Thursday, May 31, 2007

Screen scene (June 1 edition)

With the biggest of the summer "threequels" all now in release, the movies are getting a little smaller, and the indies are reclaiming some ground starting today.

If the lovesickness of the finely acted Away From Her was a little too dry, literary, or "Canadian" for your taste, attend the tabloid-flavored true-life New York story of amor in extremis, Crazy Love (Magnolia Pictures). The facts have been picked over in advance of the documentary's release, but seeing is disbelieving. Love is literally blind for Linda Riss, who was left disfigured and all-but-sightless when an unhinged admirer, Burt Pugach, hired three men to throw lye in her face in a notorious 1959 attack. Pugach, a lawyer and two-bit movie producer (of 1958's obscure Death Over My Shoulder), went to prison for 14 years, during which time he infuriated state officials by acting as "in-house" counsel for fellow felons like Willie Sutton (the one who said he robbed bans "because that's where the money was"). Upon his release, the policewoman who had threatened to kill Pugach if he ever dared show his face again had a change of heart, and acted as matchmaker for Pugach and Riss, who had stubbornly, even glamorously, faced adversity but was succumbing to depression. The two have been married for 32 years, a union that has survived its nightmarish beginning and a seeming recidivism on Pugach's part, in a 1997 courtroom drama involving a second stalking incident that refocused attention on the unlikely, yet media-genic, lovebirds.

The co-directors, Dan Klores and actor Fisher Stevens, let the couple make their own case, first in separate interviews, then together. There is an at times arch use of music and a few clumsy attempts at style, but despite guest talking heads like columnist Jimmy Breslin this is mostly a classic two-hander, and maybe the next Grey Gardens. The same controversy, over why this distasteful material was considered worth digging up on film, looms. Fortunately, the problems of stalking and violence against women, so taboo in its era, get much more attention today, and Crazy Love is a time capsule look to when such behavior was routinely ignored or covered up, except in the most explosive cases.

Life has made Burt and Linda characters, who play up to the camera, but Linda, who faced the death over her shoulder as head-on and unconventionally as possible, has an unmistakable pluck--she suggests that her endless nagging and bickering amounts to a life sentence for Burt, who, imprisoned by his affection, can only react sheepishly to her barrage. He gets no sympathy, and rightly so, but is the focus of the film's most bizarrely funny recollection. His secretary recalls that at the low point of his obsession he barricaded himself in his office and endlessly played the Hoagy Carmichael hit "Linda" ("When I go to sleep/I never count sheep/I count all the charms/About Linda") on his ukulele, singing the lyrics to his pet iguana, who was named "Iggy." Much of Crazy Love can make you squirmy, but I laughed out loud at that one.

Timur Bekmambetov's Day Watch continues the hectic supernatural saga of last year's Night Watch, with the forces of Light and Dark taking their centuries-long war to the streets of present-day Moscow for a second round. This involves mistaken-identity soul switching and more fancy vehicular mayhem, as cars speed along the sides of skyscrapers and minarets. As the title suggests it's a somewhat lighter film than its predecessor, for all the Russian breast-beating about fathers and sons that goes on when the movie stops long enough to consider the emotional, rather than the technocratic gee-whiz, side of things. But it's also a longer one, and the low-budget inventiveness that marked the first installment feels slicker, and emptier, this time. The appealingly morose lead, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), is sidelined as the pummeling special and sound effects thrash about, bringing the story to a conclusion that I'm not sure how a proposed third, English-language followup, Dusk Watch, will work around. If you ever wanted to see a movie that for more than two hours looks and sounds like one of those annoying anti-piracy ads that pop up on DVDs, then Day Watch is the one for you. Just sit way back in the theater to avoid eyestrain as the smash-cut edits and floating, multicolored subtitles flood the screen.

It's hard to avoid gallows humor when writing about Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, a recessive, pocket biopic about Britain's Albert Pierrepoint, who carried on the family trade from his father and hustled a total of 450 convicted criminals to their deaths, including 17 women (like Ruth Ellis, the subject of 1985's Dance with a Stranger, and the last woman hanged in England) before his trade was abolished. Pierrepoint, who died in 1992, became something an anti-capital punishment figure in later years. But he came to enjoy his grisly fame in the aftermath of his export to Germany to carry out the sentences in the Nuremberg trials, during which tabloid photographers exposed his carefully concealed identity. He took pride in his problem-free career--it took him 45 seconds to hang each prisoner, without a single mishap--and opened a pub at the height of his notoriety. From what I gather the movie trumps up the turning point of his moral awakening, as a desperate friend falls into crime and slips into prison, but the point is made. By the time we get there, we, too, have become too used to Pierrepoint's ghastly routine, which director Adrian Shergold shows without fuss or elaboration, and need a jolt to our passive acceptance to the facts of death.

The excellent Timothy Spall, a big man who favors tiny, precise gestures as the meticulous Pierrepoint, adds another richly colored portrait to his gallery of portrayals. Juliet Stevenson, as his quietly ambitious wife, and Eddie Marsan as their hapless acquaintance are good in equal measure. Crime watchers will enjoy the gallery of rogues paraded out in cameos, including Ellis. The brown-on-gray look of the film, recalling Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, feels true to the period and the subject matter. I tried to resist, but Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, is well-executed (and, in a switcheroo the precision-tuned Pierrepoint would have objected to, the film is now opening June 8).

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