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Tuesday, October 15

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The New World
With Stanley Kubrick long dead, those who fawn over eccentric, genius directors have been able to focus all of their attention on Terrence Mallick, who has made four feature films since unveiling his immense gifts with Badlands in 1973. Five years later, he took audiences' collective breath away with the picturesque Days of Heaven, and promptly dropped off the face of the earth. Twenty years later he made a big splash with critics (and a little sploosh with audiences) with The Thin Red Line, which revealed a new type of style for Mallick, his camera slowly tracing the landscapes and jungles of Guadalcanal during World War II. The film featured very little dialogue but included an almost overwhelming amount of voiceover meant to open up the minds of his characters to the audience. I'm simplifying Mallick's career and style, but my point is that nobody makes films as introspective and visually satisfying as Terrence Mallick.

His latest is the dreamlike The New World, a chronicling of the relationship between Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas, played to mesmerizing perfection by newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher. Perhaps to add to Mallick's mystique, it was recently announced that the version of The New World that is hitting screens today is 16 minutes shorter than the version I saw toward the end of last year, thus guaranteeing a geek demand for the longer version on DVD. From what I've read, Mallick hasn't deleted any scenes outright, just shortened existing ones. Trust me, the shorter version will do just fine for most, although I say this not having seen it.

Whatever version you get a hold of, there are those with shorter attention spans who will find the film tedious beyond belief (I took up residence on that fence for about the first hour of the film's current 2-hour 20-minute length). But once you start to see the scope and direction of The New World, I believe most of you will find it wholly fulfilling. The film's beauty is what hits you first, thanks to Mallick's decision to shoot in 65mm. This may not mean much to most, but when you see the crisp details and lush colors of the scenery and the people, you'll get it. You can almost smell the wet trees and grass as the 17th century English settlers land on the coastline of America, led by Capt. Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer). Once Newport decides to press on, leaving behind many of his men to start a settlement, a power struggle ignites between the disliked Capt. Edward Wingfield (David Thewlis) and crew favorite Smith.

After some initial friendly encounters with the Native Americans (called "Naturals" by the English), Smith takes a small party to find their village. Thanks to some begging by Pocahontas (whose name, I'm fairly certain, is never said in the entire movie), Smith's life is spared and the two begin to fall in love. Since the pair don't speak each other's language, their feelings for each other are conveyed through the aforementioned voiceovers, a series of poetic declarations about all things emotional and significant to the couple.

As the film progresses, Smith is forced to leave the colony and Pocahontas begins living with and dressing like the English. She is told Smith is dead (at Smith's request, since he did not want her holding out hope he'd ever return), and it nearly kills her. Mallick's skill at teaching us both the geography of the land—and of the lines on each character's face—is what separates him from all other directors. There are battle sequences here that are brutal and lovely at the same time.

Needless to say, Mallick has a gift for casting just the right actors. Exceptionally talented performers like Noah Taylor, Ben Chaplin, Irene Bedard and Wes Studi are on hand, some in very small roles. Even more than I enjoyed Farrell's work in The New World, I was sincerely drawn in by Christian Bale's work as John Rolfe, the settler who ultimately marries Pocahontas and brings her and a few of her tribesmen to England. The title of the film takes on an entirely different meaning toward the end of the film when the Native Americans come to their own new world, a filthy, bustling place filled with unnatural sights and sounds.

Watching The New World is like dreaming the most serene dream, which, of course, invites jokes involving falling asleep in the theatre. I've never done this before, but let me offer a recommendation should you decide to see this film. Go in the middle of the day after having had a great night's sleep. Don't order popcorn or drinks or anything that will make undo noise during the screening. And above all else, shush anyone around you who talks during this movie. Trust me, nobody who's going to knock you on your ass is hitting this movie. Finally, sit back and enjoy the glorious dream state.


Transamerica
I can now go to my grave knowing that I have seen Felicity Huffman's penis. I've been a fan of Huffman's work since first spotting her on the grossly underappreciated TV show "Sports Night," and have searched the far corners of movie and television screens for her ever since. In the weeks just before she shot the pilot episode of "Desperate Housewives," she made the gender-bending road movie Transamerica, in which Huffman plays "Bree," a California man named Stanley Osbourne in the final pre-operative days before his sex-change operation. Just prior to Bree's final meeting with her therapist (Elizabeth Peña), she receives word that Stanley fathered a son many years earlier, a son who is now a fully-grown teenager. Bree's therapist refuses to sign off on the sex change until Bree goes across the country to New York to meet and somehow deal with this shocking discovery.

Huffman has never been better, period. With just a wig, a slight deepening of her voice, and what appears to be minimal makeup, she really does look like a man passing as a woman. The transformation is remarkable, but it's not the only thing Transamerica has going for it. When Bree finally meets her troubled son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), she lies and says she's been sent by the church to collect him and take him to a good home (apparently his mother has died, and Bree secretly plans to dump the kid off at his abusive stepfather's home). The two set off on a cross-country journey that brings them into contact with some interesting people who, most times, manage to avoid being cookie-cutter odd balls types. Graham Greene plays my favorite of these friendly strangers, Native American Calvin Manygoats, who offers Bree a glimpse of what she hopes will be her normal life as a woman. Their scenes together are some of the sweetest and most romantic I've seen recently, and when the time comes for Bree and Toby to leave, we hope that Calvin will surface in Bree's life again soon.

All does not remain calm between Bree and Toby, however, especially when Toby (and we) accidentally catches a glimpse of Bree peeing standing up. His street-hardened sensibilities have a difficult time accepting Bree's lifestyle, but the two manage to keep it together long enough for Bree to make one final stop of their journey: her parents' home. Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young play the Osbournes, who are aware of their son's choice to become a woman but still are taken aback by her appearance. Although the sequence is predictable and the weakest Transamerica has to offer, it still manages to be tense and uncomfortable to watch.

First-time feature writer-director Duncan Tucker seems to be struggling a bit to balance the comedy and drama in Transamerica (the film comes across more as the former), but overall, he has a strong command of and compassion for his characters. Both Zach and Bree are victims: one of fate, the other of nature. And I think ultimately, Tucker wants both of them to overcome and be happy, even if the journey is painful and without a guaranteed outcome. Transamerica is not a powerful film about a trans-gendered character overcoming discrimination and societal restraints, and that's a good thing. We've seen that film before. Bree just happens to be the way she is, and this little adventure makes her stronger and more able to enter the second phase of her life. The film is not sentimental or an attempt at feel-good cinema. It is what it is, which is entertaining, compelling and quite good. Huffman has absolutely earned the Oscar nomination she seems destined to receive.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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