Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

Let's say it all together, shall we? CGI AND HAND-DRAWN ANIMATION DO NOT MIX. Especially terrible, cheapjack CGI like we have here. (When will people figure out that water simply does not look good in CGI?) Brad Pitt turns in an accomplished vocal performance; the only problem is the voice doesn't fit the character. And the script doesn't fit anything. Thank god this thing flopped.

Grade: C-
Bend it Like Beckham (2003)

Mediocre to a fault. But at least it's not My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Or, for that matter, How to Deal.

Grade: C
How to Deal (2003)

How did this tone-deaf teen drama get as many positive reviews as it did? The film is a tonal nightmare; it tries for a melding of angst, farce and whimsy but only creates an inedible cinema goulash. And pardon me if I'm not sold on the concept of Mandy Moore, Actress... but I'm not. God bless her, she tries, but she's just an inexpressive lump. Alison Janney, thankfully, is an oasis of quality in this wasteland of junk -- the scenes between her and the invaluable Dylan Baker were enough to make me wish the film had been about them instead. Melodramatic and ridiculous crap, in short; if this is a good example of teen-oriented cinema, I'm glad I usually skip the bad ones.

Grade: D
The Princess Blade (2003)

What can one say about a chop-socky film where the fight scenes aren't even that good? So it goes for this lumbering, coherency-challenged non-starter. Lead actress Yumiko Shaku looks like she'll drop the sword at any moment and start preening for the camera. I watched much of this on fast-forward.

Grade: D
The Kid (1921)

Yeah, this is just what I needed at the end of a crap movie day. Chaplin's first feature film shows him trying out his trademark mix of humor and emotion to great effect. Jackie Coogan is unforgettable as the title character, and he plays off Chaplin nicely. Hilarious and heart-rending, this is one film that deserves its classic status.

Grade: A-

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)

It always happens. Just when I'm starting to feel like I'm overly nitpicky and analytical, along comes a film that lets me know that yes, Virginia, I still know how to have fun at the movies. A lot of people were probably scared off from this film by memories of the horrid Space Jam (I know I was initially). More's the shame -- this here's a vigorous, knockabout tribute to the great Warners Bros. cartoons of yesteryear engineered by director Joe Dante, probably the single biggest fan of the Looney Tunes in Hollywood today. And much like those classic 'toons, the pace starts with a jolt and never lets up. You'd think that'd be wearying over 90 minutes, but it's not -- invention and inspiration are tossed out at such a prodigious rate that the film never gets a chance to feel old. Comes replete with the usual complement of Dante in-jokes and cameos, too (the Area 52 scene is an absolute riot and a treat for fans of '50s sci-fi). I hereby nominate this for 2003's funniest film. The only depressing thing about this hugely entertaining movie is its undeserved failure at the box office.

Grade: A-
Owning Mahowny (2003)

Incisive and riveting character study of a compusive gambler, saved from movie-of-the-week cliche by low-key scripting and a marvelous performance from the unbeatable, chameleonic Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hopefully, this film will land him more leading roles. A worthy follow-up to director Richard Kwietniowski's lovely debut Love and Death on Long Island; John Hurt, a holdover from that film, is also fantastic here as an Atlantic City casino owner who has Mahowny's number. A neat little sleeper.

Grade: A-

Friday, December 12, 2003

A Man Apart (2003)

In which Vin Diesel plays the least competent undercover cop in the history of the movies. At no time did I believe that this violent, irresponsible lunkhead was ever a decent deep-cover man. Which pretty much explains how stupid this thing is.

Grade: D
The Core (2003)

Junk, yes, but it's breezy and goofy junk with no aspirations other than to provide undemanding fun in the vein of '50s B-scifi. The game cast helps, especially a loose and confident Aaron Eckhart. It can't quite stick the landing at the end and it goes on longer than it reasonably should, but there's a surprising amount of entertainment to be had here. People who care about scientific accuracy in film, though, should stay away, lest their heads explode.

Grade: B-
Gasoline (2003)

Oh boy, bad Queer Cinema! With subtitles! There's about fifteen minutes worth of plot in the weak excuse for a script that's being used here. Naturally, since the film runs 95 minutes, that causes problems vis-a-vis my giving a damn about what happens. Terrible acting too -- I don't speak Italian, yet I knew that the lines were being said all wrong. Imagine how it goes over if you actually know how it's supposed to sound.

Grade: D+
Macbeth (1971)

Couldn't quite embrace this fully for much the same reason that I never seem to love anything by Roman Polanski -- something about his directorial approach is too detached and cold for my tastes -- but it's still Macbeth. This rendition is quite a sight gorier than most adaptations of the Scottish play -- things merely suggested or done offstage in the play are shown here in all their bloody glory. (The murder of Duncan, in particular, is fairly nasty business.) Great final scene, too, with Jon Finch channeling delusions of grandeur perfectly.

Grade: B+
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983)

The DVD I saw this kung-fu flick on is a real cheap thing -- one step above bootleg. Visual quality is akin to a late-'80s cable access broadcast, with pan-n-scan visuals ruining many compositions. Plus, it's sporting an awful dub job, the kind where the speaker will actually break off in the middle of a sentence because the person onscreen has stopped talking briefly. Despite all this, the movie still managed to kick serious ass, which only makes me wonder how transcendent it might be under proper viewing conditions. The film itself is a savage and pessimistic number about revenge and how the need for it can cause endless cycles of violence and hatred, and its kung-fu sequences are artful and brutal. It's a winner even in this mutilated state.

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Hulk (2003)

Ambitious and thoughtful attempt at doing "something different" with the superhero genre doesn't quite come off like it should thanks to overlength and a slew of bad dialogue. Ang Lee's energetic direction helps hold interest as well as offsetting the dour mood. (Admittedly, though, this isn't an X-Men type scenario -- dour is pretty much the only way to go. I mean, the main character's superpower is to get big, brainless and destructive when he gets pissed. That's not a superpower, that's a curse). Still, the screenplay is more crap than anything, with an especially insulting sequel-ready coda (doubly so because, if I understand the ending correctly, there's no damn way there should be any room for a sequel). Has its moments, though (the scene with the misfired grenade launcher is pretty funny).

Grade: C+
A Matter of Taste (2001)

Would-be intriguing psychological thriller is sleek, elegant and thoroughly predictable from frame one, thanks to an ill-advised decision to scramble the chronology. Played from beginning to end, this might have been worthwhile; in its current state, though, it's nothing but obvious.

Grade: C+
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

Silent French version of the famed Poe story has some scenes that may have inspired Carl Dreyer's masterpiece Vampyr. That doesn't mean you should give this film the time of day, though -- it's nothing more than a curio, and a tedious, endless one at that.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Love Actually (2003)

It's pretty critical of the consumer-feeding-frenzy holiday that Christmas has become, but in the end it's much like that day -- overstuffed, relentless, overly sentimental, kinda tacky. Which might mean something if the film weren't also terrifically entertaining and thus pretty much beyond reproach. In particular, the acting ensemble is wonderful (save for Keira Knightley, but she doesn't have much to do besides smile and look pretty anyway, so it's okay). Give it a chance -- it'll win you over.

Grade: B+
My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into an Argument (1996)

Note that in the original French title, How I Got Into an Argument comes prior to My Sex Life. Sure, there's a goodly amount of sex here, but there's more talk (about sex and otherwise). The dialogue comes in avalanches of words and phrases, and while much of it is interesting and clever, it gets to be wearying over the course of three hours. This is a film from Arnaud Desplechin, the director of Esther Kahn, and it trades in some of the same themes that mark the latter film (particularly emotional detachment and the process of learning to engage with the world vs. the lure of solipsism), but this film's not nearly as successful. There are flashes of brilliance scattered through the immense whole like blueberries in a muffin, but around the two-hour mark one begins to wonder whether this trifle is worth all the bother.

Grade: C+
Giants and Toys (1958)

Savage social satire from Japan hurls barbs at that country's workaholic salaryman culture as well as thumbing its nose at the cold heartlessness of post-war capitalism. It's pointed and astonishing and extremely funny, and it's aged quite well -- in fact, with some slight tweaks this could open nationwide tomorrow and be just as cutting. And the most impressive part is that this deeply ingrained cynicism comes wrapped within a brightly colored soda-pop-fizzy package -- imagine the Monkees singing Woody Guthrie and you're almost there. In case I ain't clear enough, I really liked this one.

Grade: A-