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Bondage

Friends to the end in Last Orders and Murder By Numbers.

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There is no explaining old friends," a pal of mine once observed about the nature of friendship and what keeps people close after time. "We are brought together by being alike and kept together by being different." I thought of this several times while watching Fred Schepisi's Last Orders, a meditation on how friendships begin and why they last.

Based on the Graham Swift novel (which won England's Booker Prize, the equivalent of the Pulitzer), Last Orders begins with three lifelong friends coming together to mourn the death of the integral fourth, Jack (Michael Caine). Jack's "last orders" were to have his ashes scattered in the sea from a pier in Margate -- a community Jack had fancied himself retiring to with his wife Amy (Helen Mirren). The three friends -- undertaker Vic, grocer Lenny, and professional gambler Ray (Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, and Bob Hoskins, respectively) -- embark with Jack's slightly estranged car-dealing son Vince (Ray Winstone) from London to Margate and make several stops between to eat, drink, remember, fight, and drink some more. Amy chooses instead to spend this Thursday, as she always does, visiting her and Jack's mentally retarded daughter June. Amy has a few secrets to work through on her own, and, by the end of the film, she must come to terms with them and say goodbye more than once.

Jack, as we progressively discover, was not a great man by any means. In fact, as he is remembered, we see more and more just how flawed and human he was. Likewise, his friends are as real as they come. Lenny is the portrait of a quarrelsome uncle-who-drinks, Ray the best friend with secrets and regrets to iron out, and Vic the conciliatory glue that calmly and quietly keeps everybody together and in line. These buddies have seen it all: World War II (where they all met), affairs, hardship, and, the bane of any friendship, the lending of money. But every day with this bunch seems to end at the pub, with a toast and a hug.

Filmed in glorious flashback-o-vision, Last Orders takes a very patient, nonlinear journey through the extraordinary moments in the lives of truly ordinary people. About half the film is snippets and swatches of different points in the past, very carefully revealing the tensions and fissures in the various friendships and the seemingly immovable wedges that exist between some of them. While some of the looks into the past could have been more dramatic or consequential, the patience of the narrative makes up for the lack of fireworks -- particularly in the group's reverent moment in front of the Chatham War Memorial or in the heartbreaking and infuriating moment when Jack passes on.

Last Orders is the kind of movie filmmakers love but Hollywood hates: It is smart and sensitive and doesn't have to blow anyone up to make its points about survival and courage. Nor does it resort to slapstick to elicit warm, genuine laughs. The performances are just as low-key and appropriate. It is a treat to watch these old pros at work. Caine achieves all of the right complications for Jack, by turns charming and brash, sensible and short-sighted. And while he exists only in flashback, it is easy to see why he remains such an important figure to his survivors. Hoskins as Ray is the most troubled character, yet we can never dislike him even as we watch as he falls into bad decisions. Courtenay and Hemmings provide with great class and charm, alternately, balance and bombast to the foursome -- necessary for any great gang of friends. The marvelous Helen Mirren's Amy is perhaps the most complicated survivor, who makes important decisions with such quiet apprehension you might not notice how broken her heart is.

Last Orders may easily slip in and out of theaters with little notice. It is a quiet, unassuming, intelligent film that features real, truthful characters and dialogue. And, like the friends who gather and the occasion that gathers them, Last Orders celebrates all the dimensions of being human -- frailty, pride, quarrels, and all. -- Bo List

Alfred Hitchcock must have assumed that experimental theories work best in experimental films. How else can you explain Rope? The inimitable director's 1948 flop about a pair of homosexual lovers who commit a murder simply to see if they can get away with it was shot in one take. With the use of a mounted camera, Hitchcock set out to make a film without any cuts (though there are approximately three camera-angle changes throughout). Based loosely on the Leopold and Loeb case, Rope is an impressive, if ultimately unsuccessful, film. A cat and mouse game between the murderers and their revered college professor (who acts the detective), Rope reinforces the notion that cinema was meant to be a fractured medium and that movie killers are usually more interesting when propelled by motives as opposed to theories.

Like Rope, Murder By Numbers is fueled by the murderous deed of two young killers who commit their crime for the thrill of it. Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt play two spoiled high-schoolers who decide to attempt the perfect crime for no real reason other than it's something to do. The jock and the geek, Gosling's narcissistic and megalomaniacal psychopath pairs with Pitt's soft-spoken genius. Following their twisted game from the start, Murder By Numbers isn't a whodunit but, rather, a "how done it." As Sandra Bullock's bitchy and guarded tough-guy detective detects, the teens recount their expertly planned dirty work and attempt to escape capture.

From Bullock's transparent "I'm an angry woman because I've been hurt in the past" character, everything in Murder By Numbers isn't quite as subtle or interesting as it needs to be. The teenage killers are linked by a strange but unexplored homoerotic bond, and the theory for the murder itself is dismissive and trite (a vague one, repeated throughout, involving bravery and Darwinism). Murder By Numbers lays out its wares respectably but is finally unable to do anything with them.

Without the aid of a mystery, Murder By Numbers focuses on the science of the boys' crime. The killer teens take care to ensure none of their hair gets on the body. They make sure a hair or two from the schlub they frame for the murder (a pot-dealing janitor from their school played by Chris Penn) does get on the body. They time their alibis perfectly. So on and so forth. These steps, while mildly intriguing, don't amount to criminal genius or the meat of a two-hour film. Timed like an episode of Law & Order, Murder By Numbers is an adequately orchestrated story executed without much originality and even less heart. -- Rachel Deahl

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