on blonde: Zellweger and Pfeiffer in White Oleander.
About My Mothers
By Laura Leon
Directed by Peter Kosminsky
For decades now, there’s been a dearth of women’s pictures—you
know, stories rooted in the concerns and problems of women.
Let’s face it, Working Girl was really a guy’s wet
dream about the girl next door. Women’s pictures were big
in the ’30s and to a much lesser extent until the end of the
studio era. Nowadays, film critics like Leonard Maltin refer
to titles like Baby Face and Paid In Full as
“B” or “three-hanky” movies. Indeed, it’s the rare writer
who does not feel the need to excuse his admiration for the
genre, or define it as some sort of guilty pleasure, like
watching soaps or going to McDonalds.
Oleander wants really hard to be a women’ picture—and
the fact that the book on which it is based was an Oprah selection
nearly guarantees that it can be. But director Peter Kosminsky
also wants his movie to be respected as art, and the resulting
tension screws up whatever chances this already-pretentious
flick has. Ingrid Magnusson (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a beautiful
egotist who believes that the mere fact of her being an artist
should buy her a get-out-of-jail-free card when she offs her
errant lover. Ensconced in a maximum security prison, she
attempts to control all aspects of her daughter Astrid’s (Alison
Lohman) life, thus ensuring that her sensitive teen is screwed
from the git-go. In all seriousness, she intones (here Pfeiffer
affects a basso voice) things like “Our beauty is our strength,”
which I think might be the slogan for some kind of feminine
hygiene product, and “We are Vikings,” albeit Vikings without
the freedom to rape and pillage. Poor Astrid goes from foster
home to foster home, meeting a casebook litany of women who
no doubt will be appearing in the next Oprah book selection,
Reasons Not to Adopt.
Glibness aside, the movie resonates only through the virtuoso
performance of Lohman. Watching her sensitivity slide into
a hardened shell is breathtaking without evoking that arty
feeling of watching great acting. Lohman is particularly moving
in a scene in which Ingrid, like a cat with a mouse, devastates
the unwitting Claire (Rene Zellweger), an actress-foster mom
who “practices feng shui.” Astrid tries with her eyes to warn
Claire, and to beg a reprieve from Ingrid, all to no avail.
We see her desperate hope for some sort of normalcy, which
she has with Claire, being torn from her by a mother who refuses
to admit that Astrid might be any different than herself.
Pfeiffer is very good in an atypical role, and the fact that
her prison clothes look impossibly white doesn’t detract much
from her performance. Throughout White Oleander, brilliantly
colored shots, imbued in soft whites and vivid blues, intersperse
the action, so much so that the movie usually looks more like
a laundry commercial or outtakes from Blue Crush. Still,
it gives Pfeiffer, Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn, as a stripper-turned-Bible-thumper,
a chance to method act, and it gives audiences a tremendous
opportunity to eyeball Lohman, truly a star in the making.
Directed by Steven Shainberg
A young woman walks into frame wearing a professional business
suit and a bondage harness. With what seems like practiced
efficiency, she pulls a letter out of a typewriter (with her
teeth), pulls a file out of a drawer, prepares a cup of coffee,
and disappears down a dimly lit, lushly carpeted hallway with
a sexy smirk.
Flashback to six months earlier: The same woman, Lee Holloway
(Maggie Gyllenhaal), has just returned home from a stint in
a mental institution. She runs up to her room and breathlessly
digs her hands under the mattress, looking for something.
She pulls out a sewing box decorated with butterflies and
other cute girly-girl-style decorative stickers, and sighs
with a palpable sense of relief. One might think it contains
her Hello Kitty jewelry collection. Instead, the box proves
to be full of razors, artists’ knives, and other surgical-sharp
implements; her joy at the sight of these objects is chilling.
You might not think this strange series of events would be
the beginning of a charming—if bent—romantic comedy, but it
assuredly is. Lee is an emotional and psychological wreck
who finds love and happiness through S & M.
Her journey to mental health begins when she answers a want
ad for a secretarial position at a law firm. Lawyer E. Edward
Grey (James Spader) is an eccentric. Aside from the fact that
his office looks like a movie set, with weirdly dramatic lighting
and coolly outrageous décor, his prescribed office policies
are anachronistic to the point of lunacy: typed documents
and paper files only, with no computers and no fax machines.
As Lee is a superb typist, she raises his interest. When,
after asking a series of very inappropriate personal questions—which
Lee answers without visible emotion—the obviously beguiled
lawyer hires her.
What ensues is a very peculiar courtship. He notices her wounds—
physical and emotional—and she conforms to his strict, seemingly
nonsensical requests. Every action, from typing to filing,
becomes sexually charged. Gyllenhaal’s Lee is like a lovesick
teenager learning to flirt, with her emotions always on edge.
It’s an emotionally engaged performance. Spader’s lawyer is
the exact opposite: closed-up and mysterious. He builds the
character from the outside; his Mr. Grey is a series of perfectly
orchestrated comic expressions and movements. The tension
between the two approaches plays out beautifully on screen.
Mr. Grey is not the only man with romantic intentions toward
Lee. Peter (Jeremy Davies, showing heretofore unexploited
comedic flair), an old high school classmate, immediately
begins wooing Lee: They “meet cute” at Lee’s sister’s wedding,
and bond when comparing notes on their respective mental health
issues. Whenever there is a glitch in her cryptic romance
with the lawyer, Peter is around, like a stray dog.
Will the lawyer open up to his secretary? Will the secretary
find ultimate satisfaction through spanking? Secretary
cleverly twists the standard plot reversals and complications
of conventional romantic comedy to its own uses. If the ending
is testament to the redemptive power of love, it’s a cinematic
redemption like no other before.
Directed by Jay Russell
Disney Studios are a lot of things—crass perhaps, in the way
they often value marketing opportunities over cinematic excellence,
and then again, cutting edge in their continued exploration
of animation as a method of telling stories. The potential
list of pros and cons could go on and on, and would largely
depend on how enamored you may be of the Mouse House. But
watching Tuck Everlasting, I found a new appreciation
for Disney, because only this studio would have the nerve
to heavily promote this gentle, family tale that raises intriguing
questions about youth and the possibility of eternal life.
Granted, Disney’s got in its corner two terribly appealing
stars, Alex Bledel and Jonathan Jackson, both transplants
from popular TV soaps, both guaranteed to resonate with young
girls. But think about other first-rate family films—say,
A Little Princess and The Iron Giant—whose producers
didn’t have the guts to give them their just promotion, and
you’ll see what I mean about Disney’s take with Tuck.
Based on the 1975 book by Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting
centers around the coming of age of Winnie Foster (Bledel),
whose age has moved from the literary 10 to a cinematic, and
more appropriate for romance, 17. Stifled by her Edwardian
parents’ view of what’s appropriate for young women, she runs
off into the woods adjoining her house, where, lost, she comes
upon Jesse (Jackson), his parents Angus (William Hurt) and
Mae (Sissy Spacek) and melancholy brother Miles (Scott Bairstow).
The Tucks, it seems, accidentally stumbled upon the fountain
of youth—more like a spring at the base of an oak tree—and
since drinking from it nearly 100 years ago, they (and their
horse) have not aged, nor have they been rendered injured
or dead from any variety of accident or war. With Winnie’s
parents and a large search party combing the woods for her,
the Tucks’ idyllic life is in danger of being destroyed. Even
more menacing is the presence of The Man in the Yellow Suit
(Ben Kingsley), whose dogged tracking of Miles and Jesse spells
a far more ominous danger.
Screenwriters Jeffrey Leister and James V. Hart combine elements
of fairy-tale wonder with timeless themes of childhood’s end
and nascent maturity, of life and death. There’s a bit of
Hawthorne here, especially the multifaceted representation
of nature and the idea of perfection. Angus’ discussions with
Winnie about the downside of eternal life could have veered
into new-age blather, but thanks largely to Hurt’s humble
reading, is instead honest and heartbreaking. Clearly, Tuck
Everlasting is more suited to a thinking child rather
than one whose biggest middle-of-the-night mental knot to
untie is whether, if given the choice, to watch Hey Arnold!
or Rocket Power. Littler ones may find the sweet romance
between Winnie and Jesse icky. But the ideas of life’s value,
and of the dangers of a life not lived, will no doubt stick
in the minds of anybody watching Tuck Everlasting.
Like My Dog Skip (also directed by Jay Russell), the
movie occupies that special niche—one with too few quality
entries—of coming-of-age flicks that aren’t afraid to make
the audience think and feel.
Way You Move
Directed by Corey Yuen
Vin Diesel may be this year’s model of action hero, but snub-nosed
Jason Statham is so technically advanced in ass-kicking modes
that it’s like comparing the first Terminator to the
third: He makes all previous versions obsolete. The astoundingly
sinewy former Olympic diver transports The Transporter
to a higher plane of Hong Kong-style actionfest. Statham plays
Frank Martin, a retired Special Forces operative living quietly
on the Cote d’Azur. Quiet like a coiled cobra, that is. He’s
got a tidy little sideline going as a transporter of contraband:
drugs, stolen goods, kidnapping victims, what have you. Meticulous
and disciplined, Frank has three cardinal rules of the trade,
and rule No. 3 is you don’t look in the package. When he breaks
that rule, unzipping a duffel bag containing a beautiful young
Chinese girl (spunky Qi Shu), guess what happens? All hell
breaks loose, and the bad guys—all of them seemingly trained
at the Crouching Tiger martial-arts academy—keep on
Until the ending, which deflates like a puff adder, the plot
is less predictable than you might think, even though the
script is by Luc Besson and bears all of his hallmarks, including
a lasciviously paternalistic attitude toward the lone female
character. Frank’s granite sea-cliff abode is so chic, you
just know it’s going to end up a pile of rubble. Even so,
Frank’s unwilling involvement in a messy smuggling ring is
tweaked with unexpected flourishes, like his relationship
with the local police lieutenant (Francois Berleand). Although
the lieutenant is quite sure Frank isn’t quite retired, there
isn’t any animosity between them, just a wary mutual respect.
The script is minimal in the chop-socky tradition, but would’ve
been more effective if there had been more to go on both Frank
and the lieutenant.
Not that many viewers are going to notice the plot: Directed
by Hong Kong veteran Corey Yuen, the fight sequences and car-chase
sequences and blowing-shit-up sequences unfold like high-speed
performance art, given an edge of reality by Statham’s precision
motion. The spectacular set pieces—one is set in a chateau
stocked with axes—go so far over the top that they’re jokey,
but Yuen gets the joke, underscoring the physical implausibility
of his choreography with amelodic techno and rap. If John
Woo is the ballet master of mayhem, than Yuen is the Twyla
by Rick Famuyiwa
This self-described “hiphop rom-ance” is in fact an old-style
movie love story dressed up in Armani and Phat Farm. Not that
there’s anything wrong with that.
Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) and Dre (Taye Diggs) have been in love
with hiphop as long as they’ve been in love with each other.
The difference is that they celebrate the former, and sublimate
the latter. So, instead of getting together, Dre, the sharp-dressed
music executive, becomes engaged to the brainy-but-shallow
lawyer Reese (Nicole Ari Parker), and Sidney, the writer,
falls for the smooth moves of Kelby, a pro athlete (Boris
Kodjoe). Naturally, both Sid and Dre have sidekicks—Queen
Latifah and Mos Def, respectively—who hang around ridiculing
their mutual romantic stupidity.
Lathan is rapidly establishing herself as a good-girl, sweetheart
type; she wins the audience over long before she gets the
leading man. As in Love and Basketball, Lathan plays
a woman who is tough but vulnerable: Her ripped physique is
in direct contrast to her repressed feelings. As Sidney, Lathan
never cries, but she can radiate deep emotional hurt and confusion.
As Dre, Diggs again proves himself a suave leading man with
a gift for comedy. As a couple, they are convincing and appealing:
He’s got just enough sensitivity to break through her wariness,
and she’s sufficiently self-assured to meet his easy charm.
Unfortunately, too much of the hiphop subplot underwhelms.
Like Almost Famous, this film looks at the music biz
through rose-colored glasses. (It also exaggerates the splendor
in which a music journalist would live: Sidney’s apartment
would be perfectly affordable for the entire cast of the old
Fox sitcom Living Single.) When the filmmakers try
to bring in the issue of “selling out,” it’s singularly unconvincing:
The sleazy record label Dre works for is too cheesy.
No one, however craven, would try to sell that label’s lame
rappers to the public—not even to clueless white kids. (And,
let’s face it, white kids aren’t that clueless anymore.) On
the other hand, the love that Dre and Sidney share for the
music is as real as their feelings for each other. When they
quote lines and beats from the early “golden age”—Boogie Down
Productions, Public Enemy, Slick Rick—it rings true.
Which brings up an interesting point. Black middle-class romance
has already staked its claim to a mass movie audience; Brown
Sugar isn’t unusual in this respect. But a film in which
hiphop is something to be loved, not treated as a social problem,
or exploited as a vehicle for slick screen violence—now that