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Surface beauty: Mol in The Notorious Bettie Page.

Only Skin Deep

By John Rodat

The Notorious Bettie Page

Directed by Mary Harron

Director Mary Harron·s 1996 debut feature, I Shot Andy Warhol, was conceived as a documentary but was reimagined when both footage of the subject, schizophrenic shooter Valerie Solanas, and willing interviewees proved almost impossible to find. Her 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis· novel American Psycho told the tale of a Wall Street yuppie who may, or may not, be a vicious serial killer. Harron, quite apparently, is drawn to dark and mysterious·even unknowable·characters. And she seems content, at movie·s end, to leave them that way, as unsolved problems. It·s a tactic that can create compelling tension and ambiguity, or·as is the case in The Notorious Bettie Page·boredom and a sense of complete pointlessness.

The real Page was a popular pin-up girl in the ·50s. She modeled for both ·legitimate· cheesecake magazines of the day like Wink, Beauty Parade and Titter and for a mail-order organization specializing in fetish imagery. As compared with, say, a modern video game, all of Page·s work is pretty tame (though she posed nude, she never participated in any explicitly sexual sessions). But, for the day, it was pretty hot stuff, and Page·s distinctive blunt bangs and her evident love of being photographed made her a real favorite of the riding-crop crowd. In 1958, she gave up modeling, purportedly to rededicate herself to Christ, and slipped out of the public eye. In the late ·70s, some prints of Page resurfaced, and over time a cult of fans gathered around the kitschy kitten, a cult that boomed with the ·50s revivalism of the early and mid-·90s.

In Gretchen Mol, Harron has found a suitably fetching Page·more than suitably, in fact. But she does absolutely nothing of interest with her, save taking off her clothes. The film flits around through a distracting series of disordered flashbacks providing bullet-point backstory: Page as a young Tennessean churchgoer; preteen Page and sister posing for a neighbor boy·s camera; Page being called upstairs by her father for what is almost certainly a round of molestation; Page wed; Page slapped; Page leaving her husband; Page gang-raped. Bizarrely, none of these scenes are given much more weight in the film than they are in this paragraph. How, as a filmmaker, do you come to the decision to gloss over incestual molestation and gang rape?

And later biographical information about Page, available in a book cited by Harron as source material, is left out altogether: After she quit modeling, Page, according to the book·s author, spent several years in a mental institution and was accused of violent outbursts against her third husband and stepchildren. Rather than dealing with this troubling story arc·of abused to abuser·Harron bails out at the point of Page·s salvation. Throughout, Page is presented as a kind of preternaturally chipper naïf who happens to be phenomenally photogenic.

It·s possible that Harron was attracted to Page as a means of exploring the issue of evolving community standards in regard to sexual expression. As a side story, the movie presents bits of the Senate investigation into pop culture·s promotion of juvenile delinquency, an investigation led by another Tennessean, Estes Kefauver (the amusingly cast David Strathairn). And the director certainly has fun with a number of cute ·50s-style effects·wipes and the like·to give the mostly black-and-white film a breezy, dated feel. It·s as if she·s trying to say, ·Remember how childish we were back in the day, when even comparatively vanilla depictions of sex could throw adults into such a panic?·

But in, once again, portraying the individual as iconic, and by refusing to engage difficult questions of character and motivation, Harron offers up a portrait far less satisfying than those of Page we·ve already seen.

I Don·t Believe in Fairies

The Promise

Directed by Chen Kaige

Sometime during the treetop se-quence in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I rolled my eyes. OK, I thought, I·m with you all the way with the incredible acrobatics, the magnificent swordplay and, of course, the swooping emotionalism of it all, but a swordfight whose combatants are poised, tip-toed, on the wisps of willows? Gimme a break.

I had that same sinking feeling while watching The Promise, only instead of just happening during one or two scenes, it lasted pretty much throughout the entire flick. Crouching Tiger and its successors, such as the glorious Hero and the not-too-shabby House of Flying Daggers, hooked you into their respective narratives, making all the martial-arts hoopla and outrageous set pieces part of the story. The Promise is almost entirely artifice.

Young Qingcheng is granted a wish by the Goddess Manshen (Hong Chen), and of course, being young, poor and hungry, she goes for eternal beauty and riches. The only drawback, barely meaningful to a tyke, is that she·ll never experience true love until time runs backward, snow falls in spring, and so on. Fast-forward 20 years, and the beautiful Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) falls in love with her savior, the Crimson General Guangming. Of course, the real Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) lies wounded offscreen, and impersonating him in order to save the king is his slave, Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun). Into this Cyrano de Bergerac scenario is thrown some good old vengeance and evil, in the ridiculous persona of the trés effeminate Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), and a fairy godperson of sorts in the assassin Snow Wolf (Ye Liu).

The only times in which The Promise enthralls are when we are immersed in the fairy-tale-ness of it. Only then can we buy the fact that Kunlun can run like the wind, or that Wuhuan would imprison Qingcheng in a golden birdcage, complete with white feather ensemble for her to wear. The richness of the screen at these times, courtesy of Peter Pau·s cinematography, reminds one of the very best of the Arabian Nights or Perrault·s stories of Cinderella. Too often, however, the movie is almost herky-jerky in its movements, especially in its digitalized renderings of massive battles·battles that look far too much like my son·s computer game Civilization or those commercials for 3-D puzzles. Such moments are actually better, though, than chase sequences, which can only bring to mind Super Mario or other Gameboy adventures.

The dialogue is hopelessly artificial, lending neither coherence nor poetry to a story that has as many beginnings and endings, comings and goings, as Penn Station. Even as mindless Saturday matinee fun, The Promise is largely devoid of anything evocative of joy, suspense or excitement. That this was nominated for Best Foreign Film says as much about the state of foreign films as we·ve been saying about the domestic market·namely, it·s been slim pickings for discriminating moviegoers.

·Laura Leon

Three-Time Loser

Mission: Impossible III

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Why are the Mission: Impossible films still being made? In fact, what was the point of making them in the first place? The three films in the series (so far) have little in common with each other beyond a couple of cast members, some music and a series of vehicle chases and explosions. The first one, directed by Brian De Palma, was about . . . what was it about? Right, Tom Cruise. The second one, directed by John Woo, was about Tom Cruise and a motorcycle. The third installment . . . well, we·ll get to that shortly.

The Cruise brain trust ditched the original Cold War-era TV series· entertaining framework: A group of super-secret agents jet in to some remote location and, with some costumes, makeup, funny accents and high-tech gadgetry, fuck up some communist enemy of all that was good and right. Usually, the poor bastard didn·t know what hit him; the IMF team left quickly, quietly, and left no evidence behind.

The problem is that leaves no room for a showy hero. The biggest movie star in the world demands a heroic role equal to his stature.

Number three, written and directed by Lost creator J.J. Abrams, is about Tom Cruise·I mean the character he plays, Ethan Hunt·and the women who put all their trust in him. So, at least, there·s some human conflict. The women are secret agent Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell, from Abrams· former show Felicity) and Julia (Michelle Monaghan), the civilian whom Hunt plans to marry. Cruise is able to have a real relationship because he·s not an active agent anymore, he·s an instructor; when Ferris is captured, however, Hunt feels the need to lead the rescue team·which, of course, leads to Julia being put in mortal danger.

Abrams does a good job of constructing a semi-suspenseful plot, keeping us guessing for some time as to what actually is going on. The diverse cast is reasonably entertaining, especially Billy Crudup, Simon Pegg, Laurence Fishburne and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the vicious villain). And Cruise is fine, having finally suppressed (around the time of The Last Samurai) his most annoying acting tic, the thing wherein he shook like Jell-O on speed when his character was angry.

It isn·t enough to overcome the tiredness of the action or the predictability of the outcome, however: There is violence; violence has little cost; and Cruise is the hero again. Big deal.

·Shawn Stone

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