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A fine line between tedium and entertainment



The last time Gus Van Sant directed a Damon-Affleck script, the film (Good Will Hunting) hit Oscar gold. The Gusmeister is back behind the camera for another Damon-Affleck project, but the odds of Gerry (opens Friday, March 21, at the Little) finding the same kind of success seem robustly unlikely. Gerry is a very different picture --- it's completely improvised, and it's full of the kind of long (and I mean long) static shots that will make kids weaned on MTV reach for a non-existent remote control out of frustration (like that "Pines Barren" episode of The Sopranos).

            If that description isn't enough to scare you off, consider this: The Affleck in question is Casey, not Bennifer. You say you don't care, so long as Gerry features the same snappy dialogue Hunting did? Good luck, partner. The wordplay is so sparse, the script could have been written on a bar napkin (had they bothered to write one). Think it'll be okay if the action is decent? The highlight here is a scene that shows the sun setting. Like from daylight to darkness. In real time.

            It's almost like Van Sant was trying to pretend he was Kiarostami trying to do Beckett or Buñuel, only with big American actors. He plops Ocean's Eleven stars Damon and Affleck on the outskirts of the desert, in search of a maguffin we only know as "the thing." Unwisely, the duo decide to avoid the beaten path of a wilderness trail in an attempt to stay away from tourists. They get lost and, eventually, choose to "fuck the thing" and turn back. But they get even more lost. They're wearing black shirts and have no hats, backpacks, or supplies. Oh, and they both call each other "Gerry," in addition to using the word as a derogatory verb. Kind of like when you're at a restaurant, and the waiter drops a tray of glasses, and you refer to him as a "Gannon."

            Never looking as concerned as they should, at least until it's way too late, the two Gerrys freeze at night and ultimately become dehydrated and, well, completely mad. It all looks frighteningly authentic, as captured by Van Sant's usual cinematographer, Harris Savides, who immortalizes a lifetime of postcard-worthy desert images. As far as action, dialogue, and comedy go, the highlight is a scene where one Gerry finds himself trapped on a very high rock with no way to get down (there's no explanation of how he got up there), while the other Gerry attempts to make a "dirt mattress" to cushion his pal's fall. There's also talk about conquering Thebes. In other words, this ain't your typical movie.

            More so than Solaris, or even Dancer in the Dark, Gerry might be the most polarizing film to hit theatres in a long time. To me, it seems like Van Sant's attempt at a palette cleanser following Psycho gluttony. I do know this: I'd rather watch Gerry a dozen times before I'd even think about sitting through Gods & Generals again.

Russian Ark should probably be re-titled Aleksandr and Sergei's Excellent Adventure. It's about two guys who hurtle through time and end up learning a thing or two about history in the process. Whoa, dude! Now, before you go dropping your hookah and racing down to the Dryden (where the film is screening Saturday night, March 22), you should know the film is in Russian and focuses on three centuries of turbulent Russian history, from Peter the Great through Nicholas II.

            The catch here is that Ark contains the longest unbroken shot in film history. Actually, it doesn't simply contain it; the shot is the entire movie. It's a 93-minute continuous take that swoops through thousands of extras populating the various sections of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg like it was the corridors of ER or The West Wing. This kind of thing has always made me damp with excitement, ever since I saw the dazzling opening shot of Touch of Evil. That said, Ark would have bored the daylights out of me if it weren't for the technical tomfoolery.

            Ark starts with a black screen and a narrator talking about some kind of accident, before he opens his eyes and finds himself teleported back in time from the present day to the 18th century. We see everything from his point of view, but nobody can see him, except for a 19th century marquis (Sergei Dreiden) who also seems to have just arrived in St. Petersburg. Sometimes people can see the snooty marquis, and sometimes they can't. Also, he's able to speak Russian without ever having learned it, but that doesn't stop him from constantly putting down Russian art and culture every chance he gets.

            What follows is a crash course in both art and Russian history --- assuming you can actually pay attention to anything but the grand, sweeping scope of the brazen technical gimmick (or the scene where Catherine the Great is trying to find somewhere to take a leak). Anyone not immediately attracted to the idea of either of those things should probably stay far, far away from this one.

            Director Aleksandr Sokurov (who provides the voice of the unseen character) and German cinematographer Tilman Büttner (the steadicam operator for Run Lola Run) rehearsed Ark for seven months before shooting it with a souped-up, high-definition digital video camera with a monster hard drive. The finished film was the third take, though; as the museum was only available for one day, all three takes were done back-to-back-to-back. No pressure in screwing anything up there.

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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