Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Freeze Me (2002)

It's a Japanese rape-revenge flick in the vein of I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45. It's got some seriously kick-ass poster art. And it stinks like nobody's business. Somehow this got a reputation for being a seriously disturbing thriller. I'm sad to report that the only disturbing thing about this is how badly it squanders its provocative premise. It's well-directed by Takashi Ishii, as is practically every Japanese film that stumbles onto American soil these days, and it boasts a decent performance from Harumi Inoue as the put-upon heroine. But Inoue's character is barely written -- she's doing her best with a cipher. As for the film itself, it's precisely as chilly and emotionless as you might expect from the title. One or two sequences do manage to muster up a sort of primal charge, but most of it is simply pointless and meandering (occasionally, the film seems to want to morph into a dry black comedy). Not nearly as unnerving as numerous other thrillers, despite the effusive praise lavished upon it by the festival bookers. Hey, Ishii -- I spit on your film!

Grade: C-
Kick the Moon (2001)

The kind of film that will likely leave with a big stupid grin on your face, it takes some time to get ramped up but cuts loose in outrageous fashion once all the characters are established. Probably the brightest and most exuberant film I've ever seen that ended with a violent melee, and definitely the first gangster movie I've seen where the only gun is wielded by an incompetent policeman. I'm not sure when Korea became such a hotbed of groovy cinema, but I'm all for it.

Grade: B+

Friday, April 26, 2002

The Piano Teacher (2002)

(Note: I've tried to tread lightly here, but I do allude to some major plot points. So there may be some discernable spoilers. Proceed with caution.)

As a filmmaker, Michael Haneke is fascinated by violence within society and the effects it has. With this film, he narrows his scope to focus on the violence visited upon one woman by her own hand and what happens when she tries to find that violence elsewhere. Which is merely a hoity-toity way of describing one of the most spellbinding, nerve-shredding experiences you're likely to have this year. Haneke's good at ripping up the nerves of his audience using nothing more than languid long takes and people chatting at a normal volume, and he's in top form here. He just might be the best formal director working today (though I still like Peter Jackson more). While this film is rather removed from his other work in its disuse of fancy distancing techniques (the wild fourth-wall smashing of Funny Games; the Brechtian black-leader edits reminiscent of O Lucky Man! in Code Unknown), he's got something else up his sleeve: a ferocious, brilliant performance from reknowned French actress Isabelle Huppert. Huppert's portrait of a repressed woman who just wants to find a little love, even if it is perverse, sadomasochistic love, is nothing short of alchemic -- she manages to imbue this potentially repulsive character with a measure of dignity and sympathy, which helps to take the edge off Haneke's coldly clinical directorial eye . And it is essentially a love story, or at least a story about love, even if the terms are alien to most sensibilities. S & M is about mutual control; even if one party is submissive to the other, the dominant partner will do nothing that the submissive wouldn't want to happen. It's a particularly trusting form of love, which is what makes the actions at the film's climax such a violation -- they are born not out of love but anger and contempt. So what we have is not an easy-to-watch film, obviously. It's not remotely feel-good and could be accused of sadism. But I'd disagree with the latter. While it may not be Haneke's best or most effective film (Funny Games, for all its troubling and revolting thematic material, still trumps this), it is his most complete, fully realized work. And, with this and Code Unknown, the demonic provocateur of Austria shows that he might have an emotional side after all.

Grade: A-

Thursday, April 25, 2002

Sorority Boys (2002)

Well, it's better than Slackers or 100 Girls. Truth be told, this actually shares a couple points of contact with 100 Girls -- which, I'm sure you all can tell, is not something about which I was entirely pleased. Ultimately this one's somewhat better (it's dumb but not especially awful) though that comes as small consolation to the viewer. Harlan Williams and Heather Mattarazzo manage to triumph over the material and deliver a few solid laughs; sadly, everyone else is stuck on autopilot. Cut out the nudity and swear words and you might actually end up with a UPN TV pilot.

Grade: C
Busting (1974)

One thing people forget: When he wants to be, Elliot Gould can be a real good actor. This film, in which he plays a frustrated vice cop trying to nail a crooked businessman, represents some of his best work. The film itself feels a little too laid-back for its own good at times, but overall it's reasonably engaging and exciting. Pretty funny at times, too. (Best line, from Gould: "That's not family. That's a creep.") Notable also for being the directorial debut of Peter Hyams, who would later bestow upon us such dreadful crap as End of Days and The Relic. (Note also that he doesn't do the cinematography on this, as he does on every film he makes nowadays -- thus, we can actually SEE what the hell is going on.) Tough to find, but worth it.

Grade: B

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Serendipity (2001)

Okay, for a moment, let's assume I'm running a different movie-review website, a gimmick site where I relate my thoughts about everything I see in one word. With Serendipity, that magic, all-definining word would be "exasperating". (100 Girls, meanwhile, would be the word "Ohholyjesuschristfuckingkillmenowbeforeikickmytelevisionintonextweek".) I'm all for romantic comedies that put a couple stumbling blocks in front of our protagonists, but it's really quite a different thing to make our man and woman of the hour have to jump through fire hoops while spinning plates and balancing bowling pins on their noses. The sheer convoluted nature of this endeavour pretty much precludes any sort of enjoyment -- this is The Romantic Comedy as Cryptogram. There's some amusing stuff on the margins (especially the invaluable Eugene Levy as a slimy Bloomingdale's clerk), but at the film's center is nothing but a giant vortex of lame. Even John Cusack can't make this ungainly claptrap soar for more than a moment or two.

Grade: C
Def by Temptation (1990)

Uneven, yes -- such are the perils of ambitious low-budget filmmaking. But ambitious it is, and intelligent too. James Bond III isn't much of an actor (he's a little too awkward, even for the sheltered minister-to-be he's playing), but he's a pretty darn good writer and director. (I wonder why he hasn't done anything since this film's completion.) He also gets a major assist from cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee's former go-to guy. Speaking of Spike: Samuel L. Jackson and Bill Nunn, both of whom appeared in Do the Right Thing, reunite for this film. Fun Fact: In both films, the two well-regarded actors share approximately zero minutes of screen time. Has probably the coolest killer TV outside of Videodrome.

Grade: B

Thursday, April 18, 2002

Joy Ride (2001)

Despite an actively stupid plot, this here's pretty damn great -- funny and thrilling, occasionally in the same scene. Steve Zahn proves yet again that he's quite simply the fucking coolest actor, like, ever. Forget your logic meter at the door, 'cause this one's going for a purely primal experience. Dig it.

Grade: B+
Southern Comfort (2001)

A perfect antidote to the inanity of 100 Girls,, this was. It also provides a bitter spin to the old saw about truth being stranger than fiction -- it's also crueler and more senseless. Its main character is Robert Eads, a female-to-male transsexual who develops and eventually dies from ovarian cancer. (Really, it puts a new light on the idea of a man trapped in a woman's body -- the woman's body just refused to capitulate, I guess.) As I followed the lives of Eads and those around him, especially his girlfriend Lola (a male-to-female transsexual), it occured to me that this documentary is a sort of spirit kin to Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, which remains one of the best docs I've ever seen. Both films are simply about love and the pain of losing a loved one. That pain crosses all boundaries, all sexual predilections or pecadillos -- death causes grief no matter what. This film doesn't have quite the force of Sick (keeping in tune with its subjects, it's far more low-key), but it's still quite affecting. Well worth seeking out.

Grade: B+
100 Girls (2001)

So many things I wish to say about this movie. So many ways to start in on this review. Yet, no way would seem more appropriate to nail down my reaction to this film than to quote the film's female lead:


Two motherfucking F-grade films in one week! Why on earth do I subject myself to this shit? Why is it that when I get an early warning sign, like the one I got not three minutes past the credits when the lead character compared his growing erection to a bag of frickin' Jiffy Pop AND THEN WE GET AN ACCOMPANYING VISUAL, I don't have the good sense to bail out and watch something else? Am I really this goddamn masochistic? I swear to God, this horrid piece of offal had to have been written by a dirty-minded eight-year-old. A person smart enough to make it to adulthood without swallowing too many marbles simply could not have concocted this hideous four-headed mutant of a movie. (If you think the above Jiffy-Pop comparison is bad, you ain't seen nothing -- this film sets a land-speed record for crappy similes.) And there wasn't even any decent femme nudity to balance things out. I've had puking episodes that were more fun than this.

Grade: F

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Slackers (2002)

And I had hoped that Freddy Got Fingered would be the death of the gross-out comedy. Apparently not, judging from the torrent of body-fluid-based films we've been seeing lately. This one, the worst-reviewed one of the batch, is the kind of film that convinces you that there is something deeply wrong in Hollywood. How this glorified Troma comedy (and I mean one of their less impressive pickups) got big-studio money behind it is something I will never understand. Possibly a goat and a Polaroid was involved. There's a couple scattered laughs, but any shreds of goodwill are decimated by the film's perverse and unpleasant sense of humor. And in Jason Schwartzmann's Ethan, the filmmakers have invented one for the ages -- a character so hateful, so repulsive, so completely devoid of any redeeming facets that spending five seconds in his company is enough to make you want to tear your eyeballs from their sockets and stuff them in your ears to block out all sound. And, like way too many gross-out comedies these days, this movie also makes the mistake of thinking we need to see these characters treated sincerely, which naturally leads to fuzzy-wuzzy meet-cutes and sad misunderstandings and "I want to be a better man" behavior and general unearned sentiment. It's cheap and vomit-inducing when bad films do this, and especially so in this case, since pretty much everybody in the film is either an idiot or a goddamned liar. Weird and sick, but not in a fascinating Freudian/Dadaist way like Freddy -- just in a lame I'd-like-to-slap-a-few-people way.

Grade: D
Impostor (2002)

[A note of interest before I begin: The bootleg I viewed appears to have been from a prerelease version of the film, probably one that slipped out while it was stuck in Dimension-shelf limbo. It's the R-rated cut that was submitted way back in 2000, if I'm not mistaken. I'd have to guess that it differs from the theatrical version by some slightly more graphic violence and about five more F-bombs. This is the second time this has happened to me (the first being Kate and Leopold: The Incest Version), and I have to say, it's pretty amusing. It's like a bootleg Easter egg hunt.]

Well, as far as first-release-of-the-year films go, this ain't TOO bad. I suppose. It starts off pretty well, at least. Falls apart after a half hour though, a victim of the perils of expanding a 40-minute omnibus segment into a full-length feature. Myriad plot holes and rampant stupidity serve as constant reminders that professional hack-job-thriller director Gary Fleder is behind the camera, while the easily guessable "surprise" ending point to Ehren Kruger's script involvement. (What David Twohy actually did on this film, I have no idea.) Is Gary Sinise planning on getting back to real acting any day soon?

Grade: C

Saturday, April 13, 2002

Frailty (2002)

Pretty damn creepy, I must say. Bill Paxton's performance is some sort of weird genius. It's problematic, though, and obviously the product of a first-time writer. There's an overreliance on voiceover narration, even when it's not needed, and there are some glaring holes -- especially involving the triple-twist ending. The first twist I saw coming from a mile off (blame it on the casting department -- and that's all I'm gonna say about that). As for the second twist (which is two-tiered), I can't say I expected it, but I'm not sure I wanted to: unless you read into it more than I do, it pretty much shoots the film's carefully constructed ambiguity all to Hell and proves needlessly self-justifying besides. Really, if you think about it, it actually perverts and reverses everything the film's been saying up to that point. And the superfluous third twist is effective but kinda silly. Still, it's extremely well-directed, especially for a first-timer -- Paxton seems to have absorbed a couple lessons from the people he's worked with. And when all is said and done, it's still pretty freakin' creepy and thus worth seeing if you're a fan of scary movies. I gain more respect for Matthew "Naked Bongos at Midnight" McConaughey with each passing year.

Grade: B
National Lampoon Goes to the Movies (1981)

Helloooooooooo, fetal position! Whenever I stumble across a film this noxious, this incompetent, this colon-cleansingly bad, I have to marvel at the elasticity of time. It's funny how a nice Sunday in the city can fly by while a mere 89 minutes with something this hellish can last roughly four eons. This particular open sore on the ass of cinema is easily one of the least funny "comedies" I've ever had to bear witness to. It makes National Lampoon's European Vacation look brilliant in comparison. I'd start talking about bad jokes, but there aren't any to speak of: the writers on this were so untalented that they couldn't even create recognizable concepts for jokes, let alone actual attempts at humor. The whole thing resembles a Mad Lib with no blanks filled in -- do-it-yourself comedy in which nobody did it themselves. One more reason to hate the '80s, I guess. (Embarrasment alert: The third segment of this was shot by Oscar-nominated cineamatographer Tak Fujimoto! And that's not the most embarrassing film on his resume, either -- according to the IMDb, he also photographed the notorious talking-vagina flick Chatterbox! That's funnier than anything in the actual film!)

Grade: F

Friday, April 12, 2002

Big Trouble (2002)

Screw you all, I thought this was really funny.

Grade: B+
Death to Smoochy (2002)

Or, Clowns on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Looks like we have yet another offbeat flick dubbed a disaster by overenthusiastic critics. Black comedy just can't win these days. Heck, I hesitate to call this one a comedy; it fully straddles the line between funny and uncomfortable. In all fairness, this isn't a great movie. It's really uneven (as is Robin Williams's ballyhooed "dark" turn) with a lot of subplots that don't add up to much. (The stuff with the Irish gangsters and the ex-boxer was pretty damn lame.) But when it hits, it hits big -- the absurd performance-art ice show at the film's climax is worth a matinee all by itself. It's dark as hell, too -- this may be the most cynical and paranoid Hollywood product since L.A. Confidential. It's an acidic, noir-flavored attack on Hollywood about idealism vs. the "real world" and the difficulties of maintaining one's integrity and incorruptability while under pressure. (It just happens to be clad in comical clothing.) Thus, Edward Norton's Sheldon Mopes gets beset upon by nigh well everyone. (Norton, by the by, is fucking fantastic. As usual.) Yes, there's a happy ending. Yes, certain people are moved to see the error of their ways by Mopes's relentless cheer. But there's darker shadings to Mopes (a throwaway reference to "anger management"; the creepy primal scream session) that make the sugarcoating wear off a bit. And really, the happy ending is only achieved through some not-so-happy methods. Tough stuff, and still a lot of dead air besides, but worthwhile. Besides, the payoff scene involving Williams's attempt to set up Norton made me laugh so hard that I strained a muscle.

Grade: B-

Saturday, April 06, 2002

Christmas Evil (1980)

A few reviews back, I was writing about surprises and sleepers as the reason I sit through miles of crap. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you... A Big Fucking Surprise.

Tell me what you'd expect from this cover art and plot synopsis. (Mouse over onto the picture for the synopsis.)

"As a boy, he saw mommy making love to Santa Claus. As an adult, he is a crazed killer who has kept a list of all the girls who have been 'good' and all the girls who have been 'bad'. It's Christmas time and all the 'bad' girls are in trouble. A man dressed as St. Nick is stalking the streets, brutally murdering innocent girls. Who is to say if the kindly old gentleman upon whose knee your child sits, is a maniacal murderer?"

I'd say you'd expect a hunk of cheese the size of Aunt Fanny's head, at the very least. I'll admit that's what I was expecting. What I got was entirely different -- an offbeat, creepy character study of one deeply disturbed individual. Brandon Maggart is mesmerizing as the young boy, all grown up and a little too obsessed with Santa and the Christmas spirit. He's obviously insane, but at the same time he retains sympathy. His performance is what makes the film work. (There's an especially memorable and chilling scene where he tells a group of children to behave and he'll give them good stuff next year, but if they don't...) Unfortunately, the film hits self-destruct mode in the last act (Torches? In suburbia?), leading to an especially ridiculous ending. Very little violence/gore also -- the "bad girls" are wholly the invention of some desperate ad-copy writer -- so if you're looking for cheap thrills, go elsewhere. (Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 will probably be on the shelf collecting dust. Grab that.) But if you want something a little different, a little unusual, check this out. It's an honest attempt to deal with the idea of a homicidal Santa Claus as more than just a carbon-copy slasher, and it's waiting for rediscovery. Judging from the online howls of protest by gorehounds everywhere, it'll probably wait forever. To each their own, I guess.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991)

I only saw this because I was bound and determined to watch something on cable and my other choice was Exit Wounds. And I'll take a goofball early-'90s action flick over a po-faced rapper-starring 2001 action movie any day. I just wish I'd had a third choice. It's pretty painless as far as these things go, but it's still hopelessly lame all the same. Dolph Lundgren speaks two languages in this film (English and Japanese), and he's awful in both of them. Tia Carrere's in this too, and almost has a nude scene! (Damn body doubles.) The fight scenes are pretty entertaining, and Brandon Lee does a pretty good Bruce Campbell imitation. But God help me, pretty much the only thought running through my head for roughly the film's entire running length (all 79 minutes of it -- it appears to have been cut down to the bare bones of the plot, leaving little room for such niceties like characterization, continuity or logic) was "I should watch this again and take notes so I can rip it apart over at Badmovies.org." And that thought is never a good sign.

Grade: C-

Monday, April 01, 2002

Panic Room (2002)

Well, as a follow-up to Fight Club, it's a bit of a disappointment... but then, what wouldn't be? It's all pretty damn cool anyway, milking its simple concept for every single possible plot twist. Hollywood may not know horror anymore, but they can still crank out a tense and inventive thriller every now and then. If nothing else, I'll remember this film forever for two things: 1) A line of dialogue ("Why didn't we think of that?") that will likely end up being my favorite of the year, and 2) The single most ridiculous tracking shot in the history of film. (That shot's a real beaut -- in terms of sheer audacity, it outdoes even the infamous Louma crane shot in Dario Argento's Tenebrae.) Proof that a good movie is the result of a simple equation: Good Script + Good Director + Good Acting = Good Movie. If only most filmmakers could remember that. Jared Leto has some weird friggin' taste in roles, doesn't he? I like that in a pretty-boy actor.

Grade: B+
Resident Evil (2002)

Just more proof that Hollywood can't make a good horror film anymore. The other Paul Anderson proves yet again that he's a pretty good visual stylist, and he also proves yet again that he'll never make a movie that's consistently good as opposed to occasionally inspired. It's very weirdly paced too; half the main characters are slaughtered (in an admittedly entertaining sequence) before the zombies even show up, and the last half-hour is essentially one long series of endings (if the one we have doesn't work, snip it off -- we've got twelve more!). And about that ending, anyway: Could it be that the film has been rendered so dispassionately because it's merely an excuse for Anderson and co. to make a sequel which will probably end up being the film they wanted to make in the first place? Way too tame on the gore meter as well, especially for a zombie flick, and it doesn't help that one critical sequence is lifted wholesale from Dawn of the Dead, which only reminded me that this woulda been WAY cooler if George Romero was at the helm. On the plus side, Milla Jovovich once again makes for a surprisingly effective action heroine. I can't bring myself to totally hate a movie that has Jovovich in a skimpy red dress kickboxing a zombie Doberman to death... but I can damn well dislike it a lot.

Grade: C