Movie review: 'Battle in Seattle' no great feat; 'King of England' a dish well served

  • Updated: September 18, 2008 - 6:39 PM

The scenes of conflict carry a certain local resonance after the recent arrests surrounding the Republican National Convention, but the film's ambitions exceed the filmmaker's grasp.

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"Battle in Seattle"

★ 1/2 out of four stars

Rating: R, language and some violence.

Theater: Uptown.

Issues drama at its patchiest, "Battle in Seattle" takes the 1999 street siege protesting the World Trade Organization conference as the jumping-off point for a simplistic diatribe. The minnows vs. whales setup gives us idealistic march organizers in conflict with avaricious corporate henchmen and their governmental stooges whose policies, according to the marchers, are a raw deal for workers, the environment and Third World countries.

I'm no expert on trade guidelines, but the deck is stacked against the WTO so heavily that, in dramatic terms, they're the underdogs. The activists are uniformly young, attractive and adventurous -- the film opens with an exciting sequence of protesters hooking a protest banner to a construction crane that makes protest look like a kickass extreme sport. Their adversaries are a phalanx of anonymous, frowning wrinklies in suits.

A fair number of Hollywood names go slumming in one-dimensional roles. Stuart Townsend (Mr. Charlize Theron) is the film's writer/director, and the casting has the feel of friends and acquaintances recruited at a cocktail party. Ray Liotta is the embattled mayor, OutKast singer Andre Benjamin is an upbeat eco-philosopher, Michelle Rodriguez and Martin Henderson are activists/lovers, Connie Nielsen is a jaded TV reporter, Woody Harrelson is a good cop pushed to the limit and Theron is his pregnant nonpolitical wife. The ragged narrative mixes all the players together as the plans of the benevolent city government and well-meaning marchers go awry in an escalating series of confrontations.

The scenes of conflict carry a certain local resonance after the recent arrests surrounding the Republican National Convention, but the film's ambitions exceed Townsend's grasp. After the tear gas clears, Benjamin's character sums up what the conflict accomplished. "Now people know what the WTO is," he says. After a moment's consideration, he says, "No, they don't. But they know the WTO is bad." The same could be said for the movie, which will leave you slightly better informed than two hours spent staring at a wall.

I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND

★★★ out of four stars • Rating: R, sexual content and nudity. In Czech with English subtitles, and German • Theater: Edina.

The historical misfortunes of Czechoslovakia from World War I through the Nazi occupation and the Communist takeover form the background of this new comedy from Czech New Wave master Jiri Menzel. Transforming the calamitous past into the springboard for sexy, satirical fantasy, Menzel tells his tale through the experiences of Jan Dite, a waiter fixated on his dream of becoming a hotel owner and millionaire. Dite, played by the diminutive Ivan Barnev, is literally history's little man, pushed here and there by ever-shifting political currents yet always putting his own agenda first. Imagine a casually corrupt cousin of Voltaire's Candide and you've got the idea. Ambitious, tenacious and serenely crooked, he's a survivor above all, and Barnev lends a Chaplinesque physical grace to the part.

Dite begins his picaresque journey as a hot dog salesman at the local railway station, timing the transaction to coincide with the train's departure so his customers never get their change. As he climbs from pub waiter to maitre d' at Prague's finest restaurant, he's an earnest student of the wealthy, learning that money can buy quite a lot of happiness, actually, and that the people who popularized the idea that cottages are cozy don't live in them.

Dite's lust isn't reserved entirely for money, however. He makes the most of Prague's bordellos, dallying with dozens of beauties in boudoir scenes that owe a debt both to the 1970s softcore "Emmanuelle" films and Benny Hill romps. With Germany ascending, Dite marries a buxom fraulein who gazes reverently at a framed portrait of der Führer while they copulate, the better to produce a sturdy little Aryan. In fact, it's under German rule that Dite comes closest to realizing his fantasies, attending to a sex resort full of beautiful blonde breeding stock selected to mate with German soldiers.

Menzel has a great pictorial eye and, it must be said, an artist's appreciation of the female figure; rarely have so many bombshells been so fondly displayed.

As Germany's fortunes fall and the hotel becomes a rest stop for mutilated soldiers, Dite's wife presents him with treasures stolen from Holocaust victims. Dite is just about to realize his lifelong dream of wealth and security when the pendulum of affairs swings the wrong way, and being a millionaire is classified as an offense against the people. A 15-year prison sentence doesn't discourage our antiheroic hustler, however, and he's soon restoring a derelict tavern in the middle of nowhere. Menzel's dark joke is that the apolitical, ego-centered, eternally striving Dites of the world are the ones who pick up the pieces after ideological upheavals knock societies apart.

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