Tuesday, December 28, 2004

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Through the auspices of my recent subscription to Netflix, the miracle that is cable TV, and my son (who has pretty good taste in movies sometimes) I've been watching several films lately. I was gonna do longish reviews of each, but life is short and I have other stuff I want to write about this year so I think I'll just do 'em quick 'n' dirty, in order of preference.

Bad Santa: Funniest movie I've seen in quite some time. Well, since Slap Shot, anyway. Had me scared to death that they were going for the cheap Hollywood Life Lesson ending, and they did flirt with it, but fortunately they chickened out before they went there. Billy Bob Thornton is great as the title character, who along with "person of small stature" Tony Cox have a scam going where they knock off department stores dressed as a store Santa and his elf partner. Another great flick from Terry (Crumb, Ghost World) Zwigoff. Lauren Graham is drop dead sexy as a bartender who has a Santa fetish, and takes up with Billy Bob.

Slap Shot: Second funniest film I've seen lately, and another one of those "I can't believe you haven't seen this" movies. Better late than never, I always say. Anyway, the exploits of a minor-league hockey team, with the requisite collection of freaks, geeks, and characters...but there's a nutball spirit running through the whole thing that keeps it loose and always amusing, plus the Hanson Brothers (two of which were real-life brothers and actual hockey players) are just some of the most amazing characters ever to grace the silver screen. They cracked me up, big time. Paul Newman is good, as always, as the player-coach who finds out that his team, the sad-sack Charlestown Chiefs, is going to be sold at the end of the year- and he decides to make the team so competitive that the lady owner won't want to sell the team. Great flick (a little dated, maybe, but it's not a big issue) especially in this hockey-less time, and I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to viewing it.

Big Fish: Tim Burton and co. intend to tug hard on your heart-strings, and succeed with wit and imagination and good performances from Albert Finney and Jessica Lange. His warmest since Ed Wood, and also his best since Sleepy Hollow.

Hero: The breathtaking visuals, full of action, style and especially brilliant color, more than compensate for a somewhat convoluted, Rashomon-like story. Not quite as good as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it has a better ending.

Idiot's Delight: 1939 film which aired on TCM a few weeks ago, starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer. Gable is an entertainer, traveling with a troupe of blonde beauties in pre-US-WWII-involvement Europe. He encounters old "acquaintance" Shearer, at her most Garbo-esque. Gable sings "Puttin' On The Ritz", and TCM shows us both the domestic ending and the alternate ending, which was made for the overseas market that was already fighting the war. An interesting curio, and Shearer is attractive in a strange way. I wonder if Michael's Movie Palace has covered this one...

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: I liked the darker tone, but found the story needlessly complicated (especially the ending) and continue to wonder why Harry has to go back and live with his abusive Muggle step-parents. To amuse the kiddies with scenes like the one which opens this, in which an annoying great-aunt gets transformed into a balloon, I guess. Gary Oldman was kinda wasted here, I thought.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco by Sam Jones: I love the innovative, often brilliant music of Jeff Tweedy and his band- especially their excellent 1999 effort Summerteeth, which is, in my opinion, one of the best pop-rock albums ever, troubling lyric content aside. To a lesser extent, I feel the same way about their next release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the creation of which is the subject of this documentary. It's interesting to witness the steps they have to go through, not to mention the hoops to be jumped, but this entire film is shot in boring, grainy black and white and Tweedy and company for all their brilliance as musicians are virtually charisma-free...so this is not exactly a gripping viewing experience. Or at least it wasn't for me, your mileage may vary.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers: Peter Sellers was a talented, sometimes brilliant presence in many films, but in this too-clever-for-its-own-good biopic he's portrayed as a mean-spirited, emotionally stunted perpetual adolescent with a self-loathing side- hardly conducive to viewer empathy. Geoffrey Rush is outstanding portraying him, but the film can't decide whether it wants to be a Charlie Kaufman-type surreal film experience or a straight-up biography, and the inconsistent tone just sinks it. John Lithgow is very good as Blake Edwards, as is Stanley Tucci as Stanley Kubrick. When I watch things like this, I'm always reminded of the saying (which is almost always true, I've found) "There are two sides to every story, and usually the truth falls somewhere in between".

Men Are Such Fools is another Priscilla Lane film I hadn't seen...and sometimes you win a few, sometimes you lose. You wouldn't think a flick with Priscilla and Humphrey Bogart would be dull, but well, ya never know. Motivated advertising career-gal Lane is torn between her football star husband and a radio exec who takes a personal interest in her. Hugh Herbert is on hand to provide his shtick as well, but this one seemed to take forever to wind up.

Cold Mountain is an episodic wannabe Odyssey-style epic set in the Civil War which is buoyed by some wonderful scenery, strong period flavor, a great performance by Renee (Sigh) Zellweger, and some nice supporting perfomances (Brendan Gleeson as Renee's deserter Pa, Natalie Portman (surprisingly good! She can act! Who knew!?) as a lonely widow). Big problem- there is no chemistry whatsoever between the two leads, Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, and the whole plot hinges on some unlikely coincidences and lazy dramatics (the gang of hoodlums left behind to "guard" Kidman's town when all the other boys have gone to war- you just know they'll become the bad guys). I enjoyed several things about Cold Mountain, but was happy when it was finally over because it was such a slog.

What! No Beer? was a depressingly flat Buster Keaton film, from late in his career when his drinking had become a problem. An alleged comedy about partners who start a brewery at the end of Prohibition, it's dominated by the endless mugging of Jimmy Durante. I think I laughed three times. Nothing worse than flat beer.

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