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Stocking Stuffers 

And a few lumps of coal

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Photo by Ron Batzdorff

DOWN IN THE DELTA

Loretta (Alfre Woodard), alcoholic and drug addict, lives in Chicago with her young son and autistic daughter, letting her mother, Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice), raise the kids and pay the rent. Worried that she’s too old to hold everyone together, Rosa Lynn pawns the family heirloom, a silver candelabra that dates back to slave days, and uses the cash to send Loretta and the kids to live at the family home in Mississippi. While there is little doubt Loretta will be saved, screenwriter Myron Goble, who writes dialogue not speeches, makes Loretta work for her happy ending. Poet Maya Angelou, in her debut as a director, stays out of the way, trusting her stellar ensemble of actors to do what they do so well. It’s a jolt to see Woodard, an actress renowned for playing strong-minded women, portray a character who isn’t in touch with her own internal voice. In slow, beautifully measured steps, Woodard reveals Loretta’s growing awareness of the power of her own mind. Although Wesley Snipes, as Loretta’s cousin, stops by briefly to prove there is still an actor beneath the action star, it is Mary Alice who truly impresses. A superb stage actress usually called upon by movies and television to simply be the luminous, wise black lady, Alice is given room here to evoke the tough, exhausting road to all that wisdom. Finally, it may be impossible not to feel a swell of emotion when the late Esther Rolle, in her last performance, first appears on-screen as Loretta’s Alzheimer’s-suffering aunt. As she did for most of her career, Rolle refuses to go for easy sentiment, preferring instead to accentuate the gentle humor in a heartbreaking character. Oprah Winfrey’s going to go all misty at this movie, but this time you can join her without feeling like an easy mark. (Chuck Wilson) (Selected theaters)

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HURLYBURLY

Eddie and Mickey (Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey) live in a glass-brick space station somewhere in the Hollywood Hills — a refuge for wounded bachelors and husbands who party hard and inhale berms of cocaine while borrowing women like neckties. Eddie and Mickey even have time to occasionally drive down the hill to work as casting directors. Their pals include a hulking tough-guy-turned-actor named Phil (Chazz Palminteri), whose long reach and short fuse mark him as the pack’s loose cannon — a guy whose ruined marriage and disastrous career choices often make him the joke butt of the story’s epic bull sessions. And so it goes in director Anthony Drazan’s screen version of David Rabe’s 1984 play about what might be called Mulholland Drive culture. It was Hurlyburly’s freefalls of rambling, overarticulated dialogue and locker-room rage that made it such an interminable bore onstage, and at this level Rabe’s screenplay is impeccably faithful to his play. Nearly everyone talks alike, including the story’s abused and maligned female characters, and neither Drazan’s cell-phone sight gags nor Rabe’s location shifting relieve the sameness of the scenes; nor do they allow us to shake the feeling that we are watching some strange, middle-aged hybrid of Less Than Zero and Fritz the Cat. Penn does turn in some wonderfully crazed moments of coke-fueled frenzy, and Palminteri’s Phil is more menacing than Danny Aiello’s portrayal in a 1988 stage production with Penn. Meg Ryan shows some flare in a very small role, while Robin Wright Penn shows none in a larger part (you know a film’s in trouble when its star and his real-life wife betray zero chemistry during a sex scene together). Spacey is simply wasted as Eddie’s level-headed roommate and business partner — perhaps we just never recover from the sight of his blond Marc Antony haircut — and Garry Shandling’s Artie just seems to be Larry Sanders with a coke habit. (Steven Mikulan) (Selected theaters)

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG

Under a revived RKO banner and the ever-unctuous direction of Ron Underwood (City Slickers), Disney has its way with the 1949 big-ape charmer Mighty Joe Young. As in the original, Joe is a gargantuan, childlike gorilla whose best pal is a comely innocent named Jill (Charlize Theron, Amazonian in tank top and sarong). The friends have spent their lives happily in the African hills, but when poachers threaten to close in, Jill accepts an offer of sanctuary from Bill Paxton’s blown-dry zoologist. The three travel to an L.A.-area animal refuge, only to sorely wish themselves back in the jungle. As with its predecessor, the star of this film is lovable Joe and, indirectly, the effects — animatronics, computer graphics and puppetry — that give him life. Whether he’s swatting trucks on the African plain, snarling at bad guys, or scrambling atop the Chinese Theater to pound his chest for the Saturday-night crowd, the behemoth is genuinely dynamic. But in the first Mighty Joe Young, there was a balance between dry humor about vulgar Hollywood (those crass nightclub scenes still hold up) and forgiveness for even the most wrongheaded characters, who were prideful at worst. This version, written by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, is a graceless, one-dimensional affair, proving once again that Underwood can manage puffed-up highs, histrionic lows and nothing in between. Comedy takes the form of feeble jabs at road rage, and compassion is ignored in favor of fighting and conquering evil. (The villain is a rich European trader in animal parts, and though his comeuppance for coveting Joe’s internal organs may be deserved, his punishment is shockingly grisly.) Both script and string section are orchestrated for maximum lacrimation, while Disney ups the ante on its classic terror tactic, offing not one but two mothers in the film’s first 10 minutes. Happy holidays. (Hazel-Dawn Dumpert) (Citywide)

PATCH ADAMS

Going in, you may know dread: Robin Williams as yet another sensitive authority figure (in this case, a doctor) who stands yet another cold institution on its head by organizing its oppressed (in this case, his patients and fellow med students) into a live poets society that places him on a collision course with the powers that be. (You know it’s an uphill fight when a film’s coming attraction is predictable.) What keeps Patch Adams from sailing off the tall cliff of its own sentiment is that it’s based on a true story. Writer Steve Oedekerk (The Nutty Professor) and director Tom Shadyac (The Nutty Professor, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar) never cheat life’s weirder, crueler twists and turns. They begin in a mental hospital, where the suicidal Adams (Williams) is a self-committed patient. A natural clown endowed with an inventor’s curiosity, he earns the nickname "Patch" because he has better success patching his fellow patients together than the sanitarium’s self-absorbed doctors do. More importantly, the other patients heal Patch: He checks out of the hospital and straight into med school. His hard-won experience puts him at formulaic odds with the school’s more professional bias. The wicked dean (Bob Gunton) menaces Patch on cue, threatening him with expulsion for his unconventional ways with the patients. The gorgeous but icy classmate who catches Patch’s eye (Monica Potter, of Without Limits) melts more or less on schedule. Nevertheless, there’s a healthy restraint in both the writing and the playing that softens these plotty clockworks and lets what’s best and unique in the characters come through. Williams is a great clown, as we all know, but with their comedic backgrounds, Oedekerk and Shadyac give him room to really cut loose, and cure the movie. There are more laughs than tears here. That’s as it should be. (F.X. Feeney) (Citywide)

 

THE THEORY OF FLIGHT

The heroine (Helena Bonham Carter) suffers from a degenerative muscle disease, the movie from schizophrenia, and Kenneth Branagh’s performance as a semi-suicidal artist suffers, period. Richard, the artist, attempts suicide (sort of) in the film’s first scene, for no clear reason. He is sentenced — attempted suicide being, in Britain, a form of disturbing the peace — to some time in the country, where he must do "community service." He becomes a captive companion to the wheelchair-bound heroine, whose impending death has boosted her flare for hostile sarcasm. Bonham Carter is excellent: She inhabits this woman’s affliction with illuminating precision. Branagh is at sea: What ails this guy? When the young woman asks the artist if he would be so kind as to relieve her of her virginity, his reaction is to plan a bank robbery so they can hire a handsome gigolo instead. He is also constructing a makeshift airplane out of spare parts, hence the title. It’s plain enough on a conceptual level that his real flight is from his attraction to this woman, but writer Richard Hawkins and director Paul Greengrass fail to make this idea come to life emotionally. The result is a mess. Bonham Carter is a magnetic fox, even when felled by a wretched infirmity; one is constantly wondering what this lesser half of a hero is so afraid of. (FXF) (Selected theaters)

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