'Everything Is Illuminated'
Comedy-drama. Starring Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin. Written and directed by Liev Schreiber. (Rated PG-13. 104 minutes. At the Embarcadero.)
Elijah Wood, the heart and soul of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, has two movies out today, and although both are very well directed, they work because of the young actor's distinctive, rather large eyes, which tend to absorb the new worlds he discovers and interpret them for the audience. In "Green Street Hooligans" he delves into the phenomenon of violent British soccer fans (more on that film below), and in "Everything Is Illuminated" he goes to Ukraine, which has gotten over the Soviet occupation but not the atrocities of World War II.
Wood is Jonathan, a strange young man who is always scrupulously clean and dressed semi-formally, wears Coke-bottle glasses and has a weird urge to collect objects from his life experiences -- a rock or mound of dirt from a significant place, a piece of family jewelry, etc. When the movie opens, his grandmother is dying, and she gives Jonathan an old photograph, taken decades ago in Ukraine. The man in the photo is his grandfather; the woman is unknown.
Jonathan's hobby is the past, so naturally he goes to Ukraine to track down the woman. He enlists the aid of a family of low-budget tour guides -- Alex (Eugene Hutz), a Michael Jackson fan and self-styled ladies man, and his grandfather (Boris Leskin), who pretends he is blind and has a guide dog, even though he is the driver on the trip.
Adapted from a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and directed by Liev Schreiber, a noted actor ("The Manchurian Candidate"), "Everything Is Illuminated," early on, is almost a screwball comedy in which every character is quirky. Much broad comic mileage is gotten from, for example, the fact that Jonathan is a vegetarian in a land of meat lovers -- they go to a restaurant and the proprietor refuses to serve a potato unless it is accompanied by meat.
But just as the movie is about to wear out its welcome, it turns suddenly serious as it becomes clear that the village where Jonathan's grandfather grew up no longer exists. As they follow clues, they discover a dark secret -- the largely Jewish village was wiped from the map by the Nazis and has become forgotten by present-day Ukrainians.
It is often a red flag when actors direct for the first time, but Schreiber's images -- a graveyard of old war machines, a field of sunflowers -- are impressive and help convey the wonderful idea behind "Everything Is Illuminated": that no matter who we are or where we live, we are all connected.
-- Advisory: This film contains disturbing, implied depictions of war crimes.
-- G. Allen Johnson
'Green Street Hooligans'
Drama. Starring Elijah Wood, Charlie Hunnam, Claire Forlani. Co-written and directed by Lexi Alexander. (Rated R. 109 minutes. At the Galaxy 4 in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.)
The escalation of fan violence in American sports has been increasingly in the news in recent years, but U.S. fans have nothing on European soccer hooligans, especially those in Britain. When Elijah Wood asks a hooligan in the nearly great "Green Street Hooligans" if the heated rivalries are like the Yankees versus the Red Sox, the hooligan replies, "More like the Palestinians and the Israelis." He's not kidding.
Wood is Matt Buckner, who at the beginning of the film is expelled from Harvard, forced to take the fall for his well-connected roommate's drug use. He was a journalism major, and his father is a foreign correspondent he never sees. With nowhere else to go, he flies to London, where his sister (Claire Forlani) lives with her husband, Steve (Marc Warren).
Turns out that Steve is an ex-hooligan, and his brother Pete (Charlie Hunnam) is the current head of the "firm" (gang) of West Ham. When Pete takes Matt to his first soccer game, Matt experiences the unique camaraderie of English football during the game -- then gets into the first fight in his life as the West Ham firm is attacked by the opposing team's firm.
Rather than feeling horrified, Matt -- a wimp during the Harvard fiasco -- feels bloodied but invigorated. "Once you find out your head is not made of glass, you become addicted (to the violence)," Matt says. "You feel alive."
Soon Matt, to the horror of his sister and father, has become a full-fledged brawling hooligan, and finds himself smack in the middle of a gang war between the West Ham firm and their archrivals, the Millwall firm.
"Green Street Hooligans" is terrific because director Lexi Alexander, a German, brings an authentic feel to English hooliganism -- this is a brutal yet tremendously entertaining film -- and treats it very seriously. The movie doesn't try to hide the appeal of hooliganism for its supporters but doesn't preach either. Only some cliched plot machinations keep it from greatness.
Making an American the centerpiece of a British story may seem like a desperate attempt to appeal to an international audience, but Wood's deft handling of the role -- an outsider who becomes the ultimate insider -- is crucial to the movie's success.
-- Advisory: This film is filled with graphic gang fights and strong language.
-- G. Allen Johnson
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