Foreign Affairs 

Russkie Kidman in Birthday Girl; French revenge in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Late winter/early spring is traditionally the worst time of the year for movies. With most late-year Oscar hopefuls and staggered-release foreigns and indies finally having hit town, we're left with the studio system's lesser lights as the big companies clear out the detritus to make room for the summer blockbusters. In this context, Miramax's Birthday Girl would seem to be a promising alternative. A low-budget British flick that admirably mixes genres (comedy, thriller, romance), cultures, and languages (English and Russian) and stars Nicole Kidman, Birthday Girl has been building its minor buzz through recent festival appearances in London and Toronto and at Sundance.

Promising though it may seem, Birthday Girl ultimately doesn't offer much more than the typical born losers Hollywood dumps during this off-season. In fact, I can't imagine the film getting much attention at all were it not for the presence of Kidman, a talented and adventurous actress who has become a major star in the past year.

Written and directed by the brother filmmaking team of Tom and Jez Butterworth, Birthday Girl opens with lonely Englishman John (Ben Chaplin, looking every bit the stereotypical "mild-mannered bank clerk") offering a voice-over account of his romantic troubles. "When you think about it, England is just a small island," John says. "I know that gives you about 20 million girls to choose from -- but if you live in a small town and work long hours, you're just not going to get a chance to meet them all." This is a means of justifying the "bravery" of John's decision to order a bride from a dubious Web site called "From Russia With Love."

John's new companion arrives soon after in the form of Nadia (Kidman), a tall, sexy, chain-smoking Russkie who speaks no English. After a few moderately interesting scenes of John and Nadia learning to co-exist -- the understandable tension mitigated by a growing (mostly sexual) chemistry -- the film takes a turn into thriller territory.

Birthday Girl consistently misses opportunities with this potentially compelling premise. For starters, the film establishes John's "purchase" of Nadia in quick, credit-sequence narrative strokes rather than exploring in more detail what might lead a man to make such a provocative decision. The film does present a possible romantic partner at John's workplace but doesn't give enough information about the character's interactions with other people to explain, outside of the opening narration, why he would resort to a mail-order bride. The film also does little, aside from the language barrier, with the obvious cultural issues that would arise when an Englishman and Russian woman, strangers to one another, attempt to force a romantic union. Instead, Birthday Girl bypasses these potentially fruitful subjects in favor of a "madcap" con-game-meets-screwball-romance whose plotting is ragtag and whose surprise "twists" are entirely familiar. Certainly there isn't enough going on here in terms of story and dialogue to make up for the film's entirely mundane visual style.

The attraction here is Kidman, who acquits herself perfectly well. But, ultimately, this feels like a stunt movie for Kidman, a breather between bigger projects that allows her the novelty and challenge of doing an accent when she's not speaking her lines in Russian.

A respectable if middling genre pic whose quirkiness feels forced (and not all that quirky), Birthday Girl isn't really a bad film, it's just not a very interesting one. -- Chris Herrington

In what can only be described as an abashedly good time, The Count of Monte Cristo delivers ripe, swashbuckling fun. The classic Dumas revenge tale comes to life with Guy Pearce (Memento) and Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line, Frequency) playing opposite one another as friends cum enemies in 19th-century France. Pearce plays the Machiavellian Mondego with fiery panache and Caviezel is surprisingly enjoyable as Edmund Dantes (aka the Count), capturing the character's unusual transformation from kindly simpleton into vengeful playboy. Aside from the winning performances, The Count delights in having fun with its enjoyable subject matter. Considering the glut of wretched films that have recently been born out of Dumas' work (The Man in the Iron Mask and The Musketeer), this is no small feat.

The story itself is rather simple, though the details are complicated slightly in the film. Dantes and Mondego are two best friends who've grown up together in Marseilles and now work as sailors on a local boat. Dantes is a kind but uneducated son of a local craftsman. Mondego, on the other hand, is the heir to a great family fortune -- the son of privilege. Constantly jealous of his friend's happiness, Mondego is particularly covetous of Dantes' beautiful fiancÇe, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). When Dantes unknowingly involves himself in government affairs (he innocently agrees to deliver a letter from the quarantined general Napoleon), Mondego seizes the opportunity to frame him for treason. With the help of a crooked local politician, Villefort (James Frain), Mondego has Dantes sent off to prison.

Family and friends are told that Dantes is dead, and Mercedes weds Mondego. Meanwhile Dantes is in prison, clinging no longer to feelings of love and spirituality but solely to visions of vengeance. When a neighboring inmate accidentally tunnels into Dantes' cell, a friendship is formed as the educated, elderly priest (Richard Harris) teaches the young man all he has to offer. The priest schools Dantes in literature, math, science, and, of course, swordsmanship. The priest also tells his pupil of a lost treasure which he is going to rescue once he tunnels out of the prison. In a daring escape (minus the priest), Dantes frees himself from the big house, finds the treasure, and crowns himself the Count of Monte Cristo, arriving in Paris as a mysterious young aristocrat, all the while plotting to exact his revenge on those who wronged him.

Although The Count of Monte Cristo is laughable at turns (Luis Guzman is ridiculous as the Count's indebted manservant, failing to alter his accent from the same street-smart one he used for roles in Boogie Nights and Out of Sight), it's also fast-paced, exciting, and hard not to enjoy. -- Rachel Deahl


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