Anyone who has been reading this column regularly over the past few years has perhaps noticed an annual trend: While I generally aim for reviews of two or three new releases per weekend (even more if I'm feeling particularly adventurous), once December rolls around, that number generally slips to two at best, and oftentimes, only one.
The explanation for this is twofold: (1) In addition to writing my Reader column, I also hold down a full-time job, the hours for which, in December, keep me busy from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. - unless I can score a day off, I'm at the mercy of midnight screenings; and (2) Until the major Oscar hopefuls arrive in our area, usually post-Christmas, we don't generally get a lot of new releases in early December. (Last year, I wrote an article devoting 1,100 words to Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, a fun film, yes, but even I admit that was probably overkill for such a lightweight work.) This past weekend, however, saw the arrival of not one, not two, but six movies in their Quad Cities debuts. I was able to secure some time off from work, but not nearly enough to catch all of them in two days. Which ones to choose?
Maid in Manhattan? I dunno. I like Jennifer Lopez just fine in romantic-comedy mode, and I'm certainly curious to see whether or not Ralph Fiennes can be relaxed - he's a terrific actor and all, yet doesn't it seem like his subtext is always "I'll slit your throat when you're not looking"? - but as with many a romantic-comedy, I feel like I've already seen the entire movie by catching just one of its 30-second TV promos. (She's a housekeeper, he's super-rich; she's embarrassed, he's clueless. Fill in the blanks.) I'll catch up with it soon, but it can wait. Drumline? Well, I already sat through Bring It On, and thanks to female friends who, for whatever reason, worship that movie, I've seen that one more times than I'd care to recount. Enough already. The Hot Chick? Admittedly, Rob Schneider did pleasantly surprise me in The Animal, but I've seen the previews for his latest one, and what with the switching-genders plotline that was old news more than a decade ago, the kicks to the groin, the lesbian jokes, and the sight of Adam Sandler in dreadlocks, I'm taking a wild guess that there's little Schneider can do to make this one bearable for me. Pass.
An obvious choice, for review purposes, would appear to be Star Trek: Nemesis. The film is, supposedly, the final installment in a beloved franchise, the effects look impressive, and it stars the great Patrick Stewart. Yet here's the rub: I don't much care for the Star Trek movies, or rather, the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies. I've seen them all - Generations, First Contact, and Insurrection - and I feel nothing but indifference for any of them. It's easy to see why sci-fi fans, particularly those who loved the TV series, go gonzo for them, the way that J.K. Rowling devotees adore the Harry Potter flicks, quality be damned. But, as someone who only rarely caught The Next Generation on TV, I've thus far found the film series visually interesting but all-too-serious and awfully dull; as with Maid in Manhattan, I'll view it eventually, but there doesn't seem to be much impetus in seeing it immediately - it'll be here for quite some time.
The weekend's other new releases, though, do deserve immediate mention and analysis, as we were probably lucky to get them in our area at all. One is Spirited Away, the latest animated film from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, which is now playing at Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas. If, like me, you're having a difficult time remembering the last non-computer-animated work you actually enjoyed, this is the movie for you. It's a movie for the rest of you, too. With echoes of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, Miyazaki's feature film - currently the highest-grossing movie in Japanese history - tells of a young girl whose parents are trapped in a haunted theme park, and the surreal lengths she must go to save them; the film is, by far, the most visually extraordinary animated work I've seen in years. Miyazaki's imagination appears to be boundless; every corner of every frame is full-to-brimming with visual invention - I'll never forget the sight of the eight-armed boiler-room operator or the spider-like pieces of soot that carry out his literal dirty work - yet Spirited Away is also deeply emotional without being cloying and truly funny without being corny, and Joe Hisaishi's musical score is rich enough to move audiences to tears. At a little over two hours, there might be a bit too much invention on display - at the 90-minute mark, a main character's twin sister shows up, and a whole new plotline begins just when you think the film is nearing its climax - but especially in a weekend of stock, formulaic pieces, I'll take too many surprises over too few every time. Recent animated works have grown so staid and predictable that Spirited Away arrives as a breath of fresh air. It's thrilling and scary and smashingly enjoyable; the kids will eat it up, and the adults in the audience seemed to have a helluva good time, too. Catch it while you can.
Also finally released in the area is the biographical work Frida, currently playing at the Quad Cities Brew & View, and it's another recent film that manages to completely subvert expectation. Director Julie Taymor's film tells the story of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek), who endured a crippling injury early in life, married the volatile muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), and became one of the most revered artists of the century before her early death in the mid-'50s. It's a magnificent story - alternately tragic and inspiring - yet there was still reason to be hesitant about Frida, because Hollywood bio-pics, particularly the ones about artists, tend to be as formulaic as your average Jennifer Lopez comedy. Most of us know what to expect: The artist in question starts out as a promising upstart, receives some recognition, endures some personal and professional setbacks, eventually becomes revered, and either dies or goes mad by the movie's end. Frida doesn't exactly stray from this course, but Taymor is a swooningly visual director - her use of color is exquisite - who engages in some breathtaking, wildly theatrical flights of fancy, and the performances are uniformly terrific, with Hayek able to convince as someone who could seduce both Alfred Molina and Y Tu Mama Tambien's young Diego Luna. Frida, flaws and all, is an incredible rarity: a visually arresting bio-pic. Top that for a cinematic surprise.