Reel Time

Doggy Style

Jet Li is a sweetie monster in Unleashed, and we’re still fonda Fonda in Monster-in-Law.

An enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a puzzle

Unleashed (Rogue Pictures) is a clever, expertly done variation on the old (but always potent), monster/mad-scientist fairy tale, with the scientist a cockney gangster and the monster a kung fu fighter. Danny (Jet Li) is a near-mute automaton with dead, sunken eyes. Shambling, head bowed, led around on a leash, he comes to life only when his master/creator/father, Bart (Bob Hoskins), aiming to collect a debt, removes Danny’s steel collar and snarls, “Get ‘em, Danny!” Then Danny is something to see.

The director, Louis Leterrier, was responsible for one of the most overpraised movies of recent years, The Transporter, in which the action was so absurdly sped up, chopped up, and jazzed up (in the manner of an unusually obnoxious music video) that it lost all connection with gravity. Leterrier’s technique is better here, but what’s really different is the whirligig in the center of the frame. No matter how fast Leterrier cuts, Jet Li seems to cut (and kick and punch) faster. Working with the great fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, Leterrier shapes the action around unbroken shots in which Li does things that no human body should be able to do at speeds that no human body should be able to travel. It’s not just that his hands and feet are a blur. It’s that you can’t quite see how he gets from adversary to adversary: He seems to be taking quantum leaps through space.

His acting is wonderful, too. Did Li study the greatest monster, Karloff? The eyes in the middle of that homely, pockmarked face are first hooded, then beseeching. Bart keeps his good dog shut up in the cellar, and Luc Besson—who wrote the screenplay—was clearly thinking of King Kong when the bereft Danny stares up through a grate at one of Bart’s prostitutes.

Unleashed is claptrap, but it would take a stronger man than I to resist it when the main characters are played by Li, Hoskins, and Morgan Freeman—as Sam, the kindly, blind (or is it blindly kind?) piano tuner who speaks to Danny like the hermit in Bride of Frankenstein and then brings him (wounded, bleeding) into his home. This didn’t strike me as the wisest move, given the presence of his teenage stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), in the house. But if Freeman’s Sam is blind, he can see into a man’s heart. Soon, Danny is getting all snuggly, shopping for fruits and vegetables, listening to Mozart… When it’s time to fight again, he makes like Ferdinand the Bull and heads straight for the flowers. But kung fu assassins have a way of making it hard to say no.

The picture ends with a burst of pacifism, but there’s one terrific fight before then: Jet Li and some really big bald guy in white robes going hand-to-hand in a tiny half-bathroom. Only people who can move so astonishingly through space could make such a witty spectacle out of the lack of it.

From the mailbag re: Monster-in-Law (below):

“Nice review, jerk. Yeah, way to puff up the insanely traitorous ego of Hanoi Jane. Next time, try licking her feet, she might be responsive. Then again, I heard she likes her Americans dead. Have some integrity next time, and let Hanoi Jane’s movies go unreviewed, dick.”—JM

Dear JM: Thanks for the note. But politics have no place in a movie review. At least that’s what people like you are always telling me… 1:01 P.T.

We’re used to films that are intellectual jigsaw puzzles—but emotional ones? They’re a lot more upending. They not only keep us off base; they can make us question what we thought we understood about the characters’ lives. Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (Wellspring) is an emotional jigsaw that will keep you engrossed for days, maybe years. It has two story lines—one grave and melancholy, one antic—that intersect about halfway through its two-and-a-half-hour running time. It’s as if Woody Allen in Melinda and Melinda had ended by merging his comedy and his drama, and the marriage proved unexpectedly fruitful. (Come to think of it, that might have made Allen’s overpraised dud more interesting.)

At the start, a woman called Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) talks to the camera. She tells a story about Zeus—the one in which he fell in love with Leda and took the form of a swan to make love to her. Why is she telling us this? A clue is that Nora buys a beautiful illustration of the myth as a gift for her beloved father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), a renowned author and published diarist, who’s clearly uncomfortable with it. He’s uncomfortable for another reason: His insides are ravaged by a cancer that will kill him in days.

Faced with watching her father die, the widowed Nora decides to find a place to stick her 11-year-old, Elias (Valentin Lelong)—and then, in one of those inexplicable psychological turns, a place to put him permanently. Elias doesn’t like the (rich) man she’s marrying: Maybe he should live with her last lover, Ismaël, whom Elias adored. Played by Desplechin regular (and alter ego?) Mathieu Amalric, Ismaël is the movie’s second protagonist. In his first scene, two smiling men in white haul him from his chaotic apartment to a mental hospital. A respected violist, he’s buffoonish, grandiose, and unhinged—a blurter of unpleasant truths and even more unpleasant (misogynistic) delusions. But he’s hugely likable and adorable—a rumpled cuddlebug.

Now we watch the protagonists struggle: Nora to come to terms with her father’s dying; and the hospitalized Ismaël to center himself, despite a lawyer (Hippolyte Girardot) who shows up to steal drugs from the pharmacy, a nurse therapist who flirts with him madly, and a suicidal patient (Magali Woch) who thinks he’s her soul mate. Ismaël has two therapists, a hospital one played by the still stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve, the other an immense French-African woman played by Elsa Wolliaston, with whom he grapples with the meaning of existence.

Nora and Ismaël try to use myths (like Leda and the swan) to account for their feelings, but we learn, to our shock, that they haven’t begun to frame their lives properly. The final act of Kings and Queen contains a series of brutally frank exchanges—between Ismaël and his former musical partner, between Nora and her father (via his last diary entry), and between Ismaël and the boy Elias—that hit us like an anvil. We made the mistake of buying into the characters’ own interpretations of themselves—but they knew nothing! For all their psychoanalytic myth-mongering, their views of their places in the world have always been clouded by selfishness.

I don’t think I’ve fully penetrated the mysteries of Kings and Queen, which is too complex and contradictory to reduce. But at every turn the movie is messily alive. Most films give us signposts: They signal what we’re going to see before we see it, in ways we often don’t even register. But Desplechin and his actors are nervy, glancing, and intuitive: They keep us one step behind, racing to catch up and make psychological sense of it all. The director varies tones, rhythms, and visual styles. He serves up dreams, ghostly visions, horrifying flashbacks, scenes set against theatrical backdrops with melodramatic music, and opening and closing snatches of the song “Moon River”—which poses the question: Is Nora a modern Leda, or a modern Holly Golightly?

It’s possible that Desplechin and I part company at the end. He seems to want us to see Nora as emotionally stunted and Ismaël as emotionally liberated, but I found both to be self-centered and semidelusional. I didn’t like Ismaël’s parting words with Elias, which are meant to stun us with their wisdom even as they break our hearts. In any case, Kings and Queen winds up with Nora’s son happily assembling a collage featuring the heads of all the figures in his life. He’s beginning to form a more complex view of the world: Perhaps this is the beginning of an artistic vision. The best thing about this marvelous movie is that it inspires us to rearrange our own emotional jigsaw puzzles, too… 5:20 P.T.

Feel the burn

The comedy Monster-in-Law (Universal) is a depressing comeback for Jane Fonda, but it’s still nice to see her in movies again, and in something that isn’t dripping with self-actualizing virtue like her last projects. Maybe the next one will be better. At 68, she is amazingly fit, with more evident bone structure than in her curvy, baby-fatted youth and, befitting her overcontrolled character, straighter posture than ever. But she hasn’t been on the big screen in 14 years, and so—in movie time—she appears to have aged overnight. I still see her with that hot, shag-cut dark hair as she incinerates pasty Donald Sutherland with a glare: “What’s your bag, Klute?” My Bree Daniels, my adolescence …

Anyway, Fonda plays Viola Fields, a rich and powerful news anchor who gets a double whammy: She has been replaced at her station by a bubbly blonde about four decades younger; and her precious son, Kevin (Michael Vartan), has announced he’s going to marry a working-class (but squeaky-clean) Latina woman named Charlotte “Charlie” Cantolini (Jennifer Lopez). Well, not if Viola has anything to do with it!

The film, directed by Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), is a slapstick chick flick that flirts with a real theme before degenerating into the tale of two women playing sadistic tricks on each other. It’s not the slapstick that’s the problem. Contrary to its reputation, physical comedy can deepen a film’s psychology. Jane’s dad Henry’s pratfalls in The Lady Eve are the perfect correlative for his psychological upheaval, and Blake Edwards and Dudley Moore did something delightful in the first few scenes of 10: They turned a man’s 40th birthday into a harbinger of his ultimate defeat at the hands of time and gravity. (Too bad the rest of the film is so god-awful.) But Monster-in-Law’s climactic gags are subtext-free and easy. They make you laugh, but mainly because you don’t expect a film with Fonda and Lopez to sink to that pie-in-the-face level.

Women whose struggle to stay in control causes them to lose control are terrific subjects for the hypercontrolled workout queen. And Viola is potentially a good fit: the kind of egotistical ogre that Fonda claims—in her autobiography, My Life So Far (which has its juicy passages, even if it’s clearly the product of so very much therapy)—she never had the desire (or the confidence) to be. But if Fonda was once an excellent comic actress, she was never an especially broad one. Viola is a Candice Bergen role: out of Fonda’s range even if she weren’t so rusty. And it doesn’t help that she has been paired with a black domestic sidekick (Wanda Sykes) of the sassy, eye-rolling variety. What an awful part for Sykes. I thought the ‘70s and ‘80s had elevated Fonda’s consciousness above that.

This is Fonda’s project, co-produced by her pal Paula Weinstein. But the multiplex draw is Lopez. Her Charlie wears pigtails and Laura Ashleyish dresses, wags her head from side to side, and wears the dreamy expression of Judy Garland singing about happy little bluebirds flying beyond the rainbow. Her smile lights up the room, and she doesn’t walk when she can skip. She’s just remarkable. Watching Jennifer Lopez as a lilting ingénue and Jane Fonda as a roaring, dragon-lady diva, I dreamed of a film in which the roles were, quite properly, reversed. That’s my bag… 3:40 P.T.

In Mysterious Skin (Tartan Films), the director/writer Greg Araki travels deep into the heads of child sexual abuse victims—into their fantasies, dreams, and mystical visions. The two male protagonists are severely damaged, but they had different kinds of traumas, and they cope, as young men, in vastly different ways. One, Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), hustles for money; the other, Brian (Brady Corbet), retains only vague images of colossal flying saucers and (maybe) alien medical experiments, his flashbacks accompanied by streams of blood from his nose. The movie has some heavy-handed strokes (in more ways than one), but Araki is trying to work from the inside out; and he captures feelings about sexual exploitation that I’ve never seen on-screen—not all of them negative.

Don’t worry—this isn’t a NAMBLA (North American Man Boy Love Association) * manifesto. But Araki—working from a novel by Scott Heim—begins with a vision of bliss, of Froot Loops cereal flying through the air in lyrical slow motion. Later, we learn the source of that image. A baseball coach (Bill Sage) ushers prepubescent Neil (Chase Ellison) into a subterranean den filled with video games and junk food—a juvenile paradise, far from the unstable world of his single mother (Elisabeth Shue) and her various boyfriends.

The coach isn’t your typical movie pervert. Sandy-haired and laid-back, he’s a cross between Robert Redford and Owen Wilson. He’s attentive—boy, is he attentive. When Neil opens a mini box of cereal too enthusiastically and its contents fly across the table, the coach opens another and dumps it over his own head; and then the two, madly giggling, rip open box after box. It’s this ecstatic romp that the fatherless boy keeps returning to. Years later, he says he has never felt so loved. (Mysterious Skin makes you wonder if—as an ongoing trial suggests—sexual predators can be the neatest playmates.)

Araki’s treatment of the sex that follows is careful—for legal reasons, obviously, but also because it makes artistic and moral sense to isolate Neil in the frame. The camera fastens on a hand, a chest, some fingers in a mouth—images that will anchor themselves in the boy’s brain. We are not seeing a communion of souls, but a violation that will leave Neil locked inside himself for the rest of his life. Gordon-Levitt is a slender and beautiful young man—in the Keanu Reeves mode, but flesh-and-blood instead of wood. The smugness with which he regards the (many) middle-aged johns who solicit his favors can’t conceal his addiction to them. Neil boasts of being the one in control, but when the johns are on top of him, he goes for an instant to another, more exposed, place. His cool looks increasingly like desperation.

The concurrent trajectory of Brian—blond, frail, bookish—is more fractured, and full of bizarre zigzags. When the UFO obsession takes hold, he’s suddenly trekking out to the farm of Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a disabled woman profiled on a “reality” show called World of Mystery. She’s sure that as a girl she was taken and probed and mutilated by aliens—although the way her old dad gazes suspiciously on her visitors makes you wonder if the alien didn’t arrive on a tractor. For Brian, the alien thing won’t take. The face that he remembers is human and belongs to a boy—a boy who must have gone to his school.

The work of Araki and his colleagues (cinematographer Steve Gainer, designer Devorah Herbert, composers Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie) is entrancing, but Mysterious Skin is sometimes a mite… unmysterious. The young Brian’s first, post-traumatic fainting spell is followed by a slow-motion shot of his glass of milk sailing through the air and shattering: Goodbye to childhood and all that. An uncannily touching scene with Billy Drago (a wonderful heavy in B and C pictures) as a lesion-riddled john moaning with joy as Neil caresses his back is nearly undone by Araki’s final, plaintive close-up of a Vermeer reproduction hanging on the man’s wall.

But the actors spell nothing out. Beyond Gordon-Levitt’s revelatory work, Mysterious Skin features intense but gorgeously restrained performances by Corbet, Shue, Jeffrey Licon as Neil’s effeminate pal, Ellison and George Webster as the young boys, and Michelle Trachtenberg—whose lips seem finally under control here. Another surprise is Rajskub, the nerdy-cutie of The Larry Sanders Show and 24, who goes deeper into her dysfunctional persona than ever before. What a twisted, inward character. Along with Brian, Avalyn makes you understand the religion of UFOs—as both a metaphor of violation and a means of leaving this wicked world behind… 3:17 P.T.

Correction, May 13, 2005:The original version of this review incorrectly identified NAMBLA as an acronym for the “National Association of Man Boy Love” as opposed to the correct title, “The North American Man Boy Love Association.” This was not intended as a slight to Canada or Mexico. Anything but. I ought to have Googled it, but the fear of S.W.A.T. teams promptly crashing through my office window forced me to take a stab. My thanks to a reader—not a NAMBLA member—for supplying me with the correct name. And my apologies to… On second thought, never mind. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.