Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Reel Short Reviews, Take 11

A few thoughts on movies I've seen or re-seen recently ...

Alexander (2004)
Oliver Stone is a frustrating filmmaker. The guy has enthusiasm, curiosity and more crazy-eyed chutzpah than Pat Robertson at a shooting range, but he tends to be either brilliant or incomprehensible with little room in between. Alexander belongs to the School of the Incomprehensible. Clocking in at more than three hours, this biopic of Alexander the Great makes the assumption that its audience is already well-versed on the life of the military legend. It doesn't help that Colin Farrell is miscast in the title role, or that you keep expecting Angelina Jolie -- in an over-the-top performance as Big Al's devilish mamma -- to force a poisoned apple on Snow White. Despite some nifty battle sequences, Alexander never gets under the skin of its subject.

The Brothers Grimm (2005)
There are some inspired moments in this Terry Gilliam-directed fantasy that reimagines the Brothers Grimm (Matt Damon and Heath Ledger) as a pair of 19th-century con artists who pretend to be ghostbusters but end up facing the real thing in an enchanted German forest. Ehren Kruger's screenplay is quasi-gibberish at times, but that doesn't stop Gilliam from barreling ahead with sumptuous visuals (you'd expect nothing less, after all, from the director of Time Bandits and Brazil). Unfortunately, Gilliam's trademark lack of restraint is headache-inducing, with such character actors as Peter Stormare and Jonathan Pryce turning in uber-broad, scenery-chewing performances.

The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)
In a summer in which Wedding Crashers and The 40 Year-Old Virgin reminded everyone what fun a raunchy R-rated comedy can be, this retread of the 1979-'85 television series just feels like a dime store. There are worse diversions than Jessica Simpson in short shorts welcome, but an issue of Maxim is cheaper -- and funnier -- than this exercise in comedy for the lowest common denominator. Director Jay Chandrasekhar manages to stage some decent car chase sequences, but when the best thing you can say about a movie is that it has a few decent car chase sequences -- well, you get the idea.

Gates of Heaven (1978)
Purportedly about pet cemeteries, this early Errol Morris documentary demonstrated what Morris does best: Let people talk. Yes, it's about the love people have for their pets, but through the lengthy interviews, the filmmaker hints that such connections fill the void of noncommunicative, and otherwise dysfunctional, families. No, the film isn't quite as masterful as Roger Ebert proclaimed when he labeled it one of the best films of all time -- Gates of Heaven is still a rough work, in some respects, and not exactly focused -- but it is gentle, funny and a moving work of humanism.

The Island (2005)
Michael Bay might deserve a good deal of the critical backlash he has received over recent years, but The Island does not warrant being among the list of exhibits. Granted, being a Bay-directed action/sci-fi/thriller, it chugs along with all the loud and intelligence-challenged explosions we've all come to associate with his, er, style; still, anyone who doesn't admit to even a slightly visceral reaction to such spectacle needs to have his or her pulse checked. The Island is a big, knuckleheaded mess in some ways -- and it's certainly derivative of a zillion better sci-fi flicks -- but a few interesting ideas percolate below the surface, weighty stuff about biotech ethics and whether Scarlett Johansson cam be any more coquettish.

The Late Show (1977)
Robert Benton's low-key, droll sendup of film noir is one of the underrated gems of the Seventies. Art Carney is terrific as an older, past-his-prime gumshoe unwittingly dragged into a labyrinthine criminal plot, with Lily Tomlin equally superb as a flaky client with a missing cat. The things you can do with well-drawn characters and some wit ...

Like Water for Chocolate (1992)
A pleasant trifle -- or is that truffle? Director Alfonso Arau's fanciful take on mysticism and eroticism doesn't have quite enough of either to make Like Water for Chocolate a masterpiece, but this romance of two long-suffering lovers does satisfy an appetite for sure-fire entertainment. Christ, I can't believe I wrote that. Excuse me while I wrestle my keyboard back from Gene Shalit.

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
Irene Dunn shifted career gears to screwball comedy in this picture about a small-town writer who must shield her small-minded family and neighbors from her real identity as the author of a popular and racy novel called (what else?) The Sinner. Leave it to Melvyn Douglas, playing a curiously smirking sort of creep for a love interest, to smoke her out. Dunn is terrific, but the movie skids off the tracks in the third act, in which our heroine starts acting like she dropped in from a different movie altogether.

The Thin Blue Line (1988)
How many filmmakers go on and on about needing to make a real difference and then actually do so? In the late Eighties, the incomparable documentarian Errol Morris turned his attention to the troubling case of Randall Adams, an Ohio drifter who was passing through Dallas one autumn during the 1970s and ended up convicted for murdering a Dallas policeman. By the time Morris focused on the slipshod investigation and judicial case, Adams had spent 11 years on Death Row. Adams had been sent there based largely on the testimony of a 16-year-old kid named David Harris, whom anyone with a brainwave and a pulse should have been able to deduce had actually been the real triggerman. Morris' approach in Thin Blue Line is as riveting as its subject. Through reenactments, creative use of B-movie clips, slow-motion and extreme closeups, Morris envelopes his tale in a palpable rhythm propelled by Philip Glass' music score.
Women in Love (1969)
This film version of the D.H. Lawrence novel put director Ken Russell on the map, but aside from its visual sumptuousness, it coasts along on some Sixties-flavored nonsense. Alan Bates and Oliver Reed engage in some full-frontal nekkid wrestling, a scene that is still kinda shocking today (male full-frontal nudity remains surprisingly rare in cinema).


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