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Film Clips: 'The Hard Word', 'House Of Fools'

A roundup of new releases

Friday, July 11, 2003

'The Hard Word'

RATING: R for strong violence, language, sexuality and brief drug use.

STARRING: Guy Pearce, Rachel Griffiths.

DIRECTOR: Scott Roberts.

Rachel Griffiths, sporting blond hair and enough sexual swagger to fell a musk ox, has a great old time playing both ends against the middle in the Australian caper movie "The Hard Word." The problem is in sorting among all the potential chumps in this antipodean film noir -- and in understanding half of what they're saying.

A lean and shaggy Guy Pearce plays Dale Twentyman, one of three brothers who are sprung from jail by their crooked lawyer, Frank Malone (Robert Taylor), to practice their specialty -- armed robbery in which no one gets hurt. But Frank then practices his specialty -- the old double cross.

The boys go back to jail, and Frank goes back to Dale's wife, Carol (Griffiths). But the lawyer gets them out again for an even bigger job -- a heist at the Melbourne Cup horse race that could net them millions. Dale knows he can't trust Frank, but the game must play out and does -- in ways no one expects.

Writer-director Scott Roberts and his performers (including Damien Richardson as the dim but good-natured Mal and Joel Edgerton as the handsome but hair-trigger Shane) draw vivid portrayals of the main characters. But the movie goes on too long, as if in search of an ending. Yet we may foresee what must happen.

Roberts doesn't seem to trust the psychological depths of the characters nor the twists and turns of his plot. So he indulges in oddball humor that seems contrived -- killing one fellow by trying to shove a lava lamp down his throat, staging several key scenes at a roadside restaurant dominated by the statue of a giant cow, several gags (and I use the word literally) regarding Mal's talent as a butcher.

Speaking of which, the characters often resort to a patois called butcher's slang, in which the speaker says everything backward. Roberts helpfully provides subtitles in these instances, but we could use them at other times when the accents prove thicker than the intrigue.

"The Hard Word" takes its title literally, it seems.

-- Ron Weiskind

'House Of Fools'

RATING: R for language, some violence and nudity.

STARRING: Julia Vysotsky, Sultan Islamov, Bryan Adams.

DIRECTOR: Andrei Konchalovsky.

A fable about a psychiatric hospital caught in the middle of the Chechen war, "House of Fools" may be viewed as a Russian equivalent of that French antiwar cult favorite "King of Hearts."

But something gets lost in the translation. I worked at a theater company that hired a Germanic director to stage Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." Let's just say the comedy's droll wit and frothy effervescence did not thrive under such a heavy hand.

Similarly, I would not expect a Russian movie to have the bon-bon charm of "King of Hearts," about a Scottish soldier in World War I who enters a town inhabited only by the inmates of the local asylum, whose childlike sense of play (and play-acting) typified the hippies of the film's era (it came out in 1966). With Vietnam raging and the soldiers in the movie slaughtering each other, there was no doubt whom the audience identified with.

"House of Fools" features the usual gang of movie lunatics, more eccentric than truly insane. When shelling interrupts their mundane existence, the staff leaves. The Chechens arrive, and a soldier named Ahmed (Sultan Islamov) playfully refers to the pretty but deluded patient Janna (Julia Vysotsky) as "my fiancee."

She takes him seriously, of course, but she doesn't want to disappoint the man to whom she feels betrothed -- Canadian pop star Bryan Adams, whose posters dominate her wall. The patients watch a train pass every night, and she fantasizes that it's a lighted carriage on which Adams serenades her and the other patients.

Bryan Adams? She must be mad.

The most affecting scenes are when she decides to become Ahmed's betrothed; when the Russians and Chechens call a brief truce (and find out they have more in common than they imagined); and when the Russians move into the asylum in a style quite different from that of the Chechens.

The stuff with the patients, on the other hand, is as weak as the notion of Bryan Adams in a Russian analogy about war. We may not want to identify with any of these characters -- not the soldiers, scared and tired, nor the patients, who survive on their delusions. It's a house of fools indeed.

-- Ron Weiskind

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