What fresh hell is this? In a load of preposterous twaddle called Birth, Nicole Kidman plays a woman who falls in love with a 10-year-old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. Instead of the dramatic impact it’s supposed to make on our damaged and guilt-ridden libidos (at a time when anything goes in the movies), Birth inspired sneers, giggles and guffaws from the audience at the preview I attended. For myself, it just reminded me of the old joke: “A bird may love a fish, but where would they live?”
A Central Park jogger keels over in the snow and drops dead from a heart attack, leaving behind a grieving widow named Anna—Ms. Kidman in a short black wig, who takes on the “Morbid Nicole” look from The Hours. Ten years later, in the middle of her engagement party to a nice man who promises her a happy new lease on life, a puffy, overweight and sour-faced child arrives at the spacious apartment of Anna’s elegant mother (Lauren Bacall) and announces that he’s Anna’s dead husband, Sean. As silly as this premise sounds, it gets worse. Despite the raised eyebrows of her pregnant sister and brother-in-law (Alison Elliot and Arliss Howard), the querulous horror of her no-nonsense mother (nobody plays aghast, cut-to-the-chase practicality like Bacall), and the edgy heebie-jeebies of the dead husband’s best friends (Peter Stormare and Anne Heche), Anna comes unhinged. This happens in the first few minutes, and the movie goes steadily downhill from there.
I mean, the kid is discharged from the party and sent home to his equally disturbed parents, who buy the whole idea faster than a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, even when the obnoxious little brat disclaims them. This kid is so weird that even his Mom has to address him as a sea captain (“The men are talking below ship—they’re talking mutiny!”). But the boy will not be dismissed. He hangs out in Anna’s lobby. He sends her love letters. He has fainting spells. He’s just a child, but he has an absurdly disturbing psychological effect on her. The real Sean didn’t believe in the soul or the spirit—only that “matter” survives. What if this boy is the protoplasm that outlived the end of Sean’s physical “matter”? Anna’s brother-in-law interviews him. He knows intimate details nobody could have told him, and Ms. Kidman takes on the “Spooky Nicole” look from The Others. Now completely under the haunting spell of a chubby kid with a shaved head, she even entertains the idea of sex. “How are you going to take care of my needs? Have you ever made love to a girl?” she asks. “You’d be my first,” he solemnly replies. I mean, are they serious? From the look of it, director Jonathan Glazer appears to be oblivious to the fact that the audience is cringing with embarrassment.
Credulity eventually collapses when Anna makes plans to run away with the child and marry him the day he turns 21. The always-firmly-rooted Ms. Bacall should, at this point, put her foot down and have them all committed, but instead goes to lunch. Anna’s fiancé (Danny Huston) goes ballistic and knocks the kid around the room, sending Ms. Kidman into the “Dying Nicole” look from Moulin Rouge. Then best friend Anne Heche blows up and throws a wrench into the machinery by telling the kid that she was his former mistress, driving Anna into the “Furious Nicole” look from Malice. The loony bin beckons, but she finally has a nervous breakdown in her wedding gown while the soundtrack plays “Tonight You Belong to Me” by Patience and Prudence. I couldn’t make this stuff up. After what seems like an eternity of drivel, we at last get the “Catatonic Nicole” look from The Stepford Wives.
Rarely have so many stellar lights been plummeted into such numbing darkness. (There is even a meaningless walk-on by the great Zoe Caldwell!) Nicole Kidman’s beauty is naturally nolo contendre, but a black Liza Minnelli pixie wig is not her best style. It is always a treat to welcome the legendary Lauren Bacall, but isn’t it time to find her a role that deserves her? She plays each of her brief scenes like a pro but has nothing important to do here, and ends up wasted in a series of one-liners that fail to advance the action in a logical narrative. Their joint appearances in Birth and the moronic Dogville speak volumes about the pathetic quality of the roles available in today’s cockeyed film world for experienced actors of substance who want to continue working at their craft.
The film’s weakest link is the casting of 10-year-old Canadian actor Cameron Bright, who doesn’t look ethereal at all but is unfortunately pudgy, awkward, expressionless and never remotely appealing. The pace is funereal. The writing structure has no arc. And the controversy is as superficial as the screenplay. When Birth premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the scene where the boy strips naked and joins Ms. Kidman in a bathtub was hissed and booed, and the film was viciously attacked as “kiddie porn.” Nonsense. Nothing titillating ever happens in Birth, which is pretentious and mystifying but hardly prurient. For Jonathan Glazer, who made an impressive debut with the British gangster film Sexy Beast, this second feature is a 90-degree change of theme and style. Big mistake. Like most films that make no sense from any plausible point of view, he tosses around descriptive adjectives like “mystical” and “surreal.” The “magic spell” is never explained in Birth, but by the time it drags to a close, you may have a “spell” of your own.
Bizarre Love Triangle
More kinky psychological conflicts between strangers form the essence of Roger Michell’s stark and creepy romantic melodrama, Enduring Love, but the acclaimed director of Notting Hill and Changing Lanes provides a more unerring sense of atmosphere and a more focused trajectory than Jonathan Glazer, and the pitch-perfect performances by Daniel Craig, Samantha Morton and Rhys Ifans result in a more satisfying movie experience than Birth. Though differing greatly from its source material, the odd 1998 novel by Ian McEwan, the film begins with the book’s same brilliant opening sequence: a peaceful picnic in a bucolic British meadow near Oxford is interrupted by a boy trapped in a fatal hot-air-balloon disaster. For two of the men who fail to bring the balloon down in an aborted rescue attempt that results in one man’s tragic death, the moral repercussions have a far-reaching effect.
When Joe Rose (Daniel Craig), a reasonable and unimaginative professor who believes in scientific reason over spirituality, comes face to face with Jed Parry (Rhys Ifans), a scraggly bum who looks like something from biblical times, it doesn’t seem like much. But the impressionable and frankly loopy Jed believes the two men have been inextricably bonded by fate, randomly thrown together at the scene of a life-altering accident that has turned them into soulmates. For Jed it is love at first sight, and while the pragmatic Joe grapples with his guilt in his own private way, the weird and intense Jed begins to stalk the object of his affection. “You’re a good person, O.K.? Just a little overwrought—stressed out, sad and tired,” he reasons. But Jed keeps turning up to declare his love, although the love remains unrequited. The uninvited obsession has an unnerving effect on Joe’s girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton) and soon turns into an annoying moral dilemma. Joe had gone to the picnic that day with a ring and a bottle of wine, ready to propose marriage. Now he spends more time agonizing over this intruder than moving forward with Claire. An unspoken alliance is formed, with the unspoken guidelines of a love triangle. Their neatly ordered lives rupture and bleed. Claire trembles with dread every time the telephone rings. For what passionate reasons did fate bring this lunatic to their door? Before they can confront the truths of what really happened that day at the picnic, questions of love, faith and forgiveness must be answered. Before the film’s strange, elliptical close, violence, tragedy and change are inevitable.
From a difficult-to-film literary work of profound ideas and sparse dialogue, Roger Michell and his screenwriter, Joe Penhall, have brushstroked a riveting, revealing and powerful film about the surprising shades and evolving emotions of love. As the freaky Jed, Rhys Ifans—the repellent human scarecrow who has made misfits a trademark—discovers he has more power than he thought possible. As the academic Joe, Daniel Craig—the handsome and compelling actor who made such a smashing impression opposite Gwyneth Paltrow as the husband of doomed poet Sylvia Plath in Sylvia— reveals a hidden, untapped vulnerability. And radiant Samantha Morton, as the victim of the men’s enduring love and eventual bloody showdown, is the perfect embodiment of cool, claustrophobic tension. They are all memorable and perfect in a film of coiled frustration and uncontrollable poignancy. An unforgettable story of coincidence, mysticism and the enigmatic workings of the human heart.
Captive! In A Toilet
Arriving just in time for Halloween, Saw is a truly innovative horror film with only one goal—to make your blood run cold and your hair turn white. That it succeeds in spades makes it one tale from the crypt that will return, to plague your nightmares. Two men wake up in the dark bowels of an underground toilet, chained to the rusted pipes of a filthy, abandoned Hell. When the lights snap on, bathing them in the kind of blinding, antiseptic light that turns people into X-rays, they realize they are prisoners shackled to the rotting walls on opposite sides of the room. And they are not alone. In the middle of the tile floor lies a corpse with its brains blown out, festering in a pool of blood, with a revolver in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. As the fluorescent tube overhead begins to hum, their awareness of the grim surroundings takes shape: clogged toilets, a bathtub filled with putrid water, cracked plaster dripping rancid slime. And what is on the cassette in each of their pockets?
The two captives are Dr. Lawrence Gordon, a distinguished surgeon (Cary Elwes), and a young freelance photographer named Adam (played by Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay). Their lives seem to bear no relation, they have never met, and yet the distorted voice on the tapes demands that the doctor kill Adam within eight hours or his own wife and daughter will be murdered. It seems they are both the victims of an archfiend who dreams up the most unique and horrifying ways to massacre people since the diabolical Fu Manchu. Both men are pawns in an elaborately perverted plot orchestrated by a psychopath known only as “Jigsaw.” While a burned-out detective on the outside (Danny Glover) works feverishly to discover the monster’s identity, the two trapped and hysterical captives in the subterranean washroom remain clueless, but they do have two hand saws at their sides—too weak to break up their chains, but strong enough to saw through flesh and bone. What happens before the end credits is not for the weak of nerves or the faint of heart.
Saw marks the feature debut of Australian director James Wan, who layers the film with twists and turns the title into more than just the name of something inanimate in a toolbox. Cleverly, he and his writer (who also does a convincing job of sweating bullets in the role of the photographer who is not as innocent as he pretends) manipulate the audience’s arteries as the game unfolds onscreen. Strongly influenced by Italian creep-out wizards like Dario Argento and Mario Bava, they keep old clichés fresh and takes voyeurism to a hair-frying frenzy. The gore is relentless and in your face, and if you grew up glued to the old Universal fright flicks like I did, you won’t want to miss a minute of the mayhem. It takes a lot to jolt a screening room of hard-boiled critics, but at the one for Saw, they were jolted all over the place.