Friday, December 17, 2004

Movies opening this week

The Aviator (Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, dir. Martin Scorsese)
I remain kind of indifferent to Scorsese despite his legendary status, although admittedly I haven't seen many of his accepted masterpieces (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, GoodFellas). I found Gangs of New York deathly boring, and this one looked like another bloated, Oscar-baiting biopic in a season full of them. So imagine my surprise that not only was this an effective representative of its genre, but an absolutely wonderful film as well. The biopic has plenty of inherent limitations, and some are on display here, but this is certainly about as good as you can get within what is generally a pretty staid genre. Scorsese does a good job, but what it really comes down to is DiCaprio, and man does he deliver. This is easily the best performance by an actor this year, and it'll be a shame if Jamie Foxx gets the Oscar over DiCaprio. Not that Foxx did a bad job in Ray, which was certainly an inferior movie overall; but while Foxx meticulously re-created Ray Charles down to every last vocal inflection and bit of body language, he didn't create the living, breathing person that DiCaprio manages here. I can't say whether he got Howard Hughes's every tic correct, since I haven't seen as much footage of Hughes as I have of Ray Charles. But he certainly made me believe in the person he portrayed, made me care about him and invest in him for nearly three hours.

Blanchett is also wonderful as Katherine Hepburn, doing more of the Foxx-style re-creation but still getting at the core of who the person is. Scorsese wisely narrows his scope to 20 years of Hughes's life; the best biopics usually choose a certain arc to the person's life, creating a narrative rather than feeling obligated to include every little moment. Even if you don't see Hughes's later years as a recluse, you get a full and rich picture of who the man was and would become. One of the great things about this film, too, is that it's so damn entertaining, which was a real surprise to me, and not something you necessarily expect of a film of this type. It's funny, and exciting, and that makes it all the more powerful when tragedy strikes. A film like this is usually a chore to watch, even if it's rewarding, but The Aviator is good popcorn entertainment just as it is a striking piece of film art, and that's quite an achievement. Opens limited this week; wide release next week

Flight of the Phoenix (Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi, Miranda Otto, dir. John Moore)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was pleasantly surprised watching Robert Aldrich's original last week, but the remake only shows the strengths of Aldrich's film. It's got no reason for existing on its own; it follows the plot nearly to the letter, adding nothing worthwhile. The very definition of a pointless remake, and evidence of the lack of ideas in many corners of the film industry. Wide release

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, dir. Brad Silberling)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I went back and forth between giving this a mild recommendation and a mild non-recommendation and ended up going with the latter, but really it's harmless stuff, and better than most kids' movies out there. It's Tim Burton-lite, essentially, with Carrey chewing scenery and a patina of darkness over the same old feel-good story. But most adults will find something to be entertained by if they are stuck dragging their kids to it, and that's good enough, I suppose. Wide release

Spanglish (Adam Sandler, Paz Vega, Tea Leoni, dir. James L. Brooks)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I cannot emphasize enough how much I hated this movie. I was literally seething with rage coming out of the screening. It's even worse to see mainstream critics like Ebert & Roeper praising it, totally fooled by the fake feel-good sentiment and disingenuous liberal-guilt bullshit. As a colleague pointed out to me, most critics are financially secure liberal white males, so maybe that's why they're lulled into reassurance by Brooks's odious and insulting stabs at political correctness. The only mainstream critic who really got close to the heart of what bothered me was A.O. Scott in the New York Times, who sort of glances off of the smug condescension bubbling under the surface of the film before blithely dismissing it. I think this is the kind of movie that will pass off as innocuous because people have gotten used to this sort of cultural paternalism in Hollywood films and they won't recognize it for what it is. That may be an endemic problem, and thus unfair to single this film out for, but nowhere is it better highlighted than in a movie that pretends to be open-minded and inclusive when in reality practicing the worst kind of arrogant racism. Wide release

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