Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

It's been less than a week since I saw this, and I barely remember it. I think the climax was pretty exciting, but that may have been about it. Not really a bad film, but seriously unmemorable. (Unless, like my mother, you're a "Next Generation" junkie.)

Grade: C
Notorious C.H.O. (2002)

Funny enough, but fairly disappointing -- Cho's material this time is extraordinarily uneven with sharp sicko-observational humor tempered by dull scatology-for-scatology's-sake material. Cho's occasional predilection for telegraphing and stepping on punchlines is also amplified for some reason. And the opening scenes outside the club are lazy time-filler. It's still damn funny (highlight: the story about Daddy), but if you'd told me that Margaret Cho's newest stand-up film would be about as good as Martin Lawrence's, I woulda slapped you.

Grade: B-
Vampires in Havana (1985)

The premise sounded intriguing (animated Cuban film about vampires battling over a serem that allows vamps to walk in sunlight), but I didn't expect to get a frickin' masterpiece. Clever, witty, rude and lively, and with some great music too. I'm sure there's allegorical significance if you care to look for it, but when a film is as wholly entertaining as this one, such deconstruction is unnecessary. Only thing to complain about is the primitive quality of the animation; even so, the art itself is stylized and charming enough to compensate for the less-than-fluid motion. Animation buffs, take notice -- this one's a keeper. Well worth digging up.

Grade: A

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Far from Heaven (2002)

Hollow and stilted for its first fifteen minutes -- the film is aware that it's a stunt and it wants us to be aware of it as well. But then Dennis Quaid walks into a bar and the emotional life of the film suddenly jumps up and announces itself to all in the multiplex. What follows is one of the few (maybe the only) successful examples of post-modern deconstructive genrefucking mated with genuine heart and feeling (irony with soul, if you will). Buoyed by three excellent performances; Julianne Moore in particular is dynamic as a woman trying to keep a game face up while she's crumbling inside. It eventually spreads itself a little too thin in trying to tackle both the sexual and the racial attitudes of the era, but you can't fault it for trying.

Grade: B+
Blackwoods (2002)

It's not that I expect a whole lot from an almost-direct-to-video product such as this, especially when it stars Patrick Muldoon (the man to call when Charlie Sheen and Rob Lowe are just too darn busy). But when I'm promised a horror film, I kind of want to see a horror film and not a retarded redneck morality play. If I wanted the latter, I'd watch "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- it's much shorter and doesn't have the aggravating twist ending of this crapfest. (The twist, by the way, is more or less stolen from one of my favorite films from the '90s with elements of Memento worked in. Which just made it even more aggravating.)

Grade: D
Wild Zero (2000)

Wow, yet another Japanese no-budget punk-rock zombies-and-UFOs love story/music-video/splatter flick. It seems like two of these come out every week. Seriously, though... this film's pretty kooky. It's about a guy named Ace and his tentative new paramour Tobio and the band Guitar Wolf and a bunch of zombies and UFOs and explosions. It's crude and amateurish, but then that's kind of the fun of punk rock -- anyone can do it pretty well. So this is punk-rock filmmaking, man. The movie is, however, extraordinarily frustrating for more or less the same reasons that it's a gas. The patchwork DIY ethic gives the film a kind of scraggly charm, but it also hamstrings a lot of the film's better ideas. Plus, the plot is all over the damn place with too many unnecessary characters and useless scenes and whatnot. You're left with a sense of "That was pretty fun, but if a director with a little more restraint and a little more talent had done this, it woulda been fucking phenomenal." Then again, even the director doesn't take his film seriously. At all. (I mean that, too -- read an interview with him about the film sometime.) However, this film does make a case for Guitar Wolf (leader of the band Guitar Wolf) as the single coolest dude to walk the Earth today. The music's great too. I need to find the soundtrack CD now. Just remember -- love knows no boundaries, race or gender! ROCK AND ROLL!

Grade: C+

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Writing about Fellowship of the Ring, I said its main fault lies in that its feels more like a prelude to something epic than an epic in itself. Well, I was right -- this film is fucking EPIC. Probably the single greatest Hollywood-style entertainment in the last three or four years, with a good performance from an actor I'd previously written off as bland (Viggo Mortensen) and a great performance from a bundle of pixels that bears a vague resemblence to Willem Dafoe and Steve Buscemi. (I don't know if that's a testament to the quality of the CG work or just how odd Dafoe and Buscemi look.) Peter Jackson announces once and for all his arrival into the canon of major world directors with his stellar and fluid work -- the Battle of Helm's Deep is probably the single most exciting stretch of cinema I saw last year. Breathtaking.

Grade: A
Gangs of New York (2002)

Emphasis on "New York," not "Gangs" -- despite the protests from disappointed critics and filmgoers about 'lack of character', the whole point is that this is a movie about New York. It's the film Scorsese's been leading up to his whole career, with New York City as the star and everyone else in support. And the film is a grand one -- a bold, sweeping historical yarn about the birth of the modern city and, by proxy, the nation as a whole. It captures a portrait of a dying era (that of power derived from brute force) being swallowed up by modernity (power derived from political influence and shady dealings). To bitch about the characters being given short shrift is kind of missing the point. Not that they're really shafted anyway -- there's a lot of rich character work as well. So you'll learn something while you watch Daniel Day-Lewis kick the shit out of everything that moves and Leo DiCaprio smolder and vow revenge. Entertainment plus education... is there anything Marty can't do? God bless him. (And bless Day-Lewis, too -- his scenery-chewing, eye-poppingly accomplished and well-modulated performance drags the film through some potential rough spots.)

Grade: A
Devils on the Doorstep (2002)

A Chinese cinematic cousin to Heller's Catch-22 -- the absurd nature of warfare illustrated through pitch-black humor that recedes when the film turns serious. Ostensibly just about a small Chinese village during the Occupation whose fortunes change irreparably with the arrival of two POWs, it pulls back in its later moments to reveal itself as a comment on all humanity and both the wonderful and (more often) terrible things of which we as people are capable. (It's also pretty pointed in its attack on the Japanese idea of 'honor' as well as the 'rules' of warfare.) And amazingly, it manages all this without ever being portentious or preachy -- it's brisk and rude and oft-hilarious, culminating in a party scene that manages to be both spirit-lifting and agonizingly dread-filled. That the scene turns ugly in a moment's notice should be no surprise; that the film, so good at being funny, turns out to be even better at being devastating is even less of a surprise after the fact. World-class, this here is.

Grade: A
The City of Lost Souls (2002)

A film from the insanely prolific Takashi Miike, the demented Japanese auteur who gave us (among other things) Audition. This one, with its manic pace and weird digressions, is more representative of his usual work -- though it is for the most part missing the extraordinary capacity for gore and scat that have made films like Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q popular cult items. It also doesn't quite hang together as a film, instead feeling like a series of disjointed vignettes that got knitted together somehow. Still, I almost gave it a B-minus for general coolness and the fact that it does get better (read: more cohesive) in its second half -- but there's a dumb twist ending that seems to exist just so Miike could say his film had a twist at the end.

Grade: C+
Stripped (2002)

If you know anything about the stripping trade, you can skip this documentary. Trades in ain't-stripping-grand material for about half an hour before having a change of heart and filling out the rest of its short length with ain't-stripping-bad; director Jill Morley loads a couple sucker-punch moments near the end when talking about the fate of the girls she met and worked with, but it's grotesque how often she forgets about everyone she interviews and tries to turn the film into a vehicle for herself. Things I Learned: Only one out of every five strippers has anything interesting to say.

Grade: C
Stuart Little 2 (2002)

Pleasant, I suppose, but also fairly bland; missing in action, for the most part, is the bursts of offbeat humor that made the first such an unexpected treat. When the non sequitors do show up, it's enjoyable (year's best line of dialogue: "Canada is not part of the United States because Canadians like to be alone."); when the film wanders back to its silly plot, it's ho-hum. Melanie Griffith joins Ming-Na Wen and Burt Reynolds in the Bad Voice-Over Hall of Shame. And is it just me, or is Jonathan Lipnicki actually getting smaller and younger-looking as he ages?

Grade: C+
Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Attempt to recapture the knockabout recklessness of The Emperor's New Groove is mostly a failure, possibly because New Groove essentially happened by accident; many times, this film's attempts at flippancy and weirdness feel studied. Scattered laughs and a bizarre Elvis fixation hold the attention anyway until the film leaps headfirst into a river of sap (did the line about family really need to be repeated twice during the frenetic climax?), thus obliterating my hanging-by-a-thread goodwill. And I appear to be the only one who's noticed judging from the reviews, but the animation here is pretty shoddy. What the fuck, Disney?

Grade: C
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002)

Well, there's no interesting characterization, well-thought-out plotting, clever dialogue, good acting or anything else usually considered on the barometer-of-quality scale in this film. But a whole lot of shit gets stylishly blowed up real good. So who am I to criticize a film for succeeding on its own terms?

Grade: C+
Pumpkin (2002)

Splitting the difference between smug black-comic satire and sincere melodrama leaves the filmmakers with an untenable mess of crap on their hands. It gets a little less unbearable once they phase out the toothless satirical jabs and concentrate more on the dramatics, but it's still fucking lame. Exactly the kind of liberal-guilt-PC shit Solondz skewered in the good part of Storytelling.

Grade: D+