*Crazy in Alabama (PG-13)
When I heard I was to review a movie directed by Antonio Banderas, lately known as Zorro, I braced myself. But, truth be told, Crazy in Alabama, a film adaptation of the novel by the same name, is quite charming, and a decent debut film for the Spanish actor-turned-director.
Except for a few too-obvious filmic stunts, Banderas mostly stays out of the way and demonstrates his directorial skill first and foremost by selecting a good story. Peejoe, the nickname of Peter Joseph (Lucas Black), is a young orphan living with his grandmother in 1963 when his Aunt Lucille (Melanie Griffith) arrives with a car full of children and a confession -- she has murdered her husband and chopped off his head. Aunt Lucille begs her mother to take the kids and allow her just a month to become a movie star. She takes off cross country, toting her husband's head in a Tupperware container. So much for the fun, lighthearted stuff.
While the law pursues Lucille, the civil rights movement comes to Industry, Ala., and young Peejoe witnesses the death of a young black boy at the hands of the local sheriff (Meatloaf) for the crime of swimming in the public pool. These two parallel stories converge to force Peejoe and his family to wrestle with the problems of honor, family and justice in the glare of the national spotlight.
As far as I can recall, Melanie Griffith always plays the girly girl, so her casting and acting in Crazy in Alabama was no surprise here. She does a fine job doing what she usually does, and looks especially sexy in tight 1950s pedal pushers and high-heel shoes. I derived more pleasure from the supporting characters, most notably the town's two undertakers, Peejoe's Uncle Dove (David Morse), the white undertaker, and Nehemiah (John Beasley), the black undertaker and father of the murdered boy. Both of these men lend the film a quiet gravity, underscoring the danger of living in Industry, Ala., circa 1963.
Despite a strong adaptation by the novel's author Mark Childress, he resorts to the same voice-over technique that has become de rigeur in Hollywood this year. Enough already! With so many tools at the hands of the filmmaker, why weaken the story by insisting on TELLING us what it is about? Instead, draw us inexorably to the same conclusion as the protagonist so we have no choice to understand. OK, 'nuff said.
Except for the heavy-handed voice-over ending, telling us how to read the movie, Crazy in Alabama generally succeeds as an eyewitness view of one of the most important moments in our national history. If it all wraps up tidier and happier than real life, well, this is Hollywood, and more power to 'em for broaching the subject at all.