PICKS OF THE WEEK
Fish Tank (A-)
U.K.; Andrea Arnold, 2009, Criterion Collection
Sometime an amateur actor can embody a role so thoroughly that we seem to be watching drama-turned-documentary-and-back-again. Katie Jarvis, the young nonprofessional whom Andrea Arnold picked to play the lead in her second feature film (after Red Road), is a case in point. We seem to be not so much watching her perform, as eavesdropping on her character.
Jarvis plays, or embodies Mia Williams, a young British girl -- 15, foul-mouthed and rebellious -- who lives in the projects with her blonde, curvy hell-raiser of a mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), her equally foul-mouthed little sister, Sophie (Charlotte Collins) and whatever new boyfriend Joanne is bedding at the moment. In this case, the bloke of choice is Conor (Michael Fassbender of Hunger), a security guard who seems smart and responsible and very nice to Joanne's daughters, especially Mia.
Too nice? Arnold and Fassbinder keep us guessing. But the possibility always looms -- as Mia rocks around the house in the aggressive hip-hop routines she wants to try out at a local strip parlor dance contest, and as Conor applauds and helps out and encourages her -- encourages a little too much for the quality of the dancing.
Soon, something happens, and then something further happens, more drastic, more dangerous, when Mia, who's a bit of a psychopath, breaks through the barriers for a chilling try for revenge. This sequence, which we won't describe (You'll know it when you see it) has been damned by some of the film's more fastidious admirers as melodramatic, though, given Mia's personality and background, it's not all that implausible.
Perhaps only the extreme naturalism of most of the rest of Fish Tank and its superficial similarity to the work of British naturalists like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh -- though often it seems closer to the Lynne Ramsay of Ratcatcher and the Alan Clarke of Scum -- lulls some viewers into too casual a sense of what some 15-year-old girls can be capable of. Certainly actress Jarvis and filmmaker Arnold give us plenty of preparation. And the movie is often a knockout.
Fish Tank, won the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It looks as if it deserved it. (Extras: three short films by Andrea Arnold: Milk [1998[, Dog  and the Oscar short film winner Wasp ; interviews with Fassbender and Wareing; audition footage; booklet with Ian Christie essay.)
You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger (A-)
U.S.-U.K.: Woody Allen; 2011, Sony
Here's Woody Allen with a classy representative of his current British period: an ensemble romantic-comedy-drama about writers, infidelity, the occult and big moral questions.
It's quite good, it's quite smart, and, as usual with Allen, it offers us those delights of language, wit and canny social observation that most romantic comedies these days ignore and deny us.
The direction is light and impeccably balanced. The cast is excellent. Josh Brolin plays a novelist who's begun to suspect he has only ordinary gifts. (Decades ago, Woody would have played this part.) Naomi Watts -- sort of sitting in for the Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow of old -- is his wife, who develops the hots for her seductive employer (Antonio Banderas, very good in what might have been a "tall dark stranger" role for Javier Bardem).
Meanwhile, novelist Brodin finds an unusual solution for writer's block and also falls for the exotic girl next door (Freida Pinto). And Naomi's (temporarily) well-off father (Anthony Hopkins in the role Allen might have well played today) takes up with a bouncy, not-too-bright hooker (Lucy Punch, stepping into some old Mira Sorvino shoes).
Is there someone we like in all of this? Yes indeed. Gemma Jones plays Naomi's dotty but lovable mother, a kindly but unhip matriarch who's developed a passion in old age for séances, psychics and the supernatural -- and even a fling of her own.
Sadly, Woody himself seems to be increasingly disappearing from his movies (as a player). He didn't write himself a misanthropic old codger role (even one that he could have handed off to Larry David), and he doesn't play the Hopkins part, with a New York Jewish rather than Welsh/British accent. He doesn't even narrate this one, and he definitely should have. But at least he wrote and directed it, and without pitching any parts to Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis or Vince Vaughn. Bet they'd have played them.
Thelma and Louise (20th Anniversary Edition) (A)
U.S.: Ridley Scott, 1990, MGM, Blu-ray
Thelma is the bossed and bullied trophy-wife of a middle-class Arkansas doofus business guy. Louise is her best friend, a streetwise, countrywise waitress . The two take off fro a road trip without their guys: Thelma's neurotic district manager husband (Chris McDonald), and Louise's good-hearted good ol' boy boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen). It looks like fun -- and director Ridley Scott and writer Callie Khouri give their knockout star pair some drop-dead gorgeous backdrops (lit by Adrian Biddle) and a bubbly, irresistible comic rhythm and tone -- until the gals run into problems and bad men at a loud and rowdy country & western bar.
There, fun-loving but too often repressed Thelma is lured outside by a local Lothario (Timothy Carhart), and then slammed against an engine hood and raped. Gun-packing Louise comes to her pal's rescue. But the Lothario makes one fatal sexist wisecrack too many, Louise blows her cool (partly due, we later learn, to an ugly incident in her past), and she shoots and kills the attacker almost by reflex. Now, the ladies, not thinking clearly, are on the run, in the kind of road movie they made so well in the '70s, and so often badly afterwards.
As T. & L. race across the desert roads (made up mostly of California locations and a bit of Utah, masquerading as the great American Southwest), they are occasionally harassed by gross truckers, while being pursued by protective Harvey Keitel, as a cop who wants to save them, and Stephen Tobolowski, as a creepy FBI man we suspect probably won't.
They also meet up with a sexy hitchhiker, a cowboy-hatted, blue-jeaned convenience store robber named J.D. who really rings Thelma's bell, played with loopy relish and laid-back realism by Brad Pitt. It's a role that probably should have gotten Pitt an Oscar nomination matching the ones for both Geena's Thelma and Susan's Louise and the actual Oscar that Callie Khouri's script won. But hell, J.D. probably made him a movie star instead.
But though we may dig bad-boy Pitt (who turns the screws expertly and makes us dislike J.D. mightily in his last scene), we tend to fall in love with Thelma and Louise. They're two of the sexiest gal roles Davis and Sarandon (or anybody) ever had. But they're also characters with whom we sympathize and for whom we root, even though their road-movie race to Mexico to avoid a cop who actually wants to help them is somewhat ill-advised and senseless.
Davis' Thelma is a beaten-down belle who suddenly finds the inner femme fatale in herself, and David makes the part sing. Sarandon's Louise is a spunky but wounded woman who tries to be a good person, but keeps getting smacked in the face -- and, like most of the best Sarandon roles, she's earthy and real and heartbreakingly gorgeous. Together the two of them are magic. The leave-taking scene in the diner between Louise and Madsen's hard-case but loving Jimmy is one of the most beautiful goodbyes in any American movie -- and the last radiantly smiling farewell of Thelma and Louise is even better.
People really loved or hated this movie back in 1991 -- and I'm with the latter group. It's a slightly preachy show, and since both Scott and Khouri intended it as a feminist statement, the script could actually have gone either way, been a dog or a phony as well as a gem. If Thelma and Louise hadn't been cast so superlatively well, or if it had been drenched in doom, gloom and messages -- instead of getting the ebullient, seductive, funny, exhilarating treatment Scott gives it, the movie might have worn us out. We wouldn't have loved the characters as much, and we wouldn't have felt what we finally do at that rousing cliff's edge climax.
Along with Chinatown, Point Blank, The Godfather movies, Mikey and Nicky, Altman's The Long Goodbye and Bonnie and Clyde -- and another Ridley Scott movie, Blade Runner -- Thelma and Louise, despite its bright colors and bouncy comedy, is one of the great neo-noirs. The comedy plays counterpoint to the violence and sadness; darkness and anguish underscore the sunny landscapes through which the two unintentional outlaws flee.
It's the '90s equivalent of love-on-the-run noir classics like Nick Ray's tender They Live By Night and Fritz Lang's icy You Only Live Once. Ridley Scott, in a very fine and illuminating commentary (Khouri and the stars are also available on an alternative sound track) says he had the most fun on Thelma and Louise of any movie he ever shot. It shows. (Extras: commentary by Scott, and by Davis, Sarandon and Khouri; featurettes; extended ending with Scott commentary; deleted and extended scenes; storyboards; Glenn Frey video.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.: Tom McGrath, 2010, Paramount
You should have a pretty good time at Megamind, a DreamWorks feature cartoon from director Tom McGrath (of the Madagascar movies), that satirizes superhero comics and, like Despicable Me, tells things from the villain's point of view.
Of course this is a villain -- initially a nasty little blue brainiac bad scientist with a hatchet face and beady eyes, named Megamind and voiced by Will Ferrell -- who has more strings to his bow than just villainy. Like the supercad in Despicable Me, Mega has his good side. And he even discovers, after finally vanquishing and apparently destroying his longtime superhero nemesis, Metroman (Brad Pitt), that he misses the Superguy and that villainy doesn't mean much if you don't have a hero to bash and maul and try to destroy every day or two.
After all, these two go back a long way, somewhat like Superman and Luthor, like Batman and the Joker, like Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. And they share a kind of joint saga of super-parallelisms. Metroman, like Superman and Megamind, came to Earth in a spaceship from a distant planet, but Superman (or actually, Superboy) was raised by a good solid Midwestern farming family, the Kents -- while Metroman grew up rich, and Megamind was raised by criminals, a clear case of environment determining degrees of supergood or superbad. No wonder they can't stop fighting each other; they're superbrothers under the skin. There, but for the grace of Dreamworks, go I....
Megamind (the name was borrowed from a Japanese comic strip) is also a villain who finds he has a heart, who grows to dig and woo heroine Tina Fey as intrepid TV reporter Roxanne Ritchie, and who also has a cute sidekick, Minion (David Cross), a whirling, whisking fish in a robot spaceman's suit and head-bowl helmet. (Remember Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet? Remember Phil Tucker's great god-awful mess of a movie, Robot Monster? Then you gotta love Minion). Finally, desperate for kicks, Mega decides he has to whip up another superhero, so he turns a nerdy cameraman named Hal into superdude Titan (played by Jonah Hill, cooking), to make life mean something again.
In other words, bad needs good and vice versa. Quite a heavy moral for a kid's picture -- although, like many feature cartoons, this one isn't just for kids. Or adults, whether superhero or supervillain-inclined. It's for anyone who ever picked up a superhero comic, or wanted to, or will some day -- or who looked up at the starry night and shook a fist at the whole black, blazing, endless super-universe and cried "Kryptonite be damned! I'll fight for truth and justice and the American way, even if I can't raise $10 million for TV campaign attack ads!"
Of the actors, Fey, Pitt, Hill and Cross all seem to match up perfectly -- and Ben Stiller, J.K. Simmons and Justin Theroux are also around productively, and so is McGrath himself, who scorches up the soundtrack as an aristocrat named Lord Scott and a bewildered prison guard, whose prisoners keep changing shapes.
The only voice I sometimes had problems with was Will Ferrell, who's been cast against type as Megamind instead of his trademark lecherous phonies and bewildered doofusses, and who could use a little more pizzazz and Vincent Price style sinister hamming at the start.
Megamind certainly won't change your life, unless you're a troubled supervillain, or an exploited minion, or a psycho with a camera. But it's a funny movie and also a visually spectacular one. (The settings look like Fritz Lang gone a little Chuck Jones). It cracks some funny jokes, and ends with an avalanche of action. It isn't as snazzy and creative as The Incredibles, but so what? It isn't as snazzy and creative as La Dolce Vita either. And I'll freely admit it isn't as good as Despicable Me. But then, sauerkraut isn't as good as chocolate cake, unless you really like sauerkraut. (Extras: featurettes; lost scene; gag reel; games; video comic book; picture-in-picture material; interactive comic creator.