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No, Speed Racer, No

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Battle for Haditha dramatizes the (true) story of a roadside bomb that killed a U.S. soldier and the retaliation that took the lives of 24 Iraqi men, women, and children. Here are the salient points: The two men who plant the bomb hate Al Qaeda (which would kill them just for drinking alcohol) but hate Americans more—they disbanded the army in which the older man served and left him with nothing. The family who live across the street from where the bomb is planted and know that it’s there have the choice of telling the Americans, in which case the insurgents will kill them, or saying nothing, in which case the Americans might kill them—or arrest them as collaborators and do who-knows-what. They can’t run because the outside world isn’t safe, but staying put could be just as deadly. The American soldiers, meanwhile, have a scary amount of unfocused energy: They’re always playing rough, hostile practical jokes on one another, and the corporal (Elliot Ruiz) who ends up doing most of the killing is beginning to buckle under all his bad dreams. He asks for counseling and is coldly refused. The message is “Do your job.” His murderousness is shocking—he’s a man possessed—but this is his tragedy, too.

Broomfield is known for documentaries, and his filmmaking here has a live-wire feel. The camera is handheld but never ostentatiously quivery: Its restlessness conveys its characters’ chaotic emotions. You get edgy alongside the Americans as they scan buildings for snipers. You wince for the Iraqis roughly pulled from their cars and searched, rifles pointing in their faces. (To think we get indignant about taking off our shoes at airports.) You exhale in anticipation with the bombers on the balcony of an apartment complex, looking up and down the road below for signs of an American convoy.

The bombers’ bitter talk as they finger the cell phone that will trigger the explosion is a little “on the nose”—the movie has too many thesis lines. But even when the dialogue is stilted, the acting and directing take the starch out of it. Battle for Haditha has some of the raw energy of Sam Fuller’s war pictures, which weren’t subtle but left you energized by their ambivalence (there was no good or evil). It’s a hell of a picture.

Before the Rains has a cool, evocative mixture of beauty and ominousness. It’s set in lush Kerala, in southern India, in 1937, around the time the Raj was having its first, well-earned jitters about the future of Great Britain as a colonial power. This isn’t the best moment to make a major financial investment in the country, but the upper-crust Englishman Henry Moores (Linus Roache) has lofty dreams: He’s determined to whack out a road up the side of a mountain to create a spice empire. He’s a rather decent egg—extravagantly complimentary toward his Indian assistant, T.K. (Rahul Bose), who designs the road to resist the monsoon flooding. And he’s no racist: He’s madly in love with his married housekeeper, Sajani (Nandita Das), whom he drives into the sacred woods beside a waterfall to procure honey. She licks it off his fingers, he licks it off hers … all very lyrical but for the two little kids in loincloths watching.

This is another movie in which an illicit affair opens economic chasms and catalyzes disasters, and it’s in danger of being damned with faint praise as a guilty-colonialist Merchant-Ivory period piece. It is—it’s even presented by Merchant Ivory Productions. But the screenplay, by Cathy Rabin and Dan Verete, builds nicely, and the cinematographer turned director, Santosh Sivan, likes to break up the verdant images with bits of encroaching nature: a frog, some bees, the flies on a cow’s eye. Before the Rains is more engrossing as the focus shifts from Henry, who’s not a bad man, just a spineless one, to Sajani, who thinks her English lover will give her a freedom she has never had—and finally to T.K., who gets stuck cleaning up his sahib’s mess. Rahul Bose has a winning presence—eager with a touch of wariness or wary with a touch of eagerness, and never entirely at home. He keeps the movie from seeming too comfy—a good thing.

Famke Janssen has a great long body for leaning over a pool table, and as a homeless pool and card hustler in Turn the River, she’s amazingly vivid. She plays a woman whose son was effectively pried out of her hands by the father’s religious-gorgon mom (Lois Smith). But she kept in touch with the boy (Jaymie Dornan), and now she needs $50,000 to kidnap him from his ineffectual father (Matt Ross) and whisk him over the Canadian border. The movie, the directorial debut of the actor Chris Eigeman, has a mixture of edginess and melancholy that’s beautifully sustained until the climax, when the tang of realism becomes the cudgel of melodrama. But the actors around Janssen are up to her: the droopily expressive Dornan, the prize ham Rip Torn as the pool-hall owner and surrogate papa, and especially a hangdog Terry Kinney in a role that’s all subtext—he’s making her fake passports but seems to be carrying a whopper of a torch for her. It’s no wonder he’s smitten. I’d be prepared to lose a lot of money just to watch her clear the table.

Speed Racer
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski.
Warner Bros. PG.

Battle for Haditha
Directed by Nick Broomfield.
Hanway Films. Not Rated.

Before the Rains
Directed by Santosh Sivan.
Merchant Ivory Prods. PG-13.

Turn the River
Directed by Chris Eigeman.
Screen Media Films. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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