Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Ring Two (2005)

I think I'm gonna hafta 'fess up and admit that the low-key entries in the new J-horror renaissance just ain't cutting it for me. It's always atmosphere and visuals at the expense of everything else. That might do well in fifteen-minute bursts, but over the course of a feature I need more to hold onto. Slow pacing might help make your weird visuals seem a li'l bit creepier, Mister Japanese Director-san, but it also leaves me free to pick at the film's logical absence once I get over the brief "hey, that's kinda cool" reaction. For the record, this is weaker than The Eye or Gore Verbinski's remake (still haven't seen Ringu), but it's slightly better than anything Grudge-related. The search continues. (BTW, what the hell is up with Hideo Hackata's obsession with water imagery? Dude. Let it go. It ain't that interesting.)

Grade: C
Ray (2004)

Tolerably mediocre biopic of the legendary singer, at least until the heroin-addiction subplot takes over completely and the film transforms into a distaff Requiem for a Dream. Pretty standard-issue for this type of thing, and thus without much interest; the only reason to see this is Jamie Foxx's justly celebrated lead performance. In a sea of by-the-numbers work, he's the only person willing to take this to the next level -- he doesn't impersonate Ray Charles so much as seemingly climb into his skin and become him. So there's that... but then, there's also the fact that this is 150 minutes you can't get back. The choice is yours, really.

Grade: C
The Curse of Her Flesh (1968)

I have no idea what the hell went on in this film. This here's a gold-plated grindhouse fleecing, with all involved parties putting the absolute minimum effort and coherence into the venture. There's a short bit near the end involving a woman, a man and a large vegetable that manages to be memorable just through it being different, but this is pretty much just exploitation cinema as medicine-tent show, ready to be packed up and moved the hell out before the audience can realize they've been had; the credits are written as bathroom-wall graffitti, if that tells you anything.

Grade: D-
Blind Chance (1981)

Okay, so I can intellectually appreciate what's going on here. Kieslowski has set up a no-win situation in order to comment on the oppressive nature of Poland's political climate circa 1981. Basically, the message is that you were fucked. If you joined the Party, you were fucked. If you joined the underground, you were fucked. And if you tried to avoid taking sides, you were fucked. But cinema must work as cinema before it can work as protest screed, and I'm afraid I find this film too much of a transitional work for its didacticism not to overwhelm it. Others have pointed out that at this point, Kieslowski was moving out of more overtly political cinema into nuanced, quiet observational cinema. Camera Buff was able to strike a balance between both camps, but the protagonist of this is a boring, passive lump, which throws off Kieslowski's usually delicate touch. With that in mind, the film stops feeling illustrative and becomes defeatist; the final image is a glob of spit in the eye of everything, including the viewer.

Grade: C+

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Robots (2005)

Fairly thrilling in its earlier stages, when it's exploring the particulars of the complex world that has been created for it. Setpieces like the public-transportation gambit or the ball-bearing ballet possess a gee-whiz kind of enthusiasm that seems missing from so many lowest-common-denominator family films these days. When the plot kicks in, though, the film jumps back into the assembly line, trading its beautifully low-tech Rube Goldbergisms for stale platitudes and fart jokes. By the film's end, the irony has become too thick to bear: Here we have a film championing the imperfect and the individual over processed, soulless conformity, but the end product is just as generic (though nowhere near as obnoxious) as anything PDI has ever done. At least they got a decent song for the now-obligatory closing musical number -- a funky, sound-collage version of "Get Up Offa That Thing". (And a question: Between this and Shrek 2, when did Tom Waits get the thumbs-up as a family-friendly troubador? Not that I'm complaining... I think it'd be great if kids grew up on aggressively weird music like Waits rather than Britney and Xtina. I'm just curious.)

Grade: C+
Fear X (2005)

Sometimes, you just don't know. Take John Turturro in this film. He doesn't know who killed his wife. James Remar does know who killed Turturro's wife, but he doesn't know Turturro. And Deborah Kara Unger doesn't know why her husband (Remar) is acting weird. This is set up by writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, who also doesn't know. He doesn't know much, to be honest. He doesn't know how to keep a story moving, nor does he know how to create complelling characters. Most importantly, though, he doesn't know any more than his characters know. So, when the time comes to let us know, he has to throw his hands up and say "I don't know!" That's why nobody in this film knows -- because there's nothing to know. Having seen this, I know that the film is a tease, an enigma with no payoff. We get to the end and nobody knows anything. I guess it's supposed to be about how you can look and look and still not know anything more than when you started. Even when you know that maybe a different angle will help, you still won't know. But one thing I do know is that even if that's true, the director didn't need to make a film that embodies that idea. No matter how you look at this film, you won't know anything about it because there's nothing to know. It's a know-free zone. So if anyone asks you if you want to see this, say no. Because nothing's more annoying than a director who doesn't know his own material. Ya know?

Grade: D
The Touch of Her Flesh (1967)

Slimy grindhouse classick -- the slasher film in its nascent form -- about a weapons dealer who goes nutzoid after seeing his wife making rumpy-pumpy with some skinny dweeb. To its credit, it delivers exactly what it promises: naked, extremely voluptuous women in states of undress and murder setpieces. (Regarding the former: It's quite impressive the caliber of women the Findlays were able to round up -- at times, this looks like the evil cousin of a Russ Meyer flick. One in an alternate universe where Russ had no talent, but still.) Too bad it also delivers a lot of other things, like piss-poor acting and padding up the ying-yang and boredom aplenty. Granted, that describes practically everything that played the 42nd Street circuit, so it's just a matter of degrees. But even by those standards, there's better options.

Grade: C-
Crying Freeman (1995)

Some things weren't meant to be live-action. This adaptation of a popular manga and anime suffers from overt faithfulness to its sources, resulting in a static visual style that works within the minimalistic designs of anime but is significantly less thrilling when there's real live actors and stuff. The film is further hampered by an overwhelming sense of gravity and seriousness that seems misplaced when you consider that, at heart, this is a generic yakuza drama. This is especially hard on star Mark Dacascos, who is a talented martial artist but a severely limited actor. Like most action stars, he needs to be surrounded by the goofy and ridiculous, so that his granite-faced emoting doesn't seem quite as logy. Here, asked to carry the burden of the film's emotional baggage, he seems lost. Director Christophe Gans's direction is impersonal, displaying none of the genre-scrambling glee he would later bring to the table with Brotherhood of the Wolf. At least they had the good sense to end the film at the end of the first anime episode (the only good one).

Grade: C
"Death Curse of Tartu" (1966)

Terrible, and not even in that awestruck fun way like Sting of Death. And when the main thought running through my head is "This isn't as good as Sting of Death," that's a sad sad thing indeed. Mike and the 'bots might have made this watchable, but on its own it's punishing.

Grade: D
Bonnie's Kids (1973)

'70s sleaze, '70s sleaze, we love '70s sleaze! This shares a couple points of contact with one of my favorite drive-in films from the era, The Candy Snatchers -- starlet Tiffany Bolling headlines both, and Arthur Marks, a "presenter" on Candy, writes and directs here -- so it's surely not unintentional that this film also shares with Candy a deranged view of entertainment and a logical sharpness that shows story attention was valued just as highly as trash value. This has parts that don't work (Bolling, for instance, doens't seem up to the demands of her role), but when your film OPENS with voyeurism, phone sex, attempted incestuous rape and murder by shotgun, who's really concerned about dead air? This is an awesomely grimy throwback to Hollywood's wild days. You'll need a bath after it's done, and you'll love every damn minute of it.

Grade: B

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Specials (2000)

So it's pretty obvious that James Gunn is a talented but uneven screenwriter. The success of his works depend on the strengths of his collaborators. Match him up with talented and passionate people (Zack Snyder, Lloyd Kaufman) and his works can seem inspired. Stick him with someone who could give less of a fuck (Raja Gosnell) and the results are painful. Which is to say that this film, a superhero spoof that demonstrates what Mystery Men would have been if the superheroes really were as lame as they seemed, has some funny ideas and scenes but needed a bit more shoring up and definitely needed a stronger, subtler director than Craig Mazin. Mazin is generally a writer, though not a very good one (at the time of this film's creation, he'd been credited for the Harlan Williams vehicle RocketMan and the Marlon Wayans film Senseless), and this is his only directorial credit for a reason: He's even more worthless behind the camera than he is at the typewriter. His setups are barely competent, he can't nail a decent two-shot and he brings a slapstick pacing to something that needed a deadpan Jarmusch-style sense. Gunn is taking this concept seriously, but Mazin isn't, which makes the film's attempts to make these goofballs feel like real characters rather embarassing. Also, Mazin is atrocious with actors -- look at the cast and then realize what it means when Gunn himself gives the best performance. This really should have worked, so it's aggravating when you can pinpoint why it didn't.

Grade: C
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Wow. Simply amazing. An extraordinary, poetic peek into the fabric of life and, as it were, humanity's possible next step. Not that this wasn't to be expected of Kubrick, but this is probably one of the single best directed films I've ever seen, with more or less every shot filling me with awe; if this is indeed about the evolution of life, could this then be seen as the evolution of cinema? (And if so, how come we haven't really evolved much further since its release?)

Grade: A
Caddyshack (1980)

The big dumb comedy that spawned an entire generation of big dumb comedies just seems kind of big and dumb today, rather than big and dumb and funny. It does have some funny moments, notably from Chevy Chase, who seems to have been given a corner of the film where he can do whatever the hell he wants. (Rodney Dangerfield has a couple good zingers too.) But too often the film falls back on the 'big destruction = funny' misconception that has sunk so many lazy laffers. Looking at this film, the achievement of Ghostbusters suddenly seems even more extraordinary.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Ella Enchanted (2004)

Tweener entertainment has moments that bring it beyond the average young-chick flick. While it's essentially pitched at the level of a live-action Shrek, there's a certain restless intelligence bubbling below the surface (as well as a welcome strain of weird) that keeps the film from sinking into that particular swamp. It helps that the cast appears to believe in the project whole hog (the Cary Elwes on display here can't be the same Cary Elwes who whinged his way through Saw), but most importantly it helps that Anne Hathaway believes in the project. It's on her shoulders that this rests, and it's her particular tart-yet-sweet persona that makes the funny parts work and keeps the sappy parts from being too noxious. In fact, my respect for her is now enormous, as the balance between tart and sweet is difficult to maintain. (Lindsay Lohan tries too hard for tartness, which brings a desperately false air to her films when they try for sweetness; meanwhile, Hilary Duff probably thinks 'tart' is just something British people eat.) The film still leans too hard towards the "Once Upon a More Enlightened Time" shtick, but it's a bit of a surprise anyway.

Grade: B-
Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954)

Moody crime drama is an offbeat entry in the one-last-job sweepstakes, and as such it's one of the more interesting offerings. Its strength doesn't lie in the heist or the crime details -- by the time the film starts, the robbery is already a thing of the past -- but in its eye for character. It eventually reveals itself to be as much about aging and friendship as it is about dirty deeds (done dirt cheap). Helped along by strong acting and tight, controlled direction, this is a low-key winner.

Grade: A-

[POSTSCRIPT: After writing this, I read Ebert's 'Great Movies' review of this, wherein he quotes Truffaut as saying, "The real subjects of Grisbi are aging and friendship." Just so y'all know, I didn't steal that line.]
6ixtynin9 (1999)

Blah attempt at neo-noir from Thailand is, aside from the subtitles, indistinguishable from any number of crime thrillers that surfaced in Tarantino's Wake. Not nearly as clever or cool as it believes itself to be; even worse, its sole interesting idea (the tired 'criminal-as-businessman' cliche gets a bit of a twist) gets mostly ignored. There's one bit of business (the obscene telephone caller) that has a nice payoff, but otherwise I have to profess ignorance as to what makes Rosenbaum think this is so damn special.

Grade: C

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Goodbye Dragon Inn (2004)

Wispy film from Tsai Ming-Liang about the last night in the life of a run-down movie theater. As such, the overall atmosphere is more important than the characters, most of whom are seen simply as bodies (there's exactly two exchanges of dialogue in the entire film). Tsai does succeed in creating a mournful, almost hopeless air, and his choice to populate the sparse audience with people who are not just disconnected from each other but seem to actively reject any form of connection is an interesting move. But I can't help but think that this is missing something, that it's too deliberately deliberate (if that makes sense). Tsai's films always move at a crawl, but this is the first time I've suspected it's because he didn't have enough to say. Some people love this; I see it as pretty damn minor.

Grade: C+
Zabriskie Point (1970)

Wow, this has not dated well AT ALL. Michelangelo Antonioni meant to criticize hollow American consumerism, but he got lost inside his hollow European formalism, so it's difficult to say what the message might be (if indeed there is one). Moreover, the lead actors Antonioni hired, chosen I guess for their looks and their iconic appearance as 'hippie youths', have all the appeal and talent of a grapefruit. Marble-mouthed and stilted, they can't help but look silly surrounded by their self-conciously 'with-it' dialogue and the capitalistic signifiers in the mise-en-scene that never go beyond being simply signifiers. Antonioni dislikes what he sees as the materialistic hedonism of the American lifestyle, but he never bothers to tell us why -- it's apparently just important enough that he dislikes it. And normally, I'd be on his side, but it's exactly that kind of pompous, condescending strand of social criticism that makes me think the conservatives might be on to something after all. Think about what Von Trier could have done with this film.

Grade: C-
Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

Series progenitor Kenji Misumi jumped back on board with the entry in the long-running series, presumably to get the thing back on track after a number of weak entries, and it turns out his professionalism and clean directorial style was just what was needed. This turns out to be the strongest entry since Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, with better characterization and a less complicated plot than its nearest predecesors. Misumi makes getting this formula right look so easy that it's difficult to think about how it could go wrong.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Hostage (2005)

This is, quite frankly, not a very good film. It squanders most of the potential inherent in its damned-either-way scenario in favor of gunfights and things that go boom. It gets irreparably silly in its final quarter. It explicitizes the class-warfare angle of its situation early on only to completely ignore it later. It's shamelessly manipulative and just generally filled with not-goodness. But we can only be honest to ourselves and others, and I must honestly say that I was generally impressed with the level of entertainment offered despite all the negatives the film bears. Part of this is due to the effective, moody direction by newcomer Florent Siri -- he manages to keep the tone under control most of the way, and even when it slips away he still shows a propensity for striking images (the way, for instance, one character scuttles through an air duct like an insectoid predator). But the film's ace in the sleeve is Bruce Willis, who even at his most gung-ho never seems to fit the unstoppable-action-hero mold. (That's the reason Die Hard is so successful: The hero is a sweaty, bloody Reg'lar Guy rather than a godlike ubermensch.) Surprisingly taut and engaging, played with a minimum of bombast; don't say you heard that from me, though.

Grade: B-
My Life to Live (1963)

Jean-Luc Godard tries his hand at neo-realism and finds that it doesn't quite fit him; nevertheless, there's a lot of things to like about this film. It's an examination of the way women are used by men, and thus implicitly about the way filmmakers use people (especially women). Really, though, it's about Anna Karina and how lovely Godard finds her. That ending is a bit abrupt though, ain't it Jean-Luc?

Grade: B
The Jacket (2005)

Not-bad if derivative psychodrama, reminiscent of Jacob's Ladder except with naked Keira Knightley instead of demons. Adrien Brody goes a long way towards grounding this thing in the realms of the believable; Ms. Knightley isn't nearly as effective but I give her credit for trying at least. John Maybury's biggest directorial talent may be an extraordinary penchant for imitating the work of others, to the point where it passes ripoff and moves into loving recreation -- his last film Love is the Devil had as its only asset a striking visualization of what moving Francis Bacon portraits would look like, and here he cops a David-Fincher-by-way-of-Stan-Brakhage visual style that not only suits the sterile mileu but also adds a new and interesting edge to the flashback portions. Gets better as it goes, eventually revealing itself as a study in contradiction (sometimes we must hurt to heal, die to understand life, etc.); just generally worth a look, really.

Grade: B-
Mean Creek (2004)

Promising if flawed debut from Jacob Aaron Estes about one fateful day in the life of some young'uns. On the basis of this, Estes appears to have a nascent flair for visual poetry and a slowly developing sure hand with actors. He'll probably turn out something great in a couple films' time. Here, though, he's still on unsure footing -- too often he fails himself by making his influences nakedly obvious. (Five bucks says he's seen George Washington at least ten times.) Also, he occasionally lets his actors overplay their hands, though the talented cast does their best to keep the neophyte from looking too bad. Mark him as someone to watch, but keep the hossanahs in check for now.

Grade: B-
The Holy Mountain (1973)

Fabulous brain-baking bit of surrealism from Alejandro Jodorowsky deserves to be seen by more people. It starts as the Jesus story in reverse, but somewhere along the line it switches gears and becomes a satiric fable about the neverending quest for enlightenment. Jodorowsky clearly does hold stock in the idea of enlightenment, but at the same time he doesn't hold back his cynicism -- it's fairly notable that the travellers, with the exception of the ersatz Jesus, are all given elaborate backstories where their souls are shown to be less than clean (is it only the wicked who seek 'Truth'?), and catch a whiff of that ending: It's not exactly nihilistic or apocalyptic or anything you might expect, but it pulls the rug out from underneath the whole idea behind the film's second half. Through it all, Jodorowsky's penchant for attention-grabbing imagery remains at its peak (there are times when I felt like I could be damned just for watching this). It gets a bit overly 'mystical' for my tastes in the last segments but then that's by design, innit? A second viewing might prove even more rewarding.

Grade: B+
Greaser's Palace (1972)

Bizarre hybrid of religious allegory, Western and underground scatcom doesn't quite come off, despite some wonderfully whacked-out moments and a game cast. It's really something in the beginning, but the novelty begins to wear down and I got the sense that director Robert Downey didn't have enough material to make the movie he wanted to make. More focus might have helped. Also, what was up with the beleaguered girl in the desert in my opinion. The scene where she pulls an arrow out of her leg was probably the film's funniest, but really. Come on.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Monsoon Wedding (2002)

Harmless, inoffensive fluff. Unfortunately, it is saddled with a out-of-place incest subplot that drags down the second half like stones in the stomach of a wolf. Once again, I find myself in an Osama quandary -- more explicitly, I think a film about the blue-collar wedding planner and the servant girl would have been more interesting than the film that got made. (A film about two lower-caste people improbably finding love amidst a bunch of upper-caste nitwits? What's not to love?)

Grade: C
Hookers in a Haunted House (1999)

Doesn't even live up to the low expectations set by the title. This is Special-Ed Cinema -- you point and laugh at it even as you feel bad for doing so, since it was obviously made by nice folks who nevertheless have no business being within a mile of a camera. If you've a couple like-minded friends and a six-pack handy, this can offer low-grade fun as you mercilessly wisecrack the film into submission. Watching it alone is not recommended, as it can cause blindness, night terrors and involuntary bowel evacuation.

Grade: D

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Cry-Baby (1990)

John Waters's kitschy-cool homage to the rock'n'roll rebel musical is just all kinds of kickass. I mean, where else are you going to see Joe Dallessandro and Joey Heatherton playing ultra-religious parents of a leather tough named Milton? If that doesn't just scream 'cool', I don't know what does. This is a big-silly-grin movie, and I loved every minute of it.

Grade: A-
Mr. 3000 (2004)

I like Bernie Mac, but this film is lame. I mean, what kind of sad-sack underdog sports movie has its team fighting for third place? Jesus. And I know, the point is that Bernie learns to be a team player 'n' stuff. But I hold up the run-for-third as exemplary of the film's oh-who-gives-a-fuck spirit. For this film to try any harder at being mediocre, Griffin Dunne would have to direct it.

Grade: C
Saw (2004)

This movie could have been great if it had some balls. By that, I don't mean what most horror aficionados refer to as 'balls' -- the film has plenty of gore that it doesn't shy away from showing, and it doesn't resort to a Hollywood-happy ending. So I guess it's brave and all in that respect. But if it had real balls, the kind that meant the filmmakers had enough confidence to tell the story properly -- in short, if there had been enough talent involved to realize the inherent drama in the setup (two guys trapped in a room, with one receiving instructions to kill the other) didn't need to be tricked up with flashbacks and exposition and lame-ass motives and last-minute plot twists that seem clever when you're writing them but really just open up massive plot questions. Just two guys, locked in a room, trying to get out before a crazy guy comes to kill them. That movie would have been awesome, probably. This one's just stupid. (And it's got some of the worst acting you've ever seen -- Cary Elwes's extravagantly whiny performance is already notorious, but I'm amazed nobody's pointed out that costar Leigh Whannell is even worse than him.)

Grade: C-
"Fiend Without a Face" (1958)

British B-monster slapdickery. It appears at first that it might be a more reasonably intelligent entry in the '50s sci-fi canon, but the novelty and effort dissipate after about twenty minutes. The climax isn't bad -- it's surprisingly gory for its time, and its influence can be seen in both The Birds and Night of the Living Dead. Still, this isn't much; one wonders what the hell the guys at Criterion saw in it.

Grade: C+
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Beautifully filmed but overly novelistic second film from Orson Welles is, despite what some people think, nowhere near the quality of Citizen Kane. It works in fits and starts, but then there's pieces (like the bizarre opening ten minutes, which falls somewhere between scene-setting and impromptu history lesson) that just kind of sit there. And then there's the fact that all the technical bravado in the world can't help the fact that this is about a snotty, spoiled rich guy. As stated before, movies about the problems of rich people almost never win me over. So you can safely ignore me on this one. The sound design is a plus (Altman's probably seen this a million times).

Grade: B-
Common Wealth (2000)

After the misfired Dying of Laughter, Alex De La Iglesia rebounded with this delicious bit of baroque nastiness. Blackly comic and killingly funny, this tale of an apartment complex and a dead man's money is probably De La Iglesia's most accomplished film to date. Its dark clockwork timing is unbeatable, and any movie where Darth Vader plays the hero has to at least be worth a bit of your time. It's a crazed, crazed, crazed, crazed world we live in...

Grade: B+