Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Reel Short Reviews, Take 16

Some thoughts on some films I've seen recently. You can probably figure out my complex ratings system.

Aquamarine (2006)
Harmless, intermittently entertaining tweener fare about a mermaid who becomes pals with two girls one memorable summer. I can't believe I just wrote that. Shoot me now.

The Boston Strangler (1968)
Richard Fleischer's once-shocking story of Albert De Salvo, the Boston handyman who killed 11 Boston women in the early Sixties, suffers from some dated psychological mumbo-jumbo; the film practically crashes to a halt once De Salvo (portrayed by a mannered Tony Curtis) and the lead investigator (an annoyingly rigid Henry Fonda) begin their lengthy interrogation inside a starkly white room. What remains surprisingly effective, however, are the director's multi-image collages that heighten the suspense while simultaneously presenting a panoramic vision of a city in terror. Fleischer, incidentally, recently died.

Bubble (2006)
A mesmerizing film in its own failed-experiment sort of way, Bubble is Steven Soderbergh's latest off-the-map exploration. Released simultaneously in movie theaters, on cable and on DVD, the picture fell well short of its supposedly revolutionary potential in distribution, but it excels for sheer chutzpah. With a cast of non-professional actors (one lead was discovered managing a West Virginia KFC), the story concerns ennui and murder involving three workers at a doll-making factory. The acting is uneven and Coleman Hough's script, which relies largely on improvisation, is patchy, at best. But the dreary pace and eerie mood have an unequivocal spell. It is chilling and frustrating -- but definitely interesting.

Firewall (2006)
Cliches on celluloid. Harrison Ford is angry, goddammit! And worst of all, he's dealing with kidnappers willing to exploit his son's allergies to peanuts! Wake me when it's over.

Freedomland (2006)
Freedomland's just another word for a movie you should lose.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Jim Jarmusch's seemingly impossible blend of mobster action flick and meditation on the Samurai code enacts a sort of intoxicating hold on the viewer willing to give it a chance. Buoyed by a fluid, graceful performance from the underrated Forest Whitaker as the street assassin who owes his life to a Mafia capo, Ghost Dog is another of those Jarmusch oddities that works in spite of itself. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Jarmusch is some kind of genius.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Watching this latest in the Harry Potter series, I couldn't help but reflect on how spoiled modern-day film audiences are. Remember back when one of Ray Harryhausen's special-effects creations could spark your imagination for weeks? Nowadays, we moviegoers just assume that anything imaginable can be conjured up onscreen, and for good reason. From dragons to winged horses, Goblet of Fire is packed to the gills with eye-popping visuals. Too bad the storyline itself feels like a time filler between installments. Still, it's interesting to see how the teen years are pushing Rupert Grint, who plays Ron, perilously close to a likeness of Megadeath rocker Dave Mustaine.

Hustle & Flow (2005)
Terrence Howard's portrayal of a pimp-turned-rapper gives heft and resonance to what is essentially a middle-of-the-road melodrama. It is a powerhouse performance, all right, and the arrival of a major star. But don't get me wrong; the movie deserves props on its own, too. Craig Brewer's film is consistently watchable, and even boasts one truly outstanding scene. When Howard's Deejay finally meets up with Skinny Black (another solid acting job by Ludacris), it revs up enough unexpected intensity to make you forgive some of the more overwrought moments that preceded it.

The Lady and the Tramp (1955)
I can't believe I had never before seen this Disney classic until recently; I didn't realize how much I was missing, locked away in my childhood attic with rats and a saucer of milk. Anyway, what can you say about Lady and the Tramp? It is superb Disney fare, even if it does paint an awfully sympathetic portrait of cocker spaniels (not my favorite breed of dog, not by a long shot). You've got to love any kids' film with the veracity to show two (brace yourselves) unmarried dogs spending the night together, only to be followed shortly thereafter by Lady giving birth to a litter of pups. Take that, Brent Bozell!

A Little Romance (1978)
I can only guess the primary reason for this George Roy Hill trifle was to justify trips to Paris and Venice. Precocious American girl (Diane Lane in her big-screen debut) has a whirlwind romance with bratty French boy (is that redundant?), and they somehow wind up involved with Laurence Olivier, who mugs shamelessly as a charming thief. The movie makes shampoo ads look like a Bergman art film by comparison.

Metropolitan (1990)
Whit Stillman's criminally underrated debut precipitated the sort of preciousness that would later permeate so many indie flicks, but Stillman's quasi-fantasy version of New York's collegiate upper class doesn't take itself so seriously that it ever becomes grating (unlike a number of its successors). Witty, curiously stilted banter fill this Salingeresque view of the Big Apple. A surprisingly sweet-natured film and a personal favorite of your humble reviewer.

Mo' Better Blues (1990)
Spike Lee has always been a frustrating filmmaker, crafting works that are visually lush -- and sometimes downright audacious -- but too often hampered by overwrought theatrics and a lead-footed sense of storytelling. Mo' Better Blues isn't his worst effort, not by a long shot, but this tale of a trumpeter (Denzel Washington) juggling two women and a disgruntled jazz band is heavy on form and wafer-thin on content.

Nine Lives (2005)
I could only handle six of these vignettes before I had to choose life and eject the DVD. Ponderous, pretentious, elliptical fodder.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
I wanted to like this Sam Peckinpah yarn -- honestly, I did. Yeah, I know it's been maligned over the years, chiefly because of nearly incomprehensible editing and some curiosities (Bob Dylan in a bit of stuntcasting as some yayhoo named Alias), but I was willing to cut the film some slack. After all, how could a blood-soaked western from the great Sam Peckinpah not kick butt? But damned if I ever truly cared about the titular characters. Despite the typically evocative atmospherics of a Peckinpah flick, I couldn't get past a labored screenplay or Kris Kristofferson's wooden performance as the Kid.

The Pink Panther (2006)
Does anyone remember way back when Steve Martin made good movies?

Pride and Prejudice (2005)
A visually lush adaptation of the Jane Austen classic gives the lovely Keira Knightley a chance to show off her acting talents. She is appropriately headstrong and heartbreaking as Elizabeth Bennett, the wiseass of five dopey sisters who bounce through 18th-century England looking for love in all the wrong places. As we all know, romantic period pieces based on classic novels too often make for airless movies, so hand it to director Joe Wright for making this a work of truly resonant cinema.

Ride the High Country (1962)
The movie that put Sam Peckinpah on the map doesn't have the slow-mo bloodshed of his better-known works, but it is a gem on its own quietly elegiac terms. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, two B-western heroes, are appropriately cast as two aging gunslingers -- one upright and law-abiding, the other a crook -- reuniting to transport a haul of gold to a bank. There was no shortage of Sixties-era westerns about the end of the Old West, but Ride the High Country is better than most of 'em, largely because of its elegantly low-key script, Lucien Ballard's lush cinematography and the engaging performances of the leads. Oh, and it marked Mariette Hartley's movie debut -- as if that means anything.

Sunrise (1927)
An intoxicating (that's right, I'm not afraid to be effete when need be) silent film by the legendary F.W. Murnau, in which a farmer tries to kill his wife, thinks better of it and ends up falling in love with her all over again. Don't be fooled if this sounds like something you've seen on CourtTV; it's still pretty terrific.

Three Men and a Cradle (1985)
This mediocre French film was the basis for the U.S.-made hit Three Men and a Baby, which alone should have made it suspect. Nevertheless, this comedy of three entrenched bachelors who wind up having to take care of a baby (fathered by one of the trio) has its occasional cutesy charms. But then a subplot involving drugs and the police feels shoehorned-in, and Coline Serreau's direction is generally sloppy and aimless.

The indie aesthetic goes to seed. Whiny, reactive outcast sucks his thumb, has a strained relationship with his parents and lets bad things happen to him. There are actually some stellar aspect to Mike Mills' film: some excellent performances, particularly Keanu Reeves (yes, you read that correctly) and Vincent D'Onofrio; sanguine Elliott Smith songs and the occasionally arresting epiphany. But the film's lead actor, Lou Taylor Pucci, makes the protagonist slightly less appealing than a bowl full of bile.

Triumph of the Will (1935)
Leni Riefenstahl's masterwork of propaganda-as-art chronicles the 1934 Nazi party rally at Nuremburg. Fascinating, impressive and scary.

The Weather Man (2005)
Nicolas Cage is best at flawed, melancholy, self-pitying, self-absorbed characters (not that there's anything wrong with that), and this Gore Verbinski-directed picture is no exception. Cage portrays David Spritz, a Chicago TV weatherman who is both prosperous and spiritually empty as the result of his celebrity and wealth. He yearns for the approval of his father (Michael Caine), a stuffy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He labors for a relationship with his daughter, a sullen, overweight girl whose unflattering wardrobe has resulted in the schoolyard sobriquet of "Camel Toe." Oh, and as if all that isn't sad-sack enough, his ex-wife (Hope Davis), on whom Dave is still hung up, is about to get remarried. This is pretty bleak stuff for a major Hollywood studio, so kudos for the surprisingly provocative excursion. That said, The Weather Man, despite a smart screenplay from Steven Conrad, never quite congeals. I don't know why, exactly. Perhaps it is an episodic structure that occasionally meanders, or perhaps the movie is a victim of Verbinski's own stylistic slickness.


At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Greta McInerney-Spinoza said...

My brother, I'm stunned that you just now saw Lady and the Tramp. I guess it's the thirty year age gap between us. I now have to watch it from my creaking old rocking chair. It's one of my all time favorite movies -- and, yes, I admit -- a tear-jerker.

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous turtleboi said...

I am mortified that you could diss both Soderbergh and Peckinpah in the same blog. If you want to revisit some amazing Peckinpah, try on Straw Dogs. I recently watched my friend's criterion collection copy and found I had forgotten it's one of his best movies, not to mention an acting triumph of Dustin Hoffman's. I'm also a little surprised it's taken you this long to realize about Jim Jarmusch what some of us have known since Dead Man. The man is a genius. And I'll forgive you for not being as taken with Lou Taylor Pucci the way I was. I am now off to put Lady and the Tramp in my Netflix queue as I have not seen it since I was seven.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

That comment about Freedomland was deadly ... and dead accurate. .. good stuff


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