Sunday, May 30, 2004

Troy (2004)

I thought this was fairly stirring, surprisingly. It takes its time setting itself up (overlength is a problem), but once it starts humming it's pretty good. The dialogue is sharper than expected, with one good line balancing out every cheesy one, and even the cheeseball dialogue doesn't sound too bad -- the casting director did a fantastic job of corraling a bunch of actors who know exactly how to deliver this high-flown stuff. O'Toole, Bana, Cox and Gleeson are all fabulous, and even Pitt is effective. It's obvious why it failed -- it's awfully dark, cynical and ambiguous for a summer popcorn flick, with the final looting of Troy inspiring horror rather than triumph -- but it was at least worth my nine bucks.

Grade: B
Osama (2004)

Useful as sociological document, but not terribly good as actual cinema. The main problem is that the girl-to-boy ruse is so terribly transparent. I had a hard time believing that even the dimmest Taliban would buy the lead as a boy -- I kept wanting to stick my head into the frame and scream, "At least throw some bass into yer voice, wouldja?" Occasionally nicely shot, mostly inert; I think I would have much rather seen a film about Osama's cocky male friend.

Grade: C+
Songs from the Second Floor (2002)

Singular Swedish film about society in decay. It's essentially a series of vignettes, some loosely connected to each other and some free-standing, and it manages to be both morose and strangely funny, like if Ingmar Bergman and Monty Python had written a screenplay together (and let Tsai Ming-Liang film it). Impeccably filmed and designed, scaborously funny and also more than a bit emotionally overwhelming; occasionally tiresome and/or alienating as well, but that's bound to happen when a film is so idiosyncratic as this one. Can't wait to see what Roy Andersson comes up with next (though, considering this film took four years to complete, I'll probably have to wait quite a while).

Grade: B+
Dementia 13 (1963)

Aside from some visual promise from the then-neophyte Francis Ford Coppola and a really creepy scene involving a woodshed under siege, there's not much to recommend in this logy bit of Gothic tomfoolery. Move it along folks, nothing to see here.

Grade: C

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Tokyo Godfathers (2004)

Fitfully entertaining anime about a homeless trio who stumble upon an abandoned baby. Plotting is way too convenient, but the reliance on coincidence does create a slew of interesting moments. Nicely rendered visuals a plus; finale, wherein the film reveals the depth of its belief in divine redemption and second chances, is affecting.

Grade: B-
Runaway Train (1985)

Overrated action-drama involving a couple of escaped convicts aboard the title vehicle. It's well-directed and has a tight final half-hour (the final image alone is indelible enough to the point where I wish I could recommend the film) but its characters don't earn our sympathy. The real arrow in the heel, though, is the acting -- Jon Voight cuts some thick slices of ham with his one-note performance, but even he looks great next to costar Eric Roberts, whose Southern-fried gee-whiz turn only demonstrates why Julia brings home $20 mil a film while he's lucky if he can score a week below Bruce Vilanch on "Hollywood Squares". The fact that they both picked up Oscar nominations for their work here is something the Academy should be embarrassed about.

Grade: C+
Raw Meat (1973)

Flavorless horror stew elevated by nice camerawork and a corker of a performance by Donald Pleasance. His droll, curt inspector is far more interesting than the film he's in, which has something to do with a rampaging cannibal in the London Underground and a nitwit American college student. Parts of the film show promise (which director Gary Sherman would later make good upon in the great Dead & Buried), but mainly it's Pleasance's show.

Grade: C+

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Elephant (2003)

Gorgeously filmed, yes, and I suppose it's admirable that van Sant doesn't look for scapegoats or easy answers in reference to the causes of Columbine... but then, he does hedge his bets by throwing in visual and verbal references to everything that was accused of inspiring the Columbine killers (except that for some reason he leaves out Marilyn Manson and KMFDM -- licensing problems, maybe?), which muddies the waters somewhat. The problem is that, when boiled down to its essence, this is a sadistic film, a sensitive drama with a slasher-film mentality. But van Sant seems unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge these impulses within the work. (And I'm not just referring to the killings. The thin characterizations lead to some awkward passages -- the bulimia bit, in particular, seems astonishingly flip and cruel.) It leaves the film feeling more than a little morally dishonest. I don't know if there's any correct way to approach this material, but if there is it probably requires the feeling that the director was involved with and cared about the material, rather than letting his camera moves do all the heavy lifting.

Grade: C
All Night Long (1992)

I didn't like Gus van Sant's Elephant, but maybe an unconsciously sadistic film like Elephant is still preferable to an openly sadistic film like this no-hope anthem from Japan (first in a series, amazingly enough). It takes the director exactly ten minutes and one shocking act of violence to paint Japanese society as one of the lower circles of Hell, which left me somewhat unenthused when he continues to bang on that one piano key for the remaining 80. Granted, I've seen and appreciated plenty of dark, nihilistic cinema, but those films either had a sense of humor as strong as my stomach (like Ichi the Killer or Funny Games) or at least had compelling thematic material that leavened the onscreen action somewhat (like Salo or In a Glass Cage). This film has nothing like that. It's merely a record of how life sucks and how everyone around you is out to get you and we're all animals at heart and there's no hope for redemption blah blah blah. It's wretchedly acted and poorly directed, but its ultimate downfall is not that it's deeply unpleasant but that it's also deeply pointless. Anyone who thinks this film says something profound about the human condition needs to get out more.

Grade: D-

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Stuck on You (2003)

Warm, likeable comedy from the now-mellow Farrelly brothers. As much as I despair of ever seeing them do something as caustically funny as Kingpin again, I have to admit that this new sweater fits them well -- their freaks-and-geeks humanism fits better into a cheery template than into a nasty one. (Shallow Hal tried to split the difference and ended up doing nothing right.) Game performances elevate the oft-wispy material (I've said it once and I'll say it again -- Matt Damon is underrated). If it's not as funny as There's Something About Mary, it still does create two characters whom the audience cares about (and who aren't nearly as dumb as the trailer made them out to be) and the laughs it does get feel organic rather than isolated. Its box-office failure was undeserved.

Grade: B+
Gojira (1954)

Who woulda thunk it... the entire kaiju genre was born from a somber art film. Certainly interesting from a historical standpoint, with much finer production values than the Big G's legacy would lead you to believe. But the restoration of the original Japanese cut brings to light a dirty little secret -- the progenitor of every giant-rubber-monster movie isn't fun, it's boring. The characters are thinly sketched, the tone is awkward (let's face it, no matter how you try, it's incredibly difficult to make a serious film involving a 200-foot lizard) and every third word is 'H-bomb'. (Turns out Godzilla isn't a hidden metaphor for The Bomb; no, he's a big fat honking symbol. Might as well have slapped a blinking neon sign on his forehead that read "NUCLEAR WAR, BITCHES!") Admittedly, it is a professional job, and the big setpiece where Godzilla emerges from the ocean and toasts Tokyo is chilling and unforgettable. But what a disappointment, really.

Grade: C+
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

He's a friend to children! He's here to save us! He's a giant turtle with tusks and fire breath and rockets in his ass! He's Gamera, motherfucker! How can you not love him? Hits that deep-guilty-pleasure spot buried somewhere in the brain while also genuinely not being too bad as these things go. (The sequels are apparently even better.) The monster suits and visual FX are also much better than you'd expect. Bogs down in the middle, what with the psychic linkage and the long speeches about environmentalism and the no Gamera action, but it rallies for a rip-snorting finale. Best line: "Someday I'll show you around a monster-free Tokyo." Now isn't that just the greatest pickup line ever? Next time I'm in a bar, I'm using that.

Grade: B-

Monday, May 10, 2004

Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004)

Follow-up to the 2001 sleeper gem sails through even darker waters, with addiction and need popping up as motifs. Like the first, it's a parable cloaked as a horror film -- this time, it's about the things we do to escape the pain of our realities. (If the first film, in tackling puberty, is really about fear about change and an uncertain future, this then must represent the life after the changes -- coming to terms with oneself and dealing with things that come back to haunt us.) Acting is fairly variable, but Emily Perkins is fabulous in the lead role. (Katherine Isabelle pops up in some bits, and although she's extraneous I think she's hot and talented so I'm not gonna complain.) Direction is quite accomplished, with a nice haunted quality about many of the visuals -- God, I wish I'd been able to see this on a large screen. Seems to lose its way a bit in the second act when Bridgette and Ghost run off together, but the film's only setting us up for the nasty finale. Less humorous, harder to shake off... all in all, a worthy sequel.

Grade: B+
Spellbound (1945)

Silly, psychologically naive potboiler produced during Hitchcock's years as a slave to David O. Selznick. That it works at all is due to the Master's extraordinary formal command and his expert building of suspense -- the scene with Gregory Peck and the straight razor should be shown in film schools everywhere as a directorial model to emulate. A fine performance by Ingrid Bergman helps offset the somewhat bland one by Peck. Gotta love that Dali dream sequence...

Grade: C+
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

Unusually exposition-heavy for a samurai-sword affair, which makes the first half somewhat rough going. Stick with it, though -- the second half (where we get on with the story proper) is far better, climaxing in a battle so over-the-top that it's brilliant. The next installments in this series should by all rights be completely fucking awesome.

Grade: B+
Long Time Dead (2003)

Gah. This movie comes out about a thousand times a year. Sometimes it's better, sometimes it's worse. Most of the time it's just about as crappy as this one turned out to be. I decided to watch it only for Lara Belmont, who's done nothing of note since her scorching turn in Tim Roth's The War Zone. Once I got over that, though, my interest waned and I gave in after 45 minutes. I think I made the right choice.

Grade: none

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2004)

Simple, gorgeous Buddhist parable about the cyclical nature of both Nature and Life. Lest that make it sound like a boring slog through Monktown, let me remind you that the director is Kim Ki-Duk, a Korean filmmaker best known for his punishing examinations of human depravity (i.e. The Isle). What's most interesting is that he hasn't left his obsession with man's darker impulses behind; rather, he's worked them into a film that allows for comment on that side of humanity while still remaining both a compelling narrative and avoiding a descent into tiresome sadism. This film makes me want to learn more about Buddhism.

Grade: B+
The Twilight Samurai (2004)

Perfectly acceptable samurai drama about a low-level retainer whose social stock improves, for better and worse, when he demonstrates some heretofore unknown fighting skills. Sometimes feels like a Japanese version of a Tradition-of-Quality film, especially in the closing minutes when the voiceover narration goes Road to Perdition on us, but pretty good anyway. Solid performances help, as does a grim finale featuring one of the most desperate swordfights I've seen since Rashomon.

Grade: B
Twentynine Palms (2004)

Quite deceptive, this one. For a long while, it comes off like a screwier version of Gerry -- one where the protagonists drove around instead of walking and fucked a lot instead of getting lost. Gradually, though, the film starts to pay attention to its characters, and that's when the getting gets good. Bruno Dumont hasn't exactly been renowned for his realistic depictions of humanity, so it's a shock to see a film with his name on it that has two leads that could pass for members of the human race. And what characters they are -- he's a location scout, she's a sullen French girl along for the ride, and apparently all they have in common is their bestial approach to the sex act. And yet, they're together. Their relationship feels combustible from the start, so naturally there's gonna be some tension... but what's both impressive and horribly effective about this film is the cruel and precise way it depicts this particular union. There's a cycle of affection and rejection that feels inescapable and completely true (compounded by the language barrier -- he speaks only rudimentary French and she apparently speaks no English), and the film's hypnotic power comes from simple repetition in the absence of action. Or, to put it another way, I started having a serious visceral reaction to the film when I realized that underneath all the quiet long-shot, long-take scenes of the two driving around and eating and fucking and attempting to communicate, we were witnessing two people who were ready to blow apart. Something was BOUND to happen. And yet, when it does... well, duck and cover. The ending is the demarcation line between the love-it and hate-it camp, and while I myself have issues with it (mainly with the first 'occurance', which feels contrived), it still leaves me with feelings of horror and dread. (After the credits rolled, I had to call my mother just so I could have somebody bring me down.) And should I penalize a film for questionable methods if the end result is still stunning? So yeah... I recommend this wholeheartedly even though everyone I know will probably hate it. Enjoy the langueur while you can... just never forget that Dumont, essentially, wants to tear your head off and shit down your neck.

Grade: A-
The Saddest Music in the World (2004)

I think I've figured out why I never quite warmed to Guy Maddin -- I'd never seen one of his films in a theater before. Heavily stylized, with spastic editing and grainy cinematography that can appear washed out and indistinct on a dinky TV screen, his films are pretty much designed to be seen on in a large format or not at all. So, on the evidence of this film, I can see how I'd be a fan of the guy. The opening fifteen minutes are as funny and weird as anything I'm likely to see this year and twice as visually inspired; eventually, the film does run out of ideas (at the rate ideas are devoured here, it's no surprise) but then there is still the sight of Isabella Rossellini tap-dancing with glass legs filled with beer. The dialogue is comprised mainly of non sequitors, most of which are priceless (Theo cites the line about Siam, which pretty much says it all); meanwhile, Mark McKinney not only gets most of the best lines but happily has also finally found a place where his smarmy Kids-in-the-Hall demeanor is a perfect fit.

Grade: B
Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

Ninth entry in the series is on a par with most of the rest, which means it's fine entertainment with action and humor galore. Attempts at pathos this time by featuring twin father searches don't always work out, but it's nice to see someone trying -- in fact, the final battle here proves oddly affecting after an angry Ichi proclaims he just wanted to be left alone for once.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Christine (1983)

Starts out so well, with pungent dialogue and sharp characterization, that it's a letdown when the killer car stuff finally comes around and the film shifts into horror-flick formula. Still, it's finely acted and well-directed and pretty much overall worth seeing.

Grade: B
Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Striking Sisyphean parable involving an entomologist, a lonely widow, some enterprising villagers and a whole lot of sand. The gorgeous (though occasionally murky, though that may be a drawback of the DVD transfer) photography buoys up the impeccable dramatics, and the performers are more than able. Pacing and score often recall the extraordinary stylization of Noh drama, but unlike that acquired-taste art form this shit translates universally.

Grade: A-
Blowup (1966)

This is the first Antonioni I've seen in full (I slept through most of L'Avventura), and can I say that his reputation led me to expect something that I didn't get here? I'll admit, I was dreading something that was somber, dated and boring as ass. So this spry and involving tale caught me off-guard. It's thoughtful without being logy, plus it's quite tense, with the fact that the plot adds up to zero doing not a thing to harm the effect the film has. (I experienced this quite recently with another, newer film as well, and I'll write about that one in the next day or two.) And it's about as close to visually perfect as a film can get, so it's got that going for it too. Yeah, I'm impressed.

Grade: A-
Drive (1997)

Wild, loopy action extravaganza starts off hot and doesn't stop to breathe along the way. Mark Dacascos, the star, isn't much of an actor but he shows off some serious martial arts skills (as well as a refreshing willingness to kid around with himself -- he does karaoke at one point!); meanwhile, Kadeem Hardison manages to be not-overly-annoying as the requisite comic relief guy. Seriously warped dialogue is a plus (best line: "That guy could eat flour and shit cupcakes!"). Biggest plus, though, is Brittany Murphy (back in her quirky-character-actress phase) as a Lolita-esque motel manager named Deliverance... her character and performance seem to have wandered in from a Russ Meyer flick and her parting line is "I'd rock your uvula!" What's not to love? To the point, this is unreasonably fun stuff. If this had gotten the 2500-screen rollout it deserved rather than being dumped straight to video, Mark Dacascos would be one of the biggest action stars in America.

Grade: A-