Star Treatment

Notting Hill
Directed by Roger Mitchell

Maybe it's the damned blinking thing, because it's not simply the foppish hair and boyish face -- or, for that matter, even the vaguely befuddled reticence and wry, self-abasing demeanor we Americans prefer to see in our Brits. It's got to be the blinking. That's what he does, almost all he does, and it must be some sort of twinkling trick, not unlike I Dream of Jeannie's genie casting her spell. How else to explain the fact that Hugh Grant, a man who never met the same role he didn't like over and over again, is one charming son of a bitch?

No wonder Elizabeth Hurley let slide that whole Los Angeles parked-car love affair with a call girl most Divine. Hugh Grant is indeed almost charming enough to make one completely forgive the weak-kneed celebrity wet kiss that substitutes for romance in Notting Hill, the not-a-sequel-but-hopefully-it-feels-like-one from the writing/producing team responsible for 1994's surprise hit romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral.

As in that film, Grant plays the perpetually fumbling hangdog Everybrit who has never quite found true love -- but finally might in the guise of a darling American girl. Yet Notting Hill has grander ideas than Four Wedding's romance between two average folks (well, perfect, charming, well-scripted and good-looking average folks). This time around, Grant is William Thacker, a proprietor of a rather unsuccessful travel bookstore in the hip and cosmopolitan section of West London known as Notting Hill.

William's the kind of swell guy who says "whoopsy daisy" when he slips up and mutters "bugger this" and "bugger that" when things really go wrong. The darling American girl just happens to be the biggest movie star in the world, Anna Scott, played appropriately enough by the Pretty Woman herself, Julia Roberts. In fact, when Anna impetuously leaves him with a kiss and kindles a romance -- poof! -- out of thin air, Notting Hill proposes to be a sort of reverse Pretty Woman. This time around, the fairytale deals with the common schlub (right, you bet) who finds his Princess Charming in a famous actress with a heart of gold -- if only they can ever get the opportunity to have a normal relationship.

Much has been and will be made of how ironic it is that Julia Roberts may actually be playing herself, a $20-million-a-movie star hounded by a press and a public dying to know every detail about her love life, willing to pay big money to see her naked, then speculating aloud about whether her assets -- especially her talent -- are real. The fact that Grant, a man who has appeared in more tabloids than alien dieting secrets, plays her leading man is only more ironic icing on the cake. Only irony and Hollywood don't mix: Julia Roberts, as Anna, might as well be sitting down for a Vanity Fair interview and photo shoot as Julia Roberts. She brings nothing to the role besides her own star power, which isn't blinding enough to compensate for the film's lack of originality and warmth.

And when she does try to offer a peek beneath the surface image of The Movie Star, Roberts, as Anna, comes off as an utter bitch -- at least that's the impression gleaned from scenes that don't involve musical interludes and fuzzy montages, and there are many. Anna jumps to conclusions, runs out on William at the slightest sign of trouble, lies to him about her personal life, and bad-mouths him to her co-workers -- lovely gal all around. She boo-hoos about how tough it is to be a celebrity, then turns around and tells him that "the fame thing isn't real." She just wants to be a girl in love, but she keeps acting like a goddess who has come down to earth to slum with the mortals. Fact is, her behavior makes the romance all the more inexplicable.

Notting Hill never plays with its potential for satire; it barely even acknowledges it, preferring instead to go straight for the heart while bypassing the brain altogether. From the coincidental mishap in which Grant just happens to literally run into Roberts on the street -- thus drenching her in orange juice, thereby giving them a chance to spend more time with each other -- to the series of misunderstandings that keep pulling them apart, the film rarely veers too far from its amusing but rote romantic-comedy conventions. It's a shame.

The few sendups the film does swing at are lobs at best, Mark McGwire batting-practice pitches launched out of the park. A cameo by Alec Baldwin as a snotty Hollywood hunk is good for a quick laugh, but offers nothing besides broad Saturday Night Live satire. A central set-piece involving Grant crashing a press junket as a reporter for something called Horse and Hound magazine just so he can talk with Roberts' character is truly funny -- as are his innocuous, banal questions ("Do you ride a horse?"). But those in the audience not privy to the ways and means of a press junket, where dead-eyed reporters suck from the movie-company teat and ask second-rate celebs the most kiss-ass sort of questions, may not fully appreciate the dead-eye aim of the humor. And a conversation about a no-nudity clause in Anna's contract sets up a gag that never materializes. Imagine the snickers that would have erupted after hearing Julia Roberts say she won't do nude scenes and that she even has stunt-butt approval, only to cut to a post-love scene butt shot. Is it Julia's? Is it a body double's? No one would know, but it might elicit a few chuckles. Alas, it's not to be.

When it comes to issues of tabloid snoops and superstar nudity, the movie suddenly takes an all too serious tone, one befitting its female star's attempt to poke fun without, you know, making fun or having fun. At one point, the tabloids get hold of nude pictures Anna sat for early in her career. Even worse, Anna complains to William, someone filmed the photo shoot so that it now looks as though she made a porn film. Pardon? Exactly what kind of a photo shoot was this? Inquiring minds want to know -- well, every inquiring mind except William, who seems utterly oblivious to the whole star thing, the good, the bad and the ugly side of fame (and the irony blows straight out the window). Never mind that during the first part of the film, the jokes stem from his close-knit set of friends "discovering" that he's dating a celebrity. Hey, William simply likes Anna for who she is. OK. Fine. But the question forever remains: Why?

The big romance here isn't between William and Anna; they're almost unnecessary, pretty people in a pretty movie about pretty much nothing. Rather, the love affair's between Hollywood and itself: Notting Hill offers another example of moviemakers consoling themselves about how tough it is to be famous while congratulating themselves on how down-to-earth they really are. The audience ends up acting just like William's friends, wanting the two star-crossed lovers to get together, but only because that's the way the fairytale goes.

You want irony, try this on: The biggest scene-stealing laughs don't even belong to Grant or Roberts; they have nothing at all to do with the romantic part of this romantic comedy. Rather, they're the handiwork of William's flatmate Spike (played by Rhys Ifans), who's a hygienically crippled "masturbating Welshman" who doesn't even belong in this film -- and happens to spend an inordinate amount of screen time in his dirty, teeny-weeny skivvies. Apparently, he didn't have a no-nudity clause. That, also, is unfortunate.

Opens May 28.
-- Scott Kelton Jones

Junk Food
Written and directed by Masashi Yamamoto

A brutal, hiply violent mix of lowlife drama, quasi-documentary street scenes and poetic imagery, Masashi Yamamoto's Junk Food tells a Tokyo story of a radically different sort than Ozu's quiet drama of generational change. The film frames its multiple narratives -- which occur within a 24-hour period -- with videotaped slice-of-life vignettes of a blind woman's morning routine. Yamamoto refers to these brief scenes of the quotidian (waking up, listening to radio traffic reports, walking to the store) as Acts 1 and 4; Acts 2 and 3 are considerably more lurid -- full of rough sex, hard drugs and offhand cruelty -- and are intended to disturb the seemingly placid surface of "normal" Tokyo life by plunging us into its murky lower depths. And because they're shot on film, these stories feel more vivid than the mundane events that bookend them: Junk Food implies that, like the woman, most of us fail to see harsh reality; intended as an eye-opener, the film shines an intense, revealing light on the creatures scuffling and dying in Tokyo's shadows.

Filmic kin to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express -- which also share its fondness for gunplay, formal experimentation and subcultural hijinks -- Junk Food plays structural games, introducing and then entirely abandoning major characters, crosscutting between subplots that are only tenuously related. Act 2 focuses on Miyuki (Miyuki Ijima), a junkie whom we first encounter incontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pagea fetid room where she smokes crack, stares languidly at her surroundings, vomits, and then binds her sleeping companion for what appears to be S&M sex but turns into a deliberate suffocation. Given the sordid milieu, most will assume that Miyuki is a prostitute, but Yamamoto confounds our expectations -- and adds disquieting resonance -- by first revealing her as a professional woman in a high-tech firm and then, after a day of abusive sex, hysterical confrontations and frantic scrabbling for drugs, as a wife to a seemingly benign and solicitous spouse. At this revelatory moment, Miyuki disappears from the film, Act 3 begins, and Yamamoto picks up the threads of five new characters whose stories he loosely interweaves: a cold-eyed gang member cruising the streets for trouble, a female wrestler longing for her Latin American home, a troubled Pakistani on a murderous spree, and an exuberant American prostitute and her likable young john out on a date. Like Miyuki, who cannot integrate the two sides of her life, these five live in Tokyo but somehow remain apart from it; they're forever outsiders, a condition underlined by the alien status of three of the quintet.

By refusing to fill in backgrounds, by joining plots in media res and then avoiding any definitive resolutions, Junk Food will frustrate and occasionally madden viewers who want clean, sharp narrative borders, and its alternation of longueurs and scenes of hyped-up violence eventually grows tiresome and all too predictable. But Yamamoto consistently finds arresting ways of presenting his upsetting material, and the film's penultimate sequence -- about a man who dies unnoticed while riding the Tokyo subway, traveling the city's length and breadth, continuing in pointless motion -- serves as a beautifully apt, chilling metaphor for its characters' wayward lives.

In Japanese with English subtitles.
Plays at 8 p.m. May 28-30 at Webster University.
-- Cliff Froehlich

Hideous Kinky
Directed by Gillies MacKinnon

A hand-wringing reassessment of the libertine 1960s has hit full stride -- stirred as much, you can't help thinking, by the transfiguration of former acidheads and ex-leftist firebrands into establishment power mongers as by the half-baked grumblings of their children. The antiwar and civil-rights movements were shot through with self-service and intolerance, the revisionists say, and an entire generation's quest for "higher consciousness" was really nothing more than a massive ego trip. In the opinion swing rightward, even ancient villains like Nixon are getting rehabilitated, while his grandchildren swing-dance the night away, imagining themselves to be zoot-suited '40s hepcats.

In Gillies MacKinnon's Hideous Kinky (the rather misleading title comes from a pet phrase of children), we get a huge spoonful of the new political castor oil. The film's protagonist is a pretty Englishwoman named Julia (Titanic's Kate Winslet) who in 1972 (still the '60s, at heart) has left her philandering poet-husband back in gray London while she traipses around romantic Marrakesh in search of pure joy and the answers to life's big questions. She takes up with a local street acrobat named Bilal (Said Taghmaoui), smokes some dynamite hash and decides that her real calling is Sufi dancing. Liberated from uptight British culture and set loose in a mystical desert paradise, she's about to discover her authentic self.

Except for a couple of impediments: Julia barely has a shilling in her tie-dyes, and, consequences be damned, she's hauled her two young daughters along with her to Morocco. "I'll do as I please!" she bellows, the rebel as overgrown fifth-grader. She immediately recalls the heroine of another recent movie, A Walk on the Moon, in which an unhappily married mother runs away from a resort in the Catskills in summer 1969 and finds momentary bliss at the Woodstock festival.

The press notes for Hideous Kinky, which has been adapted from a novel by Esther Freud (who happens to be a great-granddaughter of Sigmund), call it "a sonnet to an exotic culture, a love story between people of different worlds, and a paean to a mother's quest to gift her children with the courage of dreams." These are curious claims. In truth, the film makes a great deal of Julia's irresponsibility as a mother and her naivete as a seeker of truth. With her flowing tresses and wide-eyed wonder, Julia comes off less as a spiritual adventurer than as the quintessential hippie chick, who just happens to be carrying a couple of extra items in her rucksack -- namely 6-year-old Lucy (Carrie Mullan) and 8-year-old Bea (Bella Riza). More than once, when she's earnestly trying to unlock the secrets of Northern Africa, an amused Moroccan looks at her as though she's some kind of lunatic.

While Richie Havens and Grace Slick warble '60s anthems on the soundtrack, Julia gets naked with her new boyfriend, makes noises about joining something called "the school of the annihilation of the ego" (while failing to grasp what a significant act of ego that entails), and hitchhikes off to Algiers -- one kid in tow, the other left carelessly behind -- to confer with a wise Sufi sheikh about her future.

Meanwhile, the older daughter turns out to be no one's fool. While Mum is busy looking for the blinding light, little Bea, feet on the ground, is absorbing new influences more naturally: "I don't need another adventure," she scolds her mother, their roles now reversed. "I need to go to school. I need to learn things."

What things do we learn from Julia's muddled quest? Just as the nouveau orthodoxy about the '60s would have it, we come to understand (as if we didn't already) that Timothy Leary may have been wrong: Turning on, tuning in and dropping out may not be answers to all the world's ills. We see -- again -- that romanticizing the '60s is a fool's errand: Neither the talky sentimentalists of The Big Chill nor the diehard mythologist Oliver Stone, with his Doors and his Born on the Fourth of July, have got it right about an era of excess and self-absorption. We see that Julia's whirling around the town square in a trance will probably not transform a steak-and-kidney-pie-eating English girl into a goddess of truth. Hey, just ask her kids: They throw up when Mum forces a can of fetid sardines on them because there's nothing else in the larder.

This is a beautifully acted movie. Following her screamy, sodden voyage aboard the doomed ship, Winslet has returned to the nuanced style she showed in Heavenly Creatures and Sense and Sensibility. It's sensitively directed by MacKinnon (A Simple Twist of Fate), and there's a stirring soundtrack featuring equal parts of classic rock and Moroccan folk music. It's been gorgeously shot by director of photography John de Borman. But in the end it doesn't quite cut it. How many more current books and movies, exactly, need to gaze on the '60s, with all the advantages of hindsight, and find them lacking? Don't we already know about the illusions and delusions of that time, its several authentic breakthroughs in social behavior and mores?

Maybe it's all those graying Deadheads, every one burbling about St. Jerry, who have inflamed a new generation of writers and moviemakers to diss the '60s. Maybe it's the soaring stock market, which has turned the fervent anti-capitalists of yore into Mercedes-Benz owners. More likely it's simply the process of time and the cycle of history, which brings with it the erosion of myth -- before that same myth, sometime later, is inevitably revived.

In any event, Julia and her brood return to London, if not wiser then better traveled, there to resume their lives without benefit of Sufi dancing. So be it. It's almost 1973, after all -- time to don double-knits and set out for the local disco.

Opens May 28 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Bill Gallo

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