Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The Front (1976)

What starts out as a shticky, intermittently successful comedy set in the blacklist era broadens and deepens into something much more affecting. Woody Allen, who at first appears to be coasting on his mannerisms, turns in a solid performance with a great exit line (interesting to note that this, coming a year before Annie Hall, marks his first dramatic role) and the rest of the cast performs admirably as well; however, it's Zero Mostel in his last live-action performance that makes this film sing. He's absolutely unforgettable as Hecky Brown, a popular comedian who finds himself unable to work and unable to accept it. His final scene is heartbreaking.

Grade: A-

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2003)

Oh, Jenny's gonna LOVE this one. This is the comeback vehicle for one Herschell Gordon Lewis, who more or less invented the gore film and then kicked around the exploitation circuit for a while before retiring from filmmaking back in 1972. I guess he just needed to show all the young turks who flung blood around in the shadow of his legacy that he still knows how to do it. Damn, does he ever -- watching this film, it suddenly feels like 1963 all over again. All the Lewis hallmarks are here -- the godawful acting (J.P. Delahoussaye tries, but he's no Mal Arnold), the surprisingly competent (and underrated) mise-en-scene, the crackpot sense of humor (one character breaks into an impromptu weather report in the middle of a scene, John Waters cameos as a pedophile priest, and there's a murder scene involving a meat hammer that's almost as funny as the one in The Gore-Gore Girls) but most of all the uninhibited blood'n'brains splattering across everything. For some reason, the plot is taken sorta seriously this time, which results in the film running a stunning hour-forty-five -- forty minutes longer than the original Blood Feast with about the same amount of plot -- but when a chick is getting scalped with a turkey carver, who cares about plot? This is good old-fashioned exploitation filmmaking given a 21st-century polish. I loved it. Glad to have ya back, H.G.

Grade: B-
Jimmy, the Boy Wonder (1966)

An H.G.-Lewis-directed kiddie flick. Who woulda thunk it? Has its moments (the songs are wonderfully weird, especially "Beans" -- don't ask) but hampered by a terrible performance by the title character and is padded like nobody's business. (The film comes to a complete stop when it segues into a poorly-dubbed animated interlude and stays there for fifteen minutes.) I get the feeling that Lewis's heart wasn't really in this one.

Grade: C
The Eternal Evil of Asia (1995)

Another royally-fucked-up Category III winner from Hong Kong, this one features noodle-eating ghosts, a phantom blowjob, the rapist from Red to Kill as a vengeful wizard, really poorly translated subtitles, self-cannibalism, the extraordinarily hot Ellen Chan, spirits that look like the pink ghost from Pac-Man and a literal dickhead. And it's all played for laughs. Words cannot do it justice. It's awesome.

Grade: B
Battling Butler (1926)

One of Buster Keaton's lesser-celebrated efforts, this one's about a spoiled rich kid who has to pose as a namesake boxer to win a girl's love. It's slow going at first, with a few modest laughs, but once the ruse gets underway it's pretty satisfying. The climactic plot twist is pretty clever, too. Not on the level of Seven Chances or Sherlock, Jr. but it is better than The Navigator.

Grade: B+

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

It's everything you could have hoped for. Long-awaited clash of the barons of body count delivers everything you expect from it, plus a little bit more. Is it scary? Of course not -- neither franchise has been frightening in years. Is the acting worthwhile? Of course not -- this is a meat movie, after all, so who can afford good actors when you're blowing all your cash on stage blood? Is there actually a plot? Why, yes Virginia, there actually is, and it's a fairly clever one too. It's also somewhat complicated, so that a lot of the downtime consists of characters slinging exposition at one another, but at least that gives them something to say while waiting to be slaughtered. It's also got *gasp!* a few characters who are actually sorta interesting (the stoner kid in particular -- he gets all the best lines). I know, I know... what you really wanna know is are there lots of juicy and disgusting kills, and does the slugfest between Messrs. Krueger and Vorhees live up to its hype? Oh, Mama... yer darn tootin'. Ronny Yu was the perfect guy to direct this -- from the initial murder, where Yu takes what should be a routine stabbing and goes the extra yard with it, to the sheer volume of blood that gushes out during this film's splatter scenes (it's probably the bloodiest of any film in either series, and that's sayin' somethin', mister), to the sheer all-out knockabout carnage that Freddy and Jason inflict on each other during their big battle... well, you'll just wanna stand up and cheer. That's how cool this film is. It's indefensible as art, true, and I'm not sure if it truly qualifies as a 'good' movie. But it's entertaining as fuck. And isn't that all we want from our summer movies?

Grade: B
Das Experiment (2002)

Grim, unpleasant and ultimately unrewarding, with a protagonist who's too much of a jackass to identify with or root for; I think Stan Marsh put it best when he said, "Dude, what the fuck is wrong with German people?"

Grade: C-

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Much like Freddy's Dead, this film completely ignores the other entries in the series... but here, that's a good thing. See, someone figured out that there's these things that most movies have: a plot and some characters. So they broke away from the Friday formula, borrowed the plot of The Hidden and stuck a couple of two-dimensional stock characters into the screenplay. Funny thing is, that tiny bit of effort resulted in probably the most enjoyable entry in this sad-sack series. The nudity is plentiful, the blood flows freely and it's all vaguely goofy. In other words, it's a fun way to kill an hour and a half.

Grade: B-
Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Takashi Miike's sci-fi spin on his previous Dead or Alive, this one works a little better than that prior film if only because the narrative doesn't grind to a halt after the opening sequence. It echoes, among other films, Blade Runner, THX-1138 and RoboCop but also works on its own psychotic terms. The violence here is plentiful as always (best moment: when the white-suited replicant bicycle-kicks a bullet through a man's head) and the climax, while not as jaw-dropping as part 1's infamous world-ending duel, is appropriately over-the-top. Now when can we see a proper release of Dead or Alive 2: Birds?

Grade: B-
The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

Peter Greenaway's first 'proper' film (often mistakenly referred to as his feature debut -- The Falls preceded this one), it's as gorgeous and well-composed as one would expect from a Greenaway film... yet it's also stiff and unconvincing. Lots of dialogue, too, but never really goes anywhere -- it just kind of ends up at the finale of least resistance. Some nascent traces of Greenaway's obsessions with numbers and lists can be seen here, as well as his ruthlessly sardonic sense of humor; Michael Nyman's lively score is a plus.

Grade: C+

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Get past the setup, and you're golden. Film is hit-and-miss during its first forty-five minutes with too much emphasis on smug sitcom-level humor and too much time spent getting its elaborate premise to take flight. Once Kim Novak shows up, though, the film not only gets much funnier but also belatedly reveals the heart that makes Billy Wilder's films stick like they do. (For a guy normally known as a cynic, there's an awful lot of emotion in his films.) Dean Martin is hilarious in sending up his own image (he's sorely missed during the majority of the film's first half, too); Felicia Farr proves so adept at playing this kind of farce that it makes me wonder why she didn't turn up in more movies.

Grade: B
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Unloved by most Friday fans, this one's really no better nor worse than any of the other entries in this endless series. Lar Park-Lincoln is easily the wimpiest and whiniest of any Friday heroine, but at least she also facilitates a bravura climax in which Jason gets his but good. Even less gore in this one than in Part VI, but it's a matter of public record that the MPAA had the living shit hacked out of this movie so I'll cut the filmmakers a little slack.

Grade: C-
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

I suppose it's telling that right after one of the most inventive and creative murders in this series (the kid with the hearing aid), we get what's got to be the lamest setpiece in any slasher series ever. The Nintendo-inspired death of Breckin Meyer's character is so extraordinarily dopey that you have to wonder if the creators knew they were making a horror film. This kind of who-the-fuck-cares-anyway vibe permeates most of this movie, which ignores all the mythology built up over the previous five films and seems to have been tossed off by people who'd never seen a Nightmare film before. And just when you think it can't get worse, in walks the 3-D sequence, which apparently looked incompetent even in theaters. Even the pointless cutesy cameos suck (with the exception of a certain Oprah Noodlemantra, who has a funny bit). No wonder Wes Craven made New Nightmare -- Freddy Krueger deserved a far better sendoff than this pathetic thing.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Swimming Pool (2003)

The tagline says, "On the surface, all is calm." What they don't tell you is that there's nothing below the surface. This is a one-dimensional gotcha! flick at heart, but with the one dimension we're given here, we could have done a lot worse. Certainly it helps that both Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier give first-rate performances in characters that play to their strengths. And Francois Ozon continues his transition from boring shock-show director into a man whose visual talents are apparently limitless; his work here is his best yet, with several artfully composed shots that can stand with anyone's finest work. It's indeed then a shame that all this goodness had to be harnessed to a cheap 'n' cheesy script that takes too long to get where it's going and isn't really worth the journey anyway. Still, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't entertained -- it's a movie where parts work better than the whole. There's several archly funny moments and lots of beautiful compositions and many many shots of Sagnier in some form of undress. Overall, it's a good time. Just don't expect anything deep or meaningful.

Grade: B-
Shanghai Knights (2003)

Better than the first film, and features possibly the best stunts of any English-language Jackie Chan movie to date. Owen Wilson seems sharper and more relaxed, too. Awfully precious at times, and the plot is as lame as anything, but at least the villains are credible in this one (my biggest beef with Shanghai Noon was that it was populated by guys Chan should have been able to whoop with one hand behind his back). A fun drinking game to play with this: Spot the Anachronism! You'll be drunk halfway through.

Grade: B-
Equilibrium (2002)

Extraordinarily derivative -- it's essentially Fahrenheit 451 with Matrix-style action scenes grafted onto the plot -- but works anyway, possibly because the scenario is inherently interesting. The energetic direction helps immensely; reviews had led me to expect a sluggish dystopian stew, but this film is fairly lively. The action scenes, too, keep the attention from atrophying when the pace flags. True, they are *cough* inspired by The Matrix, but they manage to do it better than any of the other rip-offs out there so that's something. It's nice to see director Kurt Wimmer wrestling with ideas. Maybe next time, he'll get some of his own, but you can't have everything on your first time out.

Grade: B-
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

Underrated installment in the series tries to return to the pure-horror feel of the first three films; the results, while not entirely successful (or consistent -- when the comic relief creeps in, it's pretty lame, and the Super Freddy scene is downright embarrassing), make for a pretty striking film at times. Especially neat is the 'rebirth' scene, and the motorcycle kill ranks as one of the series's best even with the endless stream of dumb wisecracks.

Grade: B-

Friday, August 08, 2003

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

The Friday films have always been unintentionally funny anyway, so it was only a matter of time before someone made an overtly comedic take on the Jason mythos. And this one's crammed with all sorts of silly lines and loopy side notes and half-assed homages. (One of the children at this film's summer camp has bad dreams and is named Nancy, an obvious nod to the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The favor was returned in Dream Master, where the dog was named Jason.) It's fairly entertaining, up to a point... until the murders begin in earnest. Now, considering that the only reason this series exists is to show creative carnage, there is absolutely no reason for the kills in the film to be so uniformly lame. Admittedly, the MPAA by this time was coming down on these films real hard, and the IMDb hints at several much moister kills that were cut for ratings purposes. But even so, aside from the vicious backbreaker near the film's end, this puppy just doesn't have much to it.

Grade: C-
Miller's Crossing (1990)

From a technical standpoint, this film is unassailable. Stylized within an inch of its life and sumptuously photographed, yet still with a visceral punch to its violent scenes, it's simply a treat for the eyes. The script, too, is fascinating and complex -- just describing the maze of loyalties and double-crosses that make up this film's canvas could take pages. It's wicked and ferocious and entertaining, with several scenes that could not be improved upon no matter what -- including an attempted hit on one character that turns into the most hilariously hyperbolic gangster-action sequence you'll ever see. But it's also a cold and heartless film, probably the one Coen Brothers film that I feel does justify the accusations of airless misanthropy that often get hurled their way. Still a damn good film, obviously, but also a little off-putting. This is, of course, all relative -- a lesser Coen Brothers film is still way better than most everyone else's output.

Grade: B+
Gangster No. 1 (2002)

Hi, my name is Paul McGuigan. I have directed a film called Gangster No. 1 that I hope you will take the time to watch. It is about an utter amoral bastard. This film charts his progress from being an utter amoral bastard in thrall to David Thewliss's character to being an utter amoral bastard on top of the crime world until finally he becomes an utter amoral bastard about whom we are suddenly supposed to feel sorry for because nobody loves him. The acting in it is stellar, of course, seeing as how my cast includes Thewliss and Malcolm McDowell and Paul Bettany, who are all fine actors, plus Saffron Burrows is in it and even though she's not a good actress at least she tries. My direction is restless and stylish and quasi-avant-garde -- some snide, jaded critics would say that I am showing off in an attempt to disguise the empty preening void at the heart of my film but I think that they are misguided. It has many exciting scenes of violence including one where a brutal and disgusting murder is set to a corny pop song which I still think is an interesting and ironic stylistic device even though it has been run into the ground over the past ten years post-Reservoir Dogs. At the end of the film, I do something interesting by trying to justify the audience's having spent an hour and a half of their lives with this total rotter by turning him into a pathetic figure but since that didn't work in Chopper it doesn't really work here either but what do film critics know anyway. Don't listen to the film critics. I think that you will enjoy my movie very much.

Grade: C
Freelance (1971)

Unjustly forgotten Brit-crime flick plays more like a character study than a plot description would let on. (For the record, it's about a con man who gets himself into hot water when he witnesses a gangland hit.) Modest but engaging, with a solid performance from Ian McShane (whom I recently saw for about fifteen minutes in the unendurable Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You), this is a film that deserves to be rediscovered.

Grade: B

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Giddyup everyone! It's guest-review day with your favorite guest reviewer, Jenny Sekwa! SOMEONE has to liven up the joint. Well, punks, do you feel lucky?

Gigli (2003)

How bad is this movie? Conjure up every negative adjective ever invented, look up their synonyms and apply all of them to this movie. Appalling and atrocious will get you going with the "A's". Ben Affleck should have his SAG card revoked and be arrested for impersonating an actor. By now, everyone has probably heard about the severe thrashing the critics have been giving this movie. WHY oh WHY did I take this as a dare? "Oooh...oooh....it has cameo appearances by Christopher Walken and Al Pacino", I told myself. THAT will make it worth it! Doh. You KNOW it's a bad movie day for me when I cringe at cameos by two of my favorite actors. Even the cameos were embarrasingly horrific. Walken does what appears to be an imitation of a comedian doing a Christopher Walken schtick and Pacino...well....you just know it's a pay-back favor to Martin Brest for Scent of A Woman. And a HUGE favor at that. The plot and the dialogue for Gigli (YES, YES, it's PRONOUNCED "JEEELY". rhymes with "really"...AHAWW AHAWWWW...No..it's not "giggly".....AHAWWWWW) are so jaw-gapingly horrid and lame, it boggles the mind. Did I mention unfunny too? This is supposed to be a comedy. From the director of the hysterical "Midnight Run", no less.

I will say that Al Pacino provides the one saving grace of this movie, which is to startle all 4 people in the movie theater AND Jennifer Lopez out of their comas, whilst simultaneously eliminating the most annoying mob character to ever disgrace a screen. Thank you, Al. I sincerely don't understand how this movie got made. I would have paid to have been a fly on the wall when this movie was pitched to producers: "Yeah..it's about a dumb mob guy with a funny mispronounced name who kidnaps the retarded (give him Tourette's Syndrome - it's be a riot!!) brother of a prosecutor and then encounters a Eastern-philosophy reading lesbian mob chick who is hired to watch over him because he's so lame. AND THEY FALL IN LOVE!!" The plot and dialogue are so excrutiating, I'm at a loss for words. And does ANYONE need to see Ben Affleck injecting a hypodermic needle into the humongous thong-clad ass of Lainie Kazan? No. They don't.

Gigli: It's the end of the world as we know it. Rigli.

Grade: F x Infinity

Northfork (2003)

Being a huge fan of the Polish brothers' poignant "Twin Falls, Idaho", I couldn't wait to see Northfork. The film is set in 1955 where the residents of a small Montana community are forced to evacuate their homes to make way for a new dam. In the midst of all this, a young boy is returned to an orphanage because he's too sickly. A wise elder minister (a sage, albeit, mumbling Nick Nolte) takes care of the boy during his dying days, which happens to coincide with the unsuccessful evacuation of the last stragglers by government agents, which happens to coincide with the angel-seeking mission of an odd-ball group of angels, who may or may not be real. What? Huh? What the....? Could somebody please TELL me WTF it was all about? Gorgeous, cinematography aside, I felt as if I had wandered from a linear storyline into some sort of surreal/bizarro Tim Burton/David Lynch dreamscape. Northfork boasts a fine group of actors, including James Woods and the aforementioned Nolte, but the allegorical theme and stilted dialogue make for a wacky movie experience. And a boring one, at that. I anxiously await the gospel from all of the "evolved" movie critics who will patiently explain for apparent philistines like me, the real deal about Northfork beyond it's breathtaking look. Lo and behold, Roger Ebert has bestowed 4 stars on this confusing mess. There ya go.

Grade: C-

Monday, August 04, 2003

Game of Death (1979)

In the annals of cinematic rip-offs, few have been as sad or as ill-advised as this. The real shame is that, taken as is, it's really not that bad a film. But it's an attempt to make money off -- ahem, I mean honor the memory of Bruce Lee, who died after filming a small portion of this. So, for a while, it merely looks like one of the hundreds of bad Hong Kong knockoffs that traded on Lee's name, with a stand-in who doesn't look like Lee in the slightest but does a credible imitation of his fighting style and shows his face as little as possible. The problem is that there was some real footage of Lee hanging around (including his famous fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is way more believable as a martial arts expert than you would ever expect). And this footage was put in the film. And yes, the footage is astounding -- but if this was the only reason to make the film, then why bother making it at all? The rest of the film is essentially wasting time until we get to the precious little last bits of Lee's career. It's a film made with good intentions and general competency, yes, but it's still also nothing more than an excuse to squeeze a few more dollars from Lee's fans. It's an ugly, ungainly Frankenstein monster of a film, and like the good doctor's monster it makes me feel very sad.

Grade: C+
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

Yawn. A dumbed-down rehash of Part 3 where every nightmare is on the level of that film's goofy Wizard Master sequence -- slightly clever, interesting in its use of dream logic and not scary in the least bit. This is probably also the most devastatingly influential slasher film of the modern era, as it made it standard for the killer to make really lame wisecracks when committing murder. Most people pinpoint Part 3 as the beginning of The Taming of Freddy Kruger, but here he's so far away from his original purely malevolent self that the killings feel inspired by the jokes and not vice versa. It's long way from Part 3's "Welcome to prime time, bitch!" to this film's "How's this for a wet dream?" Gawd. (I did like Dumb Blonde Girl's Metamorphosis-inspired dream, though.)

Grade: C
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2003)

Jenny and R. Darla will probably call me an ASSHEAD for liking this, but like it I did. It's involving and entertaining and nowhere near as hard to follow as some people (read: the New York press) made it out to be. Great animation, too -- probably the best fight scenes I've ever seen in a cartoon. Now I need to see if the series is as good as everyone tells me.

Grade: B+