Not Just Another Pretty Picture

More ugliness from Neil LaBute

The shapes that first appear in The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's new film, are a pretty amorphous bunch. Basically, all we see is a sea of blur and fuzz, objects without definition, until the camera snaps into focus just as it comes to an abrupt stop on a fig leaf none-too-subtly placed over the private parts of a large statue.

The statue is an imposing representation of a stern, bearded God, but the fig leaf is what LaBute wants us to notice. This is all too obviously a movie about stripping away the barriers that separate us from the truth, after all. So what better symbol of whatever it is that hides the essence of, um, things?

A young art student (Rachel Weisz) who "doesn't like art that isn't true" snaps Polaroids of the offending leaf, moving inside the velvet ropes surrounding the statue to get a better view. "You've stepped over the line," says the perplexed museum guard, little realizing the full accuracy of his words or just how much more potent those words will prove by the time the movie's closing credits roll.

The guard's name is Adam (Paul Rudd) and the art student's name is Evelyn, and, curiously enough, they soon become a couple. It's curious because they're such an obvious mismatch: He's uptight, overweight, dull, nerdy, naive; she's unpredictable, eccentric, oddly beautiful and full of aggressive passion. The relationship progresses apace, and in no time flat, Adam is losing weight, styling his hair, updating his wardrobe, even changing his friends, all in an effort to please his strangely compelling new girlfriend.

On the surface, the narrative of The Shape of Things is fairly bland much of the time, but there's an underlying sense of dread that makes even the film's most innocuous moments feel like a vaguely ominous set-up. (When we see a video camera recording a lovemaking session, for instance, it's a safe bet it'll be used as a weapon later on.) It's only a question of who's actually being set up. No one in the movie really seems innocent, but Rudd plays Adam as such a cartoonish dolt that he comes off as a walking target, and therefore the most likely candidate for victimization.

The movie compels us to spend most of its running time simply trying to figure out who's going to get screwed, and when and how. Just as in his 1997 debut In the Company of Men (a film that could almost be a companion piece to this one), we feel that there's a potentially dangerous game afoot. The newer movie doesn't simply state this at the outset, though, and that's a major problem with it. The Shape of Things inadvertently insults us by keeping us guessing even though there's really not much to guess, and spends far too much time insisting we wait for the other shoe to drop.

The Shape of Things is Neil LaBute back in the wasteland of human cruelty that marked In the Company of Men and 1998's Your Friends and Neighbors — a relentlessly sad place where there's no such thing as a relationship of equals. The ugliness here isn't as in your face as in LaBute's other signature films, but it hangs in the air, unfulfilled, like a bad case of coitus interruptus. The whole thing's like In the Company of Men-lite, in fact, with far too much made over something so mild as an indiscrete kiss.

The Shape of Things is adapted from LaBute's stage play, and in many ways the project probably worked best in its original form. The production feels cramped and static, while the dialogue often comes off as portentous in that overly theatrical way that only in passing resembles the syntax, patterns and rhythms of real-life speech.

The final act takes place in an exhibition space dominated by a big neon sign informing us that "Moralists have no place in an art gallery." This is the movie's overriding message, persuasively argued in scenes like the one where a character balks at a performance piece (involving menstrual blood) simply because it feels like "something nasty, private — something I wasn't supposed to see."

It's very much as if LaBute is answering his critics or maybe just reassuring himself that his movies are more than sick jokes, that they're beyond good and evil, that they're art. The truth is out there, he seems to be saying, and it's often not pretty or easily digested. It's just too bad the movie he's made this time isn't up to the task of fully demonstrating that.

Body LanguageBack in 1966, Raquel Welch and company needed a shrink ray and an eyelash-size nuclear sub to get an inside view of what makes the human body tick. Thirty-seven years later, we finally get a real-life Fantastic Voyage, or something very close to it, in the formidable form of the new IMAX production, The Human Body.

It's hard not to feel positively microscopic while watching The Human Body, what with all those gigantic internal organs and bodily fluids filling up that 7-story-tall IMAX screen. The movie was three years in the making, but The Human Body is the culmination of decades of technological advances. Pencil-thin endoscopic cameras, thermal imaging and time-slice photography (a Matrix-like freeze-effect) are only some of the cutting edge techniques employed to great effect here. What couldn't actually be achieved was simulated through computer animation that's often difficult to distinguish from the real thing.

The movie is a day in the life of us all, a look at the routine functions performed by many of us in the course of our daily existence, albeit as seen from the inside. A man cutting himself while shaving prompts an invasion of giant red blood cells bubbling across the screen. X-ray imaging turns a boy riding his bike to school into a perfectly surreal human skeleton pedaling away, with an accordion-ing canine skeleton in hot pursuit.

The X-ray sequence is computer generated, but nonetheless stunning, as are so many of the film's visuals. We get shots of brain cells withering, a structure that turns out to be the inner ear, the chambers of the human heart itself, and all sorts of miracle-of-life stuff, from sperms fusing with eggs, to fetuses seen in various stages of development. Wipe the voice-over narration and add a score by Michael Nyman or Philip Glass, and you'd have a readymade art film.

It's not all poetry, though, and The Human Body seems to relish being able to confront us with gigantic images of spurting bile and delicate bites of food being churned into the evil-looking mush it becomes in the stomach. The movie also contains the single most repulsive moment you'll see on screen this year (or the single funniest, depending upon your point of view). You may think you've seen it all, but believe me, you haven't — not until you witness an over-ripe zit being popped in extreme close-up on a 10,500 square foot IMAX screen. Now that's entertainment.

From Russia With

Extreme AgitationThere's a whole lot of amazing and unusual cinema heading our way this week, bundled up as a two-day event dubbed Cinema of Agitation: The Russian and Slavic Fantastic Film Festival. The festival takes place Fri., May 23, and Sat., May 24, at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, and is co-presented by Movies that Move.

The festival kicks off at 5 p.m. Fri. with an opening reception at the Mon Ami Croatian restaurant, followed by a 6 p.m. screening of the visually stunning and still-radical-after-all-these-years Daisies, Vera Chytilova's seminal slab of Czech surrealism from 1966. Filmmaker and University of Tampa professor Elizabeth Coffman will introduce the film and moderate a Q & A afterwards.

Other films scheduled for Friday include a series of brilliantly subversive animated shorts from the legendary Jan Svankmajer, Russian/Georgian visionary Sergei Paradjanov's masterful visual poem The Color of Pomegranates (8 p.m.), and Dusan Makavegev's controversial, politically charged WR: Mysteries of the Organism (10 p.m.). An after-party at Mon Ami will follow.

Saturday's line-up begins at 1 p.m. with animation genius Ladislaw Strewicz's delightfully surreal The Cameraman's Revenge and Dziga Vertov's famous 1928 experiment in montage Man with a Movie Camera, complete with a brand new score by Michael Nyman (1:15 p.m.). At 2:50 p.m. hardcore cinema buffs should make a point of stopping by to worship at the altar of Andrei Tarkovsky's metaphysical sci-fi epic Stalker, one of the greatest films ever made. Filmmaker and U.T. professor Rob Tregenza will introduce the film and lead a Q & A after.

At 6 p.m. there are more of those endlessly imaginative short films from Starewicz and other Russian animators, including The Mascot (which features a stop-motion witches' Sabbath that puts even Nightmare Before Christmas to shame). The festival concludes with an 8 p.m. screening of Emir Kusturica's Underground, an astonishing black comedy that sums up the troubled history of the former Yugoslavia with savage wit, precision and no shortage of slapstick excess. A closing party at the Globe Coffeehouse will follow for anyone who isn't left dazed and speechless after all this cinematic splendor.

The festival is free for Dali Museum members and with regular museum admission (one-day admission allows you entry to both days' events). The Salvador Dali Museum is located at 1000 Third St. S. St. Petersburg. For more information call 727-823-3767.

Film Critic Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 157.

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