Chico & Rita. Directors Fernando Trueba and artist Javier Mariscal take a lingering, discursive look at the bumpy love affair between a jazz pianist and a singer in this Oscar-nominated animated feature. The movie begins with the pianist -- old and wandering through the mists of memory -- thinking about how he met Rita in Havana during the jazzy latter days of Batista's regime. The story takes Chico and Rita from Havana to New York, Paris and Las Vegas as they try to sustain musical careers and fan the flames of an affair that meets with its share of obstacles, some of them caused by Chico's roving eye. The movie's music takes precedence over the animation, which tends to flatten out faces, and an improbable ending puts a smiley face on a sometimes edgy story. Still, the main virtue of Chico & Rita is that it's aimed entirely at adults, which means it makes room for Rita's voluptuous carnality and includes an animated sex scene. I don't take this as a sign that adult-oriented animation has a real future, but one always can hope.
NORWEGIAN WOOD, IT'S NOT ALWAYS SO GOOD
As a lover of director Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya, I found myself hoping I'd be equally transported by Norwegian Wood, Tran's big-screen adaptation of a popular 1987 Japanese novel by Haruki Murakami. Tran serves up some of the year's best and most memorable imagery, but tells a story that's never fully involving. The tale springs from the suicide in the 1960s of an adolescent whose death haunts the lives of two friends. Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) leaves his village home to become a college student in Tokyo, but remains detached from the student turmoil that surrounds him. Eventually, Watanabe re-connects with the beautiful Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), who was the girlfriend of the boy who killed himself. Watanabe and Naoka establish a relationship, but she ultimately winds up languishing in a mental institution, tormented by the unfulfilled sexual relationship she had with the boy who committed suicide. Another student (Kiko Mizuhara) -- the sexually aggressive Midori -- also establishes a relationship with Wantanabe. The elements of a fine movie are in place, but Norwegian Wood misses the mark, something in the manner of an arrow that hits the target and falls gently to the ground. Notable, though, are the brilliant work of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin and the musical score of Jonny Greenwood.
WAIT, HAVEN'T WE BEEB DOWN THIS ROAD BEFORE?
It's not possible for me totally to resist a performance by Alan Arkin, so I was happy enough watching Thin Ice, a bit of neo-noir set during the middle of winter in Wisconsin, where (as one character) puts it, there are two seasons: winter and road work. Director Jill Sprecher tells the story of an unscrupulous insurance agent (Greg Kinnear) who's trying to persuade a aging and somewhat addled client (Arkin) to give him a valuable violin. Of course, Arkin's Gorvy, who lives in a house strewn with bric-a-brac and clutter, doesn't know the instrument has any real value, at least not at first. The plot thickens appropriately as Sprecher makes room for appearances by Bob Balaban (as an appraiser of violins), David Harbour (as an ultra-sincere insurance agent who works for Kinnear's Micky), and Billy Crudup (as a workman who installs security alarms). Crudup gives a strange and lively performance as a man who becomes mired in criminal activity, and Kinnear does his best to hold the story together as an increasingly desperate man. The trouble with Thin Ice: If you've seen enough of these neo-noir, con-game stories, you'll peep the movie's hole card long before you should. This is not a case where familiarity breeds contempt, but it sure as hell takes off some of the edge.