Monday, October 28, 2002

The Ring (2002)

I still haven't seen the original, despite having had opportunities to secure a bootleg version more than once. I would hope, though, that it's freakier than this. Certainly, it's not Gore Verbinski's fault -- having proven himself a stylist to watch with his previous two features (Mouse Hunt and The Mexican, both of which strike me as underrated), he directs the living hell out of this thing, making it just as moody and suggestive as it needs to be.Nor is it the fault of the people in front of the camera; the film benefits from a fine performance by Naomi Watts, and is filled to general competence by the rest of the cast. The wild card in the equation, in my eyes, was always the presence of screenwriter Ehren Kruger. With every subsequent film that bears his mark, Arlington Road looks like a fluke -- the man is simply too in love with ironic reversals and trick endings, plot holes be damned. This film does have the full Kruger compliment of silly twists, but that's the source material's fault. No, what Kruger appears to have brought to the table is a sheer lack of urgency. You'd think a movie about people who find out they have a week before a ghost kills them would manage to be anything but humdrum. You'd be wrong. And when the film finally does rouse itself for a bravura climax, it's too late -- the plot has already collapsed onto itself. But despite my grievances, I almost want to recommend the film just for the coda. The climax proper is what will hook a lot of people, but the last three minutes of the film are what will stick with me. It's a freaky, alienating stinger that whips the whole thing back on the audience and leaves you something to chew on in the car. (Naturally, the larger implications of it sailed over the head of the teeny-bop multiplex audience I was with.) If only the rest of the film didn't vaguely suck.

Grade: C+

Thursday, October 24, 2002

feardotcom (2002)

It's The Cell all over again: An interesting and stylish visual scheme harnessed to an astoundingly stupid screenplay. At least this one has the good sense to make its stylistic inspiration parallel that of its screenplay's idiocy, so that the film gets more artistically accomplished as the plot goes down the toilet. (This was one of the drawbacks to The Cell -- as soon as the script fell to pieces, the visual scheme stopped being innovative.) Stephen Dorff and Natasha McElhone more or less deserve to get stuck in films like this, but what the hell is Stephen Rea doing here? Man cannot live on Neil Jordan films alone, I suppose, but still. I see it as an improvement over director William Malone's last film (House on Haunted Hill), but he's still just a talented hack.

Grade: C
Like Mike (2002)

Not especially bad, just kinda dull and kiddie-safe. Lil' Bow Wow is surprisingly not bad; what he lacks in acting talent he makes up for with enthusiasm and a bit of natural charisma. (Sort of like Dennis Rodman in Double Team, now that I think about it.) The film does occasionally take detours into weirdness, but not nearly often enough.

Grade: C
Enough (2002)

Keeee-rist. There ought to be laws against films this awful. I have neither the time nor the wherewithal to itemize every single one of the roughly seventeen thousand things that are wrong with this moronic, ugly, near-exploitative trash masquerading as feminist-revenge-fantasy. I will say, though, that the main thing wrong with this film is its very existence -- against all logic, against all good taste, against all financial concern, against all actual sense, this pile-of-crap screenplay attracted a skilled director, several name stars and a big-shot producer and somehow, somehow got made and released. What a world we live in. Jennifer Lopez at least gives it her all; Juliette Lewis continues to be a kiss of death to the artistic success of any film in which she appears.

Grade: D-
Vulgar (2002)

This wasn't what I was expecting at all. Judging from the evidence here, classifying this as a comedy is willful misinterpretation. I mean, there are some funny bits and all, but on the whole this feels like a nightmare, almost a horror film. And therein lies the film's main problem: tonal inconsistency. You have some scenes that are silly and laden with View Askew in-jokes. And right after that, you'll have a scene that is brutal and skin-crawling. It's as if director Bryan Johnson had one film in mind, but he had to stuff in side bits and little nudges to make it fit into the Askewniverse. Certainly I don't think it's nearly the disaster that practically everyone else thinks it is -- the scenes between Brian O'Halloran and his tormentors, in particular, have a vicious sort of power about them. And Johnson, while not a natural-born director, does exhibit some nascent flair for behind-the-camera work that could, in time, develop into something quite impressive (something that can't be said about his mentor Kevin Smith). It's an odd, unusual and ballsy film. There are many pieces and bits of this film that I admire. But next time out, Johnson needs to decide what kind of film he wants to make before he starts making it.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Serving Sara (2002)

A high-concept refugee from the '80s that somehow escaped the studio vaults and terrorized multiplexes for a week or two in the dog days of August (does anyone out there besides me still remember that this even came out?), this features one of the most embarrassing and ill-conceived scat-com centerpieces you're ever likely to witness. The pastry scene in Van Wilder was less heinous than the scene in which Matthew Perry has to manually stimulate a bull's prostate gland, and brother, that's saying a mouthful. The only thing this just-add-HBO fodder has going for it is an enthusiastic (if not actually funny or accomplished or anything like that) performance by Liz Hurley and the precious few moments with the almighty Bruce Campbell. That this gets a Paramount-backed release with a big promotional push while Bubba Ho-Tep still has no distributor is a fucking crime.

Grade: D
Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat (2002)

Not having been a fan of Lawrence's previous concert film You So Crazy -- or, for that matter, anything he's done in the last five years -- I approached this film with no small amount of trepidation. But ya know what? This film's actually pretty damn chuckle-worthy. Lawrence still has trouble maintaining his comic timing, and he still doesn't know not to overstretch an already-unfunny bit (i.e. the confessional-drunk bit here -- not as torturous as the see-ya-when-I-see-ya bit from Crazy, but still labored), but his material is sharper here than it's ever been. Drawing from his failed marriage and his various well-publicized run-ins with the authorities, he spits out a comic catharsis that turns out laceratingly funny. And even though he still hamstrings himself with scatology for scatology's sake, he does let loose with a breast-worship routine that had me rolling. He's still no Richard Pryor, but at least this represents a step in the right direction.

Grade: B-
How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog (2002)

Starts out as a sharp if not especially original comic goof on the L.A. lifestyle (especially the bleak theater scene), but poops out and goes soft like all movies with cute kids changing curmudgeonly adults is wont to do. Kenneth Branaugh gives a fairly restrained performance that, dare I say, might be the best work he's done in the last five or six years. (Check his IMDb credits for a look at how little that faux-hyperbolic statement actually means.)

Grade: C+
What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer's Body? (1971)

Thoroughly generic giallo thriller with model Jennifer trying to figure out who's killing people in an apartment complex. The red herrings are obvious and the killer's identity and motivation are fairly easy to deduce if you pay attention and think for about five seconds. Very stylish but also fairly dull and suspense-free; one sequence involving Jennifer's break-in of a neighboring apartment generates some tension but that's about it. Too few murder setpieces, as well. (One was borrowed by Dario Argento and used to much better effect in his asskicker Tenebrae.) One major positive: Edwige Fenech as Jennifer is a stunning beauty and spends a stunning amount of the film showing off her stunning body in various stunning states of undress.

Grade: C

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

8 Women (2002)

If this exuberant, colorful romp were merely an exuberant and colorful romp, that'd probably be enough (especially these days). But there's an undercurrent of sadness that keeps threatening to bleed through (and occasionally does; note, for instance, Isabelle Huppert's musical number, or the final melancholy five-minute finale). Emotionally fulfilling light entertainment -- is it really that hard to do, people? I mean, jeez. Francois Ozon proves he may yet become the world-class director his films occasionaly prophesize. Great performances by a stellar cast, too -- Huppert turns in her second great performance of the year, with this rambunctious, knockabout comic performance serving as both a compliment and a counterpoint to her stunning, reserved work in The Piano Teacher, but my biggest huzzahs go to Emmanuelle Beart, who steals every scene she's in just by smoldering and saying as little as possible. She's electric. Only complaint: After a while, the musical numbers felt more obligatory and superfluous than anything.

Grade: B+
Red Dragon (2002)

The problem with adapting Thomas Harris's novels, I have realized, is that Harris just puts too much stuff in his books. He's an excellent and accessible writer, with plots that should be easily adaptable to film... except that he goes into intense detail on even the smallest plot points. And there's tons of plot points. The Silence of the Lambs, in retrospect, appears to have been a fluke, a rare case where the screenwriter figured out exactly what needed to go and what needed to be saved. Then again, Ted Tally wasn't handicapped by having extra demands placed on him with Lambs; here, in his second crack at adapting Harris, he not only has to streamline the plot of Red Dragon to a workable two-hour script, but he has to beef up Hannibal Lecter's exceedingly minor role. The task proved too much, apparently, as the main problem with Red Dragon is indeed its impassive, hurried screenplay. Problems come up, only to be solved about three minutes later. (In particular, the magazine code-cracking was so off-the-cuff that it's a wonder Tally even bothered including it.) And Brett Ratner's generic direction does the film no favors. From all appearances, Ratner is a mildly talented hack who's seen Lambs about fifty times and apes it whenever possible. I say "mildly talented" because when he's forced to go it alone, when he can't steal from Lambs -- in short, the scenes with Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson -- he lays down a perfectly creepy vibe. The Dolarhyde scenes practically thrum with life, and Fiennes is surprisingly good at using his presence to suggest a man much larger and stronger than he actually is. But every time we get a good rhythm going, the plot heaves itself forward, we cut back to Edward Norton going through the motions and Anthony Hopkins going through the motions, and the tension dissipates. Really a near miss, but a miss anyway. (And that coda is a fucking insult.)

Grade: C+
Dogtown and Z-Boys (2002)

This documentary is energetic, iconoclastic and ragged. It's filled with a vibrancy that is rather refreshing in this genre filled with staid homework-style movies. It's also, unfortunately, about skateboarding -- a subject which I find far less fascinating than, say, differential calculus or the life cycle of the saltwater sponge. And it's insanely self-congratulatory, to the point of aggravation; you'd think one or two of these guys had split the atom rather than birthing the X-Games. I mean, I know it's about rebellion and doing your own thing and leaving your mark, and that's cool. But even The Filth and the Fury was tempered with humility.

Grade: C+