A Boy’s Life in Scotland … This Summer’s Scream

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A Boy’s Life in Scotland

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From a 20-hour, six-installment Chinese opera at Lincoln Center, to a stage full of naked boys singing in Greenwich Village, there’s something for everyone in this summer of confusion. Clutching at straws, movie marquees change frequently in these dog days, offering everything from the sophomoric, submental humor of Austin Powers , Wild Wild West and South Park to the crisper tonic of Oscar Wilde, Terence Rattigan and Franco Zeffirelli. Every taste level becomes a target audience. Here are some of the newest entries.

My Life So Far , a British-Scottish co-production produced by the estimable David Puttnam and directed by Hugh ( Chariots of Fire ) Hudson, is a cooler of mint-flavored tea aimed at Masterpiece Theater fans, based on the memoirs of Denis Forman, a noted television executive in London and director of the Royal Opera. Set in the Roaring Twenties on an isolated, wooded estate called Kiloran House in Argyll, it charts the foibles of a family of gentrified eccentrics as viewed through mischievously clear, blue, 10-year-old eyes. Kiloran House, which rises from the misty Scottish Highlands on the banks of a serene loch, is an enchanting place for any boy, but for Fraser Pettigrew the estate holds special splendors.

Father (Colin Firth) is an oddball inventor named Edward Pettigrew with a passion for Beethoven (“The sound of God, talking in his sleep”) and an abhorrence of jazz, which he considers “evil, effeminate and just plain foreign.” Papa also loves the Bible and preaches vigorous sermons on morality every Sunday in the village church, to the annoyance of the drunken pastor. Life centers around Papa’s moss factory, which mines and processes sphagnum moss from surrounding bogs into soap, cologne and soothing healing ointments for dressing wounds. It’s an undignified source of income, tolerated by Mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and frowned on by the stern family matriarch, Gamma Macintosh (played with delicious patrician indomitability by the great Rosemary Harris).

Once in a blue moon, there’s a visit from Uncle Morris (Malcolm Mcdowell), who arrives from London with the latest jazz records by Louis Armstrong. This is the year when everything changes with the arrival of Uncle Morris’ fiancée, a beautiful French cellist named Héloïse (Irène Jacob) who casts a rapturous spell on the stoic old household, enchanting 10-year-old Fraser and even his father, as the sexual intrigues of the adult world fire the boy’s imagination and plunge him into the witness box of a tumultuous comic adventure.

Father may be both a crackpot and a genius, but he risks his inheritance and his marriage by falling for Héloïse himself. Gamma falls through the ice on the loch, Uncle Morris loses the estate to harebrained Edward, there’s a funeral, a wedding and a surprise visit by a French aviator who literally drops from the sky into the nearby moors long enough to fall in love with Fraser’s 16-year-old sister Elspeth (Kelly Macdonald, from Trainspotting and Elizabeth ). While fates shift and relationships alter, the precocious Fraser learns to leave his late Grandfather Macintosh’s racy books and secret photos of naked women hidden in the attic and see the world through grown-up eyes. This is his “life so far,” and its obvious childhood innocence has entered a new phase by the time he turns 11.

Mr. Hudson brings the same richness of locale and observance of period detail to My Life So Far that was so enjoyable in Chariots of Fire . The film has wit and charm, as it captures the last rays of childhood simplicity with affirmation and sweetness. More than just a lush reverie, it encapsulates the transitions in the lives of some unusual characters with bizarre affection and a jaunty pace that is never boring. The characters are rife with paradox and the excellent cast manages to delve beneath the Merchant-Ivory trimmings in illustration: Colin Firth is especially skillful in exposing the unctuous Edward Pettigrew with edgy contrasts, both as moral reformer and sweaty philanderer; Ms. Mastrantonio may look like a diaphanous wimp, but there’s a tigress lurking under her fluttery mannerisms; and Mr. McDowell hides a loving heart behind his reproachful sternness and disapproval. They all have as much growing up to do as little Fraser. Meanwhile, the film treats the viewer to a nice tapestry of Scottish rituals, from trout fishing and skinny dipping in the loch, to the peculiar winter sports competitions that lead to tragedy when the water freezes over. Beautifully acted, superbly photographed and carefully directed, My Life So Far is one of the best films so far in this awful year of sorry disappointments. See it and cheer. (Opens July 23.)

This Summer’s Scream

The Blair Witch Project is a chilling curiosity-a low-budget horror flick shot with one $800 digital camcorder, one lightweight 16-milllimeter camera and $20,000. A summer share on Fire Island costs more than that, which makes the film’s authenticity and suspense all the more astounding. The premise is a strong one. In October 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the remote Maryland woods while making a documentary on the legendary Blair Witch, an alleged creature responsible for the deaths of six children whose bodies turned up mangled beyond recognition and carted from the forest on stretchers. One year later, the missing footage they shot up to the time of their vanishing is found, revealing unspeakable horrors. The premise, as I said, is sound. The footage, which comprises the entire 90-minute running time, is harrowing. And it is completely fictional, making it doubly admirable.

The three actors in the film-Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard-use their real names, so you quickly fail to separate them from the characters they play. Co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who also wrote and edited the film, reduced the budget even further by training the three actors to operate the cameras themselves. Their footage is so remarkable it sometimes makes your hair stand on end as they set out on their adventure, high on the thrill of candid filmmaking, interviewing everyone they encounter, and then losing their way in the darkness. Confusion builds when they realize they are lost, anger ensues when they lose their map, but there is always the feeling that as long as they can hold onto their video camera they can hold onto reality. Even as they go slowly mad, there is humor in their situation as well as fear. Hungry, cold and hunted by an unseen threat that leaves funeral pyres of sticks and bones outside their camping tent, they experience a mounting terror with understandable hysteria the audience shares, until everyone is plunged into a nightmare that ends only when the camera runs out of film and cuts to black. By the abrupt final scene, accompanied by offscreen screaming, you may well wonder if anyone will get out alive, including yourself.

What makes The Blair Witch Project an unusual thriller is the cinéma vérité style of the piece. The actors seem to experience the punishing chain of events as they shoot them. Because every scene is unrehearsed, with what looks like an urgent sense of improvisation, the naturalistic result is so convincing the audience quickly surrenders, believing it is real. In a highly evolved technique of what the two directors call “method filmmaking,” the actors were required to move deeper into the woods each day, deprived of food and supplies. By the time they reach the gloomy old house that serves as the film’s ghastly finale, their misery and disintegration are palpable.

It’s a strange film, and I’m dubious about the point it wants to make, if any, but The Blair Witch Project is a fascinating experiment that accomplishes what it sets out to do-it scares the living daylights out of the most jaded and cynical among us. Perfect for a good summer scream between iced mochas.

Lake Placid Drowns

Lake Placid is lunacy of the moronic, big-budget variety, in which an irritating, fresh-mouthed New York paleontologist (Bridget Fonda), a wildlife commissioner who looks like a Field and Stream cover (Bill Pullman) and a rich, kooky mythology nut (Oliver Platt, overacting outrageously) discover a 30-foot, 150-year-old Asian crocodile in the wilds of Maine that is feasting on decapitated heads and running amok in Betty White’s back yard. Never mind that no crocodile could survive in a freezing lake in Maine. This menace is breathing, eating, mating and laying eggs the size of soccer balls.

As the man-eater gets meaner and the people get stupider, there is the occasional snap of a jaw while Ms. White, a prominent animal rights activist in real life, blindfolds her pet cows and feeds them to the jaws of the monster, screeching to the cops, “If I had a dick, this is where I would tell you to suck it!” The things TV personalities will say or do to establish a movie career. Ms. Fonda, whose grandfather Hank is no longer around to keep the family legacy safe, wants to neutralize the ancient dragon and take him to a deserted oil tanker in Portland using a live cow hanging from a helicopter as the lure. “This is not a happy cow,” she says. This is not a happy picture. This is not a happy audience. This is not a happy critic. In the absence of a plot, we get obnoxious smartass dialogue like “Chew the bark off my big fat log.”

Written by the same David E. Kelley responsible for TV’s Ally McBeal , and directed by the same Steve Miner that polluted the air with the idiotic Halloween: H2O , this is moviemaking of the lowest order. By the time the crocodile eats the helicopter, it is clear he has no business in Maine, and we have no business wasting time on Lake Placid .

A Boy’s Life in Scotland … This Summer’s Scream