New York Story, Via China

After Adrien Brody’s Oscar-night upset as Best Actor for The Pianist , the sky opened and the gods who oversee the universe (of showbiz, anyway) smiled down on him. Big things were expected of this dark horse, who looks like the least likely candidate for movie stardom since Jack Palance. They still are, because in one of those pesky quirks of bad timing only the vilest Hollywood agent could plan, Mr. Brody has followed up Roman Polanski’s powerful, life-affirming The Pianist with a bleak, suicidally depressing career mistake called Love the Hard Way . In the elevator of success, Mr. Brody has suddenly pressed the down button.

The Tower of Babel upon which Love the Hard Way is constructed automatically invites raised eyebrows. It’s a New York story, written and directed by Peter Sehr, a German chemist and physicist who teaches film in Munich, and based on a book by Wang Shuo, a political dissident and self-described Chinese beatnik who writes novels about hard-boiled urban characters in Beijing and lives in Hollywood. Mr. Brody’s co-star is Charlotte Ayanna, born in Puerto Rico, raised in Vermont, crowned Miss Teen USA in 1993 and a former star of Ricky Martin videos. Are you beginning to get the picture? Lurid and crudely made, Love the Hard Way takes a cynical look at mixed-up, alienated, unfocused young people who are looking for love without commitment in all the wrong places in an atmosphere of jaded urban decay. Mr. Brody plays Jack, a con artist who shakes down foreign businessmen with the help of a tightly knit gang of partners-in-crime-a German boy who works as a hotel desk clerk, two girlfriends who pose as prostitutes, and a pal who breaks in at the last minute dressed as a cop and extorts money from the innocent victims. It’s a nice racket, and everybody ends up with enough money to live in utter poverty in the South Bronx. Then Jack tries his scruffy, cynical charm on a smart, beautiful graduate student named Claire (Ms. Ayanna). He treats her like toxic waste; she crumbles like fried rice. Infatuated with this punk loser for reasons nobody ever successfully manages to clarify, Claire starts skipping classes, missing exams and wandering the streets without sleep in a stupor of unrequited love. Before it ends, she’s in handcuffs for fighting in a disco, snorting whatever it takes to stay awake, and turning tricks in cars, tunnels and men’s rooms-whatever she can do to prove that she can be just as fabulous a scum-sucking lowlife as Jack. Everyone comes to a bad end: Jack goes to prison and Claire slashes her wrists with a butcher knife-though miraculously, through it all, she continues to make straight A’s. It probably read better in the original Chinese.

The cinematography is so ugly that the whole movie looks like it was shot through tomato juice. The actors work hard to look natural in their attempts to show the calamitous effects of nihilism and sex on mismatched lovers who sacrifice everything they believe for physical passion. Unfortunately, the cool, detached German director lacks the kind of warmth needed to bring such characters to life. In any event, Adrien Brody is hardly my idea of a contemporary Don Juan. He’s tall and gangly, with the bony, protruding look of a scarecrow with four elbows. With too much hair, the nose of a parrot and the eyes of a humongous praying mantis, I can’t imagine why he hasn’t been cast as either Pinocchio or Tartuffe.

Eye Job

The Eye is an Asian horror flick: I only bring it up because, I mean, how often do we see one of those? It was made in Hong Kong and directed by the Thailand-born Pang Brothers, Oxide and Danny. (I don’t make these things up.) The plot: 18 years after she went blind, Wong Kar Mun (Lee Sin-Je) undergoes a risky corneal-transplant surgery that restores her eyesight. But the result holds less promise than it seems. When the bandages come off, the nightmares begin: When Mun looks in the mirror, she sees the face of her retinas’ previous owner, a girl who killed herself. Suddenly, nocturnal apparitions in black appear in her peripheral vision; the girl in the next hospital bed dies of a brain tumor and returns to haunt her. Joined by her boyfriend, Dr. Wah, on a quest to get to the bottom of this mystery and reclaim her own identity again, Mun brings back the horrors of the past and predicts a few holocausts of the future, including the film’s best sequence: an exploding traffic jam that blows up most of Hong Kong in a burning rampage of apocalyptic fire.

Too bad the rest of The Eye doesn’t live up to its final half-hour for the kind of old-fashioned hugga-mugga that looks like John Woo meets Godzilla . For a fright flick that supposedly plunges its hapless heroine into a terrifying ordeal, it’s more concerned with images and clashing electronic music than challenging the imagination or brutalizing the senses. The movie’s pace is funereal, and when, in the end, Mun reaches the conclusion that some people are just not meant to see everything the world has to offer, you’ll know just what she means. I’ve had worse scares at my optometrist’s office.

Girl Power

A number of recent films have won audience applause and critical approval for their winning tributes to women overcoming traditional odds to achieve love and liberation. The Mexican-American girl in Los Angeles eschewing a career in colorful native sewing to study at Columbia in Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves , or the Indian girl in London who scandalizes her disapproving family by invading the male-dominated world of soccer in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham , come most readily to mind. Now add in New Zealander Niki Caro’s Whale Rider , a modern retelling of a fable passed down by the Maori for centuries. This time, a 12-year-old girl challenges tradition to find her own spiritual awakening in a patriarchal society that has kept women in their place as second-class citizens for 1,000 years.

A box-office hit in its country of origin and a popular entry on last year’s festival circuit, Whale Rider is about the Whangarei people on the east coast of New Zealand, who believe their existence dates back to a single ancestor, Paikea, who escaped death in the China Sea a thousand years ago by riding to shore on the back of a whale. From that day forward, all Whangarei chiefs are said by tradition to be the first-born sons of the venerated Paikea’s direct descendants. Now a crisis has occurred. In a wrenching opening scene, a young mother and the male of her newborn twins both die in childbirth. The widowed husband flees to Europe to nurse his grief, leaving his infant daughter to be raised by her grandparents. The surviving child, an enchanting girl named Pai, spends the next 12 years trying to win the affection of her cold, stoic and eternally disillusioned grandfather. Unlike other girls, Pai learns the old speeches in the forgotten language of the ancient tribal chiefs, swims and dives better than any of the boys her age, and perfects the ancient warrior rituals of the Maori, which are forbidden to women. Her aloof grandfather is mortified, but Pai is adored unconditionally by her sympathetic, secretly emancipated grandmother, who tutors and encourages her coming of age with equilibrium and brio. The moment of truth arrives when Pai saves a group of beached whales from extinction by bravely riding their leader out to sea-and her own certain death. But this is a fable, so she miraculously survives in time for the crusty old grandpa to pronounce her “the wise leader” she has always dreamed of being.

Whale Rider has much native chanting in loin cloths, rowing in formation like the Tahitians who paddled Esther Williams out to sea in Pagan Love Song , and some powerful underwater shots. The uplifting narrative by director Niki Caro, from the best-seller by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, is clear-sighted and admirably sugar-free. The striking landscapes and authentic performances from both people and whales add a nice mix of realism to the native magic. Special praise must go to Keisha Castle-Hughes, who makes a radiant debut as the lonely but indomitable little girl who battles all the odds to take her rightful place in a pantheon of masculine elders. If the story isn’t always particularly riveting, and the telling of it sometimes seems as slow as middle age, it is nevertheless a sweet and informative film that allows people of all ages to rediscover innocence and wisdom without cynicism or doubt. Whale Rider is unexpectedly touching, generous with its insights, and offers an exceptionally human glimpse into the heart of a land as exotic as it is remote.

Rich Dish

For pure ambrosia, take a bite of Mary Cleere Haran. She loves songs, romance and the movies of the 1940’s, so her new show in the burnished glow of the newly refurbished Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel has a perfect theme that serves her well. She calls it My Shining Hour-Movie Love in the 1940’s because, as she proves in the course of one perfect musical hour, “everything changes, but these songs and the period they represent are eternal.”

The astringent redhead who has brought jazz-tinged vocals back to vogue in an age of dissonance and hip-hop horror has spent an inordinate chunk of her successful cabaret career exploring the larky, frivolous ditties of the 20’s and 30’s, flapper songs meant to be sung while chewing Juicy Fruit. What a thrill it is to see and hear her cooling her chops on beautiful, ageless standards without the shackles of a “book.” This act contains less of the well-researched and carefully manicured talk she has been praised for in the past-a good thing, if you ask me, because with pared-down patter and fewer historic embellishments, there’s more time to sing songs that matter. This is Mary in satin, warm as brandy, sultry as a lighthouse in the fog. She’s singing better than ever, with riskier arpeggios and lusher lower registers. And the songs! “Put the Blame on Mame,” a tribute to slinky Rita Hayworth in Gilda , has an imaginatively phrased tempo; Judy Garland’s “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” is crooned as a ballad, slick as new porcelain, a unique and startling revelation; Betty Hutton’s breakneck pacing on Frank Loesser’s “Papa Don’t Preach to Me” has enough rocket fuel to land the first woman on Mars. Ms. Haran would never lay claim to the term jazz singer, but her experimental mood shifts, risky rhythmic changes and the way she phrases behind the beat are all tools of the jazz singer’s trade, and she’s refined them all. Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” is many corrals removed from the way Roy Rogers sang it in Hollywood Canteen . Mary’s take on this sagebrush saga is sexy enough to be sung to a lover, maybe, but never Trigger. An entire section dedicated to Bing Crosby (it’s his centennial year, you know) spotlights several Burke–Van Heusen gems from the Crosby-Hope-Lamour Road pictures, but you can’t top “But Beautiful.” The pianist, Don Rebic, and the exceptional bassist, Chip Jackson, provide crisp, swinging challenges that this classy, soignée thrush meets on every arrangement. Ms. Haran recasting the best songs ever written in new and exciting ways is as good as it gets in 2003. She’s at the Algonquin for a month, through June 28, so you have no acceptable excuse for missing an act that will make you feel a little bit richer, in life and in love.