Thursday, December 12, 2002

Adaptation (2002)

For a while, this looked like a contender for the year's best film. It comes off like a movie version of Pale Fire or something of that ilk -- it's dizzyingly smart and exciting and funny and awe-inspiring in the breadth and inspiration of its self-reflexivity. It's not smug or showy about itself either; rather, it's almost apologetic about having stumbled upon and exploited such a great idea. By that, I mean that the loneliness and self-loathing that permeate the film tend to offset and defuse any hints of oh-aren't-we-clever self-satisfaction that threaten to peek through. (The film's best joke is also one of its most subtle -- Donald's speech about establishing visual themes and Charlie's naysaying of such is shortly followed by about the fifth shot of Charlie masturbating, thus tipping us off that Kaufman realizes what a self-involved exercise this film is.) So, for about an hour and a half, this flick is pure molten genius. Then comes the climax wherin Donald's commercial impulses bleed over into Charlie's work, and the film collapses like a flan in a cupboard. I understand the inherent joke in the sex and violence and life lessons in this final quarter, but it's really such a cheat. It's Kaufman admitting that no, he really didn't have an ending after all, so he was forced to undermine practically all the carefully-wrought character work he'd done up to that point just for the sake of a sour and overlong meta-joke. It's not like he hadn't already worked in the more commercial stuff anyway (Judy Greer's topless scene is one of the most goofily gratuitous in film history) -- he'd just been slyer about it. But he felt he had to push it too hard and the film sails over the edge. Don't get me wrong... the majority of the film is still amazing. It's sharper and more entertaining and better acted (Nicolas Cage alone redeems five years of shit work just with this one film) than 99% of everything else. I wouldn't trade it for the world. But I'd trade that last half hour for just about anything this side of Pluto Nash.

Grade: B
Spirited Away (2002)

It's never good for a critic to admit that they don't know why they feel a certain way about a certain film. I'm in the unenviable position of having to do that now. This film is well-written and visually amazing and exciting and involving and all sorts of other superlative crap. I can't, off the top of my head, think of anything I dislike about it.It should by all rights be a solid A sitting atop my best-of list. Yet I can't do that right now. I don't know why.... it just doesn't FEEL like a masterpiece. Something is missing and I don't know what. I'll give the film a second look and report back. Consider the grade below a placeholder.

Grade: B+
Roger Dodger (2002)

It's refreshing, as a fan of witty dialogue, to see a film about people who love words and know how to use them effectively. The dialogue in this film is at all times a thing of beauty given to actors who handle the gift skillfully. Even Elizabeth Berkeley, by God, turns in a stellar (and extremely sexy) performance. It does slacken in the home stretch, but thankfully it doesn't sap out on us -- the final scene indicates that even though Roger may have "learned something", he's resisting the lesson. Looks pretty nice too, or at least as nice as a shaky-cam hi-def-video flick can. (Future film-school essay: Objectively prove the acting genius of Campbell Scott by comparing and contrasting his performances in this, The Spanish Prisoner and Top of the Food Chain [a.k.a. Invasion!].)

Grade: B+
Sugar Hill (1974)

Hmmm, blaxploitation zombie cheese from the '70s. It's like this thing was made for me, man. It's dumb, but it moves like a mother and never bores. The zombies are pretty cool too, and Marki Bey is damn hot. Too bad she never did anything else of note -- she could have gone places.

Grade: B
Ted Bundy (2002)

Matthew Bright will one day make a film that can stand as a follow-up to Freeway. This, as you might have guessed, isn't it. It's not really bad or incompetent or anything, and occasionally it is somewhat effective (more so when it tries for queasy black comedy than when it plays with a straight face -- during the more serious moments, Bright's approach feels less clinical and more disinterested). But ya know, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is still readily available in most places, thus wiping out what little point this film had to exist. I'll continue to follow Bright's work, but I'm starting to get mighty annoyed.

Grade: C

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Die Another Day (2002)

This is the twentieth Bond film. To commemorate the auspicious anniversary, director Lee Tamahori and the screenwriters decided to make a Bond to beat all Bonds. From the opening sequence onward, it's clear that this film wants nothing more than to be the big fat swinging-dick Uber-Bond, and it damn near succeeds. All the Bondian elements are cranked to a Spinal-Tap-style 11, with each scene more ridiculous and more elaborate than the previous. It's the kind of film that careens from the DMZ to Cuba to England to Iceland without blinking twice and throws in a torrid sex scene, an exploding gene lab, a guy with permanent shrapnel in his face, a vicious sword fight, a massive ice palace and a duel between two cars upon an Arctic ice shelf (among other things) just because it can. Eventually, we do reach the saturation level and the film almost blows itself apart (along with practically everything else in the film) with its too-ludicrous-for-words climax. Still, too much is better than not enough (or The World Is Not Enough, for that matter). It's not worthy of inclusion with the top-shelf Bonds, not by a longshot, but it's still one heck of an entertainment.

Grade: B
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2002)

This marks my first exposure to Bollywood cinema. I don't think most of what I'll see from here on out can live up to this. I don't know how it works, but despite the four-hour running time, and despite the cliche plot which occasionally threatens to reduce the film to an Indian Bad News Bears, I was never bored. The actors were all charismatic and likeable (or detestable, depending on what the role called for). The songs were marvelous and the choreography was exciting. And it made cricket exciting. I mean, how can you go wrong? I think the fact that this film got me to watch a cricket match for 80 minutes is a true testament to how wonderful it is. (For the record, Gracy Singh is as cute as they come, so that helped as well.) Seriously folks... if you've got the time to spare, see this movie. You'll thank me.

Grade: A-
Stealing Harvard (2002)

Well, at least it was funnier than Greek Wedding. Still, as Tom Green's follow-up to the insane, alienating, possibly brilliant Freddy Got Fingered, it's pretty lame and safe and boring. Then again, after the reception Freddy got, I'm not surprised. Jason Lee is starting to look like the male version of Ashley Judd or Jennifer Lopez -- a potentially brilliant talent stuck making shitty movies forever and ever.

Grade: C-
Jackass: The Movie (2002)

Here's more proof that my sense of humor does not correspond to any professional critic you might have heard of. As with the show, there are times when Knoxville and Co. set up stunts that aren't so much funny as they are sick and bizarre and kind of pointless outside of the fact that nobody with half a brain would willingly do this. But when it works -- and it works most of the time -- this is a fall-down, helpless kind of funny; one skit ("Tropical Pole Vaulting") made me laugh so hard I gave myself a headache. It's slapstick comedy for the new millenium, and it has more laughs than anything else I've seen this year. So call me stupid if you must.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

I recognize that the American public isn't exactly renowned for their refined taste, but this is ridiculous. Audiences and critics have united in singing the praises of this scrappy little indie (and BTW, don't get me started on how 'indie' this thing actually is), calling it feel-good and wonderful and other such effusive adjectives. All of that is a big fat fucking Greek crock -- this film is simply pathetic. Christ, people, it's more or less an Extra-Special, Extra-Greek episode of "Caroline in the City" stretched out to three times its natural length. Surely I can't be the only person who recognizes this for the terrible-sitcom-fodder that it so obviously is. (Not for nothing, but check out director Joel Zwick's other credits.) And surely I can't be the only person who sees Nia Vardalos as a flat, inexpressive and charisma-less hunk of no-talent flesh. Okay, you think, he's just overreacting to the film's monumental success. And while it does stick in my craw that this will from now on represent 'independent cinema' for far too many people, it wouldn't matter if the film had grossed $200 million or $200,000. Regardless of box-office gross, the fact remains that there is not a single thing I like about this film. It's poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed and poorly shot. It's pitched at the lowest-common-denominator level so as to be nice and bland and dull for the folks in Bumfuck, Iowa. It's predictable and schematic and horridly unfunny and it has a great sucking vacuum at its center. But most of all, it's intensely self-satisfied for no good fucking reason. It's not enough that the film has to be bad -- it's gotta be smug about it too. Sweet, my ass. The only thing that keeps me from flunking this fucker is the thought that the dozens of clones it'll inspire will be even worse. (Well, also "Nice boobs" and "I have three testicles" did make me smirk a bit.)

Grade: D-

Monday, December 02, 2002

They (2002)

It's like the scary version of Monsters, Inc. except minus the quality. This film never really lives up to its pre-title scene, a creepy-ass evocation of a common childhood fear that left me going "Did they just -- I can't believe -- wow, they actually did that!" The last scene is kinda freaky too, but that leaves us with three minutes total of good horror and about 87 minutes of get-the-fuck-on-with-it boredom. The acting is pretty abysmal throughout, what with the not-ready-for-WB players on display here apparently unfamiliar with the idea of natural intonation. (You get the feeling Laura Regan landed the main role just because she can scream like a mother.) Even if the actors were brilliant, though, we'd still be stuck with the retarded screenplay. Tell me: If you were privy to night terrors where you knew that nasty creepy-crawly insectoid-looking things were definitely going to come out of the dark and eat you, wouldn't you, I don't know, try to stay out of poorly-lit places like heating ducts and subway tunnels? It took all my self-control not to yell at the screen, "GET OUT OF THE DARK, STUPID-ASSES!"

Grade: D+
Office Space (1999)

Would you believe I'd not seen this before last Thursday? How'd that happen? Anyway, this here be some funny shit. Stephen Root is like some kind of genius or something. Honestly. Gets a little lame near the end when the plot turns sorta-serious, but only a little.

Grade: B