Monday, February 02, 2009

Reports of my death, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated.

This site's still going away... but I'm not. Mainly because I realized that, without a website, I can't participate in The Third Annual White Elephant Blogathon. And nobody wants to miss out on that.

What has chafed about this, what I can't really keep up with, is the reviewing load. When you try to review everything you watch, it gets burdensome. Yet I didn't really feel that crunch until several years in, and changing the format just seemed wrong to me. At least, it does here. No one's to say that we can't get a fresh start elsewhere, though. So I've done just that. This will likely be a far more informal venture - just me riffing on movies, music, booze, whatever else. In other words, more like an everyday blog. Exciting, I know.

I have thus taken a page from the Matt Prigge playbook. For those still interested, this is my new home. See you in the funny pages...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Nobody's going to read this, most likely, but it needs to be said anyway. Long time coming, at any rate.

So. The other day (as in, last month) I saw Werner Herzog's Stroszek, a film that gets better every time I think about it. Stroszek is the kind of film whose impact cannot be judged while it unspools in front of you but only in the space that occurs from the moment you finish watching it to the moment you finish reflecting upon it. It famously ends on a shot of a chicken that has been trained to dance to a rudimentary tune whenever someone drops a coin in a slot. The metaphor seems obvious (the best summation I've read, as usual, comes from Roger Ebert, who writes "A force we cannot comprehend puts some money in the slot, and we dance until the money runs out"), yet it avoids didacticism through the force of its poetic potency. It has stuck with me like few movies have, and here's why.

There are a lot of times through the past couple of years that I've felt like that chicken, and folks, I need to stop dancing. I work too much, I drink too much, I watch too much and I expect too much. This was all easy back when I was pulling forty-five hours a week and scribbling whatever came to mind, but as both my responsibilities and my personal standards have risen, I find I can't maintain this little corner any longer. Most nights, it becomes a choice between watching and writing. With my backlog at over 500 films now, I don't want to make that choice. One of the two must fall. So, here it is. We're pulling down the shutters for good. Thanks for having me.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Week of September 8th:

The Bounty Man (1972): Bland TV-movie Western starring Clint Walker as a bounty hunter who goes to bring in John Ericson, a dangerous thief and murderer, while another group of unscrupulous bandits stick on his tail, intending to take the bounty for themselves. Does nothing unexpected or especially interesting; has the structure and psychological underpinnings of a Boetticher/Scott Western but lacks the lean, tough vigor. The ending is an abrupt pop-psych botch. Margot Kidder looks lost as Ericson's tenacious lady. Grade: C

Brand Upon the Brain! (2007): Who does alternate-universe perversity as well as Guy Maddin? Nobody, that's who. Even when he's wandering through ideas he's worked with before, he still manages to find new perspectives on them. Incestuous/Oedipal conflicts run through much of Maddin's work, as does gender fluidity; this time around, though, he's bundled said familiar thematics inside a memory piece framing a combination coming-of-age tale/Hardy Boys-type mystery that abruptly shifts into horror dynamics two-thirds of the way through. The genre-hopping craziness of the piece's main body reflects the emerging hormonal roil of the younger Maddin, on the cusp of puberty as he is; meanwhile, the framing device offers a rueful perspective on said flashback craziness, offering us a calmer time where the echoes of a painful childhood still resonate (both metaphorically and literally -- the present-day line sees elder Maddin refurbishing the family lighthouse, long since fallen into disrepair). Through all this, Maddin's dazzling formal abilities wane not a bit. Chews through ideas and images so quickly that it feels on the long side even at a mere 90-odd minutes, but when said running time includes the indelible bit where the narrator (I chose Crispin Glover) howls "RUMANIA!" ever more frantically while a dead man is shocked, Frankenstein-style, back into a grotesque simulacrum of life, it seems churlish to complain. Grade: B+

La Promesse (1997): Breakthrough film for the Dardenne brothers serves as a solid introduction to their neorealism-by-way-of-Bresson ethos. Luc and Jean-Pierre direct with confidence and force yet never seem overbearing or intrusive, important given the hand-wringing potential evident in their socially-engaged scenario. The film deals with the slow moral evolution of Igor, a young man who begins to rebel against his slumlord father and the treatment of the immigrants in Dad's thrall, yet the film doesn't hector or deal in shades of black and white -- Amidou, an African immigrant whose death touches off the boy's epiphany in the form of a promise to look after his wife, has a gambling addiction, and his wife is often adamantly unwilling to accept Igor's benign help. In lesser hands, this material could easily become breast-beating polemics, but the Dardennes, who favor human activity over human speech, keep it grounded in a particular sense of everyday existence and an awareness of physical being. (There's a scene where Igor's father gives him a whupping that's as quick, violent and brutal as anything I've seen.) It becomes less about the politics of the particular situation and more about simply Doing What's Right, and it's wonderfully engrossing. Also, aside from the film's value in itself, La Promesse also introduced the cinema world to a soulful, ridiculously talented kid named Jérémie Renier. And the cinema world is much richer for it. Grade: B+

Postal (2008): Big surprise time: Cinematic bugbear Uwe Boll, as it turns out, can be funny. And I don't mean accidentally funny like Christian Slater shouting, "Don't be insane!" in Alone in the Dark or the sudden appearance of medieval ninjas in In the Name of the King -- I mean in an on-purpose, joke-telling, setup-punchline kind of way. Postal is a teeth-bared tasteless satire in the vein of South Park, and seeing Dr. Boll's tendencies towards the inexplicable harnessed for comedic ends carries its own fascinating charge, as it's the bursts of slapstick weird that keep this from sliding into anti-everything drudgery. I expect a number of the biggest laughs are taken from the source videogame, but that doesn't change the fact that tone is everything and there's a million ways to fuck up, for instance, the cat-silencer gag. That it got a hearty laugh out of this avowed cat-lover is to Boll's credit. But it wouldn't be a Boll film if he didn't ultimately find a way to fuck it up, and Postal goes to shit in a hurry roughly halfway through after it presumably runs out of inspiration and becomes a dull, noisy shoot-em-up. Is it a coincidence that this shift comes right after its funniest and most surreal joke (the ultimate fate of Verne Troyer, playing "Verne Troyer")? I doubt it. Better than anyone had any right to expect, really, but it comes so close to scraping the edge of quality that its ultimate failure irks all the more. Grade: C

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Week of September 1:

Boarding Gate (2008): Another study of alienation disguised as a genre flick from Olivier Assayas, this could be seen as a companion piece to his awesome demonlover. Where demonlover was a tale of corporate espionage that linked spiritual/moral corruption with the ever-widening need to consume as a way to feel something (even something extreme and taboo), Boarding Gate goes the other way and gives us a cast of characters who already do and feel too much, with our heroine's ultimate goal being to unplug from the web in which she's caught and disappear into a more "normal" life. When Michael Madsen breaks out a pair of handcuffs, only to have Asia Argento proclaim, "I don't like them. They hurt."... well, there you go. The film would probably be even better if someone other than Argento was in the lead; though she's clearly been cast for her iconic value and not her acting range, the second half still feels like a letdown, if only because Asia can't really do anything other than feral animalism. Still, Assayas's eye is as sharp as ever, and if the film coasts on a terrific sense of dislocation that's still more than most other films have to their credit. Me like. Grade: B

Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2008): Strong documentary about Acrassicauda, Iraq's only heavy metal band, gets about as much mileage as would be possible out of its focus. By concentrating on the four members of the band, particularly thoughtful bassist Firas al Lateef, directors Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi manage to hit close to home and create the sense of a universal experience with a directness that isn't possible for an overview doc like No End in Sight. The members of Acrassicauda are engaging, angry fellows who remain verbose and realistic about their situation as the country spirals into chaos; when the film picks up with them after they've fled to Syria and documents their first show in four years, you're tempted to cheer in triumph even as their social conditions (no money, no practice space, generally treated like third-class citizens) mean that the film can in no possible way end on an up note. It doesn't matter what you think of heavy metal -- you should seek this one out. Grade: B+

Meet the Spartans (2008): This is what I get for thinking Epic Movie might be a step in the right direction, isn't it? Latest issue from the bowels of the Friedberg/Seltzer "creative" team appears to have slapped together in a fortnight using only the most obvious and glancing nods to its source and pop culture in general, so that the effect is like watching some smarmy douchebag heartily bombing at an open-mike stand-up night. (Hey, did you notice that 300 was really homoerotic? How about Britney Spears, is she crazy or what?) In retrospect, I think what I responded to in Epic Movie wasn't so much an improvement in the humor as an improvement in the casting -- somehow, actual funny people (Fred Willard, Jayma Mays, Kal Penn) thought it might be a lark to fashion a silk purse out of Friedberg & Seltzer's sow's ear, and while they didn't totally succeed, they did make the film seem more bearable than it should have been. Here we're relegated to Kevin Sorbo and a bunch of hacks from "Mad TV." The casting of Sorbo is meant in and of itself to be a joke, which is the ever-present problem with these things; at no time do the dynamic duo behind this try to turn it into anything other than a vast orgy of, "Hey, I understand that reference!" It's the kind of film where they have Paris Hilton in the role of Ephialtes the hunchback, and the fact that she says, "I'm not as dumb as I look," is an automatic punchline. Here's the thing, though: Paris Hilton is indeed smarter and cannier than she likes to appear, which gives her one up on these two self-satisfied assholes making fun of her. Grade: F

Momma's Man (2008): Note the titular irony of this wryly effective portrait of depressive stasis. Matt Boren plays Mikey, a middle-aged married man back East for a quick business trip who visits his parents and then doesn't leave, and his performance is solid, hinting at gulfs of self-loathing agony without compromising the character's dissembling reticence; furthermore, Boren is entirely unafraid to jump headlong into the unsympathetic. Director Azazel Jacobs gets the maximum mileage out of his major set (his parents' loft), with the extraordinary clutter becoming ever more imposing the closer Mikey slides to total regressive stagnation. Mikey's parents are played by Azazel's real-life parents Ken and Flo Jacobs, with several pieces of avant-garde cinematic titan Ken's work making appearances during the course of Momma's Man. Most notably, there's a small chunk of Spaghetti Aza cut in during a crucial late-film moment, which serves as a fine linchpin to the film's (presumably personal) thematic dichotomy between safety and maturity. Also not to be discounted: The film's finely tuned sense of awkward humor. The scene where Mikey buys beer for some teenagers in a park is a marvel. Grade: B+

Shotgun Stories (2008): David Gordon Green served as executive producer on Jeff Nichols's debut feature, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest -- the rural poetry of Nichols's film owes a lot to Green's George Washington and, by extension, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep. Here's the thing, though: Neither the Green nor the Burnett really had a narrative, being instead a collection of incidences that added up to the feel of a place and a time. Nichols, by contrast, does have a story he wants to tell, and there's nothing wrong with that in itself; unfortunately, the story he has in mind is shopworn and obvious, a simple iteration on how quests for vengeance can leads to endless vicious circles of violence. The mundanity of his narrative doesn't seem to fit the found-art quality of his visuals; if anything, the yearning for artistry present in his setups and cutting make the tired familiarity of the plot seem that much more glaring. It's not really a bad first film -- Nichols demonstrates a fine eye behind the camera, and he has the advantage of a solid performance by Michael Shannon as an anchor. I just hope his next time out doesn't feel so second-hand. Grade: B-

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

And my burgeoning empire of not-for-pay criticism rolls on...

Hey, didja know that the Encyclopedia Britannica has a blog? I didn't. But they do, and right now writer/film historian Raymond Benson is running a two-week series of posts about his favorite films of 1968. I have been tapped as an official film commentator. So, y'know, there's that. Take a look and follow along... should be fun, no?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Week of August 25th:

Any Gun Can Play (1967): From what I've seen, spaghetti Westerns seem to hit the same blind spot I have for Japanese yakuza films -- while the good ones are very good, the bad ones (which far outnumber the good ones) try my patience with dull, overthought plots involving lots of double and triple crosses by guys with guns who all vaguely look like each other. This one, about a wayward cache of gold and the various unsavory characters after it, settles into that aggravating template nicely. From what I've read, this is intended as a knowing parody of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, complete with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef lookalikes getting gunned down at the film's outset. All I can say is that if director Enzo G. Castellari demonstrated a tenth of the enthusiasm and invention of Leone's hyperbolic-to-the-point-of-mythic mise-en-scene, this might be worthwhile. Side note: I saw this in a bad video print under the title Go Kill and Come Back which featured quite possibly the worst pan & scan job I've ever seen. I'm not making that a factor in my opinion -- proper framing might make the film more visually pleasant, but it won't help the story, and the ridiculously drastic pans used to fix the framing carry their own unintended entertainment value -- but I thought it was worth mentioning. Grade: C-

A Chinese Torture Chamber Story 2: The first Chinese Torture Chamber Story was about the best possible movie one could make from the material: a sick-minded industrial strength black comedy that aimed for the gross-out and didn't take itself too seriously. This unrelated followup shows that the people who made it missed the point of the first; what we have is a sequel that keeps the grotesquerie but for some reason appears to have been made in all earnestness on a budget of seventeen bucks. Roughly half the film is over before we get any torture, and when it finally shows up in an ever-nastier series of setpieces, it's displayed dispassionately, like everyone on set knew they were making a cash-in sequel and thus decided not to invest any of the trash-fueled energy that made the first film memorable. (No exploding penises, in other words.) I probably think I hate this film more than I actually do -- my aggravation was increased by my recognition of it being the kind of thing I should like were it not so incompetent and lackadaisical. Still, fuck this film. Grade: D

Violence at Noon (1966): I don't feel qualified to talk much about this disorienting film after one viewing, especially a VHS viewing. It's obviously an incredible achievement, and it's even more obviously an elusive one that I haven't quite absorbed. A big-screen viewing would probably help, considering how much information there is to take in, but I'm going to miss its sole screening at the New York Film Festival's Oshima retrospective sidebar. So I'll just say for now that I liked it and hope to encounter it again in the future. Grade: B (a placeholder grade if there ever was one)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Week of August 18th:

Death Race 2000 (1975): Darkly funny rotgut satire masquerading as just another Corman-branded drive-in smash-em-up. The media-violence-as-pacifier isn't exactly new ground, but director Paul Bartel nails the balance between violence and commentary better than most, so that the film appears more trenchant than it probably is. What came as a genuine surprise to me was the post-script, which says in five minutes what it took Massacre at Central High half a film to say. Makes excellent use of Corman's notorious tight-fistedness -- the sparse, ramshackle art direction, everything pasted together as best as possible, truly gets across the premise of an America dancing on the edge of bankruptcy -- and though legend has it that Bartel intensely disliked directing car-chase films, you wouldn't know it from his sharp, economical eye. Plus it's entertaining as fuck. David Carradine, I'm starting to think, is not a person but a government experiment to isolate cool and give it human form. Grade: B+

Masculin Féminin (1966): "The children of Marx and Coca-Cola" is more than a cute pullquote, it's an unusually clear and handy summation of what Jean-Luc Godard is doing with this playfully knockabout concoction. As the famed phrase suggests, this captures a loose group of young people torn between increasing politicization/dissatisfaction with the Way Things Are and the constant desire for consumption of the capitalistic and ephemeral. The film Godard makes from this is at turns melancholic, hilarious, dull and droll, helped along by a typically winning performance by Jean-Pierre Leaud and the lightest touch Godard ever had and would never have again after his radicalism overwhelmed him. Full of sharp setpieces that may not be meant to add up to anything other than a cultural overview; most fascinating are occasional interludes where characters are peppered with a battery of question by an offscreen interviewer. Here, Godard all but stands up and shouts Do They Know What They Stand For? I Don't Think That They Do. Watching this, you can see how the '68 riots happened, and you can also see why that idealistic fervor collapsed so quickly. Grade: B

Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Mostly terrific Hawksian men-being-men drama about mail pilots in South America and the deadly lives they lead. The flight scenes are expertly rendered, crisp and tense (it was a great idea for Hawks to lead us off with a fatal crash, so that we understand that he just might kill any of these sympathetic characters at any time), but I do think the film loses something whenever it switches gears and goes for the push-pull romantic tension between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Arthur's character strikes me as too inconsistent, and the chemistry between the two never quite sparks. I kinda wish that Arthur and Rita Hayworth had switched roles, as Hayworth kills in her small handful of scenes. Still, this is at bottom adventure drama at its most solid. Grade: B+

Return of the Tiger (1979): I wonder where Bruce Li's reputation would be if a cynical producer hadn't rechristened him with that name after the death of Bruce Lee. Because, at least on the evidence of this film, Li doesn't deserve to be lumped in with Bruce Le or Bruce Liang. He has an athletic grace in his movements that is far removed from the clumsy thuggery of Li or the abruptly effective savagery of Sonny Chiba, but more importantly he also has a measure of charm that sets him apart from the other Bruce clones. My perception may also be clouded by the fact that, unlike most Lee cash-ins (i.e. The Dragon Lives Again), this is tantalizingly close to being a good movie. The fight scenes are sharp and well-choreographed, the villains are properly hissable and there's a sense that the filmmakers were, for once, in on the joke. (There's no other excuse for the scene where Li avoids taking on a huge henchman until he can oil himself up.) The problem is, then, is in the story -- it's both overly complex and completely unimportant, with a series of double-and-triple crosses that nobody seems terribly concerned about sorting out. Coulda been a minor classic, but I'll stay satisfied with a ferocious entertainment. Needed more Angela Mao, but the glorious heap of Paul L. Smith in Hulk-smash mode at the end compensates. Grade: B-

Rio Bravo (1959): It's iconic! One could criticize Howard Hawks's now-legendary Western for trading explicitly in well-worn Western tropes right down to its casting, but that would be missing the point. From the beginning, where we're introduced to most of the main characters without a word of dialogue, Hawks uses audience familiarity as an entry point to his project. We know these characters and situations. We know them inside and out, and Hawks does too. He's not interested in telling just another story here but a story within those stories. That's why the siege-narrative structure is necessary -- a whole heap of downtime is the aim, so that we can see what these guys do and how they react in relation to one another when they're not beholden to the average B-plot. Though it has some wonderfully choreographed gunplay (not just the opening and closing scenes but a marvelous bit where Dean Martin has to suss out a shooter in a bar) Rio Bravo is more or less the opposite of what we expect -- the Western as inaction movie. Terrific, at any rate, and helpful for me in that I now understand what the big screaming deal about John Wayne is. Grade: A-