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The Women, Elegy, Traitor among capsule reviews of films currently playing in Charlotte

New Releases

THE WOMEN The witty and wise 1939 screen version of The Women, based on Clare Booth Luce's play and helmed by "woman's director" George Cukor, has been unfortunately refashioned as a Sex and the City wanna-be, in the process losing all the smoldering conflicts and zesty support system of its classic predecessor. In that version, Norma Shearer's angelic society woman had to decide whether to stay married to a husband who dared to dally with Joan Crawford's skanky shopgirl. With nary a male in sight but an all-female-cast to die for (Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine were also part of the ensemble), the picture began with a playful title sequence (each character was juxtaposed with her animal kingdom counterpart, from innocent doe to wise owl to sly fox) and went on to examine females as complicated beings forced to simultaneously respond to social duties, potentially duplicitous acquaintances, and the demands of their own independent hearts. Predictably, this new version opens with a nod toward modern materialism (a woman mentally catalogues each item in a department store with an inner computer not unlike the Terminator's) and then proceeds to offer contemporary stereotypes rather than memorable individuals. Here, everything has been smoothed out to the point of tepidity: Eva Mendes (as the hubby-swiper) is merely naughty where Crawford was lethal, while Russell's role as a backstabbing "frenemy" has been transformed into Annette Bening's tough-yet-tender magazine editor. Meanwhile, Meg Ryan (as the jilted spouse) doesn't stray too far from her established screen persona, while Jada Pinkett Smith's casting in a worthless role (cut it, and the movie doesn't change at all) demonstrates that writer-director Diane English was more interested in covering all demographics (black and lesbian, in the case of Smith and her character) than in making any salient points about 21st-century girl power. **

Current Releases

DEATH RACE Look, there's nothing wrong with producing cinematic trash as long as it delivers, but Death Race, like most of director Paul W.S. Anderson's pictures, is about as much fun as having two flat tires during rush hour traffic. Yet it's not like Anderson didn't start with a reasonably sturdy foundation: The original film, 1975's Death Race 2000, is trashy fun, a campy Roger Corman satire with David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone as rival drivers in a nationally broadcast sport where the purpose (along with taking out fellow speed racers) is to run over as many people as possible. In typical Corman fashion, this cult item even made some sociopolitical statements amid all the carnage; this Race, on the other hand, is so thematically tired that in a few months, it will be impossible to separate it in the mind from other junky action flicks. Here, the hero is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a working joe who's falsely accused of murdering his wife and sent to a maximum-security prison, where the best drivers compete for their freedom in a three-day demolition derby that's televised to over 50 million Americans. On the track, Jensen's arch-nemesis is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson); off the track, it's the sadistic Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen, WTF?). The most interesting aspect of this stupid and obnoxious film? It's set in 2012, when our present Bush-driven economy finally collapses, crime is running too rampant to control, and this country has basically gone to hell. Reading between the lines, does that mean this movie is predicting that John McCain (aka the bearer of Bush's third term) will win come November? *1/2

ELEGY Eloquent and understated, Elegy is an adaptation of Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, and it shares some similarities to 2003's fine filmization of Roth's The Human Stain. Both movies focus on the relationship between a worldly college professor and a beautiful younger woman, but Elegy is even more memorable than its woefully underrated predecessor. Its central character is David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), an English professor who avoids emotional attachments by partaking in one-night stands with nubile students. David becomes involved with Cuban-American student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), but this time, there's a difference: There appears to exist a real affinity between this aged instructor and this woman who's three decades his junior. But David, incapable of dealing with his feelings, almost sabotages the relationship from the start. The character of the aging intellectual becoming involved with a younger woman is hardly an original one, but between the sensitive direction by Isabel Coixet – and how interesting to see a female ably tackling material by an author who's repeatedly had to fight charges of misogyny – the smart screenplay by ace scripter Nicholas Meyer (who also adapted The Human Stain), and the terrific performance by Kingsley, David Kepesh emerges as one of the most complex and fully realized screen characters of the season. As for Cruz, she's a revelation in this role. It's a given that she's always been wonderful in Spanish-language films and wooden in English-language ones, but on the heels of her scene-stealing work in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she seems to have finally broken through the language barrier. ***1/2

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