Not Swept Away By Madonna

If there is one thing worse than a Guy Ritchie movie, it’s a Guy Ritchie movie with Madonna in it. Watching her shriek, pout and snarl her way through his ill-advised and disastrous remake of the 1974 Lina Wertmüller film Swept Away has pretty much driven a spike through the coffin lid of the publicity-besotted husband-and-wife team’s future plans to become the next Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. I wasn’t invited to the usual critics’ screenings that precede a film’s release, so I saw Swept Away with the regular popcorn brigade in a New York cinema on its opening day. I counted three other people in the audience, and two of them were sound asleep. Hardly a cause for global rejoicing.

In the roles made famous in the original Italian film by Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini, Madonna is now the bored and miserable jet-set snob on a yachting holiday and Mr. Giannini’s hunky son Adriano plays the working-class sailor shipwrecked with her on a deserted island after their dinghy collapses. On the surface, the role of a spoiled, self-centered rich bitch would seem to be typecasting. But even blinded by love, Mr. Ritchie overlooked one vital fact in remodeling a European classic for his wife: Madonna can’t act. Trained in the Nautilus School of Dramatic Art, her toned and sinewy muscles don’t do a thing for sleeveless chiffon, and her hard, chiseled jaw lines are a poor substitute for emotional irony. At 44, she’s a scary mix of pecs and peroxide. Spitting out a series of cruel, sarcastic one-liners, she loses sympathy fast, and there is no tempo or timing in the direction, camerawork or editing to make up for what she loses in pacing. Her colorless voice, like a dry and ratchety ambulance siren, is an irritation that cries for medical attention. When the poor sailor who endures her humiliating, condescending tantrums finally whacks her across the chops, the temptation to yell “What took you so long?” is hard to resist.

Stranded on that sandy beach, of course, the roles reverse: The peasant who can spear a fish becomes the master, the corrupt lady capitalist is the slave, and sadomasochism turns to love, Hollywood-style. But whatever dated message remains from Ms. Wertmüller’s Swept Away , the sexual politics have been discarded along with the underwear as the shipwrecked duo passes time playing charades and doing push-ups, karate chops and song-and-dance routines inserted as pointless distractions from the monotony. The silliest scene in the movie is a fantasy sequence in which the Material Girl bumps and grinds her way through a mambo version of Rosemary Clooney’s ossified hit “Come on-a My House.” Obviously the hope is that the movie’s losses in revenue will be recouped in an inevitable soundtrack CD marketed for the tone-deaf.

Mr. Ritchie is such an obtuse director that he never bothered to learn Billy Wilder’s old edict: When all else fails, bring on the sex. Where, we have a right to ask, is the skin? This movie washes away in a surf of tedium faster than Madonna’s tank top, yet there isn’t a remote sign of onscreen titillation to keep even the rudest heckler awake. Either all that publicity about the notorious nude scenes Madonna saved for her husband’s camera alone was the work of an overzealous press agent with a hyperactive imagination, or the director left his wife on the cutting-room floor. What’s left is about as sexy as turnip soup.

In the daunting circumstances, you find your wandering attention focusing on questions like “Can her hairy co-star act?” Sabotaged by lines (written by the director) like “Your loins will burn with passion and I will become your god!”, it’s hard to tell. One thing is clear: There is no erotic chemistry between them. The insufferably gooey fadeout, cementing the concept that the gap between polarized social classes is harder to cross than the Bridge of San Luis Rey, is designed to reduce trailer trash to tears. But the only one crying is Madonna. The one element from the Wertmüller original that hasn’t been trashed is the Mediterranean, which upstages her throughout.

While America’s obsession with Madonna diminishes, Madonna’s ambitions for a movie career accelerate. This kind of predicament could lead to rage, indigestion and crow’s feet. The curiosity seekers who line up for her rock concerts no longer pay to see her on the screen. Cynics who have suffered through her rising body of cinematic casualties, now seeking escape and amusement in newer and younger camp icons, are already labeling Swept Away “straight to video.” For mismatched romances between shipwreck survivors, I much prefer The Sea Wife , with Richard Burton as a downed pilot and Joan Collins as a nun who exchanges one habit for another.

Harrowing Grey Zone

Once in a blue moon, a film comes along that is so powerful and overwhelming that I wish people would see it for its remarkable ability to enlighten and transform, yet so brutal and depressing that I cannot bring myself to recommend it with a clear conscience. The Grey Zone , written and directed by the actor Tim Blake Nelson, who adapted it for the screen from his own award-winning play of the same title, is that kind of film. As a harrowing collage of the atrocities and horrors of Auschwitz, it says more about the Holocaust than almost any other film I’ve ever seen on the subject. It is haunting, electrifying, edifying and unbearably heartbreaking. It is also not for the squeamish.

In the bleak and burned-out autumn of 1944, when the allies were marching through Europe and the Germans were showing their first signs of defeat, the Nazis couldn’t get rid of the human evidence of their “final solution” fast enough. Inside the death camps in Poland, they recruited special units of Jewish prisoners called Sonderkommandos to hasten the exterminations. These men were forced by the diabolical Dr. Josef Mengele to prepare their fellow prisoners for the gas chambers, shovel their corpses into the incinerators and dispose of the truckloads of ashes, in exchange for special privileges-beds, books, music, wine and cigarettes, and the right to loot their victims of their possessions, from watches to tinned oysters to the gold in their teeth. If they refused, they were killed on the spot. If they complied, they managed to extend and improve what was left of their own lives for a few brief months before eventually and inevitably being herded into the crematoriums themselves. The Grey Zone tells the true story of one special squad’s struggle to stage the only armed revolt against the Nazis ever attempted at Auschwitz, and the efforts to hide a 14-year-old girl who miraculously survived the ovens, even though saving one child endangered the rebellion that could have saved thousands. This leads to one last-ditch attempt at moral redemption for the guilty and the damned, but the movie is not about heroes. It’s about desperate people trying to survive the expiration date assigned to them by the most evil force ever known to man. They are human, but not heroic. Mr. Nelson eschews easy sentimentality, and there is a refreshing absence of World War II clichés in the script, the performances and the direction.

This is the good part. But be forewarned: In telling this grim and gripping yarn of lives treated as human cargo, Mr. Nelson piles on the Grand Guignol with so much gore that it’s sometimes impossible to watch. From the close-ups of handwriting in blood to the detailed accounts of hosing down the gas chambers, every effort has been made to re-create the darkness and claustrophobia of the death camp. Incredible sounds and images add up to a toxic vision worse than a closet full of secondhand cigar smoke. The film is so dark you want to shine a flashlight on the screen to see what’s going on. Then when the images clear, you want to cover your eyes. I’m still plagued by one Spielbergian shot of long lines of doomed arrivals in civilian clothes marching into a hole in the ground while an orchestra of inmates plays Strauss waltzes. Four women who stole guns and grenades from trucks carrying ashes are shot and hanged for their refusal to confess. Slabs of naked corpses are hauled away to the ovens like carcasses of deer at the height of hunting season. The screams of the dying mingle with the moral debates among the Sonderkommandos , who insist they are not executioners because they don’t do the killing. Everyone is tortured in a moral gray zone from which there is no escape, but in the end it’s still the savage imagery that sticks with you, not the ideas behind it.

An ensemble cast of actors I do not ordinarily think of as first-rank-headed by David Arquette, Mira Sorvino, Harvey Keitel, Natasha Lyonne and Steve Buscemi-does the best work of their careers, and Mr. Nelson proves to be a vastly superior director than he ever was as a hammy, over-the-top performer in debacles like O Brother, Where Art Thou? Still, I think The Grey Zone is more memorable for the relentless atrocities it compiles than for any ideology, philosophy or filmmaking skills it imparts. You can’t call it a celebration of life. It’s more of an hommage to dignity in the jaws of death. I can’t predict the market for this kind of depression. So many people refuse to look at anything about the Holocaust, including archival photographs. I have Jewish friends who have never even seen Schindler’s List .

I wonder if Mr. Nelson knows what he’s up against. The fate of bad timing seems to be his destiny.

The Grey Zone was the film selected to premiere at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival-on the morning of 9/11. Few people saw it, for obvious reasons. Now it arrives on commercial screens just in time for the 2002 holiday season. From both a great and a terrible story, Mr. Nelson has made a film that is an undeniably worthy and devastating experience. I can’t forget The Grey Zone , but in our current moral climate of pessimism and fear, I fear there are a great many people out there who may very well try.

Dazzling Diva

On a lighter note, check out user-friendly Ann Hampton Callaway, a great jazz diva and one of music’s most thrilling guardians of the cherished American songbook, whose dazzling vocal calisthenics at Feinstein’s at the Regency (through Oct. 19) make a unique contribution to the Richard Rodgers centennial year, with finger-popping results. “Rodgers & Heart” is the clever title of an all-Rodgers menu featuring his most familiar songs in a variety of styles and tempos. Backed by a sterling quintet, she holds a mirror to our own loves, rejections, bitterness, loneliness, hopes and dreams while mining fresh musical landscapes-from a rhythm-and-blues treatment of “Blue Moon” to an up-tempo arrangement of “Hello, Young Lovers” that is less clever than it is unsettling. I don’t object to exploring new ways to sing standards, but scatting “It Might as Well Be Spring” decimates its wistfulness and pretty much destroys the meaning and mood of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. But if Ms. Callaway’s arrangements sometimes strain to be different without purpose, there are no caveats when it comes to her vibrant voice. Her long, languid vowels on “Isn’t it Romantic” perfectly accentuate the tenderness of Lorenz Hart, and it’s worth the cost of one of Feinstein’s overpriced Cosmos to hear the forgotten, almost-never-recorded “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You,” with lyrics by Martin Charnin, from the Danny Kaye flop, Two by Two .