December 18, 2003

Peter Pan

When I heard that someone was making a live-action, non-musical version of Peter Pan, I envisioned giving the old story a Harry Potter treatment. Special effects are so advanced today that even lower-budget production can achieve fairly credible results. Making a boy fly and visualizing a fairy character shouldn't be too tough, and the story is timeless enough that it would be tough to go horribly wrong. But Australian director P.J. Hogan (MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING; MURIEL'S WEDDING) has defied me and done just that. He mucked up Peter Pan.

I won't bother going over the story. That hasn't changed. And I won't blame the faults of this PETER PAN on the casting. Jeremy Sumpter is fairly convincing as the adventurous boy who refuses to grow up. Much like a real teenager, he's fickle and possesses unstable emotions that make him unpredictable. Rachel Hurd-Wood is Wendy Darling, our narrator and focal point of the story. She and her brothers, John and Michael, are lured by Peter to Neverland with the promise of never growing up and having nothing but fun with other boys. French sex kitten Ludivine Sagnier (SWIMMING POOL, FLOWER OF EVIL) has fun playing Tink, the mime-like fairy whose protectiveness and jealousy regarding Peter puts Wendy in great danger. Her look and performance reminded me a lot of what Kylie Minogue did in her brief appearance as the Green Fairy in MOULIN ROUGE, but Sagnier has a slightly wider range of expressions and seems to be having a lot of fun being a pest.

Probably the place where PETER PAN most succeeds is in the casting of Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the 2nd Harry Potter film; THE PATRIOT; BLACK HAWK DOWN) in the duel roles of the Darling patriarch and as the nasty Captain Hook. His hook is pretty solid and offers a more three-dimensional look at the character. Sure he wants to kill Peter, but he also wants to be loved. Digital technology gives us a gigantic ticking crocodile to chase Hook and his crew around. He looks alright, but as I've said before, special effects aren't scary. Also on hand are Olivia Williams as Mrs. Darling and Lynn Redgrave as the Darling children's Aunt Millicent.

So far, I don't sound all that bothered by this production, but I'll confess to you why I didn't like it. It's creepy. In animated form, Peter and Wendy come across as pals. Here, there's an uncomfortable (for me) flirtation that borders on sexual tension between them that just feels...wrong. These are 13-14 year olds not Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie. What the hell were they thinking? And when Hook kidnaps Wendy to convince her to be a pirate, he seems like he's trying to seduce her or at least pose for some dirty pictures. The whole movie is like that, and I could tell the kids (as well as a few of the critics) in the audience I saw this with were squirming with a combination of unease and boredom. Add to this veiled perversity the fact that this story takes place in a location called "Neverland." I know it's not the film's fault, but talk about bad timing. Michael Jackson will be first in line for this kiddie porn. Look, I know that I don't have the cleanest mind in Chicago, but come on, this stuff just jumps out at you. I dare you to watch this film and not feel like it was made for and by people who never let their NAMBLA memberships expire. Yuck, I need a shower.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:35 PM

The Triplets of Belleville

It's not often that I'm at a loss for words about how much I like a film, and trust me, the French weirdo brilliance of THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE is well worth liking...a lot. Remember at the Oscars, when SPIRITED AWAY beat out all those other much more popular animated features? TRIPLETS is beating-FINDING-NEMO good (although I don't actually think it will). Even more difficult to explain is what the film is about. The film has no discernable dialogue, but it's far from silent film. It's got a trippy big band soundtrack, loads of crazed sound effects, and more heart and soul than most live-action works I've seen this year. Here's as much of the story as I'm willing to share. An old woman named Madame Souza has a grandson who begins live as a fat little wimp. She also has a droopy pooch named Bruno. By the time the grandson is an adult, he's whipped himself up into top shape and is racing in the Tour de France. He's actually kidnapped during the bike race, and Madame Souza, Bruno, and an aged singing trio--the Belleville Sisters--set out to rescue him. Okay, so it's not necessarily the story that's going to convince you to see this amazing movie. The truth is I was most drawn in by the animation style. I've never seen anything as innovative and fanciful. Far from traditional Disney-style drawings and not much like the ever-popular Japanese style, TRIPLETS may have actually invented a style or at least adapted on that has never been used for animation before. There's a bit of computer-generated stuff, but mostly it's free-hand wonderment. I'm going to advise you to just take my word on this one, even those of you who don't typically like animated films. This isn't your great-grandparents animation for sure, but I bet they'd like it too. It opens on Christmas day.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:28 PM

The Cooler

Believers in luck--good and bad--seem to find that they believe in it a little more when they're in Las Vegas. Luck takes on a near-religious status in Vegas, so much so that (according to legend) casinos actually hire people who have proven bad luck to stand near winner patrons in the hopes that winners will become losers. The professional purveyors of bad luck are called coolers and the fantastic new film by virtually unknown director Wayne Dramer is called THE COOLER.

The loser's loser William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a former small time crook who double-crossed his partner Shelly Kaplow (Alex Baldwin channeling Robert De Niro's CASINO persona) many years ago, and is now paying him back by being a cooler for Shelly's off-the-strip casino, The Golden Shangri-Lah. Bernie, we are told, is the best in the business; nothing goes right in his life. He orders a cup of coffee, and the cream dispenser is always empty when he goes to use it. Then he meets a cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello from PERMANENT MIDNIGHT and AUTO FOCUS). There's a mixture of pity and curiosity in her eyes, and eventually the two fall in love. This being Bernie's world, complications naturally follow. First in the form of a slick Harvard business grad played by Ron Livingston, who thinks he knows how to update and revamp the casino's image, much to Shelly's resentment. Then comes Bernie's estrange son (Shawn Hatosy) and his pregnant girlfriend (Estella Warren), who need cash in a hurry, but the vibe off these two is all wrong. Finally, there's a problem with Bernie himself. Now that he's in love with someone who loves him back, something in the universe is out of whack, and his powers of ill will toward gamblers seem to disappear. In anything, casino goers seem to have better luck when he's around. Shelly's not too happy about this either, and orders Natalie to leave town.

THE COOLER is a great mix of Vegas folklore, relationship film, character study, and morality tale, all mixed together with some wonderful actors in richly written roles. This is one of those great casinos that is for adults only. Baldwin delivers a quick speech to a hooker trying to generate business in his establishment that blew my mind because of its brush-off attitude and rapid-fire delivery. The people who wrote this film (including director Dramer) seem like they know what they're talking about, they listen to the lingo, observed behavior, they lived the live if only for a moment to inspire this film. Macy's performance isn't quite as pathetic as he can be in films; he's incredibly protective of his small piece of happiness and seems quite desperate to hold onto it. Not surprisingly, violence and death play a part in THE COOLER. It isn't pretty; sometimes it's just plain nasty. Having said that, Macy, Bello, and Baldwin turn in some of the strongest performances I've seen all year and probably deserve serious consideration for Oscar nominations.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:26 PM

Cold Mountain

Even before I saw COLD MOUNTAIN, I new that this year's Oscar race for best film would be between it and RETURN OF THE KING. Now that I've seen it, my opinion hasn't changed. If anything, the race is even tougher to predict. If the recent Golden Globe nominations prove anything, it's that COLD MOUNTAIN--based on the hugely poplar novel by Charles Frazier--is the type of film (for better or worse) that tends to win lots of "important" awards. It's got noble intentions, it's long (about 2.5 hours), it's tragic, and it's got lots of big, talented actors in even the smallest roles. But is it any good? Actually, yes. Above all else, COLD MOUNTAIN is an exceptional film filled with beautiful panoramic views, great performances, and the type of modern melodrama that is the trademark of director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY).

The story begins during the Civil War as Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman in full Scarlet O'Hara mode) and her minister father (Donald Sutherland) roll into the town of Cold Mountain in North Carolina. Almost instantly upon arrival, she lays eyes on a workman named Inman (Jude Law in his best work to date) and the two instantly fall in love, despite never having a chance to act on it. They exchange photos just before Inman is shipped off to fight for the South, and there's an unspoken pact between them that they will wait for each other if they meet on the other side of the conflict. Shortly after Inman leaves, Ada's father dies, leaving her with nothing more than a large estate and no one to work it. She's penniless, skill-less, and reluctantly relies on the help of neighbors such as the Swanger family (with strong matriarch Sally, played by Kathy Baker). Word gets out the Ada needs help but can pay nothing, and the only soul brave enough to volunteer to help whip the estate/farm back into shape is the mountain-girl Ruby Thewes, a whirlwind of a character played by Renee Zellweger, in a role that seems like a caricature at first with her heavy redneck accent and rough-neck ways. But as the film goes on and Ruby's background becomes clearer, we realize how complex Zellweger's portrayal is. She's quite wonderful in the film.

On the battlefield, Inman does and sees some truly horrible things, and after years of mindless violence, he takes advantage of a war wound and deserts with a solitary mission: to make it back to Cold Mountain and Ada. Most of the movie is split between these two storylines, both of which are equally compelling. Ada and Ruby join forces to revitalize the estate and fend off bands of vigilantes set on killing any deserters or those harboring them. When Ruby's estranged father (Brendan Gleeson) and his two deserter companions (one of which is White Stripes singer Jack White, surprisingly good in a key role) show up seeking help, the film gets a whole lot better. Inman, on the other hand, embarks on a far more treacherous journey, being a deserter himself. His travels are more episodic and each new town offers him (and us) a new set of character that we don't know if we can trust or not. Among some of the memorable performances in these sequences are featured Philip Seymour Hoffman as a randy preacher who impregnates a slave girl, Natalie Portman as a terrified and lonely widow and new mother, and Giovanni Ribisi as a sly tracker who also runs a brothel. Either one of these two story threads could have been its own film, and you feel privileged to see them both.

COLD MOUNTAIN is top-notch filmmaking featuring the finest group of actors and behind-the-scenes folks working today. It's difficult to single out just one or two performances as being the best, but Jude Law truly impressed me here, and Zellweger is stunning to watch as she rips through her character like a wild banshee. Her chances of winning awards for this role are the highest of any involved. It's always so reassuring when everything comes together like this, especially on a project that clearly cost a lot of money. Take heed, this is one of the best films of the year.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:21 PM