Have Yourself A Movie Little Xmas

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: it's been that kind of year for Hollywood, too. The bean counters are smiling -- the studios are enjoying a record-breaking year at the box office. But was anybody else happy? By consensus, 2001 has been deemed the nadir of Hollywood creativity (although it was a strong year for the American independents and for foreign films ). Will the holiday season finally bring on all those great, Oscar-worthy movies we've been waiting for? Truth to tell, not one of the films we survey here gets our top prize of five stars. But don't despair. There are four here we smile upon, and at least four more end-of-the-year worthies "Iris", "Gosford Park", "Monster's Ball" and "Lantana" -- in the wings. Roll 'em!

A Beautiful Mind (2 Stars)

Dec. 21
Jan. 4

Director Ron Howard's approach to the problem of the biopic is totally different from "Ali's" Michael Mann. How do you make a mainstream movie out of the life of a man whose activity is almost entirely mental--the brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning, schizophrenic mathematician John Nash? Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's clever solution is to turn the story of a troubled academic into a Hollywood thriller. How? He makes things up.

I have to be vague here, or I'll spoil the big twist of Howard's movie, which uses every trick in the book to keep you in your seat. It succeeds, but at a cost. We meet Nash (Russell Crowe) at Princeton in 1947. "I don't like people much, and they don't like me," he explains, accurately, in his deep West Virginia drawl. (The timbre of Crowe's voice eerily resembles Jerry Falwell's.) He's prickly, arrogant and antisocial, but he happens to be a genius. His overactive mind captures the heart of his future wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), one of his students. But his life takes a dramatic turn when he's recruited by a CIA agent (Ed Harris) to do top-secret work breaking Russian codes.

Nash's increasingly dangerous cold-war adventures keep things lively, but they prove to be a mere diversionary tactic. The real story is how Nash's mind is engulfed in madness, and his and Alicia's struggle to rebuild his shattered career. Howard knows how to make a difficult subject go down easy. Maybe too easy. Though Crowe proves again what a gifted chameleon he can be, and Connelly is outstanding, "A Beautiful Mind" is too facile to resonate deeply. Shouldn't a movie celebrating Nash give you some idea what his mathematical work is about? Fishier still is the suggestion that the cure for paranoid schizophrenia is love. Howard's movie is being touted as an Oscar contender--Hollywood loves these "triumph of the spirit" sagas--but in "solving" the dilemma of the biopic, it's turned a fascinating life into formula.

The Royal Tenenbaums (3 Stars)

Dec. 28

In the antic, melancholy comedy "The Royal Tenenbaums," the singular Wes Anderson ("Rushmore") abandons his native Texas for a storybook vision of New York. The unhappy Tenenbaum siblings owe an obvious debt to J. D. Salinger's Glass family. Former child geniuses, they have fallen on spiritual hard times. The widowed financial wizard Chas (Ben Stiller) is an angry, fear-driven father, obsessed with the safety of his two sons. Anhedonic failed playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who was adopted, cheats on her husband (Bill Murray) with drug-addled Western novelist Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). Richie (Luke Wilson) is a former tennis champ miserably, achingly in love with his sister. At the core of their problems is their long-absent rogue of a father, Royal (an inspired Gene Hackman), who returns to the family brownstone, feigning cancer, in a duplicitous attempt to prevent his estranged wife (Anjelica Huston) from marrying the dapper family accountant (Danny Glover).

Anderson's style is as eccentric as his characters: his unforgettable scenes unfold with the stillness and formality of tableaux. (The Tenenbaums are like colorful, extinct creatures in a museum diorama.) Bursting with quirky details and unexpected detours, the movie is almost too clever for its own good: the whimsy can become self-admiring, and the stop/start rhythm makes it feel longer than it is. "Tenenbaums" doesn't quite jell, but it's a beautiful near miss. And at the end, in a poignant and funny scene of reconciliation, this oddball family romance finally becomes as endearing as one's idea of it.

The Shipping News (3 Stars)

Dec. 25
Jan. 11

Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), the zhlubby, browbeaten protagonist of Lasse Hallstrom's affecting, if somewhat ungainly, version of Annie Proulx's novel, isn't your typical movie hero. After the death of his brazen, unfaithful wife (Cate Blanchett), this born loser sets off with his daughter and aunt (Judi Dench) to start a new life in frigid, faraway Newfoundland, the home of his ancestors. "The Shipping News" is the story of his rebirth, his discovery of self-worth. Like the best of Hallstrom's films, "My Life as a Dog" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," it has a fresh, uncondescending appreciation of the lives of people far outside the mainstream.

This was not a novel screaming to be made into a movie. You can feel screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs struggling to stuff too many goodies into a short space. The seams show. But the dialogue has wit and home-cooked flavor. The characters--Dench's life-hardened Aunt Agnis, Julianne Moore's Wavey, a widowed single mom, and the cranky staff of the village newspaper where Quoyle gets work as a reporter--resist stereotype. Initially, Spacey seems miscast, overplaying his character's hapless naivete. But as Quoyle begins to discover his future by coming to grips with his family's dark past, both Spacey and the movie hit their stride. "The Shipping News" has a quiet sense of community, a wry, unsentimental sweetness, that grows on you. It's a patient movie for impatient times.

Black Hawk Down (4 Stars)

Dec. 28
Jan. 18

Imagine if the Normandy-invasion sequence in "Saving Private Ryan" went on for a hundred minutes instead of 20, and you'll have some idea of the bloody, harrowing intensity of Ridley Scott's movie. As brilliantly shot as it is brutally single-minded, this is a war movie shorn of all its usual accouterments: the battle is the plot. Following the blow-by-blow details in journalist Mark Bowden's book, Scott and writers Ken Nolan and Steve Zaillian put you in the shoes of the Rangers and Delta Force soldiers who were sent into Mogadishu in 1993 to capture the lieutenants of the Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. What was meant to be a quick and easy strike turned into an 18-hour nightmare that left 18 American soldiers dead, many more wounded, and resulted in the hasty withdrawal of our troops from Somalia.

You barely get to know the men: Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard, Eric Bana, William Fichtner and the rest of the fine cast express their characters solely through their actions. The African enemy is virtually faceless. Scott isn't interested in politics or flag-waving: the heroism he depicts has nothing to do with a cause, and everything to do with a soldier's reflexive instinct to protect his brother in arms. It's hard not to admire Scott's uncompromising vision, and the craft on display--editing, cinematography, production design, sound--is awesome. But the relentless ferocity is punishing. You leave this long movie feeling battered, drained--and thinking about the soldiers in Afghanistan whose lives are on the line right now.

The Majestic (1 Star)

Dec. 21

Director Frank ("The Green Mile") Darabont's ponderous attempt to make a Capra-esque fable set against the background of the McCarthy-era witch hunts is remarkably consistent: there's not a spontaneous moment in it, nor one that isn't inspired by another movie. Jim Carrey, who's never looked so at a loss, plays a blacklisted (though apolitical) screenwriter who wakes from a car crash with amnesia and wanders into a small town where he's mistaken for a war hero long thought to be dead. (Does anybody work in this town? The entire population seems to spend its time standing in the middle of Main Street, alternately cheering and vilifying our hero.) Michael Sloane's secondhand screenplay--which reaches its accidentally timely climax when our Jimmy Stewart-like hero passionately defends the First Amendment--feels like a student work, and Darabont makes things worse by treating the audience like infants. He. Directs. Very. Slowly. I staggered out of this shameless, interminable movie feeling as if I'd been force-fed a ton of mealy, artificially sweetened baby food.

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