Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Well, come on... you all knew I was going to like this. It's not Moore's strongest film, not by a longshot -- it feels less focused than his better films, and it also features some heinous attempts at audience manipulation (mainly the material involving Lila Lipscomb, which passes from moving into grotesque). And, as others have pointed out, a lot of what he's brought up isn't exactly revelatory. But it's still consistently engaging, with a notable lack of Moore shtick (he has the good sense to mostly stay out of this material's way) and some stunning on-the-scene footage -- it's incredible, given his reputation, the kinds of things that people allow Moore to film. Most disturbing is a ride-around with two Marine recruiters -- you'd think these guys were selling Amway. It won't exactly make you proud to be an American, but it's worth a look.

Grade: B
Eurotrip (2004)

First half-hour or so is actually quite funny (Matt Damon, of all people, has a great bit), but once the trip actually starts the film collapses into a lifeless compendium of ugly-American jokes, each one more obvious and telegraphed than the one preceding it. I laughed fairly consistently through the first act and then maybe twice more for the remainder of the film. Granted, that still means it's funnier than the majority of teen comedies (including its ostensible inspiration, Road Trip), but then I say that like it's something to be proud of.

Grade: C
The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Well, it's certainly like nothing you've ever seen before. The trouble is that it's so wrapped up in its own sensibilities that it seems to be telling jokes that only it can understand. Too determinedly weird to ignore but too insular to enjoy, this qualifies as a curio. (And before anyone says anything, I realize that I also just described Songs from the Second Floor. All I can say is that it's a matter of tone, I guess.) The eye-catchingly grotesque animation design is a plus.

Grade: C+
Read My Lips (2002)

Stylish and empty attempt at a thriler (doesn't that describe almost everything Vincent Cassel shows up in?) that gets less interesting the longer it stretches its silly plot. (Somehow I can't give myself over to a film in which the plot swings on its characters' inability to use drapes.) If this had been American, it would have gone straight to video instead of clogging up our arthouses.

Grade: C
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

The kind of film that reduces me to incoherent babbling from loving it so much. Gorgeous period detail, sparkling performances and above all the kind of sharp, ludicrously stylized pulp dialogue that I simply cannot resist. It's every bit the masterwork you've heard it is.

Grade: A
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Three words: Gods of Death. 'Nuff said.

Grade: B+

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

A step down from the previous two films, due to problems with overplotting; still seriously awesome when the swords come out, though. One of the few samurai films I've seen to make explicit the spaghetti-western influence on the genre. The last duel, where Itto is asked to explain what it is to be a true warrior, is breathtaking and beautiful.

Grade: B
The Witches Attack (1964)

Lesser entry in the Santo oevre concerns a coven of witches that menace Santo and two friends of his... over and over and over. Every fifteen minutes or so, the film resets itself and plays through variations on the central conflict (witches kidnap somebody, Santo beats up some henchmen, Santo drives away the witches). There's some fringe-benefit lunacy (most notably, there's a fake spider that rivals the one in Nude for Satan for sheer goofiness), and as usual there's lots of juicy brawling action... but this one's just for completists.

Grade: C+

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

I hate to belabor a point, but seeing this so soon after catching up with the first two only points up how limited Chris Columbus's abilities behind the camera really are -- Alfonso Cuaron's work here is so fluid and visually dynamic that it feels like it comes from a different series altogether. His skill with actors is more pronounced as well, which leads to the best acting work seen in the series thus far. The story feels too big for its container, resulting in a hectic third act that leaves one or two strings blowing in the wind, but this is still the best Harry Potter film to date. In a fuckin' walk.

Grade: B
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Better than its predecesor, if only because everyone seems more at ease here. Stronger plotting too, with less of a need to introduce all the series's standard tropes and more of an ability to forge ahead assuming the audience already knows who so-and-so is; still, it's hampered by the patented Columbus-style button-mashing and a slack third act.

Grade: B-
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

The first installment in the wizardly series has everything one could hope for -- sumptuous production design, faithfulness to the source material, a star-packed cast, talented people behind the camera... everything, it seems, except a pulse. At no time does it feel like anything beyond a really expensive tie-in product to the best-selling novel. Surely the hiring of hack extraordinaire Chris Columbus didn't help this transcend its literary roots, but then neither does both the lacksadasical plotting and the obvious inexperience of its central cast members. The opening half hour is insufferable -- it plays like bad Roald Dahl. Things do get better from there, but not enough to warrant interest; best taken as a very long prelude and nothing else.

Grade: C
Control Room (2004)

Compelling documentary is ostensibly about the Saudi news channel al-Jazeera and its coverage of the Iraq-America war, but in showing us the other side's media coverage it becomes a treatise on media bias in general (if nothing else, this film exists to prove the adage about there being three sides to every story). Direction is rightfully unobtrusive; potshots at Donald Rumsfeld are cheap but also well-deserved.

Grade: B+
Le Corbeau (1943)

I would like to state for the record that Clouzeau is a goddamn genius. Thanks.

Grade: A-
Roxanna (1970)
Roxanna (2002)

What the fuck was Seduction Cinema thinking? The 1970 version is an ambitious skin-flick curio that would be worth a look had SC not crapped all over it by adding a new soundtrack. The score isn't bad, truthfully; the problem here is SC's decision to overlay the film's often-striking visuals and surprisingly sophisticated usage of crosscutting with the worst voiceover narration EVER. The young lady doing the narration sounds both snide and incredibly bored, and by the film's end she seems to be talking about something else entirely. I realize it's probably unfair to rate a film based only upon a mutilated version, but I gotta call 'em as I see 'em. At the very least, this might warn off someone who was interested in seeing this piece of historic erotica.

Oh, and the 2002 remake has one amusing dialogue exchange between Misty Mundae and Darian Caine. Otherwise it's complete garbage -- the longest 35 minutes of your life.

"1970" version: C-
2002 version: D-

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Schramm (1993)

With this film, Jorg Buttgereit has taken twenty minutes of material and stretched it out to an hour and five minutes... but magically, he's managed to make that hour feel like twelve hours! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you relativity in action! Not as unpleasant or disturbing (or even interesting) as its defenders claim, with a labored and crude 'style' that only demonstrates that Buttgereit, for all his enthusiasm, isn't very talented; you know a film has problems when the nicest thing I can think to say about it is that it's not as bad as Nekromantik 2.

Grade: C-
Zatoichi's Revenge (1965)

This one's a little formulaic to rank with the better episodes. We all know how the story's gonna go at this point in the series, and to be honest the film's attempt at making its villains more loathsome than usual starts to feel like button-pushing. The plot lays it on a bit thick too, so much that one subplot (Zatoichi being framed for the murder of a government official) never gets resolved. But you know what? It's still a Zatoichi movie. Bonus points for the character of Denroku, one of the more enjoyable examples of Asian-movie comic relief I've seen.

Grade: B

Monday, June 14, 2004

Japanese Story (2004)

Narrative derailment rarely comes more unfiltered than it does in this film, wherein a perfectly good film about two strangers watching their animosity turn into lust gets interrupted by A Big Life-Changing Event. To be fair, there's some good stuff in the first half, especially once the culture-clash nonsense subsides. And it's gorgeously filmed. (I think it's become clear that after this, Gerry, Twentynine Palms and Spring, Summer and the Others, I am officially a fan of striking nature photography.) But once A Big Life-Changing Event occurs, oh dear. The film becomes maudlin and stupid, with Toni Collette giving a performance that borders on the embarrassing. Imagine Twentynine Palms remade as a Lifetime movie, with the former's sense of subtlety and menace replaced by weepiness and a mistrust of the audience's intelligence (the film blatantly gives away its Big Life-Changing Event in the very first scene), and you're almost there.

Grade: C
Torque (2004)

An improvement over The Fast and the Furious, if only because this film is flashier and it doesn't even pretend to care about its plot or dialogue (there's even a quick jab at one of Furious's most notorious lines of dialogue, which Jenny should appreciate if she ever sees this). The sensibility at work here seems to be Neal H. Moritz has a three-way with Hype Williams and Russ Meyer (the dialogue is pure pulp Meyer, so overbaked that it scrapes genius), and I'll be damned if it isn't a lot of fun. Yeah, it's silly and illogical and nothing more than a glorified B-movie... but when did we become so critical of B-movies? I still dig 'em.

Grade: B-
Cinemania (2003)

Is this a straight documentary, or is it a coded warning to all aspiring cinephiles? Maybe a little bit of both. There's an awful lot of surreptitious pointing-and-laughing going on here, I think, and I can't shake the feeling that this would have been better off as a 45-minute piece on HBO's "America Undercover" or something. But to paraphrase Rilo Kiley, when it's on it's really fuckin' on. And the fascinating obsessiveness of the participants often results in pure gold whether or not the filmmakers think they're fools.

Grade: B-
Billy Liar (1963)

Everyone loves this film but me, I guess. Overall, it's not bad -- it's well put together, with some amusing fantasy sequences and a palpable sense of disenfranchisement (Billy is the Angry Young Man's answer to Walter Mitty). And Julie Christie is luminous. However, Billy is just such a jerk a lot of the time that it took me out of the narrative many times -- am I really supposed to care about this prat? I mean, jesus. The last half-hour makes this worth seeing, but I still don't understand why all the acclaim.

Grade: B-

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Broken Lizard's Club Dread (2004)

This one's a crushing disappointment (I have practically all of Super Troopers committed to memory). I think the problem is that the Broken Lizard boys have way too much respect for the horror genre for this to properly work as a comedy, but their tongue is too far in their cheek for it to work as a straight horror film. Horror comedies are one of the most difficult things to pull off anyway (I can only think of two off the top of my head that work as both -- The Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and when the laughs dry up completely during the final half hour in favor of actual story wrap-up, it's hard not to feel disheartened. Some good, absurd jokes early on (I liked the live-action Pac-Man maze in particular), and Bill Paxton runs away with the film as Coconut Pete, and Kevin Heffernan has some nice moments as Zen masseuse Lars (the anti-Farva, basically)... but still. Why'd this hafta suck, guys?

Grade: C
Gozu (2003)

Okay, um... whoa. Weird even by Takashi Miike's standards, this psychosexual straight-faced comedy/horror flick is pretty much the film he's been leading up to his whole career. Functions as a summation/restatement of every theme and visual trope he's ever handled, with some extra-special funky mojo laid on top. Unfortunately, it's also crippled by his major weakness -- he never really knows when to quit, leading to a film that's about thirty minutes longer than the material calls for. The sexual dynamics of the script are, for my money, pretty clearly deliniated -- it's a homosexual awakening complicated by a longing for the normal, vanilla-style sex generally associated with commitment and all that jazz (note that the hero seems genuinely repulsed by the rampant perverse acts going on around him), though the waters are muddied enough where I can see how some people would disagree. Still worth recommending despite all the dead air in the second half, if only for the indescribable wrap-up.

Grade: B-
The Big Easy (1987)

Lives and dies by the strength of its characters (the plot's pretty pro forma); fortunately, it's got some excellent characters and some damn fine actors playing them. Nice sense of place too, even if it has not a damn thing to do with the real New Orleans. It helps that I'm a sucker for crooked-cop thrillers.

Grade: A-
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Thoughtful examination of the duality of Jesus's nature. Its ambition is impressive as it puzzles out what it would mean to be both fully human and fully divine, but it goes beyond that to also implicitly ask the audience what, exactly, is the meaning of divinity? Scorsese's modern approach to the material is initially off-putting (Harvey Keitel, in particular, takes some getting used to), but once you settle into the film's rhythm it's quite something. More affecting and intelligent than Mel Gibson's blunt instrument, anyway...

Grade: B+
Nude on the Moon (1962)

Two astrounauts go to the moon and discover a nudist colony... just like real life! Okay, yeah, this is indefensible. It's poorly shot, badly acted and really quite dull (the film runs 70 minutes, yet it takes half an hour for the first topless woman to show up). But then, there is another portion of my brain that wanted this entire review to read "BOOBIES! BOOBIES! BOOBIES!" So, it's your call. Extra-credit auteurist observation: Though this is a Doris Wishman film, I was surprised to notice a distinct lack of shots showing either potted plants or people's feet. Then again, this was fairly early in her career.

Grade: C
Viva La Muerte (1970)

Fuck this film. My first experience with Fernando Arrabal's work wasn't exactly a walk in the park, but it was far more interesting than this ugly clusterfuck. Saddled with a jejune story and dream sequences rendered in primitive, poorly-filtered videography (seriously, the fantasy sequences are unwatchable), this flick is wholly undeserving of its acclaim. Arrabal appears to be the surrealist answer to Gregg Araki, covering up his lack of ideas with scatology and transgression. I made it fifty minutes before I gave up. You shouldn't have to.

Grade: none