Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Hillside Strangler (2004)

Pathetic attempt at serial-killer realism. I mean, seriously, for the entire first half of the movie there's no strangling. Instead, we get to watch these two fuckups as they screw chicks and try to start an escort service and generally show themselves to be obnoxious prats. (Nicholas Turturro tries way, way, way too hard to get this last point across. I get the feeling most of his pointlessly 'ugly' dialogue was improvised.) It's a '70s hit parade of bad clothes, bad dialogue and bad sleaze, and it's riotous. I openly guffawed on several occasions at this film's early ineptitude. Then, for some reason the film doesn't quite make clear, the two guys decide hey, as long as we're tooling around L.A. and treating women like shit anyway, why not just start killing them? So we get the stranglings, and they're put together like the filmmakers wanted them to be disturbing. However, they don't have the talent for that, so the remainder of the film ends up coming off as merely unpleasant. But hey, at least it stopped being unintentionally funny. C. Thomas Howell acquits himself rather well as Kenneth Bianchi, all things considered. But that's no reason to suffer through this wart on the balls of cinema.

Grade: D-
Shrek 2 (2004)

The first Shrek was an occasionally clever but overrated and, in the end, mediocre effort that somehow turned into the biggest thing on two green stumpy legs. It makes sense that a sequel to such a hot property would feel a little script-by-committee-ish, but what we have here is simply depressing: a film that feels completely machine-tooled and designed for maximum test-audience approval. Any trace of invention that may have snuck into the first film has been flattened, homogenized and weeded out. What went in instead is bucketfuls of the kind of sitcom-style faux-snark and klutzy, easily recognizable pop culture spoofs that marred the first. Setpiece after setpiece clangs to the ground with nary a chuckle, but that doesn't mean they stop trying. By the time the film's sole good idea sneaks in (the appearance of Mongo), I was too weary to care. At least there's the distinct absence of "All-Star" on the soundtrack. (Speaking of, the most entertaining moment for me was when the Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds song "People Ain't No Good" made a surprise appearance.) Antonio Banderas is the film's brightest spot; by that, I don't mean his character was funnier than any of the others, but at least his vocal work was enjoyable. He should do voiceovers more often.

Grade: D
The Joke (1969)

Acceptable distillation of the Kundera novel, though paring the book's material down to its bare bones (in order to fit it into an 80-minute movie) occasionally means that the scenes float free of context, or that the impact of character's actions feels muted or inexplicable. The book's themes (the indifference of History to personal crisis, sex as weapon against government, the natural foolishness of people, the sad fact that time will always march on and leave men behind) still come through, though. While I doubt that anyone will ever devise a filmic adaptation of a Kundera novel that approaches the marvel of his prose, this isn't bad. (The DVD, however, is awful, with poorly translated burned-in white subtitles and a video print that appears ported from a beat-up old VHS. Shame on you, Facets.)

Grade: B-
A Better Place (1997)

The View Askew second-stringers take on a serious subject, and it turns out much like you'd expect -- a bit of a disaster. There's a handful of nice, small moments, but they seem to be a part of a more interesting film that writer/director Vincent Pereira does his damndest to ignore. He would rather make a grim and thoughtless film about how mean kids can be, and while that's not necessarily a bad aim, Pereira has neither the tact nor the tonal control to make it work. What's even more aggravating is that, near the end, an alternate path presents itself, one that holds out the promise of grace within humanity. But it gets steamrolled in favor of the boringly inevitable nihilistic ending. It's interesting to hold this up as a point of comparison to another View Askew production, the much-maligned Vulgar. Vulgar -- which I thought was better than people gave it credit for -- had a director who started with one thing and, whether intentionally or not, sent it stumbling down avenues that made it weird and fascinating. Here the potential for a similar achievement is in place, but whenever it starts to move into interesting corners Pereira corrals it back. Well-intentioned but clumsy, crude, often wrong-headed; still, it's at least better than Elephant...

Grade: C

Monday, December 20, 2004

Make a Wish (2004)

Okay, here goes: I wish I didn't feel compelled to watch junk like this. This dumbass time-waster combines the worst cliches from slasher films with the worst cliches from lesbian cinema and comes up with something that... well, if it can't be described as a 'film', it certainly is something at least. What word you would use to call something that involves talentless thespians (heh heh, I said thespian) wandering around in a scenic landscape mouthing awful dialogue and generally behaving like obnoxious twats while some mystery person picks them off in lame slasher scenes, I'm not sure, but I think 'shit' might apply. What is with the impulse in low-budget slasher movies to make all the characters unlikeable, anyway? Is it so we won't care when they get offed? That seems rather counterproductive to me, since the whole point of the horror genre is confrontation with fright and dread, feelings which require a modicum of investment in the narrative and the characters within it. Remove that, and you have a geek show. Not to say that you can't have fun at the geek show, but the geek needs something to set himself apart from all the other scrubs biting off chicken heads... and brother, making your geek a dislikable lesbian instead of a dislikable alpha male ain't cutting it. And speaking of cutting it, even the slasher aspect of this film is worthless -- the makeup budget apparently ran to twenty bucks at best, so we get sad-sack scenes like the woman killed while wrapped in her tent (thus removing the need to show her bleeding) or the woman so dumb that she manages to drown herself. And then there's the ending, which is just the menstrual blood on top of the cake: In revealing the killer, the screenwriter first went with the choice that was so baldly obvious that I'd figured it for an easy red herring... and then she had to compound the agony by throwing in a last-minute twist that, while not exactly a ripoff of the famed Dead of Night twist, sure feels *ahem*inspired by*ahem* that rather well-known gotcha. Except, you know, without the intelligence or the creepy effect. Even the setup sucks. I mean, I don't know that much about lesbian life, but do they make a habit of hanging around their ex-girlfriends? Even when the relationship was ended through infidelity? I mean, jesus. This is about as worthless as you can get and still have something to show your friends. Fuck this movie in the cooter with a steel dildo.

Grade: F

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Ocean's Twelve (2004)

Okay. So. Let's say you and I are hanging out, and there's a couple other people with us. (Hey. Stop giggling. It could happen.) So we're all sitting around, trying to think of something to do and probably talking about something goofy like dogs in underpants or something. Then I get the bright idea to tell the joke about the little boy and the flower on the side of the road, 'cause I know none of you have heard it. You figure, hey, this'll be fun, I enjoy a good joke. So I start telling, and you're listening and then you start to wonder where is this guy going with this and then you start to get a little bored and then maybe irritated and now I'm still telling it and it's really starting to go on and on and you're thinking now I'm just being an asshole and self-indulgent and this joke isn't really a joke at all and I'm just having you guys on but the joke is still going and you're losing your mind wondering what on earth can be the point of this I mean really this shit is no fun at all and is the end in sight please pretty please can you just hurry up and get this over with? And then I reach the punchline, and it dawns on you that the joke's been on you the whole time. You are seized with the strong urge to beat me to a pulp.

Yeah. That's what it's like to watch this movie.

Grade: D+
Maria Full of Grace (2004)

Decent liberal-problem drama elevated by a self-assured debut performance Catalino Sandino Moreno, who makes the less well-thought-out parts of the film seem natural just through the power of her determination. There's a stretch in the middle of the film (from when Maria gets on the plane to when Lucy leaves the hotel) where it looks like this might be the film of the year. The stench of contrivance and first-time-writerism contaminates a lot of the film's other parts (yeah, yeah, we get that Maria is stubborn -- you know, like a mule!). But Catalino is good enough to make the film worth a look. (Hey, at least it's not Real Women Have Curves.)

Grade: B
It's Alive (1974)

I'd been avoiding this one for years because my previous exposures to the cinema of Larry Cohen had been, shall we say, less than pleasant. Just goes to show, everyone's got at least one good film in them. This starts out poorly -- bad child actor alert! -- but when Cohen first hints at what's going on through a detached long shot, I knew this was something special. It's a nightmarish journey through a parent's worst fear, liberally sprinkled with sharp black humor (the cops confronting a regular baby is priceless) and possessed with some extraordinary subtextual (as well as plain ol' textual) social commentary. (Lyz at And You Call Yourself a Scientist! has some great things to say about the film's possible intent.) The uneven acting and the oh-so-70s decor keep this from true greatness, but this is still far better than any movie featuring a rampaging mutant baby should reasonably be.

Grade: B+

Friday, December 17, 2004

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2004)

I'm not generally a fan of talking-head documentaries -- they always seem kind of static to me, bringing up memories of bad Holocaust docs and movies watched for homework assignments in high school -- but this is about as good the style gets. The participants are all interesting and informative, and there's surprisingly very little information overlap for such a comprehensive documentary. The band's latter years feel a bit compressed and undercovered, but then it's possibly because the band had kind of hit a creative stagnation so there wasn't really much to say. The early performance footage is the undeniable highlight, and there's a lot of it to go around. It took all my willpower not to jump out of my seat and start bopping around when "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" came on. A fine tribute to a fine band.

Grade: B+
The Freshman (1925)

So that's why Harold Lloyd's films aren't as readily available as Chaplin's or Keaton's -- he hasn't aged nearly as well as either of those two masters. This film, one of his most famous, is a mild-mannered offering that is occasionally amusing but more often feels like all setup and no punchline. What jokes remain are as hoary as can be. Even the famous closing football game, despite its few clever touches (I liked the little bit where Lloyd faked out a defender by undoing the laces on the ball), feels worn out. What are you all seeing in this, anyway?

Grade: C+
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

This film made me think four things:

1) Between this and the unexpected Emmy win for "Arrested Development," Jason Bateman should get an award for Most Awesomest Comeback Kid of '04.

2) How rare it is that someone gets the unexpected celebrity cameo so right as Rawson Marshall Thurber does in this film... and he does it more than once. (One cameo in particular had me in stitches, and I hereby wish to nominate that actor for Most Awesomest Self-Effacing Cameo Kid of '04.)

3) "Opium-addicted Chinamen"? BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

4) From now on, you will all call me the Dread Pirate Steve.

Oh yeah. Also I thought it was pretty fucking funny most of the time. It also played into my seldom-admitted weakness for underdog-sports-movies (I even got tensed up during the finale of Major League II, a film I otherwise hated). So go have fun with that.

Grade: B

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Zatoichi's Cane Sword (1967)

A step up in quality from the previous two entries in this gargantuan series, this has Zatoichi trying (unsuccessfully, of course) to step away from the deadly life after he discovers his sword doesn't have much mileage left on it. Lots of unique touches keep this film from succumbing to familiarity (my favorite: the Yakuza boss kowtowing to Ichi at a gambling house), and the climax is rousing even though it feels like a redux from (I think) Adventures of Zatoichi. You'd think that by this time there wouldn't be any Yakuza clans left in all of Japan...

Grade: B
Garfield: The Movie (2004)

It's about as bad as you'd expect. I guess that's to be expected, considering how difficult it would have been to make a decent movie out of the raw materials used here. If I was told to try and do something with a script written by the guys who gave us the Cheaper by the Dozen remake based on a grossly commercial comic strip that hasn't been funny for about fifteen years, then learned my stars were Breckin Meyer, Jennifer Love Hewitt, a dancing terrier and a badly-animated CGI cat, I don't think I could have kept my head in the game either. Still, the total lack of effort on both sides of the camera is depressing. Bill Murray's spirited voicework is the film's lone asset and the only thing that keeps this from total failure. I will report that I laughed twice (when Murray intoned the word "lederhosen", and then thirty seconds later when he did it again).

Grade: D

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953)

This is a gentle and likeable comedy, with Hulot a bumbling Everyman stand-in for whoever is watching him. (This may explain the curiously sad quality of the ending.) It's not exactly laugh-a-minute, but then Tati understands the mechanics of silent comedy to an idiot-savant degree (some of the best moments are when a punchline is expected and not delivered, i.e. the child with the two ice cream cones) and I think he was probably aiming for something more profound than mere hilarity. Like Videodrome or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, this is a film that grows in the memory. I'll have to see it once or twice more before I really understand how I feel about it, so consider the grade below strictly provisional.

Grade: B
The Cameraman (1928)

Not on par with Buster's pre-MGM work, but it's still funny. The scene in the swimming pool changing room is a riotous highlight.

Grade: B
Time Regained (2000)

Ass-numbing adaptation of the last part of Marcel Proust's mammoth Rememberance of Things Past, which as you might expect makes about as much sense as the Cliff's Notes for Catch-22. Raoul Ruiz's playful directorial touches help out a bit, but all the fancy wipes and camera trickery in his arsenal can't keep this from falling into the Mantlepiece Movie category (a genre to whose charms I am generally blind). In two months' time, I will have completely forgotten this movie; considering the subject of the source, this deletion could be considered ironic.

Grade: C

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Blind Shaft (2004)

Two con men in modern-day China work on their latest scam using a sixteen-year-old boy as an unsuspecting mark. Well-constructed film has the benefit of a killer scenario and some not-so-subtle political commentary about the state of China now that capitalism has come to roost. It's shame, then, that the director thwarts his work by shooting it with an unaffected naturalism. A film of this nature requires some kind of tension to keep the blood boiling and the mind engaged, but the approach here seems to have been early De Sica, which works only to smooth out the rough edges and make the whole thing go down a little too easily. By the time the thudding (and wholly unearned) irony of the climax comes crashing down on our heads, it's too late to care.

Grade: C+
Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

Apparently someone involved with the first Snowblood took a look at that film's success, leaned back in his leather chair, puffed on his cigar for a minute and then proclaimed, "Alright, now how can we make it even worse?" Then some nameless yes-man stood up and said, "Well, how about if we tone down the violence, marginalize Lady Snowblood's role in the film and instead concentrate on governmental corruption at the turn of the century?" I can't think of any other way for this idiotic jaw-dropper to have been conceived. It had to have happened exactly that way.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Farmingville (2004)

Sober documentary about the Long Island town of Farmingville and its reaction to an influx of illegal Mexican immigrant day-laborers. The film got on my nerves a bit for cloaking itself in 'impartiality' while all the while making abundantly clear which side of the argument it was endorsing -- I prefer my liberal docs to be up front with their biases, and faux-impartiality is damned difficult to pull off (not everyone can be Hell House). But the inherent drama in the situation doesn't make it necessary to throw much spin on it, so that's a minor quibble. Worth seeing, if only to understand how many people apparently don't realize that American capitalism has always been built on the backs of cheap immigrant labor, but be forewarned that it's not gonna make you feel good about your friends and neighbors.

Grade: B
Shinjuku Triad Society (1995)

Early work from Takashi Miike is tighter and more controlled than his later yakuza extravaganzas, but as a trade-off it's also more generic and less manaically inspired. Still, there's quite a bit to hold the interest here, and it's interesting to note the nascent traces of Miike's later obsessions (familial love, violence & sex intertwined, anal violation, displacement in a foreign land). The violent content is grimmer than usual, without that one-level remove that usually comes with Miike's hyperstylized world; the film's rampant homosexual activity could be read as a logical extension of the strong male bonding that usually pops up in the yakuza/gangster genre, though I doubt that it was the first film to walk that road.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Closer (2004)

Solid adaptation of Patrick Marber's fine play, well-handled by Mike Nichols. He doesn't try to inappropriately open it up, but neither does his direction feel overly stagey. Marber's dialogue, on the other hand, does occasionally sound like something that doesn't work off the boards, but for the most part it's sharp. It trades the raw immediacy of the stage for a cool, clinical examination of the four characters and their emotional inadequecies; as it turns out, both approaches are effective. Really well-acted, too, even if Julia Roberts sometimes looks like she's in over her head. Natalie Portman, sadly, does not go starkers, but she does spend a lot of time waving her thong-clad behind into the camera (and Clive Owen's face), so that's something.

Grade: B+
Secret Things (2004)

It's better than any movie wherein 50% of the running time is sex has any right to be. And, for about an hour and a half, it's just plain ol' good. The sleek, well-designed visuals draw you into this film's seductive world, and as you enter you realize hey, wait, there's actually characters in this movie! With a real script 'n' stuff! Neil Labute is an obvious influence here, but by repositing the war of the sexes and corporate competition in purely libidinous terms, writer/director Jean-Claude Brisseau creates a film that is at once both entrancing and shamefully entertaining. The sex, too, is that rare specimen of movie sex -- geniunely erotic without feeling superfluous, overdone or plodding. It's a near-perfect synthesis of the art film and the sex film, the kind you figure Stanley Kubrick was thinking of when he spoke of making a big-star blue movie... until the film overheats and detonates itself in the last twenty minutes. For reasons unknown, Brisseau decided to push his scenario further than it needed to go, resulting in a climactic folly that retroactively makes the preceding stretches of film seem that much less interesting. Seriously, the ending of this film is daffy beyond belief. In the end, the film tries too hard to be an art film and ends up coming out merely as a supremely silly, well-shot sex film. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it could have been more.

Grade: B-

Monday, December 06, 2004

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)

Oh wow, this movie is so badass it makes my head spin. Features gang rape filmed through a glass floor, torture by light-bulb, torture by miso soup, torture by hole-digging, torture by horny women, tons of gratuitous nudity and an unforgettable fight scene set in a communal shower. Yet, the mise-en-scene is frequently gorgeous and eye-poppingly inspired, which leads me to ask: Is it trash, or is it art? (Or is it Memorex?) Whichever it is, it's awesome. I think I need to rewatch Jailhouse 41.

Grade: A-
Festival Express (2004)

I guess it was bound to happen eventually. Here it is, the first concert film I can think of where the audience is incidental. At one point, a musician claims, "Woodstock was a treat for the audience. The Festival Express was a treat for the performers!", which I think sums up the pointlessness of this film quite nicely. Musical numbers are hit-and-miss (adjust your expectations upward if, unlike me, you're a Grateful Dead fan); stabs at context and social relevance are oft-embarrassing. It still has a lot of great footage, and I do owe this film for my newfound respect for Janis Joplin (I'm not a big fan of her music, but damn she was a hell of a performer). But it's not that great, people. Settle the fuck down.

Grade: C+

Sunday, December 05, 2004

My Brother's Wife (1966)

Deliriously awful potboiler from Doris Wishman about a cad who comes home for a visit and starts bumpin' and grindin' with, yes, his brother's wife; soon, a low-level noir con job stumbles in through the haze. This one is closer to stereotypical Wishman than the other films of hers I've seen, which means it includes lousy actors, limited sets, women who fall for bad men, meaningful shots of inanimate objects (in a transparent attempt to cover up the cheap post-dubbing)... and feet. Lots and lots of feet. Oh, Doris and her feet! She's apparently working through the biggest foot fetish ever seen in an American filmmaker, for every third or fourth shot is a cut to somebody's feet. I was tempted to make a drinking game out of it until I realized I would have needed roughly a case of booze. Watching this is a mind-altering experience. Go on and share it with someone you love. It's terrible, but loveably so.

Grade: C
Indecent Desires (1967)

A creepy loner with a hair-helmet 'do finds a doll in a garbage can and finds that, when used in combination with his magic ring, he can exert control over a pretty blonde with a vast lingerie collection. I swear I'm not making this up. It's about as loopy as it sounds. One of the more inventive and genuinely entertaining '60s sexploitation films I've seen, courtesy of grindhouse auteur Doris Wishman (whose direction here is more polished and professional than usual; the concept must have rustled up a few extra dollars). Still has its weak spots, as everything in this genre does -- it's not like people went to these things for the eroticism, which makes the lengthy sex scenes seem superfluous beyond the first thirty seconds -- but the nutty plot keeps things moving nicely.

Grade: B-

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974)

Strange artsploitationer about a mute girl forced into prostitution who gains her revenge on her tormentors. Starts off well, with the girl's humiliations documented in painful detail (including hardcore porn inserts and the most disconcerting example of eyeball violence this side of Un Chien Andalou); however, when it gets to the nitty-griity revenge, the movie loses itself. Instead of providing the necessary thrills, it veers into outlandishness (boy, those junkie whores sure get a lot of off time to teach themselves how to drive, shoot and fight!). Director Bo Vibenius (who worked as an AD for Ingmar Bergman and is, apparently, quite ashamed of this film) has an interesting, dreamlike touch that works early on but sours when he turns the fight scenes into endless slow-motion ballets. Still, it's not uninteresting -- it has moments that work (the last five minutes are striking) and it does maintain a mean edge throughout. Plus, Christina Lindberg is so fucking hot that she almost melted my TV tube.

Grade: C+

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Phone Booth (2003)

Whadaya know, it ain't that bad! Joel Schumacher and Larry Cohen (two filmmakers I don't much care for) put their best foot forward and turn out a tight li'l suspenser about a public relations man pinned down by a moralistic sniper. The brevity helps, but really, once you get past the initial goofiness of the concept, this is quite compelling all the way up to Colin Farrell's big speech (and even that, Farrell manages to sell through sheer conviction). Last ten minutes are a bust (are we really supposed to believe that the sniper planned everything out to the tiniest detail, up to the point where he essentially allows the cops to 'find' him?), but the coda is interesting in its refusal to choose either optimism or pessimism; Kiefer Sutherland still has the creepiest voice in Hollywood. (The film wouldn't have been nearly as effective with Ron Eldard behind the scope.)

Grade: B-
Mudhoney (1965)

This fevered slice of Southern grotesque would be psychotic by most directors' standards. However, in comparison with breastmaster extraordinaire Russ Meyer's other works, this one seems almost subdued. It's still a hoot, though, with a few gorgeous women romping around in states of undress and snarling, scenery-chewing performances and Meyer's closeups reaching an almost Expressionistic peak. Also fits nicely into Russ's Nudies-With-a-Message canon, this one being a warning against the perils of fanaticism and groupthink. In this, the film is downright clever at holding its motives in secret until the last few minutes, where we find out who the true villain of the piece has been all along. (Sidney Brenshaw's progress from devious to monstrous to pathetic shouldn't work but does.) Bring on Lorna in my opinion.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004)

It's exactly what you think it is. Which means I had a hell of a good time. Why'd I have to grow up with extended toy commercials instead of whacked-out family-safe stuff like this? The ice-cream bender alone is worth the price of admission. (One trivia note that may account for the show -- and thus the movie -- feeling so subversive: SpongeBob is voiced by voice veteran Tom Kenny, whose wife Jill Talley also contributes a few voices. Know where they met? On the Fox sketch program "The Edge" and, later, "Mr. Show".)

Grade: B
Deathwatch (2004)

Monochrome, monotone supernatural soldiers-in-peril flick that took me exactly two minutes after the title sequence to figure out where it was going. It's a revision of a well-known early-90s movie except with more characters, and that helps the situation not. There are a couple of good scenes (notably the bit where a man is attacked by living barbed wire that threads itself through his face), but then Lion's Gate put all of these interesting bits into the red-band trailer so do yourself a favor and track that down instead. You get all the good parts without the 90-odd minutes of indistinguishable WWI grunts yelling at each other in oft-unintelligible British accents.

Grade: C
Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004)

More lighthearted political analysis from the sunniest of liberal-doc filmakers, Robert Greenwald. (Seriously, I don't know if this guy ever cracks a smile.) Drier and less entertaining than Fahrenheit 9/11, but it's also more focused and, in the end, more convincing. It rounds up a bunch of 'experts', gets 'em talking, makes its case and doesn't overstay its welcome. It may not sound exciting, but it transcends its homework-film status through the force of its conviction.

Grade: B