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The Art of War

THE THIN RED LINE
Written and directed by Terrence Malick

Writer/director Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, the filmmaker's adaptation of James Jones' 1962 bestseller about the World War II battle for Guadalcanal, arrives in theaters with an almost unbearable weight of expectation.

After graduating in the first class at AFI's Advanced Film Studies program and working briefly as a screenwriter, Malick directed two hugely respected films -- Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) -- and then seemed to disappear for 20 years before reemerging for this new project. (Like clockwork, articles asking "Where the hell is Terry Malick?" popped up every few years in film magazines.) His absence only magnified his reputation, so it's not surprising that, after working with such relative unknowns (at the time) as Sissy Spacek, Richard Gere and Sam Shepard in his first two films, he has now been able to attract the participation of genuine stars such as Sean Penn, John Travolta, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, John Cusack and Woody Harrelson.

For better or worse, the film also arrives in the wake of Steven Spielberg's critical and commercial blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, with which it shares surface similarities. Rest assured that those similarities do not extend far beneath the surface. It is hard to imagine two filmmakers with more disparate sensibilities than Malick and Spielberg. Back in the '70s the pair attracted attention almost simultaneously, with estimable films that, again, were at first glance strikingly similar. Malick, older by five years, made Badlands, a couple-on-the-run film, a year earlier than Spielberg's Sugarland Express (1974).

Although the stories had common elements, the difference in tone between the two pictures was just as striking as the difference between The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. Despite being narrated by one of its protagonists, Badlands is stark, cold and ironic, observing its characters from a distance; Spielberg's is a crowd-pleaser -- light, emotionally engaging and accessible.

The contrast is valuable not simply for what it reveals about the filmmakers in particular: Without much distortion, it can also be used as a metaphor for the battling forces that made the '70s the richest decade in American cinema since the '30s. On the one hand there was Malick, who told stories in new ways that suggested a faith in the audience's intelligence. On the other was Spielberg, who also told stories in new ways -- remember how innovative Jaws seemed in 1975? -- but whose overwhelming eagerness to please suggested a lack of faith in the audience and, perhaps, in his own talents. (To this day Spielberg's greatest fault is his insecurity. Like House Republicans, he can't resist self-defeating overkill. Until Schindler's List (1993), he never saw a lily he didn't want to gild. And even in that film he broke down near the end and pulled out precisely the sort of aesthetic sledgehammer he had so admirably eschewed for three hours.)

But the battle for the soul of American cinema wasn't merely aesthetic; questions of art and style were -- and continue to be -- inextricable from issues of technology and commerce. In terms of art and style, Malick was the more adventuresome, progressive figure. But on the latter fronts Spielberg was the poster boy for the future, whereas Malick was an anachronism, washed away by a tsunami of new, more broadly effective modes of production and distribution.

We all know which side won.
It's not that Spielberg is a less talented filmmaker or even less of an artist. He remains brilliant and dazzling, one of the greatest natural-born filmmakers in a century of cinema. In fact, his talent is so wide-ranging that there are far more projects for which he makes sense than Malick.

But now, as 25 years ago, Malick has a more complex approach to the world and to storytelling. He walks a thin line that separates complexity from confusion, subtlety from opacity, and within The Thin Red Line this other line nearly disappears. Make no mistake: This is not your father's Thin Red Line, which does, in fact, exist. In 1964, Andrew Marton -- best known for directing the chariot sequence in Ben-Hur -- made an awkward and entirely conventional film version of the Jones book, with Jack Warden in the role now filled by Sean Penn. (How times and styles have changed!) It's not a very good film, condensing Jones' many plot threads into one. (And the new videotape reissue makes it worse: Apparently the masterminds at Simitar Entertainment unsqueezed the CinemaScope image twice, making the actors look squat and fat -- except when they lie down and suddenly become long-limbed and emaciated.) Nor is this Saving Private Ryan 2: Meanwhile, Back in the Pacific ...

If it were not for the fact that the entire movie takes place among soldiers before, during and after Guadalcanal, it would be tempting to say that this is not a war film at all, but rather a meditation on the nature of life, God and mortality. In effect it is both, with precisely such a meditation set within the milieu of war, where these concerns are distilled to a blinding, white-hot intensity.

It's difficult to summarize the film's plot or even its underlying themes. In terms of the "right way" to do things -- that is, in film-school terms -- The Thin Red Line is a total mess. When I complained after a first viewing that it had no narrative structure to speak of, a colleague protested that, disregarding a 10-minute prologue, it had a classic three-act structure: the big battle, the recuperation after the battle, and the final confrontation. Although my friend is in some sense correct, he stretches the meaning of act, given that these three "acts" consume 111 minutes, 22 minutes and 19 minutes, respectively.

Nor, despite its wealth of reflection, can The Thin Red Line be said to have any recognizable thematic development or any consistent connection between action and idea. In most great narratives, the action represents -- or, at best, is even congruent with -- a synthesis of conflicting ideas, generally as perceived through the eyes of a protagonist. But no one learns much of anything in The Thin Red Line. And there is no protagonist. (The former can be said, of course, of all of Stanley Kubrick's masterpieces.)

One of the film's most off-putting characteristics is its rambling point of view. As in Badlands and Days of Heaven, the story is held together by voice-over narration. But whereas in his earlier films Malick told his stories through the voice of one character, this time around he mixes the musings of more than a half-dozen narrators. The one closest to being a protagonist is Witt (Jim Caviezel), a likable private with twin propensities for philosophical speculation and going AWOL. It is Witt whom we meet during the Edenic prologue, hiding out on a small island in the South Pacific, where he basks in the beauty of nature and the unspoiled kindness of the natives.

But like all Edens this one is temporary: When an American ship happens by, Witt is arrested and put in the custody of his longtime friend/nemesis Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), who reassigns him as a stretcher-bearer for the upcoming assault on the Japanese positions at Guadalcanal. After a brief stay in the purgatory of the ship's brig, Witt finds himself forced into the hell of battle.

The mission is commanded by a general (John Travolta) and a bitter, older West Pointer, Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), who sees it as his last chance for glory. (Travolta, appropriately, does not receive star billing; he's present for one or two scenes, totaling no more than four minutes. This is a veritable lead role, however, compared to George Clooney's Capt. Bosche. Clooney, who does get star billing alongside Nolte, Caviezel, Penn and several continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageothers, is onscreen for a single, undemanding two-minute scene.)

Witt is the most frequent narrator, but Malick also gives time to Welsh, Tall, Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) and three or four others. Often as not the device is confusing: We don't always see who's speaking, and several characters seem to have identical voices, prose styles and delivery. Malick may want to emphasize the internal commonality of humans -- which is one of the themes the voice-overs repeatedly address -- but this uniformity is nonetheless irritating. Even if the device is supposed to reflect that we are all simply different manifestations of the One Great Human Consciousness, its practical effect is to undercut clarity and narrative momentum.

Indeed, the archly poetic stream of consciousness of these narrators is frequently annoying. In the midst of an apparent war film, it is disorienting to hear Bell's thoughts of his absent wife, "We together ... one being ... flow together like water till I can't tell you from me ... I'd drink you ... No now," or Welsh's "Darkness and light, strife and love: Are they the workings of one mind, the feature of the same face? O my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made, all things shining."

And yet these flaws are ones of ambition: Unlike Spielberg, who could, of course, much better afford to take such risks, Malick is willing to try something utterly different. To be fair, the brilliant you-are-there brutality of Private Ryan's initial combat scene was just such a risk, but the rest of the film effectively but comfortably fits our genre expectations. Malick undercuts these expectations at every turn, potentially alienating his audience. And indeed the first industry screening of The Thin Red Line left many viewers grumbling and baffled. For me, the film worked infinitely better on second viewing -- primarily because, being familiar with its pace and structure, I was able to relax and simply absorb the experience of the film.

Any movie that is incomprehensible on one viewing is commercially doomed and perhaps even aesthetically suspect. But that's not an accurate characterization of The Thin Red Line; this is a film that's incomprehensible on one cold viewing. It's not so much a matter of knowing what to expect, but of knowing what not to expect. If ever there was a work of art that justified the existence of critics, this is it.

So you have been warned. What Malick has fashioned here is less a conventional narrative than an impressionistic mosaic of our common, yet varied experience of life and death, as focused and clarified through the relentless lens of war. Yes, The Thin Red Line has thrilling battle scenes; just don't expect the usual pace of an action film. Yes, it has significant thematic content at its core; just don't expect the usual clean resolution of these ideas. And, yes, it allows us to identify with the characters' inner lives; just don't expect any reassuring neatness or catharsis as each (with us in tow) meets his apparently random fate.

Opens Jan. 15.
-- Andy Klein

UNMADE BEDS
Directed by Nicholas Barker

An acidly funny group portrait of four lonely, self-deluded New Yorkers looking for love through the personals, Unmade Beds exploits and empathizes, abuses and exalts, distorts and clarifies. Although technically a documentary, the film presents such a highly mediated view of its subjects -- images refracted through the sharp lens of director Nicholas Barker -- that they become fact-based fictional creations: characters carefully shaped as much as persons closely observed.

To find Unmade Beds' quartet of singles seeking same, Barker and his staff interviewed hundreds of potential subjects; after the choices were narrowed to the final four, he taped and observed his characters/actors/subjects, identifying key revelatory moments and rewriting them as a series of monologues and dialogues that the cast members then perform. In essence, the subjects play themselves -- largely speaking their own words and relating their real-life experiences -- but they sacrifice the crucial element of self-control: In making the four act under his direction rather than simply live their lives, Barker denies them volition and ruthlessly strips them of all the usual protective covering we typically use to hide from both others and ourselves. The irony of Unmade Beds is that in telling a kind of lie -- the director calls the film "an exercise in mendacity" -- Barker reveals far more truth than most conventional "honest" documentaries.

Barker's lacerating editorial wit and unsparing critical eye elicit discomfiting laughter throughout much of Unmade Beds, and there's an undeniable element of cruelty in the film's presentation. In choosing his subjects, Barker clearly sought outsized, quirky personalities -- performers with the requisite glibness and egotism -- but because he didn't want any of his singles to become couples during the year's shoot, he also looked for an off-putting air of desperation or abrasiveness: Unkindly put, these folks are losers, although of wildly varying types.

The film divides its time between two men -- Michael De Stephano, an intense, humorlessly self-deprecating 40-year-old who believes he owes his bachelorhood to his short stature, and middle-aged Mikey Russo, a gruff, laconic would-be screenwriter who dresses like a Scorsese wise guy -- and two women -- Aimee Copp, a young, savvy but overweight professional grimly determined to marry before she's 30, and Brenda Monte, a buxom, hilariously forthright divorcee who's on the hunt for a man with money ("dick" she can get, but cash is harder to come by). Unmade Beds, however, never allows us to dismiss its characters as merely pathetic or contemptible: Although Barker gleefully shares his subjects' uglier traits and views -- De Stephano's homophobia, Russo's misogyny ("I don't date mutts"), Copp's self-pity, Monte's highly compromised ethics -- he constantly undercuts our first (and second and third) impressions by providing a fresh perspective, by softening a hard edge, by opening emotional veins and letting these people messily bleed. Even Mikey, the least likable of the movie's characters -- a paunchy former Lothario with an appalling bachelor pad and unfairly high standards for women -- is eventually revealed as a vulnerable figure, his macho bravado masking a longing for a deeper, more substantive relationship that he understands is now likely beyond his reach.

Further ensuring that we acknowledge a sympathetic kinship with -- rather than a smug superiority to -- Unmade Beds' protagonists, Barker uses peeping-Tom views of 20 anonymous people as interstitial material. These voyeuristic peeks through windows give us the occasional titillating glimpse of skin, some moments of intimacy, but most of what we see is mundane -- people ironing, changing the bed sheets, watching television. It's the basic stuff of life, not of grand romantic dreams, and the implication is that such activities connect us all: We may have a more (or less) satisfying love life than the movie's forlorn foursome, but we all go through the same motions, experience the same essential isolation. Unmade Beds may provoke its share of laughter, but it's at all of our expense.

Opens Jan. 15 at the Tivoli.
-- Cliff Froehlich

HURLYBURLY
Directed by Anthony Drazan

Because it revealed the coke-snorting, ego-fueled corruption of Hollywood in the early 1980s with such acid wit, David Rabe's play Hurlyburly became a huge audience hit when it burst onto Broadway in 1984. Here was the inside stuff from the Left Coast, gotten up in a frenetic new language combining movie-industry salesmanship, New Age gibberish and locker-room bravado. Not since Gloria Swanson imprisoned William Holden on Sunset Boulevard (1950) had we gotten such a dark vision of Hollywood's underside.

"Blah blah blah," these broken characters were forever saying, because nothing much mattered to them. Almost 15 years later (when "blah blah blah" has been replaced by "yadda yadda yadda") the whole thing seems a bit dated. The overdue film version of Hurlyburly features a reworked script by Rabe himself, some inventive directorial touches from Anthony Drazan (1992's Zebrahead, 1994's Imaginary Crimes), and an exemplary cast led by Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey and Meg Ryan. But the original excitement has diminished, and the self-destructive savagery that fueled the play now seems more theatrical than actual, even a little quaint. Hurlyburly may yet prove to be a play for the ages, but in this screen incarnation it seems simply aged -- upstaged in the interim by satirical assaults on Hollywood such as The Player (1992) and by real-life excesses and follies that outstrip fiction.

That said, it's also worth noting that Penn, his bad-boy days behind him, puts in another spectacular performance here -- perhaps the equal of his doomed killer in Dead Man Walking (1995). Wearing a mean little pencil-line mustache that brands him as a hustler and fraud, he plays Eddie, a self-absorbed cokehead who's smashed his moral compass against his ambition somewhere along the way. Penn turns him into the consummate desperado, given to screaming fits, crying jags and what used to be called moments of truth. Snorting a line for breakfast, he explains, "I gotta wake up." Indeed. In this revamped version of Hurlyburly, it's Eddie's grudging, slowly dawning attempt to wake up from emotional oblivion that becomes the drama's focus -- and that lets a new ray of life into the proceedings.

Admirers of the play may think Rabe has pulled some of his old punches with the rewrite, and they may be right: Eddie's terminally cynical roommate and business partner, Mickey (Kevin Spacey), is still on the scene, and he remains as glib, cruel and detached from life as ever. But Mickey's voice ("We're all going under, Eddie, so how about a little laugh along the way?") no longer dominates as it did onstage. Among the damned, Mickey is now strictly second-tier.

The remaining dramatis personae can be a semi-harrowing lot, so long as you're willing to make a big leap and see them as tragic. There's the out-of-work actor Phil (Chazz Palminteri), a bewildered brute who finds himself frozen out of Eddie and Mickey's truculent word games and elaborate poses. "I don't know the goddamn code!" Phil laments. We suspect from the beginning that he'll continue to be the ultimate loser. Mercifully, this time around we get a little less of caustic, condescending Artie (Garry Shandling is ideally cast), a producer who is not quite the smash hit he claims to be. Rabe's women, always a source of heated argument, include Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), who has no qualms about two-timing between Eddie and Mickey, and who babbles on about her "inner emotional experience"; the teenage runaway Donna (Anna Paquin), whom sneering Artie presents as a sexual "care package" to his burned-out pals; and most important there's Bonnie (Meg Ryan), a world-weary stripper who turns out to be the conscience of the piece, its only real moral force.

"I think I'm gonna need a magnifying glass to find what's left of your good points," Bonnie announces to Eddie, who's collapsed in a coked-up puddle of paranoia and self-pity. But she doesn't hesitate to turn the magnifying glass on herself, too.

What these lost souls have in common, of course, is the inability to feel anything beyond sensation -- anything authentic. They've been seduced by drugs and sex and the appliances of success -- coke vials, BMWs and cell phones -- but they've lost the ability to communicate or connect. Witness Eddie and Mickey: They live in the same stark Hollywood Hills condominium and work in the same office (doing what, we're not quite sure), but they drive separate cars and talk mostly by cell phone. And they spin out their self-absorbed tangles of language (always of vital import to a playwright) not for clarification but for competition. In one of Darlene's few lucid moments, she shouts at Mickey, "I can't stand the semantic insanity anymore."

Just so. By the end of these 124 minutes, you may feel the same way. Certainly you will have had your fill of bleak malaise and LA blah blah blah, circa 1984. But before we get to the end, Rabe now wants Eddie to make progress, to glimpse at least the possibility of redemption. It takes a major trauma -- the death of a friend -- to shake him out of his torpor, and by that time you may be so sick of his whining and selfishness that you don't give a damn if he saves himself or not. Still, when the raving's all done, Penn has the capacity to make us feel the light bulb going on inside Eddie's head. In the wasteland we behold a little miracle, and for a moment the whole thing seems worthwhile.

Opens Jan. 15 at the Tivoli.
-- Bill Gallo

THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
Co-written and directed by George Casey

"The Great Barrier Reef" plunges us into an undersea world teeming with life edible to deadly, aggressive to shy, delicate to rugged. Some of the 1,500 species of fish and 400 types of coral boast riotous colors, often a warning to predators. The venomous puffer blows itself up and drifts like a balloon; the eel slithers back into a crevice. Others conceal themselves with such clever camouflage that we strain to see the animal right in front of us. Director of photography Mal Wolfe treats us to closeup scrutiny of this beautiful diversity, including clownfish, lobsters, manta rays, anemones, sea turtles and more.

Stretching more than 1,200 miles along the northeast coast and reaching more than 120 miles out to sea, Australia's Great Barrier Reef is, in fact, an intricate, complex and fragile ecosystem comprising more than 2,900 small reefs and islands. Appropriately, the film opens and closes featuring the Aborigines who maintained, for centuries, a healthy respect for and synergistic interaction with the reef's many microenvironments. Today, scientists strive to understand how some species' toxins protect them from nerve and muscle disorders. Tragically, destructive agents also intrude, from the Crown-of-Thorns starfish to insensitive humans.

Though at times weak on substantive content (after mentioning species' extraordinary immunities, the film provides only one example), "The Great Barrier Reef" does impart the splendid Imax experience, notably our immersion in this wondrous world. Still, sharks serve their stereotypical function, as though all encounters with the numerous shark species are traumatic (in more than 25 years of diving I've seen dozens with no incident). Scuba divers also will notice that Ron and Valerie Taylor, our surrogate explorers, fail to wear buoyancy compensators, a safety device wisely required by all professional diving associations. Still, "The Great Barrier Reef" showcases a breathtaking medley of indigenous corals, seaweed, mollusks, birds and turtles, and provides its own powerful antidote to winter blahs.

Now playing at the St. Louis Science Center.
-- Diane Carson

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