Running with Scissors. Splashy feature debut for the man behind the cable-television series Nip/Tuck, writer-director Ryan Murphy, a hey-look-at-me cannonball, adapted from the "memoir" of Augusten Burroughs. Set in the Seventies, it spans his prepubescence ("I guess it doesn't matter where I begin," the narrator comments in voice-over, "because nobody's going to believe me anyway") into his gloomily gay adolescence. In specific, the breakup of his nuclear family -- an alcoholic academic father and a psychobabbling self-deluding poet manqué mother ("Augusten, your mother was meant to be a very famous woman") -- and his subsequent placement in the foster care of the mother's crackpot analyst, whose first arrival on the scene parodies the arrival of Max von Sydow in The Exorcist. (True to the period, for sure.) The boy's second home is no stabler, a pink-painted monstrosity that accommodates a haggard hausfrau who never misses a day of Dark Shadows and snacks on dog kibble; two nubile daughters, one coquettishly virginal and one candidly tarty; a cat named Freud; a perennial Christmas tree in the parlor; a never-diminishing pile of dishes in the kitchen; the doctor's private sanctuary known self-explanatorily as his "masturbatorium"; and a trail of neurotic clients prominently including a brooding predatory homosexual.
The basic assumption, trendy and trite as can be, is that the more eccentric, the more lunatic the vision of family life, the more truthful and insightful, the more relevant and revealing, it must be. (And never mind how tortuous the route to a punch line: the sole purpose of the dragged-out practical joke of a cat-meat stew is to enable the humorless homosexual to huff off with an "I don't eat pussy!") Annette Bening, whose presence tends to point up the kinship with American Beauty, puts on quite a show as the biological mother, running the gamut from the irrepressibly tempestuous ("Get the rage on the page, women," she rails at her fledgling poets' circle) to the chemically tranquillized, with nary a misstep along the way. This is a portrait which, floridness notwithstanding, remains recognizably and humorously human. In most of the rest -- Brian Cox, Jill Clayburgh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Evan Rachel Wood, Joseph Fiennes -- the floridness overgrows and obscures.
Tideland. "Many of you are not going to like this film," safely predicts Terry Gilliam in a filmed Director's Statement at the outset, together with other stuff about his discovery of his inner child ("It turned out to be a little girl") and a viewer advisory not to forget to laugh. Unhelpfully, he makes no further appearances to advise the viewer on where and when. After the documentary evidence of Lost in La Mancha -- about the aborted Don Quixote project of the director -- and the whopping flop of his The Brothers Grimm last year, it is heartening, in the first place, just to see Gilliam working again and working "small." (Small cast, small scope, albeit big special effects.) We have ample opportunity, however, to repent our initial generosity over the course of a dark, dark, even slightly dirty fairy tale to do with a modern-day Alice in Wonderland (the Lewis Carroll classic is on open display to help us make the connection), more precisely an Alice in Tideland, who is soon relieved of her chain-smoking chocoholic mother and her drug-addicted Denmark-obsessed father (not, though, relieved of his rotting corpse), and who, stuck out in the middle of an Andrew Wyeth nowhere, must subsist on peanut butter and settle for companionship with a black-garbed, bee-allergic, one-eyed Wicked Witch or Cruel Queen figure, the latter's lobotomized brother, a talking squirrel, and a literal handful of finger-puppet dolls' heads. Altogether, a farrago of grotesquerie and bizarrerie, shot with a lot of wide-angle lenses, as if it were not hideous enough already.
Catch a Fire. Sympathy for the terrorist. Not, heaven forbid, the Islamic terrorist, but the South African terrorist circa 1980, the hard-working family man who, falsely accused of terrorism, turns to terrorism for real. Parallels to other sorts of terrorists can be drawn all the same, and that would be the only avenue of bravery in this sanctimonious rehash of the evils of apartheid. The drumming-up of suspense proves to be no less grindingly mechanical than the drumming-up of sympathy. This is the Phillip Noyce of Rabbit-Proof Fence (not a compliment, coming from me) rather than of The Quiet American or Heatwave or even Patriot Games. Warmly photographed, nonetheless, by Ron Fortunato and Garry Phillips, and warmly played, at times hotly, by Derek Luke and Bonnie Henna. Tim Robbins, the anti-terrorist Afrikaner, is stereotypically stone-cold.
Flicka. Updated remake of the Mary O'Hara horse story, having undergone a sex change in the central character -- from Roddy McDowall in 1943 to Alison Lohman today -- but not in the wild mustang with whom the girl bonds, identifies, and fuses. In better cinematic times, this would at best be inoffensive. In these times, it offers the additional lure of a refuge from the aggressively offensive. (See Running with Scissors. See Tideland.) That, needless to add, is apt to hold more appeal for moviegoers nearer to Roddy McDowall's age than to Alison Lohman's. The horses and the Wyoming hills are nice, Maria Bello is professional, and country singer Tim McGraw, if a tad uncomfortable, is dead earnest. His vague resemblance to Kevin Spacey rather cruelly underscores his limitations.
49 Up. Michael Apted's latest bulletin on the motley Brits he has been checking in on, at seven-year intervals, ever since they were seven years old. It would be easy for the American moviegoer, introduced to them three movies ago at the age of twenty-eight, to have become blasé about the matter. It would be only a little more difficult for him to marvel anew at the uniqueness of the project, even to lament that other filmmakers in other countries never thought to copy it. Although there is hardly a whole movie's worth of new material in it, Apted has done an expert job of shuffling in the old material, filling in each step of the journey, so that even a newcomer to the series might feel at home. New developments -- new jobs, new relationships, new kids -- are minimal; and histrionics, outside of some general grumbles from the participants about the periodic imposition of the camera and one specific threat to discontinue, are nil. Yet any one of these ordinary people, with their ordinary insecurities and ordinary defenses, their ordinary aspirations and ordinary disappointments, is infinitely more interesting than all of the straining zanies of Running with Scissors and Tideland. And the spectacle of advancing age has by now begun to edge up to the epic.