Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Another Heaven (2000)

You know, it's funny how a couple little things can bring down a promising film. Take this Japanese horror flick, for instance. I mean, if it didn't steal most of its plot from The Hidden and The Borrower, and if it was better acted, and if it had any likeable or sympathetic characters at all, and if it made even the tiniest bit of sense, and if the director's talent went beyond generic-TV-movie competency, and if the character of Asako wasn't such a blatant plot device/expositional-dialogue vessel, and if it was well-paced as opposed to peripatetic and wheezy, and if all the characters weren't all total idiots as well as being jerks, and if Asako wasn't also conveniently psychic and/or a forensic genius whenever the plot needed her to be, and if the climax wasn't sappy, self-important, idiotic, meretricious and convenient all in one fell swoop, and if the title wasn't derived from one of the dumbest "villainous" monologues ever written, and if the supernatural evil thingabob, when revealed, wasn't so hysterically non-threatening, and if the last five minutes weren't excruciating in their stubborn refusal to just fucking END and let the credits roll already, and if the whole mess didn't clock in at an overblown and endless 135 minutes... why then, this film would probably be really good!

Grade: D
The Tenant (1976)

A lot of horror films and thrillers have been made about the things that go bump in the night, but The Tenant is a rare film in that it's more about the bumps themselves than what's causing the bumps. To put it a somewhat less tortured way, this film is one of the most auditorily disturbing films I've ever seen. Polanski fills the movie with all manner of ambient and background noise to the point where the number of totally silent scenes in the film can be counted on one hand. This creates an unsettling atmosphere, especially considering that the film is about a man driven around the bend by his neighbors' incessant demands for quiet. It's as if Polanski could just be quiet, all would be well... but since the world itself is constantly noisy and droning, he will get no respite. It eventually also morphs into a study of paranoia, another film to ask the question "Are you paranoid if they really are after you?" The main difference with this film as opposed to most paranoia thrillers is that this movie never provides a solid answer as to whether Polanski's file clerk has a reason to be paranoid. The film's wicked, black sense of humor is just icing on the cake. A bit overlong at 125 minutes, but it's a good chiller.

Grade: B+
National Lampoon's Van Wilder (2002)

You know a film's bad when you start feeling sorry for Tara Reid. Simply pathetic on just about every level. I must confess, however, that I find the idea of Topless Tutors amusing. So I guess that's something.

Grade: D-

Sunday, May 26, 2002

Insomnia (2002)

This was one of those rare remakes that improves slightly on the original film. Now, I think the original (with Stellan Skarsgaard) is good but overrated mainly because it more or less squanders the inherent promise in its neat premise and we end up with far too many shots of Stellan in bed trying to sleep. Thankfully, the screenplay and director/genius Christopher Nolan avoids that trap. But by beefing up the role of the killer, they've also drained a bit of the suspense out of the scenario, so that it's less a thriller and more a skewed character drama. (Given that the original was less a thriller than an intellectual exercise, this could be seen as progress.) Still, it moves along quite nicely with tons of great atmosphere and well-tuned acting. Al Pacino in particular gives one of his long career's best performances and his best since Donnie Brasco. (Memo to a certain someone: Whadaya mean Hilary Swank was miscast? Were you on drugs? Or maybe just intoxicated by the prescence of so many famous people in your vicinity?) Shame that the ending is a letdown, then. Though his films are far more action-packed and less navel-gazing, Nolan seems kin to Ingmar Bergman in his obsession with the existential weight of identity and guilt and truth-telling. Which is why the final scene baffles me -- without giving too much away, it seems too standard-Hollywood moralistic. It's the one point in the film where the original was better, and it lets the film slip away a bit.

Grade: B
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

[Lights up onto an empty stage. After a minute of silence, THE CRITIC enters from stage right. For THIS REVIEW, he is clad in the styles of the San Fernando Valley. He begins to jabber excitedly.]

Like, OMIGOD, this movie is like the coolest EVER! Like, ya know, it's got these three chicks and they're driving around and kicking ass! They've got like these really fast cars and they're faster than even this car guy's car and it's SO COOL! And they're all we'll kick your ass and he's like no way you will and then THEY DO! And then one of them kills him and they take his girlfriend and they find this old guy with a bunch of money and they're all we should take his money but the old guy's all like no way you get my money but you can have some dinner and water and stuff but I want the dead guy's girlfriend and there's the old guy's two sons and one of them is a HOT muscleman with no brains and the other like this all sensible kind of guy and they're all trying to outsmart each other and kick each other's ass and IT'S JUST LIKE SO FUCKING COOL! Like, this movie has some of the greatest dialogue ever like when the main chick (who is like now totally my hero) tells the car guy that you could time his car with an hourglass and then his girfriend gets out of the car and says did somebody mention my figure? OMIGOD! I LIVE FOR THIS STUFF! Like, so totally don't gag me with a spoon because THIS MOVIE IS LIKE SO AWESOME I COULD SPIT! Yeah!

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Love and Death (1975)

One of Woody Allen's "early funny" films, and a very funny one at that. Only Woody could get away with a Hollywood-financed satire of Russian literature. Not as good as, say, Sleeper (the physical comedy here seems a bit wheezy), but still possessed with the kind of mad wit Woody only wishes he could recapture nowadays. The best compliment I can give it is that it's akin to reading one of Woody's better satirical essays. Diane Keaton is damn near perfect in her supporting role (she was always his most interesting foil anyway).

Grade: B+

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Zombie Lake (1980)

You know, sometimes grades are just inadequate. I can't really give this film a decent grade, because it fails utterly at everything it's trying to do. But boy fuckin' howdy, is it ever entertaining! This is one of the funniest films I've seen in many a moon. People who love bad trash should make a point to see this -- it's got some of the lowest production values you'll ever see (the 'underwater' scenes are obviously filmed in a swimming pool with gray tarp on the wall -- in one scene, the camera strays too far to the right and you can see the filter!) and probably the worst (and thus funniest) dubbing job in history. Seriously. It makes your average chop-socky effort look near-seamless. If that's not enough, how about that the plot is about green-skinned Nazi zombies (though everyone calls them ghosts, for some reason) who crawl out of a lake in France and attack some villagers -- mostly attractive, fully nekkid females. Still not enough? Well, how about the film's main subplot, which involves the main zombie (a blond Teutonic gent, naturally) BONDING WITH HIS TWELVE-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER!! Folks, I couldn't do that shit justice no matter how much detail I gave you. It's one of those things you just gotta experience. Yes, it's goat shit, and it doesn't measure up to Nude for Satan, not by a million miles. (Nude for Satan is my barometer by which all other bad movies have to be measured -- it's so pure and unfiltered in its utter badness that it achieves a kind of brilliant grandeur.) But it's still pretty hysterical, and despite the grade I'd watch it over the other film I saw last night any day.

Grade: C
Cure (1997)

Highly acclaimed thriller turns out to be one of those rare occasions where I find myself standing outside a film. It's extremely well-made, yes. K. Kurosawa is, on the evidence of this film, one hell of a director. He has a great sense of the cinematic; for instance, he knows just how long to hold shots and from what distance they should be held. As well, the premise is both extremely provocative and (to a certain point) carried out effectively. There's a lot of material (plotwise and thematic) to chew on here. But I mulled over what I'd seen for an hour-plus after the credits rolled, and as much as I chewed, I could coax nothing significant out from inside the film. It's a well-crafted and oft-disturbing film, yes... but it's also frustratingly opaque. The disparate elements here always seem to be heading towards some grand theme, but they never truly coalesce. The ending moments, thus, are futility defined: you know this should all mean something, but it really doesn't. All the dots are there, but when they're connected they don't make a picture. Still, some people love this film. So if it interests you, I urge you to check it out.

Grade: C+

Saturday, May 18, 2002

Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones (2002)

Finally... the whiny, petulant Jedi we've always wanted! There's a lot of things wrong with this new installment of George Lucas's ongoing attempt to become the richest man in the world (and remember, I even liked Episode I!). Foremost among these faults is the characterizations, or lack thereof. Lucas has never been a very good writer (or, for that matter, a very good director of actors), but here he short-circuits almost completely. Everyone has exactly one personality trait to play off (Anakin's frustrated, Obi-Wan's concerned, Mace Windu's grave, Padme's dull, etc.) and, apart from Ewan Macgregor, who still does a marvelous impersonation of Alec Guinness, no one in the cast is given the opportunity to break free of their one-dimensional constructs. The dialogue, too, is particularly tin-eared this time 'round, even by Lucas's rather generous standards -- I chuckled rather openly on several occasions, and I wasn't alone. These two shortcomings converge in what will go down in blockbuster history as one of the most simperingly inane "love" subplots ever recorded. A word of advice: Whenever Padme and Anakin appear onscreen alone, grit your teeth and resist the urge to hurl your large Coke at the screen, no matter how actively painful you may find the craptacular proceedings. The ushers don't much care for that sort of thing. To be fair, there are a couple nice instances of foreshadowing. But even there, Lucas falters -- for every effective moment (say, the introduction of a young couple who will grow up to be Luke's aunt and uncle), there's one that falls to earth with a thud. Especially bothersome to me was a last-minute parallel to The Empire Strikes Back that smacked of absolute desperation. And as for R2's-heretofore-unknown little trick he shows off here... I call bullshit.

But it's not all shit in a handbag, people -- Lucas can still direct an action scene, and the last 45 minutes of this movie damn near make up for the junk that precedes it. It's got cool-looking nasty sharp-pointy-teeth things, it's got blood, it's got Samuel L. Jackson in full-on badass mode, it's got Christopher Lee being evil-Jedi-dude effective, it's got near-death escapes and explosions and light sabers and C-3PO mincing around... AND, of course, it's got everybody's favorite little green guy Yoda showing us all exactly why he's regarded as an exceptional Jedi in the first place. That last bit there is pretty much worth a matinee ticket all on its lonesome. Paying more than a matinee, though, would be a sucker's bet -- the film still kinda sucks, even if the Backwards-Talking-Man suddenly opens up a large can of whupass. If you do see it (which you probably will or already have), watch for the moment about an hour in where Padme and Anakin are running up a grassy hill, and see if you're not compelled to sing out loud, "The hiiiiiills are alive, with the soooooooound of muuuuuuuuusic...."

Grade: C+

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Go West, Young Girl! (1978)

As is the case with most TV movies, this is lame, unmemorable and not really worth writing about.

Grade: C
The Charcoal People (2001)


Find a group of Brazilian migrant workers. Film one of them cutting down trees and making charcoal. Insert voice-over where he talks about his family, how life is hard, work, how life is hard, money and how life is hard. Take extra care not to forget the part about life being hard. Intersperse close-ups of subject during voice-over. When voice-over is finished, cut to static long shots of subjects while mournful music plays in the background. Repeat as many times as needed until either 75 minutes have passed or viewer has fallen asleep. Serve plain and ungarnished with no attempt to make material interesting or memorable. Present to liberal-leaning film critics who are willing to overlook the homework-assignment tedium, the mind-numbing repetitiveness and the barely functional filmmaking technique and will praise film as "powerful" and "poignant".

Grade: D

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Well, I finally did it. I kept saying I was gonna do it, but only now have I finally finished it. What is it? It's the goddamn 2001-in-Review list, that's what?

"But Steve," I can hear you say, "why should I go read this when I already know what you thought of [insert film here]?" Well, 'cause I wrote it, for one. (Kiddin'.) Seriously, you should check it out because there's 139 films on this list. Odds are, there's a couple you didn't know I saw. Maybe even a couple you haven't heard of but would like if you ever got the chance to see them.

That's not enough for you? Well, how about this: Somewhere in that list is a brand-spankin' new review of The Anniversary Party, which I just finished watching a couple of hours ago. So go! Go on over there..........

Yes, over here. Over here in the warm soothing waters of Mr. Cranky. That's right, dip your toes in. It won't kill you, I promise.

Hope ya like it, people...

Friday, May 10, 2002

Mutant Aliens (2002)

Animator Bill Plympton's latest, and more proof he's running out of ideas. That's not to say it's not funny (it is, occasionally gut-bustingly so), but it feels familiar and pat. The gushing blood, the big boobs, the crazed bodily mutations -- we've seen 'em from you before and better, Bill. Knowing this, Bill leans heavily on his plot... which is a damn shame, because weird flourishes aside (a planet of nose aliens?), it's a pretty lame plot. This may sound like a negative review, but it's more disappointed than dismissive -- I'm a big Plympton fan, and he's definitely capable of better. Now that my gripes are out of the way, it's still damn funny. And near the end (when we find out the origins of the "aliens") it gets downright perverse, even by Bill's standards. Of course, there's a couple songs too -- the highlight here is a revivial-meeting number called "Can't Drag-Race With Jesus"!

Grade: B-
Uzumaki (2002)

This is weird as hell. What it all means, I have no idea. But it's formally mesmerizing, heavily atmospheric and ultimately extremely unsettling. Pretty funny in parts, too. The set design and art direction are both minutely detailed and controlled to the point of fetishism. Might have been more effective had the two leads been better cast (they're pretty poor actors), but it's still fascinating as all get-out. Spirals have never seemed so menacing, and after the credits roll you'll start uneasily spotting them everywhere. I guarantee it.

Grade: B+

Saturday, May 04, 2002

Spider-Man (2002)

Rare is the summer movie that offers more than a couple cheap thrills and a sore ass. Even rarer is the big-budget spectacle with emotional content equal to, if not surpassing, its FX budget. Well, say a hossanah for Sam Raimi, dammit, 'cause he's done just that. The cultists have always known what an awe-inspiring technical director Raimi is, and boy, does he prove his mettle here -- I can count on one hand the number of other directors who could have so neatly captured the giddy, vertiginous thrill of being able to fly around New York City at god-knows-how-many miles an hour suspended only by little strings of spiderweb. But his grasp on the richer subtleties of character has proved uneven. (How can the same man have made the brilliantly nuanced A Simple Plan and the lunkheaded For Love of the Game?) Or maybe it's just been his collaborators -- Lord knows he can't take all the blame for Game. At any rate, what I'm getting at here is that there seems to have been some fortuitous alignment of the stars or something, 'cause Raimi was matched with a great script by David Koepp (who also wrote another of this year's better films, Panic Room) and a perfectly cast group of actors. The result is more than just the single best comic book movie in existence, maybe the best possible comic book movie that could ever be made -- it's sheer cinematic alchemy. It's not only funny, exciting, dazzling and all those other adjectives that can be applied to a lot of summer product... it's also pretty deeply affecting. Much of the credit for that can be given to the talented ensemble, with the lion's share laid at the capable feet of Tobey Maguire, who imbues Peter Parker with an appealing awkwardness that makes his transformation into agile world-beater all that much more satisfying. But they'd be stranded without a good script. (I'm looking at you, X-Men.) Koepp's work captures quite well the world of the comic, and he deserves special commendation for preserving the careful balance of love-hate relationships that make for endless drama, enough for five films. The last scene in particular, involving something of a personal sacrifice, is surprisingly touching. Potent stuff.

And if that's not enough for you, a whole bunch of shit blows up too.

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Follow Me Quietly (1949)

Neat little B-pic (and I do mean little) about a cop on the trail of an elusive strangler. Well acted and stylishly directed (I'd wager that's due mainly to the uncredited contributions of Anthony Mann rather than main director Richard Fleischer, who went on to direct some of the most notorious mega-duds of the 20th century). And it's tight, too -- it only runs a meager 59 minutes! That running time does present a couple problems (the love subplot, for one, feels more obligatory than anything), but it does keep things brisk and tense. Great warehouse climax.

Grade: B
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Much better than you'd expect from that title. It's an intelligent little sci-fi piece about an astronaut stranded on Mars after a crash landing and trying to survive against the odds. Paul Mantee is excellent as the Crusoe surrogate. It gradually loses steam with the introduction of the Friday character, leading up to a conclusion that feels wholly perfunctory. And the special effects are pretty silly. But it's still pretty darn good. And it's got a cute monkey too!

Grade: B-
The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972)

Well-regarded in its day, this supernatural shocker seems quite a bit less shocking. Truth be told, it's not really even that much of a horror film -- it's primarily concerned with issues of class and class conflict. It's always fascinating to see the genre try and tackle issues and ideas such as these, but the horrific elements can suffer if the material is improperly handled, which is definitely is here. I don't find it surprising in the slightest that the director hasn't done anything but TV movies since this -- the movie feels a lot like an made-for-TV adaptation of an Ira Levin potboiler with occasional flashes of gore. Things do pick up in the film's last segment and there's a much-copied twist ending, but it's too little too late.

Grade: C