Friday, August 20, 2004

Collateral (2004)

Intriguing dark-night-of-the-soul action drama from Michael Mann. Merely decent script buoyed by stellar performances (Foxx is getting all the attention, but I was more impressed by Cruise's total disappearance into his role) and restless, lively direction (this marks one of the few times I've been impressed by DV photography).

Grade: B+
The Bank Dick (1940)

Not as funny as most people seem to think (the anti-structure, rather than feeding the comedy, works against it most times), but still quite rousing. Great car-chase finale.

Grade: B
Winter Kills (1979)

Clumsy, overbearing attempt at satire with a rare bad performance from Jeff Bridges. The film improves a bit in its later stages, and John Huston's aggresively weird performance is something else. He's not enough to keep the film from being tiresome, sadly.

Grade: C

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Before Sunset (2004)

This has all the strengths of the previous film (the dialogue is sharp, the characters are likeable, the sparks are noticeable, the scenery is pretty), but it also tones down the heedless romanticism of the first endeavor in favor of a more mature look at things. The romantic side is still there, but it's tempered by a yearning for what might have been as well as an acknowledgement of the disappointing aspects of a life. Thus, it manages to be swoony and heartbreaking in the same breath, especially in the closing moments. The performances and dialogue are about as perfect as you'll ever find, and the direction is properly understated. Best final line since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, too. I can guarantee right now that I won't see a better film this year.

Grade: A
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

The first half of this film is pretty uninspiring despite a few intermittent laughs, but it kicks into high gear once we get past Freakshow and into the truly weird stuff. In particular, Kumar's flash-forward fantasy about the giant bag of weed left me helpless from guffawing. Incredibly uneven, but when it hits it's uproarious. (Gotta love that Neil Patrick Harris!)

Grade: B-
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

Both a piece with and apart from the other official Zatoichi flicks I've seen so far, as was to be expected. In particular, Kitano's take on the character is light years away from Shintaro Katsu's prankish, loose-limbed interpretation -- while the Zatoichi here may be a joker, for the most part he keeps all his jokes to himself. Kitano's trademark stoicism works beautifully here as he transforms the well-loved Japanese pop icon into a near-mute who, due to years and years of killing, has lost his sense of proportion as well as his morality. (The unexpected way the gambling-cheat scenario plays out is what cements this.) Sags a bit in the middle, what with its flashbacks galore and its surprisingly measured doses of swordplay, but the finale is one of the most exciting things I'll see this year -- a hack-n-slash tying up of loose ends intercut with a wild Stomp-esque musical number. If you don't leave the theater dancing, check yer pulse mate.

Grade: B+
Ju-On: The Grudge (2004)

This is one case where I'm actually looking forward to the remake -- a Hollywood-style imposition of commercial structure on writer/director Takashi Shimuzu's imagination could only help him. Well-directed with some nicely atmospheric scenes early on, but the film's stubborn rejection of any form of sense eventually torpedo it. It's impossible to care about the deaths of any of these characters if we find out nothing about them -- basically what we have here is an avant-garde slasher film.

Grade: C
Love Object (2004)

Oddball look at the psychology of one seriously lonely dude and the sway his sex doll (!) has over his life. The director wisely recognizes the inherent silliness of the concept and is willing to play with it (the scene where the sex doll arrives by mail turns into a genial farce), and the low-key performances help keep the film on track when it tilts over into full-on horror mode. Making the protagonist a writer of instruction manuals was a clever idea, too -- not only does it lend credence to the film's logic-vs.-emotion struggle, but it also makes for a fine running gag and it adds a bit of believability to a couple of the narrative's more far-fetched elements. Falters near the end with a cheap reversal-of-expectations ending (I agree that the film needs a downbeat conclusion, but I don't know about this downbeat conclusion...), but worth a look anyway; would probably make a great double bill with May.

Grade: B
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

For about half an hour, I wanted to slap the protagonist. Initially a self-absorbed and shallow airhead, the story of Cleo feels something like watching Paris Hilton wait out an AIDS test -- as much as I sympathize with her plight, you can't make me care about a rude, flighty bimbo. How silly of me not to realize that this is by design. Gradually, director Agnes Varda softens and humanizes Cleo by prompting her to leave her insular inner circle and engage with the outside world; the result is that she begins to realize that everyone has problems and the world is not going to stop just for her little crisis. In short, beautifully handled -- the kind of film that slowly wins you over.

Grade: B+
Little Murders (1971)

Whoever called this a comedy has a broader definition of the term than I do -- this is a screaming, pulsating urban nightmare of a film. It has some funny scenes (notably the dialogue where Elliot Gould reveals what he photographs), but it's the kind of film where you laugh so that you don't freak out. Reminded me a bit of Songs from the Second Floor in that both films are about society at the end of its tether, but where the former film was quiet, resigned and haunted, this thing is filled with bitterness and nihilistic rage. It occasionally gets too shrill for its own good (possibly by design), but in depicting a world where insanity is the only sane response, this jagged screed is both amusing and intensely disturbing.

Grade: B+
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

Fritz Lang triumphs over his B-grade underworld plot with expressive use of images and sound. (All films should have a scene at least as awesome as the traffic shooting.) I'd probably like it more if it was a little shorter and didn't have two vacant twits as main characters, but it's still pretty nifty.

Grade: B

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Before Sunrise (1995)

Not just romantic but deliriously so, this unusual take on the one-night stand consists mostly of dialogue and chemistry. The dialogue is fantastic, the chemistry is unavoidable. And Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are immensely appealing -- a necessary thing for a film based around two people. Why I haven't seen this before, I don't know. But I love it now. Isn't that good enough?

Grade: A
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

My favorite of the Baby Cart films so far, due mainly to a tighter plot structure and some beautifully judged character moments (the bathhouse meeting between Itto, Daigoro and Oyuki is striking in its humanity). The swordplay in this one is stellar too. And it has titties of death, which pushes it into greatest-movie-ever territory.

Grade: A-