Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Incredible, exhilarating film about, well, love and pain and the whole damn thing. (Didn't somebody once say something about loving and losing and its respective position above not loving, yadda yadda?) A rare film in that it's made with both a brain and a heart: the narrative gimmickry keeps the ground beneath our feet shifting as we're constantly called upon to reexamine our place in the timeline, but the back-to-front nature of the memory-erasure technique also packs an unexpected emotional wallop, as we only gradually come to see all that will be lost in Carrey's life. The parallel plot strand with Kirsten Dunst was a brilliant gambit -- I'll admit, this was the first film in years to make me cry, and it was the scene where Ms. Dunst finds out... well, we'll just call it 'the truth'... anyway, it was that moment that set me off, which only made the subsequent scenes with Carrey and Winslet that much more affecting. (By the way, how come nobody seems to be mentioning Harold Pinter's Betrayal in reviewing this? I find that odd... doubly so since everyone dragged out the comparison when reviewing Memento, which has structural but not thematic similarities.) Also, the direction is inventive and colorful while staying fairly naturalistic and the acting is superb on all counts. I can see how this might be overly intellectualized and/or remote for some people's tastes (my mother, for one, was underwhelmed), but I think it's grand. And after all, you're here to read what I thought about it... :-)

Grade: A
Taking Lives (2004)

Humdrum forensic-fetishism thriller with nothing to recommend it save for one good jolt (which, far as I can tell, has not a fucking thing to do with the rest of the film) and Ethan Hawke's brash, jittery performance. (Hawke seems to be the only one who recognizes this for the crap that it is and, thus, is the only one willing to have fun with it.) Mildly irritating until the noxious, overblown third act; thoroughly predictable, too (I figured out the killer during the frickin' trailer). If you've ever wanted to see what Se7en would look like had it been made for Lifetime, here's your chance. Does Angelina Jolie have the worst script sense in Hollywood or what?

Grade: C-
Chaos (2003)

Throws itself forward into its contrived story with such velocity that it's only a matter of time before it blows itself apart; sad to say, the crime-drama-as-French-farce approach doesn't seem to have been a good idea. The film's casual tone precludes investment with the characters. By the time the film grinds to a halt to give us the longest sketching-in-the-narrative flashback since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I was mentally elsewhere.

Grade: C
I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973)

Surrealistic social satire/Passion play about a businessman on the lam for murder and an ageless dwarf whom he meets in the desert and takes back to civilization. (This should feel familiar to anyone who's familiar with Alejandro Jodorowsky, and not without reason -- writer/director Fernando Arrabal wrote the play upon which Jodorowsky's debut film Fando and Lis is based.) Arrabal's film is crude and clumsy, with a wearying emphasis on scatology, but also not ineffective and blessed with a welcome sense of humor. Several shock cuts have an earthy, slap-to-the-head quality about them (most memorable is the one involving a man eating a live chick). Filmmaking skill alternates between lyrical and amateurish; with a stronger director at the helm, this really could have been something. I get the feeling from this movie that Arrabal is a second-rate intellect (and an interview on the DVD pretty much confirms that), but that does put him far ahead of four-fifths of Hollywood. I can't really recommend this, but I wouldn't discourage you from checking it out either.

Grade: C+

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

So "re-imagining" wasn't just a bullshit get-off-our-backs buzzword after all: For this retelling of George Romero's brilliant classic zombiethon, the filmmakers wisely decided to ditch the social commentary, instead going for the throat with a mean-spirited scare factory. The big surprise is that this approach works fairly well. It's like watching a punk band cover a classic-rock tune; while it's not qualified to hold court with the original (then again, what is?), it's quite a good time if you accept it on its own terms. The film is also clearly made by people who love and respect Romero's film (unlike some remakes I could mention), so they know not to tinker too heavily with his formula unless there's a reason for it (the initially-irritating introduction of too many characters pays off in spades during the climax). James Gunn's uneven screenplay could have used a few polishes -- a lot of the dialogue is lousy and the characters are thinly sketched. Plus, for every good idea or innovation (can we at least give this film an award for Best Supporting Pooch?), there's one that inspires head-shaking and teeth-gnashing. Mekhi Phifer's entire subplot, in particular, should have been cut out... even if that would mean losing one of the most disquieting and transgressive elements of the narrative. These weaknesses, though, are compensated for by some decent acting and a fine directorial job by neophyte Zack Snyder, who has a well-honed sense of how to keep the audience frightened and off-balance and keeps the film moving at a good clip even during the time between zombie attacks. The opening sequence is pure genius and the finale is tense and exciting and the stuff in the middle isn't overly annoying most of the time, so it's probably worth your cash. At the very least, it's better than the inexplicably overrated 28 Days Later.

Grade: B-
Gimme Shelter (1970)

Starts off as a great concert film showing the Stones in their prime, then slowly turns into something deeper and more disturbing -- a portrait of the point where the frustrations bubbling underneath the peace-and-love movement began to manifest themselves as violence and confusion. Fantastic music, riveting drama, interesting meta-filmic commentary (the movie shows Mick and Co. watching the movie being edited together while the filmmakers question them on, essentially, their social irresponsibility in putting together this disaster); the title song rolls over the final images, which is as it should be. ("Gimme Shelter", for my money, is one of the most haunting rock-and-roll songs ever recorded.)

Grade: A
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967)

Suffocatingly pretentious visual essay from the French New Wave filmmaker everyone loves to hate, Jean-Luc Godard. The voiceover narration and the characters (if you can call them characters) spout endless verbal torrents about Vietnam and modes of representation and the inadequacy of language until you just want to scream. If you feel that your words are not sufficient to express your ideas then please shut the fuck up, thanks Jean-Luc.

Grade: D+
Warlock (1959)

Not-bad Western with ambitions to be more than just a Wednesday-matinee oater -- it takes seriously the concept of vigilante violence and ties it in with notions of what it means to be "a man". Takes a while to find its rhythm, and on the longish side besides... but it's well-acted and well-directed. Thoughtfully done and worth seeing.

Grade: B

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Johnny English (2003)

Unfunny, juvenile, vaguely depressing would-be spy spoof starring a man (Rowan Atkinson) who's way too talented to be in this kind of slop and a woman (Natalie Imbruglia) who's way too untalented to be in any kind of slop. Also starring: John Malkovich and His Incredibly Fake French Accent. (Did The Dancer Upstairs need cash for a completion bond or something, John?)

Grade: D+
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Charlie Kaufman writes movies about people who cannot connect with society in any meaningful way except occasionally through their work; this film, then, must represent the virulent nihilistic extreme of that theme. Chuck Barris (as portrayed here) is a parasitic, misanthropic loser of a man who finds success with shows that celebrate in people's humiliation, so it's not that far of a stretch of the imagination that this husk of a man would have no compunction in serving as an assassin. Neophyte director George Clooney nearly bungles this surefire premise by overdirecting the film into stunthood (no wonder Kaufman tried to distance himself). Luckily, he steps back in the second half and lets the story tell itself, which allows the potent thematics to peek through. Acting is uniformly stellar (Drew Barrymore's discovery of Barris's philandering is perfectly underplayed); the final line is a kick in the ass.

Grade: B-
The Cheerleaders (1973)

There just ain't no sleaze quite like '70s sleaze, and what we have here is a prime hunk o' softcore cheddar. Plot is negligent and the acting is awful, but that's not what you come to movies like this for... if you're here, you're here for nudity and lots of it. (The title characters must have the libidos of jackrabbits, since they'll fuck anything that walks.) The material is handled with a light touch (the best way to do this sort of thing) so that it's all fluffy and enjoyable and not overly dull. It's crass and poorly made and indefensible as cinema, true... but I think I liked it anyway.

Grade: C+
Zatoichi's Flashing Sword (1964)

Subpar entry in the Blind Swordsman series has Zatoichi caught between two yakuza bosses (one peaceful, one violent) warring over a river fording. There's a fantastic climactic battle in which Zatoichi goes Travis Bickle on the mean boss's house -- the use of light and shadow, in particular, is eye-popping. Everything else is pretty by-the-numbers, with not enough of either Ichi or his titular weapon.

Grade: B-

Saturday, March 13, 2004

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

Fantastic portrait of McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the early stages of Vietnam. Among other things, it could serve as an object lesson in creating a documentary about a subject you don't agree with or even necessarily like -- it becomes clear early on that director Errol Morris's politics don't see eye to eye with McNamara's, yet he doesn't hector him; rather, he lets his images and cutting tell the story. And McNamara is just a prime subject anyway. Able to express regret about his actions while never quite letting the blame fall on his shoulders, he's a slippery, fascinating man (Bill Clinton ain't got nuthin' on this guy). Ultimately, this is neither a celebration nor a condemnation of McNamara -- it's simply a look at a man who had to make some very tough decisions and may or may not have chosen wisely. Not only a lesson in how difficult it is to actually wield power but also in how easy it is to misuse that power (whether intentionally or inadvertenly), this is stimulating, frightening and unmissable. (Also, it's unexpectantly relevant -- watch for the scene in which McNamara explains that Vietnam failed in part because our allies didn't back us.)

Grade: A
Run Ronnie Run (2003)

Fuck it, just read what Michael Sicinski had to say. I have nothing to add to it. (Well, okay -- the Gay Conspiracy thing was really funny.)

Grade: C
A Day at the Races (1937)

The Marx Brothers, very funny guys, are on top of their game here. The musical numbers are more superfluous than ever. What more do you need to know?

Grade: A-
Student Bodies (1981)

Silly, spotty spoof of first-wave slasher films that nonetheless occasionally scores cheap-n-clever laughs in the vein of a Mad Magazine article. (Best -- and most subtle -- joke: All the females are killed in outrageous, elaborate fashions while the guys are offed the same way every time.) Awful ending, but then someone does get killed with an eggplant so maybe you'd like this anyway.

Grade: C+
The Head Mistress (1968)

Allegedly based on a pair of stories from The Decameron (it's been a while since I've read it, but somehow I think that claim is greatly exaggerated), this cheeky period-nudie romp has quite a bit more going for it than the average 1960s sexploitationer. For one, it's mostly not boring, which is something to be proud of when three-quarters of your film is comprised of people badly simulating the sex act. The girls are attractive, there's a smattering of wit and *gasp!* even something of a plot. Also, there is foot fetishism. Also, there is a horny and homicidal tree.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

School of Rock (2003)

As some people have pointed out, Mike White's screenplay is generic and boring. It's a good thing Jack Black exists in this world, then -- as quite possibly the only actor alive who embodies the spirit of this film, it stands to reason that nobody else could have made this work. If you aren't into Black's mood-swing comedic stylings (he's the only actor I can think of right now who can throw such maniacal intensity into being laid-back), you'd probably want to give this one a miss, but if you do find him funny then there's no film that could possibly be more tailor-made. Funny, charming, fairly irresistible once you pass a certain point (even if Kyle Gass is inexplicably in absentia); also the first film since the 2000 duo of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Dancer in the Dark that understands the mesmeric, transporting power of good music, which should certainly count for something. Plus, Joan Cusack is hysterical -- her rhapsodic joy upon hearing "Edge of Seventeen", or her uncontainable glee when announcing the disappearance of a class of students, is quite something to behold. She actually steals the film away from Jack Black, which is like a 9.9 on the difficulty scale in the Cinematic Humor Olympics. (Quick question for those reading this: What's your current album-of-the-moment? Right now, I'm kind of hung up on Jane Doe by Converge... not sure what that says about my mental state...)

Grade: B+
Matchstick Men (2003)

Movies about con men usually find space in my heart, and this one's no different -- it's shot through with a jittery intensity that keeps expectations on edge even as you realize how low-key the whole thing actually is. The downside to all that edginess is that you know SOMETHING eventually has to happen, and I had the ending more or less mapped out thirty minutes in. So the crackerjack first two acts is slightly let down by the prosaic conclusion (call it the Mamet Eventuality)... but even then, there's a surprisingly touching epilogue, where we realize that the film has been conning us on what it's really trying to show (to borrow a Mamet line, it's about purity). Still nice to see Nicolas Cage returning to the twitchy adventurous stuff he used to do before winning an Oscar gave him a license to mope and blow shit up; Alison Lohman scarily convincing as a fourteen-year-old, considering she's older than I am. Minor, but at least it's better than Confidence.

Grade: B
In the Cut (2003)

There's a couple films like this released every year -- films with obvious merit that get overlooked because everyone's dogpiling their also-glaring flaws. I've been told that Susanna Moore's source novel is unredeemable shit; director/co-writer Jane Campion tackles that problem by ignoring the plot completely. Like Tim Burton with Big Fish, Campion attempts to compensate for her screenplay's shortcomings by aestheticizing the film to within an inch of its existence. It's a stupid, stupid film, yes... but it's also a ravishing and weirdly fascinating one. Lots of strange angles and deliberate uses of out-of-focus shots give the film a quality of a bad dream, and if it's frustrating and oft-pretentious (the literary quotes on the subway were a bad idea) it should also be admired for its audacity. Though a stronger actress may have boosted the film's cause, Meg Ryan does well enough; at the very least, her chemistry with Mark Ruffalo makes the violent swings of the film's central relationship semi-believable. Tries to do too much, and those rare moments when the film deems is necessary to advance the plot are pretty embarrassing; still, it got under my skin. I'll probably end up seeing it again. (Even if Jennifer Jason Leigh is uncharacteristically awful.)

Grade: B-
Lawless Heart (2003)

I hadn't planned on seeing this one until Scott gave it a rave. Would have been my loss, I suppose. It takes its time to find its footing (I'm not real keen on the Bill Nighy stuff), but once it rights itself it's a neat sleeper. Modest, warm, eventually affecting; also, it seems to prove the old maxim "Nobody knows anybody".

Grade: B
Murderous Maids (2002)

Retelling of a famous French true-crime case has merit but suffers from serious narrative momentum problems. The film doesn't really flow -- rather, it lurches about from scene to scene looking for a little coherency. The direction is unobtrusive without feeling sterile, which is always an asset with these dramatizations... but really, the only reason to see this is to catch a whiff of Sylvie Testud's mercurial performance. Switching from stolid to feral in the blink of an eye, she gives the film what little kick it has. Other than that, you're better off watching Heavenly Creatures again.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Out of Time (2003)

About as generic as you'd expect from that blah title. Entertaining enough but incredibly stupid; fortunately, Denzel's considerable charisma and a surprisingly taut middle third keep this from being a waste.

Grade: C+
The Man Without a Past (2003)

Wherefore all the acclaim, people? This film plays like a failed experiment, one where the object is to see how deadpan one can make a comedy without losing the humor. I mean, this stuff makes Jarmusch look positively lively. (The one scene in Stranger than Paradise where Willy tries to explain football to Eva is funnier than this film in its entirety.) There's a couple chuckles along the way but they're drowned by the endless procession of setpieces that clang to the ground without so much as a smirk. It's okay to be wry, but you have to at least be telling jokes before you can have a sense of humor. If, as Mike D'Angelo claims, all Kaurismaki films are essentially the same, don't be surprised if you never see his name here again.

Grade: C
Blue Sunshine (1976)

Dopey would-be thriller about homemade LSD that causes ten-year-later freakouts in those who tried it. Clumsy attempts at drama and social satire keep botching good setups, as if the premise weren't interesting enough on its own without swipes at The Guv'mint. The poor acting is icing on the cake -- the lead is played by softcore empresario Zalman King, and it should tell you all you need to know that his acting is even lousier than his directing.

Grade: C

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

I could talk about the oft-discussed violence quotient (so where exactly is the line between reverence and sadism, Mel?), or I could talk about whether or not the film is anti-Semitic (probably not intentionally, but the Jews don't come out smelling like roses), or I could talk about whether or not the Aramaic was really a good idea (historically accurate, yes, but the actors have a hell of a time with it)... but then, what does any of that really matter? Let's be honest -- this film was made with a specific audience in mind. If you believe that Jesus died for your sins, then you'll probably get something out of this. If you remain skeptical as I do, this movie isn't going to change your mind. It's basically a cinematic revival meeting. You already know if you're going to see it or skip it. You don't need me to tell you anything.

Grade: C
50 First Dates (2004)

A high-concept nightmare of a film -- there's so much setting up of the premise going on here that it takes about halfway through the film before we realize that there hasn't been a single decent joke. It's laborious when it should be uproarious; like much of what he does, this film's for Sandler completists only. (What happened to the deranged mind behind Little Nicky?)

Grade: C
Ivan the Terrible, Part 1 (1945)

Oh, damn. Like nearly all the Russian films I've seen so far, this suffers from a certain amount of stiffness (my kingdom for a Russian film that doesn't move like it's swimming through maple syrup)... but any boredom is easily overcome by Sergei Eisenstein's astonishing command of the cinematic medium. (Has anyone since his death used editing in such a forceful way?) Every shot is worthy of being framed, so why carp about pacing problems?

Grade: A-