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New Film Reviews 

For the week of February 3 -10, 2006

Wednesday, Feb 1 2006

FAQS Writer-director Everett Lewis (Skin and Bone, Luster) makes movies about gay life and love that embrace clichés in order to subvert them, and wield loose, almost meandering narratives that, at their best, allow viewers to organically warm to characters and ideas. His fourth feature, FAQs, begins as young runaway India (Joe Lia) is cornered by gay-bashers and rescued by beautiful drag queen/vigilante Destiny (Allan Louis). From there, India joins Destiny’s loving surrogate family of straight-world castoffs, and takes on her mission of saving young queers from a violently homophobic world. FAQs forcefully rejects the image of the homosexual as victim, proposing that simply being oneself is a radical act. (“Our kisses are like bombs going off in the straight world,” says India to his troubled lover.) Lewis is adept at modulating both tension and free-flowing interpersonal relationships, and he maintains a keen eye for scruffy beauty — Gavin Kelly’s well-lit photography captures the allure of plump lips, sculpted cheekbones and nocturnal urban grace — but the film seems less comfortable in its own skin than his other work. Perhaps because the movie is arguably his most politically confrontational (it opens with an excerpt of the Texan Republican Party’s reprehensible 2004 platform), the dialogue is blunter, and harder for his amateur cast to pull off, while Lewis’ stridency, however justified, ultimately jars against the film’s tender, all-is-love fantasia. (Fairfax) (Hazel-Dawn Dumpert)

A GOOD WOMAN Oscar Wilde fans who find Lady Windermere’s Fan too moralizing for their satiric taste miss the humane wisdom of this dramatic comedy about a fallen woman stepping unannounced into the life of the grown daughter she had abandoned as a baby. Still, Wilde himself would have rolled his eyes at Mike Barker’s shallow effort to spiff up the play for transatlantic markets. It’s no wonder A Good Woman has moldered on Anglo-American shelves for close to three years. Barker shifts the action from Victorian England — where it belongs, as a scathing attack on haute-bourgeois ethics — to the irrelevantly picturesque Amalfi coast of Italy in the 1930s, where Helen Hunt (born for television sitcoms and buried under too much aging pancake) tries not to let Scarlett Johansson (born to play wantons, not prigs in floral frocks) know that she’s her long-lost mum, while gaily blackmailing Scarlett’s studly young stiff of a husband (Mark Umbers) into supporting her shopping budget. Stephen Campbell Moore is miserably out of his depth as the playboy trying to tempt Scarlett, leaving poor Tom Wilkinson to sound a lone note of sophisticated intelligence as the filthy-rich lord who understands that both romantic love and moral choice are more complicated and compromised than this sorry crew’s petty minds can encompass. (ArcLight; One Colorado; AMC Century City) (Ella Taylor)

GO PICK  MANDERLAY In the preface to Pauline Reage’s notorious 1953 erotica Histoire d’O, a supposedly true story is recounted: Upon being legally freed, a group of slaves on Barbados promptly ask their master to take them back and, when he refuses, brutally kill him, move back into their former quarters and resume their daily chores. From that inspiration, Lars von Trier has extrapolated his Manderlay, the second chapter in the director’s announced trilogy, “USA: Land of Opportunities.” Here, having laid waste to the denizens of Dogville, Grace (an adept Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over for Nicole Kidman), her father (Willem Dafoe) and their entourage of well-tailored G-men head south, stopping for a brief respite outside of the titular Alabama plantation where, it quickly becomes apparent, slavery is still in effect — some 70 years after abolition. Despite Daddy’s warning that sometimes it can be a dangerous thing to let a bird out of its cage, Grace employs a mixture of forthrightness and firepower to wrest Manderlay away from the clutches of its elderly matriarch (Lauren Bacall) and sets about a social experiment with distinctly contemporary geopolitical overtones. That is, she sets about bringing freedom to the heretofore oppressed, whether they want it or not. As the wise old house slave Wilhelm (Danny Glover) says to Grace, “America was not ready to welcome us Negroes as equals 70 years ago and it still ain’t, and the way things are goin’, it won’t be in a hundred years” — tough words that will do little to curb the accusations of anti-Americanism and moral superiority routinely hurled at Trier. But at a moment when the L.A. riots are barely a decade behind us, Bill Cosby gets raked over the coals for daring to suggest that his fellow African-Americans should lift themselves out of the ghetto, and the can’t-we-all-get-along platitudes of Crash pass as a canny pulse-taking of race in America, pardon me if I’m exhilarated by the boldness with which Trier hauls the musty skeletons out of our sociopolitical closet. Manderlay amounts to a public lynching of white America’s propensity for heal-the-world benevolence and a deeply troubled contemplation of black America’s residual “slave mentality.” It’s true, of course, that Trier still hasn’t set foot on U.S. soil, but it may be that he sees us, in all our virtue and victimhood, that much more clearly for it. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)

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