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The Obscene Zone

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An ascetic with a love life that even his dogged biographer couldn’t uncover, Nader has turned on people who’ve served him loyally when they compromised too quickly. “Associates, friendships, sentiment are secondary to pushing lifesaving statutes into law,” he says, setting the stage for his “Screw you” to the Democrats in 2000. But Mantel and Skrovan locate the roots of his bitterness in the Reagan era, when people who devoted their careers to tearing down certain government agencies were suddenly appointed to run them, and when the party of opposition began currying favor with the same big corporations. Ultimately, the Democrats froze out the man who should have been their mascot.

The second of the film’s two hours centers on the 2000 election, and Mantel and Skrovan allow such liberal critics as Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman to vent about Nader’s ethical dishonesty, megalomania, etc. Someone always answers the specific charges, though: It’s clear where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie. What they don’t get from Nader—what no one will ever get from Nader—is an admission that however glorious his grassroots campaign felt at the time, it finished him politically in a way that no corporation could have. An Unreasonable Man does much to rehabilitate his legacy. I’m still furious at him, but no one alive deserves less to be a pariah.

Seraphim Falls is an antiwar Western in which one man (Liam Neeson) pursues another (Pierce Brosnan) through frigid snow-capped mountains, high deserts, and dry lake beds under a scorching sun: primal landscapes, primal emotions, primal men in a primal fight to the death. There, I’ve used the word primal more than my press kit does. Given that the movie is one long chase—Neeson’s motive withheld until the end, the monotony broken only by the slaying of one member of his posse after another—the film is surprisingly gripping. The director, David Von Ancken, and his cinematographer, John Toll, do magical things with the ever-shifting light, and there are splendidly weird turns from Anjelica Huston as a snake-oil salesperson and Tom Noonan as a wagon-train Evangelist.

No one who sees the first fifteen minutes of Seraphim Falls can doubt that Brosnan is the movies’ supreme grunter: He is to acting what poor Monica Seles was to tennis. He added grunts to his feats in his Bond movies, presumably to make 007 seem more human, but they were too jarring in that high-style context. Here, they make for a powerful soundtrack. The movie opens with him taking a bullet in the shoulder (aggghhh!), rolling down an embankment (uggghh arrrr), tumbling into a raging river (raahruuuf!) that dumps him over a falls (yaaaaaaaaah), digging the bullet out of his shoulder (arf%^Sssss$#yyy!) with a big knife and then cauterizing the wound (ayyyeeeeeeeeee!!!). I’m not being facetious: This is very impressive stuff. If his acting career ever stalls, he could make a fortune dubbing kung fu pictures.

Smokin’ Aces raises a vexing question about filmmakers’ attitudes toward violence. The movie is a bloody action farce that painstakingly lays the groundwork for its tumultuous second hour, in which sundry deadly forces (gangsters, competing assassins, FBI agents) converge on the hotel suite of a nightclub weasel (Jeremy Piven) with a fat bounty on his head. This is comic-book nihilism with a dash of MTV syncopation—but as he demonstrated in Narc, the director, Joe Carnahan, is too much of a humanist to make his characters expendable and their deaths good fun. Again and again the killers linger sadistically over the dead or dying bodies of the people they’ve dispatched. Did Carnahan think these sickening scenes would give Smokin’ Aces a moral complexity that’s generally absent from this genre? I think they make the picture seem even more morally bankrupt.

The Situation
Directed by Philip Haas. Shadow Distribution. Not Yet Rated.

An Unreasonable Man
Directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan. IFC Films. NR.

Seraphim Falls
Directed by David Von Ancken.Samuel Goldwyn. R.

Smokin' Aces
Directed by Joe Carnahan.Universal. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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