Presidential Vice 

The Contender rides the scandal wave by taking on politics’ stickiest subject: the personal.

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It’s a sad statement that some of the very best political speeches in the last few years have come from characters playing courageous and progressive thinking politicians in films. In The Contender, Rod Lurie’s skillfully scripted exploration of politics and principles, the stirring speech concludes a confirmation hearing of a female senator nominated to fill the vice presidential slot left by a sitting vice president’s death.

Cinema ClipsThe Ladies Man **1/2

Tim Meadows, who was always underutilized on Saturday Night Live, finally gets his due with an SNL Studio movie of his own. His sketch as smooth-talking womanizer Leon Phelps is stretched into 87 minutes that don’t always work, but at least provide laughs for Meadows’ fans. As the host of a radio call-in show and self-proclaimed expert on the ladies, the adorable lisping Phelps, who is stuck in a ’70s time warp, dispenses advice to any romantic query. He eventually gives up his womanizing ways for true love in the form of his classy producer played by Karyn Parsons. Watch for bit parts from SNL regular Tim Farrell as one of a legion of wronged husbands out to get the ladies man. Their musical number is hilarious. (R) —MD

Lost Souls *

This film has been sitting on the studio shelf for nearly a year. It’s clear why. Winona Ryder is a once-possessed woman who determines that a cocky writer (Ben Chaplin) is destined to become the vessel for Satan’s return to Earth or something. The millennial thrillers that were all the rage last year weren’t interesting even when they were timely, and director Janusz Kaminski can’t find anything new here, although he drapes everything in important-looking lighting. The whole apocalyptic feel smacks of desperation for a scare or an importance that just isn’t here. Add one of the silliest endings ever put on celluloid, and you’ve got a hell of a way to waste $7.50. (R) —GB

Best in Show ****

A barking farce from writer-director-star Christopher Guest, whose flawless faux-documentary style paves the way for inspired comedy from the competitors in the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. Nearly every eccentric character is a scream, from Parker Posey’s braces-wearing career woman who throws a tantrum in a doggie-toy store to Fred Willard’s burned-out dog show color commentator. Guest’s secret is tempering his too-cool-for-the-room humor with a genuine affection for the rubes he creates; by the end, we really care who wins the stupid dog show. Once you buy into Guest’s style, you’ll find his films as funny as anything on the market. (PG-13) —GB

Meet the Parents ***

It feels like a funny sitcom pilot stretched to feature length, but director Jay Roach’s newest comedy get its laughs in nonetheless, largely thanks to an empathetic script that feels for Greg (Ben Stiller), but still puts him through hell. Greg is a male nurse who journeys to upstate New York to meet the parents of his live-in girlfriend (Teri Polo), who he’s asked to marry him. Unfortunately, it turns out her father is Robert DeNiro. Both Stiller and DeNiro are in top form, with DeNiro actually mining a little comic zing out of that well-weathered persona. The supporting cast is strong as well, particularly Owen Wilson as the perfect ex-fiancée who makes Greg look even worse. It’s all farce, but it’s very funny, and Roach knows how to keep things moving. Go meet them. (PG-13) —GB

Get Carter **1/2

Shouldn’t we be happier to see Sly? In his first real film since 1997’s Copland, Sylvester Stallone is the title character in a remake of the sharp 1971 thriller starring Michael Caine, who’s also in this version. In a script with more than a little Rocky flavor, Stallone is a Vegas hit man who returns home to Seattle to find out who capped his brother. An incoherent, murky script requires Stallone to get beat up a whole lot for no good reason, and the various tough guys who eventually bow to his wrath aren’t terribly interesting. There’s not much here—a couple of good lines from Rachael Leigh Cook as his niece, and a good fight or two. Still, it’s good to see Sly beating people up again. I was worried about the big guy. (R) —GB

The Exorcist ***1/2

It’s still scary as hell, this William Friedkin groundbreaker that was revolutionary when it first came on the scene. It’s being re-released with missing footage and a few other goodies, but what was left out the first time isn’t nearly as interesting as what Friedkin managed to leave in. Watching it with the perspective of time necessarily dulls its shock value (it really shouldn’t be funny to watch a 12-year-old girl masturbate with a crucifix, but God help us, it is), but it’s still obvious why this film has compelled and drawn audiences for 30 years with the relentlessness of a bug zapper. (R) —GB

The Tao of Steve ***

It’s not hard to see why Jenniphr Goodman’s fresh, feel-good love story was an audience favorite at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s one of those amusingly benign comedies about the finer points of the mating ritual. The film’s hero (Donal Logue) is an overweight, philosophy-spouting kindergarten teacher looking for love in Santa Fe. He’s the kind of guy who grows on you, working his charm in ways so subtle you hardly notice he’s made you take notice of him. He’s not the kind of romantic hero we usually see on-screen, which is a large part of his charm. The film’s insights may not be earth-shattering, but this smart romantic comedy is filled with refreshingly real people. (R) —MD

Remember the Titans **

Prepackaged for easy digestion, here’s the story of a suddenly integrated Virginia high school football team that struggles at first but eventually comes together across racial divides to win the big game or something. You’ve seen this movie before, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer doesn’t even try to fake it. We get blindingly obvious demarcations of good and evil, an aggressive soundtrack designed to cue emotions hard-wired into our collective subconscious by other movie soundtracks, a sheeny brand of cinematography and a script fanatically dedicated to avoiding surprises. Denzel Washington preens and poses as the head coach, and a few more characters get in a lick or two, but the emotion generated by the film is only slightly more fresh than watching a tape of a long-forgotten Super Bowl—unless that’s your thing, of course. (PG) —GB

Woman on Top **1/2

A summer beach novel of a movie from Venezuelan director Fina Torres. It exists mostly to showcase the unbearable lightness of being Penelope Cruz, who’s beautiful beyond the scope of conventional measuring devices and possesses gallons of that ineffable thing that usually bespeaks stardom. She plays a motion-sick cook who flees her Brazilian home and husband for a new life and a cooking show in San Francisco. Cruz is stuck in a patchy story that tries to capture the magic-food-and-sex vibe of Like Water for Chocolate and the playful sophistication of Almodovar, but can’t manage the passionate earnestness of the former or the intelligence of the latter. On the other hand, Cruz is still really hot—and the Brazilian rhythms permeating the film will keep your toe tapping while your hand stifles a yawn. (R) —GB

“I am for a woman’s right to choose. … I am for separation of church and state,” nominee Laine Hanson says with passion, conviction and quiet dignity, carefully articulating her beliefs before ending the speech with, “I am an atheist, but I go to church. I worship in the chapel of democracy.” The role marks another stellar performance for Joan Allen, a remarkable actress of undeniable intelligence whose restrained performances are a study in subtlety. Lurie wrote the film for Allen, and this is definitely her showcase. The actors portraying male power brokers, including the president, are strictly supporting players.

Not surprisingly, Hanson’s liberal bent brings out her enemies of considerable power—most notably veteran Congressman Shelly Runyon (a barely recognizable Gary Oldman), a formidable adversary who will stop at nothing to thwart her nomination. In a series of closed-door meetings, one of Runyon’s allies proposes “we have to go after her and make her wade in her own blood.”

At the core of their plan to discredit Hanson is a sex scandal involving an incident for her past. It was during her sorority initiation when she was a 19-year-old college freshman. Were Hanson a man, no one would care about her college sexual escapades. But as a woman in the male bastion of politics where patriarchy continues to thrive, her youthful indiscretion is regarded as far more serious. According to the old boys club, women aren’t supposed to indulge in sexual escapades, let alone aspire to the second highest office in the country. In the eyes of her adversaries, she’s not only a “cancer of liberalism and virtuous decay,” but also a threat to the power they hold so dear.

In Lurie’s film, which he dedicates to “our daughters,” there is far more at stake than the confirmation of the first female vice president. The confirmation hearings will ultimately decide whether America’s unique brand of “sexual McCarthyism” will prevail. The principled Sen. Hanson, determined to end the practice, refuses to dignify accusations with a response. Her personal past, she insists, is irrelevant. When both friends and foes urge her to confess her supposed sins, she remains steadfast, noting that “principles only mean something if you stick by them when they’re inconvenient.” She invokes the name of Isaac Lamb, the first witness called before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the dark days of McCarthyism. Lamb named names, and after him others fell like dominoes. “If he had said ‘fuck you’ to the committee, it would have stopped there,” she tells a naive young congressman. She tells the president (Jeff Bridges) that she will step down if he wants her to, but insists that her personal life is no one’s business but her own.

In a direct reference to a very recent chapter of American history, Hanson is asked during hearings how she voted during Clinton’s impeachment trial. Her composed answer is that she found him “not guilty, but responsible.”

Hanson clearly emerges as the film’s remarkably composed and well-spoken hero, as does, to a lesser extent, the clever president who stands by her. The villain, if he can be called that, is the morally indignant Runyon, whose own wife tries to convince him not to end his career personifying a second-rate Joe McCarthy. But “politics is war,” the congressman says, and casualties are inevitable. Releasing photographs to an Internet source is just the first step in his campaign to systematically destroy Hanson, what he honestly believes is in the best interests of the country.

The film taps into public cynicism about the darkest underbelly of politics. It also portrays politics quite accurately, unfortunately, as a man’s game. The sexism, both subtle and overt, is clearly portrayed in the film—from a governor referring to a staffer as “my girl,” to the powerful Runyon badgering Hanson on where her loyalties would lie if she got pregnant while in office, to the outright misogyny of a politico crying, “We have to obliterate the bitch in the belly.”

Without giving away too much, it’s important to note that even an enlightened Hollywood knows the public isn’t ready to accept a woman’s sexual indiscretions. A twist in the plot neatly takes care of that untidiness. Laine Hanson stands by her principles even when inconvenient; Hollywood simply finds of way of making them convenient.

The Contender is an intelligent and gripping film that takes a compelling stand on true moral issues. It also debuts as a new sort of fairytale, a hopeful fantasy for an audience fed up with character assassination and the exploitation of politicians’ personal lives. A president exhibiting true moral leadership by chastising Congress for hateful, petty behavior, and a vice presidential nominee courageously standing by her principles, political fallout be damned, remains a fantasy despite our best hopes. But isn’t that what movies are all about? Seeing our fantasies and dreams projected up on that screen larger than life. We can always hope for something better in our chapel of democracy.

The Contender (R) HHHH Directed by Rod Lurie. Starring Joan Allen, Gary Oldman and Jeff Bridges.

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