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by Bill Gibron

8 May 2008

David Mamet - a name that means theater at its very best. With such plays as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, and Glengarry Glen Ross, he has literally helped the arcane aesthetics of the stage grow up and mature. With dialogue that crackles with witty profaneness and a keen ear for newfound colloquialism, his efforts are usually a feast for the ear, and the brain. And now, apparently, it’s time to address the brawn - at least, when it comes to his work behind the camera. As a director, Mamet has given us such complex fare as House of Games, Homicide, and Spartan. None would be considered films of far thinking physicality. His latest endeavor, Redbelt, juxtaposes Asian codes of honor and duty with the growing phenomenon of mixed martial arts. It makes for a sometimes sloppy combo.

Mike Terry is a jujitsu instructor who specializes in his own take on the Brazilian form of the art. Noble to a fault, his business is failing, partly because he views his teaching to be more about life lessons than money made. Of course, his fashion designer wife sees things differently. She is sick of being strapped for cash and turning to her family - part of the professional extreme fighting circuit locally - for loans. One night, Mike helps aging Hollywood star Chet Frank fend off a group of attackers. Suddenly, he’s a possible part of show business, with a producer interested in buying in to his novel competition concept. Mike’s wife Sonya then borrows $30K from a loan shark to help Chet’s wife stock her boutique shelves. A misunderstanding leads to a tiff, and soon the debt is being called in. Mike has no choice but to enter the big fight, hoping he can show everyone the value in what he believes in while paying off the marker. 

If there’s one thing Redbelt isn’t lacking, it’s plot. Mamet, known for his knotty narratives, literally overloads this film with more twists and turns than a Rocky Mountain roadway. Just when you think he can’t plow more storylines into his situations, the slightly bloated script finds room for five or six more. This doesn’t detract from the movie’s many charms, nor does it destroy the excellent performances overall. But when you, as an audience member, require a firm handle on what’s happening as a mandate for enjoying an already multifaceted story, being constantly sideswiped by more narrative is rather disconcerting. By the time we’ve been introduced to the lawyer with a past, the mobster with a decent heart, and the entire MMA universe, we’re woozy from all the overtures. And, of course, Mamet isn’t done misdirecting us.

Luckily, we enjoy the subterfuge, up to a point. Redbelt languishes over scenes of simmering rage, people loaded with pent up anger waiting for the right moment to strike out and make others suffer. The two or three fight scenes are sensational, but Mamet isn’t out to make a thinking man’s action flick. Instead, he hopes to use the brutality of the sport to underline the Zen within the discipline. He gives this job to actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and he couldn’t have made a better choice. Body primed to play the part, and demeanor indicating a level of philosophical calm that’s almost impossible to illustrate visually, he gives a stirring, commanding turn. As Mike Terry, Ejiofor is required to be both hero and chump, vindicator and victim. He manages each move with wonderfully understated grace.

Equally compelling is the usually middling Tim Allen. Playing an egotistical superstar whose alcohol fueled folly gets Mike in trouble - and then in touch with Hollywood - there’s a real arrogance to his slightly paunchy persona. Other standouts in the cast include Ricky Jay as bad guy Marty Brown, ex-boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini as George the stunt coordinator, and David Paymer as bookie/loan shark Ritchie. Of course, there are some weak links as well, characters that come across as half shaped and ill-advised. Emily Mortimer’s shaky attorney has more personality quirks than a room full of theater majors, and Alice Braga can’t keep her put-upon spouse from being anything but a shrew. Luckily, they represent the only misgivings in what is a uniformly fine company. 

Mamet’s script is no slouch, either. Again, it contains way too much plot for its own good, but a least the writer gives his characters some wonderful lines to speak. While Ejiofor occasionally sounds like a shaman in overdrive, there is a great deal of meaning in his mantras. Equally effective are the many “this is how the real world works” rants coming at Mike from all sides. Sure, all the ‘duty to the academy’ stuff can be a drag, but we enjoy the sentiment anyway. Indeed, much of Redbelt‘s success stems from how easily we forget Mamet’s convolutions and get caught up in the situations. This is a movie that actually works better in its individual moments than as an overall effort. Even the mandatory fisticuffs seem welded on from somewhere else.

Of course, no one expects the mind behind Speed-the-Plow to totally abandon his artistic intentions, and he wasn’t about to make the kind of popcorn fluff the summer season thrives on. But somewhere in Redbelt‘s running time is a mean, lean extreme fighting machine desperate to get out of all the metaphors and machinations. Mamet can be faulted for falling back into puzzle box mode. It’s what made his first films such tight genre gems. Here, there’s a feeling that some of the layers are illegitimate, added to make the butt kicking more palatable to a non-six pack crowd. There is no doubt that this writer suggests the literary art at its best. Redbelt may not be representative, but it sure does satisfy at times

by Bill Gibron

8 May 2008

Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are viewed moreover as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. It may seem like a trap, but the prison is more than reciprocal. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, David Bowie, and Sonic Youth, as points of aural reference.

Thus we have the set up for the fantastic feel good documentary, [email protected]. Director Stephen Walker chronicles the preparations by the titular Massachusetts based choral for their latest world tour (that’s right - WORLD tour), using the various members as a starting point toward a greater understanding of how we age. From the moment we see Eileen Hall onstage, her bawdy British pepper-pottiness caressing the lyrics to the Clash classic “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, we know the juxtaposition of song to senior will be part of this movie’s main modus. It continues as various others wrestle with James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, and the Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”

And for the most part, we don’t really want much more. The rehearsal material is so warming, so undeniably uplifting and joyful that we need the occasional (and because of the subject matter, unavoidable) tragedy to keep us grounded. Since we get to know many of the faces here, their voices giving way to backstories loaded with compelling history, the pain we feel is as pure as the passion these oldsters have for performing. One of the most intriguing scenes in the entire film shows [email protected] overseer Bob Cilman growing tired of missed lyrics and off beat stumbles. The moment he threatens to cancel the tune, the entire chorus responds. Give them a chance, they chime in, they’ll figure it out. Watching them prove him wrong (or right) symbolizes everything that makes this movie so special.

There are other sentimental set-pieces as well, moments director Walker knows will leave the audience grasping for the nearest pile of handkerchiefs. When the group is invited to serenade a group of local prisoners, their jailhouse rendition of “Forever Young” is just devastating. Equally compelling is Hall, in her mid 90s, roaming the lobby of her nursing home as she prepares to leave for a gig. Given her own key by the facility, she’s like a breath of recognizable life in an institutional situation sadly lacking same. Of course, the entire narrative revolves around the return of Fred Knittle and Bob Salvini, retired ex-participants. Both stricken with serious illness, they want to celebrate their friendship and time in [email protected] with a dynamic duet of the Coldplay song “Fix You”.

Though we’re hopeful that the men can pull this off (Knittle, while more or less immobile, seems far more capable), there’s an aura of finality that washes over the entire proceedings, making this documentary far more powerful on a personal level. Something similar happens with Joe Benoit, a World War II vet who has used up eight and a half of his cat-like nine lives. Because of the reality of what [email protected] stands for (these are people solidly in their 70s and 80s), we know that death is always around the corner. But their undying spirit, in combination with the timelessness of some great music, makes it hard for us to fathom - or face - their impending transience.

There are a few gaffs along the way, times when Walker should have pulled back on the ‘cute old coots’ conceit. Additionally, Cilman gets way to much screen time considering what he contributes overall. Sure, he’s called a task master and a hard to please perfectionist, but all of that washes away the second his participants charge up the scales. There’s a tiny bit of stage mother in the man, someone looking to parlay the success of someone else into his own personal import, but it’s a minor expression at best. Instead, what Walker does deliver is scene after scene of sound as celebration, people at the end of their allotted time taking one last drink from a melodious fountain of youth before shuffling off forever.

True, we really don’t get to know these people beyond a certain shorthand sketch (Joe - great singer, Fred - funnyman cut up), and when death finally does visit the group, it’s handled in an almost perfunctory, matter of fact dullness. Or it might just play this way since we want each and every member of [email protected] celebrated like the hero or heroine that they are. It’s why Knittle’s work with the Coldplay tune becomes a heart-wrenching masterwork, a brilliant combination of music, musician, and meaning. The auditory stars rarely align like this, but when they do, the results are rapturous.

While those in the chorus’ senior citizen demographic might not appreciate how prescient Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” sounds coming out of a pair of aged old biddies, and won’t see the irony in a group of curmudgeons warbling “Staying Alive”,  [email protected] - the movie and the membership - understand exactly what they are doing. While it’s clear we’re looking at another stellar documentary destined to be left out come Oscar time (Walker began this project, and broadcast part of it, as a BBC television special in 2004), make no mistake: [email protected] is a classic. May we all live to be so youthful in spirit and soul.

by Bill Gibron

8 May 2008

Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie.

Ever since he was a small boy, young Speed Racer idolized his brother Rex. When tragedy takes him away, the lad is determined to follow in his footsteps. Speed has always had driving in his blood, and as he matures, he becomes one of the sport’s best. Unfortunately, racing is controlled by corrupt corporate conglomerates with connections to mobsters and other shady characters. When Speed wins an important contest, he is approached by the owner of Royalton Industries, who makes him a sizable offer to join his team. Naturally, family comes first, and Speed would never leave his home crew - Mom, Pops, mechanic Sparky, little brother Spritle, or pet monkey Chim-Chim. He also has a thing for gal pal Trixie. Naturally, rejecting Royalton causes a rift which threatens to bring down the entire Racer team.

Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece, no two ways about it. Andy and Larry Wachowski have succeeded in creating a living, breathing comic book, complete with nods to psychedelic pen and ink designs, four panel editing, and overflowing visual pizzazz. Anyone who can’t see the brilliant blockbuster fun the brothers are having with this material has spent one too many hours staring at gloomy independent dramas about siblings struggling to deal with their dysfunctionality. This is filmmaking as fireworks, directorial innovation that, while not as media morphing as The Matrix, stands as the highest level of celluloid creativity. From races that routinely flaunt the rules of realism to a story that stresses the noble over the nasty, Speed Racer soars to the highest levels of movie magic.

It all begins with the actors, and the Wachowskis once again choose wisely. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon make an excellent Mom and Pops Racer, their wholesome genuineness beaming from every homespun word of wisdom they proffer. Equally endearing are Speed’s baby brother and his pet chimp. Spritle and Chim-Chim are characters clearly aimed at the PG-oriented audience this movie is geared toward, but unlike other examples of obvious demographic pandering, they play perfectly - and hilariously - to all ages. Christina Ricci’s raucous Trixie is like a hooker with a heart of gold, except here she’s selling self-esteem and girl power. Supporting players are well padded with sensational turns by Matthew Fox (as Racer X), Roger Allam (as main villain Mr. Royalton) and Benno Fürmann as the iconic Inspector Detector.

That just leaves Speed himself, and Emile Hirsch successfully sells what has to be the hardest role in a summer 2008 popcorn romp. Instead of being ironic and self-effacing, our hero is just that - a carbon copy cutout of what Joseph Campbell proudly proclaims. Hirsch has to balance determination with humility, never crossing over to the dark side to circumvent his friends and family. We also have to believe in Speed’s ability, and this is one actor who understands the greenscreen dynamic instinctually. The concentration and determination we read in Speed’s eyes is part of what made the cartoon so enduring, and it really rewards this movie as well.

Of course, the Wachowskis step up and deliver on the promise they provided throughout several trips through a virtual reality revolution. The races are ridiculous, giddy examples of vehicles as veiled gladiators. Drivers don’t merely careen around a course. Instead, they jump, dive, clash and crash, using secret gizmos and good old fashioned strategy to better their rivals. Some of the sequences are so jaw droppingly deranged that we wonder how the filmmakers made them viable. Imagine The Phantom Menace‘s pod race amped up by several thousand (and sans Lucas’ sloppy prequel predictability) and you’ve got a tiny inkling of what Speed Racer accomplishes, action-wise.

But the smaller moments here work equally well. When Racer X, determined to help Speed uncover the corruption in the sport, removes his mask to answer a movie long query, there is real emotion behind the reveal. Similarly, when the Racer family is inundated with calamity following Speed’s rejection of Royalton, we sense the heartache and pain. For all its whirlwind flash and CG stuntpulling, Speed Racer is really a movie about relationships and the ties that bind. Even as the Wachowskis pull another physics defying mindblower out of their fevered brains, we connect with the Racer clan and want to see them succeed at all costs.

Anyone predisposed to hate what the brothers are attempting clearly won’t cotton to the sugar spun splendor offered here (must be hard to hold all that Matrix sequel hate inside you, huh?). And there will be so called professionals who balk at all the primary color hoopla and prove just how sour their cultural disposition has become. Sometimes, a movie needs to be nothing more than a throwback to a simpler, more entertaining time. Speed Racer is that, and then some. It’s the added emotional element that turns it into something close to timeless. 


by Bill Gibron

7 May 2008

Film may be a kind of international language, but sometimes, the true meaning of a movie definitely gets lost in the translation. Let’s face it - not every country gets its neighbor’s artistic temperament, and visa versa. The most constantly referenced and clichéd example of course is the French critical community’s abject adoration of Jerry Lewis. While Americans find him a goofy, often grating comic persona, Parisians palpitate over his high strung histrionics. Similarly, certain foreign film types fail to generate the same kind of response once they hit Western shores. The recent rash of J-Horror genre efforts proved Americans will only cotton to so much dark haired ghost girl gimmickry before turning back to blood and guts. 

Yet leave it to the Turkish to take the piss out of the entire interpretative back and forth. Instead of embracing movies from around the world, they simply rip them off and remake them, sometimes shot for shot. From ‘60s TV series like Star Trek to modern spectacles like Spider-Man, the Turks can take any franchise or film and mirror it. A perfect example of this copycat creativity comes in the form of 1974’s demon possession do-over, Seytan. Yes, one year after William Friedkin set cinema on edge with The Exorcist, his ode to familial dysfunction, the generation gap, and extracurricular cruci-fixation, the Eurasian madmen of the far off country’s movie business concocted their own frightmare facsimile.

That’s right - the same story, the same narrative structure. Now, the first thing you have to remember upon visiting something like Seytan is that it definitely comes from a different spiritual realm. Friedkin and his film were labeled blasphemous by Church leaders who felt the film’s demonic possession storyline went too far. Turkey is a nation made up of 99.8% Muslim, so messing with Jesus or any other Christian symbol just doesn’t impress. So in Seytan, priests are now professionals, the sacred vs. the profane is set aside with religious imagery kept to a minimum. Islam is never really mentioned by name, nor is the Koran.

Other changes derive from the sovereign setting as well. Gone are the moments of icon defilement and movie business schmoozing. In their place are endless interior shots and hardbound copies of Satanic How-To manuals. And our little heroine no longer abuses herself with a cross. Instead, a strange curved amulet is the defiler of choice. Similarly, the last act exorcism is not really a battle between God and Devil. Instead, it plays more like a snotty little girl giving a group of poorly trained specialists a relatively hard time.

Yet in all other facets, Seytan seems to follow Friedkin’s original subtext to a fault. Many have marveled at The Exorcist‘s staying power, commenting on how unusual it is for a film with less than state of the art special effects (they were impressive in the ‘70s) and an overdeveloped philosophical foundation can still scare viewers some 35 years later. Of course, what many fail to see is the movie’s subtle cultural context. The Exorcist came out just as the War in Vietnam was reaching a crisis point. Young people all over America were taking to the streets to protest (it’s a situation that’s referenced in the film itself) while the conservative Establishment sat bewildered, wondering what had become of their children. The Exorcist provided an obvious answer - they must be under the influence of the mangoat himself.

Indeed, the entire underpinning of Friedkin’s film rests on actress Chris MacNeil (played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn) and the sudden, shocking change in the behavior of her teenage daughter Regan (Linda Blair). One minute, the adolescent is painting ceramics and giggling about her birthday. The next she’s channeling Beelzebub, peeing on the floor, and expectorating demonic bisque. It’s not a very subtle analogy, but then again, 1973 was not a very subtle time. But for audiences expecting a standard thriller, the notion of innocence violated, ambiguous metaphysical answers, unsure science, and a literal deus ex machina via a final leap of faith resonated like a Walter Cronkite commentary on the trusted CBS Evening News. While much of that makes little sense today, it was a shocker several decades ago.

Seytan sticks with the little girl unhinged ideal. Here, our pert adolescent Gül is Regan redux. She’s bright, chipper, inquisitive, and just a little precocious. Her doting mother (stripped of any career ambitions and left nameless throughout most of the movie) is not so much hapless as hindered by her gender. Many of the men she deals with - doctors, scientists, social workers - ignore her pleas and tend to take her insistences with a substantial grain of chauvinistic salt. Since special effects are less than plentiful in such foreign locales, heavy doses of green make-up supply the necessary Hellspawn glow, and when things really need to get dicey, straightforward camera tricks and old school sleight of hand is employed.

Director Metin Eriksan remains a leading light in the Turkish movie industry, He was an early agent provocateur who was required to go commercial when his country’s stern censorship started banning his more controversial works. Turning to horror and genre themes, he used the marginalized movie macabre to address themes of human frailty and loneliness. Seytan stands in sharp contrast with the rest of this filmmaker’s creative canon.

Indeed, one notes a definite sense of going through the motions here, specific blocking and compositions cribbed directly from Friedkin’s frightmare. Even worse, there are instances where Eriksan could have worked some subversive magic with this movie, adding some of the confrontational components of his previous efforts. Instead, we have moment by moment mimicry, complete with what appears to be actual lines of dialogue from the American original (apparently, screenwriter Yilmaz Tümtürk failed to fully understand the meaning of ‘adaptation’).

Since most bootleg versions of this film arrive sans subtitles, a lot of what Seytan has to say has to be inferred from what’s happening onscreen. Since it follows the original Exorcist fairly closely, recognizability helps with our comprehension. Gül goes through the same barrage of scientific tests, she gets the perfunctory psychological evaluation, both sides of the medical issue appear dumbfounded and clueless, and the last act arrival of our demon expert seems rather anticlimactic. When Max Von Sydow finally appears in The Exorcist, it’s like a date with destiny. In Seytan, the lack of a solid sacred subtext really puts the kibosh on the impact.

Something sinister can be read into the Turkish version of the film, a gender-mandated foundation that may be hard for Westerners to swallow. It is clear, when watching this adaptation, that women and their role within society are substantially downplayed. Gül is treated very badly, given little of the sympathy shown to Regan. Equally unsettling is how readily the entire situation is chalked up to female hysteria. While one has to read this into the onscreen actions, it’s clear that the men just don’t want to tolerate these emotionally high strung women. The bloated paternalism is present in every single frame.

This is one of the reasons why the chance to see a statement like Seytan is so enlightening - both culturally and entertainment wise. Most of the foreign films offered for US consumption tend to follow preconceived guidelines of subject acceptability. We like political drama, interpersonal intrigue, and the occasional bout of slapstick comedy. When you add in the genre efforts from Asia and the martial artistry of Hong Kong, the motion picture parameters are pretty well set. But because Seytan steps in and re-imagines one of our own classic contemporary films, it digs deeper beneath the social surface. In turn, it gives us a glimpse into a world (at least circa 1974) that we never would have seen otherwise.

From the opening archeological dig and bad papier mache demon statue to the dying mother subplot complete with a trip to the loony bin, Seytan is still all “Tubular Bells” and projectile vomiting. Some may see it as nothing more than a retarded rip-off and laugh at all the amateurish missteps. Others will look beneath the male-cenntric surface and see a sort of cinematic hate crime. But the truth remains that Seytan is nothing more than one country’s attempt to cash in on another culture’s social phenomenon. It’s clear that, in many cases, imitation remains the sincerest form of international filmmaking flattery. Sometimes, as in the case of Seytan, it can be a sure sign of creative cluelessness as well. 

by Bill Gibron

6 May 2008

After years living in his shadow, Zach (Aaron Eckhart) decides to try and piece together the truth about his famous father’s tragic suicide. So he leaves Cornell, where he’s a top psychiatrist, and takes a job at a small-town mental hospital known as Millwood. He lies to the resident administrator Dr. Reed (William Hurt), making up a story about “helping a friend” to get hired on, and, almost immediately, he’s confronted with aging loony Gabriel Finch (Sir Ian McKellen).

Turns out, Zach is really hoping to uncover information about his dad—who was a patient at Millwood - and his new insane charge just may have some crucial knowledge. Of course, getting it out of his manic mind may be difficult, especially since Gabriel is convinced he is the King of Neverwas - the fictional land Zach’s father wrote about. The connection between the two is immediate, but the path to personal discovery is long and very complicated.

It’s not made much better by an old friend of the family (Brittany Murphy) or Zach’s fragile mother (Jessica Lange), both of whom have their own ideas about where this investigation should go. But our hero wants closure, and the only way to get it seems to b e to help Gabriel discover the truth about Neverwas. Oddly enough, it may be Zach who needs to open his mind to the potential possibilities.

Neverwas should have never been. Cinematic minds smarter than the ones behind the production should have stopped this cloying claptrap before it even made it to the storyboard stage. They should have seen that nothing good could come out of this manipulative M. Night Shyamalan-style spiel, a narrative overflowing with way too many clues and not enough answers. There is a vagueness and insularity to Joshua Michael Stern’s script that acts like a barricade to understanding the relevance of what is happening, keeping us from caring about Zach’s familial issues, Gabriel’s mental condition, and the secret behind the fairytale at the center of the story.

If Stern - who also directed - was brave enough to confront the issues head-on, to really take a chance and offer up an ending that would gel with all his portents and symbols, we might walk away satisfied. But the first-time filmmaker is just too in love with everything he’s doing—heading a major, A-list cast, creating an ethereal piece of motion-picture magic, mixing the allegorical with the artful - to worry about connecting with the viewer.

Since his characters are all so calm, never really letting go with passion or opinion, they sink directly into the story, acting as mere catalysts for the numerous twists and turns ahead. Indeed, when one looks at Neverwas overall, it’s not really a movie about people. It’s about pawns in a massive game of three-tiered cinematic chess, and not even Mr. Spock understands the logic this time around.

Going back to the finale for a moment, a bit of plot point spoiling is required to discuss its destructive impact. Those who, even after this review, would probably find themselves interested in viewing this film may want to move on to the end of this discussion. For all those who either don’t care, or are immune from the aftereffects of such pre-knowledge, here we go. All throughout the 90-plus minutes that Stern drags us through, there is one major question left unanswered: Does the land of Neverwas really exist? Is it real or just a figment of Gabriel’s dementia? Stern makes almost all the plot threads lead up to such a revelation. The answer, oddly enough, is a cop-out.

Gabriel indeed made up the entire thing in his mind. It is his elaborate fantasy world that Zach’s father usurped for his own benefit. The guilt, in combination with the overwhelming success of the book, drove the man to depression and self-destruction. In order to understand that his father was not a bad man, our hero must realize the truth behind the false fairytale kingdom and see how the obsession eventually destroyed him. Now all of that is well and good, except Stern has prepared us for none of it.

Indeed, his version of these concepts leads to only one logical conclusion: Neverwas is a real place. Two men visited it and it drove them crazy (crashing between reality and the magical will do that). By learning of its existence, Zach could understand his father’s feelings, and give Gabriel his mind back. It would be satisfying and symbolic, believing in your dreams vs. believing in what doctors and drugs tell you.

But Neverwas never intended to be so brave. Stern is out to play it safe, to scrounge around the outskirts of innovation while delivering derivative Hollywood hokum. As a director, he’s desperate to copy other filmmaker’s stylistic tricks (fractured editing, overcranking, saturated golden light, mostly monochrome flashbacks), while his dialogue is all suggestions and incomplete concepts. No one ever comes right out and says things in this movie. Instead, they beat around the bush like groundskeepers looking for gophers.

Perhaps more importantly, he lets his accomplished actors languish in pointless moments of meaningless behavior. Jessica Lange, sporting a new fright mask façade, is reduced to playing a delicate matron without a single subtextual reason for being so brittle. William Hurt has a nice unsettled quality to his part as a clinic administrator, but he has so little to do that his impact remains marginal. It’s good to see Brittany Murphy playing something other than a doormat ditz, and Aaron Eckhart does decent open-faced consternation well. But because of Stern’s sloppy way with the written word, we never come to care about these people’s problems.

Instead, we keep wondering how this all will end, where this filmmaker will finally go with his attempted warm and fuzzy fairytale. The answer undermines everything that came before, creating the kind of anger that only a half-baked bit of blithering balderdash can generate. Again, Neverwas never needed to be. Such a finite finding is the only way to evaluate this incomplete effort.

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