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Below and Beyond

James Cameron returns to the Titanic, likewise Bend It Like Beckham covers familiar ground.

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Filmed in state-of-the-art Imax 3-D, Ghosts of the Abyss chronicles director James Cameron and his 2001 return to the ship Titanic, four years after winning a basketful of Oscars and zillions of dollars from the 1997 mega-blockbuster film Titanic. He has taken Bill Paxton with him, who serves as a kind of Everyman narrator, blankly commenting upon mundane scientific exercises and providing requisite exclamations of awe when cool things get shown -- like the approach of the mini-subs to the bulkhead of the ship or light shining through intact leaded-glass windows for the first time since it sank on April 12, 1914. Paxton, one of my least favorite Hollywood actors, is not bad playing himself, though a wittier Everyman might have been found. Director Cameron and he are buddies, and Paxton was in his Titanic film, but I would have preferred that old lady Gloria Stuart or maybe Kathy Bates. There's a movie -- miles under the surface of the ocean in a tiny submarine with Kathy Bates. Not for those who squirmed during her About Schmidt hot-tub scene, perhaps, but a jazzier set-up for a film. I did not need Paxton's observations to let me know when something was "spooky."

One of the marvels of Cameron's Titanic was that it was able to, for three hours, sustain the attention of an audience that already knew the ending. He successfully wove a melodramatic romance into the tragic nonfiction, combining Romeo and Juliet with our collective cultural fascination with disaster. Mine, anyway. I'm one of those who loved Titanic. I saw it three times in the theater and a couple of times on video and insist that it is a masterpiece of good, old-fashioned movie magic. All the more disappointing that there is no real story to Ghosts of the Abyss. No narrative push. The closest thing we get to suspense is the loss and subsequent rescue of one of the mission's miniature camera robots. There were two picture-taking 'bots on the trip, dubbed Jake and Elwood (after the Blues Brothers!), and these little floating toasters are the heroes of Ghosts of the Abyss. Elwood gets lost and his battery runs down. So Cameron and Co. devise a system by which they can use Jake to latch onto Elwood with a special hook and hopefully tow him (it) back to safety for repair. It's a close call, but -- they save him! Whew!

As for the 3-D, I can report that Ghosts of the Abyss is neat-o in that department. The glasses were gray instead of the archetypal red-and-blue combo, and they provided me with less of a headache than when I saw, say, Jaws 3-D 20 years ago. Instead of things merely popping out at you, the 3-D successfully pops you into the film, making you feel like you are on the boats, riding the waves, and actually playing volleyball with the crew of explorers. However, like the rest of this underlong 59-minute ramble, there is no big finish to the 3-D. No grand finale. The effect just kind of stops. So while it's cool and all, it really doesn't go anywhere and there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to have done this in 3-D at all, since the footage itself is sufficiently impressive. (Frankly, my subsequent visit to that pretty, retro Cordova McDonald's provided a more eye-popping experience: the curly-haired boy at the pay window said, smiling, "Thank you very much for coming to McDonald's. Please come again." In my three years in Memphis, I have not experienced this brand of McDonaldian friendliness, and I soon forgot all about Bill Paxton's 3-D head floating too close to my lap.)

Ghosts of the Abyss is a somewhat confused documentary that teeters between the clinically academic and the narrative grandeur of one of the last century's great stories, and it never quite figures out how to marry the two or choose one. As much of a showman Cameron is, I had hoped for some kind of aesthetic payoff or reason to do this project beyond cool wreck footage (though, in truth, Titanic is disintegrating and will be gone in a matter of decades). A flimsy attempt is made here by dramatically re-creating moments in and on the ship, visually juxtaposed against the decay of the ship's current state. Some of this is haunting, as we hear music from the voyage and see optimistic people unsuspectingly enjoying their trip, all the while superimposed against the rusted, decrepit ruins of the most glorious ship ever built. I guess this is done to make sense of the inclusion of the word "ghosts" in the title, but nothing of this can surpass the raw majesty of the dead ship itself or Cameron's celebrated other Titanic movie. -- Bo List

A sleeper hit in the U.K. last year and a graduate of last year's Sundance film festival, Bend It Like Beckham is poised to be this year's designated feel-good underdog hit, a girls-soccer movie guerrilla-marketed to the target audience (judging from the little Sporty Spices and their soccer moms and dads at a recent local preview screening) in order to prime a larger box-office offensive in a strategy similar to that mother of all feel-good underdog hits, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

For those who don't follow what the rest of the world calls football, the Beckham of the film's title is David, the world's biggest soccer star, the Michael Jordan of the U.K. He's also the face that peers down from a bevy of posters on the bedroom wall of teenage suburban Londoner Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) in this perhaps too-gentle take on intra-family culture clash and generational tension.

Jess is the youngest daughter of a traditional Sikh family, busy preparing for the wedding of its eldest daughter (a "love match," Jess explains to soccer teammates who assume all Hindi marriages are arranged). With one daughter following the proper path, Jess' parents turn their attention to her misdeeds, like playing soccer in the park with neighborhood boys (which equates to "showing your bare legs to strangers," according to Jess' mother) instead of focusing on finding a nice Indian boy to marry and learning to prepare a full Indian meal. "Anyone can do aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?" Jess asks. And thus we have our driving conflict.

The pitch-meeting shorthand here is Love & Basketball meets My Big Fat Greek Wedding amid a now-standard Indian-family culture clash, and in this case the shorthand about covers everything. The culture-clash part has been done to death recently, and much better, in films such as Monsoon Wedding and East Is East, or even the excellent My Son the Fanatic, which reverses the generational dynamic. Instead, the depth of family turmoil and ethnic humor in Bend It Like Beckham is about as shallow as in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, though less pandering and, consequently, with considerably more surface charm. Monsoon Wedding is melodrama worthy of Douglas Sirk by comparison. Thank Nagra, an appealing young actress who is believable as both tomboy and love interest, and who brings an earthy charm and dry humor to the role, for carrying the film through its rough patches.

Visually, Bend It Like Beckham, directed by Gurinder Chadha, is competent but a little on the dull side. The only time the sitcom-style camerawork changes is out on the soccer field, but even then we get the standard pop-song-montage scenes, and without the jazzy rhythmic editing that made the equally formulaic girls-just-wanna-have-fun surfing flick Blue Crush a not-so-guilty pleasure. In fact, not only is there no real kinetic energy to the soccer scenes, there's also little of the in-game context that one would expect from any sports-themed movie. If you aren't a soccer fan heading into the film, you aren't likely to be won over. And if you don't know what it means to "bend it like Beckham," you won't know by the end of the movie, either, though I suppose that part is easy enough to figure out and assumed knowledge for the English crowd the film is made for.

But, for all of Bend It Like Beckham's flaws, it goes down easy. Though one wishes it were less dull and less predictable, the film manages to combine a gentleness of spirit with a lack of saccharinity that is pretty rare in mainstream movies these days.

-- Chris Herrington

In A Man Apart, we have Vin Diesel as Sean Vetter -- ultracool undercover agent for the DEA. He has a pretty wife, Stacy (Jacqueline Obradors), who functions in the film only to get shot and die -- but not before several candlelit montages showing how IN LOVE she and Sean are. (Yawn.)

Anyway, after jailing a high-profile drug kingpin Meno, thugs are sent to Sean's unlocked (?) beachfront home and shoot the sleeping couple. Sean takes them all out but not before being shot himself and not before his beloved Stacy is mortally wounded. Sean passes out before she dies and wakes up from a coma much later in a hospital -- to be told only then of her death. It is impossible to know how long he has been in a coma, because while his facial hair is longer, someone in the hospital was kind enough to keep Diesel's trademark pate buzzed.

Sean then becomes a Bad Cop and roughs up some people on his quest to find Stacy's murderer. His partner Demetrius (Larenz Tate) is reluctantly along for the ride and frowningly assists Sean's law-bending, like when he shoots the body of a man Sean has already beaten to death and then tosses the gun at the body of one of the bad guys to cover up the cause of death. What are friends for?

Sean learns that the person responsible for all the drugs and murders is a man named Diablo, which leads Sean to hijack a plane (don't worry, it's a bad plane) to Mexico, where he is thrust into the center of Diablo's machinations and no-goodedness.

Diesel is a fascinating movie star. Named after a kind of gas, he is clearly the heir apparent to the brain-dead shoot-'em-up actioners of the 1980s: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis. Sly and Ah-nuld are both in their 50s and haven't learned how to age as Hollywood hulksters. Bruce is pushing 50 but at least has learned to act and choose worthier projects. (Though look out: Die Hard 4 is on the way.) Diesel reminds me of a favorite Schwarzenegger quote: "I am to acting what Raymond Burr is to pole-vaulting." That's Diesel. He is instructed, apparently, to do little more than act cool and grieve at the same time. The only real acting in the film comes from Timothy Olyphant as a fascinatingly flamboyant drug lord/salon entrepreneur named Hollywood Jack, and from a drug-sniffing Chihuahua -- though now I have spoiled the film's only two fun surprises. My sister Lucia, instant-messaging me as I started to write this review, implored me: "Say something nice about Vin Diesel in your review." I asked, "Why?" She replied, "Because he's my boyfriend." Me: "May I say THAT in the review?" Her: "No. Well, okay." This is for you, Lucia:

Diesel, while running the emotional gamut only from A to B, succeeds at diverting one from the shooting and violence of real life. After all, the plot really makes no sense beyond "Sean gets even for the murder of his wife." He doesn't act like a cop, and he and his partner do foolish things -- as when Demetrius climbs into an attic, unarmed, to talk a crazy, gun-wielding, frightened junkie into helping them out. Earlier, when Sean calls 911 to come and save him and Stacy, he doesn't answer when they ask what the emergency is. He wastes precious seconds staring at Stacy as she dies beautifully. But he doesn't know she's dying, so shouldn't he finish the call? The ending, as well, defies all movie logic about action climaxes.

I could have seen Phone Booth instead. But all I would have done with Phone Booth is fantasize about being stuck in the booth with Colin Farrell, which I did anyway during A Man Apart. So I guess I got my money's worth. -- BL

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