Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Orange County (2002)

Screenwriter Mike White has an interesting take on the world, and he can be blisteringly funny. But damn, does he need work with his focus. I was not a fan of Chuck & Buck (Owen Gleiberman is insane if he thinks that claptrap was the best film of 2000); this was an improvement, but not by a whole lot. The satirical bits were oft-hilarious (though if you've never lived in California, it might be less so)... but what could have been a great, ebullient goof on the SoCal way of life keeps getting interrupted by, and ultimately overtaken by, a soggy love-the-ones-you're-with inspirational tale. And as promising as he is, White doesn't always trust the intelligence of his audience -- there's a lot of spell-it-out-for-the-stoners dialogue, including a simply terrible scene at the end wherein an incidental character spends a full five minutes explaining the film's theme in big block letters. I half-expected to see a flashing message at the bottom of the screen saying "PAY ATTENTION. THIS IS WHAT I AM REALLY TRYING TO SAY WITH THIS FILM. YOU WILL BE QUIZZED ON THIS AS YOU LEAVE THE THEATER." Granted, it's pretty decent for a January release. That's damning with faint praise, but it doesn't mean you won't sigh "It coulda been great..." as the credits come up. (Incidentally, I would just like to go on the record as stating that Schuyler Fisk is pretty damn cute.)

Grade: C+

Saturday, March 23, 2002

Blade II (2002)

If America insists on making empty, dumb, plotless action movies, then let them all be like this: stylish to a fault, inventively violent, exciting and faster than a motherfucker. I wasn't much of a fan of the first film (I think it's an hour and a half of shit bookended by a great beginning and a great ending), but I was looking forward to this sequel anyway. Why? Three words: Guillermo del Toro. And I'll be damned if he doesn't disappoint. He avoids the mistake of the first film by saying to hell with characters and plot -- let's bring the fuckin' action! His enthusiasm appears to have been infectious, too -- Wesley Snipes loosens up considerably here and even appears to be having fun at a few points. Still, the film is undeniably covered with del Toro's stamp -- he's pulled an Aliens by taking a routine sequel and infusing it with his own distinctive sensibilities. Only one major disappointment, really: I was looking forward to how del Toro was gonna work his usual Christian symbolism into another Hollywood product (Mimic was absolutely awash in it). But he subdues those impulses, save for one glaring instance at the film's end. It leaves the film rather barren of subtext... but then, do we really need to be looking for subtext in Blade II? It's good gory fun (and surprisingly funny to boot); just check your brain at the door.

Grade: B+

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Kill Me Later (2001)

A suicidal bank teller (Selma Blair) is taken hostage by a desperate bank robber (some no-name), and she agrees to help him escape on the condition that he'll kill her afterwards. It's constructed as a homage to the French New Wave, and in that respect it's fairly interesting. The jump-cut technique in particular has been used to completely obliterate the meaning of time within the narrative -- conversations take place across different time spans and different locations. But where the majority of the New Wave films were shot through with a vitality and urgency, this seems to have been infected with it's female lead's worldview -- it's curiously dour and enervated. It's enjoyably stylish and not unlikeable, but I can't wholeheartedly recommend it.

Grade: C+
Donnie Darko (2001) [second viewing]

A remarkable debut film, really -- but also kind of frustrating. It's a dark, wonderful movie.... but dammit, it never develops into the full-blown masterpiece it should be! So close... so close.... Still, it's better upon a second viewing, mainly because I finally understood the ending. What had first seemed befuddling and unsatisfactory became, upon review, poetic and heartbreaking. (I suppose the tipoff was Jena Malone's line, "I guess some people are just born with tragedy in their blood"; it forced me to re-examine the impact that Donnie's climactic actions had, and more importantly, the ripples that would be both caused and avoided.) It still has its flaws, but I'd still recommend it to pretty much everyone. This Richard Kelly, he's going places....

Grade: A-

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Well, lift my shirt and rub my belly with a spatula -- I do like it! Given my antipathy for William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, this was probably the last film I expected to fall in love with... yet here I am, and I can't think about "Your Song" without getting misty-eyed. It's the most unabashedly romantic movie to come out of Hollywood in God knows how long, plus it's also a rip-roaringly good musical, PLUS it's incredible eye candy, PLUS it's a two-hour-plus cinematic orgasm. Sure, I have some quibbles about the film (especially the second half and John Leguizamo's odd choice of accent), but the cumulative effect of Baz Luhrmann's stark-raving-mad ode to truth, beauty, freedom but above all love is such that any complaints I have are irrelevant. I can't think of the last Hollywood movie that had so many moments that made me want to jump up and down with glee and go hug strangers on the street. (In particular, the rooftop duet made me drop a golden brick into my trousers. In all honesty, I started bouncing up and down on my bed so hard that I scared my cat. No shit.) If what I'm saying makes no rational sense, and if I'm rambling, you'll have to excuse me -- I'm in love with this film.

Grade: A
Lisa Picard is Famous (2001)

Griffin Dunne was an actor who I always felt deserved better than he got. His lead role in Martin Scorsese's brilliantly bleak paranoia comedy After Hours, among other roles, cemented his coolness in my mind. So when he turned to directing a few years back, I was excited. As it turns out, his first film (Addicted to Love) was resolutely mediocre. His third and newest film (Lisa Picard), on the other hand, is... um.... resolutely mediocre, actually. It's a completely toothless mockumentary about an aspiring actress and her hard road to fame. One day, I'm sure that Griffin Dunne will make a great, sardonic black-comedy masterpiece. He's certainly got the sensibilities for it. But after seeing Lisa Picard, I don't need his next film to be that masterpiece -- I'd just like it to represent some sort of progress.

Grade: C
Rat Race (2001)

It appears that American critics have lost touch with what's actually funny. With very few exceptions, any comedy that's garnered acclaim this year has struck me as, well, not too funny. Or at least not consistently funny, which is my major problem with this film. It's certainly got its moments (the Barbie museum might be the most inspired comedic sequence of the year), but a lot of it is kind of flat. The opening half-hour in particular is pretty friggin' dire, and though it gets better from there, it never seems to find a consistent rhythm -- the pitfall of too many characters, I suppose. Certainly worth seeing, but wait for cable. The less said about the ending, the better.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Kill by Inches (2001)

It took three tries, but I finally got to the end credits. Jesus, this film is lame. It's about a measurement-obsessed tailor, and it's nigh well unendurable -- imagine how a Peter Greenaway film would play out if Peter Greenaway had not one iota of talent. It's just as pompous as your average Greenaway piece, but at least Greenaway can be said to be doing something different and creative (the guy's practically invented his own cinematic language... the better to work out his obsessions). The no-talent at the helm of this does not aim so high; rather, he just wants to make a psycho-thriller. In short, it's pretension without ambition, folks. It's not a pretty sight.

Grade: D
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)

Extremely uneven, to say the least. In its better moments, however, it's hysterical. There's a bit of good news, too -- Kevin Smith is improving as a director. Now he's merely a bad director as opposed to a thoroughly incompetent one. Has probably the funniest in-context line of the year ("Everybody likes monkeys, Shannon!").

Grade: B-

Monday, March 11, 2002

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Very well-directed and designed, certainly. But pretty much from the opening minutes, I knew this film was not for me. We've scarcely gotten past the opening title before we're thrown headlong into Wes Anderson's tiresome game of "How Clever Can I Get?" To my consternation, the tsunami of forced whimsy never abates, not for one goddamn second. And the real pisser is that, by trying to cram as many witty ideas into the narrative as humanly possible, Anderson shortchanges his film -- he's so concerned with all the self-conscious cleverness that he expends zero energy on emotional content. That'd be all well and good if he were just aiming for a brainy comedy and nothing else, but Anderson wants us to care for these characters too. Sorry, Wes... that's just not happening. Short of Bill Murray's unwitting cuckold, I didn't like any of these characters, and I actively loathed a couple of them. And pretty much the only reason I cared for Murray's character was solely because of Murray's expert characterization. Matter of fact, most of the actors in this film give Anderson better performances than the weak material warrants, with two glaring exceptions -- Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson, who play the two most potentially interesting characters as total ciphers. Which is a damn shame, since Anderson decides that these two will be our main characters. To his credit, Anderson does get a lot of the fringe details right. His direction is also far more interesting than his screenwriting, and his musical taste is once again impeccable. All these qualities come together in two great montages -- one where Gene Hackman takes his grandsons out for some good-natured hooliganism and one involving a laundry list of sexual partners. Yet, the film fails because these side excursions cannot improve the film's cutesy and vapid screenplay. If you require proof of this film's inadequacy, here you go: Anderson has a brilliant closing line that would have raised the film's rating a half-grade all by itself ("It's been a rough year, Dad."). Too bad that line is immediately followed by ten minutes of worthless, wrap-it-up-in-a-nice-and-tidy-package epilogue.

Grade: C
Super Troopers (2002)

Well, isn't this a surprise. Better than the trailer was letting on, it's fairly hit-and-miss and has no real belly laughs. But it does have more than its share of good chuckles and is supported in its weaker moments by a likeably genial vibe. (I wish I was friends with these guys.) Incredibly silly, but also a whole lot of fun.

Grade: B
Trouble Every Day (2002)

There's been a surprising amount of great recent horror titles directed by women. (Two that spring instantly to mind are Antonia Bird's Ravenous and Mary Harron's scaborously funny American Psycho.) Nothing in lyrical French auteur Clair Denis's filmography suggested that she was ready to get in touch with her inner gorehound... but hot damn, she's done that in a big way here. Denis is a visual filmmaker who tries to use as little dialogue as possible to get her ideas across (anyone who saw Beau Travail can attest to that), and the two most effective segments of this film have zero dialogue in them and, in fact, not much in the way of sound at all. Not much, that is, except for the groans and screams being loosed from the throats of those unfortunate to cross paths with our main characters (vampiric cannibals played in separate but parallel plotlines by Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle) and some incredibly brutal sound FX. These two hideously gripping setpieces are worth the price of admission alone, if you can stomach it. Even if you can't, Denis has set up her film in a wickedly effective manner -- she slams the first scene on us after we've already been in our seats for an hour and have acclimated ourselves to her languid pacing, and sticks in the second (the one most likely to provoke walkouts) with a mere five minutes left in the film. (Not that that stopped about five people in my audience from walking out after the second scene anyway.) The bulk of the film (meaning the scenes sans blood) details Gallo's obsessive search for the doctor who has some manner of connection with his sickness -- he feels cannibalistic whenever he gets aroused, which puts a rather large crimp in the honeymoon he's supposed to be enjoying. The doctor, meanwhile, is married to the also-afflicted Dalle and has to deal with the messes she makes. It's alternately enthralling and faintly dull, held together by Denis's skillful eye for composition and a neat score by the Tindersticks. Yet, the film does have those two astonishing scenes which, once seen, make the film awfully hard to shake off. There were times when I was bored, certainly... but in its own special way, Trouble is absolutely unforgettable.

Grade: B
Wendigo (2002)

The latest from cult director Larry Fessenden (Habit) concerns a family (mother, father, young son) on vacation in upstate New York who runs afoul of a violence-prone hunter. What unfolds is not only a powerfully suggestive horror film but also a brilliant and haunting examination of one American family. It's a fairly happy family, too; there are problems simmering beneath the surface, true, but we are never in doubt about the love these three share. Our sympathy with the family is crucial to the film's effectiveness -- it's important that we view them as worthy human beings and not the sacrifical sacks of meat that populate so many horror films. Thus, when Fessenden throws a unexpected event at us, it connects with the force of a rabbit punch to the skull. (His direction of this event is particularly inspired; up to this point, he's maintained an air of unease and menace that begs to be released -- but when the time for release comes, he hits it so quickly that we have to discover what exactly has happened in the same after-the-fact manner that Erik Per Sullivan does.) Shortly thereafter is where the film's supernatural elements arrive at the forefront, and this is apparently where the film has lost a lot of people, due mainly to the obvious fakeness of the titular character. I, however, was past quibbles -- there was no way Wendigo was going to lose its grip on me, short of dragging out Frosty the Snowman to play the supernatural beast. (In case you were unaware, a wendigo is a Native American spirit with an unquenchable hunger, usually for human flesh. It recently showed up in a different form in the underrated Ravenous.) The performances are all outstanding, with special mention going to Sullivan as Miles, the timid and frightened soul at the heart of the story. And the cinematography is spectacularly good. Ultimately, Fessenden has made probably the most poetic and mournful horror film I've seen in a very long while. As much as I admire Habit, this is a hundred times better. If there's a better horror film this year, then it will have been an extremely satisfying year for genre freaks.

Grade: A-
Scratch (2002)

A wonderfully engrossing documentary on the evolution of record-scratching within DJ culture. As directed by Doug Pray, it's a lively and informative romp through a vital piece of the hip-hop subculture. If you consider yourself a music lover, you need to see this, even if you're not much of a rap or glitch-hop fan -- it's as invigorating and fascinating as Pray's previous film, the excellent grunge doc Hype!. This, my friends, is the best kind of feel-good entertainment. The scene where Mixmaster Mike (you know him from the Beastie Boys) takes Robert Johnson's seminal blues record "Ramblin' on My Mind" and turns it into a booty-shakin' turntable mixterpiece before our very eyes is one of the most unforgettable things I'm likely to see all year. You should be able to say the same.

Grade: A-

Thursday, March 07, 2002

The Tailor of Panama (2001)

After the stultifying Spy Game, it was kind of nice to see a spy movie that actually treats the genre as just that -- a game. Pity that Tailor isn't very good either. Geoffrey Rush isn't bad as the titular tailor, and Pierce Brosnan looks like he's having a lot of fun as the anti-Bond. But the plot, the plot... essentially it's an hour-plus of wheels spinning around and around, unconvincingly wrapped up with a sudden flurry of action. I suppose something could be said subtexually about the film's preoccupation with sex and fucking -- that what Brosnan and Rush are doing to the various women in their lives is also what they're doing to their country or some such. But it's not like Dr. Strangelove and a hundred other movies didn't get there first. Scenic and elegant and not much else besides boring, frankly.

Grade: C
Check it out, people... less than a month old and I've already got fans volunteering to do guest reviews! How cool is that.......

-- Steve

Tonight’s Review: Funny Games 1997
directed by Michael Haneke
German-subtitled
Genre: Horror (of the DEEPLY, DEEPLY, psychologically, disturbing variety)

I’m not a big horror movie fan, basically because I’m a wicked chickenshit when it comes to viewing onscreen blood and gore, but like Mr. Carlson, I’ll watch anything. OK, almost anything.

I was duly warned about how disturbing "Funny Games" is, and I almost decided against watching it for fear it would overwhelmingly freak me out. Then I read that people had walked out of this film. That was all I needed to know. Whenever I hear that people have walked out of a movie, I’m automatically intrigued, even if I know I may be witness to some seriously disturbing movie content (i.e. the torture scene between Michael Madsen and the hostage-cop in Reservoir Dogs or the infamous motel bathroom scene in Scarface when Al Pacino and his friend are handcuffed to the shower curtain bar by a crooked drug-dealer who hacks Pacino’s buddy right before his eyes with a handy chain-saw….AGGGGGGHHHHHH) Of course, Pacino is so damn cool that he still spits in his tormentor’s face when faced with the same demise. Don’t FUCK with Tony Montana, MENG! What a surprise, my first movie review and already I’m off on a tangent…. OK - back to Michael Haneke’s film:

So, I basically dared myself to watch "Funny Games". WHOOOOOO BOYEEEEEEEEEE - what a mistake! Or so I thought, after watching the movie in it’s entirety. I was so shaken, that I had to immediately watch something, ANYTHING else to shake the disturbing thoughts and images that were floating in my head. Then I slowly realized that, even though I was totally freaked out by this movie, I was also immensely intrigued and riveted because everything director Michael Haneke was trying to make the audience feel for the victims - sickening dread, sheer unnervedeness (is that a word?), profound psychological distress, helplessness, shock and morbid fear, he masterfully succeeded. That he evokes all these feelings with such finesse and an almost genteel manner, makes the whole experience all the more disturbing. Did I mention that, besides feeling hopelessly unnerved, that the director also turns the tables on the viewer by making them complicit in viewing the horror and torture and you end feeling guilty for watching this movie? Yeah, how’s that for a viewing bonus! Yet, I couldn’t stop watching the horror, the torture, the games, which is what this movie is REALLY about.

In a nutshell, Funny Games centers around 5 people. Georg, Anna and their son Georgie are a quiet, somewhat reserved family who go on "holiday" (that’s vacation for you non-Europeans) to their quaint, bucolic lakefront summer home in the countryside. The setting is sedate and idyllic and lulls the viewer along at a relaxing pace. Ironically, it is the same comforting lull of the lazy hot summer and sedate countryside setting that suckers the viewer into a sense of familiarity and ease which will be shattered to the core as surely as it is for Georg, Anna and Georgie, almost in sync with each character.

Evil Incarnate arrives in the form of the unfailingly polite young man named Peter, who comes knocking on the family’s front door to borrow some eggs. Anna greets the kind stranger, while George and Georgie are down at the lake tinkering on their boat. Who knew that a simple and polite request for eggs on a hot summer day in the countryside could turn so horribly twisted and unnerving? I certainly didn’t and again, I credit the director for creating the illusion of trust and playing on the viewer’s neighborly instincts to behave in exactly the same manner as Anna does when she greets the polite young man looking to borrow some eggs. Peter accidently drops the eggs and apologizes profusely while Anna cleans up the mess. Oh, I could definitely picture myself doing the same thing. Yep. That’s the point. Everyone is unfailingly polite, and then it starts to slowly sink in that Peter, while being so pleasant and "nice", is also carrying on about the eggs to the point of annoyance. Enter Paul, who comes a-knocking on the same door and is greeted by his friend Peter, who politely introduces him to Anna, while still apologizing about the egg situation. Thus beginneth the "Funny Games"

Paul and Peter begin to obsess a little too much about the eggs, all the while maintaining a polite, subdued manner and much like a tea kettle slowly coming to a boil, it becomes apparent to both Anna and the audience that Paul and Peter are not going to be leaving anytime soon. When Georg and Georgie arrive back at the house and inquire about what is going on with the two boys, it is clear that they have overstayed their welcome and they are asked to leave. I guess you could say all hell breaks loose here, but in actuality, the manner in which the hell is unleashed is as subdued and sedate as the countryside setting.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: If you've not seen the film, bail out -- the next paragraph contains some BIG-ASS SPOILERS.)

Peter and Paul’s true intent quietly unfolds as they take the family hostage and then proceed to torture the family through a series of verbal and psychologically taunting games. Interestingly, there are only two or three moments of onscreen violence. It is the twisted, yet always polite delivery of the verbal torment and the offscreen torture and sounds which make Funny Games far more disturbing than your garden-variety horror flick. The director even plays games with the viewer several times by having Paul (who is far scarier than Jason, Freddy or Michael Myers on their worst day….) turn to the camera to literally wink and smirk at the audience. Yes, the movie mocks you for your inability to stop watching the horror. In one particularly clever moment, the family and the audience have an opportunity to strike back at the tormenters and exact some vigilante-style justice, only to have the moment literally rewinded by Paul via a remote control. No sirree, there is NO way the audience is going to get one iota of gleeful retaliation. There is NO redemption for the family or the audience and that’s the way it should be for the movie to have maximum impact. I’ll admit, I haven’t seen many independent flicks of the horror genre, so I don’t have much to compare this film to, but that’s probably why this film worked so effectively for me. The subtleness with which this family is psychologically tortured and eventually disposed of is perhaps one of the most disturbing, yet fascinating directorial feats I’ve ever witnessed.

GRADE: A solid "A"

Oh yeah - remind me NOT to open the door the next time a solicitor comes calling....

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

Pie in the Sky: The Bridget Berlin Story (2001)

The kind of film that probably improves on a second viewing; I was all ready to give this film a C+ (for being alternately interesting and tedious) when an offhand comment by Berlin (a born-and-bred socialite who became an integral member of Andy Warhol's Factory and honestly was probably one of the few people in that group with any honest-to-God artistic talent) snapped the film's theme finally into focus. The comment in question was Berlin merely relating that people have started telling her that she's turning into her mother. But, as the film tells it, Berlin's mother was more or less her entire impetus for drifting into the counterculture and the Pop Art scene -- it was, as it was for many people, a form of rebellion against the conservative commie-hunting ideals of her parents. An admission like Berlin's, coming shortly after a short bit about the death of Warhol, signifies that the film is about more than one woman who got involved in an art movement; essentially, it's about the life and death of the movement. This late realization made the preceding footage seem wistful, maybe even a little sad. The film still seemed flawed (it's basically got two points to make -- about the influence of Berlin's family on her lifestyle and about her lifelong struggle with weight problems -- and it makes those points within ten minutes, leaving the rest of the film feeling fairly repetitive), but at least it now had a reason for being. And that made it worthwhile. This is a very qualified recommendation, for sure, but it's a recommendation nonetheless. (If you find Pop Art without exception to be pretentious, self-satisfied and unbearably tedious, however, you might want to stay home. This might not be your speed.)

Grade: B-

Sunday, March 03, 2002

Hamlet (2001)

I have yet to meet a Hamlet I didn't like... but this one, along with Kenneth Branagh's four-hour slog, came the closest. Truth be told, this version (starring and co-directed by the immensely talented Campbell Scott) is sort of like a roadshow-company version of Branagh's Hamlet -- all the cuts to the text are so minor as to be unnoticeable (aside from a strange re-arranging of events centering around "To be or not to be"), they're both set in roughly the same time period (this Hamlet never actually gives a specific year, but the fashions look late-19th century, maybe a little later), and Scott's performance occasionally recalls Branagh's in that he chews the scenery to a pulp. (Once again, the play-within-a-play scene is the worst offender.) Scott also can't seem to get the monologues quite right; on more than one occasion, he flies through the words as though he can't wait to get other people back on screen with him. Therein, though, lies the redeeming aspect of his Hamlet: the parts where he has someone to play off of. This is where Campbell comes alive, creating one of the most caustic and sardonic Hamlets in recent memory (his treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is especially memorable for its barely disguised contempt). The other actors are a mixed bag (Jamey Sheridan's Claudius is a smarmy delight; Roscoe Lee Brown and Lisa Gay Hamilton are simply terrible in their respective roles as Laertes and Ophelia), and the direction is kind of pedestrian, which is to be expected when you realize this is actually a TV production. But when all is said and done, it's still friggin' Hamlet. And like I said, I have yet to meet a Hamlet I didn't like.

Grade: B-
Nico and Dani ("Krampack") (2001)

A real sweet-natured and likeable film about two young boys in Spain whose friendship starts to look doomed when one of them slowly realizes he's gay. Low-key in the extreme, and it starts to wander in the last half-hour, but it also admirably refuses to give in to predictability -- the send-off is nicely ambiguous. All the performances are wonderfully naturalistic, too. Not exactly earth-shaking or anything, but it's better than your average Queer Cinema flick. (By the way, the film tells you what exactly a "krampack" is. But I rather doubt most of you would like to know.)

Grade: B
The Princess and the Warrior (2001)

This movie's stupid. (Apologies to Skander Halim.)

Grade: C

Saturday, March 02, 2002

At Close Range (1986)

Some ASSHEAD wheedled me into watching this. And dammit... yet again, she's right. (I'll still never let you forget Spitfire Grill though, Ms. Sekwa!) I've been on a long dry spell lately (as I'm sure anyone reading this site has noticed), so it was nice to actually see a movie that gave me that special little thrill that comes from witnessing a genuinely gripping work of art. Interestingly enough, the film also serves as a perfect antidote to pap like Bully -- it's about a group of aimless teens who drift into crime, but it deals with them honestly as people, not as dead-eyed sex-and-drug machines or Araki-style disaffected hipsters. Make no mistake, it's a brutal and downbeat film. But it's also striking, compelling and absolutely riveting. Excellent performances from Sean Penn and Christopher Walken at his most chilling are the film's biggest assets (the climactic, cathartic confrontation in Walken's kitchen is spellbinding), but the film also benefits from well-modulated direction by journeyman James Foley. Foley does occasionally go overboard with the artsy lyricality, but it's a small sin. I'll forgive.

Grade: A-