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On Movies: Acting, music make 'The Runaways' worth seeing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 8, 2010 - Kristen Stewart is mainly known for playing a girl in love with a vampire ("Twilight"), but the role of hard-rocker Joan Jett in "The Runaways" gives her a chance to demonstrate her range as an actress, and it is considerable.

The movie as a whole is a fairly routine exploration of the seemingly inevitable stages of rock life in the movies - the early scuffles, the rise to stardom, the grind of the road, sex, drugs, weariness, temper tantrums, fights, band breaks furniture, band breaks up.

But Stewart's riveting performance as guitarist Jett, the rock and roll soul of the 1970s female punk band the Runaways, makes the movie well worth seeing. Like all the best movie actors, she has that inexplicable something on screen that draws our eyes, and in "The Runaways" it's as if she has crawled inside the character she is portraying without ever not being Kristen Stewart.

As Jett, she does this boyish hunching thing with her shoulders that is a perfect objective correlative to the image she is trying to project - androgynous but at the same time clearly female, as David Bowie and Mick Jagger were androgynous but clearly male. Her leather-jacket-clad, punk-queen attitude, virtually unprecedented in male-dominated rock and roll at the time, was key to the success of the Runaways and to her later bands. That attitude is why she's a significant figure in the history of American popular music.

"The Runaways" also features good performances by Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, the deceptively flighty promoter who put the band together, and Dakota Fanning as fragile lead singer Cherie Currie. Floria Sigismondi directed from a script based on a memoir by Currie.

The movie just touches on a subject that might have made "The Runaways" more than just a well-acted but ultimately unexceptional tale of the toll the rock life takes. The Runaways - teenage girls in sexy outfits playing the music of hormone-fueled adolescent rebellion - were clearly selling sex, as were Jagger and Bowie. But the young women didn't want to be thought of as predominantly sex objects, a problem Jagger and Bowie didn't have. There is one scene where some of the band members accuse Cherie Currie of betraying them by posing for a sexy magazine spread, but the outfit she wore for the photo shoot is not all that different from the fancy corset she sports on stage every night.

Later generations of feminists - including feminists who refused to call themselves feminists - worked this problem out, at least to the point that burlesque can be taken as a strong statement of female identify. But the Runaways - think about the danger and threat in that name alone -- were confronting this issue in the midst of the tremendous changes in gender roles of the 1970s, and the movie would benefit from more attention to this subject. Still, see it for Kristen Stewart, and for Joan Jett's music.

'Red Riding'

The action in the "Red Riding" crime trilogy, set in the North of England in the 1970s and 1980s, is triggered by ruthless men who proclaim, "This is the North. We do what we want." Although these movies have a very clear sense of place, and a bad place it is, "The North" on a metaphoric level occupies roughly the same territory as "Chinatown" holds in Roman Polanski's movie of that name -- it is not just a specific geographical location, it's a malignant communal state of mind. "The North" represents any place where greed, injustice and indifference to suffering have been allowed to flourish and take control, a place where might trumps right.

The three connected "Red Riding" movies concern dark matters in "The North," and the scenery echoes the theme. What light there is comes from a wan northern sun, so weak that the landscape it falls upon is almost bleached of color. Even the considerable blood that is spilled in a series of horrific murders is more black than red.

The films, based on novels by David Peace, were directed by three different filmmakers. All have an individual look, but all are visually arresting and viscerally effective. These gripping movies, which were made for British television and released last year, are of a quality comparable to the best American cable series, and that includes "The Wire."

All three movies involve murder investigations and are fictionalized versions of real events surrounding the so-called "Yorkshire Ripper" serial killings of the 1970s and 1980s. In the first movie, "Red Riding - 1974," directed by Julian Jarrold, a young newspaperman (Andrew Garfield) looks into a series of child abductions and murders and connects them to a powerful real estate mogul (Sean Bean). Eventually, the trail leads to the upper echelons of the local police department.

In the second, "Red Riding - 1980," directed by James Marsh, a veteran investigator (Paddy Considine) is sent to Yorkshire from the Manchester police department to take over the stalled investigation of the serial murders of prostitutes. When he begins to dig too deeply into police involvement in the case, he meets strong resistance. The second movie, perhaps because it must bear the burden of making a bridge between the first and the third, is probably the weakest of the three, but it still has the power to stir the mind and rouse the emotions.

In the third, "Red Riding - 1983," directed by Anand Tucker, a young girl's kidnapping raises new questions about the abduction and murder cases dealt with in the first two movies. Alone of the three movies, the last one leaves us with a modicum of hope.

Warning: The stories move fast, and some of the Yorkshire accents are hard to understand. At some early American screenings of the films, they were shown with English subtitles. Some viewers found the subtitles distracting, and so the films are being distributed without subtitles.

It's not just American viewers who find some of the accents hard to understand. On a British movie review site, a reader from the town of Yeovil in the South of England complained, "I was pretty gutted becoz no subtitles. ... It was all about the murder mystery or summat."

Well, summat like that. Pay attention and let the movies sweep you along, you'll figure it out. The "Red Riding" trilogy is highly recommended for its unflinching and emotionally compelling exploration of just how deeply indifference to evil can bring rot to a society.

The first of the three movies, "Red Riding - 1974," can stand alone. But you can't really appreciate the second or third movies without seeing those that preceded them.

Opens April 9

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

A well-wrought screen adaptation of an international bestseller, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" moves considerably faster than the original book, which was entertaining but overlong, to tell the story of a disgraced Swedish journalist (Michael Nyqvist) and a brilliant, psychologically damaged computer hacker (Noomi Rapace) trying to find a young daughter of privilege who disappeared many years ago. In the process, the pair dig up a series of despicable crimes against women. A disturbing thriller with a strong message.

Opens April 9

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.