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Field of Seven

Busy week, quite apart from the mountainous task of reducing the Field of Sixty-Four to the Sweet Sixteen. If a movie wants my full attention, it would be wise to steer clear of March Madness. My divided attention:

The Upside of Anger. Said anger belongs primarily to the mother of four daughters ranging in age from high school to college senior, and secondarily to the four daughters, after the husband and father absconds with his Swedish secretary. The mother takes solace first from a bottle of vodka (three bottles per shopping trip), and then from her next-door neighbor and new drinking buddy, a former Detroit Tiger and current talk-radio host. The daughters, three of them still residing under the family roof, are a persistent handful. Joan Allen, in something of a tour de force, and something also of a tour de farce, really does convey the juggling act, the balancing act, of multiple motherhood; and yet at the same time there's an element of circusy spectacle in the performance, aggravating the domestic disharmony, drowning out the accompaniment, hogging the spotlight. Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen, Keri Russell, and Alicia Witt make up an attractive brood, even beyond mere appearance. And a slightly goofball Kevin Costner, a Detroit Tiger in For Love of the Game as well, has beneficially chased away his chronic clouds.

The writer and director, Mike Binder, is a member of the cast, too, as Costner's radio producer, an average guy with average looks and average needs and average scruples, and in that role Binder is convincingly average. Behind the camera, he aspires to much more. (A good deal more, certainly, than in such undistinguished earlier credits as Blankman and Indian Summer.) Gripped by the American terror of dullness, keeping one eye on his cast of characters and the other eye on a hypothetically squirming audience, he maps out his plot and hones his dialogue as if he were racking up points on a pinball machine, with all attendant flashing lights and ringing bells. He wants to make an impression, and immediately he wants to make another. (He will not even balk at a fantasy of an exploding head.) Such a quest for constant diversion can hardly help but produce sporadic diversion, roughly on a par with subpar James Brooks.

The Ring Two. For the sequel, director Gore Verbinski has handed over the franchise to the man who made the Japanese originals, Hideo Nakata. He, perhaps a bit too close to the material for too long, seems to presume that the spectator will have committed the previous chapter to memory, or, if not, will be satisfied with an incoherent series of crisply photographed creep-outs. The spectator should indeed be satisfied with at least a couple of highlights: a herd of aggressive computer-generated stags (same software, it would appear, used by The Hartford in its TV ads) and the herky-jerky climbing technique of the Ghost-in-the-Well. Naomi Watts, back in the ring for Round Two, maintains her intensity; and Elizabeth Perkins, Sissy Spacek, and Gary Cole make the most of their evanescent roles as, respectively, a hospital psychologist, a mental patient, and a dementedly upbeat realtor.

Millions. The lighter side of Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, et al.), lighter even than A Life Less Ordinary, embracing not mere angels, but full-fledged saints. Two little Liverpudlian brothers happen to have a duffel of cash fall in their laps off a passing train. The younger boy, the "clever" one, conversant with all the Catholic saints and visited by a select few (Francis, a cigarette-smoking Clare, Peter, Joseph), takes this as his commission to dispense charity to the needy ("I thought it was from God"), with the added urgency of the looming conversion to the Euro. Once you swallow the premise, or spit it discreetly into your Kleenex, and once you resign yourself to the inevitable arrival, trackside, of a sinister figure in search of a lost duffel (a far cry, even so, from Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter), you can have some fun with the older, more practical brother's attempts to rein in and cover up the younger's open-handed philanthropy.

Dear Frankie. First-time director and cinematographer (rare combination) Shona Auerbach builds a façade of realism over an interior of mush. The title figure (Jack McElhone) is a nine-year-old deaf boy who never speaks, yet narrates the action (in an all but unintelligible Scots accent) in the form of letters to his absent Da, ostensibly away at sea. The punctual replies to these letters are actually penned by Ma (Emily Mortimer), who, in a creaky contrivance, is obliged to hire a perfect stranger (Gerard Butler, more perfect than you could dream) to impersonate Da on leave. Add this to the list of films -- Gerry, Heaven, Swept Away, Since Otar Left, the as yet unreleased La Petite Lili -- that procure poignance through the use of the same Arvo P...rt piece, "Spiegel im Spiegel." It's getting a little ridiculous. Not even Pachelbel's Canon has gotten a heavier workout in a shorter time.

Schultze Gets the Blues. The titular Schultze, no first name, gets more than the blues. He gets a muse. A retired German salt miner and an amateur polka accordionist, he stumbles upon a piece of errant zydeco on late-night radio, the answer to a question he never knew to ask. After a bad reception at a meeting of the local music club ("Bloody jungle music!"), he pursues his bliss on a solo odyssey to Texas and Louisiana. The static camera and Kaurismaki-like deadpan seem a perfect fit for the swollen, water-balloon physique of the stolid hero. (Delightful shots of him squeezed into a pair of swimming trunks for a motel hot tub or doing deep knee bends in T-shirt and suspenders.) And the path charted out for him by first-time writer and director Michael Schorr unfolds as a touching affirmation -- a very gently, lightly touching affirmation -- of the universal Rebel Within. A man raised among garden gnomes may nonetheless discover a taste for jambalaya.

Downfall. Two-and-a-half-hour countdown to the end of the Third Reich. Bruno Ganz, digging into his meatiest role in years, looks and sounds fine as the Führer; and filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel's strict adherence to documented history, and to the precise design and décor of the infamous bunker, give the film some educational value, although the drab-to-dismal cinematography equates to a professorial drone. Entertainment value, meantime, rises no higher than sadistic pleasure at seeing Hitler have a bad fifty-sixth birthday and bad rest of his life: "No one understands me...."

D.E.B.S. A low-tech, low-budget, low-profile Charlie's Angels, with an uncloseted lesbian agenda. The top student at an all-girl spy school is writing her thesis on the elusive criminal mastermind, Lucy Diamond, when she gets to meet her subject face to face: "You're so not what I expected." The feeling is reciprocated: "Being bad doesn't feel good anymore." Sara Foster kissing Jordana Brewster is not, however, Cameron Diaz kissing Demi Moore, and is not apt to turn any heads. Writer-director Angela Robinson, who has moved on to the forthcoming Disney automotive fantasy, Herbie: Fully Loaded, appeals not so much to your sense of humor as to your political sympathies. A shaky leg for a spy spoof to stand on.

* * *

I didn't do any better than Machuca at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, though Marcelo Piñeyro's Kamchatka was a work of comparable quality, a tactful treatment of the Argentinian stigma of los desaparecidos, a fleeting pastoral interlude of a family in hiding (the events filtered, like the gathering political storm in Machuca, through the eyes of a child), before the parent gets "disappeared" outside the framework of the story. No overt violence, but plenty of pain. How did you do?

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Mayor says planned handover of Balboa Park’s United States cottage to Afghanistan was “bound to be chaotic.”

Gloria’s shame?

Busy week, quite apart from the mountainous task of reducing the Field of Sixty-Four to the Sweet Sixteen. If a movie wants my full attention, it would be wise to steer clear of March Madness. My divided attention:

The Upside of Anger. Said anger belongs primarily to the mother of four daughters ranging in age from high school to college senior, and secondarily to the four daughters, after the husband and father absconds with his Swedish secretary. The mother takes solace first from a bottle of vodka (three bottles per shopping trip), and then from her next-door neighbor and new drinking buddy, a former Detroit Tiger and current talk-radio host. The daughters, three of them still residing under the family roof, are a persistent handful. Joan Allen, in something of a tour de force, and something also of a tour de farce, really does convey the juggling act, the balancing act, of multiple motherhood; and yet at the same time there's an element of circusy spectacle in the performance, aggravating the domestic disharmony, drowning out the accompaniment, hogging the spotlight. Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen, Keri Russell, and Alicia Witt make up an attractive brood, even beyond mere appearance. And a slightly goofball Kevin Costner, a Detroit Tiger in For Love of the Game as well, has beneficially chased away his chronic clouds.

The writer and director, Mike Binder, is a member of the cast, too, as Costner's radio producer, an average guy with average looks and average needs and average scruples, and in that role Binder is convincingly average. Behind the camera, he aspires to much more. (A good deal more, certainly, than in such undistinguished earlier credits as Blankman and Indian Summer.) Gripped by the American terror of dullness, keeping one eye on his cast of characters and the other eye on a hypothetically squirming audience, he maps out his plot and hones his dialogue as if he were racking up points on a pinball machine, with all attendant flashing lights and ringing bells. He wants to make an impression, and immediately he wants to make another. (He will not even balk at a fantasy of an exploding head.) Such a quest for constant diversion can hardly help but produce sporadic diversion, roughly on a par with subpar James Brooks.

The Ring Two. For the sequel, director Gore Verbinski has handed over the franchise to the man who made the Japanese originals, Hideo Nakata. He, perhaps a bit too close to the material for too long, seems to presume that the spectator will have committed the previous chapter to memory, or, if not, will be satisfied with an incoherent series of crisply photographed creep-outs. The spectator should indeed be satisfied with at least a couple of highlights: a herd of aggressive computer-generated stags (same software, it would appear, used by The Hartford in its TV ads) and the herky-jerky climbing technique of the Ghost-in-the-Well. Naomi Watts, back in the ring for Round Two, maintains her intensity; and Elizabeth Perkins, Sissy Spacek, and Gary Cole make the most of their evanescent roles as, respectively, a hospital psychologist, a mental patient, and a dementedly upbeat realtor.

Millions. The lighter side of Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, et al.), lighter even than A Life Less Ordinary, embracing not mere angels, but full-fledged saints. Two little Liverpudlian brothers happen to have a duffel of cash fall in their laps off a passing train. The younger boy, the "clever" one, conversant with all the Catholic saints and visited by a select few (Francis, a cigarette-smoking Clare, Peter, Joseph), takes this as his commission to dispense charity to the needy ("I thought it was from God"), with the added urgency of the looming conversion to the Euro. Once you swallow the premise, or spit it discreetly into your Kleenex, and once you resign yourself to the inevitable arrival, trackside, of a sinister figure in search of a lost duffel (a far cry, even so, from Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter), you can have some fun with the older, more practical brother's attempts to rein in and cover up the younger's open-handed philanthropy.

Dear Frankie. First-time director and cinematographer (rare combination) Shona Auerbach builds a façade of realism over an interior of mush. The title figure (Jack McElhone) is a nine-year-old deaf boy who never speaks, yet narrates the action (in an all but unintelligible Scots accent) in the form of letters to his absent Da, ostensibly away at sea. The punctual replies to these letters are actually penned by Ma (Emily Mortimer), who, in a creaky contrivance, is obliged to hire a perfect stranger (Gerard Butler, more perfect than you could dream) to impersonate Da on leave. Add this to the list of films -- Gerry, Heaven, Swept Away, Since Otar Left, the as yet unreleased La Petite Lili -- that procure poignance through the use of the same Arvo P...rt piece, "Spiegel im Spiegel." It's getting a little ridiculous. Not even Pachelbel's Canon has gotten a heavier workout in a shorter time.

Schultze Gets the Blues. The titular Schultze, no first name, gets more than the blues. He gets a muse. A retired German salt miner and an amateur polka accordionist, he stumbles upon a piece of errant zydeco on late-night radio, the answer to a question he never knew to ask. After a bad reception at a meeting of the local music club ("Bloody jungle music!"), he pursues his bliss on a solo odyssey to Texas and Louisiana. The static camera and Kaurismaki-like deadpan seem a perfect fit for the swollen, water-balloon physique of the stolid hero. (Delightful shots of him squeezed into a pair of swimming trunks for a motel hot tub or doing deep knee bends in T-shirt and suspenders.) And the path charted out for him by first-time writer and director Michael Schorr unfolds as a touching affirmation -- a very gently, lightly touching affirmation -- of the universal Rebel Within. A man raised among garden gnomes may nonetheless discover a taste for jambalaya.

Downfall. Two-and-a-half-hour countdown to the end of the Third Reich. Bruno Ganz, digging into his meatiest role in years, looks and sounds fine as the Führer; and filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel's strict adherence to documented history, and to the precise design and décor of the infamous bunker, give the film some educational value, although the drab-to-dismal cinematography equates to a professorial drone. Entertainment value, meantime, rises no higher than sadistic pleasure at seeing Hitler have a bad fifty-sixth birthday and bad rest of his life: "No one understands me...."

D.E.B.S. A low-tech, low-budget, low-profile Charlie's Angels, with an uncloseted lesbian agenda. The top student at an all-girl spy school is writing her thesis on the elusive criminal mastermind, Lucy Diamond, when she gets to meet her subject face to face: "You're so not what I expected." The feeling is reciprocated: "Being bad doesn't feel good anymore." Sara Foster kissing Jordana Brewster is not, however, Cameron Diaz kissing Demi Moore, and is not apt to turn any heads. Writer-director Angela Robinson, who has moved on to the forthcoming Disney automotive fantasy, Herbie: Fully Loaded, appeals not so much to your sense of humor as to your political sympathies. A shaky leg for a spy spoof to stand on.

* * *

I didn't do any better than Machuca at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, though Marcelo Piñeyro's Kamchatka was a work of comparable quality, a tactful treatment of the Argentinian stigma of los desaparecidos, a fleeting pastoral interlude of a family in hiding (the events filtered, like the gathering political storm in Machuca, through the eyes of a child), before the parent gets "disappeared" outside the framework of the story. No overt violence, but plenty of pain. How did you do?

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