Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Darkness Falls (2003)

This reminded me a lot of Valentine, another thoroughly mediocre piece of goods that twisted the knickers of every horror fan this side of Mongolia. No, it's not remotely a good film. It has a lot of issues (most glaringly being the film's extremely flexible definition of 'darkness' and 'light'). But come on folks -- it's not even the worst night-terror-themed film to come out in the last six months. At least this one tried to stick to a set of rules and provided a blackout to explain why its light-phobic characters wouldn't just get the fuck out of dark places. I have a feeling that a lot of people who slagged this film skipped They altogether. While I do recommend that course of action, watching the two side by side would at least demonstrate that Darkness Falls isn't even lame enough to get worked up about. It's rote all the way, but you've probably seen worse.

Grade: C
Fulltime Killer (2003)

If you crossbred The Killer and Branded to Kill, you might get this exciting nugget of Hong Kong hitman cinema. It's worth seeing just for Andy Lau's goddamn-I'm-having-fun-here performance; that the action scenes are so exquisitely put together just makes it all the sweeter. And anyone who says the plot makes no sense wasn't paying attention, as far as I can tell -- it all made perfect sense to me.

Grade: B+
Speed (1994) [third viewing, first in about six years]

You know, I'd never realized how dopey this film really is. It's riveting action, for sure, but God it's silly too. In hindsight, it seems all too appropriate that Jan de Bont's penchant for goofball anti-logic would ruin his subsequent films.

Grade: B (downgraded from an A-)
Rabid (1977)

David Cronenberg's second major film, it feels mostly like a restatement and refinement of the thematic material he presented in his debut Shivers. The main difference here is that it's on a larger scale -- the end of Shivers only hinted at the coming sexual apocalypse, while here we see the epidemic play out fully. So there's a certain familiarity, but it's still handled expertly, resulting in a chilling portrait of disease and societal decay. Marilyn Chambers is surprisingly good; choice of musical sting during many of the attack scenes bears an unfortunate resemblance to Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition blare.

Grade: B+

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Identity (2003)

The trailer was dread-filled; the film, however, is simply dreadful. This soggy train wreck is bad in so many ways that I don't know where to begin bitching. Should I rant about the poor acting? How about the cardboard characterization, wherein everyone gets one personality trait maximum? Or maybe the dull, cliched misdirection of the first hour, which feels like the lamest Agatha Christie knockoff ever written (call it Ten Little Idiots). No matter where I begin, though, I'll eventually have to touch on the soon-to-be-infamous midfilm twist -- in which the film develops from a boring high-class slasher flick into something much, much worse. Suffice to say that the title means more than you think it does, and in exactly the way I had hoped it didn't. This kind of shit is what happens when screenwriters think that they are clever fellows indeed and that they can out-McQuarrie Christopher McQuarrie. It's not too often that a film whips out its genitals and waves them at the audience in such a brazen and blatant manner, but that's exactly what happens here when the film decides to pull the rug out from under the plot in one of the most retarded ways I've ever seen on the big screen. Not content to be a mere stalk-and-slash affair, the film leaps headlong into the void of dimestore psychology; consequently, the last act of this film is essentially one giant bad laugh. (Seriously -- there's elements of the climax that made me nostalgic for the relative sanity and coherence of Dreamcatcher.) And even then, the filmmakers don't know when to stop raping this corpse: The final stinger takes what could have been a lousy but admirably ambitious attempt at examining deviant psychology, bleaches all the interesting stuff out of it and reveals this monstrosity for what it truly is... a transparent and contemptible piece of worthless shit that exists only to fleece a bunch of people out of their nine bucks on opening weekend. There is no reason for this film to exist. It has no deeper meaning, no good thrills, no harrowing sequences, nothing but a lot of rain, some wet actors and a screenplay that wouldn't be worth wiping a bear's ass with. If I ever meet James Mangold, I'm punching him square in the nose for this.

Grade: F

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

A Mighty Wind (2003)

Hi, folks. I understand that there are some people out there who see my reviews as a sort of entertainment guide, a barometer for them so that they can figure out whether a particular movie might be to their taste. I'm flattered by this. And, if nothing else, I'm here to help. So I offer to you a Consumer's Guide to A Mighty Wind, in order that you (yes you, dear reader) might tell if you would appreciate this film.

You might like A Mighty Wind if: You enjoy folk music; you will watch Eugene Levy in anything; you're interested in improvisational comedy; you REALLY enjoy folk music; you will watch Parker Posey in anything; you think that scripting a film isn't always necessary; you believe that catheters and Jewish surnames are automatically humorous; you think endings are overrated; you're the one person in America who'll watch Jennifer Coolidge in anything; you amuse very easily; your name is Owen Gleiberman.

You might dislike A Mighty Wind if: You think a comedy ought to be, you know, funny.

Grade: C

Saturday, April 19, 2003

The Beyond (1981)

This here's my first exposure to Lucio Fulci, believe it or not. (I know, I'm a sad excuse for an Italian-horror fan.) If this is the best film of his career, it must be a long way down from here. I mean, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film. It's nothing if not entertaining. It's spectacularly creepy due to the force of Fulci's imagery... but it's also spectacularly silly, as this imagery isn't harnessed to any kind of logic or sense. Of course, the film is about the opening of the gates of Hell, so it could be argued that film isn't meant to be lucid, just weird and nightmarish. But when you have a film that includes the brainwave scene and the acid scene, both titanically ridiculous stretches of film, within ten minutes of each other... well, forgive me if I'm not totally convinced by Fulci's defenders. As for the ending... um, what? (Side note: I have since read a few well-written explanations of the film's bizarre nonentity of a climax. Since Dave and I were goofing pretty hard on this film, I'll admit I may have missed something.) Still, it's got enough atmosphere to almost distract the viewer from the senseless plotline. And it's got great gore and more eyeball violence than you can shake an Andalusian dog at. So I'm still suitably impressed.

Grade: B-
Freaked (1993) [second viewing]

In lieu of a traditional review, I will instead present a small list of reasons exactly why I love Freaked.

The hammer flashback; Mr. T giving beauty tips; Rastafari eyeballs; "MACHEESEMO!"; "Fiddle Faddle?"; Toad eats an airplane; a turd that looks like Kim Basinger -- naked; Paul Lynde; "The good news is, I found these delicious macaroons and there's enough for everybody!"; the styrofoam cup; Alex Winter playing Beast Boy playing Laurence Olivier playing Richard III; endlessly inventive makeup FX; Megan Ward (she's cute); random Bob Vila abuse; "Additional Music by Paul Leary, the Butthole Surfers and Blind Idiot God"; the Gumby cameo; Professor Nigel Crump; projectile vomit; the fact that films this delightfully random and unpredictable are all too rare and should be treasured.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Dead or Alive (1999)

Takashi Miike's first film to achieve any semblance of notoriety in the US, this film certainly feels like one designed explicitly to attract attention to the filmmaker. The first ten minutes are a breathless, breakneck introduction to the amped-up uber-Yakuza world in which this film's characters reside. And the last ten minutes, quite simply, comprise one of the greatest climaxes of any movie in history. Shame then about the other 90 minutes, which for the most part will be thoroughly familiar to anyone who's seen more than one Yakuza flick. There's still some odd bits of business interspersed -- Miike delights in showing the audience things they've never seen before, and at the very least this is the only film I know of that has a stripper drowned in a kiddie-pool filled with her own feces, not to mention a man in a chicken suit being shot repeatedly -- but it's surprisingly pro forma for a calling-card movie. But believe me, that ending makes it all worth the time. It's that damn good.

Grade: C+
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2002)

Takashi Miike is a goddamn workhorse -- the man seriously directs six or seven films a year. It's inhuman that he can maintain the level of invention that he does, but if anything his imagination just gets more prodigious and more delirious with each passing year. Take this film as an example: it's a hyper, freewheeling comedy about a family determined to set up a sucessful guest house that includes several dead bodies, a few Claymation interludes, gratuitous violence against birds and one of the most improbable homages to The Sound of Music since Dario Argento tacked on an extra ending to Opera. Oh yeah -- and it's a musical. Cheerfully demented seems to be the watchword here. And as aggressively uneven as it can be (with so many ideas to burn, the film starts to feel like one damn thing after another), when it works it's one of the most joyfully entertaining things you're ever likely to witness.

Grade: B
Visitor Q (2001)

Here's a film that separates the men from the boys. It opens with a nine-minute videotaped interlude between a businessman and a young prostitute, which would be uncomfortable enough if it weren't also established that the happy couple is also father and daughter. And it only gets sicker from there, tearing through a catalog of atrocities that includes beatings, heroin abuse, copious lactation, murder, necrophilia and a strange man who likes to hit people over the head with large rocks. So why would anyone want to watch this? It's much more moral than you'd expect, actually -- it's a caustic black comedy about family dysfunction that suggests the way to repair society is through the assumption of traditional family roles. Take the necrophilia scene, for instance -- it's on one level shock for shock's sake, but it plays out as both an absurdly hilarious comedy setpiece and an emotional awakening for the previously-ineffectual father figure. In Audition, one character declaims "Japan is dead"; here, director Takashi Miike reveals that there may be hope after all. It's the strangest argument ever put forth for family values, and it's also mesmerizing cinema.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

Okay, so it's not really a scary movie. But then, if you expected it to be so, you missed the point. Rob Zombie's favorite films aren't necessarily the scariest ones but the sleaziest ones -- he's like the Joe Bob Briggs of heavy metal. And that's exactly what he's made for his big directorial debut... a sleazy, grimy throwback to the days of grindhouse cinema. For what it's worth, this ghoulish concoction just might be the most devilishly enjoyable thing I'll see in a multiplex all year. It's got problems, for sure (it borrows far too heavily from Texas Chainsaw, for one, and there's not nearly enough of Sid Haig's awesomely over-the-top Captain Spaulding), but I liked it anyway. The best way I can sum it up is that it feels like a really neat haunted-house ride -- it's got the gaudy, creepy-campy vibe you expect from that sort of thing. And, if nothing else, you should see it for one extraordinary, audience-defying shot (you'll know it when you see it -- it's like, for a minute, the film becomes Rob Zombie's version of Gerry).

Grade: B+
Below (2002)

Ghost stories and submarine movies... how come nobody ever thought to combine the two before this? It's an effective marriage for sure, one that results in a film that's creepy and atmospheric as all get-out. Comes up a tad short on characterization, but the actors involved give performances that are accomplished enough to diminish that fault. Especially Bruce Greenwood, who takes what could be a stock character and infuses it with complexity and ambiguity. He really can do no wrong, I'm convinced.

Grade: B+
CQ (2002)

Hey Roman, we can see that you have a way with the image and all and the cheesy goofy sci-fi film-within-the-film was cool and all and the gratuitous nudity was appreciated and all and we realize you probably have something to say about art-versus-commerce and all but next time could you not make your film about a dull, self-involved twit please. Jesus.

Grade: C

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Esther Kahn (2002)

I was going to write a long, elegant paeon to this difficult-but-rewarding film which has taken so much misguided critical heat. I was going to rhapsodize about Summer Phoenix's intelligent and spectacular performance -- two steps away from being a stunt performance without ever feeling like one -- as well as the able and capable supporting cast. I was going to speak at length about the film's obvious and yet sorely misunderstood subtext and why it's one of the best films about acting ever made. I was going to compliment the film on its brisk and consistent pacing, despite some stretches that have obviously been brutally edited. And I was going to express my deep admiration for the nervy finale, in which the title character performs the lead in Hedda Gabler brilliantly while staving off a total emotional breakdown. But dammit, it turns out that as usual, Theo Panayides wrote it all before I did and better than I can anyway. So just read that and imagine it's me speaking.

Grade: B+
Shiri (1999)

Apparently in Korea, they aren't familiar with our action film cliches or something.

Grade: C
Girls Can't Swim (2002)

Generic French Dissafected-Teen/Coming-of-Age Film #7,649: While there's certainly been worse films made on this subject (nothing here comes close to the ponderous dreck of The Disenchanted or Marie Baie des Anges), that doesn't make this thing worth your time. Instead, go see Nico and Dani, which is roughly about the same thing as this film except it's more honest about it and better made to boot.

Grade: C
Late Marriage (2002)

A famous quote by, I believe, Jean-Luc Godard goes as such: "The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie." And, as many critics have pointed out, this film stands as the antidote to the sodden sitcom My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In the first ten minutes alone, there's more emotional honesty than most other films could hope to conjure. It's for the most part an impressive film, sad and wise and ambiguous about its situations. It's also got a notorious sex scene that lives up to its hype. So see it already, woudja?

Grade: B+
Rock & Roll Frankenstein (1999)

Um, wasn't this supposed to be offensive or lewd or adventurous or daring or something? 'Cause all I got out of this infamous shock show was boredom and irritation.

Grade: D+

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

A BIG FAT HAIRY "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" to Master Carlson! I bow before your Master Jedi movie reviewing skills.

"There isn't any rule that says I can't come over here and fart on your entree." Henry Desalvo (BIG TROUBLE)

BALLHAIR!

Sunday, April 06, 2003

The Embalmer (2003)

This was the first film I saw at the '03 ND/NF, which means that at the very least, I got the dog out of the way early on. This sub-literate attempt at a psychological thriller feels like a neophyte director's attempt to squish together three or four different ideas that don't really belong together in order to lend his film some semblance of "depth" or "complexity". Instead, it comes off as fragmented and poorly thought out. So imagine my surprise when I learned that this represented the director's third go at a feature-length film. You'd think a director with that much experience would know how to put together a coherent or, at least, an interestingly lensed film. No dice -- in addition to being meandering and badly plotted with loose ends twisting in the wind like a fly-laden No-Pest Strip, the film is visually drab. When it does try to shoot for something that might spice up the mise-en-scene, it either feels derivative ("atmospheric" underlighting, pointlessly long and languid medium-focus shots) or just plain ol' stupid (the strange decision to shoot the inital meeting between our two male leads from the POV of a large vulture-like bird). Ernesto Mahieux's enthusiastic performance is wasted, and any film that can waste a good performance by a midget is a sad film indeed. About all the praise I have for this film is my appreciation for the female lead's frequent nudity.

Grade: D
Angel on the Right (2003)

Aimlessness is a big problem with a lot of film-fest entries and with ND/NF entries in particular, since a lot of the involved films are debut features. This flick's no exception -- after a marvelous start, the plot seems content to go nowhere in particular. But, with characters as fascinating and oft-endearing as the ones we have here, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's one of those slice-of-life joints where the destination isn't as important as what you can see along the way, and in its own unhurried and unfussy kind of way, this movie's golden. It possibly wastes a little too much time just marking time, especially in the slack second half, but it has a grumpy-dad-and-cute-kid subplot that avoids both cliche and emotional ham-fistedness. That alone makes it a little treasure; the deadpan sense of humor is just icing. I wonder if the other movies coming out of the former-Russian satellite countries are at least this neat.

Grade: B
Black Tape: A Tehran Diary (The Videotape Fariborz Kamkari Found in the Garbage) (2003)

Interesting high-wire experiment from Iran, bound to garner way too many comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, that consists of a video document of the dissolution of a marriage that probably wasn't that happy to begin with. The film is fairly impressive in its technical bravado and its faith in the viewing audience's ability to infer facts and fill in blanks, even as the overuse of jump cuts and overlapping sound more or less give the lie to the found-object concept. Probably could have used a tighter edit anyway (it feels repetitive and undernourished even at a mere 83 minutes, with some shots lasting way too long -- especially in the fuck-all closing minutes), but at its best it's an unnerving journey into the dark heart of a hopelessly divided society. Plus, unlike practically every other Iranian film, it's not about cute children undergoing hardship, which is a bonus in and of itself. (Those who felt queasy during Blair Witch or Breaking the Waves, however, may wish to avoid this film, which brings seasick shaky-cam aesthetics to new levels of disorientation. My mother, a woman of hearty consititution, nearly lost it.)

Grade: B-
The Glow (2003)

Of the five films I saw, this is the only one that's given me trouble. In many regards, it's an excellent film -- it's involving, well-acted, impressive in all technical aspects, thematically rich, what have you. Additionally, it could serve as a primer for up-and-coming directors on how to build tension. Herein lies the problem, though: The film doesn't know when to STOP amplifying the unease. An hour-fifteen into this ninety-minute film, the director was still piling on the atmosphere. The film kept building and building and building to some astonishing conclusion to the point where the only possible avenue out I could think of was no concrete ending at all. Sadly, the writer/director withdrew the ambiguity in favor of an attempt at answering the film's central questions (the source of the weird happenings and the identity of the two mysterious men), and I could only watch stunned as the film exploded into piffle around my ears. I was disenchanted enough with the overly explanatory climax that I wandered out of Alice Tully spitting venom and fire, momentarily forgetting all the incidental pleasures previous to the impotent finale. Now that I have some distance between that night and now, I can see with clearer eyes that I did like a lot of things about this. I'm so close to giving it a qualified recommendation. But when a film adds up to zero, I can't abide. (Side note: I've added lead actress Tinkerbell -- yes, Tinkerbell -- to my short list of Preternaturally Gorgeous and Charismatic Actresses Whom I Would Watch in Anything.)

Grade: C+
The Missing Gun (2003)

Two notes of interest about this film: 1) Jiang Wen plays the lead character in this. His last film was Devils on the Doorstep, which he also directed and co-wrote. The Chinese government didn't much care for that masterwork of world cinema and Jiang subsequently became anathema in the country's cinema. What I mean to say is, damn it's nice to see this guy working again finally. 2) First-time director Lu Chuan probably has a very good film in him. It's just not this slight, overdirected, overlong trifle, which takes an unbeatable premise and proceeds to homogenize it until it resembles every other neo-noir genre plot.

Grade: C