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A 'Whale' of a film

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It has won audience awards at film fests from Rotterdam to Sundance, but no trophy is more impressive than the one Whale Rider earned at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. In the seven years I've been attending Toronto, the audience has only abused its power once, for 1997's The Hanging Garden (it had the whole home-field advantage thing going for it). Other years' winners all became giant commercial hits and multi-Oscar nominees: Shine, Life Is Beautiful, American Beauty, Crouching Tiger,Hidden Dragon, and Amélie.

            But those films all enjoyed huge, star-studded gala premieres in Toronto, whereas Rider slipped into town completely unnoticed. And it still managed to dispatch idiotic Hollywood crap like Antwone Fisher, despite screening in the festival's smallest venues, having zero star recognition, and containing a language that most people have never encountered, let alone can pronounce. Why? Because it's the most magical film since Amélie, and it's the greatest fable since The Secret of Roan Inish.

            Rider is set in New Zealand, on the Eastern Coast of the North Island in a village a Maori tribe (like the folks from Once Were Warriors) has called home for the last millennium or so. Legend says the tribe's founding father, Paikea, rode into what eventually became Whangara on the back of a whale after being lost at sea. Since then, the first-born male of the tribe's chief is, practically from conception, tagged as the group's next leader.

            The primitive Whangara electoral college is brought to a screeching halt when the wife of the chief-to-be gives birth to twins. The baby boy is stillborn, the mother dies during delivery, and a new baby girl survives unscathed... but nobody really seems to care. Dad (Cliff Curtis, the bad guy from Collateral Damage) can't cope with what happened and takes off to sell his tribal wares around the world, leaving little Pai to be raised by a resentful grandfather (Rawiri Paratene).

            Flash forward about a dozen years, where Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) seems to have gotten used to everyone's nearly blatant yet completely unfounded disappointment with her. She's wise beyond her years, but nobody --- especially Grandpa Koro --- seems to notice because they're more concerned with their dying culture and customs. While Koro fruitlessly searches for a leader among the young men in Whangara, he never once considers Pai.

            I just read what I wrote and realized I'm making Rider sound like a formulaic coming-of-age tale, but it's far more than that. Rider carefully avoids the usual two-dimensional characters that generally populate those films (in the same way Bend It Like Beckham is so much better than My Big Fat Greek Wedding). And those pictures never feature leads quite as intriguing as Castle-Hughes, who comes off as a mélange of Joan of Arc, Colleen from the first Survivor, and an awkward colt. Her debut is the biggest star-making role in years, except, like Björk, Castle-Hughes swears she'll never act again. Unless Nicole Kidman develops the ability to fly (without the use of wires) in Cold Mountain, you're not going to see a better performance this year.

            Rider was directed by Niki Caro, who adapted the screenplay from Witi Ihimaera's 1986 novel (the first Maori novel to be published in New Zealand). Using stunning images from an already beautiful part of the world, a delicate score, and Castle-Hughes' effective narration, she's crafted a real heart-tugging winner. It opens today at the Little Theatre.

If you believeBuffy the Vampire Slayer's Anya, there's something very malevolent about bunnies (and midgets, but that's a whole other story). Anya would probably be the last person in this or any other realm who would want to see Donnie Darko, a bizarre but extremely enjoyable drama/horror/sci-fi/romance/comedy/fantasy/mystery/thriller about a giant rabbit who prophesizes the end of the world. And since most of you probably haven't seen it either --- at least on the big screen --- Darko makes its Rochester debut this Saturday night, July 5, at the Dryden Theatre.

            Darko, which might be the only film you've never heard of on the Internet Movie Database's Top 100 list, tells the very strange story of sleepwalking schizophrenic teen Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lives with his middle-class family in what I can only describe as a town that is equal parts John Hughes, M. Night Shyamalan, and David Lynch. Everything takes place in October 1988, beginning with Donnie being lured outside late one night by a giant rabbit named Frank, who tells Donnie the world will end in just over 28 days.

            Shortly after, the engine from a commercial airplane falls from the sky and crashes into Donnie's empty bedroom, setting off a dazzling chain of events that includes a blunt discussion about the sexual activity of Smurfs, teachers having their lesson plans stunted by a feel-good right-wing agenda, references to a ton of films (including Evil Dead, Back to the Future, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, and Stephen King's It), nauseating period music (Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, and of course, Echo and the Bunnymen), appearances by a couple of '80s icons (Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze), and, more importantly, our protagonist realizing, via the laws of the space-time continuum, his actions have no consequences.

            Darko, the best black comedy about high school teens since Heathers, was written and directed in 2001 by then 26-year-old filmmaker Richard Kelly, who injects so much darkness, humor, dread, and plot-twirling into the story, I could barely contain myself. Even if you've caught it on HBO, or rented the DVD, do yourself a favor and check out Darko on the big screen.

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

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