Tuesday, September 23, 2008

December 2004

KINSEY (2004)
The filmmakers deserve some kind of award just for having the audacity to contemplate turning the life of a research scientist into a movie. While details of the life of Alfred Kinsey are hardly well known, his name continues to be remembered for his landmark sex surveys from the late 1940s that smashed accepted theories of what was and wasn’t “normal” behavior.

That was hook enough for writer-director Bill Condon, who previous chronicled the life of little-known filmmaker James Whale in “Gods and Monsters” (1998). He delivers an entertaining, thoughtful and often daring movie about gall wasp expert who became obsessed with recording the sexual habits of Americans.

The personal life of Kinsey, at least as its presented here, turns out to be pretty fascinating: raised by a reactionary, sexually repressed father, he turns into a imaginative thinker and about as sexually progressive as you could get in the 1940s.

Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, playing Al and “Mac” Kinsey, have an on-screen chemistry that draws you into this sometimes troubled, always complex relationship. Neeson shows the same kind of classic movie star charisma that made his Oskar Schindler so memorable. While Linney gives what seems like her sixth or seventh impressive performance in a row. She might have the most difficult role in the film and she handles it without getting showy or exaggerating what are often intense emotions. It’s time to recognize Linney as one of the best actresses working in American movies.

Peter Sarsgaard, impressive last year as a magazine editor in “Shattered Glass,” plays Kinsey’s bisexual research assistant, who ends up sleeping with both the Kinseys, and brings real humanity to a character that easily could have become a stereotype.

The picture is filled with superb supporting work, including Timothy Hutton and Chris O’Donnell as Kinsey assistants, John Lithgow as his father, and Oliver Platt as the supportive president of Indiana University, where Kinsey taught and did his research. And while the film can be uncomfortably graphic in its presentation of the ways people prefer their sex, it is surprisingly comic. Condon does an amazing job of mixing intensely serious discussions with very funny reactions from those caught in what now seems like the Dark Ages of sexuality.

A remarkable scene near the end of the film features Lynn Redgrave, who earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in “Gods and Monsters.” Here she plays a woman who confesses to Kinsey that his book helped her come out of the closet and find happiness in a lesbian relationship.

While the scene is right out of the big book of biopic cliches, Redgrave’s performance rises to such a touching, emotional moment that the exchange eloquently capsulizes what Kinsey’s work meant to so many Americans.

In a much smaller way, this landmark film was as revolutionary in its time as Kinsey’s sex surveys. Like sexual matters, mental illness wasn’t something talked about in polite company until the last half of the 20th Century. This independent movie, the first from the husband and wife filmmaking team of Frank and Eleanor Perry, was especially cutting edge in that it dealt with young adults affected with mental problems. The pair went on to make the youth romance “Last Summer” (1969) and then tackled mentally troubled adults in “The Swimmer” (1968) and “Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970).

Keir Dullea, who later played the astronaut turned spacechild in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), plays David, a very proper, intelligent young man who obsesses about being touched and the passage of time. Janet Margolin, maybe best know for her role as one of Alvy Singer’s wives in “Annie Hall” (1977), portrays Lisa, a very troubled girl who speaks only in rhyme and refuses to accept her real name. Both find themselves in a institution run by a psychologist, earnestly played by longtime character actor Howard Da Silva.

Not much happens but the script finds ways to penetrate the difficulties in treating these patients and show how easy it would be to give up on these damaged young people.

When I first saw this picture years ago, the static pacing and zombie-like performance of Dullea left me cold. It’s a more powerful film than I had recognized; in fact, Dullea’s acting is right on the mark, probably the best of his career, and the rest of the cast does an impressive job of letting you see just a little bit past the outward craziness.

The movie ends with a gloriously shot (by Leonard Hirshfield) sequence on the steps of a New York City museum just after dawn as David and Lisa are finally able to bond. It’s a simple yet moving moment; a sign of hope for the future in timeless black and white.

When you cast a major star as the film’s villain, you’re asking for trouble. Many movies get around this by making it unclear until the end whether the star is really a bad guy or just mistaken for one. But in this picture, Michael Caine plays a French traitor who joined the Nazis during the occupation of France in World War II. Right from the start of the film you’re pulling for him to get killed or captured. Not only does he show no regret but he continues to believe what he did was right.

Maybe if the hunt for Caine’s Brossard was more exciting this Norman Jewison directed picture might have worked. A judge (Tilda Swinton) and a detective (Jeremy Northam), appointed to track down this senior citizen who has escape justice all these years, are determined but extremely low-keyed in their pursuit.

If it wasn’t for some wonderfully crafted supporting performances, I probably would have dozed off long before it ended. Alan Bates, in what was his final film appearance, is perfect as an old friend of the judge who warns her about the political consequences of her mission, as is Charlotte Rampling as Brossard’s timid wife who hates him as much as everyone else. And as corrupt government officials, Frank Finlay and Ciaran Hand are suitably oily.

The most interesting aspect of the picture is how a conservative faction of the Catholic Church helps Brossard elude justice; during the war they actually preferred the Vichy government to the resistance, which was filled with godless Communist. Because he remained loyal to the church, this murderous collaborator is forgiven. The way screenwriter Ronald Harwood (who also wrote “The Pianist”) weaves that angle into the more personal story of Brossard should have made for a fascinating picture. In other words, I blame the director.

The 78-year-old Jewison has had a long career that includes many memorable films—“The Cincinnati Kid” (1965), “In the Heat of the Night (1967), “…And Justice for All” (1979)—but has slipped since his box-office smash “Moonstruck” (1987). This marks the second time in recent years that he’s wasted a great cast and a better-than-average plotline; in 1999, Denzel Washington scored an Oscar nomination for his amazing portrayal of imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter in “The Hurricane” despite the film being second rate. It just might be time for Jewison to hang up his directing ball cap and focus on producing.


This black comedy has everything going for it—sarcasm-laced attitude, a trio of lead performers playing against type, a subject (dentistry) worthy of ridicule and even a script that isn’t half bad—but you’d never know it from the finished film.

Steve Martin (who also played a dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors”) is Dr. Frank Sangster, who shares his lucrative practice with his longtime obsessive-compulsive girlfriend Jean (Laura Dern). Frank’s perfect world suddenly turns upside down when a slutty patient (Helena Bonhan Carter) comes looking to score drugs and he discovers his irresponsible brother (Elias Koteas) half naked in his bathroom. These seemingly unrelated events not only result in the good doctor trying to allude local police and federal agents, but causes him to reevaluate his life. Sounds like a pretty good film, doesn’t it?

Somehow writer-director David Atkins (who co-wrote the film with Paul Felopulous) turns a juice idea and entertaining characters into a flat, ultimately toothless picture. Once again, producers entrusted a good script to a first-time director with predictable results: a mediocre movie.

Martin is the perfect choice to play the straight-laced professional whose inner “wild and crazy guy” is just waiting to emerge. His relationship with Bonhan Carter keeps the film afloat long after it should have sunk. Too often tied up in 19th Century costumes and rarely landing good roles, this wonderful actress makes you understand why an upstanding dentist would risk his career for her, revealing a sweet, childlike nature beneath a heavy-drinking, drug-selling con woman.

It’s just too bad Martin didn’t use his clout to bring in a veteran director who might have turned all the good parts into a memorable movie.

LAWMAN (1971)
When critics talk about Westerns that depicted the end of that pioneering era, this superbly acted rumination on justice by means of a six-shooter rarely gets mentioned. While “The Lawman” can’t match the directorial bravado or boast of the finely crafted scripts of the masterpieces of the genre, Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1973), this thoughtful story of men fighting over something that time has passed is quietly memorable.

The cast alone makes this worth seeing. Burt Lancaster stars as the low-keyed, but fervently determined title character who ventures into a neighboring town to bring in a gang that killed a man during a drunken rampage. Turns out the men who did the shooting work for the most powerful man in the region (played with surprising subtlety by Lee J. Cobb) who not only controls the businesses but pulls the strings of the tired, defeated sheriff, portrayed by Robert Ryan as a once proud man who has lost his soul.

Supporting these stars are Sheree North as Lancaster old girlfriend with whom he reunites, John McGiver as a tough-talking but weak-kneed store owner and, as Cobb’s collection of gunslingers, Robert Duvall, Richard Jordan, Albert Salmi and Ralph Waite.

Director Michael Winner isn’t going to win any points for style, but he knows how to coax nice moments out of his actors—as in his “The Nightcomers” (1972) and “The Big Sleep” (1978)—and it pays off here. Each member of the large cast gets a chance to shine. Meanwhile, Lancaster and Ryan do some of the best work of their careers—watching these two old-school masters work together is a lesson in how great acting can turn the simplest of scenes into compelling cinema.

I wasn’t paying attention back in July when this beautifully realized story of a boyhood friendship opened and closed without leaving the art houses of Los Angeles. I took note when L.A. Times critic Kevin Thomas listed it among his Top 10 for the year and rented it.

Teen actors Erik Smith and Harris Allan are perfect as the emotionally fragile boys who become like brothers as a result of family tragedies. Bobby (Smith) is the hipper, more aggressive youth who initiates the friendship with Jonathan (Allan), guiding him into the ‘70s world of drugs and music and inspiring the shy boy’s sexual awakening. Bobby even helps loosen up Jonathan’s mom (Sissy Spacek) in a wonderfully staged scene in which she catches them smoking pot and ends up trying it herself and dancing to the sublime music of Laura Nyro. I don’t think I’ve seen a picture that does a better job of capturing the sense of growing up in this era (it’s the R-rated version of “Wonder Years”), especially in its understand of the importance of music.

Like Bobby and Jonathan, I was a young teen in the early ‘70s and the latest rock record was topic number one. Albums were savored, studied, prized beyond all else and the music never lost its freshness no matter how often we listened. Not only does “A Home at the End of the World” feature a hip soundtrack of Nyro, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Dusty Springfield, the Band (all musicians who seemed to be speaking directly to us), but the music remains a primal aspect of these characters’ lives as they mature.

The music goes hand in hand with the movie’s central theme of an evolving sexuality and how it enriches and complicates the relationship of these characters. Bobby (now played by Colin Farrell) joins Jonathan (newcomer Dallas Roberts) in New York’s East Village, where Jonathan is now openly gay and living with an older, left-over hippie Clare (Robin Wright Penn in a frightful, reddish-orange wig). The inevitable confusion of these three’s relationships isn’t surprising but first-time film director Michael Mayer never allows it to become overheated melodrama; the emotional rawness offered by the actors never stops being authentic, truthful.

Based on Michael Cunningham’s novel (he also wrote the screenplay), the film is clearer and more believable than Cunningham’s more acclaimed work, “The Hours.” In that film, the lives of the three women were so narrowly presented that, for me, they never emerged as real people. In “End of the World,” I never felt the writer was using these three characters as symbols; these are familiar people in a familiar world. If the structure is stolen from Francois Truffaut’s film, “Jules and Jim” (1961), well, at least he’s taking from greatness.

There isn’t a false acting note in the entire picture, yet old pro Spacek stands out as Jonathan’s mother, who regrets living such an isolated, predictable life and finds a kind-of soul mate in the open-to-anything Bobby. It’s her love and the love of Clare (who lives the mother’s “other” life), that causes both an intense division between the men and the glue that forever binds them together. You won’t see a film in 2004, or any recent year, that has a better understanding of love’s complicated role in our lives.

Clearly, the favorite genre of 2004 is the classic biopic, with its cliche-filled episodes of troubled childhood, first love, early successes followed by mid-career frustration and, finally, end-of-life tributes. In an age when various forms of biographies dominate cable television, filmmakers are looking to cash in on this popularity. But inevitably, these films disappoint; offering up flat, uninteresting heroes.

Director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee, in bringing Allan Knee’s play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” to the screen, avoid that trap, instead focusing on a small slice of turn-of-the-century British playwright J.M. Barrie’s life. Not only are we saved from the same-old Freudian attempts to connect childhood to adult problems or any attempt to make Barrie a legend, but the picture paints a clearer, more flesh-and-blood portrayal of its subject than you get from an epic biopic like “Ray.”

The movie opens with a depressed Barrie, played by Johnny Depp with his usual soft-spoken intensity, dealing with a failed play and a dissolving marriage. His life is turned around one day in the park when he meets the recently widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons. The playful, boyish Barrie becomes their playmate and grows emotionally attached to them as they do to him, all culminating in the creation of his famous play “Peter Pan.”

Beyond the first-rate performances of Depp and Winslet, wonderful supporting work abounds: Dustin Hoffman as Barrie’s frustrated producer, Julie Christie as Sylvia’s protective mother and Freddie Highmore as young Peter, the son who makes the deepest connection with Barrie.

Forster does an astonishing job of showing the creative process by mixing theatrical reality and visualizations of Barrie’s imagination while never losing track of the human story of this needy family. I can’t recall ever seeing a movie recreation of a stage production that captures the magic of live theater more accurately than the director does here with “Peter Pan.”

“Finding Neverland” moves Forster, whose breakthrough feature was the equally superb, but very different “Monster’s Ball” (2001), into the ranks of the top young directors in Hollywood.

In the studio years, when the combination of a star actress and actor turned into box-office success, plans to reunite them were immediately started. Today, that only happens with sequels. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the plot or the characters they would play was secondary to just getting them back on the screen together and hoping their spark paid off again.

This standard-issue romantic adventure pairs Clark Gable, at the height of his reign as the King of Hollywood, and 22-year-old Lana Turner as a follow to their 1941 hit, “Honky Tonk.”

In this film, they’re both newspaper reporters who end up in China along with Robert Sterling, who plays Gable’s brother and the other part of the romantic triangle.

What’s strange about this picture is how it transforms from a frothy romance to an intense, heartbreaking chronicle of the Battle of Bataan. Van Johnson (only his second role) and Keenan Wynn (already stealing scenes in his film debut) show up near the end as the famous island battle is portrayed, mostly in flashback as Gable dictates the story for his paper. The last 30 minutes of the film more than make up for the story’s long list of predictable plot turns.

Of course, it never gets too dull with the always entertaining Gable, who was working under tough conditions after his wife, Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash during filming.

He had a perfect foil in the sassy Turner, already a compelling screen presence at such a young age. Married and divorced from big band leader Artie Shaw, the first of her eight marriages, by the time she was 21, Turner quickly transformed herself from the shapely teen discovered at Schwab’s Drugstore to a mature, sexually experienced screen character. For my money, Turner was consistently more believable as a sex object than the more acclaimed versions of the role created by Mae West and Marilyn Monroe. While Mae and Marilyn were cartoons, Turner turned up the sexual heat without becoming a joke (and did it in a more censored era).

Director Wesley Ruggles, brother of character actor Charles Ruggles, who had been making movies since 1917, was near the end of his long career, having helmed the 1930-31 Oscar winner for best picture, “Cimarron”; “No Man of Her Own” (1932) with Gable and Lombard; and “I’m No Angel” (1933) with West and Cary Grant.

CLOSER (2004)
I never imagined it’d be possible to be bored by a film that featured Natalie Portman playing a stripper.

Not often do you see so much first-rate talent at work on such a excruciatingly bad motion picture; I kept thinking (hoping) that the pretentious discussions of love and sex and commitment would turn into something at least slightly insightful or emotionally truthful or, was it possible, moving. It never happened. This script, from start to finish, remains a shallow sophomoric attempt to capture the state of relationships in the here and now. The profanity-laced dialogue sounds like something written by an inexperienced college kid who imagines he knows how adults speak when alone in their bedrooms.

Based on a play by Patrick Marber (who also wrote the script), the film follows the odd affairs of two young British men and the two American women (living in London) they desire. Judd Law, in his fourth of five 2004 film appearances, plays an indecisive wannabe novelist who is ashamed that he’s working on a newspaper’s obit desk (a somewhat dated notion) while Clive Owens portrays a brutish, uncouth dermatologist. That a doctor is portrayed as such a unpolished lout makes his the most complex character in the picture and with a better script might have been actually interesting.

The pitiful women who seems unable to free themselves from either of these two losers are played by Julia Roberts, as a portrait photographer, and Natalie Portman as a stripper/muse who seems like a child trying to compete with the big kids. Yet if it wasn’t for the distractingly PG-13 discreet, but still sexy, strip club scenes, there would be nothing worth recommending about this film.

None of these performances are memorable. Roberts probably does the best job of imitating a real person, but the script makes that pretty difficult, while Law and Portman are totally lost in this intense talkfest. Owen, who played Law’s character in the stage version, is usually a very subtle, quiet actor, but here he hams it up like a high-spirited soap opera actor.

I’ve managed to avoid mentioning the director’s name thus far out of respect for 73-year-old Mike Nichols. No doubt he saw this as an opportunity to revisit and update the sound and fury of two couples that made his film version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) one of the most impressive directing debuts. He didn’t have a chance. His recent feature film output has been less than impressive (“What Planet Are You From?” “The Birdcage,” “Wolf”) but he has found success on cable, directing the powerful “Wit” (2001), about a cancer victim played by Emma Thompson, and the acclaimed “Angels in America” (2003). After enduring “Closer,” I think he better stick to working for the small screen.

I never had any interest in seeing “Before Sunrise,” writer-director Richard Linklater’s 1995 one-day romance starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I had thoroughly enjoyed his first two, very casual constructed, offbeat pictures, “Slacker” (1991) and “Dazed and Confused” (1993), but “Sunrise” sounded like a film for moony teens dreaming of a European summer romance.

But I realized there was something more going on, a passion by Linklater for these characters, when he returned to the story this year with “Before Sunset.” Amazingly, the follow-up to this a small, cultish film was getting great reviews; a couple of critics have cited it as among the best of the 2004. I gave in and watched them back-to-back on DVD.

“Sunrise” wasn’t quite as indulgent as I expected, but I wasn’t entranced. Hawke plays Jesse, an American tourist on a train headed to Vienna, who meets Celine, a French student played by Delpy. They talk and talk and talk and fall in love before a heartbreaking goodbye the next morning, with the promise of meeting six months later. What saves the film is the naturalistic performances and smart script. These aren’t two narcissistic children pretending to be adults; they aren’t afraid to be smart or vulnerable.

Yet it’s one act shy of a complete movie. I have no problem with stories that don’t tie up all the loose ends, but “Sunrise” ends without a clue as to whether the relationship continues or is forgotten, a gaping hole that diminishes the film.

“Before Sunset” picks up nine years later when Jesse is promoting his first novel, based on that day with Celine, in a Parisian bookstore and Celine shows up. Of course, he has barely an hour before he needs to go to the airport so they walk around Paris getting reacquainted. While I had little emotional connection to this pair after seeing the first film, encountering them again, nine real years later, the characters and actors aging from their mid-20s to their mid-30s, I was drawn in. Their lives and the impact of one night they spent together is the focus of the conversation and it turns marginally interesting characters into people you care about. The emotional depth of “Before Sunset” made me wonder if Linklater made the first film with this reunion already in mind. It would have been easy to come back to it in a year or two; that he waited nine years shows he had a serious plan.

I might have missed a slight edit, but I believe the film is told in real time (it clocks in at just 80 minutes); this is basically a documentary of a reunion with the camera rarely turning away from Hawke and Delpy. This may be the most French film ever made by an American director; change the language and it could be the latest edition to Eric Rohmer’s season-themed romances—“A Summer’s Tale” (1996), “Autumn Tale” (1998)—or one of his early masterpieces, made between “My Night at Maud’s” (1969) and “Claire’s Knee” (1971).

Almost inconceivable, Linklater is the same guy who helmed last year’s crowd-pleasing “The School of Rock.” This wasn’t his first reunion movie though. In 2001, he directed “Tape,” an oppressive, one-set, three-character play featuring Hawke as a drugged-up loser seeking revenge for losing his high school girlfriend ten years earlier. This overheated melodrama (the exact opposite of “Before Sunset”) also stars Hawke’s then wife Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard.

Hawke has grown into a very good actor (he scored an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his supporting work in “Training Day”), doing a great job here of revealing a man whose professional success and love for his young son is marred by a loveless marriage. But Delpy has the showier role this time, fighting back her emotions at first and then finally revealing that Celine’s ability to love has been forever cracked by that impossibly romantic night with Jesse.

Forget about the theatrical hipness of “Closer,” “Before Sunset” presents characters that live in the real work with real emotions and face real decisions that forever change their lives; complex issues packaged in a deceptively simple story.

THE AVIATOR (2004)Despite being inevitably disappointed, I walk into every new Martin Scorsese film with high expectations. Maybe that’s not fair, since it’s been 14 years (and six movies) since he’s produced a great one—“GoodFellas” (1990)—but we’re talking about one of the dozen or so greatest filmmakers in American film history.

Scorsese has made some very good pictures since 1990, including “Age of Innocent” (1993) and “Casino” (1995), but his last three, Kundun” (1997), “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999) and “Gangs of New York” (2002), left me cold. Now it’s serious: Does Scorsese have anything of value left to bring to the cinematic table?

This biopic of Howard Hughes not only doesn’t do justice to one of the most interesting and complex Americans of the 20th Century, but it might as well been directed by some Hollywood hack—I doubt Rob Reiner, Ron Howard or Chris Columbus would have made a picture as dull or predictable.

I will give Scorsese credit for not following the usually biopic outline (discussed earlier), instead focusing on three key incidents in Hughes’ amazing life; his making of “Hell’s Angels,” his courtship of Katharine Hepburn and his fight for a share of the international airline business. While these are all fascinating topics, Scorsese directs and has them shot (by Robert Richardson) like he’s making a comedy; every character “acts” at full throttle and every scene is over lit like a Thursday night sitcom. Not until the last 40 minutes of the picture, when Hughes’ insanity moves front and center, does any hint of darkness enter the frame.

Of course, at the center of this problem is Leonardo DiCaprio, who was the guiding force of this project, which means I can’t blame Scorsese for selecting him—he selected Scorsese. Even at 30, DiCaprio still looks like a teenager; no matter how much he quints his eyes and furrows his brow he still seems like a kid playing a man. This is a role Warren Beatty was born to play in the 1970s, but there are plenty of young actors (the above mentioned Depp and Hawke or Edward Norton) who would have been better choices to portray Hughes. This is a deeply disturbed genius who went from the height of celebrity to the depths of a hideous existence, an American tragedy of the first order, but that kind of depth is way beyond the acting skills of DiCaprio.

Maybe Scorsese realized that and was happy to make a TV-style epic. Then again, plenty of critics are calling it one of the best films of the year and it will no doubt get a bunch of Oscar nominations. I think that says more about what we’ve come to expect from Hollywood films than what Scorsese has put on the screen. The 1977 TV movie, “The Amazing Howard Hughes,” starring Tommy Lee Jones, does a better job of capturing the iconoclastic Hughes.

Like his “Gangs of New York,” Scorsese has created what looks like a great picture, filled with star performers moving through the scenes, saying lines that are reasonably intelligent, but without the soul or guts or energy or emotional complexity that made “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” among the most ferocious works of art of our time.

But I can’t bring myself to write off Scorsese quite yet. Actually, his documentaries on Italian and American cinema are incredibly compelling, playing like graduate classes in film taught by the ultimate master and he continues to be one of the most forceful voices for film preservation and the revival of forgotten movies from the 1940s and ‘50s. He’s 62 and he certainly has many more films to make, maybe he still has something special up his sleeve. But if Scorsese’s recent output is any measure, his ability to turn a good film into a great one has slipped away.

As anyone who reads this column or has listened to me drone on about movies knows, I usually find myself berating pictures that everyone else loves. With the latest James L. Brooks comedy-drama, I find myself on the other side of the critical fence: praising a picture that has been the target of very bad reviews, at least from the critics I respect.

The film follows the ups and downs of a wealthy Los Angeles family suffering under the self-centered, overbearing presence of a stay-at-home mom before the upbeat sensibility of a Mexican housekeeper resuscitates them. As you expect from a Brooks picture, the characters are all searching for love in the wrong places and tend to cry at the drop of a hat. But unlike most Hollywood versions of American family life, these are people I know.

Many critics have assailed the mother character, played to the hilt by Téa Leoni, as a monster with no redeeming qualities and thus an easy target for deflation. Certainly she’s an exaggeration of the Westside pampered woman, but you don’t have to watch many episodes of “Oprah” to see her worst traits played out on a regular basis all across the country. In fact, she’s not a monster; she thinks she’s doing what’s best for her and, most of the time, for her family. She just doesn’t see the forest for the trees.

Adam Sandler, an actor I’ve never liked, gives a nice, understated performance as the loving father and frustrated husband who is also the chef of a four-star restaurant.

Maybe the best performance in the film comes from veteran actress Cloris Leachman (who first worked for Brooks when she played Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) as the mother of Leoni’s character. A retired jazz singer who is usually half drunk by lunch, she serves as Brooks’ chorus and comic relief.

At the center of the picture is Paz Vega, a Spanish actress in her first English-language movie (a virtual double for Penelope Cruz) who exudes the kind of warmth, determination and moral convictions that once were central to the American cinema. In the age of cynicism, only an immigrant can get away with this kind of old fashioned values without being laughed out of the room.

While “Spanglish” doesn’t succeed quite as convincingly as previous Brooks’ films, “Terms of Endearment” (1983), “Broadcast News” (1987) and “As Good As It Gets” (1997), it’s yet another variation on his theme of optimism: the worst of us can be won over by the best of us.

Just a few months ago I made fun of Zhang Yimou’s “Hero,” the great filmmaker’s first foray into mystical martial arts movies. His new one is just as visual stunning and astonishingly choreographed and, like “Hero,” freely mixes reality and fantasy. It makes you wonder if this place called China is located on another planet. I totally bought into anything that might happen or appear in the Middle Earth of “Lord of the Rings,” but this is an actual place on Earth, even if it is set a dozen centuries ago.

Then, early into “House of Flying Daggers,” during an incredible, nearly magical performance of something called the “Echo Game” I realized I should be thinking of these films (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” being the most famous) as I do movie musicals. These are real people who can do unreal things. While singing and dancing are more believable than flying or shooting arrows long distances with perfect accuracy, it still is asking the viewer to put aside realistic expectations and enjoy the movie magic.

The astonishing fight scenes, viewed as a movie creation on the level of dance numbers by Busby Berkeley or Bob Fosse, can be enjoyed without lingering thoughts that the characters are doing things that are utterly ridiculous. Flying daggers, which are capable of following their intended target as he attempts to dodge the blades, soldiers that appear in trees out of nowhere and swordsmen who can take on dozens of enemies at once, have little connection to reality but they’re not as idiotic as the appearance of Spider-Man or the Hulk in real life settings.

I realize I was reacting much like critics who dismissed “Swing Time” or “Singin’ in the Rain” as merely musical amusements instead of recognizing them as great movies. I guess I need to rewatch “Crouching Tiger.”

No matter what aesthetic criteria is applied, “Flying Daggers” is an exceptional entertainment, with a captivating story of spurned lovers and multiple double crosses and featuring one of the cutest heroines in action movie history, Ziyi Zhang, who also starred in “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger.” In 2005, she’s scheduled to make her English-language debut and also star in the film adaptation of the popular novel “Memoirs of a Geisha,” directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”). Not only is this 25-year-old a charismatic action and romantic star, but she’s logged more flying time on screen than anyone since Peter Pan.

There are parts of “Flying Daggers” that seems to go on forever—the film has about a half dozen “endings.” But if only for the jaw-dropping battle scene set in a shockingly green bamboo forest, this is an amazing movie experience and should be seen on the biggest screen you can find.

Since I first saw the trailer for this film two or three months ago I’ve been anticipating what surely would be the funniest movie of the year. I was ready to laugh. I wanted to laugh. I couldn’t imagine not loving this wacky mixture of eclectic actors and Wes Anderson, one of the quirkiest filmmakers around. But I didn’t laugh very often and the small amusements failed to add up to anything substantial.

Bill Murray, a supporting player in two of Anderson’s previous films, “Rushmore” (1998) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), is front and center as Zissou, an underwater explorer/filmmaker a la Jacques Cousteau, who has a few personal problems. Despite his celebrity, he’s not much of an oceanographer or a navigator or a filmmaker (that’s the best running gag of the film) and his crew (led by a very needy Willem Dafoe) is equally inept. Adding to this mix is an on-again, off-again wife (Anjelica Huston), a more successful rival (Jeff Goldblum), an emotionally vulnerable and pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett) and Ned, who may or may not be Zissou’s son (Owen Wilson). Like he did in “Tenenbaums,” Anderson throws a collection of emotionally damaged, but very clever characters into an oddball situation and tries to find some meaning. He barely pulled it off with “Tenenbaums,” but with “Life Aquatic” his stoic, sarcastic brand of comedy that was perfect in his small-scaled pictures, “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” has lost its edge.

So many of the plot turns in the film feel forced or just plain silly. If “Life Aquatic” is about anything, it’s the relationship between Zissou and the son he previously hadn’t acknowledged. While the self-centered father is altered by the bonding, the changes aren’t dramatic; if this movie leaves any impression it’s the quirky moments aboard the Belafonte and not how the story resolves itself.

Blanchett’s reporter comes closest to being a believable person and that vividness draws both Zissou and Ned, but like so many turns in this film, there’s no payoff. As comic asides, Huston, Dafoe and Goldblum steal every scene they’re in, while Murray and Owen, forced to carry the film, seem bland by comparison.

One of these years I’ll finally face the truth that any film released in the last two weeks of the year—no matter who’s directing or starring—has only a slight chance of being any good.

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