C I N E M A
LIAM Directed by Stephen Frears In Britain during the Great Depression, Dad (Ian Hart) loses his job when the shipyard is closed. His youngest child, Liam, played by the utterly adorable Anthony Borrows, is, meantime, priest-ridden as he confronts near occasions of sins both mortal and venial. We, of course, settle in for another movie in which a hard-pressed family smiles cheerfully through tough times. But don't get too comfortable. In his misery the father embraces anti-Semitism and native fascism, the boy's torments become distinctly unfunny, and this little film, unsparing but never unsympathetic, emerges as one of the year's best, most brutally honest movies.
LIFE AS A HOUSE Directed by Irwin Winkler George Monroe (Kevin Kline) is an architect's assistant. He lives in a shack overlooking the ocean. He also has one of those fatal movie diseases that doesn't restrict strenuous physical activity or general good cheer. He decides to renovate his house and his disaffected son (Hayden Christensen) by employing him on the job. Will they reconcile? Will the house get finished before George croaks? Will the movie end in an orgy of sentiment? Why do we bother to ask?
MULHOLLAND DR. Directed by David Lynch The director's strongest, strangest work since the Twin Peaks days begins as the tale of a starstruck blond (Naomi Watts) who hooks up with a brunet mystery woman (Laura Elena Harring). For its first 90 minutes the film motors along this noirish route--Raymond Chandler shops at Frederick's of Hollywood--then goes defiantly, wondrously weird. This handsome, persuasively inhabited spook show reveals Lynch's talent for fooling, unsettling and finally enthralling his audience. Viewers will feel as though they've just finished a great meal but aren't sure what they've been served. Behind them, the chef smiles wickedly.
RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS Directed by Penny Marshall She's Catholic, small-town, the daughter of the police chief--none of which prevents Bev (Drew Barrymore) from getting knocked up by the wrong boy (Steve Zahn, playing dumb but sweet-natured) at age 15. The rest of the movie is about her trying to realize her ambitions (college, writing books, ensuring her son's love) while dealing with her husband's fecklessness, her boy's fractiousness, her own foot-in-mouth feistiness. It is somewhat repetitive, but it is also wonderfully acted, especially by Barrymore. Like the movie itself, she's neither self-pitying nor self-aggrandizing--just real, wry as she deals with a hard-knock life.
THE LAST CASTLE Directed by Rod Lurie A three-star general (Robert Redford) is busted for exceeding his orders and getting some of his men killed. He's incarcerated in a tough Army jail commanded by a prissy hard-ass (James Gandolfini) who has never seen combat. The former organizes a revolt against the latter's sadism, wrapping his improbable efforts in the flag. Somehow, joining the prison riot is made to seem an act of high patriotism. Redford underacts, Gandolfini overacts, and this movie is directed with the same air of unreality, the same grim passion for cliches, both cinematic and emotional, that Lurie brought to his first film, The Contender.
THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE Directed by Joel Coen Affectlessness is not a quality much prized in movie protagonists, but Billy Bob Thornton, that splendid actor, does it perfectly as Ed Crane, a taciturn small-town barber, circa 1949. Everyone cheats on him--his wife, his business partner, his teen lover, his hotshot lawyer. By the movie's end, he is facing his final comeuppance, deadpan sangfroid still miraculously intact. The ever astonishing Coen brothers say their film was inspired by the spirit of James M. Cain's novels about ill-fated dopes. But the Coens transcend Cain. If this were not such great American-vernacular moviemaking--hilarious yet hypnotic--one would be tempted to see something Greek in the tragedy that Ed never comprehends.