Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Big Bounce (2004)

Endearingly shaggy caper comedy didn't impress many during its brief theatrical release, but maybe that's because its laid-back rhythms are better suited to home video. Truth be told, the slapdash plot is secondary to Owen Wilson doing his thing (maybe that's why the wrapup feels so perfunctory), but since when was that a bad thing? Like George Armitage's other two films (Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank), the story is an excuse to make a film that wanders hither and thither, stopping to check out whatever Armitage finds interesting. Here, it's mostly Owen Wilson surfer charm that interests him. Not exactly high art, but it's fine entertainment if you catch it in the right mood.

Grade: B
Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) [second viewing]

How come this didn't strike me as being this awesome the first time I saw it? To get an idea of what this film is like, imagine an alien race taking the previous Scorpion film and combining it with their idea of the history of Japanese culture and social mores. Result: This movie is bugfuck beyond belief. Watching this is like trying to watch Caged Heat while trippin' balls on the best acid anyone has ever dropped. I can't really describe the lunacy that this film contains -- all I can do is implore you to see it. It's seven different flavors of awesome.

Grade: A- [up from a B+]
An Injury to One (2003)

I'm really not sure what to think of this film. It's left-wing pro-Union agitprop, so you think I'd be all ears, but something about the aggressively good-n-evil stance taken by this film inspires little confidence in its veracity. I mean, Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald skew their films pretty heavily, but nothing on the level of Travis Wilkerson here. (Or maybe I just have an easier time buying their films.) The story this film tells is sad and outrageous (as in easily causing outrage), and the formal aspects of the minimalistic film are often striking. Wilkerson's button-pushing, though, feels off-putting. It's an interesting film; I just don't know if I wholly trust it. (Maybe that's a good thing -- independent thought and whatnot.)

Grade: B-
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

More great silent slapstick from stone-faced genius Buster Keaton. This one peaks early with a riotous hat-switching routine, but the funny does keep on coming after that. It does flag a bit in the third quarter before it rallies for an incomparable ending involving a cyclone, a floating jail, a damsel in distress and that famous falling house. Keaton vs. Chaplin? No contest.

Grade: B+

Sunday, January 23, 2005

La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

Absorbing film about the creative process and the psychological mindgames that ensue between an artist and his model. It runs four hours long, but that time breezes by so quickly you'll swear it was only an hour-forty-five. Jacques Rivette's direction is careful and unobtrusive, and he's content to let the camera sit and observe a sketching hand for upwards of ten mintes if he needs to. (That may not sound interesting, but trust me when I say it somehow feels like the most exciting and urgent thing in the world in context.) He also gets fine performances out of his actors, who all manage to play low-key without betraying the tempestuousness beneath the surface. By the way, I am now officially an Emmanuelle Beart fanboy (her spending roughly a third of the film completely naked kinda helped).

Grade: A-
The Freshman (1990)

Quirky doesn't even begin to describe this film. Loopy in the extreme might be a closer assessment. The plot doesn't hold up to close scrutiny, but when you've got Matthew Broderick and a pompadour-wearing Frank Whaley chasing a Komodo dragon around a New Jersey mall, who gives a damn about a plot hole? Marlon Brando looks like he's having the time of his life here, and even Penelope Ann Miller ain't that bad. Best gag is easily the passport photo, though the offbeat rendition of "Maggie's Farm" that sails in during the climax is pretty hard to beat also.

Grade: B+
Sting of Death (1965)

Wow, this film is all kinds of bad. It's about a swingin' group of kids who are attacked by a jellyfish monster. And I'll tell you what, it's the kind of film where the incompetence level goes beyond amusing and into pity. It's one thing to fail, but to do it so thoroughly is kind of depressing. However, two things stand out as beacons of alternative entertainment amidst the river of crud. First off, there's the monster. Oh my fucking God. This is quite possibly the funniest, silliest, most cheapjack monster ever (and that includes the crawling throw rug from The Creping Terror). Basically it's a guy in a wetsuit and flippers, which has been covered in stringy little wires so as to approximate tentacles or seaweed or god knows what. The best part, though, is the head... to best capture the bell of the jellyfish, the producers talked a guy into walking around with a freakin' inflated plastic garbage bag on top of his dome. It's so funny it could induce seizures. The second thing is a song from special singing guest star Neil Sedaka. (You read that right.) This, I cannot describe. It is simply beyond compare. You must find a way to hear it for yourself (preferably without seeing the film). Jilla-jalla, baby.

Grade: D
Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Delicate and creepy, if maybe a bit subdued for my tastes. The gore quotient is surprising for the era, but overall it feels like an organic part of the universe director Geores Franju has set up here, positioned on the line between dream and nightmare.

Grade: B

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Aviator (2004)

So it's come to this -- a Martin Scorsese picure whose sole function is to troll for Oscars. Le sigh. I mean, it's not like Scorsese is sleeping on the job here. On the contrary, he directs this like his life depended on it and comes up with a few spellbinding setpieces along the way (the airplane crash is a wow). His facility with actors, as well, is at its finest -- the man even gets a decent performance out of Kate Beckinsale, whom I generally find intolerable. DiCaprio in particular makes all his detractors look like assholes (again), and Cate Blanchett has a grand old time as Katherine Hepburn. But then, there's that screenplay. Let's face it, this is a standard-issue biopic, and not even Scorsese can keep it from falling into the and-then-THIS-happened rhythm that seems to dog the genre like a bad hangover. Maybe that's the real problem: Marty is trying so hard to keep the film moving and keep it looking nice that he never digs into the man who was Howard Hughes. We see his obsession, but we never feel it. It's a superficial portrait. And I know the response to that is, well, maybe it had to be that way because Hughes, you know, being such a basket case and all, never really let anyone into his own private hell so by definition we have to view him from an outside perspective. My response to that is, well... yeah. Some subjects just don't make for scintillating viewing no matter how you trick 'em up. Hughes, the perpetual enigma, is quite possubly one of them. Great to look at, but considering who it's coming from it's one hell of a letdown.

Grade: B-
Time of the Wolf (2004)

Disappointingly passive film from everyone's favorite Austrian firebrand, Michael Haneke. Formally, it's incontrovertably awesome -- Haneke does much here to further my estimation of hiim as the single most visually talented man in world cinema. However, here he seems to have spent all his innovation on his images, as the tight control he exerts squeezes any urgency or passion out of his scenario. It's a stark and minimal post-apocalyptic tale, which you think would be thematically perfect for this violence-obsessed director, but Haneke's exacting setups appear to be designed to distance us from the material to the point where it's difficult to care. The film, already a slow mover, reaches a halt by the time Isabelle Huppert and her brood reach the train station. However, the last ten minutes redeem it -- an attempt at sacrifice leads to an astonishing and potent ending where, for maybe the first time in his career, Haneke holds out the notion of hope. It's a beautiful moment, and it makes the uneven film it's attached to worth seeing. (Just barely.)

Grade: B-
Cut and Run (1985)

Well, it certainly gives good violence. As would be expected from Ruggero Deodato (the pleasant fellow who gave the world Cannibal Holocaust), the notorious violent sequences in this film (conspicuously edited for American release) are stunning and hyperbolic in their view of the human body as a sack of organs that exists only to be spectacularly destroyed. There's one shot in particular involving a man being torn in half that will just make your jaw drop. So with this in mind, I can only imagine how unbearably awful the edited version is, since this film's violence is its only selling point. The plot proper is some murky nonsense about a missing boy, some warring drug cartels and a reporter who wants an interview with some guy who used to be Jim Jones's right hand man. Characters drift in and out with alarming frequency. When Richard Lynch shows up at the end, apparently doing a summer-stock version of Colonel Kurtz, I could only throw my hands up in defeat. This film is shit that passes by in a cocaine-clouded haze... but hey, how about that violence?

Grade: C-
The Stepfather (1987)

Overrated low-grade thriller that seems to have built its reputation on Terry O'Quinn's careful, well-modulated performance. He's excellent, true, but has nobody in the last fifteen years noticed what a crapwagon of cliches the rest of this is? (It even has the Obligatory Tit-Baring Shower Scene right before the Obligatory Unkillable Killer Climax. How rote can you get?) O'Quinn seems to be guiding it into different territory at times, but the lockstep screenplay always ropes him back in by only allowing us to see his character from the outside. By the time the film's better impulses take over (the montage with Jerry setting up his new life is fascinating), it's all for naught. If I had my druthers, I'd ditch Jill Schoelen and her magnificent breasts and take a character study of the stepfather instead.

Grade: C
Infernal Affairs (2004)

Sparkling cop thriller with a dual undercover hook that just keeps giving and giving. Because of the nature of the plot, the overly complex plotting that comes standard with every Hong Kong crime drama feels more natural than usual. Two bravura sequences stand out in particular (the cat-and-mouse drug bust and the fateful meeting at the hotel); personally, I can't freakin' wait to see what Scorsese does with this...

Grade: B+

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

A Day Without a Mexican (2004)

Okay, now this is just pitiful. This film should be held aloft as an object lesson on how a resourceful filmmaker can take an irresistible premise and, through lack of talent and bad decision-making, fuck it up completely. It's pitched halfway between an agitprop documentary and a speculative satire, but it doesn't have the teeth for the former or the control for the latter. So sadly, it ends up looking like the world's longest 'America's Most Wanted' re-enactment, with all the fudging and shortcut-taking and awful amateur acting that label implies. To be fair, its heart is in the right place. It has good intentions. But that only makes it more difficult to endure, as witnessing this wreck involves watching those intentions die a fiery painful death. Ignore this ham-handed nonsense; if you're dying to see a film about the importance of immigrant labor, there's always Farmingville.

Grade: D

Monday, January 17, 2005

Bloody Murder 2 (2003)

I made the grave mistake of attempting to watch this immediately after viewing Stan Brakhage's harrowing autopsy record The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes. Which, as you might imagine, is like flipping on a "Hogan's Heroes" marathon upon returning home from a screening of Shoah. What I saw wasn't terribly inspiring anyway, but in the harsh wake of Brakhage's film, this movie's callousness and incompetence just felt like such a waste. I did stay long enough to get what I came for, so I doubt I'll be trying to finish this any time soon.

Grade: none
Miami Blues (1990)

This film seriously has a screw loose, and thank God for it. It could have developed as a standard cops-n-robbers tale, and occasionally you can see traces of that well-trod path trying to push their way through the chaos. But George Armitage (and, presumably, the novel he's adapting) had other ideas. So what we have here is a crime drama in which both the crime and the drama are tangential to the character studies & deconstructions that are the film's real business. There's three main stock characters here (the Psycho Hood, the Dumb Hooker With a Heart of Gold and the Slob Cop Who Nonetheless Knows What He's Doing), but none of the archetypes emerge looking quite the same after Armitage has outfitted them with peculiarities and off-center outlooks and oddball dialogue. At times, it's like watching a David Mamet movie if Mamet ever got into a batch of brown acid. Whether it actually adds up to anything is questionable, but it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch anyway. Lunacy of this calibre must be respected.

Grade: B+
Dying of Laughter (1999)

This black comedy is a garish misfire from talented director Alex de la Iglesia. The opening sequence is killer, but shortly thereafter the film loses its footing and never quite recovers. Part of the problem, I think, is the tone. The director's previous films have been effective because they were exaggerated and over-the-top from the get-go and took pains to create worlds in which de la Iglesia's particular brand of cartoonish mayhem felt natural. This film, on the other hand, gives us a world not too far divorced from our own, which throws the attempts at lunacy out of whack. By the time the film gives up on realism and tries to become a piece with de la Iglesia's other films, it's too little too late. (The drill in the foot and the midget in the suitcase were admittedly nice touches, but still.) Also, the chemistry between the two leads never gels -- the relationship is far too adversarial from the beginning, so that the hatred and paranoia that develops feels obligatory rather than discomforting in the manner of the best black comedies. There's probably a good film yet to be made on the subject of the abusive aspects of comedy teams (especially ones involved in slapstick), but this ain't it.

Grade: C
Husbands and Wives (1992)

One of Woody Allen's best films, a raw and painful examination of the way relationships disintegrate imperceptibly. Upon its release, the film was notorious for echoing the implosion of Allen's relationship with Mia Farrow (and Mia doesn't come off looking too enticing here), but, twelve years on and divorced from that tempest, the film is still an extraordinary attempt to process the concept of social entropy. A sad, angry and restless movie (Allen's move to handheld camerawork was a masterstroke); also, occasionally still quite a funny movie. Gets bonus goodwill points for containing what was probably Juliette Lewis's last great performance (before she went all outlaw-counterculture-skank on us and forgot her abilities).

Grade: A

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Rebecca (1940)

Entrancing Gothic thriller that builds its unease from the awkwardness of its lead actress. It doesn't feel particularly Hitchcockian (at least not compared to later works), but that doesn't mean it's not great. Plus, there are a few stray Hitchcock touches. In particular, the scene of the second Mrs. DeWinter descending a staircase in a costume we just know has other meanings attached to it is very much in the vein of his 'bomb-under-the-table' suspense setpieces. Note too the barely disguised lesbian subtext -- one wonders how audiences in the '40s responded to this. The acting is uniformly excellent, Olivier in particular (his high-wire act between sympathetic and creepy is masterful); also, Joan Fontaine is fucking gorgeous. Hitch had an eye for women, man...

Grade: A-
Camera Buff (1979)

Wry look at the the art of filmmaking and its inherent voyeurism, as expressed by a factory worker who buys a camera to film his newborn daughter and, at the behest of his superiors, starts a film club at work, with positive and negative consequences. Well-observed and rather startling in its unforced elegance, with modest acting that gets results better than a showier or more emotional style would. The focus of the work shifts so subtly (from the act of filmmaking to the filmmaker himself) that the final shot, in which the man attempts to begin a re-engagement with his own life in the only way he has available to him, carries an unexpected emotional force. Elements of political satire peek through too in the guise of the factory owner and his growing unease with the man's films. With all these riches, how could this not be one of the best films about filmmaking I've yet seen? I need to see more Kieslowski, I think.

Grade: A
Rodan (1957)

Atrocious, incredibly silly giant-rubber-monster movie about a mining company that unearths prehistoric flying thingies and attempt to defeat it with tank models and stock footage. I don't even need to review this, since you already know if it's your speed or not; suffice to say, I enjoyed myself enough. More entertaining than Blind Shaft, at any rate.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Network (1976)

Bleak, riveting look at the bottom-line world of television and where it's going. What once must have seemed satirical now feels prophetic -- if anything, this film's themes of exploitative 'reality' television and the globalization of the economy feel more relevant today than it did 29 years ago. The acting is stagy and overbearing much of the time (what exactly did Beatrice Straight win an Oscar for anyway?, though I liked the way that Ned Beatty's scene flipped that tendency on its head, and I suppose it was to be expected with Paddy Chayefsky holding the pen. The closing scene makes for a nicely bilious cherry.

Grade: B+
Morvern Callar (2002)

There are two facts that must be dealt with, and are not dealt with often enough, whenever one attempts to tackle this film:

1) Morvern Callar (the character) is quite likely insane. At the very least, she's severely emotionally detached; at worst, she's completely sociopathic. She's not aimless, rebellious, unsure, apathetic or capricious -- she's off her nut, and her actions are not those of someone who is of sound mind.

2) Movern Callar (the film) does not acknowledge Fact #1 or even seem to be aware of it.

What do you get when you put these facts together? You get one of the most singularly unpleasant films I've seen in some time, a film that asks us to accompany this lunatic along her journey in life without giving us a bloody good reason. Yeah, I know... it's not what it's about but how it's about it. But if anything, that makes the film more aggravating, because the filmmaking technique is striking -- so much that it begins to feel like a distraction technique, as if we won't notice the main character's lack of morals or redeeming value if we're too busy watching the pretty colors and grooving on the spiffy soundtrack. The film was based on a novel, and probably worked better on the page; what we have here is extraordinarily well-made but to no purpose. (And it gets docked an extra half-grade for the penultimate scene: You mean to tell me that Morvern's girlfriend isn't even a little mad at her? Oh, go fuck yourself.)

Grade: C-
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

I loved the first one, but this... God, what a disappointment. You'd get the same effect by hanging out with a bunch of stoned computer programmers. It seems unfortunate but appropriate that a film this stiff and inorganic should be about technology overwhelming humanity, but that's no excuse for the windy and poorly expressed circular dialogue that passes for philosophical musings. Even the animation isn't anything special -- the elaborate CGI used to realize some of the more difficult bits clashes with both the limited-but-expressive traditional animation and the film's dour maple-syrup pacing. Finally, there's a certain level of irony in the climactic revelation of the existence of dolls with souls, as the film itself appears to have been made sans soul. (Regarding the rest of the narrative: if anyone can figure out what exactly is going on here, you're a better man than I.) Right before the film's most incomprehensibly 'meaningful' section, there's a visual reference to Two or Three Things I Know About Her, which I think says it all.

Grade: C-

Monday, January 10, 2005

Graveyard of Honor (1975)

This film certainly goes a long way to earn its reputation as a seminal work in the demystification of the yakuza legend. However, it also unfortunately slips into the portrait-of-a-rotten-bastard genre that I can never seem to get into. (See also: Chopper, Gangster No. 1.) Ambles along at an okay pace until the lead character gets into heroin, at which point it turns into an interminable bore. Not sure what else there is to say about this one; if you can think of something, let me know.

Grade: C
Eureka (2001)

The problem, I admit, is entirely with me: There are very few subjects that can get me to sit still for three hours and thirty-five minutes, and even this elite list shrinks further when you throw in glacial pacing. So yes, I got restless and bored during this film's second half. It is, however, also one of the most incredibly gorgeous films I've ever seen. Every shot is beautifully realized and photographed, every cut is perfect, every setup is unassailably amazing. If they don't use this as a teaching aid in film school, they damn well should. I don't know if I could ever sit through it again, but I'm glad I saw it.

Grade: B-

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Up! (1976)

Wow. Just... wow. I don't know about Russ Meyer's intent with this film, but in hindsight it looks like the ultimate summation of everything his filmic work was about and a swan song to an industry that was ready to leave him behind for the more explicit but far less interesting pastures of hardcore porn. This is the film he'd been building to since leaving narrative behind in Cherry, Harry and Raquel. What is it? Well, it's kinda sorta not really a murder mystery, but really it's just Meyer's greatest excuse to indulge the exploration of his signature image -- a statuesque and naked (or barely clad) woman with large breasts, standing in a fighting stance and ready to either beat you up or fuck you senseless. All his stylistic hallmarks are in place (spastic editing, knowingly pretentious quotes from various literary works, exceptional photography, fevered acting, cartoonishly graphic violence, loving shots of big ol' boobies), but here they're all pushed as far as they can go. Watching feels like being in the hands of a dangerous lunatic who will show you anything he can to get his point across, and it's all quite exhilarating. Faster Pussycat is still my favorite Meyer flick, but it's clear to me that this outrageous, unforgettable mess is his masterpiece. Get it before the government deems it a controlled substance.

Grade: A
Mean Girls (2004)

So, besides the presence of the term 'axe-wound', what exactly is the difference between this and any other random 'tweener-aimed flick? Say what you will about Hillary Duff, but at least she has yet to appear in a film as self-satisfied as this one. A couple good moments and an amusing performance from Tim Meadows can't redeem this -- the satire is toothless, the direction is lowest-common-denominator obvious (yes, we get it, high school is like the animal world! stop bringing it up!) and the film eventually succumbs to the same high-school-movie cliches that it superficially has been working so hard to subvert. If the film was half as smart and clever as it thought it was, we might indeed be talking about this generation's Heathers. Instead, it's just another bland concoction meant to affirm to teenagers that their life is indeed as difficult as they've convinced themselves. Bah.

Grade: C
Running on Karma (2003)

Despite his uneven output, I do enjoy Johnnie To's work. So I was excited when, for a while, this appeared to be one of his best works yet. It's funny and enjoyable, but it also works as an action thriller (with a Buddhist spin). Pity, then, that the third act feels like someone let the air out of it, with the climax comprising a dully literal internal struggle between Man's dual nature. It's all redeemed, though, by the last five minutes, which are about as moving as you're likely to find on a film that opens with Andy Lau running around naked. (And speaking of Andy... gotta love those fake muscles!) It's not upper-tier To, but it's not bad.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Either you look at this and see cliche, or you look at this and see cliche transcended. I lean towards the latter. Sure, the story seems familiar (though I will say it's likely not the film you think it is), but there's something in Eastwood's unhurried, matter-of-fact direction that makes it all feel real. Crucial, too, is the screenplay by Paul Haggis, rife with dialogue that sounds appropriately smart or stupid without calling attention to itself. And the performances all have a beautiful lived-in quality that provide the icing. I didn't watch this thinking, 'well I've seen this before how many times now'... rather, I was thinking, 'well sometimes that's just how things happen, innit'. Eastwood's grizzled persona, in particular, wrings his character free of sentimentality, much like his dogged professionalism behind the camera keeps the film from succumbing to B-movie sameness. If the lame subplot involving Hilary Swank's whaht-trayash family had been excised, we might have the movie of the year on our hands; even with it, we still have a lovely and moving film, with a haunting thematic kick that jumps on us and digs its teeth in. (This would make an interesting double bill with Unforgiven.)

Grade: A-
A Very Long Engagement (2004)

This film is the cinematic equivalent of a bad toupee -- it's artificial, phony and unconvincing, yet it so believes in its own quality that it's hard not to feel sorry for it. I think the problem is that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn't have enough room to breathe. When I say this, I mean to point out that in the three films where he's created wholly original worlds have been delightful, inventive and irresistible. The two, however, where he's been working with narratives formed by other people (Alien: Resurrection and now this), he appears to get bored by having to confine himself to an already-determined narrative, so he hangs around like a grumpy old man and draws curlicues in the margins to keep himself interested while the center of the film falls to pieces. The problem could be that there's a lack of narrative cohesion (things happen, we see them happen, we move on to the next thing with little time to reflect on what just happened), or it could be that the film too often feels like an illustrated version of a novel rather than an actual film (on too many instances, we're told via narration what's happening on screen while we're watching it happen)... but really, I think both of those problems can be traced to the blase man behind the camera who wants to hustle us through this film so he can get on to a project that interests him more.

Grade: C

Saturday, January 01, 2005

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

What looked like a step beyond the precocious emptiness of The Royal Tenenbaums is instead just more of the same -- director Wes Anderson stuffs so many cheeky stylistic touches into the film, and plays everything so deadpan, that the proceedings never come alive. The film is so detached that it's infuriating... and what's most aggravating is that I can't bring myself to hate it. For one thing, it does represent minor progress over Royal, if only because Anderson seems aware of his world's artificiality here, which for a while at least makes for interesting viewing (it's like the film's autocritical). And it's not like I can't intellectually appreciate what Anderson tries to do here and in his other films -- in constructing these patently fake worlds, he's doing what he can to show how we all build little worlds around ourselves in order to avoid or reduce the pain we feel. Thing is, though, Atom Egoyan makes movies with much the same theme, except he allows himself to get deep within his characters and show them trying to negotiate the prisons they build. Anderson would rather stand off to the side and point out the things he finds interesting without actually involving himself. The film does still work from an aesthetic standpoint, and there's a couple sequences that do work nicely, and there's thankfully nothing as grievous as the suicide attempt in Tenenbaums. But I can't help but think how much more potent the climactic sequence would have been had Anderson allowed himself (and, by extension, us) to care. Call me when you grow a heart, Wes.

Grade: C+
We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004)

For the love of God and all that is holy, could you people please shut the fuck up?

Grade: C-
You See Me Laughin' (2004)

It's probably not a good sign that I can't remember much about this documentary only three days after seeing it, but while it was on I enjoyed it. It's about the last remaining Delta-blues singers and a small record label that has been working to bring them to prominence. Great music and interesting people make for a fair watch; bet ya that the Blueshammer scene in Ghost World was inspired by RL Burnside and his experience touring with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion...

Grade: B-
Disney's Teacher's Pet (2004)

Cute, quirky animated feature that feels extended even at 74 minutes but nonetheless builds up enough cheerful goodwill to get itself by. This being Disney, there's some lame requisite songs, but I will admit that the song about the states got me laughing pretty hard. Good vocal work, too.

Grade: B-
Crimson Gold (2004)

Hard-to-shake drama from Iran about a pizza delivery driver and his inexorable spiral into despair at his low-class status. Slow to start, but it's only setting the stage for the gradual revealing of its class-war thematics. It continues to build until an extraordinary setpiece where a distraught (and well-off) customer invites the pizza man into his massive apartment. There's also a strange, fascinating Kafkaesque scene outside of a house party that adds to the film's sense of something fishy in the state of Iran. (In the words of Jello Biafra, "If someone came for you one night and dragged you away, do you really think your neighbors would even care?") Disquieting, excellent; makes me wonder why I don't watch more Iranian films, really.

Grade: B+
Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

Pretty much exactly what I'd feared -- all the idiocy of a Paul W.S. Anderson screenplay without the saving grace of his gifted eye for visuals. Just thinking about the contrivance and stupidity here makes my head hurt. F'rinstance, if the virus has gotten loose, what good does locking down the city do? Since the opening of the first film made it plain that the virus can be transmitted through vents and stuff and not just through human contact, shouldn't it be airborne as well? And how exactly does a company as all-encompassing as the Umbrella Corporation get away with stuff like this? I mean, this is way beyond animal testing. You'd think some activist somewhere would have gotten wind of this. And what the hell is Jill Valentine actually doing in this film anyway? I'm also docking the film an extra half-grade for having the audacity to have its characters kill zombies... by breaking their freakin' necks. That's a new specimen of stupid I'd yet to encounter.

Grade: D+
Open Water (2004)

Well, it does have quite a bit of tension. But I attribute that to the general timbre of the situation, as the filmmakers seem to be doing their best to work at making the least effective film possible. Bad: The DV cinematography isn't too bad as far as these things go, but the director's habit of filming grey skies and sticking these shots (drenched with one of Graeme Revell's worst scores) into the film whenever he bloody well pleases is irritating. Worse: The dialogue veers from believable to dopey and back again like a drunk driver negotiating a cactus field. Worst: The actors aren't good enough to sell the dopey stuff, particularly Blanchard Ryan. There is a mighty struggle between the primal force of the premise and the incompetence of the cast and crew for a long while. Finally, the primal is submerged and drowns, leaving us with the kind of 'is that all there is?' ending that people mistakenly thought they saw on The Blair Witch Project. So yeah, it's not good. It tries, but it's just not there. Personally, I blame Blanchard.

Grade: C+
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

[Frickin' SPOILERS.]

Gonna hafta side with this film's champions here -- I have no idea what its detractors are going on about with their accusations of condescencion. The thing might be that the characters here are genuine geeks and nerds -- not the pretty-girl-with-glasses kind that Hollywood likes, but actual unpopular, poorly socialized and occasionally repulsive people. Apparently some people take issue with using these types of people as comedy fodder, not noticing that the film invites us to share in their gradual triumphs and small victories as well as their ritual humiliations. If anything, this is one of the most big-hearted and generous films of the year. Hollywood fake-geek films put forth the idea that happiness comes through social acceptance for 'who you are'; this film says that no, we all make our own happiness whether or not everyone likes us. This theme reaches its finest expression during Napoleon's climactic dance -- here he is, he's doing his thing, he's telling the world "Fuck you all, this is me and this is what I like to do and you can suck on it if you don't like it." That it does result in a measure of social acceptance (standing ovation, presidential win for his friend Pedro) is of no consequence, since he's still alone with his tetherball at the end (until Deb finally offers him someone to play with). The point is, he found his triumph.

Oh yeah, beyond that, the film's also jus' plain hilarious. The dialogue is filled with lines that shouldn't work but just kill in context. And the places the plot goes are priceless. (Kip's "Peace out" scene is worth the rental all by itself.)

Grade: A-
Strayed (2004)

Well-made but tension-free and kinda pointless French WWII drama. There's not much I have to say about this -- I only saw it because Emmanuelle Beart was in it. She doesn't disappoint, but I'm not sure what this film's reason for being is.

Grade: C+
Darkness (2004)

Dear Fellows at Dimension Films:

I can't believe I'm about to say this, but... {DEEP BREATH}

Dimension, I'm sorry.

Now, I've cursed you guys up and down in the past. I will likely do so in the future. I also understand that you guys did recut this a bit to get it down to PG-13 level, and I should be mad at you for that. (Especially for the already-notorious "freaking door" scene.) But even if you'd released this in its original, unadulterated form, I doubt it would have been any better. Not unless you guys, in trying to soften this up, inadvertantly cut out all the film's connective tissue with its extra gore. Which I think is unlikely. Instead, what I think happened is that the rights to this were bought before you guys realized what a dumb, shapeless and incoherent product this really was. Upon viewing it, you knew there was no way this could become a word-of-mouth hit, what with its obstinate, unlikeable characters and its thoroughly lousy climax and its defiance of any kind of sense. So while I object to the recutting and delayed release on artistic grounds, it makes sense from a business perspective -- you were merely trying to release it in a fashion that would allow you to recoup most of your losses. You were right to want to keep this on a shelf. I'm sorry I doubted you this time.

Reviewer (Dread Pirate) Steve

P.S.: Tell Jaume Balaguero that he has some impressive visual talent, especially in his sparing utilization of light, but if he ever gets near a typewriter again I'm gonna break his fucking fingers.

Grade: C-
Shaolin Soccer (2004)

Wow. This movie is so not funny. What are you fanboys thinking?

Grade: D+
White Chicks (2004)

Okay, let's get this out of the way: This is not a very good movie. In fact, it's quite bad. It's loaded with fart and poop jokes and labored sitcom contrivances and running gags that don't pay off. But buried deep inside the lockstep punchpress screenplay is a scathing satire on race and white privilege, the kind of film you could imagine the "In Living Color"-era Wayanses making. Every now and then the film's hidden aspirations surface, usually in a throwaway line or bit of business, but then there's the alarming and funny scene in the car that you've likely seen in the trailer (it's the scene with that damn Vanessa Carlton song). The punchline to this scene, which is not something I expected to find in a dumb summer comedy, suggests the point at which a total rewrite could have been done, resulting in a nasty and brave comedy instead of a stupid and safe one. But then, satire doesn't sell. So we're stuck with this instead, in which two Wayans brothers parade around in the least convincing makeup work since the heyday of the Italian zombie movie. More's the pity.

Grade: C
Catch That Kid (2004)

So as it turns out, it's not a good idea to try and mix The Killing with "Kim Possible." I think Kristen Stewart has talent, and it'll be nice when she pulls out of the kidflick phase and finds her Buffalo '66 in a few years. However, that doesn't mean that I should be watching her kidflicks. At least her next projects are unlikely to be as awful as this misbegotten Disney-Channel-reject. The assclown who directed this is married to Julianne Moore...

Grade: D
House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Never has a movie needed Christopher Doyle more. The cinematography here is certainly garden-variety pretty, but it's nowhere near the ravishing wonder of Doyle's work on Hero (or practically anything else he's ever done). And boy, does this movie lean heavily on its eye candy. Not that I blame it -- anything that keeps us from paying too much attention to the lame melodrama that comprises the screenplay is a blessing. The film makes the mistake of peaking early, with an awesome duet for pebbles and drums as played by Andy Lau and Ziyi Zhang. The fight scenes that follow, while still cool, can't quite live up to the opening gambit. And then there's the last twenty minutes, which drag the whole enterprise down into near-mediocrity. Still worth seeing, of course, but it's no masterpiece.

Grade: B-
The Silence (1964)

Yeah, I sat on this one too long. I saw this about three weeks ago and have been struggling with what to say about it ever since. Short version: intriguing if obscure psychodrama with some striking symbolism (is the unnamed city Hell?) and a surprising dollop of eroticism; also, it makes for an interesting closer to Bergman's 'trilogy of faith' if you consider that this could be about the absence of faith. All this, plus it's an obvious precursor to Bergman's extraordinary Persona.

Grade: B
The Killing (1956)

I love me some heist movies, and this has got to be one of the most wicked cool films in the genre. Fairly straightforward (more so than a lot of other films of its ilk) but brisk, with a narrative economy that is breathtaking in its effectiveness. Sterling Hayden is a badass and a half.

Grade: A