Reel Short Reviews, Take 6
Some flicks I've seen or re-seen as of late. Per those tired ol' parameters, these unerringly rankings go from zero stars to a maximum of four.
Bad Education (2004)
A curious Russian nesting egg of a movie (a Spanish-language version of a Russian nesting egg, that is) directed by the always-curious Pedro Almodovar, that sashays through that netherworld where Telemundo-flavored soap opera meets David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Almodovar's twists this thriller into all sorts of directions -- homosexuality at a Catholic boarding school, transvestism, drug abuse, filmmaking -- but look past the quasi-shocking sexuality and lush pyrotechnics, and Bad Education simply explores the heart of melodrama: passion, obsession and betrayal.
Despite the presence of the alluring Nicole Kidman (who here opts for a not-so-flattering look that mimics Mia Farrow from Rosemary's Baby), this is a bizarre misstep of a film. In the hands of, say, John Waters -- or anyone who would've recognized the script for the campy drivel it is -- this could have been actually kind of fun. Sadly, director Jonathan Glazer takes this story of reincarnation (maybe) and polishes it with all manner of Kubrickian pretentiousness. And Cameron Bright distinguishes himself as one of the most obnoxiously affected child actors in recent memory.
The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)
A terrific film that purports to be a comedy but is a few paces shy of being full-blown socialist propaganda. Screenwriter Norman Krasna gives us the story of a sour, vindictive business mogul who goes undercover at his own department store in hopes of ferreting out agitators who are trying to form a union. Charles Coburn is great as the aforementioned fat cat, and Jean Arthur is appropriately adorable as, well, a store employee named Miss Jones; they even make up for the grating presence of the ever-moronic Robert Cummings as (here's inspired studio casting) a fiery would-be labor organizer.
Dust to Glory (2005)
Presumably a documentary about the Baja 1000, the longest point-to-point off-road race in the world, filmmaker Dana Brown (whose father, Bruce Brown, is responsible for the ultimate surfing picture, 1966's Endless Summer) boasts some nifty action and a lot of insufferably worshipful voice-over narration that turns the whole masturbatory stew into a big, sloppy promo for the Baja. Dust to Whoring might be more like it, but hell, if you wanna check out gnarly footage of a guy wiping out on a motorbike in the dead of night and breaking a few ribs -- then this is your Citizen Kane.
The movie that put fiercely independent filmmaker John Cassavetes on the map, perhaps the most striking thing about Faces -- nowadays, anyway -- is how relevant it still is despite a somewhat dated ethos (it actually feels more contemporary than the tightly contrived Closer, but we digress). A couple separates for a night, which gives both husband (John Marley) and wife (Lynn Carlin) an opportunity to hook up with, respectively, a motormouthed swinger (Seymour Cassel) and a melancholy prostitute (Gena Rowlands). Shot in grainy 16mm, this movie is fascinating in spite of its own occasionally sloppy improvisation, a raw slamdance of marital rage, narcissism and insecurity.
The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Well, you probably don't need me to tell you this is an extraordinary epic, but just the same, the sheer scope of Francis Ford Coppola's sequel to his Godfather is a jaw-dropper, from the flashbacks of Vito Corleone's (Robert DeNiro) early years to son Michael's (Al Pacino) mob adventures in Nevada and pre-Castro Cuba. The movie bravely covers a lot of ground, and if it doesn't match the lyricism of its progenitor, it remains an extraordinary achievement that uses the gangster movie to ponder the generation gap and the dissolution of familial loyalty.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Not having read the Douglas Adams series, I have no idea whether the film does an injustice to the author's vision, as some critics have contended. But this fanciful, tongue-in-cheek chronicle of a mild-mannered Englishman (Martin Freeman) surviving the destruction of Earth by hitching a ride with some aliens and another earthling (the luminous Zooey Deschanel) is wholly entertaining on its own. Lots of inspired bits: Marvin the Paranoid Android, song-and-dance dolphins, a creeped-out John Malkovich, our heroes temporarily transformed into claymation critters, a cosmos factory and a "point-of-view gun" too redundant to use on a woman. Not a classic satire, by no means, but fat with ideas and a spunky attitude.
Danny Boyle piles on the cinematic razzmatazz -- time-lapse animation, fast-motion, fiery colors -- in what is essentially a pleasant, family-friendly fable about two British boys who find a gym bag filled with stolen money. Alexander Nathan Etel is the movie's emotional heart as freckle-faced Damian, a kid obsessed with following the leads of the numerous saints who fill his imagination. Boyle, whose previous works include Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, proves he has a sweet side, but Millions could have withstood a more focused story.
The Professional (1994)
A respectable, if perversely over-the-top, genre movie that achieved an undeserved notoriety for allegedly fetishizing then-child actress Natalie Portman in her screen debut. She portrays Mathilda, a street-smart 12 year old who becomes an apprentice for a quiet hit man named Leon (Jean Reno) after her family is killed by a crooked DEA agent (a freakish performance by Gary Oldman). It's a weird mix of a movie, all right. Luc Besson's direction is slick and stylized, but he veers from Leon and Mathilda's genuinely affecting relationship to histrionics that may or may not be intentional camp. Some critics charged that Portman was sexualized and objectified by the filmmakers, but I don't see it. Then again, I'm not a pedophile, so maybe I wouldn't.
Director-writer Alexander Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, are hands-down the keenest observers of human fallibility working in American cinema today. At first blush, Sideways appears to be the merging of shopworn genres, the buddy flick meets the road trip, but what unfolds is a brilliant character-driven tale of lies, loneliness and the pitfalls of middle-aged men who refuse to grow up. It also happens to be hilarious, particularly in the movie's final third (between Sideways' wallet-recovery scene and About Schmidt's notorious hot tub with Kathy Bates, Payne and Taylor are the unparalleled champs of disturbingly funny nudity). Paul Giamatti was robbed of an Oscar nomination for best actor, but the rest of the cast -- Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh -- are equally superb.
Vanity Fair (2004)
Reese Witherspoon, bless her heart, just doesn't have the heft to pull off the role of scheming social climber Becky Sharp in this otherwise handsome adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's 19th century novel. Director Mira Nair does a nice job navigating such an ambitious project, but only sporadically does it approach the satiric edge of its source material. Again, a big problem is sunny-faced Witherspoon. Only Rhys Ifans, as a trampled-upon nice guy, gets close to breaking free of costume drama stuffiness.