Opening Shot

Madstone's first weekend's typical of quality to come

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click to enlarge GHOST RIDERS: Cate Blanchet in a bone-chilling - moment from The Missing, a cross between a - Western and a supernatural thriller. - Eli Reed
Eli Reed
GHOST RIDERS: Cate Blanchet in a bone-chilling moment from The Missing, a cross between a Western and a supernatural thriller.

The moment Bay area film fiends have been anxiously awaiting is finally here. Madstone Theatres is open for business.

Unless you've been hunkered down in that cave next to Osama's for the past few months, you've probably heard all about Madstone and its master plan. Madstone has a brand new Tampa venue, located in the same spot that formerly housed AMC's Old Hyde Park 7, and has promised great things — from innovative programs and festivals, to wine tastings and discussion groups, to a comfortable spot to simply hang out.

And then there are the films themselves.

Madstone is all about the movies. First and foremost, it's dedicated to presenting the very best in independent, foreign and classic films, but the company isn't snobby about it. The theater's bookers love to mix it up, and have no problem showing mainstream Hollywood fare (that's what pays the bills, after all) as long as the movie has merit.

Don't be surprised, then, to find Clint Eastwood's surefire Oscar nominee Mystic River among the films scheduled for Madstone's opening week. Eastwood's highly visible, big budget opus will screen along with less well-known and less well-financed but equally acclaimed independent features such as Shattered Glass and Gus Van Sant's astonishing Elephant. Then there's the gangsters-get-wired saga This Thing of Ours and Sylvia, in which Gwyneth Paltrow stars as everybody's favorite depressed, schizophrenic, dead female poet, Sylvia Plath,

For the truly adventurous, there's also a French import among Madstone's initial offerings, although it's a far cry from the elegantly charming romances we often expect these days from that part of the world. In My Skin is a tough sell — a provocative study of a woman obsessed with self-mutilation — and, while we were unable to preview the film, we're recommending it (cautiously).

Directed, written by and starring Francois Ozon's frequent collaborator Marina de Van, this much talked-about film has polarized audiences and critics alike. It has also generated comparisons to the early, edgy visions of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, and earned raves from the likes of the New York Times, which called it, "As unrelenting an exploration of isolation and disassociation as Roman Polanski's Repulsion."

De Van's reportedly intense and very graphic feature debut sounds pretty scary. But it also sounds like just the sort of thing our other local art houses almost never touch — which is one more important reason for Madstone to exist.

Meanwhile, at what might be assumed to be the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum, we find Hollywood A-list director Ron Howard's The Missing, another of the films slated for Madstone's opening week. But while it's true that The Missing boasts a big budget and big name stars like Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett, it's also a perfect example of a mainstream movie that doesn't always feel like a mainstream movie.

Howard's film takes place in the Old West, and it consciously recalls classic Westerns like The Searchers, big movies about obsessive quests, family, redemption and the land. At the same time, The Missing has an intimate, distinctly anti-epic feel, with only a handful of central characters involved, and a mood that often feels tense and uncomfortably claustrophobic. In some ways, in fact, this isn't a Western at all; it's a horror story.

Blanchett is in typically fine form as a frontier doctor in crisis when a band of outlaws kills her lover and kidnaps her teenaged daughter. With no one else to turn to, she enlists the help of her estranged father (Jones) — a conflicted and tragically flawed white man who's spent most of his life living with Indians — and together they ride off in search of the stolen child.

As in so many classic Westerns, The Missing takes place in a world where order barely holds off chaos, a concept that seems more salient than ever, post-9-11. Howard's characters wade in shades of gray, but even the most problematic of them, Jones' faux savage, makes mistakes, pays for them, and is eventually offered the possibility of redemption. Ultimately, The Missing is a movie after George Bush's heart, with little room for moral relativism or irony. The film not only admits to the existence of Evil, but gives us a humdinger example in the form of Blanchett's and Jones' nemesis, a scarred Apache witchdoctor who sells young girls to the highest bidder, causes blood to pour from men's eyes, and makes Hannibal Lector look positively cuddly.

Howard has some good, nasty fun weaving elements of supernatural horror throughout the film, and the unforgiving, anything-goes terrain of America's 19th-century frontier provides a surprisingly effective setting for it all. At the same time, The Missing remains a Western, first and foremost, with everything from James Horner's musical score to Salvatore Totino's exquisite cinematography evoking the form. That endless American landscape is pure John Ford meets Ansel Adams, both stark and majestic, and Jones' creased and cratered face seems like just one more natural extension of it.

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