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Nashville Scene She Shoots, She Scores

Actress Lathan and filmmaker Prince-Bythewood chalk up a win

MAY 1, 2000:  Cherish the small cinematic pleasures while you can, because in a couple of weeks, there won't be anything but big pleasures to be found. Before the summer movie season begins--and it lasts about as long as the hockey season these days--enjoy an unexpected performance from a new face, the return to form of an old friend, and a love scene that makes love feel new. Love and Basketball may be a minor success, but with a summer of big booms and bigger busts fast approaching, a minor success is something to be celebrated.

Omar Epps retrieves his career from the wreckage of The Mod Squad with his portrayal of Quincy, only son of a Clippers star (Dennis Haysbert, fresh from the threatened CBS series Now and Again). Next door, Monica (Sanaa Lathan) dreams of being the first woman in the NBA. Friends since childhood and stars on the high school court, they move into collegiate life at University of Southern California as lovers. But while Monica struggles with her hoop dreams, Quincy is busy with family problems, and their relationship suffers.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, writer and director of Love and Basketball, builds up an enormous amount of goodwill with her opening scenes of driveway two-on-two played by preadolescents. She has an eye for the telling gesture, the posture, the move that makes a difference not just on the scoreboard, but also in the relationships on- and off-court.

When the protagonists' friendship is transformed into sexual attraction one night after a dance, the resulting love scene is uniquely touching and meaningful. Instead of falling into bed and hitting heights of passion, Monica folds her arms over her chest; instead of playing the stud, Quincy reaches for a condom. Hollywood conventions are banished for the moment, and the characters are freed to be true to themselves. And Sanaa Lathan, in her first lead role, takes advantage of that opening to give one of the best performances of the year. Her every second onscreen is true to her character, whom she plays with a fierce possessiveness.

The film ends with a companion piece to the neighborhood ball game in the opening scenes, and that too-easy bracketing illustrates some of the clichés that plague the film's somewhat threadbare plot. But within nearly all those familiar moments, there's a spirit of real emotion that keeps the film on its feet. Even the final one-on-one, in which the relationship is at stake after years of neglect, doesn't play like a symbol. It has the rhythms, instantaneous changes of momentum, and mixed emotions of the game itself. No one will remember this flawed, unpretentious film as a slam dunk, but for its stars and director, Love and Basketball is a solid winner. --Donna Bowman


Wag the tongue

If you want to see a movie about teenagers who behave in recognizable ways in realistic situations, see Love and Basketball. If you want to see a movie about teenagers who resemble beings from outer space dropped onto a college campus with unlimited wealth, see Gossip, a thriller that veers from mildly intriguing to wildly implausible in near-record time.

Set at one of those movie colleges with an audiovisual budget that rivals the Pentagon's, Gossip begins, like most rumors, with a tantalizing premise. As a project for their media class, students Jones (Lena Headey), Derrick (James Marsden), and Travis (Norman Reedus) decide to make up a rumor and chart its progress throughout the campus. The topic presents itself at a party, where Derrick oversees some drunken groping between Naomi (Kate Hudson), a wealthy transfer with a virginal reputation, and her horny beau Beau (Joshua Jackson, last seen rattling around in the brainless Skulls).

Soon the campus is abuzz with talk of Naomi's conquest--until word gets back to Naomi. Unable to remember what really happened, Naomi becomes convinced she was raped, and the police come looking for Beau. As the accusations polarize the campus, and Sharon Lawrence turns up as a zealous rape investigator, screenwriters Gregory Poirier and Theresa Rebeck seem ready to use the thriller platform to address men's and women's conflicting definitions of sexual assault. The movie shows signs of becoming something provocative--Oleanna 90210, if you will.

But the rape subplot turns out to be a McGuffin, a pretty cold-blooded way to heat up a script. The real shame is that it wasn't even needed. Buried in Gossip is the making of a sharp-witted yarn about the nanosecond spread of disinformation in the age of accelerated technology. However, since nobody at this media-soaked institution appears to have Internet access--you'd think the topic would come up, considering the movie's subject--Gossip seems almost Victorian in its clucking over womanly virtue and malicious chatter. (For similar reasons, Cruel Intentions seemed more dated on arrival than Les Liaisons Dangereuses.) As the roommates turn against each other and past secrets emerge, the movie winds its way toward a trick ending that works only because you've already forgotten what came before.

If Gossip is never believable, it's always watchable, thanks to the stunning British-born actress Headey, who almost redeems some of her character's stupidest behavior. And TV director Davis Guggenheim supplies plenty of style. Unfortunately, it's the style of executive producer Joel "If It's Green, This Must Be Flatliners" Schumacher--whose solution to making a movie visually interesting is to light a whole wall blue for no reason. Andrzej Bartkowiak's eye-candy cinematography catches every gleaming surface, but even he can't gloss over such booboos as the financially strapped heroine taking a long-ass cab ride to Danbury, Conn. By the time it's over, the worst thing Gossip has going for it is word of mouth. --Jim Ridley


Submission

Perhaps because movies are all a fantasy world anyway, or perhaps because a century of cinema has trained us to do so, motion picture audiences will often disregard characters' moral and political leanings. Put any random set of personalities in a tense situation, and it's our nature as moviegoers to root for them--be they criminals, fiends, or Nazis. Wolfgang Petersen exploited this flaw in our makeup back in 1981 with his classic World War II submarine epic Das Boot, a German film that had us temporarily pulling for the German army.

Writer-director Jonathan Mostow plays off that same human trait in his new sub flick U-571, which opens with an homage to Das Boot. The very first scene takes place aboard the title vessel--a German U-boat housing one of the precious "Enigma" encryption machines that baffled the Allied codebreakers during the early days of World War II. The sub is under attack by the British Navy, and though we know in our heads that these guys are the enemy, it's hard not to root for them--especially since at this point in the film, the bad guys have a face and the good guys don't.

By and large, U-571 is a routine war flick. A crew of American sailors--led by Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, and Harvey Keitel--are sent to seize the contents of the damaged U-571 by posing as a resupply boat. But after imprisoning the German sailors, the Americans' own sub is torpedoed, and our heroes are forced to take refuge in the crippled enemy sub while keeping their identities a secret from a roving German destroyer.

We have a general idea of how this story is going to go just by its pumped-up, action-movie tone; we're not expecting bitter ironies. We've also seen enough submarine movies to know what marks Mostow and his cast will have to hit--there'll be depth charges, torpedoes, and at one point the sub will have to descend below the dreaded "hull crush depth." The trick is for the filmmakers to keep the movie moving swiftly enough that we in the audience never have time to remember that we're watching a movie with a foregone conclusion.

For the most part, Mostow and company do just that. There may be a few too many depth charge assaults--and more than once our heroes are pushed too far past the brink for us to suspend disbelief--but there are several breathless moments that leave the viewer in a suitably silly stupor. (My favorite is when the Americans first try to operate U-571 and realize that all the controls will have to be translated from German...in about 30 seconds!) Credit the likable, character-actor-driven cast (especially a revitalized McConaughey) and credit Mostow's own skill at keeping action sequences crisp and comprehensible (a gift previously on display in his underrated Breakdown).

Mainly, though, the key to U-571 is that neat trick of giving the audience a rooting interest in the villains in the first five minutes of the movie. A little later in the film, Mostow attempts to obliterate any lingering sympathy by showing the German submariners callously machine-gunning a raft of British sailors, but he pulls back a bit by having the captain explain that he's only acting on Hitler's orders. Still later, that same captain, now a prisoner, is a thorn in the side of the Americans, and though we wish he'd stop trying to sabotage our side, we have to admire his pluck and ingenuity.

There's no profound message of universalism in this emotional tug-of-war; it's just good storytelling. To survive, the protagonists have to masquerade as their enemies. When the movie gets to where we've already figured out it's going, at the very least we understand just how hard it was to get there, and who our heroes had to be to make it so. --Noel Murray


Cotton canned

A Merchant Ivory Films release set in India sounds promising to fans of period pieces set in lush locales. Unfortunately, if you go to Ismail Merchant's Cotton Mary expecting a powerful plot and gorgeous scenery, you're going to be disappointed--it's like getting excited about eating at your favorite Indian restaurant, then settling for curry out of a can. You'll also be disappointed if you expect more than a rote examination of post-colonial conflicts in India.

Alexandra Viets' script tells the story of an Anglo-Indian nurse, Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), and her struggle to find a place in 1950s India by working as a nanny for a British family. Since the mother, Lily (Greta Scacchi, whose talents are wasted), can't provide milk for her new baby, Cotton Mary sneaks the infant off to her wet-nurse sister, who has nursed many colonial children and waits to receive her proper due. But what might have been a compelling idea was apparently hijacked by La Leche League of South India: After the 700th mention of breast-feeding and mother's milk, you just want to throw a bottle at the screen.

Perhaps because producer Merchant took over the director's chair from his longtime collaborator James Ivory (The Remains of the Day), Cotton Mary seems more like a made-for-TV imitation than a real Merchant Ivory work. There's the prerequisite snubbing of the natives by hoity-toity white women, the completely hopeless and helpless Englishwoman (how did these people create an empire, you wonder), and the English husband who's doing a little intercultural exchange of his own on the side. Two hours with these ineffectual characters feels like the Boer War. For a better exploration of the complexities of mid-20th-century life in India, rent Masterpiece Theatre's The Jewel in the Crown. --MiChelle Jones


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