Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Why is everyone so down on Johnny Depp here? Granted, he's not Gene Wilder, but then he's not trying to be. What he's done here is think logically about what a guy who'd been cooped up in a giant building for twenty years with nobody to talk to but a bunch of singing dwarves might conceivably act like, and then he ran with it. Of course Willy Wonka is going to be an eccentric, paranoid social maladroit -- who wouldn't be after all that time? He's not the malevolent huckster of the 1971 film (or the book, if memory serves), but he's something possibly even more dangerous: He's a candy-colored clown who's lost his moral bearings. Roald Dahl's story was always a finger-wagging horror flick in kidlit disguise; Depp's just being more honest about it than the rest of us. Tim Burton's here to help too -- he takes the lysergic set design of the first film and tweaks it just enough to suit his Expressionistic tastes, then blends in his own brand of off-the-wall misfit humor. (Seriously, the humor in this flick is cracked. I mean, the hall of flags? The puppet burn unit? The cannibalism joke? I mean, WOW.) It's a shame, then, that Burton and screenwriter John August have to derail their marvelous film with a crap subplot about Wonka's candy-hating father. Between this and Big Fish, Burton's starting to out-dad Spielberg. Please leave the daddy issues to your therapist and definitely don't let them track their muddy feet all over the piss-poor ending to your otherwise-fantastic film, okay? Okay.

Grade: B
Wedding Crashers (2005)

It crashes, alright -- right into a goddamn tree. The first hour or so is incredibly funny. The jokes work, the actors are clicking, it's all good. Vaughn and Wilson appear to be unstoppable. So what the hell happened to the film's second half? I know that the filmmakers are trying to court audiences both male (raunchy humor, boobies) and female (love, sensitivity, heartbreak), but was it really necessary to let the last forty minutes of the movie be comprised almost exclusively of Owen Wilson moping? Watching this is like watching your favorite baseball team bring up a hot rookie pitcher, and in his first outing he throws a no-hitter for five innings. Then, just when he's gone long enough to impress everyone and qualify for the win, he gives up seven home runs in the sixth. It's a situation so bad that even your best reliever (who, in this simile, is played by Will Ferrell) can't do anything. So yeah, I really appreciate the effort and you're pretty good, but maybe you should go back down to the minors and learn something about stamina. Thanks heaps.

Grade: C+
White Noise (2005)

Another day, another piece of PG-13 would-be-horror junk. Have we been absorbing all the wrong lessons from the ongoing J-horror renaissance? (Of course we have.) To the film's credit, it does build up some effective atmosphere. Too bad that it's all in service to a stupefying screenplay that appears to have been made up as it went, kinda like a bad game of Telephone. Tolerably mediocre for about 45 minutes, then Deborah Kara Unger shows up and ruins it for everyone. The climax is so retarded (and random) that it hurts to think about it. If EVP is a real phenomenon, then I feel bad for the people who believe in it, because this film makes them look like assholes.

Grade: D
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Fine showcase for the talents of Lon Chaney, who should really be more famous than he is. He has one of his best roles here (as a humiliated scientist who, in his defeat, becomes a masochistic clown) and he makes the absolute best of it. His act, a strange metaphorical recreation of his fall from grace, is pretty wild and unforgettable; also, the ending is a wicked slice of over-the-top vengeance. The film threatens to come to a halt whenever we leave Chaney in favor of the dull horse-rider lovers, but I suppose it's necessary to keep the plot going so whatever.

Grade: B
Dario Argento's Trauma (1993)

General wisdom has it that Dario Argento shot his wad on Opera and has done nothing of note since. This film, the first he made after that last gasp of brilliance, certainly supports the above theory -- it's a lumpy and shapeless mess of a movie. All the pieces are in place for a classic Argento giallo, but the script never gels. Argento's scripts are always digressive and nonsensical, but this feels like a first draft that was written in Italian and translated badly into English. Even the direction feels subdued. There is a titty shot for Asia, which is always appreciated, but considering Daddy is behind the camera it's also a li'l bit creepy (though not as creepy as the rape scenes in The Stendhal Syndrome). If you were to ask, I would probably tell you that this qualifies as Argento's worst film (says he who has not seen The Phantom of the Opera).

Grade: D+

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

My Summer of Love (2005)

Apparently, Pawel Pawlikowski felt that the approximately 1.7 million downbeat films about gay teenage romance wasn't enough, so he threw his hat into that particular ring. What he brings to the table is a beautifully developed sense of visuals and a sure hand with actors, but there isn't much else besides that. The story develops exactly how you would expect it to. Consider: the minute I heard the words "born again" applied to Paddy Considine's character, I knew that you might as well have hung a big placard reading 'HYPOCRITE' on his neck and been done with it. Not that I have any love for religious fundamentalism, but for once, isn't there a director out there who's interested in creating a born-again Christian who actually IS filled with the light of Christ? It's just too easy to go the predictable route, and that's exactly why this film doesn't work. After a while, all there is left to do is drum your fingers on your armrest and wait for the thread to play out. (And what's the film's ultimate message? Trust no one. Am I the only one who sees this film as horribly nihilistic?) There are some good moments, mostly earlier on, but why bother with this second-rate Sapphic failure when you could be watching Heavenly Creatures again?

Grade: C+
Birth (2004)

It's all in the tone. Any inkling or indication that this is all quite silly would make this film collapse like Eminem's talent post-"Marshall Mathers". But the film treats it as a realistic situation with realistic reactions to the bizarre premise, and that's why it retains a certain measure of power. It's good, too, to see Nicole Kidman is still interested in acting and not just waltzing through cynical summer remakes in search of an effortless paycheck. I'm still not sure that Jonathan Glazer is anything but a creator of amazing surfaces (his previous film, Sexy Beast, felt wholly superficial), but this is a step in the right direction.

Grade: B
Mad Love (1935)

Peter Lorre is a badass. That's really all you need to know before deciding whether or not to view this Expressionistic horror winner. It's the Hands of Orlac plot, which by now everyone should be familiar with, so there are points when the film just seems to be going through the paces of that familiar story... but then there's the other parts, the parts with Peter Lorre. He's been given a portion of the film and told to do whatever pleases him, basically. It's through him (and his character, the obsessed Dr. Gogol) that the film gets its lurid kick. Karl Freund's hyper-grotesque direction also gains respect; the film's twin assets collide most memorably in a bizarre scene where Dr. Gogol impersonates the dead murderer Rollo. The image of Lorre in the ridiculous getup he's fashioned for this purpose will burn itself into your mind's eye. It's that cool. So's the rest of the film.

Grade: B+
Brief Encounter (1945)

It's a chamber drama without the chamber, and it's really far more remarkable than that description makes it sound. Starts off awkward, but eventually this portrait of two people finding love when they're most unable to act upon it develops and deepens into something quite heartbreaking. Beautifully acted, too (David Lean's reputation with actors, from what I can see, is completely deserved). A small, intimate triumph. Odd, though, to see adultery cast in such a sympathetic light, considering the year this was made...

Grade: A-
The Vengeance of the Mummy (1971)

Substandard Santo flick -- while it's not as bad as Santo vs. Dr. Death, it's still remarkably light on Santo-centric ass-whuppings, and the brawling action that is present is weak. I wouldn't be surprised if the original screenplay was merely a Mexi-monster mummy movie and Santo was written into it at the eleventh hour in an effort to scrape up a few more box-office dollars.

Grade: C-

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Fantastic Four (2005)

Maybe I was too hard on Batman the Fifth. As much as I disliked the flying mouse, it looks like goddamn Shakespeare next to this misbegotten mutation. Checklist: it has some of the worst dialogue ever written as enunciated by some of the least interesting actors in the world on the cheapest sets money can buy, and it also features some of the least convincing CGI effects since Van Helsing and exposition hurled out in endless gobs... and that's just in the opening fifteen minutes. Once the superpowers start manifesting, things get even worse. The action is listless and depressing in its lack of inventiveness. The stabs at drama are embarrassing (stop it with the Jessica Alba already!). The fanboy pandering is transparent. And as for the dialogue... for God's sake, the climax rips off the most infamously dreadful line of dialogue from X-Men not once, not twice, but three fucking times. This project was in turnaround for so long that the studio must have gotten to the point where they were ready to let anyone with a camera make it, but isn't that how Marvel shipwrecked their brand name in the '80s? This is easily the worst big-budget disasterpiece since The Stepford Wives. I have a hard time believing that the notorious Roger Corman production could be any worse.

Grade: D-
Travellers and Magicians (2005)

A movie of two tales: On one hand, we have the main story (code name: "Travellers"), which is about a guy who finds his tiny mountain town in Bhutan too provincial and has a chance to leave for America, and on the other hand we have the story-within-the-story (code name: "Magicians"), which is about a guy who drinks some psychedelic wine and finds himself trapped in a forest cottage with an old guy and his wife. The main body of the film (the "Travellers" thread) is one of those films that critics are expected to go gaga over just because it's from a different culture (i.e. director Khyentse Norbu's previous The Cup). So we pat it on the head and praise its exoticism and travelogue-shallow peek into a different culture, thus assuaging our liberal guilt about not knowing a damn thing about Bhutan, all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that the plot and the characters and the emotional arc, had we seen it in an American film, would be pilloried as hopelessly cliched (it's about a guy who Learns to Appreciate What He Has). And it would be easy to hate this film... were it not for the side story. It's intended as an illustrative parable as told by a Buddhist monk (it's also, essentially, about a guy who Learns to Appreciate What He Has), but it's in this thread that the film begins to truly feel exotic and mystical -- it has a mythical, fairy-tale quality to it that cuts through the dull neorealism of the main plot. In this story, one gets echoes of Kwaidan and the Grimm Brothers and Double Indemnity all at once, polished to a ravishing, saturated sheen. It's an inexorably gorgeous tale, all the more so for its simplicity. The presence of this thread also just makes the main business seem that much more prosaic and useless. It's not a film worth recommending, but if you must see it, check it out on video and fast-forward through all the real-world bits.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Double Dare (2005)

Okay documentary about female stuntpeople. Not revelatory or anything, and your life wouldn't be harmed if you skipped it, but it's an easy watch. Also, there is Zoe Bell, who is now my new favorite person -- she's pretty, she's got a lip piercing, she's from New Zealand and she doubled Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Awesome.

Grade: B-
Repulsion (1965)

Roman Polanski was the wrong man to make this film. I've long since believed that Polanski, though talented, makes films that are to be admired rather than liked -- there's a level of distance even in his best films (Knife in the Water not included) that keeps them from being anything better than solid. Many of his films succeed despite that hampering; this, though, despite its reputation, is a misfire. What we have is a portrait of a woman losing her mind, which is all well and good. But Polanski's curious clinicality kept me at arm's length the whole time, so that I saw the events in the film but I didn't feel them... and a thriller where you don't feel at least a little uneasy isn't a terribly useful thriller. Polanski's eye for composition is keen, and he gets a stunning feral performance from Catherine Deneuve, but the fact remains that this is too detached to have an impact. You can look at a crazy person from behind glass, but it's not going to be nearly as dangerous as if you stepped in the room with them.

Grade: C+
The Green Butchers (2005)

This Swedish flick (written and directed by the writer of the overrated Mifune and a bunch of other mediocre flicks about which nobody cares) is by all evidence an attempt at crafting a bone-dry black comedy without the comedy, which to me seems about as smart as jumping out of an airplane sans parachute, but then nobody ever asks me these things. Overdoes things on the grotesquerie front, probably because it has nothing else up its sleeve; meanwhile, the pallid attempts at straight-faced wit make Kaurismaki look like Keaton. Total crap, basically. The atrocious excuse for an ending is the final insult.

Grade: D
The Yakuza Papers, Vol. 4: Police Tactics (1974)

Name tags. That's what this film is missing -- name tags. If every character walked around wearing one of those red-and-white 'HI My name is' stickers that people tend to wear at conventions and scholastic events and other such large gatherings, maybe then it would be humanly possible to follow the events of the insane, overextended narrative. Alas, Kinji Fukasaku decided to go for realism rather than convenience, so what we have here is one hundred minutes of faceless guys in business suits yelling, fighting and occasionally killing. What's worse, Fukasaku makes the same mistake he made with Proxy War by de-emphasizing the role of lead identification figure (and only interesting recurring character) Shozo Hirono -- after he gets shipped to the hoosegow halfway through, it's like someone pulled the pin out of the film's neck and the only thing a viewer can do is watch it crumple into a frenzied heap. Top that off with disinterested direction -- Fukasaku's work here lacks the verve of the first two films in the series, and the feeling I got was mainly one of et's-get-this-over-with-already professionalism -- and what we have here is a damn good argument for not ever bothering with the fifth and final volume.

Grade: C

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Land of the Dead (2005)

Brilliant, angry portrait of modern America as seen through the eyes of one of cinema's greatest pop satirists. It's as politically loaded as Romero's other zombie films, maybe even more so -- Romero's working-class sensibilities had slowly been shifting to the zombies throughout the previous three films, and here as he lays out his class-war metaphor it's always clear who deserves to come out ahead. The climax, though, pushes the dominant metaphor (the rich in their ivory tower with all the power, the middle class doing all the gruntwork and drowing in amusement, the poor fenced off into ghettos and generally ignored and/or killed) into radical and disconcerting territory, as the poor learn to stand up for themselves, stop being amused and take what's theirs. All that, plus it's just a damn good horror film -- properly gruesome and disturbing with a healthy dollop of mordant humor. Check that ending, too: For the first time, Romero's allowed a Dead film to end on a note of tentative hope. I gotta wonder what's next...

Grade: A-
War of the Worlds (2005)

Spielberg tries his hand at the end of the world, can't quite commit to it (what a whiff of an ending!); still, damn good film. If a director with more faith in the film's dark vision had done this, it might be the year's crowning achievement -- the first two-thirds are as compelling a vision of the apocalypse as any I've seen. Parallels to 9/11 are myriad and not exactly subtle, but you should probably consult other, smarter critics about that since I've been sitting on this review for too damn long now. Tom Cruise: still underrated, especially for his work here (in which he takes his trademarked cocksureness and spins it just enough so that we see the facade crumbling as the man tries, desperately, to hold it together). Also, Dakota Fanning: still annoying.

Grade: B
Bewitched (2005)

Will Ferrell is still a funny guy, and he manages to wring more laughs out of the material he's given here than I would have thought possible. Otherwise, I think that the closest I can come to saying something positive about this is that it's not quite as dire as The Stepford Wives, but it's still painful. Nicole Kidman should probably be kept away from anything with the word 'remake' in the pitch from now on, and whoever told Nora Ephron that she should try meta-comedy will one day have to extract my steel-toed boot from the inside of their lower intestine.

Grade: D+
Hitch (2005)

Above-average for the romcom genre, or it is for at least an hour -- the first half of the film is silly and contrived but it does have a sharp sense of itself and the enormous charisma benefit one gets from casting Will Smith, plus there's some occasional actual wit (the first scene between Smith and uber-hot Eva Mendes is as well-played a volley of words as anything out of Toback, if not quite Mamet). But what is to be done with the film's second half? Like most romcoms, it tries to get all dramatic on us, but the sheer volume of contrivance that it takes to create the conflict in this film's conflict-resolution arc has to stretch the credibility of even the most forgiving chick-flick devotee. If only there was a way to amputate all of this film's superfluous limbs, we might have a neat featurette.

Grade: C
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Certainly epic in scope, but not quite the 'epic' I had envisioned (and, to be honest, kind of feared). Despite its huge stature and sweeping reach, it's at heart an intimate story about one man's successes and shortcomings. Far from being a hagiographic portrait, it allows Lawrence to be a larger-than-life man while at the same time preserving the doubts and failings that often mark men who have the kind of massive aspirations shown here. Acting is all excellent (hard to believe this was Peter O'Toole's first major role), and the direction and cinematography are rightly famed. It's the rare film that really does live up to its reputation. Quibble: The pacing does flag somewhat during the third hour. Reason that quibble is meaningless: That third hour also reveals the film's ultimate goal as a pessimistic evaluation of That Middle Eastern Situation (and, by extension, the ripples into modern-day politics), which is not at all what I was expecting. Good job David Lean. I will be trying to see more of your films in the future.

Grade: A-
Juggernaut (1974)

A real standout in the disaster-craze sweepstakes, this boat-based thriller derives its porterhouse-thick tension from its absolute refusal to give in to hysteria. The low-key hum of the film's veddy Englishness leeches out any potential shrillness and makes the danger feel more believable. Loading up the cast with English heavyweights rather than Americans helps on that front as well, but even the potential grandstanders (paging Richard Harris) keep themselves well under control. (Irony: Just by not going over the top, Harris gets to walk away with the movie in his vest.) I'd say more, but I rather doubt I could improve on the esteemed KZA's remark of "It's jugger-TAUT!", so we'll just let that serve.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Nomi Song (2005)

It's a standard documentary (with a full complement of talking heads) about an artist. Documentaries like this always depend on the interest posed by the art rather than the artist -- the artist is inevitably an enigma about whom we learn almost nothing -- and the people making this film lucked out. Their film is about Klaus Nomi, a German immigrant who wowed the New York City art scene in the '80s with his one-of-a-kind musical act, and most times all the filmmakers have to do to hold interest is insert footage of the act. It's an odd, entrancing thing, comprised of equal parts opera, New Wave rock, cabaret, avant-garde performance and pop music, and the whole shebang is cemented by Nomi's off-the-wall space-alien persona. (It makes sense that this guy, more than most other artists, would come off as an enigma -- his whole act is predicated on the line between artifical and genuine, camp and serious.) Also, secondarily, the film becomes modestly affecting when we learn that Nomi's sexual predilections led to him being one of the first public figures to succumb to AIDS, back when nobody knew a damn thing about it other than it was killing gay people. It's hardly essential or life-changing, but it does well what a documentary is primarily meant to do -- it documents.

Grade: B
The Three Marias (2004)

Wow, this really sucks. It takes a surefire B-cheese premise (women avenging themselves on the killers of their husband/father/sons/brothers) and absolutely buries it under a landslide of crap dialogue and heavy-handed direction and inadequate acting and pretentious religious symbolism. Junk like this should be played fast and loose with a sense of fun, but everyone in this film has a better poker face than Chris Ferguson. Comes alive a bit during the reversal-of-premise climax, but shit is still shit even if there's candy sticking out of the end of it.

Grade: D
The Machinist (2004)


Okay, so Scott Kosar totally can't write. And Brad Anderson totally can't direct. So when the two of them team up, you get the biggest wasted opportunity I've seen in some time, a dull psycho-thriller overladen with portentious symbols and secondhand Fincherisms. It's a shame, too, because the basic idea is sound -- a man's agonized psychological guilt over an inadvertant murder externalized through the flesh. The guilt eats him alive inside and outside. It's an excellent concept, and it's well-played by a game Christian Bale. But the filmmakers are too busy trying to be coy and playing their little games to confront the subject matter head on. Do this straight, with no big revelations and no attempts at mindfuckery, and you've probably got one hell of a film. As it stands, I just have to shake my head and think that it's a goddamn waste that Bale starved himself for this rubbish. He, apparently, was the only one who committed to the project wholeheartedly.

Grade: C
Trainspotting (1996)

A sodding bore. I don't know what Danny Boyle thinks he's doing, but his choice of tone is all off. This really needed the snarling bleak-humored outlook of someone like, say, Alex Cox, not this jolly-good-show gross-out laddishness. The film's too concerned with being cheeky and flashy that it kind of forgets to be interesting. And yes, I know the then-this-happened-then-we-forgot-about-it-then-something-else-happened construction is intentional, as a reflection of the heroin mindset. But while it's successful in that respect, it shortcircuits another and (in my eyes) more important concern -- whether or not I should give a shit about what happens next. Kelly Macdonald is the best thing in this film, and she's not in it nearly enough.

Grade: C
Monterey Pop (1968)

Great music = great music documentary. The equation for a fabulous music doc isn't always that simple, but when a film is shot as this one is, that's all you need. This appears to be an offshoot of the impassive Wiseman-style filmmaking in that it simply shows an event with no attempt to editorialize or contextualize -- the concert simply exists. With the music on display here, it doesn't need to do anything else, and it's probably better for not trying to make a grand social statement out of it. For a while, it looks like it would be tough to pick out a top dog among the performers (The Animals covering "Paint it Black" in a performance that Tod Ashley is likely familiar with! Janis Joplin and her wrenching "Ball and Chain"! The Who in their vibrant youth tearing apart "My Generation"! Otis Redding singlehandledly introducing soul to the hippie generation!). But then Jimi Hendrix comes onstage and makes everyone else look like amateurs. (Side note: If Jimi had survived, he probably would have eventually recorded an album of nothing but feedback some time in the mid-70s. Wonder how that would have altered the course of rock history...)

Grade: B+
The Yes Men (2004)

Two guys travel around the world prentending to be representatives of the World Trade Organization after setting up a fake WTO site that's mistaken for the real thing. They are the Yes Men, and their pranks are often quite funny and cutting in a Swiftian kind of way. Unfortunately, the documentary is not as important or effective as it believes itself to be; the idea that anyone could take some of their more outlandish notions seriously is a sad reflection of today's economic climate, but not as sad as the fact that despite the efforts of these guys and others, the WTO appears to soldier on stronger than ever. Sarcasm, no matter how caustic or revealing, only goes so far towards changing the world, I guess.

Grade: B
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Spare and creepy tale that still holds plenty of power today. Political content hard to ignore, though it's also fairly nebulous (I prefer the anti-Communist reading, though it may only be because I know Don Siegel also directed the severely right-wing Dirty Harry). Overall, pretty cool; the "you're next!" ending is one of the best endings ever, even when it's not the ending.

Grade: B+

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Lorna (1964)

Not Russ Meyer's finest moment, this early attempt at moving from nudie-cuties into narrative cinema has a glaring weakness in its title character. Far from being the typical Amazon goddess that one usually finds in Meyer films, Lorna is a sullen dullard. The leisurely pace isn't too helpful either (this film feels much longer than its 78-minute running time). It does have its moments, mostly involving Hal Hopper's gleeful provocations, but I think it's best to consider this a baby step towards better things and leave it be at that.

Grade: C+