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Fargo, Starmaker, Japanese anime open at Kendall

THIS WEEK AT THE KENDALL

One Kendall Square, Cambridge.

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

Joel and Ethan Coen revisit familiar territory, both personal and professional, in Fargo, a tale of crime in the heartland. Set in wintry Minnesota, from which the two brothers escaped a few years ago, this story of a kidnapping plot gone bad retreads the success of the Coen's first movie, Blood Simple. This revisit is underlined by the casting of Frances McDormand, Blood Simple's femme fatale, but in a very different role.

Macy plays a Twin City car salesman drowning in debt. He arranges to have his wife kidnapped so he can share in the ransom payed by her rich father (Presnell). The plot begins to unravel when the two kidnappers (Buscemi and Peter Stormare) kill a state trooper and two hapless witnesses outside Brainerd, Minnesota, involving that town's pregnant police chief (McDormand) in her first homicide case.

The Coen brothers have been accused before of treating their characters with contempt, and much of this movie could be called in further evidence of that charge. Most of the participants speak in the midwestern, Swedish-based cadences which gave Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion much of its humor, and most seem pretty stupid - especially when they also act greedy and deceitful.

What saves the film is the central performance by Frances McDormand. She speaks in the same flat drawl, and can discuss the weather as inanely as any of the others. But she is also sharp, observant, and courageous, and ultimately provides a moral center to a story that would have been empty without her.

Starmaker is a disappointing new film from Giuseppe Tornatore, the maker of Cinema Paradiso. It tells the story of a con-man travelling through Sicily to sell dreams of international movie stardom. For a mere 1,500 lira, he gives people screen tests and tells them they will hear from Rome in a week or so. By the time they realize they haven't heard from Rome, he has driven on to the next villages and run the same scam there.

Two things make this movie watchable: the magnificent location photography and the way people reveal themselves before the con man's camera. When they can't remember the words from Gone With the Wind he wants them to spout, they fill in with the contents of their own psyches: fears, desires, etc. The story is set in 1953, a time when Italian neo-realism was just beginning to wane, and Tornatore pays homage to that film philosophy by populating his cast with non-professional actors. When they are on the screen, the movie is sublime. But the central tale, of a con-man who finds redemption too late, is not strong enough to carry the movie. Federico Fellini told this story much better in La Strada.

When the success of Akira spawned a flood of other works of Japanese animation (anime) in this country, it had a similar, or perhaps even greater effect in Great Britain. In a country where Tank Girl and Judge Dredd are part of the cartoon landscape, the sex and violence and adolescent posturing of anime fit right in. Great Britain has moved beyond the mere importation of Japanese anime, and is now involved in co-production. Ghost in the Shell, one of the first results of this new relationship, is more closely related to Blade Runner than to other anime.

It takes place in a post-apocalypse world, in which cyborg creatures are taking over some of the functions of humankind. One female cyborg agonizes over what it is to be human or whatever it is she is. Her problem is complicated by the development of a new being that is pure spirit, but needs to merge with something like her to become complete. There is a fair amount of the usual blood and guts, but a lot more undigested philosophizing than is comfortable. In the spirit of the comic books that are its inspiration, the film ends at a place that would seem to be the beginning of some new story. A sequel will be welcome, if the theorizing can be more deftly stirred into the mix.

ALSO PLAYING THIS WEEK AT THE KENDALL: Angels and Insects, Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Antonia's Line, Leaving Las Vegas, Nico Icon, and Georgia.