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Sunday, December 15

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As is typical during the week the Academy Award nominations are announced, I get a flood of emails wanting my reaction. So here it is: thank the movie gods that Chicago-born Terrence Howard's performance in Hustle & Flow got nominated and that the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" did, too. I can't wait to see the production number the Academy builds around that number at the Oscars. When I interviewed Howard last October for Ain't It Cool News, we were chatting a bit before the interview "officially" started (i.e., before I turned on my tape recorder), and I promised him I wouldn't refer to 2005 as the "Year of Terrence Howard," as so many lazy entertainment journalists did last year. He said, "That would be just fine" as far as he was concerned. Then I said, "But honestly, how excited would you be if you got an Oscar nomination for Hustle & Flow? What would that mean to you?" "It would mean everything to me," he responded. I found his honesty refreshing, almost shocking. So, good for him; he deserves this recognition.

My only other comment would be that I was disappointed to see that Match Point didn't get more recognition (only one nomination, in the best original screenplay category), but, if it was going to win anything, it would be in this category, so I won't cry too loud.

On to this week's releases.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
One of the most unforgettably bizarre and disturbing experiences I had in a movie theatre late last year involved this small, yet powerful work directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. After years of playing tired variations of his character from The Fugitive, Jones completely shocks us with this film about ranch foreman Pete Perkins, who seeks justice on behalf of his recently and unjustifiably killed Mexican worker, Melquiades Estrada.

It comes as no surprise that the shooting of an illegal migrant worker by a border patrolman doesn't stir a lot of legal dust in West Texas. But the circumstances surrounding Estrada's death seem particularly unjust. Perkins doesn't seem all that stable even before Estrada is found dead in the desert, after being shot and buried by border guard Mike Norton (the rat-like Barry Pepper), who recently moved down to Texas with his pretty wife (January Jones) from "up north" in search of work. (Mike and his wife don't seem particularly happy with their situation or each other, so it's no surprise that Mike brings his hair-trigger temper to the job.)

When Estrada's body is finally brought back to town by the local sheriff (played with wonderful ambivalence by Dwight Yoakam) and unceremoniously reburied, Jones decides to deal with the situation on his own. He digs up the body, wraps it up, straps it to a mule, kidnaps Norton, and travels many miles to Mexico to return Estrada's body to his village. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about this desperate journey that seems destined to end badly for one of the two living men. What Three Burials is not is a meeting of the minds. Perkins and Norton do not become friends, nor are they vicious enemies. Norton knows he's done something very wrong, but Perkins isn't doing this to teach a lesson; he's doing it to fulfill a promise to Melquiades.

Please don't think that Three Burials is a combination of a Sam Peckinpah film and Weekend at Bernie's. Although Peckinpah is clearly an influence for Jones, this movie is its own demon. First off, every character in this movie is pissed off about something, and this bitterness practically beads on the skin of every actor. I particularly liked the supporting players, including Melissa Leo, a local waitress and Jones' mistress, and Levon Helm as a blind old man who Perkins and Norton meet on their journey.

Jones has never played a role like that of Peter Perkins, and it's arguably his best work as an actor. Pepper (who's done quite well for himself as a reliable character actor in films like Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile and 25th Hour) is the real discovery here. He manages to appear thin and sunken, while giving off a vibe of strong and dangerous. His attempts to escape Perkins are met with violent results. Three Burials is a work of great courage for Jones, who clearly was not banking on this movie being a financial success. But as a work of art and vision, passion and dignity, it has no equal. The movie landed at Number 33 on my Best of 2005 list, but, for those not living in New York or Los Angeles, it's the best film of this year so far. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


The World's Fastest Indian
All you really need to know about Anthony Hopkins' latest work is that it's about an old man from Invercargill, New Zealand, who spent his entire life trying to go faster. It just so happens that the man in question was the legendary speedster Burt Munro, who customized a 1920 Indian motorcycle into a vehicle that broke the world land-speed record at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967.

As portrayed by Hopkins in The World's Fastest Indian, Munro was the type of man who didn't know enough about modern safety standards to realize how close to death he was most of the time. He went through life focused on perfecting his bike and saving up enough money to make it to Utah. Along the road to the Salt Flats, he encounters some interesting characters who all see Munro initially as some backwoods, foreign rube, but end up being charmed by his enthusiasm, charm and wit. Munro was so headstrong it never even occurred to him that he had to pre-register to ride the Salt Flats. He'd always assumed that you just show up and ride. Thankfully, some of the other high-profile drivers come to his aide and convince the organizers of the event to let Burt ride.

Hopkins seems more excited playing this role than I've seen him in years, and his energy is infectious. Credit Australian director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, Species, Thirteen Days, The Recruit) for keeping things moving, although far too much of the film's mid-section is filled with a never-ending parade of "colorful" American characters, including a transvestite (Tina Washington), a used car dealer (Paul Rodriguez), and an aging hippie (Diane Ladd), who Munro manages to bed without too much trouble. Hopkins infuses Munro with enough personality for 10 characters; we didn't necessarily need the extra bodies to add more excitement. Still, The World's Fastest Indian is a genuinely inspirational tale with the heart of an elephant and a stellar performance from Hopkins that reminds you how good he is even when he's not eating human flesh.


Something New
While the subject of interracial relationships is nothing new to the big screen, Something New, from first-time feature director Sanaa Hamri, addresses the topic with a deft mix of humor and pathos. While not a particularly probing or hard-hitting take on such love connections, the film does manage to address a variety of attitudes on the subject with a certain level of sophistication. But don't take my word for it; take the word of the mostly black female audience at the screening I attended. Not only did they clearly love the film, they didn't seem to find it all that difficult to find some appealing qualities in the film's white male love interest, Simon Baker (Land of the Dead).

If Something New is guilty of anything, it falls victim to the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Syndrome. Both of the leads—Sanaa Lathan, of Love & Basketball and Out of Time, and Baker—are ridiculously good-looking and have successful careers that make them piles of cash. Why would anyone (friends, family, co-workers) not put a stamp of approval on this coupling, since clearly this pair will never have to worry about anything for the rest of their lives? But what if one of them wasn't making much money? How soon would the cries of "gold digger" be heard?

Something New focuses on the life of Lathan's character, Kenya McQueen, a financial advisor who is up for partnership at her firm. Her gaggle of friends insists she doesn't have a man because her standards (given in the form of a pages-long list) are far too high. When she is set up on a blind date with Baker's Brian Kelly, a landscape architect with a stable of high-end clients, she immediately ends the date when she sees he's white. The two run into each other at a party soon after, and Brian convinces her to let him landscape the backyard of her recently purchased home. You see where this is going, right?

Everyone has an opinion on the relationship (even before it becomes a relationship). Kenya's womanizing brother (Donald Faison) and her parents (including mother Alfre Woodard) are against it. Her girlfriends admit Brian is fine, but only as a plaything until a solid black marriage candidate presents himself, which he does eventually in the form of Blair Underwood. Despite its seemingly controversial subject matter, Something New's biggest crime is being predictable. I found myself surprisingly drawn to Brian's character, which isn't a huge surprise since he is written as the perfect, emotionally available man with his hands in the dirt and his heart on his sleeve. Compare him to Kenya, who starts as a sketchy, one-dimension person, but made to act more human and believable as the film goes on.

Despite the heated debates about race and an eventual breakup, there's never any real doubt where this couple and this film are going. Something New is as easy a film to enjoy as it is one to poke holes in its logic and plot. But with romantic comedies (which, despite the racial themes, this film is), plot doesn't matter as much. The writing is above average for such lightweight material, and the acting is solid. I was particularly pleased to see Mike Epps (as the significant other of one of Kenya's girlfriends) dial it back a notch and play a role that doesn't require him to act like a dumb-ass for 100 minutes. If for no other reason, Something New stands out for being a film populated by African-American characters who are all successful professionals, without a handgun in sight. There really aren't that many films out there like that, unfortunately. That doesn't make up for some of the movie's shortcomings, but it sure helps.


A Good Woman
Undeservedly on the shelf for nearly two years, this adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play "Lady Windermere's Fan" is probably making it to theatres now thanks to the presence of Scarlett Johansson in the cast as Meg Windermere, an American living among the British in an Italian villa. What I've always liked about films adapted from Wilde's work is the seemingly carefree, but ultimately stinging, comedic elements. But while there is plenty of witty dialogue in A Good Woman, for some reason, most of it falls flat, despite the presence of some very capable actors.

Helen Hunt stars as Mrs. Erlynne, an American woman who makes a living seducing rich married men in one town and then moving on to the next. She's getting nearly too old to play the game anymore, until she spots a photo of the insanely wealthy Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers) and his lovely wife Meg (Johansson) in the newspaper. Mrs. Erlynne inserts herself into this tight-knit society of mostly British gossips, but they know who she is and what she's up to, and she is largely shunned. Not long after her arrival in town, she is spotted in the company of Robert, and tongues begin to wag. Meanwhile, the notorious British playboy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore) has his eye on Meg, and when he catches wind of the possible affair involving her husband, he uses this as an excuse to get closer to Meg. The other major player in this story is the older- and richer-than-God Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson), who falls madly in love with Mrs. Erlynne, despite knowing everything about her past.

Director Mike Barker (who has made several feature films and British television movies) certainly has an eye for the period (the film is set during the American Depression) and the look of the film is stunning. Where he lost me was in the casting. I like Helen Hunt, but she's absolutely wrong for this role. Every word out of her mouth is over-enunciated and she delivers every line with eyebrows raised as if she's constantly amusing herself. The British players fare somewhat better, but the group of elderly men with whom Tuppy associates seem to do nothing but crack jokes about the opposite sex and marriage without having actual conversations in which to frame their jests. Johansson looks pretty darn tasty in the period clothes, but her acting seems ripped from a bad soap opera. There's actually a scene where she turns her head away from Hunt when a hurtful word is thrown her way. It's laughable.

Best among the cast is Wilkinson (no surprise there), whose character most resembles a living human being. He's so rich he doesn't have to act rich, and his performance is nearly worth enduring the film's many flaws. In other hands with other actors, A Good Woman could be a hell of a fine work, but this version falls short of such recent adaptations as An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Ernest. I'm glad the film was finally released, but unless you are compelled to see everything Johansson or Wilkinson is in (as I am), don't bother.

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