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AMELIA

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Back in 1965, Ron Goodwin’s title song from “The Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” said of the early aviators that “they go up tiddly-up-up, they go down tiddly-down-down.” Mira Nair’s biographical tale of the aviatrix who sealed her fame by doing a Judge Crater and disappearing on a flight across the Pacific in 1937 follows only half the pattern. “Amelia” never takes flight, but it certainly crashes.

Hilary Swank, all gussied up in period hairstyle and clothes, is nonetheless never convincing as Earhart, whose life is traced from her first meeting with George Putnam (Richard Gere), the publisher/promoter who also became her devoted husband, in 1928, when, already an eager and ambitious pilot, she applied to become the first female to fly across the Atlantic—though, as it turned out, as a passenger alongside a male pilot and navigator (Joe Anderson and Aaron Abrams). As the film tells it, however, she became the driving force behind the exploit, pushing the men onward when they would have given up, and the ultimate success of the journey made her an immediate celebrity as “Lady Lindy,” which George promptly employed to make big profits in books and commercial endorsements.

But for Amelia flying was the great thrill, and now she was in a position to undertake record-shattering exploits truly on her own, fulfilling the wide-eyed dreams she had, as a few flashbacks show us, as a young girl back in Kansas. With the financial backing secured by Putnam, she goes on to cross the Atlantic solo. And she uses her popularity to encourage other female pilots, most notably young Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska)—a sort of simplistic proto-feminism is one of the themes built into the script—and even to help get federal government backing for a civil aeronautics board by, among other things, lobbying a star-struck Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones).

She also secures the top post in the bureau for West Point aeronautics instructor Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), with whom she develops a friendship so close that it irritates Putnam. That’s another thread in the story—what amounts to a romantic triangle. But as played here, it’s a romantic triangle without any heat. Swank’s brittle Earhart, more an imitation than a truly developed character, never develops any chemistry with either Gere’s Putnam, whom the actor portrays with an assortment of his usual prissy mannerisms but gives little inner life, or McGregor’s Gene, who never becomes anything more than a sort of well-dressed male model. Even the romance between Amelia and George is given short shrift; they move from a professional relationship to a wedding with startling swiftness (and a feminist joke). In fact, the only personal relationship in the picture that seems at all deep is the one Amelia shares with Gene’s little son Gore (William Cuddy), who becomes in effect her occasional pet (the implication being that he brings out her otherwise unfulfilled maternal side).

But human considerations take a back seat to Earhart’s flying ambitions anyway, and the film necessarily leads up to her final exploit, the disastrous attempt to achieve an around-the-world flight that ended somewhere in the South Pacific. The film actually starts with that episode and returns to it periodically throughout, devoting the last reel to her difficulties with navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) on the earlier stages of the journey and the final messages she exchanged (or couldn’t exchange, given the radio problems) with US Navy personnel trying desperately to help her find the small island on which she could refuel. Happily the script dispenses with all the far-out theories that have been proposed about the plane’s disappearance, but it also plays out the episode rather flatly, not sensationalizing it but failing to give it much urgency either.

And ultimately that’s the fundamental problem with “Amelia.” It looks gorgeous. The period ambience created by production designer Stephanie Carroll, art decorator Nigel Churcher, set decorator Gordon Sim and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone is impressive, and the aerial footage is, if not breathtaking, lovely to look at. And Stuart Dryburgh’s widescreen photography gives the images throughout a burnished glow. Beneath the beautiful surface, however, there’s no heart. (The Depression-era context, as one example, is virtually ignored except for one brief moment when Earhart’s car passes by men standing in a soup line and she remarks about it.)

Much of the problem lies with the cast, who overall seem more like waxworks figures than real people. But of course it must also be laid at the feet of director Nair, who’s made a film that comes off more like a museum exhibit than a vital drama. “Amelia” feels like a picture that might have been made in the forties, with its staid tone, stilted dialogue and determinedly inoffensive, even panegyric biographical approach. Everything that happens in it may well be factually based, but as realized here none of it seems truly authentic.

One of the Kansas phrases that Earhart liked to use, the script tells us, was “That’s hooey.” Unfortunately, in this case a subject that might have generated an enlightening examination of the American character has instead been manipulated into a movie that feels very close to TV-style docudrama—the epitome of hooey.

ANTICHRIST

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Lars von Trier’s latest film boasts not just four chapters but a prologue and epilogue, the latter two accompanied by Almirena’s ravishing second-act aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s 1711 opera “Rinaldo.” In it, she bemoans her fate as a captive, separated from the man she loves; “Let me weep over my cruel fate, and sigh for freedom,” she sings. “May my grief mercifully break these chains of anguish.”

The words encapsulate the theme of “Antichrist,” which in its three chapters focuses on a mother’s depression over the death of her child and her therapist-husband’s doomed attempt to see her through it. But though it has moments of extraordinary visual power, unlike the aria it’s anything but beautiful. Even at Cannes, where audiences tend to be adventurous, the picture was greeted with catcalls, reviled as misogynist and repugnant; it’s clear that the bad-boy provocateur of contemporary cinema was out to shock, and he succeeds with scenes of violence all the more awful because they have none of the usual horror-movie camp—including a shot of genital mutilation so explicit as to be genuinely disgusting.

“Antichrist” opens with a sequence that’s oddly reminiscent of one of the tropes of slasher flicks—the inevitably bad result of teens having sex. In the prologue, shot in luminous black-and-white, a toddler climbs from his crib and falls out a high window onto a snow-covered street while his parents, identified only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), engage in strenuous sex in the bathroom, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding in their apartment.

In the first chapter—“Grief”—She leaves the hospital in her husband’s care, and he tries to lead her through her understandable trauma to some kind of mental equilibrium again. After much subdued recrimination and several angry episodes, He decides to push her to overcome her block by taking her to the place she says she most fears, the remote forest where their cabin “Eden” is located—the place she’d stayed with her son the previous summer. In this rustic section, called “Pain,” she seems to improve, but the sad reality is enunciated by a bloodily brutalized fox that suddenly tells the man, “Chaos Reigns”—the chapter’s subtitle.

That moves us into part three, “Despair,” subtitled “Cynocide.” Here She flies into a rage against her husband, eventually venting her fury in a manner that recalls “The Toolbox Murders” taken up a notch. Then, in the final chapter, “The Three Beggars,” represented by a deer, a fox and a crow (a celestial constellation, as the husband informs us, that doesn’t exist), She turns on herself. And He’s left to leave the woods alone, though The Feminine, so to speak, is hardly absent.

It’s not entirely clear what von Trier intends to tell us in “Antichrist.” One message is certainly that psychology has distinct limits in dealing with grief. But that’s a pretty mundane, limited point in a picture that, despite long, prosaic passages and episodes of grisly realism, also strives for a hallucinatory quality. The larger meaning seems connected with the otherwise inexplicable title, which suggests that the picture is intended as a sort of anti-Genesis, in which Eden becomes the place that reveals the depths of the innate evil of nature and humankind, too, where man and woman, far from becoming one, are definitively separated, with the woman being the instigator of the split. (An accompanying thread is with man as coldly rational and woman as uncontrollably passionate, the two warring sides of the human psyche.)

But if those are the kinds of points von Trier is trying to make, he certainly does so opaquely, in a way designed to shut people out rather than drawing them in. While there a moments of great beauty in his film, he apparently feels compelled always to make them rather seedy. The gorgeous prologue, reminiscent of the style of “Zentropa,” is, for example, suddenly interrupted by an in-your-face shot of Dafoe’s bare buttocks (a portion of the anatomy that becomes almost a motif). The animal symbolism of deer, fox and crow has the feel of a fairy-tale that out-grims the Grimms but comes across as utterly arbitrary. Much of the picture’s first hour is verbose and has the feel of dull improvisation, and will certainly bore most viewers to tears. Then the final half-hour goes for the jugular in ways that are obviously designed to repel in a portrayal of the male-female divide all the more horrifying for its mixture of grotesque realism and dreamlike weirdness.

You do have to give credit to the stars, however, if only because of their willingness to hand themselves over to such degradation. Dafoe maintains his dignity even in his most wounded state, and Gainsbourg captures both the woman’s moodiness and her extravagant flights of madness. One should also mention Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, which meets the director’s very different demands in the picture’s varied sections.

“Antichrist” isn’t a coherent film as much as a kind of cinematic Rorschach test, designed to elicit feelings of puzzlement, admiration and indignation, sometimes simultaneously. It’s certainly fascinating, but the fascination is of the morbid sort you might associate with a car crash. Von Trier’s film is very hard to watch, and in the end it’s doubtful that it’s worth the effort. But it has moments you won’t forget, however much you may want to.