"3 Needles" opens with an African circumcision ceremony. A group of teens cake themselves head to toe with mud, have their genitals cut, dance around the fire, bathe in special waters. Over the course of several days, they become men. Take very special note during this opening sequence, as all of it will be of great importance to nothing at all that follows. How wonderful.
The film, written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald ("The Event"), is an anthology of three tales of HIV-AIDS as it affects the many corners of the globe. In a bit of useless faux-cleverness, the screenplay refuses to use the terms "HIV" and/or "AIDS," insisting instead that the disease be referred to only as "the virus." Which is odd, considering the film ends with a particularly preachy chunk of narration, in which Olympia Dukakis laments humanity's inability to get together and fight the "common enemy" of AIDS. Indeed, it seems the only reason Fitzgerald refuses to mention AIDS by name is so that after the movie's over, you can all talk about how he refused to mention AIDS by name. It's an empty trick.
Not that this is the only reason the movie fails. On the contrary, the forced non-mention of its topic is the only interesting thing about the whole film, a sloppy, often obnoxious piece of scattershot storytelling.
Our first story, "The Fortitude of the Buddha," stars Lucy Liu as a black market blood smuggler in rural China. She pays villagers five dollars per donation, telling them the blood will go to the needy - although we know she's up to no good, because when we first meet, her, she's encountering a military check point. Problem is, we never know the full story, as the movie refuses to tell us why exactly she's doing this blood scam. (Is she helping people? Stealing from them?) Fitzgerald apparently told Liu to give no clues in her performance, which remains a stone-faced one-note affair throughout; whether she's just been gang-raped or she's playing with a child, it's the same emotion. (Plus: She's pregnant in the story, meaning Liu gives us that classic nugget of "put your hands on your back and waddle" acting. It's the most complex her character gets.)
The plot, such as it is, has a farmer and his family getting sick, probably from the a poorly run blood bank, but maybe not, considering the movie insists on being so vague. And that's about it.
Story number two is "The Passion of the Christ," set in Montreal, in which porn star Shawn Ashmore has been fudging AIDS tests at work by stealing the blood from his sick father; he seems to have no problem infecting everyone around him. He's found out when his dad dies, but curiously, this is not the point of the tale. You see, his mother (Stockard Channing, waist-deep in a limp French accent) just found out about her son's condition, so she sets out to try and get herself infected so she can auction off her life insurance policy and live like a queen before she dies, or something. All of this is played as a somber melodrama, while the musical score (from Christophe Beck and Trevor Morris) insists it's a bouncy comedy.
The final yarn, "The Innocence of the Pagans" (even the titles are horrible!), follows the misadventures of the world's worst missionaries. Dukakis and Sandra Oh are nuns working in South Africa; with them is novice Chloë Sevigny. All three reuse needles when healing the sick. Sevigny, when not running off to look at giraffes (here is a film that makes the act of soaking in the majesty of Africa boring), is sleeping with a local plantation owner, the same oily white man who refuses to share his medicine supply with the missionary. Later, one of the nuns is brutally raped (thus capping a loathsome plot point about a superstition which tells how AIDS can be cured by raping a virgin), a scene which Fitzgerald finds it clever to underscore with a gospel tune on the soundtrack.
While the first two stories teach us how ignorance and insanity help spread the disease, I'm stumped by the third's message. Whitey is evil? Africans are primitive beasts? Capitalism is terrible? Sevigny is your go-to actress for creepy sex scenes?
Throughout all of this, Dukakis' narration helps take the film down yet another peg. She reads her awkwardly written monologues with a cloying sing-song tone, as if entertaining toddlers at story time. The narration treats these parables as fairy tales, talking down to the audience. We want to slap the film for its condescending tone.
There have been many great films made about HIV-AIDS ("Yesterday" springs easily to mind as a terrific recent example). What makes these movies work where "3 Needles" fails so miserably is in their characters, their drama, their humanity. Fitzgerald is more concerned with playing cutesy games with symbolism and cinematic visuals than he is with actually telling compelling stories. As a movie with an important message, "3 Needles" is an idiotic waste of time.
Video & Audio
The only highlight of "3 Needles" is in its visuals, which capture vast landscapes fairly well; the non-anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer doesn't quite deliver the intended grandeur, and a bit of grain reveals the film's indie roots. The Dolby stereo soundtrack is serviceable. Subtitles for the non-English portions of the film are not removable.
Note: On my disc, there is a very noticeable video "blip" occurring at 13:22 - the screen flickers to black for several frames. I cannot say if this will be a problem on every copy, but it is very distracting on mine, so consider yourself warned. (Also, the layer switch at 1:49:00 seems poorly encoded, as several of my players have tripped over it much more than the usual switch.)
The key features here are three documentaries on the AIDS crisis. "China AIDS Initiative" (18:01) tells the history of the epidemic in China, ultimately focusing on the public service announcement work of Yao Ming and Magic Johnson, all set to music from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." (Seriously.) The whole thing plays as a fundraising piece for the titular organization. (Just to be annoying, the Chinese subtitles seen in this featurette are not removable.)
The other two docs are labeled as alternate versions of something called "House on Fire," examining AIDS within the black community. "House on Fire: Black America Responds to AIDS" (3:36) is less a doc and more a long PSA for the National AIDS Fund. An untitled second version (8:44) offers more information but winds up dragging itself out in order to repeat its message, which ends again with information on the National AIDS Fund. While the message is important, there's no need for both editions of this PSA; the second is enough.
A collection of deleted scenes (6:01) offer nothing to the story (although they do reveal an early, abandoned idea of weaving the three tales together throughout, instead of separating them as they are in the final cut of the film). Most of these scenes are tiny snippets, nothing more. Strangely, many of these scenes have been sped up just slightly, giving them an odd, jittery look.
A photo gallery (3:50) of production stills plays out in slideshow format.
The film's theatrical trailer, a promo for the film made by the Logo Channel, and a set of previews for other Wolfe Video releases round out the set.
All extras are presented in 1.33:1 full frame. The trailers are letterboxed, while the deleted scenes are pan-and-scanned.
It's a miserable film presented miserably. Even the well-intentioned bonus documentaries come up short. Skip It.