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Friday, Sept. 22, 2006

In search of a love that lasts forever

Does love survive even after death? We like to believe so, and at times -- in dreams, in memories, or when the light falls on autumn leaves with a certain glint -- we can almost feel a present connection with our missing loved ones.

Birth Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Nicole Kidman in "Birth" (c)2004 NEW LINE PRODUCTION INC.

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: English
Opens Sept. 23, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

This week sees two films on release dealing with exactly that question: "Birth" stars Nicole Kidman, and offers a reincarnation scenario that sees her dead husband come back to her, but in the body of a 10-year-old child. "White Noise," meanwhile, sees Michael Keaton trolling for messages from his wife from beyond the grave, through the pseudo-science of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP); this entails scanning unused radio frequencies where, it is said, one can hear the voices of the dead. What both films get right is that the loss of your lover can drive you a bit mad, your rational mind giving way to any hint of a connection.

"Birth," a romantic mystery directed by Jonathan Glazer -- yet another graduate of the school of music videos and commercials -- is the better of the two, mainly because you can't go too wrong when you've got Kidman in the lead. In fact, Glazer has assembled an excellent cast and gets the best out of them -- with one glaring exception.

Kidman plays Anna, a resident of New York's Upper East Side whose husband Sean keels over dead one winter's day while jogging in Central Park. Anna loved him dearly, and it is extremely difficult for her to move on, but some 10 years later, she has fallen for another man, a tweedy type named Joseph (Danny Huston). At a birthday party for Anna's mother, Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), a young boy turns up at the door asking to see Anna. The boy announces himself by saying simply, "it's me, Sean." The boy insists, in a firm but vague way, that he's the same Sean who Anna once knew, and has come back to reclaim his love.

White Noise Rating: (2.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Michael Keaton in "White Noise."

Director: Geoffrey Sax
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (Sep. 22, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Anna, naturally, is perplexed, but when Sean (Cameron Bright) starts to reveal intimate details of their past relationship together, both she and the late Sean's friends -- played by Peter Stormare, Arliss Howard and Anne Heche -- don't know what to believe. It can't be happening, but it is.

Director Glazer does a good job of creating an atmosphere of spiraling insanity, and Kidman is perfect as a woman on the brink, unsure whether she's found her lost love or is losing her mind. Unfortunately, her opposite, the 13-year-old Bright -- previously seen as Leech in "X-Men 3" -- puts in a performance most resembling a black hole, his rosy-cheeked poker-face barely registering any emotion. It's hard to see how Sean attracts Anna, given that Bright delivers nothing but long, blank, "meaningful" looks that come off like, well, like a child actor trying to hold his own among adults. That may be apt, but Bright never manages to register a bond with Kidman, and the film's power is lessened because of it.

"White Noise" aims for far creepier territory, setting itself up as a kind of paranormal version of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," where the protagonist searches through snippets of garbled recorded sound in an attempt to prevent something terrible from happening. Yet where Coppola's work was also a cynical, political film, and a meditation on the fallibilities of mediation, "White Noise" is more akin to "The Ring" with sleek set design by Michael Mann ("Miami Vice").

Like "Birth," "White Noise" begins with loss: architect Jonathan Rivers (Keaton) says goodbye to his wife Anna (Chandra West from "NYPD Blue") one morning and never sees her again. Her empty car turns up by a river, but her body doesn't. Jonathan tries to keep hope alive, until one day he's contacted by a mysterious stranger (the jowly Ian McNiece) who tells Jonathan, "I've been receiving messages from her, from the other side."

Jonathan is at first skeptical, but then intrigued by Mr. Price's obsession with EVP. After he hears a voice that sounds very much like Anna, it isn't long before Jonathan is spending his days tuned in to between-channel radio static, editing fragments of sound and shadowy images that he discerns amid the noise, trying to decipher their meaning. It's here, as Jonathan sits amid monitors filled with flickering static, that "The Ring" influences become obvious. It's interesting to note that where water and mirrors were once viewed as gateways to other worlds, since 1982's "Poltergeist" that superstition has migrated to our flickering video screens.

Director Geoffrey Sax -- a former "Doctor Who" and "Spitting Image" director -- does a good job of building tension and dread . . . up to a point. You can't help but wish the filmmakers were less concerned with technology that can record the voices of the dead, and more concerned with a device that can record the snores of the living. If they had tried using such a device during a screening, they would have realized what a soporific effect this film has once the viewer realizes it's not going anywhere (and the presence of low-temp Deborah Kara Unger as another EVP boffin doesn't help). A "shock" ending involving a stock-cliche serial killer is pretty damn near incomprehensible, and seems like it was tacked on merely to wake up the audience.

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