be a lady: Bello in The Cooler.
Joker Is Wild
By Ann Morrow
by Wayne Kramer
Released in 2003 and going unnoticed amid the year’s major-studio
epics and prestige indie flicks, The Cooler is an unpredictable
doozy from an unknown filmmaker (Wayne Kramer) that has it
all: great acting, sharp dialogue, flashy setting, and intriguing
characters. And it’s wickedly funny, too.
Back in the day in Las Vegas, when the strip was still sleazy,
the cleavage wasn’t silicone and crooners were called lounge
singers, a “cooler” was a human albatross, a person so unlucky
it’s catching. William H. Macy, the quintessential loser (Fargo,
Magnolia) is, not surprisingly, cast to perfection
as Bernie, the greatest cooler of them all. Bernie’s bad vibes
follow him everywhere, from the blackjack table to his dingy
hotel room, where the plants all die. Bernie is paid to put
the freeze on winning streaks (with the actor’s inimitably
resigned funk) just by wandering among the tables. What is
surprising in this astutely sizzling little film, however,
is how appealing and versatile Macy can be.
Bernie’s only friend is his boss, Shelly (Alec Baldwin), a
kingpin who is both the brains and brawn of the “old-school”
Shangri-La casino. Shelly has a ferocious temper, and he’s
put in a really bad mood when the casino’s mobster investor
shows up with a hotshot MBA (Ron Livingston) to modernize
the joint. Shelly tells his overlord straight up that he doesn’t
want the Shangri-La tricked out into some “Disneyland mookfest
for the suburban stroller set,” but hey, $35 mill a year in
profits ain’t what it used to be, and so he’s stuck with a
partner. When Bernie gives him a week’s notice, it doesn’t
exactly make Shelly’s day.
And then lady luck shows up. Unbelievably enough, the leggy
cocktail waitress (Maria Bello) that Bernie has a crush on
falls in love with him (“Being put on a pedestal sure puts
the gutter in perspective,” she tells him). Presto chango,
Bernie is a charmed man. His newfound happiness turns him
into a force of good fortune that has the slot machines lining
up cherries and the cards flipping to 21 every time he walks
by. A sudden run on the house’s cash reserve, however, is
not a good thing for Shelly. And as they say, love doesn’t
last and luck always runs out.
But there’s something about Bernie that only Natalie notices:
He’s a helluva guy. He may be a schmuck, but he’s no wimp;
he doesn’t back down when Shelly tries to intimidate him.
There’s something about Macy, too. He’s disarmingly convincing
as a romantic lead. His love affair with Natalie, who has
been bruised but not hardened by her knock-around life, is
a sexy, gritty, realistic relationship, keenly observed by
the unobtrusive direction. The film’s tension stems from Bernie’s
servitude to Shelly, who rules his neon-lit fiefdom with a
velvet-gloved iron fist, and who once shattered Bernie’s kneecap
to cure him of compulsive gambling. Is Shelly just a conniving
user, or is loyalty one of his “old-school” virtues?
Shelly is the first role to truly utilize Baldwin’s silky
menace and corroded melancholy. The hidden reserves, vulnerable
underbellies, and checkered pasts of the characters somehow
mix as well with the slickly comic cinematography as gin and
tonic. And despite the neo-noir atmosphere, The Cooler
is retro in more than its art design: The film really believes
in the transformative power of love. Just like a hot streak
in old Vegas, The Cooler is grown-up entertainment
with a big payoff.
of Sand and Fog
Directed by Vadim Perelman
In classic Hegelian theory, bad things don’t necessarily happen
because a bad person sets out to destroy a good person. Rather,
unfortunate series of events are usually touched off as a
result of the competing interests of two well-intentioned
individuals. Or, something close to that—it’s been about 20
years since I took philosophy. At any rate, Hegel’s theories
are in full display in the gripping, yet hollow, House
of Sand and Fog.
Housecleaner, abandoned wife and recovering alcoholic Kathy
Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) wakes up one morning to find city
officials posting eviction notices on her house, which was
left to her by her adored father. Seems Kathy is accused of
nonpayment of a business tax that, in one of those bureaucratic
nightmares, she never actually owed. However, the wheels have
been set in motion, and she has to fight the clock to right
the situation: The auction is the next day.
Col. Behrani (Ben Kingsley), former assistant to the Shah
of Iran, and a new citizen of the United States, works on
a road crew and, in evenings, at a convenience store. Before
and after each shift, he cleans up in a hotel men’s room and
dons a suit and tie. His family is ensconced in a palatial
apartment house, but he dreams of returning them to a real
home, complete with a view of the sea, such as they had, back
in the good days, on the Caspian. He sees the notice for Kathy’s
house, and before we know it, he has purchased it for a mere
The rest of the movie centers primarily on the conflict involving
Kathy, broke and none too swift, getting her house back, and
the colonel, stubbornly refusing to give up that which he
believes he has rightfully bought. In both cases, it’s about
so much more than the mere property. For Kathy, the house
represents the only security she’s ever known. Her mother
and brother are on the East Coast and don’t seem to provide
her much of an emotional safety net. For the colonel, the
house represents a first step toward regaining his family’s
honor and stature.
In the meantime, others are drawn inextricably into this vortex.
A sheriff’s deputy, Lester (Ron Eldard), takes pity on Kathy
and agrees to help her. Eldard does a nice job of letting
us see into his character’s heart and mind: Here is a nice
guy who’s very bored, who craves action, and who ultimately
gets more than he bargains for. The colonel’s wife, Nadi,
is a beautifully drawn character, a gracious presence struggling
to find peace in this new land and haunted by fears of having
to return to her homeland. His son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout)
is a gentle spirit who tells the colonel that he feels sorry
for Kathy, and that they should have given her back the house.
Based on the book by Andre Dubus III, this is a potentially
compelling human drama of the highest sort. Unfortunately,
director Vadim Perelman feels the compulsion to focus not
so much on the humanity of each character, but on the outward
and inward forces pulling them down. Two hours plus is a long
time to watch people slip further and further into a complete
abyss, especially when there is no hope for redemption for
anybody. We know that things are going to end badly, whether
it’s when Kathy picks up her first cigarette in a long time,
or when Lester tells her to go ahead an have that drink, she’s
a big girl. Does this have to be so unremittingly despondent?
Somehow, I don’t remember the book this way, but Perelman
clearly has a different vision of the characters, or perhaps
America, so much so that all that’s left at the end is a sense
of utter desolation and loss, with the characters left standing
completely hollowed out, like emotional scarecrows.
by Timothy Björklund
Having never seen the television series on which it is based,
I didn’t know what to expect with Teacher’s Pet, but
it was cold, and the kids had the day off from school, so
it seemed like the right thing to do.
And, well, we were blown away.
Directed by Timothy Björklund, and written with great wit
by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, the movie is about a dog (Nathan
Lane) who desperately wants to be a boy. In fact, he dons
shorts, shirt and glasses and attends the same school as his
master, Leonard Helperman (Shaun Fleming)—at these times he
goes by the name of Scott Leadready II and, indeed, is the
star pupil in Mrs. Helperman’s class. That this cheerful lady
(Debra Jo Rupp) is oblivious to the fact that her fave student
is, in actuality, the family pet, is just one of many jokes
that, almost unbelievably, work. Art director Gary Baseman’s
characters all have a loopy, strangely hued appearance, topped
by heads that appear balloonic or, even like giant yams. To
suggest that Spot/Scott looks any more canine than, say, the
boys and girls of the class, is to have to really analyze
The movie is set in motion when Spot stows away on the Helperman
“Winnewago,” which is en route to Florida where Mom will compete
in a national teacher’s competition. Spot wants to go not
just to be with Leonard, but because he’s just heard about
one Dr. I. Ivan Krank (Kelsey Grammer) who claims to have
perfected the science of transforming animals into humans.
Of course, when Leonard and Spot get to Dr. Krank’s laboratory,
they discover some of his first experiments, namely Dennis
(Paul Reubens), a pop-eyed, denim-wearing croc, and Adele
(Megan Mullaley), a Pinocchio-nosed mosquito with a coif worthy
of Dana Delaney in China Beach. Says Spot about Dr.
Krank: “He looked shorter on TV. Maybe it’s the ax.”
Meanwhile, Spot’s fellow domesticated critters, a macho parakeet
named Pretty Boy (Jerry Stiller) and a wimpy cat named Mr.
Jolly (David Ogden Stiers) take off in pursuit of Spot when
they find out that Dr. Krank is a confirmed quack. The combined
adventures of Leonard, Spot, the other animals, and even Mrs.
Helperman is the stuff of madcap genius, somehow reminiscent
of the best screwball comedies and yet wholly new and disarming.
Did I mention the songs? Teacher’s Pet mocks the “I
feel a song coming on!” mentality of so many musicals even
as it delivers a handful of brilliant, achingly funny melodies
of its own. Dr. Krank’s theme alone is worth the price of
admission. This is a movie that has to be seen multiple times,
if only because it is packed with hysterical one-liners and
visual punchlines, all delivered at a breakneck speed. In
a tongue-in-cheek number in which Leonard bids adieu to Spot
whilst frolicking with woodland animals, a la Bambi, keep
an eye on the upper-left-hand corner of the screen, and you’ll
notice to your horror and delight that the smiling python
is picking off tree babies like it’s a Chinese buffet. Scenes
in which the pet sitter watches numerous soaps, in English
and Spanish, will have fans of the genre laughing at both
the dead-on accuracy of the pillow talk as well as guffawing
at recognition of the voices—Anthony Geary and Genie Ann Francis,
of Luke-and-Laura fame.
Will Pretty Boy and Mr. Jolly get to Spot in time? Can Leonard
convince Spot to be happy fetching sticks at the beach? Will
Mrs. Helperman realize that that eligible guy she’s got her
eye on is, in reality, her son’s best friend? And will she
win the competition? All these and much, much more can be
answered by watching this highly enjoyable creation.