Beatty in Town & Country; Shinji Aoyama's Eureka

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Knives are out for the accident-prone Town & Country, the Warren Beatty comedy that first began filming three years ago. But don't trust those blade-sharpening insiders and player-haters. They probably liked You've Got Mail, Chasing Amy and Bridget Jones's Diary?sex comedies with far less wit and imagination than Town & Country still has in its shambling remains. The movie starts with an oboe honking in a happy-then-solemn way, and the nursery rhyme melody of "Where Have You Been, Billy Boy?" is suggested next. From its opening music, showing signs of mixed motives and indecision, Town & Country is clearly the result of artists attempting something original?like turning a conventional sex farce into a personally revealing valentine. Through improvisation, interference and sheer will, their uncertainty is revealed, but so is their charm.

Beatty plays a married man whose infidelity with a cellist (Nastassjia Kinski) reflects the various deceptions in his marriage (to Diane Keaton), his laissez-faire paternity to two college-age kids and his longtime friendships with another cheating married couple (Goldie Hawn and Garry Shandling). These intimate artifices are accounted for by the sex-farce entanglements of Michael Laughlin and Buck Henry's script. It's a whimsical way to address greater social disharmony?as if making Shampoo II.

Director Peter Chelsom is Hollywood's current bad-luck boy. His brief, little-known filmography includes two of the most eccentric films of the past decade: the showbiz family chronicle Funny Bones and the childhood legend The Mighty, both intricately plotted, strangely sentimental stories exploring characters' deeply hidden emotional attachments, then giving them the quality of myths. Choosing Chelsom, a shaggy fabulist, to do a sex farce was inspired?that is, if you want a sex farce to be about more than sex.

Town & Country also attempts to satirize the upper class?to do Regarding Henry and Hannah and Her Sisters right?by casting a shrewd eye on New York's gentry, then connecting their libidinous indiscretion to social carelessness. Each character's personal liberties reflect on the ethics of their class. What could be more out-of-step in this era? No wonder Chelsom, Beatty, et al., seem to have lost their footing?and their confidence that the 00s retain a movie audience interested in what is ultimately a raunchy disquisition on Trust.

The aura of failure that arose from reports of the movie's lost footage (even its retakes filmed as recently as last summer) might keep people in the know from laughing with Town & Country; it's convenient to feel superior to its lack of commercial prospects. But you ought to feel something for a movie that improvises its way through moral confusion?especially when it must forge past its makers' own culpable past in comedies that used humor as an excuse for hideous ideology. As the stars are introduced, there's that Ishtar smile, that Father of the Bride grin, that Bird on a Wire laugh. It's enough to make you gag. Yet at the same time, we hold to Beatty, Keaton and Hawn relics of an admirable cinema past in the Farrelly Brothers era as they search for Bringing Up Baby's grail?and come very close to it.

Formerly cast as tragic pop heroes, Beatty no longer has a screen profile (it's now left up to Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp to represent, and only Hanks has been doing a good job of it). Against the unlikeliness of addressing the current pop audience (especially after Bulworth's didn't connect), Beatty constructs an alternate universe in Town & Country that begs conventional response while also parodying his image. He must rely on whatever (old) audience he has left, and Chelsom helps him map out familiar moral turf with some oddball twists.

Beatty plays a famous architect named Porter Stoddard, a name that lurches to a halt?twice?almost a joke on Beatty's diffident comic style. Porter tries hiding his abashed randiness until springtime invades his 5th Ave. mansion, unhinging the security around him. In a sportive update of W.C. Fields' paternal exasperation, Porter goes to make himself a late-night snack and, on the way to the kitchen, hears capering noises from several bedrooms. Seated at the head of the kitchen table, Porter's joined by his daughter's Turkish boyfriend, his maid's Honduran husband and his own son, their appetites aroused. Accepting this convocation of masculine habit, Beatty wears a world-weary expression with aplomb. He's the Johnny Appleseed of lust?sympathy, understanding and self-consciousness all spread like indigestion.

If Tomcats located screwball comedy's vulgar roots in adolescent male anguish, Beatty and Chelsom here find its extension in mature regret. The jokes go to and fro: Keaton as Porter's wife Ellie rants about "The sneaky, pussy-crazed slob [he was] genetically programmed to become," while Porter rues his own "Empty philandering... All I felt was lonely every time I tried it." Woody Allen gets praised for far less honesty, while Chelsom and Beatty's willingness to balance foible and goodness in people is far beyond the cynicism and cruelty of Small Time Crooks and Everyone Says I Love You. Absent the innumerable scenes that were no doubt scissored (thus weakening the title metaphor), Town & Country is clearly designed to indict spiritual hollowness among the have-it-alls ("Look at this life!" Ellie charges) while including the hetero- and homosexual and the working class. (The best of its madcap tangents put Porter in Sun Valley. One delightful sequence shows him dancing with Jenna Elfman dressed as Marilyn at a Halloween party. In another, he's pursued by Andie MacDowell as an architect-groupie who is the daughter of Charlton Heston and Marian Seldes, a sexually frustrated lunatic couple. Heston even parodies gun mania?a Seinfeld-worthy coup.)

Not since Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson's Man Trouble has a film maudit been so funny and close-to-the-bone. Beatty honorably tempers his own image without being false to it (the way Heaven Can Wait now seems false). The reunion with Keaton and Hawn (his Reds and Shampoo costars) speaks with near candor to the maturity of evolving relationships. (You don't buy that Beatty ever cared about being caught, only about staying friends.) Hawn, as Mona, wantonly seduces Porter in a scene that inadequately establishes their longtime alliance (it would have made more sense to make them old lovers). Still, Hawn swallows guilt peerlessly. And Keaton swings Ellie's question to Porter: "Is Mona getting laid? As a professional, what's your opinion?" That's as good as Nicholson's homonymic Man Trouble confession, "I think of women as a whole." (Ellie's accusation, "This is about you and your big stupid cock!" is not such a good line?it's needlessly narcissistic.)

Someday, in some future Warren Beatty biography, Town & Country will be footnoted in a chapter titled "The Shandling Years." (Shandling's not as unctuous as in Mike Nichols' What Planet Are You From?) It's mostly worth appreciating the film's scattered gems for signs of Chelsom's unique comic vision. From the first image of Porter's mistress' naked back bearing the serifs of a cello's f-holes to the tilted weather vane atop the Stoddard's Long Island home (a symbol of fallible humanity), Town & Country comes close to being a remarkable, impious ode to continuity, stability?old relationships. The film's screwball comedy got screwed along the way, yet its virtues?and humor?remain.

Directed by Shinji Aoyama

Many moviegoers mistake violence for spectacle. This week offers two correctives: the first is a new print of Luchino Visconti's 1942 Ossessione showing at the Guggenheim Museum's "Conversations Between Shadow and Light" retrospective. Every sign of Visconti's mastery (and the future of Italian cinema) is here: the neorealist use of actual locations and impoverished settings of Rossellini, the existential miasma that anticipates Antonioni and the picaresque loners who fascinated Fellini. At a measured 140 minutes, this early version of The Postman Always Rings Twice becomes an epic spectacle of violent emotions between the restless Giovanna (Clara Calamai) and the sexually magnetic wanderer Gino (Massimo Girotti), who enters the film evoking the cinema's eternal tramp?and an unmistakably erotic male icon. Visconti's own obsession was with people suffering melodramatically, operatically in time, shown as palpably as their unforgettable environs.

I thought nobody does this kind of spectacle anymore until I saw Eureka.

Japanese director Shinji Aoyama opens up his camera to the world, making Eureka another challenging spectacle of human sufferance. He downplays a fatal busjacking, then two years later shows its lingering psychological effects on the bus driver (Koji Yakusho) and two teenage siblings (Aoi and Masaru Miyazaki), who all had been held hostage. Forming their own suffering family in a reconditioned bus, they traverse the countryside. For three and a half hours Aoyama keeps shots wide, stepping back from melodrama, forcing viewers to distill the action in every scene. Images and anecdotes cohere subliminally, combining the horrific and the mundane?better than YiYi and rather like Imamura's The Eel.

Aoyama's view is philosophical. Leisurely scenes contain multiple feelings, contrapuntal experiences in the same musical (cinematic) measure. He observes a breeze wafting sun-bright curtains to suggest openness, life, happenstance, possibility. He pans with a figure, expanding shots with altered perspectives. People walk among cows in a pasture?animals all in landscapes that are vast and stirring. And cinematographer Masaki Tamura gives it the eerie, tinted b&w of old Brownie photographs?but panoramic. Eureka is a special event like the infrequent showings of Bela Tarr's Satantango and Visconti's Ossessione. Not as great as either, it's for serious moviegoers who believe the art form worthy of their time.

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