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That Sinking Feeling

Poseidon can’t help but bring you down. Plus: Gael García Bernal’s creepy flatness.

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Most of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies have Poseidon Adventure stories. Mine involves a 13-year-old acquaintance who shouted, “Shelley Winters dies!” to the people waiting in line. Also, I honed my critical skills pondering why the Rev. Gene Hackman ordered all the dishy women to rip off the lower halves of their dresses (ostensibly so they could climb ladders more efficiently) but didn’t say anything to Shelley. What if her dress got caught on some twisted hunk of metal? Huh?

The poster for the 1972 Poseidon Adventure boasted of all the Oscar winners in the huge cast (Hackman! Winters! Ernest Borgnine! Red Buttons!), whereas the remake, Poseidon, just has Richard Dreyfuss. Still, these actors—Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Emmy Rossum, Jacinda Barrett—look like they’re trying harder: At prices like this ($160 million), it would be unseemly to show their embarrassment. The director, Wolfgang Petersen, made his name with the harrowingly subjective Das Boot. He doesn’t have the square, impersonal style of the original’s Ronald Neame; he means business. So once you get past the clunky exposition, the film becomes intense and rather sickening. The characters on the upended luxury liner that get mashed and drowned and electrocuted—and almost everyone does; the body count is gargantuan—aren’t as expendable this time out. As a humanist, I applaud the respect for life, but I miss the campy fun. The movie is, in all senses, a big downer.

Well, there are unintentional laughs, like when the captain (Andre Braugher) shushes the bloodied survivors to reveal that the ship was hit by a “rogue wave.” (The passengers nod appreciatively.) But Petersen doesn’t exploit the upside-down setting. There are no urinals on the ceiling—just one gray corpse-strewn chamber after another. You pass the time guessing who’s in line to get it next. One character I was sure would make it is shockingly deep-sixed; another I figured would die does—but in a nightmarish close-up.

The actors outclass the script, although Rossum—the waterlogged ingénue of The Day After Tomorrow—might want to pass on any Earthquake or Towering Inferno remakes: How much inane disaster-pic dialogue can a single doe-eyed lass survive? Lucas plays the noncommittal gambler protagonist a mite noncommittally, but I wouldn’t wish his lines on anyone. As a gay businessman freshly abandoned by a young lover, Dreyfuss grows and becomes affecting, and Kurt Russell—who really ought to have an Oscar for something—is effortlessly convincing as an apprehensive dad. As a former New York mayor, though, he’s implausible: The idea of a non-freak in that office is so 1972.

A couple of weeks after the opening of the tender psycho love story Down in the Valley comes the tender psycho love story The King, which makes Down in the Valley look like Field of Dreams. Gael García Bernal plays Elvis Sandow, who’s discharged from the Navy and heads straight for Corpus Christi, home of the father—Pastor David Sandow (William Hurt)—who has pretended he doesn’t exist. Pastor Sandow was a sinner back in the day; now he has a congregation and a “real” family, which Elvis swiftly proceeds to . . . I’d call it biblical vengeance, but even the Bible isn't this perverse.

The director, James Marsh (who wrote the script with Milo Addica), is a genius at keeping both levels in focus—the conventional thwarted romance on top, the unholy mythic horror show under the surface. García Bernal maintains his own flat surface, which makes his actions scarily unpredictable. As Elvis’s lover and half-sister, Malerie, Pell James is so innocent that even the light seems to bruise her; and Paul Dano gives an extraordinary performance (an X-ray of a wounded child) as the pastor’s other son, who can never live up to his father’s dictates. Has William Hurt ever been this perfectly cast? He uses his groggy self-importance to make the pastor the victim of evil and the very fount of it.

Following the success of Todd Graff’s (barely) fictionalized Camp and the momentous documentary Spellbound comes the unimaginative but diverting Stagedoor, which chronicles the hopes and dreams of five campers at the Catskills summer-theater refuge Stagedoor Manor, the sort of place where kids stand around a piano for hours singing songs from A Chorus Line. Here, the musical-comedy queens can relax in the company of their fellow high-school outcasts and do Mame before cheering peers, relieved parents, and Catskills-resort octogenarians.

Oh, Lord—this movie brings it back. I went to that camp. Not Stagedoor Manor but its immediate predecessor, Beginners Showcase, which moved from Georges Mills, New Hampshire, when one of the owners (a regional Ronald McDonald) ran afoul of the law. Those were the best two summers of my life, if for no other reason than that most of the really attractive guys were gay and I had more beautiful girls around me than I could shake a stick at. My stick, alas, was 15 years old and had no clue that it would ever be so lucky again. But I digress . . .


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