Thom Fitzgerald's "3 Needles" is a great discussion tool for World AIDS Awareness Day that never achieves coherent shape as a three-paneled drama. The highly variable pic too often feels like an awkward pushing-together of elements that would better have been developed alone.

Sprawling from Montreal to South Africa to China, Thom Fitzgerald’s “3 Needles” is a great discussion tool for World AIDS Awareness Day that never achieves coherent shape as a three-paneled drama. Instead of sweeping together different cultures and stories into a focused panorama, the highly variable pic too often feels like an awkward pushing-together of elements that would better have been developed alone. Wide exposure may be likelier on educational rather than theatrical fronts; the multinational cast’s modest marquee value and middling critical support won’t do much to pull customers in.

Sputteringly crosscut, three stories illustrate a gamut of ways in which HIV transmission remains heightened by ignorance, poverty, misinformation, cultural bias and, sometimes, sheer irresponsibility.

What’s nominally the leading tale has Chloe Sevigny as a young novice among three nuns (others being under-utilized Sandra Oh and Olympia Dukakis) assigned to mission work in a coastal South African village. They also assist several young white doctors struggling to staunch an AIDS epidemic. That task is made more difficult by their patients’ lack of, or resistance to, AIDS education; safe sex is seldom practiced, and superstitions (e.g., a man can rid himself of HIV by fornicating with a virgin) tend to make things even worse.

At a loss to improve matters by prayer or nursing alone, Sevigny’s Clara sacrifices herself sexually to a corporate plantation owner (Ian Roberts) in exchange for the improvements only money and power can secure.

In mainland China, Jin Ping (Lucy Liu) travels from one rural hamlet to another, paying grateful residents $5 each for blood donations that are supposedly government-sanctioned, but in reality get sold on the black market. When rice farmer Tong Sam’s (Tanabadee Chokpikultong) wife and child, and eventually the entire village, fall ill after months of these unsanitary blood draws, he takes it upon himself to make authorities face the crisis.

Finally, Montrealer Denny (Shawn Ashmore) helps support his parents with a porno acting career he’s so far kept secret from mom (Stockard Channing). Mimicking the 1998 scandal around real-life straight porn star Marc Wallice, Denny’s screen escapades end when it’s discovered he’s been faking negative test results.

Project exhibits admirable intentions grown confused or cluttered in execution. Despite the longish running time, it’s often so hectic with incident that the viewers may feel they’re watching a film blunt-cut from a much longer TV miniseries. There are vivid scenes, but many more that would have had more impact if properly built up to.

Some plot developments are explicable, others not; same could be said for the characters, with some leading thesps well deployed and others barely needed. Even a more fully realized figure like Sevigny’s suffers, set up with character traits that lead nowhere. The Montreal story seems abortive, disappearing whole from the pic’s long midsection.

The morally quizzical, loftily toned narration read by Dukakis, whose on-screen character scarcely seems so thoughtful, feels like a stab at connecting the pic’s dots by any means.

Coming off best as the reasonably straightforward protagonists of their sequences are Liu, Chokpikultong and Sevigny, who makes a surprisingly convincing bride of God despite having to get naked.

Tech/design departments are quite smooth, with Thomas M. Harting’s handsome lensing reaching a peak in some gorgeous shots of the South African coastline.

3 Needles

Canada

Production

A Bigfoot Entertainment presentation of an Emotion Pictures production. Produced by Bryan Hofbauer, Thom Fitzgerald. Executive producer, Michael Gleissner. Directed, written by Thom Fitzgerald.

Crew

Camera (color), Thomas M. Harting; editor, Susan Shanks; music, Christophe Beck, Trevor Morris; production designer, Francois Laplante; art director, Janni van Staden; costume designer, James A. Worthen; sound (Dolby Digital), Steve Gurman; casting, Mark Bennett. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 10, 2005. Running time: 125 MIN. (English, French, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Mandarin dialogue)

With

Denny - Shawn Ashmore Olive - Stockard Channing Tong Sam - Tanabadee Chokpikultong Sister Hilde - Olympia Dukakis Jin Ping - Lucy Liu Sister Mary - Sandra Oh Halliday - Ian Roberts Sister Clara - Chloe Sevigny

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