Twist Is-They Turn Tricks

Catching up with all of the new movies may not be worth the effort. From last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Twist is not a documentary about lap dancing. It’s a contemporary retelling of, wouldn’t you know, the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist , told from the Artful Dodger’s point of view. Instead of the band of orphans turned pickpockets in the original tale, we get young male prostitutes. The workhouses and horrors of Victorian slum life have been replaced by the cold, unfriendly streets of modern Toronto in winter. But the one thing that remains is the cruelty and apathy of the underworld. Do not expect the happy syncopation of Bloomsbury in springtime from the beloved Lionel Bart musical Oliver!

Dodge (Nick Stahl, the wide-eyed but ill-fated son from In the Bedroom ) has come from the suburbs of Montreal to become a veteran of Toronto’s mean streets. Knowing intimately the alleys of assignation and the laws of the jungle, he picks up the innocent but troubled Oliver (beatific newcomer Joshua Close), a boy who has run away from his foster family and ended up homeless and hungry, desperate for affection. Dodge takes the young man under his wing, initiates him into the world of hustling, and offers him the poisoned comforts of home in a den of male whores run by master pimp Fagin (Gary Farmer). Dodge and the other rent boys are less traditional than Oliver’s last foster parents, but he responds to their honesty the way a stray dog warms to a leper offering a crumb of bread. Love is blind, and even Nancy (Michèle-Barbara Pelletier), the girl who dispenses the narcotics that keep the boys subservient and motivated to turn tricks for profit, shows Oliver more compassion than he has known in the conventional social structure of the outside world. There is evidence of a love story building between Dodge and his young protégé, but in the long haul, when the chance for redemption looms, it is Dodge who cannot change.

This much emotional turbulence would be a monumental task for any director, and clearly it is sometimes beyond the grasp of 23-year-old Canadian actor Jacob Tierney, who makes his feature-film debut as the writer and director of this saga. The sordid atmospheric touches show a lot of range and maturity, but the script is too often mired in merely perfunctory street slang. However, Mr. Tierney’s experience as an actor in Canadian films like This is My Father and The Neon Bible pays off with his assured handling of the actors. Memories of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as hustler lovers in My Own Private Idaho are inescapable here, and one hopes young Mr. Tierney will soon outgrow the obvious influence on his work by director Gus Van Sant.

Nick Stahl, the most experienced of the boys, is exquisitely subtle, and Joshua Close, as the angelic, childlike Oliver, through whose camera eyes the corruption unfolds, is heartbreaking. Although faithful to the social-reformist urgency at the heart of Charles Dickens’ writing, Twist translates the novel’s mixture of evil and poignancy into a valid theme for today’s hard-boiled audiences. It portrays a world in which no one shrinks from confronting the ugliness of life in the baldest, most cynical terms, exploiting the sleaziness of the Artful Dodger’s actions yet making his dreams of self-improvement as sympathetic as they are futile. I prefer the orphans banging their porridge spoons in Oliver! to the debauched riff-raff banging their bedsprings in Twist , but for the jaded and the jaundiced, it’s not a bad first try. Considering the deplorable quality of Canadian films in general, it’s even rather commendable.

Discipline or Death

In Stateside , a rich, spoiled, irresponsible Connecticut teenager named Mark (Jonathan Tucker) orchestrates a prank that causes a near-fatal car accident and changes the lives of several people around him. After the head priest at his Catholic high school (Ed Begley Jr.) is critically injured in the wreck and left paralyzed, and a sexy classmate suffers head injuries that land her in a mental hospital, 17-year-old Mark is dispatched to military service in the U.S. Marine Corps to avoid jail time. Now it is his life that is turned upside-down by a steel-jawed drill instructor (Val Kilmer) who whips him into shape with one philosophy: discipline or death. Two years pass. Between the kind of brutal punishment that turned Demi Moore into a bald Arnold Schwarzenegger in G.I. Jane , and trips home on leave to romance a schizophrenic film star named Dori (Rachael Leigh Cook), Mark grows up. While Dori moves between movie locations and halfway houses for privileged nut cases, Mark tries to save her. He takes her home to meet his self-involved zombie father with emphysema and a neurotic kid sister who wears a mink coat, and between the wheezing and screaming Dori says, “Your house is like my head!” And this movie is like my worst nightmare. Sometimes it cuts to Mark, beaten and kicked and left in pools of blood at camp. Sometimes it cuts to scenes from Dori’s movies, which appear to be worse than the collected works of Ed Wood and Russ Meyer put together. Sometimes she sings a song, flat and off-key, like a dying cat; sometimes she goes catatonic and has to be dragged away to rehab. She must take acting lessons from Courtney Love. And then there’s the serious dialogue. “I don’t care about your hopes and fears, or the storms that scare you,” says Mark. “You just want my girl parts, right?” says Dori. He ends up wounded and blind in Beirut. (Did I forget to mention it’s the 1980’s?) Now it’s her turn to take care of him . Speed-walk to the door marked exit, and you just might make the next feature of Shrek 2 .

Stateside is, according to production notes, based on a true story. All of which pleads volumes for the return of imaginative fiction writers. The idea is to create a love story about how two misfits heal each other in a judgmental world that doesn’t understand the power of positive thinking. It’s been done before in dozens of television “Movies of the Week.” To make this kind of illogical mush seem fresh and appealing, it is important to invent offbeat characters as odd and original as the lovable, unorthodox people who populated Igby Goes Down . But despite the presence of such capable grownups as Carrie Fisher, Joe Mantegna, Diane Venora, Ed Begley Jr. and Val Kilmer, the young stars of Stateside are anemic in the charisma department, and the Mexican writer-director, Reverge Anselmo, a former bus driver and safari guide for French nuns (I don’t make these things up, folks!), is clueless about how to make any of it believable, cogent or even remotely interesting. The screwy lovers in Stateside both have wounds and misery, and by the time it limps to its sluggish climax, they’re not the only ones.

Slipping to Nowhere

More weirdoes turn up in A Slipping Down Life with equal anonymity and lack of purpose. Written and directed by Toni Kalem, an actress best known for her role as Big Pussy’s wife, Angie, on The Sopranos , it’s another debut feature by an inexperienced filly on her first trip to the rodeo, and the lack of technique shows. Why it’s being released at all is anybody’s guess. This movie has been hanging around gathering dust for five years. Why spoil a perfect record?

Based on a slender novel by Anne Tyler, it’s about a painfully awkward woman named Evie (Lili Taylor) who lives an excruciatingly monotonous dead-end life with a father who spends all of his time trying to reach foreign countries on his ham radio, and works in a kiddie-carnival theme park selling hot dogs in a rabbit costume. Sometimes she takes her hands off the steering wheel in traffic, hoping her car will crash into the lane of oncoming cars before she can count to 10. One day Evie becomes so infatuated with a smarmy, mentally challenged rock singer named Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce) that she carves his name on her forehead with a piece of broken glass. Evie is not too bright in the headlights herself. She’s so backward, in fact, that she does it in a ladies’ room mirror, so that instead of “CASEY” the letters come out “YESAC.”

But Drumstrings is so impressed by the blood, the mutilation and the ultimate tribute of a true fan that he marries her for her scar. Once they settle into her awful house full of empty cereal boxes and doilies, he feels like he’s curling up at the edges like the wrinkled, yellowing pages of an old Rolling Stone magazine. So his musician friends wrap a blanket around his head, kidnap him and lock him up in the beauty parlor. Eventually, her father dies and mercifully exits the film-not a moment too soon to suit me-leaving Evie to fend for herself. It’s a slipping-down life, and in the end Evie and Drumstrings are still slipping. Driving around looking at the paint peeling off the Dr. Pepper signs, they’re headed for a recording career, but going nowhere. I guess it all depends on what your idea of slipping down is.

All of this carefully predictable and overworked weirdness is the stuff that reads like literature in her books, but Anne Tyler has proved on many occasions that her particular brand of gothic sweetness does not translate to film. She excels in word portraits of dreadful, burned-out small towns where there is no life and the only thing to look forward to is dying. And Lili Taylor specializes in playing stunted, repressed nutballs notable only for their psychological peculiarities and their pinched, unhappy expressions. The once-handsome and admirably versatile Guy Pearce just looks emaciated. None of these qualities make riveting fodder for the cinema, and Ms. Kalem has no grasp of the material that might extend it or make it last beyond a fleeting impression. A Slipping Down Life is just another tiny movie about tiny people that is destined to find a very tiny audience.

Hostage to Lust

The 24th Day, written and directed by newcomer Tony Piccirillo, is an independent film that gives new meaning to the word. Filmed basically in one room with two actors talking incessantly about everything from college football teams to their favorite Charlie’s Angel, it gives new meaning to the term “home movie.” Scott Speedman and James Marsden, two talented and attractive actors who know how to hold attention, perform with depth and range. One night in a bar, Tom (Mr. Speedman), a fellow whose rough-and-tumble demeanor masks an inner sensitivity that comes out after much character analysis, and Dan (Mr. Marsden), a clean-cut, all-American Gentleman’s Quarterly cover boy, strike up a friendly conversation. They hit it off so fast that they end up in Tom’s apartment, where Dan has every intention of ending up in bed. Surprise. This is an apartment and a guy he has visited before. Surprise. Tom, who is not gay, has only been with one man in his life-a single sexual encounter that gave him H.I.V. and caused the death of his wife, who had no knowledge of his secret. Surprise again. Dan is the guy and Tom is out for revenge. In the trajectory that follows, Dan is bound and gagged; Tom extracts blood and rushes out to have it tested in an AIDS clinic, and promises that if it comes back positive, Dan will die. (The title refers to the number of days since Tom tested positive for the AIDS virus.) While they wait for the lab results, they talk-and there’s too much of it. But in the process, they get to know each other better than they ever could have in bed. Is Tom wrong? Is Dan H.I.V.-positive? Can a hostage-negotiation move up a notch to something resembling a relationship? I will not spoil the outcome. The two actors are terrific, and there are some vital issues and a number of sound ideas rattling around here, but The 24th Day is a staged play, claustrophobic and disturbing, more appropriate for Off Broadway. It is not a movie, and it leaves such a sad lump in the throat you could choke on your popcorn.