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Disney's Fictional 'Fahrenheit'?

'The Village' | Jacko Witness

Is 'The Village' Disney's Fictional 'Fahrenheit?'

Forget "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Disney, which didn't want to release the controversial nonfiction film because it deemed it too partisan, has another political movie about to be released.

In fact, M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" could turn out to be more anti-Bush and more controversial than "Fahrenheit" simply on an artistic level.

Seen the way the writer-director intends it to be, as an allegory about the culture of fear — the same culture of fear that Michael Moore has been bleating about since Sept. 11, 2001 — "The Village" should speak to the soul of the anti-Bush movement more than Moore's film.

So it was ironic to see Disney honcho Michael Eisner congratulating Shyamalan last night when the credits rolled at the end of "The Village" premiere, a very expensive affair underwritten by Kodak and staged in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

It's clear that Disney wants to emphasize the horror aspect of "The Village" — which was originally going to be called "The Woods" (a reference to what's out there and beyond).

But for anyone with a slight education in works like "The Lottery," "Animal Farm" or "The Crucible," "The Village" is no head-scratcher.

It's an allegory for our times, something hard to get, maybe, when everyone seems more interested in J-Lo, the Olsen Twins and Michael Jackson's personal soap opera than in world events. "The Village" is a sly indictment of the same people over whom Moore waves a mallet.

Last night's screening brought out most of the cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Bryce Dallas Howard (director Ron Howard's daughter, in a career-making performance), as well as young A-listers Julia Stiles and Josh Hartnett, producer Scott Rudin, "Law & Order" stars Jesse Martin and Elisabeth Röhm, model-actress Carol Alt, writer-director Peter Hedges ("Pieces of April") and even sometime-Monkee Mickey Dolenz (on a night off from Broadway's "Aida").

Phoenix, dressed in black suit/black shirt, said he was not emulating the late Johnny Cash, whose life story he is currently filming.

He came with longtime girlfriend Topaz, a South African beauty who is now studying at New York University and flying down to Memphis on weekends to see Phoenix make the Cash movie, which also stars Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. They were not staying to see the film, and had not seen it.

"I try not to see Joaquin's movies," Topaz said, preferring to live in the real world. Good choice.

Of all the cast members, it was Bryce Howard who stole the evening, as an ingenue must do when she is making her debut. She is so lovely, well spoken, and bright-eyed that the whole scene reminded me of the early days of Gwyneth Paltrow.

We don't appreciate those early days, do we? Here's hoping that Bryce, the third generation in her acting family, will remain as unaffected and pleasant as she was last night.

By the way: Her father, Ron, was not able to attend because he's filming "The Cinderella Man" in Toronto with Russell Crowe. But her grandfather, Rance Howard, was in from California, and had nothing but praise and a wide grin for his granddaughter.

In "The Village," Howard plays the beautiful blind daughter of William Hurt, who seems to be the leader of an Amish-type, 19th-century village. (His last name is Walker; you decide where that fits.)

The group is cut off from the outside world, and its "elders" — played convincingly by Hurt, Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Jayne Atkinson, Celia Weston and Cherry Jones, among others — are determined to keep the village's boundaries from being breached.

No one goes in and no one goes out. The elders' fear of the outside world is palpable.

I don't want to give too much away here — there are a couple of plot twists that should not be revealed — but it's safe to say that "The Village" is all about isolation and fear right down to a cover-up toward the end. And as we all know by now, the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

In the case of "The Village," when the cover-up is suggested, it's all you can do not to laugh out knowingly, because the message of the film seems so clear. It's almost as if Shyamalan is saying that the woods — called the "Coventry Woods" here — are the red states.

I wouldn't have been so certain about this, but I did get to talk to Shyamalan about this when the film was over. (This was about the time Eisner was calling "The Village" a winner.) The director confirmed for me that he made "The Village" with thoughts of the 9/11 disasters in his head.

"Certainly that was the feeling, with the fear all around us," he said.

By all means, see "The Village." Take your older children. Decide which horror Shyamalan is addressing with his story. It's scary, but this is no new installment of the "Scream" series, that's for sure!

Jacko D.A.: Testimony From Questionable Witness

Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon used someone who is now being called a questionable witness to help lock down his case against Michael Jackson.

According to papers uncovered by The Smoking Gun Web site, Sneddon brought in Ann Gabriel to testify before the grand jury about Jackson's "conspiracy" against his accuser and the accuser's family.

But Stuart Backerman, Jackson's P.R. rep at the time of the alleged incident in early 2003, told me yesterday that Gabriel was fired after 10 days on the job. Her dates of employment, in fact, ended before the time Jackson is accused of having done anything by the district attorney.

"This is a woman scorned," said Backerman, who noted that Gabriel, who'd been hired to help out with some P.R. duties in Las Vegas following the airing of the TV special "Living With Michael Jackson," was fired for cause.

"She was going to go on 'Access Hollywood' and read a press release, without any authorization," Backerman told me. "We stopped it, and then we let her go. She was probably gone by February 18 or 19. She never met Michael Jackson or spoke to him. She knew nothing. She just wanted to be on TV."

Backerman added: "She was aggressive, rude and curt."

In papers filed with the court, Jackson's attorneys say that Sneddon is using Gabriel "as the key witness to establish Jackson's intent to participate in a controversy."

Meanwhile, Backerman says that he still has not heard from Jackson's attorney, Thomas Mesereau, and neither have some of the other key players from Jackson's organization during that crucial time period of February and March 2003.

"They're losing out by not using us," says Backerman, who added, "we know everything that happened."