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Three Women and a Romance

Talk about relationships! But instead of gabbing girls, it's women

It's a little-discussed but obvious fact that the movie business is not interested in women over age 40. Not only do statistics show miserable labor stats for mature actresses, but there are precious few films that target older female movie fans. This may be, as many assert, a symptom of a deeply ingrained sexism and ageism, but it's also a dandy opportunity for counterprogramming. Enter John McKay's new film, Crush, an engaging if flawed comedy-drama that features three fortysomething women and two issues -- female friendship and romance with younger men -- that should pique the interest of mature female audiences.

The story begins where it ultimately ends: at the weekly meeting of three friends who share their tales of romantic woe. Sly, catty physician Molly (Anna Chancellor) recounts her latest date disaster, while Janine, the local police inspector (Imelda Staunton), dodges romance altogether. But the worst-case scenario seems to be that of Kate (Andie MacDowell), a prim headmistress of a private school, who only seems to attract the attentions of the geeky Rev. Gerald Marsden (Bill Paterson). Kate has given up on romance, but all that is upended when she attends a funeral and encounters Jed, a hunky boy toy (Kenny Doughty), the reverend's part-time organist who happens to be a former student of hers. Sparks fly, and before the mourners have left the service, these two are at it amid the grave markers in the churchyard.

Molly and Janine celebrate Kate's newfound affair and are thrilled her life has taken such a wild romantic turn. But the supposed crush doesn't fade as Kate and the poetic, dashing Jed fall more deeply in love. Their romance turns her head -- she can't concentrate on her work and starts lying to her gal pals, pretending the fling is just a fling. But when Jed asks Kate to marry him, Molly and Janine decide something must be done to save their friend from certain heartbreak.

Up to this point Crush is a deliberately fizzy comedy, full of jokey humor and plenty of puns about organs. But McKay opts for a leaden pace and generic pop tunes that work against him. The too-pretty English countryside, the overbearingly sweet John Williams-like score, the fairy-tale country community (where everyone drives Volvos and Saabs) all tend to punch up the comedic intentions but not the intended result. The humor feels forced.

Once the pals concoct a scheme to break up the romance, however, the story takes a dark, unexpected turn that pushes the movie into something much more interesting, as each of these women begins to question her friends' motives as well as her own.

The acting ensemble is solid, but MacDowell, the star, fares least well, especially against Chancellor, who steals every scene she's in. MacDowell seems a less-than-ideal choice as a schoolmistress: She doesn't come off as brainy enough. She has carved out a career for herself playing elusive oddballs, with notable success in her breakout film, sex, lies, and videotape, as well as Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is the obvious intended model for Crush. But while she's effective in small doses, she is not when asked to carry a picture. Her acting is so simplistic, so result oriented, you know where she's going in every scene before she gets there. One wonders what Judy Davis or Helen Mirren might have done with some of the comedic set pieces early on. But MacDowell gets a lot better in the film's second half, as the story becomes very dark indeed. She's an actress who works best in silences -- in reactions, in internal emotions -- and when she's playing to these strengths, she's quite effective. As Jed, Doughty wisely takes a low-key approach to his romantic role.

McKay has a nice directorial touch, with a lively, impromptu feel in some of the group scenes, especially when the girlfriends get together. But his script shows plenty of weaknesses. The central affair is supposed to be the love of Kate's life, but this doesn't come across clearly onscreen. Several plot points seem exceptionally contrived, not the least of which is the too-pat ending. Production values are uneven, with solid if often uninspired camerawork and the typical British problem of fuzzy production sound. But much of Crush has merit, and the women-centered story line is a welcome alternative to the male bonding that's thrown up on screens most of the time.

More Portraits of Grief

In the wake of September 11, viewers in the United States will find the elegiac Asesinato en Febrero ( Assassination in February ) particularly poignant. Against the gorgeous backdrop of Spain's Basque country, the family and friends of politician Fernando Buesa and his bodyguard, Jorge Diez Elorza, remember their loved ones after the pair was killed in February 2000 by a car bomb planted by the ETA (a guerrilla group seeking Basque independence). Producer/scriptwriter Elias Querejeta (who has produced many of Carlos Saura's films) and television documentarian Eterio Ortega developed the script from intimate conversations with the survivors, fixing on the details of everyday life that make absence so conspicuous and then shaping those conversations into a coherent lament. Elorza's grandparents attend to their daily walks and wood chopping; a mother misses her son's dirty clothes in the laundry basket; friends worry about who will plan the next birthday party now that the group's great organizer is gone. Intercut with these intimate testimonies is the chilling account of how victims are chosen and murder is plotted, all the more sinister because of the detached delivery and fragmented framing of the terrorist. The sensual treatment of the landscape, the lingering shots of beach and dale, heighten the tragedy of lives lost to an abstract ideal. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

 

Jewban Diaspora

Can it really be true, as the schedule states, that Rhonda Mitrani's documentary, Cuba Mia (about Jewish Cuban exiles returning to the island), is anchoring the long program of shorts, rather than running with what seems the most logical companion, Ruth Behar's Adio Kerida -- a documentary, in part, about Jewish Cuban exiles returning to the island? Apparently so. Pity, because the two tell such complementary tales: Mitrani follows a group of well-off Ashkenazi Jews (whose ancestors, in this case, had almost all immigrated to Cuba from Russia) now living in Miami as they revisit their homes, schools, and other familiar sites from their childhood. Behar, whose antecedents immigrated to Cuba from Greece, concentrates on the wandering of Cuban Sephardic Jews as she returns to her own childhood home to search out as many as she can of the estimated 1000 Jews who remain on the island. Then she takes off to Miami, New York City, and her own home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to see where the diaspora has taken root. Separating these two documents of the Jewban diaspora is particularly vexing because Cuba Mia is far the superior film. Local director Mitrani's smart script, evocative use of archival footage, lyrical editing, and innovative cinematography make her film compelling over and above the subject matter -- there's no need to throw this gem in with a bunch of shorts. Adio Kerida, on the other hand -- made by an anthropologist at the University of Michigan rather than a professional filmmaker -- holds much more sociological than cinematic interest. The cinematography is pedestrian; loose editing buries in vague meanderings compelling moments, such as when one man on the mainland displays the vintage toy soldiers he bought to replace those he left on the island as a boy. Shown together these two films would present a rich picture of a unique population. Rent asunder, Cuba Mia will be lost among less ambitious works while Adio Kerida can hardly hold its own as the main attraction. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

What's in a Dogme?

One of the more curious developments in recent cinema has been the Dogme 95 movement, a back-to-the-basics reaction of mostly European directors against the slicked, overproduced Hollywood fare. In 1995 four Danish directors, including Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) issued a ten-point treatise, calling for films that use only hand-held cameras and natural lighting, no theme music, and no effects or other limitations to achieve "truth" from the characters and settings. It's an absurd idea, of course, since all fiction is artifice. But the strictures force filmmakers to focus more on character and performance, not on "look," and the thesis has caught on. There are more than two dozen "certified" Dogme 95 features by now, from filmmakers in Europe, the United States, South America, and Asia.

One such film is Mona J. Hoel's Cabin Fever (Dogme 95 production # 19), which adheres to the radical rules to tell a very traditional story. In Norway the extended Hansen family packs up to spend a bitterly cold Christmas week at a remote rented cabin. Matriarch Astrid has misgivings about hubby Gunnar's excessive drinking, while their son Eivind seethes in silent resentment against his father. Daughter Liv secretly mourns her miscarriage of two weeks past, while sister Kari is brokenhearted when her lover leaves her. Liv's Polish husband, Stanislaw, is pleased to welcome his visiting parents to the cabin, but the oldsters privately grouse about the primitive living conditions. The large gathering readies several dinners while the furnace threatens to give out. The close quarters and holiday anxieties come to a head when Gunnar's despondence over Christmas memories past leads him to get so drunk, he upends the forced bonhomie and several bitter quarrels erupt.

 

This sort of narrative has been worked and reworked and worked again by many writers in many cultures. The dark, brooding elements recall the Scandinavians Ibsen and Strindberg. But the sudden bursts of bleak humor echo Chekov, whose plays are riddled with similar failed, sad but funny celebrations. When Gunnar's drunken insults finally drive Eivind to attack his father, the sudden fury is just as suddenly interrupted by the sweet candlelit caroling of neighbors who gathering outside the cabin door.

The film is filled with ironic, effective twists of this kind, but for the uninitiated it takes some getting used to, as the Dogme 95 rules force a cinematic style that feels more like a documentary than a "movie." The early scenes are edited like a jerky home movie, and the slapdash camerawork tends to work against the story. There are so many characters and so little attempt is made to establish them that it is very difficult to sort out who's who and what's what. But as the film progresses, the relationships and conflicts come into clearer focus. There isn't much narrative drive to the story line, but the complexity of relations makes it intriguing nevertheless. The chief strengths here are the well-drawn characters and a goofy balance of grim comedy and poignancy. Cabin Fever will not be to everyone's taste, but it's certainly a refreshing change of pace from standard Hollywood product disguised as indie films. -- Ronald Mangravite


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