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Big Fish

Tim Burton's Surprise Heartwarmer
I approach Tim Burton films with a certain trepidation. Will it be "Edward Scissorhands" or "Batman II?" With Burton you could get a quirky comedy, a dark thriller, or sweet morality tale. And there's always the possibility of Danny DeVito chomping down on a raw fish.

"Big Fish" combines Burton's unusual humor with a heart-wrenching story of a father-son deathbed reconciliation. Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor share the role of Ed Bloom, one of the big fish from the movie's title while an SUV-sized catfish plays the other. Bloom is a metaphorical and literal big fish in the small pond of Ashton, Alabama in this tale told mostly through flashback. Jessica Lange plays his wife and Billy Crudup plays the son, Will, estranged from his father for the past three years. Father and son are reunited as Finney lies dying of cancer.

Ed Bloom has spent his life spinning his personal history into mythological proportions: an early encounter with a very tall man becomes a battle with a house-sized giant; a rural village is depicted as heaven on earth; military service during the Korean War morphs into a behind-the-lines mission that would make Duke Nukem proud. Originally a true believer, Will now knows everything his father has told him was not just an exageration or even a tall tale but an outright lie. In his effort to understand the truth behind his father's stories he learns to love the man as well as the mythology. And Burton delivers a terrific punchline at the end of the film that left me both tickled and weeping, a truly weird emotional state.

Burton deals with mythic themes in "Big Fish." Besides the surface story of the generational tension between father and son he explores the metaphor of the big-fish-in-a-small-pond by examining the impact Ed Bloom has had on the lives he's touched in his workaday contacts with colleagues, customers (he's a traveling salesman), and people in the small towns across the South. Not exactly "It's A Wonderful Life," he still manages to show how all of us -- even the little fish -- have profound effects on the people around us. And of course love -- unrequited and reciprocated -- control almost all of Ed's many adventures.

The acting is wonderful. You will actually believe two Brits and a Scot (Finney, Helena Bonham Carter, and McGregor) are natives of small town Alabama. Lange brings dignity and brio to the role of the long "suffering" wife -- and she still looks great(!)-- you believe she has had a long and loving life with Finney/McGregor. DeVito is a delight in the role of a circus ringmaster. But the scene-stealer is Bonham Carter in the dual role of Jenny and the crone witch.

I rated this movie ten stars and when you see it you'll do the same.

The Searchers

Nuanced & Morally Ambiguous
Director John Ford turns a traditional `cowboys & Indians' Western into a nuanced and morally ambiguous story in this 1956 John Wayne vehicle. Wayne's Ethan Edwards is by turns taciturn, snarling, and raging - not much of a stretch, even for the predictably wooden actor. But during the movie we see Wayne progress from hate-driven brute to stoic. Not exactly a sensitive New Age guy, he nevertheless transforms from anti-hero to genuine hero by the end of the film. In this way the movie is much more like a modern psychodrama than a plain ole shoot 'em up. The inner tension emerges during a confrontation over the object of the search of the movie's title, missing niece Debbie (Natalie Wood hot off her turn in `Rebel Without A Cause'). Without explicitly telling us, Ford shows us that Wayne has become convinced that death is a better fate for Debbie than life as a Comanche squaw. Hostage rescue segues into mercy killing?

Speaking of racism, the film is larded with thoughtless denigrations and knee jerk cant of the only-good-Indian-is-a-dead-Indian variety but this is hardly historically inaccurate. The `only good Indian' quote is after all a Teddy Roosevelt paraphrase. And the Indian villain, Scar, is completely irredeemable. But Ford portrays some natives with sympathy and a lot of the white men as bush-whackers, thieves, and knaves. It belies a certain 21st century politically correct deconstructionism to point out that acceptable movie dialog in the 50's doesn't work in the new millennium so I'll just remind viewers to keep the movie in proper historical context - both its 19th century and 1956.

Costar Jeffrey Hunter is over the top throughout as whining, though stalwart fellow searcher, Martin. He serves as part comic foil, part punching bag to Wayne. Vera Miles is wasted in a romantic subplot for Hunter - her character barely develops beyond the cliché `girl he left behind.' The John Wayne Players - Ward Bond, John Qualen, Harry Carey, Jr. and Hank Worden - make an appearance in supporting though caricatured performances but the uncredited costar is the spectacular Monument Valley, Utah. Though set in west Texas, the unmistakable MV scenery is both stark and beautiful - more so than any place in real-life Texas.

Overall it's a stunningly beautiful movie with a surprising performance from Wayne.

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