Thursday, March 17, 2005

Reel Short Reviews, Take 4

Some movies I've seen or re-seen recently (with four stars the maximum rating):

Baadasssss! (2003)
A movie for people who love indie movies -- not artsy stuff, mind you, but the kind larded with thug cops, pendulous boobs, kickass knife-fights and the occasional glimpse of boom microphone peeking into the top of the frame. A psychoanalyst could have a field day with the implications of Mario Van Peebles portraying his father, Melvin Van Peebles, as the elder Van Peebles made what would be the launching pad for the "blaxploitation" genre, 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. Baadasssss! is a kinetic, admiring ode to moviemaking on a shoestring budget and the curse of creativity. Most of all, however, it's a valentine from Mario Van Peebles -- who produced, directed, wrote and starred in the film -- to his dad ...who produced, directed, wrote and starred in Sweet Sweetback.
***1/2

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)
Steve Martin used his star wattage in the early Eighties for some truly offbeat films, including this film noir parody in which the main joke finds our hard-boiled detective (Martin) interacting with stars from film noirs of the Forties, including Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner. If you're a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, you'll dig the Zelig-like gags -- but the story contrivances required for such interaction grow as tortured as you'd expect. A little goes a looonng way.
**1/2

Friday Night Lights (2004)
The film version of H.G. Bissinger's celebrated work of "new journalism" packs a hell of a punch. Billy Bob Thornton is his typical chameleon self, but the movie boasts solid acting all around. Director Peter Berg could have eased up on some of his cinema-verite stylistics; the relentless handheld cameras, hurky jerky zooms and jump cuts make it a challenge to stay grounded in the proceedings -- but the film gradually reels you in and refuses to let go. Anyone who has grown up in the Midwest will recognize the staggering pressures placed on high school football players and how a team's performance can shape the self-worth of a poor community. Sad, but true.
***1/2

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004)
This Robert Stone-directed documentary is a straightforward account of the Symbionese Liberation Army and that domestic terrorist group's kidnapping of Patty Hearst, who was the granddaughter of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and heiress to that family's fortune. It is consistently interesting, if not particularly edifying, but the footage of that time period -- especially the group's 1974 shootout with Los Angeles police -- is captivating.
***

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)
Here's a novel twist on the old Cheech & Chong stoner comedies: Two smart young men, Asian-American investment banker Harold (John Cho) and Indian-American med school candidate Kumar (Kal Penn), get stoned one Friday night and set about to satiate their White Castle cravings amid the wilds that are suburban New Jersey. The result is a Goldilocks porridge of teen movies -- certainly not aiming too high, but also not stooping to the lowest common denominator. Directed by Danny Leiner (responsible for the safely lowest-common-denominator Dude, Where's My Car?), Harold & Kumar actually boasts some funny vignettes, especially involving a boil-laden meth addict-turned-born again freak and a stripper-fondling, coke-addled Doogie Howser.
**1/2

The Last Laugh (1924)
F.W. Murnau's silent classic remains electrifying, no small feat for a movie that is essentially about a hotel doorman demoted to washroom attendant. Sound interesting? Well, it is, and more. The damn thing is poetic, an early testament to the power of cinema. Murnau's camera glides through hotel lobbies, climbs up tenement buildings and finds the visual manifestation of internal realities. Not too shabby. Murnau is ably helped by Emil Jannings as the oversized doorman who apparently considers being washroom attendant to be a fate worse than death. This movie must have really cut into the self-esteem of many a hotel employee back in '24.
****

The Leopard (1963)
Luchino Visonti 's Techniscope epic about 19th century Sicilian royalty is visually lush, long, plodding and still long. I know it's considered a classic; I know I should have appreciated it more. But I fell asleep watching it. Twice.
**1/2

Saw (2004)
If David Fincher and the Crypt Keeper hooked up for a single night of bliss, this would be the subsequent spawn. The set-up is terrific: Two strangers wake up in a bombed-out and abandoned public restroom, each one with a leg chained to a pipe and a dead man in a pool of blood between them. But the movie bogs down in a tired morality play hypnotized by its own well-tread atmospherics.
**

Snow White: A Tale in Terror (1997)
Sometimes different isn't better; it's just, well, you know ... different. This dark, morbid and violent story is more about the Grimms' version of Snow White than it is about that Disney ingenue shacked up with all the happy dwarves. Sigourney Weaver is obviously having fun as Snow White's evil stepmother, but most of this flick just coasts along on the fumes of its own self-satisfied edginess. Once you get past the novelty, A Tale of Terror is a decent, if unremarkable, slab of Gothic horror.
**1/2

The Wild Reeds (1994)
Set in 1962 France, this coming-of-age story centers on four young people at a boarding school. one of whom, Francoise (Gael Morel) discovers he is gay. As directed by Andre Techine, Wild Reeds is often poignant and reveals plenty of heart, but too often it lags and seems a bit too aware of its own low-key pretentiousness.
***

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