Sunday, October 19, 2003

PTU (2003)

Has a terrific opening and a terrific climax, but in between it falls lockstep-style into one of those overwritten Hong Kong crime-story plots where there's about twelve characters and three plot threads too many. At 85 minutes, it seems both abbreviated and occasionally interminable (the scene where the PTU cops search the old building just goes on forever). Granted, the film is more about cool than anything, but there's only so far you can stretch these things. Note of interest: This is the first time a Johnny To film has shown up at the NYFF, which means that in the 2010 festival we might see a Takashi Miike film. Unexpected Echoes Dept.: The casting of Simon Yam brought back memories of Dr. Lamb, a film that put forth an argument against the brutality of HK policeman; having that reverberating in my mind made the uncritical depictions of sadistic police-issue violence offered here seem kind of distasteful.

Grade: C+
Head of State (2003)

What did y'all expect, anyway? Yes, it's visually graceless and oft-obvious, but then so was Pootie Tang. What saves this is the bursts of offbeat Chris Rock humor -- a reference to a "superwhore camp", a silly running joke about the omniprescence of Jay-Z, Tracy Morgan and his meat. (And let's not forget the "He's for cancer" commercial -- not only funny, but a pretty pointed swipe at GW's antics in the '00 primary.) Who could have predicted that Rock was such a sucker for Capra-corn, though?

Grade: B-
Lost in La Mancha (2003)

I never really have a lot to say about documentaries, for some reason, and so it goes with this one, an involving look at Terry Gilliam's disastrous attempt to make his dream project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Follows the production from beginning to abortion, and there's an inexorable logic at work that makes the whole thing seem like a fool's errand to begin with. Fascinating.

Grade: B+
Raising Arizona (1987)

Greatest. Chase scene. EVER. (The rest of the movie's pretty fuckin' funny too.)

Grade: A-
Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolf Man (1973)

Not as good as the other Santo I've seen (read: not as deranged), but still fun enough; I now believe that any of the world's problems could be solved if only we could get Santo on the case.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

demonlover (2003)

Um, what? Certainly looks like a million bucks and there's obviously something that's trying to be said here, but the narrative splinters into a million little pieces after about an hour, thus inhibiting any sort of clarity of purpose. The movie's at its best when it's trying to be a Videodrome for the Internet age, but at least that film made clear what it was attempting; here, you're left to wander through a fog of images and incidents in the hopes that they connect in some meaningful manner. I respect its ambition and I'll probably watch it again on DVD but right now I think it kinda sucks.

Grade: C
Free Radicals (2004)

Leave it to me to procure tickets to the one NYFF film that's even worse than the goddamn Sri Lankan film. Stuck this one all the way through mainly because it kept threatening to get better, which to my everlasting regret it never did. Figured I was in trouble before the opening credits finished, when the director helpfully included a shot of a butterfly in the rain forest flapping its wings (twice, in case the import somehow escaped us the first time), but the main miscalculation here is the death of one of the characters half an hour in which removes the narrative focal point, causing the entire enterprise to detonate and collapse into a pile of miserablism. All the talk about fractals and fate try to obscure this film's emptiness, but to no avail -- it's a pointless angstfest with ciphers instead of characters. Is Austria really this terrible a place to live?

Grade: D
Bubba Ho-Tep (2003)

It's probably just a matter of right-place-right-time, but this silly, wistful thing was just the thing to chase down the oppressiveness of Free Radicals. Not much of a horror film, as so many people have pointed out, but then neither was 28 Days Later in my mind; what works here is the character moments, the downtime between mummy attacks. This may be the first horror flick I've seen that's set among the elderly, making death not so much an aberration as a fact of life. The problem here is not so much dying -- all the characters know that they're not long for this world -- as it is a matter of the afterlife, with the mummy serving as kind of an ultimate Hell, swallowing souls and casting them off into nothingness. (Strange to think that this cheeseball B-flick would share some common ground with Kiyoshi Kurosawa's meditative Pulse.) So there's that, but it's also just a rip-snorting good time for low-budget film fans. Worth seeing just for Bruce Campbell's career-best performance -- he invests the decrepit King with a surprising amount of pathos (not to mention piss 'n' vinegar). Maybe I'm overrating this, but then I gave House of 1000 Corpses the same grade so maybe I just have bad taste. At any rate, I liked it a lot.

Grade: B+
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Small, quiet Fassbinder film (the first of his I've seen) that works about as well as it has to. It's a modest film but still a pretty good one.

Grade: B
Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII (2003)

I hate to sound insenstive, but how many times will this film be made? This is like the fifth film about children during the Holocaust made in the last three years. This one's admirable in that it follows where the children went after the war ended, but still. It feels like a film you'd watch in high school history class. Would it be possible to declare a moratorium on visually static talking-head Holocaust docs for the next few years?

Grade: C+
7th Street (2003)

A documentary about Alphabet City and its gradual changes over the last thirty years. Director Josh Pais is ambivalent about the transition his neighborhood has gone through and tries to capture that onscreen, telling stories and interviewing old neighborhood characters; the result is an uneven but occasionally enthralling film that doesn't overstay its welcome. Without a doubt the best film ever directed by a former Ninja Turtle.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Wouldn't be a Coen film if it didn't work on more than one level; this film manages to be simultaneously both a sweet 'n' fluffy romantic comedy and a cynical, dark-hued examination of greed and heartlessness. Taking the ending in context, this is (despite the sugary sheen) one of the Coen's meanest movies, something like if Detour showed up in rom-com drag. Yet it's also one of their sunniest. I'm still trying to reconcile that apparent paradox. Thankfully, it's also extremely funny -- it starts out relatively conventional but gets stranger the longer it goes until by the end it resembles what would have happened if Preston Sturges had gotten into some bad acid. Puzzling, hilarious, compelling, well-acted, altogether extraordinary, really. Between this and Barton Fink, I get the feeling that the Coens don't much care for the Hollywood lifestyle...

Grade: A-
Casa de Los Babys (2003)

The latest John Sayles film is filled with effective moments of character observation and a raft of excellent performances... but does anyone else get the feeling that the film wasn't quite finished?

Grade: B-
Deathdream (1972)

Odd, interesting social-issue horror movie about a young man who comes back from Vietnam much changed; may be the first film to tackle the effects of Vietnam-era post-traumatic stress disorder, even if it is using a flesh-eating zombie as its metaphor. (I'm also not entirely sure that the metaphor was intentional, but you take what you can get.) Hurt by its low budget and generally amateur-level performances, but still fairly creepy.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Irreversible (2003) [second viewing]

(Ay, here be spoilers, mateys.)

Okay, so I shortchanged this film the first time around. There's more here than I gave it credit for -- for starters, I completely overlooked the film's representation of emotion vs. logic, with Cassel representing the former and Dupontel the latter. In that context, it makes perfect sense that Dupontel rather than Cassel would be the one to wield that fire extinguisher; after all, he'd have the presence of mind to look around for some manner of weapon in case the need should arise. The following scenes, with Dupontel gradually revealed as more and more ineffectual in everyday life, thus seem to ring with a dark irony -- the man who can intellectualize everything and, in fact, objects to Cassel's quest is also the only one who can keep enough intellect about him to commit the revenge killing that Cassel so desperately wants. Also, this time around the "Time destroys all things" concept didn't seem as facile as I'd thought it initially -- rather, it seemed more like a thesis statement, a concise way of summing up the film's preoccupation with entropy. If time is indeed irreversible, and entropy states that over time everything breaks down and all matter tends towards chaos, what hope do we have? So there we have a reason for the film's backwards structure, possibly -- what's past is prologue, true, but it's also maybe something to hold onto in times of trouble in order to keep hope alive and believe that one day things will be better again. (A reading like that may also explain the presence of Phillipe Nahon's butcher from I Stand Alone showing up in the first scene -- that previous film ended with the butcher's one moment of happiness. Here, he recalls that moment as both a way of revealing how he got here and as a way to forget his current unhappiness.) Even beyond this, though, it's just simply such a well-constructed film, with ironies and mirrorings galore (the dual pregnancies of Bellucci and her friend in the party scene -- "I have some news to tell you" -- escaped me the first time). The progression of Monica Bellucci's character, in particular, is interesting -- her first scene has her shown more or less as an object, since we know nothing about her, while the last scene begins with her proclaiming that she is not an object and she makes her own choices. It's a small touch, but it shows someone was thinking. I still harbor some reservations (like about how the time thing would probably come across better if the film didn't more or less take place in real time), but this is much better than I believed.

Grade: B+ (upgraded from B-)
Mansion by the Lake (2003)

How in fuck's sake did this make the New York Film Festival? This is a Sri Lankan film directed by a man who's apparently been working in that country's cinema since the '50s without ever figuring out how to put together a frickin' movie. Trouble is hinted at in the very first scene, where three people in a car are shot so that it looks like they're all in different time zones; what follows is a cascade of poor acting, poor writing ("inspired by" Chekov's The Cherry Orchard, which is like saying that Strange Brew is inspired by Hamlet) and very poor direction. It's stuffed to the gills with boring would-be drama and clumsy attempts at social relevance and multiple hilariously botched closeups and probably some of the worst foley work you'll ever hear in your life -- the footstep sound effects in particular make everyone sound like they weigh four hundred pounds. People started leaving half an hour into it, and I, having nothing better to do, started tallying the walkouts; in all, ninety-two people left before me and mine called it a night with fifteen minutes left in the film. If this should ever come to your town, avoid it at all costs.

Grade: D
Shatter Dead (1994)

Unusually ambitious and thoughtful for a low-budget zombie flick, this films posits a future where people simply stop dying. By that, I mean that while it's still possible for one's bodily functions to cease and one's heartbeat to stop, you would keep on walking and talking like nothing had happened. What we get is not just a splatter movie, though there is a lot of nasty gore; the film also functions as a philosophical rumination on mortality and the presence of God in today's world (what was that I was saying about not caring for theological horror flicks?). There's some powerful and haunting imagery, too (a shotgunned pregnant woman forcibly delivers her undead baby; a recently deceased character grabs some water off a faucet to simulate the tears they can no longer cry). Severely hamstrung by five-dollar production values and some truly piss-poor acting (Stark Raven, the lead actress, notably goes through the entire film without expressing a single emotion); still, there's a lot of worth in this movie.

Grade: B-

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Crazy as Hell (2002)

I did not know before renting this that Sinbad was in the cast. That should have been a warning sign to stay far, far away from this stupid would-be psychothriller replete with thudding symbolism (the power struggle between Michael Beach's unconventional doctor and Ronny Cox's psych-ward head is represented by... wait for it... a chess set!) and obvious plotting (I had the film more or less completely mapped out by the forty-minute mark). Eriq LaSalle's grotesque performance probably should have been reined in a little by the director, except that Eriq LaSalle was also the director. Besides, I guess LaSalle felt he had to make up for his inability to coax anything lively out of his other actors. John C. McGinley, in particular, gives the worst performance of his career.

Grade: D
It Came (1993)

And it can go, for all I care. This alien-slasher-body possession cheapie comes with its own built-in drinking game, if that tells you anything about its quality. It has one or two decent ideas (I liked when a homicidal man took the time to put his weapon under a hand dryer after washing the blood off of it) but for the most part it can't even succeed on its own low-expectation-rental terms. It aims for bad but just hits tiresome; what's worst is that you know someone thought this was very cute and clever. My suggestion: Make your own drinking game, one where you take a drink every fifteen seconds regardless of what's happening on-screen.

Grade: D+