Sunday, November 20, 2005

Paradise Now (2005)

*shrug* It's decent. I wish I had more to say about this film, but I really don't. It's well-made, and I respect it, but its didacticism drags it down. The filmmakers won't let you forget that this is an Important Film about an Important Issue, and it hamstrings the inherent drama in the premise (two Palestinean guys preparing themselves to be suicide bombers). The two leads do as well as they can with their difficult roles, and they try hard to make the speechifying go down easy. Overall, it's worth a look, and there's a killer final shot; I just wish it concentrated less on being important and more on being good.

Grade: B-
Rock School (2005)

Vibrant, entertaining documentary about Paul Green and his rock school, where kids go to learn the ins and out of rockdom. If you appreciate rock at all, you should get a charge out of this. (I was personally amazed at Green's advanced students teaching themselves, among other things, Frank Zappa's "Inca Roads" simply because Green didn't tell them how ridiculously difficult the song is to play.) There's a kind of self-congratulatory air that keeps the film from breaking through to the next level, though whether that's from the film or just residual runoff from Green's massive ego is debatable. (Green, to his credit, freely admits to his ego problems and allows himself to be seen as a massive dick at times -- though one wonders how much of the ranting, tantrum-prone Green is true and how much is played up for the camera.) Still, it's an engaging feelgood document. I mean, there's footage here of a 12-year-old shredding the shit out of riffs by Zappa, Van Halen and Santana. If that's not awesome, what is?

Grade: B+
Meet the Fockers (2004)

Holy crap is this movie ever not funny. I mean, I think the first film is grossly overrated, but at least it had a couple of chuckles. This demonic turd, though, can't get a laugh no matter how hard it tries (and boy, does it try). To watch this is to wonder whether director Jay Roach ever knew a damned thing about comedic timing, since his film exhibits none (maybe Austin Powers was a fluke, or maybe Mike Myers was ghost-directing). Even the reliable Tim Blake Nelson, who shows up in a late-film cameo, can't wring anything out of the lame material handed him. This is basically a bad two-hour sitcom and a depressing waste of numerous talents. Tell you what -- I'm going to pretend I didn't see this.

Grade: D
Undead (2005)

The general consensus on this film is that it's too incompetent to be worthwhile. To which I can only say: Well, yes, it's incompetent. (The butt-ugly DV cinematography makes Australia look like Smogland.) But there's a certain cheery bravado about it that, in my eyes, makes it difficult to truly dislike. Unlike, say, Dead and Breakfast (which wants to entertain you so badly that it can't see how badly it fails), this film knows what its Good Parts are, knows what its Stolen Parts are, and most importantly knows what its audience expects and how to deliver it. (Owen Gleiberman singled out the walking stump-legs as the only original thing in the film, which just goes to show you that A) he's never seen Dead Alive, this film's biggest inspiration, and B) he slept through the awesome scene where Marion punches a zombie fish.) It's not ambitious, but neither is it delusional about its quality -- it's a low-grade B-zombie film that knows it's a low-grade B-zombie film and tries to work within those parameters. On those terms, it's something of a success. It's got problems, yes (how can we still get a zombie movie, in this day and age, where people don't know to shoot the bloody things in the head?)... but it also has a man punching a fish. And that's gotta count for something. Also: the plot is perfectly simple. Just because there's aliens landing in the middle of the film doesn't make it confusing, people.

Grade: B-
Strangers on a Train (1951)

One of Hitchcock's most involving films, and definitely his most satisfying attempt at black comedy. More than just being a perverse black joke, it delights in its own perversity (example: Hitchcock casts his own daughter in a supporting role, then lets her say all the nasty, rude things that the more proper characters are only allowed to think). The confidence of Hitchcock's mise-en-scene here is undeniable, as one unforgettable shot after another cascades from the screen like it was the easiest thing in the world. (Murder shown as reflection in a pair of eyeglasses, thus both emphasizing Robert Walker's emotional detachment from the task and implicating the viewer in cruel voyeurism ten years before Peeping Tom? Why not?) While ol' Alfred was never lumped into the film-noir category, the light-and-shadow play here positively screams "NOIR ME, BABY!" I could nitpick about Farley Granger's character being too passive, but then I think that kind of figures into the diseased subtext of the film (Walker being, essentially, the catalyst for Granger's evolution into A Man of Action), which may be the biggest joke of all -- Walker, after all, was only trying to help and get help from a man he considered a friend. Wow.

Grade: A
Onibaba (1964)

Creepy, dark fable set during a war that never seems to end about a scavenging mother and daughter and the havoc wreaked upon their lives when a neighbor returns home from the war. It's a film of monsters and monstrousness -- director Kaneto Shindo obviously feels very cynical about the ingrained parts of the human survival instinct, but at the same time he acknowledges them as necessary evils in times of need. The film's casual treatment of nudity is at first a bit shocking, simply because titillation isn't the issue (the sexuality here is as matter-of-fact as Nanook of the North); later, it becomes doubly shocking when the destructive nature of this otherwise-innocuous sexuality is allowed to flower. The rich, stark cinematography is an immense asset (between this and Woman in the Dunes, it was a good year for stylish allegory in Japan); the last line is absolute in its perfection and its disturbing implications.

Grade: A-
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)

Early Herzogian study of obsession is a poetic look at Walter Steiner, a sculptor who became famous as a ski-jumper. The obsession comes in when Steiner admits that he tends to jump too far and, indeed, has to keep himself from going off at full strength lest he overshoot the landing ramp and kill himself -- what we have here is a portrait of a man who knows his passion is possibly fatal but keeps at it anyway for the seconds of rapture he feels while sailing through the air. (Great ecstasy, indeed.) For one hot minute, I was afraid that this was going to come off like a 45-minute dissection of the Agony of Defeat guy; how silly of me to doubt Werner Herzog, who lets the stirring image of men sailing through the air with preposterous wooden planks strapped to their feet tell much of the story.

Grade: B+
Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

Hypnotic visual essay about modern society's effect on nature and the world. One gets the feeling that director Godfrey Reggio isn't too hot on This Modern World -- the title, after all, does mean "life out of balance," and the progression of the footage from natural to man-made bespeaks of a certain disgust with the glass-and-steel encroachment of the big city. The great paradox, though, of this stance (and the thing that keeps this from feeling like a whiny New Age rant) is that Reggio expresses this not by simply contrasting "pretty" (i.e. nature) and "ugly" (i.e. civilization) but by finding the moments of incongruous beauty within the structure of the civilized world. Rather than show us two worlds at odds with each other, he shows us the places where the two worlds harmonize and intersect, thus critiquing the world by implicitly asking why we should have to search these moments out rather than them simply being everywhere. When these images are then synchronized with Phillip Glass's percussive and insistent score, the cumulative effect is one that's hard to shake. Hope the follow-up films are as interesting (I've heard they're more sour and disgruntled, but ya never know...).

Grade: A-
Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

Late-period entry in the series takes its cues from the series its Chinese guest star was famed for rather than the usual dry, prankish spirit that lives and breathes within Shintaro Katsu, which is a really drawn-out way for me to say that this film is really cheesy. The action scenes are ludicrous in an eye-rolling way rather than the usual "holy crap, can a blind guy really do that?" amazement kind of way. Also, there's way too much dumb language-barrier humor, which becomes doubly irritating at the end of the film when the story tries to play it straight and turn that into the theme of the film. Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda was a veteran of this series who had previously directed one of my favorite entries (On the Road); now he has one of the worst on his resume as well. He should be proud, I guess.

Grade: C

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Derailed (2005)

Wow, where's Something Weird when you need them? This slick, sleazy noirsploitation (made extra-slimy by the sheen of big-budget Hollywood polish) would be right up that company's alley if it had been released in the late '50s like it should have been. Somehow, even attempting to make this material into a film seems desperately stupid, which is appropriate since the film itself is indeed both desperate and stupid. What's especially irritating is that the film refuses to acknowledge its own sleaziness -- if it would just get down in the muck with the rest of us, it might actually be fun. Speaking of fun, Vincent Cassel is having plenty -- he waltzes in with this air of "Oh, zees eez crap and I know eet eez crap so I will be having zee fun with eet and fuck zee rest of you," and while in a better film this attitude would be destructive (i.e. his turn in Ocean's Twelve), here he's the only one who takes this film at the level it belongs on. How Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston got convinced that this was high drama rather than the logic-free potboiler it is probably involves Herzog-style hypnosis. What's amusing is that this film is the flagship release from the Weinsteins' new company, since back in the day Miramax would send two or three films like this a month straight to video. I guess once your lead actress has fucked Brad Pitt, you can get anything done. Note to RZA: Stay behind the camera in the future unless someone comes to you with a role that doesn't involve you being a streetwise ex-con.

Grade: D
Shopgirl (2005)

Flimsy attempt at a mature, "honest" romantic drama doesn't come off. The major demerit is probably that Claire Danes's character is only seen from afar -- despite the fact that she's the main character, we never get the feeling that we're with her. Rather, we watch her and hover around her much like the two males in the film do. She's the great beacon of light around which the other characters congregate; if she only had a personality, everything would be perfect. Despite the best efforts of Danes, though, Mirabelle remains a tabula rasa with a pussy. The rest of the film, consequently, feels similarly vacant and wispy, and are we really supposed to feel sorry for Steve Martin's character? I mean, he's self-aware enough to realize that he can only really relate to women through monetary means, but he's not self-aware enough to realize that this makes him a dick? Also, what's with the Jason Schwartzman transformation? The message, I guess, is that women won't dig you unless you turn yourself into something you really aren't. Mothafucka please.

Grade: C
Stay (2005)

Not a good film, but not one to be ignored, either -- David Benioff's screenplay has moments of genuine, discomfiting disorientation that are enhanced by Marc Forster's bizarre directorial choices. (This simply can't be the same guy who directed Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland. It can't.) The main thrust of the plot becomes pretty obvious early on, but the filmmakers keep plugging away at keeping the audience off-balance and suceed in that goal more often then not. There's even an element of poignancy in the hallucinations-of-a-fading-mind ending (it's the procession of a life through a haze of guilt, confusion and panic). Forster, oft-times, seems to indulge style just to show off, which does get annoying, and the film really isn't as deep or meaningful as it supposes itself to be; still, there's something undeniably fascinating about its failure. It's like this odd, avant-garde object that slipped through the bowels of the Hollywood machine fully intact, for better and worse. It's probably trying too hard to be tricky, but I'd rather see a movie try its mightiest and fail anyway than not try at all.

Grade: C+
The Fog (2005)

This movie sucks. I wish I could say more than that, but this film's complete failure is so total and so depressing that any criticism is obviated. To see it is to know its suckhood. You have to wonder if the people working on it knew of its suckhood. I think they did, which would explain the funereal tone of the acting and the utter lack of tension -- it's like everyone showed up, did the minimum amount of work possible, and went home early. Then there's the nonsensical ending, which just proves that nobody was paying attention to the story or, indeed, gave a shit about it. It's pure product, something to separate hopeful horror fans from their money. This film is like poop in your Christmas stocking. Avoid it as though it were a syphilitic rapist.

Grade: D-
Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

Cheerful big-screen adventure for the titular twosome, who find themselves beset by a threat much larger (in multiple senses of the word) than a kleptomaniacal penguin or a malicious robot dog. This has a welcome sense of the laid-back that makes its action sequences all the more thrilling (or maybe it just makes a nice contrast to the frenetic snark that seems to dominate American kidflicks these days), and in the British tradition it's also more than willing to poke fun at itself (note the perfect timing of the "do you have a quarter?" gag). There's also some surprisingly ribald humor that snuck under the general-audience wire ("May Contain Nuts"???), but again in the British tradition it's all cheeky and harmless rather than smutty. The meticulous design, too, is handsome and charming (again, it's all about the tactility of stop-motion). It's encouraging to see this doing modestly impressive business at the box office, but this should really be a bigger hit. Maybe the rampant puns scared people away (this is even worse than Corpse Bride in that respect).

Grade: B+
One Missed Call (2005)

Slow down, Miike. Commercially "acceptable" Xerox of Ringu/Ju-On has a number of perverse touches a la Miike, and the director at least transcends his ostensible influences through the undeniable force of his artistry and his expert building of tension. At the end of the day, though, it's still no better than a Ringu ripoff, so who the fuck really cares and all that. (I've read defenses of the film that claim it's intended as a satire of said genre, but I think that's being overly charitable.) Also, no movie in which the heroine escapes annihilation from a malicious ghost by hugging it and crying with it deserves any more than the below grade.

Grade: C+
Save the Green Planet! (2005)

The notorious South Korean tonal shift hits its nadir with this mean-spirited comedy of cruelty, which hops tones so often that it negates everything it tries to do. It's far too gruesome and bleak to function as the knockabout comedy it feints at being. However, it's also far too frivolous to work as the grimy character study it wants to be, and it's also too outlandish to work as the vicious satire on humanity into which it eventually tries to evolve. It's a head-splitting misfire on all counts, basically; the mournful tone of the climax would be laughable if it wasn't all so fucking risible. Fuck this film.

Grade: D
Appleseed (2005)

If you've ever seen a post-apocalyptic anime, than you can safely skip this film, which is weary to death from trodding ground covered by approximately 1.8 billion other entries in its genre. Note to future anime filmmakers: CGI animation is NOT the future. It makes everything look cold and robotic and soulless. Stick with the expressive charms of limited hand-drawn animation and leave the CGI to talentless, smarmy American directors.

Grade: D+
The Naked Witch (1961)

Oh my God, this movie is hilarious. Just look at the highlights: THRILL! To the endless expository prologue about the history of witchery in Europe that has nothing to do with anything other than padding out the running time! GASP! At the hysterical introduction of the small hamlet in which this film takes place, which looks like a bit of Old Bavaria dropped into the middle of Texas! (I don't care if there actually are German immigrants who settled in Texas, the film's handling of this is wholly unconvincing and thus hysterically funny.) GUFFAW! At the wooden, declamatory dialogue delivery from the cast of amateurs, most notable in the awesomely bad flashback sequence (included in this is the immortal line "Witches are foooor burning!" -- yes, it's delivered just like that). MARVEL! At the lengths the filmmakers go to in an effort to obscure the title character's assets! GRIMACE! At the bathing scene where the filmmakers don't do their jobs well enough and we see that Our Witch has breasts that look like pears lying sideways! RUMINATE! On the fact that the lead is a complete asshole who downplays the fact that everything that happens in the film is his fucking fault! This misbegotten hunk of B-cheese is more fun than a barrel of misshapen titties.

Grade: C
Crypt of Dark Secrets (1976)

Possibly the most surprising thing about this Louisiana-based horror obscurity is how relatively competent it is. Granted, the acting is awful and it's badly paced and the editing isn't so hot, but the filmmaking technique itself is at least passable. The camera always seems to be in the right place, the director looks like he might know something about building atmosphere and using local color, and there's even a couple nicely composed shots. This, of course, means that this film is no fun at all. It's silly, yes, and a couple chuckles can be had at the terrible non-professionals in front of the camera, but mostly it's just doggedly dull. Such is the lot of the B-movie viewer -- a director gets a couple things right by accident and it ruins the viewing experience. Oh well, what the hell.

Grade: C-
Twentieth Century (1934)

Okay, so from where I stand, what we have here is a sour little movie about two rich, spoiled, unpleasant little cunts, one of whom is possibly psychotic. And they are together but they bicker endlessly and then they split up and the psycho becomes a self-pitying lump and then there is a train ride where they could get back together but who the fuck cares because they are both rich, whiny, abusive shitheads. Can somebody please explain to me why this leaden film is such a big screaming deal? Thanks.

Grade: C
Tout Va Bien (1972)

So maybe Jean-Luc Godard works well with others or something. While my previous exposures to his "political" side gave me hives, this film won me over. Unlike Les Carabiniers, Godard didn't leave his intellgence behind to make this one, and unlike Two or Three Things I Know About Her, he doesn't drown his points in endless dialogue. It's sharp, to-the-point and fairly clever as far as radical cinema goes. (Just because you're passionate doesn't mean you have to forget your sense of humor, right?) What's really fascinating, though, is the film's attempts to undermine its own politics. From the opening meta-film gambit (which serves to remind us that, after all, this is all artificial) to the self-critical stretch in the middle where we see the male protagonist discussing the failure of his political intentions and his ambiguity at having sold out to The System, Godard and Co. seem to be questioning the idea of radicalism's capacity to effect change even as he desperately begs for change. It all comes together in the brilliant, formally astonishing supermarket climax, which is either a call to revolution or a resigned admission that forceful revolt occasionally only ends in aimless anarchy. You can see traces here of the impulses that led Godard to make Notre Musique.

Grade: B+
Interview with the Assassin (2002)

Interesting variation on the mock-doc formula, this being of the Blair Witch variety in that it takes its premise seriously. The premise itself is pretty irresistible (guy's neighbor confides to him that he was the second gunman at the JFK assassination), and the film mostly delivers on its promise. It's helped immeasurably by Raymond J. Barry's excellent, lived-in performance as the admitted shooter, and the courage of its convictions bring it through some midfilm rough patches (the shadow in the yard never does amount to anything, does it?) to a bleak, paranoid finale. At times, it comes off as a bit too filmic to convince (compare this to Blair Witch or Zero Day and it doesn't ring as true as it should), but it's still a worthwhile watch.

Grade: B-

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Samaritan Girl (2004)

Um, huh? Whatever point Kim Ki-duk is trying to get across with this exquisitely photographed, exquisitely stupid film has eluded my grasp. If there was anything eloquent said here about teenage prostitution, exploitation, youthful sexualization, jealousy, family values, capitalism and its relation to sex, Good Samaritanism or relative morality, I think I missed it. What we basically have here is a very talented filmmaker passing time until his next worthwhile project comes along; the final image is of a car spinning its wheels in the mud, which sums up this film's problems better than I can.

Grade: C
Strange Impersonation (1946)

Moody attempt at femme-noir falls far short of any benchmarks the filmmakers could have been aiming for and instead looks like cinema's very first Lifetime movie. It doesn't help that the film wrecks its ace-in-the-hole plot twist/escape clause within the first thirty seconds (I seem to remember having similar problems with the story structure of The Woman in the Window), and the retrograde politics of the ending (Women! Forget being smart and get married!) make the whole thing slide down like a razorblade martini. Was this really made by the same Anthony Mann who did all those great Westerns? I think not.

Grade: C
The Interpreter (2005)

Generic high-toned political drama manages to hold interest on the strength of its leads for a good portion of the film. Unfortunately, in an effort to cater to every possible crowd, the liberal hand-wringing inherent in the premise has been mostly leeched out, which makes the film thankfully free of obnoxious sermonizing but also robs it of any form of urgency. It hedges its bets too readily and sells out its chance to be more than a forgettable time-waster. The (reshot) ending tries belatedly to take sides, but by then it's a lost cause. Yeah, dictators suck and injustice is evil, blah blah. Whatever dudes. Take your paychecks and get out.

Grade: C+
Faust (2005)

Lugubrious and tiresome film from the usually-reliable Jan Svankmajer. There's really only enough material here for a short film, and Svankmajer seems to realize this, as his tendency towards formal repetition is used to pad out the length. (The nadir: An interminable sequence in which a wooden jester summons and banishes a demon for what feels like seventeen hours.) The shrill voice acting doesn't help matters, either. I'm sure there's a decent political metaphor behind all this (people sell their souls to the State in exchange for comfort and are turned into puppets for their trouble?), but political cinema should work as cinema first and this shit doesn't cut it.

Grade: D+
Steamboy (2005)

Hate to go with the obvious metaphor, but there's no other way to put it really -- the narrative engine housed within this film runs out of steam far before the finish line, leaving only a muddled climax wherein everything blows up real good. Meaning-of-science subtext is fascinating but underdeveloped; then again, so is everything else that doesn't have to do with images of machines and gears and whatnot. Visually quite impressive, but it'd be nice if it were, you know, about something.

Grade: C+