Thursday, October 20, 2005

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

How often does it happen that a classic film gets remade, and the remake becomes a classic in its own right? That's what happens when you're as badass as Sergio Leone, I guess -- he takes Kurosawa's rousing samurai flick Yojimbo and ratchets everything up to insane, overdone levels. It's a film constructed completely from hyperbole, yet it still manages to feel iconic and stripped-down even as it goes stylistically bonkers. Would that all spaghetti Westerns were half this cool.

Grade: A-
Dead & Breakfast (2005)

Much like punk rock, the horror genre seems more than any other filmic genre to encourage a DIY spirit. (You never hear about fifteen-year-old kids making romantic comedies in their basements, for example.) This is, naturally, A Good Thing from a democratic standpoint (you wanna be a filmmaker? go for it!). This effect has its downside, though, and it gets manifested in films like this -- in far too many homegrown horror flicks, the do-it-yourself aesthetic gets expanded to "do it yourself... as stupidly as possible". Most no-budget horror flicks have a rate of cleverness and watchability that is inversely proportional to their level of gore and/or redneck jokes -- call it the Troma Eventuality. It's especially frustrating when watching a film like this voodoo (zombie) lounge, where the occasional flashes of ingenuity (the makeshift rifles were cool, if improbable) tip you off that the filmmakers are only playing dumb in an effort to access a wider audience. The first half is unforgiveably dire in this respect, with way too much small-town humor and probably the longest, least-funny slipping-on-blood scene ever. The film eventually finds a workable level about halfway through when the zombies start tearing shit apart, but even then it's not that great. It's enthusiastic but klutzy, like a bad dancer. It really needed more moments like the hick-hop dancing-zombie interlude. Now that shit was funny, precisely because it was both unexpected and fairly clever as these things go. Underachievers please try harder, etc.

Grade: C-
Thriller: A Cruel Picture [second viewing]

This revisit elicited a reaction that ranks as totally opposite from the first time I saw this. The first half (the "humiliation" half, as it were), which seemed compellingly vicious, now strikes me as repetitive, tedious provocation. Director Bo. A Vibenius has said that he set out to make a "commercial-as-hell crap film," but his rage at being stuck in this particular filmic ghetto manifests itself as over-explicitness (i.e. the hardcore sex inserts), which subverts any commercial concerns (this is far beyond exploitation). There's all that anger just sitting there, and the film doesn't know quite what to do with it until the "revenge" half takes over. As Vibenius vicariously vents his anger at the disappointment of his artistic life through the character of Madeleine, he calms down a bit and allows some poetic moments to sneak in through the back door of this grimefest. The slow-motion ballet fights, which irked me the first time around, now seem less like a way to drag out a scene and more a dreamy study of aggression in motion. Plus, the ending is still stunning, the randomly exploding car is still awesome, the color-coordinated eyepatches are still funny and Christina Lindberg is still totally fucking hot. It's not quite a success as an exploitation film, but maybe that's a good thing.

Grade: B- (up from C+)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Waiting... (2005)

It's not that funny. That's really all that can be said. I know that's lazy criticism, but what else can be said about a comedy which sets up a Clerks-style dead-end-hell comedy with dark, melancholy undertones and proceeds to completely ignore all that in favor of dick jokes? (And yeah, Clerks had dick jokes too, but it at least slipped those in within the framework of its purgatorial nightmare.) Ryan Reynolds's aggressive flippancy is starting to grow on me, and Luiz Guzman has a relaxed sense of timing, but this still fails to generate anything other than occasional low-grade amusement. (Maybe it's because Anna Faris is given nothing to do.) Scenes bump into one other with little reason or rhythm, much like a bad TV pilot. If you stumbled across this on Cinemax, it might seem amiably crappy, but to leave the house and pay to see it seems perverse.

Grade: C-
Through the Forest (2005)

This is a difficult film to write about, partially because its style obviates most discussion of itself. It's composed of ten unbroken shots, but it's not done in a way that calls attention to itself; rather, the complicated formal aspects of it get obscured by the fact that nothing flashy or attention-getting is being done with them. It's a contradiction of sorts: Extreme formalism used to capture extreme naturalism. In a way, this is more satisfying than if the director had been calling attention to his methods every single moment, but it does make discussing them more difficult that usual. The real reason I'm reluctant to say much about this film, though, is that to discuss what I believe are the film's intentions would thoroughly ruin it. Most people have name-checked Under the Sand in trying to convey what's going on here, but I think it's more akin to a certain well-known and influential film that I will not name but which has received the Criterion treatment. I could back this up, too -- I could note the radical change in the color scheme halfway through, or I could note the timing of a certain conversation as a before-and-after breaking point... but then, you would then not need to see the film. Which I think you should, as I may be wrong anyway (the film is certainly ambiguous enough to allow multiple interpretations). Aside from that, it's also blessed with an remarkable debut performance from Camille Berthomier, who has to run the gamut from sexy to sullen to sweet to sad and back again. (She's also extremely pretty, especially in person.) It's a careful film deserving of careful consideration. You don't need me spoiling it for you -- just see it if you can find it.

Grade: B
Haze (2005)

For a minute, at least, it looked like Shinya Tsukamoto may have returned to his senses. Shinya's aesthetic has generally been one that emphasizes inference over explication, and that tendency gets literalized in this minimal featurette that can only be described as an avant-Saw. It's about a guy trapped in an enclosed space with no knowledge of how he got there, why he's there or how to get out, and it succeeds in generating some low-level claustrophobia and extreme discomfort. The low light levels and brutal sound mixing used in filming this only exacerbate this -- in particular, there's an early sequence where Shinya has to drag himself along a metal pipe by his teeth that causes major wincing. Once you get past a certain point, though, the vanishing point of this technique's effectiveness has pretty much been reached, and disinterest sets in even though the film only spans a scant 55 minutes. It's becoming clear to me that Shinya keeps his films short because he never actually has much of substance to say, and this film with its repetitive dialogue and circular logic isn't an exception, sadly; as it turns out, the story is leading somewhere metaphorical, and to reveal that the metaphor is both hopelessly obscure and hopelessly banal seems inevitable with this director. Per the usual, it's a triumph of form over content, and while I still admire Shinya's boundless enthusiasm for formal experimentation, I'm really starting to wish that he'd find some damn content for once.

Grade: C
The Big Combo (1955)

Why is it that most "forgotten classics," once exposed to the light of day, seem like their disappearance was justfiable? Case in point: This stodgy B-noir, which has a reputation that may have been inflated by people who remember Brian Donleavy's death scene and not much else. There's no other reason to latch onto this flick, which tries so hard to be hard-boiled that it approaches hard-to-swallow levels (the dialogue, especially, teeters on the wrong edge of self-parody). The low-energy direction does no favors, either -- by keeping his setups flat-footed and failing to properly instruct his actors on how to do "noir" (the lead's a square-jawed square), Joseph H. Lewis ends up with an uninspired time-waster that fairly screams 'tee-vee'. I understand that not everybody can summon up, say, the fevered intensity of Edgar G. Ulmar, but come on. This is about as convincing as Bugsy Malone.

Grade: C

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Flightplan (2005)

Jesus Christ, what a self-satisfied movie this is. It tries to be all ambiguous about its central situation, but it's far too clumsy to make it work -- all the film's attempts at misdirection are as transparent as white slacks atop a black thong. So all the scenes where Jodie Foster is made to look like she's crazy are maddening, partly because the filmmakers are so inept and partly because, well, yeah fuckin' right. Like Disney's going to bankroll a movie where a crazed-with-grief Jodie Foster goes insane and hallucinates her kid, thus needlessly endangering all the other passengers? Fucking please. This lunatic premise is compounded by the casting of the lead -- I never thought I'd say this, but Foster is all wrong for her role. Her steely self-confidence is often an asset, but here she never seems like she's lost control of her senses. We believe her even when the film is desperately trying to insist otherwise. Because of all these factors, we know there's a cheap and dumb revelation about the true nature of some of the passengers and/or crew, but when it comes it's a slap in the face. Now, I can believe a lot of things in a movie. When a movie is working, I can believe damn near anything. However, because this movie is so bad, I simply cannot swallow the preposterous evil plot we're served here. It's one thing to ignore plausibility, but it's entirely another for a film to become so ridiculous as to flout its implausibility in our faces like an aggressive hooker trolling for dollar bills. So basically, what this amounts to is a movie wherein the entire Western world has to offer an apology to poor, poor Jodie Foster. The climax couldn't be more smug if Jodie had gotten the entire cast to line up for spankings. In the midst of all this crap, Peter Sarsgaard proves once again that he is one of the most interesting and economical actors Hollywood has, and Hollywood once again proves that it has no fucking idea what to do with Peter Sarsgaard. I hope he paid off his car or something with the check he got from this dross. Also, Erika Christiansen? What the fuck. My respect for the talents of Steven Soderbergh increase every time I see this chick butcher whatever dialogue is given her.

Grade: D+
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005)

This is a banner year for Tim Burton, isn't it? First, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory blows up large, then this cute bit of kiddie-horror wins over both critics and audiences. As well it should -- it's a sweet and quick film that indulges both the macabre and the family-safe without alienating either camp. Burton's gorgeously twisted set design and art direction keep things consistently angular and interesting, and members of his regular acting company give some excellent voice-only turns. It's dark, but winningly so, as death (or Death) is something here to be celebrated and embraced as part of our essence rather than feared. (Death is not the end and all that, etc.) The script brings this out by remaining light and bouncy even when there's severed heads and popped eyeballs flying around; there's also a glorious streak of old-fashioned corn (every time I went to make a cheesy pun, the film made it for me). Even the songs are good, if a bit chaotic. The film's best number sees Danny Elfman channelling Tom Waits, which should make you want to see this post haste. If that didn't do it... well, there's also a worm in Helena Bonham Carter's head that looks and sounds like Peter Lorre. If that doesn't cinch it, you must be... um... dead or something.

Grade: B+
King Kong (1933)

Hollywood vacuity starts here, people. This, despite its enormous reputation, is really nothing more than the first big Special Effects Movie. And as that label would imply, the effects are indeed excellent. There's a tactility to the stop-motion animation that no amount of CGI or gorilla-suit hijinx can match. Willis O'Brien's Kong is a living, breathing marvel of technological triumph... so why is he harnessed to something so unworthy of his presence? When the monkey's not around, this is a thudding Poverty Row cheapie awash in crummy B-pulp acting (was Robert Armstrong tone-deaf or was English just his second language?) and anonymous direction. A film like this needs a child-like sense of wonder and awe, but all this has is dogged second-level workmanship. The truth must be told: This is a bit of stiff-jointed boondoggle that hopes the audience will be too impressed with the effects to notice that the rest of the film is kinda stupid. Its influence can be felt in all the wrong ways every summer.

Grade: C+
Scenes from a Marriage (1974)

The grade below is more like an A-/C+ split -- Ingmar Bergman's immense dissection of middle-class anomie is extraordinary when it observes the minutia of a marriage caught in a hell of comfortable stasis, but it becomes significantly less compelling once man and wife start to come apart. The film's length is both a strength and a failing: The larger-than-average canvas upon which Bergman paints his creation allows us to know and understand these people in intimate ways that get glossed over by smaller, shorter films... but there comes a point where maybe we know them too well and have seen them go over the same arguments one too many times and maybe would like them to zip their traps for a bit and stop sniping at one another, thanks muchly. This is no doubt Bergman's intention (the dissolution of a marriage, I would assume, looks almost exactly like this), but that doesn't keep the film and characters from getting a bit insufferable by the two-hour mark. It's like watching a guy with an open wound while he pokes at it obsessively and complains that it hurts when he pokes it -- there comes a point where you just want to slap him and scream, "Stop poking it! Let it heal, you idiot!" Still worth watching, though, if for nothing else than two true, realistic performances from Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as the squabbling couple, and I have to admit I'm curious about how the five-hour television version flows. Also, the last line is perfect.

Grade: B

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Broken Flowers (2005)

Okay, I appreciate intellectually what this film is doing. It's a film about waking up one morning and realizing that you are old and alone and you can no longer hide that you don't know what you're doing. It's a film, basically, about coming to terms with the fact that your life is insubstantial. But did the film itself need to be similarly insubstantial? Yes, it's thematically fascinating, but onscreen it just kind of lies there. Maybe it's because the journey isn't that interesting, or maybe it's because the women are all thin, easily-mockable caricatures, but I had difficulty finding anything to hold onto here. Bill Murray pushes his newfound hangdog persona so far into laconic Jarmuscheque opacity that it calcifies, leading to severely diminished returns; on the other hand, Jarmusch himself blows the Zen poetry of his signature style by uncharacteristically signposting everything and making all his points super-obvious so that mainstream critics can do think-pieces on them. For a film so concerned with aging and decay, it seems perverse to point out that the only real spark of life comes from Alexis Dzenia as the unimaginitively-monikered Lolita; everyone else is hanging around, weary from years of life and wondering if the early-bird special has started yet. Okay, I'm being cruel on that last point -- there are some typically Jarmusch-style parts that amuse (others have pointed out the cell-phone conversation between Murray and Jeffrey Wright, and I have to agree that it's funny as shit). Mostly, though, the film does something I've never seen before, though: it manages the difficult feat of being melancholy without being affecting at all.

Grade: C+
The Child (2006)

More fun with neo-realism: This newest film from the Dardennes is about fatherhood, the coming of responsibility and being able to live up to that responsibility. We follow a young petty hood who tries to correct an extremely grievous error towards his new child and his girlfriend on his part without quite understanding why he feels the need to correct it, and as he tried to right this particular wrong, we sense that this may be the first time he's ever felt the need to do so. The leads, likely, were cast for their looks and not their ability (you can tell what kind of characters they'll be playing from the moment you see them), but happily the involved parties also have acting ability to burn. (Granted, Jeremie Renier is a ringer, but still.) The stark craftsmanship, enhanced by you-are-there videography, keeps the story as spare and simple as possible while at the same time allowing the principals room to breathe and eventually grow. (Compare this to The Son, which feels so basic as to be Tupperware-hermetic.) What's interesting is that, even within the framework of the stark, the Dardennes keep the film pretty lively. There's even a car chase, though it's something of a shame that the organized-crime subplot flames out. This concentration on action may be part of the design or it may be a happy accident, but the surfeit of occurence keeps the character evolution from jabbing us in the ribs. Instead, the film builds almost imperceptibly to the lead's epiphany, and then we cut to black, which is just brilliant. The double-edged title, ultimately, points us towards the idea that spiritual birth can be as painful as the physical kind.

Grade: B+
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2006)

No movie with a title like that is going to be considered fun-time filmmaking, but it's still amazing how grim this film gets. It can be seen as a spiritual cousin to Arthur Hiller's caustic The Hospital, but where that film is a crazed scream of outrage (literally, in the famed monlogue where George C. Scott hurls invectives out a window), this is a heavy and resigned sigh, looking around disgusted yet also well aware and bitterly accepting of the entrenched diseases of the status quo as here to stay. ("Look around, familiarize yourself, because you'll be here one day", the film seems to say.) It starts with the familiar (a man at home in his squalid apartment, among his cats and his bottle of booze, with a headache and a stomachache) and gradually pushes the situation further -- first, the neighbors come over, then the paramedics, then the cats run away, then they leave the hospital, then they get to the first hospital and things truly start to come apart. Mr. Lazarescu's mystery condition (which slowly gets defined throughout the film's first half) has been aggravated by self-neglect, but it's a combination of bureaucratic callousness and plain ol' bad luck (a bus crash waylays a number of facilities that could help Lazarescu) that leads to the demise promised in the title. Rather than using his camera like a blunt tool, director Cristi Puiu keeps attempting to stave off judgementalism with his matter-of-fact direction. He's spot-on at all times, catching small exchanges and sidelong glances as well as structurally important stuff, so that the film feels like a documentary rather than a neorealist feature -- chaos caught in amber. It's a shame, then, that Puiu the observational director had to be semi-sabotaged by Puiu the finger-wagging writer. This film's scope is enormous, thus so should be its pallette. Too often, though, Puiu goes for the easy satirical score (too many scenes of doctors being judgemental, criticizing Lazarescu for his drinking, contradicting other doctors, etc.). This tendency leads to the film's latter stages feeling repetitive, with the nadir being the encounter with the haughty overnight staff at the third hospital -- here, the maddening bureacracy of the Romanian health care system becomes so nightmarish as to become a cartoon, which nullifies some of the impact of the film as a whole. All this chaos has to end at some point, though, and the film's last ten minutes are graceful, poetic and sad all in the same breath. It's an epic and ultimately wearying film, and it contains a near-perfect lead performance from Ion Fiscuteanu, who plays his character's gradual descent into incoherence with extraordinary modulation. It's an imperfect film, but you may want to take a look at it anyway.

Grade: B-
An Amazing Couple (2004)

I think the operative word is "irritating," not "amazing." This flat attempt at French farce has been crafted with no regard towards timing or credibility -- it's just a procession of avoidable occurrences and misunderstandings, and it clunks like a Gremlin with a busted transmission. The idea of Lucas Belvaux's "Trilogy" is a solid one, and the experiment is interesting from a cinema-theory standpoint. But that doesn't make the films involved any easier to watch. I mean, when a character in this film turns to the camera, breaks the fourth wall and straight-out tells us the theme of the three films, am I supposed to nod and say, "Ah, yes, very clever"? Or am I more justified in standing up and screaming, "Yeah, I got that, you insecure little shit, now hurry up and get this movie rolling before I fling the DVD across the room"? That ton-o'-bricks moment, though, is typical of Belvaux's approach with this film. Farce requires a light touch, but Belvaux crushes any potential for merriment with his tiresome idiot plotting and his bizarre insistence on making both husband and wife look as unsympathetic and petty as possible at all times. Maybe they are an amazing couple anyway -- after all, how often do two perfect nitwits find each other?

Grade: C-

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Transporter 2 (2005)

They say you should start as you mean to go on, and this film does indeed go on from where its predecessor started. Except, there's a problem. The buoyant silliness of the first film has become studied. There was apparently so much of a desire for this to top The Transporter that the filmmakers pushed too hard, so what could be silly-but-cool just seems... silly. Things to watch for: the fire-hose fight; any scene in which the blond, barely-clothed, barely-there evil supermodel chick fires a gun larger than her torso; Jason Statham's unquashable badassness; Jason Flemyng's knowingly goofy Russian accent (most entertaining bad-on-purpose Russian accent since John Malkovich in Rounders); Statham getting to a bad guy on an overpass by scaling a moving semi; the madelines. Things to avoid: everything else, really. Especially anything involving that goddamn kid. Like this movie needed Statham grudgingly bonding with a precocious tyke. But I'm grousing. The question is: Is it entertaining? Yes, it's superficially amusing, in a how-stupid-do-they-dare-to-get kind of way. But please. My friend Dave remarked mid-screening "This was written by a grade-school kid, I think" which more or less says it all.

Grade: C+
3-iron (2005)

If Kim Ki-duk's previous Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring was a Buddhist primer, this then can be best described as a koan on celluloid. In following the travails of a nomadic urban monk and an abused young woman he meets, Kim spins a tale of karma and spirituality that becomes accessible even as it twists itself into inscrutable forms. Karma figures heavily in this film's world -- the hero breaks into people's houses and establishes temporary residences, balancing this ostensibly-wrong act by performing menial chores while he's there (cleaning, laundry, et. al); meanwhile, there's a push-pull tension established between intentional (possibly justified) acts of harm and unintentional ones, with the film's two instances of the latter likely being cosmically responsible for the dire straits our hero finds himself in during the film's second half. Through it all is the urge to transcend one's circumstances, whether it be a spiritual transcendence or (ultimately) a physical one. The final scene, in this light, is transcendent in multiple meanings of the word. This film is really very lovely in its careful simplicity, but lest I shortchange it I should also point out that it's often amusing, sometimes darkly so. The absence of dialogue in most scenes, aside from establishing a placidity that exists mainly to be shattered, also brings to the forefront the accomplishments of the film's leads. Most "great" actorly moments involve large swaths of dialogue, so it's a nice reminder, when you see a film like this, what truly good actors can do with a little body language. Good for the head, good for the soul, and entertaing too.

Grade: B+
The Lady Eve (1941)

Rapid-fire con-artist comedy from the great Preston Sturges fairly shimmers with mad invention. The key is in the casting. Barbara Stanwyck is sweet, seductive and silly as the scheming, lovestruck title character, while Henry Fonda brings just the right combination of awkwardness and guilelessness to his part -- he's just nebbishy enough without seeming pathetic. The hilarious setpieces just cascade one after the other (the highlight being the scene where Stanwyck and Charles Coburn attempt to out-cheat each other at a game of poker). The massive dollops of snake imagery undoubtedly mean something (Stanwyck as a snake of sorts, shedding her skin and becoming other people at the drop of a hat?), and the phallic significance is also not to be discounted; meanwhile, there is also an unexpected Hitler joke. You wouldn't think that a hybrid this unwieldy (it's a con-artist movie! it's slapstick! it's screwball! it's a romantic comedy!) would work at all, but remember that "con" is short for "confidence." This movie has stolen my heart. Hell yeah.

Grade: A
The Innocents (1961)

Exquisitely creepy ghost story adapted from Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw, which these days is probably most notable for inspiring several works of art more impressive than itself. There's several ways to appreciate this intelligent work. You can immerse yourself in the thematics of it (do the "ghosts" represent the allure of the sinful returning from places unknown to overpower the innocent, i.e. the repressed? and is the title then meant in part as an irony?) You can groove on the glorious aesthetics of it, as it is an extremely well-directed film. The photography in particular is richly effective, with some striking usage of deep focus. You can study the acting in detail, as the film does among other things seem to be a seminar on excellent acting -- Deborah Kerr, between this and Black Narcissus, seems to have a lock on navigating the details of repressed women, and the child actors are uncannily talented as well. Or you can just sit back and let the film creep you the fuck out. It's your call, after all. Whichever way you go, you're bound to have a good time.

Grade: A-
The Eighteenth Angel (1998)

Jesus, this movie fuckin' sucked. It's a load of incompetent nonsense about a rogue order of monks kidnapping kids in an attempt to resurrect Satan, and all it proves is that while Satan may have all the good tunes, he also gets stuck with a lot of the worst movies. Rachel Leigh Cook naturally fits into this film's hellish direct-to-video existence, but both Christopher McDonald and Stanley Tucci deserve better than this booga-booga bullshit. Boring, illogical, about as frightening as a bunny warren; when did watching this become a good idea in my head?

Grade: D-