Reel Short Reviews, Take 10
Advise & Consent (1962)
The years haven't been terribly kind to director Otto Preminger's turgid Capitol Hill melodrama, particularly its clunky this-is-how-government-works dialogue and hysterics over a senator with a homosexual past. But the large ensemble cast -- particularly Walter Pidgeon, Franchot Tone and the always impressive Charles Laughton -- help make this decent kitsch entertainment.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
In retrospect, Spike Jonze's directorial debut is probably a bit grittier than it needed to be (the cinematography is downright muddy at times), but that is about the only quibble to be had with this strange and inspired work. John Cusack portrays puppeteer Craig Schwartz, a self-absorbed loser married to an animal enthusiast (an unrecognizable Cameron Diaz) while pining away for the sexy, heartless, Maxine (an incomparable Catherine Keener). Then Craig and Maxine discover a forgotten portal into the mind of John Malkovich. The screenplay by the mad genius Charlie Kaufman poses a family-pack assortment of metaphysical questions hidden within layers of its own trippy humor. Brilliant. Just brilliant.
Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (2005)
I respectfully disagree with the generally favorable reviews lavished on this Tim Burton-directed version of the celebrated Roald Dahl book. Burton's take on Willy Wonka and the brats who tour his chocolate factory is considerably darker than the (dark enough) 1971 movie that starred Gene Wilder, but in this redux there is very little heart to offset the chilly misanthropy. Burton can be maddeningly frustrating. He is obviously a master of lush visuals and a free-roaming imagination, but he seems as sociopathic as the characters who populate his films. Johnny Depp had the good fortune to be in Burton's two masterpieces, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, but here his interpretation of an effete, emotionally stunted Wonka is one-note and abrasive. The first act is promising, and the third act is surprisingly affecting -- but Charlie & the Chocolate Factory crumples throughout a looong second act in which meanness trumps magic.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
Cornball stuff, but unequivocally effective. Robert Donat won an Oscar for his portrayal of the prim and proper schoolteacher who loved and lost (a charismatic, if a bit too perfect, Greer Garson, being the love interest). Once Garson exits the picture, the Sam Wood-directed flick runs out of steam and settles for awkward sentimentality, but even so, Goodbye, Mr. Chips still works as entertaining soap opera.
The Insider (1999)
Michael Mann keeps his often-overblown stylistics in check for this riveting dramatization of tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (another extraordinary performance from Russell Crowe, like it or not), whose courageous stand against Brown & Williamson was undermined by the good and backbone-challenged minions of "60 Minutes." Expertly shot, paced and written -- nearly perfect if not for a"Miami Vice" moment in which Wigand spaces out looking at a hotel room fresco. This is Mann's finest hour.
March of the Penguins (2005)
Is Morgan Freeman the official voice of all voiceovers now? Did I miss the election? (Damn!I was gonna vote absentee for Edward Hermann, myself). Anyway, there's no denying the allure of this fascinating documentary about the tough-as-nails emperor penguins in Antarctica and the sacrifices they make for their young. But I'm not certain what differentiates it from many fine documentaries you can find on the Discovery Channel. Maybe I'm just dumb. It's possible.
Sling Blade (1996)
Billy Bob Thornton is exceptional as the director, writer and star of this drama about a mildly retarded man released from a mental asylum where he has lived most of his life for the murders of his mother and her lover. While Thornton's creation of Karl Childers is one of modern-day cinema's more mesmerizing characters -- as evidenced by the fact that just about everyone who has seen Sling Blade feels compelled to imitate Karl at some point afterwards -- Thornton is not so much of a prima donna that he doesn't let his co-stars shine, too; John Ritter, Dwight Yoakam and then-child actor Lucas Black are all superb.
Steven Soderbergh's most ambitious (and that really is saying a lot) and successfully realized film, Traffic is a meaty, big and bouncy masterpiece. It covers an impressive expanse without losing sight of the characters fueling the larger issues that are pondered here. Spanning three stories -- all of which deal with some form of the war on drugs (everything from Mexican drug cartels to upper-class drug abuse among American youth) -- the movie's occasional (and inevitable) lapses into didacticism are forgiven by an economical screenplay and solid performances. Soderbergh served as his own director of photography, and the gamble is worth it; Traffic benefits from a naturalistic, albeit stylized, visual scheme. If Soderbergh keeps turning out alternately pretentious and superficial drivel, as he has as of late, at least he will always have this film to point to with pride.
David Gordon Green is an obscenely young director (read: I'm jealous) to have earned the critical raves he received for his contemplative films, (the overrated) George Washington and (the much better) All the Real Girls. In Undertow, he achieves something appropriating commercial appeal, combining Flannery O'Connor-styled Southern Gothic horror with a modern-day Treasure Island. The result is intriguing and very watchable adventure-thriller that boasts a terrifically villainous performance by Josh Lucas.
Wedding Crashers (2005)
Who knew that moviegoers had actually been starved for an R-rated comedy with the faith in its own raunchiness to engage in a bit of sex, nudity and assorted bad behavior? The final 20 minutes are a downer, but only because everything up to that point is so damned funny. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are the anti-heroes of the picture's title, a pair of divorce mediators who have perfected the art of scoring wedding tail. There are some terrific comic turns by Rachel McAdams, Isla Fisher, Jane Seymour and an uncredited Will Ferrell, but this is Vince Vaughn's movie all the way.