Superb Missing Leaves Nothing Out

From all indications, there is life after Jack Valenti. As president of the Motion Picture Association of America (whatever that

From all indications, there is life after Jack Valenti. As president of the Motion Picture Association of America (whatever that is), his moronic ban on VHS and DVD “screeners” for critics this voting season will, I predict, backfire on the industry as a whole, resulting in disaster for a number of big releases from Hollywood studios. Countless critics I know are already planning to ignore them totally when the New York Film Critics Circle votes on Dec. 15 and cast their ballots instead for small, less expensive, independent films, which are exempt from the ban. This kind of retaliation is no shock, because so-called “blockbusters” rarely win prizes anyway, but it does come at a bad time, because commercial movies are getting better. Along with the usual bloated, ridiculously overhyped snores ( Master and Commander ), insulting romantic comedies that are neither romantic nor funny ( Love Actually ) and hateful, mean-spirited Christmas thistles ( Looney Tunes and The Cat in the Hat ), you may be pleasantly surprised by the number of genuinely exciting, brilliantly crafted and artistically sound new releases that are coming your way.

They are arriving already. Ron Howard’s gothic western The Missing is a suspense thriller in spurs that teams that famous leather-skinned Indian, Tommy Lee Jones, with that famous frontier pioneer woman, Cate Blanchett. As miscast as that might seem, don’t chuckle: They are both superb. And the film itself is the rawest, scariest, most nerve-rattling saddlebags-and-sagebrush saga since Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1969). Intense, emotionally wrenching and authentically evocative of the New Mexico territory of 1885, this movie is also intimate, character-driven and very contemporary in its time-resistant themes of healing, redemption and forgiveness.

Ms. Blanchett, an actress who brings strength, resolve and integrity to every assignment, plays a gritty survivor of the punishing frontier life-a hardened loner with two daughters to raise who works the land and offers her services as a healer, performing crude services like midwifing and pulling teeth, for which she seldom gets paid. Wary of men and reliant on none, her life of resentment and rage grew roots when her father deserted her as a child, abandoning her mother and brother to die of broken hearts and neglect. Here was a man who had studied art in New York and left his family to paint the people, animals and austere beauty of the American West. Living for years with the Apaches, he grew to look and dress like an Indian, and to respect and practice their spiritual beliefs. Old and sick now, he returns out of instinct and the need for salvation, looking like Geronimo, to reconnect with the daughter who despises him. But it’s too late to change the past, and despite the curiosity of her daughters, she sends him back to the wilderness to dance with Kevin Costner’s wolves. Then a horrible crisis forces the unsalvageable father-daughter estrangement into a phase of moral rearmament when Ms. Blanchett’s ranch foreman and sometime lover (Aaron Eckhart) is savagely slaughtered and her eldest daughter (the enchanting Evan Rachel Wood, star of the runaway hit Thirteen ) is kidnapped by a brutal, psychotic Apache killer who is capturing white teenage girls to sell on the sexual slave market in Mexico. Since it takes an Apache to track and catch an Apache, Ms. Blanchett has no choice but to grudgingly appeal to her father. On the arduous physical and emotional journey that follows the arc of the story in a race against time from the ranch to the Mexican border (reminiscent of John Wayne’s search for kidnapped Natalie Wood in John Ford’s The Searchers ), the white-knuckle script by Ken Kaufman, based on Thomas Eidson’s rugged novel The Last Ride , delivers a detailed analysis of two souls in torment, overcoming bitterness, learning to let go of past betrayals, forging a new dynamic. Before the rescue mission ends, in both tragedy and triumph, you also get one hell of an action-packed entertainment. The violence is unbearable, and be forewarned: If you suffer from herpetophobia, as I do, the Indians do a lot of stuff with rattlesnakes hanging from tree branches, striking from above, that I found hair-frying. The Missing (not to be confused with Missing , the 1982 Costa-Gavras masterpiece with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek) is not for the squeamish.

Tidal waves, sandstorms, massacres, witchcraft, primitive surgeries performed by medieval instruments sterilized with mescal-I’m not sure what, if anything, Ron Howard left out. Nothing happens the way western-movie clichés have prepared us for. Even the cavalry officer (Val Kilmer) who leads a ragged band of soldiers looking for Army deserters and renegade Indians fails to show up at the right time. Meanwhile, Ron Howard gets maximum impact from the dusty sage and peppermint skies of the Southwestern landscape that hasn’t changed in more than a century, and the performances are charged with power and creativity. More than just a long-haired cigar-store Cochise with a feather on his head, Tommy Lee Jones lights up the internal darkness of a man torn between two worlds and accepted by neither. Despite his bravery and skill in the ways and words of the abductors (while preparing for this role, he actually lived with the Apaches and learned to speak their language), he’s in worse jeopardy than anyone else on the trail, yet he never apologizes for his past, and you know he will die with the same pride that was his talisman to live by. It’s jarring to see Queen Elizabeth I haying the livestock and chopping the firewood, but Cate Blanchett faces the lawlessness of the Old West with the same stoic feminism that became the driving force behind her portrayals of British royalty, Charlotte Gray, Veronica Guerin and Galadriel, the Queen of the Elves. She becomes such a part of the cruel, hard terrain of sandstone, boulders, volcanic craters and mesas of white gypsum that you can see and feel her misery. In The Missing , she is so believable as pioneer stock it’s impossible to realize that, after the endless traumas of location shooting north of Los Alamos, she was just down the road from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the frozen margaritas of Santa Fe. After The Missing , I needed one myself.

Fightin’ Irish

One of the best films I have seen this year, writer-director Jim Sheridan’s insightful, joyous and positively heart-stopping In America evokes the deeply moving, honestly observed, tragicomic events in the life of a family of newly arrived Irish immigrants in New York City. Innocent and guileless, Sarah and Johnny (incandescent Samantha Morton and charismatic Paddy Considine) travel from Ireland to start a new life after the accidental death of their only son. As the grief-stricken couple and their two young daughters try to settle into their new environs, they are all haunted by this loss, but determined to make the next chapter of their family life rich, rewarding and positive.

Their grinding poverty and culture shock is instantly exhilarating (Times Square through the windows of a rented station wagon is like a visit to another planet) and daunting (the only lodging they can afford is a dilapidated tenement building inhabited by drug addicts and criminals who hardly represent the American Dream). Penniless but loving, responsible and good-natured, Johnny works double shifts driving a taxi between auditions for acting jobs, Sarah works as a waitress in an ice-cream parlor. Life is tough, but they are saved from depression by unending good spirits and their spunky daughters, Christy and Ariel, played with rapturous wonder by Sarah and Emma Bolger, two of the most miraculous real-life sisters who have ever shared a screen or purloined an audience’s heart. Sweating through the heat after Dad drags a used air conditioner through the streets and up the endless flights of stairs to blow out the electric fuse, and huddling in the cold when the radiators freeze, these children see beyond the peeling walls, crumbling floors and broken plumbing of their dark new home.

Through their sweetness and trust, dirty old New York might as well be the Emerald City of Oz. Adventurous and blind to ethnic prejudices and sexual orientation, the children cheerfully extend equal-opportunity fondness to drag queens, panhandlers, hookers and even Mateo, the particularly foreboding and possibly dangerous black giant downstairs with an icebox filled with medications who lives in the shadow of AIDS, screams in the night and is feared by all the neighbors. Fueled by curiosity on their first Halloween, the little girls march up to his bolted door and yell, “Trick or treat!” While Mom copes with asthma attacks and a new, unplanned pregnancy that threatens her life and Dad spends the rent money to win an E.T. doll for the youngest daughter in a crooked street fair, the children inspire and affect all of the strange, hostile and offbeat people they meet. A new chapter begins with the friendship they forge with the angry, dying Mateo (played by the inimitable Djimon Hounsou, of Amistad fame), who repays their trust and courage in a way that saves their lives.

Some cynics may label this movie Angela’s Ashes with the Dead End Kids, but it never remotely heads in that direction. Without a touch of easy sentimentality or lachrymose emotional manipulation, multiple Academy Award nominee Jim Sheridan turns sensitive material into an uplifting story of ingenuity and strength of will graduating from the school of hard knocks. Semi-autobiographical, it’s a serious story about real people that reflects Mr. Sheridan’s optimism in the immigrant-family dynamic that has made America what it is. Always praised as an actor’s director (just think of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot ), he draws wonderful performances from a fine and appealing cast. As hardships give way to accomplishments, they maintain a sense of ensemble proportion. The resolve and steely will of this family of four, inspired by the example of their dying friend Mateo, is what lifts this film into the realm of pure delight. In America is a sometimes wrenching but ultimately life-affirming portrait of memory and loss, death and love, in an immigrant environment where imagination must replace material resources. The best thing I can think of to reflect the true spirit of the holiday season, this is a film to be admired, applauded-and savored.

Vegas Fable

In the demimonde of casino talk, a “cooler” is a person who, for reasons unexplainable, is so unlucky he can cast a pall over the gaming tables: If you’re on a winning streak hitting nothing but nines, the cooler shows up, your luck goes sour and the odds turn to the house’s favor. The Cooler is a slick, mean-spirited film noir about one of these geeks named Bernie Lootz (another sensational pen-and-ink from William H. Macy’s gallery of movie caricatures), who lives in a seedy motel in Vegas with nothing to show for his aberrational talent except a gimpy leg, once smashed with a hammer by the oily, psychotic casino boss, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), for whom Bernie is working off a lifetime gambling debt. Bernie is a nebbish, but a decent guy with a hard past who is trying to get his life back on track. When a torrid romance begins with Natalie (Maria Bello), a trampy waitress hard as a broken glue-on nail, Bernie can hardly believe it. He gets his long-lost balls back. The house starts losing. Shelly has to find a way to destroy this change of luck and control them both, even if it means murder.

Great performances fly out of the strangest stinkholes in this grim film, including Paul Sorvino as an over-the-hill, heroin-addicted Rat Pack crooner who can no longer croon, and the always reliable Mr. Macy, who plays losers with low self-esteem better than anybody. His plants die. His cat ran away. He hasn’t had a blowjob in 10 years. He breaks your heart, while Mr. Baldwin (sensational as a soulless heel) breaks his head wide open. Directed with a couple of brass knuckles by Wayne Kramer, The Cooler turns into a disappointing fable in the end, but for most of its 101 minutes, it’s a grim companion piece to Leaving Las Vegas . What havoc this film will wreak on the convention business remains to be seen, but the Nevada bureaucrats will undoubtedly turn white. In The Cooler , sorrow and terror move to a relentless lounge beat, and the claustrophobic neon of Las Vegas looks like a dirty, sequined hell where the only exit is in a garbage sack. Superb Missing Leaves Nothing Out