Monday, December 26, 2005

House of Wax (2005)

If only the whole film showed the energy and gruesome invention of its stalk-n-slash scenes, we'd be talking about some kind of deranged slasher masterwork. Alas, the character scenes are as stiff and artificial as the death scenes are lurid. There may be a problem within a film when the most impressive star turn is the one by Paris Hilton. (Speaking of Paris, her willingness to send up -- nay, savage -- her own image by showing up here speaks to a level of if not intelligence then at least self-awareness that I had figured would be beyond her grasp.) The production design is impressive enough to merit a mention, but in crafting an entire town from wax, the filmmakers seem to have gone too far and crafted an entire film from the same stuff.

Grade: D+
Grand Illusion (1937)

I realize this is kind of heretical to say, but this film struck me as kind of awkward and naive in its first half-hour -- the prison camps the protagonists get stuck in aren't that unpleasant or even inconvenient. How silly of me to not realize that it's by design, that it's indicative of the larger picture Jean Renoir is painting. One of the major points of the film is that war involves a surrendering of the everyday self and substitution of a persona. This is indicated by the film's emphasis on the soldiers' references to "civilian life" and their true jobs outside of the war. Everyone is just playing a role, and they all just want to go home some day. (Like El-P says, "I'm not a mechanism born to the state, I had to be trained...") This, then, is where the film's humanity lies. If the camps seem overly pleasant, it's because Renoir doesn't need to tell us that war is hell. He takes it as a given that we understand this and wants instead to point us in other directions. The unhappy fates of the two career soldiers -- the only persons with no true lives to resume in post-war society -- serves to cement this, but by this point the film's moving on to bigger things, to a call for universal harmony and understanding. (Language barrier? Not much of a barrier at all.) It's a striking and moving film, littered with memorable images (the drag scene, for instance... and hey, there's more role-playing!) and possessed of some wonderful acting. Erich von Stroheim, in particular, confirms his brilliance in portraying the delicacies of wounded dignity. Takes a while to grow, but grow it does; I suspect repeat viewings will impress me even more.

Grade: B+
Eternal (2005)

Title's about right. From what I can tell, this was made in the best (read: worst) traditions of the grindhouse flicks of yore, by which I mean that the film is all tease and very little please. It utilizes one of the sturdiest of naughty-vampire exploitation-film premises (the Elizabeth Bathory legend) in crafting one of the most transparent genre ripoffs in recent memory. It's almost perverse in its obnoxious perfection -- a skinflick with no skin and a goreflick with no gore. (Did Cleanflix get at this or something?) It seems to me that a film about a 400-year-old lesbian vampire who bathes in the blood of young women to keep her youth would have more to offer than endless expository scenes wherein a lunkheaded cop (who wants so badly to be a dimestore Vin Diesel) walks and talks and tries to figure out what the hell is going on and why everyone around him is turning up dead. Is there something oh-so-difficult about the tits 'n' blood approach to filmmaking, or were the directors laboring under the apprehension that their lesbian-vampire movie was about something deeper than lesbian vampires? Jesus, people.

Grade: D-
Saint Ange (2004)

Okay, seriously... enough with the Americanized Euro-film. Is our cinema so attractive that all that's left for aspiring young European directors to do is emulate the worst qualities of our genre hackwork? Don't we get enough homegrown dross without having to worry about it coming from other countries? Jesus. Take this film, for example: This French-English plum pudding tries to cop moves from The Others and The Innocents but leaves the inherent dread stranded on the side of the road as it goes. Pascal Laugier knows how to do nothing that doesn't involve a degree of theft (not only from the two already-cited major influences but also from The Devil's Backbone, The Johnsons, Angel Heart and whatever else he can think of), and considering he got the funds to make this after crafting some hagiographic paeon to Christophe Gans, it's not surprising that he exists solely to make Gans look good in comparison. A little dose of Gans's enthusiasm would have helped juice this up a bit. Instead, we're left with a film that confuses poor construction with ambiguity and boredome with atmosphere. Virginie Ledoyen doesn't do the film too many favors, either -- her fumbling English-as-a-second-language dialogue recalls all the wrong parts of Catherine Denueve's turn in Repulsion. She does get nekkid, though, so at least the film's not a complete waste. (At least for those of us who have yet to see Cold Water. Though one nude scene is a bit compromised by the fact that her character is, at the time, hugely pregnant.)

Grade: D
Zatoichi at Large (1972)

It's evident that this series must be getting near the end of the line with this entry, which sees the intrepid masseur once again getting mixed up with yakuzas and corrupt government officials after an act of Good Samaritanism goes awry. This is the most by-the-numbers entry yet, with most every plot point echoing earlier films (Ichi travels with a baby as in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight; Ichi saves a girl from a forced sale into prostitution a la Zatoichi's Revenge; Ichi is suspected of killing someone he tried to help just like Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, which by the way was only ONE FILM PRIOR). There's a couple good moments that hint at a sneaking self-awareness within this graying series (best moment: when a fellow swordsman compliments Ichi's prowess, he humbly chuckles, "Nah, I just go apeshit"), but these bits are too few to save the film. Pretty much all that appears to be left is to watch the series stagger to a halt in a couple films' time; the completely perfunctory handling of the final duel suggests that, at this point, all involved parties were already mentally looking forward to other things.

Grade: C

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Aeon Flux (2005)

And I saw crying, there was turmoil in the marketplace
I saw economies perpetuate the next arms race
And I felt helpless, there was nothing I could do or say
Then I noticed, there's a change that's coming over me...
Tapping into the aeon!
Tapping into the aeon!

(Oh, the movie? It's regrettable, cliche-festooned crap. But you knew that already.)

Grade: D
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

This was inevitable, I guess; the distillation process that leads a 800-page book to be rendered into cinematic format -- even a two-and-a-half-hour version -- must, by nature, destroy the work in question. Some films find their way around the roadblocks and end up as compelling cinema anyway; this, though, is not one of those films. For about 45 minutes, it's a complete disaster, with new characters and subplots introduced at such a breathless pace that everything blurs together into one multicolored blob of FX-addled celluloid. Mike Newell is generally a talented man, but frenetic activity is not his forte (for proof, see the misfired Pushing Tin), and he seems lost in trying to corral all this immensity into a workable format. He does manage to get things vaguely under control later in the film, and the puberty-onset sections -- all the bits, in other words, where Newell gets to focus on character rather than spectacle -- of the film are pretty great. Most people will single out the lavish (and entertainingly awkward) ballroom centerpiece, but for me the film's high point, undoubtedly, is Harry's creepy-funny encounter with Moaning Myrtle in a bubble bath. So it's a shame when, after the ball, we have to get back to the drudgery of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. I'm sure, though, that Potter fanatics will get far more out of this than I did. In other news: Brendan Gleeson is still ineffably awesome (his every scene is nigh well indispensible), and Emma Watson is encroaching upon hotness.

Grade: C+
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

This is a stirring drama fraught with unexpected topical relevance. Clooney the activist seems to be telling us that, like Murrow, we should stand up and cry bullshit on our leaders whenever they overstep their boundaries. What's impressive, though, is that this cri de coeur is merely hanging out in the background while a crackerjack historical entertainment is unspooling before us. Even if you put aside the film's links to modern-day situations, it's still a handsomely mounted and expertly acted David-and-Goliath drama, with all the political, social and personal pressures felt by Murrow and Co. explicated in full. Really, the ensemble here is terrific, which was probably to be expected from Strathairn and Downey and Clarkson, but Ray fucking Wise runs away with his every scene, so somebody's doing something right. A controlled and mature film, miles ahead of Clooney's ADD-riddled debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; Hollywood-liberal filmmakers everywhere should watch this and learn how to cloak their hectoring in the Trojan horse of dramatic believability.

Grade: B+
The Ice Harvest (2005)

Solid modern-day realization of old-school noir. It's not the laff riot you'd expect from director Harold Ramis (or from the advertisements); rather, it's a gritty small-town heist flick with a mordant sense of humor. As usual, John Cusack makes for an appealing Everyman, using his self-deprecating charm to get us behind the protagonist even as he engages in questionable activity. The rest of the (reliable) cast helps as well; much like first-wave film noir, everyone has been cast not for who they are but for the type they inhabit, and Ramis and Co. pull it off admirably. There's a certain, unavoidable familiarity (the plot is straightforward, relying on human fallibility rather than the twist-happy contrivances we've been led to expect from neo-noir), but when the job is as professionally done as it is here, it doesn't matter much. Answer to the question asked here: Why yes, yes she is.

Grade: B
Rize (2005)

S'alright, I guess. It's hampered mainly by the fact that it wants to be Paris is Burning so badly. It can't, though, because it stands outside and observes the subculture, thus missing the exhaustive submersion that characterized Jennie Livingston's film. Also, I think it's trying too hard to be a document of uplift and positivity to the extent that there don't seem to be any rough edges to ghetto life; sure, some people get shot every now and then, and maybe a couple houses get broken into, but as long as we can dance everything is fine! Still, the scenes where its participants perform for the camera (or for anyone who happens to be watching) are undeniably exhilarating, and despite my curmudgeonly kvetching it is pretty uplifting. Great, propulsive soundtrack, too.

Grade: B-
Last Days (2005)

Gus Van Sant's latest slice of minimalistic morbidity is, at heart, a shell of a movie about a shell of a man. I respect Van Sant's resistance to offering explanations, but his adherence to purity-of-form sinks this just like it sank Elephant. (Maybe that's why Gerry works -- its divorcement from any form of explainable reality worked to the advantage of the no-explanation aesthetic.) Let's face it: basing your film around a sullen enigma like Blake-not-Kurt is bound to suck the marrow from it. Besides the nothing that is Blake, there's also the vomitous hangers-on that keep intruding on the (non)narrative -- their obnoxious presence fowls any scene in which they appear. I understand that Van Sant is trying to deglamorize the idea of rock-star-death (or something like that), and his director's eye still manages to eke out a couple interesting moments. In particular, there's a great bit near the end where Blake improvises a song that sounds like a ragged howl from somewhere deep within his soul that points to places the film could have gone if it evinced any interest in its subjects aside from figures in a tableaux. But alas, all this is is a long, slow march towards an inevitable death; what's particularly embarrassing is how Van Sant manages to screw up that slam-dunk ending in at least three different ways. I could quote Nirvana here, but I think I'd rather quote a different band out of Seattle: "So doctor, won't you pull the fucking plug? / Won't you cut the cord? / 'Cause you can't put the life back into this hospital ward." Might be time to abandon the minimalism, Gus.

Grade: C
Look at Me (2005)

Engaging drama about a zaftig young woman, her famous-author father, her music teacher and the teacher's aspiring-author husband. True to the title, it's about the very human urge to be noticed and even appreciated and the frustrations that can set in when this desire is thwarted. Well-observed, with a slew of fine performances (Jean-Pierre Bacri's study of fatherly insensitivity is a scream) and sturdy direction; some may complain that its pleasures are never more than modest, but I say in a year like this modest is better than nothing.

Grade: B
5 x 2 (2005)

It's like Scenes from a Marriage, only in reverse and with unlikeable ciphers in the leads instead of Ullman and Josephson. Francois Ozon's relationship drama gains nothing in context from being told the wrong way 'round, and too often it chooses to keep its characters' motivations ambiguous, thus robbing us of any reason to actually give a flying shit about these people. Then again, I'm not even that big a fan of Pinter's Betrayal (another of this film's obvious inspirations). So what do I know, etc. etc.

Grade: C
dot the i (2005)

This is what happens when you watch too many movies. Neophyte director Matthew Parkhill apparently wasn't content with concocting a reasonably entertaining story about a dangerous love triangle; instead, he decided to prove he could out-clever all the other Clever Jeffs in Hollywood, and in doing so he sacrificed almost everything that worked about the film. Admittedly, I knew the big twist going in, so I wasn't as irritated as I probably would have been seeing this cold, but there's still something aggravating about a filmmaker with this level of contempt for his audience. Gael Garcia Bernal deserves mention for sounding completely comfortable with the English language and giving an accomplished performance, especially after he read the script and realized his efforts would be wasted on a shell game such as this. I guess it's an effective calling-card film, but it could have been more and were I a Hollywood executive, I wouldn't trust a filmmaker who would so eagerly shoot his own film in the head just to garner a little attention.

Grade: C
Naked (1993)

Corrosive slab of misanthropy, with David Thewlis giving a career-defining performance as the hyperintelligent, hyperhateful Johnny. Thewlis goes a long way to keep this from feeling wearying, but what really makes it transcend to the realms of indispensibility is the way director Mike Leigh contextualizes Johnny's viciousness, so his initially aimless vitriol comes with a social and emotional construct. Johnny may be a bastard, but there's a buried sense of self-awareness that lends a pathetic edge to his rantings: He tears people apart with his words, but he needs people to hear those words anyway. He seeks out that which he hates, presumably as an extension of his own self-loathing, and it makes the character queasily fascinating. There's also a political dimension, as Johnny's low-class misanthropy is contrasted with the significantly colder manipulations of Jeremy the landlord. Johnny's actions put one in mind of George Carlin's proclamtion that he doesn't hate mankind, he's just disappointed by it; however, Jeremy's actions show no such tempering. (The message seems to be that the heartless brand of government created by Thatcherism breeds this kind of mindset on both sides of the social ladder, with the rich fucking everyone because they can and the poor fucking themselves and each other because there's nobody else they can fuck.) Bracing, compelling, devastating, possessed of some of the best acting you'll see anywhere... this film is truly amazing.

Grade: A
Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965)

There are weird films, and then there are weird films... and then there's this. Basically what we have here is George and Mike Kuchar, underground filmmakers extraordinaire, using the trappings of pornography to reinvent cinema as they see fit. It's a softcore-scifi flick filtered through experimental cinema and silent melodrama, given an extra-grungy NYC-underground sheen and garnished with more what-the-fuck moments than a Farrah Fawcett interview. (Guy Maddin probably really, really likes this film.) Your mileage may vary, but I found something inescapeably joyful and amazing in all this -- it's like these guys just up and created their own language in which to speak, and it's beautiful. Crazed no-budget art cinema at its best.

Grade: A
How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck... (1976)

Thin documentary by Werner Herzog about cattle auctioneers. It does fit neatly into his studies of obsession -- here, it's less about individual obsession and more about group obsession, with the reverential treatment of the auctioneers speaking to the values of an entire culture based around cattle sales. Plus, there's something to be said for the Western obsession with competition and rankings; I mean, it's amazing enough that there are auctioneer competitions, but how the hell do you judge one better than another? They all kinda sound the same to me. Therein lies the film's main problem: While there's a certain auditory fascination in listening to the cadences of the auctioneers, there needs to be more than that. Twenty uninterrupted minutes of watching auctioneers ply their trade is a bit much by my count, thanks, and Herzog's sit-back-and-let-the-camera-tell-the-story style doesn't reveal anything here, just as his voiceover is curiously useless. In other words, not top-drawer Herzog.

Grade: C+
Curse of the Alpha Stone (1972)

There was so much anti-promise in this film's first half that I had it pegged as the crackpot alternative "classic" I'd heard it to be. Terrible acting (the lead can't even hang up a telephone properly), silly attempts at scientific dialogue, incompetent direction and a lunatic premise that looks forward to early Cronenberg... what's not to love? A lot, apparently; the later stages of the film refuse to soar like they should, and the film drowns itself in dialogue as it collapses into just another crappy obscurity best left unmade. So much time was spent setting up the premise (a guy creates a philosopher's stone that turns people into sex maniacs) that much of the deranged invention is exhausted by the time things start to happen. There's still some goofy touches to be had (the smoking vagina was impressively stupid) and a memorably abrupt ending (the director ran out of film!), but there's better (read: worse) stuff out there.

Grade: D+
The Pornographers (1966)

Not as dislikeable as the only other Imamura I've seen (the repetitive, wildly overrated Warm Water Under a Red Bridge), but this still didn't do it for me. There's a lot of good stuff here, and Imamura certainly has an impressive talent for visuals (all the more so because his visual style doesn't call attention to itself). I can't quite put my finger on why this struck me as dissatisfying -- I think maybe it's too aimless and hermetic to fully resonate with me. Also, it seemed to alternate between scenes that were darkly funny and ones that were simply jejune and underthought. Intellectually, I can dig it, but watching it just made me restless. I will probably give this another shot some time down the line, but it'll be a while. Fun Fact: I would wager that Tsai Ming-Liang swiped this film's carp/husband for What Time is it There?

Grade: C+
Sonny Boy (1990)

Robert Martin Carroll's magnum sleazus lets you know exactly what you're in for within its first hyperbolic ten minutes: A billy-goat-bearded and widow's-peaked Brad Dourif attempts to pawn off a stolen baby onto a snarling Paul L. Smith, and just as Smith gets ready to let Dourif know in no uncertain terms that he's not interested, Smith's wife walks out and claims the kid as her own. Here's the thing, though: The wife is played, with a completely straight face, by David Carradine. It's here that this movie reveals that it's clearly derived from sensibilities far different than the usual low-budget fare, and we haven't even begun. The subsequent feature that follows this set-up is dark, mean and severely whacked-out, as the baby is raised to be a mute savage who avenges wrongs done to his "father" (who runs a little Nevada desert town like a refugee from a spaghetti Western). And then just when you think you know where the story is going... you don't. I don't want to say much more about this, as you all should experience this sick little beaut for yourselves. It's rough and uncompromising, it's bleakly funny and it's possibly unlike anything else you'll ever see. And it's got David Carradine in a fucking dress.

Grade: B+
Hitch-Hike (1977)

A prime example of misanthropic Italian '70s cinema about an unhappy couple who pick up a hitchhiker; considering that the hitchhiker is portrayed by David Hess (of Last House on the Left fame), you can probably imagine the places this film eventually goes. It's often reminiscent of Mario Bava's scorching, underseen Rabid Dogs, and while it doesn't pack quite the kick of that film (which, BTW, has the best ending ever), it's still pretty nasty. The farther down the road it goes, the sharper its teeth get, so by the film's end it's perched on your chest and tearing your throat away. Recommended for anyone with an interest in '70s grindhouse fare.

Grade: B