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DIVINE INTERVENTION

Writ. & dir. Elia Suleiman; feat. Elia Suleiman, Manal Khader, Nayef Fahoum Daher, Amer Daher, Jamel Daher (NR)

In Elia Suleiman's cinematic Palestine, intervention - divine or human - is unwelcome. In the opening sequence of Divine Intervention, Santa Claus rushes up a wooded hillside pursued by rock-throwing boys. They toss away the presents that tumble from his backpack. Is this a metaphor for the futility of foreign aid? Israeli patronage? Christmas in the troubled Holy Land? The director does not pause for an answer before presenting the next intervention. Suleiman's film, which is set in his native Nazareth, on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and in Jerusalem, consists of a series of enigmatic, often wordless anecdotes that smack with the force of Middle Eastern koans. A man remains at a bus stop despite being told that the bus has ceased to run. Another man hurls trash into his neighbor's garden. Critically ill patients clamber out of hospital beds in order to smoke in the corridor. When a tourist asks an Israeli policeman for directions, he summons a Palestinian prisoner to provide them. A beaming driver greets the people he passes on the street while under his breath he curses each.

Suleiman himself, playing a poker-faced director in love with a mysterious beauty who could be the queen of hearts, provides what connection there is to the disparate, desperate vignettes. We repeatedly see him visiting his ailing father and holding hands with his beloved during furtive meetings just beyond a military checkpoint. The apricot pit he lobs out the window while driving happens to hit - and detonate - an Israeli tank. Some of the film's imagery is overtly - and explosively - political. The crudest is an avenging angel fantasy in which a Palestinian ninja appears out of thin air to wipe out a platoon of Israeli sharpshooters and their combat helicopter. The most uncanny occurs when a balloon painted with the smirking face of Yasir Arafat (like the Joseph Stalin balloon in Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun) floats over the countryside and into Jerusalem, perching atop the Al-Aksa mosque. Divine Intervention, a Palestinian provocation, not to violence but to passions its affectless characters cannot feel, is just such a balloon. While exalted claims for its profundity and wit seem a bit inflated, Divine Intervention shows the way the wind is blowing. — STEVEN G. KELLMAN

DOWN WITH LOVE

Dir. Peyton Reed; writ. Eve Ahlert & Dennis Drake; feat. Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson, Tony Randall, Jeri Ryan (PG-13)

First there was 8 Women, then Far From Heaven. After Down With Love, what was a blip

 
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Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor in Down With Love.
looks like a trend among smart filmmakers: the Retro Chick-Flick Homage, throwbacks to an era when hair was hard and dress designers got nearly equal billing with cinematographers.

Where the previous specimens tended to appeal most to film buffs familiar with the source material, Love is every bit as populist as its source material, the Rock Hudson/Doris Day sex comedies of the late '50s and early '60s. In other words, you don't need a film degree to laugh at these jokes if seeing a man chase a woman who doesn't want to sleep with him is funny to you, buy a ticket. If it's not, don't worry - it gets more complicated than that.

Twisting the original formula, Renée Zellweger's career gal isn't a Doris Day-style prude; she's a proto-feminist who writes a book encouraging women to be as cavalier as men with regard to sex. Once a woman refuses to buy the love myth, Zellweger's Barbara Novak claims, she can pursue her career and take physical gratification where it comes. Novak's self-help book is a smash, and in the course of promoting it, she winds up ruining the sex life of McGregor's Catcher Block, the kind of swinging high-profile journalist who gets ferried around in a helicopter while accompanied by a handful of martini-swilling supermodels (in other words, he's just like any newspaper writer). When Block's old lines stop working, he sets out to destroy Novak by inventing an aw-shucks Texan persona and making her fall in un-liberated love with him. Clearly, the two are made for each other.

The comedy that ensues comes in many forms: from mistaken identities to sexual innuendos that are delivered as if they are straight lines; from skewerings of both the protagonists' archetypes to a long, split-screen Austin Powers-like gag that's the only bit of the movie which does not fit. Most important is David Hyde Pierce, who plays McGregor's sexually ambiguous best friend and gets more laughs than any two characters combined. Pierce is a born scene stealer, and here gets to layer his failed attempts at seducing Zellweger's best friend with a repressed homosexual yearning for McGregor.

Director Peyton Reed revels in the film's period details. His art directors and clothing designers earn their money with lavish, attention-grabbing creations, not the least of which are the seemingly infinite wardrobe changes for Zellweger. Reed is happy to hang an obviously fake Manhattan skyline outside the actress' window, or to use period-accurate rear projection for a car scene instead of filming a real car on an actual street. There's enough eye-candy here that the film would be a blast even without the laughs. In truth, it looks better today than the real thing - for most viewers, it will be much funnier as well. JOHN DEFORE

A MIGHTY WIND

Dir. Christopher Guest; writ. Guest, Eugene Levy; feat. Guest, Levy, Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Fred Willard, et cetera, et cetera (PG-13)

Christopher Guest, director of such brutally funny films as Waiting for Guffman and Best In Show, hates the word "mockumentary" - presumably because, while acknowledging that his non-fiction-style films are actually fictional, it also suggests that the director exploits his creations for laughs.

With due respect to Guest, that's exactly what he does best. The dog trainers of Show and wannabe thespians in Guffman are ludicrous, if lovable, characters, and any questions about the filmmaker's attitude toward them are answered in the codas in each film, where men and women we have become fond of invariably meet with humiliating fates.

A Mighty Wind, Guest's new film about a reunion of folk musicians, may be the one to convince viewers of the director's sympathy for his characters: There is a moment, very late in the movie, at which a running joke turns into something truly heartfelt; two has-beens become a man and a woman connecting with a moment of genuine emotion.

As distasteful as it is to say, Guest's fondness for this assemblage of idealists and airheads dilutes the bite of his earlier films, where audiences came to like characters of their own accord and felt guilty as they laughed themselves silly. That's not to say there aren't laughs here - Wind is funnier than any movie so far this year, with the possible exception of The Life Of David Gale - but it doesn't match the steady guffawing stream of its predecessors.

The film's plot is simple: Irving Steinbloom, a fictional pioneer of the '60's folk music boom, has died, and his children have arranged a tribute concert featuring three of his most popular groups: The New Main Street Singers, the Folksmen, and Mitch & Mickey, sweethearts of the folk scene who once were a couple but have long been estranged.

Mitch (Levy) went a little nuts after his split from Mickey, and now speaks in the halting, uncertain cadences of a drug casualty; Levy is too right in the role, making his caricature weirdly lifelike and almost painful to watch. Other actors stick closer to Guest's old formula: Higgins and Lynch paint modern folkies as quasi-mystical lunatics; they have invented their own religion in which color (pink, mainly) is the universe's supreme power. Jennifer Coolidge, meanwhile, goes out on a limb as a publicist of uncertain ethnicity and microscopic brainpower; she's not on screen much, but she gets the film's best zinger.

Like Coolidge, most of the actors suffer from too little screen time. The Guest/Levy company has an embarrassment of riches, too many funny people to cram into any one movie, and viewers are slightly worse off thanks to the filmmakers' unwillingness to pare things down. This is only good inasmuch as it encourages the cast to emphasize skewed personalities over the inside references that might have made Wind a satire for reformed folkies only. As it is, the film makes as much sense to a general audience as Show did to non-doglovers. The truth is, as ridiculous as the music sounds, the songs the cast members have written are so spot-on and sincere you might actually feel a pang of nostalgia for the justifiably dead genre.

If that's not proof that Christopher Guest doesn't mean to mock his subjects, nothing is. JOHN DEFORE

RAISING VICTOR VARGAS

Dir. and writ. Peter Sollett; feat. Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Melonie Diaz, Altagracia Guzman, Silvestre Rasuk, Krystal Rodriguez, Kevin Rivera, Wilfree Vasquez (R)

A couple of years ago, Girlfight introduced us to Michelle Rodriguez with a shot of her glowering straight into the camera, daring it to mess with her Brooklynite Brando

 
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Judy Marte stands by her man Victor Rasuk in Raising Victor Vargas.
stance. In Raising Victor Vargas, the film opens with its title character sweet-talking the camera - licking his lips, flexing, and telling us what a good time he's about to show us. He doesn't realize it, but he's telling the truth.

Set in Manhattan's Lower East Side and featuring unknowns (including some who have never acted before), Vargas doesn't only share geography with Girlfight; both films take us convincingly into lower-class minority neighborhoods to meet teenaged characters about to be initiated into high-stakes contact with the opposite sex. This is first love of the sort the recent spate of romantic comedies can't conceive: awkward and unglamorous, often pragmatic, and so uncertain once it actually gets going that nobody dares to dream up a happy ending. Compared to the seriously real borderline-impoverished Dominican-Americans here, Jennifer Lopez's character in Maid In Manhattan looks like, well, Jennifer Lopez.

Victor, for all his cockiness, doesn't seem to have had much experience with girls. He is smitten with Judy at the local swimming pool, but when he and his buddy work their lines on her and her friend, they are shot down. Victor stays at it, bargaining with her little brother to track her down again, and she seems to relent; "All right," she says. "You're my man now ... go ahead - tell your little friends." What Lothario-with-a-fro Victor doesn't know is that he's a scarecrow: Judy's not interested in hooking up, she just would rather have a well-known figurehead boyfriend than a hundred would-be players making moves on her. "Just think of him as bug spray," she tells her friend.

But Vic is a pesticide with a pulse, and between Judy and his family, he's forced to deal with his ego and become a likable human being. The title is rightly ambiguous about who is doing the rearing here: Judy does her share, but Victor also is on the verge of getting kicked out of the tiny apartment he shares with two siblings and his grandmother. Grandma has had enough of his bad influence on his brother and sister; amusingly, she gets most incensed about things for which he is least responsible.

The feel of the film - its mixture of domestic detail and unglamorous human interaction, its improvisatory acting and hand-held photography - recall the early films of John Cassavetes, who so easily made viewers care deeply about the kind of characters who fill the background in other movies. Here, the young actors deserve as much credit as their director - and if actor Victor Rasuk is anything like the fictional Victor, you can bet he'll take it. JOHN DEFORE

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