Grand Dames

The big-screen gals of cinema 2003 will keep you watching

Jan 8, 2003 at 4:00 am
Let's start this movie year off right. Let's talk about women -- in film, that is. Oftentimes, women in film act a lot like men in film. (Behold, an almost complete history of men in film, condensed into six words: talking smack and/or cracking skulls.) Of late, however, it has come to this alert critic's attention that sometimes dames is different from dudes. Evidence of this revolutionary theory will abound in your local multiplex throughout Gregorian calendar year 2003 (a.k.a. Chinese year 4700-4701, Hebrew year 5763-5764, Muslim year 1423-1424, etc.) .

Here you'll become acquainted with upcoming films -- femme and otherwise -- charted vaguely by month or season because some distributors have a nasty habit of shifting release dates around at the whims of financial analysts.

Because moving pictures are cozily ensconced in their second century (let's call it Cinema Year 115, given that Edison started developing his kinetograph and kinetoscope in 1888), this former novelty now prompts certain expectations. Answering the call, you're sure to get your superheroes (X-Men 2 in May, The Hulk in June, Ben Affleck as Daredevil way too soon for comfort) and supernerds (see above), your freak-fests (Richard Benjamin directing Damon Wayans as rapper Dr. Snatchcatcher in Marci X: August, maybe) and meaningful dramas (Kevin Spacey in Alan Parker's somber The Life of David Gale in February and Sean Penn in Clint Eastwood's somber Mystic River in October). But throughout the dude ranch of the movie business, the eternal feminine will wend its wondrous way.

Cases in point: director McG's Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (June); Jan De Bont's Lara Croft and the Cradle of Life: Tomb Raider 2 (July); and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde (Independence Day weekend, natch). In these three male-directed productions -- featuring the magazine-sellin' likes of Cameron Diaz, Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon, respectively -- we will experience the still-apparently-revolutionary concept that young ladies rock. You could also count Jonathan Mostow's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (July), except it's hard to say whether cyborg queen Kristanna Loken's attempted destruction of all humankind could rightly be called rockin'. (Sexy Scandinavian monster babe? Is this T-3 or Species 3?) Because these romps are all summertime sequels to proven money-spinners (chick-ching!), they require little theorizing here. However, it's quite probable that they'll be kinda fun.

On the slightly deeper end of the Hollywood spectrum, we'll get Jennifer Connelly -- the Oscar-winner whom you'll find familiar from all those thrilling repeat viewings of A Beautiful Mind -- appearing both in the geek-rage manifesto The Hulk from director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and House of Sand and Fog (Autumn), the feature debut from Russian commercial director Vadim Perelman.

Essentially this year's Spider-Man, Hulk features antipodean actor Eric Bana (Chopper) as the dynamically afflicted Bruce Banner, Nick Nolte as his dad (apparently filling in for Bill Bixby, R.I.P.), Connelly as compassionate girlfriend Betty Ross (what's a monster without a pretty love interest?) and even TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno in a supporting role (a nice gesture after the Batman producers rudely barred Adam West from the very franchise he vigorously helped popularize and sustain). Given Lee's involvement, there'll be emotional sensitivity galore (maybe even the TV-show's plangent closing theme, if we're lucky) to balance all the smashing (the bulky Hulk himself will appear courtesy of Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic).

In sharp contrast, Sand and Fog (based on the popular novel by Andre Dubus III) will set Connelly down in a struggle with a bigger, meaner monster: the American Dream on the California coast, circa 1991. Playing a disturbed alcoholic, she loses her husband and then -- as a result of tax fumblings -- her house, which is snapped up by an exiled Iranian air-force colonel (Ben Kingsley, that crazy Persian!), who wants to provide his family with comfortable American assimilation. The problem is, Connelly's character wants her house back. Featuring Ron Eldard (Ghost Ship) and Iranian star Shohreh Aghdashloo (Surviving Paradise), the film is certain to provoke issues of property and women's rights, which could be why Oprah -- who lives part-time up the road in one of the biggest spreads in Santa Barbara -- dug the book so much.

There will be plenty more movies by, for and about women in 2003. Director Linda Mendoza's comedy Chasing Papi (May), will feature Maria Conchita Alonso and megapercussionist Sheila E. in the tale of a three-timing wannabe pimp daddy who gets his comeuppance. More scholarly in scope will be Mona Lisa Smile (November), wherein Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles and Kirsten Dunst hang around a pretty East Coast college campus in the 1950s, forming a sort of Dead Poetesses' Society. In addition, be sure not to miss Lynne Ramsay's poignant portrait of lost girl Morvern Callar as the gutsy Scottish film gradually opens out across the country.

Also on the radar are Catalin Saizescu's Romanian import Queen Cleopatra's Secret (Secretul reginei Cleopatra) and a weird little movie called May (January, in limited release), starring Angela Bettis as a lonely girl with a nasty Frankenstein complex. The black-comic horror project from fledgling feature director Lucky McKee plays its icky-adolescent card a bit thuddingly, but it's elegantly directed and could hold some appeal for fans of Peter Jackson's darkly wonderful Heavenly Creatures.

That's just a taste of feminine film in '03, but we'd better get to the rip-snortin' dude movies. First let's toot our own horn: Inspired by the feature story of the same name by former Los Angeles New Times writer Michael Gougis comes Reggie Rock Bythewood's Biker Boyz (January), with Laurence Fishburne and newcomer Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) battling through the California desert to prove who rides a motorcycle the coolest. If that gets your blood pumping, see also rapper Ludacris in John Singleton's 2 Fast 2 Furious (June), and Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Desperado 2 (Autumn), reteaming Frida stars Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas.

The aforementioned ass-whuppin' and skull-crackin' may seem mild when compared with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Christopher Walken in Peter Berg's Helldorado (September) or Quentin Tarantino's return with Kill Bill (October), based loosely on his forthcoming first novel of the same name. The highly anticipated Bill, lensed in Hong Kong, will feature Uma Thurman as a very annoyed assassin and Lucy Liu as a yakuza queen, with music by RZA (Ghost Dog) and stuntwork choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping ... who also happens to be stuntmeister on a couple of little movies coming out this year called The Matrix: Reloaded (May) and The Matrix: Revolutions (November).

Summoning moderate doubt in '03, the Coen brothers' October release Intolerable Cruelty (as opposed to ...?) has a stupid title. and July's When Harry Met Lloyd: Dumb and Dumberer (sic) would be more inventive if it were called Dumb and Dumbledore, but from this early vantage point the year looks compelling. There may be some dreck (Like Hell: Jeepers Creepers 2 and American Wedding, a.k.a. American Pie 3, in August; William Friedkin's The Hunted, a.k.a. Slumbo, in February), but, fortunately, no more than average.

I'm keen to catch Liam Neeson in Paul Schrader's Exorcist: The Beginning (July), creepy Suspect Zero (October) from E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire) and the single-shot art film Russian Ark (now rolling out). Let's not forget Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's Terry Gilliam disaster documentary, Lost in La Mancha (rolling out), the obvious hoot of Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler in Anger Management (April) and maybe even Steven Norrington's Alan Moore comic adaptation The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (July).

Men. They talk smack, they crack skulls and, bless 'em, they still run the movies. But something's shifting. Every time I see the faces of great actresses such as Shirley Henderson (24 Hour Party People, American Cousins) and Rachel Griffiths (Amy, The Kelly Gang) or catch the work of Ann Lu (Dreamers) or reflect upon Hulk producer Gale Anne Hurd, a sharp grin appears. Considering current and upcoming cinema, I get the feeling that we've all come a long way, baby, with a vast expanse yet to chart.