Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Drive-by reviews of 2004 Releases (seen in the last two months)

Because nobody can get past the fiftieth word anyway...

Crimson Gold (Panahi) A-/B+
In a nutshell: Fear and Loathing in Tehran.
Amazon movie match: Taxi Driver.
To read a more eloquent take, what he said.
The skinny: A preçis of class resentment in five stunning set pieces, the best of which is the pizza delivery at the stakeout, but the most incisive being the trip to the jewelry store, where every subtly condescending move by the clerks stings more acutely because Panahi and amateur actor Hossain underplay Hussein's reaction until the end. Only the last trip to the playboy mansion feels schematic. A welcome reprieve from the ultra-minimalism that now dominates Iranian cinema, this great movie is not underappreciated but is perhaps undervalued.

Troy (Petersen) B
In a nutshell: Men's Health magazine presents Homer's The Iliad.
Amazon movie match: Gladiator
To read a more eloquent take, what he said and he said.
The skinny: Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- said this movie sucked, but I still can't understand why it flamed out with audiences. It's an involving epic with good battle scenes, enjoyably broad acting, and with an intensely heroic Eric Bana at the center. Sure, it's more a loose riff on the Iliad, one of my favorite stories, but the departures are not always what you'd expect or awful, and perverse for an American blockbuster to leave its heart with the fallen rather than with the triumphant invaders. Iraq War subtext disposable, but I enjoyed the gods-as-ideological-pretext echo. Brad Pitt physically perfect as Achilles; just plug your ears when he delivers oratory.

Notre Musique (Godard) B/B-
In a nutshell: La guerre n'est jamais finie.
Amazon movie match: In Praise of Love
To read a more elquent take, what he said.
The skinny: In praise of abstraction: Hell is a ferocious ten minute montage of archival war footage, movies, and random bits of impishness that confirms Godard as a dissemminator of images of the first order. However, Godard's annoying habit of confusing paradoxical aphorisms for wisdom emerges in Purgatory. Good thing that unlike his previous anti-American tract, he puts in his mouthpieces more considered rants and devises a more involving scenario involving the inconsolable Israeli filmmaker. Better than most late Godards, but not within hailng distance of his best works.

Bad Education (Almodóvar) B+
In a nutshell: Pedro's Greatest Hits
Amazon movie match: Mulholland Dr., on the Vertigo side of the family.
To read a more eloquent take, what he said.
The skinny: As widely commented on, it's a fusion of young Pedro the sexual provocateur with the emotional depth of the mature Pedro, only that he's got one too many balls in the air here, making this tricky noir homage somehow less affecting than his last movie Talk to Her or the very similar Mulholland Dr., another movie about the liberating effects (but also the limits) of willing yourself into a whole new persona. (The limits being you cannot transcend those who cannot see you for what you have become but see you for what you are.) A tiny step back from the indelible Talk to Her, but still the work of a master at the near-top of his game.

Ocean's Twelve (Soderbergh) B-
In a nutshell: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Amazon movie match: Topkapi
To read a more eloquent take, what he said.
The skinny: Stars pretty. Brad Pitt clothes cool. Clooney need to see more of. CZJ hotter than ever. Damon funny. Cassel a hoot. Cassel gymnastics to steal egg awesome. Soderbergh direction stylish. Tone too smug. Story totally disposable. Movie same. Better if more non-sequiturs.

Vera Drake (Leigh) B+
In a nutshell: The Secret Life of Grandmothers.
Amazon movie match: High Hopes, I guess.
To read a more eloquent take, what he said (except for that culture of death stuff).
The skinny: Virtues of this movie unrelated to the hot button topic, but in Leigh's lovingly detailed re-creation of working class life in England, circa 1950 and in focusing on the kind of character that has never been, to my knowledge, the protagonist of any movie: the mother who gives and gives because that's just what she does. Vera's lack of reflection and self-doubt about her actions (she's just helping people) is spot-on, and this movie's power comes from Leigh's wise choice to withhold his judgment on her non-self-awareness. Even if the film is overtly political, Leigh's smart to focus on a protagonist who stands blissfully outside politics. Reminded me of my own grandmother, but I could've done without about half the beatific close-ups of Imelda Staunton. Superbly acted of course, and a welcome return to form for Leigh after the one-note miserablism of All or Nothing.

House of Flying Daggers (Zhang) B
In a nutshell: All that the Shaw Brothers Allow
Amazon movie match: Golden Swallow
To read a more eloquent take, what he said (except for the part comparing Zhang Ziyi to Ingrid Bergman, I mean jesus).
The skinny: No Chris Doyle, but that might be a good thing: the superb action direction is never absurdly overwrought or arty the way it often was in Hero (see deflecting arrows on rooftop; fight on the lake; Jet Li at the library), with the little dagger-CGI and wire-fu working organically within the action sequence rather than becoming the focus of the set piece. Visually more old-school Zhang as opposed to his previous bastard child with Wong Kar-wai -- lots of horizontal and verticals coupled with Zhang's taste for a kind of muted decorative beauty (seen in the costumes), but takes an ill-advised detour and becomes a ridiculously feverish yet undernourished melodrama. Zhang hangs Kaneshiro, Andy Lau and especially Zhang Ziyi -- emotionally limited actors all -- out to dry. Best when it sticks to genre and action set pieces, with the Echo Game being the best of the year.