Sunday, January 25, 2004

The Housekeeper (2003)

Stodgy male-fantasy romcom about a recently separated man who hires a hot young woman to be his housekeeper; said hot young woman promptly and with no motivation jumps into bed with him. Complications finally ensue with ten minutes left in the film but since they're of the women-are-bitches variety I was like no thanks pal. Has about as much connection to reality as a Road Runner cartoon but only a tenth of the entertainment value; Emilie Dequenne does get naked, though, so at least that's something.

Grade: C
Vixen! (1968)

Russ Meyer's fevered, propulsive imagination fuels this big red rocket o' love, a lurid dip into the male fantastic. Lots of sex and nudity and large-breasted women, plus gloriously overripe dialogue, plus screeds against Communism, Vietnam, racism and intolerance in general. Meyer's movies get me unreasonably excited about the possibilities of erotica -- he's just that damn good.

Grade: A-
The Street Fighter (1974)

Watching this, it took me a while to figure out why Sonny Chiba has such a huge following among kung-fu cinema enthusiasts. He's not overly charismatic, he's thoroughly ungraceful and the faces he makes are downright ridiculous. But then it struck me -- he does have one thing over all other Bruce Lee wannabes: He genuinely seems to enjoy hurting people. Often angry to the point where he appears in danger of bursting several blood vessels, he (or at least his character) never hesitates to lay on a smackdown far more severe than what is rightly deserved -- a towering, lumbering sadist in anti-hero garb. This film, his starmaking vehicle, is thusly tailored towards these tendencies. The carnage here is over-the-top, overdone.... and pretty spectacular as well. (Two words: Kung-fu castration. Ouch.) Brutality only goes so far before you actually have to have a movie to build around it, though, and this film's pretty insufferable when Chiba's not bringing the pain. It's not very good, and it (mostly) doesn't deserve its reputation... but hey, if you like to see people getting hurt (and who doesn't?) this movie's okay.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Monster (2003)

Everything you've heard about Charlize Theron in this film is absolutely true -- her performance is excellent. If only it were true about the rest of the film. First-timer Patty Jenkins has a provocative premise here, and she was wise to cast the underrated Theron (whom I've been a fan of since her fierce turn in The Devil's Advocate, which brings me to an aside: the only reason this performance is being called "surprising" and "revelatory" is that ever since Advocate, Theron's been stuck in roles where all she's called on to do is stand around and look sexy/concerned/happy/etc.)... but she also makes a first-timer misjudgement in focusing the story on the relationship between Theron's Aileen Wuornos and Christina Ricci's Selby. In essence, what could have been a compelling and nerve-racking story about a damaged woman going off her nutter is hamstrung by a head-scratching reliance on Queer Cinema cliche (in particular the hefty use of songs-as-emotional-cues, which without fail drives me crazy). Still worth seeing for Theron's Oscar-ready work, which creates a number of memorable moments (the murder in the woods, in particular, is queasy stuff), but be forewarned that beyond Theron (and Ricci, who's better here than she's been in anything since Buffalo '66), this is solid craftsmanship and nothing more.

Grade: B
House of Sand and Fog (2003)

Quite possibly the closest thing to classical tragedy that 2003 had to offer, in which the fatal character flaw is an excess of pride. Standing in sharp contrast to the meandering of Monster (seen on the same day as this), the inexorable logic of this film's scenario makes for a mesmerizing experience -- one which, thankfully, always stays true to its characters. The narrative's neatest trick is finding ways to keep both Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley understandable and sympathetic even as they do things that we don't agree with. It's not uplifting or happy or any such thing like that, but it does offer the pleasure of a good story well told, plus it has fabulous acting work from its entire ensemble (Connelly, in addition to being megahot, seems to get better and better as an actress with every film). This one's a keeper, folks.

Grade: A-
The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966)

...And I'm sleeping now, wow / Hear the settlers laugh / You won't be laughing when your covered wagons crash / You won't be laughing when the buzzards drag your brother's flags to rags / You won't be laughing when your front lawn's spangled with epitaphs / You won't be laughing!

(Apologies to Aesop Rock for this.)

Grade: C-

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Big Fish (2003)

Charming and whimsical bit of fluff from Tim Burton, who appears to have partially returned to form after the big-studio workmanship of Planet of the Apes. Gorgeous, wafer-thin, kinda neat; also, inevitably, Oscar-bait, but I think I liked it more than Cold Mountain.

Grade: B
Calendar Girls (2003)

A new film from the director of Saving Grace, so how the fuck do you think it is? Saved from total tedium by sparkling work from Julie Walters and (especially) Helen Mirren, but it's still painfully boring for much of the way unless you find the idea of old ladies dropping trou to automatically be a laugh riot.

Grade: C
The Eye (2003)

Another pair of brothers, another example of skillful and atmospheric hackwork. Impressive for a while until it becomes apparent that the brothers couldn't even keep the premise straight and had no idea what to do for a third act; still, it's way better than Blink.

Grade: C+
Zatoichi: On the Road (1963)

My favorite Zatoichi film yet, with a stronger plot and better action than any of its predecesors. The climax, where Zatoichi takes apart not one but two gangs, must be seen to be believed.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Cold Mountain (2003)

Very much a Tradition-of-Quality film, which may explain why it left me cold (excuse the pun), but it's definitely one of the better specimens of Oscar-bait we've seen in recent years. Wounded by the vacancy at the narrative's heart -- having not read the novel, I was never convinced that the romance between Inman and Ada was anything beyond theoretical -- but this is the kind of movie where the journey's more important than the destination anyway. It's best appreciated for its little touches and interesting side bits -- Jena Malone's vivid cameo as a ferry girl, Philip Seymour Hoffman ranting about his bowels, the unexpected way a nighttime scene between Inman and a war widow develops. Above all, there's Renee Zellwegger's entertaining, on-the-edge-of-ludicrous performance, which is either extraordinary or embarrassing, maybe both. Solid, handsome, sure to win a raft of Oscars; even as I admire it, though, I can't help but wish it felt a little more alive.

Grade: B
Santo: Infraterrestre (2001)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Attempt by El Hijo de Santo to revive the popular film series on a five-peso budget does a great disservice to the memory of his father by cheapening the Santo name and character (Santo with a flying car? Are you fucking kidding?). Entertainment value, even unintentional, is scarce here (laughing at the Amiga-level computer graphics only goes so far). The vintage Santos may not have been Art, but they were fun and endearingly loopy. This quick-buck cheapie garners a few sympathy points, but in the end it's just sad.

Grade: D+
Slugs (1988)

This here's directed by Juan Piquer Simon, the classy gent who slimed the world with his sleazy Pieces. Far be it from me to hope for lightning to strike twice, but did it have to be THIS lame? Gives good gore, but that's about all it has; that this film contains a character too dumb to notice that there's a chopped-up slug in his salad says a lot about it. It did help me through a bout of insomnia, though, so I guess I should be grateful or something.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Peter Pan (2003)

Teases out the buried subtexts of J.M. Barrie's classic story, for better and for worse; though it isn't afraid to deal with the burgeoning sexuality that runs throughout the tale, it still wishes to be a kid's film as well. Thus, we're given a centaur film -- imagine if you grafted The Company of Wolves onto a Fairy Tale Theater production of "Little Red Riding Hood" and you're getting close to what we have here. Not bad at times, with a fine performance from newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood and an engaging, fun turn from Ludivine Sagnier as Tinkerbell. It's certainly worth a look for the curious (Roger Ebert wasn't kidding when he called this the saddest version on record)... but the fact remains that essentially this is a film made for no one in particular. (There's also the small matter of Jeremy Sumpter's awful performance in the title role -- his smirky, tone-deaf delivery occasionally make Peter look like nothing more than a prepubescent psychotic.)

Grade: C+
American Wedding (2003)

Better than the second, mainly because the filmmakers have figured out that it's much funnier to watch these established characters do things we don't expect them to do (if it wasn't so ineptly shot, the dance-off probably would have been the year's funniest stretch of film). Still fairly mediocre, though, with a tendency to repeat jokes that lost their luster the last time around (enough with Stifler's mom already!). Alyson Hannigan, as usual, gets the best lines despite underutilization. ("Love isn't just a feeling. Love is shaving your balls!")

Grade: C+
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972)

One of Woody Allen's most uneven and least successful films -- a thin, one-note series of sex-related sketches that tries for the feel of Woody's comic essays but comes off like an average night on "Saturday Night Live". The nadir is the embarrassing transvestite sketch, which contains zero (0) jokes; it does get better from there, thankfully, culminating in A) a goofy parody of '50's monster movies, complete with John Carradine as the mad scientist, and B) a riotous depiction of the goings-on inside the male body during sex which almost redeems the entire picture right there. That it doesn't is a testament to how lame much of the rest of it is.

Grade: C+
Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Takashi Miike mates Sonatine with Sally Struthers and adds his trademark bursts of insanity to come up with this bit of theological Yakuza weirdness about two hitmen on the run who rekindle their childhood friendship while sprouting angel wings and saving up contract money to help vaccinate the children of the world (!). There's a brain-busting montage wherein a surreal children's play is intercut with a brutal gangland massacre, plus a nice touch at the end where Our Heroes realize that not all children grow up to be nice, plus a scene where a protractor is used to show how three bullets neatly separate a midget's head into six equal pieces. All this and Shinya Tsukamoto too! What it all means, I haven't the slightest... but it's pretty entertaining all the same.

Grade: B-

Monday, January 05, 2004

Gerry (2003) [second viewing]

Not only holds up quite well upon a second look but actually improves; once you know where the film is going (or, more importantly, where it isn't going to go), the second half starts to feel less like an exercise in marking time and more like a vast, horrific fright flick where the monster is the utter indifference of Nature to the plight of Man. Little subtleties registered more fully this time around too (the use of landscape shots to mark the passing of time; the recurring image of Our Heroes dwarfed by the cruel landscape). It's still a funny and absorbing lark, but I missed exactly how haunting it also was.

Grade: A- (up from a B+)
Dead & Buried (1981)

Tense half-forgotten horror flick that works as a unique take on an overworked genre (I don't want to spoil the film by saying which one). The ending may open up plot holes big enough to push a casket through, but it's also hard to beat for sheer gut-churning intensity. More movies like this need to be made today.

Grade: A-
Possession (1981)

Jesus Christ. This film could have really been something if it had made any sense at any point of its running time. It's all surely supposed to be meaningful in some way; if you can figure out what that meaning is, e-mail me immediately. Andrezj Zulawski, the director, is either very confused or legitimately insane, but one thing's for sure -- he has zero skill with actors. Reining in the excrutiatingly broad performances here would have gone a long way to keeping this from being the wretched failure that it is.

Grade: D

Sunday, January 04, 2004

L'Auberge Espagnole (2003)


Grade: C-
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Not on the level of Two Towers -- it suffers from some of the same narrative choppiness as Fellowship, and having it take half an hour to end may not have been the best idea -- but still fairly rousing stuff all the same. A solid end to a solid trilogy.

Grade: B+
Notorious (1946)

Terrifically entertaining Hitchcock thriller. Starts a little sluggish, but by the end of the first hour it's pretty much become a textbook definition of well-modulated suspense. The ending is simply perfect.

Grade: A-
Paycheck (2003)

It's difficult to critique this film without spoiling it to a degree, but let me try: The problem with Paycheck (besides Ben Affleck's dull-boy routine) is in its MacGuffin. Anything could drive the plot. The device that does so here and the implications it leaves on the plot and the double-acrostic nature of Affleck's predicament result in a curiously dead movie -- because of what's been set up, the plot has no urgency and no drive. I know this is all frustratingly vague, but just trust me when I say that the movie's bland and boring.

Grade: C
Spellbound (2003)

Fantastic and riveting documentary about the National Spelling Bee. Serves as an interesting companion to the excellent Hands on a Hard Body (both films take a small cross-section of participating contestants and use them to say something about American society as a whole, to extraordinary effect) except that it doesn't look and sound like it was filmed through a dirty beer glass, so it gets extra bonus points. My favorite film of 2003 right now.

Grade: A
Spun (2003)

Imagine Requiem for a Dream reconceived as an in-your-face black comedy. Doesn't sound like a great idea, does it? Well... it isn't. Bleah.

Grade: C-
Stevie (2003)

A documentary about two Steves, really. On one hand we have Stephen Fielding, the titular Stevie whom was once director Steve James's 'little brother'. On the other, we have James himself. And the film, while ostensibly about the wreck that is Stevie's life and how he got here, is also an attempt by James to exorcise the guilt he feels at having left behind and forgotten Stevie many years prior. What we end up with is an occasionally troubling but undeniably potent and moving documentary about how cycles of abuse can perpetrate themselves and how, sometimes, just a little good in a bad world isn't always enough. I may question James's motives, but I can't deny the power of the film he's made. (Especially in a scene like the one where Stevie is reunited with his favorite foster parents -- that was absolutely wrenching.)

Grade: B+

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Bad Santa (2003)

Just as funny as you may have heard. The adverts really don't do it justice -- the depths this film plumbs are breathtaking and kind of refreshing. Would probably be the bleakest comedy I saw all year if not for Ichi the Killer. Billy Bob Thornton proves, once again, that he can do practically anything.

Grade: A-
Bulletproof Monk (2003)

A movie to put on while you do the ironing. Useful for people who don't care what they watch as long as something is on the telly. Yawn.

Grade: C
Freaky Friday (2003)

Fun for about ten minutes before it turns into a cheap sitcom. Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan do as much as humanly possible with their thinly sketched roles, but they eventually succumb to mediocrity much like everything else here. Better than it had any right to be, but still.

Grade: C+
Gigli (2003)

What is wrong with you people? What the fuck happened to critical perspective in America? Did anyone out there who saw this evaluate it on its own merits and not as part of the Bennifer media circus? I mean, shit people. This movie's not that bad. It's overly long, yes (Martin Brest really, really needs a better editor), and the crime plot is haphazard, yes, and it's baffling why the retarded kid even needed to be in the film, yes, and it eventually flames out in the last half hour, yes (especially in regards to the tacked-on ending). But there's a lot of merit here too -- the film's examination of power and sexual politics is nothing if not ambitious, and the screenplay has a number of nice moments. (The dueling genitalia monologues, if they'd showed up in an off-Broadway play instead of this film, would probably already be classics.) Plus, Jennifer Lopez demonstrates yet again that, given the chance, she can act up a storm. So the film ultimately doesn't work. I'd still rather see a thousand ambitious failures like this than the other pieces of assembly-line crap Ben Affleck showed up in last year. (And c'mon.... Christopher Walken's cameo was hilariously weird.)

Grade: C+
Ichi the Killer (2003)

For about an hour, it's Takashi Miike's best work yet -- a mesmerizing, sick-fuck black comedy with a gore level that must be seen to be believed and a weird, highly sexualized undercurrent. It loses steam once Kakihara is expelled from his crime syndicate, though, and the lack of sympathetic characters make the second half of the film a bit hard to watch at times. (This might be the single most misanthropic film in cinema history -- there's no joy in this Mudville.) Still, the film's face-value acceptance of the old Jane's Addiction lyric "Sex is violence" make for queasily fascinating and thematically rich viewing.

Grade: B+
Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman (2000)

Like we needed a sequel to the original Jack Frost. The only surprise here is that somehow, they made a film even worse than the first. Director/screenwriter Michael Cooney (who, may I remind you, also wrote Identity) at least tries to treat this material as a comedy this time around, but his sense of humor is somewhere along the lines of a five-year-old child scribbling dirty doodles on the living room wall. SOTA's makeup effects are surprisingly good, considering how hard is it to render convincing prosthetics on digital video; everything else is completely worthless.

Grade: D-
Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003)

If Lucio Fulci were alive today, he'd probably be Victor Salva. Both men specialize in films with dumb-as-dogshit screenplays redeemed, however partially, by surprisingly graceful visual styles. This film, while possessing nothing on the level of the awesome shot in the first Jeepers of the light shining through the hole in the cop's abdomen, has several impressively composed scenes (my favorite: two people talk in the foreground while a man barely visible in the background gets swooped away by the titular monster) that draw attention away from the lousy acting and the silly script. Of course, style can only go so far, and there's nothing underneath that would push this film to recommended status. But I'll still watch whatever Salva does next.

Grade: C+
Millennium Actress (2003)

This is a pleasant, accomplished and artful anime. So why do I remain somewhat nonplussed? I don't know, really. It's like my reaction to Spirited Away: Ooh, it's good. I can't think of anything that could be done better. But I likely won't remember it in three months' time.

Grade: B