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Film's flaws aren't fatal

Published Aug. 28, 2005

The Brown Bunny (not rated, probably NC-17) (94 min.) _ Vincent Gallo's film was the scandal of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, where hundreds of moviegoers reportedly walked out and film critic Roger Ebert called it the worst film ever shown at the festival, igniting a nasty war of words with Gallo. The chief complaints about the film were its aimless narrative and a climactic scene in which actor Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry) graphically performs oral sex on Gallo, an act gratuitous at best and pornographic at worst.

Gallo also directed, wrote, edited and filmed The Brown Bunny, opening the door to potshots about an ego trip, an even worse offense considering the explicit sex.

People hated the endless scenes of morose motorcycle racer Bud Clay (Gallo) on a cross-country trip to meet his lover, Daisy (Sevigny). We peer for minutes at a time through a bug-splattered windshield to share Bud's point of view. Dialogue is sparse and tersely banal. Bud meets several women along the way, deserting one, comforting another (Cheryl Tiegs) and paying a Las Vegas hooker to have lunch with him. Nothing happens for long stretches. It's easy to understand why viewers rebelled.

Gallo has since trimmed 26 minutes from The Brown Bunny (the oral sex scene was left intact), and even Ebert admitted in a recent rereview that it's a better film, although still flawed. We may never see the version that caused the Cannes uproar unless it's included in the DVD release. The version that is available will still bore or upset viewers unless we break the cardinal rule of film criticism: revealing the ending.

That is precisely what I'm going to do, so readers who don't want to know should stop reading now. I assure you, though, that knowing the ending enhances the experience, perhaps even making the ticket price worthwhile.

Gallo's chief failure as a filmmaker is creating a movie that few would want to endure to reach its shocking, revelatory ending: Daisy is dead, a drug overdose victim after being gang-raped. We don't know this until a flashback in the final five minutes, after the sex scene when Bud berates her, calling her a whore. We realize then that Bud feels guilty because he didn't help her, angry because she strayed, lonely because he loved her, and on the edge of insanity from pure grief. That explains everything that seemed so exasperatingly inconsequential before, so inconsequential that sticking around for the payoff would otherwise be a chore.

I knew the surprise twist after a year of reading about the project, and judging from the reaction of another critic who didn't know, it makes a world of difference. Gallo simply plays it too cryptic as he tries to do something different, offering no reasons until the conclusion about why we should be interested. Knowing that Daisy is dead lends power to scenes such as Bud's visit to her mother, a pet shop detour and all those scenes of Bud glumly driving. It doesn't save the film, but it does make the experience more palatable. The Brown Bunny isn't the worst film ever made _ neither is Gigli, though both were victims of snowballing venom _ but it's a challenging, vaguely satisfying work from a filmmaker too smart for his own good. C

_ STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

A scared-straight tale

Woman Thou Art Loosed (NR, probably R) (94 min.) _ Bishop T.D. Jakes has been called the next Billy Graham for his evangelistic style of Christianity. Now he has something else in common with the religious leader: a movie intended to bring his message to wider audiences. Jakes' book, Woman Thou Art Loosed, a collection of stories about sinners seeing the light, has much in common with Graham's series of inspirational films that began in the 1960s.

Both preachers operate outside the film mainstream on shoestring budgets and private distribution. Both appear as themselves onscreen. And both, regardless of technical deficiencies and heavy-handed approaches, are responsible for movies that preach to their choirs. Woman Thou Art Loosed isn't an especially fine film, but it has the strength of its convictions, making complaints seem petty.

The movie focuses on fictional Michelle Jordan (Kimberly Elise), a compilation of several women profiled in Jakes' book. That's problematic from a dramatic standpoint, because so many bad things happen to Michelle in a relatively short film. She's on death row for a murder _ the victim isn't revealed until the climax, but it's obvious beforehand _ and she's a recovering drug addict, a prostitute and a victim of poverty and childhood sexual abuse. Her mother, Cassie (Loretta Devine), turned a blind eye to those assaults by her boyfriend, Reggie (Clifton Powell), resulting in a lifelong conflict.

Michelle's story is told in flashbacks within flashbacks from prison, where Jakes counsels her, a process that often interrupts the dramatic flow. At each critical stage of her life, the people responsible for her feelings at the time _ Cassie, Reggie, a roommate at a halfway house and a nice guy (Michael Boatman) who'd like to see her go straight _ speak directly to the camera, lending their testimony or excuses for what went wrong.

The movie is directed by Michael Schultz, one of the founding fathers of modern black cinema, with a string of comedies and musicals (Car Wash, Krush Groove, Cooley High) that defined black culture. There's nothing funny or harmonious about Woman Thou Art Loosed. It's a scared-straight tale composed of common personal tragedies and punctuated with preaching. We know exactly what will happen because the Bible tells us so.

However, the movie is filled with performances that, despite their one-note qualities, fairly glow with commitment to the cause. Elise is very good as Michelle, dulling her usually glamorous appearance with a perpetual scowl. Devine is fine, but the refusal of her character to do anything except damage Michelle's soul is maddening.

The best performer is Jakes, shown on several occasions in the pulpit, exhorting followers to give themselves to the lord. Woman Thou Art Loosed may appeal to the same audience that made The Passion of the Christ popular, plus black moviegoers seeking something in theaters besides booty call comedies and thug flicks. Schultz hedges his bets a bit by doting on sex, drugs and violence, as if he's satisfying the folks Jakes wants to save. But the movie is occasionally powerful and always on task. For believers, that will be enough. B-

_ S.P.

Documentarian smiles on Kerry

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (PG-13) (92 min.) _ A month away from the presidential election, a constant complaint against Democratic Party nominee Sen. John Kerry is that he hasn't defined himself. Leave it to documentary filmmaker George Butler, who coincidentally defined future Republican war horse Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1977's Pumping Iron.

To understand Kerry, Butler believes we must understand the nature of the Vietnam War. The first segments of Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry describe a privileged youth urged to use his Yale University degree to bring intellect to the war effort. President John. F. Kennedy was an expected inspiration, and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, originally made all the right declarations for Vietnam to sound like a worthy investment of Kerry's abilities.

Butler doesn't harp on the point, but some things Johnson says about protecting a defenseless nation sound like talking points used by President Bush when discussing Iraq. The current president's name isn't mentioned at all _ this film isn't a Michael Moore kind of attack on the incumbent _ but either Butler's editing or the similarities between Vietnam and Iraq make a subtle political statement.

Neither does Butler attempt to turn Kerry's war wounds into an election issue. Going Upriver is admirably understated in that regard, expecting more people to listen if the information isn't screamed at them. Interviews with Kerry's former shipmates, including former Lt. Jim Rassmann describing how an injured Kerry pulled him from dangerous waters, are less rabid and therefore more convincing than the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that disparaged Kerry's service.

It's when Butler brings the troops home that Kerry's record as an antiwar activist is brought into clearer focus. (Although we must wonder: Where is the feisty eloquence today that Kerry displayed at age 27 while speaking against the Vietnam War before a Senate committee?)

The film shows why eager military recruits or draftees became disillusioned war veterans, returning to a nation that didn't welcome them. Kerry's college background and war record made him an invaluable mouthpiece for pent-up voices. Above all, the point is made that opposing war isn't the same as opposing America. If Kerry weren't a presidential candidate, Butler's film would still have merit as a Vietnam era chronicle.

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry shows solid support of Kerry's character without taking any position against his November opponent. There's something to admire about that when campaigns are increasingly dependent upon accusations rather than substance. John Kerry may very well lose the next battle in his long war. But you get the feeling from Butler's film that history will judge him well. B+

_ S.P.