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Women On The Edge

Popular actresses tackle gritty roles

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Meg Ryan has tackled so many fluffy roles under the guise of "America's sweetheart" that it's easy to forget she's a decent dramatic actress when she puts her mind to it. Films like When a Man Loves a Woman and Courage Under Fire tapped into this serious side, but her cutie-pie image takes its biggest hit to date with an appropriately dour turn in the psychosexual drama In the Cut. Ryan stars as Frannie Avery, a lonely New Yorker who falls for a roughneck detective (Mark Ruffalo) cryptic enough to make her suspect he might also be the serial killer who's been hacking up women. Campion's past works, which include the modern masterpiece The Piano and the stilted misfire The Portrait of a Lady, have been labeled profound in some quarters and pretentious in others, and this adaptation of Susanna Moore's novel will likewise draw differing reactions. On the most commercial level of a murder-mystery, it's a complete washout, jammed with gaping plotholes and a laughably obvious culprit. Yet as a stylized study of the uneasy symmetry between the ache of sexual longing and the risk of violent retribution, the film occasionally threatens to spring to life, especially when centering on Frannie's fragile sister Pauline, a broken porcelain doll of a woman sensitively played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Indeed, all the characters (and the attendant relationships) worming through the film have potential, yet they're repeatedly forced to take a backseat not only to tired thriller elements but also to Campion's misplaced sense of artful abstraction.

Failing to convey the imagination of Frida, the poignancy of Iris, or the profundity of Virginia Woolf's plight in The Hours, the new biopic Sylvia brings up the rear when it comes to recent films about tortured women trying to create art while contending with the roadblock of mental and/or physical anguish. Forever known in shorthand as the suicidal author of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath won't see that description expanded by this dreary effort that seems more interested in documenting a tragic love affair than getting inside this woman's head. Whether Plath's art and death were fueled by much beyond romance gone awry seems almost beside the point in this picture, which focuses almost exclusively on the soap opera angle and in effect paints largely unsympathetic portrayals of both Sylvia (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her husband, poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). Paltrow suffers nobly, Craig (previously Paul Newman's weakling son in Road to Perdition) fails to muster up the charisma that made Hughes such a babe magnet, and the film's creators are under the impression that glum subject matter must be given a glum presentation, even at the expense of eliciting audience empathy.

It's been a while since we've had an all-consuming romantic epic set against an international backdrop, and while Beyond Borders doesn't come within even 100 kilometers of attaining the power of, say, Reds or The English Patient, it's a solid, second-tier effort. Angelina Jolie headlines as a pampered rich girl whose dormant humanitarian spirit gets a rude awakening once a compassionate doctor (Croupier's Clive Owen) involved with international relief efforts forces her to open her eyes to global atrocities. Those expecting Jolie's character to end up feeding and clothing every indigent person on the planet might be surprised at the movie's toughness and refusal to compromise -- in that regard, the picture occasionally recalls the gut-wrenching might of The Killing Fields and other politically charged thrillers so prevalent in the 80s. The story's globe-hopping seems almost too calculated -- our heroes journey from Ethiopia to Cambodia to Chechnya, threatening to turn this into a Berlitz Travel Guide of the World's Hot Spots -- but director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) and writer Caspian Tredwell-Owen are mindful not to let the central romance subjugate the movie's humanist spark. Jolie (a real-life United Nations spokesperson) clearly responds to her character's finer traits, while the magnetic Owen tantalizingly remains just one breakout role away from becoming a major star.

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