Sunday, August 28, 2005

Dead Meat (2004)

This film sucks. Now, I say that a lot, but I mean that this film REALLY sucks. Think about this: Not only is this a zombie film, but this is a film with the audacity to give us a zombie cow (a zombie cow!), and it's still pretty much worthless. Despite the herculean and much-appreciated attempts at rescue from The World's Coolest Irish Guy (his name is Eoin Whelan, and he's basically playing the same character he played in director Conor McMahon's similarly worthless short The Braineater, but after three minutes you'll know him by the previously mentioned sobriquet), this is utter crap only worth watching through an alcohol fog. Even the gore effects suck. Just fuck off already, Mr. McMahon. You're not funny.

Grade: D+
Prozac Nation (2001)

Look at me! I'm fucked-up! I'm depressed! Look at me! I'm naked! For no reason! Look at me! I have loose morals! I'm acting out! I have daddy issues! I'm suffering! Look at me! Everyone says that I'm a great writer even though my prose resembles diary entries from an oversincere fifteen-year-old girl! I've won awards! I'm privileged! My parents had money! I should be on Easy Street but the weight of the world weighs upon me! Look at me! I'm whiny! I'm self-centered! I want you all to know how great my suffering is! I want you all to know how difficult it is being me! Look at me! I'm on pills! I'm making a half-hearted suicide attempt in an effort to bring some manner of closure to this film's anti-drama! Can't you see how fucked up I am? Look at me! LOOK AT ME, GODDAMMIT! LOOK AT ME!

(Alternate title, courtesy of Mclusky: My Pain and Sadness is Sadder and More Painful than Yours.)

Grade: C
Mondovino (2005)

The world of wine and the eternal push-pull tension between the Old World and the New World, between the family vineyards and the corporate vineyards, is a fascinating subject, but you wouldn't know it from watching this film. Somewhere between 1997's excellent Sunday and this film, director Jonathan Nossiter must have forgot everything he knew about putting together a well-made film, because this is one of the most blatant acts of directorial sabotage I've ever seen. Nossiter shoots with low-grade DV cameras, so the film looks butt-ugly, plus he opts for the seasick handheld approach (dude, seriously... buy a fucking tripod), and to top it off he throws in random, abrupt zooms into meaningless objects or people's eyeballs or family dogs every seventeen seconds or so. That's three strikes against the film already, and I haven't even gotten past the cinematography. The film runs 135 minutes, so you'd think with all that canvas, Nossiter would have time to develop a coherent thesis. No such luck, though -- in addition to being an eyesore, Mondovino is also a fatally scattered piece of work. Nossiter concentrates on the wrong aspects of the argument (I'm sympathetic to his anti-globalization slant, but by the end of this film you'd think the Mondavis were fucking Satanists or something) while ignoring potentially interesting tangents. For example, there's a brief shot of some French government official commenting on the wine-rating craze and how certain houses in Burgundy and Bordeaux are possibly using illegal methods to make their wine more in-line with the kind of wine that critics are perceived to like. Nossiter lets that slide with nary a whisper, but I would personally like to know more? What are these guys doing? Are they using Algerian grapes? Mega-Red? Ox blood? Red Dye #5? Poodle semen? What gives, dude? Stop wasting time on crap like the Ornellaia Affair (repetitive, makes points already made several times during the film) or the Harlan Family Winery (pointless, is probably in the film just to prove that you've been to Harlan) or Robert Parker (somehow, both fawning and a poorly-researched attempt at character assassination), put down the glass from which you've undoubtedly "tasted" far too much and fucking focus on what you want to say, jackass. To put it another way, this film has a nose of burnt sulfur, the color is off and there's very little body. The flavors are rather unpleasant, as initial pungent notes of tar and tobacco give way to a sour, vinegary aftertaste. Out of 100, I give it a 34. I can't bloody imagine how boring this film would come off to someone who, unlike me, couldn't give two shits about wine.

Grade: C-

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Conformist (1971)

Bernardo Bertolucci's breakthrough film is, first off, a visual delight. The rich, saturated color scheme serve to heighten the artistic/dramatic thrust, and the camera is exactly where it needs to be at all times. This is quite possibly one of the most gorgeous films I've ever seen, and thankfully it's got more to offer than just pretty pictures. In telling the story of a man who allows himself to be swept along by the political tides of 1930s Italy, Bertolucci means to get at the root of why things like Mussolini happen. As one would expect, a film this carefully arranged has a lot going on symbollically as well -- there's the expected stuff (a group of blind Fascists) and the stuff that's been dissected at length (though I disagree with the popular Fascist/homosexual linkage, there's a strong essence of moral decay leading to political decay, as evinced by the character of Marcello's mother), but there's something else that struck me. If you pay attention to the way Bertolucci arranges his characters, there's a lot of parts where people get obscured by something in the foreground. (The scene in the park, where the camera blots out Manganiello by panning onto a tree, is the best example of this.) Could this mean something about Fascist/totalitarian societies and the loss of individuality within the citizens of said societies, so that they literally become faceless? Sounds convincing to me. Also, more needs to be said about the film's absurdist sense of humor -- in its heavy stylization and its gallows humor, one can see the influence that leads to, among other things, pretty much everything cinematic to come out of Bosnia and Serbia since the mid-90s. (Betcha Kusturica loves this movie.)

Grade: A-
Winter Soldier (1972)

This rare film documents a hearing put on by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. What it is, basically, is a bunch of young men on a stage relating the war atrocities they witnessed (and, in some cases, committed). For a film comprised of nothing but words, it carries with it a brutal impact, as the insanity of war becomes concrete. What's noteworthy, too, is how the participants sidestep the usual rationalizations for barbaric wartime behavior. The "just following orders" explanation does show up, but unlike, say, the guards in S21, the soldiers in this film also readily acknowledge their own culpability and guilt over their actions. They may have been following orders, but in many cases they were all too happy to carry those orders out. The film suffers from some thematic repetition (after a while, some of the subjects' testimonies start to bleed together), and the editing could be tighter. The film's full force, though, still hits home -- especially in today's political climate.

Grade: B
Pretty Persuasion (2005)

Ignore the overheated pans -- this is a blistering satirical look at American life that's guaranteed to provoke at least a couple of gasps. Nathan Rabin of The Onion AV Club summons the spectre of Lord Love a Duck in reviewing this, and the comparison is valid. I'd assume that earlier film was an influence on this, except that Persuasion imagines what would happen if you combined the characters of Alan Musgrave and Barbara Ann Greene into one devious, brilliant, fame-seeking uberbitch. The film, unforunately, doesn't have the pinpoint accuracy of that previous near-masterpiece -- this is very much a first-timer film, with writer Skander Halim and director Marcos Siega throwing knives at everything they see and hoping most of the missiles stick. Most of the material works, but some threads are either underdeveloped (Jane Krakowski's plotline) or bad ideas (the quasi-boyfriend who can't remember why beer is better than a woman). This buckshot approach makes the last half hour, where the laughs fade in favor of incendiary anger, feel sour and a bit smug. Still, there's enough laughs (and shock-value sass) to make this worthwhile. I predict big things for Mr. Halim, the only screenwriter in the world who would make a John Carpenter's Vampires in-joke. (Not for Mr. Siega, though -- his next film stars Nick Cannon, so apparently he's already sold out.) Also, Evan Rachel Wood is unexpectedly fantastic in this, drawing on a deep well of malevolence that she'd previously kept hidden away. Maybe the thirteen chick has a future after all.

Grade: B-
9 Songs (2005)

Sometime in 2004, Michael Winterbottom decides to make a film with hardcore, unsimulated sex. Michael Winterbottom thinks this will get his film closer to certain truths about relationships that get avoided by most mainstream films as well as bring some credibility to material generally only dealt with in stroke flicks. Michael Winterbottom, it turns out, might have a point. The sex scenes are significantly more explicit than other films even dare to dream of, but what's important is that because of this explicitness, they also have an unforced intimacy that both heightens the eroticism of the affair (moviegoing is, after all, essentially group voyeurism) and allows us, by seeing these two characters at their most naked (in multiple senses of the word), to understand these characters on a closer level. It's a good thing Winterbottom's assumptions were correct, too, because aside from the sex (and the concerts from which the film derives its title), we're given almost nothing about these characters. They like to fuck and listen to live music. Occasionally they do drugs, have pleasant chats, fight, sleep, etc., but mostly it's sex and music. Which, by the way, is exactly as it should be. Right from the beginning, we're set up to expect a memory piece. This is a guy flashing back on a relationship that has ended. He's charting the rise and fall of she and him through that which mattered to him. He tries to let us in on why this girl mattered to him, and he does it through the most primal means possible -- sex and music. (Is there, ultimately, anything else to life?) The film's not perfect (it feels a bit extended even at 69 minutes, and the Antarctic stuff is a classic case of Trying Too Hard), but it does what it has to. It's a charming and ultimately poignant tale of a man looking back on happier times, plus it has some pretty hot sex. And it ends with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club playing "Love Burns," which is of course also exactly as it should be.

Grade: B
Tony Takitani (2005)

I'm all for minimalism, but there's gotta be limits. This film is based on a short story that, as far as I can tell, is concerned exclusively with the inner life of its title character. To get this across, director Jun Ichikawa slathers his film in narration (presumably straight from the source), forgetting that film is primarily a visual storytelling medium. Ichikawa's spare visual sense is an asset, but it's compromised by his insistence on faithfulness to his source, which leads to the fatal error of overstatement. If Ichikawa was a more confident filmmaker, he could have ditched the voiceover and told us everything we need to know through what's on the bigass screen in front of us. (I weep to imagine what Tsai Ming-liang could have done with this.) As I see it, the only people who should be praising this bare ruined cinematic zero are people who secretly hate movies. This isn't a film -- it's an audiobook with pictures.

Grade: C
Grizzly Man (2005)

Werner Herzog's found-footage winner shows us the short life and sad end of one Timothy Treadwell, amateur bear enthusiast. Initially, this starts as a nature documentary with a twist (the primary filmmaker was, of course, eaten by his subjects). But as the beautifully-shot footage unspools and Herzog digs into Treadwell's life, it becomes clear that what we are seeing is one man's descent into madness, making Herzog the perfect director for this initially atypical project. Treadwell's footage charts his growing involvement with the bears and nature and, by proxy, his continuing disinvolvement and disenchantment with the world of humans; in this light, his death seems less a foolhardy suicidal act and more a final gesture of disgust with the one species of animal he couldn't comprehend. A disquieting and riveting experience, and not one that will make you feel comfortable with your place in the world; loses a couple points for Herzog's overemphatic, overexplanatory narration, though.

Grade: B+

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Skeleton Key (2005)

Generic bit of stupornatural hokum about black magic and evil doings in a Louisiana bayou. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger is one of those guys who not only thinks he's a lot smarter than he is in actuality, he's also convinced that the audience is brain-damaged, which is the only explanation I can think of for his insistence on churning out over-obvious hackneyed genre efforts whose entire existence is predicated on twist endings that aren't as neat as Kruger believes. For all its bluster, I believe that the real reason this was made was so that Kate Hudson could show the world what good shape she's gotten her body into post-pregnancy. Not that I'm really complaining (she does look damn good in a wandering down empty hallways sporting a pair of French-cut panties), but that does seem like a flimsy reason to make a film. Gena Rowlands proves her professionalism knows no bounds; meanwhile, Peter Sarsgaard has to know that his burgeoning career is too young to start taking junk roles like this.

Grade: C
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2004)

Stark documentary about the Cambodian genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Director Rithy Panh gathers together a man who survived a spell in the Phnom Penh internment camp (mainly because the people in charge liked his paintings) and several guards who carried out the duties of humiliation, torture and ultimately execution. It's not thirty years removed from the events it describes, and the feeling one gets is a numbness from staring into the void of horror for so many years. The former guards are asked to re-enact their duties, and in doing so they fall into an excited ritualism that undermines the credibility of their "we were just following orders" defense. The question often asked is why things like this can happen, and in the case of Cambodia it appears that a strong, repressive central regime gave horrific orders to soldiers too young (and too thrilled by the prospect of power) to deny them. The film itself repeats itself sometimes, and it isn't edited as tightly as it could be (some of the re-enactments tend to stay on camera past the point of necessity). But as an after-the-fact record of a country's collective madness and resulting psychic wounds, it's worthwhile.

Grade: B
Electric Dragon 80,000V (2002)

If Shinya Tsukamoto had room for fun within his artistic sensibilities, he might make films like this. This head-spinning burst of noisy lunacy from Sogo Ishii carries its Tetsuo influence like a stylish overcoat: the material is the same, but what's filling it out is different. The plot is hazy (something to do with a guy whose awakened reptile brain allows him to control electricity and play the guitar really loudly, and a guy in a half-Buddha mask who can also do the former), but it's not an issue as the point is to jam in as many cool visuals and goofy hyperbolic narrative florishes and loud jags of music as possible. (An appreciation for noise-punk goes a long way towards enjoying this film.) All this plus Tadanobu Asano too. It's delightful nonsense. What else do you need to hear?

Grade: B+
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) [second viewing]

Most of what I said last October still holds, except that the muted hopelessness of the film's second half makes more sense to me now. It's a film about the inadequecy of human response in the face of tragedy and horror. The characters here try to salve their pain by punishing those parties they hold responsible for their loss, but at the end of it their loved ones are still gone. When our two hollow-eyed, hollow-souled protagonists meet at the end, I think they both realize this. The climax thus is comprised of the saddest, most agonized revenge in screen history. And then there's the coda, which takes this and shifts it into a grim sick joke (only institutions can wipe out their enemies without losing their humanity, since they have none to lose). Still feels like it should be better than it is, but I have to give credit where it's due.

Grade: B (up from B-)

Monday, August 15, 2005

Four Brothers (2005)

Tonally inept revenge drama from once-promising director John Singleton, who sometime in 2003 completely sold out to the Hollywood machine. I think it was around the time that Chiwetel Ejiofor told Barry Shabaka Henley that he had to sit at the kid's table that I wondered aloud if I was supposed to take this shit seriously; that stupid scene is then followed by the film's grimmest and most violent sequence, which strikes me as unpleasant and possibly dishonest. Another debit against the film: The title characters aren't advanced much beyond one character trait. It's like you can hear the pitch as you watch the film (Mark Wahlberg is... The Angry One! Tyrese Gibson is... The Sneaky One! Andre Benjamin is... The Sensible One! Garret Hedlund is... The Doomed One!). And all the film's characters are made to act as stupid as possible in any given situation. The nadir, in that respect, is the scene in the poolhall between Terrence Howard and Josh Charles. The contempt for the audience shown in that scene is breathtaking... or it would be if the film didn't one-up itself by extending its other middle finger to us in the last twenty minutes. The wrap-up to this is so ludicrous that it seems impossible that this wasn't meant as a comedy. I hate this film.

Grade: D
Murderball (2005)

Here's the thing: the guys in this film are unquestionably inspiring. I mean, this film has the whole "triumph over adversity" thing going for it in spades. But then, this is also a film about wheelchair rugby and the hardass guys who play it. So even though there's the inspiration angle, it kind of gets trampled on by the guys themselves -- this ain't no soppy Hallmark thing. These guys are who they are and they don't care what you think. They're athletic, hard-nosed, badass motherfuckers, and just because they're in a wheelchair doesn't mean they can't kick your ass. Making a film like that would seem to preclude pathos, you would think. And for the most part, the filmmakers are content to film the proceedings. But every now and then, they'll throw something in for emphasis or counterpoint that undermines the point. (Case in point: the intensely self-satisfied montage on the sex lives of the participants, which is cut to feel amusing in probably the wrong ways.) The use of the non-diegetic score is the worst offender -- I didn't need, for example, the mournful guitar during the climax digging into my ribs and asking me if this isn't all so fucking tragic. Good movie overall, great human drama, but enough with the liberal-guilt overemphasis.

Grade: B
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Al Pacino is the linchpin to this otherwise-uneven (and heavily overrated, if also influential) film. Sidney Lumet goes for a you-are-there professionalism, but that's the problem: He undermines himself by never quite getting the tone right. The direction observes rather than involves, and the parts where Lumet tries to amp up the tension come off as shrill. Granted, Pacino has to also take a bit of the blame for this -- he's a notorious overactor, and the famed "Attica!" scene is a bit embarassing. But it's the quieter parts (the creation of the will; the telephone conversation with his lover) in which he does what he can to make this sparkle. He picks up a lot of Lumet's slack. Great climax, too. (Lance Henriksen! Yeah!)

Grade: B
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Ernst Lubitsch, bitch! So the 'Lubitsch touch' isn't just movie myth-making rearing its head -- between this and Trouble in Paradise, Ernst made charming-yet-prickly romantic comedies look like the easiest thing to make in the world. The acting is perfect, the script is sharp (didn't expect the darker shadings that come into play), the chemistry is unbeatable, etc. etc. If this film doesn't make you want to go get a pen pal, you're not paying attention. That Nora Ephron could take this and turn it into the corporate-whore also-ran You've Got Mail is simply more evidence that she is devil-spawn.

Grade: A
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

I think this movie was made for the sole reason of pissing me off. It takes everything that aggravates me about New Emo cinema (overreliance on geek chic; dialogue that sounds far too writerly to work out loud; we-are-all-connected naivete; precocious children; non-characters who are defined solely by their quirks) and pumps it all up with helium until it floats away as if it never existed at all. Sicinski says (positively) that Miranda July directs like Sam Fuller reincarnated as an eighth-grade girl, but what he leaves out is that July also writes like an eighth-grade girl. Even the film's selling point -- deviant sexuality involving children -- comes off poorly; yes, the first AIM chat is cute, but as the film goes on the sex angle loses its novelty and becomes tiresome and immature. Thankfully, it's not as plastic as Garden State, but I think that makes it even worse, since (unlike Zach Braff's film) this film was obviously made as a labor of love. Which is why it's so embarrassing that none of it works at all. I mean Christ, even July's character's performance art is irritating. Please, please, please go away.

Grade: C-
The Pacifier (2005)

Vin Diesel costars with a duck. It's about as good as you'd expect from that fact. It's bland and harmless (save for the pro-militarism subtext, but I digress). Also, I must grudgingly admit, it is occasionally cute. I particularly like the ultimate payoff to the Peter Panda dance. (Then again, I think I just get unduly amused by watching meathead Diesel do that goofy little two-step.) Yes, it's crappy. But the film seems kind of okay with that, which at least makes it painless. If you need to kill a few million brain cells watching something that you don't even really need to pay attention to, I guess you could do worse. (Yes, I'm stretching for nice things to say. Leave me alone.) Also, Lauren Graham just gets hotter every time I see her. Damn, I should probably be watching "Gilmore Girls."

Grade: C-
A Dirty Shame (2004)

What the title says. John Waters's latest film is a series of setpieces in search of a film. Some of the early bits are amusing, but as the film grinds on it becomes clear that it's not building towards anything worthwhile. The bullet in its head is the fact that it feels antiseptic, almost wholesome really -- compare this with something like Female Trouble and tell me which one's really the dirty movie. It's sad to say, but it appears that time has passed by Waters.

Grade: C
F for Fake (1974)

F also stands for fun, which a lot of this movie is. Welles turns what could be in lesser hands a static, logy informational documentary and spins it around so that, in telling the truth about a series of strange coincidences, it questions the very notion of absolute truth. It appears to run out of steam after a while, but Welles rallies in the homestretch with an absolute tour-de-force sequence detailing an encounter between Oja Koder, Pablo Picasso, Koder's father and ten unique paintings. It's all pretty cool if you ask me.

Grade: B
Inner Senses (2002)

I'll bet you think this is a horror movie about a ghost. You'd lose that bet. What this is really is a soppy therapy drama dressed in ghost-story finery. (Call it Good Will Haunting.) Occasionally it remembers that it's supposed to be scary and tosses out a half-hearted jolt, but mostly it's about healing. Which is not what I need when I sit down to watch a movie about ghosts. As good as The Sixth Sense is, sometimes I think it would be nice if it never existed. (And this dross represents the last work of Leslie Cheung, which makes it doubly sad that it's basically shit.)

Grade: C-

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Girl from Monday (2005)

I'd call this, the latest from indie stalwart Hal Hartley, the most underrated film of the year if I wasn't convinced that I'm the only person who thinks it's underrated. It does puzzle me, though, how others can be dismissive of this ferocious firecracker from the underground. Set in a society that appears to be fifteen minutes into the future, Hartley's narrative involves the increasing political power of the corporate entity, the commodification of humanity and the celebration of mediocrity. It's not dissimilar to Brave New World, especially considering both narratives introduce an innocent into the modern society. But Hartley's satiric sensibilites are closer to Jonathan Swift's "A Modern Proposal" -- obvious, occasionally crude but frightfully effective. Hartley's wit isn't as dry as usual here, but it's still prominent and the film has a number of biliously funny moments (including what has to be the best pickup line ever, "Let's fuck and increase our buying power!"). He's also still pretty good with actors, and he gets a gem of a performance here out of Sabrina Lloyd, who plays a disgraced corporate executive. The super-low-budget visuals, too, work for rather than against the film. Normally, I'm not that big a fan of DV, but the smeary-on-purpose cinematography makes the film feel both just detached enough from our world to be effective satire and at the same time close enough to a dream that it might be our world after all. The film's only real weakness, as I can see it, is the handling of the title character -- her scenes are often pointless and not nearly as interesting as the rest of the film. (The Brazilian model Hartley hired to play her is, shall we say, deficient in the acting department.) But considering she shows up in only about a quarter of the film, it's not as damaging as it could be. I'll probably remain at year's end the only person who loves this. But then, somebody's got to do it.

Grade: A-
Bad News Bears (2005)

I must admit that I haven't seen the original, but who cares. What we have here is a likeably vulgar mid-summer bit of escapism. As demonstrated earlier with School of Rock, Richard Linklater's laid-back attitude is perfect for this kind of crowd-pleasing comedy. (I don't get his apparent vendetta against the word "The", though.) Rather than turn the vulgarity into tiresome hard-sell aggression, he leans back and lets it develop. Billy Bob Thornton is excellent in the lead as a kind of lighter-hearted Wille Soke, and his screenwriting friends from Bad Santa are here to help out as well. Ficarra & Requa are slowly becoming invaluable -- they're poets of crudity. Was this film really needed? Probably not. Is it still a lot of fun anyway? You betcha.

Grade: B+
Notre Musique (2004)

What I've seen of the politicized Godard is, essentially, the work of a philosophy professor who doesn't care whether or not you're following his lecture. It's all words and hidden meaning sans any kind of framework or context. So imagine my surprise when genuine humanity crept into this, his latest film. It's a film of resignation and sadness, of longing and regret and despair. It's framed as a journey from the infernal to the sublime. We start by being bombarded with images of death and violence -- some real, some fabricated, and the point is that after a while the fictional representations of horror begin to feel indiscernable from the actual (or is it the other way around?). We then move into a kind of limbo, where we get the famed JLG logorrhea. But this time there's a different timbre about it -- the middle section of the film is set in Sarajevo, and this bombed-out city, set against the unrest of our current world political situation, tamps down the normal incendiary rhetoric of Godard. He means this time around to bring us together and not apart. Finally, we reach divinity and words themselves become unnecessary. It's beautiful in its way and a bit haunting too: Basically what we have here is an old revolutionary throwing down his guns. Of course, this is still late Godard. There's a certain level of pretension that has to be accepted, and I just can't totally commit to it. But this is impressive anyway.

Grade: B
Touch of Evil (1958)

First thing first: Charlton Heston is the least convincing Mexican in celluloid history. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, the gushing may begin. Usually, when discussing this film, one talks about the technical bravado and all that. But that's been done. So I'd like instead to just mention that this film's lighting scheme is amazing (with its perfect shadows and lighting, it seems to set itself up as the uber-noir) and then talk about the plot, which is big and sloppy and full of contrivances and within its limits about as perfect as these things get. Noir is always about morality. Welles means to poke at that morality and see where it oozes. So what looks simple turns into something else: the "good" cop isn't above dirty tricks, while the "bad" cop may have a point after all. (The film's final dialogue, in particular, takes what we had assumed about the Welles character and stands it on its head.) In its own peculiar way, this film flashes forward to Chinatown and L.A. Confidential and The Long Goodbye and dozens of other morally ambiguous cop flicks. Then there's the dialogue, which crackles like someone stuck a live wire to it. I'm susceptible to hard-boiled noir dialogue anyway, but just listen to the interrogation of the Mexican kid in the hotel room: It's not just what's being said that's important but the rhythm of the words in the room. Top that off with a screenplay that has more great little character moments than an entire summer of indie flicks (the scene where Welles downs a shot and says "I don't drink"? brilliant!) and what we have is a film that damn well deserves its classic status. Even with the Mexican Moses.

Grade: A-
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

Clash of the samurai-film titans turns out to be something of a disappointment -- this is second-tier Zatoichi all the way. It's more cynical and a bit meaner than most of the series entries, for sure. There's a lot more double-crossing and backstabbing, and at some point it seems that there may be no heroes at all. It's also, however, cursed by overlength and near-incomprehensible plotting. The action is generally worthwhile, plus Toshiro Mifune and Shintaro Katsu are still both immeasurably badass. Still, I can't help but feel that this should have been better than it is.

Grade: B
Dance Hall Racket (1953)

Amateurish B-movie about a dance hall (ask your grandpa) that serves as a front for smuggling, murder and bad acting. Phil Tucker's nailed-to-the-floor direction does no favors for the cliche plot. What it does have that makes it a sight better than most other amateurish B-movies of the period is Lenny Bruce. Bruce shows up in a supporting role, and he ably demonstrates that had he not gone the comedy route, he may have one day developed into a first-rate character actor a la Richard Widmark. Bruce also penned the screenplay (on a cocktail napkin, I'd bet), and while it's most certainly junk, Bruce managed to give it a seedy air that feels lived-in rather than affected. It's crappy but harmless and kinda fun if you're into this sort of thing. You may have noticed that I am into this sort of thing. (You may have also noticed that I am not wearing any trousers.)

Grade: C+