Saturday, June 5, 2004

Meant to post this yesterday, but there you go -- Thursday's video reviews today!

‘The Cooler’
Poor William H. Macy. He’s the sad sack, the lovable loser, the hapless patsy, in films ranging from “Fargo” to “Boogie Nights.”
But Macy, while one of our most engaging character actors, isn’t the kind of guy who gets to play a romantic lead very often.
Cue “The Cooler,” a snappy, engaging Las Vegas love story and fable. Macy is Bernie, a “cooler,” a man whose luck is so bad he’s retained by a crooked casino owner, Shelly (Alec Baldwin), to hang around and “break” winning streaks with his gloomy mojo. If you’re winning, you’re losing when Bernie comes to your table.
But when Bernie falls for cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello), things start looking up — and his knack as a cooler starts to fall apart, to Shelly’s dismay.
To dig this flick, you have to suspend your disbelief a little to accept that there is such a thing as a “cooler” and that a man’s luck can be an infectious force. Indeed, “The Cooler” overplays the luck angle a bit and starts to get a little ridiculous by the ending, but for the most part it’s a taut, sexy Vegas mood piece.
Macy is a true pro, and it’s hard not to love Bernie and cheer him on even as he keeps failing. Bello is his equal as Natalie, the girl who seems too good for Bernie but who has a few secrets of her own. Baldwin very nearly steals the movie, though, with his vile casino owner, a masterful portrait of greed who longs for the “good ol’ days” of Vegas before it became a family playground. This ferocious Academy Award-nominated turn is the best Baldwin’s ever been.
“The Cooler” is surprising in how it veers wildly from light comic romance to bursts of very adult sexuality, shocking violence and drama. There’s a moment or two that’ll make you gasp with its intensity. If you’re expecting a cozy ride, it’ll throw you, but I find it holds together. It’s worth taking a gamble on for lovers of quality small films.
***1/2 of four stars

‘The Girl With A Pearl Earring’
An “art” film in every meaning of the phrase, “Girl With A Pearl Earring” takes a famous painting — the one of the title — and imagines how it was created. “Pearl Earring” is one of only a handful of paintings by the realistic Dutch artist Vermeer, but it’s a glowing image that’s justifiably legendary.
Little is actually known of Vermeer, but a novel by Tracy Chevalier, adapted here, imagines that Vermeer (Colin Firth) and an uneducated but inquisitive housemaid of his, Griet (Scarlett Johansson) forged a bond that led to art. Griet is hired by Vermeer’s family, including his jealous, ever-pregnant wife. She is fascinated by the new worlds she sees in Vermeer’s art, and gradually becomes a kind of muse to him.
This is a slow but captivating little movie, about the impact of art on a life, and it’s a visual feast, with luminous, painterly cinematography that mimics the look of Vermeer’s classic art. It comes close to dull and plodding in a few scenes, though. Take away the gorgeous look, and it seems a little like sub-par “Masterpiece Theatre.”
It’s also not truly a romance — Vermeer and Griet don’t fall madly into each other’s arms. It would’ve been unthinkable given the time. “Pearl Earring” ends up far more about what is not being said than what is said.
Johansson is excellent, one of the rare young actresses today able to pull off a period acting role without seeming too modern. Firth captures the obsessive nature of any good painter. It’s a very subtle movie, but rewarding in its quiet way. Just like a good painting, I suppose.
**1/2 of four

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