Sunday, September 29, 2002

Battle Royale (2000)

Rare is the film these days that treats violence and death as serious subjects, even rarer if the protagonists are teens. Any serious examination of violence runs the risk of either being misinterpreted and vilified or going so far that it ends up glorifying what it condemns. So it's no wonder this Japanese powder keg has received no release this side of the Pacific -- parents' groups, for one, would pitch a fit. The premise is simple: A law passed by an economically-fucked Japan in the near future requires that one ninth-grade class at the end of every school year be taken to a remote island and forced to participate in Battle Royale -- three days in which all the students have to kill each other until one is left. There's plenty of opportunity for bleak comedy here, and some disbelieving laughs are existent (particularly in the film's tour-de-force welcome-to-Battle-Royale sequence), but for the most part this is played straight. Death and murder aren't a laughing matter -- these are real people with real feelings and real lives. Even the smallest characters get some manner of emotional investment before they're offed, which makes the film far more compelling than any Dead-Teenager exploitative treatment of this material would have been. For deconstructionists, there's also several different metaphorical directions the film can be seen as taking -- the BR as rite of passage into adulthood (especially considering the competitive nature of higher education in Japan), the BR act as generation-gap mistrust, the volability of human relationships, etc. etc. Several story quibbles pop up (most notably, how come the kids don't seem to know about Battle Royale?), but they're minor and easily overlooked. This is fairly astonishing and potent shit, and well worth the effort it takes to find it. It's not an easy watch, though, so the easily offended might wanna give this a wide berth.

Grade: A-
The New Guy (2002)

Director Ed Decter, who worked on the screenplay for There's Something About Mary, seems to be the only Farrelly alumnus thus far to actually absorb the reasons why the Farrelly films are so popular -- it's not the gross-out humor, it's the generous spirit behind it all. And while this film does have the occasional body-function gag, its good-naturedness is why it works at all. I mean, honestly, this film is a mess, with a plot that makes zero sense, characters who appear and disappear at will and scenes that seem to exist only because someone couldn't think of another movie to put them in. (That seems to describe the whole prison plotline, actually.) I really shouldn't have laughed at all, but I found myself chuckling on regular occasions, partly because the film was just so darn likeable and partly because DJ Qualls is just so darn likeable. Anyone else in the titular role, the film crashes. With DJ, the film doesn't exactly soar, but it does hover a bit. Sloppy but ingratiating. (Also occasionally quite weird -- at the very least, this is the only film where you'll see Lyle Lovett get hit in the eye with a flaming marshmallow.)

Grade: B-

Friday, September 27, 2002

Who Saw Her Die? (1972)

Another giallo from the fine gent who made Short Night of Glass Dolls. This one looked like it'd be on par with that magnificent thriller for the majority of its length -- instead of political depth, the resonance in this one comes from a pure, wrenching emotional place. Just as I was about to crown this one another mini-masterpiece, it mutated into a well-shot but standard giallo with inconsistencies and illogic piled to the ceiling (f'rinstance, a killer who can seemingly travel all over Venice in a matter of minutes and can messily strangle a girl in the front of a packed movie theater without anyone noticing). The ending is simultaneously very tense and very stupid, and the final line of dialogue is a kick in the teeth to the dominating subtext (though, to be fair, it was obviously an attempt to appease the censors and certain interest groups). Still worth it for genre fanatics.

Grade: B-
The Last Man (2002)

He's obnoxious, self-centered, irritating, smug and rude... and he's our main character! Oh boy! Post-apocalyptic no-budget-and-no-brains-either comedy coasts on so-dorky-it's-kinda-endearing premise and the occasional funny line for about half an hour, until A) the second man shows up and B) our main character (a smart but unsocialized, overweight, balding fella) turns into a jealous nutball. At this point, with a total of zero sympathetic characters now involved, the film becomes unwatchable. I saw this only because the premise (mysterious plague kills everyone save for smart but unsocialized, overweight, balding fella and hot but neurotic blonde played by Jeri Ryan) offered major possibility for Jeri-Ryan-related nudity; imagine my chagrin when, in addition to being grating and largely unfunny, the film gives her plenty of scenes out of dress but offers no actual naughty bits. Not even a damn chlorophyll gumball, I tell ya....

Grade: D
One Hour Photo (2002)

Photography was apparently all the thematic rage in films last year -- they were an intrinsic part of Memento, they were fraught with significance in The Others, Matthieu Kassovitz collected them in Amelie... and this little movie, so obsessed with snapshots and scopophilia, was being filmed. It almost plays out like a series of photos -- the look of the film is so deliberate and stylized that it seems preserved in amber. Quite simply, this is a beautiful movie to look at, possibly my favorite this year from a pure visual standpoint. There is a downside to all this fussy manipulation of the mise-en-scene, however; in terms of narrative, the film also feels encased in something -- molasses, maybe. Deliberation is a fine thing to apply to your visuals when your screenplay is weak (look what wonders it did for Se7en), but when the same action-free pace leaks into telling of your story, thereby allowing the audience to pick out holes, notice gaffes and eventually see it for the shallow thing it is... that's a brand of seeing the filmmakers never thought of. They do try, I'll give them credit (there's no lack of ambition thematically, even if the whole idea of photos-as-rememberences was done far more impressively in Memento), but all the visual brio in the world can't keep this from feeling like the bastard son of Peeping Tom and The Hand the Rocks the Cradle. (Looking at the above critique of pacing, I suppose the same charges could be leveled at Signs. I never claimed to be consistent, dammit.) Visual brio does count for a lot in my book, though, especially when it's able to conjure up a palpable sense of unease and creepiness. Besides, the filmmakers had another ace in the hole with Robin Williams. Here he gives his best performance in years, disappearing completely into the character of Sy. His well-modulated turn lends depth to a role that on paper must read as aggresively one-dimensional (one-and-a-half at best), and he keeps the film afloat even when it veers into been-there-done-that territory. He makes this worth seeing on his lonesome; the eye-popping sights are mere gravy. (I get the feeling that if Mark Romanek ever gets his hands on a really good screenplay, he'll turn out a masterpiece.)

Grade: B

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Dagon (2002)

Wow, Stuart Gordon is back in form! It only took, what, ten years? Fun and engaging little Lovecraftian B-pic that gets a lot of mileage out of its hero's endless resilience and resourcefulness. Lots of red stuff, too. Cool. Worth renting -- it's better than nearly all direct-to-video titles that come out these days.

Grade: B
Bad Company (2002)

It surprised me to find that this was actually fairly passable (if thoroughly generic) as an action thriller. Good thing too, since it's atrocious as comedy. I cut it as much slack as I could, but I can only go so far for something that at best can be described as uninspired. Even the title signifies a bunch of talented people on autopilot -- this is the third film in seven years to be released in America with that title. As corny as it sounds, I think I prefer the working title Czech Mate.

Grade: D+

Thursday, September 19, 2002

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Bit of a letdown, really; I'd wanted to see this for so long, but finally viewing it felt a little anticlimactic, I guess. At any rate, I don't see where all the labels "spoof" and "comedy" are coming from -- aside from a couple isolated instances (the split dogs; "Send more paramedics!"; Freddy's declaration of love), this was treated as a fairly straight-faced (credited) redux of Night of the Living Dead. Maybe the spoof label comes from wishful thinking; I mean, it's pretty pathetic how slavishly this film imitates the structure of Romero's classic. What it doesn't imitate is characterization; instead of Romero's well-observed characters, we get one-note caricatures. However, this does have the "Dead" trilogy beat in one respect: keeping in tune with its punk characters, this is one of the most bleak and nihilistic zombie films I've ever seen. Killing the zombies in this ain't a matter of "one in the head, you know they're dead", no sir. The only thing that'll stop these guys is complete and total immolation. And that even has its downside, as we see in the film. It's still well-made on most counts, and it's a nice try. It just falls a little short in my book.

Grade: C+
Storytelling (2002)

Urg. I wrote a long, semi-thorough review of this, then my browser freaked out and deleted it. So fuck it. I ain't re-writing that shit. Short review: "Fiction" uncomfortable but extrememly effective attack on liberal guilt, with good performance by Selma Blair; "Non-Fiction" an unfocused disaster.

Grade: C

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

The Girl (2001)

After half an hour, I was ready to give this pretentious, windy French lesbian noir a D- for some interesting shot selection and the occasional flash of femme nudity. But then... it refused to end. So fuck it.

Grade: F
A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (1994)

In Hong Kong, their rating system is three-tiered, with Category III being essentially their NC-17. HK cinema doesn't turn out many of these for probably the same reason there aren't many NC-17 films -- not that terribly profitable. Rest assured, though, that if a Cat III should fall into your hands, it's gonna be seriously fucked up.

This film is Category III. And sweet Jesus, it's berserk. It's essentially Sex and Zen all over again, except that in addition to being perverse this film is also criminally insane. Just for starters, there's more genital damage than you can shake a penis at. I mean, the plot of the film hinges on the murder of the main character's husband via an overdose of aphrodisiac which caused his penis to explode... and yes, we get to see it. So yeah, it's extreme shit. But it's also kinda entertaining. It knows where the line between sick and revolting is and toes it without jumping over. (The sympathetic main characters help.) And it's got one hilarious, jaw-droppingly awesome sequence involving two kung-fu combatants -- imagine Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a porn film and you'll get the idea. Not for all tastes, but worth a look for sickos like me.

Grade: B-

Monday, September 16, 2002

*STEVE PASSES A KIDNEY STONE FROM ABJECT SHOCK* Holy shittake mushrooms! Favorite Guest Reviewer - Jenny Sekwa is finally posting a couple of movie reviews. I don't know what got into me. OK, everyone...gather round....and everyone feel free to kick Steve-O in the nuts as you step over his limp and fainted body. He likes it rough.

DRUM ROLL...........And now for your reading enjoyment - MOVIES YOU'VE ACTUALLY HEARD OF (aka: this is NOT a continuation of EFFIN Hershell Gordon Lewis month - THANK YOU LORD)

The Count of Monte Cristo - (2002)

I thought this might be a yawner. Sometimes "classic" stories bore me to the core of my soul, other times, I'm riveted. In the case of The Count of Monte Cristo, it was the latter. OK, it's not going to win any Oscars and it doesn't break any new cinematic molds, but HOT DAMN....Jim Caviezel is one dashing hootchie man hero. Even his name - Edmund Dantes, is hot. OH, you wanted to know about the STORY and the other actors like the usually ultra-cool Guy Pearce? Dare I say, Guy Pearce goes a little over the top, in a Snively Whiplash sort of way as Edmund's "best friend", turned ultimate traitor. And sure, there's a few plot devices that you see coming a mile away, but HEY..it's a CLASSIC story of a wronged man's eternal quest for revenge and eventually redemption. And did I mention that Jim Caviezel makes me drip wiz womanly goo? And, REALLY, when reviewing movies, isn't it really about the goo? And dazzling cinematography. Good stuff.

Grade: B+

Blue Crush (2002)

Alrighteeeee then. A brainless movie about surfer chicks with a dumb subplot involving a *SHOCK* one-night stand with a pro football player. Sounds like you'd rather stick pins in your eyes, right? Surprisingly, Blue Crush is an appealing, mindless, summer flick, in spite of it's severe lack of intelligent plot. What saves this movie, you ask? Why the riveting surfing photography, of course. I kid you not. The shots (and there are plenty) of inside the huge wave pipelines are worth the price of admission and genuinely refreshing to watch. Who cares that I can barely remember the names of the actors - ummmm...Kate Bosworth.....Michelle "She might be a guy" Rodriguez....and ehhhh..who the hell cares. It's all about the waves, dude.

Grade: B-


The Anniversary Party (2001)

Screw you Mr. Carlson, I really like this movie. Alan Cumming (who is quickly becoming one of my Top 10 fave actors of the moment) and Jennifer Jason-Leigh directed and wrote this somewhat self-indulgent story about a Hollywood writer and actress couple (them) who decide to celebrate their 6th anniversary by throwing a party for a group of their closest friends. The "quirky" aspect of this movie (other than the fact it was shot on digital film in 20 days) is that many of the friends at their party, are friends in real life, like Jennifer Beals whose own photographs adorn the walls of the home of Cummings and Leigh, real-life husband/wife Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates (who play husband and wife), John C. Reilly, Parker Posey and the special guest star, Gwyneth Paltrow. It's interesting (TO ME, anyway) to watch a group of real friends "play act" a slightly altered version of themselves. The Hollyweird "melodrama" occurs when everyone drops Ecstasy (anniversary gift from Gwynnie) and the friendly facades are dropped. And I love listening to Alan Cumming's laugh. Wow, this movie review writing gig is EXHAUSTING......

Grade: B-


The Boondock Saints (1999)

I'm embarrassed to admit, that I had never heard of this movie when a film student from Chicago recommended it. Ouch. Here I am, ranting and raving to this guy about "OOOH....I'm such a groovy movie fanatic....what movie could YOU possibly recommend that I haven't seen?" WHOOPS. The upside to this embarrasing situation is that I did follow through on this guy's recommendation and all I can say is THANK YOU, Brendan from Chicago! I freakin LOVE this movie. What's there NOT to like about a movie which has Willem Dafoe playing a flamboyantly gay FBI agent trying to solve the vigilante-style murders of various criminals in Boston. The vigilantism comes courtesy of 2 devoutly Catholic Irish brothers, who take it upon themselves to rid the world of evil by any means deemed necessary. They make Charles Bronson look like weak-sauce. There is a Pulp Fiction-esque feel to this movie, although it doesn't have its slickness. What it lacks in style, it more than makes up for with a sense of urgency. Did I mention that Billy Connelly plays one of the coolest characters I've watched in a long time? Yeah. I love this movie. It's got some freakin priceless and amusing dialogue and more than a screwball characters. There's even a groovy unexpected plot twist which I found to be most satisfying. Oh yeah.....this is a KEEPER. I dare someone to be disappointed by this flick.

Grade: A

CRIKEY I'm tired.

Monday, September 09, 2002

The Master of Disguise (2002)

Just about anything would look tolerable after Pluto Nash, which works out pretty well for Dana's Folly -- it looks merely inane and infantile as opposed to totally depressing. Still crappy, but at least Carvey's attempting to make me laugh. So that's something.

Grade: D
The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)

Jesus. This was allegedly a comedy, but to call it merely unfunny would imply that there were attempts at humor. Nobody here appears to have been trying to fashion any actual jokes -- even the performers are as somber as players in a Bergman film. Really, it's disheartening to think that this is what $90 mil buys these days; you could give a hi-def camera and $100,000 to a nauseous and blind high school student who had just finished consuming his tenth doppio espresso and make him adhere to the rules of Dogme 95 while holding the camera with his teeth.... and the resulting mess would likely STILL be more impressive than this thing. (I can't bring myself to call it a "film"... sorry.) Between this, Showtime and the upcoming I Spy (also pretty disastrous-looking), this will not have been a very good year for Eddie Murphy. I guess we can all stop making fun of John Travolta now.

Grade: F

Sunday, September 08, 2002

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

How about that -- a giallo with a political conscience! This starts with a bang-up framing device (our protagonist, though apparently dead, is still conscious and able to think, and he must try and figure out how he got to this state as well as try to demonstrate some sign of life so that he doesn't get cut open and autopsied) and moves on into a fascinating murder-conspiracy tale with ringing allusions to the corruption of government and the rise of fascism (not for nothing the film's set in Prague). Stylishly shot and directed with a whopper of an ending, this is a thriller that delivers. Search this bad boy out.

Grade: A-
Maze (2001)

Okay, I knew what kind of film I was supposed to be watching when I went in. I knew the reviews were mediocre, that it was apparently no more than a TV-movie-of-the-week, that it was a chick-flick. I knew all this, and yet I still watched it. (The promise of a nude Laura Linney helped, I'll admit.) And I gotta admit... even though I resisted, the film won me over. It's cliched and sentimental, true, but it's a two-character piece where both characters act in what for me were emotionally valid ways. Your mileage may vary, but I liked it.

Grade: B
Mr. Deeds (2002)

After the ballsy, audience-alienating sheer weirdness of Little Nicky, it seemed more or less inevitable that Adam Sandler would retreat to his time-tested winning-slob formula. I guess it was also inevitable that the resulting film would be safe, predictable and boring (right down to the Buscemi cameo). Praise be to John Turturro, who manages to milk a lot of laughs out of his limited screen time. And the fire scene was at least odd enough to hold my attention. But really... this is just so bland.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Death Machine (1995)

So, on the strength of this film, Stephen Norrington landed the Blade gig? How the fuck did that happen? A few instances of oddball humor keep it from being a total loss (my favorite: the impromptu tourniquet), but mostly it just made me wish I wasn't suffering from nerve-induced insomnia. Norrington shows the titular creation only in shadow and quick cuts for most of the film, much like Jaws... which is a good idea, because at the climax when we actually see the thing in all its glory, it looks like a Terminator endoskeleton crossbred with a Venus flytrap and Edward Scissorhands. Really silly, in other words. Brad Dourif's performance is so annoyingly broad that it threatened to bleed over into All Dogs Go to Heaven.

Grade: D+
The Auteur Theory (1999, but no US release until a cable deal in 2002, which should tell you something)

Or: An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn: The Indie Version. Or, even more to the point: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! MAKE IT STOP!

Grade: D-
Report to the Commissioner (1975)

Gritty and compelling cop drama with one hell of a cast. Well done on all counts, and worth seeking out.

Grade: B+
Our America (2002)

Fact-based account about two inner-city teens who recorded a radio show for NPR is flawed but involving enough. Biggest surprise: It was directed by veteran Ernest Dickerson -- surprising because it bears the earnest awkwardness of a debut film.

Grade: B-
Fists of Iron (1995)

Thoroughly generic chop-socky crap that, despite the production date, appears to have made in the mid-80s. I couldn't help myself -- every time the hero showed up, I know he was supposed to be bad-ass or something, but all I could think was "I wear my sunglasses at night..." It also doesn't help the film that, for much of the film, the hero's main fighting asset is that he can endure a truly Homer-Simpson-esque amount of punishment. One of the main villains looks like Dolph Lundgren with Roman Polanski's head!

Grade: C-
Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001)

Not that good. Has a couple funny moments, mostly from Steve Zahn and Norm Macdonald (who's awfully underutilized here), but the jokes are stale and the mawkishness that nearly sank the first film is allowed to run unchecked this time. Yeesh.

Grade: C