Worlds Apart 

Wonderfully discontented in Ghost World; drowsily disoriented in Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Ghost World's credit sequence opens with an ecstatic clip from a '60s Bombay Bollywood musical then proceeds to alternate that cinematic nightclub romp with a scanning glimpse at a succession of apartment windows, each filled with a weary-looking person staring blankly into the dull glow of a television screen -- all the lonely people, where do they all come from? But the last window reveals the source of the Bollywood clip in the form of Enid, the film's teenage heroine, dancing madly to the film, a poster affixed to the wall in the background offering a subliminal plea -- "Be an artist."

This sequence reveals Enid's view of herself in relation to the rest of the "creeps" in the world. And if the remainder of the film brings Enid's worldview into question, this sequence also offers a loving testament to the film's view of Enid and her gloriously outré tastes.

Ghost World is the debut fictional feature from Terry Zwigoff, who directed the masterful Crumb, a documentary bio of underground comics icon Robert Crumb, and is based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. Like so many films before, Ghost World is about the summer after high school graduation, but, offhand, I can't think of a more perceptive or heartfelt film on the subject since the '70s boy-centric classic Breaking Away.

The film centers on Enid (Thora Birch, who was so great as Kevin Spacey's daughter in American Beauty) and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, a pale, breathy beauty who comes across as a young, sweeter Kathleen Turner). At the outset of the film, Enid and Rebecca are rolling their eyes through a hilariously on-target high school graduation ceremony (sponsored by Hostess, Dunkin' Donuts, and Tropicana, if you look closely at the signs) then having a gloriously bad time at the post-graduation party. "This is so bad it's almost good," Rebecca says of the party's middle-aged lounge band. The girls then scan the room, offering witheringly sarcastic appraisals of their ex-classmates.

Mainstream American culture simply isn't good enough for these smart, funny, bohemian goddesses. And if the jocks, cheerleaders, and goody-two-shoes they were subjected to in high school weren't bad enough, wait 'til they see what awaits them on the outside! With no college plans in sight, the girls dive into a post-high school summer (though Enid does have to make up an art class in summer school) and discover a ghost world of such cultural decay that it might as well be a rebuke to their very existence: strip-mall theme restaurants (Wowsville -- "The Taj Mahal of fake '50s diners"), video stores where clerks have never heard of 8 1/2, abrasive commercial radio announcers, obnoxious bar-blues bands. "Now I remember why I haven't been anywhere in months," Enid's adult friend Seymour (an inevitably cast Steve Buscemi) whines. "You give people a Big Mac and a pair of Nikes and they're happy. I can't relate to 99 percent of the population."

This thread of cultural revulsion comes through clearest in Enid's honest inability to hold down a job at a movie theater, where she isn't allowed to commiserate with patrons about how much the movies suck, she can't cringe at the "chemical sludge" she has to douse popcorn with, and she's forced to push "upsizing." There's a remarkable scene in Zwigoff's Crumb where the artist sketches a streetscape and we see how his sketches depict the street changing over time, becoming busier, uglier, and less distinct, a mangled snarl of power lines, chain stores, and commercial billboards. That scene, more than the magnificent one of Crumb receding into the comfort of his collection of blues and jazz 78s, demonstrated his contempt for contemporary culture and made a case that the view was as justified as it was reactionary. There are scenes in Ghost World -- Enid walking or driving against a similarly imprisoning Los Angeles backdrop -- that seem to be a direct reference to this scene in Crumb, a uniting of outsider sympathies.

But the catch is that Ghost World's greatness lies in how it both explains this kind of cultural negation and critiques it. The film manages to simultaneously understand its characters' alienation and cynicism as an understandable reaction, a culture entirely unworthy of them and also show what a dead end that alienation and cynicism is. In other words, these characters are right to feel the way they do, but it still makes them feel all wrong.

It soon becomes clear that Enid and Rebecca's seemingly united front against the world is a lot of false bravado. Enid is as unsure of who she is as she is "sure" in her evaluation of the rest of the world. And Rebecca, much to Enid's uncomprehending dismay, seems to be embracing the normalcy that the girls have always mocked. As the two girls drift apart, Enid latches onto Seymour, a 40-ish corporate middleman and obsessive record collector who feels as alienated by mainstream culture as Enid does. "He's the exact opposite of everything I really hate," Enid explains to a dismissive Rebecca.

As Ghost World's transitional summer unfurls, the film becomes more prickly -- and more moving -- than the caustic cultural comedy that you might anticipate early on. In one subtle, heartbreaking moment toward the end of the film, Enid is packing, finally moving out of her father's house after a summer of avoiding it. She comes across a 45, seemingly a remnant of childhood, and puts it on the record player. As the song plays, the girlish singer crooning what was likely Enid's adolescent theme -- "I'll be special/I'll be rare" -- Enid continues to pack, putting her latest employee uniform, a T-shirt for her job at Computer Station, into the suitcase.

American cinema is in the midst of a glorious stretch of teen films -- and I'm not talking about American Pie. Over the last three years great to greater films as varied as Rushmore, Election, Gummo, The Virgin Suicides, and George Washington have graced American screens. Ghost World is absolutely in that category -- by my estimation not quite as good as George Washington or the majestic Rushmore but better than the others.

It is a film about many things -- the transition into adulthood, the plastic, desiccated state of mainstream American culture, the toothless platitudes of secondary education, the value of art, the precariousness of friendship -- and in its meditation on all this it says more about contemporary life than any other film I've seen this year. -- Chris Herrington

About two-thirds of the way into the World War II romantic drama Captain Corelli's Mandolin, people weren't only laughing, they were leaving. Maybe Nicolas Cage's Italian accent -- which wasn't so Italian -- was to blame. Or maybe it was that this film felt as long as the war. Or maybe it was the distinct lack of grounding of the drama's time and terror.

Cage stars as Captain Antonio Corelli, an officer of the Italian army unit that is occupying the Greek island of Cephallonia. There, Corelli falls for the beautiful local Pelagia (PenÇlope Cruz), who has just given up on her betrothed, Mandras (Christian Bale), whom she hasn't heard from since he left to fight. Meanwhile, Dr. Iannis (John Hurt), the village's resident physician and Pelagia's father, exposes Corelli to his daughter when he offers him a room in their house. Corelli uses his mandolin to charm her.

Pelagia, torn between Mandras and Corelli, finds that she can no longer wait for Mandras. So, as they used to say, whoop, there it is. The turning point in the story seems all too sudden. One minute Pelagia is enraged by the captain's drunken behavior; the next the two are sharing some erotic together-time.

Almost every aspect of Captain Corelli's Mandolin is annoying. Most of Cage's lines start out Italian enough but end up utterly American (Cruz sounds believably Greek). And despite the eventful warfare, the movie makes oh-so-slow progress -- emotionally confused progress at that. At the same time that Greeks are grief-stricken about what is yet to come in the war, Italians are singing on the beach as if on vacation. During one beach scene, the camera stops then zooms in on five or six topless women playing in the water. War is hell. -- Hannah Walton

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