Despite access to a treasure box of imagination in the wildly popular source material, Chris Columbus’ tale of a boy wizard going to school, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (C+), rarely takes flight. Filmed in dim halls and corridors and employing too frequent a use of clumsy CGI effects, the film maps out an interesting world but is uneven in inhabiting it. The kid actors led by plucky Daniel Radcliffe are fine and often given gravitas by a slew of veterans (Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and nearly every employable British actor). This is the film that sets the template for a franchise that ups the stakes considerably. There are some funny and enchanting moments and some nice action set-pieces, but this rather creaky movie should have been an absolute spectacular. In and of itself, this first film in the series is only beginning to understand its powers.
Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson’s endlessly imaginative animated tale Shrek (B+) tells the tale of an ogre (voiced by Mike Myers), a donkey (Eddie Murphy) and a princess (Cameron Diaz) on an adventurous journey in a far-away fractured fairy tale land. The in-jokes are inventive and will keep parents in stitches while kids enjoy the lovable characters in hilarious pratfalls. This whole subversive DreamWorks Animation enterprise pokes gentle fun at the Disney kingdom and gets great laughs from a supporting cast of misfit characters such as its own version of Pinocchio and The Three Little Pigs. John Lithgow is also a hoot as the diminutive villain. Fun and frantically paced, it’s a delightful modern classic.
Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (B-) is full of so many good ideas, many germinated by the late Stanley Kubrick for decades, that it’s a shame the final package is a bit, well, robotic. The story starts off with Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards adopting an android child, played by Haley Joel Osment, but they ultimately reject and abandon him to a cruel world of robot runaways (Jude Law plays a cyber-gigolo who befriends the tin tyke). The imagery cribbed from Pinocchio as the central character pines away to become a real boy is haunting, but the enterprise doesn’t seem to know what its viewers’ key takeaways are supposed to be. Both the humans and the androids in the film are equally unappealing, but the flickers and flights of fancy help the film occasionally rise to its ambitions.
Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (A-) is a suburban stunner that starts out as a romance between Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei, then something awful happens, then it’s something much more. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson play parents forced to face the aftermath of violence in this searing and perfectly acted piece. Field is masterful in his debut work directing quite an accomplished ensemble.
Brace yourself for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (B+), a wild ride into the illusions of Hollywood where nothing is what it seems; or if it is, it won’t be for long. Naomi Watts is wonderful as a classic Lynch protagonist in a film that may or may not involve souls switching bodies, color-coded lights that may or may not involve parallel universes and just enough weirdness to keep you hooked.
Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (B+) is a 1940’s-set psychological drama starring Russell Crowe as a Princeton science and math prodigy who gets enlisted into some strange and secret experiments. Jennifer Connelly plays his long-suffering but supportive soul mate. The film is fascinating and surprising at times and is a great showcase for its fine actors.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (A) is an epic fantasy that transports viewers to Middle Earth where a band of Hobbits, dwarves, elves and more must transport and destroy an enchanted ring that brings great power to those who wear it before it falls into the hands of dark villains. Elijah Wood is charming as Frodo the Hobbit and Viggo Mortensen dashing as human Aragorn in this adventure that starts the epic journey. Jackson is reverent to J.R.R. Tolkien fans but adds his own twists and turns to make the work more muscular. Sir Ian McKellen is towering as Gandolf, the wizard who provides a touchstone for the film’s characters and clarification for their mission. The effects are great and leave you ready for the continuing saga to come.
John Cameron Mitchell directs and stars in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (A), a raucous rock musical about a transsexual lounge singer brought to America by a military man and given a botched sex change operation. Abandoned and left with the “angry inch” of the musical’s title, Hedwig sings about finding her other half in some incredible rock ballads such as “Origin of Love.” Up-tempo punk rock numbers take on a Ziggy Stardust quality as Hedwig starts to follow her muse on a concert tour, singing her pop hits “Wig in a Box,” “Midnight Radio,” and many more. The film is campy fun as karaoke bouncing balls and animated sequences dot the music sequences so viewers can sing along or participate. Part backstage musical, part poignant portrait of broken hearts and part love letter to that special someone, the film is a tender take on how you can make the most of the pieces you’ve got and rock out with the rest!
Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (A-) is a spellbinding romantic musical featuring modern-day songs by The Beatles, Elton John, Whitney Houston and more at the service of a fantasy Parisian-based story about a poet (Ewan McGregor) who falls in love with a courtesan (Nicole Kidman). Luhrmann’s bouncing-off-the-walls visuals slow down occasionally to feast eyes on the stunning central couple who is fully committed to its acting performances. It’s a splendid let’s-put-on-a-show production with surprises in store at every turn.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexican coming-of-age film Y Tu Mamá También (A) features Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna who take Maribel Verdú on a road trip that leads to a variety of surprising discoveries. Frank in its sexual content, bawdy and bold in its humor and choices and nostalgic in its glimpses at a nation in transition, it’s an amazing journey and a rejuvenating cinematic experience.
Related link: Learn about the deluxe DVD edition of this film at Criterion Blues.