Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Reel Short Reviews, Take 8

More flicks that I've seen or re-seen as of late. For the ratings-challenged, four stars is the max. Fewer than four stars would be less than max. You get the drift.

Crash (2005)
Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis trades in his celluloid capital in this flawed but captivating ensemble piece about race relations. If Los Angles didn't actually exist, moviemakers would have had to invent it (well, I guess they did, in a way), it is a city so rich in metaphor. Here, Haggis turns up L.A.'s cultural melting pot to a boil as he begins with two philosophizing African-American men (Larenz Tate and the rapper Ludacris) who gripe about the casual bigotry of stereotypes before pulling out guns and -- wouldn't yah know it? -- carjacking the white district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his bitchy wife (Sandra Bullock). Ultimately, the picture's many powerful moments are undermined by one contrivance too many (this is one of those ensemble films that work on the conceit that a dozen people from disparate backgrounds can keep bumping into each other in a city of several million), but if you can accept a few coincidences, there is much to savor, particularly a sharp and literate script that brings out the best in such actors as Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe -- yes, even Ryan Phillippe.

Fury (1936)
The first American film by German-born director Fritz Lang has dated dialogue and some absurd plot points, but its central theme, of a lynch-mob mentality, remains very much relevant today. Spencer Tracy stars as upstanding citizen Joe Wilson (now that's a red-blooded American name) falsely suspected of a kidnapping based on the most flimsy of evidence; Joe loves salt peanuts, y'see, and it just so happens that the ransom note of the aforementioned crime had residue from salt peanuts on it. Well, poor ol' Joe is tossed in a county jail before he can even see his gal (the charismatic queen of melodrama, Sylvia Sidney) and then whipped-up townsfolk storm the jail and burn it to the ground. Well, the whole fracas is enough to turn a law-abiding fella, even Spencer Tracy, into a revenge-minded crazy. Occasionally corny, but still arresting.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Y'know, paying another visit to this goofy adventure yarn helps put the Star Wars saga, especially the second trilogy, in context. The tales of Greek mythology topped anything George Lucas could devise (not a particularly challenging statement, granted, since Lucas borrowed liberally from ancient myths) and animator Ray Harryhausen's creations are still imaginative and fun. A giant bronze Titan lumbering after our heroes, a nine-headed hydra, an army of sword-wielding skeletons -- it's still a hoot.

Kicking & Screaming (2005)
Eventually Will Ferrell will get a movie deserving of his considerable comic talents. This ain't it. As a hypersensitive suburban family man who becomes a soccer coach for his young son's team, Ferrell proves to be far more interesting than the humor-challenged script. Robert Duvall is tiresome as Ferrell's bullying father (we saw The Great Santini already) and Mike Ditka isn't even convincing as Mike Ditka.

The Last Picture Show (1971)
The aesthetic of the 1970s met the John Ford western in Peter Bogdanovich's one and only masterpiece (OK, Paper Moon comes close). Timothy Bottoms gave his melancholy all as Sonny Crawford, a sad-eyed high school senior stuck in a West Texas town where its inhabitants battle boredom through dreary infidelities and casual cruelty. Not the most uplifting study of humanity, perhaps, but the film exudes a beauty and lyricism that makes it just as relevant now as it was to audiences in 1971. Based on the Larry McMurtry novel, the film also provided grist for some amazing actors, especially Cloris Leachman (her performance in the movie's conclusion scene might be in my top 10 all-time movie scenes), Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn and a nekkid Cybill Shepherd.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Bill Murray is one of a handful of comedic actors whose mere tone of voice is enough to make me smile. So although this extra-precious Wes Anderson movie sometimes tests its audience's patience, it succeeds chiefly because it is such a spectacular playground for Murray as the world-weary, egocentric, petulant and charming oceanographer/filmmaker Steve Zissou. Like Zissou, Life Aquatic is a surprisingly complicated movie to sum up. It is adorned with Anderson's gentle whimsy (in some respects, this is a waterlogged version of The Royal Tenenbaums), peppered with nice touches like Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs, goofy-looking sea creatures and well-drawn supporting characters. If Anderson occasionally stretches the weirdness thin and takes odd forays (what is the self-reflexive reason for his highlighting the artifice of Zissou's boat, the Belafonte?), he also manages to wring moments of pathos. In the end, what is most compelling about Steve Zissou is a very existentialist need to know that he actually matters. In that sense, Anderson's protagonists share something in common with the heroes that populated the films of Federico Fellini, perhaps Anderson's greatest influence.

Once Were Warriors (1994)
This product from New Zealand concerns Beth Heke (Rena Owen) a descendent of the Maori tribal warriors, who suffers -- and I mean suffers -- a physically and psychologically abusive husband (Temuera Morrison). The directorial debut of Lee Tamahori is a stunner. The movie is honest and often harrowing, but don't mistake that as just a big downer. Beautifully acted and boasting top-notch production values, Once Were Warriors is, above all else, a riveting domestic drama.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Charles Aznavour stars in this light but consistently entertaining bit of French New Wave about an ex-concert pianist who now works in a Paris dance joint and finds himself drawn by his brothers into the criminal underworld. The synopsis sounds a heck of a lot more dramatic than the movie actually plays out, but director Francois Truffaut keeps things thoroughly engaging.

Spanglish (2004)
When I first saw it in the theater, Spanglish struck me as unfairly maligned by critics, the victim of a delayed backlash to director-writer James L. Brooks. Turns out the critics were on to something. Despite some solid performances and affecting moments (Brooks is too clever a writer to make a bad movie), Spanglish never really congeals. It purports to tell the story of Flor (the beautiful Paz Vega) a headstrong single mom who leaves her native Mexico and eventually becomes a housekeeper for an affluent Los Angeles family. I say "purports" because it flirts with ideas about cultural differences, but ultimately, the storyline plays out more like a male fantasy for sophisticates. See, the family is the dysfunctional Claskys. Husband John (Adam Sandler) is a sensitive master chef with the misfortune of being chained to a neurotic shrew (Tea Leoni), and so it's only fair that he should be swept up by the charms of the sexy and saintly senorita who enters the household. Consider it The Seven Year Itch for limousine liberals. Along the way, Brooks seems to actually forget a number of plot threads he sets up earlier in the film, especially one concerning Leoni and her put-upon daughter.

Spirited Away (2001)
Master Japanese anime moviemaker Hayao Miyazaki must have had angels and ghosts whispering into his ears during the creation of this extraordinary work. Nothing short of Alice in Wonderland through the looking glass of Eastern mysticism, Spirited Away is a startlingly innovative tale of a petulant adolescent girl who is transported to a magical bath house where spirits and weird creatures hang out and do, you know, weird stuff. Note to druggies: Fantasia has nothing on this.


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