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Next, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, After The Wedding


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AFTER THE WEDDING / THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY Just because the summer blockbuster season is upon us doesn't mean that moviegoers uninterested in pungent pirates or a shrieking Shrek should stay home and warm up the DVD player. The local art-houses will continue to provide healthy alternatives, as witnessed by this twofer that's opening locally against a certain friendly neighborhood you-know-what. A recent nominee for the Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award, Denmark's After the Wedding stars Mads Mikkelsen (the bleeding-eye villain in Casino Royale) as a humanitarian trying to save his orphanage in India from going under. He travels to Copenhagen to meet a millionaire (Rolf Lassgard) interested in financing the project, only to learn that the businessman has a more personal motive for bringing him to Denmark. Initially threatening to turn into the most shameless of melodramas, After the Wedding instead builds upon its rickety foundation with such dexterity and grace that it eventually emerges as a deeply moving experience. The Wind That Shakes the Barley, meanwhile, is the latest from British iconoclast Ken Loach, a hard-hitting political drama that snagged the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Focusing on Ireland's bid for independence in the early part of the 20th century, it stars Cillian Murphy as a medical student who puts his career as a doctor on hold in order to help his countrymen, including his brother (Padraic Delaney), fight against British rule. But as the conflict grows more complicated and the Irish factions begin to split and quarrel among themselves, the two siblings suddenly find themselves in opposition. More convincing than Hollywood's take on the conflict, 1996's Michael Collins, this down and dirty import is honest enough to acknowledge that war has the ability to turn everyone -- despite their convictions -- into thugs and murderers. Both movies: ***

NEXT One of the weakest adaptations yet of a Philip K. Dick story ("The Golden Man"), Next is most notable for how it shunts the vibrant, 46-year-old Julianne Moore off to the sides while it gives 43-year-old Nicolas Cage a noticeably younger love interest in 25-year-old Jessica Biel. (In similar fashion, the movie's poster makes it look like Biel's bodacious ta-tas are the leading characters.) Biel is basically filling the same function as she did in last year's The Illusionist, which is serving as girlfriend-pawn to a magician hoping to keep her out of harm's way. Cage's Cris Johnson actually uses his Vegas "magic man" act to cover up the fact that he can see two minutes into his own future and thereby shape his destiny to his liking. Cris considers his gift a curse, but FBI agent Callie Ferris (Moore) believes it can help her locate a Eurotrash terrorist outfit plotting to destroy Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb. Into the mix walks Liz Cooper (Biel), a teacher who's been frequently appearing in Cris' visions and who might hold the key to ... well, something; the movie never bothers to elaborate. Next quickly loses altitude once it becomes apparent that Cris' powers will conveniently come and go as needed to keep the screenplay lurching forward. Yet even this slipshod quality is tolerable until we reach the final portion of the film, a monumental copout on the level of those overused "It was all a dream" stories that our fiction writing professors would urge us not to pen back in college. One plus: It's great to see Peter Falk (now 79) as Cage's confidante, even if his screen time seemingly runs shorter than the end credits crawl. *1/2

Current Releases

BLACK BOOK Director Paul Verhoeven's first Dutch film in over 20 years is slam-bang entertainment that's almost delirious in its attempt to emulate some of the ambitious World War II epics from the past. Verhoeven, whose notable career (The Fourth Man, RoboCop) was singlehandedly derailed by Showgirls, infuses Black Book with plenty of verve and passion, and he's aided by a top-notch cast led by the wonderful Carice Van Houten. In Rachel Stein, Van Houten has created a truly memorable character, a Jewish woman who endures her share of heartbreak and humiliation yet is above all else a survivalist. Even though her family is gunned down before her eyes, she manages to escape the carnage, determined to find the duplicitous rat whose actions caused their demise. She joins the Dutch underground, where she becomes attracted to Hans Akkersmans (Thom Hoffman), a macho marksman (he bears some resemblance to Russell Crowe) who seems to have more lives than your average cat's grand total of nine. In true Mata Hari fashion, Rachel is asked to get chummy with a high-ranking Nazi official (Sebastian Koch, the conflicted playwright in The Lives of Others), a problem once she begins to fall in love with him. With its series of blazing gun battles, numerous espionage capers (will Rachel get caught while bugging Nazi HQ?), and characters repeatedly double-crossing each other, Black Book rarely gives the viewer time to breathe -- it's like The Guns of Navarone for the art-house set. ***1/2


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