its spine, and its heart. There's very little fluff on his resume as an actor or director (THE MAGDALENE SISTERS); even his genre credits, like the spooky SESSION 9, are focused on credibly human stresses. ON A CLEAR DAY is a movie that on some level wants to sell out, but its star stands resolutely in the way.

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