December 21–28, 2000
The Agony and the Xmas-y
From candy canes to lumps of coal, what’s on screen this week.
All the Pretty Horses
"Coltish" is a fine word too often used in a tiresome way, that is, to picture girls as wild creatures in need of taming by men who know how to ride them. This image is at the metaphorical center of Billy Bob Thornton’s exceedingly tiresome All the Pretty Horses, which posits Penelope Cruz as the slow-motioned object of desire for would-be riders, including Texas horseman Matt Damon. This interracial mix is presumably explosive in 1849, though the movie — mostly incoherent due to poor editing — focuses more on personal "issues" than historical context. Upset that his remarried mom is selling the family ranch, Damon goes to Mexico with sidekick Henry Thomas. Hired by wealthy Ruben Blades, they wow the locals by breaking 14 horses in a day (and without a single whisper). Promoted to Blades’ chief advisor on horseflesh, Damon catches the eye of Blades’ willful daughter (Cruz). She convinces him to let her ride daddy’s big black stallion and disaster ensues. But by far the film’s biggest mistake is underusing colorful runaway teen Lucas Black (the kid in Sling Blade), who briefly tags along with Damon and Sidekick, disappears during a horse-stealing caper, then returns only to serve as an example in an offensive point about Mexican "savagery."
Opens Friday at Ritz Five
Lasse Hallström’s Cider House Rules encore is similarly overstuffed and unimaginative, a plummy art-house ham with all the trimmings. Set up as a fairly conventional sex comedy, the film takes place in a small French village where time has stood still: Though it’s the 1950s, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was a century earlier. Ruled by the priggish Comte de Reynaud (a delightfully crisp Alfred Molina), the sleepy hamlet of Lansquenet is invaded by the sensual Vianne (Juliette Binoche), whose chocolate shop becomes the catalyst for a series of sweeping changes. Josephine (Lena Olin) quits her abusive husband Serge (Peter Stormare) and the elderly libertine Armande (Judi Dench) clashes with her tightly-wound daughter Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss). All this eventually provokes a "war between château and chocolatérie," with predictable if well-managed results. Binoche and Dench bring a certain zest to their predictable roles, and Johnny Depp makes a game appearance as a vagabond river-rat, but Chocolat is so eminently predictable you’re never truly involved. That same predictability will no doubt make it a big hit with audiences who swooned to Cider House and Shakespeare in Love.
The Family Man
"Probably gonna wanna buckle up, Jack." With this warning, a Ferrari-driving angel named Cash (Don Cheadle) announces the reeducation of Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage), which takes up the bulk of Brett Ratner’s often (surprisingly) watchable collision of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Granted, the sentiments are stale and the conclusion foregone, when Jack wakes up one morning to find that his powerhouse-Wall Street-bachelor’s lifestyle has been replaced by domestic chaos in suburban New Jersey, where he’s suddenly husband for 13 years to the sweetheart he dumped long ago (Téa Leoni) and father to two adorable kids. The film lays on the rube-ness of his other life a little thick: Jack sells tires for his yee-haw father-in-law (Harve Presnell), bowls with his Bedrock-denizenish buddies, and has trouble changing a diaper (he — and you — must endure the obligatory wee-wee-in-the-face scene). Thank god for the requisite precocious six-year-old (Makenzie Vega), who alone sees that her dad has been kidnapped and replaced by a space alien (she is actually pretty cute), not to mention Cash (here standing in for Whoopi Goldberg), the magnanimous black helpmeet come to earth to help the white folks sort out their issues.
Just when did Gus Van Sant get religion? The once adventurous director (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) has been meting out increasingly uninteresting pap for years, culminating three years ago with Good Will Hunting. Now comes another well-intentioned, unimaginative film about saving a brilliant underachiever, buoyed somewhat by an earnest performance by newbie Robert Brown and Busta Rhymes’ charismatic turn as his older brother. Sixteen-year-old Jamal (Brown) is a gifted high school basketballer and aspiring writer. He happens on a neighborhood recluse, Forrester (Sean Connery), who once wrote the Great American Novel, won the Pulitzer Prize, then disappeared from public view. When dazzling test scores reveal Jamal’s secret genius, a private school looking to win a basketball trophy recruits him, whereupon he convinces Forrester to tutor him in writing. Jamal’s essays improve so markedly that they arouse suspicion in an English teacher played by F. Murray Abraham, still railing Salieri-like against his own mediocrity. The film avoids risky complexity by relying on cliches: Jamal’s most vocal adversary at school is the only other black student, his potential romantic interest is a board member’s daughter (Anna Paquin) and his homeboy best friend conveniently exits the movie early on, then shows up again to confirm that Jamal has kept it real.
Opens Monday at Ritz Bourse
Giuseppe Tornatore’s coming-of-age tale starts out familiarly enough: Young Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro) is hit both by puberty and by an obsession with local beauty Malèna (Monica Bellucci), while his small Sicilian town struggles under the weight of the German occupation. While his friends trade coarse suggestions of what they’d do with the sultry beauty, whose husband is off fighting the war, Renato convinces himself that he’s the only one who truly understands her, and gets himself into more than a few scrapes defending her honor. But the film takes an unexpected turn when Malèna begins to emerge as a full-fledged character and not just an object of desire. Forced to fend for herself after her husband’s death, she makes a series of desperate choices which lead to her ostracism and a horrific public beating, while Renato can only watch in silence as his fantasy life is replace by far more pressing concerns. At times, Tornatore invokes too much of his patented Cinema Paradiso-style romanticism, and the lush vigor with which he photographs Bellucci is, frankly, a little creepy at times. But Malèna genuinely captures the confusion of youth, and the point in life where illusions give way to pragmatism.
State and Main
Opens Friday at Ritz Bourse
After making his name with shouty, obscenity-laden dramas, David Mamet has apparently lightened up. Following the tossed-off Hitchcock pastiche of The Spanish Prisoner and the G-rated The Winslow Boy, Mamet returns to the world of corruption and lies with State and Main, but this time, the process of mutual backstabbing and habitual dishonesty is played for laughs. Set in a small New England town which is invaded by a big-budget film crew, Mamet’s satire aims at a target too busy sunning itself to move out of the way, but the film’s arrows mostly glance off Hollywood’s rhinoceros hide. But State and Main isn’t looking to strike a killing blow; rather than nibble at the hand that feeds him, Mamet’s really striking out at human foibles of all kinds. From the leading man (Alec Baldwin) with a taste for underage lovers, to the subservient writer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wants to make art but almost not as much as he wants screen credit to the local bureaucrat (Clark Gregg) who’s looking to milk as much money from the film crew as possible, State and Main’s characters are all out for number one, a situation Mamet milks with the skill of a great farceur. There’s something slightly suspicious about the way the film satirizes but still exploits the tidy clichés of mainstream entertainment — the people you want to end up together still end up together, even if you’re not sure how satisfied you are by that fact. But the film clicks along like a well-oiled machine, and you’re swept up in its suspiciously enjoyable tide.