Let's skip the which-is-the-best-Hannibal-Lecter-story-or-movie debate, and acknowledge that the series has been built beautifully (even Hannibal, for this reviewer, added some juice). Red Dragon, a remake of the pre-Anthony Hopkins Manhunter, and an interpretation of the first book in the trilogy, is creepy and nasty as all get-out. Besides the unfilmed slaughter of whole families, besides Agent Will Graham (Norton) recording crime-scene logs such as "... small pieces of mirror inserted in their orbital sockets," we come to know serial freakazoid Francis Dolarhyde (Fiennes) in personal, sometimes sympathetic ways. He goes on a date. He gets it on with a blind girl while watching a videotape of his next victims. Ach, blech, ewww ... gross, dude. All the while, we worry about Graham's family, his mental health, and his having to consult the maniac (Hopkins) he imprisoned years ago.

Yet Red Dragon is as chocked with narrative as with the freaky stuff. It takes time for levity, and for subtlety. The film opens on Lecter in the audience at a symphony concert, glaring at an errant performer. Cut to a dinner party thrown by Hannibal for the symphony board, who wonder about the disappearance of said musician, and also where their host procured these marvelous cutlets.

The emphasis of Hannibal's impeccable style borders on kitsch, but really it's essential to the fully realized character dynamics of Red Dragon. Each of the smaller parts are treated with patience: Keitel's Jack Crawford reads an old, worn book in his bathrobe. Watson, the "blind date," baits Francis with charm and cheer that lack smarmy innocence. Nowhere are the bland archetypes that mired Hannibal.

The Lecter series has ruined my appreciation of more formulaic serial-killer thrillers (which I never dug much anyhoo). And while Sir Anthony might be tired of the role, I personally hope Thomas Harris creates more misanthropic menus for the mad medic.

Brown Sugar
"When Huey Met Shakira"

Dir: Rick Famuyiwa; writ. Michael Elliot, Rick Famuyiwa; feat. Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Ralph E. Tresvant, Dante Beze, Boris Kodjoe, Queen Latifah, Method Man, Nicole Ari Parker (PG-13)
Who says Hollywood is out of ideas? Up and coming directors like Rick Famuyiwa certainly have the game figured out. All one needs to do is rework tired, white-bread scenarios into thinly veiled ethnic variants. Now entirely new audiences can be surreptitiously lured into the doldrums of creative mediocrity!

Much like the syrupy-sweet 2001 John Cusak vehicle Serendipity, Brown Sugar's story asserts that the meaning, objective, and course of one's life can be attributed to a single, definable moment. The pivotal moment for Sidney (Lathan) and Dre (Diggs) was their chance meeting as children where they witnessed the birth of hip-hop on a New York street corner. Both children were so inspired that they choose to follow music appreciation as a career, she as a music critic and he as a music executive. After a lifelong platonic friendship, both realize that what they really found that fateful day on a New York street corner was each other. (Cough.)

Was it fate? Destiny? Kismet? Crap? Are Sidney and Dre the Rozencrantz and Gildenstern of romantic comedy? Genuinely strong performances, welcome cameos and a solid soundtrack lend some credence to this corny modern love story. However, viewers who would rather gouge their own eyes out then sit through When Harry Met Sally should get their sharp objects shined and ready.

Mad Love (Juana La Loca)
"History as thwarted feminine desire"

Writ. & dir. Vicente Aranda; feat. Pila López de Ayala, Daniele Liotti, Manuela Arcuri, Eloy Azorín, Rosana Pastor (R)
Christopher Columbus was not the only lunatic whom Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand sent off into the world. In 1496, they dispatched their daughter Juana to Flanders, to cement an alliance with Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. At the outset of Mad Love, seventeen-year-old Juana is prepared for grim sacrifice — dynastic marriage, sight unseen, to Maximilian's son, Philip. But their union proves explosive. As portrayed by Daniele Liotti, the young archduke merits his epithet Philip the Handsome, and Pila Lopez de Ayala's Juana falls passionately, tenaciously in love with him. But Philip is fickle, and, though he covets the monarchy of Castile when his bride's mother and siblings die, he flaunts his infidelities. Juana's jealous rages are used as evidence of regal incapacity.

Confined to the castle of Tordesillas for almost fifty years, the dethroned queen came to be known as Juana La Loca: Crazy Joan. Vicente Aranda's film is revisionist costume history designed to celebrate the madwoman in the palace. And it is not much more than that — geopolitics as a function of one woman's misplaced (misplaced from the 21st Century, that is) libido. Vivid moments, such as Juana's grand entrance into parliament, to confront the men conspiring against her, or a sequence of her screaming in the rain: "My mother is dead! My husband is unfaithful!" support Aranda's thesis that Juana's was a case of feminine desire misconstrued as madness.

Moonlight Mile
"Heartfelt, if too-tidy, tale of mourning"

Dir. and writ. Brad Silberling; feat. Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, Ellen Pompeo (PG-13)
In real life, there are at least as many varieties of grief as there are of love. But in Hollywood, romance gets the lion's share of screen time — meaning that any movie daring to depict the mourning process must portray at least half a dozen types of sadness, just to keep up with the mushy joy spilling off all the other screens at the multiplex.

Moonlight Mile begins three days after the murder of Diana Floss, who was engaged to marry Joe (Gyllenhaal, the star of Donnie Darko). The couple had been living with Diana's parents (Sarandon and Hoffman), and Joe is staying on with them, helping them cope while he tries to decide where to go from here. It's an awkward situation, made stranger by the absence of familiar indicators of sorrow: Nobody sits in the corner, crying inconsolably; instead, Hoffman bends over backward to accommodate well-meaning neighbors' condolences, Sarandon mocks their friends' trite gestures, and Gyllenhaal, whose always-sad eyes tell us he's hiding something, tries to go with the flow.

The three appear to be wearing their mourning lightly, taking any opportunity to laugh gently at their predicament. They try to make progress as a unit and as individuals; but Joe's difficulty is compounded when he begins to fall for a girl with her own sad baggage. Would it be unthinkable for him to move on, while still sleeping in his dead fiancée's bedroom? Her parents would think so, surely.

Writer/director Brad Silberling has personal reasons to be true to his characters' quirky emotional states; in 1989, his own girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was murdered. Whatever his film's faults, it's impossible to mistake Moonlight Mile for a work for hire — Silberling passes up too many opportunities to milk cheap sympathy from a scene, too often steers us away from the predictable and into something real.

He also displays a subtlety with the camera one doesn't expect from a director who has worked so long in TV. In one scene, Hoffman and his surrogate son celebrate a good day at work on a bench overlooking town; the placement of the bench allows Silberling to put his camera beneath the actors, with Hoffman's legs not quite reaching the edge of a frame that the much taller Gyllenhaal fills completely — the shot is a subtle indication that, though the younger man is awash in conflicting emotions, he's miles closer to a resolution than Diana's father.

Still, Silberling the writer tries just a little too hard, caring so much for Diana's family that he wants to heal them all a little in the short time allotted to him. Sarandon is given a speech that does a too-perfect job of explaining her imperfect marriage; the actress rises to the occasion, but the tidy dialogue is hard to sell. Later, Gyllenhaal is similarly burdened, once in a courtroom and once in a bar.

Few viewers will complain, though, that they're allowed to feel too good when they leave the theater. However unlikely some of the plot's devices are, they're always tethered to something honest — as when Silberling, eager to have his young star gaze hopefully into the horizon, plants a reminder of Diana above a car's windshield. Condensing the whole process of grief into two hours requires some sleight of hand — while you might see how some of the tricks are done in Moonlight Mile, the film is still pretty magical.

Pokémon 4ever
"Will 4ever ever end?"
Dir. Jim Malone; writ. Michael Haigney; feat. Voices of Veronica Taylor, Addie Blaustein, Rachael Lillis, Ikue Ootani (G)
Most parents of a kid between 4 and 12 have heard about Pokémon. Some have even endured a couple of the movies. This is the latest, and I have to admit, I had to try very hard to go in with an objective mind-set. Pokémon 3 was so dull, I fully expected to hate this one. Remarkably, 4ever is not as terrible as 3.

There is, at least, a plot — the heroes must protect the "Voice of the Forest" — and one of the songs is tolerable. But the story never delivers any lessons applicable to the real world. Instead it implies that Earth's forests and water are destroyed by "good-Pokémon-turned-bad" and the way to fight it is through a combination of battles and "remember me" flashbacks. Many of the sequences are too long, and one scene of the "butterfrees" over the forest is a poor imitation of a scene from Rankin/Bass' The Hobbit.

Although the latest installment, like its predecessor, features bad animation, uninspired plots, boring music, and pointless battles, at least this time around it is possible to sit through it without wanting to pull your hair out.

click to enlarge screens_secretary_220jpg
Fetch me my mail! Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary.

"Surprisingly charming S&M comedy"

Dir. Steven Shainberg; writ. Mary Gaitskill (story), Shainberg; feat. James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren (R)
Perverts beware: If you've been reading about how erotically twisted this sadomasochist office comedy is, you might be disappointed. There's spanking, self-mutilation, and a wee bit of bondage here, but its presentation is restrained enough to keep the MPAA at bay. I know those European fetish magazines are pricey, so you might want to save the ticket price.

Not that I'm saying the prude population should rush out to see Secretary — our heroes here obviously get their kicks in unauthorized ways — but the film is more interested in the psychology behind S&M than in the gory depiction of it. That it succeeds at all is a testament to Gyllenhaal, whose stock rose (along with that of her brother Jake) in last year's Donnie Darko. Gyllenhaal plays Lee, a young lady fresh from a mental institution. She was put there because of an apparent suicide attempt, but in truth she just feels the need to cut herself and was never suicidal.

She finds work as a secretary for lawyer E. Edward Grey (Spader); the permanent "secretary needed" sign outside the office (like a hotel's "vacancy" sign, it lights up when Grey is hiring) should have been a tip that the boss likes to torment his employees. Spader (after Crash and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, no stranger to perversity) overacts with relish, portraying a man who cannot help himself; his sadism starts with harping on typos, but builds quickly to full-on master / servant role-playing, complete with leather restraints and ecstatic paddling.

The trick is, Lee and Edward are made for each other; both know what it's like to have irresistible urges you're ashamed of, and their needs mesh well. The tale is mostly played for low-key laughs, a romantic comedy set in the stylistic netherworld of Twin Peaks. The tone gets confused at times, with over-the-top set design and a too-easy resolution. But the reason to see it is Gyllenhaal, who can corral the film's mixed emotions, squeezing depression, arousal, guilt and glee all into a few moments. Though she's not a conventional screen beauty, Gyllenhaal's baby face is capable of emotive somersaults both outrageous and barely perceptible; she's one to watch, and hopefully this film will free her from the dungeon of supporting actress roles. JD

Spirited Away
"Enchantingly enchanted"

Writ. & dir. Hayao Miyazaki; feat. (voices) Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Susan Egan, Michael Chiklis, Lauren Holly, Suzzanne Pleshette (PG)
When Disney whomps its signature logo onto the subtle art of Japanimation — especially that of acclaimed anime director Hayao Miyazaki — there is cause to worry that rather than allowing the characters to exist naturally in their native environment, the feature will suffer from calculated cultural references so politically correct that the foreign charm of the film becomes something as familiar — and ultimately, bland — as a bowl of white rice. But the corporate mofos have actually left Miyazaki's Spirited Away (which broke all of the box office records in Japan, and was the first animated feature to win Best Picture of the Year at the Berlin International Film Festival) intact — including its ethereal score — and simply had the American version expertly dubbed in English by Pixar's John Lasseter.

Venturing into an ominous tunnel near their new home, 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents wander into an abandoned theme park, an eerily still and silent place that is a portal to the spirit realm. When her parents are transformed into enchanted pigs, Chihiro throws logic to the wind with a resigned sigh, and accepts the adventure with a great gulp of child-conviction. To survive to rescue her parents, Chihiro must surrender herself to servitude under the evil witch Yu-baba. Much like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, the young girl is swept into the dark whimsies of Wonderland, surviving by intuition and innocence. Struggling to retain her own identity, Chihiro is forced to find her own inner strengths.

Spirited Away is beautifully executed: The animation is superbly detailed, and there is a depth to the characters and storyline that exceeds most American children's movies. The running time also exceeds that of animated American features, at 124 minutes; however intrigued by the imaginative tale, the SA preview audience grew antsy after the first action-packed hour. Parents of younger children should be aware that honoring the cultural richness of Miyazaki's film means maintaining some of the visceral extremes found in Japanimation: There is a short series of vomiting scenes, a variety of unsavory spirits, and some bloodshed — although weaponry and violence are auspiciously absent.

The Transporter
"Predictable genre-mixing joyride that fails to deliver"

Dir. Corey Yuen; writ. Luc Besson; feat. Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze, François Berléand(PG-13)

Several years ago, Luc Besson made The Professional, a movie about a lonely assassin who befriends a little girl and regains his humanity. It's a touching story; an action movie with a heart. It's also miles away from The Transporter, the latest piece of celluloid to bear Besson's name.

The Transporter, a professional delivery man for the criminal underworld, admires precision and operates under a strict set of guidelines. He leads what must be a lonely life. The only visitors to his spacious lakefront domicile are the milkman, dropping off a basket of food every morning, and an inspector who knocks at his door, it seems, after every heist. Despite his daily grocery delivery, the Transporter dines in gas stations alone, eating saran-wrapped hoagies. The audience doesn't even learn his name — that would violate one of his three cardinal rules — until midway through the film.

Instead of lending the Transporter any depth, all this moody character development comes off as cliché. His character is not the only one who suffers from the filmmakers' lack of creativity. Lai, the Chinese woman he (inadvertently) rescues, is a stereotype of Asian passivity and submissiveness. Despite being on the run, the Transporter and Lai travel from their first meeting to the bedroom in just a few short scenes.

The film is part over-the-top Hong Kong choreography (courtesy of veteran director Yuen), part Jackie Chan fist-fighting fun (a candelabra! a sweater! oil wrestling!) and part Jacques Cousteau underwater documentary (as bizarre as it sounds), all set in an idyllic, multicultural French countryside

While the Transporter reminds his employers of his three rules as often as a schoolteacher does to an unruly classroom, he wastes little time breaking them. The filmmakers, on the other hand, detour from convention only when changing gears, switching from action-adventure to romantic comedy as often as feet fly through the air, without idling in one place long enough to see what develops.

Tuck Everlasting
"Lovely tale withstands trite retelling"

Dir. Jay Russell; writ. Natalie Babbitt (novel), Jeffrey Lieber; feat. Alexis Bledel, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Jonathan Jackson, Scott Bairstow, Ben Kingsley, Amy Irving, Victor Garber, Elisabeth Shue (narrator) (PG)
Anyone who has actually read a fairy tale will start howling (and maybe hurling) as the film begins. First a modern-day vignette with a motorcyclist in black, then icky narration. Sure, Elisabeth Shue has apleasant enough voice, but what she is asked to say — "Time is like a wheel" — is painfully prosaic. Thus croaketh the initial fantasy and mystery of Tuck Everlasting.

The family Tuck has discovered a spring of youth — Jesse Tuck, at 104, looks 17. Winifred Foster has discovered the family, and so has a mysterious, sinister Man in a Yellow Suit. Winifred and Jesse discover that lacy things are fun when wet. Rich white people discover nothing.

One senses that the storytellers deemed that mainstream audiences can't take poetry or darkness in their romance. They have stripped the meat and muscle, leaving Winifred's pale skin to wear lacy things and prance around in the woods, to the repeated tune of a music box. Through labor and convention, however, the players ultimately resurrect the magic of their play, and once we realize what's happening, we can almost enjoy being spoon-fed.



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