Roads to Hell

The couple, Sopranos regular Drea de Matteo and Lillo Brancato Jr., identified in the credits only as the Wife and the Husband, are first glimpsed through a soft flurry of New York Christmas-ness—attending the Daughter's school pageant, taking her for a carriage ride through Central Park and then to visit Santa at an FAO Schwarz-like toy emporium where, in a prescient bit of business, two mothers fight over the store's last Party Girl doll. The Husband also makes an unsuccessful bid to secure this coveted item for his daughter by discreetly waving a fistful of hundreds in the face of an unimpressed salesclerk. Then, it's uptown to an apartment factory where the Wife and the Husband carefully package a shipment of crack envelopes, still complaining about the Party Girl doll.

Process is very important—'R Xmas has an observational verité quality accentuated by being nearly half in untranslated Spanish—and, naturally, violence seems imminent. The tension is defused by Ferrara's impressionistic montage and dreamy dissolves only to erupt with the sudden, nearly absurd, appearance of the splenetic Kidnapper, played by Ice-T. His whining, posturing negotiations with the Wife make for one of the more compelling two-handers of the season. Indeed, 'R Xmas, which is receiving a simultaneous theatrical and video release, is a bona fide contribution to the holiday spirit. It's also Ferrara's strongest and most touching movie of recent years, not least when the sweet-faced Husband wonders what he'll do on "career day" at the Daughter's school.

Like any self-respecting Ferrara film, 'R Xmas has its intimations of hellfire, yet it's a weirdly benign Christmas fable—something like Miracle on 134th Street. (There's even a final, perversely Capra-esque fete.) The director even historicizes his notion of damnation. As with Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, New York disorder is locked into a specific period. The opening title locates this not-quite-joking riff on the idea of family values during the last days of the Dinkins administration.

Everything's gone Greene: Caine in The Quiet American.
photo: Miramax
Everything's gone Greene: Caine in The Quiet American.


The Quiet American
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Written by Robert Schenkkan & Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Graham Greene
Opens November 22

'R Xmas
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Written by Ferrara and Scott Pardo
Opens November 22, at Cinema Village

Talk to Her
Written and directed by Pedro Almodvar
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens November 22

Talk to Her, the Pedro Almodóvar film that closed this year's New York Film Festival, is—like its precursor, All About My Mother—another one of the Spanish filmmaker's mature explorations of love and death and the whole damned thing. Events begin in a theater, with Marco (Darío Grandinetti) moved to tears by a ponderous dance to histrionic angst. I assumed Almodóvar was having a bit of fun parodying Pina Bausch—but the piece is Bausch's Café Müller, and Almodóvar is nothing if not serious in telegraphing his seriousness.

The movie's tony prelude is of a piece with its tasteful tastelessness, its Architectural Digest locations, and the designer stubble on Marco's chin. Easily the most fabulous and fetishized creature in the movie is Lydia (singer Rosario Flores), the female matador who is the object of Marco's affection. A great-looking dame with a trail of dark ringlets and a correspondingly long nose, she is injured (in a beautifully pulled-together sequence) in the bullring and winds up in the hospital, next to pretty Alicia (Leonor Watling), who has been in a coma for four years.

The innocent monster in this world is Benigno (Javier Cámara), the seemingly gay male nurse tending Alicia so lovingly that they might almost be a couple—and, in a sense, they are. Despite the bad-boy insert of a memorable silent-movie analogue to The Incredible Shrinking Man, initial strangeness inexorably gives way to rote sentimentality and mystical tenderness becomes narrative expedience, as we lurch toward the closure of another terrible, or at least, terribly shot, Bausch presentation—possibly a dance to the miracle of life.

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