Thumbnail Reviews (KS, May 2005)

1) The Aviator
dir., Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo diCaprio
Decades before Howard Hughes ended his days as a drugged-out, obsessive-compulsive, billionaire recluse in Las Vegas, he was a dashing film-maker and flier of big, big planes. Martin Scorcese coaxes an excellent performance out of Leonardo diCaprio as Hughes, as well as an Oscar-winning one from Cate Blanchett (as Katharine Hepburn). No, I don’t remember the 30s (I can barely remember my 30s), but Scorcese recreates the past so meticulously, that you almost get nostalgic. At the end, you still don’t really know what motivated Hughes (other than untreated neuroses), but the re-creation is fascinating just the same.

2) Blade 3

Wesley Snipes, Parker Posey,dir. David S. Goyer
Not, in fact, a razor which gives a cleaner, more comfortable shave. The Vampire Nation is again plotting the overthrow of civilization (or at least Vancouver), and the Night Stalkers, led by the half-vampire good-guy Blade (Snipes) are out to stop them. It is learned that the Nation is looking for the original Dracula, to clone his DNA. The Count has been living in Iraq for the past six months (no, I’m not making this up). This is the third movie in a series, and there really should not be a fourth, because there really should not have been a third.

3) Pride
(NB: American title: Friday Night Lights)

Billy Bob Thornton, dir. Peter Berg
It’s just a game. The coach (Billy Bob Thornton, brilliant as usual) knows this, but the residents of this football-obsessed town don’t want to hear that. They want the Texas high school championship. And nothing else. Parents (especially the high school stars of yore, now has-beens) live vicariously through their sons, who have a whole town to answer to every time they fumble the ball. The unfair pressure the kids are under is well-portrayed. The generic Japanese title (Pride, which sounds more like a bar in Umeda) misses the point: Desperation might have been more accurate.

4) Ladder 49
Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta

No, not another Backdraft. A young firefighter (Phoenix), on edge after recently losing two friends, finds himself trapped while saving a man’s life in a warehouse fire. His accident and rescue are what bracket the main body of the story, told in flashbacks. John Travolta, a sleepwalker through movies lately, is spot-on here as Phoenix’s tough, understanding. and slightly weary fire chief. The movie explores why someone with a wife and kids (the family life scenes are realistic and convincing) would choose to put himself at so much risk every working day. Character study is the key here, not special effects. Worth seeing.

5) Closer

Jude Law, Julia Roberts, dir. Mike Nichols
“The truth: without it, we’re animals”. So says a character in Closer, and in the course of the next 100 minutes, four trendy Londoners, by several complicated, very civilized routes, clinically seduce and humiliate each other. The pleasure they get from their subsequent “honesty” seems almost a bigger kick than the sex. Mike Nichols has been documenting how humans fail (willfully or otherwise) to connect since The Graduate in 1968. This is a well-acted and subtle film, but not a very happy one. Mind you, Julia Roberts and Jude Law reading the phone book would sell tickets in this town.

6) Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Jim Carey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Billy Connolly, dir: Brad Silberling
This is based on a series of adventure novels for children. Jim Carrey plays a creepy, distant-relative/guardian who attempts, through various bad disguises, to do in a pair of newly-wealthy kids. A lot of other eccentric characters pop up, played by the likes of Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep, and the gloom is amusing for a while, in a Roald Dahl/Beetlejuice sort of way. Even with that star power, though, it runs out of steam near the middle, and I kept hoping Uncle Fester or another Addams (Brian, even) would pop in and pick things up a bit.

7) The Interpreter

Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, dir. Sydney Pollack
Nicole Kidman, a United Nations interpreter from a fictional African nation (she plays it with a vaguely Sithifrikin/white Rhodesian accent) overhears news of an assassination. She takes a polygraph and fails: it could mean she’s making it up or that she’s the assassin herself. The intended victim is a once-respected, now-vilified African leader (which could only be based on Robert Mugabe), president of Kidman’s country, who intends to make a major speech at the UN. Sean Penn is the agent assigned to protect her (or stop her). The interplay between the actors is the key here: Penn and Kidman are great together.

8) Spellbound

documentary, dir: Jeffrey Blitz
Spellbound is an award-winning documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. and follows eight young contestants on their quest for the championship. These kids, several of whom have parents who can’t speak English, are already the best in their state, and who see their spelling skills as a chance for a scholarship, are fascinating. A few of them are not very adept at sports or games or social skills, and their peculiar skill makes them a bit lonely at times, but at this contest, for maybe the first time in their lives, they don’t have to apologize for it. An antidote to Pride (see above).

9) Constantine
Keanu Reeves, Rachael Weisz, Jimon Hounsou, dir: Francis Lawrence.
I really thought from the title that this would be another sand-and-sandals epic like Troy or Alexander. Instead, it’s vaguely Blade3, vaguely Matrix, and clearly a big mess. In the war between God and Satan, there are half-angels and half-demons who fight a sort of proxy war on earth. Keanu Reeves plays John Constantine, a chain-smoking demon hunter who lives over a bowling alley (actually, I liked that bit). He has to single-handedly fight world domination by the half-demons, who have helpfully all turned up in his city so he can deal with them on a case-by-case basis. Ho-hum.

10) Hide & Seek

Robert diNero, Dakota Fanning, Famke Jannsen, dir, John Polson
Every so often, Hollywood decides that they have to saddle some poor sensitive kid with a creepy imaginary friend who might be real. Of course, it helps if their recently-widowed parent (here, Robert diNero, looking about as bored as we feel) decides to move to a creepy old house in the countryside, to help them forget (he’s a psychiatrist: work with him here).The locals, of course, don’t like outsiders and tend to be a bit peculiar. Young Dakota Fanning as the haunted little girl does her level best, but she, and the rest of the very good cast, are wasted.

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