Monday, June 27, 2005

Three... Extremes (2005)

It's one for three on this omnibus feature, which is fine if you're batting cleanup for the New York Mets. For a feature film, though, that's a pitifully low percentage. Unexpectedly, the two ringers disappoint: Takashi Miike's opener Box is a lovely and delicate bore, though the epilogue does redefine the film's meaning for the better, while Chan-wook Park brings up the rear for a good reason with Cut, an execrable tonal disaster made barely bearable by Park's extraordinary talent for creating memorable images. Sandwiched in between these two whiffs is Fruit Chan's Dumplings, and it's here that the film starts to cook. Christopher Doyle's cinematography is the short's true MVP, as his unerring eye accentuates Chan's off-kilter compositions and allows stray bits of beauty to peek out from underneath the awesomely grotesque scenario. Sticking Chan's film in the middle is actually quite instructive, as it allows us to see how difficult it can be to truly stick the landing when trying to hit the hallowed ground between ravishing and revolting -- Miike's film is too aesthetically determined and obscure to make much of an impact, while Park's swings too far in the other direction and ends up as a hysterically stupid Grand Guignol collapse. My only criticism of Chan's segment is that, in fact, the short-film format isn't enough for it -- just as it starts to build up a creepy-cool head of steam, it's at the end of the line. I'd really be interested in seeing a full-length version of this material... and hey, whadaya know, one is in existence! I guess that makes this omnibus all but useless, dunnit? Oh, what a shame.

Grade: C
Totally F***ed Up (1994)

Artsy portrait of a group of gay friends living in L.A. is impassioned and compassionate and generally not bad. Surprise, surprise: Gregg Araki has a heart after all. It's interesting to wonder where his developing talent may have taken him had he not vanished up the asshole of irony for several years. The confrontational title speaks to the anger and disenfranchisement felt by the characters, but unlike Araki's more infamous later work there's also room for fun and camaraderie. Occasionally, there's even a slight glimmer of happiness, though it never lasts. It kind of feels like the sloppy punk-rock kid brother of Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. Like most punk-rock-style filmmaking, it's far from perfect -- the film looks cheap, even with Araki's impressively developing eye, and it's got some awful acting too. (I've never liked James Duval in anything -- he's like Keanu Reeves on Thorazine.) But it's got a soul, and that makes it feel vital.

Grade: B-

[POSTSCRIPT: I believe I am the first person ever to review this without bringing up Jean-Luc Godard. Thanks buds.]

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Malevolence (2004)

And now, a contest: If you, dear reader, can sit through this and subsequently name one (1) thing in this film that isn't a hopeless cliche, I will send you five American dollars. With so many talented and interesting artists whose work languishes in the No-Distribution Zone, why on earth would anyone (especially a company like Anchor Bay, who've done such good work for the horror community in the past) bother with this zero-sum piece of junk? No talent, no ambition, no brains, no nothing. This movie sucks like a Thai hooker.

Grade: D-
Who Killed Bambi? (2004)

God, this movie's dumb. What's the point of a thriller that tells you where it's headed every step of the way? I mean, really French people. Try fucking harder. Even when this film goes right (the "guess my dream" scene, for instance), it finds a way to bollocks it up (the redux of the "guess my dream" sequence, for instance). Also, enough with the Sophie Quinton. In whose universe is she a talented actress who can carry a film on her own? Also, the title: I do not think this movie is deep enough to support Theo's theory (though it's not a bad idea), so my only question is what on earth does this dull thriller have to do with the Sex Pistols?

Grade: D+

Monday, June 20, 2005

Kings and Queen (2005)

I have no idea what to think about Arnaud Desplechin. By my count, he has to his credit one near-masterpiece and two baffling intellectual marathons. (I have yet to see either Playing "In the Company of Men" or La Sentinelle.) This, his latest film, could be seen as his previous My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into an Argument reconfigured for the mid-life crisis years. So if you've seen that previous film, you know pretty much what you're getting here -- a wildly fluctuating tone, a discursive non-plot, lots of little character moments and philosophical musings, flashes of brilliance, flashes of tedium, flashes of underdevelopment and some of the best damn acting French cinema has to offer. Desplechin's secret strength is his talent with actors and his healthy working relationship with Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos (both of whom, IMO, rank among France's best and brightest thespians). It's usually through his performers that we get to like the characters, since (as Theo says) Desplechin is probably the most unsentimental director working today, and this film is no exception, as the quirks and baggage that the actors bring to their characters fills in the emotional gaps deliberately left by the director. (Magalie Woch is goin' places. Mark my words.) Amusing, epic, often quite lovely; still left me confused and unfulfilled, though. Maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough...

Grade: C+
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

I guess I should have seen this coming, but what I don't understand is why this is so acclaimed. Chaplin's comedic sense, so sharp in his silents, proves to be all wrong for black comedy. He's just not subtle enough, and there are scenes that should kill but instead die due to forced slapstick elements (the climactic wedding party) or overbaked performances (every scene with Martha Raye). There are bits where the film is lively enough to transcend its shortcomings (I liked Verdoux's first encounter with Grosnay, and the night with the girl just out of jail was well-realized), but mostly it just sits there. Certainly shocking for its time, and the social commentary -- The Great Dictator reconfigured for an agonized and angry post-war era -- is quite radical, but the laughs aren't there.

Grade: C
Cocksucker Blues (1972)

"Blues" is right: I think the Stones had this infamous doc suppressed not because of the groupie-fucking and drug abuse but because it makes them look like the most boring band on the planet. This, of course, has to be by design -- the film is one of the only rock docs I can think of that expresses something left out in most films of its ilk. In a time period where Antonioni, Schlesinger and Schatzberg (among others) were in creative bloom, this film gets deeper into the heart of geniune ennui more than most films can even imagine. Life on the road can be soul-crushingly dull and lonely, and this film demonstrates that again and again. We see the Stones driving across America, performing gigs and trying to live up to the reputation of "most dangerous band alive" when they all really look like they'd rather just go home and become shut-ins. Trouble is, it does its job TOO well, to the point where audience involvement is nigh well impossible. After half an hour, I was ready to buy Mick and Co. that plane ticket home. The shitty video quality didn't help either (if this ever gets a legit release, I might give it another look). It's a vital film, probably one of the most important and canonical rock documentaries ever made; shame it's more interesting to hear about than sit through.

Grade: C

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Worst Horror Movie Ever Made (2005)

I knew I would be this movie's bitch when I saw the watermelon gag. This lives up to its title -- it's certainly a godawful horror movie. It is, however, a fairly amusing juvenile-minded comedy. Top-loaded with jokes about sex and poop and a fondness for groan-worthy puns, this often feels like a lost Troma movie. But then I think we all know how I feel about Troma. I was awash in laughter for much of the film -- occasionally because something struck me as really funny, occasionally because something was so stupid that I had to laugh, and occasionally because something was so stupid that I couldn't believe they actually put in it there and had to laugh in defense. I can't in good conscience give it a passing grade, but Jesus I enjoyed it. One day, I will probably make a movie like this, and everyone reading this site will hate it and think I am crazy for doing it. You're welcome in advance. Also, I kinda have a crush on Jeanne Potter. She's cute, she's sardonic, she's red-headed, she's got a tongue ring and she's got the thickness goin' on. Who says nothing good ever comes out of Jersey?

Grade: C+
Lilya 4-Ever (2003)

Feel-Good Dept.: If your thing is watching a movie wherein the entire Western world conspires to drop a Cleveland steamer on a 16-year-old girl, have at it. Personally, I would hope that if the films I watch are to aspire to anything, it would be to a message more revelatory than "Life sucks, get a helmet". Not that I haven't appreciated downbeat or nihilistic cinema before (refer to my undying appreciation of Requiem for a Dream), but this one-track crap ain't cutting it. Director Lukas Moodysson stacks the deck so heavily against his protagonist that it upends any point he was trying to make -- his crude, labored determinism turns the film into a lifeless hermetic experiment in social realism. Granted, I know things like this happen in real life and I'm sympathetic to that and I guess Moodysson should be commended for trying to bring this to our attention. But I'd much rather he'd have done it with more grace and less wallowing. He comes across as a thug with an Arriflex. (Besides, isn't this why they make movies like Born Into Brothels?)

Grade: D+

Thursday, June 16, 2005

High Tension (2005)

A perfectly tense and well-executed slasher flick that gets blown all to hell because somebody tried to get too clever. Mr. Aja, it's a freakin' slasher film. Wherefore the stupid plot twist? Were you not satisfied with simply making one of the best damn body count films of the last few years? Is this use of That Particular Ending supposed to be satiric or something? After all, it's a very popular ending lately. But then, I suppose you can't wriggle off the hook that easily, since your film was shot prior to all the other recent films with similar endings. This is still one hell of a meat movie, and slasher-movie fanatics should be mostly pleased. But while I can't agree with md'a about this movie having the most retarded twist in history (Identity hasn't yet ceased to exist, after all), it may be the most damaging -- after all, Identity sucked before it twisted itself into oblivion. I'm looking forward to Aja's next film (even if it is an ill-advised remake), simply because the man proves here that he can direct up a storm... but I'm also hoping that he decides to play it straight next time around.

Grade: C+
Shadows (1959)

Rough but exciting direction, sharp improvisational performances, extraordinary sense of mood, occasional shapelessness, a defiant I-can-do-this-if-I-want-so-screw-you-and-your-momma-too attitude: This film is free jazz on celluloid. It's just that simple. And hell yeah, I can dig it.

Grade: B+
Ebola Syndrome (1996)

Even by my standards, this is one screwed-up movie. It's about a rotten bastard with a chip on his shoulder who gets infected with ebola (you don't want to know how), only to unknowingly become a carrier when his immune system proves to be the rare one-in-ten-thousand that can subdue the virus. But it's more than that, so much more. Apparently the filmmakers didn't feel the spectre of ebola was enough to create a memorable gross-out horror flick, so they threw into their cauldron of sickness some garden-variety murder, some rape, some cannibalism, plenty of gratuitous nudity and a scene where Anthony Wong humps a piece of beef. That this works at all (indeed, that it turns out to be such an effective piece of blackly comic nastiness) is probably due to the intense commitment of Anthony Wong. Wong usually makes for the most interesting villains, and here he creates a guy so consumed with rage at his presumed inferiority that he's an amoral timebomb waiting to happen. It seems that the effectiveness of Wong's performances parallel the rudeness of the movies in which he's involved, and while this film can't top his previous collaboration with director Herman Yau (The Untold Story), this one's at least more entertaining. Weak stomachs need not apply, obviously, but if you're into this kind of thing, just see how long you feel compelled to shout "Fuck off! Ebola!" after watching this.

Grade: B-

Monday, June 13, 2005

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Gus van Sant's followup to his breakthrough Drugstore Cowboy is one of the damndest things anyone's ever made and called a movie. There were points within the film where I was lost on how to take it. But you know what? I found that kind of exciting, the mark of an adventurous filmmaker who is up for taking any risk he can think to throw at himself. Starts as an appealing and hilarious slacker comedy wherein all the slackers just happen to be homeless rent boys; subsequently, it traipses through Shakespeare, road movie, love story, buddy drama, familial-dysfunction drama and (for one brief moment) gay porno without even stopping to check its mirrors. Ultimately, it's about displacement and the search for anywhere that feels like home (our own private Idaho, indeed). Keanu Reeves is fairly tolerable, given the circumstances; River Phoenix obviously died too young. The early smash cut to the falling house: Best. Scene. Ever.

Grade: B
Les Carabiniers (1963)

I tell ya, when Godard goes bad he doesn't fuck around. Here, ol' JLG decided to construct an entire film around one crude idea ("War turns men into beasts!"), but after he's proven that within ten minutes, all he can do is keep shouting that idea in our ear and hope that easily cowed critics will mistake his smug one-trick pony for something profound. Adding to the insult is the poor acting by all involved, which was I guess to be expected from a bunch of rank amateurs being directed by a man who too often sides with aesthetic experimentation and political harangues over human behavior (does that make JLG the arthouse answer to George Lucas?). What's really surprising, though, is that Godard's direction is godawful. Many scenes are wrecked by clumsy setups, and the editing is dismal (every shot begins one second too soon and is held one second too long). For once, the French were right about something -- this film bites.

Grade: D

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Reviewing this film seems beside the point. It's not a movie so much as it is the culmination of a marketing phenomenon designed to persuade us that three more Star Wars movies were just what the world needed. And, for about an hour, it feels like the cynical and soulless product that description would engender -- it's all flash and fire without any attempt at substance. Worse than that... the first half of this film is essentially a special-effects demo reel that includes recurring characters. But then, around the time Samuel L. Jackson finally gets to do a patented Samuel L. Badass Moment(tm), a curious thing happens: Ringmaster George Lucas slowly remembers that he's here to make an actual movie. So all the stuff that's been missing from the other pieces in the trilogy creeps in; the last half hour or so of this are probably about as close to narrative and emotional complexity as Lucas will ever get. I know I'm overrating this, but I've secretly been a Lucas apologist the whole time anyway (I even liked Episode I, remember). So there it is. I kinda liked it, it's done, let's all just move the fuck on.

Grade: B-
Undertow (2004)

In which wunderkind director David Gordon Green gets crossed up by a genre he shouldn't be touching. It's all well and good that Green, having shown a deep respect and love for the rhythms of the South, would try his hand at Southern Gothic. But therein lies the problematic: Green's heavily stylized previous films are notable, among other things, for being incredibly generous with their characters. Green's worldview seems to take it as an article of faith that everyone is basically good in their hearts. Southern Gothic, on the other hand, is a genre built on the idea that pretty much everyone is evil. So when Green's unashamed romanticism runs up against the misanthropic undertones of the film he's made, the resulting wreckage is a curious and detached work that shows evidence of too-muchness. Instead of just making a movie, Green has tried his damndest to make A David Gordon Green Movie. This has incidents that work, and I still love the guy, but he forced it this time.

Grade: C+
Alone in the Dark (2005)

Oh my God, this movie is freakin' hilarious. Tara Reid's disastrous performance (as an archaeologist who can't pronounce 'Newfoundland' correctly) is worth the money all by itself, but there's plenty more where that came from. (Best line of dialogue, delivered with a remarkable straight face by Christian Slater: "Hudgens! Don't be insane!") In a way, it's refreshing that this film can be considered so-bad-it's-funny -- director Uwe Boll's previous film House of the Dead was bad in a way that can't even be mocked. Laughing at House of the Dead is like pimp-slapping a kid who rides the short bus: You can do it, but it's only going to make you feel worse about yourself. How sad that this awful, awful movie should represent artistic progress for its director, but that's how it is in Uwe Boll Land.

Grade: D
The River (1997)

Tsai Ming-Liang takes his ethos of alienation and pushes it to its extreme in this film, which features a family so out of touch with each other that we're halfway through the film before we realize they're all related. Some of the trademark Tsai touches of deadpan humor stick around to make this more than an unrelieved angstfest, but this is still pretty stark stuff. But however crushing or oppressive it may get, it is still also incredibly well-made and acted beautifully. (Also, I'd just like to say that Tsai's delicate directorial touch resulted in some of the most erotic sex scenes I've seen recently, which is an odd thing to be saying about a film in which sex is mainly used as an escape from pain but there you go.) It's carefully observed minimalism used to magnify lives in despair. It's not feel-good, but it's pretty vital anyway. Just remember to armor yourself for the ending, which takes the reigning metaphor and shoves it down a hole into some seriously disturbing territory.

Grade: B+