Forget Six Feet Under: Molly Parker plays a necrophiliac embalmer in Lynne Stopkewich’s 1996 debut. She begins her career as a peculiar little girl who likes to bury birds and roadkill, and grows into a woman who likes her men cold. When Matt (Peter Outerbridge) falls hopelessly in love with her, the story is taken to its logical conclusion. It’s all handled very tastefully, lyrically even, but the denouement feels rushed.

Kissed. Lynne Stopkewich, 1996. ***

The Painted Veil

The first two acts of this W. Somerset Maugham adaptation are fantastic: Naomi Watts plays a woman who marries stodgy bacteriologist Ed Norton out of desperation and cheats on him with Liev Schreiber as soon as they arrive at his home in Shanghai. To punish her and himself, Norton takes her into the interior, to a village ravaged by cholera. The way the two steer their wrecked relationship through the lush landscape stalked by death is terrific–it’s sort of a grown-up version of Battle Royale, in which the stakes of love are ratcheted up to 11: if you leave me, you’ll die a grisly death. Toby Jones (Truman in Infamous) provides the cynical but helpful foreigner, and there are nuns.

I was less fond of the third act, in which Chekhov’s Law is adhered to much too slavishly: if there’s cholera around, somebody’s gonna get it! Still, The Painted Veil is big classic Hollywood cinema, splendidly engaging, marvelously acted and shot, sumptuous and emotional. The real mystery is why this film, far better than The Departed and most of the other nominees, didn’t get any kind of attention at Oscar time. In decades past, this would have been exactly the kind of thing the Academy would’ve gone gaga over. As a sign of how much times as changed, the The Painted Veil wasn’t even technically released by a major studio but by their “indie” distributor Warner Independent. It was drowned out in December’s mad movie rush, and now the official site is hocking the DVD as “just in time for mother’s day!

The Painted Veil. John Curran, 2006. ***

Eagle vs Shark

An Indie comedy from New Zealand that reeks of the Sundance workshop where it was conceived by writer/director Taika Cohen — which is to say it features a road trip, a quirky dysfunctional family, and a couple of awkward lovers who dress up in silly costumes. Eagle vs. Shark tastes an awful lot like Napoleon Dynamite meets Little Miss Sunshinewith Kiwis!

Lily (Loren Horsley) is a gangly young woman who lives with her brother and has an inexplicable crush on Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), a nerdy loser who makes his own candles. They’re both awkward, they both work at the mall, they have the same upper-lip mole, and they both say “cool” a lot. Their favorite animals, respectively, provide the film’s title.

After Lily and Jarrod agree to have cool sex, the action shifts to Jarrod’s home town, where he plans to take revenge on a former high school bully–by challenging him to a fight. While Jarrod trains with cool nunchaks, Lily meets his family, among them an uncle and aunt who sell training suits out of Jerrod’s old room, which is why our lovers have to pitch a tent in the garden.

And so forth. Eagle vs. Shark may sound entirely predictable, and it’s true that it doesn’t add much to the quirky romance sub-genre, but the film does have one major asset: Loren Horsley. The face of Lily, with its big moist eyes and lopsided smile, is winning enough to make the derivative details surrounding her come alive. Opens June 22.

Eagle vs Shark. Taika Cohen, 2007. **

  • The trailer:


This sweet, lo-fi musical romance about a Dublin busker and an immigrant single mother who meet in the streets and record a demo tape together is a real charmer. Glen Hansard plays the nameless “guy” who belts out songs on a battered guitar and pines for his long-gone girlfriend; Marketa Irglova is the “girl” who likes his songs and begins to accompany him on the piano. During the days, the guy fixes vacuum cleaners, which leads to a nice visual joke of the girl pulling a Hoover through downtown Dublin; she has a child and mother at home and perhaps even more of a life back in the Czech Republic.

The production isn’t half as polished as Hustle & Flow or The Commitments (in which Hansard also appeared), and that’s a good thing; Once has an authentic indie feel, with many scenes that seem to be shot on the run. The music is heartfelt and fresh, and the movie doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body. It’s the genuine article: a winning story told with simple grace and humanity. More soon for when Once opens on May 18th.

Once. John Carney, 2006. ****

The Big Easy

How not to do local color, y’all. Director Jim McBride lays on the Louisiana stereotypes in this Southern cop romance. From the first “Where are you at?” to the last gumbo party, the New Orleans details feel second-hand to me–and I’m just a German boy who happened to live there for a little while. I do know what Tipitina’s looks like from the inside, and that studio set wasn’t even close.

No matter. A Disney World version of New Orleans will serve just fine as backdrop for a steamy 80s love affair. Ellen Barkin, that strange and fascinating creature, plays a principled but inexperienced prosecutor who comes to investigate corruption in Dennis Quaid’s NOPD. There are murders to be solved, but never mind the plot. Quaid is all easy come-ons and grins as wide as Lake Pontchartrain, and you can’t wait for Barkin to let down her hair and be seduced while the Neville Brothers sing. With John Goodman, Ned Beatty, and Grace Zabriskie as “Mama.”

The Big Easy. Jim McBride, 1987. ***