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Indie Flix: A very weak 'Statement'

By STEVE PERSALL and PHILIP BOOTH
Published March 25, 2004

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• ‘The Reckoning’

The Statement (R) (120 min.) - There's an interesting angle to Norman Jewison's otherwise unremarkable film, and it was raised by the recent Jewish-Christian tensions over The Passion of the Christ. The Statement reportedly was inspired by the true story of a Frenchman, Paul Touvier, who (for many years) was protected from prosecution as a war criminal - he sent Jews to death while consorting with Nazis - by a right-wing faction of Catholics.

I don't know if Mel Gibson's fundamental Catholicism is connected to that harboring group. But in Touvier's case, we see why some Jews are suspicious of some Christians, especially those who, like Gibson, handle touchy material. It's an interesting thought. A better movie than The Statement would have kept it out of my mind for the duration of the film.

The Touvier character is now named Pierre Brossard, played as only the movies would attempt, by an Englishman, Michael Caine. His incongruous accent is the least of Caine's worries; the screenplay by Ronald Harwood, an Oscar winner for The Pianist, is a lumpy rehash of elements culled from postwar fugitive yarns such as Marathon Man and The Boys from Brazil. Caine handles the improbable twists and action sequences with the aplomb and heavy breathing we expect from such an old pro.

Two war criminal hunters (Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam) uncover the Catholic connection to Brossard, setting off a chase that intersects with another group plotting to kill the old man. That posse is a Zionist faction played so dastardly that, combined with Caine's ready appeal, it is made to appear the bad guy. In effect, Jewison does the same thing Touvier's protectors did, making a Nazi collaborator someone worthy of saving.

Jewison's penchant for social statements (In the Heat of the Night, The Hurricane) fails him here, and he never impressed me as someone who should make trench-coat thrillers. The Statement is a flat example of the genre, too reserved for the nasty business these films require. C

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

The play's almost the thing

The Reckoning (R) (106 min.) Mix a medieval period piece with a murder mystery, and the combo comes off as intriguing, suggesting a fresh alternative to the schlock - Taking Lives, Twisted - that typically passes for contemporary crime film.

The Reckoning, directed by Paul McGuigan and adapted from Barry Unsworth's novel Morality Play, nevertheless is ultimately unsatisfying, as both Middle Ages drama and whodunit.

The setup is appealing enough, as a charismatic priest, Father Nicholas (Paul Bettany, Master and Commander) in 1380 England leaves a grim church after dallying with a married parishioner. The affair is revealed in flashback snippets, as the man of the cloth flees through the woods, dumping his vestments into a river along the way.

Nicholas runs smack into a traveling troupe of actors mourning the recent death of their leader. Fresh out of job prospects, and afraid of traveling unaccompanied in a countryside where the plague is rampant and loners are deemed suspicious, he volunteers. Martin (Willem Dafoe) is in favor of the new addition, but his sister Sarah (Gina McKee) and older thespian Tobias (Brian Cox) are leery of the stranger. The priest gains their acceptance by, in short order, revealing his identity and performing a Christian burial for the deceased.

At a dirty, remote village, in the shadow of a castle ruled by a tyrant (Vincent Cassel), Nicholas performs competently in the troupe's production of an Adam and Eve story. But he's more interested in another drama, the mystery of a young boy's death. A deaf mute (Elvira Minguez) has been convicted of the crime and sentenced to death by hanging.

The murder offers grist for a play, so the troupe, rather unbelievably, decides to forgo a biblical production in favor of the medieval version of a movie of the week. Before and after the play, Nicholas and Martin turn into amateur sleuths. One innocent life is saved, and another innocent life is lost. B

- PHILIP BOOTH, Times correspondent

Indigestible slice of life

The Son (Le Fils) (Not rated, probably PG-13) (100 min.) - Pleasing as it may be when filmmakers defy expectations, there comes a point when a movie needs to do something in line with convention.

Viewers should be allowed some sense of familiarity. Otherwise, the movie gradually becomes more obtuse, less inviting. We don't care what happens because nothing is happening.

I'm sure that isn't the conclusion brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne planned anyone to take from The Son (Le Fils). But after gushing reviews from highbrow critics and two prizes from the Cannes Film Festival, the most potent feeling The Son left with me was that I'd been had, led by the nose through a drama too understated to register, and I should be ashamed to feel that way.

The Son revolves around a carpentry teacher named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) working at a vocational training center for troubled youths. He's a dull guy, introverted to a fault, easily ignored even if he's the only other person in the room. Olivier is also a bit creepy, especially with regard to a new student, Francis (Morgan Marinne). The Dardennes use hand-held cameras to convey Olivier's voyeurism, although that suggests something he doesn't have in mind.

As the man's quiet fascination with the boy grows, so does a viewer's frustration. What does Olivier have in mind? The theme is intriguing at first, then maddening when the answer is revealed and even deeper drama gets the same dawdling treatment.

The Son is so lifeless, so determined to be a slice of life that it forgets most lives are more interesting than this. Gourmet's performance, inexplicably a best actor choice at Cannes, becomes a subversive stunt, trying to do so little that it must have impressed festival jurors as a bold move. It's hard to believe that any foreign film so acclaimed could make cliched Hollywood melodrama seem artful. But here it is.

Shown with English subtitles. D

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

Made man in modern Russia

Tycoon: A New Russian (Not rated, probably R) (128 min.) - These days, the Russian mafia is Hollywood's most reliable source for pulp thriller villains, followed closely by neo-Nazis. It's no surprise that a movie profiling a Russian mobster should turn the tables by showing his empire built along the same lines as America's godfathers and goodfellas.

Platon Makovski (Vladimir Mashkov) is the embodiment of capitalist spirit gone wrong after the Cold War's end. A former mathematics professor, he seizes the opportunity to fleece the eager masses. The character is reportedly based on Russia's first billionaire, Boris Berezovsky. "Plato," as Makovski is called, concocts complex feats of economic sleight-of-hand, building a fortune on investment capital that wasn't there to begin with.

Director and co-writer Pavel Lounguine takes plenty of cues from U.S. mob flicks, although the violence factor isn't nearly as high and the sexual encounters seem oddly naive. Plato's forte for white-collar chicanery isn't exactly pulse-pumping, so Lounguine tries shuffling chronology to spice things up, to minor effect. Mashkov does have a certain charisma in a role that mimics Michael Corleone's blossom and wilt.

Tycoon: A New Russian is most interesting when other powerbrokers are establishing themselves in a frontier as wide open as the Old West. We're never sure if the tough mobsters contrasted with Plato's elan are truly dangerous or a different style of con artist. Either way, they're not as intimidating as American filmmakers make them out to be.

Shown with English subtitles. C+

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

[Last modified March 24, 2004, 10:24:03]


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