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'Cooler' heats up L.A. Film Festival

June 05, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Wayne Kramer's sleek and engaging "The Cooler" is an ideal choice to open the Independent Feature Project's ninth annual Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs through June 21 at various venues. It's sophisticated and intimate enough to fit in a film festival yet it leaves the audience on an upbeat note, ready to party afterward. The Lions Gate release will receive a gala premiere Wednesday.

It is a classic fatalistic Las Vegas romantic fable, a fantasy made persuasive by some smart writing and direction and a trio of knockout performances by William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello. James Whitaker's moody camera work and Mark Isham's equally moody score make this movie's seductiveness complete.

Macy's Bernie has the title role, a luckless gambler so deep in debt -- around $150,000 -- that Shelly (Alec Baldwin), the ruthless manager of the old-style Binion's-like Shangri-La casino, has taken a baseball bat to one of Bernie's kneecaps. He also demands that Bernie stick around, believing he brings bad luck to any table he stands near, until his debt is paid off. Six years have passed, and Bernie has $500, or about a week, to go.

Bernie has become grateful for the kneecapping, which in an instant killed his desire to gamble, and a kind of friendship has developed between the two loners, one so meek, the other so tough.

Then, just as Bernie is about to leave Las Vegas forever, he encounters a new cocktail waitress, Natalie (Bello), pretty, blond, about 30, a woman who's been around enough to recognize and appreciate Bernie for the essentially kind and decent man he is.

Enough said, but know that this is just the beginning. "The Cooler" allows Macy to emerge in middle age as a convincing romantic leading man and Bello a stunning love interest, but the film is anchored by a powerfully complex portrayal by Baldwin as a tough guy of the old school resisting inevitable change. "The Cooler" is make-believe of the most enticing kind.

Czech filmmaker Matej Minac's "All My Loved Ones," which had a local run in March, was a wrenching account of wealthy Czech-Jewish family that waited too long before trying to emigrate in the wake of the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. The family did manage to send its children to safety in England through the efforts of a young English stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, who organized a series of six transports that saved the lives of 669 Jewish children.

Among them was Minac's own mother, and in addition to his fictionalized account of the fate of her family, Minac also made a splendid documentary on Winton, still a human rights activist in his 90s.

"The Power of Good" screens Saturday and Sunday as part of the Laemmle Theaters' Bagels and Docs: New Jewish Documentaries series.

Now concerned with helping the abandoned children of Rio de Janeiro, among several other major projects, Nicholas Winton surely exemplifies the miracle of good emerging from evil.



"The Cooler": Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ArcLight Cinemas , 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (866) FILMFEST.

"The Power of Good": Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Also June 14-15, 11 a.m., at the Monica 4-Plex, (310) 394-9741; and June 21-22 at the Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710.

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