Here's something I never thought I'd write about a live-action family movie from Disney: I hope it makes tons of money and spawns sequels galore. The movie in question is Holes, and here's something else I never thought I'd write: Thus far, it's easily the finest movie of the year.
Based on a book by Louis Sachar that is beloved by tweens and unread by me, Holes is the most imaginative, charming studio picture I've seen in ages, a delirious entertainment that puts most family fare to shame. The joy of the film, which is about the experiences of a group of teens in a desert-based prison camp, lies in its endless series of surprises, so in lieu of spoiling them, let's just say that:
• Andrew Davis' direction hasn't been this polished and accomplished since The Fugitive.
• Sachar's script manages to be funny without being cruel, touching without being cloying, and complex without being incoherent, and it teaches lessons about tolerance, racism, and individuality without ever being preachy. That's amazing.
• The casting could not possibly be bettered. Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, and Tim Blake Nelson make vivid villains, Shia LaBeouf and Khleo Thomas lead an uncommonly fine group of young actors, and Dulé Hill and the usually vapid Patricia Arquette are a dream of a romantic pairing.
Against all expectations, Holes is the most magical adventure Disney has provided since the Toy Story movies, and I can't wait to see it again. I hope all of you see it at least once.
THE QUIET AMERICAN
Holes marks the first time in forever that the best movie in local release isn't at the Quad Cities Brew & View, but, naturally, you'll find a couple of really good ones there, too. The better of the venue's current features is Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American, which earned Michael Caine a deserved Oscar nomination for his passionate, vibrant performance. He plays a jaded British journalist, living in 1955 Saigon, who befriends a seemingly dim American (Brendan Fraser) and, as a result of their acquaintance, finds himself enmeshed in both political turmoil and romantic rivalry. The film is both political thriller and love triangle, and there's little doubt that the former plotline works better than the latter; the role of Caine's mistress, played by Do Hai Yen, is sketchy to the point of abstraction, and though she's inarguably beautiful, it's difficult to see why this particular woman merits such unabashed worship. Nonetheless, the complex and rewarding The Quiet American is a first-rate drama, stunningly photographed, and splendidly acted by Caine and Fraser, who flesh out mysterious characters with style and verve.
There's another fascinating character to be found on the Brew & View screen, in the backstage-with-Seinfeld documentary Comedian, but it's not the one you'd expect. While it is fun to watch Jerry moan and kvetch and sweat bullets in preparation for his brand-new stage act, he's only half the movie; for the rest of Comedian's duration, we are in the company of one Orny Adams, a 29-year-old up-and-comer in the standup scene, and this guy is really something. It's common knowledge that stand-up comedy is often disguised hostility, but through Mr. Adams, Comedian details just how hostile these performers can be. Whether bitching about how unappreciated he is or railing against "audiences that suck," Mr. Adams is a constant boor, which might be awful for those around him but results in great entertainment for the rest of us. (At one point Seinfeld listens to his rants and shakes his head with an "Is this kid for real?" air.) As a work of filmmaking, Comedian is pretty lousy - the lighting and sound are terrible and the editing is poor - but its faults are overcome by its snarky backstage point-of-view and the deranged fun you can have by watching a semi-talented young man make an unwitting ass of himself on camera.
HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES
I totally got what shock rocker Rob Zombie was going for in his directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, and on its own low-aiming terms, the movie succeeds rather effectively. An homage, of sorts, to the type of low-budget, '70s-era splatter flicks exemplified by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this new gore-fest is witty enough to feature Karen Black as a hoochie-mama gargoyle with rotting teeth, and Zombie proves himself more than capable of giving audiences a jolt. (One overhead shot of a cop about to be killed provides a creepier, more sustained scare than anything in Darkness Falls or The Ring.) The problem is that the films Corpses pays tribute to are, for the most part, irredeemably awful, so there's little Zombie can do to make this new one work. Movies of the Chainsaw period and genre were gruesome, incoherent, badly acted and blatantly misogynistic, and Zombie's works follows that blueprint studiously, and somewhat regrettably. As a stylistic exercise, Corpses might well be brilliant, but it's not brilliant in any way that audiences will likely appreciate.
GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS
By its very nature, the IMAX experience is so enjoyable - Such scope! Such clarity! - that I can't imagine not wanting to view a film in its format. That is, I couldn't until James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss came along. To be fair, it isn't that bad, and as an historical document, it might be invaluable. Employing specially made underwater cameras and the highest in high-tech equipment, Cameron's hour-long documentary takes us deeper inside the wreckage of the Titanic than we've ever been, and some of what we discover is marvelous; who would have guessed that some of the ship's stained-glass windows would be unbroken, or that a water pitcher would remain upright after ninety years of submersion? Cameron also produces some nifty 3-D visuals, particularly when he combines reenactments of the Titanic, circa 1912, with footage of the ship as it lies today.
And yet, for too much of its running length, Ghosts of the Abyss is dawdling and - if you've seen Titanic even once - redundant. I think it was a big mistake to have Titanic's skipper Bill Paxton as our guide, and not just because of his typical, oh-so-sincere dullness; we continually find ourselves watching Paxton stare at the wreckage and mutter variants on, "Oh God, it's incredible," and you can't help thinking: Didn't he already give this performance? (This new film is for everyone who wished the first 20 minutes of Titanic would last forever.) Paxton and his fellow explorers spend so much time being vocally awed that it becomes oppressive. It's like the crew is nudging you in the ribs while repeating "Isn't this amazing?!" ad nauseum; you just want them to shut the hell up so you can appreciate the spectacle for yourself. The IMAX experience is always glorious, but on any other screen, Ghosts of the Abyss would barely be worth your time.