Sex, Murder and Medieval Melodrama

A ponderous medieval thriller may not exactly be what everyone’s been hoping for as a welcome antidote to overhyped crucifixion fables by Mel Gibson and the sudden new avalanche of brain-atrophying time-wasters about teenagers trying to get laid, but at least it’s different. The Reckoning , directed by Paul McGuigan and set in the English countryside during the time of the Norman invasions, is about sex, murder, pedophilia, grave-robbing, torture and 14th-century show business. It’s pretty weird, but you can’t label it an overworked genre.

The year is 1380, and a defrocked priest (Paul Bettany), driven butt-naked out of his village for adultery and fornication with one of his parishioners (apparently some sins never go out of style), is rescued in the forest primeval by a scruffy troupe of traveling players. Since their forte is performing stories from the Bible, a subject on which he is an expert, the holy man (who is also something of a ham) adapts comfortably to the greasepaint and becomes an important member of this company of strolling minstrels, causing rancor and discord in the ranks between the master player (Willem Dafoe), the wardrobe mistress (Gina McKee) and the jealous old character actor (Brian Cox) who feels his wisdom and seniority threatened by the newcomer. To pad out the running time, there’s a lot of medieval hugga-mugga onstage and off, and some antic athletics by Mr. Dafoe, who would be right at home in the Cirque du Soleil.

But the trouble (and the plot) really begins when the depressing little thespian group arrives in a rustic village of restless peasants (were there any other kind?) in time to witness the trial of a deaf-mute woman accused of killing a boy in the nearby woods. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the actors risk their lives by ditching the Scriptures and staging an improvised play about the events of the day that will solve the murder, as well as the mystery of why so many other boys have disappeared without a trace. Obviously, they have neither the information nor the talent to bring it off convincingly, but they are ahead of Pirandello in the improv department and somehow manage to enrage the local citizens and their landlord, a flamboyant count whose blood turns out to be more lavender than blue, dilly dilly. In the final few minutes, this predator emerges from the mist like Dracula to reveal a ravenous appetite for raping the local lads. Nor does his taste stop short of culinary feasting on an occasional priest, as the strapping Mr. Bettany finds out too late-but not before he redeems his own sins and finds salvation in saving the innocent.

Spiritual morality tales in chain mail are not exactly the stuff of box-office miracles, and The Reckoning already opened to less-than-spectacular business two years ago in Norway and Sweden. (I’m all for new test markets, but I never heard of boffo business in downtown Oslo.) Still, there is more to this Gothic yarn than a bunch of knights in clanking armor hacking the tar out of each other with swords and crossbows. Strongly reminiscent of the 1986 medieval thriller In the Name of the Rose , The Reckoning could use Sean Connery once again as a wayward man of God instead of the milk-and-freckles Paul Bettany. Director McGuigan doesn’t show much interest in tempo or character development, and the pace is numbing. Still, the strange, desolate landscapes and icy trails in the British countryside add a bleak visual matrix to the medieval melodramatics. And there is always the charge of watching Vincent Cassel in action. Last seen rolling around the Paris underworld in the altogether in the controversial film Irreversible , this edgy French actor really heats things up in the last 10 minutes of an otherwise torpid exercise. In a brief but colorful cameo as the dastardly feudal count who is a cross between Jeffrey Dahmer and Caligula, he proves that even in the 14th century, you couldn’t go around littering the backroads with the mutilated corpses of hunky toy boys and blame all the damage on the mice.

One Twisted Sister

The anemic and tiresomely routine crime opus Twisted opens with closeups of Ashley Judd’s eyes and dilating nostrils while a knife plays dangerously across her throat. No problem. As soon as the credits end, she grabs her gun and kicks her attacker’s gonads every which way from Tuesday. What took her so long? She was never in any real danger in the first place. She’s a hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous post-feminist San Francisco homicide cop looking for Mr. Goodbar and finding another (yawn) serial killer on the rampage. The predictable twist in the tangled script by newcomer Sarah Thorp makes this twisted cop with the Peter Pan coif a prime suspect when the murder victims all turn out to be one-night stands that she’s slept with. In the ludicrous chain of events that follow, she suffers from bad dreams, hears voices in her pierced earlobes and wakes up in designer jeans after each murder in a drugged stupor. One by one, mutilated torsos turn up with the killer’s trademark cigarette burns on their hands. Somebody is clearly trying to turn her into Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (a better film in every way). Verily, I say unto you, this is a twisted sister. But “I’m not pulling her from her first homicide case-it would kill her career,” says Samuel L. Jackson, her dead policeman father’s former partner and the godfather who raised her. So she sticks around to kill the movie instead, avoiding jail even when the fourth corpse turns up in her own bed.

Meanwhile, the bored audience is asked to sift through the red herrings and contrived motivations of cardboard characters to identify the real killer. Is it her shrink (the wasted David Straithairn)? Maybe it’s her horny partner (Andy Garcia), who is always slamming her up against the kitchen stove for a feel, like Mark Ruffalo does to Meg Ryan in the catastrophic Jane Campion sex thriller In the Cut , which this misguided film resembles in all the wrong ways. Does anybody care? The potential for suspense is so quickly smashed that if you don’t spot and label the real lunatic in the first 10 minutes, you flunk Hollywood Forensics Lab 101. (Hint: Pick out the star with the most minimal dialogue, the least amount of business being there, nothing to do with the plot and no justification for a paycheck.)

The outdated, cliché-riddled direction is so inept and indifferent that it’s hard to believe Twisted was lensed by the same Philip Kaufman who made The Right Stuff . Could there be two Philip Kaufmans? One wag has written that Twisted was directed by Rip Van Winkle. I can’t improve on that. Anyone, however, could improve on the phony, one-dimensional performance by Ashley Judd. As weak and clueless as she was onstage in the calamitous Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , she’s no less wooden onscreen. Playing an irritable, sluttish, stressed-out cop on the boil, traumatized by rage and slowly going loopy, is a challenge that is sadly but demonstrably light years beyond her range. She needs a transfusion, and so does Twisted .

Horny in Havana

Seventeen inexplicable years after Dirty Dancing , we now get Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights . The Catskills are now played by Cuba, and despite a guest appearance by Patrick Swayze and a dishonestly misleading title designed to suggest a sequel, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the popular 1983 original. The year is 1958, under the pre-revolutionary reign of Battista, when Cuba was at the height of its exotic splendor. To this tourist mecca comes an automobile executive and his luscious wife (John Slattery and Sela Ward), who have uprooted their two teenage daughters in their most crucial high-school years. Older daughter Katey (pretty-in-pink Romola Garai) is miserable in her privileged-immigrant status until she meets Javier (Diego Luna), a waiter in the four-star oceanfront hotel where her family lives. He’s as poor as a slum rat, but that boy can dance.

When the Ivory-scrubbed Katey gets her first taste of salsa and sin in Havana after midnight, there’s no turning back to root-beer floats in the malt shop at high noon. While her snobby American classmates drive their convertibles to the school prom at the country club, Katey is drawn to the undulating sway and dirty pelvic thrust of the Cuban beat, following Diego to the throbbing, sweaty and very sexy Latin music at La Rosa Negra, a club where body slamming has replaced the fox trot and the bananas are not the only things fried. As her new friendship turns to physical attraction, Katey is exposed to a different Cuba-the real country behind the golf links and casinos. Through Diego’s eyes, she sees the class prejudices, and watches the seeds of Castro’s revolution.

But forget about politics and violence. The conflicts can wait. First there’s a dance contest to be won, and with the $5,000 prize, Diego’s dream of a trip to the States could finally come true. Despite tango lessons from Patrick Swayze, Katey enrages her parents, who look down condescendingly at Diego’s Third World manners. This is one of the film’s many odd incongruities, since Katey’s parents were once a champion dance team themselves. Everyone sees the light in time for a happy Havana sunset. Katey learns that it’s better to lose your guy to a revolution than never love at all. Her folks learn what it cost them to give up show business for the Ford Motor Company. And Javier’s Afro-Cuban sensuality unleashes the inhibitions in all of the gringos and puts them in touch with the people they really are in their hearts. Pure schmaltz, but not without its share of feel-good entertainment value.

A whirl around the ballroom floor doing the lambada can do wonders, but it can’t make up for a paucity of logic and wit. The Romeo and Juliet love story doesn’t fully jell. The direction by Guy Ferland is sluggish, and the screenplay by Boaz Yakin and Victoria Arch is dead on arrival. But Havana Nights has its pleasures. The infectious big-band music is lush and full of vitality, the dancing has verve, and Puerto Rico never looked so good. The shark-fin cars, watermelon-tinted sets and full-fitted 50’s costumes are a wonderful throwback to the three-strip Technicolor movies with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. The kids are attractive and appealing, although the all-American Romolo Garai is really British and the fiery Cuban Diego Luna is really from Mexico (he was one of the stars of the terrific Y Tu Mamá También , the memorable and highly acclaimed Mexican film about the two horny pals who set out to conquer an older woman and ended up seducing each other). Best of all, there is Sela Ward, the warm and vibrant star of my favorite late, lamented television series, Once and Again , in the small but pivotal role of Katey’s mother. The film doesn’t begin to show off the emotional depth of her artistry as an actress of intelligence and sensitivity, but in those full skirts, halter tops and fruity, edible 50’s lipsticks, she looks stupendous. Why Sela Ward is not one of the biggest movie stars of the 21st century is a bigger mystery than the ongoing celebrity existence of the Horrible Hilton Sisters. More than anything else in this film, she makes Havana Nights worth waiting for daybreak.