The most surprising thing about "The Martian" is how relaxed and funny it is.
PARK CITY, Utah I spend a lot of my time at the Sundance Film Festival being told I am at the wrong movie. Think how I felt when "Saving Grace," a comedy set in Cornwall and starring Brenda ("Secrets and Lies") Blethyn made this year's top distribution deal of $4 million, and a local TV station asked me what I thought about it. "Saving who?" I asked.
You pick your movies according to buzz and instinct. I was planning to see "Love & Basketball" on Wednesday night and "Just, Melvin" on Thursday morning, but then I heard I shouldn't miss "Girlfight," which was also screening Thursday morning. OK: "Just, Melvin" was also screening Wednesday night, at the same time as "Love & Basketball." Since "Just, Melvin" had been touted (accurately) as one of the best docs of the year, I skipped "L&B," only to be told at "Girlfight" that it was terrific. So it goes.
"Girlfight" was terrific, too. It's the story of an 18-year-old Hispanic woman who wants to be a prizefighter. She has a hot temper and gets in fights at school - and persuades a trainer to give her lessons. A sweet, uncertain romance develops between her and a guy who looks like a pro contender, and what would you say the odds are the two of them end up in the ring together? The film stars Michelle Rodriguez as the inward, sometimes brooding girl fighter and was directed by Karyn Kusama, who handles the story not as another boxing movie but as a character drama.
Here are some other movies I saw and told people they should have: "Panic" stars William H. Macy as a man who was raised from childhood by his father (Donald Sutherland) to be a hit man. Now he's in his 40s and unhappy, and goes to see a psychiatrist (John Ritter). In the waiting room, he meets a strong-minded 23-year-old (Neve Campbell) and falls instantly in love, although their eventual relationship is based more on psychological sparring than on sex.
Is his love wrong? Will he ever be free of his father's control? Can he pull the trigger on his latest assignment? It sounds like a comedy, and indeed there are many laughs, both funny and wry. But "Panic," written and directed by Henry Bromell, has undertones more serious than the hit-man story line may suggest. A lot of movies contain philosophical speeches, but few of them really mean anything. In "The Big Kahuna," the payoff is surprisingly thoughtful. Three sales executives (Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli) spend a long night in a hotel hospitality suite in Wichita, arguing over machine lubricants, cheese balls, Jesus Christ and career paths. Spacey and DeVito, longtime friends, have worked for years in the marketing department. At the convention, they're hoping to snare a big kahuna who might place a large order. Facinelli, new to the company, doesn't even know who the kahuna is but talks to him all evening about Jesus.
When he finds this out, Spacey is enraged: They've lost a sale, and the kid shouldn't be practicing his religion on company time. DeVito sees more deeply and delivers a long monologue about the difference between a conviction and a sales pitch. The movie, directed by John Swanbeck from a play and screenplay by Roger Rueff, doesn't try to "open up" the stage version but zeros in on it with sudden sharp humor and surprising insight. Mark Gibson's "Lush" is one of the festival's sleepers, the story of a former pro golfer (Campbell Scott) who gets out of prison and lands in a New Orleans fleabag hotel. He meets a lawyer (Jared Harris) who drinks even more than he does and gets involved in a Raymond Chandleresque world of rapacious divorces, country club lizards and Bourbon Street lowlifes. Then the story makes a U-turn into peculiar developments that illustrate the principle that if you drink enough, anything is capable of happening to you - or you'll think it did. "Two Family House," written and directed by Raymond DeFelitta, is the story of a man who is lured outside the rigid rules of his Staten Island Italian-American neighborhood by love and a stubborn integrity. Michael Rispoli stars as an unhappily married factory worker who dreams of opening his own tavern. He buys a house he wants to convert and finds he has a tenant: a brutal drunk with a vulnerable young wife, who has a child whose color does not match the husband's.
The husband disappears, and the would-be tavern owner feels an instinctive sympathy with the young woman (Kelly McDonald), even though everyone he knows despises her for having a black child out of wedlock. The story's not about love or sex or even owning your own bar so much as it's about how some people can't help doing the right thing, even when they think they don't want to. If "Short Cuts" begat "Magnolia," then "Magnolia" in a way leads into "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her," written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Like the other two films, it tells a group of stories set in the San Fernando Valley and involving people whose lives connect in unexpected ways. All of the stories are about relationships that may be good or bad but are all unlikely. Glenn Close is a doctor, Holly Hunter has an unwanted pregnancy, Cameron Diaz is blind and likes to fantasize about cases worked on by her detective sister (Amy Brenneman), and Kathy Baker is astonished to find herself so strongly attracted to the dwarf who has moved in across the street. The film cares about its characters - it's almost protective, as they blunder toward, or away from, what makes them happy.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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