• U.S.

Summer Raises Its IQ

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

In any movie theater any summer, you can practically hear the atrophying of brain cells. Summer pictures don’t insult the audience’s intelligence so much as they ignore it, playing instead to the mass-market inner child. But with most big films serving as a form of pop-cultural potty training, there’s a grand void to be filled for viewers who have not sent their brains to summer camp–who want the occasional film to speak to their inner grownup.

Miramax Films to the rescue. Counterprogramming with a vengeance, the distributor offers a trio of summer movies with nary a beach, a bimbo or a superhero in sight. All three films–Buffalo Soldiers, The Magdalene Sisters and Dirty Pretty Things–fit snugly into what we’ll call the Miramax genre. Take a fact-based scandal that made headlines in a distant country. Cram in enough subplots to fill three other dramas. Assemble a tony cast of actors just below star level. Then market the product as a searing indictment of…well, something pretty bad.

Buffalo Soldiers could play as a cynic’s version of the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, except that its tone echoes that of Sgt. Bilko and Catch-22. Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is a wheeler-dealer stationed in Germany just before the sundering of the Berlin Wall. While his stoned fellow soldiers take a lethal joyride in a tankand the camp’s defenestration rate is way too highElwood makes a pretty profit running guns, drugs and 1,000 cans of Mop & Glo to the locals. Then the plot kicks in.

And there’s plenty of it. The picture, directed and co-written by Gregor Jordan from Robert O’Connor’s novel, plays like a mini-series compacted into 95 minutes. It develops a severe case of character sprawl: a clueless colonel (Ed Harris) and a hard-nosed top sergeant (Scott Glenn) and their respective women (Elizabeth McGovern, Anna Paquin)–both of whom cozy up to Elwood–plus lots of troublesome MPs and outsiders who stand in Elwood’s way as he plans the big score. What’s worth savoring is Phoenix’s performance, cool and alert, confiding only in the camera. He elevates a crammed project into a sharp study of a character who doesn’t have much character.

Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, which won the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, is set in Dublin in the ’60s, when girls who had committed no crime more serious than naive sauciness, or who had been raped or impregnated, were sent to convent Borstals run by some very nasty nuns. “Here,” one sister tells a girl, “you will be saved from eternal damnation.” In fact, the place is a hell on Eire. The nuns, using their charges as unpaid laborers in a sweatshop laundry, flog the girls, make ribald fun of their naked bodies, allow a visiting priest to force them into sex, and drive them to despair or madness or flailing rebellion.

Such places existed, such depredations occurred, and, yes, they were terrible. But this is basically a women-in-prison movie with a liberal tinge. The camera’s eyes nearly pop out in astonishment while reveling in the dramatically unedifying face-off of absolute innocence and absolute malice. Magdalene would have been a better film–at least, it could have been a good one–if it had shown the nuns, themselves the victims of a cruel, cloistered mind-set, as something more than horror-film sisters of Satan. (One literally carries a pitchfork.) Or is it too much to ask a committed filmmaker to offer sympathy for the devil?

It is not too much. For proof, see Dirty Pretty Things, an English film written by Steven Knight and directed by indie vet Stephen Frears. On its face, this could be called an expose of the inhuman condition. Illegal immigrants trade their organs for fake passports, and the dangerous operations are performed in a London hotel room. For people following a dream of solvency from the Third World to the First, everything must be bought, at the cost of one’s honor. “I don’t want to take your virginity,” a sweatshop owner tells an employee, forcing her into oral sex. “I just want you to help me relax.”

The movie clicks, however, because it doesn’t italicize the atrocities; it knows not only that wickedness abounds but also that smart people can use it as well as be abused by it. Inside the sharp social commentary is an appealing love story between an African doctor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a Turkish maid (Amelie’s Audrey Tautou). And as the hotel’s night manager–the film’s designated devil–Sergi Lopez is the most genial of miscreants. Committing each sin with a smile, he assures that the lives of his staff will remain an agony until … “Until the world improves,” the doctor’s friend says.

Dirty Pretty Things can’t cure the world’s ills and doesn’t try. It’s a movie, not an international treaty. But its dour comic take on misery, and on the strategies people concoct to outsmart it, improves the world of summer films. And you don’t have to leave your brain at the door.

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