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Crime-Family Man

THE GENERAL
Written and directed by John Boorman

Jimmy Cagney brought the same electric physicality to gangsters that he did to song-and-dance men. He gave a bright-eyed mug like his character in Public Enemy extraordinary powers of attraction and repulsion. In The General, Brendan Gleeson enacts a real-life criminal chieftain -- Dublin's notorious Martin Cahill -- with a belly-hanging-out buffoonery that is just as magnetic as Cagney's feral grace. In the course of the film, Cahill's gang loots a bank, some swank estates and even a jewelry-manufacturing plant, putting a hundred employees out of work. Covering his face with his hand to avoid detection, Gleeson's Cahill plays peekaboo with the law. But the audience sees everything, from his rock-hard street smarts to his twin Achilles' heels of paranoia and nostalgia.

The General is brilliant and engulfing: Writer/director John Boorman catapults us into a one-man crime wave. The movie is basically a turbulent flashback, beginning and ending with Cahill's death. His life rushes before his inner eye in the split second before the IRA guns him down in his car. By the time the hit occurs, in 1994, he's a risk to everyone. This combination godfather, jester and thug has become the far-too-public enemy of all Dublin authorities, rebels included.

In his imagination, Cahill is an underclass hero to the end. At the brink of death he remembers a youthful raid when he stole cigarettes for his mom and cream cakes for himself and the girl next door (his future wife). As a teen in the '60s he views the goods in the world outside his family's housing project as his for the taking. He isn't bitter about life there, and later, as a young man, he idealizes the place, refusing to leave when the city starts to tear it down. (During his rise and fall he trusts only men and women who once dwelled in "my house.")

Cahill's worldview is elemental: "It's Us against Them." Us is the kind of folk who live in projects, and Them is everybody else. It's a vision beneath or beyond politics. The General is so vivid and engrossing because Boorman alternately honors and debunks Cahill's perspective.

It's now a reviewer's cliche to call the latest Hollywood thrill machine "a roller-coaster ride." To borrow from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The General is a Coney Island of the mind. Sure, you know Cahill will be killed, but Boorman's approach is bracingly antimoralistic and open-ended; unless you've read Paul Williams' nonfiction source book of the same title, you can't predict Cahill's behavior. And even if you have read Williams' book, you can't tell what tone a scene will take or what references it will call up. When Cahill tries to protect his housing project from destruction, he doesn't just get in the way of the wrecking ball: He squats in a small trailer amid the rubble. When the trailer is burned down, he squats in a tent. The whole sequence resembles an absurdist recasting of the dispossession scenes in The Grapes of Wrath -- an impression clinched by the film's subtly changeable, searingly expressive black-and-white cinematography. Cahill, as well as Boorman, succeeds at putting his own spin on valiant Depression imagery. The effect is improbably, bitterly hilarious.

Gleeson creates a figure of unceasing fascination, rooting his character in a deep-seated wiliness and volatility that energize every inch of his big face and stocky body. His Cahill is the master of opaque rumination, the wizard of deadpan. Cahill's ploys are as intriguing for baldness as for boldness. He hides his thinning hair and thick features with ski masks, helmets or bulky, hooded Windbreakers. After he commits a crime and before it is discovered, he'll walk into a police station and register complaints of harassment, thus sealing up a lead-cinch alibi. His evasive actions do double duty: They permit him to dodge indictments while openly expressing his contempt for conventional law and order. At his peak of comic effrontery, he won't admit to reporters that the police are tailing him -- even when two uniformed cops are walking right behind him.

You can judge how much energy goes into his public masks by his direct, intense focus when he's instructing his half-dozen top henchmen about impending larcenies. Relaxing at home with his wife and kids, he turns into that rarity in '90s movies, a warm, genuine presence. You believe in him as an offbeat family guy; you believe that his striking, adoring wife, Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy), would encourage him to sleep with her sprightly kid sister, Tina (Angeline Ball), and that the siblings would compare notes on lovemaking like the best of gal pals. It's less a menage a trois than a three-way marriage; Cahill divides his time between his place and his sister-in-law's. And he isn't shaken when the cops give him guff about it. Why should he care? It's all in the family.

The appeal of Cahill's Us-against-Them ethos is that it leaves his followers feeling galvanized and protected, able to do as they please as long as they're loyal and useful to the boss. In its own left-handed fashion, The General is the portrait of a leader -- a man whose allies happily accept his will and help him impose it on anyone. And Cahill is undeniably resourceful. If a group called Concerned Parents Against Drugs unfairly tags one of his henchmen as a pusher, then swarms at his front door, Cahill responds by enlisting Concerned Criminals Against Drugs and organizing a counterdemonstration. Like so much in the movie, the episode is implausible but true.

Boorman relies on the charisma of his film's central character to connect with an audience when Cahill's actions are bizarre or inscrutable. And the writer/director's confidence is justified. At his peak Cahill contains multitudes. He argues that he was happy in the tumult of the projects. Yet he glides through a wealthy home in a state of bliss -- pilfering goodies from the fridge and the hamper, rifling through the study, the nursery and the bedrooms, slipping a bracelet off the arm of a matron knocked out with sleeping pills. You can tell he gets king-size kicks from tickling the lap of luxury. Boorman enhances the scene with Van Morrison singing "So Quiet in Here" ("This must be what paradise is like") on the soundtrack. He further punctuates it with elegant blackouts, while the camera moves as stealthily and fluidly as a cat burglar. The result pulls you in and out of Cahill's omnipotent dreams.

Boorman sustains his complex take on Cahill with the help of a supporting cast that to the man (and woman) can go one-on-one with Gleeson. Ball and Kennedy make up a hardheaded, handsome miniharem; Adrian Dunbar is resolute as Cahill's top lieutenant, ridding himself of the smirk he wore in comedies like Hear My Song. And Eanna McLiam is tremulously affecting as a drug-addicted pigeon dealer whom Cahill literally crucifies before he's convinced that the man is clean.

The juiciest side parts, though, belong to Sean McGinley as the last man standing from the projects and Jon Voight as the inspector who stays on Cahill's trail. They crystallize the decadence and debasement that ensue on either side of Us vs. Them. McGinley starts as Cahill's semifarcical sidekick, thrilled to be of service even after the IRA kidnaps him and returns him in need of a wired jaw and a neck brace. But by the end he has raped his own daughter (in a drunken haze, he claims) and caused Cahill to overcome his personal repulsion to try to keep him out of jail. McGinley keeps astonishing you with his ability to wring rueful laughter out of his transparent weakness. In one breathtaking moment he thanks Cahill for grievously wounding him -- a touch that epitomizes the perversity of tribal loyalty in the Cahill gang. And as Voight's thoughtful characterization suggests, Cahill's extreme tribalism catalyzes an equally dangerous countertribalism. "You're getting to be like me," Cahill tells the cop. "Trespass, harassment, intimidation, beating people up. You've had to come down to my level." Voight shows us that he knows Cahill is pushing his brass buttons -- and also that the charge is partially true.

As Cahill rankles the IRA and then tries to enlist a Loyalist terror group in one of his schemes, it's clear that Boorman is using his story to portray the Ireland of this gangster's life and time as a chaos of competing tribes. But the movie isn't primarily political. It's mythic in a vibrant, unselfconscious way. It feels fitting that Cahill's fortunes founder after he takes up art theft. Boorman is one of the few contemporary directors to prove, nearly every time out, that art isn't something you steal from the past -- it's something you must conjure afresh from the mysteries of fate and character. The General is a piece of contemporary folklore as unexpected and potent as a brand-new urban legend.

Opens Feb. 12 at the Tivoli.
-- Michael Sragow

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
Directed by Luis Mandoki

Short of nuclear holocaust, a major sale at Kmart or a confirmed Clint Eastwood sighting back in rural Iowa, there's probably no way to keep the movie version of Message in a Bottle from overwhelming the tender emotions of the hearts-and-flowers crowd. After all, this relentless assault on the tear ducts features (1) Kevin Costner as a manly (but sensitive) North Carolina boat builder who can't let go of his dead wife, (2) Robin Wright Penn as the wary (but sensitive) Chicago newspaperwoman who falls in love with him anyway, and (3) Paul Newman as the grieving widower's crusty (but sensitive) father. Don't plunk down your seven bucks expecting to see Casablanca or The English Patient. Instead, Message in a Bottle is a standard two-hanky weeper, photographed (by Caleb Deschanel) as softly and sweetly as a TV spot for a feminine-hygiene product and directed (by Luis Mandoki) with the skill of an evangelist herding rubes into the tent. Significantly, Warner Bros. is releasing the movie before Nicholas Sparks' syrupy bestseller, from which the film descends, has cooled off. Sparks, author of the 1996 pop hit The Notebook and reigning boy wonder of romance fiction, sent his manuscript for Message in a Bottle to his publisher only nine months ago: Since then it has sold nearly a million copies and become the Love Story -- or The Bridges of Madison County -- of the moment.

A movie version with Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn entwined on a beach bathed in the pink-and-mauve glow of sunset will likely just enhance the book's sales. He's as wooden as ever, and she's all big-eyed wonder. But they look awfully nice together. Certainly director Mandoki knows this thrumming-on-the-heartstrings business better than most. He previously wrapped romance around cerebral palsy in Gaby, A True Story (1987) and infused alcoholism with marital devotion in When a Man Loves a Woman (1994). For Message he has employed composer Gabriel Yared, who buoys up the proceedings with a sea of violins.

But now for a closer look at this Tender, Poignant, Beautiful, Sensitive thing. Ask yourself: If you were a stoic sailboat builder (romantic trade, no?) named Garret Blake (Costner) and your beloved painter wife (another romantic trade, no?) died of an unspecified illness, would you start typing mawkish "Dear Catherine" letters to her, stuffing them into bottles and dropping them into the heaving deep? And if you were a divorced single mom named Theresa Osborne (Wright Penn) and you found one of the note-stuffed bottles in the sand on Cape Cod, would you fall, sight unseen, for the guy who wrote them? Could you go for anyone who comes up with coinages such as "the blue Atlantic mystery" and "you were my true north?"

Theresa does. From the offices of the Chicago Tribune (refashioned on an LA soundstage) she traipses off to the Outer Banks of North Carolina (shot on the beaches of Maine) in search of a romantic mystery. She finds romance instead. Shy, strapping Garret, a handsome salt of few words, is ruggedly done up in turtlenecks, slickers and cargo pants from the L.L. Bean catalog. When not pining for dead Catherine, he works up a glamorous sweat restoring a graceful 40-foot schooner. He also has a nice supply of good red Burgundy laid in at his weather-beaten dream of a beach house. And the little fishing village where he lives, as if you didn't know, is postcard-perfect, swathed in gauzy rainbows and the twinkle of lighthouses.

What more could a lonely newspaper researcher from Chicago ask for? How about the prospect of Paul Newman -- handsome face seamed with wisdom now, peering out from under the brim of a slouch hat -- as your future father-in-law?

Too bad things don't quite work out. When he's not playing tentative kissy-face with Theresa, poor Garret wanders around in a funk. He stares lovingly at Catherine's paintings -- a sailboat encased in red fog, a dewy-eyed girl clasping a bouquet. Everybody in the movie keeps talking about what masterpieces these are, but don't be surprised that they look like leftovers from a flea market. If Garret had any sense, he'd stick them in wine bottles and dump them in the bay. Instead, he conducts a distracting feud with Catherine's family (notably her brother, played by John Savage) over ownership of the canvases. Only in the end does he give them up, along with his grief.

"You choose," Dad tells son as he finally faces up to his romantic quandary. "Yesterday or tomorrow. Pick one and stick with it. And I'll shut up." Actually, that's the best news we get in this entire picture. Before a bogus final tragedy strikes the principals, the prospect that Newman, one of our most distinguished actors, can finally recede from this saccharine and manipulative bowl of mush is most welcome.

Opens Feb. 12.
-- Bill Gallo

THE MILKY WAY
Co-written and directed by Ali Nasser

Immediately following the credits of The Milky Way (Shvil Hahalav), titles set the stage: "1964, an Arab village in the Galilee in the last year of military rule. During the 1948 war, many of the villagers were killed or fled, leaving behind their relatives." Near the film's conclusion, after one more needless, tragic death, a character comments philosophically, "God protect us. Those who know keep silent, and those who don't know blame it on the Milky Way." Spanning the continuum of these two extremes -- the paralyzing memory of deliberate, brutal massacre vs. the dismissive rationalization of cosmic inevitability -- beleaguered villagers struggle to pursue some semblance of healthy social interaction. They won't, can't succeed in their pressurized situation.

Deceptively casual, the first third of The Milky Way meanders, introducing a cross section of residents -- the dedicated teacher, the childish fool, the kind blacksmith, the honorable mediator and his two unruly sons, and several romantic couples. After establishing the personality of this close-knit but wary community, the plot turns serious. Occupying soldiers round up and interrogate the Arab men over forged work permits. Slowly, methodically, simmering tensions build toward a boil, disrupting the tentative tranquility. The feared Israeli governor's troops arrest and beat Ahmad, the innocent teacher with a prison record. A villagers' march and demonstration, internal conflicts, an accidental death, an attempted suicide hanging and the surprise revelation of the real forger propel the narrative to an unexpected, hopeful resolution, convincing without being naive.

Central to one important subplot is Mabruq (Safiel Haddad), the village fool who relies on kindness but endures ridicule. He functions as a litmus test; that is, the way others treat him reveals their true character. Playing with children, grateful for handouts, drinking milk straight from the goat's udder, a traumatized Mabruq also suffers periodic, painful flashbacks to 1948 carnage. Mabruq's friendship with the blacksmith Mahmmud (Mohammed Bakri) sustains him until Mahmmud becomes entangled in trouble.

Almost ethnographic in its presentation, The Milky Way benefits from director/producer/co-writer Ali Nassar's own experiences in occupied territory. His inclusion of carefully observed details presents a snapshot portrait through a serviceable, though never elegant, style. Typically, interaction begins in long shot with a cut in to medium shots followed by retreat to long shots before moving to the next scene. Though functional, this staging does keep us too often and too long at arm's length, detached, perhaps even distracted by the nonchalant artifice. Similarly, editing is often less than fluid, though nonintrusive music subtly and effectively accents events.

But the lack of a glossy style is irrelevant to The Milky Way's purpose. Slyly, surreptitiously, it documents the legacy of occupation with all its explicitly and implicitly disastrous repercussions. In one emblematic scene, a tethered chicken thrashes about, repeatedly attacked by a dog. The image resonates powerfully, metaphorically depicting all such global predicaments maddeningly resistant to reconciliation.

In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.
Plays at 7 p.m. Feb. 12-14 at Webster University.
-- Diane Carson

ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
Directed by Larry Clark

For better or worse, the father figure in Larry Clark's ironically titled Another Day in Paradise turns out to be Mel, a foul-mouthed 40-year-old junkie wearing a devil's-red tennis shirt. His notion of good counsel is showing his surrogate son how to disable the burglar alarm at a medical clinic so they can rob the place. For physical pain, this dad dispenses heroin. For mental anguish, there's grand larceny, accompanied by gunfire. Talk about tough love.

Director Clark, the former back-alley photographer whose 1995 film debut Kids unnerved audiences with its matter-of-fact portrait of adolescent sex, violence and drug use, prides himself on stark realism and raw street poetry. No romantic illusions or phony moralizing for him. He means to strip the cruel world down to basics and shoot the results with his jittery handheld camera.

In this bloody, oddly comic tale set in the '70s, two hard cases, James Woods' Mel and Melanie Griffith's Sid, take in a pair of abused teen runaways (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner) and hit the road in the Midwest -- an improvised family bent on getting high, robbing jewelry stores and, in its way, giving comfort to each other. Along the way they have some laughs, stumble into the usual crime-spree escalations and begin to see that their journey is bound for a dead end.

If this sounds familiar, no wonder. The ad hoc family of LA porn stars Burt Reynolds headed up in Boogie Nights could be first cousins to the desperados we meet here. And every now and then a bleak whiff of Badlands or Natural Born Killers or Trainspotting passes through the proceedings. With Another Day in Paradise, Clark reveals again his gnawing concern for children growing up without parents to help them. Inevitably, Sid and Mel will also be seen as Bonnie and Clyde on smack, careening from town to town in a black Cadillac. The baby-faced (but by no means innocent) kids in the backseat, Bobbie and Rosie, are along for the ride and pretty excited about it. But Clark makes sure they pay the price; in a world of broken families and shattered hopes, the film tells us, the best an abandoned child can hope for in the way of guidance is a mutant patriarch who will provide large-caliber weapons and pay for the motel rooms between burglaries -- as long as you can put up with his blind rages.

"You're already in the life, kid," the mentor tells his young charge. "You just need somebody like Uncle Mel to show you the ropes." Of course, Uncle Mel doesn't show anyone the ropes out of the goodness of his heart. He not only needs an accomplice, he needs somebody to order around and, in his own rough way, to nurture. One of the screen's best actors for decades, Woods strikes just the right balance here between the joyful rush Mel gets from living on the edge and the danger this unstable sociopath presents to anybody in his orbit. As Bobbie, Kartheiser (Masterminds) manages a balancing act of his own between vulnerability and youthful swagger.

For the women, things are a little different; sometimes it feels as if they're characters in a different movie. So strung out that she's reduced to finding usable veins in her neck, Sid is nonetheless presented as a failed mother type. Streetwise but kittenish, she innately understands the hazards faced by a girl who snorts meth and a lost boy who scores his drug money by breaking into vending machines. Griffith is not the subtlest actress on the planet, but this change of pace suits her well: In Sid's yearning and desperation we imagine her adolescence, and it exactly mirrors poor Rosie's. For a stubborn realist, Clark has helped create an awfully sympathetic character in Sid. Wagner (First Love, Last Rites), who is the daughter of Natalie Wood, is exactly the right counterpart to Griffith. Her Rosie is a wary survivalist who's already seen and done more than her share, and yet she still can't quite subdue a certain schoolgirl enthusiasm.

Derived from a jailhouse novel by an ex-con named Eddie Little, the movie suggests to us that Mel and Sid, under different circumstances, might pass for pretty good parents. That's a nice idea, if not a very convincing one, and it comes close to violating the director's view about what a rotten place the world is. Meanwhile, Another Day in Paradise trots out all the road-crime conventions -- big nights on the town, drug deals gone disastrously wrong, sudden gun battles with psychopaths. For a guy who clearly believes he's revolutionizing a genre, Clark sometimes plays it awfully straight.

How harsh and empty is life for Bobbie and Rosie? The director twice plunks them down, dumb-faced and dewy-eyed, in front of a TV set whose screen is filled with snow. They don't get the picture. They have no vision of life. There's no future. OK, but haven't we seen and heard all this before? The anxiety of life. The alienation. The failure of society to protect its children. The necessity of inventing new forms of intimacy because the old ones have broken down. Another Day in Paradise deserves high marks as a tough, mouthy movie salted with social ironies, blunt violence and offbeat humor. But in the end it's just a bit preachy. And that's not the best thing for a moviemaker who doesn't care for sermons.

Opens Feb. 12 at the Tivoli.
-- Bill Gallo

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