starring Courteney Cox, James LeGros, Michael Ealy, Nora Dunn
screenplay by Benjamin Brand
directed by Greg Harrison
starring Connie Nielsen, Ulrich Thomsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Bent Mejding
screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen
directed by Susanne Bier
LADIES IN LAVENDER
starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Natascha McElhone, Daniel Brühl
screenplay by Charles Dance, based on the short story by William J. Locke
directed by Charles Dance
by Walter Chaw There are as many middling to miserable movies in the foreign and domestic independent market as in the oft-maligned mainstream. If there are around five hundred films released in a twelve-month period, after all, only thirty or so are ever in contention for the best of the year--and of those, maybe three will be remembered once the hosannas have died down. The vast majority of pictures are just rest areas between elation and outrage; capturing lightning in a bottle is as unlikely for movies as for any product of any other branch of the arts. Here, then, are three smaller films in fast succession caught in the twilight zone of instant forgetfulness and doomed to spend eternity as either the film that was the long lonesome whistle stop for someone's career, or the promising picture that pointed the way to bigger and brighter things.
Greg Harrison follows up his directorial debut Groove with the least of the bunch, November, a movie shot on DV under the auspices of the Indigent production company and starring ex-sitcom queen Courteney Cox. She plays Sophie, an adulterous photographer who one night sends her boyfriend Hugh (James LeGros) into a convenience store where he meets the business end of fate. He's dead, we think, but what's with the mysterious phone calls, the migraines, and the weird shrink (Nora Dunn) with the broken elevator? From Sophie's photo gallery to a later revelation that a blurry spot on a picture from the night in question is the hand of a mysterious victim (not so mysterious, actually--the trick of the piece is deciphered about five minutes in), November is heavy on the homage to Blow-Up, but there's nothing really about it that's its own. It takes its tri-fold narrative re-tellings from Run Lola Run and separates its three short episodes telling the same story with minor revisions each time using the sort of avant-garde images Nicolas Roeg was up to in the early-'70s. Some of the stuff is arresting, for sure, but it was more arresting when it was anchored by a narrative and thematic cohesion. All November seems to be is a gimmick tied to a conceit--an exercise in Fincher-hued Antonioni without any of the existential complications such a union would imply.
At least ex-Dogme 95 Dane Susanne Bier's follow-up to her affecting DV melodrama Open Hearts is less an exercise than it is a rut--locating another beautiful young couple torn apart by a senseless tragedy that rewrites their lives. A shame that this time around, not content with character study, Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen inject a weak anti-war text that succeeds in making the film adolescent and shrill. Swimming upstream against the vehicle's obsolescence is Connie Nielsen, the wife of a Danish soldier, Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), downed in Afghanistan while his no-account brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is left stoking the home fires. After Michael returns from his cheaply-plotted imprisonment, complete with terrible Deer Hunter secret folded to his breast, a little Deathdream breaks out--but without the subtlety. Nielsen is a standout in the midst of a uniformly exceptional collection of performances, not required, as the others are, to spout a lot of topically obsolete dogma about how awful is war when it brings no profit to the warring. Regressing through ambition, Bier would have done better to let her cast loose in their skins than to try to impose the weight of the world on their shaken shoulders.
"Marooned" is a good description of the actors in Brothers as well as an accurate summary of how we begin actor-turned-director Charles Dance's lugubrious Ladies in Lavender, a geriatric opera involving two old ladies (a widower and a spinster played by Judi Dench and Maggie Smith--you guess which one's which) who one day find a strapping Polish lad (Daniel Brühl) literally washed ashore, the victim of a plot contrivance in shipwreck's clothing. He awakens feelings one of them never thought she'd have while reminding the other of feelings she never thought she'd have again; meanwhile, a local German lady (Natascha McElhone) discovers that the Pole has the gift of the fiddle in his pruned fingers. Once again the performances are the story, with the rest of Ladies in Lavender embalmed in a thick oil of expansive inoffensiveness. Free of fire and tension and predictable to the point of exasperation, it is what it is and should appeal to anyone who finds the thought of a big screen version of an airless BBC teledrama enticing. Luckily, the picture swiftly blurs into a dozen identical chamber pieces, lessening the impact of its terminal blah. Originally published: June 10, 2005.