Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Cooler - A beautiful sleeper

It starts with the bad haircut. A full head of hair with an machete-like slash right above the ears. Then there's the ill-fitting, rather cheap-looking suits. Colors which don't match. An artful limp. Topped off with a doulful smile, like a cherry on this loser's life.

Meet the Cooler, a paid sadsack at the Shangri-La Casino. One pass by the craps table, and seven kills the point. The more resistant winning streaks might take a more personal touch, a hand of blackjack for instance, before 22 becomes the normal end result.

While The Cooler is a small film, one that came out last year, it sparkles with fine accomplishment, including several wonderful performances and some little twists in the script. William H. Macy lives inside the Cooler in a performance that seems to define his career. The subtle changes that take place in his gait, the limp subsiding just barely, the corners of his mouth lifting up when he discovers his happiness, are just a pleasure to watch.

Take a look at Ruth's take on The Cooler, stored in the August 2004 archives. We both agree that this little film didn't get its just due the first time around.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Spanglish - Thumb's up for Adam Sandler's ensemble piece

Spanglish is the kind of film that disappears quickly on the movie scene. I never heard any word-of-mouth about this film; yet, if I hadn’t caught it, I would have been missing a wonderful, emotional movie full of brilliant performances.

A young Mexican woman and her daughter emigrate to the U.S. to start a better life. Flor starts working for a family where he (Adam Sandler) is a chef at a four-star restaurant, and she (Tea Leoni) describes herself in an early scene as a “full-time mother.”

She is neither full-time nor a mother, and her family vibrates in a dysfunctional manner around her. Her way of advocating to her daughter to lose weight is to buy her brand new clothes for school in one size too small. Her daughter, however, is inarticulate in her pain, and like her father, hides her anger and her shame.

In an older movie of like plot, the maid would rescue the family. But not here. While Flor acts as a catalyst for some events, she isn’t ignored, treated as a second-class citizen in either the story or their family. In the capable hands of actress Paz Vega, this woman captures the dignity of a young mother watching her daughter escape into a culture neither one can control or predict. Or afford. It’s a very real story, and handled very well.

It might be easy to say that Cloris Leachman has the role of a lifetime, although Cloris has always done the most with each role she’s ever played. However, she’s simply wonderful and drop-dead funny in the role as Tea Leoni’s mother, the grandmother often forgotten but who makes a positive impact on the kids’ lives. Tea Leoni gives her best performance yet as the surburban mother who does her best to pre-empt Flor’s right to make decisions for her daughter. And while I was never a fan of Adam Sandler movies, he found one I could watch and enjoy. His subtle agony is a joy to watch as a man who can’t say no to his wife and her destructive tendencies around their two children.

James Brooks is never a director to ignore. You should not ignore this latest of his gems.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Life Aquatic and Beyond the Sea: Sinking fast...

Two movies out currently without complete oars in the water are Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Beyond the Sea.

Steve and his regular crew are hunting for the shark that killed his partner during the documentary filming of their latest adventure. Along the way he finds Owen Wilson, who may or may not be his son, and Cate Blanchett, an aspiring but pregnant reporter, as well as Anjelica Huston as his wife and coproducer. Willem Dafoe plays his longtime mate. They face overwhelming obstacles, such as bankruptcy and pirates, on what is probably Steve’s last voyage as the wanna-be Jacques Cousteau.

Life Aquatic is a mess waiting for structure. Instead, there are pieces of the movie stuck together with masking tape, pieces which add nothing to the meaning of the film or even your viewing pleasure. The only anchor here is Bill Murray’s subtle performance, and even he looks tired by mid-film.

While billed as a comedy, this is definitely not a funny film, except for one two-minute sequence where Steve introduces his boat, starting with the live-in masseuse.

What were great actors like Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston and Willem Dafoe thinking? I know what Bill Murray was thinking -- he's in every shot and has to carry this dreadful, boring film on his weary back.

I watched three people walk out of the theatre about two-thirds the way into the film. I wish I had had the good sense to follow them.


When I was a pre-teen, I loved the song “Splish Splash.” I spent many a minute trying to figure out how this guy had a party with all those famous people in the living room while he was stuck in the bathroom. When I was a little older, I adored “Dream Lover,” and I still do. Only as a mature adult did I claim “Beyond the Sea” as my favorite Bobby Darin song.

I watched all the Bobby Darin movies growing up. I cried during “Captain Newman, M.D.” I watched all the movies he did with Sandra Dee, although I couldn’t tell you the plots. They were cute.

So I walked into Beyond the Sea, wanting to hear the answers to all my questions about the late, great Bobby Darin. How did this man do Splish Splash but then turn around and do Mack the Knife (a song I just didn’t get as a youngster), a clever and jazzy up-tempo number that changed forever his career instantly? What happened to his movie career? Hell, what happened to his hair? When we saw him later doing “If I Were a Carpenter,” he was completely bald and the world went into shock. I had heard his marriage was in trouble all along – what happened there?

Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey’s paean to Bobby Darin, answers some of these questions. I knew I wanted to see this movie, and I wanted it to succeed. I wanted answers to my questions, and I wanted the world to recognize how great Bobby Darin was.

Unfortunately, most of this movie is Kevin Spacey’s idea of what a biopic should look like. It’s pretentious and fails, mostly, due to the huge obstacles the star puts in its way. I tried to forget that Kevin is much older than the 20’s Bobby Darin he tried to show us. I couldn’t. Bobby Darin had a rubber face, or at least it seemed to me, changing constantly, moving from confident to petulant to demanding. Kevin’s face – and perhaps this was due to the extensive makeup he had on, including a prosthetic nose – didn’t move, and with harsh lighting we were constantly reminded of the age difference. His face was stiff and so is his performance.

There are some wonderful moments. The staging of Beyond the Sea, when Bobby first recognizes his love for Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth, who is surprisingly good in this part), is artistically done, and Kevin looks like he’s having a ball dancing and singing down German streets. Kevin's singing is, thankfully, not strictly according to recorded performances, but a free-wheeling version of what Bobby probably did in nightclubs, not singing the songs the same way every time.

But in the end, this is Kevin’s film but not ours. While answers are there regarding Bobby’s life, we don’t feel we’re watching Bobby at all.

"Never again (will) I go sailin'. No more sailin'. Bye bye, sailin'."

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Million Dollar Baby -- thumb's up.

Very rarely, I enjoy a movie so much that when it is done, I want to run back in the theater and see it again. This is the first time that a movie seemed so perfect that I didn't want to see it again.

Million Dollar Baby is a weak title for an otherwise flawless film. Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman deliver performances with no "acting" in sight -- like Maggie Fitzgerald's punches, you never see them coming until they land right in your gut. Paul Haggis's screenplay is an excellent take on the ways that family can fail and that family can grow in unexpected places.

And that's all I'm going to say. Go see it.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Lemony Snicket - Shove the kids aside for this one

The Baudelaire children suffer a series of unfortunate events, starting with the loss of their beloved parents. Fortunately for us, their trials are ours to watch and enjoy.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a delight for the patient adult viewer, one who can appreciate the slow development of story and incredible character development. It is not, however, a children’s movie. The kids sitting around me in the theatre were restless during the entire movie. It not only did not keep their interest, it was frightening to the younger children in the audience.

As a young friend of mine warned me even before I entered the movie house, this is not a movie for kids even though it’s advertised as such. Their loss, our gain.

The casting is genius. Jim Carrey is menacing but laughably funny. It took me awhile to catch on to some of his disguises, as his voice is even changed. The poor Baudelaire kids are being stalked by Uncle Olaf,(as it turns out) a pretty good actor who does all he can to kill off the competition so that the Baudelaire fortune is his. Timothy Spall (the evil rodent in the last Harry Potter installment) is brilliantly adept as Mr. Po, the banker who keeps driving them to the next relative who is not a relative. And Meryl Streep is so unstreepish, she’s terribly delightful. And grammatically correct, even when faced with death.

The secrets of the Baudelaires and their spyglass friends are not revealed here. We can only hope for a sequel. But only with the same cast. Even the dead ones.

The Phantom of the Opera

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation. Darkness stirs and wakes imagination.

The Phantom of the Opera on the screen is another twist on the dark fable of a misshapen and deranged spirit who terrorizes the opera company for the benefit of his protege’. It’s not the stage version, thankfully, but a broader stroke of the cinematic pen. Joel Schumacher has created a very special world, a world where an ingenue can step into the spotlight upon a moment’s notice, but also where demons watch and wait for their chance to remove the light forever, all in L’Opera in Paris. And in the bowels underneath.

Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber made a wise choice in selecting an actor for the lead role rather than a singer. The singer in the musical is usually too pretty, too, pardon the term, effiminate to cast a dark shadow on the Opera House and make us fear his wrath. Gerard Butler is a decent enough singer, but also gives us a ferocious Phantom. We believe he will make life miserable for the opera participants if his demands aren’t met. He's a sexy but dangerous denizen of the Opera, extremely watchable in the title role.

A true delight is the discovery of Emmy Rossum, who was, I believe, a mere 16 when this movie was filmed. She uses her own, pure voice (whereas, in contrast, Minnie Driver as diva Carlotta has a voice stand-in), such magic that could make us believe that a man might give up everything to see her aspirations assured.

The sets and costumes are superb. The masked ball is exquisite. The movie itself is a visual feast. The technique of explaining what happens 50 years after the events we watch is a bit wasted but still satisfying. The only criticism I have of the movie is that some of the shots are too short -- e.g., the rose falling in the snow, yet you hardly see it drop from her hand -- and a very slow period in the middle of the film. I knew the play had to be 3 hours long, but the movie doesn’t need to be.

The music is a revelation, and this movie presents it to us in an incredible buffet of delights. Thumb’s up.