Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Far from HeavenFAR FROM HEAVEN and THE PIANIST

While huge movie markets such as New York and L.A. had to content themselves with only one major new release this past weekend - Cradle 2 the Grave, featuring the long-awaited pairing of Jet Li and Tom Arnold - we're being treated to the area debuts of Far from Heaven and The Pianist, two of 2002's greatest achievements and the recipients of 11 Oscar nominations between them. Both movies are so good that it's almost churlish to recommend one over the over - by all means see both - but if pressed, I gotta give the edge to Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, which is unlike anything I've ever seen before.

A woman's picture in the mode of Douglas Sirk's '50s melodramas, Far from Heaven doesn't just assume the style and poses of its forbears; it explodes them. Haynes takes great B-movie fodder - a prototypical '50s housewife endures humiliation and eventual empowerment vis-à-vis her husband's latent homosexuality and her close friendship with a black gardener - and turns it into marvelously enjoyable art. (With the exception Bowling for Columbine, the movie is more sheer fun than any other 2002 release, and - willya look at that? - both are currently playing at the Quad Cities Brew & View.) Far from Heaven isn't a movie you want to talk about so much as bathe in, particularly its transcendent cinematography, the lush Elmer Bernstein score, the seriocomic rightness of the dialogue, and the performers. Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, and Patricia Clarkson have all been justly praised and awarded (yet criminally overlooked by the Academy), but there's no way enough can be said about Julianne Moore, whose portrayal is a miracle of surface stability and concealed emotion; it's the finest work yet from an actress who can't seem to stop topping herself.

Adrien Brody in The PianistAs for The Pianist, Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama is so marvelously assured, so heartbreaking, and eventually so hopeful that it leaves you shaken and profoundly affected; it doesn't have the scope of Schindler's List, but in many ways it's the finer film. Detailing the amazing story of how Polish pianist Wladek Szpilman (Adrien Brody) escaped death during World War II, Polanski's work is remarkable because it shows, with unerring truth, how survival in European ghettos and camps all depended on luck. Szpilman isn't particularly heroic or clever, and it's just through the goodness of a few sympathizers and pure good fortune that he survived at all. Technically, The Pianist is beyond reproach, but it's Polanski's directorial prowess that makes it magnificent; the film is about as clear-eyed a vision of the Holocaust as we're likely to encounter, and its central theme - Why should I live when so many others died? - becomes almost unbearably poignant when you realize that the answer is: no reason in particular.

I'll dedicate more attention to Far from Heaven and The Pianist in next week's article on this year's Oscar race, but for now, let it be said that both works rise to the level of the unmissable; it took a while to get them here, so don't let your chance to see them pass you by.


Kurt Russell in Dark BlueDARK BLUE

There's a great movie subject in Ron Shelton's Dark Blue. It's rather dishearteneing that the work itself is good rather than great, but considering the quality of most recent releases, that's nothing to sniff at. Set in Los Angeles in the days directly preceding and following the end of the Rodney King trial, the movie is an urban cop thriller with true morality; the action is almost tangential to its effect on the film's characters, which makes it the rare Hollywood cop flick with both brains and a pulse. And Kurt Russell plays an archetype of this genre - Tortured, Corrupt Cop Searching for His Soul - with such spectacular, hard-won authority that you can't take your eyes off him. As the film progresses, he begins to embody the very spirit of L.A. - indeed, of the country - in those shaky, unsettling weeks in the early '90s; it's a fearless, electric performance. Nothing else in the film matches him, though the ever-marvelous Ving Rhames tries - not the obvious, piggy performance by Brendan Gleeson, not the way-out-of-his-depth Scott Speedman, not Russell's climactic speech, which rivals Pacino's Scent of a Woman number for sheer, needless pomposity. But remains sharp, juicy stuff. That twisty genius James Ellroy provides a story that's like a miniaturized version of his L.A. Confidential, Shelton films it with verve, and of course, they have incredibly rich subject matter to work with. While we continue to wait for the definitive cinematic take on the 1991 L.A. riots, it's a relief to know that filmmakers haven't forgotten about the Rodney King trial quite yet, and Dark Blue explores the matter with just enough complexity, and without sacrificing entertainment value, to simultaneously gratify us and make us avid for stronger movies about the subject still to come.


Stephen Lang and Robert Duvall in Gods & GeneralsGODS & GENERALS

Not everyone who has the stamina to make a three-and-a-half-hour movie has the vision to make a three-and-a-half-hour movie, as Ronald F. Maxwell's Gods & Generals attests. A prequel to Maxwell's TV mini-series Gettysburg, Gods & Generals isn't totally worthless; it features a superior performance by Stephen Lang as Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and the breadth of its historical accuracy should enthrall Civil War buffs. Yet what offended me was Maxwell using the film's historical accuracy as a shield, pumping his movie with so much minutiae about the war that you feel like a heel for pointing out that his direction of the spectacle is terrible. Maybe the film could be forgiven its relentless, grandiloquent speechifying, its bombastic musical score, its cheesy "Oh-now-I-get-it!" drop-ins. (A solider gazing at Jackson in battle: "Look at him standing there like a stone wall.") Maybe it could be forgiven the hoary clichés and overworked symbolism, the snail's pace, and, with the exception of Lang, the dullness of the acting. Maybe it can be forgiven the fact that the subject of slavery isn't even mentioned in the film's first hour, and is barely recognized after that. (The subject merits all of two obligatory stump speeches.)

But what's unforgivable, for a movie lover at least, is that, despite all the battles and the extras and the red, white, and blue, there's just nothing in Gods & Generals to look at. The cinematography is bleached-out and routine, and Maxwell's staging is "competent" in all the wrong ways; in 215 minutes there's exactly one scene with any visual flair. (It's the one where the Union and Confederate soldiers meet to swap coffee and tobacco on the foggy riverbed, and Maxwell even bungles this sequence by insisting on a too-close medium shot between the two that pushes its point.) Gods & Generals might please its audience of Civil War aficionados; fans of film, on the other hand, will probably find it grueling.

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