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Byline: Rob Lowman Entertainment Editor

Rachel Weisz grows with 'Constant Gardener'

As a child, Rachel Weisz liked to climb trees because it was ``kind of dangerous but really fun.''

The 34-year-old actress was comparing the experience to making action films like ``The Mummy'' and ``Constantine,'' but she may as well have been talking about ``The Constant Gardener,'' for which she has received both Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations.

Filming ``Gardener'' - the story of a British couple who become drawn into a plot by major medical companies to illegally test drugs on poor Africans - was a different story.

``I'd been to Kenya - the same country - but as a tourist you see something very, very different. Because no one who goes, goes to that slum (where we film). I saw a very different Africa.''

Weisz plays Tessa in ``Gardener,'' which was directed by Fernando Meirelles - who shot his award-winning 2002 film ``Cidade de Deus'' (City of God) in the slums of his native Brazil.

``We would not have been able to film in the places we did if the director and producer had not been so sensitive to where we were,'' says Weisz. ``It was more like a documentary crew.''

At the beginning of the film, adapted from a John le Carre novel, Tessa's husband, a British diplomat named Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), sees her off at the airport. Awhile later, he's told that she's been killed, and throughout the rest of the film, he tries to solve the mystery of her death. Through his remembrances, he falls in love with his wife all over again.

The plot reflects the structure of the novel, but that was a surprise to Weisz. ``Originally, the screenplay was forward; so I was acting it forward,'' says Weisz, who only found out that Meirelles had cut it differently when she saw the film.

The actress, whose next film is ``The Fountain,'' which was written and directed by her fiance, Darren Aronofsky (``Pi'' and ``Requiem for a Dream''), was attracted to playing Tessa first because of Meirelles' involvement and then because the character was ``really many things. I've always been fascinated by people who have been activists, who dedicate their lives to helping other people. ... And I suppose we'd all like to help other people, but we don't know how. And here she was, someone who did know how. And she did it in a messy way. She was a little bit of a pain in the ass - she's not an angel or anything. I loved the fact that she was someone with this tragic flaw. She kind of goes too far, but if she didn't go too far, she wouldn't have discovered what she discovered. She wasn't fixed.''

Working with Fiennes, with whom she shares a stage background, was a treat for her as well.

``He's just so committed ... and passionate in what he does. We both love improvising a lot. There's that great two-minute close-up when he's told I might be dead, and he doesn't move a muscle, and it's a kind of essay in film acting because you can actually see his thoughts - you can read him like a book, feel the flow of emotion - and his face hasn't moved. It's extraordinary.''

Even though the highly acclaimed ``Gardener,'' which works both as a serious drama and as a thriller, afforded Weisz her first serious acting nominations - she considers herself an actress, not a movie star - she didn't mind her ``Mummy'' time.

``I can see where it looks strange. There's a part of me that loves to be really physical, do stunts and jump off things and fly - I don't know. I had a blast when I did 'The Mummy.' I used to be in an avant-garde theater company when I was a student, and we used to do very kind of dangerous, physical stage work. I think it reminds me of being a student again. I enjoyed it. It's fun. It's like a very different side of things - not intellectual, spiritual, emotion, just pure physical.''

``The Constant Gardener'' (Universal; $29.98)

'Red Eye'

Wes Craven, whose edge-of-your-seat-thriller ``Red Eye'' was a refreshing breeze in the dog days of August, was under the gun to make the picture.

``Red Eye'' is about a woman (Rachel McAdams) forced by a stranger (Cillian Murphy) to aid in an assassination attempt while onboard a domestic flight because her father is under threat from a hit man.

``We were on a very fast track because the studio (DreamWorks) was worried about 'Flight Plan,' '' says the writer-director of the ``Scream'' trilogy and the ``Nightmare on Elm Street'' franchise. ``So we had a very short preproduction. From when I said, 'Yes I'd like to do it,' to the time I turned in a print was 5 1/2 months. So ... we didn't screw around very much.''

That included casting its stars.

``I knew about Rachel. I asked for a meeting. She flew in from Canada, and at the end of the meeting I asked if she wanted to do it and she said, 'Oh, OK.' Craven says it was pretty much the same with Murphy, but the actor was the salesman on that one, since Craven was worried about the Irish-born Murphy's accent.

``I had seen '28 Days Later,' and thought he was very interesting, but I was ready to pass when I heard he was on an airplane to Los Angeles to have lunch with me,'' says Craven, who has a master's degree in English literature from Johns Hopkins. ``And I said, 'What do you mean? There's no lunch scheduled.' And they said, 'We know, we know. Just go out to the airport and have lunch. That's all he wants.' And by the end of the lunch, I was convinced that he could do it, and so we just shook hands and that was it. We didn't see anyone else for those two roles.''

He then shot the film in 45 days. Craven isn't big on multiple takes.

``I'm a little bit of the Clint Eastwood school of getting it on the third take. If not, you're in trouble.'' Craven and his editor then cut the film.

``I think the Director's Guild guarantees you have 12 weeks. I turned mine in in five days,'' says Craven, who cut his teeth writing and directing low-budget horror films in the '70s like ``The Last House on the Left'' and ``The Hills Have Eyes.''

The director, who's remaking ``The Hills Have Eyes,'' says making ``Red Eye'' felt like a B-movie ``back in the day when they were done quickly and had great people in the casts. ... I think that's the spirit in which it was made, and that's why it worked out so well.''

It did indeed, with the film being both a critical and financial success.

The 66-year-old director is plunging back into more projects besides the ``Hills'' remake, including an HBO film and a magic show he's developing for Las Vegas called ``Wes Craven's Magic Macabre.''

``I took the HBO film even though I was being offered a very, very large $125 million film. I really liked the script for the HBO film, and I wasn't sure about the script for the big one; so I just passed and made a choice to do what was really interesting.''

``Red Eye'' (DreamWorks; $29.99)

'Saraband,' 'Hustle & Flow,' 'Transporter 2'

Stark and unremittingly severe, ``Saraband'' - legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's follow-up to his 1973 ``Scenes From a Marriage'' and what he has called his final film - is a portrait of sorrow. Like ``Scenes,'' ``Saraband'' was originally made for television and has a theatrical sense to it. (Bergman has mostly concentrated on theater for the last couple of decades.) It might be advisable to see ``Marriage'' first - which tells of the breakup of Johan and Marianne (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson), but ``Saraband'' stands on its own - a disturbing final journey into Bergman's psychic twilight, the terrain of which Ullmann and Josephson know well.

As a Memphis pimp named DJay with dreams of becoming a rap star, Terrence Howard gives a performance in ``Hustle & Flow'' that finely captures the many sides of his complex character. Howard - who has shown off his talents in a number of films this year, including ``Crash'' - is the best thing about ``Hustle,'' for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. While the film has a lot of bravado with its rap music soundtrack and gangsta dialogue (it was a Sundance Film Festival audience favorite), all of that simply masks an old-fashioned tale of the underdog trying to score big.

Scripts for films like ``Transporter 2'' are half as long as most, with directions like ``long car chase here, lots of crashes, see stunt coordinator,'' and ``here hero takes on a dozen or so bad guys armed with assorted tools, see stunt coordinator.'' Luckily this film, starring Jason Statham as the driver for hire, never slows down to let you ponder its silliness; so it becomes moderately entertaining. It's just too bad Statham's taciturn superhero Frank doesn't have a better vehicle.

Saraband (Columbia; $29.95)

Hustle & Flow (Paramount; $29.95)

``Transporter 2'' (Fox; $29.99)

Peckinpah Westerns, Black History Month, 'The Bad Sleep Well'

Sam Peckinpah is probably best-remembered for ``The Wild Bunch,'' an end-of-the-era Western, starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan, that took film violence in America to a new level with its slow-motion shots of death. While it's been easy for others to emulate and then ratchet up blood and guts on the screen, most of these filmmakers lack Peckinpah's lyrical and, yes, subtle storytelling sense.

Throughout his career, Peckinpah was consistently saddled with the studios recutting his films after he handed them in, trimming them for time and never for the better. Two of those - ``The Wild Bunch'' (1969) and ``Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid'' (1973) - are part of a new collection of the director's films. Also included are the 1962 ``Ride the High Country'' with veteran Western stars Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, Peckinpah's second film, which helped make his reputation, and the whimsical 1970 ``The Ballad of Cable Hogue'' with Jason Robards.

All four films deal with men of the West who have difficulty dealing with changing times - encroaching civilization, technology, mercantilism. They are unique in their own ways, but all bear the mark of a master.

There are always a number of titles released for Black History Month. Two old musicals of note were Vincent Minnelli's 1943 ``Cabin in the Sky'' with Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Eddie ``Rochester'' Anderson and Louis Armstrong, and ``Stormy Weather,'' with Horne and Bill Robinson, with performances by Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and the dancing Nicholas Brothers.

``Cabin'' is superb entertainment. It was Minnelli's first movie, but his exciting visual stamp was evident in the black-and-white film. And Horne, as the seductress Georgia Brown, sizzles with two show-stoppers - ``Taking a Chance on Love'' and ``Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.'' ``Stormy Weather'' is marked more by its musical performances, featuring many of the black stars of the day, than by its thin drama. (Plus, Robinson was nearly 40 years older than Horne, who played his wife.) Never mind that. Enjoy the music and look for jazz great Coleman Hawkins on sax.

Also out is the 1947 ``Pinky,'' about an African-American light enough to pass as white. Jeanne Crain, who was white, stars as Pinky/Patricia Johnson, and Waters plays her tough grandma. Directed by Elia Kazan, ``Pinky'' succeeds - especially considering the times- for its sincerity and the humanity of its characters. The 1957 ``Island in the Sun'' is a messy film dealing with the subject of mixed race, with James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Harry Belafonte and the dynamic Dorothy Dandridge, whose career suffered under the racism of the day. Best for those interested in Dandridge's all-too-brief career.

The documentary ``A Time for Burning,'' which was just named to the prestigious National Film Registry, looks at the civil rights movement through the efforts of two churches.

Legendary director Akira Kurosawa's 1960 ``The Bad Sleep Well'' was an examination of Japan's hard-nosed approach to business at the time, which proved prophetic when seen in term of that country's economic rise in the '80s. Interesting, even today. Other golden-oldies (more or less) are listed below.

``Sam Peckinpah's Legendary Westerns Collection'' (Warner; $59.98) - ``The Wild Bunch'' ($26.98), ``Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'' ($26.98), ``Ride the High Country'' ($19.98), ``The Ballad of Cable Hogue ($19.98)

``Cabin in the Sky,'' ``Pinky'' ``Stormy Weather'' ``Island in the Sun'' (Fox; 19.98 each)

``A Time for Burning'' (Docurama; $26.95)

Dead Poets Society - Special Edition'' and ``Good Morning Vietnam'' (Touchstone; $19.99 each)

``The Bad Sleep Well'' (Criterion; $29.95)

``The Magnificent Seven - Two-Disc Collector's Edition'' (MGM; $24.96

``The Five Heartbeats - 15th Anniversary Special Edition'' (Fox; $19.98)

``Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Bueller Bueller Edition'' (Paramount; $19.99)

Rob Lowman, (818) 713-3687

robert.lowman(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1) RACHEL WEISZ in ``The Constant Gardener''

(2) WES CRAVEN directs ``Red Eye''

(3) BEN JOHNSON, left, WARREN OATES, WILLIAM HOLDEN and ERNEST BORGNINE in ``The Wild Bunch''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 10, 2006
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