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Published: Thursday, 3/10/2005

There's a lot going on in 'Private Idaho'

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Keanu Reeves stars in My Own Private Idaho.
Keanu Reeves stars in My Own Private Idaho.
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In Gus Van Sant s My Own Private Idaho ($39.95) which just received the Rolls Royce treatment from the quality-minded boutique distributor the Criterion Collection the hair on River Phoenix s head is a reason for awe. It swoops straight up, curls straight back;

sometimes it does both at the same time. Sometimes the effect is obvious: he looks like Elvis, or more likely, a parody of James Dean.

Other times it mats and tangles, like hair on a muddy dog, clumping

in random chunks, defying gravity.

This is no superficial matter.

Disc two contains a 90-minute audio chat between Van Sant and director Todd Haynes, best known for Far From Heaven, and the hair comes up. On a more expensive film, Haynes explains,

hair is always carefully combed. He likes that Van Sant let Phoenix keep a permanent rat s nest. A drug addict one label you could attach to Phoenix s character in the movie would not let

their hair look so brushed, Haynes says.

And a bigger film would have worried about continuity, Van Sant replies.

He s right: The hair in this movie never does match from one scene to the next.

Hair, of course, is not what s remarkable about My Own Private Idaho (1991) which co-starred Keanu Reeves and remains one of the smartest works to come out of the independent film movement

of the 90s. But watch the ways Van Sant lets hair become iconic, even reassuring to us, intentionally suggesting James Dean and a whole lineage of movie rebels making us comfortable

even as he tells a story far out of Dean s range.

Dean would have admired it, though: Phoenix (whose potential remains similarly trapped in amber) plays a street kid too poor to go anywhere else. Reeves plays a street kid who can afford to go

home any time; he s rebelling against his rich father, who is the mayor of Portland, Ore. There is a very explicit idea of class hostility going on, says film scholar Paul Arthur, who narrates a 45-minute extra on the influences in the film. For instance, Private Idaho is primarily a road picture. It even opens with a picture of an open road.

The shadow of a cloud passes across the road. Mike (Phoenix) collapses in the middle of it; we learn he has narcolepsy. He dreams of home movies of his family. There s footage of salmon leaping upstream. Then a barn falling out of the sky and hitting the middle of the road. Then Mike wakes up in a hotel room.

He s a gay prostitute. So is Keanu. On occasion their dialogue slides into iambic pentameter, which sounds strange until you realize Van Sant, on top of everything else, is also loosely adapting Shakespeare s Henry IV. So to say the least, there s a lot going on, and Van Sant over-reaches more than once (or even twice).

But as jarring as all that sounds, My Own Private Idaho which travels from Idaho to Seattle to Portland to Italy, and back again recalls the rambling travel tales of Jack Kerouac and has a dusty, beautiful glow. Think of it as shabby twilight, melancholic but hopeful. I love road pictures. I love that they re open-ended, and Van Sant, best known for Good Will Hunting, takes advantage. Keanu has never been better. Van Sant, who made To Die For, Drugstore Cowboy, and the recent Elephant, has never been better. And Phoenix, who is heartbreaking, never had the chance.

THE KILLERS: In Bright Future (Palm Pictures, $24.99), a new stone-dead-quiet horror picture from the great Kiyoshi Kurosawa (who is not related to the late, even greater Akira Kurosawa), a young man murders an older man his boss. The young man, Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), spends most of the film with a tiny, unsettling smile curling the corners of his mouth. When blows fall, he ends up on death row in Tokyo. He doesn t deny he committed the murder.

He s killed one, and then he kills another, then another. And his weapon of mass destruction?

A jellyfish.

Kurosawa, who made the 1997 cult shocker Cure, makes movies about average people who lead average lives and one day erupt. They re situated at a place where horror meets the art house; it s a place fans of David Lynch and David Fincher are familiar with.

Rooms grow so quiet they seem to buzz. Life appears so mundane, a creeping dread envelops everything. Kurosawa, though, slides in ideas about the generation gap and the way technology isolates, and he does it so casually, the tension is never disrupted.

That jellyfish? When Mamoru heads to jail, he gives his poisonous pet to his friend Yuji (Jo Odagiri), and it hovers in its tank with the same unhurried watchfulness of Mamoru back in his cell. Then one day the jellyfish escapes into the Japanese water supply. There are reports of mass deaths across Tokyo. The canals around the city take on the eerie phosphorite glow of millions of multiplying jellyfish.

Take it as a metaphor: They re like the millions of disenfranchised young Japanese who came of age during the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway and the bursting of Japan s bubble economy.

They re getting anxious, and don t discount the power of a metaphor: 50 years ago another Japanese director came up with a potent one for the dangers of nuclear power.

He named it Godzilla.

CHUTES AND LADDERS: Two films from last fall with absolutely nothing to say about their subjects are Ladder 49 (Buena Vista, $29.99) and Stage Beauty (Lions Gate, $27.98). The first is an earnest shout-out to the daily work of a firefighter if that firefighter happens to be Joaquin Phoenix. The other is compelling history with no insight. It stars Claire Danes as the first British actress ever, and the drag superstar (Billy Crudup) she put out of business when the practice of men-playing-women was outlawed by King Charles II.

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE: Yes, it feels like just yesterday you didn t bother to go see the Dennis Quaid adventure Flight of the Phoenix (Fox, $29.98). To be precise, it was less than three months ago, right before Christmas, that this Jimmy Stewart remake opened, and already it s on DVD. That shouldn t be misread as code for a dud. Phoenix, which tells the story of a plane that crashes in the desert and is pieced together before the survivors starve to death, is just forgettable (and Fox is hitting while it s still a distant memory).

Incidentally, Surviving Christmas holds the most recent land-speed record for a film going from theaters to video: It opened the last weekend of October and hit shelves Dec. 21. Which makes you wonder: What took The Exorcist: The Beginning (Warner, $27.95) so long? It opened in August and is only arriving on DVD now. The hold-up, the tasty rumor goes, is because Warner Bros. was pondering whether to release it as a part of a two-disc package, one disc holding the muddled Renny Harlin version that played theaters, and one containing the unfinished Exorcist film Paul Schrader was making until the studio decided it wasn t commercial. Would be a fascinating comparison, right?

Cross your toes.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.comor 419-724-6117.



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