Sunday, July 27, 2003

Return of the Dragon (1973)

Contains possibly even less story-related scenes than The Chinese Connection, this film at times seems to be comprised solely of Bruce Lee kicking ass. That it's not is more the pity, since when feet and fists aren't flying there's some vague stupidity about Lee being a country hick, none of which is very funny. The fact that the villain's right hand man is flamboyantly homosexual was supposed to be funny too, I think -- whoever dubbed it sure got their Paul Lynde on. But consider that the lame character stuff occupies maybe twenty-five minutes, and this film runs an hour-thirty, which leaves an hour-plus of solid creamy kung-fu goodness, with each fight seemingly designed to top the last one... I think it's obvious where I stand on this one. Chuck Norris plays Lee's last opponent, which demonstrates how big a star Lee was -- just getting your ass whupped by him could be your first step to stardom.

Grade: B
Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters (2003)

Ho-hum. Wire-fu-laden supernatural mumbo jumbo never finds its pacing, moving in fits and starts. Makes about as much sense as most Hong Kong action films, but the fights in this aren't cool or interesting enough to overcome that handicap. After a while, you just stop caring. The vampire beast doesn't help -- it's represented by one of the worst monster get-ups in recent years, a stiff dummy with burnt oatmeal makeup. Not as bad as Wes Craven's producing jobs, but that's little consolation while watching this.

Grade: C

Friday, July 25, 2003

The Chinese Connection (1972)

Way, way better than Fists of Fury, this is Bruce at his best. A strong plot (based on a old Chinese legend) that still leaves plenty of room for kickass fight scenes, plus lots of angry Bruce and Bruce in disguise too! This film also seems to be the first time Bruce's famed Jeet Kune Do minimalist technique was ever truly demonstrated (compare the fight where Bruce demolishes an entire dojo without breaking a sweat to any scene in Fists of Fury, which honestly could have been done by anyone). Weird streak of anti-Japanese sentiment runs throughout but then the Occupation wasn't yet 30 years past so it's understandable (though it's interesting to note that Bruce stopped working with director Lo Wei after, among other things, differences of opinion about the film's racial bias). But hey, does it kick ass? Answer: FUCK YES.

Grade: B+
A Nighmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Damn good sequel -- suffers from the usual shortcomings in characterization but has a more-than-adequate cast and some extremely weird imagery. Truth be told, this may have some of the most bizarre, outre stuff ever thrown into a mainstream movie; unforgettable images include the boy who gets literally tongue-tied over a pit of fire and the ex-junkie whose track marks start crying for smack. (Of course, there's also the dopey Wizard Master thing... guess you can't get everything right.) Co-written by a pre-fame Frank Darabont, who was also reponsible for another Chuck Russell project -- the impressively nasty remake of The Blob. How this man, quite unafraid to slaughter young kids in horror flicks, would end up directing the puddle of goop that was The Majestic is beyond me.

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Fists of Fury (1971)

Bruce Lee's breakthrough film has ass-kicking fight scenes harnessed to an extraordinarily boring plot. And there's a lot more plot than ass-kicking. Bruce doesn't even fight for about half the film. So, um, blah.

Grade: C
Stranger than Paradise (1983)

Takes some time to warm up to, and admittedly very dry. But if you can settle into the film's groove, it's pretty neat. Moment I knew I liked it: When Eva responded to a long explanation of the rules of football with a perfectly timed "I think this game is stupid."

Grade: B
Tokyo Drifter (1966)

The plot of this concerns... um... okay, the plot is nonsense. Ignore it. What works here is the cockeyed, Expressionistic mise-en-scene -- the use of color in particular is quite striking, and the camera placements occasionally made me giddy with excitement at the artistic fun being had here. (The way that Otsuka is filmed in the first half of the film, with the camera usually close-up on his glasses or bright scarlet suit, so that he's never fully in frame and often never has his face shown... well, damn. I was impressed.) I can see this film being an influence on PTA's Punch-Drunk Love, except that this doesn't have an iota of emotion to it -- it's pure visual art. As it stands, I still can't fully recommend it -- I will admit to getting restless once Tetsu became a drifter -- but it's still something I'd urge you to see some day.

Grade: B

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Cheesy, fun, surprisingly clever, milks every last good idea from its killer premise; the kind of film I would like to make someday. Even the theme song is fun. Where else are you gonna see people menaced by popcorn and ball pits, anyway?

Grade: B
The Dragon Lives Again (1976)

You know, I've seen a lot of insane films in my day. But it would be tough to top this Hong Kong-bred farrago for sheer lunacy. Beyond any of the actual specific scenes or lines of dialogue, all you need to know is that this film has Bruce Lee teaming up with the One-Armed Boxer, Popeye and John Wayne to prevent the Godfather and his henchmen -- the Exorcist, Clint Eastwood, Zatoichi, James Bond, Dracula and Emmanuelle -- from killing the King of the Underworld. This ain't your daddy's Bruce-Lee-name-stealing, Bruce-Le-starring ripoff. This was made by people who were legitimately nuts. If the above plot synopsis isn't enough for you, then know that the climactic fight scene has Bruce Lee beating up the Devil. Do you understand what I'm saying? THIS HAS BRUCE LEE WHIPPING THE FUCK OUT OF THE DEVIL. If that's not enough for a recommendation, than I will have truly lost my capacity for shameless fun. Best enjoyed with a 12-pack, but enjoyable all the same. The hard part is finding it.

Grade: B-

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Never Again (2002)

The first Eric Schaeffer movie to not star nor be about Eric Schaeffer, which automatically makes it twenty times better than his other films. He's still the one holding the pen, though, so don't get your hopes up. This one's doubly sad because there's actually several well-observed moments; Jill Clayburgh and Jeffery Tambor turn in affecting performances, and they're helped out by some quiet scenes that rank as possibly the only good work Schaeffer's ever done. Shame then that the au-toooer's vision has to betray them. Eric still labors under the mistaken assumption that sex automatically equals high comedy, and the more perverse the sex the funnier the joke. So in the midst of this promising film about two damaged people learning to love and trust each other, we get mortifying scenes like the one that requires Clayburgh to run around in a strap-on and S&M hood and the one where Tambor has to rebuff an amorous she-male (played, for some reason, by a slumming Michael McKean). Nor has Schaeffer totally gotten past his bad-sitcom ideas of how people act; if I were to explain exactly why Clayburgh is wandering around in a suit of armor at film's end, we'd be here all night. It's progress, yes, but it still sucks.

Grade: C-
Decasia (2003)

A work of experimental cinema that features a procession of scratched, blistered and otherwise ruined strips of film while a minimalist score drones behind the imagery. At times, recalls Ballet Mechanique, Man Ray's Return to Reason and much of Brakhage's work... except those films all had the distinct advantage of being very, very short. This film is 70 minutes long, which strikes me as simply too long for this kind of emulsion-fuckery; consequently, a tendency towards repetition mars the film. But there's several striking images (my favorites being the merry-go-round threatened by water damage and the boxer fighting a large scratch) and the score has many interesting sections. Funny thing, actually... when the images are boring, the score is great and when the score is boring the images are great. Some synchronicity would have been nice. Still, fans of the avant-garde can put up with things like this. I think I liked enough of it to recommend anyway.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Odd how most of the films I've been looking forward to this year have stunk while films I was dismissive of have ended up being damn good. While I can't say that I enjoyed this as much as X2 (my major surprise for the year), this film upended my expectations by not sucking despite being a Jerry Bruckheimer production. True, Bruckheimer's bigger-louder-more philosophy is evident on screen (lots of shit goes boom, the plot makes no sense and the film runs on too long), but the usual arrogant lugubriousness of your typical Bruckheimer event is counteracted by Gore Verbinki's deft directorial hand and the intentionally loopy screenplay. This trumping of style-over-idiocy is reflected in the film as well, where the obligatory but faintly dull love story between Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom is often shunted to the side in favor of the competition between Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush to see who can go farther over the top. Rush puts up an admirable front (he is, after all, the current King of Overacting), but Depp unmoors his boat and sails so far into the realms of the weird that the performance becomes perversely, wonderfully fascinating and entertaining as all get-out to boot. The action rarely flags, with many many things going up in flames, so the film delivers in the pure-eye-candy realm as well. And to top it off, it's got Jack Davenport (from the BBC sitcom "Coupling") in full historical regalia, which I think is funny as fuck. It's pretty much a total package of entertainment. Check it out. (I'm still sticking to my guns on Bad Boys II, however.)

Grade: B
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

A whiny young man named Jesse is threatened by and has his body taken over by the demonic Freddy Krueger; boredom breaks out. This must qualify as one of the lamest horror sequels in history, with almost no interesting dream imagery and far too much time spent in the company of pasty, dull Jesse. Even the makeup looks lousy. The biggest point of interest here is Kim Myers's startling resemblance to Meryl Streep. One of the most homoerotic mainstream movies ever.

Grade: D
Inferno (1980)

Dario Argento's films, while often visually and aurally satisfying, have never really had strong plots -- the man just can't really write a tight scenario. In this film, he sidestepped the issue by failing to include a plot at all. What we end up with a meditation on death and the allure of the mythological, an overwhelming and obviously deeply personal film that meanders at times but remains constantly disorienting and includes some of Argento's most startling imagery. If the events in the film don't truly connect in any meaningful way, it's all for the better because the film feels like a nightmare being piped out directly from its maker's subconscious. It's as close as Argento will ever get to pure avant-gardeism. Challenging, and not to everyone's taste, but I think it's brilliant. (Note: This was the second film I saw the other day that referenced the ants-in-the-hand shot from Un Chien Andalou -- Freddy's Revenge had a shot late in the game with ants crawling out of Kim Myers's leg wound. You might not find that interesting or odd or anything, but I did.)

Grade: A-
I Stand Alone (1999)

Hrm. I stand on the fence about this one, the debut of Gaspar Noe (the pleasant French gentleman who made Irreversible). Certainly, there's a lot to admire about this film. Noe's compositions and uses of screen space are oft-striking, proving that he is indeed a born filmmaker. Even more impressive is his utilization of non-diegetic sound (I'm speaking of the infamous "gunshot jolts", an effect that kept me jumping even into the film's final sections). But the script's the thing, and I couldn't help imagining how much more effective the film would be (and, to be sure, what a different film it would become) if, instead of the constant splenetic rantings of the butcher, we heard nothing on the soundtrack. Just silence while watching the simple, stark shots of the butcher moving from place to place and trying to eke out an existence after a lifetime of bad choices. But god, he does go on. After a while, you just want him to shut the fuck up. Noe reminds me a lot of his fellow Frenchman Bruno Dumont (the maker of Life of Jesus and Humanite): Both are capable of greatness and may one day make a truly great movie... if they can rid themselves of their fascination with calculated shock value. I mean, come on. You've got our attention now, yes. So thrill us.

Grade: C+

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Rhinoceros (1973)

Eugene Ionesco's famous absurdist play may have had major sociopolitical resonance in its original form but here, reshuffled and moved to America and captured on film, the product feels muddled and curious. Whether Ionesco's work is actually adaptable to film in any form is another matter entirely, but what can we do. Gene Wilder tries hard but can't do much with his role; Zero Mostel chews the scenery to pieces in one of the most embarassingly unrestrained performances I've seen in some time.

Grade: C
Nobody Knows Anybody (1999)

Could serve as a primer on what not to do with a thriller -- what appears to be a generic paranoia yarn takes a turn of plot too hard and leaps off the narrative rails. The result is a spectacularly goofy wreck of a film that only gets loopier and harder to swallow the longer it goes. Trying to stifle the guffaws at the film's big chase scene fifty minutes in could cause hemorraging. I figured this movie was unreleased in America because our distributors seem to be trying their damndest to ignore the current Spanish horror-film renaissance; turns out that it's only because the film sucks.

Grade: C-

Sunday, July 06, 2003

The Grey Zone (2002)

Well, the title's appropriate -- a more drab or visually flat film would be rather hard to find. The film tackles a fascinating subject (groups of Jews who helped run the Nazi death camps in exchange for more privileges and a couple more months of life), and the ensemble cast handles the material with skill (who knew David Arquette could act?), but I doubt anything short of full-on Painted Bird-style absurdism could get me involved in a Holocaust movie at this point.

Grade: C+
Mysterious Object at Noon (2001)

Moderately engaging sort-of-documentary wherein a man with a camera travels across Thailand getting people to contribute to a story in the manner of the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse. More a curio than anything else, but watchable enough, especially later in the film when the story starts getting weird.

Grade: B-
Barton Fink (1991) [second viewing]

(Spoilers and mucho incoherence herein; abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)

The "life of the mind" has rarely been as bizarre, compelling or terrifying as it is in this time bomb of a film from the Coen Brothers. Thematic material is in abundance here, but I think a proper look at this film must be predicated by realizing what kind of film it is -- boiled down to its essence, this is an off-kilter and deeply disturbing horror film, with self-involvement as the monster. This may be why this film, more than any other, gets the Coens accused of substanceless, misanthropic navel-gazing -- that's one of the many things that the film is about. The title character is a self-important hack who claims to speak for the common man and longs for a theater that can connect with everyone. But what is his great sin? As John Goodman tells him, "You don't listen." Don't confuse the message with the messenger... one of the film's great, subtle jokes is that in a film obsessed with writing and creation, the only person in the film who actually can and does write good work is Audrey, who's also the only character who realizes that, as she says, "understanding requires empathy". And when Barton finally starts writing, spurred by the object in the box, the final product not only comes out as a rehash of Bare Ruined Choirs (note the last line of Barton's screenplay) but is dismissed as worthless and unusable. So are the Coens telling us that in order to create art one must care and that they, by extension, are really swell and caring guys? Possibly. And what's in that box, anyway? I have my idea, of course, and it ties in with the film's allusions towards the truth about Charlie Meadows and the Hotel Earle. Damn... there's so much in the film that could be fodder for discussion. I haven't even noted the brilliant technical aspects on display like the awesome overhead shot of Barton thinking in his chair or the unsettling sound mix (this is possibly the most aurally disquieting film I've seen since Polanski's The Tenant)... or the genius-level acting on display in virtually every role, with special note going to John Goodman who's totally fucking perfect... or the pitch-perfect dialogue, especially the great timing used with the two cops' lines... or the insinuations that large portions of the story may be just a dream. Hell, I haven't even really gotten into the idea of the life of the mind and how it relates to this film and where it's going and what it's trying to say. I still haven't seen all of the Coen Brothers' films, but I can't imagine that they've made a better film than this. In fact, I find it hard to imagine that most people have made a film better than this. It's one of the closest things to a perfect film I've yet seen. I need to buy this movie.

Grade: A