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Wind in the Wallows

A good cast can't save syrupy Nights in RodantheI never admire the craft of acting more than when I see good actors giving everything they've got to make bad material work. It must take uncommon dedication to resist shredding the script into bitty pieces and stomping on them screaming, "This is bullshit!"

In the case of Nights in Rodanthe, the hard-working actors are Diane Lane and Richard Gere, and the sow's ear is a screenplay based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, an author known for a string of terrible - which is to say insanely popular - romantic novels. Sparks' first manuscript, The Notebook, was plucked off the slush pile to net a $1 million advance and propel him into the bestseller stratosphere. The book, later made into a weepy movie, launched a lucrative industry of Sparks stories aimed at sentimental women. The novels - Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember, also filmed - feature heart-tugging variations on a basic Love Story plot, often told in flashback: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy or girl dies. Woven throughout the sappy prose are ideas about Christianity and fate. Sparks has found a winning formula, and it has made him very wealthy.

Does it matter that no one in the galaxy talks the way the author's characters do? Of course not, because Sparks' writing caters to a persistent romantic fantasy. His readers long for their men to spout poetry and say things like, "I know you're hurting."

Nights in Rodanthe tells the story of Adrienne (Lane), a middle-aged mother of two whose husband left her for another woman but now wants to return. Adrienne decides to think it over during a trip where she looks after a beachfront inn in North Carolina's Outer Banks owned by a friend, lively artist Jean (Viola Davis). The only guest at the inn is Paul Flanner (Gere), a doctor with a troubled past. Having just left his marriage, Paul has come to coastal Rodanthe to talk to an old man named Torrelson (Scott Glenn), who is suing Paul over the death of his wife on his operating table.

Paul and Adrienne strike up a friendship, which turns passionate after a hurricane pummels the bizarrely vulnerable inn (it appears to be mounted on Popsicle sticks). A night of lovemaking becomes, for unexplained reasons, A Love for All Time. Paul and Adrienne walk barefoot in the surf. Adrienne leads Paul to make amends with Torrelson, to really feel his pain. Paul helps Adrienne, a lapsed artist, find herself. "It's all about choices, Adrienne," he says in that Sparksian, sensitive-guy way. Paul continues on his path of redemption by joining his noble doctor son at a clinic in Ecuador. It isn't clear why Paul needs absolution, since the patient's death wasn't his fault, but according to the Sparks ethos, it's because he didn't care enough. "What color were her eyes?" the grieving Torrelson demands, as if any doctor would remember such detail.

While in Ecuador, Paul writes long, romantic letters to Adrienne every day, promising her a beautiful future with him. If you are familiar with Sparks' books, you know the blissful reunion can never be, but I won't spoil the surprise as to which character joins the Choir Invisible. Sparks' novel tells its drippy tale in flashback, but screenwriters Ann Peacock and Joe Romano set the story in the present, making it even less interesting, if that's possible.

What's remarkable about the movie is the wide gulf between the skill of cast and crew and the banality of the material. It is the screen debut of esteemed theater director George C. Wolfe, who seems to have tried to make something lovely of the story, gracing it with a nicely windswept atmosphere, fine vintage music (Count Basie, Dinah Washington) and a grandiose hurricane scene that looks like something from a monster movie. But like that precariously perched inn on sticks, these efforts are inadequate to defend against the gale-force winds of schmaltz. - Pamela Zoslov

Nights in Rodanthe

Opens Friday areawide

The Animation Show Year 4

While Spike and Mike still have the market cornered on sick and twisted 'toons, Mike Judge's semi-regular series is a close runner-up. Judge, the man responsible for unleashing Beavis and Butt-Head upon the world, compiles his favorite short animated films into one program simply called The Animation Show. This year's wildly eclectic program, which includes films from all over the globe (Japan's crazed "Usavich" is one of the collection's best), commences with an untitled clip courtesy of Joel Trussell. In it, a bunch of crudely drawn figures are on a cruise when a group of heavy-metal-loving pirates ambush them and start lighting everything on fire with their Flying V guitars. That's just the opening sequence to this animated joyride.

Next up, a couple of chaps start slapping each other sideways in a made-up game of "Oranges," in one of three episodes from Dave Carter's very funny "Psychotown" series. And then there's "Angry Unpaid Hooker," a clip in which a poor schlep's girlfriend shows up from a weekend out of town to find a prostitute demanding her boyfriend pay her for the "backdoor action" she provided. Elsewhere, a man calls 411 to see if he can get a number for God in the British short "Operator," and film noir is satirized in the dark and spooky "Key Lime Pie." The look of the films ranges from "Yompi the Crotch-biting Sloop"'s claymation to the sophisticated computer-generated graphics of "Burning Safari" and at the Atari-like retro look of the minimalist "Love Sport Paintballing." To Judge's credit, there's not a dud in the bunch. And that's not something the less consistent Spike and Mike can claim. - Jeff Niesel

Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 6:45 p.m. Saturday, September 27 and 8:30 p.m. Sunday, September 28

The Lucky Ones

This low-key "dramedy" about three Iraq soldiers on leave is something of a problem child for its studio, Lionsgate, which dithered for a year over how to market an Iraq war movie to audiences that have rejected every single movie that even mentions Iraq, including Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss and Rendition. Iraq-phobia isn't the movie's only problem, however; it's just not very good. Director and co-scenarist Neil Burger, whose last film was the attractive period fable The Illusionist, says The Lucky Ones was inspired by The Last Detail, Hal Ashby's profane 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as sailors escorting a petty thief to prison. The Lucky Ones is a much more PG-rated affair starring Tim Robbins, Michael Pe–a and Rachel McAdams as soldiers on an eventful cross-country road trip.

Robbins plays an older soldier named Cheever, who has just completed his Iraq tour and is returning to his wife and son. When a New York City blackout cancels all flights, Cheever hits the road in a rented SUV with young soldiers Collee (McAdams) and T.K., both of whom are recovering from recent war wounds. The accidental friendship of young soldiers and an older vet is promising material indeed, but the movie swerves quickly into banal melodrama. Cheever, in a twist reminiscent of 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives, is not greeted by his wife with open arms. Collee, a lonely private bereft over the death of an Army boyfriend who took a bullet for her, totes his guitar to Vegas to give to his parents. T.K., who suffered a shrapnel wound to the groin, conceals his sexual dysfunction from his fiancée. The movie has some good moments, but it's hard to get past the script's wild improbabilities: the smashed rental vehicle that magically repairs itself; the bar brawl Collee starts after some bitchy girls mock her; T.K.'s bizarre confession to a crime; and, my favorite, the traveling caravan of hookers the trio happens to meet in the park. - Pamela Zoslov Opens Friday areawide

I Served the King of England

Part fairy tale and part historical overview, Czech director Jiri Menzel's (Closely Watched Trains) film starts out as a lighthearted story about Jan Dite, an ordinary guy who's just gotten released from jail, where he served a 15-year sentence. The film is told in flashback, with Dite reflecting back on his life as a waiter (and then proprietor). Dite, who discovers he can drop a handful of coins and people will scramble to collect the change, is a funny-looking fellow who aspires to be a millionaire. Of course, working in the service industry isn't going to do it, but Dite tries his hardest to please his customers, and he's so gosh-darn-charming, it's hard to not like the little guy. When he starts working at one of Prague's nicest hotels with a ma”tre-d' who did, indeed, once serve the King of England, he learns to serve the finest clientele. His dreams of becoming rich are soon dashed, however, when World War II starts and Germans take over the city.

The message of Menzel's film is made explicit at the end, when Dite says it's going through hardship that makes us human. That's clear throughout the movie, which seamlessly incorporates Czech history into the story of how a simple man like Dite ended up behind bars. Ivan Barnev is terrific as the young Dite, playing the character with a Chaplin/Keaton-like affinity for slapstick with a good bit of pathos mixed in. Oldrich Kaiser is also excellent as the older (and more subdued) Dite, a guy who fondly remembers the past yet looks optimistically to the future, even though everything around him seems quite bleak. An adaptation of a novel by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabel, the film can sometimes be too flippant about things like the Holocaust. That said, it doesn't ignore the fact that Dite, as na•ve as he might be at times, understands the ways he's complicit with Nazism. And it's that balance of humor and drama that puts King of England nearly on the same level as the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains. - Jeff Niesel Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee

Profit Motive And The Whispering Wind

That title, which sounds like something you'd see on a marquee outside of a church (or even worse, listed on a liberal-arts course curriculum), belongs to a curious non-narrative film essay inspired by and dedicated to Howard Zinn's book A People's History of the United States. Filmmaker John Gianvito's short feature, which screens at the Cinematheque as part of the Cleveland Institute of Art's Kacalieff Lecture Series, is, therefore, a virtual stay-cation tour, coast to coast, of the graves and memorials to people and events in People's History. Shot mostly on indifferently beautiful summer days without narration, very few subtitles and almost all-natural sound, the film beholds the headstones, cenotaphs and commemorative plaques, more or less in chronological order - from colonial slave uprisings and Revolutionary War casualties right up to Jonah House, the shrine to anti-nuclear peacemongers Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Here is slain civil-rights figure Medgar Evers, among the countless crosses of veterans at Arlington. Here is the loving, borderline-kitschy Grecian necropolis resting place of Eugene V. Debs, firebrand president of the American Railway Union. Here is a plaque to the 1937 "Memorial Day Massacre" of uncooperative steelworkers, tarnished and ignored in what appears to be a big-box discounter's parking lot. From time to time there are bursts of Gianvito's rotoscope/Adobe AfterEffects animation representing toxic greed incarnate. I could have done without them.

How you react to this otherwise un-referenced stream of images and sounds (including a snippet of Paul Robeson singing "Joe Hill") depends, obviously, on your own political baggage. The placid, neutral surroundings contrast with the implicit violence and lurid inscriptions of torture and dismemberment (the Indian chief Metacomet, aka King Philip, met with a gruesome end at the hands of the New Englanders he was trying to chase out). It's a constant reminder that this great nation, currently committed to the Bush Doctrine to "spread freedom," was built on blood and tears, and not necessarily by so-called patriots, but troublemakers and agitators, many of whom wound up hanging from the nearest lynching tree. But those individuals, those Saccos and Vanzettis and fatalities from the Haymarket Riots, people who died to bring about eight-hour workdays - at least they did get their due. When the capitalists start erecting memorials to the banks, insurance firms and multinationals tragically perished in the recent Wall Street massacres … well, then we've really lost. - Charles Cassady Jr. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 5:15 p.m. Saturday, September 27 and 4:45 p.m. Sunday, September 28

Towelhead

The transition to adulthood can be difficult under even the best circumstances, but 13-year-old Lebanese-American Jasira's (Summer Bishil) problems are compounded by parents who seem more concerned with their own selfish fulfillment than with the well-being of their daughter. Jasira is sent to live with her father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) when her mother Gail's (Monica Bello) boyfriend takes an unhealthy interest in the girl. Jasira's father is mildly abusive when he isn't being neglectful, and she's having a tough time at her new school, where "towelhead" is just one of the insults hurled at her. But worst of all is next-door neighbor Travis (Aaron Eckhart), an Army reservist in a loveless marriage who hires Jasira to baby-sit his bratty son. Travis' actions toward Jasira start out as creepily inappropriate and eventually escalate to the criminal.

While Towelhead never excuses Travis, his relationship with Jasira is portrayed in a complex manner. Jasira is conflicted, enjoying the attention on one hand, knowing that she is being violated on the other, and unsure where to turn for help. The movie also deals frankly with more typical aspects of sexual awakening in a young girl, and many viewers undoubtedly will be uncomfortable with parts of it. Thankfully, Towelhead manages to avoid the sort of sleazy exploitation some directors (like Larry Clark) fall into when dealing with similar material. I haven't read the book this is based on, so I don't know how the two compare. But either writer/director Alan Ball altered the material to suit his tastes, or it already had the same kind of dark humor that characterized American Beauty and Six Feet Under, his previous work as a screenwriter. This isn't quite as strong and assured a directorial debut for Ball as Beauty was for Sam Mendes, but it's still a respectable effort that's sure to generate debate. It's also sure to garner attention for Bishil, who does an excellent job in the lead role. - Robert Ignizio

Opens Friday areawide

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Staff Pick Events

  • CIFF Encore Presentation: CIFF40 Short Film Award Winners @ Capitol Theatre

    • Thu., Sept. 29
  • SEED: The Untold Story @ Capitol Theatre

    • Tue., Oct. 4
  • Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four @ Capitol Theatre

    • Tue., Oct. 11

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