Thursday, April 22, 2004

demonlover (2003) [second viewing]

I've never done such a drastic about-face on a film as I'm going to do here. What seemed like a secondhand Videodrome for the Internet age at first glance is apparently working along different lines than what I'd expected (no coincidence that the media-influencing-life portion of the film is confined mainly to the final fifteen minutes). It's a film about corruption, whether it be corporate corruption, corruption of the sex act or corruption of the soul -- everyone in the film is spiritually, emotionally and morally bankrupt. (And that's to say nothing of the narrative, which rarely plays according to logic.) Also, it's about power and the futility of the individual trying to exert oneself within the structure of a larger organization -- what's everyone trying to do besides keep Connie Nielsen -- who functions as this story's free radical -- under control? So there's that... but besides, it's an extraordinarily well-directed film. (How I missed the shivery power of the party scene, with Nielsen gliding through the room accompanied by Death in Vegas's "Dirge", I do not know.) Olivier Assayas gives the impression of knowing exactly what he's doing; even as the film appears to slip away from him, there's something in the back of your head that's whispering that this is where the story was meant to end up. Little bits still puzzling (what's with the scene in the parking garage? is it intimated near the end that Diane and Elise have switched places on the corporate ladder? does Gina Gershon die or what?), but the whole picture suddenly makes more sense -- it's like one of those 3D painting-dealies that I finally stared at long enough to see the image. Stylish, cool, possibly dangerous... this is really quite something.

Grade: A- [upgraded from a C]
The Phantom of the Opera (1929) [review refers to the commercially-available silent reissue cut, not the rare 1925 original]

Tense and well-directed rendering of the classic tale, with an rightly famous turn by Lon Chaney as the title character. The unmasking scene is still kickass, as is the climactic romp through the catacombs and the ball scene (with Chaney showing up as Poe's Red Death, which looks even better in the two-strip Technicolor that was added to the 1929 version). Probably my favorite silent horror film thus far (just edging out The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).

Grade: B+
The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

In discussing this, I have to say that I feel like one of the apes in 2001, hooting and jabbering and something beyond my comprehension. This film is an experimental look at a day in the life of Russian society circa the Lenin era, and as such it's kind of a big fat valentine to socialism (though there are some sly digs at the system's inequalities -- the most pointed is the cross-cutting of a woman bathing from a chamber pot and a garbage can being hosed off). But that's not what matters. What does matter is that the film is also restlessly inventive and exciting in its still-groundbreaking use of montage and juxtaposition, with the breakneck rhythm of the film being matched by a perfectly rendered musical score. It's more or less a feature-length Ballet Mechanique except even better. Or, to put it another way, watching this is like being shot in the ass with a lightning bolt. After viewing this, you'll have enough energy to swim across the Atlantic Ocean. (What was I saying about Russian cinema being slow?...) Fucking awesome, this one.

Grade: A
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

Um, yuck. I mean, I'm a sucker for cheap melodrama, but the blah tear-jerker crud on display here wouldn't fetch fifty cents at a garage sale. Apart from Lon Chaney's fine performance, there's nothing to recommend here (the sad-clown character had to be a cliche even in the '20s), and in fact there's one glaring misstep that makes this film go down like a gasoline cocktail: Apparently, the standard love triangle wasn't interesting enough for the writers, so they threw in a kink by having the Chaney character pine for the love of a girl he found orphaned at the age of three and subsequently raised as his own daughter. Yes, folks, this film is about vicarious incest. And nobody in the film finds time to comment on this repellent notion -- not even the female lead, who responds to the revelation of Chaney's feelings with joy instead of something along the lines of "Um, you know, you're like my dad. You saw me through childhood and puberty and my first period and all that. So, um, get the fuck away from me you fucking pervert." Funny how injecting taboo subject matter into an innocuous formula drama can prove fatal...

Grade: D+

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004)

The first half was schlock rendered so ecstatically that it damn near approached art; this installment, on the other hand, decides to obliterate the line completely so that culture and kitsch become one and the same thing. Tarantino's distilled a lifetime full of second-tier cinema into one (okay, really two) phenomenal package(s), and at least with this one he's done so without forgetting the sly heartfeltness that makes Pulp Fiction more than just a B-fiction homage. His visual capacity is undiminished, and his confidence is such that now he can do things like transform two solid minutes of black screen into riveting drama, or shoot a flashback in the rough style of early-80's kung fu cinema and make it work as more than just a fanboy joke. His talent with actors is still unmatched by all but a handful of directors, as well -- I mean, we knew David Carradine was good (and he is ever-so-good here, with his distinct voice savoring every nasty syllable), but who the fuck thought Darryl Hannah could do what she does here? What finally elevates this film above its predecesor is the fact that it's thinking about something beyond its own badassness; the look on Uma's face as she confronts... well, something (though it's really not much of a surprise, I'd forgotten about the plot point in question by the time it became important)... says more about the ambivalence of revenge than all of, say, Last House on the Left. And if you don't believe me, note the similar look on her face when she finally offs Bill (or just take note of exactly how she offs him). I may see 'better' films this year, but I doubt I'll see one more purely enjoyable or enthralling.

Grade: A
Hellboy (2004)

Big fat disappointment, this one -- it's well-directed and contains a spot-on performance from Ron Perlman but has indifferent supporting actors (has Selma Blair ever been worse than she is here?) and a screenplay that is, to be frank, gopher shit. Like its title character, it's a crude beastly thing that lumbers and lurches from one thing to another with no sense of pacing. The climax is criminally blase.

Grade: C
So Close (2003)

And yet so far away -- isn't that always the case? This HK Charlie's Angels-inspired flick has some decent action scenes (especially in the final quarter), but its character scenes are too bland and maudlin to support the silly plot. For the record, Zhao Wei and Karen Mok are both hot.

Grade: C+
The Man on the Train (2003)

Something does eventually happen in this film, right? I waded through about half an hour before I decided that I'd seen too many mediocrities lately and gave up; judging from the opinions of some of the people I trust, I don't think I made the wrong decision.

Grade: none
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)

Occasionally amusing, mostly desperate and annoying; has there ever been a comedian with Peter Sellers's talent who did so many worthless movies?

Grade: C
Supervixens (1975)

Not up to Russ Meyer's usual standards, due to both an elongated running time that Meyer simply didn't have enough inspiration or incidence to fill it with (most Meyer movies run shy of 80 minutes; this one tops off at 105) and a strange tonal clash between the material and the way it's handled. Almost everyone in this film is rotten to the core, and even gestures of kindness eventually sour into anger and violence, yet the film still plays out in the traditional jaunty hyperbolic Meyer style. It's a mean and spiteful film trying to masquerade as a fluffy and silly one, and it makes for some singularly strange viewing. The last half hour is first-rate, but the rest not so much. Really for Meyer completists and Charles Napier fans and nobody else.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

My dislike for Reloaded pales in comparison to the disgust and loathing I feel for this travesty. Takes pretty much everything that was shitty about its predecesor and cranks it up to full blast -- the only sequence that really works (and the only reason the grade below is as high as it is -- I was tempted to go even lower) is the siege on Zion, primarily because there's no slo-mo, no gravity-defying, no bullet time and especially no long-winded would-be philosophical jibberjabber. The rest of the film chokes on its own pretentious logorrhea.

Grade: D+
The Rundown (2003)

In contrast to the growing wave of self-serious actionstravaganzas like The Matrix Revolutions, this is a film that remembers what an action spectacle is supposed to do -- provide the audience with a sense of fun. Messr. Rock has a surprising amount of screen presence (like the film, he's both good-natured and badass), and his sense of professionalism keeps the film grounded even when it flies off into Warner-esque fits of exaggeration. The occasional bursts of serious weirdness are much appreciated, and the comic relief characters are more entertaining than usual -- Christopher Walken, in particular, gives his oddest and funniest performance in some time. Your money would be well-spent just to hear him nattering on about the Tooth Fairy. Gets excessive near the end, as these things are wont to do, but hey -- it kept me entertained.

Grade: B
The Missing (2003)

There is no earthly reason that this stupid movie should run 135 minutes. Let me in that editing room, and we'd have an 80-minute mediocrity instead of the endless patience-trying crapwagon that Ron Howard has cooked up here. As far as these things go, it's nowhere near as interesting as, say, the Ministry song of the same name.

Grade: C-
Marathon (2004)

Every big city is noisy in its own particular way, and this film evokes the specific clatter of New York City better than any other film I can recall. Too bad that's about all it does. It's about a young woman who tries to complete 78 crossword puzzles in 24 hours while riding the NYC subways, and if that premise doesn't sound terribly cinematic you'd be right. Attempts at psychological complexity fall short of the mark, though lead Sara Paul does try her hardest. When you get down to it, it's kind of like watching a screensaver -- vaguely boring and vaguely hypnotic in the same breath. Of course, it must be recognized that I am an enthusiast of both NYC and crossword puzzles... so your reaction may be significantly less charitable.

Grade: C
Manhattan (1979)

Woody in his prime, so of course I dug it. The treatment of the relationship between him and Mariel Hemingway left a slight uneasy feeling with me, but then Ms. Hemingway does get the film's fantastic closing line so maybe it's a wash. Gorgeous cinematography, sharp dialogue, believable dramatics, fine acting... what else is there?

Grade: A-
Band of Outsiders (1964)

The heist film filtered through the idiosyncratic vision of Jean-Luc Godard. I was apprehensive about this after my last exposure to the world of Jean-Luc, but thankfully this is more akin to Breathless than Two or Three Things.... Godard's in a playful mood, and he's not trying to change the world or anything -- he's just out to make a movie that screws with the conventions of crime drama. And considering how deliriously entertaining the results are (a minute of silence! the dance sequence! the ladder! Anna Karina!), I'm suddenly okay with the French New Wave again.

Grade: A-
The Conqueror Worm (1968)

The second acclaimed Vincent Price movie in a row I've seen (after The Masque of the Red Death) whose appeal truly escapes me; yes, Price is good but the rest of the film is unfocused and, frankly, boring as ass. The bland leads don't help matters, and neither does a fifteen-minute stretch of film in the middle that seems comprised of nothing but various people on horses. No thanks in my opinion, etc. etc.

Grade: C
Dario Argento's World of Horror (1985)

The kind of hagiographic 'documentary' that DVD special features have made obsolete. About half the film is comprised of footage from various Dario-directed or -produced works, and the rest is a smattering of behind-the-scenes footage and snippets of a not-terribly-informative interview with ol' Dario. Not so much bad as it is staggeringly inessential, though no film with the cuteness that is Jennifer Connelly (even 14-year-old Jennifer) can be considered a total loss.

Grade: C
Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

A return to form for the long-running series, and one in which we get to see the softer side of the swordsman, as the plot involves him taking an orphaned baby under his wing. Eventually, a female pickpocket joins the two as a nanny of sorts, and the oddball family dynamics provide both merriment and pathos. Oh yeah... there's lots of quality swordfighting too (in the old-school style this time around -- no blood gushers or anything). So this one's solid.

Grade: B+

Friday, April 02, 2004

The Ladykillers (2004)

Starts out quite funny, but the paper-thin caricatures that we get for characters grow wearying very quickly, and the running jokes that tend to be the linchpins in the Coens' comedic endeavors are mostly lame and underthought here -- I mean, really... irritable bowel syndrome? Who thought that was funny? (I will admit, though, that I laughed my balls off at the unstated punchline to the Bob Jones University thread.) Tom Hanks and (especially) Irma Hall are game and turn in fine performances, but they're let down by the material; Marlon Wayans is supremely irritating and his character could get the Coens accused of racism if A) everyone in the film weren't equally one-dimensional and B) I didn't suspect that the film is really a sly dig at the tradition of Southern gentility serving as a mask for racism. The first Coen Brothers film that I've advised people to skip.

Grade: C+
Raja (2004)

Engrossing saga of the impossible relationship between a middle-aged Frenchman living in Morocco and his nineteen-year-old maid. In particular, it makes better use of language barriers than any film in recent memory (the writer/director is canny enough to have both characters realize that, since the other can't understand them, they can simply state their desires out loud and try to go from there). Somewhat frustrating in its later stages (this is one seriously confused coupling) but extremely well-acted, realistic and thoughtful; just quite good, actually.

Grade: B+
Society (1989)

As usual, Bryan Yuzna bollockses up a great and thematically loaded premise with poor pacing, indifferent acting and hack-level direction. The climax is pretty mind-bending, what with Screaming Mad George's awesome makeup effects stretching people and turning them inside out and whatnot, but it's not enough to rescue this thing from suckhood. This just screams, "Remake me!"

Grade: C
Righting Wrongs (1986)

Hong Kong kung-fu flick about a lawyer who turns vigilante after two crime bosses are sprung when a witness gets slaughtered, this is seriously uneven stuff, with great fight scenes mixed with a lazily laid-out plot, rampant '80s production values and that weird Asian-film tendency to jam-pack otherwise serious films with head-splittingly awful comic relief (this time around from an incompetent cop named Bad Egg). But just hang on until the last half hour, when the film belatedly finds its balls and follows its futility-of-vengeance thematics to the bitter end. Also, it's worth seeing just to find out why Cynthia Rothrock was considered such a big flying deal back in the '80s and early '90s; the scene where she restrains four men with one pair of handcuffs deserves some kind of special award or something.

Grade: B-
Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)

Jesus Christ, this movie sucks. I mean, you wouldn't think a Japanese movie about a gelatinous alien who takes over people's bodies through vagina-like orifices in their heads could be boring... but then, you haven't seen this obnoxious and endless piece of shit. Intermittently funny, and the ending is mildly interesting, but really... the only thing that could have helped this film was Mike and the 'bots. (Meanwhile, a friend of mine was spanning time with a pretty and personable young lady in another room. Story of my life.)

Grade: C-