El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro)
“Startling news that priests are weak”

Dir. Carlos Carrera; writ. Jose Maria Eça de Queiróz (novel), Vicente Leñero; feat. Gael García Bernal, Sancho Gracia, Ana Claudía Talancón, Angélica Aragón, Luisa Huertas, Damián Alcazár (R)

During a bus journey to his assignment in rural Mexico, Father Amaro (García Bernal), a neophyte priest, finds himself sitting beside a peasant en route to a new life as a merchant. When bandits board the bus, the peasant is relieved of his life's savings. Amaro, whom the thieves have somehow spared, gives the devastated victim his own money. That is the beginning of the film and the end of Amaro's altruism. A story of innocence lost, El Crimen del Padre Amaro will shock any viewer innocent enough to believe, even after recent scandals in the Catholic Church, that priests are immune to pride, envy, gluttony, and lust.

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Gael García Bernal (Armaro) and Ana Claudia Talancón (Amelia) engage in crimes of passion.
“I just want to serve God, father,” Amaro tells Benito (Gracia), the veteran parish priest whom he reports to and who has long been sleeping with the woman who serves him lunch. Her nubile 16-year-old daughter, Amelia (Talancón), is so smitten with the ecclesiastical newcomer that she dumps her atheist boyfriend, and Amaro forgets his recent vows of celibacy. With a lurid mix of drug lords, leftist guerrillas, abortionists, and opportunists, El Crimen del Padre Amaro is a clunky melodrama about how serving God is perverted into serving self. SGK

Die Another Day
“One of the better ones”

Dir. Lee Tamahori; writ. Neal Purvis & Robert Wade; feat. Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, John Cleese, Judi Dench, Michael Madsen (PG-13)

Okay, folks, it's a Bond movie — and you know what's in 'em as well as James knows how to knot a tie. How do the elements in this one stack up against those in the 15 gazillion episodes that preceded it?

Credits: Hardly sexy at all, but pretty great. Women made out of ice dancing with others of molten lava. Nicely employed digital effects. Better yet, it's all intercut and overlapped with some very un-Bond-like live action. Title Song: Yikes. Where are Duran Duran when you need them? Worse, Madonna seems to have conned the producers into giving her a speaking part in exchange for this lame little ditty — she's dead on the screen.

Villains: The most memorable Bond bad-guy henchman in ages is a bald albino with diamonds embedded in his face, thanks to an explosion Bond caused. Yes! Chicks: Bond gets buried in Berry's bulbous boobs. Sorry — that was uncalled for. Halle Berry is fine as 007's American counterpart, but I'm not looking forward to her proposed spin-off series. Give me Miranda Frost, the world champion fencer who is impervious to Bond's charm, until she's not. Could have used more of her.

Gadgets: Call it a draw. A supersonic-emitting ring that shatters glass? I made a better one in junior high. But the invisible car thing is nice, partly because it limits opportunities for the filmmakers to throw the Aston-Martin logo in our faces. Elsewhere, cool hovercraft tanks float over minefields, and the villain has a silly, overused, arm-mounted electro-shocker thing with which he makes blue lightning bolts tickle people. Sets: Very nice. A castle made of ice, a spy office hidden in the subways — all up to snuff. Puns: Sorry, but every one of them falls flat.

Everything else: Don't go calling Dr. No, but story-wise this is one of the better Bond adventures. For every so-so “I'm having a fistfight on a moving hovercraft tank” sequence, there's a ridiculously enjoyable, over-the-top swordfight. The action climax could have been half as long, and nobody would have missed the footage, but up until then the movie moves at a nice pace. The unexpected thing here is the whole set-up, in which Bond is captured by the enemy and tortured for 14 months, given up for dead by M & Co.; the bearded, bruised Bond that emerges is a whole different spin on the character. Until he gets a shave, of course. JD

The Emperor's Club
“Perfect teacher meets perfectly obnoxious student”

Dir. Michael Hoffman; writ. Neil Tolkin, based on a story by Ethan Canin; feat. Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Embeth Davidtz, Rob Morrow, Edward Hermann, Harris Yulin (PG-13)

If, as Heraclitus declared and William Hundert reminds his classes, “A man's character is his fate,” Hundert himself will doubtless die while grading student essays. “I am a teacher, simply that,” he says, though that is not a simple thing. For 34 years, Hundert has been molding young minds and hearts at the elite St. Benedict's Academy for Boys. His subject is ancient history, the words and deeds of noble Greeks and Romans, and, as played by Kevin Kline, Hundert is not just a teacher of classics but the classic prototype of a teacher — erudite, witty, compassionate, and inspiring. With a hundred Hunderts, Western civilization — not just the subject sometimes taught in schools — would be more secure.

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Kevin Cline in The Emperor's Club
The Emperor's Club is an extended flashback to 1976, when a new student, Sedgewick Bell (Hirsch), challenges Hundert's imperium. The brash, disdainful son of a crass United States Senator, Bell poses a challenge to the teacher of an antique discipline. “Who gives a shit about your principles and virtues?” asks Bell. “I live in the real world.” In the rarefied environment of St. Benedict's, Hundert struggles to convert Bell to his rigorous standards of achievement and to prevent him from corrupting other students with his imprudence and impudence.

“This is a story without surprises” is how pensive, white-haired Hundert sums up a life dedicated to shaping character and, thus, trying to control fate. But viewers expecting a fable about how wisdom triumphs over ignorance and integrity over expediency will encounter a few jolts along the way. Through excessive devotion to his duty, Hundert compromises his own principles, and Bell proves more cunning and unscrupulous than anyone could expect.

Because charismatic teachers are superb, if dangerous, performers, classroom movies (The Paper Chase, Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, Mr. Holland's Opus) rivet the attention with dramas about truth, love, and trust. The Emperor's Club would make an effective recruitment tool for an honorable profession in which classes are small, students are eager, and the reward is satisfaction richer than rubies. Based on a short story, “The Palace Thief,” by Ethan Canin, the film makes Hundert seem less of a wuss by providing him with a wife and a good batting eye. Its hero is an unabashed apologist for the patriarchal values of Greco-Roman culture, but he is less disturbed by leftist critiques than by yahoo contempt for Socrates and Cicero. “What's the good of what you're teaching those boys?” Bell's uncouth father asks Hundert. This energetic movie makes the question seem absurd. SGK

Far From Heaven
“Astounding feat of time travel”

Dir. and writ. Todd Haynes; feat. Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn (PG-13)

A few weeks ago, 8 Women indulged in '50s melodramatic tics for their own sake, paying tribute to a bygone era in style only. In Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes goes a mile farther, perfectly recreating that cinematic world, then putting his whole heart into the drama unfolding there.

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The talented Julianne Moore breaks taboo with Dennis Haysbert in Far From Heaven.
As a stylistic experiment, it's an astonishing success; the picture looks, sounds, and feels like one of Douglas Sirk's high-toned soap operas. From the moment the very Sirky title appears, written in vintage script across a backdrop of lush New England foliage, it's as if the filmmaker had never died, but instead had been hidden like one of the family-destroying secrets planted throughout his screenplays. The manners and mores of the '50s upper middle class are presented here as they were then: dialogue is hyperbolically formal, minor unorthodoxies are scandalous.

Haynes is able to go farther than his predecessor, but does so in a cautious way, careful not to let explicitness about his subject matter spoil the tone he has worked so hard to establish: It's unlikely, for example, that a mainstream '50s film could focus to this extent on a husband's secret homosexuality — but if it did, it would treat the subject as it's treated here, everything implied and nothing shown.

As the closeted husband, Dennis Quaid gets another of his recent chances to show that he's a real actor. The raffish charm that made him a star in the '80s has deepened; the age on his face gives him a dramatic weight he didn't have then. But it's Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert who own the film, as Quaid's wife and the black gardener who gives her comfort as her life unravels. In a very '50s way, the couple scandalizes their small community without ever disrobing, and it takes two very gifted actors to give this unconsummated, unspoken connection the power to destroy lives.

It would be as easy for a contemporary viewer to laugh at this film's antiquated turmoil as it would've been for Haynes to turn its manners into a vehicle for camp. But the kind of moviegoer who longs to enter new worlds at the movies will find Heaven a deeply emotional portal into another age — a '50s America that probably never existed at all, except on the silver screen. JD

Half Past Dead
“Way past crap”

Writ. & dir. Don Michael Paul; feat. Steven Seagal, Morris Chestnut, Ja Rule, Claudia Christian (PG-13)

Thanks to Half Past Dead, admittedly my first viewing of a Steven Seagal movie, I can end my stubborn delusion that one had to care a lot, or be at least a little clever, to make a feature film.

Though nitpicking on this film is like worrying about the curtains on the Titanic ...

How many nice or honorable — or Latino code-switching — prison wardens does one encounter in fiction? Believe it would be the guy running Alcatraz? Bogus.

The only character who didn't say anything stupid was the Number Two heavy, a high-kicking, leather-stretching tough shorty who only got one fight. No fair.

The audience at the screening were clearly dumber than the filmmakers, and more poorly behaved than the kiddies during Harry Potter. (Though I didn't sweat missing some of this dialogue.) Sad. JM

Films reviewed by:
AO: Amalia Ortiz
JD: John DeFore
JM: Jonathan Marcus
LM: Lynette Miller
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura



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