Thursday, March 03, 2005

Reel Short Reviews, Take 3

Some films I've seen lately (ratings out of a possible four-star maximum) ...

Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam's futuristic fantasy of a government drone ensnared in a web of terrorism, bureaucracy and a horsefly-induced clerical error is every bit as weird and wonderful as it is when it first blew me away in '85. If it eventually exhausts its welcome -- Gilliam is less of a storyteller than he is a crazy street prophet, running on bluster and psychotic appeal -- Brazil still works for its wildly imaginative Kafka-meets-Orwell-meets-Monty Python vision of the future.

I Heart Huckabees (2004)
A film that nearly defies description, it is nominally about a frustrated environmental activist (Jason Schwartzman) trying to make sense out of some odd coincidences while locked in a battle with a Wal-Mart stand-in called Huckabees. That threadbare narrative provides director David O. Russell with an excuse for a comic farce about existentialism, nihilism, Zen and everything else we learned in college (and forgot promptly afterwards). Either you will find this stuff tedious or irresistible; I'm in the latter camp. The cast is first-rate and obviously having a hoot, especially Mark Wahlberg as a firefighter obsessed with the evils of petroleum, Jude Law as a smarmy Huckabees exec, and Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as a pair of "existentialism" detectives left over from the hippie days. Accented by Jon Brion's beautiful score, Huckabees is a playful hug for humanity and the philosophical mind.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Why had I never seen this before? The final Indiana Jones installment is head and shoulders above Temple of Doom and damned close to the kinetic charms of the original. The opening bit, featuring River Phoenix as a young Indie swinging through a circus train, is a blast -- and Steven Spielberg's goofy B-movie valentine never loses steam. While ultimately it might be forgettable fluff, that's hard to hold against a movie in which such silly fun is the whole point.

Lola (1961)
One of the more audience-friendly film icons to emerge from the French New Wave was Jacques Demy, who made his feature-length debut with this romance linking a handful of characters searching for true love (It's interesting, really, to see such contrivances as a distant ancestor to something like Hitch). Nothing in Lola matches Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but it's a pleasant trifle, nonetheless.

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Engrossing, if stagy, screen adaptation of the Robert Bolt play about Sir Thomas Moore, who apparently died for the sin of being a big pain in the ass to Henry VIII. The movie must have been a cinch for the Best Picture Oscar it earned in '66; it's the sort of self-important, occasionally ponderous story that Academy voters always dig. Still, director Fred Zinnemann deserves credit for having the good sense to let the remarkable writing tell its own story, and Paul Scofield lends a calm to the role of the somewhat prickly hero.

Muriel's Wedding (1994)
This debut by director-writer P.J. Hogan is a quirky fable about a dumpy young woman from Porpoise Spit, Australia, who is convinced she'd have self-worth if only she could get married. As the ambivalent title character, Toni Collette is tremendous -- and not just 'cause she pulled a De Niro by gaining 40 lbs. for the part. Hogan's attention to the smallest nuances of all his characters is particularly impressive, and you've gotta give it up to any movie in which an epiphany is illustrated by a line like, "Now my life is as good as an Abba song."

Raging Bull (1980)
Still a masterpiece. Middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) makes the hoodlums from A Clockwork Orange look like birthday clowns by comparison, but therein lies the extraordinary power of Martin Scorsese to burrow so deeply inside the dark and pathological mind. While the performances by De Niro and Joe Pesci are excellent, the real star here is Scorsese and his gifts -- through deliberate pacing, varying film speeds and sound effects -- of translating a subjective psyche into exquisitely rendered visuals. Oh, and Michael Chapman's black-and-white cinematography is perfect.

Stander (2003)
A surprising find that, I have to admit, I was initially skeptical about. Based on the real-life story of a Johannesburg, South Africa, police captain-turned-serial bank robber, Stander is a sleek, muscular crime flick that excels chiefly on the thrills of its anti-hero's criminal bravado. Director Bronwen Hughes obviously digs Stander's robberies more than she really cares about the Apartheid guilt that supposedly spurred Stander's crime spree, but no matter. Until the movie runs out of steam in the third act, Stander is a real kick.

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
Diane Lane followed up her overrated turn in Unfaithful with this quintessential chick flick about a divorcee who gets a new lease on life when she impulsively buys a dilapidated villa in Tuscany. Contrivances, uninvolving subplots and facile characters abound. All that said, the movie is watchable enough and wrings a lot of mileage from Lane's likeability.


At 6:04 PM, Blogger Ceres said...

I loved Muriel's Wedding. Probably because I got married that same year.


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