THIS WEEK'S HOLIDAY-MOVIE BLOWOUT MAY NOT LIVE UP TO THE PROMISE of what has turned out to be an unexpectedly good year for American film, but even when these movies don't soar, they often engage, provoke, even infuriate, which, after all, has to be better than parking your brain with Bicentennial Man for two hours. Even if we can't persuade you to sample this week's offerings, it's worth remembering that some of the strongest movies of the year, from Being John Malkovich to The Insider, from Rosetta to All About My Mother, are still beckoning you to the theater. And if that doesn't get your merry ass out of the house, stay in — Election just came out on video. –MANOHLA DARGIS
Ah, but 'tis picturesque to be dirt poor. 'Tisn't, actually, at least not according to Frank McCourt's tough, lively, best-selling memoir of his grim Irish childhood in the 1930s and '40s. Alan Parker's adaptation hardly stints on the squalor, but Angela's Ashes, gorgeously shot by Michael Seresin, bathes the McCourt family's poverty in a blue-green glow, bestowing a spurious poetic realism on the decrepit hovels of prewar Limerick, Ireland: their outside privies steaming with typhoid-friendly filth, the inadequate food, the stench of despair that threatens to engulf the efforts of young Frank and his family to survive, and the crippling passivity produced by Catholic obedience. More egregious yet, Parker and his co-screenwriter,
Laura Jones, have gone to great pains to evacuate the acid wit and feel for the ridiculous that makes the book such an engaging read. The real-life McCourt's homely mug is surely a crucial element in his wry world view: Parker has spiffed Frank up with three bonny-faced young actors, none of whom looks as though he's ever lacked for a crust. Together with the able but dramatically stymied Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle as Frank's parents, the lads soldier stoically through 140 minutes of flat vignette, as dreary and uninvolving as the driving rain that never lets up on the benighted streets of Limerick.
ANY GIVEN SUNDAY
Crashingly loud, hilariously vulgar, hugely, crudely enjoyable — Any Given Sunday is an Oliver Stone movie with a vengeance. This ostensible story of a pro-football team in a downward spiral is a movie-business metaphor gone amok, with Al Pacino as a boozing pussy-hound coach being reamed by the bottom-line Young Turk in the front office. That the Young Turk is played by Cameron Diaz, riffing on her wet-dream role as the jock goddess from There's Something About Mary, is just the first clue to the film's conflicted — to put it mildly — attitude toward women. That Diaz is again given the opportunity to prove herself a fine actress, and one hell of a good sport, is another. It's tough, after all, to think of another American starlet who could, without so much as blinking a lash, walk into a room of naked men and shake hands with a guy flourishing a cock the size of her forearm.
But the actor isn't just playing macho; she's turning in a performance, as is everyone else in the film, including Lawrence Taylor and (together at last!) scene-stealer Ann-Margret. Diaz registers so strongly despite the shrapnel-like edits, booming music and frenzied camerawork because Stone, too often known for conspiracies rather than craft, remains very much of the old Hollywood school. But that's the point, stupid — and it's made over and over with self-consciously excessive style and no small amount of wit. The final irony — and it's a toss-up whether it's intentional — is that even as Stone and co-writer John Logan yearn for the purity of the game (Vince Lombardi is invoked repeatedly as a gridiron Christ), the director has created a slick, newer-than-new, faster-than-fast entertainment to end all entertainments. It's fundamental that pro football is the bread and circuses of the modern age; it's nice to think Stone understands that so, too, is the industry he works in.
At a mercifully swift 102 minutes, this affable sci-fi comedy's mission, so to speak, involves pretensions to nothing beyond blithe pop entertainment and a healthy dose of geek love. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman are the stars of Galaxy Quest, a Star Treklike series long since canceled. Along with supporting cast members Daryl Mitchell and Tony Shalhoub, the demi-celebrities have been reduced to assuming their derelict roles on the convention circuit, grudgingly donning their costumes and signing autographs for their obsessive-nerd fans. They've become a bitter and fractious group, but when a clan of authentic, adoring aliens — who, under the impression that transmissions of the series are “historical documents,” have re-created the show's spaceship down to the last detail — persuade the faux crew to join in their battle against a genocidal warlord, a sort of real-life Galaxy Quest episode ensues. Dean Parisot's direction of the funny, affectionately satirical script by David Howard and Robert Gordon is crisp and assured; but their combined efforts would be for nothing without the expertly modulated talents of the film's players, particularly Shalhoub and Rickman, who are weird and wildly comical as, respectively, the deadpan-schmo tech officer and a degraded thespian forced to play a swirly-headed alien sage named Dr. Lazarus.
As Lisa, Angelina Jolie makes a grand entrance in
the film Girl, Interrupted. She's dragged into a cushy hospital for the emotionally and mentally disturbed kicking, swearing and tossing her unkempt mane. She glowers at the other inmates, mocks the nurses and leaves a trail of glamorous chaos behind her. It's a masterful performance not of a character but of a type, one that Jolie's been doing variations on ever since her break-out role in HBO's Gia. Even as she skirts caricature, though, Jolie shames the movie's lead, Winona Ryder, perhaps the worst acclaimed actress currently working. With appliquéd shadows under her eyes, Ryder struggles hard to illuminate Susanna, the center of the movie, with her usual off-key line readings. Suicidal and spiritually fatigued but with no idea why, the 18-year-old has been urged into the hospital by her baffled, comically middle-class parents. Though she protests at first, Susanna slowly settles into a groove of cool female bonding through insanity.
Directed by James Mangold, the film is based on the autobiography by Susanna Kaysen, who was committed in 1967 to McLean Hospital. Famous alumni: Sylvia Plath, James Taylor, Ray Charles. Kaysen's prose is brave and forthright, framed in dry humor instead of sentimentality. She pulls poetry from harrowing experiences, and it's a hypnotic read. Mangold and co-writers Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan capture some of that quality in the film's voice-over and in a few bits of dialogue, but as a director Mangold hasn't been able to coax a fitting performance out of Ryder. She has nothing of the transcendent bruisedness that the role calls for and is too weak an actor to fake it.
Girl, Interrupted is a big movie about indefinable sadness and grief, and it's fine on those terms. Funny in parts, it milks your tear ducts and builds toward a showy emotional face-off between Ryder and Jolie. Mangold cleverly conveys flashbacks and the fluidity of Susanna's time line by having the blink of an eye or the turn of a neck transport her to some past episode in her life, then uses an equally innocuous gesture to bring her back. He lets the camera caress Vanessa Redgrave as she gives a luminous performance and clears space for Angela Bettis' moving, layered supporting turn as an anorexic. But Mangold can't escape the fact that instead of someone in the throes of a genuine existential crisis, his star comes off as — to paraphrase nurse Whoopi Goldberg — a spoiled, lazy girl who's afraid to face life.
MAN ON THE MOON
A comic more indebted to Andy Warhol than Henny Youngman, Andy Kaufman took comedy's golden rule — that Timing Is Everything — and stood it on its ear. Ever ready to torment audiences' desire for punchlines with the distinct, and distinctly tedious, possibility that he might never actually deliver one, Kaufman was standup's milquetoast de Sade. “Wait for it,” comedians like to say; with Kaufman, you might as well be waiting for Godot. That he managed to parlay such high-concept hijinks into well-paid telecelebrity as Taxi's mousy Latka Gravas remains the central anomaly in his career. Never comfortable with his success, Kaufman continued to taunt his public to the bitter end, effecting a series of creepy and frequently boorish forays into professional wrestling, born-again redemption, and the possibility that his (very real) death was actually just an elaborate setup for a punchline still to come.
Milos Forman's Man on the Moon, sad to say, thoroughly negates Kaufman's final gag, convincing us that the comedian really is dead by dumping cement all over his grave. It's no surprise, really, given the cuddly hagiographies the film's screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, have previously furnished for the equally untidy lives of Ed Wood and Larry Flynt, or the contingencies implicit in hiring $20 million funnyman Jim Carrey to nail Kaufman's vocal tics and nervous mannerisms. That Forman would completely forsake and diminish the radicalism of Kaufman's aesthetics by rushing every gag and sweetening every intention is, given the wearing drone of “market forces,” altogether predictable. That he should flood a scene depicting the comedian's funeral with the crocodile tears of actual Taxi fossils Marilu Henner and Judd Hirsch when, according to Kaufman collaborator Bob Zmuda's recent biography, in reality they didn't bother to attend, is the sort of sick humor even Andy Kaufman would have recognized as well beyond the pale.
PLAY IT TO THE BONE
One of the most fascinating ongoing projects in Hollywood has been the Ron Shelton Sports Movie, a type of film so singular in its form that it nearly qualifies as its own genre. Although the game and the players usually change, the Ron Shelton Sports Movie remains exceptionally consistent where it matters most — in its fast, funny dialogue, in its writer-director's love for the athletes, especially those grinding away beyond the periphery of fame, and in his great distrust, even hatred, of the organized sports that they play. Shelton's latest contribution to the genre he has more or less invented is Play It to the Bone, about a pair of out-of-title middleweights who get a shot at the big time. Summoned to Las Vegas from L.A. by promoters, Vince (Woody Harrelson) and Caesar (Antonio Banderas) hop a ride with Caesar's girlfriend, Grace (Lolita Davidovich), in an effort to resurrect their stalled-out careers. The usual male bonding and Hawksian-inspired banter ensue, with both men vying for Grace's attention while she takes turns playing big-mommy nursemaid, post-feminist harridan and va va va voom pinup.
Much of this he-said-she-said badinage takes place during a road trip that feels nearly as long as the actual drive to Vegas, which may be Shelton's way of subverting expectations, but mainly seems like a mistake. Shelton doesn't seem terribly interested in getting his boxers to Vegas (he focuses a lot of attention on Davidovich, who tends to smile at her co-stars rather than watch the road), and you can't blame him. Genre movies can be their own sort of prison, and Shelton has skills and interests that reach beyond the baseball diamond. (One of his early scripts was for Under Fire, about the Nicaraguan revolution.) Still, as a road movie, Play It to the Bone remains too long in low gear, which is why it's something of a relief when the trio finally hit the Strip and the movie kicks in: The camera perks up, playing paparazzo with the likes of Kevin Costner, then throws us directly into the ring for one of the most brutal fight scenes in American film. Ten rounds later, Vince's face looks like chopped meat, and Caesar has hit the canvas so many times it's a wonder he can stagger. Once again, Shelton is showing his love for boxers and his hatred for the parasites that suck them dry, but you have to wonder, too, if with this film, much as with Oliver Stone and Any Given Sunday, he's showing contempt for Hollywood power-players as well.
SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS
David Guterson's best-selling middlebrow potboiler arrives on the big screen as a lumbering prestige project with Oscar pretensions, one that bends over backward to convince us of its own seriousness, and snaps its spine in the process. Working with elements and issues similar to those that underpinned John Sturges' considerably more succinct Bad Day at Black Rock, director Scott Hicks and co-writer Ron Bass attempt to weave a tapestry of memory and history, personal and national, around a 1950 murder trial on an island in Puget Sound. The corpse is American. The defendant is a war hero of Japanese descent (Rick Yune) with a claim on land owned by the dead man. The narrator (Ethan Hawke) is also a vet and the town newspaper's editor, and was once in love with the accused's wife. The trial, of course, revives the same World War II bigotry and jingoism that saw Japanese-born citizens interned in concentration camps. However, the narrative chronology is so heavily hacked about, its tenses so addled and the material so thinly spread across so many characters, one can scarcely keep it straight in one's head without going cross-eyed.
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY
One of the surprises of the year is just how seductive Anthony Minghella's adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley turns out to be. Originally published in 1955, and made into a flaccid movie called Purple Noon by René Clément in 1960, the Patricia Highsmith novel is a story whose time may have come (pace The New York Times), but, in truth, has never really gone out of style. Directed by Minghella in the smooth, engaging manner of an old-fashioned Hollywood drama, but with the late-century candor the story demands, the film benefits from its writer-director's fealty to Highsmith's unblinking world-view, as well as his ability to reap good performances from good actors and great ones from even better ones. The story begins with sublime simplicity. A New York shipping magnate named Greenleaf hires Tom Ripley to persuade his son, Dickie, to return home from Italy. Dickie, carelessly rich and very beautiful, has been living in a port town called Mongibello, where he spends his time sailing, eating indulgently long lunches with his American girlfriend and sunning himself nut brown on the beach. As played by Jude Law, he's a natural aristocrat, and as much a figure of lust as inevitable envy; you understand right from the start what Matt Damon's Ripley sees in him. For his part, as the smiling sociopath, Damon, while not as ravishing as Alain Delon (who was badly miscast in the Clement version), has just enough bland wholesomeness to be authentically creepy.
Tom eagerly agrees to Greenleaf's plan and travels to Europe, whereupon he begins to show himself quite insane. A genius at ingratiating himself into the graces of the unsuspecting, he slips into Dickie's routine, wedging himself between the young scion, his lover (a fine Gwyneth Paltrow) and anyone else who dares to call Dickie friend. The most worrisome of these threats comes in the person of Philip Seymour Hoffman, giving a terrific performance as a terminally obnoxious fraternity type named Freddie. When Hoffman taunts Ripley with Tommy, Tommy, Tommy in one painful scene, slithering the name around in his mouth, he's at once every bully who's ever terrorized another kid on the playground and the very embodiment of the too-rich, too-soft, too-hateful American. It's clear that the animus between Freddie and Ripley isn't simply jealousy, but has sprung from a fathomless reserve of class hatred and sexual panic. Although he never matches the book in either brilliance or sheer perversity, Minghella has remained essentially true to his source. Highsmith's genius is both in the way she nimbly ranges across the story's malignant moral landscape and in the way that she peels away at Ripley as if she were lifting his very skin, layer by layer. What's shocking isn't that Ripley may be mad, even a murderer, but that he's also unsettlingly, undeniably sympathetic. What's startling is that Minghella agrees.
Shakespeare was 30 when he wrote Titus Andronicus, and quite apart from bristling with the sort of gruesomely inventive, melodramatic bloodshed one associates with our own first-time filmmakers, it vividly prefigures the themes and characters of the Bard's mature tragedies. Before she became better known for taking Disney's The Lion King to Broadway, theater director Julie Taymor made her reputation mounting Titus onstage, using abstract, surrealist masks of her own brilliant design. Now — The Lion King's clout having paved the way — she translates her vision to film (her first, a terrific debut), mixing masks, ancient ruins and modern high-rises to complement the fiery, disobedient spirit that marked early Shakespeare. Anthony Hopkins is Titus, the victorious Roman general who snubs the people's offer to make him emperor — a cavalier gesture that costs him dearly. The queen of the Goths — whom Titus wronged when she was his captive — is suddenly raised to the station of Roman empress, and Jessica Lange enacts this avenger with every ounce of fury and beauty in her arsenal. The theme that power, justly earned, should never be shrugged off foretells Lear. Taymor has done an inspired job of resurrecting one of Shakespeare's unruliest works, just in time for the new century.
ANGELA'S ASHES | Directed by ALAN PARKER | Written by PARKER and LAURA JONES | Based on the book by FRANK McCOURT | Produced by DAVID BROWN, PARKER and SCOTT RUDIN | Released by Paramount Pictures | At Cineplex Beverly Center, AMC Century 14, Mann Criterion
ANY GIVEN SUNDAY | Directed by OLIVER STONE | Written by STONE and JOHN LOGAN Produced by LAUREN SHULER DONNER, CLAYTON TOWNSEND and DAN HALSTED | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide
GALAXY QUEST | Directed by DEAN PARISOT | Written by DAVID HOWARD and ROBERT GORDON | Produced by MARK JOHNSON and CHARLES NEWIRTH Distributed by DreamWorks | Citywide
GIRL, INTERRUPTED | Directed by JAMES MANGOLD
Written by MANGOLD, LISA LOOMER and ANNA HAMILTON PHELAN | Based on the book by SUSANNA KAYSEN
Produced by CATHY KONRAD and DOUGLAS WICK
Released by Columbia Pictures | At selected theaters
MAN ON THE MOON | Directed by MILOS FORMAN Written by SCOTT ALEXANDER and LARRY KARASZEWSKI | Produced by DANNY DeVITO, MICHAEL SHAMBERG and STACEY SHER | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide
PLAY IT TO THE BONE | Written and directed by RON SHELTON | Produced by STEPHEN CHIN
Released by Buena Vista Pictures | At the UA Westwood for a one-week Academy consideration; reopens in January
SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS | Directed by SCOTT HICKS Written by HICKS and RON BASS | Based on the novel by DAVID GUTERSON | Produced by BASS, KATHLEEN KENNEDY, FRANK MARSHALL and HARRY J. UFLAND | Released by
Universal Studios | At Mann Festival
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY | Directed and written by ANTHONY MINGHELLA | Based on the novel by PATRICIA HIGHSMITH
Produced by WILLIAM HORBERG and TOM STERNBERG | Released by Miramax Films and Paramount Pictures | Citywide
TITUS | Directed and written by JULIE TAYMOR | Based on the play by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Produced by JODY PATTON, CONCHITA AIROLDI and TAYMOR
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | At NuWilshire