Thursday, February 26, 2004

Buffalo Soldiers (2003)

The pitch must have been Catch-22 told from the viewpoint of Milo Minderbinder; unfortunately, the end result only goes to demonstrate why Yossarian was the hero. Starts off smug much like Heller's brilliant novel, but where that novel eventually shaded over into horror, outrage and outright surrealism, Gregor Jordan's film instead sticks to realism. Which wouldn't be a problem if we were given any reason to care about these scummy characters. By the end of the film, the tone has crossed into meanness and Jordan's resorted to blowing things up in order to resolve the plot. Too broad to work as satire and not broad enough to work as farce, this is ultimately a misfire.

Grade: C
Don't Tempt Me (a.k.a. No News from God) (2003)

Great opening credit sequence, after which the film goes to shit. The film's theological universe is set up so that the rules can change at any given moment and the plot is extremely haphazard and poorly thought out. But, as I've said before, none of this would matter had the film been funny... but it's not. It just kind of sits there. (It does have one good joke, and in the interest of sadism it saves it for the epilogue.) A good cast is left to flounder in the script's multilingual stew; not to be mean to Penelope Cruz or anything (who at least looks like she's enjoying herself), but isn't putting her in a film with Victoria Abril like asking Helen Mirren to go toe-to-toe with, oh, say, Katie Holmes?

Grade: C
Pickup on South Street (1953)

Tough little B-noir elevated by razor-sharp direction and excellent performances (Thelma Ritter's a gas); interesting to note that despite its use of Communists as villains, the film doesn't seem especially anti-Red and in a way predicts the then-forthcoming Communist witchhunts (after all, nobody believes Candy isn't a Communist). Exciting, visceral, funny, altogether fantastic entertainment.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The Dancer Upstairs (2003)

Mostly a good movie (especially in the tense finale), but hamstrung by overlength and a mid-film subplot involving Javier Bardem and Laura Morante that seems more obligatory than anything. The limp final scenes don't help either. Fairly skippable, really, although it's impressive to see a film that gives the hero a young slob as a partner but doesn't also make the partner incompetent.

Grade: B-
Skin of Man, Heart of Beast (2003)

Brains of mush. This arty French flick (a thudding allegory about domestic abuse and repressed anger, right down to that title) is clumsy, shrill and nowhere near as deep as it believes itself to be.

Grade: C
Underground (1997)

For about an hour, this looked like it might be the greatest film ever made -- history reimagined as a Looney Tune. Dark, ferocious and funny, this is a mad movie in both senses of the word. Too bad then about the third segment, which sees Kusturica attempting through juxtaposition to comment on the modern state of Yugoslavia without actually saying anything about it. The massive length and manic pace, dizzying for so long, is ultimately wearying. But I quibble -- I'm still pretty keen on this.

Grade: B+
Salo, or: The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Thoroughly unpleasant, but not without purpose; Pasolini takes de Sade's Sears catalog of perversion (side note: The 120 Days of Sodom is one of the most boring books I've ever tried to read) and, by shifting the time period, adds context to the proceedings. What we have here is a savage comment on the nature of power, the dehumanizing effects of fascism and possibly even the predatory nature of sex itself. That doesn't make it a film to be "liked" or "enjoyed", true, and it's certainly not perfect (the ending seems, well, abrupt... maybe Matt can help me out with this one?) but it shouldn't be ignored.

Grade: B

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Lost in Translation (2003)

This year's Mantlepiece Movie, where everything is so aesthetically perfect and emotionally arid that it's the cinematic equivalent of one of those plastic-covered couches you aren't supposed to sit on. Sofia Coppola demonstrates again that she has a prodigious visual talent, a fashion photographer's idea of depth and her father's late-career inability to distinguish between directorial vision and reckless excess (what the fuck is up with "lip my stocking"?). Also, having Bill Murray project a hangdog look in addition to his trademark withering sarcasm does not a penetrating study of isolation and loneliness make, Ms. Coppola. I'm with Theo on this one -- ennui and total fucking boredom are not the same.

Grade: C+
Bhoot (2003)

Overly solemn and self-serious Indian ghost movie that is somehow convinced it is The Scariest Movie Ever Made just because it doesn't have musical numbers every fifteen minutes. By Bollywood standards, this is something quite unusual; by my jaded American standards though, this isn't that much different from Shiri -- just because the cliches are coming from another country doesn't make them fresh and new.

Grade: C
Torso (1973)

Generic Argento-thieving giallo that in no way whatsoever lives up to its brilliant trash-flick tagline ("From producer Carlo Ponti, who brought you Dr. Zhivago now comes.... TORSO!"). Not even interesting enough to get worked up about.

Grade: C
Knife in the Water (1962)

Um, wow. The first Roman Polanski film I've seen that I've absolutely loved, and not coincidentally one where the claustrophobic setting cuts through Polanski's rather dispassionate style. The setup is simplicity defined (married couple and hitchhiker on a boat); what's brilliant is how, as the power struggle between the older husband and the younger hitcher becomes concrete, the film's tone imperceptibly shifts from light joviality to a subtle menace. There's always the idea that emotions will boil over and something, eventually, will happen. Polanski keeps this something in check for as long as possible; when the brief flickers of aggression finally pop out, Polanski still manages to keep the film's tone under control and provides us with a marvelous ending that offers closure without sacrificing the narrative's ambiguity. (Question for anyone who's seen this: In the car at the end, who do you think has the correct idea of what happened?)

Grade: A
Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

This film marks a shift in the tone of the series as it moves from contemplative B-movie entertainment into rousing, hyper-violent slicefest. The soul-searching side of Zatoichi is played down and the prankster spirit is amplified, and the violence is stronger (there's actual blood gushes and everything). For the first half-hour, the film toddles along in this new formula like it's trying on new shoes; after a while, though, everything clicks and the film becomes a piece with the earlier films in the series. The last fight between Zatoichi and the whip-wielding samurai, in particular, is a highlight. Welcome to Zatoichi 2.0... boy, these movies are great. Can't wait to see the next installments.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Mystic River (2003)

Throw a stone in a pond and it makes a ripple. Throw a wrench into one life and it ripples out into the lives of everyone around the first life. What is done, whether it be a stone or something else, cannot be undone. So goes the philosophy behind this film, Clint Eastwood's latest and his first worthwhile project since A Perfect World. It's an examination of the ways we as humans deal with adversity and grief -- some buckle, some rage against it and some simply shut it out. The engine that drives this thematic freight has a few plot contrivances but remains convincing, helped along by acting that deserves every little bit of the acclaim it's garnered. (Let's face it, this is Penn's year.) A sad, measured and painful film, and one that's not easily shaken off. (The last scenes in particular are tough to shake, though that may just be my internal struggle over whether the film itself or just one particular character lends credence to Penn's actions.)

Grade: A-
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Devastating look at the familial implosion that results when Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse are accused of child molestation. Trying to sort out the details of What Really Happened would put stress on any family unit, even the most perfect one; when the already-dysfunctional Friedman clan stumbles into this hall of mirrors, the results are not pretty. Out of the kind of reality that could never be invented by a screenwriter, director Andrew Jarecki untangles a mass of conflicting material and ends up with a portrait of chaos -- the justice system was overzealous, the victims were not necessarily trustworthy, the lawyers were unhelpful and the family itself couldn't be helped anyway. The film is not always easy to watch, and its ever-shifting sympathies may throw some for a loop, but this is undeniably powerful stuff.

Grade: A-
Cheerleader Ninjas (2003)

With a title like that, how can you go wrong? You gotta admire a film that delivers exactly what it promises -- cheerleaders who train to be ninjas. There's more, though... see, the cheerleaders are training to be ninjas because a group of church ladies wants to destroy filth on the Internet and has decided to start by eradicating cheerleaders with the help of some mean Catholic school sluts and one very angry, very gay cheerleader-hater. I haven't even gotten to the computer geeks yet. It's crappy, yes, but it's cheerfully crappy and occasionally quite amusing in a lowbrow, Troma-style way. Plus, there's gratuitous naked Kira Reed, which is always welcome. Overall, an undemanding way to kill an hour and a half.

Grade: C+

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Lucky (2004)

This movie is proof of two things:

A) Anyone can get a movie made these days


B) If you make a movie, no matter how bad, someone out there will see it and really like it.

A nine-day DV wonder that's been building some buzz in the horror community ever since it picked up a slew of awards in late '02, this flick's about an alcoholic cartoon writer who befriends a dog with telekinetic powers. There's a germ of an interesting idea here -- role reversal of the traditional man-dog relationship, with the dog as master and the man as servant -- but it's squandered in an overwritten, underthought no-budget snoozer that drowns itself in superfluous voiceover narration (to the point where it seems that the screenwriter should have just converted this into a short story and been done with it). The opening narration hints towards a rubber-reality movie that the subsequent film occasionally nods towards but never has the guts to become. It's all of marginal interest as a boundary-pushing black comedy; too bad it's a complete and total failure as a horror film or a psycho-thriller. Are indie-horror fanatics really this easy to please?

Grade: C-
They Live (1988)

One of John Carpenter's most ambitious films, this functions as a brutal (if not exactly subtle) razing of yuppiehood and Reaganomics. (In fact, the most surprising thing about it is the mere fact that its us-vs.-them blue-collar vision was able to find funding in the rah-rah-Rambo Hollywood '80s.) Besides the politics, it's also a pretty diverting sci-fi action film, though one wishes the lead were played by someone with more acting talent than Roddy Piper. (Bruce Willis, were he not an avowed conservative, would have been perfect for this.) Carpenter makes some puzzling decisions along the way (I know the big fight scene between Piper and Keith David is supposed to represent how the upper class stays in power by keeping the lower classes at each other's throats, but did it really need to go on for seven goddamn minutes?) but manages to keep the thing from flying apart at the seams; the final gag, in particular, is killer.

Grade: B
The Sex Killer (1967)

So bad it's hilarious, this nudie oddity is about a strange, sexually frustrated young man who goes from voyeur to strangler after taking a mannequin head on a date. There's very little dialogue (thankfully, since what dialogue there is appears to have been recorded from a distance of three miles away), so most of the film is Our Killer spying on young women and/or breaking into their apartments (surprisingly easy to do, since nobody locks their doors -- those crazy New Yorkers!), all set to an elevator-swing instrumental that sounds suspiciously like the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There". Absolutely atrocious, but if you're with a couple of like-minded friends, it's Instant Fun -- Just Add Wisecracks. Best scene: A long shot (and I mean LONG) of a bartender is interrupted by some yahoo sticking his head in the frame -- which for some reason hasn't been cut out of the film! How great is that?

Grade: D
Zero in and Scream (1970)

If I wanted to watch a solid hour of people involved in unerotic, passionless fucking, I could go out and rent a hardcore gangbang tape, thanks all the same. Pathetic.

Grade: F

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

American Splendor (2003)

As glad as I am to not have to go through another talking-head documentary, was the approach taken here really the correct one? Far be it from me to say that a quasi-documentary about a man's life becoming his art should probably not feel so artificial... but fuck it, it's my site and my opinion and I'm saying it. The fourth-wall smashing and kaleidoscopic nature of this film's real-life-vs.-REAL-real-life works so long as the film remains flippant, but once things turn serious, we're at a loss -- all the unusual and original storytelling devices, while clever, also keep the viewer distanced from the material, so that the last half of the film feels like formulaic desperation. Which is just about the last thing that should ever happen to a documentary. The performances, without fail, are fantastic, but an abundance of missteps keep this film on the ground. (The Letterman-meltdown recreation was a bad, bad idea.)

Grade: B-
Charlotte Sometimes (2003)

A small and quiet film that nonetheless leaves an impression. The trick is in the telling -- what is essentially a standard-issue romantic quadrangle is elevated by spare storytelling, dry wit and a healthy belief in the ability of the audience to fill in the blanks left by the dialogue, full of allusions and inferences. There's also a fantastic performance by Jacqueline Kim (who, after this and his voice-only turn in The Operator, has become someone who I expect to go places). It's wispy for sure, and it seems to inspire either love or hate... but I feel confident in recommending it.

Grade: B+

Monday, February 09, 2004

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

You know those pre-release reports you may have heard about this film? And the mostly negative reviews it received upon its release? Well, slap my ass and paint me blue, 'cause they're all fuckin' true. The only extraordinary thing about this film is its stupidity, even by summer movies standards. What makes it unbearable are its apparent stabs at high-minded literary wit and how badly they're botched -- I mean, come on... "Call me Ishmael"? With Captain Nemo? Fuck you, movie.

Grade: D
Full Metal Yakuza (1997)

This early Takashi Miike film is probably my least favorite of his that I've yet seen -- its occasional Miike-style flashes of whacked brilliance and hyper-inventive violence are subsumed by seriously cheap production values and a blah RoboCop-ripoff plot that forgets where it's going after an hour and just kinda sits around doodling in the sand until it's time to wrap things up by killing everyone. Has its moments, as does everything from its director, but no thanks anyway.

Grade: C

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Night of the Bloody Apes (1972)

Awwwwww, yeah. This is quite possibly one of the worst films in existence, and it's all the better for it. It's some nonsense about a mad scientist who transplants an ape heart into his dying son's body with some superfluous female wrestling action tacked on just because all Mexican horror and fantasy films made prior to 1985 are contractually obligated to feature a character who wrestles in a mask. The gore is plentiful and the nudity is copious and the dubbing is downright hysterical. (Best moment in the film, bar none: A lady discovers a corpse on the street and lets loose with the immortal "Oh no! A dead man, a dead man, a dead man!") Fairly notorious for its crass inclusion of genuine open-heart surgery during the transplant sequences, but once you get past the initial grossout even that is funny -- the spliced-in footage shows our skilled Mad Scientist to possess four hands! And don't even get me started on the gloriously awful ape-man makeup. For some reason, incompetence on this rareified level makes me unreasonably happy.

Grade: B-
The Deadly Organ (a.k.a. Feast of Flesh) (1967)

Unfortunately, it's not about what you think it's about -- for that, you'd have to watch The Amazing Transplant or Soul Vengeance. No, this is about a loony in a Ringo Starr mask making sex slaves out of the nubile girlies that hang around a fifth-rate Argentinean cabana for reasons that the filmmakers probably invented on the fly. Surprisingly coy and restrained for this kind of grindhouse double-feature fodder, which means it's pretty useless. Occasionally, something properly silly will happen that will briefly spike interest, but for the most part this is a snooze.

Grade: C
House of the Yellow Carpet (1982)

Okay, now this just sucks. It's adapted from a (presumably) bad play and feels like it every step of the way -- stagebound and artificial, with far too much dialogue and loopy plot kinks that probably worked better on the boards. I do admit being impressed by the muted set direction (mainly cool blues and grays that make the titular carpet stand out like it should)... but when I'm reduced to praising the set dressing -- in a film with only one set, no less! -- I'm probably holding a handful of shit.

Grade: D+

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

21 Grams (2003)

Sometimes fancy chronology isn't the best of ideas. Here, it's interesting for a while, but eventually (around the time that Sean Penn gets a new heart, I think) it becomes clear that it's technique with little purpose -- style used to cloud a fairly simple story rather than bring anything new and worthwhile to it. You just kind of wish Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu would get the fuck out of the way and let the story tell itself. What should be an overwhelming and heartbreaking experience thus becomes muted into indifference; only the invaluable Benicio Del Toro, through his own prodigious talent, manages to push through the necessary emotion required to engender involvement rather than spectatorship. Penn and Naomi Watts are both very good as well, so it's a shame the film lets them down.

Grade: C+
The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Here's a film that has a great premise and, through lack of talent and/or thoughtfulness, fucks it up completely. The filmmakers spend too much time trying to shock us and not enough actually thinking about the mechanics of the premise -- why, for instance, should Ashton Kutcher be so confused on how to act in his new lives when we clearly see him gaining new memories, some of which would presumably tell him what kind of person he's become? -- or the radical implications or even simple effective plotting (there's one or two plot holes near the end big enough to toss Ethan Suplee through). The filmmaker's chutzpah make the film slightly effective for a while anyway until it becomes terminally silly. Kutcher tries, but much like Keanu Reeves before him, he's out of his league in serious drama (note that his most natural acting comes in a scene where he's asked to be flippant and goofy about his brain disease); I feel confident in saying that his "where's the rest of me?" moment will be the most unintentionally funny cinematic moment of 2004, even though this is only the first film of the year that I've seen.

(And just because I can do it, here's something from the Pernice Brothers song "Flaming Wreck" that says much of what the film tries to say but does so without sucking: "Are we so perfect now? / Pick myself up off the ground / Is it once? / Is it twice? / Is it perfect now?" There. I just saved you ten bucks.)

Grade: C
Beyond Re-Animator (2003)

Scott had the right idea when he bailed on this after fifteen minutes -- it's even lamer than the notoriously crappy Bride of Re-Animator. The story is contrived and unimaginative, the characters are obnoxious and there's not enough Jefferey Combs (which makes no sense to me -- this is his damn film, so why spend so much time with boring Dr. Howard Phillips?). There isn't enough of Santiago Segura either, but at least he figures in a death scene that provides one of the few bits that trafficks in the same off-the-cuff black humor as the first film. A waste of time and money; Brian Yuzna will now officially pimp out anything for a dollar.

Grade: C-
The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979)

Nothing more than a compliation film of some of the Looney Tunes company's greatest hits, which means it's automatically funnier than 90% of everything else in the known universe. Even the new footage stringing these shorts together is pretty funny, which is more than can be said for later Looney movies. The highlight is easily the incomparable, insane Duck Amuck.

Grade: A-

Sunday, February 01, 2004

House of the Dead (2003)

So bad it's not even worth getting angry or annoyed about -- the main feeling one is left with is pity. A lot of people worked on this project. I'll bet at least a few of them thought they might be making something worthwhile. Instead, they find their name attached to the worst video-game adaptation in history. I mean, Tomb Raider was head-slappingly awful, and I hate it with a passion... but at least it wasn't so bereft of imagination or shame that it included actual video-game screenshots during the action sequences. One of the saddest excuses for a film I've seen in some time.

Grade: D-
Friday Night (2003)

Delicate snapshot of one woman's eventful night during a transit strike in Paris. Takes its time in setting up its premise (essentially no more than boy-meets-girl with some small complications) and establishing a mood; when it starts to take off, though, it's extremely rewarding. Well-shot with fine, subtle acting and unobtrusive but distinct direction that manages to be both impressionistic and minutely detailed, plus some nicely droll humor; just quite great, really.

Grade: A-
Samurai 2: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)

Not so much contemplative as glacial, this high-minded samurai spectacle has some good things going for it (expert compositions, thoughtful character evolution, Toshiro Mifune) that unfortunately get submerged by the ridiculous, overextended plot, which involves Mifune's character challenging the head of a fighting school and, against the wishes of said school head, being set upon by the man's minions roughly sixty-seven times (give or take a few). To be honest, this and Samurai 1 could have been compressed into one film; I'll still watch Part 3, but I'm not really too enthused about it.

Grade: C+
In a Glass Cage (1986)

Deeply, deeply disturbing look at the tyranny of power and the relationship between captor and victim as played out through the interactions between a paralyzed pedophile ex-Nazi confined to an iron lung and his sinister, sadist-in-training young nurse, who has motivations of his own. Plays out like the deranged nightmare brother to Apt Pupil except without that film's timidity. Bold, striking, intense, unforgettable and often unwatchably grotesque; much like Haneke's masterpiece Funny Games, it would probably improve upon a second viewing (the director holds his motive cards pretty closely until the end) but since that would mean sitting through it again I'm not in a big hurry to find out.

Grade: B+