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Sea of love: Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

By Laura Leon

Finding Nemo
Directed by Andrew Stanton

It’s an age-old story. Domi- neering, overprotective parent butts heads with rebellious offspring. But in the case of the latest Pixar-Disney collaboration, Finding Nemo, the dad is a clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks), and his asymmetrically finned son is Nemo (Alexander Gould). (Writer-director Andrew Stanton deftly explains Marlin’s control issues in the movie’s preface, which harkens back to Bambi.) That comparison aside, however, Finding Nemo is resoundingly fresh in terms of story, characters and, yes, animation.

Film after film of Brooks’ trademark neuroses can get old, but as the voice of a fish, he’s magic. Marlin’s heartfelt if overwrought concern for his only child is what drives this nervous Nelly on through an ocean full of dangers in his quest to find Nemo after he’s been netted by a deep-sea-diving dentist, who has subsequently dropped the little tyke off in his office aquarium. Marlin and his unlikely sidekick, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a bright blue fish with short-term-memory issues, confront sunken subs in underwater minefields, clouds of zapping jellyfish, and, perhaps scariest of all, three deadly sharks who are trying hard to live by the mantra “fish are friends, not food.” Meanwhile, Nemo makes friends with aquariummates like the starfish Peach (Allison Janney) and the scarred angelfish Gil (Willem Defoe), who try mightily to figure out a way to save Nemo from being gifted to the dentist’s niece Darla, a girl who makes Toy Story’s Syd seem positively docile. Of course, through all the spellbinding adventures and danger, Marlin begins to realize why he must let Nemo spread his, er, wings, whereas Nemo comes to understand the magnitude of his father’s love and loss.

Whereas Monsters, Inc., was all candy, from its vulgar colors to its unsatisfying content, Finding Nemo is rich both visually and imaginatively. The Pixar people have made the screen ripple and shimmer and pulse with all things aquatic; you actually feel wet from a swim. Ah, I thought (and I’m a confirmed claustrophobic), this is why people go deep-sea diving!

Aside from the Bambi moment, which had both parents and kids in my audience wiping away a tear or two, the movie is immensely funny, with a joy and a freedom that are positively buoyant. And while you can assume there will be a father-and-son reunion, even the most jaded and experienced viewer has no idea how this can be accomplished, and the way that it happens is brilliantly conceived.

The characters may share the chubby cheeks and bulging eyes that have become Pixar trademarks, but they, too, are not what we’ve seen before. DeGeneres, in particular, is brilliant in her voicing of Dory; this is no John Goodman, gruff but sweet sidekick, but a complex, delightfully ditzy original. When Dory, with that short-term-memory problem, meets Nemo for the first time, the result is gut-busting. Stanton blends the moral points into the mix in such a subtle way that it’s not until long after you’ve seen the movie that you realize just how beautiful a fish story this is.

An Almost-Perfect Crime

The Italian Job
Directed by F. Gary Gray

The Italian Job, a snazzy remake of the 1969 British crime drama, is loaded with enough verve, wit, and clever twists to make the opening heist alone worth the price of admission. The titular “job” occurs in Venice under the supervision of a wily old safecracker, John Bridger (old smoothie Donald Sutherland). John and his protégé, Charlie (Mark Wahlberg), who devised the heist, are like father and son, and they regard their crew—Seth Green’s genius hacker, Mos Def’s nerdy demolitions expert, Jason Statham’s former race-car driver, and Edward Norton’s high-end house burglar—as extended family. In not-quite-perfect synchronicity, the crew pulls off an elaborate robbery of an old palace on the Grand Canal. The canals and lagoons of Venice are picturesquely utilized, and along the way to a perfect escape through the Swiss Alps, the film packs in just about everything a heist caper could want, from precision explosions to a terrific motorboat escapade that leaves a raft of gondoliers reeling in its wake. But as surely as greed follows gold bullion, camaraderie turns to betrayal, and betrayal leads to a blood feud within the crew.

Director F. Gary Gray has improved measurably since A Man Apart, the recent Vin Diesel stinker, and while he still takes too many shortcuts on his way to going over the top with spectacular action sequences, the stunt choreography has undeniable pizzazz. John’s daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), teams up with Charlie to recoup the gold loot and exact revenge. Glamazon Stella (whose role is rather well-written into the action) has inherited her father’s fingertip dexterity, and earns her living as a “vault technician.” She also drives her Mini Cooper like a torpedo, and the snubby little cars provide some fresh vehicular mayhem, especially when bumping down staircases or plowing onto sidewalks. (In this good-natured actioner, pedestrians always know just when to jump out of the way.) The maneuverable minis prove to be an inspired choice of product placement during the film’s big set piece, a three-way chase within a hellacious case of freeway gridlock, created by the hacker.

The cast have such a good time playing their rakish clichés, it’s easy to overlook how badly miscast they are: Statham, who smoldered like a lit stick of TNT in The Transporter, is downgraded here to a womanizing jock. The exception to the fun is Wahlberg, who washes out as congenial Charlie, the unflappable mastermind. Surprisingly good as a brooding malcontent (The Corruptor, The Yards), Wahlberg now seems determined to make a name for himself as a Cary Grant-style charmer. But after flopping badly in The Truth About Charlie, last year’s remake of Charade, Wahlberg should know to steer clear of caper remakes. Or at the very least, of characters named Charlie.

—Ann Morrow

Redneck Cannibal Holiday

Wrong Turn
Directed by Rob Schmidt

What could be worse than being stalked by cannibalistic rednecks in the backwoods of West Virginia? Being stalked by ugly rednecks whose hygiene is as awful as their inbred mutated genes. This thriller, with special makeup effects courtesy of Stan Winston’s studios, is something of a cross between Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And while it lacks the character-driven suspense of the former and the relentless frisson of the later, it does create a few passable chills. Most of these are in the early stages before we come face to apparent face with the enemy, whose sloppy cabinkeeping (dirty dishes, refrigerators full of body parts, and general patina of scum, rust and blood) is more off-putting than Winston’s makeup.

At least it creates a sense of woodland menace that blows the Blair Witch out of its backyard woodlot, and looking at the pert noses of protagonists Eliza Dushku and Desmond Harrington is more satisfying than having to stare up the unsightly nostrils of Blair Witch’s sorry excuse for a hero. Dusku and Harrington are the most resilient of a group of six young adults who take a wrong turn on a back road that lies in the province of a gruesome trio who harvest their daily meals by waylaying wayfarers with barbed wire traps. They are also handy with axes and arrows, which periodically intrude into foreground shots with disquieting immediacy.

There is a modicum of tension as long as the claustrophobia of the forest or the antagonists’ cabin is exploited, with matters being especially creepy when the protagonists are forced to hide in the cabin during a butchering session. However, the script takes a wrong turn when the quarry stupidly hide in a watchtower and then make like flying squirrels. A subsequent battle high in the branches of fir trees is unrealistically staged, and the film never quite recovers its sense of menace thereafter.

As has become too often the case in this genre, the visuals that accompany the introductory credits are the most effectively disturbing images in the film. Their potency has a latent power and hints at a horror that is never fully realized.

—Ralph Hammann

Love on the Lower East Side

Raising Victor Vargas
Directed by Peter Sollett

This portrait of a struggling-but-wacky Lower East Side Latino family starts out trying too hard to be ghetto. Then, it tries too hard to be heartwarming. It is something of a wonder, then, that it ends up in the right place.

Teenager Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) has been onscreen for 10 minutes and we already know everything about him. He’s a more or less innocent and horny teen trying to be a player. It’s not a very convincing act he’s putting on, either; he’s more fool than Lothario. He’s also on the verge of being a real bastard with a girl unfortunately nicknamed “Fat Donna” (Donna Maldonado)—the film itself is on dangerous ground, here, too—when fate intervenes, sparing the girl from “Victor love” and the film from tumbling into bad taste.

Victor moves on with youthful aplomb from this disaster, immediately hitting on Judy (Judy Marte), the most attractive, least approachable girl in the neighborhood. She swats him away like a fly. Later, she accepts his attention as a means to keep other boys—who can be crude and insistent—away. Explaining the arrangement to her friend Melonie (Melonie Diaz), Judy calls Victor “bug spray.”

These first scenes are peppered with plenty of tough street language and repetitive cursing. Then, as the film spends more time with Victor’s family, including his sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez), look-alike younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and nutty grandma (Altagracia Guzman), the hardshell exterior cracks to reveal an altogether too-gooey center. There are misunderstandings about telephones and church attendance and masturbation. Nino plays Bach (badly) on an out-of-tune piano to his grandma’s delight.

It’s a surprise, then, that the three teen romances—Judy and Victor, Melonie and Victor’s friend, and Vicki and Judy’s brother—develop so convincingly. Director-writer Peter Sollett works well with his young cast, though it’s a bit disingenuous the way he names all the characters after the actors; it’s like he wants us to believe that they’re amateurs. They’re not: Most have years of training in New York’s Professional Performing Arts High School, and some have off-Broadway experience. Sollett also has a knack for capturing teen emotions, and writing dialogue that expresses those feelings. He should forget about trying to make slice-of-life family dramas; he could become the next John Hughes.

—Shawn Stone

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