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January 7, 2005

Santa brings three great films, one lump of coal

A recurring theme of my winter break was the enjoyment of films I hadn't even wanted to see. It's hard to argue with the friend who insists on buying the tickets, and since my friend Sam has taste much different from mine, I had to pass up a few first choices with comments that could charitably be described as ungracious. But guess what? The joke was on me. I haven't had this much fun at the movies since I was a boy. And keeping that in mind, I'll start with my opinions on the one exception, and also the most adult film of the bunch

Closer

Beautiful people without any redeeming qualities hurt each other's feelings, and we're expected to care? The latest film by U of C alumnus Mike Nichols is full of faux-profundity—it's like The Hours minus the literary pedigree. This could have been an insightful, clever examination of the dynamics of modern relationships. Instead, I found myself focusing on any number of inconsequential details: how silly Natalie Portman sounds when she asks for the "loo"; why a Damien Rice ballad plays over the opening credits, instead of a more enduring piece of song craft; how much more convoluted the plot could have been if all the characters were bisexual. The dissolution of Closer's final relationship is supposed to be heart-rending (and that's no spoiler; one almost needs a flow chart to keep track of the endless coupling), but the most shocking aspect of the end of the romance is its arbitrariness. The same goes for the film.

Closer wants to wow us with its nihilism, which is masquerading as a careful, honest look at the End of Love. But when there's no emotional investment, crying over these various broken hearts is as satisfying as weeping over the proverbial spilled milk. Or have these hearts been broken? In Closer, men respond to betrayal with anger, while the wronged women stare passively into the distance (and not because they're trying to ward off tears). It doesn't help that the characters are fairly interchangeable, which makes their infidelity seem less like a travesty and more like a redundancy. Closer is artfully, busily empty—the perfect date movie for when you're trying to make your first night together the same as your last.

Spanglish

If Closer is chilly and underpopulated, Spanglish is exactly the opposite—a noisy, bustling character study that introduces more characters than it has time to study. There's Flor (Paz Vega), a lovely, loving Mexican mom and maid; John (Adam Sandler), the clueless everyman and "best chef in America," who is the prime recipient of her life lessons; Deborah (Téa Leoni), his perfectly-coiffed Stepford Wife; Bernice (Sarah Steele), a vivacious preteen who struggles to stop her perfectionist mother from stream-rolling over her self-confidence; and Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), the family's alcoholic matriarch and comic relief. And that's just the short list.

What this film lacks in polish, it makes up for in heart. Who cares if the framing device—an admissions essay to Princeton University—doesn't have a whit to do with the rest of the movie? Who cares if a major confession by one of the characters seems forced and ultimately unnecessary to the plot? Who cares if—as other reviewers have carped—Téa Leoni's suburban supermom is a bit of a cliché? For the most part, Spanglish is warm, inviting, and stuffed with the kind of whimsical asides and tangents that most of today's bottom-line, efficiency-obsessed filmmakers can't be bothered with. I'll take a cue from the working title of another James L. Brooks comedy, As Good As It Gets: Spend time with the characters of Spanglish and you'll feel like you're among Good Friends.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Yes, Jim Carrey gets top billing in this kid's movie, and no, I'm not a fan (I even thought The Truman Show was kinda overrated). But it's a testament to the rest of this wonderful, wildly inventive ride that his presence wasn't that much of a detriment—even though he appears in every other scene. I can't judge how faithful the adaptation is to the books, but I can say that on its own terms, the movie is quite riveting, in a macabre funhouse kind of way. Sure, the Baudelaire orphans are cute (deviating from the quasi-deformed illustrations I've seen from the novels), but it's their wits that get them out of the stickiest of situations, and because of that, this is the most empowering film for children since Whale Rider.

Not that there isn't plenty for adults here, too. Meryl Streep is a delight as Aunt Josephine, playing neurotic with such abandon that she almost makes obsessive-compulsive disorder seem lovable. Billy Connolly charms the audience (as well as his pet snakes) in the role of Uncle Montgomery Montgomery, and the kids—for once—seem perfectly cast, expertly embodying their characteristics. So many kids' movies fall into the trap of casting the Brat of the Moment in a role, regardless of physical resemblance or even an understanding of the character that is to be played. (Remember Mara Wilson in Matilda?) Luckily, we were spared the spectacle of seeing Hilary Duff, Aaron Carter, and the heirs apparent to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen play Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, respectively.

Darkness

Sometimes, the best gifts are the ones that catch you by surprise. How else to explain Darkness, a modestly budgeted horror movie that received an even more modest advertising campaign—and somehow ended up being one of the spookiest movies of the year? Clearly, Miramax didn't know what to do with this one, keeping it on the shelves for almost two years and then burning it off during the busy holiday season. In this crazy, messed-up world, Darkness is surely already gone from the theaters to make room for big-budget flops like The Phantom of the Opera, but if you're not too squeamish and have a fairly open mind when it comes to horror movies, seek it out when it's released on home video. You're in for a treat.

Darkness stars former Oscar winner Anna Paquin as Regina, who moves into a creepy haunted house where almost nothing is as it seems, least of all her precocious younger brother Paul (Stephan Enquist), her increasingly irritable father Mark (Iain Glen), and her oblivious mother Maria (Lena Olin). If this sounds like a story you've heard a hundred times before, well, you're partially right—but Darkness tells it with such panache, such creeping atmosphere, and such a mind bender of a twist at the end that you don't mind going along for a relatively familiar ride. I have to dock it a point for its PG-13 rating—not an inherent problem, but definitely a limitation when a homicidal maniac is reduced to screaming "Open the freakin' door!" during a climactic scene. For that laughable, awkwardly inserted euphemism, we can probably blame the censors at Dimension Films and not the talented writer-director, Jaume Balageuró.

So maybe I'm mellowing with age. Maybe it was just excess holiday cheer. Maybe Hollywood really is going to start offering consistently better films to its audiences (nah…) Whatever the reason, I thought this was the best holiday movie season in a long while. A warm, clever character study, a surprisingly smart children's film, and an underappreciated horror gem may not have been at the top of my wish list, but I sure was grateful to receive them.