Mad Dash

Feb 24, 1999 at 4:00 am

Directed by Brian Gibson

Between the current nostalgia for platform shoes and the epidemic of midlife crises that has so many baby boomers in its grip, director Brian Gibson's Still Crazy just might be able to find an audience among the disturbed, the deafened and the disenchanted. It is, after all, the comic tale of a fictional British glam-rock group that makes a comeback 20 years after vainly throwing itself onto the rubbish heap.

What we have here, of course, is another optimistic comment on second chances -- and a clear likelihood that the soundtrack may outperform the movie. Eleven new songs with roots in several vintage styles have been cooked up by Squeeze guitarist/lyricist Chris Difford, Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones and producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the blokes who've handled everyone from Elvis Costello to Madness to Bush. The film's anthem is a sweet and soulful thing called "The Flame Still Burns," written by Jones, Difford and Marti Frederickson, and it might still be running through your head hours after you leave the theater.

Inevitably, the movie covers some of the same ground as Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes' recent valentine to glam, and suggests the mood of a real classic -- Rob Reiner's brilliantly bogus rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap (1984). It's neither as pompous as the former nor as biting as the latter, settling instead for a conciliatory tone in which genial satire gets along with sentimental daydreaming. Remember The Commitments, Alan Parker's 1991 comedy about an unlikely Irish soul band? Still Crazy screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais also co-wrote that tribute to pluck.

It's enough to wilt Billie Holiday's gardenia, but the name of the group in Still Crazy is Strange Fruit. After breaking up (amid much scandal) in 1978 at the Wisbech music festival, the bickering members have gone their separate ways, "dragging their dwindling royalties and bruised egos behind them." Two decades later, keyboard player Tony Costello (The Butcher Boy's Stephen Rea) finds himself selling condoms in Ibiza. Bassist Les Wickes (Jimmy Nail) repairs roofs in the north of England. Slovenly drummer Beano Baggot (Timothy Spall, from Life Is Sweet and Secrets and Lies) holes up in a tiny house trailer in his mother's garden, keeping one step ahead of the tax collector. Self-absorbed lead singer Ray Simms (Bill Nighy) is as downtrodden as his former bandmates, but he keeps up appearances with a drafty country mansion, a prescription for Prozac and a nagging Swedish trophy wife (Helena Bergstrom). Band manager Karen Knowles (Juliet Aubrey) has settled into single motherhood and a 9-to-5 routine.

Strange Fruit's fifth member (and acknowledged genius), the sensitive lead guitarist Brian Lovell (Bruce Robinson), has mysteriously vanished.

How fast can you say "reunion concert"?
Without that prospect there could be no resumption of hostilities among the "Fruits," no common fear of mortality, no possibility of glory recaptured. There could be no movie. Luckily, writers Clement and La Frenais are clever dialogists, this cast is talented enough to provide the characters with plenty of individual flavor and quirk, and director Gibson knows his way around a musical set piece -- he did The Josephine Baker Story (1991) for HBO and the Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got to Do With It (1993) for the big screen.

Older but not necessarily wiser, Strange Fruit is thrown back together on the whim of a promoter who turns out to be the son of the promoter who last booked them. But before returning to Wisbech, these rock & roll dinosaurs must re-hone their chops. That means argument-ridden rehearsals, the reconstruction of shattered egos and a tour through the scummier rock clubs of snowy Amsterdam and Antwerp, where they face audiences both hostile and bewildered. It's not for nothing that the script calls for the band bus to break down on a sweep of plain decorated with fat windmills: The Fruits' quest to revivify themselves is nothing if not quixotic.

"History teaches us," the movie's wry narrator observes, "that men behave wisely once they've exhausted all other alternatives." The alternatives are the fun part here, of course: addled Beano struggling to remember whether Strange Fruit really did once play the Hollywood Bowl, as he so fondly recalls; vain Ray, still decked out in green feathers, presuming that a smirky pizza driver wants his autograph; brokenhearted Karen still chasing the ghost of a lost love. The road back is littered with obstacles, but at least it leads somewhere. Meanwhile, Still Crazy leads us to the conclusion, not always borne out by real life, that if you care deeply and work hard enough, you can reinvent your life.

Opens Feb. 26 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Bill Gallo

Directed by Paul Cohen

The Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition, held annually in Brussels, is one of the most prestigious awards in classical music and the stepping-stone to a distinguished international career (previous winners include David Oistrakh, Vladimir Ashkenazy and St. Louis-born Malcolm Frager). The subjects of the Dutch documentary The Winners are the exceptions to the rule, those who never claimed the glory promised by the award, their careers thwarted by politics, illness, insecurity or just plain bad luck. Cohen's film uses archival footage and TV clips to show these men at their moments of triumph, and contemporary footage and talking-head interviews allow them to reflect on their lives, some with a sense of bitterness, others with resignation.

Cohen's film is an illustration of fate and its effects. More than just time has changed the passionate young men we see on the concert stage. Though three of the four continue to perform, they look back at their ambitious younger selves with irony, as if "award-winning musician" was simply a role they played and later abandoned. Winning the Queen Elisabeth prize was not so much the starting point as it was an unnaturally high point that threw their careers slightly out of step. For the two musicians who are seen continuing active musical careers, the effects of the award were minimal: Pianist Yevgeny Moguilevsky, the 1964 winner, returned home and continued to perform and record, but any chance to break onto the international stage was thwarted by Soviet cultural authorities, angry because he had defeated one of their favorites. The film shows Moguilevsky, now living in the West, meeting with agents and record companies, still waiting for his big break. 1976 winner Mikhail Bezverkhny also cites political interference, though his own brusque temperament may have been equally devastating. The oddest of the four musicians, Cohen shows him berating his accompanist wife, rhapsodizing over auto repair and practicing alone in the back of a parked van, his rehearsal studio of choice ever since neighbors objected to the noise.

The most transformed, and in some ways the most charismatic of the four men profiled in The Winners, is Philipp Hirschhorn, the 1967 winner whose intense stage presence and brooding good looks could easily have made him a matinee idol for the concert set. Though his days as a performer were cut short by illness, he cuts a Nabokovian figure, a glamorous exile wondering why he's been banished from the exalted realm of the famous, vaguely hinting at the intrigues and rivalry that reduced him to his current state. Switching from realistic self-assessment to arrogance, he hints at a return to his former glory, but, sadly, Hirschhorn died shortly after his interviews were filmed.

Hirschhorn's opposite, and striking a good-natured balance to the ambition and accusations voiced by the other three musicians, is Berl Senofsky, who was already past 30 when he won the competition in 1955. Now teaching in Baltimore and suspicious of the professional music world, Senofsky claims to have entered the competition solely to assess his musical abilities, and gave up his modestly successful career with no regrets. When the filmmakers ask him to display the medal, he rummages through his apartment, uncertain of where he's put it. In the final scene, he's recovered it: "By the way," he tells the filmmakers, "I found this.... Funny that a piece of metal can mean so much.... "

-- Robert Hunt

Directed by Ken Loach

In the three decades that director Ken Loach has been a steadfast champion of the British working class, his films have lost none of their sting. Whether examining a brutal Belfast police incident in Hidden Agenda (1990) or the plight of an unemployed man struggling to buy his daughter a first-communion dress in Raining Stones (1993), Loach has remained constant in his sympathies and unwavering in his refusal to sentimentalize them. On the mean streets of the British Isles, he always keeps his eyes wide open.

Case in point: the plainly labeled My Name Is Joe. A deceptively simple take on survival in the brick slums of Glasgow, it chronicles the tribulations of Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan), a badly damaged alcoholic in his late 30s who's been off the sauce for almost a year. Jobless and on the dole, Joe throws his energies into coaching a soccer team of wisecracking delinquents who are a lot more adept at stealing new uniforms than they are at actually playing the game. Joe's special project (and alter ego) is baby-faced Liam (David McKay), who's not merely the only decent player on the team but also an ex-junkie and a young father. Another opportunity for Joe's redemption comes in the form of Sarah (Louise Goodall), a plucky public-health counselor whose neighborhood clinic is overwhelmed by needy clients.

In the hands of a filmmaker with a lesser feeling for character and place, elements such as these might quickly turn to mush. But Loach is neither a hand-wringer nor a do-gooder, and no one will mistake him for a Pollyanna. In Joe, Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty give us an imperfect hero who, despite the odds, refuses to feel sorry for himself -- this guy simply presses on into the darkness. Longtime Loach fans will likely find in Joe a hint of the filmmaker's earlier protagonists, notably the unlucky bloke in 1991's Riff-Raff -- downtrodden but working hard to shed his seamy past.

Joe, too, has reasonable dreams. A decent job. Self-respect. Relief from the demons. A shot at love. For now, though, he's got only his wits to buoy him up -- a gift for the well-timed practical joke, a knowledge of the street and a survivor's will. Herding his scruffy soccer players -- they've got names like Shanks and Scrag and Zulu -- into a beat-up van, he very nearly looks happy. The team never wins a game on their desolate, glass-strewn pitch, but for Joe the battle is almost reward enough: He's got a wry smile -- and a black joke -- for everyone in his makeshift family.

As usual Loach gets all the physical details right. The dim light in the bowling alley where Joe takes Sarah on a tentative first date. The ill-fitting suit and self-important gait of a welfare bureaucrat snooping around the neighborhood for petty violations. The weary faces in the waiting room of Sarah's clinic. The gray-green haze overhanging the tables in the snooker parlor where we first meet slimy McGowan (David Hayman), the predatory drug dealer who will eventually wreck several lives. American movie directors like Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese have such a sure feel for the underside of big cities that you can practically smell the booze and taste the blood every time they take a camera into the street. Loach is just as masterful. This portrait of Glasgow, rooted in poverty, with desperation rapping at the door, wants for nothing in terms of grit and authenticity.

Mullan, who popped up briefly in Braveheart, Trainspotting and a pair of earlier Loach movies, seems exactly the right actor here. He bears an odd facial resemblance to a young Red Buttons, but there the similarities end: In Joe's athletic, hair-trigger jumpiness we see a boozehound still expelling the old poisons, and in his growing devotion to Sarah we get the unmistakable sense of a decent man who's wasted his prime but now sees one last chance to make good. It can't have been easy to keep this tough-and-tender portrait upright and schmaltz-free, but Mullan manages it, with help from his clear-eyed director. Witness the wonderfully telling scene in which Joe and a buddy, posing as old hands in the design trade, propose to wallpaper an oddly shaped sitting room for new friend Sarah. Joe's combination of sweetness, cunning and mischief as he finesses the job just about defines him.

The thing we don't know is how far he will stick out his neck for a boy whose bad luck and lousy choices must remind him of his own. A Ken Loach movie can be a screamingly funny experience, particularly when we're least expecting to crack up. But his lifelong quest, as he once described it, "to clarify the lives of ordinary people" usually veers into tragedy, too. Loach never fears to confront the cold realities of life.

By the way, try not to be put off by the subtitles. That's right, subtitles. On the surface Scotland and America would appear to share a common language, but the sound of English as spoken in the working-class districts of Glasgow can present a stiff challenge on this side of the Atlantic. Five minutes into the movie, most Yanks will be glad for a little help at the bottom of the screen.

Otherwise, we're on our own to contemplate another extraordinary piece of work from one of the world's most underrated moviemakers -- a film at once harsh and tender and almost faultless in the way it sheds light on a time and a place and a troubled soul.

Opens Feb. 26 at the Tivoli.
-- Bill Gallo

Directed by Garry Marshall

Director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Beaches) has always tended toward unrealistically feel-good movies, and The Other Sister is no exception. Billed as "a love story for the romantically challenged," it concerns a mentally challenged young woman (Juliette Lewis) struggling for independence from her overprotective mother (Diane Keaton). With the exception of one scene late in the film, everything in this overly cute movie is played for laughs. It's the world as Marshall would like it to be.

Portrayed in flashback as a willful, angry, destructive child, Carla emerges from a private boarding school for the mentally handicapped as far more centered, sensible and capable than anyone else onscreen. But mama Elizabeth, who has always been slightly embarrassed by her youngest daughter (and, on top of that, has to contend with a lesbian daughter and an underachieving daughter), just can't accept her as a responsible adult who wants her own apartment, is determined to take courses at a regular school and hopes for a boyfriend, who soon arrives in the form of Daniel (Giovanni Ribisi), an equally mentally challenged young man living on his own.

This is a very different role for former wild child Lewis, best known for provocative films like Natural Born Killers, and she does a fine job -- as does Ribisi, most recently seen in Saving Private Ryan. The problem is, the film is so intent on being uplifting and happy that it treats the young protagonists almost like a circus act. Much of what they say and how they view the world is humorous, but it's like laughing at small children playing grownup and remarking, "Oh, aren't they cute?" In the same "out of the mouths of babes" vein, Carla reels off one platitude after another. She is by far the wisest character in the story.

The film's humor is as mainstream and broad as it comes. On Halloween Carla walks into the living room wearing a cumbersome swan costume and announces, "I feel so delicate," the joke being, of course, that she looks anything but delicate. When Carla and Daniel start thinking about sleeping together, they consult The Joy of Sex.

The dark side of life is never shown. Yes, Carla and Daniel both get frustrated, but they deal with it in a far more mature fashion than any flesh-and-blood person would, mentally challenged or not. Only one scene touches on the real hardships Carla faces and how terribly it hurts. Otherwise, everyone she encounters treats her with patience and kindness. Even Elizabeth's embarrassment at having a "less than normal" daughter is never allowed to get too ugly or unflattering. Although Carla, her parents, and two sisters are frequently onscreen together, there is no sense of familiarity or chemistry between any of them. It's not a question of a dysfunctional family; it's that no one seems related to anyone else. Keaton never creates much of a character -- she seems to have stepped off the set of Father of the Bride -- and Tom Skerritt is all smiles and no personality as Carla's dad. A few stern words between Elizabeth and her husband are supposed to reveal some tension, but, like every other conflict in the film, the words and situations never become "uncivilized." In his desire to present an upbeat, even inspirational film, Marshall sweeps the less attractive aspects of reality under the rug.

-- Jean Oppenheimer