Bear Cub

Also: The Big Red One, Cowboys & Angels, and Fade to Black.

Bear Cub

Opens Fri., Dec. 10, at Harvard Exit

In gay lexicon, "cub" usually refers to a younger version of the beefy, older, hairy guys who call themselves "bears." While director Miguel Albaladejo's Spanish- language drama is filled with the latter, the cub in question here is simply a child who brings out the paternal instincts of an aforementioned homosexual burlyman. The result won't make you forget Yogi or Smokey or any other ursine icon, and it's not the best of the "accidental parent" genre, but its beguilingly artless look at people we don't often see represented accurately on the screen makes it stand out from mostly methodical American gay indie efforts.

Pedro (José Luis García-Pérez) is a fussy dentist with a freewheeling romantic life who's forced to focus when his widowed hippie sister, Violeta (Elvira Lindo), is detained indefinitely for drug possession in India, leaving him with his sensitive 9-year-old nephew, Bernardo (David Castillo). Yeah, this is just a modern spin on an old formula, but Bear Cub begins with the meandering richness of real lives being lived. Pedro, Violeta, and Pedro's bear friends are characters with full dimensions—people with emotional histories, who can pass casually into and out of one another's lives, who can fight in one moment and apologize the next. There's a casual immediacy to the way everybody here interacts, and to the nonevents that the movie makes of each minor conflict.

It's only when Albaladejo decides to kick in with contrivance that the film loses its way. It's certainly believable when Violeta's disparaging mother-in-law (Empar Ferrer) angles for custody of Bernardo in a particularly despicable manner. But once she does so, the movie descends into a quick succession of traumas that seem like a violation of the low-key ethic it had so successfully established. You feel a little cheated when everything starts to turn into the kind of movie-of-the-week you were afraid you'd get in the first place.

Still, the film is rich in performance (young Castillo never becomes cloying, believe it or not). And when it keeps a calm head about things, Bear Cub has an affecting understanding of the difficulties of living a life—or forming a family—of your own choosing. (NR) STEVE WIECKING

The Big Red One

Runs Fri., Dec. 10–Thurs. Dec. 16, at Northwest Film Forum

A World War II infantryman who landed in North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy and was wounded twice, the late director-writer Samuel Fuller loathed what he called "phony heroics." There's a sense in which all of Fuller's fabulously blunt and dynamic movies are about war. But his oeuvre does include four remarkable and provocative examples of the combat genre: the Korean War scoops The Steel Helmet (1951) and Fixed Bayonets (1951); the mutilated but gruelingly effective Burma roadster Merrill's Marauders (1962); and his autobiographical labor of love, The Big Red One (1980). Shot for an extremely modest $4 million and released in a severely edited version, the movie was a disappointment; in his memoirs, Fuller was still dreaming of his original four-hour cut, which he imagined residing in a Hollywood vault after Warner Bros. acquired the rights. Richard Schickel's restoration isn't that particular holy grail, but it does add nearly an hour to the original edit (it's now 158 minutes long).

"Fictional life based on factual death," per Fuller's hard-boiled formulation, The Big Red One recounts the combat as a series of grotesque (or grotesquely corny) adventures in which Lee Marvin's stoic god of war leads a platoon of callow recruits through the carnage. Recent raves notwithstanding, it's no masterpiece. The performances can be execrable, and the timing is off; the movie suffers from its low budget, but even more from the self-consciousness that afflicted Fuller's work after Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street. The Big Red One isn't even Fuller's greatest war film. Of those, I'd rank it fourth—but that's not half bad. (R) J. HOBERMAN

Cowboys & Angels

Opens Fri., Dec. 10, at Varsity

If John Hughes were still making teen entertainment, he'd find himself in direct competition with writer-director David Gleeson's fresh-faced Irish feature. The movie has everything Pretty in Pink or Some Kind of Wonderful had—the cute young leads struggling against conformity, the happening soundtrack, the fairy-tale uplift at the final fade—and even updates them with a little of the edge that Hughes would never quite attempt.

For one thing, Gleeson's tale actually contains the homosexual character that Hughes always implied but shied away from (he was fond of substituting Anthony Michael Hall or Jon Cryer as the flamboyantly hetero stand-in). Vincent (Allen Leech) is a gay fashion student in Limerick who rooms with naive Shane (Michael Legge), a clean-cut 20-year-old straight boy in a dead-end civil service job despite aspirations toward art school. Cowboys doesn't work wonders with the friendship—and, of course, it's Shane who's the main focus. Vincent comes perilously close to serving as a kicky accessory to Shane's emancipation, but the movie doesn't make undue import of the gay/straight cohabitation: It's not a big deal here because it's not a big deal.

While Vincent readies a final show for the runway, Shane moons over Vincent's pal Gemma (Amy Shiels) until his lack of self-confidence leads him into an unholy alliance with Keith (David Murray), the drug dealer downstairs. Things work out pretty much how you'd expect, though the pansexuality that pops up late in the game is a refreshing surprise. Cowboys has a sweet empathy for the singular hardships of feeling young and trapped by your greatest ambitions. And, unlike Hughes, Gleeson allows his characters to make genuinely awkward, awful errors of judgment without losing any of their luster. Legge is a particularly bright-eyed, adorable hero, and he and Leech have great rapport in a scene that finds them briefly jailed for drug possession; the mood believably changes from misfortune to mirth in the way that such events do for overwhelmed twentysomethings.

Don't expect too much and you'll enjoy yourself. Cowboys doesn't tread completely new ground, and you have to know that any movie that climaxes with a victorious fashion show isn't going to be Citizen Kane. (NR) STEVE WIECKING

Fade to Black

Opens Fri., Dec. 10, at Meridian

Oh, goodie—it's the second not-terribly-interesting Jay-Z documentary in five years! First was 2000's Backstage, a life- on-the-road flick that chronicled 1999's Hard Knock Life Tour, which Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man, and Redman headlined. Now we get a movie that flips between a not-terribly-illuminating look at the making of the star's alleged "final" album, 2003's The Black Album, and mucho aggrandizing concert footage of Jay-Z's supposed "final" show, in Madison Square Garden near The Black Album's release. Get that dirt off your shoulder and pass the popcorn!

The difference, though, is that in Backstage, Jay-Z seemed more playful; surrounded by his tourmates, he held court like benevolent royalty. Here, he's been at the top for a while, and he's clearly bored with the spotlight. He's still likable, but the clear-eyed cool that's long marked his rapping style is chillier. The music is uniformly excellent, but the staging loses what it usually does on film—immediacy, scale, interactivity. And when the brilliantly nonchalant Ghostface does a walk-on rap with fellow guest artist Beyoncé (Jay-Z's squeeze, whose three-song mini-set acts as a kind of intermission for the show), or Mary J. Blige, hat over eyes, tears into her parts of "Can't Knock the Hustle" and "Song Cry" (Jay himself gets so choked up at one point that he has to run backstage), or Freeway runs circles around the poised pros surrounding him (Jay, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek) and makes it look effortless, the star's stone-faced CEO persona becomes harder to care about.

That's not necessarily true of the studio footage; when Jay-Z likes a track, he becomes a human bobblehead, and his facial expressions go into full-on "that's nasty-meaning-good" mode. Still, he's almost a straight man compared to the superproducers who make his beats: It's fun watching Timbaland, Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, and Kanye West sell him on the tracks they've cooked up. Too bad we don't see more of them. (R) MICHAELANGELO MATOS

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