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Arts & Entertainment Preview - November 1999

B Y   E L L A   T A Y L O R

Pulp Diction

  How Now Poor Cow: Stamp

Success has sent Steven Soderbergh scampering back to his roots in low-budget film. Following the critical and box-office triumph of his smooth Hollywood romantic adventure, Out of Sight, Soderbergh has applied his monster talent to The Limey, an action picture with enough noise and gore to sate the twelve-year-old boys who make up Hollywood's prime audience these days, and a sharp but wistful critique of the myth of "the sixties" that should make their aging Boomer parents sit up straight. Soderbergh seizes on Terence Stamp's congenitally stiff acting to create his ambiguous anti-hero Wilson, a British ex-con much given to overdone vernacular ("'Oo dunnit, then? 'Oo snuffed 'er?"), who arrives in L.A. to avenge the apparent murder of his daughter, an aspiring actress. There he takes on some shady music-business moguls, including a disillusioned former hippie played by Peter Fonda.

Like Out of Sight, The Limey toys with time and memory, advancing the plot as much by looking back as by pushing forward. Soderbergh may be the most referential of filmmakers (Wilson's past is evoked through clips from Stamp's performance in the 1967 Ken Loach film Poor Cow), but he's also a philosopher who uses the cheerfully chintzy production values of his genre to ponder soulfully on the callow cruelties of the entertainment industry, the fall of a generation of idealists, and, as always, the treacherous unreliability of language.

'Night, Mother

Big Sister: Paredes looms over Roth   

If there is one filmmaker who can be relied on to enlist public sympathy for transvestites, hookers, and criminals, it's Pedro Almodóvar. The Spanish director loves and reveres women: almost everyone worth knowing in his incandescent new film, All About My Mother, which won the Cannes Director's Prize this year, is female -- at least in spirit. Almodóvar fashions a society of women, loosely defined and all fallen in one way or another, who come together in testy loving kindness to shield one another from a cruel world. Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a middle-aged transplant nurse and single parent, loses her beloved teenage son just as she's poised to reveal the identity of the father he believed was dead. The bereft woman travels to Barcelona to locate her former husband, and finds herself playing den mother to a strange group that includes a pregnant, HIV-positive nun (the luscious young actress Penélope Cruz), an insecure, aging theatrical diva with Bette Davis eyes (played by Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes), and Manuela's old friend La Agrado, a transvestite hooker rendered with infectious verve by Antonia San Juan). Characteristically funny (though less antic than Almodóvar's previous movies) and cheeky though it is, the movie is no freak show. "All I have that's real are my feelings," the pneumatic La Agrado declares in a spontaneous monologue before a nervous and then enthralled audience of bourgeois theatergoers. Alluring in its bold blues and reds and hot pinks, All About My Mother is another vibrant demonstration of Almodóvar's irreverent yet conciliatory humanity, and of his enduring view that gender may be mutable (and all the better for it), but the kindness of strangers is irreducible.

Cruel to Be Kind

  Cassidy and Hoskins cook up trouble

Red Riding Hood meets a wolf in sheep's clothing in Atom Egoyan's cool, well-crafted adaptation of the Irish writer William Trevor's recent novel Felicia's Journey. Joseph Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a middle-aged bachelor and persnickety catering supervisor in Birmingham, England, remains in every sense in thrall to his mother (Arsinée Khanjian), a glamorous television chef. Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), a sweet young Irish girl, is wedded to a romantic fantasy that has brought her to town, against her autocratic father's wishes, to search for the boyfriend who told her he worked in a lawnmower factory. The two have much in common: parental folly, illusions, and an old-fashionedness that keeps both on the margins of society. They meet by chance, re-meet by Joseph's design, and forge a relationship that seems benign enough until it unfolds into creepiness, as we learn more about the rituals Joseph has cultivated to mask the pain he suffered as the fat, lonely child of an indifferent mother. This is classic terrain for the director of Speaking Parts and Exotica, and it's handled with his usual baroque flair. Yet Egoyan's copious use of flashbacks, often with a bizarre comic edge, to expand on the present actions of the protagonist creates an excessively neat explanatory framework that violates Trevor's love of enigma. Lacking the warm sympathy that deepened The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan's most recent adaptation, Felicia's Journey feels more like a quiet horror movie than a study in the perversion of kindness. Surprisingly, the weakest link in an admirable cast is Hoskins himself, his Cockney accent poking incongruously through a laborious Midlands twang that would fool no one north of Land's End.

Ella Taylor is a film critic for LA Weekly.

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Photo Credits -- Out of Sight: Sophie Baker. All About My Mother: Teresa Isasi. Felicia's Journey: Bob Marshak.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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