- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tim Robbins, in life as in art, is a series of contradictions.

Mr. Robbins, a politically engaged celebrity, is one of the industry’s more ardent liberals. Yet, in person, Mr. Robbins doesn’t take political bait easily.

The Oscar winner, in the District to promote his new South African-based thriller “Catch a Fire,” refused to discuss the film’s torture themes in terms of today’s debates about prisoner abuse and interrogation techniques used in the fight against terrorism.

The actor’s screen work has exhibited a similar duality.

His directorial masterwork, 1995’s “Dead Man Walking,” stands as a fiercely balanced look at the death penalty. “When you’re addressing a subject like the death penalty, you have to get your hands dirty and allow both sides to have dignity,” says Mr. Robbins, who has a tape recorder running while being interviewed. “Otherwise, you’re fulfilling some sort of lecture hall fantasy.”

Still, some critics derided his follow-up, 1999’s “Cradle Will Rock,” as well as his anti-Iraq War play “Embedded” from 2004 as thinly disguised agitprop. Even the left-leaning New York Times took Mr. Robbins to the theatrical woodshed for preaching to the choir in “Embedded.”

Mr. Robbins is quick to deny politics play a role in his art.

“Politically, I’m disinterested when I’m reading a script. It’s important whether a story is compelling and there’s complexity involved,” says Mr. Robbins, still boyish at 48 and as tall as advertised in person. “Many people want to write something about a socially relevant topic, but if it’s not well written then I’m not interested.

Mr. Robbins achieved his career breakthrough as “Nuke” LaLoosh, the flamethrower pitcher with control problems in the 1988 baseball gem “Bull Durham.” After taking roles in a series of eccentric projects — “Tapeheads” (1988), Robert Altman’s acclaimed “The Player” (1992) and the Coen brothers’ “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) — the actor branched out into directing.

In 1992’s “Bob Roberts,” Mr. Robbins played a maliciously charismatic Republican politician whose campaign repertoire ranged from folk singing to mudslinging. The actor did it all for the project — writing, directing, acting and singing Bob Roberts’ protest songs. It also marked his first chance to work his take on politics into a movie.

It wouldn’t be the last.

In both “Antitrust” (2001) and “Arlington Road” (1999), he portrayed one-dimensional right-wing villains (a software tycoon and anti-government terrorist, respectively).

He also starred in one of the biggest sleepers in recent memory, 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption.” He says it’s the first time he clued into what the popular zeitgeist is all about.

In recent years, his acting has taken precedence, culminating in his 2003 best supporting actor Oscar for “Mystic River.”

In “Catch a Fire,” Mr. Robbins plays a morally mixed colonel in South Africa working to keep terrorists from bringing down the country’s racially divided social structure. His character works for a savage government but is by no means a brute himself.

“He’s based on a couple of different people … my job was to find the humanity in this guy,” he says.”I don’t believe any bad guy believes he’s a bad guy. He’s caught on the wrong side of this struggle.”

Christian Toto

• • •

“Tideland” and other impossible dreams

“Tideland,” opening today in area theaters, is Terry Gilliam’s twisted take on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Mitch Cullin’s novel, an exploration of a damaged young girl’s psyche, seems tailor-made for the director (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Brazil”) who has often explored the theme of the power of imagination.

Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland, then 10, in an astonishing performance) faces her mother’s death and her father’s drug addiction with equal equanimity. “Don’t be sad,” she tells her father (Jeff Bridges) when her mother (Jennifer Tilly) overdoses. “Now we can eat all her chocolate bars.”

The line comes from innocence and ignorance, not insensitivity.

When the pair decamp to an abandoned house on the prairie, we see just how out of touch with reality this little girl really is. Her only friends are the decapitated heads of Barbie knockoffs, to which she gives voice and personality when she’s alone.

Neighbors Dell (Janet McTeer) and Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), who alternately befriend and bedevil Jeliza-Rose, are just as off-center.

“Tideland” confirms Terry Gilliam as one of the industry’s most self-indulgent filmmakers. The movie’s visuals, littered with the junk of the imagination, can be striking. Jeff and Mychael Danna’s score gives the film the quality of a very sinister fairy tale. But the film, with no coherent narrative, induces too many stretches of boredom.

Talking with Terry Gilliam, however, does not.

The director, in town earlier this month, is incredibly frank about his checkered career.

“You mean ‘failure,’ ” Mr. Gilliam volunteered as this reporter searched for a tactful way to ask the director about his aborted attempt to film the story of Don Quixote. That failure was one of the most famous in film history and was chronicled in the 2002 documentary “Lost in La Mancha.”

Mr. Gilliam seems amused by the attention his cursed production received. “It’s schadenfreude,” he says, using the German word meaning pleasure taken from another’s misfortune. That sort of disaster has befallen just about every other director, he says. But only his was captured on film.

It’s made it more difficult for the maverick to work, it seems. J.K. Rowling cited Mr. Gilliam’s 1981 film “Time Bandits” as an inspiration for her Harry Potter books. But when she suggested he direct the first Potter film, the studio refused, Mr. Gilliam remembers. Seems the director wasn’t safe enough.

For “Tideland,” the American director, who became famous as a member of the very British comedy troupe “Monty Python,” found funding in an unlikely place — Telefilm Canada. But the government’s rules on using Canadian talent may have been good for the authority-flouting director; Miss Ferland, whom Mr. Gilliam puts on-screen for almost two solid hours, was born in British Columbia.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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