December 19, 2004

Spanglish

Coming out of James L. Brooks's new film Spanglish, I can identify two key points of contention that could derail the film for a viewer: The implausibility of some of the plot turns, and Téa Leoni's character.
The plot conveniences were a blemish on a film that was at times spectacularly involving for me. But while I absolutely hated Leoni's character by the end of the film, it is an absolutely skilled creation. Her bundle of neurotic tendencies resolve themselves in a variety of different ways; she is always a ticking time bomb that resolves in outbursts and displays of extreme thoughtlessness and unintended (and occasionally intended) cruelty. If she were all this film had to offer, it would be a despicable film. (and have far more Oscar buzz as a result)
But she is only one piece is a spectacularly complex pie. The interaction between Leoni, husband, children, mother, maid, and maid's daughter is endlessly involving; each character is distinct in their emotions and motivations. And the effect that each personality has on the others spreads is ways large and small, profound and tragic. Standing out from the rest are two relationships that parallel and stir even as they interact.
Leoni's character, Deb, is married to Adam Sandler's character John. Deb and John's relationship is not one of those two; it never approaches that territory until the end. But Deb and John have an funny, charming, sensitive, and overweight daughter named Bernice. Even as Bernice is devastated by Deb's actions which alternate between active cruelty and neglect, she shares with her father one of the purest on-screen relationships between a parent and their child in years. As Deb dotes on the maid's beautiful young daughter Christina in her endless search for validation, Bernice watches from the sidelines at all of the things her mother should have been doing for her. When Christina cultivates friends at school, again Bernice is the outcast. This is a C-plot in terms of focus, but it is ever present throughout the proceedings, and it is (with one notable exception) the focus of Sandler's character. When the rest of the world shuns this poor girl, John lets her seek comfort in his familiar hugs. When the rest of the world tells her that she needs to be corrected, John tells her that she's spectacular and just how much he loves her. With fitness freak Deb clearly not an appealing contrast, this film is powerful in its counter-movement to American society's focus on conformity at any cost. At one point, John notes that "between odd and the same, you gotta be rooting for odd, don't you?" when the maid reveals her two fears about her daughter attending a private school.
Christina, the object of Deb's misplaced affections, is an innocent along for the rider; her older wiser self narrates the film in terms of a college admissions essay. Her relationship with her mother is equally unique. The maid, Flor, gives up everything for her daughter, including a somewhat dicey trip across the border. Deb represents the temptation of the excesses of modern upper-middle-class white America. Flor represents the purity and honesty of her roots both in her mother's love and her mother's culture. The interplay between these two often opposing forces is a source of fascination, one that Shelbie Bruce handles perfectly. There is a scene late in the film which gives the indication that Deborah's philosophy has completely only one brief change in expression belies the actual truth.
Through out this all, hovering around this whole mess is Deb's mother Evelyn. Evelyn, who was once a jazz singer of some renown, is played by Cloris Leachman and hovers over and around the action with a wonderfully sardonic sense of humour. In her character we gain an indication of where some of Deb's issues came from, but we also gain an understanding of how much further Evelyn has come sense. Now she balances her time between hiding her alcoholic tendencies and prodding her daughter in the right general direction and shielding the rest of the group from the aftermath. I have seen Cloris Leachman play kindly and I have seen Cloris Leachman play sarcastically un-PC and cruel. In Spanglish, she strikes a somewhat realistic balance of the two.
I'm still not entirely sold on an woman as beautiful as Paz Vega experiencing what her character does. The means of her moving herself and her daughter in with the family can only partially be explained away by Deb's manic behaviour and decision-making. The hand of the screenwriter can be felt guiding the action a little more than it should.
But in the end, this was a fantastic range of characters, and as they gained and grew and hurt and hugged I felt for them and felt with them. I feel guilty giving this that extra-half star, but when this movie's at its peak there are moments that simply can't be found in National Treasure. Leoni inhabited that wretched soul. Sandler made fatherhood admirable again. Cloris Leachman went up a notch in my book. And Paz Vega and Shelbie Bruce reminded me that not all struggles to preserve cultural identity can be outside of my ability to relate. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

December 10, 2004

Blade: Trinity

I went into Blade: Trinity expecting the worst. What I got was at least mildly better than my expectations. The reviews were horrendous and Goyer had none of the experience that either of the prior directors brought to the game. It shows; this third entry lacks the plotting of the original and the stylized universe of Blade II. Still, much like the last few levels of "Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast" there's much fun to be had in watching the bad guys get chewed up and spit out by a hero with whom we already share two movie's worth of familiarity.
The primary difference from the other two stands out damn near immediately, however. After a trip inside an Iraqi tomb, we are presented with a traditional opening Blade action scene. The trouble begins when he stakes a human by mistake; the human world encroaches immediately. Suddenly Blade's running from police cars and his face is all over the news. This time around, the FBI is nearly as much of a nemesis as the vampires.
Other changes come in the form of Hannibal King and Abigail Whistler. The latter has at least as much comics history as Blade does, and is played by Van Wilder himself, Ryan Reynolds. His humour falls flat through the first half of the film and provides one of my chief complaints with the movie. From King's first interaction with Parker Posey's character, however, I was consistently entertained. Abigail is your typical action heroine, but at least Goyer didn't try to force a romantic connection with any of the male leads. Her character is primarily notable for looking extremely hot in a belly shirt. Damn.
A lot of conceptions are introduced and disposed of with flourish, each fluctuating between varying degrees of absurdity, with the UV laser thingy being the most absurd of all. Or the iPod. What the fuck is an iPod doing in an action movie, anyway? I know a lot of the troops over seas like to pump music into their tanks as they head into battle. But you'd think that when you're partaking in hand-to-hand combat, being able to hear what's coming at you would be important. Sheesh.
The film's primary villain is supposedly Dracula, or "Drake" in the Blade film. Because, you know, even the greatest horror villain in history needs to keep up with the times. He's played by Dominic Purcell, so great as "John Doe" and misused ever since. The movie's more fascinated by Posey's character, whose name I still can't recall, and he only gets a couple scenes and an action sequence before the final confrontation.
The final confrontation itself was the most disappointing thing about the film; had it really chosen to go out with a bang, this movie could have worked itself up to four star territory. I won't reveal what happens, so as to maintain what little suspense and tension there is. I will only say that it seems more geared towards opening the door for spin-offs that resolving Blade's story. Sure, he gets his big action scene. But the final narration is hardly the kind of wrap-up this character deserves. I still had an overall good time, but more in the fashion of a Scifi Channel Original TV movie than the theatrical experience the previous two provided. A solidly made but bland and relatively uninvolving entry to the series. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

December 05, 2004

National Treasure

Despite being at times preposterous and logically quite flawed, it's the first film since Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade to earn the right to be compared to an Indiana Jones movie. It had the action set pieces (here even more outrageous and implausible) but more importantly it has the an impressive knowledge of history - or at least gives the impression of having an impressive knowledge of history - that the Tomb Raiders and their like sorely lack.
While many of the facts were probably fabricated for the purposes of the story, many weren't and that drew me in. More importantly, however, the facts were treated as the meat of the story rather than the exposition between explosions.
Here is a movie that is more concerned with its ideals and its motivations than taking the audience on the latest thrill ride. It's easily identifiable as a Bruckheimer production: you have the heroic male lead, the female sidekick/love interest, the intellectual villain, and the geeky comic relief. The difference is in the details; the heroic male is more historian than action hero, the attraction to the love interest is first and foremost a shared passion for history, the villain and the hero share a respect for each other as obvious as the conflict that divides them, and the comic relief is as able as he is oblivious.
The conspiracy theories are chained one after another; they weave into, out of, and around history with a gleeful abandon. Obscure real facts are intertwined with a fictionalized mythology around the free masons. Perhaps my favourite part was the way all of the elements of the puzzle were as old as the mystery itself; it leads the movie to a lot of the lesser-used historical sites in the colonial-area America. When the movie final breaks away from reality into a true Indiana Jones style tomb deep in the underbelly of Manhattan, the entrance is through a building that is plausibly as old as the treasure underneath it.
In the end I didn't believe all of it - where the hell were all of the guards in these historical sites post-theft anyway? - but I was consistently entertained and mentally stimulated by it. Part of me wishes a little more plausibility would have pushed it that extra step into being something substantial. But deeper down, I know that plausibility would ruin most of the charm. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT