Thursday, November 27, 2003

The Santa Clause 2 (2002)

How ironic that a film about the power of belief should be so artificial. The over-ornate art direction of the North Pole is the tip-off of what follows -- a fussy, joyless product where everything is in its right place except the heart. Eventually, the film gets desperate enough to mine humor from reindeer-fart jokes, if that tells you anything. Little kids might like it, but anyone old enough to smell crap should steer clear.

Grade: D
Flesh for the Beast (2003)

There's lots of flesh (and blood) but precious few brains in this deadly excuse for a B-movie. The operative logic seems to be Barely Legal-goes-gore, except that Clive McLean's photography background at least helps him compose some nice shots, which can't be said of this. Nowhere close to the '70s Eurosleaze horror that it so slavishly tries to imitate, this is for desperate horror completists only.

Grade: D
The Good Old Naughty Days (2003)

Hey, apparently people in the '20s liked to watch porn! Who knew? Okay, I'm being facetious... the brand of adult entertainment here is of a different, more interesting calibre than today's gynecologically-obsessed hardcore -- it's cheery, pleasant, almost wholesome. It's entertaining for a while; still, anyone who's ever tried to watch an hour-plus of porn straight through will tell you that the novelty wears off real quick, and this movie's far too worthless as documentary to qualify as anything else.

Grade: C+

Friday, November 21, 2003

Confidence (2003)

The curse of Andy Garcia blows another promising film to dust -- good cast and good director saddled with faux-Mamet piffle for a script. Superficially entertaining but hollow and forgettable.

Grade: C+
Mimic: Sentinel (2003)

It's like Rear Window except it's got giant bugs instead of Raymond Burr and it sucks. Director J.T. Petty shows promise in his skill with visuals but he's let down by writer J.T. Petty's awful, sloppy screenplay. (Petty made a name in the horror community with a student film called Soft for Digging, which reportedly is near-silent; a lack of dialogue would have helped this one too.) I'd hoped for a sleeper, but I guess I wasn't surprised when I got a sleeping pill.

Grade: D+
Last House on Dead End Street (1977)

In a strange way, this film made me appreciate Emanuelle in America. Sure, Emanuelle remains in the top five least pleasant experiences I've ever had watching a movie. Yes, it's still definitely a hideous, pointless and irresponsible endeavor. Yes, I still believe every known copy of the film should be gathered up and shot into space. But at least it wasn't boring -- its transgressive material admittedly did retain a primitive shock value. This film, on the other hand, is dead-dog-dick dull. It's ostensibly about a crew of snuff filmmakers who turn on their financial backers, but it's more like an hour of filler scenes and awful dialogue until the climactic orgy of bad makeup and slaughterhouse leftovers. The film runs 78 minutes cut down from an original mind-boggling running time of 170 minutes, so I understand that it wouldn't make much sense (no movie could withstand that brutal a slashing)... but Jesus. If I read tomorrow that the editor on this put on a blindfold, started cutting wildly and stopped when he hit feature length, then pasted everything together and hoped for the best, I wouldn't bat an eye. And what did make it into the film is below amateur-level -- it's a terrible script poorly enacted by untalented thespians running around in minimal lighting in front of a camera that never stands in a position to best capture the tedium. There are six-year-olds who've made more professional and interesting films. And its worst offense is taking the vilest of vile exploitation premises and somehow, through sheer incompetence, making it safe enough for your grandmother. No wonder the cast and crew hid behind pseudonyms -- I'd be embarrassed too.

Grade: F

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Didn't expect to like this as much as I did, but it's a remarkably efficient piece of goods -- director Jonathan Mostow keeps the action tight and the pacing quick so there's no time to consider or care whether or not the plot makes sense (hint: it really doesn't). Not on the level of the first two films (not much is), and the overt humorous angle gets to be a bit much after a while, but on the whole it's an exciting, invigorating spectacle. The ending is a kick in the ass.

Grade: B+
Down with Love (2003)

I'm unfamiliar with the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies from which this film derives its inspiration, but this here's pretty enjoyable anyway. Zellwegger and McGregor are both fantastic, and Peyton Reed's confident direction only makes them look even better (though David Hyde Pierce keeps threatening to hijack the film away from both of 'em). The stylized art direction is beyond reproach, and there's some surprising thematic similarities to Intolerable Cruelty. In short, it's a giddy pleasure from start to finish.

Grade: A-
About Schmidt (2002)

Warren Schmidt, the titular protagonist of About Schmidt, is an uncertain and remote man. So it goes with his film, a curious attempt at human drama by Alexander Payne. Problem is that Payne hasn't quite purged the black-hearted satirist within, which results in a film that never quite figures out what it's supposed to be. At times there are scenes that poignantly portray the wasted life of Schmidt (the final shot is wrenching), but those scenes are jostling uncomfortably close with scenes where we're asked to join in the humiliation of Schmidt (the whole superfluous scene with the family in the RV is the worst offender and should have been cut). And the supporting characters are sketchy and ridiculous -- whether this is by design or intentional, I'm not sure, but in at least one instance (Randall) somebody should have had the good sense to inject a human dimension into the character. (I mean, I know Randall's supposed to be a loser and all, but there's a scene where Schmidt is studying the pictures on Randall's wall, and there's a bunch of prize ribbons that are all for participation. A little subtlety, please?) Jack's great, of course, and he's matched by Kathy Bates (as with everything she's in, she's the best thing the movie has going for it), but they're let down by a film that doesn't know whether it wants to hug or punch its characters.

Grade: C
Blow Out (1981)

Sharp and satisfying mid-period De Palma, with one of his tightest plots and some of his neatest camerawork. (The scene where John Travolta discovers that all his tapes have been erased is a dizzying, disorienting directorial tour de force.) This is a film that deserves rediscovery more than almost any other film from the '80s.

Grade: A-
Throne of Blood (1957)

Kurosawa marries Macbeth to Noh theater and actually manages to top his source material. This is probably my favorite of all the Kurosawa I've seen so far -- it's an exquisite and haunting film that every thirty seconds contains a shot that's so perfect it'll make you wanna do backflips in appreciation. This, my friends, is why we go to the movies.

Grade: A

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Anger Management (2003)

Occasionally funny, more often boring; I got through it mainly by visualizing Sandler playing Barry Egan instead of Dave Buznik, which would have made the film much more interesting in my opinion. The finale is beyond lame.

Grade: C
Zatoichi: The Fugitive (1963)

So far, this is the least impressive of the four Zatoichis I've seen, due mainly to a diffusive plot that doesn't hold the attention as tightly as the others; however, it's also got the most stunning climax of the four. The experience of seeing Zatoichi tear through an entire yakuza clan is exciting and deeply satisfying, and as always there's one hell of an emotional jolt contained within the swordplay. So it's still aces with me.

Grade: B+
The Unholy Three (1925)
The Unholy Three (1930)

I've wanted to see the Lon Chaney silent pic The Unholy Three for some time now, so when I ran across it playing on TCM, followed by its sound remake, I figured it was time for some compare 'n' contrast. Surprisingly, the latter version ends up on top. The silent film, honestly, has Lon Chaney's excellent performance going for it and not much else; Tod Browning's direction is static and unexciting, the love-triangle subplot is soggy and the ending is just silly. It doesn't really hang together. The sound version has its own problems, of course (for instance, the role of Hector has been filled by a large block of wood, and midget Harry Earles, bless his squeaky German-accented heart, just wasn't made for sound roles), but the script has been slightly rejiggered to cover some holes (the ape thing, for example) and tighten the pace so that the love plot doesn't completely overwhelm the last third of the film. The last scene's far more believable, as well. And Lon? Well, let's just say it's a damn shame he died shortly after this was completed -- he's got a wonderful, expressive voice that only enhances his bodily movements. He woulda been great in the film noir period.

Silent version: C+
Sound version: B

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Run and Kill (1993)

From Billy Tang, the director of Red to Kill, comes a savage look at the dark side of human nature. It's brutal and unsettling and features at least one jaw-dropping scene that would never ever not in a million years make it into an American film (you'll know which one when it shows up). Simon Yam is here too, turning in a subtle yet intense and creepy performance that blows his overrated work in Dr. Lamb to kingdom come. Extraordinarily difficult to watch but also rewarding if you can stomach it.

Grade: B+
Suspiria (1977) [second viewing, first in at least seven years]

If there was ever a movie with a certain undefineable genius about it, this is the one. The first time I saw this, I didn't notice the myriad flaws it possesses -- I was too busy being creeped the fuck out. This time, I was able to analyze the film a bit more closely... and Lord, does it have problems. It's senseless and chaotic by design, but it often strays too far in that direction and feels out-and-out stupid. The acting is indifferent (a problem compounded by the de rigeur post-dubbing), the screenplay is a half-formed mess and there's a lot of stuff that seems to be in the film just because Argento thought it would look cool. (Why, for instance, would a ballet academy have a barbed-wire pit in the attic?) Funny thing, though... while I was thinking all of these things, I was still also white-knuckled and holding my breath even though I knew everything that was going to happen next. Indeed, part of the film's success is that logic holds no sway -- it exists in the realm of the mythic, not the realistic. Argento's eye for visuals is a big plus as well, for the rich primary colors and near-theatrical lighting give the film the appearance of a sadistic fairy tale come to gruesome life. It's the kind of movie where you find yourself actually saying, "Well, maybe there's a reason that a ballet academy would have a barbed-wire pit..."

Grade: A- (downgraded from an A)