Sean Penn and Dakota Fanning in I Am SamI AM SAM

How does one begin to discuss the blinding idiocies of I Am Sam? This comic weepie about Sam (Sean Penn), a mentally challenged Starbucks employee trying to retain custody of his young daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning), is so shockingly offensive, both thematically and as a work of cinema, as to defy rational analysis, so here's a brief checklist of what made me want to bash my head in:

• At the very least, you'd expect that I Am Sam would open a debate on whether it's actually appropriate for a man with the mental capacity of a seven-year-old to raise a child who will quickly be more advanced than he. But no. Director/co-writer Jessie Nelson is unequivocally on Sam's and Lucy's side - a Beatles fanatic, Sam is fond of repeating the phrase "All you need is love" ad nauseum - and makes any character who raises the question a heartless sonofabitch; the prosecuting attorney (Richard Schiff, coming off as the only sane person in the movie) is treated with judgmental cruelty by the camera and poked fun at for being bald. With her incessant, manipulative, pity-poor-Sam-and-Lucy snobbery, Nelson makes you feel like a sonofabitch, too.

• It would be maudlin enough if the movie merely focused on Sam's and Lucy's custody plight, but we are also "treated" to Sam's bumbling, seriocomic attempts at bettering himself at work (complete with off-putting product placement for Starbucks and, eventually, Pizza Hut - are Sam and Lucy action-figures coming out soon?), Sam's shut-in neighbor (Dianne Wiest, sadly) with an abusive past, Lucy's potential foster mother (Laura Dern), and worst and most time-consuming of all, Sam's lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer), who realizes, through Sam, that by devoting all her time to work she's been neglecting her own child. Stop the presses!

• Nelson uses a jittery, hand-held camera throughout the film and employs "arty" whiplash editing, and both elements are sure to cause motion sickness in audiences everywhere. (Her work is far more incompetent than that of the filmmaking novices of The Blair Witch Project.) The filmmaking turns out to be as psychotic as the story.

• Despite the occasional light, funny moment, Penn's portrayal is all shtick and no substance (there's a shot of him plunking one note on a piano repeatedly, which is basically what his performance adds up to), and it apparently didn't occur to Nelson that having Penn and fellow actors play mentally challenged alongside actual mentally challenged performers Joseph Rosenberg and Brad Silverman - both of whom are far more enjoyable than the Hollywood pros - is the zenith of tastelessness, and does nothing but point out the gimmickry of Penn's acting. Pfeiffer has never before overacted this badly, and little Dakota Fanning is such a preternaturally confident performer that, in all honesty, she gave me the creeps.

Released briefly in December for Oscar consideration - ha! - I Am Sam qualifies for one very special mention: Most Thoroughly Repugnant Movie of 2001.


Laura Linney, Lucinda Jenney, and Will PattonTHE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES

Along with Baz Luhrmann and Todd Solondz, Mark Pellington is quickly becoming a first-rate, love-his-work-or-absolutely-hate-it director, and Lord knows we need more of them in movies. His last thriller, 1999's stylized, baroque Arlington Road, had passionate supporters (myself among them) and just as many who found it lurid and irresponsible, and now he's back with The Mothman Prophecies, which would be (and, by some, certainly will be) seen as silly genre garbage if it weren't for the visual and emotional heft Pellington brings to it. Richard Gere stars as a Washington Post reporter whose wife (Debra Messing) has a vision of an unearthly, moth-like creature moments before a car crash; it appears to be a portent of her doom, and Gere knows good times are not in store when a large segment of the Mt. Pleasant, West Virginia, population begins seeing the creature, too.

While the film stubbornly refuses to explain the source of its terrors - though we are told the tale is, ugh, based on true events - it's a mini-triumph for Pellington, who gets strong, subtle work from his cast (including Laura Linney, Will Patton, and Alan Bates) and who makes the film practically drip with menace and fear of the unknown. Pellington knows how to stage a simple phone conversation with goosebump-inducing dread, has a gift for terrifyingly beautiful imagery (wait for a nighttime scene of dozens of cars, headlights ablaze, submerged underwater), and comes through with one of his patented camera-angle tricks that makes an audience scream: Remember Joan Cusack suddenly appearing behind Hope Davis at the phone booth in Arlington Road? Here, Pellington tops that jolt with an exquisitely framed shocker between Gere and Messing. In the end, The Mothman Prophecies is goofball nonsense, but it's scary and undeniably engrossing, and while Pellington might, for now, just be a genre entertainer, it's looking more and more like he's also an artist.


No Man's LandNO MAN'S LAND

At this year's Golden Globes, the Bosnian drama No Man's Land upset the heavily favored Amelie by winning Best Foreign-Language Film, and some of you might be wondering just how good the movie is. Well, it's not. In fact, it's pretty crummy. Set in a pastoral field in 1993 Bosnia, the movie opens with a standoff between two small yet determined troops of Bosnian and Serbian soldiers. In the course of the battle - a miniaturized version of their entire, horrific conflict - one soldier from each side finds himself wounded and trapped in a foxhole with the other, while a third injured man regains consciousness and realizes he's lying on an explosive that will detonate with his slightest movement. The Bosnian and Serb must work together to save their lives yet refuse to appear weak by attempting a truce. We are, as you might have gleaned, in the presence of A Parable.

There's nothing wrong with the theatricality of this setup; at least, there wouldn't be if writer/director Danis Tanovic actually had something to say. But with his soapbox lectures on The Brotherhood of Man, The Indifference of World Government, and of course, War Is Hell, the movie comes off as almost childishly simple-minded and thuddingly obvious, and becomes worse from scene to scene. By the time No Man's Land gets into its endless series of squabbles between the leads ("Your country started the war!"/"No, yours did!"), and Simon Callow shows up in ultra-hammy Simon Callow-ness as a stuffy U.N. official who refuses to help, and a British TV newscaster arrives to film the event ("The whole world's watching!"), you might find yourself praying for the solider lying on the motion-sensitive explosive to spare us all and just roll over. Usually I bemoan the dearth of international, subtitled entertainment in our area, but No Man's Land, accolades and all, is one to avoid.

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