Why do Sydney Pollack's movies so rarely have the snap and directness of his acting? Pollack doesn't appear onscreen nearly enough, and when he does, it's usually only for a scene or two. (His intellectual lout in Husbands & Wives was a rare, marvelous exception.) But these extended cameos - in Tootsie (which he also directed), Death Becomes Her, and Changing Lanes, especially - show Pollack the Actor to be a quick-witted utility player with focus and drive; without the slightest apparent effort, he can steal scenes from Dustin Hoffman or Tom Cruise, and any movie he's in gains in intensity and sharpness when he's around. Pollack the Director is another matter entirely. In the years since 1982's Tootsie, he has churned out one logy, shapeless, middlebrow time-waster after another: Havana, The Firm, Sabrina, Random Hearts ... they all wear their "prestige" on their sleeves, mistake inertia for depth, and are painfully overlong. (It's the Out of Africa Syndrome.)
Pollack's latest is the thriller The Interpreter, and it took all my will, just now, not to put quotation marks around the word "thriller." (Well, look at that. I just did.) Nicole Kidman plays a U.N. interpreter who overhears a plot to murder an African ambassador and believes her life to be in danger, Sean Penn is the federal agent investigating the matter, and the film is so agonizingly slow and indifferently executed that when there's finally a tautly directed sequence aboard a bus, or when Kidman and Penn finally start yelling at each other, you're almost pathetically grateful. The movie isn't a complete botch; there are a few clever touches, such as when Kidman uses the car that's tailing her as a taxi, and Catherine Keener, as Penn's partner, comes through with some low-key comic relief. But much as you'd hope some chemistry would develop between the leads, both sink under the weight of The Interpreter's heavy-handedness, and it's all grossly over-written; it's a movie made for adults, but the filmmakers spend so much time spelling out their every plot machination that they don't trust their audience to think like adults.
And, ridiculous as it might sound, the whole movie is nearly sabotaged by Nicole Kidman's hair. Playing a former Afrikaner now living in D.C., Kidman has several monologues about her homeland and those she left behind, and she certainly gives her lines proper reverence. Yet you find yourself unable to take your eyes off those impossibly blond tresses and imagining nothing so much as Barbie on Safari; when Kidman, seeing a picture of a poverty-stricken African child, intones, "That little boy was my country," The Interpreter, for a brief moment, becomes emblematic of everything ridiculous about Hollywood - the regal white woman suffers for an entire continent. How very Out of Africa.
BORN INTO BROTHELS
A similar problem plagues Born Into Brothels, this year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, which is currently playing at the Brew & View. Directed and shot by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, the film should be unbearable yet hopeful. It details the suffering of young children sold into prostitution in Bombay's red-light district, yet it also presents them with a potential way out, as Briski and her associates provide the children with cameras, encouraging them to take photographs and pursue an education as a way to combat their horrific living conditions. (The photographs are auctioned at Sotheby's to raise money for their schooling.) The movie's intentions are beyond noble, and the children we meet are heartbreaking camera subjects; you feel both their pain and their unformed resolve in bettering their lives. Yet far too much of the movie is dedicated to watching Briski herself as she gets the kids ration cards, has them tested for HIV, enrolls them in school; like Michael Moore when he's feeling particularly self-serving, the directors make Briski the star of the show, as if her minor impositions could even compare with the plight of the kids. (There's a lingering shot of Briski after a child tells her he doesn't want to take photographs right now, and her disappointment becomes the true point of the scene.) Born Into Brothels is full of goodwill and is often effective, but like The Interpreter, its insistence on regarding the protagonist's heartache as equal to the truly disenfranchised borders on the offensive. These movies belong on a double-bill entitled And a Caucasian Woman Shall Lead Them.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR
1979's The Amityville Horror is widely regarded as one of that decade's most insufferably boring horror movies, but try telling that to an 11-year-old seeing his first R-rated scare flick on the big screen. (Ask my folks: I had to sleep with the lights on for a week.) The experience was so scarring that I had serious reservations about sitting through the current, Michael Bay-produced remake at all, and so it was with great relief that I found this new Amityville Horror to be ... not so bad. Actually, if you can get past the crummy dialogue and Ryan Reynolds' hambone performance (he acts, and looks, like a pissed-off Jason Lee) and the exquisite silliness of some of the "ghostly" effects - Eeek! The refrigerator magnets are moving on their own! - quite a bit of it works well; it's a pretty enjoyable terrible movie. It opens with some disturbing, smartly incorporated newsreel footage, has more than its share of effective "Boo!" moments, and showcases some surprisingly strong child actors; the movie might be trash, but it's not embarrassing. And although some of the alterations to the film's source material are puzzling - Wasn't the invisible home-wrecker Jody a pig and not a little girl? - having the subtle Philip Baker Hall, as the local priest, replace the shrieking Rod Steiger can only be considered a change for the better. For all its faults, and some serious nuttiness in the presentation of its chronology, The Amityville Horror is agreeable, blessedly short nonsense. It gives you just what you want from a cheesy horror movie, and after viewing it, I slept like a baby.
KUNG FU HUSTLE
Stephen Chow's martial-arts comedy Kung Fu Hustle is so wildly, weirdly entertaining that the movie could make even less sense than it does and you'd still have a helluva time. The film, which deals with a series of warring Chinese gangs and the kung-fu masters who face them, is like a full-length, live-action Road Runner short on peyote, and Chow, who seems giddily obsessed with American pop culture - his references here to Spider-Man, The Untouchables, and Kubrick's The Shining are hysterical - imbues his characters' time-and-space contortions with such stylized, over-the-top panache that you might find yourself laughing (and, with its cartoonish ultra-violence, wincing) for the movie's entire 90-plus minutes. Just to describe its hilarious, jaw-dropping effects and set pieces is to risk spoiling the fun. Just go, and pay no attention to the guy in back who's laughing his ass off - it could very well be me.