Opens Fri., Aug. 26, at Varsity
If all you know about John Leguizamo is how manically funny he can be, you've got to see him seize the lead in Ecuadorian writer/director Sebastián Cordero's psycho-killer thriller. He never cracks a grin as the driven Manolo, a crusading, rabble-rousing investigative reporter for a Miami-based tabloid TV show, One Hour With the Truth, that's all the rage in Latin America. He's sort of like Geraldo Rivera, only instead of being a silly asshole poser, he's sincerely as obsessed with righting wrongs as he is with scribbling autographs and grabbing girls and glory.
In the completely gripping first scenes, a terrifying figure emerges dripping from primal waters and walks past a mysterious abandoned building that buzzes infernally with unseen flies. We find out he's Vinicio (Damián Alcázar), who's somehow mixed up in Manolo's top story: a serial rapist/torturer/murderer, "the Monster of Babahoya," who keeps dumping butchered children and eluding Ecuador's incompetent cops. Coincidentally, Vinicio drives up just after his latest victim's funeral while Manolo's crew is there to milk it for ratings. The victim's twin brother runs impulsively in front of Vinicio's car, is hit, and dies instantly. The kid's father, who's now lost one son to the Monster and another to Vinicio, pummels him, douses him with gas, and sets him on fire.
Manolo has never been happier! His ace producer (Leonor Watling) and cameraman (José Maria Yazpik) deftly craft the disaster they've stumbled upon into a tight little moral fable: an unfortunate driver lynched by a mob led by the bereaved dad as the cops impotently look on—until the people's hero Manolo muscles his way through the crowd, fights them off, and saves Vinicio.
In a Hollywood movie, the director would strew red herrings to make us suspect various characters of being the Monster of Babahoya. Cordero lets us know it's Vinicio from the get-go. The drama is a subtler one. To save himself from getting murdered by the grieving dad's sympathizers, Vinicio begs Manolo to spring him from prison in return for Vinicio's inside skinny on the Monster, whom he claims to have picked up hitchhiking. To prove he's not lying, he tips Manolo to a victim the cops don't know about yet. The film becomes a cat-and-mouse game, with Manolo and the Monster trying to out-manipulate each other as the cops breathe down the necks of both, and Manolo's boss, the show's blowhard news anchor (Alfred Molina, seen only on TV screens), pressures him to air the Vinicio's-a-blameless-lynching-victim story pronto, so he can fly off to do the Medellín cartel exclusive he deems the week's big story.
Plotwise, it's a bumpy night. Manolo tries to coax a confession before it's too late, the cops harass the news team as it tries to nail down Vinicio's guilt, and subplots run around and aground, occasionally clumsily colliding. Even so, the tension is consistent, thanks to wonderful acting and a rich sense of place. Alcázar plays the most three- dimensional serial killer in some time—my, what kind eyes he's got! The news crew's cool swagger rings true, as does the remorse when the story gets away from them and they realize they're not such paragons after all. Leguizamo is equally convincing in both sides of his role. He's a hero with panache, and an antihero with plausible flaws. Hollywood, stop treating him like a clown—this man's a movie star. (NR) TIM APPELO
Funny Ha Ha
Runs Fri., Aug. 26–Thurs., Sept. 1, at Northwest Film Forum
Ask anyone: The four food groups of postcollegiate life are temping, dating, parties (where you bitch and moan about temping and try to find someone to date), and the use of the word "like" as an indeterminate part of speech. Andrew Bujalski's refreshing debut feature delivers plenty of each, but it's more than the sum of its parts. Shot on 16 mm during three brisk Boston weeks for what one can only imagine was pennies, Funny Ha Ha could be the year's most acute romantic comedy—and there's not a single professional actor in it.
Inspired by Mike Leigh, Bujalski crafted a screenplay with plenty of room for his friends to improvise their roles. Their performances absolutely nail the mixed-up emotions and awkwardness of being single in your mid-20s. (It helps that they're attractive without seeming, even for a moment, less than real—these are friends, not Friends.) At the center of the story is 24-year-old Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), a gawky beauty who stumbles from temp job to temp job (and party to party) with only a semicertain sense of who she is. It's not much of a hook to hang a movie on, but Dollenmayer's performance is graceful enough—swanlike, almost—to make the film feel much less aimless than she and her slacker pals are. When her nerdy suitor, Mitchell (Bujalski), offers to buy her a drink, Marnie has just the right nervous note in her voice: "I'm the opposite of parched."
She'd rather be with scruffy Alex (Christian Rudder), but his off-and-on relationship with Nina (Vanessa Bertozzi) keeps getting in the way. And why does her friend Rachel's boyfriend, Dave (Myles Paige), try to kiss her when Rachel's not around? Bujalski has a sharp eye for how flirtation works among smart, insecure people. He also knows what it's like to simultaneously desire and envy someone. On their first date, Mitchell makes a squirmy situation worse by telling Marnie: "Ninety percent of the guys you know are head over heels in love with you." He's projecting, of course, but there's a kernel of truth in what he says: Marnie's one of those people who have no idea how funny—that's funny ha-ha, not funny strange—and poised and beautiful they are. And that only makes them more appealing. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER
Kings and Queen
Runs Fri., Aug. 26–Thurs., Sept. 1, at Varsity
Poised, self-effacing Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), a successful Paris art dealer, greets us at the door of Kings and Queen, and a more unreliable hostess you couldn't hope to find, nor a more slyly seductive one. Welcome to the breathtaking, explosive world of writer-director Arnaud Desplechin, once pegged as "a master of organized chaos," where nearly every assumption you make about a character will be reinforced, contradicted, or utterly blown apart.
Don't be put off by the two-and-one-half-hour running time. As we get deeper and deeper into the parallel, seemingly unrelated lives of tranquil Nora and her hyperactive ex-lover, Ismaël (the elfin, disheveled Mathieu Amalric), as their family circles widen, becoming more complex and more outrageous, Kings seems to float, not strain. Desplechin moves easily not just through comedy, tragedy, and melodrama but through a profligate store of references: Greek myth (particularly Leda and the Swan); Hitchcock, Godard, and maybe Douglas Sirk; Moon River, Randy Newman, Shakespeare, Moby Dick, Ibsen, the Bible, and As the World Turns. Past and present behave like pop-up ads. You may not always know where you are, but you're never bored.
Nora seems, at 35, finally headed for a safe harbor, after a spectacularly rocky beginning, including a lover's suicide, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy (yielding her son Elias, now 10), and a long, tumultuous affair with Ismaël, violist in a string quartet. She confides directly to us that the money and pampering offered by her current fiancé, businessman Jean-Jacques, played no small part in winning her, although when she visits her adoring, celebrated writer-father (a scalpel-sharp Maurice Garrel) in Grenoble, it's clear she was always privileged. So, if Jean-Jacques' nightly joints and weekend snorts of heroin diminish his heroics in the bedroom, it's a trade-off she's willing to make.
What she can't ignore is that Elias ("my whole life") has less than no rapport with Jean-Jacques, preferring either his grandfather or the raffish Ismaël, his stepfather for six formative years. So when Nora's father's stomach pains are diagnosed as deadly, her world turns dark, and she becomes a needy, anxious child, imperiously demanding that Ismaël adopt Elias, whom he hasn't seen in four years.
Intercut with Nora's history—sometimes splashed up against it for sheer, manic effect—is Ismaël's hyperwired life, as he's mysteriously (mistakenly?) thrown into a private sanitarium. No one makes himself at home in a madhouse as brilliantly. He even hooks up with a young, attempted-suicide repeater (Magali Wuch, who deserves a film all her own). Yet Ismaël refuses to engage with his therapist (Catherine Deneuve), on the grounds that "women have no souls." Women live in a bubble, he says, men in a single, straight line. Deneuve's face at this moment is the very definition of sangfroid.
Devos, integral to four of Desplechin's five previous features, has the ripe, luscious look of summer fruit at its peak; one more day, and the fruit flies will gather. She's brave enough to lay out every one of Nora's flaws: childishness, selfishness, an ingrained sense of privilege, knowing how much is forgiven when you're beautiful. Still, when—seemingly from nowhere—Nora is dealt a nearly mortal psychic blow, we're not sure whether to trust the information or her response.
What is clear, from the moving epilogue where Ismaël tells the alert, watchful Elias his feelings about adopting him, is that through loss and discovery, the "mad" Ismaël has righted himself, unsteadily but surely, while Nora is left in her "safe" harbor with her beauty and its fragile timetable. (NR) SHEILA BENSON