The movie is a blessing. We know about Ellis Island at the beginning of the last century: from books, maybe, or our grandparents or great-grandparents. But Golden Door makes it tactile. The film has three distinct sections, each mysterious, each stylized in its own way. The first, in Sicily, frames the men and women who contemplate the journey to the New World against white stone: stone walls, stone hills, a sea of sharp stones between mountains and villages. There’s no music—only the sounds of chickens and goats. To leave the Old World is a wrenching decision for the farmer, Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), his sons (one a deaf-mute), and his severe old mother (Aurora Quattrocchi). Their religion is as elemental as their homeland—they beg the saints for a sign. And they get a dilly: doctored photos from America showing people holding sci-fi-size mutant vegetables and money literally growing on trees.
The rhythms of the movie are slow and daydreamy, but Crialese delights in breaking up the realism with his protagonist’s mystical—almost madcap—visions of the New World’s abbondanza. The ship becomes a giant stage-set on which the Sicilians roam, pray, settle into bunks, and, tragically, die in numbers when a storm hits. (The camera remains below deck as they’re hurled around—there are no exterior shots once the movie leaves Sicily.) There is also an exotic creature aboard: a poised, smartly dressed Englishwoman called Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with a past she keeps to herself. Salvatore circles her, spies on her. She is like nothing he has ever seen. She is modernity itself.
What happens in the last section—on Ellis Island—will be an eye-opener for those of us who cling to our romantic illusions: a battery of intelligence tests to prevent “below average” people from polluting the genetic pool, even if it means admitting some family members and sending others back. By far the most jarring ritual is the one in which males are coldly paired with (frequently horrified) females for quickie marriages. (“Do you acknowledge him?”) The greatness of Golden Door is its tone; sympathetic but always wry. Its immigrants are processed and released into the New World, where so many doors have been opened and so many others slammed shut.
When I was a kid in the sixties, my parents would dump me and my little brother at the movies, where we’d see pitiful imports like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or slapstick comedies with Dean Jones and some fucked-up dog or ghost or Volkswagen. Today, at least in my overprotective circles, parents go along with their kids, which means the makers must appeal to multiple age groups. What studio executives call “hand-hold films” offer action, tomfoolery, and life lessons (“Believe in yourself,” “Dare to dream,” etc.) for kids, pop-culture in-jokes for grown-ups, and fart jokes for everyone. Shrek the Third isn’t up with the best of the genre, but it’s well above the median. I’m guessing it was a committee effort: multiple drafts by some of the top gag artists in the business and endless sprucing up by overpaid rewrite guys. Computer-generated animated movies with wall-to-wall jokes can be excruciating, but these jokes are the funniest money can buy.
I’m no Shrek pushover. I found the first one laborious, ugly, and, when Eddie Murphy’s donkey sidekick was rolling his eyes and sounding like the “colored” help in old movies, creepy. But the sequel was light on its feet, and by kid-flick standards, rather subversive. The fat green ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) fell for the willowy blonde Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who turned out to have been under a spell: She was a fat green ogre herself! But she and Shrek weren’t allowed to live grossly ever after. The kings, queens, fairy godmothers, and Prince Charmings wanted her skinny and blonde again.
Shrek 2 had wave upon wave of parodies. Shrek the Third has more. It’s a busy movie, crammed with plot. While Fiona’s dad, the king (John Cleese), now a frog (long story), lays dying, Fiona and Shrek are expected to carry on the pomp and circumstance. But flatulent ogres and royal protocol don’t mix. So Shrek sets out to find another heir to the throne, one Arthur Pendragon (an earnest Justin Timberlake), a nerd at a medieval prep school across the ocean. As Shrek and his two sidekicks—Antonio Banderas’s swashbuckling feline somewhat compensating for Murphy’s ass—pull out to sea, Fiona stuns her husband with the news that she’s pregnant.
The last Shrek introduced—hilariously—a host of fairy-tale figures, and Shrek the Third widens the net. To take back the kingdom, the spurned Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) assembles a crew of defeated villains like Captain Hook and Rumpelstiltskin. Charming plans to stage a traditional fairy-tale melodrama in which he gets to slay the ogre, but what happens when he and Shrek face off before the kingdom is a nerd’s dream: Wit emasculates good looks. The bodily-function jokes fit beautifully into Shrek the Third’s slob-happy worldview. Early on, Shrek nuzzles Fiona in bed. “Morning breath,” he says, laughing. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
Brian Jun’s Steel City is the kind of Sundance-y film that critics used to label “deadbeat realism”—slices of working-class life that no working-class moviegoer would dream of sitting through. But this one works: It has vivid characters, a strong sense of place, and a free-floating hopelessness that never precludes the possibility of meaningful action. John Heard plays a father who goes to prison after killing a woman in a car crash, leaving his guilt-wracked son (Tom Guiry) to sort out his legacy and keep from making the same dumb mistakes as his dad and older brother. America Ferrera is the heavy Hispanic girl he unexpectedly—and happily—falls for. As Uncle Vic, Raymond J. Barry does the Christopher Walken thing: now avuncular, now fixed-and-dilated blood-freezing, the height of Method cool.