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Film: Indie flicks

Culture clash with kick

By Times staff
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003

[Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

Bend It Like Beckham (PG-13) (110 min.) -- Gurinder Chadha's film is another culture-clash comedy in the vein of Billy Elliot and, of course, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Bend It Like Beckham is closer to the former in sporting spirit and occasionally indecipherable humor, and the latter in its feminine appeal.

This time, the offspring bucking family tradition is Jesminder "Jessie" Bhamra (Parminder K. Nagra), a teenage girl living in England with Sikh parents who expect her to become a traditional housewife, and soon. Jessie has another idea, which conflicts with her parents'. She is a very good football player (soccer to Americans), who regularly shows up the boys foolish enough to defend against her.

Jessie's skills catch the attention of Jules Paxton (Keira Knightley) and her coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). They invite Jessie to join their squad, preparing for a tournament in Germany. While the Bhamra family is distracted by her sister's wedding plans, Jessie follows her dream of emulating her hero, British football star David Beckham, whose curving shots inspire the film's title and obligatory big game.

Nothing surprises about Bend It Like Beckham except how mildly charming it manages to be despite being fluffy, predictable and about 20 minutes too long.

The best thing about this trend of kitchen-table comedies is the audience's exposure to different cultures that share universal problems. The Bhamra family isn't structurally or emotionally different from the Portakalos clan in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: a comically nagging mother (Shaheen Khan), befuddled father (Anupam Kher) and various dotty aunts and snippy siblings. But the peeks inside Sikh culture, its colorful clothing, peppy music and sensuous food, make the film seem less derivative.

As Jessie, Nagra's fresh-faced cuteness (and some nifty on-field moves) makes her an easy underdog to cheer. The cast is uniformly fine, although the actors' accents -- Indian dialect filtered through clipped English -- and the screwball pacing of dialogue make it tough to understand numerous jokes. Just shake it off and wait for the next one. B-

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Women behaving badly
[Photo: Sony Pictures Classics]

Spider (R) (96 min.) -- Director David Cronenberg devises a fascinating portrayal of psychosis in Spider, a strange little film bringing Ralph Fiennes back to form after his woeful Cary Grant turn in Maid in Manhattan.

Nothing is suave about Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Fiennes), a profoundly disturbed man moving into a halfway house near his London childhood home. Spider is a pathetic sight, grubbily dressed in several shirts, muttering to himself and more attentive to cracks in the sidewalk than to people. Fiennes never breaks character throughout the film, seldom communicating and then mostly listening. It's left to Bradley Hall playing young Spider in quasi-flashbacks to explain how this wreck of a man was created.

Cronenberg drops cagey hints about the truth, and in one quiet moment begins an unusual means of leading to it. Older Spider shows up in the background of his memories, following, reliving but never participating, while young Spider suffers a dysfunctional family life.

His father Bill (Gabriel Byrne) was a plumber with a taste for ale and an eye for tarts, especially Yvonne (Miranda Richardson), a coarsely oversexed barfly. Spider's pathetically patient mother is also played by Richardson in a deftly Freudian move never calling too much attention to itself. Look closely and you'll spot Richardson in a third role, evidence that Spider's perception of reality is forever scarred by his youthful recollections of women, whichever one it was.

Spider is reminiscent of Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy, another hallucinatory tale of a man demented almost from birth. Revealing how and why Spider earned his nickname would demolish the tension Cronenberg slowly builds. Spider is an eerie variation on themes of mental illness, usually played for happy endings in films like A Beautiful Mind. Nothing happy to see here, but the film's casual dread is often thrilling to experience. A

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