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Of Ice and Men
By Ann Morrow

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
Directed by George Butler

Renowned explorer Sir Ern- !est Shackleton, whose ill-fated attempt to become the first man to cross the Antarctic was overshadowed by World War I, was the ultimate team player, keeping his 27-man crew from succumbing to infighting and insanity through nearly two years of unrelenting peril. Undoubtedly, Shackleton would have nothing but admiration for the documentary The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. The film achieves an enthralling narrative power through the combined efforts of director George Butler (Pumping Iron), screenwriter Caroline Alexander (adapting her book of the same name), historian Roland Huntford (a natural-born dramatist) and expedition photographer Frank Hurley, whose film footage and photographs give The Endurance a thrilling verité.

At one point, drifting helplessly in a lifeboat and surrounded by nothing but ice, hunger and despair, one of the men notes in his diary that the explorers witnessed sights of exotic beauty. Many of these sights were captured by Hurley, who was brought along to document the voyage for commercial gain should the expedition be a success. A survivor of two near-fatal attempts to reach the South Pole, Shackleton knew better than anyone how slim the chances for success would be. Yet the “last great journey of the heroic age of polar exploration” quickly turned into a disaster beyond even his experienced imagination. For viewers of this harrowing adventure tale, the obstacles are almost beyond belief.

Less than a day’s sail from the Antarctic shoreline, Shackleton’s ship, The Endurance, was trapped in solid ice by an unexpected plummet in temperature. After 10 months of grueling deprivation, with only their beloved sled dogs to alleviate the monotony, the sailors were forced to abandon ship when pack ice crushed the schooner like tinderwood. Almost as pulverizing as the ice was the demoralization of utter failure. Hurley’s film snippets give way to haunting still photos and then stark snapshots as the situation grows more dire and Hurley relinquishes his equipment. But being stranded without hope of rescue is only the beginning of the expedition’s ordeals, which are evocatively narrated by Liam Neeson.

Actors reading from the crew’s remarkable diary entries bring their hardships to life, and convey Shackleton’s indomitable optimism as he makes one life-or-death decision after another. The Irish-born leader eventually embarked on a hopeless mission: to cross 800 miles of dangerous, uncharted ocean in an open dinghy and land on a forbidding island. The story, which makes A Perfect Storm look like a tempest in teacup, has been told many times, first with the theatrical release of Hurley’s film footage in 1919. But it’s a legend for a reason, and one that is even more riveting in the age of recliner-seat travel. Butler cuts straight to the chase even while enriching the tale with new information and brushes of lyricism, such as the present-day shots of sea birds in flight that underscore the expedition’s tortuous attempts to escape from the ice floe.

The crew’s astounding tenacity and courage is intensified by the deft psychological portraits of individual members, augmented by the reminiscences of their descendents. “Authority meant nothing to him,” says the grandson of Henry McNish, a carpenter who mutinously challenged one of Shackleton’s strategies. But McNish’s rebellious nature had a silver lining of ingenuity, a crucial factor in the outcome of “the greatest boat journey in modern maritime history.”

The soundtrack of keening pipes and ominous drums adds immeasurably but unobtrusively to the film’s moody, mythic ambience. The survivors were not greeted as heroes by war-torn England, and Shackleton died without ever reaching the South Pole. Yet as The Endurance triumphantly proves, some achievements are infinitely more memorable than success.

Woman to Woman

Kissing Jessica Stein
Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld

New York City is full of eligible bachelors, but Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt) can’t seem to get a date. Well, not a decent date, anyway, as she suffers through a parade of geeks, schmucks and self-involved losers unable to even make pleasant dinner conversation. Jessica is sliding toward 30, and her loving, annoyingly insistent mom (Tovah Feldshuh) is putting on the heat regarding marriage. What’s a nice Jewish girl to do? In this picture, she tries dating women.

Hooked by finding a favorite quote from Rilke in a Village Voice “women seeking women” personal ad, Jessica makes a date with Helen (Heather Juergensen), an assistant director of a hip modern-art gallery. Jessica assumes she’s strictly lesbian, but Helen is just plain horny, and placed the ad because she’s bored with her current string of male lovers. (In one of the script’s many nice touches, the German poetry was strictly a gimmick dreamt up by one of Helen’s male friends.) Jessica immediately tries to bail out, but Helen, intrigued, keeps the drinks flowing until the two hit it off.

Not enough to immediately fall into bed, however. Jessica’s sexual skittishness is a joke the film almost drags out too long, but the payoff is worth the wait. (It is also a nice character detail that is unfortunately, and conveniently, forgotten later in the film.) The prurient should not get too excited; it’s where the two finally have sex, not the sex itself, that’s so satisfying. From this point on, it’s all about love and family. Will Helen’s downtown friends accept her dating an uptown straight girl? Will Jessica’s traditional middle-class family accept Helen?

Talk about a “high concept” idea for a movie. It’s also somewhat daring, a romance between two women who are not self- identified lesbians. The idea that sexual preference and emotional intimacy might not be set in psychological concrete is upsetting and/or preposterous to a great percentage of the population. (It even seems to scare the filmmakers.) The two leads also happened to write the film; Juergensen and Westfeldt obviously were aware of the trouble they were courting, and deal with one or two of the prickly political issues head-on.

Unfortunately, they shy away from offending anyone—except, possibly, those who feel that the filmmakers aimed for the level of Woody Allen in his Annie Hall period, but only ended up outpacing the Nora Ephron of You’ve Got Mail. Still, there are almost enough real moments of humor (and, occasionally, pathos) in the screenplay to balance out the atrociously cookie-cutter ending.

—Shawn Stone

Judd and Jury

High Crimes
Directed by Carl Franklin

Claire Kubik is in quite a pickle. Not too long ago, she thought she had the perfect life: She was on track to become a partner at her law firm, and she and her doting husband were doing their darndest to make a baby. But then hubby got busted, and she discovered he had another life before they met. It seems he’s a former Marine who went AWOL and forged a new identity to evade prosecution for murders he insists he didn’t commit. Claire decides to defend her husband, but to do so, she’ll have to navigate the labyrinth of military justice, with which she’s utterly unfamiliar.

And so begins High Crimes, a competent but mostly forgettable thriller directed by unpredictable journeyman Carl Franklin, whose résumé includes everything from the atmospheric mystery Devil in a Blue Dress to the disease-themed weepie One True Thing. As has been the case with most of the director’s pictures, High Crimes is intelligent, well-acted and more or less compelling, but it wants for specialness.

For no particular reason, this movie reteams Ashely Judd and Morgan Freeman, who costarred in a similarly average thriller called Kiss The Girls a few years back. (Never mind that Freeman already reprised his Kiss the Girls character, detective Alex Cross, in a Judd-free picture called Along Came a Spider.) Judd plays Claire with the same steely resolve and reined-in vulnerability that she’s brought to a handful of other performances as wronged women, and Freeman breezes through his clichéd role as a recovering-alcoholic lawyer. As in the picture itself, there’s not much in these performances we haven’t seen before.

The movie does boast an entertainingly twisty plot, penned by screenwriters Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley from Joseph Finder’s novel. Once Claire discovers that her husband (Jim Caviezel) isn’t the man she thought him to be, she ventures into a netherworld of conspiracies, cover-ups, assassination attempts and military skullduggery. Franklin produces plenty of All the President’s Men-style suspense while keeping everything tame enough that the movie received a PG-13 rating even with car chases and assaults and gunplay.

Because the movie is almost entirely driven by Judd’s character, pretty much everyone else operates in her shadow, including Freeman, whose best moments occur during a late-movie sequence showing his character at risk of falling off the wagon. Only Adam Scott, endearing as a green U.S.M.C. lawyer who helps Claire, makes a real impression among the other players, and it’s particularly odd to see Amanda Peet—groomed as a star after showy turns in movies like The Whole Nine Yards—reduced to playing curvy window dressing as Claire’s ne’er-do-well sister.

—Peter Hanson

Somethin’ Stupid

Big Trouble
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Big Trouble is one of the most consistently funny comedies in some time, but it’s not an especially good movie. Rather, it’s a somewhat random series of goofy gags held together by a fish story of a plot, and it benefits from the presence of several wonderful comedians. It also benefits from the fact that 85 minutes after the first frame pops on the screen, it’s all over. Sometimes, brevity is the savior of so-so comedy.

Based on a novel by syndicated humorist Dave Barry, the movie was supposed to be released last fall, but it was tabled following Sept. 11 because of a plot twist involving a bomb brought on board a plane. Aside from the actual scene of crooks smuggling the bomb through airport security—which will strike every viewer as false and might even make some folks queasy—nothing in the movie is particularly offensive.

Ostensible lead Tim Allen plays Eliot Arnold, an ex-columnist who now works in advertising. He spends part of the movie trying to improve his relationship with his mischievous teenage son (Ben Foster), part of it romancing the sexy mother (Rene Russo) of one of his son’s friends, and part of it racing to stop the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Miami. Every other character enjoys a similarly hectic agenda in this fast-moving farce, much of which takes place on one insane night.

Some of the characters who drift in and out of the titular big trouble include a pair of jaded cops (Patrick Warburton and Janeane Garofalo), a corrupt business executive (Stanley Tucci), a pair of moronic small-time thieves (Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville), two big-city hit men who hate Miami (Dennis Farina and Jack Kehler), and a dippy homeless man with a thing for Fritos (Jason Lee). Four or five other characters get just as much screen time as the aforementioned ones do, but you get the idea: Sonnenfeld cuts back and forth between a dozen different subplots so that whenever the pace of one storyline slackens, he can liven up the movie by shifting to a different locale and a new crisis. The director’s aptitude for deadpan delivery, screwball pacing and complex logistics serves Big Trouble well.

As with those in Barry’s columns, the jokes in this picture are obvious and occasionally absurd, but they’re organic to the outlandish subject matter. Notwithstanding the couple of moments when things get excessively silly—such as when escaped goats cause problems during a traffic jam—Sonnenfeld takes Barry’s lead and ensures that the jokes grow out of the characters and the situations they create. What’s more, the director seems to share Barry’s joy in skewering the stupid. So if marveling at the human capacity for idiocy is your idea of fun, Big Trouble should keep you chuckling for 85 brisk minutes.


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