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The New World

Screenwriter-director: Terrence Malick
Producer: Sarah Green
Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Mark Ordesky, Trish Hofmann, Bill Mechanic, Rolf Mittweg
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production designer: Jack Fisk
Music: James Horner
Costumes: Jacqueline West
Editors: Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, Mark Yoshikawa
Capt. Smith: Colin Farrell
Pocahontas: Q'Orianka Kilcher
Capt. Newport: Christopher Plummer
John Rolfe: Christian Bale
Powhatan: August Schellenberg
Opechancanough: Wes Studi
Wingfield: David Thewlis
Captain Argall: Yorick Van Wageningen

Clearly "The New World" takes an audience into the rarefied atmosphere of an art film made with a studio budget, making its boxoffice impact hard to assess. The 150-minute film opens Christmas Day in Los Angeles and New York, then expands Jan. 13. Its slow, bucolic rhythms and unwillingness to exploit the violence or sex inherent in the story -- the film nevertheless carries a PG-13 rating for its battle scenes -- relegate the film to audiences devoted to Malick's work and film esoterica. In that world, it may become a hit.

The historical record -- especially on the Native American side, where no written language exists -- is skimpy. Nevertheless, Malick and production designer Jack Fisk bring us into a primeval Eden that feels credible. The weirdly painted natives and white-skinned, armor-clad intruders eye one another suspiciously. Their worlds, goals and beliefs could not be more antithetical.

The natives have little sense of possessions or greed but do have a strong social order. The settlers, most unprepared to deal with a wilderness, seek riches, regard each other with envy and mutiny at a moment's notice. A violent clash is inevitable.

John Smith (Colin Farrell) is first seen in shackles on one of three English ships that reach the James River in 1607. He has been insubordinate but is too valuable a soldier and survivalist to lose to a hanging. So Capt. Newport (Christopher Plummer) frees him upon arrival in the New World. He even gives Smith a key assignment before the captain returns to England for supplies.

Smith leads an expedition upriver to contact a native chief in hopes of establishing trade. Instead his men are killed, and he is taken prisoner. His life is spared by the chief (August Schellenberg) when his favorite daughter, Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), begs for mercy. The chief releases Smith to this teenager so the two can learn each other's language and he might gain insight into the newcomers' intentions.

What they do, of course, is fall in love. Here the movie enters a dreamlike state, a nearly dialogue-free, lengthy montage composed of the physical world of the Virginia circa 1607. (The film actually was shot in that state.) As a strong bond is formed by two absolute strangers, they take in the richness of landscape and sounds of wind and birds in the forest. What would be unspeakably corny in the hands of a less masterly filmmaker works here because of Malick's absolute fidelity to the underlying emotions.

Smith returns to a crude fort with provisions supplied by the Indians. But his homecoming is like awaking from a dream into the ugliness and pettiness of the coarse settlers. When the settlers plant corn and thereby tip off the native chef that they intend to stay, he prepares to attack. But his daughter warns her lover, and the assault is thwarted.

The natives' heartbroken leader banishes his daughter, who then falls into the hands of another tribe that eventually trades her to the whites as an "insurance policy." Smith vehemently opposes this trade, which causes the ungrateful colonialists to depose him as their leader.

After the return of Capt. Newport, Smith is called back to England to lead other expeditions while the Indian girl adopts to living among the whites. Believing Smith to be dead, she marries newly arrived aristocrat John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and has a child. Much later, the couple travels to England, where this "princess" is introduced to the British monarch. Here she sees Smith for one last time.

While the name Pocahontas is never mentioned -- the settlers ridiculously name her Rebecca -- the film is essentially a love letter to the idealized myth of this historic woman, who is viewed here as both forest naif and earth mother. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki cover Kilcher with more loving poses and angles than a photographer doing a fashion spread. Kilcher is a striking young woman, and the camera -- and perhaps Malick himself? -- falls in love with her.

The movie has a restlessness as it moves through this story with a meandering camera, inner monologues and shifting points of view. James Horner's sumptuous musical score, incorporating bits of Wagner, Mozart and others, emulates the steadiness of the wind while its repetitive refrains remind one of Philip Glass. The camera lingers on details of frontier life, but the exploration here is less scientific and historical than a spiritual quest for what was lost and what was gained in this clash of civilizations. Certainly, the Westernization of this native woman presages the fate of North American natives and the despoiling of their paradise.

Farrell looks uncomfortable in the role, seldom changing expression and shifting his body aimlessly. Kilcher is quick-witted, full of 15-year-old life and possesses fine instincts despite being a newcomer to acting. Bale underplays his role, letting his innate goodness seep slowly out. In the native roles, Schellenberg and Wes Studi capture the dignity and ferocity of warriors fighting to retain a way of life. David Thewlis, Yorick Van Wageningen and others ably portray the avarice and aggressiveness of the newcomers.

The Producers

Director-choreographer: Susan Stroman
Screenwriters: Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan
Music-lyrics: Mel Brooks
Producers: Mel Brooks, Jonathan Sanger
Directors of photography: John Bailey, Charles Minsky
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Co-producer: Amy Herman
Costumes: William Ivey Long
Editor: Steven Weisberg
Max Bialystock: Nathan Lane
Leo Bloom: Matthew Broderick
Ulla: Uma Thurman
Franz Liebkind: Will Ferrell
Roger De Bris: Gary Beach
Carmen Chia: Roger Bart
Mr. Marks: Jon Lovitz
Hold Me-Touch Me: Eileen Essell

Lane and Broderick have played these roles 300-and-something times, and it shows. All of their gestures, grimaces, songs, dances and action have a tired, over-rehearsed quality. Worse, theirs is broad, physical shtick conceived for balcony seats in a theater. Neither actor has rethought his performance for the screen.

This "Producers," shot almost entirely on soundstages with only a few Manhattan exteriors, represents a historical record of the popular stage show, which earned 12 Tonys. Universal and Columbia Pictures can expect modest boxoffice business from fans of the musical and the fondly remembered original film, but this means an older audience, one more likely to catch up with the film on DVD.

The new film has an additional handicap. While the reputation of the original film has possibly outstripped its actual artistic achievements, there is no question that the film did contain two insanely talented comedy performers at the top of their game: the late Zero Mostel as morally bankrupt and fading Broadway producer Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as the exceptionally neurotic accountant Leo Bloom. No pair of actors, not even those as gifted as Lane and Broderick, can withstand comparison to the manic inventiveness of the originals.

The story, save for minor tinkering, remains the same. Max's Broadway career has hit such a low ebb that he must raise money by romancing rich old ladies. When timid and nervous Leo goes over Max's pathetic financial records, he inadvertently hits upon a infallible way to make a fortune on Broadway: Raise more money than you need to stage an intentional flop. No investor will want to examine the books for a turkey, so you pocket the difference.

The two come up with a sure-fire flop: a lighthearted, revisionist musical about the Nazi era, "Springtime for Hitler." They swiftly secure the rights from the show's pigeon-raising author Franz (Ferrell in sweetly controlled craziness), then hire the worst director imaginable. This would be Roger De Bris (a hilarious Gary Beach), who prefers to wear dresses and, along with his assistant Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart), believes the key to everything is "Keep It Gay."

As a perk justified by their certain success -- er, failure -- the two producers hire Ulla (Thurman), a luscious blond actress, as their secretary-receptionist. This turns out to be a perk for audiences as well because Uma does Ulla like nobody's business. In her audition number, "When You've Got It, Flaunt It," Thurman puts the voom back into va-va-va-voom and soon has girl-shy Leo's head spinning.

For that matter, all of Brooks' musical numbers, including the catchy "Springtime for Hitler" from the original film, are clever and fun. Brooks might have had a fine career as a Broadway songwriter and lyricist if he hadn't chosen to become an award-winning film producer, writer, director and actor.

Understandably, Brooks wanted to turn directing reins over to someone else for this second "Producers." But tapping Susan Stroman, the director and choreographer of the original stage musical, was a mistake. The film needed fresh eyes and an experienced filmmaker to reconceptualize "The Producers" for the screen.

Her dances, the artificial sets (by Mark Weisberg) and bright costumes (by William Ivey Long) all are terrific if this were a stage show, but unfortunately, it's a movie. John Bailey and Charles Minsky's cameras never quite hit upon a style or movements that might invigorate a stage show the way Stephen Goldblatt did for "Rent."

The Ringer

Director: Barry W. Blaustein
Screenwriter: Ricky Blitt
Producers: Peter Farrelly, Bradley Thomas, Bobby Farrelly, John Jacobs
Executive producer: Tim Shriver
Director of photography: Mark Irwin
Production designer: Arlan Jay Vetter
Editor: George Folsey Jr.
Costume designer: Lisa Jensen
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Steve Barker/Jeffy: Johnny Knoxville
Gary Barker: Brian Cox
Lynn: Katherine Heigl
Glen: Jed Rees
Thomas: Bill Chott
Billy: Edward Barbanell
Jimmy: Leonard Flowers
Stavi: Luis Avalos

Produced by but not written or directed by the siblings responsible for the boundary-goosing "There's Something About Mary," this wannabe daring comedy about a man who attempts to "fix" the Special Olympics strains for that patented naughty and nice balance with squirmingly squishy results.

As calibrated by director Barry W. Blaustein and screenwriter Ricky Blitt, the Johnny Knoxville vehicle is neither the edgy laugh riot it thinks it is nor the ultimately inspirational eye-opener it aspires to be, despite being given the blessings of Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver, who takes an executive producer credit.

The neither-here-nor-there end product will inevitably result in nothing special for Fox Searchlight, which took on the film after the bigger studios shied away from the subject matter.

Knoxville, in a role that would have been a better fit a decade ago for an Adam Sandler or a Jim Carrey, plays Steve Barker, a mild-mannered guy who quits his desk job when he's instructed to fire his company's longtime janitor, Stavi (Luis Avalos).

Guilt-ridden, Steve hires Stavi to do his gardening, but when a lawnmower mishap results in Stavi parting company with several of his fingers, Steve has to make good on his promise of full medical insurance coverage.

Unable to come up with a better idea, he reluctantly goes along with his smarmy Uncle Gary's (Brian Cox) scheme of fixing the Special Olympics by entering the competition with the intention of defeating the event's odds-on favorite, the six-time Gold Medal pentathlete Jimmy (real-life competitor Leonard Flowers).

Thus Steve becomes the mentally challenged Jeffy, but while Lynn Sheridan (Katherine Heigl), the sweet-natured Special Olympics volunteer, takes a shine to him, his other teammates quickly catch on to his unconvincing ruse.

But rather than turn him in, the others, wanting to see the arrogant Jimmy taken down a few notches, help make Jeffy/Steve into a viable contender and, in the process, teach him a life-changing lesson about courage and integrity.

That's at least what the picture wishes to say, but Blaustein, who helmed the entertaining wrestling docu "Beyond the Mat," and Blitt, whose TV credits include "Family Guy" and "The Jeff Foxworthy Show," fail to make both the comedic elements sharp enough and the stereotype-shattering aspects understated enough to effectively bring home its worthy message.

It's the kind of tricky balancing act that the Farrelly brothers, who have accorded respect to special needs individuals in films like "Mary" and "Stuck on You," used to excel in before moving on to more conventional fare like "Fever Pitch."

Part of that problem here is that former "Jackass" Knoxville lacks the necessary core affability of a Sandler or Carrey or Will Ferrell to strike the necessary audience-identifying chord.

And while the decision to have both actors and real-life "diffabled" individuals playing Knoxville's teammates may have been a noble idea in theory, in practice it's a bit uncomfortable watching some of those more obvious impersonations.

If "The Ringer" had the guts of a "Murderball," all those good intentions might not have been squandered on this spineless production.
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