Spanglish (Columbia, 2004) D: James L. Brooks, w/ Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni. Rating: NNN
Okay, Adam Sandler doesn't have to rot in hell any more. James L. Brooks has destroyed the obnoxious moron persona and resuscitated Sandler as a decent, likeable actor playing a decent, likeable man whose mild tendency toward jokiness is merely a defence against life's arrows.
Better still, Brooks, the mastermind behind projects as diverse as The Simpsons and Terms Of Endearment, has put Sandler in an ensemble cast of very strong women who are far more the centre of interest than he. Téa Leoni is beyond overwrought as his meltdown-prone wife. Cloris Leachman's drunk mother-in-law is comic perfection. But Paz Vega steals the show as Flor, the Mexican maid whose own bond with her daughter is threatened by the Clasky family's fondness for the girl.
Vega does over half her part in un-subtitled Spanish, which does much to enhance the visual humour and leads to one outstanding sequence that has her daughter translating both sides of an argument between John Clasky and Flor and ping-ponging between the gestures and tones of each while the camera hops madly to keep up with her.
Brooks is good with camera work and cutting. He always finds time and space for everyone's reaction in the many ensemble scenes. It's a fine balancing act, as he and his editors explain on their commentary track, because a slight shift in emphasis can cause a major shift in meaning and tone.
If the ending's a bit predictable and its hugginess a bit much, the journey more than makes up for it. The film's worst flaw is its failure to deal with the Claskys' central, underlying fear of change. Flor and her daughter embrace it; so do Granny and the Claskys' staff. It's the rule of life. But Brooks seems to be implicitly endorsing the Claskys' terror.
Aside from that, Brooks has crafted a springy comedy with jokes, surprising turns, solid characters and some good insights into culture clash that make this worth watching more than once.
Extras Brooks and editors commentary, deleted scenes, making-of doc, casting session doc, sandwich-making doc, DVD-ROM shooting script. Wide-screen, digital transfer. English, French 5.1. English, French subtitles.
Bad Education (Sony, 2004) D: Pedro Almodóvar, w/ Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez. Rating NNN
The meeting of two old school friends, one a successful film director, the other a hustling cross-dressing actor, looks like a set-up for nostalgia and/or an indictment of pedophile priests. But Pedro Almodóvar uses a story-within-a-story structure and shifting viewpoints to craft a tale about the interpenetration of past and present and the question of identity. This is a much quieter movie than the over-the-top comic melodramas Almodóvar is famous for. There are elements of mystery and film noir here, but more as a means to move things forward than as ends in themselves. His camera glides calmly through the scenes with only occasional flashes of Hitchcockian music to suggest drama. We don't even get a big climax, as if the questions are all, the answers nothing.
The identity question is primarily embodied in Gael García Bernal's hustler, by turns Ignacio, Angel, Zahara and Angel's younger brother Juan. He carries the movie and his own shifting identity with power and grace, gaining sympathy for his revenge-bent murdering, blackmailing junkie without ever resorting to pathos. He's contrasted nicely by Fele Martínez' chilly, self-controlled filmmaker.
Almodóvar has said the film is slightly autobiographical, but don't look for shocking revelations. His commentary, in Spanish with English subtitles, is more casual chat than anything else. He's content to let his story play out and let us make of it what we will.
Extras Director commentary, deleted scenes, making-of doc, photo gallery. Wide-screen. Spanish 5.1. English subtitles.
Tanya's Island (Substance, 1980) D: Alfred Sole, w/ Vanity, Don McCleod. Rating: NNN
Given the current crisis in cana dian cinema and the centrality of the gorilla suit to world cinema, the release of this little-seen Canadian classic could not be better timed. The nature of cinema is illusion, and the gorilla suit is the most illusory of illusions. It proclaims its metaphor of the beast within, but never convinces us that it's anything other than a civilized man capering in a beast's skin.
Which is why the Planet Of The Apes movies are both so peripheral to the gorilla-suit aesthetic (those characters aren't meant to be gorillas, they're metaphors) and so central to it (their illusion is wholly illusory, the civilized actor within on full display).
Tanya's Island presents the man in the suit not as savage beast but as romantic hero, peaceful and affectionate until driven to fury by the guerrilla warfare of man. Man is Lobo, the bestial and alternately rejecting and possessive boyfriend of Tanya, who accepts his frequent embraces but yearns for something purer.
On a deserted island, she finds it with perhaps the best-tailored gorilla suit created up to that time. The joint work of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, who both went on to notable FX careers, it's a joy to behold - large, shaggy, fierce-faced, utterly ungorillalike and utterly convincing as a suit. It lends power to a new vision of the quintessential gorilla-suit-movie moment - the carrying-off of the girl. Here she's a willing participant, heedless of Lobo's plaintive "Tanya, don't leave me."
To further highlight the suit's glory, former Prince protege Vanity, here credited as D.D. Winters, plays Tanya largely unencumbered by a suit of any sort. If the film has a flaw - and some viewers may disagree - it's that we see disproportionately more of the unsuited Winters than of the ape suit.
Arguably the best gorilla suit movie ever made. Government-financed and ignored in its homeland - the lessons for our industry are obvious.
Extras Cast and filmmaker biographies. Full frame. English only (no subtitles).
Birth (Alliance Atlantis, 2004) D: Jonathan Glazer, w/ Nicole Kidman, Danny Huston. Rating: NN
What might've been an effective little supernatural or psychological chiller is sabotaged by its glacial pace and a peculiar refusal to allow extremes of behaviour to anyone, particularly protagonist Nicole Kidman. Ten years after the sudden death of her beloved husband, she's on the eve of remarriage and getting on with her life when a 10-year-old boy pops out of nowhere and announces he's the husband come back for her. It's a good premise that makes for some good scenes. But however strong the emotion, it never flowers into strong behaviour.
Solid, subtle acting by the entire cast keeps bringing the tension back up when the pace has killed it. Star Kidman gives it her all, but the character's a plot puppet - one-dimension only.
Anne Heche has one truly bizarre scene with the boy that hints at all manner of strangeness. But like everything else, it has at most muted consequences. By the end, we're not even sure the Kidman character really understands what happened, and we certainly don't understand the little boy at the centre of it.
As for the allegedly shocking theme of sexual attraction between a grown woman and a boy - forget it. It's raised, dealt with and dismissed in the same quietly cold manner as everything else. It's as if the movie was made by the emotionally frozen people who inhabit it.
Extras DVD-ROM website which revealed "page not available" upon testing, trailer. Wide-screen. English, French 5.1. English, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, April 26
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Paramount, 2004) Elaborate fantasy with Jim Carrey in elaborate makeup.
Blade Trinity (New Line/Alliance Atlantis, 2004) Once again Wesley Snipes kicks vampire ass.
Darkness (Alliance Atlantis, 2002) Haunted house shocker in both PG-13 and unrated versions.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (MGM, 2004) Sean Penn and Don Cheadle in a much-praised drama.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb