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Cut sucks but Dracula doesn't bite

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There's good news and bad news about In the Cut (opens Friday, October 31), both on and off the screen. Good news: The swelling in Meg Ryan's lips looks like it has subsided a bit in the film. Bad news: In real life, they've been re-inflated and are as big as monster truck tires. More good news: Cut is a beautiful art-house picture, with production values you may not see topped all year. More bad news: The story is a by-the-numbers murder-mystery that had the press hissing in Toronto, where Cut had its gala premiere.

            Cut, based on Susanna Moore's 1995 novel, stars Ryan as Frannie Avery, a dowdy high-school English teacher who hides behind drab clothes and shoulder-length mousy brown hair. Her best and apparently only friend is half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who shares Frannie's sad Manhattan existence and promiscuous father.

            One day, while looking for the bathroom in the basement of a neighborhood bar, Frannie accidentally witnesses a guy getting a hummer in the shadows. She doesn't exactly look away, and she manages to notice a tattoo on the guy's hand, as well as the woman's blue fingernails. Enter police detective James A. Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who, a few days later, knocks on Frannie's door with some routine questions about a recent string of murders in the area. The latest victim has the same fingernails as the bar blower... and the cop has the same tattoo as the blowee.

            Though this seems quite odd and upsetting to Frannie, it doesn't stop her from succumbing to Malloy's sexual advances fairly easily. Before long, he's eating her ass and coaching her how to use those puffy lips on him, and she's furiously fingering herself while daydreaming about their next steamy encounter. Oh, but there's still a killer loose! And the suspect list includes one of Frannie's students (Sharrieff Pugh), who happens to be obsessed with serial killings, and her med student-turned-stalker ex-boyfriend (Kevin Bacon), who certainly comes off as being psycho enough to decapitate several women.

            I'm sure most of the buzz you've heard about Cut revolves around Ryan and the film's sex scenes. They're pretty graphic (this time, Ryan's fake orgasms aren't confined to a deli booth) but are artistically shot --- à la Unfaithful --- by director Jane Campion and last year's Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dion Beebe (Chicago). The sex also plays a little desperate, both for Frannie and Ryan, with the former seemingly doing whatever she can to escape that pixie persona of hers. And if that means unfurling your 42-year-old boobs in front of the camera so we forget about You've Got Mail and Kate & Leopold, then you go, girl!

            Actually, all of Cut is shot (and edited) rather stylishly, but it seems like such a waste when the film's story is, aside from being quite dark, so run-of-the-mill. The wishy-washiness of Ryan's character doesn't help, either. Campion's last three films featured strong performances from powerful actresses (Holly Hunter, Nicole Kidman, and Kate Winslet) cast in robust roles. You won't find any of that here, which seems rather odd once you notice the sheer volume of female names in the closing credits. It's one thing for a guy to make a film about a frustrated, incomplete woman who finally wakes up when a guy gives it to her real good. It's something else (read: disappointing) when someone like Campion does it.

            On the plus side, Ruffalo has never been better. I know a couple of police detectives, and his performance was more authentic than just about anything else I've seen so far this year. It's a shame everyone will be too busy focusing on Meg's boobs to notice him.

If you think filmmakers have done everything they could ever possibly do with Bram Stoker's Dracula, you're dead wrong. We've all seen black-and-white versions before, and maybe even a silent take or two, but how does casting an Asian Dracula grab you? How about setting the story to a ballet with a Gustav Mahler score? How about having it directed by a possibly insane experimental Canadian filmmaker who practically forces critics to make up bullshit descriptions (Eastern European retro-surrealism?) like they were actual art snobs?

            That's just what you get with Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, the ultimate in avant-garde Halloween excitement (it screens Friday, October 31, at the Dryden) from Guy Maddin, who filters Transylvania's thirsty antihero via passage through England (where the film is set), Germany (where Maddin leans heavily on their Expressionism), and Canada (where the film was shot with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet). The dreamy picture, which contains no dialogue and only sporadic/symbolic use of color, was originally filmed to air on Canadian television. It became such a hit that Maddin took Diary on the festival circuit, where it was picked up by a distributor for regular theatrical engagements.

            Maddin makes Diary look as old as an original print of Nosferatu, and, like Russian Ark, the film is much more about the hows (and maybe the whys) than it is about the whats. The story, set on England's East Coast in 1897 (the same year Stoker's novel was published), focuses much more on Lucy than other versions have. In fact, this Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) and Mina (CindyMarie Small) aren't the innocent young virgins you're used to seeing get punctured by Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang). These dames are practically aching for it, as Maddin makes more of the penetration metaphor than any previous adaptor of Stoker's work.

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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