FILMS

Immorality tales

Three characters go out of their way to get a life

Brian D. Johnson September 12 1994
FILMS

Immorality tales

Three characters go out of their way to get a life

Brian D. Johnson September 12 1994

Immorality tales

Three characters go out of their way to get a life

FILMS

A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE Directed by Gillies Mackinnon

The way the TV commercials are promoting it, A Simple Twist of Fate looks like another loopy Steve Martin comedy. But despite some comic scenes, it is primarily a drama, the first in his career. Pecking away at a laptop computer between acting assignments, Martin spent four years writing the script, which

is loosely based on Silas Marner, the 19thcentury classic by George Eliot. It is not exactly Martin’s Schindler’s List, but it is his bid to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the attempt seems forced.

The threads used to set up the story’s erratic premise are so elaborately knotted that the movie could be more accurately titled A Complicated Twist of Fate. Michael (Martin with orange hair) leaves his wife after discovering that she is pregnant with another man’s child. Retreating to a cottage in Virginia, he becomes a reclusive carpenter, and a miser. One night, the profligate brother (Stephen Baldwin) of a local senator (Gabriel Byrne) kills his date in a car crash, flees the scene, then breaks into Michael’s house and steals his collection of gold coins. Later, by wild coincidence, the senator’s secret love child shows up at Michael’s door, leaving her junkie mother frozen to death in the snow. With the senator’s help, Michael adopts the toddler.

Finally under way, the movie becomes a heart-chafing fable of single fatherhood, climaxing in a custody battle. But every so often, it turns into a Steve Martin movie, as its star veers out of character to perform some comic shtick. Catherine O’Hara, meanwhile, provides some hilarious moments in the role of a dotty storekeeper. The comedy works. But as drama, A Simple Twist of Fate’s narrative tangle is a simple case of false advertising.

Directed by Boaz Yakin

In 1991, writer-director John Singleton broke new ground with Boyz N the Hood, a simple but effective tragedy about black youth victimized by gang violence in Los Angeles. Now, writer-director Boaz Yakin goes one step further with Fresh, a remarkable first feature with similar themes. The movie is named after its protagonist, a savvy 12year-old who survives by his wits in the mean streets of Brooklyn, N.Y. Played with unflinching realism by Sean Nelson, Fresh is a smart, enterprising kid who lives with his aunt and 11 cousins. He does his best to get to school on time and lead a normal life, but has a busy career in the drug trade. He peddles crack for a ruthless dealer named Corky (Ron Brice) and runs heroin for a rival gangster, the sybaritic Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito). Both men are grooming Fresh as a protégé, and the boy soon finds himself

trapped in a web of conflicting loyalties. Unlike Boyz N the Hood, Fresh is more than a morality tale of absentee fathers and violated innocence. Like Singleton, Yakin portrays his subject with brutal authenticity. But Yakin (whose Hollywood screenwriting credits include Clint Eastwood’s The Rookie) weaves the threads of social realism into a wonderfully complex plot—a maze of competing gangsters and henchmen worthy of an Elmore Leonard novel. Lresh plays the bad guys off against each other with ingenious subterfuge. And he learns strategy in games of speed chess with his estranged father, a derelict genius played by Samuel Jackson. Call it Boyz in Search of Bobby Fisher. But, despite its antecedents, Fresh more than lives up to its name: it is a work of startling originality and power.

MUSTARD BATH

Directed by Darrell Wasyk

By cruel coincidence, a movie that was launched at last year’s Toronto International Lilm Lestival is finally being released during the opening week of this year’s festival. That it has taken so long for Mustard Bath to see the light of day serves as a bleak comment on the precarious nature of Canadian film distribution, but also on the indigestible nature of this particular film. Its director, Toronto-based film-maker Darrell Wasyk, made a critical splash with his first feature, the Genie-award-winning H (1990), a raw, no-budget drama of a couple kicking heroin. Mustard Bath, which he filmed entirely in Guyana, is a more ambitious project. And because it is so accomplished on certain levels, its failure seems that much more infuriating.

Matthew (Michael Riley), a Canadian medical student, returns to his birthplace in Guyana and embarks on a tortured search for his roots. With vivid imagery, Wasyk conjures up the aggravated angst of a white man alone in the tropics—the decay, the insects, the voices that sift through the walls. Matthew tries desperately to connect. He befriends Grace (Martha Henry), a Hungarian exile down the hall, who becomes his surrogate mother and his lover. A teacher named Mindy (Alissa Trotz) lures him into a lagoon to have sex, and he gets spiritual guidance from a dreadlocked priest named Rasta Lad’dah (Eddie Grant).

Riley gives a compelling performance in a role that demands intense emotions and graphic nudity. But, despite its initial promise, the narrative soon curdles. Wasyk spikes it with gratuitous brutality—from Grace’s harrowing monologue about a mustard-induced abortion to an agonizing scene of Matthew amputating a leg in a cane field. In the end, Mustard Bath’s empty sensationalism caves in on itself, leaving the viewer with nothing but an image of man bathing in some tepid nostalgia for a lost childhood.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON