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Funny, but …

‘Aquatic’ not up to director Anderson’s snuff; Re-‘Birth’ at Market Street.

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'AQUATIC LIFE':  Stars Bill Murray.
  • 'AQUATIC LIFE': Stars Bill Murray.
Don’t get me wrong. Writer/director Wes Anderson’s new film, “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” is one of the funniest, most inventive movies of this or any other year. When you talk about a director with a style as unique as Anderson’s, however, you can’t help but compare his latest footwork to that shown in previous bouts. In this case, they’re big tracks to follow: “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” two of my favorite films ever. That said, it pains me to add that “Aquatic” provides the least enjoyment I’ve ever had out of an Anderson venture. I hope this isn’t a trend he’s planning to follow. Here, Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-style adventurer with a ship called the Belafonte and a crew of whackjobs uniformed in matching red knit caps. After years of seeing his documentaries slip with both the public and the reviewers, Zissou sets out to destroy a mysterious shark that ate his best friend. A snotty rival explorer (Jeff Goldblum), the appearance of a pilot who may or may not be Zissou’s son (Owen Wilson) and a pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett) doing a story on Team Zissou all work as subplots. The problem, however, is one of belief. Though both “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums” were full of eccentrics and wackiness, you always had the idea in the back of your mind that there could be people like this, somewhere. Somewhere, there were people this weird, suffering through real pain — the pain of wanting a woman they can’t have, the pain of achieving so much in childhood that they burned out early. In both “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums,” I wholeheartedly accepted the idea that the characters were genuine and thus genuinely hurting, no matter how much I wanted to laugh at their woe. With “Aquatic,” however, I never really bought what the film was selling. Here, Anderson goes so far overboard in the name of making his characters eccentric that they become cartoons, shooting at pirates one minute and falling off cliffs like Wile E. Coyote the next. Anderson has handily proven he has Chaplin’s genius for invoking both sadness and humor at the same time. But in the case of “Aquatic” I never believed in the characters. Without that, I stopped caring how it was all going to turn out for them, which is the only reason in the world to sit in a dark room for two hours and stare at the screen. Soon, I started seeing through the gauze of the film, into some little room where Anderson sat, pecking out a script on a keyboard. And that, friends, is what you never want to see in a work of art: the artist. As I said, “Aquatic” is an enjoyable film. But to paraphrase the aforementioned Chaplin: I slip on a banana peel, that’s tragedy. You slip on a banana peel, that’s comedy. Without characters to believe in, there is no banana peel — or at least no one we’d care to see slip on it. — By David Koon A few weeks back, this reviewer found himself grumbling that the only place Central Arkansans could see “Birth” — a beautiful and provocative film that just happens to have a controversial scene where Nicole Kidman bathes nekkid with a 10-year-old boy — was in the Outer Barony of Benton. If memory serves, we wrote that no theater in Little Rock had the balls to show it. Low and behold, “Birth” is now showing at Market Street Cinema. We should have known. Brave or crazy, you can’t accuse MSC owner Matt Smith of lacking in the cajones department (this is, after all, the fellow who decided to open an art house movie theater in Little Rock). Now that it has come to a theater nearer you, “Birth” deserves a recap of some of the things we had to say about it after our trek to Benton a few weeks back. Awkward, uncomfortable, sad, uncanny and — above all — utterly beautiful, now that it’s playing in town, Little Rock movie lovers should rush to see it. “Birth” begins with a stark scene: a man in a hooded sweatshirt, running through a snowy park. As in many scenes, director Jonathan Glazer lets his camera linger, following the man among the dark trees. It comes as a shock a few minutes later when the hooded man unexpectedly clutches his chest, drops to the ground and dies. Ten years later, Anna (Kidman) is at her mother’s birthday party when a young boy (Cameron Bright) enters and announces he is Sean, the reincarnation of her dead husband. Incredulous at first, Anna laughs it off, but she soon finds that the boy knows intimate details about her dead husband — things he should have no way of knowing. While this sounds like the makings of a potboiler, “Birth” turns out to be an intricate and gorgeous turn on the things we can’t let go of. Kidman has a hundred lines at most, but her face does the talking, helping us transcend dialogue to feel her confusion once Sean supposedly returns. Kidman’s work here might well garner her another Oscar nomination. Even though “Birth” is as unsettling and sad a film as I’ve seen in some time, it is one of the best I’ve seen all year. — By David Koon A Ben Stiller comedy is less about being funny than it is about making us squirm with discomfort until we laugh from nervous embarrassment. That’s the comic foundation for “Meet the Fockers,” the sequel to “Meet the Parents.” Chapter one positioned Stiller as Gaylord Focker, a male registered nurse desperately trying to win over the macho and suspicious CIA father Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) of his intended. Two years later, accepted into the Jack’s “circle of trust,” we rejoin Gaylord, who prefers to be called Greg, and his fiancee, Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo). The film turns on the culture clash between the radically liberal, Florida Jewish couple, Bernie and Roz Focker (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand), and their conservative, uptight future in-law, Jack Byrnes. Like the smash hit ‘’My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’’ the film is all about coming to terms with an embarrassing family, something many us can relate to on some level. However, where “Wedding” attempted to recreate immigrant parents concerned with whether their adult children get enough to eat and with pushing them to settle down and start families of their own, the Fockers are happily ensconced in their own little world, seemingly oblivious to the uneasiness their lifestyle causes Greg. Only Mrs. Byrnes, played by the understated, apple pie normal Blythe Danner, escapes the label of social misfit. You can’t take the rest of these people anywhere lest they broadcast your (or even worse their) embarrassing secrets to all in attendance. Are we to believe that a preponderance of Americans have absolutely no concept of how they appear to everyone else? Isn’t it implicit that the freedom to be ourselves doesn’t grant us liberty to be buffoons in public? I guess not. Stiller has built a career upon questioning these assumptions with his in-your-face comedies. Just once, it would be nice if we got to laugh at Stiller instead of squirming as he laughed at us. — By Lisa Miller ? At 38, perennial boy Adam Sandler is reaching for more grown-up film roles, and it’s about time. Even so, he competes with two 11-year-old girls for the distinction of being the most adult character in “Spanglish.” The film drops Sandler’s John Clasky, an ultra nice guy, into an untenable situation, then sits back to see what he will do. It’s a mind-boggler that’s meant to be bittersweet. Clasky is unhappy that the popularity of his new Los Angeles eatery leaves no room for neighborhood walk-ins. Clasky cuts his sous chef in on the action so John can have more family time, but why he’d want to is anyone’s guess. Clasky’s wife, Deborah (Tea Leoni), is a tangle of neurotic behaviors; his live-in mother-in-law Evelyn (Cloris Leachman) is an alcoholic busy-body; his chubby daughter Bernice (Sarah Lee) is smart but insecure, and the family’s new housekeeper Flor (Paz Vega) is a beautiful Mexican immigrant who is falling in love with her sweet, ineffective boss. Deborah’s messy emotions bubble through the story, constituting the engine that moves the plot forward, but “Spanglish” makes light of Deborah’s angry depression, suggesting that Flor and Clasky can repair whatever injury Deborah causes. In an early scene, Deborah intentionally purchases a trendy outfit for Bernice that is a too small, insisting that the girl can diet her way into the clothes. Bernice is relatively well-adjusted and already a talented cook with brains and a high social IQ, but her mother’s constant putdowns pose a looming threat. Flor, meanwhile, can’t speak English but can sew like the wind, tailoring Bernice’s new togs to make them fit. When Deborah rents an ocean front Malibu home for the summer, she insists that single mother Flor bring her daughter, Cristina, to stay with the family. Deborah proceeds to hijack the housekeeper’s beautiful child, spiriting the girl away for shopping adventures that usurp Flor’s motherly position while further diminishing Deborah’s bonds with Bernice. The performances of the girls and women are heartfelt. Vega’s expressive body language ably fills in for her missing words as Flor sinks deeper and deeper into a terrible conflict. Whacked though Deborah is, Leoni’s warmth persuades us that her character possesses a generosity of spirit beneath her unhappiness. Yet, the film’s central question — Should Clasky leave his crazy wife, taking care to get custody of the kids, or ride it out? — is never answered to satisfaction. He neither confronts Deborah, nor suggests counseling. His children (there’s a son we barely see) simply understand he is on their side. Meanwhile Flor is torn between staying near the man she loves and quitting the best paying job she’s likely to get in order to properly raise her daughter. We’re left to decide whether Clasky is kind or a coward who lets his wife run roughshod over others. — By Lisa Miller

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