Monday, February 14, 2005

Reel Short Reviews, Take 2

More recently seen (or re-seen) movies as of late (ratings from 0 to 4 stars) ...

Band of Outsiders (1964)
Jean-Luc Godard's French New Waves celebration of B-movies, gangster thrillers, romance, comedy, Paris, the Louvre and the melancholy beauty of his then-wife Anna Karina. Band of Outsiders' nominal story centers on two wannabe crooks who coax an innocent girl into helping them rob a lodger in her boarding house. As with any self-respecting example of French New Wave, however, the film is more interested in its examination of cinematic self-reflexiveness, limitations and possibilities. Its many moments of surprise and charm -- the three principle characters dancing the Madison in a cafe, a literal moment of silence, Godard's strange and omniscient voiceover -- will intrigue dedicated movie fanatics, but doesn't exactly translate into the most compelling storytelling.

Festen (1998)
A testament to the raw power and self-conscious pretensions of Dogma 95, the so-called edict in which a band of Dane filmmakers eschew the conventions of the medium in favor of cinema-verite. With its hand-held camerawork, jumpcuts and improvisational feel, Festen tells the story of a particularly dysfunctional family reuniting for the 60th birthday of its wealthy patriarch. Director-writer Thomas Vinterberg has fashioned a consistently intriguing movie, but Festen, which straddles the line between drama and farce, is undermined a bit by its own shrillness.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
Long before Robert Zemeckis became a "serious artist" -- hell, long before he was even a Spielberg popcorn-movie acolyte -- he had a bright sense of humor and love for slightly junky, albeit harmless, entertainment. His feature-film debut, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, is an undeniably fun trifle, celebrating the Beatlemania that surrounded the Fab Four's initial "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance in 1964.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)
Top-notch documentary makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky had the good fortune of capturing this fascinating glimpse into the private life of arguably the world's greatest heavy metal band -- but this movie is to VH1's "Behind the Music" series what "Moby Dick" is to books about fish. Some Kind of Monster is about nothing less than the dynamics of the myriad ways that people -- especially people who have been friends and colleagues for years -- relate, communicate and manipulate. There are inadvertent moments of Spinal Tap absurdity, of course (Megadeath's Dave Mustaine and Metallica's Lars Ulrich wistfully talk about the halcyon days of smoking hash), but the dysfunctional members of Metallica hardly fit the stereotype of hard-partying rockers (although they obviously were once upon a time). In an effort to save the band, these guys latch on to a sweater-clad therapist, Dr. Phil Towle, and his $40,000-a-month sessions eventually have them all talking in the parlance of touchy-feely analysis. This film is extraordinary on several levels , not the least of which is witnessing the humanity behind icons, especially that of James Hetfield.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
The later films of Charlie Chaplin can be tough-going for anyone who has marveled at his genius in the silent comedies where he had to keep quiet. Like 1952's Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux lapses into fits of gross mugging, smugness and hammer-wielding pretentiousness. What saves it is the sheer surprise of what a dark black comedy it truly is, the story of a onetime bank clerk who marries lonely spinsters for the purpose of whacking them for their life savings. Unfortunately, Chaplin's political leanings were too much for him to stifle, and somewhere along the way Monsieur Verdoux turns into an eye-rolling anti-war statement.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
A big, meaty, lunkheaded seafaring yarn about the taskmaster Capt. Bligh (Charles Laughton) and his second-in-command, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) hardly lives up to its reputation. For the record, we find Gable one of the most irritating stars from Hollywood's so-called Golden Era -- unless you have the stomach for actors who can't emote much more than self-satisfied arrogance. Luckily, Laughton and Franchot Tone have enough charisma to make up for Gable.

The Paper Chase (1973)
Timothy Bottoms is the sad-eyed Hart feeling his way through the first year of Harvard law school. Directed by James Bridges, Paper Chase is a deceptively accomplished dramedy, filled with well-drawn characters -- even the minor parts -- and unafraid to show some of its protagonist's more solipsistic tendencies. John Houseman won the Oscar for his role as the intimidating professor, Kingsfield, but poor Lindsay Wagner, as Hart's love interest, is saddled with mighty literary-minded dialogue. All that said, a good time is had by all.

The Uninvited (1944)
This ghost story about a brother and sister who move into a haunted house on a seaside cliff (aren't they all on seaside cliffs?) is fun hokum. Gail Russell is the attractive Stella Meredith at the center of the spooky stuff, and even if she's not the most convincing actress, she has undeniable charisma.


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