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Santa's Got A Brand New Bag, Part 1 

LOTR: Return of the King, Something's Gotta Give, more

Twas the fortnight before Christmas, And all through the city, Not a movie house was empty, Not even those deemed sh--

Whoops. Excuse the Bad Santa lingo, but the fact remains that despite maxing out those credit cards on extravagant Christmas gifts, people always seem to have enough money left over to give generously at the movies. To that end, filmgoers can always expect to see a rash of new releases debuting in the last two weeks before C-Day.

This year, Charlotteans can pick and choose from among 12 titles opening during the final stretch of the season. One film wasn't screened locally for critics (Love Don't Cost a Thing), while another won't be screened until after holiday deadlines have run their course (Paycheck). That still leaves 10 titles to unwrap; here, then, is a look at the first batch.

AS UMA THURMAN once noted to John Travolta in a scene from Pulp Fiction, the world is basically divided into two types of people: "Elvis people" and "Beatles people." With the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (***1/2 out of four), I suspect that the time is now for fantasy film fans to acknowledge whether they are "Star Wars people" or "Lord of the Rings people."My allegiance will always remain with Luke, Han et al, which may explain why I've enjoyed the J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations without ever truly embracing them as a fervent true believer. Having said that, it's clear that director Peter Jackson's trilogy on film was a monumental risk that paid off handsomely for all concerned, resulting in a trio of motion pictures that will probably only grow in stature as the years go by. The first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, remains arguably the best of the bunch, locating the right mix between characterization and conflict. The Two Towers was a rousing epic that sacrificed a bit too much of its players' personalities for the sake of eye-popping action and effects, but this third and final chapter again attains the right balance, sending the series off in grand style.

Running a full 3 hours and 20 minutes, the movie is long but not necessarily overlong -- even the battle sequences seem to have been executed with more focus and clarity than those in Two Towers. The material will satisfy those simply looking for thrills as well as those angling for more: For essayists seeking meaning beyond the spectacle, the characters' various escapades touch upon such consequential issues as loyalty, camaraderie and sacrifice, while Freudians will doubtless view the endless gazes between most of the males as homoeroticism so thick it can be cut with a knife.

The super-sized length also allows several members of the large cast to strut their stuff. While heroes Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) aren't given as much to do as before, this chapter places Ian McKellen's wizard Gandalf back on the main stage, clearly where he belongs. The rather stiff characters that were introduced in TTT -- Faramir (David Wenham), Eomer (Karl Urban) and that annoying tree critter -- have little more than cameos, preventing this installment from ever dragging. Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan are as appealing as ever as Hobbit sidekicks Pippin and Merry, and several new creatures, from an army of ghostly marauders to a gigantic spider in the best Harryhausen tradition, are staggering to behold.

Ultimately, though, this final act belongs to the ringbearer and his equally diminutive companions. As the one who's been chosen to destroy the Ring (and, in effect, the dark forces that threaten Middle-Earth), the Hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) has had his mind clouded not only by the Ring's influence but also by the evil machinations of Gollum (the brilliant CGI creation voiced by Andy Serkis), who's so persuasive that he even manages to convince Frodo that his one true ally, good-hearted Sam (Sean Astin), is actually the traitor in their midst, hell-bent on possessing the Ring for himself. Their odyssey is the true heart of the film, evoking all sorts of emotions as we watch each player constantly forced to make painful decisions and struggle with their own tortured psyches (even Gollum inspires enormous audience sympathy). The Return of the King is a movie of expensive visual effects and expansive battle scenes, but when it comes to truly making its mark, we have to thank all the little people.

THOSE OF US who fell in love with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall now have a splendid opportunity to rekindle that romance. Keaton's had her share of meaty roles in the ensuing 26 years, but not since her Oscar-winning turn in that Woody Allen classic has she been as sparkling as in her new movie Something's Gotta Give (*** out of four). What's more, in a youth-obsessed film industry in which the average age of a female protagonist seems to have dropped all the way down to 19 years old, it's a refreshing change to see a motion picture champion the sexiness and allure of a 57-year-old actress. Hollywood admitting that a middle-aged woman can be attractive? Did the earth just tilt on its axis, or was that merely another California earthquake?

Jack Nicholson, in a very funny performance, stars as 63-year-old Harry Sanborn, a wealthy bachelor whose rule is to never date anybody over the age of 30. His current girlfriend Marin (Amanda Peet) certainly fits his guidelines, but his weekend of whoopee is doubly interrupted, first by the unexpected arrival of Marin's mother Erica (Keaton) and Erica's sister (Frances McDormand, terrific in her too-few scenes), and then by a heart attack that lands him in the hospital. Harry's boyish doctor (Keanu Reeves) orders his patient to take it easy, thus leading to a set-up that finds Harry forced to recuperate while shacked up in Erica's beachfront home.

Initially antagonistic, Harry and Erica begin to warm up to each other, with the divorced Erica realizing that she's shut men out of her life for too long and Harry slowly accepting the fact that women over 30 do have something to offer him. Yet the road to an unlikely romance is strewn with obstacles, with Erica having to deal with the fact that Harry is a serial dater and Harry having to compete for Erica's affections with his own doctor, who has instantly developed a crush on this older woman.

Nicholson isn't exactly known for physical shtick, yet as in About Schmidt (the waterbed scene), he draws some sturdy laughs simply by the way he throws his bulk around. Reeves, on the other hand, isn't exactly known for any sort of acting prowess -- over his career, he's been more vilified than just about any other A-list actor -- yet here he delivers one of his finest turns to date: Exuding copious amounts of warmth, sincerity and humor, he more than holds his own with his awards-laden co-stars. Yet this is ultimately Diane Keaton's picture, with the actress nothing short of spectacular in a role that allows her intelligence, wit and soulfulness to shine through.

For most of its length, Something's Gotta Give emerges as one of the premiere romantic comedies of recent years, strong enough to merit year-end 10 Best consideration. But after nearly two hours of bliss, the movie tacks on an ending that's nothing short of disastrous. It was easier to forgive the woeful finale of The Last Samurai because that ending, while needless and heavy-handed, at least stemmed logically from circumstances that had taken place over the course of the movie. The ending of this film, on the other hand, is a complete betrayal of what has preceded it. It's unclear whether this finish was tacked on because the Formula Filmmaking Doctrine decreed it or because writer-director Nancy Meyers herself believed that an older woman's fantasy life can only be allowed to extend so far. It's a toss-up as to which reason is more depressing to consider.

Here are the options, then. If you bolt the theater after witnessing one of its leads standing alone on a snowy bridge, uttering what would have been a classic closing quip, then you'll have treated yourself to one of the year's best films. If you elect to remain after that, you'll have seen a resplendent love story soiled by an ending that hangs from the rest of the picture as awkwardly as a Florida chad.

THE SORT OF SMALL picture that creeps in at year's end to swipe critics' prizes and Oscar nominations away from more high-profile titles, In America (*** out of four) is the season's official "feel-good" offering for the art-house set. That's not to imply that the movie is wall-to-wall tidings of comfort and joy -- on the contrary, poverty and AIDS are only two of the unsavory elements that impact the story -- but as an optimistic tale of immigrants arriving in America and never looking back as they attempt to climb that daunting ladder of success, it will leave audiences positively aglow.

Proving that father knows best, award-winning writer-director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) teamed up with his grown daughters Naomi and Kirsten to pen this largely autobiographical story in which an immigrant family -- dad Johnny (Paddy Considine), mom Sarah (Samantha Morton) and adorable daughters Christy and Ariel (played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) -- moves to New York and tries to start a new life in a run-down apartment house mostly populated by drug addicts and muggers. While Johnny tries to make it as an actor, Sarah does her best to keep her chin -- and hopes -- up. For their part, the little girls partake in that annual ritual known as Halloween, attempt to make friends with their neighbors, and never stir from their belief of America as a magical wonderland.

Tales that center on the immigrant experience or on impoverished Irishmen (and women) struggling to keep food on the table aren't exactly new (Angela's Ashes is probably the most obvious recent example), but most movies in this vein always seem sealed off from modern times, usually taking place in past eras or making the surroundings so alien that they're far removed from our own experiences. Yet In America is set in the New York City of the 1980s -- a time and place we all recognize -- and paradoxically it's this familiar setting that makes the movie seem different from others of its ilk.

I just wish the picture had remained focused on the family's plight to move ahead in its pursuit of the American Dream. Instead, it gets distracted by a plotline involving a reclusive neighbor (Amistad's Djimon Hounsou) who warms up to the girls. It's palatable material -- and Hounsou's performance registers strongly -- yet it all feels a little too pat and predictable. Not so the rest of the film, which contains moments so pure and precise that they take us by surprise.

THOSE FILMGOERS who appreciate the patented Farrelly Brothers strain of humor -- lewd, crude, rude and nude -- dare not blink once during Stuck On You (**1/2 out of four), lest they miss the fleeting appearance of a movie title gracing a porn theater in the background: Catch Me In The Can. They'll want to cherish that moment, since it's one of the few times this new comedy steers the proceedings to gutter level.

In short, Peter and Bobby Farrelly are growing up. That's not necessarily a good thing -- I'm chuckling even now thinking about many of the non-PC moments in There's Something About Mary and Kingpin -- but with Shallow Hal and now Stuck On You, the Farrellys have allowed the subtle humanity that's always been evident in their pictures to finally make its way to the surface -- and in the process submerge almost all potentially offensive elements. So even though the film contains the types of characters that cruel people would label "freaks" -- conjoined twins, mentally challenged men, Cher -- the Farrellys have nothing but up-front-and-center affection for their protagonists.

Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear play the conjoined twin brothers Bob and Walt Tenor -- Bob's the shy, soft-spoken one who wants to remain in their small hometown and continue to run their own fast food restaurant (where they excel as the co-dependent chefs), while Walt is the charismatic extrovert, who dreams of moving to Hollywood to make it as an actor (we first witness Walt's thespian abilities in the one-man show Tru, where he plays Truman Capote while Bob tries to stay in the shadows behind him). The pair eventually does head to LA, where Walt quickly lands a co-starring gig on a network TV series opposite Cher (playing herself). But after Bob expresses interest in having a normal relationship with his new girlfriend (Wen Yann Shih), the brothers begin to imagine how life might be were they not joined at the hip.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't laugh plenty of times during Stuck On You, but I'd be negligent if I didn't mention the movie's distracting sloppiness. Not since the Farrellys' debut feature Dumb and Dumber has one of their pictures proceeded in such a stop-start manner, with clumsy scene transitions and a raggedy narrative depriving the movie of a chance to become anything more than a lackadaisical endeavor blessed with several hearty guffaws (ironically, the sentimental angle that the Farrellys have prominently pumped up counts for nil).

Damon and Kinnear are effortlessly charming, while Seymour Cassel almost swipes the show as a doddering agent so out of touch with the times that, when faced with a potential scandal, he exclaims, "Wait "til Cronkite gets hold of this!" A two-time Oscar winner, considered by many to be the grand dame of modern American cinema, appears in an extended cameo as herself, and Charlotte's own Daniel Greene, a regular in Farrelly flicks, pops up early on as a bullying tourist. As for Cher, is it just me, or is her extensive facial reconstruction starting to make her look like the female Michael Jackson?

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