50 First Dates (2003) ***1/2
Doesn't begin very well, to be honest. First off, it tries to make us buy Adam Sandler as some sort of hunky Hawaiian Casanova; it doesn't work. It also introduces two annoying supporting characters: one of them is a pony-tailed Hawaiian pothead played by Rob Schneider (the character actually improves during the film, though) and the other is a sort of Bavarian version of Julia Sweeny's Pat character that runs the he-or-she jokes into the ground. It also features a walrus mass-vomiting. But, once the plot actually gets going, the movie surprises by actually being cleverly plotted out, funny and, yes, even romantic. Sandler plays Henry Roth, a marine biologist living in Hawaii whose romantic life amounts to little else that torrid one-night stands with tourists who invariably leave the next day. That is, until he meets a young woman named Lucy (Drew Barrymore, at the top of her cuteness... I'm pretty sure I said this about the last Barrymore movie I saw, but regardless) in a diner and falls hopelessly in love... only she can't remember him. It turns out that Lucy was in a car accident in which she lost her short term memory, and is living the same day every time she wakes up. From a rather contrived concept emerges a sweet, funny film that's much better than anything Sandler's done since The Wedding Singer (except for Punch Drunk Love). Yes, the ending is a little too syrupy-sweet; yes, the whole concept of Lucy's family hiding the truth from her by going through elaborate house-painting schemes is pretty far-fetched... but as a whole the movie is much funnier and intelligent than Sandler has accustomed us to. Even the usual annoying supporting characters are better here: Willy the penguin rules! I'm a fan of Sandler, I've always been, and I've always found even his worst movies to be at least mildly amusing. It's great to see one that I can consider more than just a guilty pleasure.
City of God (2002) ****1/2
The ultimate example of stylistic excess actually working in favor of a movie. The stuff in this movie isn't really original: a kid narrates his life in a slum, surrounded by crime and the colorful people that commit these crimes. But the filmmaking is so electric here that it feels like nothing you've ever seen before. The film centers around Rocket, a young man from the Brazilian slums of the City of God who dreams of becoming a photographer. He pursues his dream of finding a legitimate job while his entourage sinks deeper in a life of drug-dealing and crime. Truly epic in scope, Fernando Meirelles' adaptation of a Brazilian best-selling novel is one of those rare movies that manage to make style over substance work wonderfully. I don't know what else to say.
Mystic River (2003) ***1/2
I read Dennis Lehane's book prior to seeing this and so the "whodunit" aspect of the story had already been spoiled for me... but thankfully, Clint Eastwood's direction elevates the story past the state of a simple police procedural (something, ironically, Eastwood could not do with his adaptation of Michael Connelly's Blood Work, the previous year). Sean Penn plays an ex-con named Jimmy Markum living in Boston whose daughter (Emmy Rossum) is found murdered in the neighborhood park. The cop on the job (Kevin Bacon) is an old friend of Markum's... and one of his main suspects (played by Tim Robbins) a childhood friend who was taken away and abducted during a game of street hockey, many years ago. I'd say about 80% of this film's success is in its casting - without the right actors, Mystic River would've never worked. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland's few additions/modifications prove mostly futile; take, for example, Laura Linney's hackeneyed monologue near the end that, as far as I recall, wasn't in the novel. Eastwood is wonderful at directing the actors here but less skilled at building up the mystery. Too often his camera lingers on actors to, I don't know, heighten the sense of mystery and create doubt; it comes off mostly as cheesy and leaves you simply waiting for the "dun-dun-dunnnnnnnnnnnnn" on the soundtrack. But where Eastwood gets it right, he gets it damn right. Penn channels DeNiro (70's DeNiro, mind you, or Scorsese DeNiro... not this new, sell-out DeNiro who looks like he's sucked a lemon most of the time) in his Oscar-winning performance and although he's certainly done better (many times), his grief is more than palpable here. Robbins, also an Oscar winner, is Penn's polar opposite; he's quiet, introverted, stammering... a few actors could have pulled off the role of Jimmy as good as Penn, but few (if any) would be able to match Robbins here. Kevin Bacon's role is less showy than these two, but he does (as usual) a very good job. They're backed by Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Tom Guiry, Spencer Treat Clark and, in an unbilled cameo, the great Eli Wallach. It's not exactly the most gripping of films (well, to me, anyway) and it slows down to a crawl sometimes, but just watching these actors at work is enough.
Big Fish (2003) ****1/2
Tim Burton drops the gothic imagery and the ape makeup for this uncharacteristically colorful fantasy. Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) doesn't have a very good relationship with his father (Albert Finney); when Will was a kid, his father was never home, and when he returned he spun hard-to-believe tales to others while mostly neglecting his son. Now that his father is dying, however, Will returns to his side to try to sort the real from the made-up. The young Ed Bloom is played by Ewan MacGregor in a performance that surpasses anything MacGregor has done of late; he reminds us how good an actor he can be when not coasting on his high-profile career. But the star of the film is the story Burton (and to some extent, Ed Bloom) tells (the screenplay is by Go scribe John August, from a novel by Daniel Wallace). The film is an unabashed colorful fantasy, the kind that can be described as "whimsical" without a trace of irony. It has a certain Burton-esque sense of the grotesque (especially in the visuals) that pairs off with the Capra-esque flavor that Jim Carrey failed to achieve with his po-faced The Majestic. The cast is uniformly good, with Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter, Loudon Wainwright, Frat-Pack regular Missi Pyle, Steve Buscemi and Danny DeVito playing the peculiar denizens of Bloom's peculiar tales. The film suceeds as both a fantasy and a powerful representation of the father-son dynamic and of death (which was adressed, more sloppily, in another highly-acclaimed movie this year, The Barbarian Invasions). There won't be a dry eye in the place.
Eurotrip (2004) **1/2
This movie comes across, really, as the very representation of modern mainstream American comedy; it features both the best and the worst of the genre. There's a lot of talent involved here; the writing team wrote fifteen episodes of Seinfeld and served as consultants and executive producers. One of them was even a writer for SNL. The cast is comprised of Seinfeld, SNL, The Drew Carey Show and Absolutely Fabulous alumni... but yet the film, because it is a teen comedy, often plumbs the dildo-and-feces-populated depths of the genre. This is all too bad because there's some genuinely funny stuff here. For what it's worth, the plot... Scott Thomas is a very typical teenage protagonist (more typical and boring than Jason Biggs, even) who gets dumped by his girlfriend (Smallville's Kristin Kreuk) on graduation day for a tattooed punk rocker (a hilarious cameo by Matt Damon) who has a less-than-subtle song about his cavorts with said girlfriend. Having nothing holding him back, Scott decides to embark on a journey to Germany to meet his pen-pal Mieke (Jessica Bohrs),a very hot blonde who, until very recently, he believed was a nerdy guy named Mike. So he ships off with his best buddy Cooper (the decidedly David Spade-like Jacob Pitts) to Europe, where they meet up with a pair of twins (Michelle Trachtenberg and Travis Wester) and, amongst other things, are befriend by soccer hooligans, practically raped by a creepy Italian guy, are chased by zombie-like nudists, are stranded in Bratislava and are "pleasured" by Lucy Lawless. The film's maniacal desire to create running gags is pathetic, but the actors are better than the ones they usually find for this type of material and their delivery solid. It's best when it focuses on dialogue and interplay between the characters (which isn't surprising considering the pedigree of the writers) but not nearly as funny when resorting to complex pratfalls and elaborate gags. It offers all of the genre's requisite nudity but it also has some very good dialogue; it's a fight between good and not-so-good that's never really resolved. The end product is an intriguing film that's never as bad as it could've been but never as good as it seems to promise.