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SELF-DELUSION, HALLUCINATION, EVIL NANNIES, AND EXISTENTIALISM

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by Ben Kenigsberg In a way, a film like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion provides more insight into Woody Allen than a film like Deconstructing Harry ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

In a way, a film like


The Curse of the Jade Scorpion


provides more insight into Woody Allen than a film like

Deconstructing Harry

. After the disaster of

Celebrity

-- the worst of his films that I've seen, and I've seen

Shadows and Fog

-- Allen has opted for sweeter, gentler comedy in

Sweet and Lowdown

,

Small Time Crooks

, and now

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

, which opens on August 24. He's a family man now, and a family entertainer; the acerbic, audacious Allen of the past is no more, but at least he doesn't screw up the light stuff.

Yet he still views himself as a potential romantic lead. He casts himself in roles that require characters played by Helen Hunt, Charlize Theron and Elizabeth "

Showgirls

" Berkley to act like they're dying to go to bed with him. ("Somehow I find it strangely exciting standing in here with a myopic insurance clerk," Theron's character says to Allen's.) The ostensible happy ending of

Curse of the Jade Scorpion

has Hunt and Allen's characters, who hate each other, fall in love, but watching Hunt and Allen gaze affectionately at one another is hardly palatable. The whole movie is a sexual fantasy in which Allen's character seduces a woman who despises him; it seems Allen, at 65, still wants to prove that he has what his Isaac Davis character in

Manhattan

called "the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat."

After

Mighty Aphrodite

came out in 1995, I remarked that Allen, then almost 60, was aging gracefully. I'm afraid I'll have to take that back. As C.W. Briggs, an ace insurance company snoop, Allen looks more worn than his brimmed hat. At this point, it's clear that Allen can't put even slight variations on his screen persona. Even in parody, when he says "there's something about that broad I just don't trust," the word "broad" is forced. The best decision Allen made in the last 10 years was to cast John Cusack in the "Woody Allen part" in

Bullets Over Broadway

. Ironically, Cusack played a playwright who wanted a new actress to give a part a fresh reading. Allen should take his own advice. (As an interesting side note, according to an August 12 article in Newsday, Allen only played the lead in

Deconstructing Harry

when he couldn't get anyone else.)

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

isn't a particularly good parody of private-eye movies, with its dearth of period detail and its color cinematography. The 1940 setting is just a motif for typical Woody Allen bumbling, but since his antics provoke laughter every 20 minutes, a movie like this is entirely bearable.

So mild as to be almost insulting,

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

is also so mild it's difficult to dislike, despite its not being clever or particularly funny. C.W. and Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Hunt) are at odds with each other in the insurance office. She's an efficiency expert, and he's inefficient. At a co-worker's 50th birthday, a magician named Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) hypnotizes them and tells them that they're deeply in love. They snap out of lovey-dovey mode when he snaps his fingers, but Voltan doesn't de-program them entirely. Later that night, he calls C.W. and hypnotizes him over the phone, telling him to get alarm information on a wealthy client and steal the client's jewels. Naturally, when the cops investigate, the trail leads straight to C.W. And when hypnotized, C.W. is still in love with Betty Ann.

The best self-referential joke, which shows that Allen is willing to let us have a little fun with his perversions, comes when C.W. is called and hypnotized during a tryst with Laura Kensington (Theron). He stops mid-seduction. "Tonight was very meaningful for me," C.W. says. "Do drop in again in the springtime." When Berkley's character says she has a cold, C.W. says, "You've got a cold? Someone's gotta rub your chest down with Vicks."

Any Woody Allen film beats the heat and the multiplexes, but Allen, for the last five years, has been in a directorial trance.

Francis Ford Coppola's


Apocalypse Now


may or may not be the greatest Vietnam movie ever made, and it may or may not be a masterpiece. But while you watch it, such claims seem trivial. In fact, during a viewing, everything seems trivial: the film is so absorbing, it's as if no other movie were ever made.

A maddening, hallucinatory experience loosely based on Joseph Conrad's

Heart of Darkness

,

Apocalypse Now

tells of Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), who's ordered to go upriver into Cambodia to find and assassinate Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a former model soldier who abandoned the army and lives like a god.

The new restored, re-titled and re-edited version of the picture includes 49 minutes of additional footage, about two minutes of which actually enhance the movie. The film, which now runs 197 minutes (re-assembled from scratch, for some reason), is now far more redundant, if never boring. The spell that the old one cast wears off during the two major additions to the movie -- a scene where Willard and his men actually get to frolic with the Playmates (who visit for a USO show), and a 20-minute sequence on a French plantation, where a Frenchman tells Willard that, while the French fought in the '50s to preserve a colony they had built, the Americans were fighting for "the biggest nothing in history." OK, but not worth the 20 minutes.

The only addition that actually helps shows Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) loading a wounded Vietnamese woman and her child into a medical truck during his men's ground-battle-and-surfing break. ("If I say it's safe to surf this beach, captain, it's safe to surf this beach!") The new scene shows that, even if he's willing to sacrifice some of his men for a little R and R, he's not entirely without compassion.

Other additions include two more bits with Duvall, in which Coppola beats the surfing joke to death; a brief segment in which Willard reads Kurtz's restricted report to LBJ and the joint chiefs of staff, which foreshadows Kurtz's speech at the end; and a scene of Kurtz reading a Time Magazine article about the horrors of the war to Willard. The latter scene blunts the impact of Kurtz's famous speech, in which he explains that, if the Vietcong is so strong that its soldiers can cut off children's limbs and not be fazed, it will win the war.

Smaller additions mostly bring the picture to a halt, too, and not simply because we know we're watching stuff we haven't seen before. Many of the best transitions in the movie no longer exist. For example, in the original, Kilgore delivers his famous "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" monologue, and ends it with the line, "Some day, this war's gonna end." There's a cut to Willard's boat, and Willard begins narrating with the same line. But now, there's footage wedged in the middle that doesn't quite fit.

Even the additions can't ruin the film, which has enough greatness for half a dozen movies. The picture restoration is not bad -- the colors are actually a little brighter on the DVD -- but it's the sound that makes seeing

Apocalypse Now Redux

in a theater a necessity. The chopping of the helicopter that opens the film comes from behind you in a theater; the movie encircles you. I had a splitting headache when I left the film, but not because I had seen a Bruckheimer picture. I had been through a war.

The surprise ending in


The Others


-- relax, relax, I won't spoil it -- functions as both a spoof of a lot of other surprise endings and neat chicanery in its own right. Fans of the 1944 Ray Milland picture

The Uninvited

-- which I haven't seen in years, but which I have a pretty vivid recollection of from childhood -- will find the same breed of chills and architecture here.

Even if it isn't as good as the character-driven

Sixth Sense

, what keeps

The Others

afloat is an enormous dose of atmosphere. A friend who had only seen the trailer commented that it looked like "one of those

Secret Garden

movies," and so it is, replete with sinister nannies, acres of unkempt land, British children, and a big, spooky house. But if done well -- and it's done well here -- that formula can yield a decent amount of suspense.

Grace (Nicole Kidman) and her two children live alone in a mansion on the island of Jersey. The children have a strange malady: even minor exposure to light brighter than a candle's will kill them. Thus, the house's drapes are nearly always shut. Grace, having lived in isolation for years, is perhaps a bit batty from cabin -- or mansion -- fever.

If you've seen the trailer, unfortunately, you already know too much. (And if you haven't, please don't read on. I won't reveal anything that the trailer doesn't, but you're best going in open-minded.)

The Others

begins by suggesting that much of the on-screen madness is only in the minds of its characters. Soon, though, ghosts make their presence known, not undoing the movie but pilfering some of its intrigue.

There's at least one irritating red herring thrown in the works, and the movie sometimes goes overboard with its melodramatics. But the final twist will have you re-evaluating what you've seen. It's a more carefully constructed picture than it first appears to be.

An ending as neat and tidy as

The Others'

won't be found in


Cure


, but in this 1997 film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation), playing at The Screening Room in TriBeCa, ambiguity is far more haunting than any explanation.

Takabe (Koji Yakusho) is investigating a series of murders perpetrated by different persons. What's the connection? The murderers carve X's into their victims' necks after the bloody deeds are done, and during the brutality, the killers are all strangely calm. And all murderers have come in contact with Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a psychology student -- you might mistake him for a slacker -- who has no memory.

An interesting companion piece to

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

, in that it also, though more malevolently, suggests insidious uses for hypnosis,

Cure

works as both a tightly wound suspense picture and a philosophical treatise. In the realm of existential thrillers -- a term that usually proves to be an oxymoron -- this an especially rewarding film. It shows us a world without restraints, in which every frustration is acted upon, and in which revenge is more important than anger resolution.

***

The following review was posted on July 30, but since

Ghost World

is still at the Cinema Arts Centre, I'll leave it up for a bit longer.

The Flesh Fair patrons in

A.I.

wanted to purge the world of artificiality. Enid (Thora Birch), the hero of Terry Zwigoff's bittersweet comedy


Ghost World


, wants to do exactly the same thing.

Nothing is safe from her satirical put-downs -- modern art, chain video stores, movie-theater popcorn, pseudo-'50s burger joints (where the jukeboxes ooze rap), the congratulations and the platitudes thrown her way at graduation, and teens pretending to be confident. Enid and her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) dismiss peers who are quick to go off to business school and into acting workshops. They may be a little jealous of their classmates' enterprising behavior, but they also know that few 18-year-olds are as sure of themselves as they seem.

The two wander around L.A. at the start of what should be their last summer in town -- except that they have no plans to go to college ("just because," says Enid) -- making fun of everything they see. Rebecca gets a job at a faux-Starbucks and vacillates in deciding whether to follow the flow. Enid can't keep a job, and is occupied with an art class that requires her to create something with social meaning. (Her instructor, played by Illeana Douglas, criticizes her comic book-style sketchings and praises a classmate's found art -- a tampon in a teacup.)

Enid finds a project in Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely corporate worker who collects blues records and other relics. Why is she so interested? "He's the exact opposite of everything I hate," Enid tells Rebecca. "He's such a dork, he's almost cool." Later, she tells Seymour that the idea of a world where a guy like him can't get a date is too much for her. You can't help but think that Seymour is a grown-up version of Enid -- the result of wandering on the unbeaten path for years.

In

Ghost World

, Zwigoff, who made remarkable documentary

Crumb

, again explores characters who can't bring themselves to lead normal lifestyles, and suggests that nonconformity leads to creativity.

Ghost World

is adapted from Daniel Clowes's underground comic book (the script is by Clowes and Zwigoff), but despite Enid and Seymour's caricature looks, nothing in the film feels false, down to Birch's perfectly sarcastic and appropriately variable performance.

I'm in that curious limbo between high school and college right now, and the movie captures the angst and the absurdity of teenagehood -- being alone on Saturday night, yet sort of wanting to do your own thing. "Ghost World" is a complex, insightful film about the intertwining of human foibles and originality -- in the guise of a terrific deadpan comedy.