Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Reel Short Reviews, Take 15

More flicks I have recently seen or re-seen. Figure out the star-rating system at your own peril.

The Aristocrats (2005)
There's really no logical reason that a quasi-documentary about a sick joke comedians tell one another should sustain interest for 90 minutes. Here's the punch line, though: It does. The premise of the "Aristrocrats" gag, which involves a family act auditioning for a talent agent, is a sort of free-form jazz for gutter-minded comics. By doing so, comedians ranging from George Carlin to Bob Saget indulge the most twisted ideas rattling around in the dark corners of their ids. The result is alternately hilarious and unsettling.

The Awful Truth (1937)
A fine old screwball comedy directed by Leo McCarey in which rich ne'er-do-wells do silly things, all for the name of love. Irene Dunne, one of the great forgotten actresses of her generation, is excellent. Fellow Oklahomans, be warned: Ralph Bellamy's embraces just about every dumbass Okie stereotype imaginable in his performance as an Oklahoma oilman/hayseed caught up by Ms. Dunne's considerable charms.

Bad News Bears (2005)
It's always perplexing to see talented people squander those talents, and so it is with this milquetoast remake of the 1976 classic. In this go-around, director Richard Linklater sleepwalks through the comedy, all but scrubbing it of the satire that distinguished the Mitchael Ritchie-helmed original. With Billy Bob Thornton filling in for the Walter Matthau role, the pedestrian updating is more or less a chance for Thornton to continue riffing on the drunken misanthrope he perfected in Bad Santa.

Bewtiched (2005)
Well, I'm not sure if it's a ringing endorsement to say it wasn't nearly the unmitigated crap that many critics described, but there have certainly been worse romantic comedies committed to celluloid. Director-writer Nora Ephon deserves some credit for a creative approach to putting the old Sixties sitcom on the big screen. Trouble is, the Hollywood satire that takes up the film's first half is far more interesting than the treacly (and implausible) romance that follows. Nicole Kidman (mmm...) and Will Ferrell are super-duper stars, but there chemistry quotient is nil.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Once upon a time, I loved Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece of a dystopian not-too-distant future. Alas, it hasn't aged particularly well over the years; some of its artifice feels a bit too hermetically sealed in the freaky deaky of the early Seventies. But it remains a fascinating visual, and visceral, experience, topped by Malcolm McDowell's unforgettable turn as the thug who has a thing for lovely, lovely Ludwig Van. Viddy well, droog.

Dear Frankie (2004)
An engaging, quietly lyrical film about a a 9-year-old deaf Scottish boy and his protective mother, who has perpetuated the child's illusion that his father is a sailor traveling the world.

Domino (2005)
Keira Knightley isn't quite convincing as real-life bounty hunter Domino Harvey, but then again no one has much of an opportunity to demonstrate their acting chops amid all the bells, whistles and kazoos being blown by director Tony Scott. This ostensible biopic gorges on an array of cinematic look-at-me tricks: overexposed and overcranked film, slow-motion, freeze-frames, superimposed words and phrases, etc., etc. The overall effect can be mesmerizing -- but exhausting, too.

Fantastic Four (2005)
It's clobberin' time, my ass. Lame comic book fare that manages to transform one of my favorite old Marvel comics into crap. Earth to Hollywood: If you insist on casting Jessica Alba in a movie, what is the deal with keeping her clothed? That's like robbing a bank for the free calendars.

Happy Endings (2005)
Don Roos' ensemble piece loosely deals with people struggling for relationships and family, and most of it works reasonably well. Lisa Kudrow is a particular standout -- ultimately, the one "Friends" star who truly deserves a long and healthy film career -- but most of the cast is up to the challenge (an exception is the usually decent Maggie Gyllenhaal, who here tries to go against type as a femme fatale). Some viewers will undoubtedly find parts of it a bit precious, especially superimposed text that periodically shows up in lieu of an omniscient narrator. Still, those who get into the groove of the thing will find it an enduring diversion.

Heat (1995)
Director-writer Michael Mann's magnum opus is a big, loud, meaty crime drama pitting mega-thief Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) against mega-detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). These heavyweights help lend gravitas to a cat-and-mouse game in which the doppelgangers square off amid shotgun blasts, car crashes and assorted crimes. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the movie never drags -- which alone places it in the rarefied air of crime classic. The only quibble, and it's a minor one, is Ashley Judd's typically lame performance. Gosh, you think she might be skating by on her looks?

High and Low (1963)
In another spectacular work by Akira Kurosawa, Toshiru Mifune stars as a business tycoon caught in a moral dilemma when his chauffeur's young son is kidnapped because the boy was mistaken for Mifune's child. The first half of the picture is gripping drama; the second half is more of Kurosawa's version of "Dragnet," but damned if the filmmaker didn't make police procedure cinematic.

Hostel (2006)
Dumbass kids go trekking to Slovakia to get laid, but end up getting caught up in one of those budding capitalistic ventures, a get-to-torture-and-kill enterprise. I've seen better, but I've also seen worse. If you like sadistic gore, welcome aboard.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)
What's not to enjoy? The great John Ford directed this endearingly schmaltzy (but not too schmaltzy) Hollywood epic about an Irish coal mining family at the turn of the century, a tale as seen through the eyes of its youngest member (portrayed by Roddy McDowall). Boasting a terrific cast, How Green Was My Valley is filled with the quietly lyrical moments one always expects, and gets, from a Ford masterpiece.

The Ice Harvest (2005)
A black, black, black comedy about low-life hoods one icy Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas. There are some great bits -- particularly a sequence involving a killer locked in a trunk and Oliver Platt as a drunken lawyer itching to get the shit beat out of him -- but alas, the film's cold cold heart eventually freezes the entire exercise.

Junebug (2005)
Connect-the-dots indie films go like this: Someone returns home to a dysfunctional, white-trash family in which people move slowly and have stilted conversations in wood-panelled rooms. Junebug adheres to the drill, but it's better than most examples of the ilk. And the film gets a lot of heart from Amy Adams' memorably open-hearted portrayal of a pregnant North Carolina rube.

Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)
A reasonably entertaining documentary about New York public school students learning ballroom dance for the big competition at the end of the year. There are nice moments, but the filmmakers try shining the spotlight on too many personalities and, as a result, dilute the power of their own story.

The Major and the Minor (1942)
OK, so it's mighty difficult to buy Ginger Rogers getting away with trying to be a 13-year-old girl, all for the sake of getting a cheap rate to ride a train, but Billy Wilder's directorial debut is, lo and behold, a very funny movie that still holds up surprisingly well. Ray Milland defies typecasting here as a slightly daffy military school leader who falls under the spell of the ersatz "Susu."

My Man Godfrey (1936)
It might be a little tough to accept that every kooky rich dames in New York City are falling all over themselves for William Powell, the hobo-turned-butler in this screwball comedy, but the movie is such good-natured fun, all is forgiven. And Carole Lombard is every bit as captivating as her legend.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
The sweetness and whimsy in this indie flick is something either you're gonna get or find tedious. I'm in the former camp. Performance artist Miranda July wrote, directed and starred in this bare-boned, modest tale of eccentric folks struggling to make a romantic connection in the world. The story involving the two principal characters, while interesting, is in danger of being eclipsed by a thoroughly weird, risky (and hilarious) subplot regarding a pornographic Internet chat, in which one of the chatters is a poop-obsessed boy.

Oliver Twist (1948)
David Lean's take on the Dickens classic is everything you should expect -- melodramatic, blustery and exceedingly well-done. But criminy, the makeup people sure didn't scrimp on making Alec Guinness' Fagin the most flagrantly anti-Semitic concoction imaginable. Mel Gibson should consider a remake.

Oliver Twist (2005)
So why would the great filmmaker Roman Polanski have felt the need to film the Dickens classic after it had already been done brilliantly twice before? Well, simple: 'Cause three brilliant versions are better than two. Ben Kingsley, unrecognizable as Fagin, does a memorably sympathetic turn as the king of pickpockets, and relative newcomer Barney Clark is an exceptionally charismatic Oliver. The period details are impeccable, the cinematography exquisite. All told, nicely done.

Red Eye (2005)
Rachel McAdams is cute and plucky, Cillian Murphy is slender and creepy. The storyline is silly and rickety. Wes Craven's coming-out party into the thriller genre is serviceable fare about a doe-eyed terrorist on a late-night flight who takes a doe-eyed woman hostage.

Shopgirl (2005)
A dour slice of life based on the novella by Steve Martin, this is a bit of an anti-romantic comedy in which luckless Mirabelle (Claire Danes) is caught between a shambling doofus (Jason Schwartzman) and a rich cold fish (Martin). Moments reach a self-proclaimed lyricism, but ultimately you're not really sure of what the point is, except that reality bites. And Winona Ryder taught us all that a long time ago.

Syriana (2005)
Stephen Gaghan's sweeping panorama of Middle East politics and Big Oil is a love-it or hate-it proposition. It can be a maddeningly dense film, sure. Little is explained, a multitude of characters flit in and out of the multiple stoyrlines and Gaghan makes the assumption his audiences have a functioning knowledge of how the oil industry works. But hey, it's kinda nice for a Hollywood movie to respect its audience, and eventually this cinematic maze exerts a hold on you.


At 9:28 AM, Anonymous turtleboi said...

As usual, I almost completely agree with your assesment of those I've seen, which is most of them. One thing I can't figure; Everything about Polanski's Oliver Twist was terrific, so why didn't it stick with me?

At 10:47 AM, Blogger MDC said...

You hit the nail right on the head with my only problem with Clockwork Orange and its firm entrenchment in the "freaky deaky" early seventies. Even though I like the movie much less than CO, I get the same feel from Solyent Green.

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Daniel Gale-Grogen said...

As much as I admire your taste in film, you are being far too lenient on "Bewitched." This was a terrible film by any measure, and sure, there have been worse romantic comedies (some of them by Ephron, no less), but this one is made worse by the fact that Ephron completely squandered her resources (Kidman, easily the best choice to play Samantha) by making absolutely the last film that anyone looking forward to a "Bewitched" remake wanted. Because she decided to do a pallid satire on the film business instead of a remake, she has made it impossible for anyone to make a decent version of this film for at least a generation. *1/2 tops.


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