Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Reel Short Reviews, Take 9

Alphaville (1965)
Jean-Luc Godard 's strange conglomeration of science-fiction (in name only, anyway, since 1960s-era Paris doubles for the futuristic metropolis of Alphaville), film noir, spy thriller and black comedy is one of those flicks easier to admire than enjoy. There are interesting moments and intriguing ideas, but ultimately Alphaville is as self-indulgent, unfocused and incomprehensible as it sounds. Undoubtedly, some Godard devotee will read this and be convinced I'm a moron. And they'd be right.

Howl's Moving Castle (2005)
Hayaa Miyazaki is the undisputed master of Japanese anime, but this fantastical work, based on a British children's novel by Diana Wynne Jones, lacks a bit of the enchantment of his previous efforts. The story follows Sophie, an 18-year-old hatmaker who is transformed by a witch into an old crone. The moving castle of the film's title belongs to Howl, a handsome and brooding wizard who takes in Sophie on as his housekeeper. The castle itself is a marvel of inventiveness, a monstrosity of thousands of parts -- all of it teetering on metal chicken legs -- but the convoluted narrative becomes almost as clunky.

Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005)
Perfectly agreeable, intermittently amusing and generally lackluster return to old-school Disney. Even with digitally reduced breasts (oh, the humanity!), Lindsay Lohan is a big enough star to help serve up this latest installment in the misadventures of Herbie the Love Bug. Oh, and Matt Dillon deserves kudos for a nifty turn as a villainous NASCAR champ.

The Hunting of the President (2004)
There's no denying that Hunting of the President has an axe to grind: squarely in the forehead of the far-right puppetmasters who dogged Bill Clinton through every moment of his two terms in office. So, no, filmmakers Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason (a Clinton pal) are mighty selective about the facts they present. They infer, for example, that TV anchor-turned-cabaret singer Gennifer Flowers lied about her affair with Clinton, even though he later stipulated to the relationship in the Paula Jones lawsuit. Nevertheless, even the most rabid Clinton-hater would have trouble disputing the film's central contention that, lo and behold, there really was a "vast right-wing conspiracy" that relentlessly (and ruthlessly) hounded Clinton and anyone who supported him. If there is a hero in this tale, it might just be Susan McDougal.

It Came from Outer Space (1953)
Adequate 3-D yarn that predated the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers' aliens-are-doubling-as-us shtick. Subject to the considerable goofiness of that era's sci-fi flicks, but worth it for Richard Carlson's paternal and wise-beyond-his-years protagonist (the guy smokes a pipe, after all!) who vainly tries convincing a bunch of small-town yokels that, yes, Virginia, there are aliens among us. Tip to would-be alien imposters: When trying to fool us humans, don't follow the example of one such spaceman in this picture, who gazes at the blinding bright sun without flinching and says, "Yes, the sun. It is beautiful." Geez, talk about a tell.

Kinsey (2004)
Now that the controversy surrounding this film has faded into obscurity, this biopic of pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is all the more impressive. Director-writer Bill Condon's sympathies are obviously with the socially awkward Kinsey (Liam Neeson), whose work helped spur the sexual revolution, but the film doesn't completely shy away from its protagonist's more disturbing traits. Did Kinsey use information from pedophiles? Some critics of Kinsey allege that he or his associates must have actually watched the sexual activity of children, a charge the movie answers ... kinda. If one accepts the film's explanation, however, then Kinsey was just a shoddy researcher. Either way, this is an involving and expertly crafted story.

The Last Shot (2004)
The directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can) builds on a compelling real-life story but never really exploits its considerable potential for Hollywood satire. Alec Baldwin gives an uncharacteristically low-key performance (by his standards, anyway) as a dog-loving FBI agent who sets up a phony movie project in hopes of busting corrupt Teamster bosses. Matthew Broderick is the sad sack who thinks he's getting his big break directing his own muddled screenplay. The comic possibilities just limp along, with supporting performances by Toni Collette and Joan Cusack the only real highlights.

Memento (2000)
Before Christopher Nolan showed the world what he could do with a really big budget (Batman Begins), he demonstrated what he could do with just ingenuity, producing a tightly knit thriller that manages to be avant garde without being obnoxious about it. Memento is dazzling, and, yes, primarily for the gimmick of a story that unfolds in reverse order. Our hapless protagonist, Leonard (Guy Pearce), has no short-term memory, but unlike Tom Hanks' Mr. Short Term Memory of "Saturday Night Live" fame, this is no joke. Leonard is out to avenge the rape and murder of his wife, y'see, but that's not so easy when you keep forgetting what you're doing, much less what the clues are. Nolan tells the story backwards, but he digs into the challenge with a scalpel-like precision that (eventually) makes it relatively easy for the audience to follow. Oh, and any movie with Joe Pantoliano is OK in my book.

Tarnation (2003)
According to indie folklore, Houston, Texas, native Jonathan Caouette constructed this video diary on a home computer for about $200 (that's before the distribution company actually purchased the rights for the soundtrack), and its uniqueness and audacity won lots of praise. I'm more impressed that Caouette had the foresight to videotape seemingly every moment of his tortured life from the age of 11 onward. Less impressive is the exploitive handling of his brain-damaged mother and feeble grandparents. Still, it's bound to make you feel a lot better about your own screwed-up family.

The Way We Were (1973)
A very old-school Hollywood love story, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford stretching themselves to the limit. She is a liberal activist with a big mouth and he is an all-American, handsome WASP. Can their love survive? Director Sydney Pollack does a reasonable job keeping the proceedings from lapsing into insufferable schmaltz.


At 12:19 PM, Blogger MDC said...

Just watched Memento about a week ago. Although the story is sufficiently explained by the end, if you are watching it on DVD,(WARNING, DO THIS ONLY AFTER WATCHING THE ENTIRE MOVIE) visit the item under "Special Features"--of course, I can't remember what it's called--that takes you to the still of a newspaper article. The article is peppered with "links" to other documents that fill in some back story. Pretty interesting.


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