Bogey Golf 

Redford golf movie has good performances and ambitious conceit, but little human substance

Redford golf movie has good performances and ambitious conceit, but little human substance

The Legend of Bagger Vance

dir.: Robert Redford

PG-13

Opening Friday at area theaters

As a director, Robert Redford has demonstrated certain stylistic tendencies and thematic obsessions, but they’ve been hard to pin down. He seems to like soft, earthy tones, natural light, and class conflict. Back-to-back in the mid-’90s, he delivered his two best films—A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show—and they seemed to have little in common beyond being set in the past and adapted from memoirs. But both pictures also dealt with the fragile emotions of hope and despair, and both used the collision of ethnic differences as a subtext in an overt exploration of morals and ethics.

For The Legend of Bagger Vance, Redford returns to the past—Depression-era Savannah—to adapt a fantastical novel by Steven Pressfield that’s more reminiscent of The Natural (which starred Redford) than the prosaic period pieces he usually tackles. Matt Damon is Rannulph Junuh, a promising junior golfer whose career is sidetracked by a spirit-crushing tour of duty in World War I. Charlize Theron plays Adele Invergordon, Junuh’s former fiancée, whose family fortune is in danger of being wiped out by a chichi golf resort that no one has the money to visit. Invergordon conceives of an exhibition match to attract national attention—a $10,000 two-day tournament pitting Bobby Jones against Walter Hagen, with local boy Junuh thrown in as a sop to Savannah locals.

The film is narrated by Jack Lemmon, as an old man looking back on his days as a 10-year-old golf nut. He was the one who dragged Junuh into the match, and he recalls the day that Junuh met Bagger Vance, a mysterious caddy (played by Will Smith) who convinces the tortured golfer that a 72-hole walk is just the thing to break down his old spirit and build up a new one. According to people who’ve read Pressfield’s book, “Bagger Vance” is an allusion to the Bhagavad-Gita, and much of the novel is about applying an Eastern philosophy of inner peace and interconnectedness to the game of golf, which “can’t be won, only played.” The spiritual framework survives in Jeremy Leven’s script, but Redford perhaps pushes it too hard, forcing awkward, near-parodic moments of passersby saying things like “God bless Savannah and the myths she creates!” The subtlety and fragility that marked his twin ’90s masterpieces has been elbowed aside.

You certainly can’t blame the cast. If there is a “Redford touch” to be discerned from his films, it might have as much to do with acting as anything else. Actors often report that Redford gives more notes on the craft than they’re used to, which helps explain why his pictures feature such well-modulated performances, highlighted by a Redford-like concern for finding the perfect facial expression. This command extends to the bit players, which in Bagger Vance include Peter Gerety, exploiting his roundish shape for maximum bluster as a local politician, and two archetypal turns by the always compelling Bruce McGill as a profligate Hagen and by the unknown Joel Gretsch as a soulful Jones.

Even better are the leads. Smith smiles beatifically and underplays, while Damon continues to develop depth to go along with his substantial charisma. And Theron, who seems to be trotting from set to set these days in vintage clothing, turning in generic line-readings, actually restores the ebullience that first pegged her as a star in the making. Sadly, after some powerhouse early scenes, Theron’s Adele Invergordon retreats to the sidelines to be Junuh’s attractive and mostly static cheerleader. Therein lies Bagger Vance’s fundamental weakness: The characters don’t have much life beyond their function in the plot.

The film is light and often amusing, but it’s too pat. As with his well-meaning but clumsy Milagro Beanfield War, Redford proves himself uncomfortable with balancing the magical and the real, which means that he has difficulty finding the human level of this fable. That’s not much of a problem when it comes to the character of Bagger himself, who’s meant to be unreal (thus explaining why his race isn’t really an issue in the segregated South). But this lack of humanity is devastating to Damon’s Junuh, whose demons seem more contrived than palpable. How can golf be a metaphor for all life when it doesn’t even seem to be a metaphor for this one golfer’s life?

—Noel Murray

Dog daze

Two hundred seventy million Americans did not watch the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on the USA network last February. But the other 5 million who did will probably think Christopher Guest’s new film Best in Show is a scream. After experiencing modest word-of-mouth success with Waiting for Guffman, Guest is back with another fictional documentary, this time about dog show contestants, their owners, and the insular, inbred world of purebred canines. Guffman’s satire embraced everyone who’s ever auditioned for a high school play, but Guest’s target is much smaller this time around. Most of the in-jokes won’t play to the non-aficionado, but as with the earlier film, there’s a core of sweetness and a final triumph that’s worth sticking around for.

Best in Show follows five hopefuls and their dogs from their homes around the country to Philadelphia, site of the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. From rural North Carolina comes Hubert the bloodhound, owned by fishing-shop owner Harlan Pepper (Guest with dyed red hair, a fantastic deep-South accent, and traces of hound-dog jowls on his own face). From New York comes Miss Agnes the Shih Tzu, owned by his flamboyant handler Scott (John Michael Higgins) and Scott’s hairdresser partner Stefan (a wonderfully restrained Michael McKean). From Illinois comes Beatrice the nervous weimaraner, owned by a frazzled, shallow yuppie couple (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey). Gold digger Sherri Ann (Jennifer Coolidge) owns last year’s champion poodle with her decrepit husband, and she plans to win this year with handler and intimate friend Christy (Jane Lynch). Finally, Winky the Norwich terrier, owned by Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), has traveled from Fern City, Fla., on a shoestring budget and a maxed-out credit card.

The vignettes introducing the owners and their dogs don’t provoke much laughter; the characterizations in isolation seem overly broad and even cruel, making the objections that Waiting for Guffman scored easy points off of small-town rubes seem well-founded. But when the cast is assembled in the auditorium where the show will take place, the film takes on some of the momentum of a sports drama. Best of all, Fred Willard comes on the scene as television commentator Buck Laughlin, a former jock whose affable personality and ability to ask inane questions are his sole qualifications to broadcast the show. Laughlin is a transparent parody of Joe Garagiola, the sometime baseball player and game show host who has hosted the USA Network’s Westminster show for the past seven years. As Laughlin tries desperately to fill time while the judges make their decisions, he asks his expert cohost questions like: “Which of these dogs would I want as wide receiver and tight end on my football team?” Meanwhile, Beatrice the weimaraner’s owners are self-destructing over a lost squeaky-bee dog toy, Gerry and Cookie are sleeping in a broom closet, and the moment of truth—best in show—is fast approaching.

Guest’s skill at deriving hilarious, touching performances from his ensemble without using a script doesn’t emerge until the scenes of competition, when the actors are able to begin playing off each other. But if the movie as a whole represents a step backward for Guest in comic results, it may be a step forward in the refinement of his strange house genre. The movie begins and ends with a (dog) psychiatrist hearing the deluded confessions of Posey and Hitchcock, and soon we realize that all the participants are talking to the camera as if they were defending themselves on a shrink’s couch. Their pampered pets are perfect, furry mirrors for their own neuroses, values, and self-love. For dog show lovers—and count this reviewer as one—it’s time to get our obsession out of the solitude of the living room and into the group therapy of the movie theater.

—Donna Bowman

Healing hands

The hero of Dr. Akagi, a boisterous, highly entertaining film by the veteran Japanese director Shohei Imamura, makes his entrance charging headlong through a Japanese fishing village, seemingly powered by the jazzy theme music on the soundtrack. Clad in an ever-present straw hat and bow tie—only the color of his suit changes—the general practioner known as “Doctor Liver” literally races from patient to patient in the waning days of World War II fighting a hepatitis outbreak.

The movie juxtaposes the disease ravaging the villagers with the last desperate vestiges of mad-dog imperialism. The commanders at the nearby military base vow to fight to the last man—even if it means instructing elderly women in bayonet warfare. By contrast, the comically obsessed Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) wages war to save lives. The villagers regard his efforts with a mixture of scorn and amusement, but he remains determined to isolate the killer microbes. To aid in his fight, he assembles his own ragtag army, including a debauched Buddhist monk (Juro Kara) and a strung-out surgeon (Masanori Sera) who uses morphine during surgery, primarily on himself.

Early in his career, Imamura, who is himself a doctor’s son—which figures into one of the movie’s most wrenching subplots—worked with the master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, whose elegant, somber formalism is synonymous with Japanese cinema for many viewers. Imamura has been making movies for more than 40 years, but only a handful have been released here. From the few I’ve seen (including his chilling, elliptical 1979 serial-killer study Vengeance Is Mine), it’s hard to draw many conclusions about his style, but his movies are fascinatingly volatile. Dr. Akagi shares some of the bawdy humor and jarring tone shifts as his 1997 feature The Eel, a consistently surprising film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes a few years ago.

Like The Eel, which starts with a lurid murder and ends in gentle character comedy, Dr. Akagi switches effortlessly from slapstick to sex comedy to violence and tragedy, with the realism of village life enhanced by poetic imagery. In a heartrending scene, a father tears up the letter carrying news of his son’s death and tosses the pieces in the air; the scraps rain down upon him in a solemn, unending drizzle of grief. Yet the movie’s rowdy scope also accommodates the relationship between Akagi and Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), a reformed prostitute who’s begged by family and clients alike to go back to work. She throws herself at Akagi, the one man who cautions her to stay on the straight and narrow. Discussing the difference between bacteria and human beings, Akagi pointedly mentions that bacteria mate indiscriminately, unlike humans. “Better off being bacteria,” Sonoko counters. “More fun.”

Some critics compared The Eel to John Ford’s sentimental visions of community life. In some ways, Dr. Akagi resembles a late Howard Hawks Western like Rio Bravo, in which misfits forge a makeshift family through bonds of mutual respect, and character is judged by performance under pressure, not social standing. But Imamura’s unsentimental humor and complex humanism are all his own. The movie culminates in a stunning final sequence that compares the cataclysmic advent of nuclear destruction to a hypertrophic liver—all diseases ultimately being equal. Presented by Nashville Premieres, Dr. Akagi shows next Tuesday and Wednesday at Sarratt.

—Jim Ridley

Witch hunt

The Blair Witch Project made over $100 million despite the fact that a vocal segment of its target market was annoyed by the film’s obliqueness—a conceptually deliberate approach that, for others, was exactly what gave the film a spooky, unsettling air. Those who demanded closure had to consult the filmmakers’ ingenious Web site, which housed all the detailed context that the feature lacked, including an elaborate series of folktales that described the pervasive influence of the Blair Witch on a small Maryland community. But even without the insider knowledge, The Blair Witch Project was comprehensible as a powerful statement about our fear of “uncivilized” places; it was entertaining too, unless the viewer got nauseous at the shaky-cam style or got chapped by the lack of any visible horror.

Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows is intended to defuse the hype and hysteria of its predecessor by making them part of the plot. The sequel takes place in a world where The Blair Witch Project is just a movie, with a legion of disciples who trek to Burkittsville, Md., for cheap thrills—our world, in other words. Five pilgrims head into the woods—a wiccan, a goth chick, a scholar, his wife, and a mentally disturbed entrepreneur—and when they all experience a mass blackout, they have to piece together bits of videotape to learn what really happened to them.

Documentarian Joe Berlinger (co-helmer of Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost) makes his debut here as a director of fiction features, working from a script he cowrote with House on Haunted Hill scribe Dick Beebe. The cast of unknowns (neither good nor bad enough to merit mentioning their names) does little with the purely expository dialogue, and even given a budget almost 500 times that of the original, Berlinger can’t generate much in the way of shocks or suspense. Most of BW2 consists of strange apparitions that disappear when the characters shake their heads vigorously, followed by extended arguments about whether they all saw what they thought they saw.

There is some nudity and gore in Book of Shadows (though there is not, oddly enough, a book of shadows), and the film builds to a compelling conclusion that asks the audience to question whether cameras can lie—an interesting theme for a documentary filmmaker to explore. But the awkward plotting and absence of anything resembling action make the theme hardly worth waiting out.

Worst of all, comprehension of BW2 depends at least in part on the viewer having seen The Blair Witch Project and having spent time perusing the Web site. The references to specific characters in the Blair Witch saga have little resonance unless the reader has a clear knowledge of who those characters are. Which means that where the original drew strength from the unknown, the sequel attempts to draw strength from arcana—or, to put it another way, this is a film for people who like their sentences diagramed, not spoken.

—Noel Murray

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