dir. Wayne Wang
Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah), coupon clipper, Emeril enthusiast, and hawker of spoons to little old white ladies, lives a boring, frumpy life—that is, until she discovers that her brain is crawling with fictional but deadly "Lampington's Lesions." She has only three weeks to live.
After a few tears and a regretful "I shoulda ate that!" Georgia quits her job and heads to Prague for some pampering, strutting, and extreme sporting. Her wanton spending habits and down-home charm beguile all, including a corrupt senator (Giancarlo Esposito, apparently part-goblin); a culinary idol (Gerard Depardieu—"Chef Didier, you crazy!"); and the extremely wacky European hotel staff ("She is the most amazing person who ever came to this hotel"). Oh, and guess what? She's not really dying. How gauche.
Latifah is actually pretty good—she's got a wry, cheery delivery, even in Last Holiday's worst moments (for the record, that award goes to this line: "You got tension in your neck 'cause you keep going down on Mr. Kragen"). The same can't be said for lip-licky LL Cool J (as Georgia's love interest), who is a robot.
The only funny part of this movie is, surprisingly, Depardieu (usually Depar-don't) who, from beneath his magnificent butt-nose, drops crazy-ass bombs like, "They're called baby turnips. Nobody likes them, you know?... She is a self-made woman of vegetables!" Please, God, let that be an ad-lib. Of Chef Didier, Depardieu says, "When someone asks me how I am, I say, 'Great, I just had a wonderful steak.' This role for me is like a wonderful steak." Riiiiiiight. He's literally my favorite human now. LINDY WEST
dir. James Gartner
Glory Road, a basketball movie produced by the estimable Jerry Bruckheimer (Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor, Coyote Ugly—you get the picture), starts off with a sequence that will really bum out WNBA fans. Soon-to-be-famous basketball coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) is presiding over a girls' high-school game. Despite their clumsy play, the girls win big, and they're thrilled. They huddle in an eager mass and try, try, try to hoist Haskins in the air. Then they drop him on his ass.
You see, Glory Road is anti-racist, and apparently you can't have a sports movie that doesn't make fun of some underprivileged group or another. Haskins soon escapes the girl ghetto and happily signs on to live in a dorm room with his personality-deficient wife and two adorable little boys while he coaches the team at Texas Western. Convinced that an athlete is an athlete, even in the bigoted South of 1966, he goes recruiting amongst the black street players of the urban North. Having assembled a talented if undisciplined team, he starts to train his boys. (And to call them girls when the opportunity presents itself.)
Within the sports movie genre, Glory Road couldn't be more typical. It's Hoosiers with a Marcus Garvey book inserted here, a Martha and the Vandellas song tossed in there, and a historically accurate starting lineup in the final game. The boys train, they slack off, they're punished, they work harder, they win, they lose (to Seattle University!), they win some more, and then they compete for the national championship against some racist Kentuckians. We're also treated to an unfortunate medical metaphor involving an enlarged heart. Glory Road is rousing, despite its familiar tone of sepia majesty. But it really wouldn't have hurt to lay off those poor girls. ANNIE WAGNER
The White Countess
dir. James Ivory
It's 1936 Shanghai, and Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson) needs a job. The Belinskys, displaced by that pesky Russian Revolution, aren't doing so hot, and Sofia is forced to support them by, you know, dating (wink). She shoulders her burden with nobility and euphemism, saying, "All of us here have to fall in love from time to time, to feed our children and our mothers and our sisters." Enter blind American diplomat Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), who hires Sofia as hostess and mascot of his new nightclub, the White Countess: "The allure, the tragedy, the weariness. She knows that history has no place for her kind anymore... She's my centerpiece."
Their relationship builds slowly (my God, so slowly) and strangely, shadowed by the impending Japanese invasion. Fiennes, channeling a rumpled Jimmy Stewart, alternates between bewildered has-been and fire-breathing basket case. Richardson's Sofia, beleaguered by tutting aunts (the sisters Redgrave) and preachy sister-in-law, is exquisite and sad—affecting enough to make you just a bit mad at the Commies for taking all her stuff away.
All smoke and velvet and jewel tones, The White Countess is as pretty as a painting, and about as dynamic. Laden with long stares (meaningful, blank, mysterious, unhappy), this is a world in which everything is symbolic and people say weighty things to total strangers ("Why do you have such heavy doors? You think they will keep out the world?"). This Merchant-Ivory family affair—the last, after Ismail Merchant's death—while unfailingly sincere, smacks of artificiality. The Shanghai streets, though appropriately narrow and bustling, look unmistakably like a set—too clean and too full of whiteys—and the climactic invasion is hectic but benign. The White Countess is historically interesting and nice to look at, but for a film that takes itself this seriously, it offers precious little substance. LINDY WEST
Mrs. Henderson Presents
dir. Stephen Frears
Judi Dench is Mrs. Henderson, a cantankerous aristocrat who, after being rudely and abruptly widowed in 1937, can think of no feminine occupation worth her generous allotment of salt. Tatting, shall we say, isn't her style. So she hires a producer with the spectacular name of Vivian Van Damm (a sturdy Bob Hoskins), buys a theater with the less spectacular name of the Windmill, and launches a nonstop cabaret show called "Revuedeville." (What kind of name is that?) Mrs. Henderson knows that when the going gets tough, the toughs turn to song-and-dance, and just like the Depression-era New Yorkers in Peter Jackson's King Kong, the prewar London audiences flock to the shows. But soon competing theaters start their own marathon productions, and the Windmill loses its cachet.
The whisper-thin premise on which this film is based is Mrs. Henderson's alternate business plan—an entrée into the world of striptease. Only there's no strip to the tease. To get around the censor (a jaundiced Christopher Guest), Van Damm has the nubile young ladies pose still as statues, their picturesque props locking them securely into the land of kitsch. And to distract film audiences from the fact that they're being entertained by the same quaint collision of classy and not classy (a stately old lady using curse words!) that entrances the theatergoers, there's a reprehensible side plot involving a naked virgin named Maureen and Mrs. Henderson's dead soldier son. It's the very definition of melodrama, and it's awfully dumb. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards, and Tony Leech
"Little Red Riding Hood" is one fraught fairy tale. First there's the purported menarcheal significance of the velvet hood, which still makes me a bit queasy. Then there's the menacing after-school-special moral (check out the Charles Perrault version for a particularly explicit enumeration of the charms and vulnerabilities of pubescent girls). And then of course, everything comes to a head with the grisly image of a child being scooped Caesarean-style from the belly of a beast.
Hoodwinked, an animated adaptation of this singularly disturbing story, expurgates all of the above. And it isn't even Disney. The point of this version is a police procedural that recites the story of Little Red's fateful encounter with a hairy grandma four times (the press notes want me to say something about Rashomon here, but that's ridiculous). The narrative receives some elaboration between the story according to Red (Anne Hathaway, trying for Daria-lite delivery) and the story according to the wolf (Patrick Warburton), who is a wily investigative reporter working undercover. But the grandmother has nothing to contribute, aside from the fact that she totally digs some extreme sports, and the woodsman is just a dunderheaded actor. And then there's an evil Eurotrash sports team, for which there is neither explanation nor excuse. Kids may have learned from video games how to tolerate multiple simultaneous perspectives (or so say the press notes) but I doubt they've learned to tolerate a boring story told four times over.
Besides, the 3-D animation is worthless. Every animal's coat, whether lupine or lapine*, stands up with an identically plush texture. The hair on the heads of people, on the other hand, has the sheen of modeled plastic. When several of the absurdly protuberant characters are arranged from foreground to background, they never quite fit in the allotted space, giving the frame the look of a particularly garish painting made prior to the invention of Renaissance perspective. There's only one thing to be said in favor of the clash of colors: It makes Little Red Riding Hood's plaintive ballad "Red Is Blue" pretty amusing. ANNIE WAGNER
*Ed note: Lapine, meaning 'of or related to a rabbit,' may not be a word, but it should be.