Tuesday, May 27, 2003

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Portrait of New Wave impresario Tony Wilson is the kind of film that remains consistently interesting moment to moment even as you realize it doesn't really hang together. The narrative drive is lacking to the point where it feels like a collection of vaguely related scenes all invited to the same party, and yet it doesn't matter. The film is about characters who live for the moment and that's exactly what the finished product does -- it exists for the moment. So we get plenty of fourth-wall breakage and long digressions about nothing and scenes that work on two levels (so we're told by Wilson himself), not to mention a salacious rumor about Howard Devoto followed immediately by a scene where Devoto steps on screen and says he doesn't remember that happening. It's that kind of film. No emotional investment whatsoever, but it's a blast to watch anyway. (It kind of helps if you like the music.)

Grade: B
Schizopolis (1997)

Steven Soderbergh's mental-core-dump movie is, essentially, about self-involvement. It's about the idea that you can never really know anyone else and communication between two people is nigh well impossible. So we get characters speaking gibberish or being dubbed into other languages or being referred to as Attractive Woman #2 or stringing together sentences that don't make any sense or speaking in descriptions of phrases rather than phrases ("Generic greeting!"). Meanwhile, people turn into other people, a character leaves the film when he's offered more money by another film crew, a trash can plays music when paper is thrown in it, Soderbergh wanks on camera at least three times and the state of Rhode Island is turned into a mini-mall rather than being sold "to the fucking Japanese". It's an attempt to express the inexpressible and, in the process, demonstrate the inadequacy of language and representation. Or maybe, just maybe, it's not about anything at all and exists only as a lark, a way for a frustrated artist to clear the pipes. Either way, it's pretty hilarious in a ramshackle, what-the-fuck-is-gonna-come-next kind of way. Like Soderbergh says in the film, "If Schizopolis makes no sense to you, that's your fault and not ours." Whatever it is, I enjoyed it.

Grade: B+
Chaos (1999)

The longer this film from the director of Ringu goes on and the more we learn about the story, the less interesting it becomes. All the tricky chronology in the world can't hide that, ultimately, this film is a riff on a very famous thriller which I will not mention except to say that I'll bet you've seen it at least once. Now, the plot of this acknowledged and oft-referenced classic doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny, when you get right down to it -- it's valuable not as textbook plotting but as a ruthlessly disturbing study of deviant psychology that only gets better and more disturbing upon repeat viewings when you know the nature of the game. Hideo Nakata's version, however, apparently feels that the plot's the thing. Which is a mistake. An even bigger mistake was monkeying with said psychology so that the ending has to be changed ever so subtly, so that now what was a sad, cathartic accident in the original now becomes willful and thus extremely stupid. It holds the interest for a while and impeccably made, but it's such hack work, really.

Grade: C+
A Touch of Zen (1969)

Yowza. This grand, sweeping martial arts epic put China on the map as a filmic power and for good reason -- it's some pretty extraordinary stuff. Slow going in the first forty-five minutes, but the patient are rewarded with some of the finest eye-filling cinema known to man. Often literally feels like poetry, a visual equivalent of a Chinese epic. If you wanna know where Ang Lee got the idea for the bamboo-treetop fight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here you go. Stunning.

Grade: A-

Monday, May 26, 2003

Bruce Almighty (2003)

Pretty much a wreck from the get-go -- Jim Carrey is in 'wacky' mode again, except that this time around it's painfully studied and reeks of flopsweat. There's no spark of inspiration, no sense of the unexpected that shows up even in his worst films. It's like Carrey is saying, "Here, is this what you want? Me jumping around and acting like a jackass? Choke on it, you fuckers." Still manages a couple funny moments early on -- the "Clint Eastwood" bit is priceless -- but once the pathetic attempts at drama kick in around the forty-five minute mark, I was ready to jump ship. Unexpected Echo Dept.: One of the messages of the film is that it's okay to just be a funny guy, which certainly has relevance to Carrey's career. But Jesus, didn't anyone working on this film have the good sense to mention that Sullivan's Travels covered that idea about as perfectly as it could ever be done?

Grade: C-
Blood for Dracula (1974)

Odd mixture of exploitation flick and social satire doesn't quite come off like it should, due mainly to a dull first half and some truly wretched acting in key roles. It does get better (and less talky) as it goes, wrapping up with a gloriously balls-to-the-wall climax that damn near makes the film worth seeing despite its faults. Takes too long to get where it's going, though, with far too many scenes with Joe Dallesandro as Mario the boring Socialist lunkhead gardener (it's in these moments that the film feels most like a bad imitation of late-period Bunuel) and a couple blood-puking scenes that go on way past their breaking point.

Grade: C+
Pantaleon y las visitadores (1999)

Low-key comedy starts off wonderfully, taking a droll look at a straight-laced captain put in charge of a prostitute brigade. As long as it sticks to the nuts and bolts of that operation, it's quite amusing and surprisingly controlled (an American version of this plot would veer into overbaked farce the first chance it got). But as the scenario grows more cynical, it tilts more towards melodrama and becomes less interesting. The end result is a misfire that could have been something great; I imagine that the source novel by Mario Vargas Llosa is a sight better. Angie Cepeda, while not a great actress, is in the running for Best Nude Scene of 2003 (the film only saw an NYC release this February).

Grade: C+
The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

Classic, my eye. I got three words that sum up the experience of this film: dead-ass boring.

Grade: D+

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Wasabi (2002)

Luc Besson strikes again with this crossbreed between an American action flick and a Japanese pop comedy -- all in French, of course. The main asset here is the inestimably awesome Jean Reno (the awesomely cute Ryoko Hirosue doesn't hurt either). Reno's great, the film less so. It's intermittently exciting or amusing but has too many dead spots and an atrocious Odious Comic Relief performance by Michel Muller. Worth a look on a slow night, but otherwise skippable unless you're a Luc Besson fanatic.

Grade: C+
Ah! My Goddess!: The Movie (2000)

Feature-length anime based on a television show and a manga, both of which I know nothing about. There's nothing particularly wrong with it except that it's pitched at sensibilities far removed from my own. I thought it was overly melodramatic and vaguely boring; this is one of those rare times, however, where I would recommend ignoring me if you think this film would appeal to you.

Grade: C
Money Buys Happiness (1999)

What this film is about is a man named Money who gets a free piano and, with his wife, lugs it across town while discussing splitting up. Which means that they couldn't even get the title right, since Money doesn't buy a fucking thing. That should tell you all you need to know about this graceless and incompetent piece of indie dogshit. If you have a choice between this and The Adventures of Pluto Nash, go with Eddie Murphy.

Grade: F

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Full Frontal (2002)

Some films, you know you'll like right away. And I can't exactly explain what hooked me about this film, but I was helpless in its grasp about the time that The Sound and the Fuhrer was introduced. It's probably my long-standing affection for movies about emotionally stunted people struggling to connect with one another (see: Punch-Drunk Love, Exotica, Human Nature), which to the film's advantage is stronger than my long-standing antipathy for movies about bored rich people (see: The Anniversary Party, The Great Gatsby). Also to the film's advantage is the loose, what-the-fuck vibe -- Soderbergh may have done this as a lark after his Hollywood-project slate, but if all directorial burn-off projects were as fun and unpretentious as this, my life would be much happier. It's aimless and indulgent and basically stunt directing, true... but it's the product of a confident talent and remains exciting and amusing even when (or, more appropriately, especially when) the conceit threatens to overwhelm the characters. (The film's best moments come at its most unwieldy and awkward -- the film-within-a-film-within-a-film, for example.) One of the year's most underrated accomplishments.

Grade: B+
Pieces (1981)

You want sleaze? I got your sleaze. This film is repulsive, stupid, poorly acted, oft-incompetent and generally devoid of any redeeming value... which means I thought it was the kitten's tits. I want to hug this film, I like it so much. Strange reaction towards a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-ripoff, I know, but jesus. I am, after all, a crap-film connoisseur, and this mongoloid monstrosity is right up my alley. It's got nudity, heaps o' gore, chainsaws, rampant idiocy, awful dialogue (I refuse to believe anyone could have written the line "The greatest thing in life is smoking pot while fucking on a waterbed" and taken it seriously), blood and did I mention the sleaze? Biggest surprise: Juan Piquer Simon, despite what you may have heard, isn't that bad a director -- parts of the film are surprisingly stylish. (True, it's mostly second-hand style taken from Dario Argento, but at least it's done competently.) Biggest surprise that, upon reflection, isn't a surprise at all: The script was co-written, under a pseudonym, by Italian sleaze merchant extraordinaire Joe D'Amato, which probably explains some of the more tasteless stuff in the film (like the whole scene where the tennis chick gets killed). Biggest reason why I now hold this film close to my heart, despite all the shittiness: It rekindled my desire to write my own berserk gross-out gore flick. (Plus, it inspired my friend Dave to come up with the idea of "nipple extensions" -- like a weave, but for your boobs!) Damn straight.

Grade: B

Sunday, May 18, 2003

This ALWAYS, ALWAYS FUCKING HAPPENS. Every time I go to post some giant update, I fuck up and lose everything I've typed after it's nine-tenths done. Just goes to show that this is what happens when you're a stupid fuckin' slacker like I tend to be... fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck. No more putting off reviews.

Tonight's unfortunately abbreviated reviews:

X2: X-Men United (2003): Far superior to the first film in that it actually feels like fun summer entertainment as opposed to dour angst-fest; comes replete with energetic action, sly humor and spry pacing. Grade: B+

Holes (2003): Strikingly oddball until about the last quarter, when sentimentality and overly symmetrical structuring overwhelm. Jon Voight continues his transformation from matinee idol into Weirdest Big-Name Character Actor Ever; Tim Blake Nelson, at this point, should be declared a national treasure. Grade: B

The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003): More or less what I expected -- sweet, silly fluff with a few too many musical montages and the continuing-but-unnecessary desire to transform Hilary Duff into a pop-star princess, but enjoyable all the same. Make fun of me all you want, but the guys at "Film Threat" liked it too. Grade: B-

The Believer (2002): Compelling when it's not stupid and/or heavy-handed; Ryan Gosling's volcanic, career-defining performance makes most of the latter stuff worth seeing anyway. May have really been something if there were any other characters in the film. Grade: B

Esther Kahn (2002) [second viewing]: Even more striking the second time around; that dozens of people fail to get the point of this film baffles me, as few films come equipped with as much clarity of purpose as this one. Grade: A- [upgrade from B+]

Brigham City (2001): Saw this mainly on the strength of Nathan Shumate's rave review, and was not disappointed -- it's religious-based cinema, for sure, but it never forgets to be as much cinema as it is religion. The details are faith-specific, but the themes are universal... and it's also a pretty good crime thriller too. Major quibble is with the uneven performances, but I'll let it slide. Grade: B

See the Sea (1998): Made back in Francois Ozon's look-at-me-look-at-me shock period (before he started making films like Under the Sand and 8 Women), this is the film which put him on the map. This either needed to be a lot longer or a lot shorter. A longer film could have delved into the psychology of the two women; a shorter film could have dispensed with it entirely. At its current length, the only response that seems appropriate is "Yes, and?". Grade: C

My Little Eye (2002): Still unreleased in the U.S., which seems to be the entire basis of its high regard among horror-genre fanatics -- to get to the grim and primally disturbing last half-hour, you have to wade through an hour of screw-tightening buildup, which wouldn't be so bad if not for the fact that all involved characters are boring and occasionally obnoxious fuckwits. That final section really is quite something, enough to push the film to a mild recommendation, but the whole is such that you shouldn't really go out of your way to find it. Grade: B-

Thursday, May 15, 2003

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Remember when, before the film started, we saw that funny commercial for Turner Classic Movies with the couple in line trying to see Visually Stunning but Ultimately Pointless Sequel? That was awesome.

Grade: C
The Transporter (2002)

This lean, mean slice of action-packed Europuddin' was a welcome tonic after the lugubrious Matrix Rehashed. Logic, of course, will get you nowhere here, but when you have a scene like the garage fight it doesn't really matter. For what it's worth, Jason Statham is becoming one of my favorite badasses -- he just has this presence about him. Probably best appreciated at 3 AM while drunk (that's what I did), but worth appreciating anyway.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

More or less exactly what I'd feared it would be -- a faithful adaptation of the kind of book would-be hipsters and high school students read when they want to cast the illusion of literacy. Great if all you require of a film is sex, drugs and copious vomit; those looking for plot, character, emotional resonance and such would be advised to search elsewhere.

Grade: C-
The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Cheerfully goofy Raimi-ized Western has enough delightful business lurking in the margins to compensate for the giant miscalculation at its center -- Sharon Stone, bless her talent-free heart, apparently was under the impression that this was high drama. Fortunately for us, the film doesn't seem overly interested in the stoicism of Stone either. It's more concerned with Gene Hackman's scenery chewing and gunfights and quirky editing and the most zooms this side of Mario Bava and a rather large hole in Keith David's head. So overall it's a good time.

Grade: B-

Sunday, May 04, 2003

The Son's Room (2002)

I actually saw this a little over a week ago and I've been putting off writing about it simply because I really don't have much to say. It's a film to observe without involvement -- certainly well-made but relentlessly arm's-length from the viewer. I saw it, I filed it away, I doubt I'll remember it in six months.

Grade: C+
The Crazies (1973)

Lesser-known work from George A. Romero (he of the "Dead" trilogy) deserves far better than its current semi-obscurity. It's a savage drama (played like a paranoid horror flick) about the quarantining of a small town following the accidental loosing of a biological weapon. Parallels to the Vietnam War and American foreign policy at the time are hard to miss (most glaring example: a priest immolates himself after being forcibly removed from his church), but the film stands on its own as a tense, disturbing and bleak look at a world gone mad.

Grade: A-
Careful (1992)

This is the first full-length piece I've seen from cult Canadian maestro Guy Maddin, and I had essentially the same feelings for it that I had for his acclaimed short The Heart of the World -- I find it formally dazzling, weirdly funny and completely impenetrable. Maddin's clearly trying to say something here with his stylized (some might say fetishized) Expressionistic tableau and his crackpot dialogue and his inclusion of multiple fractured families. But I haven't the foggiest what the message might be. It's entertaining and tedious in about the same measures, but it hasn't turned me off Maddin. I may warm to him yet.

Grade: C+
The Woman in the Window (1944)

Generally regarded as a film-noir classic, about all this second-rate potboiler has going for it is a good performance by Edward G. Robinson and director Fritz Lang's usual visual brio. The script has a couple interesting ideas but does not expand very well upon them; the ending, reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, is probably the last ending you'd expect to find on a moody crime drama and feels like a studio mandate. You've seen it all before and better besides.

Grade: C