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Stealing Beauty opens, as well it should, with a confession: A videographer’s camera obsesses over a drowsy young woman, capturing her likeness on the plane from New York to Italy and then the train to Siena. The shaky, grainy image zooms in sensually on the sleeping beauty, her hand resting near her crotch, a bead of sweat beside her lips. The covert cameraman wakes the woman at her stop, and as she’s rushing from the train gives her the video he’s shot.
This gentlemanly voyeur is a stand-in for director Bernardo Bertolucci, and he’s not the only one in this rustic romance, in which teenage virgin Lucy Harmon (overnight supergamine Liv Tyler) sets a whole household of late-middle-aged male hearts fluttering. Unlike the unseen and unknown video shooter, however, Bertolucci didn’t give the film to his inspiration when he was finished pondering her allure. He has released her stolen beauty to the world, so that others may join him in contemplation.
It remains to be seen if Tyler can play something other than a charming, pretty American adolescent, but she is up to that particular challenge. At the center of this slight but picturesque film the actress holds the attention of the camera and her own with a cast of much more experienced performers. Indeed, she ends up looking a lot more astute than Bertolucci, who has never made a movie as trivial as Beauty (although he has made some that are more annoying).
If Welcome to the Dollhouse is the evil twin of one of those mid-’80s John Hughes teen flicks, Beauty is its graceful, upscale continental cousin, complete with a female-vocalist-oriented score that mixes easy-listening alt-rock with jazz and classical. (Mazzy Star, Cocteau Twins, Portishead, Lori Carson, Sam Phillips, and Helium, as well as Liz Phair and Hole, join Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Mozart.) Lucy travels to the arty rural refuge of sculptor Ian Grayson (Donal McGann) and his wife, Diana (Sinead Cusack), Irish-expat pals of Lucy’s mother, an American poet who has recently died. It was at their house in “Chiantishire” (an Italian region overrun by Brits) five years before that Lucy received her first kiss; now she has returned under the pretext of having Ian do her portrait. Lucy impresses everyone with her youth (19 rather than 16 candles) as she wanders the verdant, buzzing countryside (isn’t she pretty in Tuscany?). She captivates the Graysons’ many guests and visitors, most of them aging hipsters who smoke a little pot and swim nude. Chief among her admirers is Alex (Jeremy Irons), an English writer dying of an unexplained illness; since he hasn’t the strength to seduce Lucy, he settles for becoming her confidant.
Bertolucci’s original concept was that Lucy would visit Italy in order to lose her virginity. (For this he gets a story credit.) American novelist Susan Minot, enlisted to write the script, found the premise a little thin and added another quest: Lucy intends to find her biological father, whose identity is hazily suggested by a poem in a notebook her mother left her. Thus Lucy, when not flirting awkwardly with young men, is asking older men such poetic questions as “Did you ever kill a viper?” (When this gets no results, she switches to the tough-cop approach: “Where were you in August of 1975?”) Lucy’s exploration parallels one by Tyler herself, who figured out for herself when she was 10 that her actual father is Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, but that parallel fails to give it any gravity.
The director anoints his Tuscan idyll with spit, urine, and vomit, and allows Lucy a glimpse of erotic lithographs and, later, of Diana’s daughter and her loutish American boyfriend making love. The effect is not especially earthy, however, just as a massive party held at nearby villa proves insufficiently decadent to justify the screen time it takes. Indeed, the film’s only discomfiting moment comes when Osvaldo (Ignazio Oliva), a young local whose qualities Lucy has just come to appreciate, announces that he wants desperately to leave Italy, and the camera pulls back to show hookers soliciting on a nearby road. This glance at the country Bertolucci fled in 1981 (to make The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and Little Buddha abroad) is ambiguous, but it seems perhaps the film’s only honest moment.
Ultimately, of course, Lucy loses the virginity that, when she first confessed it, plunged the household into uproar. The great event is unpersuasively perfect: The two fumble sweetly, Lucy beams, and when they part her lover calls out that “it was my first time, too.” Bertolucci, once a Marxist fire-breather, has made an upscale romantic trifle from the viewpoint of a benignly dirty old man; the message is that youth is good, sex is good, maybe even Italy is good. As shot by Seven veteran Darius Khondji, Italy here looks just fine. As for what Bertolucci is doing there again, Beauty offers only the scantest of clues.
The brash Blue in the Face, which purported to capture the Brooklyn experience, didn’t feature any characters like those in Someone Else’s America, which is also set in the borough. That’s not unreasonable, though. Shot largely on Hamburg sets by used-to-be-Yugoslavian director Goran Paskaljevic, America is fundamentally an Eastern European film. Its spirit is Old World wistful, and its celebration of the American melting pot is muted and tempered by a sense of loss.
Gordan Mihic’s script centers on two sad-sack immigrants, Alonso (Tom Conti), a Spanish-born bar owner legally in the U.S., and Bayo (Miki Manojlovic), a Montenegran who’s illegal. In exchange for a room, Bayo cleans the bar; he also works such dirty jobs as cleaning up contaminated industrial sites for potential redevelopment. Alonso maintains the lazy rhythm of his previous life, and his tavern scarcely survives; he sees as his principal problems, however, the desire of his blind mother (Maria Casares) to return to the village where she grew up, and his unrequited love for a Syrian-American woman. Alonso enlists his friend to help with both dilemmas: Despite Bayo’s misgivings—“Mother cannot be lied to,” he protests—they successfully simulate the sounds, smells, and textures of the courtyard Alonso’s mother remembers. Bayo’s attempt to transform his friend’s love life, however, ends with a savage beating.
While Bayo stoically nurses his wounds, his mother and his three children head for the U.S.; they have no prospects at home, and a doctor has told them that Bayo’s daughter Savka (Andjela Stojkovic) will waste away if she doesn’t see her father. An unexpected trip across the Rio Grande leads to the disappearance of Bayo’s younger son, Pepo (Lazar Kalmic), who’s swept downstream. When called from Texas by his older son, Luka (Sergej Trifunovic), Bayo heads southwest to meet his family and search doggedly for Pepo. Bayo sends his family back to New York with Alonso; there the cagey Luka thrives, while his mother, Anja (Zorka Manojlovic, Miki’s actual mother), pines for her old life. “This is someone else’s country,” she laments.
Though Luka soon finds financial success and marries a Chinese-American woman, thus meriting a green card, this is not the sort of film that offers easy resolutions. To end things, Paskaljevic offers a magical-realist moment, but his heart doesn’t really seem in it, and the sequence doesn’t add anything to the pensive mood he’s already conjured. Still, the scene does find Bayo and Alonso alone together, as they were at the film’s opening. That’s apt, for it’s their friendship (and Manojlovic’s and Conti’s rich performances) that is the essence of America. Let other movies celebrate the diversity and vitality of Brooklyn; Paskaljevic’s film is principally the story of an only-in-America friendship.
For once, I can in good conscience send you the message that a major studio wants sent: Striptease is not Showgirls. (That distinction is the point of the movie’s last-minute tag line, “a comedy where you least expect to find one.”) It’s not really any better than Showgirls, but it definitely is not an overlong backstage drama with scores of near-naked women. It’s an overlong action comedy with a half-dozen near-naked women.
Adapted from Carl Hiaasen’s comic mystery novel by writer/director Andrew Bergman, Striptease is a routine south-Florida farce, complete with a role for Burt Reynolds. Erin Grant (Demi Moore) is a stripper who deserves better; she used to be a secretary for the FBI until she was fired for being married to lowlife Darrell (Robert Patrick). While unemployed, she lost custody of her 7-year-old daughter, Angela, to her booze-swilling, pill-popping estranged husband, a police informer. To make some fast cash for the appeal, Erin turns to dancing at the Eager Beaver, a curiously homey strip joint where she’s protected by bouncer-with-a-heart-of-gold Shad (Ving Rhames).
One night while Erin’s dancing, a drunk grabs onto her, and another drunk clobbers the first with a bottle. The bottle-wielder is Rep. David Dilbeck (Reynolds), a devotee of drink and “nekkid women” who’s the sugar industry’s prime stooge in Congress. (This political aside is Hiaasen’s, and it seems about as out of place in this brainless film as the chauffeur who notes that his bosses are “exploiters of the poor.”) A steadfast fan of Erin’s recognizes the congressman and tries to shake him down to help her with her custody battle; instead, the well-meaning fan is eliminated by one of Dilbeck’s murderous cronies, a death that attracts the attention of Miami police detective Al Garcia (Armand Assante).
Shad and Garcia desperately want to protect Erin from Darrell, Dilbeck, and other assorted nasties, but she doesn’t really need the assistance. When not displaying her alarmingly Barbielike body to the Eager Beaver’s customers, Erin is entirely capable of conceiving a plan to destroy her tormentors and tweak Big Sugar in the process. As in any number of dire late-’70s and early-’80s adventure comedies made in the wake of The Sting, Erin hatches a plot so labored that time seems to stand still as it unfolds. Suspense is out of the question: Since none of the bad guys can approach being Erin’s equal, their comeuppance is just something that happens at the end of the movie, like the credits.
Plot contrivances can be painless when the lines have zing, but Striptease’s dialogue ranges merely from sticky to flat. The women at the club bond like sorority sisters at a pleasant Midwestern diploma mill (“I love you girls,” Erin tells them) and Erin trumpets her yearning for her daughter (“It’s like my heart is missing”), while the hapless Dilbeck can only swoon, “Poontang!” Striptease’s producers should stop fretting that potential ticket-buyers will confuse it with Showgirls; they should worry that people will mistake it for Cannonball Run III.CP