Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Waiting for Guffman (1997)

If you loved Best in Show, odds are you'll love this too. (Or the other way around, considering this came out first.) Myself, I was rather lukewarm about Best in Show. So it goes for Guffman too. I think Christopher Guest and all personnel involved are extremely funny and talented people, and they do occasionally hit upon some gems. Guffman doesn't really have anything to equal the pure hysteria of Fred Willard's dog commentator, but it does have the single funniest "Hollywood souvenier shop" ever, plus Eugene Levy in a ridiculous alien suit and a side-splitting musical ode to stools. But this film runs a scant 84 minutes, and the general impression I got is that a LOT of material got left on the cutting-room floor. Just look at how many potential gags are set up, only to be cast aside and forgotten. (Levy's eye problems alone might have yielded enough comedy for three movies. Here it's a throwaway.) So what have we learned, people? Stop being lazy and write a fucking script. Even those talented guys on "Whose Line is it Anyway?" (the British version, mind you -- the American incarnation is pretty dud-riffic when Wayne's not singing and Colin and Ryan aren't doing some damn thing) can't always turn improv into gold.

Grade: B-

Monday, February 25, 2002

Monster's Ball (2001)

Don't have a whole lot to say about this one. Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry and Heath Ledger are effective, but the film takes over an hour to find its bearings and is wounded by some strange decisions in editing and camera placement (especially during the film's already-notorious love scene). Ends up being fairly affecting anyway, though I'm not sure why it was necessary to make Berry's character suffer only slightly less than Job. It deserves points for bringing up a stupid cliche near the story's end expressely for the purpose of ignoring it.

Grade: B-
Get Shorty (1995)

The critical acclaim for this one is baffling, as hindsight reveals it to be Barry Sonnenfeld making a dry run for Wild Wild West. Much like that dog, "Shorty" suffers from ridiculously slack pacing and its own smug hipness (not to mention the bizarre sight of James Gandolfini struggling to hold a Texan accent). Thankfully, Sonnenfeld had a previously established framework to play with (unlike West). Elmore Leonard's mostly-priceless dialogue holds this rickety thing afloat, though Leonard does deserve the blame for the lame plot. Entertaining enough, if you're in an especially undemanding mood; Travolta here is as good as he'll ever be.

Grade: B-
Chopper (2001)

This Aussie bloodbath has been sold as a blackly comic biopic, but that doesn't seem representative of the material here -- if it is indeed a comedy, it's one of the grimmest and most unsettling ever created. It's a fictionalized account of the rise-to-notoriety of one Mark "Chopper" Read, career criminal and all-around bad dude. As portrayed by Eric Bana, Chopper is a genial, jovial fella who also happens to be a paranoid psychotic demon. Bana's ferocious performance announces the arrival of a major new talent, but the film to which he's contributed the performance doesn't quite work like it should. Whether this is the fault of director Andrew Dominik, the screenwriter or maybe Bana himself is for us to figure out; as good as Bana is, there are times (I'm thinking of the lengthy sequence with his hooker girlfriend in particular) where his vicious, mercurial interpretation of this rotter seems at right angles to where the film wants to go. Stylishly directed, certainly, and incredibly effective in little pieces (the jailhouse stabbing of Chopper is a surreal, brutal tour de force), but it doesn't appear to have anything approaching a point. And if I'm gonna spend 90-odd minutes in the company of an utter bastard, I'd at least like to know why he deserves my attention. Maybe it's a cultural thing.

Grade: C+

Saturday, February 23, 2002

Say it Isn't So (2001)

One thing about me is that I'll watch just about anything. No matter what critical consensus says, odds are I'll end up watching it. And every now and then, a surprise will come rolling down the pike -- a Freddy Got Fingered or a Pootie Tang or a Nude for Satan, a movie that unexpectedly turns out to be pretty goddamn good, or at least really entertaining.

This was not one of those times.

Fuck me upside down with a circus clown, this film sucked. It's thankfully not a mean-spirited film, so I can't really give it an F. But I don't think I can go much higher for a film that contains zero laughs, chuckles, smirks, chortles or even appreciate snorts until the closing gag (which got a laugh, though I'm not sure if it was from amusement or desperation). Chris Klein is as bland as ever, and it seems now more than ever that Heather Graham blew all her acting talent as Rollergirl. Ack... I really, really, really hated this piece o' crap. Halfway through, I began envying my cat -- after all, she doesn't torture herself like this.

Grade: D-

Thursday, February 21, 2002

Gosford Park (2001)

Well. This type of "Masterpiece Theater"-ready cinema has always been a bit of a blind spot for me. It's all stunningly well-acted by a dream-cast ensemble, and it's magnificently directed by Altman (who I'd written off as pretty much finished after the disaster area that was Dr. T and the Women). It entertains like a marvel in short spurts; problem is, it's two-and-a-half hours long and feels it, especially in the fairly interminable section after Michael Gambon's been offed. But really, I'm being way too hard on it. It really is a smashing good time and it's the best thing (perhaps the only good thing) Altman's done since Short Cuts. Make no mistake, though -- it's Altman in a minor key, and it's certainly not terribly Oscar-worthy (except, of course, for the divine Helen Mirren). I enjoyed the heck out of it, but after all the critical raves and awards, I can't help but feel let down. I would like to say, though, that it's nice to FINALLY see Emily Watson and Kelly MacDonald in a film that doesn't suck wind.

Grade: B
Bully (2001)

There's two small pieces of this film that contain the whole truth about this "true-life" story. Noticing them will definitely enlighten you on the position director Larry Clark is taking vis-a-vis his subjects and subject matter:

1) The Bijou Phillips crotch shot. Nearly every review seems to mention this one shot (most of them just say "You'll know the shot when you see it") as an indication that Mr. Clark may be a mite too enthralled with his teen subjects. Yet most of them choose to ignore this and rave about the film anyway. Why? Isn't this totally gratutitous extreme-close-up concrete proof that Clark is at best ethically dubious and at worst an out-and-out pervert in moralist's clothing? I wouldn't trust him around my kids. His filmmaking sensibilities aren't too far removed from those of Clive McLean's. Does that mean that, in the near future, Roger Ebert is gonna view Barely Legal #11 and proclaim it a masterpiece?

2) The post-credit admission that, more or less, states "While this is ostensibly based on a true story, the fact is we made most of this shit up. And the three main characters got their sentences reduced, but we didn't feel that was important enough to mention while there still might be people in the audience." Which means that Clark and the screenwriters are less interested in illuminating causes of teen violence than they are in good ol' fashioned titilating sex-and-violence entertainment leavened with a dose of "ain't-these-kids-dumb?" condescension.

So is there any reason that this dishonest, morally disgusting porn-a-thon has garnered such raves? Well, there are a couple of stretches that do work -- most noticeably the central murder, which is (to be honest) one of the most powerful and nerve-wracking scenes of the year. There's some good performances that make this slightly compelling despite itself. (Special thank-yous go out to Phillips, Nick Stahl and especially Brad Renfro.) And I can say with certainty that this is the best film Clark's ever made and that his background as a photographer means that almost by default he's gonna produce some nice tableaus. It's rather satisfying to see him revisit Kids territory without the cheap shock-mongering that has so far been Harmony Korine's specialty. He still has that goddamn patronizing attitude, though -- not a frame of film went by where I felt that Clark had any sympathy for the kids in front of his camera. (The screenwriters -- who don't even deserve the small favor of having their names mentioned -- get their share of the blame for this, too.) Having praised the performances, I have to say that I feel sorry for all involved (ESPECIALLY Renfro), who should have something to show after acting their little hearts out besides this pap. It could have been worse for them, though: They could have signed on for Clark's sickening Teenage Caveman remake.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Cats & Dogs (2001)

Okay, so there's some mildy clever stuff in the film's final third. But why exactly this inane, noisy and frenetically unfunny load of bollocks inspired so many kind critical reviews is a question for which I will never have an answer. When will Hollywood get the idea that talking-animal movies, with few exceptions, just don't friggin' work? And count me among the growing number of filmgoers who believe that it is decidedly uncute when animals have their facial expressions manipulated by computer animation. Isn't there some other, more worthy project that all this CGI money could be wasted on? That beagle puppy sure is cute, though.

Grade: D+

Monday, February 18, 2002

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001)

A minor surprise, for sure. Quite funny and clever much of the time, which helps offset the occasional lame stretch. The design of the film is pleasingly goofy and detailed too. (The scenes with the carnival-ride rocket ships blasting through space, the roller-coaster wriggling along like a snake on fire, deserve to be noticed as some of the year's most visually striking.) There's about twenty pop-song montages too many, but by now that's more or less a necessary evil. It's no Pixar film for sure, but it's better than Shrek. I want a dog like Goddard....

Grade: B-
Kate and Leopold (2001)

I have nothing against romantic comedies if they're done right. This one has not been done right. In fact, after viewing it, I'm not sure it's done at all. (Apparently, my copy wasn't: it was a bootleg off the critical screener tape which preserves the vague incest subplot that was cut out of the final release.) Like most modern-day romantic comedies, it's split into two parts -- the light, funny first half and the dramatic, mostly joke-free second half. Of these two, the second half is marginally more effective if only because it's actually somewhat cohesive. The funny half has its moments, but for the most part it's a half-formed mess. There's ideas for scenes that could work as jokes, and there's jokes that could work given the proper context and timing. It's a damn shame then that director/co-writer James Mangold (who, in his last three films, has shown zero talent) still has no idea about how to pace a motion picture. Hugh Jackman's delightful performance as Leopold is the film's lone saving grace; its major flaw is Meg Ryan's Kate, who comes off at all times like a self-centered, shallow twit. (What kind of intelligent, driven career woman doesn't know what "the pointy thing" on her PDA is called, anyway?)

Grade: C

Saturday, February 16, 2002

Collateral Damage (2002)

Hee hee hee... only two months into the year and already we have a king-sized untentional-laugh-o-rama. This just serves as more proof that Hollywood really shouldn't try to get serious about political conflicts. (The screenwriters' simplistic grasp on the three-sides-to-every-story situation seems to be just above that of the average four-year-old.) And it's not like this fits into the lunkheaded-fun mold of Commando either -- nope, it's waaaaay too solemn and self-serious for that, my friends. It wants to thrill you AND enlighten you! (And if you're at all "enlightened" by this film's ridiculous lip service to the consequences of American misdeeds, you need to read a little more often. BTW, if you think my politics are misguided here, there's an e-mail link down there. Feel free to brand me a commie pinko bastard.) Honestly, as the credits rolled after the insulting meat-for-the-masses climax, I stood up and shouted "Can't we all just get along?????" After this and End of Days, I'm now going to avoid any movie in which Arnie wears the tortured-soul stubbly look. And wasn't there a time when Andrew Davis was a talented B-movie hacktion director instead of a terrible A-movie hacktion director? If you've ever wanted to see what a Reagan-era jingoism-fest would look like with a shiny coat of Hollywood-style surface liberalism, this one's for you. (We care a lot, yes we do...)

Grade: C-

Thursday, February 14, 2002

Woodchipper Massacre (1988)

What the hell is wrong with me? Haven't I learned yet that the coolest and/or funkiest titles get stuck on the crummiest films? Haven't I suffered enough to figure this out? (Apparently not... I just traded for a copy of Can Hieronimus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?) And (last of the rhetorical questions, I promise) shouldn't a film with the word "massacre" in its title actually have, oh, I don't know, something resembling a massacre? Apparently, the makers of this home-grown hooey learned something from the late, lamented AIP: Give your film a kickass title and it doesn't matter what the product inside actually looks like -- idiots and saps like myself will pay to see it. Only two people die in Woodchipper Massacre, and both times there's a distinct lack of gore (gee, maybe the filmmakers couldn't afford any...). And the movie's not even really a horror film -- it ends up being a warm, fuzzy black comedy (how's THAT for a great oxymoron?) about a family that pulls together in a time of need! Which means there's absolutely no reason for any self-respecting horror fan or gorehound to consider renting it. There's one sole point of interest, and it's purely regional -- this was filmed around West Redding, CT, which isn't THAT far from the town I currently call home. Those of you who don't live in Connecticut don't even have that to hold on to. (In full disclosure, I should also mention that the film's midpoint -- right after the first death -- has about ten minutes of fitfully amusing moments. But you didn't hear that from me.)

Grade: C- (and I'm being generous here, people)
The Beguiled (1971)

It's the Clint Eastwood movie that time forgot! Which seems a little unfair in my eyes, as it's a damn good film. As directed by Don Siegel, it's a creepy little piece of Southern Gothic involving a wounded Union soldier (Eastwood) who is taken to recuperate at a school for girls in the South. As soon as he can stagger around on crutches, he's playing games with three of the school's residents -- the headmistress, a repressed teacher and a sexually precocious student. Naturally, none of this ends well. Eastwood's character is established fairly early on as a guy who'll do whatever he needs to get what he wants (there's a great scene where he waves away accusations of violence by claiming to be a Quaker medic -- while a flashback shows us quite a different tale), and being that he's a Yankee in the middle of a group of Southerners, there's always tension as to whether his manueverings and attempts to ingratiate himself with his hosts will be accepted or rejected. The film starts out offbeat and interesting, then there's a crucial action a little past the midpoint which sends the film sailing into much darker waters. As it stands, The Beguiled might be the precursor for the late-70s/early-80s wave of rape-revenge films -- and that's all I'll give away about the film's second half, which culminates in a grim shocker of an ending. See it.

Grade: B+