You won't see a stranger, more inspired or more charmingly off-kilter movie than O Brother, Where Art You? from the blessedly weird Coen brothers (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy.)
This one is making both best and worst lists of major critics, which isn't surprising, since it's utterly bizarre and responding to it requires a particular kind of humor and sensibility. It's title comes from a 1942 Preston Sturges movie, Sullivan's Travels. The opening credits announce that O, Brother is based on Homer's "The Odyssey," but this isn't a retelling of Odysseus's voyage so much as it is a jazzy riff on it, and on some good old-fashioned American "values," like the twin loves of God and country.
Set in Mississippi during the Depression, "Brother" follows three escaped and hotly-pursued convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) as they set out to dig up some buried treasure before a new dam floods its burial place or the evil (possibly satanic) sheriff catches up to them. It's a much more good-natured trip than the one Odysseus took, though anybody who remembers the classic will have fun spotting all sorts of familiar characters popping up here, from muses to sirens to the cyclops (in the form of John Goodman.)
The Coen brothers are at their most unnervingly original here, and while they don't appear to be taking themselves seriously, they do have ambitions in this nostalgic portrait of (barely) pre-mass media, high tech, politically correct America, and of the Southern streak of moral and religious high-mindedness that still crops up in American politics and Washington debates over values, morality and culture. Clooney and his two dim-witted associates managed to stop off at a radio station to make a few bucks crooning and unknowingly launch a smash single. T-Bone Burnett deserves kudos too, for assembling a terrific old-time bluegrass/country soundtrack, some of it antique and some contemporary.
Clooney is edgy at first in this strange role, but eventually gets comfortable with it and is terrific as the undeterrable, brave (and yes, innocent) wanderer in search of his treasure and his lost family, getting past one hurdle after another on the way.
Be prepared for a movie that like Crouching Tiger is nothing like traditional Hollywood fare. Bravely inventive, it doesn't move in a straight line. It probably helps to have a strange streak if you go see this film; maybe leave your straight friends behind. But this holiday season, let's give thanks for the Coen brothers, for whom no character, major or minor, is anything less than memorable. Weirdos pop up from every direction all through this movie, including a brilliant Charles Durning as the foul-tempered governor who turns to pop culture to save his political career (a prescient commentary on conventional political hypocrisy and moral posturing about kids).
Crouching Tiger, which we mulled over in this space last week, is one of the most original movie in years, and it held up beautifully the second time around. (Though I offer a warning: you may find when some moviegoers are on unfamiliar ground, they laugh nervously during the eerie choreographed fighting scenes, which are a real surprise).
Unbreakable, also discussed previously here, also holds up as an amazingly dark, well- made movie, true to the superhero comic- book genre which inspired it. It might have Bruce Willis' best-ever acting performance, and it's one of those films that really captures the imagination.
As for the rest of the stuff at the megaplex:
I thought there was something off about Cast Away, even though most critics wet their pants over Tom Hank's Robinson Crusoe scenes. Perhaps it was the pointlessly sappy ending sequence, or maybe I couldn't quite get past wondering if there were still anyplace in the world where a human being could languish unnoticed for four years by people, boats, satellites or other machines (a consequence maybe of working for Slashdot).
Tom Hanks seems stuck in this kind of character, the decent, take-what-comes heroic everyman. Watching this movie -- at times beautiful, even wrenching -- I couldn't get the astronaut, the prison guard and the dutiful soldier out of my head, or remember exactly which one had wound up marooned in the South Pacific Island. If Fedex really had guys like this, we wouldn't even have to wait overnight. But the whole drama for Hank's character isn't really survival, it's getting back to Helen Hunt. For me, this was a monumental flaw.
Still, among it's high points was a nightmarish, skillfully animated plane crash that made you feel as if you were inside the cabin as it hurtled into the sea.
State and Main is David Mamet's biting Hollywood satire, a knowing and unsparing romp in which a beleaguered film crew tries to shoot a movie in what appears to be a hick Vermont town. The L.A. slickies vs. the gullible locals who are smarter than they appear is hardly a fresh idea, but Mamet's skewering of the film industry is great fun. William Macy plays the monomaniacal, manipulative and sleazy director with great enthusiasm.
What Women Want is a vehicle for Mel Gibson to break out of the action genre with the help of the aforementioned Helen Hunt, who really needs to play somebody -- just once -- who isn't in such deadly earnest. It's a solid B movie whose premise is that a macho male acquires the ability to understand women because he can hear their thoughts (a gift bestowed him after he is hit by lightning, perhaps a metaphorical message). To me, this idea is a bit creepy, but the movie was pleasant enough, like eating a vanilla ice cream cone. A painless way to kill a few hours, but it could easily go on the "can miss" list.
All The Pretty Horses is actor/director Billy Bob Thornton's game rendition of the terrific novel by Cormac McCarthy. This is an end-of-innocence, coming-of-age, buddy/road trip movie, the story of an unassuming Texas kid (Matt Damon) who heads to Mexico for some adventure in the late 40s, and finds plenty. The movie is beautiful but hollow; it has an epic feeling, but really isn't very dramatic. The end result is more pretentious than powerful. It's too long, seems to circle around forever without quite landing anywhere. It lacks the edge of the book and somehow, it's tiresome to be reminded all the time that we used to be a purer, simpler nation. We know. So what? Soda used to be a nickel and milk used to be delivered to your backdoor.
I liked Proof Of Life, the Russell Crowe adventure flick, a lot. This movie, about the exploits of an Australian "k & r" (kidnap and rescue) specialist sent from London to save Meg Ryan's husband from South American guerrillas who have kidnapped him and are holding him for ransom is restrained and realistic. The local scenes (shot in Ecuador) are beautiful, and Crowe, as good as he was in Gladiator handles the role of the last ethical hero perfectly.
Perhaps the worst movie of the season so far is Sean Connery's Finding Forrester, a insipid, politically-correct tale about a reclusive writer and a brilliant minority kid from the Bronx. The movie has about every dumb cliche regarding race, class and writing that you could stuff into a movie. Even Connery can't save this woofer, make it worthwhile seeing, or keep you awake for all of it.
So how do you think this season is shaping up? I'd say it's better than average. But notice the strange and atypical absence of natural disasters, war flicks or futuristic Armageddon movies full of computer-generated FX and evil geek programmers spying on us and plotting the end of the world. (Some of you may have already seen those great trailers for next summer's anticipated Spielberg blockbuster about an AI kid. That'll give us plenty to talk about.)