Thursday, September 29, 2005

Dallas 362 (2005)

For about twenty minutes, this is one of the greatest directorial debuts ever made. The opening scene gets things started with a bang, then we get the credits, which should be isolated, distilled and turned into a designer drug to keep club kids going all night. (Seriously, it's that cool.) Then we get to meet Scott Caan and Shawn Hatosy, and the two have a wicked, lived-in vibe that makes them likeable and believable as best friends who would do anything for each other if they don't strangle each other first. After that, there's the Marley Shelton scene, which is a wonderfully over-the-top ode to Hollywood-style love at first sight (and it's even more awesome because it ends up having no bearing on the rest of the film, which is a kind of perversity I can get behind). After all this, Caan has to fuck everything up by introducing the obnoxious supporting characters who will figure in the film's heist subplot. Val Lauren especially, with a couple nasally words, flattens this film's momentum like a flyswatter making contact on your kitchen counter. Caan may have artificially injected this crime-flick nonsense into his film to make it sell, or he may have intended it as an organic part of the plot all along. Either way, it doesn't work. It's lame and unimaginitive and it submerges the promise of his debut in a river of suck. I mean, there's this sharp and perceptive buddy movie, one that gains extra points for making Mom and The New Boyfriend into something other than useless caricatures, and it keeps getting interrupted by this fifth-rate knockoff of the third-rate knockoffs of Reservoir Dogs that were all the rage in the mid-90s, and let's not forget that Dogs is essentially a first-rate knockoff of The Killing... I mean Jesus. The acting in the buddy-movie portion of the film is first-rate, and Caan displays some directorial chops above and beyond what could be expected from a first-timer, let alone some young actor mostly famous for being James Caan's kid. The soundtrack is mostly great too (Queens of the Stone Age's "Regular Joe" over the closing credits!). It's a shame, then, that Caan's commercial instincts keep tripping up his aspirations. Dallas 362 is great whenever it sticks to its two main characters (or Rusty's immediate family) shooting the shit, but it comes apart whenever other people start popping up. Personally, I blame Selma Blair.

Grade: C+
Black Narcissus (1947)

It's gorgeous. Oh so gorgeous. Now that that's out of the way... Seriously, though, the ravishing photography is more than just window dressing here. It's so beautifully done that it becomes intoxicating, much like the aroma of the titular perfume. It's this level of sensual intoxication that leads to the personal and spiritual crises experienced by the hardy, intrepid nuns that serve as this film's main characters. The art direction used to represent the wild Himalayan surroundings create a counterpoint to the austerity of convent life, which makes the resulting failures of faith that much easier to believe -- it's not difficult at all to swallow Deborah Kerr being physically and emotionally stirred by her surroundings if we in the audience are drunk on the film's hyperstylized lush imagery. Kerr, by the way, is fantastic in a careful and controlled performance. In the later stages of the film when her emotions start to crack her facade, Kerr gives a master class on how to keep one's composure while losing one's head. The film, too, keeps its bearings even as red becomes the primary color in the art director's rainbow. The feverish intensity of the narrative matches the temperature of Kathleen Byron's Sister Ruth; by the time she shows up in a screaming red dress all but begging David Farrar to ravish her, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have secretly transformed this into a horror film in respectable garb, with overwhelming desire and repression as the twin monsters. It's all pretty fucking awesome. Pretty, too.

Grade: A-
Pretty Poison (1968)

Muddled black comedy shows early promise that it can't fulfill. The main problem, far as I can tell, is the bizarre tonal stagnancy that afflicts the film. It seems that director Noel Black was unable to keep up with the script's radical shifts, so that by the time he settles on the proper tone the film's moved on to something different. He remains a step behind to the bitter end -- a man chasing his own material. Much of it, subsequently, comes off as silly and slapdash. Given how the film ends, a case could be made that this is by design, but someone other than me is going to have to mount that defense. Tuesday Weld, at least, manages to get into the spirit of things. Her carefree, spirited performance is the only thing that keeps this from sinking into a quagmire of contrivance. (Anthony Perkins, on the other hand, spends much of his screentime on autopilot.) There's some mordantly funny bits (notably an encounter with a night watchman), but generally this tries so hard to be offbeat that it falls, well, off the beat. It's an unsuccessful curio.

Grade: C+
Tommy Boy (1995)

Eh. It is what it is. Thankfully, that "it" isn't nearly as atrocious as I'd expected. There are indeed a few laughs scattered around, and Chris Farley proves more charming than the commercials let on. I can imagine an alternate world where his self-deprecation and ambition led him past "fat-guy-falls-down" material and into worthwhile projects. Still not all that great, though. It's too harmless to hate, but that doesn't make it instantly likeable.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Lord of War (2005)

Forget the televison ads, which make this look like a half-cracked action comedy -- this is an industrial-strength black satire a la Catch-22 with Nicolas Cage in the role of Milo Minderbinder. (In a way, this tells the sour Buffalo Soldiers where to go.) There's a good deal of absurdist fun to be had at the start, and the film hits its marks properly. But like all good satire, this is shot through with undercurrents of rage, and eventually writer/director Andrew Niccol drops the facade of comedy and starts throwing punches at the real targets. (Cage's last monologue is poisonously perfect.) Niccol's thankfully improved as a writer and a director since the moribund Gattaca, so that his mise-en-scene is lively and his script actually makes good on the ideas it advances. He does lay it on pretty thick (I got the kid-killing aspect the first six times you threw it at me, dude), but then Andrew's always been a go-big-or-go-home kind of guy, and it works within the film's hyperbolic universe. Cage is excellent as the kind of self-justifying snake he seems made for, and he only gets better the farther his character sinks into the moral morass this movie sticks him in. (The murder of a major character proves pivotal in this respect.) In other news, Bridget Moynahan still can't act, and even though the film makes a joke of it it's still glaringly obvious; also, when did Ethan Hawke turn into the go-to guy when you need a morally unshakable good cop?

[ADDENDUM, 9/29/05: It behooves me to state that this horrifyingly underrated film also proves to be an example of a satiric phenomenon termed elsewhere as The Dogville Twist, wherein we find ourselves sympathizing and/or rooting for characters whom we eventually realize are unworthy of such sympathy. However, seeing as how Dogville doesn't strike me as terribly satiric, I would stump to have this phenomenon re-dubbed The Man Bites Dog Twist. Same breed, different bite.]

Grade: B+
Throwdown (2005)

Throw downs! That's exactly what this film delivers, throw downs! Lots of 'em! Fortunately, it delivers a bit more than that as well. Like the similarly prolific Takashi Miike, Johnnie To is forever an uneven director, but this one holds together better than most of his projects. Plotting isn't To's strong suit, so in response this film doesn't really have a plot. Instead, it's a series of character vignettes alternating with a series of action scenes. In less assured hands, this could be a recipe for boredom, but To keeps it moving by making sure the action scenes are amusing and the character scenes are well-played. There's some fairly interesting and offbeat characterization going on here -- the characters are essentially stock, but there's a few details that impress. (I especially liked the scene where Tony first explains why he likes to fight and the later payoff/negation.) The action scenes are impressive, as expected for a To film, but they're also dryly funny. Nowhere is this more apparent than the big nightclub-brawl centerpiece, which stays interesting and amusing even though, if you take it apart, it amounts to no more than a bunch of guys throwing each other down while a mentally-challenged dude sings off-key. Then there's things, contemplative things, like the balloon scene, which is lovely no matter what else surrounds it. There is the traditional third-act lag, but then that's to be expected. As far as To goes, this counts as the best film I've seen from him since A Hero Never Dies; no idea what it has to do with Akira Kurosawa, though...

Grade: B
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

An austere, stripped-down film from the filmmaker widely regarded as the most austere in film history, Robert Bresson (this is the first film of his I've seen). Reaction? The minimalism is effective, as the absence of affect creates several scenes that are lyrical, poetic or startling in ways that regular film can't get at. (The one flash of nudity packs more punch than most scenes of a similar ilk could even dream of.) Too, the use of types rather than professional actors proves worthwhile -- like De Sica, Bresson apparently had an eye for unforgettable faces attached to people with just enough talent to not be distracting. However, I find the film a bit reductive, especially in terms of the film's main villain. I mean, I can see this is allegorical, but all the world's evil is contained within one surly dude? That's a bit much, no? My major complaint, though, is that despite the film's efforts, I didn't find myself much moved (aside from the final scene, which is some sort of masterpiece). But that's my problem, not the film's. So yeah... this Bresson guy's pretty good. Wonder what's next.

Grade: B
The Sword of Doom (1966)

Sturdy and exciting historical pageant-cum-action drama that features one of the most unusual antiheroes I've yet seen in a samurai film: Instead of being curmudgeonly or stoic, the lead here (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, in an eerily even performance) is flat-out evil. As such, the film takes its cues from the lead character and gradually descends into an exhilarating strain of nihilism, where everyone is out to get everyone else and nobody gets out alive. What keeps it exhilarating rather than tedious is Toshiro Mifune in a small role. His character may be minor, but he's important -- he acts as the graceful yin to Nakadai's ruthless yang. He's the stabilizing force that keeps the film from being swallowed by Nakadai's darkness, and he even gets to deliver the film's thesis line (after an awesome sword fight, of course). That the (anti)hero finds himself stymied by Mifune's presence is inevitable; that he subsequently breaks down and devolves from sociopathy into psychopathy is appropriate. This leads into an astonishing climactic rampage, culminating in a stunning, abrupt freeze-frame that feels completely perfect (even if it's indicative of an unfinished product). The evocative black & white cinematography is just a beautiful topper to this compelling story.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Red Eye (2005)

For a while, this looked like the sleeper that everyone thinks it is. What starts as a familiar look at modern travel difficulties escalates into the endgame nightmare that we all fear. It's an expression of air-travel anxiety blown up into outsize form, and it works quite well. As long as the story stays aloft, its effectiveness knows no bounds. Tense and claustrophobic, this is Wes Craven's bid to show that he can do striking Hitchcock-style suspense as well as blood-n-guts horror. Once we get on the ground, though, some other film takes over and everything goes to shit. The formerly controlled proceedings become hyperbolic (a rocket launcher? man, please), and the final hunter-hunted sequence could have come from any number of Lifetime thrillers. There's also a rather uncomfortable right-wing subtext to contend with (yay family! yay Homeland Security! boo evil ciphers who want to destroy America for no bloody reason!). What's more, the film itself doesn't seem to understand the material it deals with -- the last scene is comically, flippantly inadequate. Rachel McAdams, in a steely star-maker of a performance, nearly keeps this thing from self-destruction, but a B-movie is a B-movie is a B-movie.

Grade: C+
The Brown Bunny (2004)

Alternate title: This is a Long Drive for Someone with Too Much to Think About. If Buffalo '66 is the manic side of Vincent Gallo, this is the depressive side. It's a quietly sad portrait of loneliness and isolation, and it contains a rather brave performance from Vincent Gallo (as well as a rather accomodating one from Chloe Sevigny). It is also, indeed, for much of the film not about anything other than Gallo driving across country, and that's where the film loses most people. Something this minimal is obviously not going to be for everyone, but of all the films for people to dogpile this one just feels wrong. I can understand the hostile reception of something like Twentynine Palms (a film that, among other things, often feels like an extended middle finger to the viewer), but to tear this thing apart... I dunno. This film is just so plaintive and fragile that hatred seems like an impossible reaction. It's a film about a man trapped in the past, and Gallo surrounds that emotional state with a straight-from-the-'70s aesthetic that makes perfect sense. Let's be honest: Even if you're not down with the pacing of the journey, the driving scenes are often lovely to watch. Then, of course, there is the infamous scene at the end, which I think works -- the explicit physical aspect of it complements the sheer emotional nakedness of what is revealed to actually be happening. It's this scene that, because of the literalness of what it shows, gets Gallo accused of narcissism more than any other, which just goes to show that people don't pay attention to the words they use anymore. If narcissism is excessive self-love, how could anybody with half a brain tag that onto Gallo on the basis of this film? I can't think of a film I've seen recently that was more self-castigating than this. What we have here, basically, is Vincent Gallo tearing himself apart onscreen and handing you his heart on a platter. It may be emo, but it feels wrong to reject such a sincere gesture.

Grade: B
On the Waterfront (1954)

Where exactly do the political sympathies of this film lie? On one hand, it's about as anti-union as films get. Nothing good comes out of unionization here. I get the feeling that the filmmakers weren't aiming for specifics, either -- there's one half-hearted attempt at 'not all unions are like this' justification, but the message that comes through is 'unions suck'. On the other hand, though, the film empathizes with the 'common man' and endorses the actions of Eva Marie Saint, who comes off as the quintessential Liberal Firebrand Activist. There's a weird push-pull tension between the right-wing and left-wing tendencies within the filmmakers, which I guess is more complex and truer to life than a simplistic screed from either end of the fence, but it does make for some oddly dissonant viewing. Good thing, then, that the drama is so stirring -- strip away the politics and at heart it's about a guy learning to Do the Right Thing. (Of course, this could also be seen a defiant act of self-justification from director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg, both of whom were HUAC informers... but I'm getting off track, aren't I?) The rightly praised acting is showy but effective. Karl Malden, in particular, brings just the right amount of fire to his big monologues without going overboard. It's a strong film even with the mixed messages.

Grade: B

Monday, September 12, 2005

Oldboy (2005)

Okay, if this were only a crackling good B-thriller (which it is most of the way), that would be acceptable. The Kafkaesque setup proves to be as fascinating as it sounds, and the particulars of Oh Dae-su's odyssey are compelling and occasionally ghoulishly funny as well. (The one-take hammer fight is indeed as awesome as you've likely heard.) But as in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park Chan-wook wants to do more than just spin a simple revenge yarn -- he wants to illuminate bits of the human soul. This, then, is how we get this movie's mindbender of a finale, with its extraordinary revelations and its emotional force and its haunting coda. Simply put, this is a film about how people deal with pain and how that relates to happiness. When subjected to an emotionally devastating experience, there's options. One can confront and overcome it, one can obsess over it, or one can simply choose to avoid and hopefully forget about it. Lee Woo-jin, the villain, obsesses about a past slight to the point where it consumes his existence ("And now, what joy will I have left to live for?"). He defines himself entirely through the suffering of another. Dae-su, on the other hand, tries to confront his pain, but when it's revealed where that journey has led him, he chooses to forget. To allow himself to be happy, Oh Dae-su obliterates his pain by blotting it out. It may look semi-happy on the surface, but the end of this film is tragic and horrible beyond belief if you look at what we in the audience know. "It leaves you disconcertingly wiser about your relation to the world" is the kind of pull-quote one finds in overly pretentious film-festival schedules, but it's about all I can use to describe how I feel about this incredible, soul-disturbing film. Plus, it's still a crackling good B-thriller, with a stunning performance by Choi Min-sik in a lead role that approaches unplayable and more directorial wizardry from Park (the Fincher comparisons are misguided -- Park is stylish, but he's also more austere and never calls attention to his fancy camera moves like Fincher does). It's also quite perverse. Of course.

(Also, I'm going to hold back on discussing something else about this trilogy until I see Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, but there's a theme that likely runs through the series and it's not revenge -- the revenge angle in the first two films is a red herring, and I'm guessing it will be that way for Lady too. The hypnosis angle in this film, though clumsy, was necessary from this standpoint. Never bloody mind.)

Grade: A
2046 (2005)

I'm probably not enough of a Wong Kar-wai fan to appreciate this film. But then, maybe that's the problem. I'm sure this is amazing if you know Wong's filmography inside and out, but I find it lacking. It's amazing to look at, true. It's a wonderfully sensual film, but it's also a bit insubstantial. Part of the problem is that it's languid to the point of somnolence. There's a scene late in the film which has a character waiting on a train intercut by title cards with increasingly drawn-out timespans. Admittedly, the image of this character waiting forever to arrive at a somewhere that never comes has burned itself into my mind. It's an effective bit of filmmaking. But when the title card reading "1000 Hours Later" sprang up, I couldn't help but think that I knew how that character felt. Also, this is a memory piece, for better and worse, and part of the worse is that the female characters are ciphers with the exception of the luminous Zhang Ziyi. She's excellent here, but more importantly her character has an edge that supplies the film's emotional fulcrum. When she's all but written out halfway through, the film dissipates. (If In the Mood for Love was the filmic equivalent of blue-balls, this would be cinematic premature ejaculation.) Faye Wong has some good moments, but not enough (and I don't think the sci-fi elements in which she prominently figures work very well at all); Gong Li, meanwhile, shows up for about ten minutes in an interlude that may be completely unnecessary. (Maggie Cheung also pops up in a couple scenes, I guess just to remind us that we could be watching In the Mood for Love instead.) It's handsome but self-indulgent and ultimately not terribly impressive. Like Lynch's Wild at Heart or Argento's Opera, this one's for the fanboys and nobody else. Pity.

Grade: C+
The Card Player (2004)

This film was screwed from the start. Basing a movie around a serial killer with a video-poker obsession is ridiculous, and it gets even more ridiculous in execution. Director Dario Argento has dutifully lined up many of his hallmark obsessions here. (Hero with dark secret in past? Check. Sadistic gloved killer with a yen for pretty girls? Check. Forced romantic subplot? Check. Nonsensical climax complete with raving-nutzoid showboating by culprit? Check.) Yet he failed to realize that the cat-and-mouse games between the cop and the killer would be somewhat dampened by the computer-game hijinks. So instead of paint-stripping tension, what we are left with is befuddlement that anyone would consider crafting a thriller wherein a good third of the action is a bunch of people huddled around a computer playing online poker. The premise fails to transcend its obvious idiocy, and it's actually made worse by the ho-hum direction from the usually stylish Argento. It's a faceless, impersonal film, and the brutal murder scenes that are Argento's stock in trade are nowhere to be seen -- all the violence is post-mortem. Between this and his next film, which is maybe the worst idea ever, I'm finally giving up on Dario. It was fun while it lasted.

Grade: D
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)

[One mean-spirited SPOILER.]

Entirely needless remake proves its complete inessentiality by taking that which made the Carpenter film memorable -- its ruthless narrative economy -- and pitching it straight into the trash, substituting instead a blowsy, complicated story about police corruption. Some of the action isn't half-bad, and Lord knows we could use more films with Drea de Matteo (not to mention more films where Maria Bello gets shot in the head). That doesn't change the fact that this is chilly, heartless product. It's exactly the kind of drab, depressing film that opens in January. An open plea to John Leguizamo and Ja Rule: Could you please stop trying to compete for the title of Most Annoying Supporting Actor? Thanks.

Grade: C

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Aristocrats (2005)

This here is one funny motherfucking movie. I suppose an appreciation of this requires an ability to laugh at vulgarity just for vulgarity's sake, but then maybe not. By couching the vulgarity in the terms of this old vaudeville joke, with its anachronistic setup and its innocuous punchline and its blessed inventive freedom in the middle, the vulgarity goes beyond the literal meaning of the words and moves into the realm of the theoretical. By exploring the outer reaches of the comedic spectrum via a joke from the turn of the century, the film becomes a rumination on all humor and why certain things strike us as funny. This is bolstered by the wide variety of comics to get to tell bits of the joke, so we see what effect different deliveries can have on similar material and thus get at the heart of stand-up comedy as essentially an oratory act. Besides that, though, it still remains that this is simply one funny motherfucking movie. The best examples of the joke are mostly by comedians willing to have fun with and subvert the joke -- Sarah Silverman turns it into a true-life tale, Wendy Liebman inverts the middle and the punchline, Eddie Izzard deconstructs the joke while he's telling it, Steven Wright goes one step past the punchline, and there's also hilarious versions told in mime and as a card trick. The biggest laugh, though, comes right at the beginning, where George Carlin turns the joke into a disconcertingly detailed rumination on stool. Those without sick minds need not apply, but the sick-minded will laugh themselves sick.

Grade: A-
Sahara (2005)

Stultifying summer-season reject in which boats race and stuff goes boom and Penelope Cruz looks like she needs a sandwich. To its credit, the film is unpretentious and fairly aware of its own silliness, and no movie with Steve Zahn can be all bad. In fact, he and Matthew McConaughey have a striking rapport which goes a long way towards turning this into something other than it is. But then the plot takes over and stuff goes boom and the damn thing just refuses to end. Thankfully not as crappy as it could have been, but still bloated and unnecessary.

Grade: C
Mysterious Skin (2005)

Amazing what a little maturity can do to someone. Gregg Araki isn't generally known for his restraint, but it looks like the guy learned a little something about delicacy in the five years since his last film (the underrated Splendor). Lord knows what a teen-apocalypse-era Araki would have done with this, but Araki v2.0 turns out to be the perfect person to take this on. His newfound interest in dreamy magic realism (call it the Van Sant Effect) has taken the acid out of his transgressive instincts, so that he no longer leans on shock value; concurrently, it's his sense of transgression that allows him to tackle this material head-on. No punches are pulled in depicting the effects of childhood trauma in adult life, and the film never feels cheap, tawdry or overcalculated. It's a perfectly balanced drama -- too balanced, actually, since the intially-fascinating parallel structure ends up tipping the narrative's intentions far too early and softens the blow of the climactic confrontation. That doesn't distract from the fact that this is well worth seeing, though. The acting, also, is uniformly excellent, which is something I never thought I'd say about an Araki film. (This is, after all, the man who gave the world James Duval.)

Grade: B
Memories of Murder (2005)

Riveting Korean drama starts out as a police-procedural with a bizarre sense of humor. The shifts in tone can be difficult to keep up with at first, but eventually the mind acclimates -- the gallows humor often functions as a welcome respite from the gory proceedings. Then the film gets progressively grimmer, until what started as a frivolous, farcical bit of historical recreation ends up as a howl of anguish at the bestiality of man and the frustration a good person feels when they cannot change bad circumstances. One gets the idea of an entire country losing its collective innocence all at once, with confusion and violence being the only possible responses. (I'm sure there's a political dimension to all this, but my knowledge of Korean history is inadequate.) Pretty awesome stuff, really. The final scene is about as good as any you'll see.

Grade: A-
Sunset Blvd. (1950)

The key to this film is Erich von Stroheim. William Holden is the lead, and Gloria Swanson has most of the famous moments, but it's von Stroheim who provides the entryway into the film's heart. More than just a cynical satire on Hollywood, this is a wounded paeon to broken dreams, faded glory and the undying allure of stardom. As usual, Billy Wilder's towering cynicism serves to conceal a big, blistered heart, which may be why his films work so beautifully -- his misanthropic tendencies never get in the way of the fact that his characters are fully realized, well-rounded people capable of love and pain and disappointment. Sharp dialogue, fantastic acting, perfectly understated direction, an amazing, heartbreaking and justly famous climax; the more Wilder I see, the more I'm convinced that he is probably the greatest director in history to work in the Hollywood system.

Grade: A
Let My Puppets Come (1976)

It's a puppet porno flick directed by the man who gave the world Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones. It's an amusing concept on paper and one whose fascination lasts roughly thirty-seven seconds when translated onto film. As it turns out, some ideas which sound funny when you hear about them don't work quite as well when you actually see them put together, especially when the construction is as shoddy as it is here. What, then, sounds like a good time instead leaves the viewer wondering who in the devil the intended audience for this could have been. There's nothing remotely erotic about watching puppets fuck unless you have a puppet fetish, and even if you do there's no hardcore puppet sex after the opening fifteen minutes. There's also nothing remotely funny about this film, since in an effort to shoot it as quickly as possible all the jokes appear to have been made up on the spot, which wouldn't be a problem if anyone involved with the film had a sense of humor that proved they'd graduated kindergarten. Thankfully, it's only forty-five minutes long, but those forty-five minutes will be the worst of your life if you get stuck watching this. This is the kind of film that makes you question everything you believe in and whether people are truly capable of beauty and goodness. If you see a copy of this film anywhere, do the world a favor and set it on fire.

Grade: F
Sixteen Tongues (2004)

Scooter McCrae's no-budget porno-holocaust feature has, to its advantage, a seemingly limitless well of ambition. As with his previous feature (the quasi-zombie epic Shatter Dead), McCrae seeks to implode a genre by burrowing deep into it and stripping it of any sense of excitement. He's made an end-of-the-world cyberpunk picture in spirit. However, his dark sense of human nature has twisted the regular tropes of the genre and given it a queasy authenticity -- to watch this, one could conceivably say that it truly feels like humanity's last gasp. There's nothing left to this world except sex and death (in a neat touch, it's revealed that residents of the film's hotel have to pay to turn their porn-saturated TV sets off, not on), and all that's left for the surviving members of society to do is shut themselves away, lose themselves in sensation (note that all three characters spend every waking moment in some form of sensory overload) and wait for the inevitable end. Unfortunately, this film is more interesting to talk about than it is to watch. Reportedly, it took McCrae seven years to complete this film, and that makes sense -- this often feels like an idea chewed on for so long that it lost its initial flavor. It meanders even at a slim eighty minutes. Budgetary limitations are obvious, and while some of McCrae's ideas come off anyway others just seem silly, made even sillier by the flat, ugly DV cinematography. (The last shot, in particular, suffers from awful makeup effects.) The acting, too, is woefully inadequate (this was also a problem in Shatter Dead). It's an admirable attempt to make something different and memorable within the limitations of no-budget filmmaking, but it just doesn't work. A stronger sense of humor might have helped.

Grade: C
Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire (1970)

Another strong series entry from Kenji Misumi, this one centered around Ichi's burgeoning relationship with a young woman given orders to kill him. As with a good deal of these later Zatoichi films, the violence and swordfights are of a harder-edged nature, with less of Ichi the prankster and more of Ichi the solitary gangster. The film's highlight is a riotous melee in a bathhouse... at least until the incendiary climax, where the film's title begins to make sense. Also, making the top yakuza nemesis in this film blind was a clever touch, as it creates interesting parallels between the hero and the villain.

Grade: B+

Friday, September 02, 2005

Hey. If you're reading this site, chances are you have already heard about the unfortunate plight that has befallen the esteemed Scott Black. If not, though, click on that link there and maybe you can help or at least leave messages of hope. Much appreciated.
The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Praising a Terry Gilliam film for its visuals is praising a calculus student for his math skills -- you can do it, and most people do, but it seems like such an easy way out because you know he excels at that and what else can you show me please? And indeed, Gilliam conjures up some spectacular sights in this latest feature, the best probably being a disturbing bit involving a child and a horse (though the muck-with-eyes and the broken-mirror bits also impress). These sights, however, are oases of brilliance in a desert of incoherence and contrivance. The main culprit is weirdly ubiquitous hack-of-the-moment Ehren Kruger, whose screenplay here is a poorly-constructed hash of bad comedy, bad drama and bad dialogue. Gilliam isn't without blame, though. Given this subpar script, he distances himself from it by fussing over the visuals, ignoring things like pacing and effective performances. The result is a lumpy, shrill affair where over-the-top performers are constantly screaming at one another and nothing seems to carry any weight. (Peter Stormare, in particular, offends the ears with his far-too-broad Italian caricature. Stormare can either be the funniest overactor in the business or the most intolerable; guess who showed up here.) Seven years, and this is what we get? Yecch.

Grade: D+
Premonition (2004)

This movie's dull. I wish I'd had a premonition telling me not to bother with it, as there's nothing here that I couldn't get from pretty much any other J-horror flick, but no dice. Again: This movie's dull.

Grade: C
On the Run (2004)

This starts out as an effective crime drama. What the fuck happened to writer/director Lucas Belvaux's focus, then? Belvaux's low-budget visuals are consistently effective, and the decision to cast himself in the lead turns out to not be disastrous. And, for a while, he manages to keep things humming along nicely. Somewhere along the way, though, he plum forgets where he's going with this. He casts about here and there for a new direction in which to sprint, thus destroying his film's momentum, and the path he eventually chooses leads him to the most brow-furrowingly random and ludicrous place one could imagine. (I mean, seriously. What the fuck is up with this movie's last ten minutes?) I'm can't say I'm all that excited about the other two entries in this trilogy.

Grade: C+
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

This was way more fun than I expected. It's a first-wave slasher film, true, but it's blessed with a sense of humor about itself (the infamous pizza encounter). It's also fairly clever at times (check the telltale blood trail in the early killing at the gym). Also not to be discounted: The producers may have missed the satiric feminist slant of Rita Mae Brown's original screenplay, but the subtext is undeniable. Tons of phallic symbols, castration anxiety, female characters who aren't complete bimbos, my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours paranoia, "You know you want it"... it's not like this shit is hard to find, people. Taken as cinema in general, this film isn't great shakes; however, when judged by the merits of the slasher genre, this movie's awesome.

Grade: B-
Fatal Frames (1996)

Pathetic attempt at new-wave giallo comes off like a really lousy '80s music video spiced with gore and stretched to insane proportions. Both talent and sense are in short supply here. Nobody on camera could act their way out of traffic school. The sets are cheap and only get rendered cheaper-looking by the painfully "atmospheric" lighting that turns everything blue. The ADR work was possibly done in a cavern, as almost none of the dialogue is audible -- which might be a blessing, considering some of the retarded shit that passes for screenwriting here. And then there's the music, which can only be typified as crappy New Wave crossed with Europop and Muzak. The first half of the film offers many opportunity to score some cheap laughs at this shitstain's expense, but as the film plods through its mind-numbing 130-minute length, there reaches a point where nothing seems funny. You just want your head to stop hurting. The toxic "clever" ending is just the cherry on the top of this crap sundae. In conclusion: Stay far, far away from this.

Grade: D-
L'Atalante (1931)

Nearly seventy-five years on and this remains one of the most charming little films you'll ever see. It's precious, but in a good way, like a Hummel figurine or a newborn kitten. Wish I had more to say about this film's potent mixture of romanticism, absurdism and the occasional dose of reality, but it's been a bit too long since I viewed it. All I can say is that it's a keeper.

Grade: A-
Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Excellent acting cannot save this stagnant piece about the faltering friendship of two low-level hoods. The first half cruises for a while on the strength of its two leads (Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, who have a polished chemistry that makes their roles believable), but after some time it becomes clear that writer/director Elaine May didn't quite know where to go with this once she set up the basic conflicts. The film thus becomes an exercise in wheel-spinning. Great first act, great ending, shame about the stuff in the middle.

Grade: C+