Song of Songs

LITTLE VOICE
Written and directed by Mark Herman

LV, as Little Voice is known, has one remarkable gift, a perfect complement to her nearly paralyzing shyness. LV can flawlessly imitate a selection of great and seductive singers -- from Billie Holiday to Judy Garland, from Marlene Dietrich to Shirley Bassey. More astonishing than this fanciful idea is knowing that actress Jane Horrocks performs every second of her completely captivating, entirely convincing singing. Her climactic stage show is a breathtaking tour de force, all the more exhilarating because of the cocoon from which she's emerged.

Based on the play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, written expressly for Horrocks by Jim Cartwright, Little Voice features Brenda Blethyn as LV's boozy, bawdy mother, Mari, and Michael Caine as the opportunistic, unprincipled talent scout Ray Say, who accidentally discovers and immediately determines to exploit LV's talent. Factor Ray's oversized gambling debts and thugs intent on their repayment, LV's absent but idealized father and a desperate nightclub owner into the volatile mix, and eruptions must occur almost every step of the way. Supplying more lighthearted comic relief, a lovestruck telephone installer, an asocial lad named Billy (Ewan McGregor), becomes enamored of LV and, quite resourcefully, goes to some amusing lengths to get her attention.

The predictable collisions and confrontations serve merely as the necessary vehicle to showcase Horrocks, Blethyn, Caine and McGregor. Set in the northern English seaside town of Scarborough, the depressed neighborhood helps make the degenerate Ray more believable, even a bit sympathetic until he turns mean. As she proved in Secrets & Lies, Blethyn inhabits a role, clearly having a great time playing the brazen Mari with all pistons firing. (No one in decades has cried so achingly beautifully as Blethyn.) And McGregor, who appears physically transformed since Trainspotting, delicately balances shyness with flirtatious desire.

So much more the pity, then, that despite its sensational presentation, the story suffers from lack of development and complexity. Each character is telegraphed at first glance, a credit to costume designer Lindy Hemming (Naked, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hear My Song) but a problem in a plot that gives the characters little arc. So though LV imagines her father visiting her several times, urging her to sing, his disappearance and the potentially rich backstory remain unexplored. Similarly, Ray and Mari flirt dangerously close to caricature, made resonant only because of these fine actors who are alternately funny and sad. We strain to peer behind and beyond the superficial snapshot.

Still, a handful of sly motifs thread through the film's fabric. The opening scene jolts LV awake to the strains of "Come Fly with Me"; Billy keeps homing pigeons and nervously watches and waits for his special Duane to return safely; and the final freeze frame celebrates an uncaged bird taking flight. More noisily, Mari's aggressive, earsplitting records downstairs battle LV's show tunes upstairs, best as Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual" squares off against "That's Entertainment." Above all, watching Jane Horrocks sing her way through her repertoire is an unparalleled, heavenly pleasure.

Opens Dec. 25 at the Tivoli.
-- Diane Carson

DANCING AT LUGHNASA
Directed by Pat O'Connor

At the heart of Pat O'Connor's rich, bittersweet Dancing at Lughnasa lies the quaint notion that, once upon a time, people -- especially women -- whose youthful dreams were dashed, even those who lived entire lives of quiet desperation, might attain a state of grace, a kind of ascetic nobility to which the rest of the world had no access. This is no longer an easy concept to grasp, not in this era of half-empty nunneries, swift social mobility and instant gratification. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Muslim in Bosnia or a poor black anywhere in America. Then you might grasp it.

The lonely hearts of Lughnasa belong to five women who've paid the price for growing up Catholic, unlettered and unliberated in the rural Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s. The Mundy sisters, all of them unmarried, have lost their former beaus to others or to wanderlust, and their dreams to time. Now, in the summer of 1936, they count out the days on a rocky patch of farm in Donegal, knitting gloves, cutting peat and tending to a rooster and his harem of hens. The Holy Ghost might not approve, but the Mundys have also just bought their first wireless set.

The only real breadwinner is the eldest, stern Kate (Meryl Streep, complete with a brogue as thick as Guinness Stout), an upright schoolteacher who doubles as unappointed morals officer to her siblings. Maggie (Kathy Burke) plays earth mother, Agnes (Brid Brennan) frets and sweet-tempered Rose (Sophie Thompson) takes refuge in her simple-mindedness. Young Christina (Catherine McCormack) is the unfulfilled romantic of the brood and the source of the family's scandal: She's mother to an illegitimate 8-year-old named Michael (Darrell Johnston), who becomes love child to all the Mundys and, because the story is told in flashback, our faithful narrator.

Director O'Connor, whose career has been a case of hit (1987's A Month in the Country) and miss (1997's Inventing the Abbotts), does a nice job here creating just the right poignancy, giving his splendid actresses full rein and capturing the rough green beauties of Donegal. But the piece's literary roots remain more important than where the camera sits.

Frank McGuinness' screenplay is adapted from a prizewinning drama by the eminent Irish playwright Brian Friel, who says he was inspired by the real-life stories of his own maiden aunts. It pivots on a homecoming that disturbs the Mundy sisters' fragile equilibrium. Their beloved brother Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest, returns from a quarter-century of missionary work in Uganda, and at first he appears to be a broken old man. Jack babbles on about the spirits inside yams, as well as ritual sacrifices (which does not endear him to the local parish priest), and in one of his funks he dreamily beats a pair of sticks against a water bucket. The real story, of course, is that although Father Mundy may have lost his mind going native in Africa, he also liberated himself from the past in a way his sisters cannot imagine. Their idea of a big time in repressed Catholic Ireland is walking three miles to the dry-goods store in Ballybeg to buy a sack of flour.

The Mundy farm is also revisited by little Michael's father, a charming bounder named Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans) whocontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pagedrops by on his way to the Spanish Civil War. Gerry, too, is a free spirit of the sort women are not allowed to be: He feels no obligation to his son, or to Christina, except in the moment. But he also lights the fuse of possibility in the joyless sisters. So does Dancing at Lughnasa's symbolic event -- an annual back-hills dance celebrating the harvest deity Lugh, the pagan god of music and light.

If we haven't already grasped the irony of the Mundy sisters' plight, here it is, writ large: Once a year, most of the townsfolk can break loose from the harsh proscriptions of Mother Church and wallow in the old Celtic sensuality, leaping through bonfires, swilling on the poteen jug and dancing with abandon. But not even this release is allowed the Mundy women: In the film's big liberating set piece, they spontaneously create their own unbridled Lughnasa back at the farm, linking arms as sisterly spirits and dancing a wild jig as a glory of fiddle, flute and drum pours out of their new radio set. In the heat of this outburst, old resentments, abrasions and strictures are forgotten: For one transcendent moment they are free women who have overcome their tragic fate.

For some viewers this minor miracle may seem like a scant reward for women so long imprisoned by their own culture. It is scant. But Dancing at Lughnasa creates a vivid portrait of a time and place and a condition of life that takes hold of the emotions in a way most movies don't. As the imperious Kate, Streep puts in another beautifully nuanced performance, but in no way does she outrank the other members of the ensemble: You can feel the emotions of each Mundy sister on the surface of your skin -- the yearning, the disappointment, the bravery wrung from deprivation. It's almost enough to rekindle a belief in the nobility of outcasts.

Opens Dec. 25 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Bill Gallo

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG
Directed by Ron Underwood

Nowadays Disney movies need two reviews each. The first one would have to describe the transparently sentimental yet always moving story and the latest astonishing advance in animation or special effects that it features: In the new Disney remake of Mighty Joe Young, that story concerns the touching relationship between Jill Young (Charlize Theron) and the 15-foot, 2,000-pound gorilla (no kidding; they use that phrase) she has cared for in the mountains of central Africa. When poachers encroach on Joe's habitat, Jill follows the advice of zoologist Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton -- who else?) and moves him to a California animal preserve.

Eventually -- though for perfectly understandable gorilla reasons -- Joe runs amok in the streets of LA, a la The Lost World's T. rex. If the endangered-species subtext of this version robs it of some of the B-movie glee of the original (the scene in which Joe destroys the nightclub in which he's been forced to perform remains one of the great barroom brawls in cinema), the effects and the rich color in which they are rendered make this Mighty Joe Young visually compelling. Even kids who have been brought up on a steady diet of digitized dinosaurs will be amazed by the nimble, natural Joe, who also has as much emotional range as any of the humans in the film -- a fact that should make him less scary but no less impressive to younger children. Special-effects wizard Rick Baker is a worthy heir to stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, who animated the original Joe in 1949 (and has a cameo appearance in the new film).

The second review would consider any new Disney film as a cultural artifact, acknowledging the influential position of Disney/Cap Cities in the world of infotainment. In the case of Mighty Joe Young, this review might note the irony of Disney's releasing a film about transporting wild animals to sanctuaries in the U.S., given the negative publicity surrounding the opening of Disney's own wild-animal park earlier this year; in that context, the demonization of poachers in this version -- absent in the original but of course only natural in this day and age -- takes on additional significance. Or one could lament the way in which Joe's heroic actions at the end of the story are made much more spectacular in this version and then much more sentimental -- that is, how the ending of the original has been fully Disneyfied. Or -- and this is what I'd do -- one could observe that in the grand tradition of Bambi, Dumbo and The Lion King, Disney has once again released (on Christmas, no less) a film in which the main character is orphaned in the first 20 minutes. In fact, given that this is a remake and therefore must outdo its original, two of the main characters -- Joe and Jill -- are orphaned in the same scene. And we parents, happily oblivious to the little displaced oedipal psychodrama Disney keeps reproducing for our children, keep on driving them to the mall or multiplex for another formula feeding.

It sure is one cute gorilla, though.
Opens Dec. 25.
-- Frank Grady

SIX-STRING SAMURAI
Co-written and directed by
Lance Mungia

Go ahead. Drop a tab or two of windowpane before setting out to see Lance Mungia's Six-String Samurai. A hit at Park City, Utah's alternative Slamdance Film Festival, this year, Mungia's no-budget first feature is a trippy melange of many movies, everything from Mad Max to Star Wars to the collected works of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, with a bit of rock video and a dollop of pop mysticism, a la El Topo, thrown in for good measure. In other words, it's very nearly a pharmaceutical experience in itself. So if you don't want your head buzzed in public, stay home and watch Easy Rider again.

Viewed strictly as narrative, Samurai is an hour-and-a-half of pseudopoetic nonsense in search of a cult. Who but a half-whacked midnight crowd would embrace the saga of a sword-swinging, fret-picking Buddy Holly look-alike (Jeffrey Falcon) who, sometime after the Russians have nuked America and Elvis has gone to heaven, slashes his way across a desert wasteland toward a shining Oz called "Lost Vegas" in order to duke it out with other warrior-rockers to become the new king of rock & roll?

Quite a cosmology. Quite a hash of genres. But whatever Mungia lacks so far in terms of screenwriting skill or technical support (he borrowed an old Panaflex and begged for scraps of 35mm stock), he's made up for with outlandish energy and an inventive visual imagination. Fresh out of Loyola Marymount's film school, he must have been blissfully unaware that psychedelica went out of style with the Nixon administration and that you simply can't make a wide-screen feature, in color, for $25,000. So he just went ahead and did it. The results range from enthralling to appalling, but you've got to give Mungia credit: Hip young festival audiences see him as one of their own, and he could have the next El Mariachi or Pi on his hands.

Samurai's other major presence is Mungia's pal Falcon, a U.S.-born martial-arts expert who learned two Chinese dialects while appearing in a dozen Hong Kong action flicks. He's the co-writer, action-sequence director, production designer and wardrobe man. For all we know, he also served lunch on the set and washed the dishes. But Falcon's most noticeable gig is breathing life into the movie's deadpan hero, Buddy. Decked out in a shredded tuxedo and a pair of shattered horn-rims, he jokily combines the stoic cool of Clint Eastwood with the dash of Indiana Jones. Meanwhile, his milieu is the same kind of desolate, postapocalyptic junkyard where once we found the Road Warrior. It's crammed with busted, rusted cars; killer mutants; a tattered orphan (Justin McGuire) in search of a surrogate father; and an assortment of marauding rock bands that would rather fight than jam.

Wouldn't you know it? In this rookie feature, there's also a hooded demon called Death (Stephane Gauger). Such hazards probably explain why the intrepid Buddy has a dusty guitar strapped to his back and a samurai sword stuck in his belt. Before he's done he even has to beat back an entire platoon of leftover Soviet infantry.

Clearly our Mr. Mungia has seen some movies in his time, and he feels no shame in borrowing from most of them, while serving up great gobs of youthful excess.

Still, the cartoon mysticism in Six-String Samurai can be a lot of fun, its adolescent surrealism a real trip. When's the last time you saw the Red Elvises, the "Siberian surf-rock" band from Santa Monica, leap out from behind a desert butte, singing in heavy accents, guitars twanging? And what can you say about a gang of ex-bowlers in grimy team shirtscontinued on page 68continued from page 66and three-tone shoes who have stilettos secreted inside their pins? As for a ragged enemy called the Windmill God, we're never sure what he is or where he comes from, but we're willing to go with the flow as the mytho-heroic Buddy vanquishes him, too. Mungia may not be all grown up just yet, but his imagination is going full-throttle: Give him 50 grand and his own spool of film to work with next time around, and he'll probably make another Citizen Kane.

Opens Dec. 25 at the Tivoli.
-- Bill Gallo

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
Directed by John Madden

Some writing systems invest letters/ characters with special powers. The first known writing -- a Chinese character etched on a bone -- is a magic spell. Jewish mystics analyze Hebrew letters and Arabic numbers as divine revelations. On Europe's fringe, ancient Britons wrote runes that embodied their animistic spirit world. Poets played shamanic roles, guarding their secret hoards of words for special use. Then, in 55 B.C., Julius Caesar brought government, laws, roads and water systems to a Bronze Age people. He also brought the Roman alphabet, a miracle of efficiency utterly without inherent magic. Over time, the English developed other ways to give words powerful magic. Inhabitants of this tiny island ultimately created one of the greatest literatures in world history.

Who would dispute that William Shakespeare is the brightest gem in that English treasure trove? John Madden's smart, funny, delightful Shakespeare in Love takes the Bard off his pedestal and makes him deliciously human. In fact, there he is, running through crowded London streets, chasing the woman he has just recognized as his soulmate and true love. When a friend scoffs at his idea of love, Will replies, "How could you, who lack a soul, understand the emptiness of not having a soulmate?" Will falls in love with his lady as he listens to her reading his lines. The lady is already head-over-heels about Will's poetry. And the poet, the man? That's an easy step -- and an easy climb into a high, soft, voluptuously belinened billow of a bed that puts bodice-rippers to shame. There two beautiful people begin with words and end with love's wordless delirium. Later, the lady admits astonishment: There is something even better than his poetry.

Two beautiful, talented young stars play the lovers. Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's younger brother) has the title role, and Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Viola De Lesseps, a purely fictional creation. These two make magic, separately and together. Paltrow was a great Emma, but Viola calls for maturity, self-possession and passion; Paltrow gives all with warmth, confidence and style. Fiennes' Will Shakespeare lacks sophistication by contrast, but he is so intensely alive! Fiennes' electric performance demonstrates how writers/artists can live a sort of double life.

These two great young stars aside, Shakespeare in Love enjoys the benefits of experience. A seasoned director for stage and screen, Madden most recently made Oscar-nominated Mrs. Brown. Most notable behind the camera are the screenwriters: co-producer Marc Norman and famous English playwright Tom Stoppard, whose screen works include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Empire of the Sun. The script blends wordplay, swordplay, sex-play, characters and action into an intoxicating potion of joy.

And the cast! Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton and Simon Callow make juicy parts almost burst. A good time is had by all -- and it's contagious. Some characters are based on historical personages, including Queen Elizabeth I, whom Judi Dench makes a whip-smart, earthy lover of the theater. Ben Affleck plays Ned Alleyn, regular actor and friend of W.S. Reigning playwright Christopher Marlowe appears, intimidating W.S. with the greatness of Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine. A dour boy named John Webster hangs around the theater; he will grow up to write The Duchess of Malfi. Colin Firth plays Viola's father, Lord Wessex, fictional lord of a fictional county. Wessex is a double fiction -- and a joke -- because Thomas Hardy created it for his novels four centuries later.

English majors and other Anglophiles will obviously be in ecstasy throughout Shakespeare in Love because it plays so knowingly and well in beloved territory. Here is a case where a literary background allows the reader to enjoy a rich and multilayered experience -- and to get all the jokes. However, innocence should also find ecstasy. Hearing "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" for the first time in this film's context would be a fabulous experience -- and how bad could it be to watch Fiennes and Paltrow in love for two hours? Then there's the color and vitality of Elizabethan London, the gorgeous costumes and -- most of all -- the film's infectious sense of fun.

In other films I might object to a mix of history and fiction, or to borrowings from future periods. I did object to the pretentious Elizabeth, a potentially great film ruined by stupidity. Though it takes a few liberties with relative ages of historical characters, Shakespeare in Love never introduces an historical character who was not actually alive circa 1597. This is simply a better film than Elizabeth, a film made by people who do not make clumsy mistakes. Its tone is consistently light, delicate and playful, which permits great latitude. After all, this film is less about history than about literature, love and the magic they create together.

Shakespeare in Love is also about the theater. The filmmakers lovingly and knowingly recreated the Wooden O: round theaters made entirely of rough wood. An unrepentant English major, I admit that the first inside shots brought tears to my eyes. In the spirit of magical creations made of words, Shakespeare in Love shows W.S. writing Romeo and Juliet out of his love for/with Viola -- who will later become the loving/beloved heroine of Twelfth Night. The film movingly portrays how an exuberant mind and passionate heart might have created plays and poems as powerful, in their way, as the Roman Empire. Magic happens in acting, too. This intensely visual film creates a lush, earthy beauty that feels magical with no sense of the ethereal. As one of W.S.'s sonnets asserts of his beloved, "When she walks, treads on the ground." My memory is as rich with the film's images as with its words -- not to mention all the jokes and funny scenes.

Enough. William Shakespeare's and Tom Stoppard's words are better than mine. What a glorious film to see twice over the holidays. Seeing Fiennes and Paltrow is next-best to being in love oneself -- and that's only the beginning of what the shamanic filmmakers conjure. Shakespeare in Love is a treasure, a banquet, a joyful salute to life, love and art. This is the true Christmas movie in town: a story of God's gifts and of the art and beauty people give back in grateful celebration. Rejoice!

Opens Dec. 25.
-- Susan Waugh

DOWN IN THE DELTA
Directed by Maya Angelou

The talents of Maya Angelou -- she is or has been a teacher, memoirist, prize-winning poet, actress, civil-rights activist, editor, playwright, composer, dancer, producer, theater and TV director, and advisor to three presidents -- range so far and deep that no feat she accomplishes could come as a surprise. Give this quick study three weeks in med school and she might come up with a cure for cancer; put her behind the wheel of a race car and she'd probably win the Indy 500. According to friends and intimates, the woman is also an artist of no small repute in the kitchen.

That in mind, we shouldn't be startled that Angelou's debut as a feature-film director (aided by a crash course in cinematography) is an artistic and emotional success. Down in the Delta, a lovely meditation on the value of perseverance and the power of familial love, is imbued, every frame of it, with this extraordinary writer's unfailing poetic sense and the unshakable belief she's shown throughout her long career that the strong don't just survive adversity, they defeat it.

The heroine of the piece, which was written by a young Georgian named Myron Goble, is Loretta Sinclair (Alfre Woodard), a single mother who, when we first see her, is on the verge of disaster. Jobless and exhausted, Loretta has fallen prey to temptation on some of Chicago's meanest streets: She's into booze and dope, and she can't find much time for her two children -- sweet preteen Thomas (Mpho Koaho), who tries to make his way by shooting $5 Polaroids of tourists in the park, and little Tracy (Kulani Hassen), who's autistic and spends her days shrieking in her crib. In Woodard's lovely face we see the weariness and sorrow of the ages: She looks like a fallen Egyptian queen.

Before Loretta's spirit is extinguished, though, her desperate but wise mother, Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice), has a last-ditch idea. She'll send Loretta and the kids for the summer to the Sinclairs' ancestral home in the Mississippi Delta -- for fresh air, open space and, possibly, the ministrations of the family patriarch, Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.). But first we learn a crucial piece of Sinclair history: The family's only heirloom (and the symbolic cement of their love) is a silver candelabrum nicknamed "Nathan," which has been passed down through the generations since pre-Civil War days and which now must pay a visit to the pawn shop so that Loretta and her children can get a second chance at life. The moment at which Rosa Lynn poses for a parting snapshot with Nathan -- if things go wrong, the Sinclair family heritage will be lost forever -- is one of the most memorable in the movie, beautifully and economically observed by director Angelou.

Down in the Delta does not mark the first time an urbanized African-American family has reversed the migratory pattern of yore and returned to its nurturing roots in the South. In Toni Morrison's 1977 novel Song of Solomon, for instance, a young black Northerner goes South to search for hidden gold but discovers something more valuable -- his family's rich history. So it happens here. Loretta lands on Uncle Earl's neat doorstep (25 years earlier he bought and refurbished the "big house" once occupied by the "white Sinclairs") as a disconsolate, wary burnout without a dream in her heart; in a couple of months she and her vulnerable children are born again through Uncle Earl's tough-and-tender love, the homey comforts of his fried-chicken restaurant, the pluck of his housekeeper (Loretta Devine) and, it seems, the ancient embrace of the black South itself. Uncle Earl has some troubles of his own: a wife afflicted with Alzheimer's disease (the great character actress Esther Rolle, who died just last month); an unhappy son, Will (Wesley Snipes), who has escaped to Atlanta; and economic woes looming over the town. But wise, kindly Earl is a household saint, and the red dirt he walks on seems holy.

If anything in Down in the Delta feels contrived, at least superficially, it's this vision of rural Mississippi as Eden -- a sentiment heightened by cinematographer William Wages' glowing views of corn waving in the breeze and golden sunsets at river's edge. But Angelou's unwavering spirit and this terrific cast soon overwhelm any doubts cynics may have: Not only do Loretta and cousin Will revitalize themselves through an inventive joint business project, the kids perk up, and -- if I don't miss my guess -- the whole county gets a much-needed shot in the arm. Talk about affirmation: In less than two hours we are catapulted from the slough of despondency into the heights of spiritual and economic redemption. The best part is that almost nothing about it feels phony. Maya Angelou, ever the poet and magician, gives us an uplifting vision of an imperfect family revitalized by love and devotion, and she compels us to believe every word, every image, every emotion of it.

As for "Nathan," don't count on him remaining in hock back in Chicago for very long -- there's a lot more of that story to tell, too.

In sum, Down in the Delta is quite an accomplishment for a first-time director who's already shown her mettle in 15 or 20 previous occupations. Now that she's conquered the movies, maybe Angelou should get off her duff and go after a real job -- like running for president in 2000. We'd likely all be a lot better off if she did.

Opens Dec. 25.
-- Bill Gallo

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