Oh sure, some of the big box office blockbusters do smashing business their first weekend out, but the trend this season is for the first weekend to be great and then its free fall time as last weeks winner becomes this weeks has-been. Only two strong studio movies have emerged: the deservedly praiseworthy Finding Nemo and the vastly overrated The Matrix: Reloaded. Waiting in the wings to see if it breaks the one-week- and-over jinx is Pirates Of The Caribbean (see Short Takes), which is doing nicely, but the jury is still out as to whether or not itll be something more than yesterdays box office fizzle. One independent feature is faring quite well, the jazzy, edgy, intriguing bio-nightmare, zombie terror film 28 Days Later, which, although it is being released by 20th Century Fox subsidiary Fox Searchlight, is a low budget, shot on digital video, thriller from director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) that has audiences talking.
As adult moviegoers wander the multiplex desperately seeking something other than fast talking men, faster moving cars, and sub-verbal women, equally adult movie critics have been quietly watching private screenings of good films. Suddenly, with a burst of energy that tosses asides the hazy heat and humidity of summer, there may be hope. I cant guarantee youll like the five movies detailed below, but you'll understand what I mean when I write (and have written) that yes, there are good movies being made. And you may just love them. And dont give me that smarty-pants reply that goes something like, oh you critics only like arty movies. An independent movie is not necessarily an art movie. The term indie means that the producers didnt waste $10-million on bullets or $5-million on a trailer for the stars ego. Indie films are alive and well and damn good. Again, 28 Days Later is a prime example.
In my cover story about last years Toronto Film Festival, I raved about a little movie called Winged Migration. Its about birds, but believe me; its so much more than that. Its also about the promise and the possibility of cinema as well as the beauty of nature and the mysteries of avian life. All that in a documentary feature that runs around 80 minutes. Heavy burden, but dont worry about it. This is a truly great movie. Its playing in Buffalo at the Amherst Theatre and you will go see it. Not must, not should, but will. Once the film begins, a mood is created and the poetry of filmmaking overtakes your senses. Varieties of birds are followed on their migratory paths and what unreels is utterly amazing. You dont need to know how the spectacular shots were made. You dont need to know how the stunning birds were chosen. You only need to know that there is photographic greatness on the screen. I have a friend, Alec Humann, an interesting chap who is what is commonly known as a birdwatcher. After seeing the film in Toronto, I truly understood his devotion. The team of moviemakers understands the language of film and uses that language with breathtaking brilliance. Digital schmigital. Special effects? Forget em. This is real cinema. Real footage. Real passion. Real power. Take the children, take grandmother and grandfather, take everyone you can. Enjoy the spirit of Winged Migration.
Two studio movies, Seabiscuit and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen earn high marks for at least trying to break the stifling summer Hollywood mold. Seabiscuit is an uplifting, rags-to-riches true story about a California horse that never won a single Triple Crown race, but was one of the most popular thoroughbreds in the history of horse racing. Small but gifted, Seabiscuit, once trained, could run with the best of them. It had a devoted owner, trainer, and jockey and the movie from director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) is an ode to an America that is no more. The film has minuses that dont overwhelm it. It never quite captures the smell and the feel of horseracing, only the excitement of winning. And the black and white images of Depression-era America are used carefully, but a bit too slickly. The horse doesnt show up for 40 minutes of an overly long movie, and those 40 minutes are mostly set-up for the main trio of characters who will lead the horse to a match race with what was called the greatest horse of all, War Admiral. Fortunately, the trio of characters is gloriously played by Jeff Bridges (owner), Chris Cooper (trainer), and Tobey Maguire (jockey). The biggest plus is that the characters were real and complex people and theres nothing like rooting for the underdog, just as Americans did near the end of the Depression for the little horse that could.
The League Of Extraordinary Gentleman is an action adventure movie that falls far from being perfect, but theres something clever in its daring, albeit often unbelievable escapades, and theres something brave about its assumption that audiences have a working knowledge of English, French, and American literature. A group of heroes from great fiction band together to fight evil, so its good that you know who Captain Nemo, Tom Sawyer, The Invisible Man, and Dorian Gray are, as well as a few others. And it helps to have a working knowledge of Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and some of their literary pals. Theres also great fun in watching a grizzled Sean Connery do what he does best. Underplay with a bit of wisecracking sarcasm. You gotta love the guy.
Two indie features that score high marks are Swimming Pool and Capturing The Friedmans. Swimming Pool is a clever French mystery about a successful British novelist (the superb Charlotte Rampling) who goes to her publishers villa in France in order to write and discovers that all may not be what it seems regarding the publishers voluptuous, provocative teenage daughter (Ludivine Sagnier). The terrific movie, directed by Francois Ozon (8 Women) is exuberant about the joys of sex and plays itself out in skilled and alluring fashion. This is a smart film that unveils its clues with cinematic devotion and a true understanding of the quirkiness of the writers art. Ramplings novelist will remind of you offbeat Texas-native and Europhile Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley). Swimming Pool is gorgeous to look, blessed with an enticing screenplay, and unafraid of sex and nudity as a means of expression.
Capturing The Friedmans is an engrossing documentary about average people in an average family accused of sexual abuse. What surprises is how the movie plays with your mind you shift back and forth between their innocence and guilt. Amazingly, much of the footage used is material shot by the Friedmans themselves and even after seeing these family get-togethers and antics, the question of their actions are still subject to question.
By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor
Never under estimate the intelligence of movie audiences. Even though you might consider some of them, well, not up to snuff in the perceptive smarts department, accepting as they do myriad variations of car crashes and bombs bursting, when push comes to shove, moviegoers can smell a rat with the best of them.