Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Raising Victor Vargas (2003)

Sweet and likeable drama, sort of a junior-league NYC All the Real Girls, about a young lothario's attempts to romance a pretty neighborhood girl. Accusations of over-sanitization might not be without merit, but it is nice for once to see an inner-city drama where nobody gets capped. The non-professional cast is remarkably believable, especially considering that much of the dialogue was improvised; Peter Sollet's direction is confident but unobtrusive. Tim Orr's cinematography provides a major assist -- after only three years, he's already one of the best in the business. Proof that Sollett is a guy to watch: The side business between Carlos and Melonie, a throwaway in your average film, is just as well-handled as the main action. (It helped that I found Melonie Diaz to be irresistibly cute.)

Grade: B+
New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

Third entry in the series; here, the direction isn't as assured as the first two but the plot is more intricate. It's exciting, but it's also fairly moving, as this film sees Zatoichi trying to move away from the violent life he's chosen. Shintaro Katsu shows off his acting chops here, and he's fantastic -- he simply IS Zatoichi. I am now officially a fan of this series.

Grade: B+
Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein (1974)

Aww, hell yeah. This movie has it all. It's got big Mexican men who never take off their wrestling masks. It's got lots of wrestling action (far more athletic and brutal than the overblown soap opera that America calls "wrestling" today). It's got Irving (!) Frankenstein and his hulking black zombie servant. It's got a lady bacteriologist. It's got a musical score even wackier than Jon Brion's Punch-Drunk Love score. It's got brain-switching. It's got zombified females committing murder. It's got corpses on ice. It's got gratuitous violence against policemen. It's got a daffy old scientist who can never remember whether Alicia (the lady bacteriologist) is dating Santo. And, yes... it's got SANTO, one of the only men who can wear a silver lucha libra mask with a tan business suit and not look like an idiot. (Not to give the shaft to his partner, Blue Demon, but Santo is just cooler. Sorry, Blue Demon.) In summation, it's wonderfully loopy nonsense, which means I loved it. Your mileage may vary.

Grade: B+
Cherry, Harry and Raquel (1970)

Whoa. My only previous exposure to the world of Russ Meyer was through Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls -- both good films, true, but inadequate preparation for something like this. Moving from those two to a movie like this is like switching cigarette brands from Marlboro Lights to Lucky Strike non-filters. This is a Russ Meyer fever dream, something dredged up from deep within him and hurled at the screen in one undigested mass of breast-obsessed avant-porn. In many ways, it reminded me of Emanuelle in America... except that this film is actually pretty good. Meyer is a talented filmmaker, and he pulled out all the stops for this one -- crazy Dutch angles, rapid-fire editing pre-MTV, timeline-smashing jump cuts, what have you. It works well enough that one almost forgets that there's nothing holding this together; however, at some point the plot has to kick in, which leaves us with a perfunctory climax wherein everyone could have died and I wouldn't have batted an eye. Seriously... this movie's like 75 mintes long, and there's maybe 12 minutes of story. The rest of the film is Meyer's bizarre, free-form meditation on violence, drugs, fucking and the beauty of the feminine form (especially that last part). It's a film that seems like it may never end... but much of the time, I wasn't sure I actually wanted it to end.

Grade: B-

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

A fine example of what can happen when a bunch of talented people are operating at the peak of their powers... and also a demonstration of how little that can add up to. Everything here is top-notch on the technical and artistic side -- the cinematography is gorgeous, Spielberg's direction is spry, DiCaprio lays waste to his naysayers with an expert performance, blah blah blah etc. etc. The only weak link is the source; while entertaining, it's also wispy and hollow like a milk chocolate bunny rabbit. Which would be fine if this was intended as a breezy lark i.e. Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven... but come now, this is Spielberg. He tries hard to create the illusion of emotional dimension, but it's a no go -- this thing's too disposable. Consequently, the two-hour-plus running time begins to drag. This is cinema-as-decorative-paperweight.

Grade: C+
Winged Migration (2003)

Gorgeous documentary about the migratory patterns of various birds. Alternately fascinating and amusing, occasionally both; also sometimes quite dull, which I suppose is a side effect of this being entirely non-narrative. (A brief summary of the entire film: Birds fly south, birds fly north, birds fly south, birds fly north, credits roll over surprisingly mediocre Nick Cave song.) Pretty much no more than a moving coffee-table book (suggested title: Pretty Pictures of Flying Birdies), but it's probably the best possible coffee-table movie one could make. The camerawork alone makes this worth seeing. (Can you imagine what a vertigo-inducing experience this would be in IMAX?)

Grade: B
The Jerk (1979)

No, I'd never seen this before. Stop laughing. Anyway, yeah. The movie. It's funny. I mean, it's real inconsistent (aren't most of these knockabout absurdist kitchen-sink comedies?) but when it's on it's total fucking spot-on. It's quotable like Bartlett, too. (My favorite: "Stay away from the cans!") Why isn't Steve Martin's sense of humor this bizarre anymore?

Grade: B
Stardust Memories (1980)

Is it an act of self-indulgence or a slashing satire of self-indulgence? Both, probably. Anyway, complaining about Woody Allen being self-indulgent is like complaining about kittens being overly fluffy -- the supposed problematic element is more or less the charm that keeps you coming back. Woody's universe has always been very Woody-centric. Bitching about his making a movie that focuses on his problems is thickheaded. Besides, the constant adulation that's heaped upon Woody's character is tempered by the depiction of said character as a less-than-stellar human being. (The self-dissection here lays the groundwork for the savage Deconstructing Harry, which would be called character assassination had anyone besides Woody made it.) Plus, ya know, it's pretty freakin' funny.

Grade: B+
Le Million (1931)

More proof that influential and good are often mutually exclusive: This popular and well-loved early-talkie classic by French director Rene Clair did nothing for me. I found it stagy and tired with unlikeable characters (anyone who chooses a bastard like Michel for a best friend deserves what he gets) and a forced sense of whimsy. I dunno, maybe I saw a different film than everyone else.

Grade: C

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Underworld (2003)

Basically ersatz Bruckheimer -- loud, ugly and chaotic. The monochrome, washed-out visual scheme is pretty painful to watch, but it does seem to fit the muddled characters and storyline. Near the end, the script's internal compass breaks, resulting in a final battle where there's no indication of who we should actually be rooting for; the only thing we as responsible audience members can do is laugh. Truly, truly dismal. I should have walked.

Grade: D-
Step Into Liquid (2003)

Closer to Beyond the Mat than Dogtown and Z-Boys, really -- by that, I mean it's a documentary that surmounts and overcomes my general disinterest in the topic. This is probably the best possible surfing documentary that will ever be made. The on-screen persons are enjoyably eccentric and the cinematography is gorgeous and it's really quite entertaining. The highest praise I can give it: It made me wanna go hang ten.

Grade: B+
Welcome to Collinwood (2002)

Pleasant if undistinguished gloss on Big Deal on Madonna Street. But have I mentioned recently that William H. Macy can do no wrong?

Grade: B-
Desperado (1995)

Pretty fun for a while, until Rodriguez ill-advisedly tries to inject weight into a weightless scenario; still, the bar shootout is fantabulous and a lot of other parts are almost as nifty. Rodriguez's joy when making film is infectious.

Grade: B-
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

One of my blind spots is overtly-religion-based horror (even The Exorcist left me cold), so you can imagine my excitement when the characters in this started pontificating about Satanism vs. Christianity. It's still rich, baroque fun whenever Vincent Price is onscreen doing his thing. The rest of the time, it's as stiff and lumbering as your average Merchant-Ivory epic, which kinda puts a damper on the whole scaring-the-audience-out-of-its-wits thing. Striking ending, but it's all for naught. At least the cinematography (by future director Nicolas Roeg!) is pretty.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

The Secret Lives of Dentists (2003)

Okay, so I've been struggling with this review. Short version: fine, detailed look at a man in the throes of a midlife crisis with superb acting (even from Robin Tunney, an actress whom I usually dislike) and an uncanny understanding of familial dynamics. (The flu sequence is a tour de force.)

Grade: A-
thirteen (2003)

People are actually swallowing this crap? Yet another dose of "look at what our kids are doing!" alarmism; less exploitative than a Larry Clark movie but, thanks to the use of washed-out shaky DV cinematography, also less artistically interesting. Basically, it's the ABC Afterschool Special gone handheld. Memo to Nikki Reed: Just because it happened to you doesn't automatically make it fuckin' interesting.

Grade: C-
All the Real Girls (2003) [second viewing]

Clears up pretty much all the nitpicks I had on first viewing, especially in regards to the last ten or fifteen minutes. In the theater, the collection of scenes that ends the film struck me as too wispy and lacking any closure, but a second look shows it to be a return to How Things Were -- evidence that one can lose and still move on. Feels like a thematic continuation of George Washington -- where that film was about the move from childhood into adolescence, this one continues that journey into full adulthood. Each scene works individually and when you put them together they make a marvelous whole. I think I love this film.

Grade: A [upgraded from an A-]
King Kung Fu (1976)

It's a regional curiosity about a kung-fu-trained ape, and it's so thoroughly incompetent and painful that I sincerely wish I could travel back in time and murder the writer-director's parents just to prevent this cinematic abortion from ever taking place. I'd go on about it but there's no way in hell anyone reading this will ever see it so just know that it will make your eyes bleed.

Grade: F

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

The Good Thief (2003)

The story doesn't make a whit of sense. How nice, then, that this film's pleasures are mostly to the side of anything heist-related. Spry direction from Neil Jordan and loads of clever dialogue compensate for the broken-backed plot; acting is superb from all parties, especially Nick Nolte. Superficial but entertaining all the same, which makes it essentially a summer movie for the arthouse crowd.

Grade: B-
Radio Days (1987)

Charming little memory piece from Woody Allen involving his childhood and the everpresent radio. Feels somewhat lightweight, and the anecdotal nature of the work keeps it from gaining any sort of narrative thrust, but then when a film leaves you feeling warm and happy why carp? Best bit: the story about the baseball player "with heart".

Grade: B+
The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

Much like the first film except shorter and ever-so-slightly less compelling; still badass, though, with a gorgeous mise-en-scene to boot.

Grade: B+
Samurai 1: Miyamoto Musashi (1954)

Another Japanese swordplay movie, this one is lovely and lyrical and fairly uninteresting until the striking third act. Toshiro Mifune is still The Man, of course, but this film doesn't seem like it's going anywhere until it abruptly spews forth a wealth of thematic material that begs further contemplation. The next two films, by all evidence, should be forces to be reckoned with.

Grade: B-
The Tall T (1957)

Taut and exciting Western with Randolph Scott as a ranchhand who methodically outwits three kidnappers. Fascinating interplay between Scott and the lead kidnapper (Richard Boone) which suggests the two may be mirror images of one another elevates this above the typical B-movie oater; the film is short but to the point and pretty damn great.

Grade: B+
The Hunting Party (1971)

Another Western, this one better than its critical reception would suggest. It's definitely uneven and falls apart after Mitchell Ryan dies (the ending seems to be trying for profundity but just seems silly) but in its best moments it's tough-minded and compelling with a fine performance from Oliver Reed. Even with the mind-boggling violence quotient, this is one of the most anti-violence Westerns I've yet seen -- death in this film is not taken lightly, and Reed's outlaw ends up renouncing his violent ways. (No coincidence he's more sympathetic than Gene Hackman's brutal bank mogul.) Flawed but fairly watchable all the same; Candice Bergman really was a terrible actress in her younger years, though.

Grade: B-
Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962)

Extraordinarily unsettling tale of the supernatural, centering around a university professor who discovers his wife has been using witchcraft to further his career. May be too talky for some, but the cumulative effect is so shattering that I couldn't help but be sucked into it. Great ending, too.

Grade: A-
Junk (2000)
The Dead Hate the Living! (2000)

Two do-it-yourself zombie flicks from devoted zombie-flick fans, these two films demonstrate what's so neat about the horror community. Neither film is really very good (Junk has too many obnoxious characters and an inconsistent rhythm; Dead is overly derivative of Lucio Fulci, which makes it a copy of a copy) but there's a sense of fun that you just can't get from studio product. It's by gore fans for gore fans. Junk-food cinema, for sure, but then who doesn't want a Baby Ruth every now and then?

Both films: B-
Mezzoforte [no IMDb entry] (2001)

Anime from the maker of Kite, and suffers from being essentially a rewrite of that excellent film; still, there's hardcore toon sex and lots of blood and violence and guns and other fun stuff. It's not gonna convert anyone, true, but I found it to be entertaining enough.

Grade: B-

Thursday, September 04, 2003

The Hunted (2003)

Pure action, baby. That what this film is on about. Pure friggin' action. Essentially, the film is a ninety-minute chase scene, which may be why William Friedkin was so interested in it -- if anyone can film a chase, it's Friedkin. The end result may not change the world or enlighten you or anything, but it will get your pulse racing and it marks Friedkin's best film since To Live and Die in L.A. If you like action, here's your movie.

Grade: B+
Final Destination 2 (2003)

The death scenes are pretty great, the rest not so much. The opener is a real corker, a massive auto accident that expands with dizzying logistics and showcases some of the most brutal splatter of any Hollywood film on record. (I nearly shat myself when the tree took out the trooper.) Truth be told, this might be the meanest, most black-hearted studio offering of the last five years. This may explain why it held my interest through the lousy dialogue and superficial, annoying characterization and the mumbo-jumbo about fate and Death's plan; as much as I didn't care about these characters, the film liked them even less and viewed them only as things to be killed spectacularly. The obvious disdain for these whiny wastes of breath pushes the film into nasty black-comedy territory, especially in the fuck-you coda. You'll hate yourself for watching it, and it's not very good anyway, but where else are you gonna see anything as malicious as the 'fence' scene?

Grade: C+
The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

Overrated B-movie tripe plays like a filmed true-crime pulp novel. The dialogue is ripe, the characters grotesque, the situation exaggerated to lurid proportions. But it's not like it couldn't have worked -- if someone other than writer Leonard Kastle had directed (someone like, say, Martin Scorsese, who was the original director on this project before disagreements with Kastle got him canned), maybe it could have been brilliant. But Kastle's direction is painfully amateurish. Consequently, the film is comprised mainly of static and uninteresting shots clumsily edited together. Despite all the hubbub, the acting is no great shakes either -- everyone is overly stiff and awkward with the exception of Tony Lo Bianco, whose goofy on-again-off-again Spanish accent at least shows he was trying. There's a Spanish film called Deep Crimson that tackles the same story with much better results. See that.

Grade: C
The City of Lost Souls (2002) [second viewing]

Even more frustrating this time around, since I figured out what the film was up to (hint: that title wasn't chosen just 'cause it sounds cool). A few problems I had the first time fell away, notably my reservations about the twist in the tail (it really does make sense thematically)... but a second look also unfortunately points out that the film spends roughly 85% of its length running in circles. We keep waiting for it to go somewhere with its ideas but it never does until the frenetic climax. Still has a handful of great moments (the fatal game of ping-pong is simply awesome), but nowhere near what Miike could have done with this had he streamlined the plot a bit. (What is it about Yakuza films that necessitates having at least three different gangs in the narrative, anyway?)

Grade: still a C+

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

The Godfather, Part II (1974)

If the first film is, essentially, about the American dream, this film is the dark flipside, a look at what can happen when the dream turns sour. Contrasting Vito's rise with Michael's descent was a canny move on Coppola's part -- Vito's section ends with him revenging his father, while Michael's ends with his commiting fratricide. I think that says it all, really. Not a perfect film, really (it may be a little too expansive for its own good, as the pace slackens at times), and despite its reputation I don't see it as a rare better-than-the-first sequel, let alone the definitive example of that phenomenon. But Jesus, it's good.

Grade: A-
The Gold Rush (1925)

Often hailed as one Chaplin's best, and famous as the film for which he wished to be remembered, but I dunno. It's really more charming than laugh-out-loud funny. The climax with the falling cabin, of course, is brilliant, as is the dance of the dinner rolls. But it's also got stretches that qualify as merely whimsical and slightly undercooked. The shoe-eating scene exemplifies that -- a funny idea that isn't really developed beyond step one. Still pretty neat, obviously, but it's no Modern Times.

Grade: B+
He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (2003)

Not an offbeat romantic comedy, as the advertising seems to want it to be... but it's not much of a psycho-thriller or a character study either. Mostly, it's just kind of stillborn with a severly unpleasant heroine who you wish would go away. The action replays from the perspective of two characters as well, which means we get to see the same bad movie twice. No thanks.

Grade: C
Dog Soldiers (2002)

Take Night of the Living Dead, change the zombies to werewolves, give the inhabitants of the house military training and heavy weaponry, set it in the Scottish Highlands and season with dark humor and liberal sprinkles of Britslang... what does this give you? Only one of the most wickedly entertaining horror films of the last five years, mate. Believe the hype -- this shite's golden. Best line, from a man about to become wolf chow: "I hope I give you the shits, you fucking wimp!" Now THAT'S cool.

Grade: B+
The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

Moody, near-Expressionistic samurai film about a blind swordsman drawn into a turf war between rival gangs. Serves as living proof that the French weren't the only ones influenced by the American post-war film-noir movement but infused with a particularly Japanese rhythm and sensibility. It's a gorgeously crafted movie and pretty involving too. A little short on action, but what is here is first-rate. This apparently was popular enough to kick off a long-running series of Zatoichi films, so get used to seeing that name -- I'm gonna try to plow through them all.

Grade: B+

Monday, September 01, 2003

Whale Rider (2003)

Pretty much what I expected, which means that the rest of y'all are welcome to it. Personally, I think it feels like a film that was made solely for the purpose of winning the Audience Award at Sundance, but hey there's people out there who thought that The Spitfire Grill was the kitten's tits. There are some good moments (I'll admit that Paikei's big speech was touching) but overall I wish I'd seen The Secret Lives of Dentists like I'd wanted to.

Grade: C
A Single Girl (1996)

Involving and intelligent look at an hour-plus in the life of one young French female. She's pregnant, fighting with her boyfriend and starting a new job as a room-service delivery girl on the day the film takes place. The title doesn't leave much mystery as to the outcome of our heroine's relationship troubles, but the journey is the point. Feels like it could have sprung from the French New Wave.

Grade: B+
Emanuelle in America (1976)

It's often bandied about that parts of this film inspired David Cronenberg to make Videodrome, and I can believe it -- I think this film gave me a brain tumor. An exploitation film in the truest sense, this thing is merely a series of perverse sexual fantasies stapled together in some order to create the illusion of a filmed narrative. I figured I was in for a long night when the horse-masturbation scene popped up; by the hour mark, when director Joe D'Amato assaulted me with fifteen minutes of hardcore sex because he needed to pad out his running time, I had to ask my friend Dave if there was blood oozing out of my ears. And then came the snuff material, which would have made the film worthwhile if D'Amato had any interest in actually confronting the subject. Nope -- it's just there for added sleaze. The final insult is that none of this matters -- the last scene resolves nothing and, indeed, tries to pretend that none of the previous had any import whatsoever. (There's an interview on the DVD with D'Amato, who claims that this films represents his idea of eroticism. That says a great deal more about D'Amato than I ever cared to know.) Now, I've seen bad films, and I've seen films that were so bad they made me angry, but this is the first film that was so bad that it managed to flabbergast me beyond all sanity. If I end up in a sanitarium within the next six months, you'll know why: This movie ate my brain.

Grade: F
Trouble in Paradise (1932)

I watched this right after Emanuelle in America as sort of a mental mouthwash (a brainwash?), and it did the trick. This sparkling pre-Code comedy classic is akin to a glass of fine champagne: it leaves you feeling giddy and a little light-headed. This represents my first exposure to Ernst Lubitsch, and I can already see what they mean by the Lubitsch touch -- there's something undefineably magical about this movie. It's pretty awesome.

Grade: A