SPELLBOUND: (Documentary) Directed by Jeffrey Blitz. Produced by Blitz and Sean Eigler. Cinematography, Blitz. Music, Daniel Hulsizer. Editor, Yana Gorskaya. Spellers: Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April DeGideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Emily Stagg and Ashley White. HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films. Think Film, 2003. G. 97 minutes.
Words: Some of us love them. When I was a kid, my father helped me practice my spelling words every week. I looked forward to classroom spelling bees, and from grades 5 through 8, I was one of the top spellers. Competition to be the last speller standing was fierce, but it was nothing compared to the pressure felt by the eight kids in this documentary film. They're going to the National Spelling Bee.
In 249 regional contests throughout the country, the top spellers receive a trip to the National Bee in Washington, D.C., which is televised by ESPN. The media assault is daunting to some shy spellers, and the whole shebang is similar to an athletic event. A lot of expectations ride on the performance of these kids, many from small rural schools. Students from immigrant or underprivileged families seem to have more at stake, because their parents are hopeful for different reasons.
The spellers have at most a few months to prepare as they move through local contests to regional and then on to the nationals, where all contestants know the unyielding rule — one bad letter, and you are out of the game.
The first half of Jeffrey Blitz's lovely film follows three boys and five girls — Ted, Neil, Harry, Ashley, April, Nupur, Angela and Emily — through an ordinary day as they rev up for the nationals.
A diverse group from a wide socio-economic range, these kids sacrifice precious social time with peers to read dictionaries, memorize word lists culled from previous national bees, learn Latin roots and spellings from other languages. Some parents hire tutors, and in other families, various members take turns calling out words. Some parents are intense and focused, and all are proud. The schools provide less help than you might expect.
Angela is a clear-eyed, smart girl from the Texas border country, who lives in a small house on a large ranch, where her father works. He speaks only Spanish, but his eyes sparkle when he looks at Angela. He accompanies her to Washington. Angela's school also recognizes her accomplishments. Ashley is a sweet but realistic girl, who's growing up in the D.C. housing projects with her mother. In her own words, Ashley overcomes the "trials and tribulations" that come her way. Although she's surrounded by an extended, loving family, Ashley receives no help in preparing for the nationals from her school.
Neil is the child of Indian immigrant parents, following the protocol that helped make his sister an earlier contestant at the national. Neil's father spares no effort to train his son with tutors and around-the-clock drills. He also tries to instill in this yet unformed boy his own palpable hunger to succeed. But Neil is a level-headed boy who shoots hoops to relax. In contrast, Harry is a talker, a quirky kid with a great, expressive face. His mother tries to channel Harry's surplus energy into studying for the contest, but it's clear that this kid takes on the competition for himself.
I was also attracted to Nupur, who lives in Florida with her parents, also from India. More centered and mature than many of the other contestants, Nupur is neither driven nor scattered, just calmly bright and focused. Emily is a bundle of energy. Her family is the most well-off, and the parents are supportive, but Emily also carries her own motivation to succeed.
The second half of the film takes place at the National Bee. I was mesmerized by the courage of these young people, standing up before a national television audience, their peers onstage behind them, a phalanx of press in front of them, and families and friends off-camera rooting for them. In that context, their eagerness to spell a myriad of difficult words that have worked their way into American English from so many languages and over such great historical and geographic distance speaks well for the future of literacy in this imperiled democracy.
Spellbound opens Friday, June 27 at the Bijou. It's a naturally suspenseful, hilariously human and genuinely dramatic film, with not a single car-chase scene or special effects monster. Very highest recommendations for the whole family.
HULK: Directed by Ang Lee. Written by John Turman, Michael France, James Schamus, based on story by James Schamus and the Marvel comic book character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd, Avi Arad, James Schamus, Larry Franco. Executive producers, Stan Lee, Kevin Feige. Starring Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly, with Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas and Nick Nolte. Universal Pictures, 2003. PG-13. 138 minutes.
Ang Lee has made an interesting, psychologically nuanced film from the comic book hero formerly known as The Incredible Hulk. Not as lovable as Spidey, Hulk is perhaps too much of a good thing. That is, when repressed scientist Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) morphs into Hulk, he does not just get mad, he plunges straight into a fiery, blind rage from hell. The angrier he becomes, the more the rage controls him, down to how tall and heavy he is.
In a lighter vein, when Hulk's first getting into the rhythm of his leaping thing, he takes smaller hops, say from one side of town to the other. But later as he swells to gigantic proportions, he leaps entire mountains. I particularly like the way he pushes off when he makes a stupendous jump.
Enough about Hulk. What about the humans around him? They are a varied bunch. There's Bruce's former girlfriend and lab partner Betty (Jennifer Connelly). She's as smart as he is, and the work they're doing is about to take a giant leap itself. They are nearly there with a genetic fix-it that would allow the body to heal itself from inside.
You see how this works? Every time I try to talk about any of the movie in terms of ordinary reality, the plot goes to the moon and back. This is what comes of mixing concrete reality with weird science, monster mythology, the narrative journey of the hero, repressed memories and romance. And I like it. It challenges the viewer in ways most superhero flicks never imagine.
I actually enjoy the long set-up, in which the characters' troubled relationships with their fathers is explored. Bruce's father and mother are dead, he tells Betty. But as she learns, from her own father, no less, that's not true. Her father (Sam Elliott) was the military officer who took Bruce's dad (Nick Nolte) into custody when he went over the edge at the time of Bruce's mother's death. Now Bruce is invaded by images and partial memories that point him toward some dark secret. He's terrified and doesn't know why.
Betty's story is more ordinary: Her father is a distant, career-driven authority figure. But even as her long-term scientific project is about to pay off, here he comes, trying to control her life again. The gulf between them widens, then closes as the weirdnesses inherent in the plot pile up and pull them and the rest of reality into smash-'em, bash-'em comic book panels of supernatural powers, explosive accidents, radiation mutations and grandiose, King-Kong-like antics.
Before the whole enterprise heads south, the film's best action scene takes place when Bruce morphs into Hulk deliberately. He tries to save Betty from a trio of mad, mutant dogs sent by his deranged father to kill her. Even Hulk is nearly undone by these fierce, unnatural beasts, and when one of them smashes through the windshield of the car Betty is hiding in, I could hardly breathe.
Well, it's all helicopters, tanks and Army guys from then on. Military dad is not about to stand around and have this half-baked Hulk put his daughter in danger. But when it turns out that she is the only person who can help Bruce snap out of his destructive persona, dad has to think again.
Here's what I think. Hulk really lives in all of us now. With the ongoing war and terrorist operations around the world since 9/11, we've been carrying some extra internal baggage. When all the agents of government and culture conspire to whip up war fever, and the country goes to war, how do you wind down? How do warriors return to ordinary life? We know from veterans of former wars that it's not easy. It's now our task to transform the madness we internalized via television's images and words into something less destructive to ourselves, our neighbors, our country. Before, like Hulk, we blow up the world.
Hulk is now playing at Cinema World and Cinemark. It's an entertaining conundrum; highly recommended.
Anger Management: Adam Sandler plays a man who must undergo anger management. His shrink, played by Jack Nicholson, moves in with him. Also stars Marisa Tomei. PG-13. Movies 12.
Bend It Like Beckham: Soccer-crazy girls in London suburb drive their respective families crazy because they'd rather play soccer than think about marriage and shopping. Warm-hearted, generous film is likely to be a big hit. Get onboard early and enjoy!. Highly recommended. PG-13. Movies 12. Online archives.
Charlie's Angels Full Throttle: McG again directs the angels — Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and ex-angel Demi Moore — to save the government's witness protection program, from which classified info has been stolen. Written by John August. PG-13. Cinema World. Cinemark.
Holes: Adventures digging holes at Camp Green Lake for Stanley, who comes from a strange family that's been cursed for generations. Embarrassingly, Jon Voight, Sigourney Weaver and Tim Blake Nelson co-star. PG. Movies 12. Online archives.
Jonah: A Veggietales Movie: Christian-themed direct-to-video franchise goes big screen in this version of Jonah and the Whale. Biblical figures are played by talking vegetables. Directed by Mike Nawrocki and Phil Vischer. G. At 10 am on 7/1 only. Movies 12.
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde: Reese Witherspoon is back as Elle Woods, Harvard Law, class of 2001, now in DC on behalf of pet animal's rights. Luke Wilson is still her boyfriend, as is her manicure person, Jennifer Coolidge. Sally Field and Bob Newhart join the cast. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld directs. Opens Wed. 7/2. PG-13. Cinemark.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas: DreamWorks animated pirate adventure tale stars the voice of Brad Pitt as Sinbad, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Marina, and Michelle Pfieffer as the goddess of chaos. Joe Fiennes plays Proteus, a rival pirate. Directed by Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore. Opens Wed. 7/2. PG. Cinemark.
Spellbound: Academy Award-nominated documentary feature by Jeffrey Blitz follows eight school kids from around the country as they prepare for and compete at the National Spelling Bee. Suspenseful, funny and heartwarming, this film's a real winner. Very highest recommendations for the whole family. G. Bijou. See review this issue.
Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines: Jonathan Mostow directs, and Arnold Schwarzenegger comes back to save the world from annihilation once again. John Connor (Nick Stahl), is 18 now, and he's fighting off a female killer cyborg from the future, (Kristanna Loken). R. Opens Tues. 7/1. Cinemark. Opens Wed. 7/2. Cinema World.
Twenty-eight Days Later: Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) directs this really scary horror film set in a post-cataclysmic future, where a deadly virus sweeps through earth's population in a few weeks, and leaves people in a chronic state of killer rage. Stars Christopher Eccleston, Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Megan Burns and Brendan Gleeson. Advance word is that it's a great movie. R. Cinemark.
Whale Rider: Winner of the World Cinema award at Sundance 2003, Niki Caro's Maori drama about a spunky girl, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes), who decides to show her beloved but authoritarian grandfather that she is able to lead the tribe, despite being a girl. A wonderful, inspiring drama that features the exquisite New Zealand coast. A don't-miss movie. Opens Wed. 7/2. Bijou.
Alex & Emma: Rob Reiner directs Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson in a comedy romance based on a short story by Dostoyevsky. Wilson plays a writer who has to finish a book on deadline or deal with gambling debts to the mob. Hudson is a secretary with ideas about his book. Also stars, Sophie Marceau, Cloris Leachman and David Paymer. PG-13. Cinema World. Cinemark.
Bringing Down the House: Domestic comedy starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifa is directed by Adam Shankman. PG-13. Movies 12.
Bruce Almighty: Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Aniston star in this tale of a at TV reporter, who has a really bad day, rages against God and receives more than he expected. PG-13. Cinema World. Cinemark.
Core, The: Jon Amiel directs this adventure to the center of the earth. Scientists played by Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank and Bruce Greenwood journey deep into the earth to detonate a device to reactivate the planet's core. An unintentional comedy, it's a great break from reality. PG-13. Movies 12. Online archives.
Daddy Day Care: Eddie Murphy and Jeff Garlin lose their jobs and can't afford day care for their sons, so they open their own facility. Comedy directed by Steve Carr also stars Anjelica Huston, Steve Zahn and Regina King. PG. Cinemark. Cinema World.
Dancer Upstairs, The: John Malkovich's directorial debut based on the book written by Nicholas Shakespeare is a love story set in a Latin American capital in the middle of a massive manhunt for a terrorist named Ezequiel. Javier Bardem stars as a police detective who falls in love with his daughter's dance teacher, played by Laura Morante. The Maoist terrorist is based on the leader of Peru's Shining Path guerrillas, Abimael Guzman. Serious film, excellent performances. Highly recommended. Through Tues. 7/1 only. R. Bijou. Online archives.
Down With Love: Peyton Reed re-invents the look and feel of a 1962-era Doris Day, Rock Hudson musical with Renee Zellwegger and Ewan McGregor. Also stars David Hyde Pierce, Tony Randall and Sarah Paulson. Entertaining froth. PG-13. Movies 12. Online archives.
Dumb and Dumberer: Prequel is subtitled When Harry Met Lloyd and stars Derek Richardson and Eric Christian Olsen as the 1994 Dumb and Dumber duo in high school. Directed by Troy Miller, with Eugene Levy, Cheri Oteri and Luis Guzmán. PG-13. Cinemark.
Finding Nemo: Pixar (Toy Story) presents this computer-animated fantasy of two Clownfish, Marlin and his son Nemo, who get separated in the Great Barrier Reef. Written and directed by Andrew Stanton (A Bug's Life), with voices by Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, Allison Janney. Very highly recommended. G. Cinema World. Cinemark. Online archives.
Frida: Salma Hayak plays Frida Kahlo, the feminist painter and wife of Mexico's great muralist and painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) and lover of Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush). Directed by Julie Taymor. 2002 Academy Awards to the late Elliot Goldenthal for original score; also, makeup. Underrated film is one of the most visually lush films of 2002. R. Movies 12. Online archives.
From Justin to Kelly: "American Idol" stars Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini in a beach party mood. PG. Cinemark. Cinema World.
Gangs of New York: Martin Scorsese's bloody epic set in mid-1800s N.Y. stars Leonard DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis as rival gang leaders. Co-stars Cameron Diaz, John C. Reilly and Jim Broadbent. One of 2002's great films, with many Academy Award nominations. Very highest recommendations. R. Movies 12. Online archives.
Hollywood Homicide: Fast-paced action comedy directed by Ron Shelton stars Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett as cops, with Isaiah Washington, Lena Olin, Bruce Greenwood, Master P., Lolita Davidovich, Dwight Yoakum, Keith David and Martin Landau. PG-13. Cinemark. Cinema World. Online archives.
How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days: Magazine columnist Kate Hudson and ad agency professional Matthew McConaughey try to get the other to fall in love, but things go awry. High-energy romantic comedy. PG-13. Movies 12.
Hulk, The: Director Ang Lee's action-adventure adaptation of the Marvel Comics series hits darker notes than the usual superhero comics. Scientist's (Eric Bana) inner demons change him after a catastrophic experiment. Written by James Schamus, it also stars Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Josh Lucas and Sam Elliott. PG-13. Cinema World. Cinemark. See review this issue.
Italian Job, The: Mark Wahlberg leads a heist that's double-crossed by one of his crew. Charlize Theron plays a safecracker in this cool revenge movie. Also stars Edward Norton, Mos Def and Donald Sutherland. Highly recommended for its pure entertainment value. PG-13. Cinemark. Online archives.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Directed and re-imagined by Peter Jackson, part two of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy continues. New characters, a surprise return and great battles. Director Peter Jackson's second masterpiece. Very highest recommendations. 2002 Academy Awards for sound editing, visual effects. PG-13. Movies 12. Online archives.
Malibu's Most Wanted: Jamie Kennedy, Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson in an urban comedy about hip-hop culture. PG-13. Movies 12.
Man on the Train: Patrice Leconte's excellent character-driven film stars French icons Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort as men with nothing in common, who meet in a small town and almost exchange identities. Film gives us a glimpse into that private place where our secret dreams live. Very highest recommendations. Through Tues. 7/1 only. R. Bijou. Online archives.
Matrix Reloaded: Second chapter brings Neo (Keanu Reeve), Trinity (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) closer to solving the enigma but also puts them in greater danger. Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, it also stars Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith and Gloria Foster. R. Cinemark. Cinema World. Online archives.
Rugrats Go Wild: Nickelodeon's animated diaper set meets up wit the Wild Thornberrys after being washed ashore to a desert island from a storm-wracked cruise ship. Directed by Norton Virgien and John Eng. Bruce Willis voices Spike the dog. PG. Cinema World. Cinemark.
Shanghai Knights: Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson are out to settle a score in Victorian London in this comedy directed by David Dobkin. PG-13. Movies 12.
Two Fast, Two Furious: John Singleton directs this sequel action adventure about street racing. Stars Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Cole Hauser, Eva Mendes. PG-13. Cinemark.
Wrong Turn: Jeremy Sisto, Eliza Dushku, Desmond Harrington and Emmanuelle Chriqui are trapped in the West Virginia wilderness and pursued by cannibalistic mountain men. Help! R. Movies 12.
X-Men 2: The next link in the evolutionary chain? Directed by Bryan Singer, stars Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden and more, lots more. PG-13. Movies 12.
RELEASES ON VIDEO
Chaplin Collection, The: Newly released four-DVD boxed set are high-quality prints made from original 35-mm films from the Chaplin estate. Includes The Gold Rush, The Great Dictator, Limelight and Modern Times. Extras include documentary commentary on the films and original documentation. If you've never seen Chaplin on the screen, this is your opportunity to see his genius for yourself.
Never on Sunday (France,1960): Jules Dassin stars in and directs this tale of an American intellectual who tries to turn a Greek prostitute (Melina Mercouri) into a woman of refinement. Fabulous scenery, music and performances. NR.
Night of the Shooting Stars (Italy,1982): Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, this end of WWII film set in an Italian village, is one of the best films of that era. Problems between Nazi collaborators and Allied sympathizers erupt. Deeply moving, Videohound says. R.
Prisoner of the Mountains: 1996 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language picture, anti-war film set in present day Chechnya follows a young Russian recruit and a seasoned fighter after their capture by Muslim villager who wants to trade them for his imprisoned son. Unsettling, beautiful film. Realistic view of how little control one has over fate in wartime. R.
Rhapsody in August (Japan, 1991) Akira Kurosawa directs this tale of four children spending the summer with their grandmother, who remembers the atomic bombs dropped during WWII. PG.
Wings of Desire (1988): Bruno Ganz stars in this Wim Wenders film about an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist (Solveig Donmartin) and wants to become mortal. A four-star film any way you look at it, this beautiful film looks at the spiritual bankruptcy of modern life and suggests another way to live. PG-13.
Next week: Basic, Phone Booth.