Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Secuestro Express (2005)

This film is unwatchable. When I say that, I don't mean that it's a bad film (though it certainly is that). I mean that the visual quality of the filmmaking is such that the act of looking at the film hurts the eyes. This may be the most ineptly directed film I've seen since 2001's Inbred Rednecks, and at least that film didn't look like it was trying to be good. The story in front of the camera is pretty terrible as well. It involves a kidnapping/hijacking in Venenzuela, which is all well and good, except that this film doesn't do anything that I haven't already seen in a number of '70s grindhouse features. The main difference between this and something like, say, Hitch-Hike is that the latter is a lurid thriller into which thematic worth gradually creeps, intentionally or not, while Secuestro Express lays all its social-commentary cards out right at the beginning. The film's setup is explicitly classist, and the opening scenes promise some subversion of the class roles that never comes. Everyone stays rigidly wedded to the character traits that the opening captions give them, and the film's aspirations at social commentary in the face of its cardboard characters is kind of laughable. Moreover, the attempts at adding meaning to this trashy story sap the brute power of the situation. The film tries so hard to shock its audience, but the real deal never sweated the shock -- the shock just happened. It's fairly embarrassing, then, to note that writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz cared enough to try and invest his narrative with meaning but not enough to frame his fucking shots correctly. The handheld DV cinematography is ugly enough (the whole film looks like it was filmed through a dirty windshield), but Jakubowicz further sabotages matters by unerringly making sure that nobody is ever properly photographed. (There's more half-faces and closeups of eyeballs here than a month's worth of pan-and-scan HBO.) What's more, he can't even keep the goddamn camera in focus much of the time. He tries fancy camera moves and editing tricks to make his film look more professional, but all that comes out of it is a vague feeling that he's ripping off City of God. For God's sake, people shouldn't attempt a split-screen montage until they've figured out how to conform to the basic grammar of cinema. I watched The Candy Snatchers on a second-generation video bootleg, and it still looked better than this. There's an idea: If you ever get the urge to watch this, pick up The Candy Snatchers instead. Subversive Cinema just put out a DVD of it, so you don't have to go through certain channels anymore.

Grade: F
Weekend (1967)

I really wish I liked this movie. When I say that, I mean not to imply that I should dig it just 'cause it's a classic and I should be down with all the cool kids 'n' shit. No, what I mean is that I wish I liked this film because, for the first two-thirds of it, it's one of the most compelling visions of societal breakdown I've seen. Jean-Luc Godard, in his disgust at the state of things circa '67, shows us his view of the scorched-earth endgame result of uncontrolled capitalism. He's envisioned a society where everything is being wrecked and the only form of social interaction is hosility. The famed traffic-jam sequence (as spellbinding a feat of filmmaking as anyone's ever conceived) is only the begining of the breakdown. Devotion to materialism has curdled the soul of the world; we can see this by how it has curdled the souls of our protagonists. Note, for instance, the early scene in which the "exterminating angel" ("Even God has his police") tells the travelling couple that he can give them anything they want, and they respond with requests for material goods. (Note, also, the reference to Luis Bunuel's earlier, far more brilliant castigation of upper-class corruption.) Later, the couple runs across a woman who has climbed out of a wrecked car and cries not for her injuries but for the destruction of her handbag. Still later, they encounter a peaceable couple in a forest who declaim "If they buy knowledge, it is only to resell it." (The scene in the forest reminds me of a line from Bill Hicks, another uncompromising satirist: "Maybe we left the Garden too soon.") As Our Heroes (?) move on, the film gets more caustic and more absurd, and therein lies the problem: It's impressive that the film is unafraid to indulge in absurdity and surrealism to make its points, but the fundamental anger behind that absurdity starts to feel all-consuming the longer the film goes. The tough, inflammatory rhetoric begins to fall on ears numbed by too-muchness. (This is the cinematic equivalent of someone screaming in your face for two hours.) Also, Godard seemingly begins to mistrust his audience's intelligence and overstates himself. It's one thing to give us a quick shot of the protagonists mingling in a flock of sheep, but it's quite another to stop the film cold and give us a history lecture (as Godard does here right before the film's so-what climax). Godard's technical know-how is, as always, astonishing, and I think this is a valuable film. However, it allows itself to be torn to shreds by its own anger, and I can't abide by that.

Grade: C+
Jules and Jim (1962)

I'm sure all cinephiles have movies like this, and it scares the dickens out of them to admit it when it happens. But here goes: This film, generally regarded as one of François Truffaut's finest films, makes no sense to me. I don't mean I couldn't follow the plot -- I mean I haven't any idea what Truffaut was trying to do with the film. I heard the dialogue, I read the subtitles, I payed attention to the characters, and I got nothing. The subtitles might as well have been in Sanskrit for all the good they did me. Jules and Jim is about and set in a world that, for whatever reason, is completely alien to me. (Surely the message here can't be "Women are psycho bitches," can it?) Maybe I'll take another look at this film down the road to see if I can parse anything from it. But right now, it just sits in my memory like a boulder, defying me to scratch out something worth saying. Sorry. Maybe the problem is with me.

Grade: C+
Manic (2003)

Aaah, hell. I was so set to give this a glowing recommendation, despite its inclusion of several things that generally annoy me. Therapy movies are hit-and-miss with me, but this remains compelling because it doesn't subscribe to the idea that once the one big traumatic experience is dealt with then everything gets better. (Like Don Cheadle says, "It's not gonna be all pizzas and blowjobs.") These kids are fucked-up, and most likely they are going to be fucked-up for some time. In this light, the shaky DV camera work, rather than detracting, actually adds to the experience -- it makes the whole film feel one step away from total nervous collapse. And the fine character crafting from all parties (especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt, my new favorite young actor) drags the film past some potential pitfall spots. (The one scene in particular that should be embarassing -- the impromptu mosh to The Deftones' "Headup" -- in fact works perfectly, because it's both viewed within the film and expressed by the actors not as hostility or danger but as catharsis.) For about an hour and ten minutes, it feels honest and true, even if at its base it's merely aping dozens of other films. What goes up must come down, though, and what goes so right for the film's first two-thirds falls totally apart in the final third. The melodrama gets too thick to be navigated (the scene with the knife was ill-advised) and the film gets unsure of where to walk, leading up to one of those running-man endings that does nothing other than prove that the director has seen The 400 Blows. Most damagingly, the careful symbolism that had been placed within the mise-en-scene curdles into heavy-handedness. It's one thing to show a brief shot of a character reading "The Myth of Sisyphus"; it's quite another to have two characters explicitly debate the meaning of a Van Gogh painting and then have that painting turn up twice in the last half-hour. Yes, we understand, now could you get out of the way and let us watch the movie? Thanks.

Grade: C+

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Munich (2005)

This would make a fine double feature with A Short Film About Killing, and Spielberg seems to subscribe to the quote about Cain as much as Kieslowski. It's a strong and mature work that finds Spielberg trafficking in weighty moral issues without clear answers. To his credit, he doesn't pretend to offer solutions; indeed, the main idea one goes away with is that there is no solution to be found and the cycle of revenge will continue to perpetuate itself. The film occasionally threatens to buckle underneath the weight of its issues, but thankfully it never does. Credit this to the strong shoulders of the international ensemble cast (nice to see Mathieu Amalric in something not directed by Arnaud Desplechin) and the careful direction of Spielberg. The latter, for the most part, appears to have left most of his more commercial failings elsewhere for this film (read: the father-issues that overwhelm most of Spielberg's work are tangential here). He does overshoot a couple of targets -- in particular, one already-infamous montage (which, in honor of Tom Tomorrow, I will call "anagrams onward!") should have been cut, or at least seriously rethought -- but he's mostly confined his more bombastic instincts to the violent scenes that pepper the film. The violence here is gruesome, confused and unpleasant, which is of course as it should be. The handling of the assassination scenes, though, speaks to one of the film's major themes -- in the chaotic attempts at leveling, we can see the miasma of ideology at work. Pointedly, the least soul-sick participant in the film is Amalric, who works only for money and at one point calls himself "ideologically promiscuous." Any attempt here to stick to one's guns leads to disaster. As Golda Meir says in the film, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values"; the problem here is that the wrong compromises are being made. As the film winds on and guilt and paranoia take hold, it becomes clear that all the bloodshed and violence come from a simple impulse, that of wanting a place to call home. Eric Bana's Avner meets an articulate, angry Palestinean who talks about his people as a people displaced, without anywhere to go; meanwhile, Bana's mother talks about the glory of Israel as a place (the only place) to be "a Jew among Jews." The end of the film, though, has Bana not in Israel but fleeing to New York. In trying to secure a home for his countrymen, he has sacrificed his own. And if we understand "home" to mean a concept that confers a sense of safety and comfort, then he has been unable to secure that for anyone else. So what's the answer? Where is home? Where, indeed.

Grade: B
A Short Film About Killing (1988)

This film sees Krzysztof Kieslowski expanding one of the better episodes of The Decalogue into feature length, and I don't know if it's just the larger canvas or the higher production values, but what was solid and thought-provoking at one hour becomes a devastating masterpiece at eighty-five. Clearly, the fact that it looks like a movie now and not a television show helps, but that doesn't quite cover it. Where the television version looked squalid, Kieslowski and his cinematographer have re-envisioned this work for the big screen so that Warsaw looks like the kind of hellish place where senseless acts of violence happen every day -- it is, in essence, a dead city rendered in sepia and shadows. And so ugly things do happen, including a disturbing midfilm sequence which means to show exactly how resilient against dying the human body is. Contrast, though, that brutish murder with the sterile closing execution -- killing isn't easy for an individual, but for an institution it's no more difficult than raising taxes. The lawyer who becomes the focus of the film's second half becomes burdened with the weight of moral responsibility, as does the increasingly-sympathetic killer (note the timing of his story about the tractor accident -- it's obvious that he still feels some semblance of moral failure over it, and whether or not it informs his actions in the film, it demonstrates that he still retains an essence of humanity); the state has no such compunctions. This, then, becomes the thrust of Kieslowski's argument: If we are to believe that killing is wrong, then should it not be wrong in all cases, capital punishment included? At his interview, the young lawyer says, "Since Cain, no punishment has been capable of improving the world." Kieslowski, on all evidence, agrees.

Grade: A
Atomic War Bride (1960)

"They say it's a small world nowadays -- everybody moves around, planes and boats and trains help the whole world to make friends. Only it's no use. It doesn't do any good." With that line of dialogue about twenty minutes in, it becomes clear that this movie is not to be taken lightly. Up to that point, the film is an odd blend of light human drama and dark political satire. It involved a young man who is about to head across town to get married when he hears that his country has gone to war with another country and preparations are to be made to ensure the survival of the population. The film then alternates between scenes with this earnest doofus trying to resume normal life in the face of impending chaos with glimpses of the coming storm (like a scene where a cabbie taking the young man across town gets stopped by a military parade and arrested for making anti-war statements). But then, as the wedding commences, enemy bombs start falling on his town and the film gets down to business. The light tone of the early scenes falls away with the bombs, and what remains is an absurdist satire that revels in pointing out the psychosis and confusion inherent in the war machine. (Defining exchange between the young man and his lady as he's unwillingly spirited away to join the army: "Write to me!" "Where?" "I don't know!") The Eastern European cinematic tradition of laughing in the face of horror is much in evidence here, as the film shows us one exaggerated lunacy after another (the camoflauge training sequence is so inexplicable that it might not be a joke at all), but underneath the gallows humor is not only anger but fear -- fear that the Atomic Age will be man's last, and fear that our leaders may not be looking out for us or even care about us. Technically, it's very rough, and it's not helped by the poor English dubbing which occasionally works at cross purposes to the film. Those weaknesses reduce its sucker-punch force not one whit. Kind of amazing that this radically anti-establishment film could have leaked out of the Eastern Bloc at this time in history, but we're better off for it.

Grade: B
Ride Lonesome (1959)

It's a sad statement when sturdy acting and strong, professional direction can't keep a film from feeling like a retread, but so it goes with this Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Western. This was the fifth of seven films they made together between 1956 and 1960, and it touches on a lot of the same themes as its predecessors (three of which I've seen -- Seven Men from Now, The Tall T and Decision at Sundown). The trouble is, those previous films covered that thematic ground (the meaning of manhood, the dividing line between good and evil, the cost of obsessive revenge, the psychic toll of loneliness set against the endless horizon of the West) about as well as it's ever going to be covered. Everyone here tries hard (Boetticher, Scott, writer Burt Kennedy, the supporting cast), but no amount of effort can keep this from feeling second-hand. About the only noteworthy thing about this film, besides the great support from James Coburn and Pernell Roberts, is how much of a man's-man movie this really is -- I wonder what the hell Karen Steele is doing in this film besides pissing off the Indians in a useless, time-padding subplot. The ending is strong.

Grade: C+

Friday, January 27, 2006

The White Diamond (2005)

Moving portrait of a man obsessed (more Woodcarver Steiner than Grizzly Man) from suddenly-ubiquitous filmmaker Werner Herzog. The film is ostensibly about airship constructor Graham Dorrington, driven by a dark past event to build his ships (the scene where he stares into the camera and relates that event is a heartbreaker). Imperceptibly, though, Herzog shifts the focus so that the film eventually ends up about Dorrington's surroundings as much as Dorrington himself. There's the contrast: Dorrington, outwardly jovial, is forever on the edge of falling to pieces, while the rain forest around him is serene and unchanging. It always has been and always will be -- the river will run, the waterfall will pour, and the birds will always hide behind it. When the two elements (Dorrington and nature) finally mesh, it's majestic. Exquisitely filmed and undeniably triumphant, yet nature remains implacable (this shares a bit more ground with Grizzly Man than it first appears).

Grade: A-
À tout de suite (2005)

This puts me in mind of Techine's Strayed in that there's nothing wrong with it except that it's staked out territory on well-trod ground and doesn't bring anything new to the table. Strayed, though, at least had the advantage of my beloved Emmanuelle Beart. This film has some cheerfully bland blond who I think I last saw in the similarly unnecessary Girls Can't Swim. It coasts for a while on the strength of its crisp, intimate cinematography, but overlength and underinspiration eventually turn it into a chore. There's some material that paints money as a social equalizer (the two girls, both bourgeoisie, note that they never expected to hang out with "guys like this," i.e. crooks), but that attempt at meaning dries up in the film's last half hour, where it struggles towards some kind of epiphany that remains stubbornly out of its reach. You've seen better, trust me.

Grade: C
The Tune (1992)

Overextended animated feature about a dude looking for a hit song, which naturally leads to many musical interludes. Like any Bill Plympton work, this has its moments; unfortunately, most of the best moments here are replays from earlier short films (specifically Push Comes to Shove and The Wiseman). That's exactly what it feels like, actually: a bunch of shorts strung together with a really lame framing device. Pacing sucks too. At least it's only 70 minutes, and Plympton's low-tech, high-imagination drawing style always strikes me as charming.

Grade: C

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Match Point (2005)

I think the luck stuff in this, the first good film from Woody Allen since 1999's Sweet and Lowdown, is mostly a red herring. The film seems to take as its credo "I'd rather be lucky than good" -- but then, seems is the correct word, because there's no luck involved in the outcome here. It's class, not luck, that leads us to the ending we get. Woody often deals in class issues, but rarely so baldly as he does here (the only one that comes close is Small Time Crooks, and who really gives a fig about that film?). As the film opens, Jonathan Rhys-Myers and Scarlett Johansson are outsiders in the British upper-class (Johansson doubly so, being an American). Rhys-Myers tries to insinuate himself into the upper class while hanging on to vestiges of his lower-class life (thus, the affair with Johansson), but the schism is ultimately irreconcilable. He's forced to choose on which side of the net he wants his ball to fall, and seeing as how wealth is portrayed here as a spiritual and social black hole, it's not too difficult to see where he'll choose to align himself. But that's the thing -- even as you know where the film is going, it still manages to surprise. I credit a lot of this to the evolution of Rhys-Myers's character -- if you're watching carefully, it's a corruption in stages. The performance, too, evolves with the film. Awkward at first, Rhys-Meyers becomes more natural and more accomplished the more accustomed to wealth his character becomes. There's a certain dry wit borne of frustration and impotence to the film's early stages, but that, like Rhys-Myers's moral compass, falls away. It builds and builds to a great final scene, where a celebration feels funereal given what we know. Some see guilt at the end; I see coldness, which is, in my eyes, even darker. Easily Woody's best in a long, long while.

[Full disclosure: I have not seen Crimes and Misdemeanors.]

Grade: B+
Havoc (2005)

Sometimes, life works in funny ways. I could explain to you how bad this film is. I could tell you that it's basically James Toback's Black & White (down to the inclusion of Bijou Phillips) except even dumber. I could tell you that the film, in attempting to address the inauthenticity of white "street" culture, gets swallowed up by that same inauthenticity. I could tell you that it wouldn't know subtle if it got a subtlety colonic. I could tell you that there are gruesome segments of the film in which Anne Hathaway tries to act like a wigger. But the film pulls its own review out of itself about half an hour into the film, and thus I turn over the floor to Alexis Dziena. What do you have to say, Alexis? "Okay, you know what? I for one would just like to voice an opinion. This is crazy wack. I just had to say that." Thanks for being honest, Alexis! In all fairness, there is one reason and one reason only to see this, and it's not Anne Hathaway's tits. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in this, and more than his performances in Mysterious Skin or Manic, he proves once and for all that he is this generation's Marlon Brando. It's not because he's good in this film; actually, his performance is embarrassingly silly. But that's exactly it -- like Brando, Gordon-Levitt demonstrates here that he is entirely unafraid of giving ludicrous performances. His intensity and conviction know no bounds, he has little to no sense of shame and he'll try just about anything if he thinks it might offer some entertainment. His future will be impressive, since he's already demonstrated that even in bad films he can be riveting. Heed the advice of Alexis, but just remember that Joseph tried to help a bit.

Grade: D-
Bullet Ballet (1998)

I grudgingly respect Shinya Tsuskamoto for following his muse, for attempting to create "pure" cinema and tell stories through images and montage rather than dialogue. At this point, though, I have to wonder what separates his mechanical constructs from those of, say, Michael Bay. This film, I think, follows a guy whose girlfriend has shot herself and who has become obsessed with owning a gun and keeps running afoul of some punked-out street gang. Beyond that, I don't know much, because Tsukamoto can't find a way to make his images mean anything. Maybe this is a deeply personal film for Tsukamoto (I've read, somewhere, a defense of the film claiming that it's a visualization of extreme depression amid an alienating landscape), but more likely it's just empty posturing. By now, I know how punk you can be. I know how quickly you can edit a film. I know how heavily you can stylize an image, occasionally to great effect. I know you're fascinated by the idea that modern life robs one's soul. But to get that point across, Shinya, it helps if you make films that have souls, rather than the incoherent noisemakers you seem to keep churning out. Maybe one day Tsukamoto will figure out what it is he wants to say and just come out and fucking say it. Wake me when that happens.

Grade: D+
The Blob (1958)

It's just silly enough to be endearing. Pretty standard sci-fi/monster-movie entry for the period is just as gawky and stiff as its teenage protagonists (who are probably the most clean-cut rebels in screen history), but the low-budget hijinx prove to allow plenty of room for undemanding entertainment. We know the big beastie (basically a carnivorous pile of Jell-O) will get rowdy and chomp some minor (read: adult) characters, we know the police will be slow to act, we know the young protagonists will prove heroic and save the day and we know that no real major characters or kids will catch their lunch. What matters is how the film works within that formula, and this film does all right. It's nice to note that the cops in this film have a friendly captain who tries to believes Steve McQueen, thus balancing out the stock abrasive skeptic (who, it must be noted, is of inferior rank); it's also nice to note that the filmmakers do try to make their ludicrous monster genuinely dangerous and almost succeed. That they don't do more to surprise the audience is a shame (more radical advances lay in the memorably nasty '80s remake), but their film is agreeable enough, if still unavoidably cheesy.

Grade: C+
Crawlspace (1986)

Landlord Klaus Kinski goes batty and terrorizes his tenants in this sicko psycho flick. (Kinski? Psycho? Who woulda figured?) Klaus is really the only reason to see this, as his creepy German countenance makes for a perfectly compelling slasher-movie villain, but overall it's not bad. Not only does it have a surprisingly low-key turn from Kinski (at least until the berserk climax, at which point he puts on makeup, watches footage of Hitler and shouts "Heil me!"), it's got the same slick production values and dark humor as Charles Band's other productions of this era (Re-Animator and From Beyond, for example). It's trash, but it's done with energy and panache; the inclusion of the Nazi material is a bit overtasteless, though.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

I find myself inexplicably flummoxed in attempting to craft a proper review of this film. Usually when this happens (i.e. A History of Violence, Barton Fink, Resurrection of the Little Match Girl), it's because there's so much going on within the film's guts that I have trouble sorting it out. Here, though, my attempts to dig into the film are stymied because, as part of its modus operandi, it's laid everything out in the open. It's a strong, sober and careful film, and part of that means that the point of the film is clear without being overwrought. The irony, of course, is that this stark film which so readily bares itself is about the price of emotional internalization. But then, that's obvious. I'm not telling anything that can't be understood even at a cursory glance. So I can praise the acting, which is uniformly excellent, especially from Heath Ledger who is entirely deserving of every accolade tossed his way. (When the facade cracks, like his breakdown in the alley or his reaction to the postcard in the closet, it's wrenching.) I can praise the pacing -- rare is the film that manages to so gracefully constrict the passing of time using mostly visual cues and the occasional offhand line of dialogue. I can praise the gorgeous cinematography, and I can praise Ang Lee's sure-handed direction. I can praise the editing and the costumes and the score... hell, everything is praiseworthy. But insight is not something I can offer. This may sound like a critique, but it's not. It's actually kind of refreshing -- the film simply exists as it is, and that's all it needs to be. Beautiful stuff.

Grade: B+
Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (2005)

Gonna hafta echo the same criticism as everyone else, it seems, which is: Standup very funny, staged scenes not so much. The dividing line is whether or not the film provides enough humor to your liking even with the structural problems. And for me, it was quite funny enough to forgive the flights into pointless execreble taste (the porn-star song, for example). Silverman has a sharp and scaborous wit that gets enhanced by her li'l-ol'-me delivery (it's like she doesn't realize what she's saying), which could either be a tonic for making some of the harsher stuff go down easier or a lashing sort of self-satire that implicitly asks the audience, "What kind of thoughtless person would say stuff like this?" In other words, is Silverman interrogating her persona even as she inhabits it, or is she just being naughty? I lean towards the former (her act is too aware of itself to just be aimless vulgarism), which brings up another question: Does this then become legitimate social satire, or is it still just a bunch of truly tasteless jokes(TM) even with the veneer of self-satire? Again, I lean towards the former, but your mileage may vary. Then again, all humor is subjective, right? Short version: I dug this more than Jews love money.

Grade: B
The Comedians of Comedy (2005)

A ramshackle and chaotic film and a complete disaster as a documentary. If it weren't also pretty damn funny, it'd be worthless. Funny it is, though, and with the people involved, how could it not be? (Full disclosure: I think Patton Oswalt is one of the funniest men alive, so maybe I was predisposed to liking this.) Zach Galifianakis is this group's wild card, and it's right about the time he shows up that the film falls apart from a cinematic standpoint; of course, it's also when the humor level gets ratcheted up, so it's a reasonable tradeoff. He seems to be more into conceptual humor than the others (so much so that one wonders if his last scene isn't actually some Andy Kaufman-style prank on the audience), and Maria Bamford kind of disappears once he shows up which I guess is unfair and indicative of the boy's-club mentality of the standup circuit, but then I don't find Bamford particularly funny, so it's not like I minded.

Grade: B-
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)

This frenetic farce from Preston Sturges seems to have lost something through the years, or maybe it's just me. Much like Hail the Conquering Hero, this film takes its cues from nervous-nelly leading man Eddie Bracken, and for me at least, it makes the film grating. Sturges's films are generally so lightning-fast that they seem pitched on the edge of hysteria anyway; adding a character who is permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown makes everything too jittery by half. William Demarest plays a welcome gruff respite from the high-pitched hijinx, but even he can't save a laborious setpiece near the end where he has to convince Bracken to assault him. The last twenty minutes are unmistakably top-drawer Sturges (brilliant use of montage to build humor, plus jokes involving Hitler and Mussolini), and the rest of it does have fine moments (only Sturges could get away with naming a character Kockenlocker in the '40s), but mostly it's more daring than funny.

Grade: C+
This is Not a Test (1962)

Tedious, talky atomic drama. The limited production values and stiff acting fairly shout "television," and whadaya know -- the end credits reveal this to be financed by a TV-movie company. Gets points for not wimping out on the end, which must have been a hell of a shock in 1962, but there's only so much bickering I can take before I start tuning out. Sorry buds.

Grade: C

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Hostel (2006)

It's a slight step up from Cabin Fever, at least, although you'd probably have to watch this to see how little that means. On the evidence of his two completed films, Eli Roth has some talent with a camera but has no intellectual heft to add to his films -- he's a mimic, pure and simple. He's the horror fanboy blown up large. Here he's explicitly aping the extremism of Japanese genre cinema (a la Takashi Miike, who gets a cred-confirming cameo here), but he steals scenes and ideas without putting his own stamp on them, probably because he has none. (When exec producer Quentin Tarantino visually quotes, say, Sergio Leone in Kill Bill, Vol. 2, it still manages to feel like a Tarantino film; when Roth quotes the opening scene from Suicide Club late in this film, it just feels like some guy showing off that he's seen this super awesome movie and like wow man this scene was soooooo cool.) Thus, the film he's crafted offers some visceral thrills for gorehounds but little else. I give Roth credit for replacing the irritating hick humor of Cabin with acrid black laughs (the "dos dedos, mis amigos" scene is almost worth the price of admission on its own -- you have to wonder why nobody else thought of it before). But there's only so far you can go with extreme content before it starts to look like a smoke-and-mirrors act. Escapism is fun and all, but it'd be nice if Roth had a fucking point. But he doesn't, so we twiddle our thumbs and wait for the next gruesome dispatching. All he had to do, really, was end on a freeze-frame during the closing bathroom scene like Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, and then a case could be made retroactively for the film being about man's innate savagery and the psychic toll of violence and all those other themes that high-minded horror fans (myself included) use to justify their enjoyment (?) of frankly nasty films. But Roth's not that canny or ambitious, so he ends up with just another meat movie. Not that I have anything against meat movies. Between this, Wolf Creek and The Devil's Rejects, the meat movie seems to be making a comeback, and I'm kinda glad. The hit-to-miss ratio of the mentioned films, though, just seems to prove something most horror fans already know: Generally, about two out of every three meat movies aren't very good.

Grade: C+
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Hey, it's funny. What more do you want? I'll admit there's a certain level of contrivance involved which occasionally deflates a setpiece (the scene with the drunk chick was kinda lame), but mostly this film is funny. This is likely because the writers have given us actual characters instead of comedic constructs, which shouldn't seem like a revolutionary concept but then that's the state of American comedy these days. True to Judd Apatow's resume, he and his collaborators have payed as much attention to the human element as they have to the jokes, which makes the film feel like it has a bit more weight and believability and robs it of disposability. (The running stream of gay jokes, in this context, is well-handled -- it's cast as harmless guy banter without any actual homophobia involved.) This makes the film feel remarkably warm and friendly for a smutcom -- it's the kind of film you could imagine hanging out with at a bar. The acting helps, too: Steve Carrell is excellent in his breakout role, and there's able support from Catherine Keener and the indispensible Paul Rudd. So yeah, it's funny. It's also just a little bit touching. (Pun decidedly not intended.)

Grade: B+
Seven Men from Now (1956)

Tough, compelling B-western starring Randolph Scott and his wounded pride. Scott plays a sheriff obsessed with hunting down seven bank robbers, and his dilemma provides the key to the film -- it's about what it means to be a man (check not only Scott's guilt but Walter Reed's befuddled impotence and his eventual attempt at "macho" redemption). The carefully constructed plot winds its way towards an inevitable confrontation, but when we get there it's not what we expect at all -- it's more ritualistic than cathartic. The ending, in this light, is rather sad and defeatist, with the surviving characters slinking away, tails between their legs, back to attempt a resumption of the lives they had before it was all blown apart. Scott's weather-beaten face suits his role perfectly; in fact, all the roles are pretty perfect in their casting, with a plum role for a young Lee Marvin as a bandit who takes up with Scott's party and may or may not be a bad guy. He savors every bit of the pungent dialogue given to him. (Listening to the dialogue here and in the other B-westerns I've seen, it is becoming clear to me that there isn't as much separation between the western and the film noir genre as it might seem.)

Grade: B+
Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973)

Unexpectedly strong finale to the long-running series features Zatoichi going back to his hometown in search of a place to rest for a while only to discover that with notoriety comes the sacrifice of any safe places. Continuing in the pessimistic vein of Zatoichi in Desperation, this is a stark and mournful entry that emphasizes Zatoichi's solitude by placing him on familiar ground so he may see how much he has lost via his way of life. He meets his sister in this episode, and his desire to finally be part of a family unit is contrasted with a group of young punks who take up with Ichi, having already formed their own quasi-family unit. For the first time in a long time with this series, we see genuine conflict stirred up as Ichi is forced to abandon the comforts he has attempted to buy into and move into action yet again, this time against an old friend who has ended up on the wrong side of morality. (The villain this time is not a Yakuza but a straight-up capitalist, which makes for a couple of interesting wrinkles.) The final battle offers more contrasts, as the tone shifts from moody to hyperviolent (there's that Lone Wolf and Cub influence peeking through again), and at the end Ichi is alone again... as he always will be.

Grade: B

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Producers (2005)

A clumsy, klutzy dud. I've been told the play is hilarious, but you wouldn't know it from the flat-footed film we have here. Everybody onscreen is trying as hard as they can, and that's part of the problem -- apparently, nobody realized that you don't need to play to the cheap seats on film and if you do you'll just look stupid (unless you're Nathan Lane, who may be the only man alive who could come as close as he does to the genius of Zero Mostel). Matthew Broderick, in particular, gives a capital-A Awful performance -- his stiff and soulless turn here suggests the robotic moves of an actor who has done a show several times too many and is simply running through the part for the Saturday matinee crowd. I don't generally care for Broderick, but even I recognize that he's better than this and Susan Strohman should have bloody said something. There lies the film's other major fault, though: If there's too much energy being expended onscreen, there's not nearly enough used up behind the camera. Strohman is content to point the camera and shoot the big musical numbers more or less exactly as they would appear on stage, which saps them of any verve (they're mere recreations as opposed to living cinematic things). She does get a bit more inventive during the written-just-for-the-film number "I Wanna Be a Producer", but even that comes off like a third-class ripoff of Busby Berkeley. It's a sad thing to realize that the film's most energetic number is "Springtime for Hitler", and that's because it's directed so closely to the original number from Mel Brooks's 1967 film that Strohman might as well have cut in footage from the earlier film. The film's low point, then, is the tacky "Keep it Gay" number, which must have seemed stale even on the boards but in this context looks like the most garish and ugly thing you've ever seen. And if that's not enough, there's a boot in the butt on the way out the door in the form of an insulting happy ending that ignores/inverts the film's entire premise. Hollywood, listen: No more cinematic adaptations of stage musicals unless either Baz Luhrmann or Julie Taymor is directing, 'kay?

Grade: C
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

First off, I'd like to say: Warren Oates! HELL YEAH!! Okay, now that that's out of the way... This is that rare breed of film -- a car-racing film that doesn't bore the crap out of me. This is likely because it's a movie about cars without being a Car Movie -- the automobiles are the means to the story, not the story itself. It's a story of contrast, with Dennis Wilson and James Taylor playing the mellow yin to Oates' jittery yang. Taylor and Wilson have a Zenlike inner calm that plays well off Oates' braggadocio -- essentially, it's framed as a struggle between the spiritual and the material. Oates's peripatetic malcontent genuinely seems to consider this a competition, while Taylor and Wilson are possessed of a great inner peace that seems to suggest consciousness on a higher plane (they couldn't really care less about the outcome, they just need to keep moving forward). There's also the dichotomy of involvement vs. detachment as played out in the various hitchhikers that float through the film (Taylor and Wilson keep Laurie Bird along for the ride but don't seem to need or even notice her much of the time, while Oates compulsively picks up people just to have someone who'll listen to him and thus make him feel wanted). Like most automobiles, it takes some time to warm up, but once it gets out on the open road it goes ninety to nothing towards a perfect ending. Also: this may be the only chance anyone will ever get to hear James Taylor say "motherfucker". Also: Warren Oates! HELL YEAH!! (Seriously, Oates is amazing in this film, using friendly torrents of often-conflicting dialogue to suggest deep spiritual turmoil. They should teach this performance in acting schools.)

Grade: B+
Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

Star/producer Shintaro Katsu took over the directing duties in an attempt to right the faltering series, and while the results may not be much better than most of the other entries of this period, it's at least darker. Katsu at this time was not only playing out the last of the Zatoichi films but was also producing the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and some of those film's grim fatalism seeps into Ichi's universe here. For much of the film, Zatoichi is relegated to the sidelines as he's paralyzed by guilt over an opening death and consumed with the desire to buy out a prositute's contract. He's shown as a flawed figure rather than a superhero -- Ichi has always been cast as an outsider, but Katsu amplifies that to where it defines Ichi's being. The problem with this approach is that, while interesting, it also robs the film of any kind of center, and the extreme lack of focus kills this. It's a strange and fascinating watch, filled with dark ironies (contrast the fate of the prostitute with that of the young girl and her brother, the real innocents); too bad that the darkest irony of all was Katsu's inability to save the series that saved him.

Grade: C+

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Wolf Creek (2005)

I appreciate any attempt to make a grim and gruesome horror film (violence is always most effective when treated seriously), but this Australian film falls short of success. Granted, it's not the film's fault that films like The Devil's Rejects and Land of the Dead have set the horror bar pretty high lately, but even without those films this grimy thing would feel superfluous. The "true story" angle that's been used as a selling point is eventually revealed as disingenous hucksterism, but that's relatively unimportant. What truly matters here (and what kills the film) is the anti-drama at its core. It's the Texas Chainsaw Massacre formula distilled down to its reductive essence. The plot unfolds like "kids get lost, some kids die, movie ends," and it's up to director Greg McLean to invest this with some kind of urgency; sadly, he never does. He's too busy filming scenery for his villain to chew up and making sure everything looks as perfectly composed as possible (even the "rough" shots feel studiously so) to bother creating any sort of tension. The hammy villainy of the outback killer feels too mythic and outsized for a small-scale grindhouse homage like this -- Rob Zombie can get away with it because he ratchets up the hyperbolic aspects of his films from the first frame, but John Jarratt's big nasty feels like a refugee from some other, more vicious film, thanks to McLean's adherence to low-key realism. Ultimately, I go to films like this to feel unsafe and unnerved. Horror cinema, at its basest level, is a cathartic way for us to face up to our darkest impulses and maybe understand them a little better. The fact that this film made me feel nothing other than an aesthetic appreciation for the cinematography is probably far more irresponsible than a film that could inspire either love or hatred.

Grade: C
Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989)

Well, there's a generous amount of nudity. Otherwise... wow, what crud. Released during the decline of first-wave slasher cinema when the MPAA was coming down hard on violent content, this was consequently cut pretty badly (check the IMDb to see just how drastically). The resulting film is bowdlerized junk, true, which leaves it with pretty much no reason to exist (a gore film with no gore? yecch!). But honestly, even uncut this film would stink like the Jersey shoreline. The chipper Angela of Part II has been replaced by an efficient-yet-sullen jokecracker. She's supposed to be in the Freddy Krueger vein, except Pamela Springsteen doesn't look like she's having any fun here (from the looks of her, I wouldn't be surprised if she did this film to support a smack habit), and the filmmakers' weak-kneed attempts to add a little pathos to the character don't help. It's also so '80s that it burns. There is, no kidding, a bit in this film where Angela raps. Ye gods. This film is an effective insomnia cure, but it isn't much else.

Grade: D
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)

What's all this nonsense about Tsui Hark self-destructing into incoherence post-Van Damme? This, one of his most celebrated films, is just as senseless and just as exciting as Time and Tide. You don't watch Hark for the plot -- you watch for the frenetic action and the dollops of whacked-out inventiveness, both of which this film has in excess. There's probably a pro-Communist subtext here (it's about individuality vs. working together and the need to sometimes subsume individual desires to further the greater good), but it's easily overlooked in favor of the film's delirious visuals. Visuals like the guy who uses his eyebrows as weapons. Or the guy who has tied himself up with giant chains so that he can maintain his guardpost at the twin entrances of Heaven and Hell. Or the giant blood-blob monster. Or the clash between multicolored armies that opens the film. Who cares if it doesn't make much sense -- it's a whole lotta fun.

Grade: B+
Mail Order Wife (2005)

An interesting satiric lark -- a mock-liberal-condescension documentary that spins itself out to be a slashing satire on the liberal-condescension impulse. In its favor, it has the language of documentaries down cold (better than most mock-docs, really), and the only the eventual absurdity of the plot betrays this as a sham. Otherwise, it's impressively straight-faced. A lot of credit for this goes to the actors, who inhabit their roles not as roles but as the real-life portrayals they should be. Eugenia Yuan is especially praiseworthy in this regard (the "pig" scene is a highlight). The film, also, is unafraid of being off-putting or uncomfortable, which is where much of the humor and the thematic weight comes from -- the "filmmaker" becomes obsessed with saving the title character from her unfortunate beau but can't see himself as the same kind of monster he's ostensibly fighting against. As it unspools, though, the plot gets increasingly loopy and the film becomes less of a commentary on narcissism within the documentary impulse and its relation to truth and more of a standard meta-movie. Not that meta-movie shenanigans aren't amusing, but there were more interesting things happening here than that. It feels like the filmmakers ran out of inspiration and didn't have the balls to craft the kind of non-ending this film deserved, so they started slinging in-jokes until they found a false non-ending. (Best in-joke: the featured presence of Huck Botko's parents.) Still pretty good, but the overt stalker-comedy of the last half-hour negates/deflates the edge-of-creepy darkness of the film's main body. Oh well.

Grade: B-

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Very much a writer's movie, for better and worse. On the upside, the careful attention to dramatic and character detail is impressive and results in a number of funny and/or lovely moments. Furthermore, it has enough confidence to show its characters behaving like unsympathetic jerks without fearing that the audience will lose sympathy for these people (the majority of the behavior is kept grounded in realistic situations). But alas, this is all building to some kind of larger meaning, as most writer-centric movies do, and the author is hellbent on making sure we don't miss that significance. The last half hour, then, replaces the delicacies of the first two acts with clunky symbols and elbow-in-the-ribs dialogue. (Just look at that title -- you don't have to spell everything out, Mr. Baumbach.) I still respect this film, and there's a lot of things I like about it. In particular, I was duly impressed with the way Baumbach handles the awkward, budding sexuality of his younger characters. Fumbling, uncomfortable and just over the line of lashing-out, it speaks to a certain understanding that Miranda July's spectacularly naive Me and You and Everyone We Know tried to demonstrate with little success. I was all prepared to love this for accurately capturing the sloppiness and confusion of life, especially teenage life; sadly, Baumbach pulled back the curtain and revealed his work to be entirely too tidy after all. P.S.: The acting is excellent.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A History of Violence (2005)

How appropriate that a film about deception should be so formally deceptive. What at first appears to be a quiet familial drama instead mutates (like all things eventually do in the world of David Cronenberg) into a carefully considered essay on violence, cinematic and otherwise. Cronenberg has outwardly abandoned the splattery transformation ethos that characterized his earlier works, but the hallmarks of his obsessions are still there -- he's working with internal evolution now instead of physical evolution. It's about the soul-destroying effects violent acts can have on a man and his life, and Cronenberg's got a hell of an ally here in Viggo Mortensen. Viggo starts off as the perfect family man and ends as quite something else, and his struggle between what he wants to be and what he is comes off beautifully. (Note the subtle shifting of his accent as the film proceeds, among other things.) The more drawn into the spiral of violence, the more conflicted he becomes, until that perfect final shot. (Best close-up of the year, bar none.) That final scene bespeaks to a subversion of typical Hollywood formula (Tom's revenge doesn't make everything all right), and this can be seen also in Cronenberg's envelope-pushing in terms of the depiction of the film's violent acts. Cronenberg has always been a clinical and effective director, and here he utilizes a spare, economical shooting style that exists to be shattered by the one-step-beyond gory inserts that show us what normally gets left out of other films. He's trying to show us the true effects of actions like this and the disruptions they can cause. And speaking of disruptions, it must be noted that the gangsters' disruption of Tom's life is based on, for them, completely justifiable reasons. Tom runs away to escape his past and get himself a piece of the American Dream, only to find it built on blood and frontier justice when his past comes after him. This here be some haunting shit, people.

Grade: A
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2006)

And here we have the virulent flipside to A History of Violence, a nasty and clumsy thing designed to make the audience feel good about abhorrently violent revenge. Park Chan-wook takes everything that was worthwhile about the previous two films in his makeshift "revenge trilogy" and blows it all to pieces, leaving bloody ragged chunks everywhere. Strange to think that this most controlled of South Korean genre directors would fall prey to the South Korean Tone Shift, but fall he does; this time around, Park can't decide if he's making a drama, a black comedy, a character piece or what. The tonal clashes damage the film he's trying to make to the point where I was asking myself if this is actually intended in seriousness (the useless scenes with the adpoted Australian parents are the worst offenders in this regard) -- and that's even before we get to the noxious and manipulative climax. Now, I know there's a lot of people who want to see this, so I'll avoid spoilers as best as I can even as I desperately would implore you to stay far away from this thing. But the ending to this film... wow. It brings up issues, very thorny issues, and then proceeds to trample all over them in an effort to sate its own bloodlust. It pays lip service to the kinds of things that were deeply considered in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy even as it defies those objections in every way, which to me seems like an especially rancid form of doublethink. The biggest cheap shot in this regard is the inclusion of the videotape. It's a queer MacGuffin, in that its true purpose is not to unite the people onscreen against a common enemy but to unite the sympathies of the audience towards the disagreeable actions of the characters. What was needed here was something like Fritz Lang's ending to M, and instead we get a group of righteous crusaders triumphing in a zero-sum game. What I'm trying to say is that I'm not buying what you're pushing, Mr. Park. You can go fuck yourself if you think this film says something about bloody revenge other than you believe that it's often justifiable.

Grade: D-

Monday, January 02, 2006

King Kong (2005)

Peter Jackson must have sold his soul at some point during the four or five years it took him to complete Bad Taste. How else to explain the extraordinary grace from which he moved from hyperactive gore-festooned cult icon into world-class A-level entertainer? You want magic? You want alchemy? Try this on: Jackson's remake of the classic 1933 monkeyshines movie, despite being over twice as long as its source, flows more evenly and is altogether a better film. (Yeah, I said it.) Deep down, Jackson's always been an exuberant popcorn director -- even during something like the 'pudding' scene in Dead Alive or the massacre that closes Meet the Feebles, there's a mad sense of daring and invention (as well as a gift for hyperbole) that makes the vicious proceedings feel almost friendly. To see his talents unleashed with limitless resources is to witness a born showman doing what he does best as well as humanly possible. So yes, there is a surfeit of rousing action scenes. After the opening hour, the hits just keep coming -- the attack by the natives (embarassing in the original, creepy as hell here), the dinosaur stampede, the insect trench, the T. rex battle, the car chase, the scaling of the Empire State building... the cumulative effect of all these sequences is that of a man who is hellbent on providing every single kind of thrill there is. Truthfully, though, that's a minor achievement -- the same raison d'etre can be attributed to Michael Bay and Rennie Harlin, if you cared to break it down. What makes this film work as it does, what makes it stick in the mind, is not only Jackson's savant-level understanding of the Hollywood popcorn mentality but also the stuff that happens in between the scenes where a big monkey gets to break shit. There's a surprising amount of heart in this film that stems from the central relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow, and the film isn't afraid to let its ass hang out in that respect. (The ice ballet is undeniably corny, and just as undeniably effective in inducing sympathy.) Naomi Watts has a certain gee-shucks likeability about her that goes a long way in fostering the suspension of disbelief (i.e. the likelihood of a petite blonde Depression-era actress, you know, falling in love with a 30-foot gorilla). More than that, though, her prodigious talent comes in handy; I may get razzed for saying this, but I think this might be her best performance since her breakout in Mulholland Drive, maybe because a large portion of it has to be played silently and thus she has to convey her character through gestures and expressions rather than the big actorly speeches she is often drawn towards. (21 Grams, I'm looking at you.) Also, Jack Black is unexpectedly fantastic here, subverting his own manic-slacker image with a turn that suggests darker levels within said persona -- it's as if, much like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, he's decided to take his trademark mania seriously. Carl Denham comes off not as an intrepid, driven man of the future but as a dangerous and obsessive lunatic, a cousin of sorts to John Malkovich's portrayal of F.W. Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire. (Remember, if it's not in the frame, it doesn't exist.) Yes, maybe it could be shorter. (What the hell is with Jaime Bell's subplot?) And maybe the whirling-dervish approach favored by Jackson does get a bit wearying over the course of three hours. But I can't say I was bored. Excited, creeped out, entertained, even a bit moved, definitely. But not bored. Hell no.

(Final aside: I would be remiss if I didn't note the appearance of the fabled Sumatran rat monkey in the ship's cargo hold. As much as I like this film, a zombie outbreak would have made it even better.)

Grade: B+
A Hole in My Heart (2005)

If this were only just the anti-social wallow in filth that this film's detractors (whom are myriad) claim it is, I'd probably just spit a couple invectives and move on. But you know what? It's not that. It's a good deal more than mere anti-everything hatred, but before I start I must note that, with few exceptions, everyone who hates this cites their love of Lilya 4-Ever as a reason for their crushing disappointment with this, Lukas Moodysson's latest film. But it's exactly there that we start to realize why this film works. This raw, painful film shows Moodysson getting down off the pedestal of artistic objectivity that ruined Lilya and staring his subject matter in the face. Like many great works of art, it has been made in a state of towering anger. This is noticeable not only in the bleak subject matter but in the techniques of the film itself -- Moodysson's rage is such that it compells him to edit the film into a violent frenzy, throw white noise in with the sound mix, swing around handheld cameras like yo-yos and generally turn this into a confrontational objet d'art. And confrontational it is: there are images here (including true-life footage from labial reconstruction surgery and the climactic image, which is the grossest ejaculatory metaphor on record) that will punch even the most hardened cinephile in the gut. That, though, is rather the point: Moodysson's thesis is that, in the age of reality television and mainstreamed pornography, there are still some things that should remain unseeable. (Not for nothing that That Climactic Image is immediately followed by the lead taping his eyes shut.) It's not just the audience's fault, either, for demanding this stuff. The participants are indicted for allowing themselves to be dehumanized in such a manner (thus the obvious-but-effective "doll" scenes), and the director even scorns himself (and, by extension, the others making films like this) for feeding into a culture that encourages things like this. But then, anyone can cram a bunch of repellent material into a film, cop a couple editing tricks from Jonas Akerland and call it art. (Jonas Akerland, actually, is quite practiced at this.) What keeps this afloat, what keeps it, in the end, from being just a wallow, is the faded presence of hope. What we have here are people at the very bottom of life, who have long since lost any reason to hope for better things. And yet, little grace notes will occasionally peek through the din. The last five minutes of the film cement this notion: at the end of the day, we're all just looking for someone to care. This is still the same guy who made Show Me Love, and he's still following the same impulses. None of the hand-holding miserablism of Lilya made it into this film, which seems to have ticked off some people. (Reason #985 not to read James Berardinelli: this offensively clueless review.) What we have here is a film that is filled with a very real anger and a very real sadness about this modern world, and it wants to show the injustices it sees without losing sight of the humanity of those involved. Let it be heard here first: There's real bravery in this picture.

Grade: B
Tropical Malady (2005)

It's like a double feature compressed into one film! The first part of this sensual triumph is devoted to a cute, likeable gay romance between a soldier on leave and a village boy. It's endearing enough for the Quad crowd, but the narrative digressions and occasional touches of mystical weirdness (the cave!) point the way to where it eventually goes. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's previous films have showed undue enjoyment in blasting narrative progression to hell, so it's probably no real surprise that this film eventually follows suit. But the direction in which it leaps is wholly unexpected -- it's like the reality-smashing surrealistic U-turns of Videodrome or Mulholland Drive except far less hostile and far more poetic. This second part is haunting and filled with memorable images (no one who sees the glowing tree is ever likely to forget it), and at first glance, the two halves seem to come from different worlds. But there's a tension inherent in grafting the two otherwise-vaguely-connected halves into one film, and it's not long before we see them feeding meaning into each other. The film even plays off this in its climax, wherein a declaration of love framed as an all-or-nothing argument turns into something more moderated. The film puts the protagonist in a situation where either he or the object of his obsession (or affection) must be annihilated, and yet both are still there at film's end because a spiritual (read: emotional) compromise was reached. Says a lot about the nature of love, but also says a lot about the nature of this film: If you can meet it halfway (and realize that it's also meeting itself halfway), you'll have a hell of a time. And if not... well, it's still fucking gorgeous.

Grade: A-
Madagascar (2005)

Another year, another pile of "hip" kidflick crap from the Dreamworks Animation sludge factory. You have your snark and your pop culture references substituting for actual wit; you have your overdone, obnoxious celebrity voice acting (there needs to be a vanishing point on this shit -- why the hell hire Andy Richter if you have a character with only five or six lines, none of which are intelligible?); you have your Saturday-morning-cartoon life lessons being imparted in the film's final quarter; you have your misuse of irritating pop songs. (This film is especially irresponsible on that last point -- the meerkats' endless grooving to "I Like to Move It" can induce homicidal feelings.) This time around, you can't even ignore the plot and dialogue in favor of appreciating the scenery -- the animation is overly angular, drab, depressing and sinfully ugly. How do kids relate to this shit? I mean, Christ.

Grade: D
Dominion: Prequel to "The Exorcist" (2005)

So Warner shelved this and put out Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning instead? You've got to be fucking kidding. Granted, this isn't exactly a commercial product (read: it's not wall-to-wall gore), but it certainly does better by the original than Renny's fiasco. It's pretty much everything you'd expect from a Paul Schrader devil-possession flick: light on the effects, thoughtful, sober to the point of overearnestness. Schrader, true to his history, has taken the ideas just below the surface in The Exorcist and brought them to the fore (call it The Last Temptation of Merrin). That the deep spirituality that often manifests in Schrader's work finds its purest outlet here is no surprise; that the tortured ambiguity, rivers of guilt and fumblings towards redemption that also come with Schrader's territory manage to keep the film from Sunday-school territory is refreshing. Altogether a cleaner, stronger and more worthwhile venture than that other prequel, this shares a fair bit of common ground with the Harlin film but manages to do so without being, you know, repulsive. Events that were senseless and exploitative in the previous release are given context so that they feel organic; finally, we have a film rather than an opportunistic shambles. On the downside, the film has a lot of technical problems (maybe because it wasn't quite finished?) -- the pacing is clumsy, the acting is variable (Clara Bellar makes Isabella Scorupco look good, which I didn't think possible) and the FX are... well, the FX are crap. But it's a film that deals seriously with issues that most other films don't even deign to think about, and it comes off pretty well.

Grade: B-
Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

Bit of a surprising wrinkle in this one -- in all the W.C. Fields films I've seen so far (The Bank Dick, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break and part of It's a Gift), he's played the cheat. Lazy, shiftless, and always out for an easy buck, what I know as the prototypical Fields character is not a sympathetic one, and the humor often arises from the unshakability of his veneality in the face of disaster. So it was rather shocking to see him here essaying, with perfect serenity, the ultimate milquetoast. Maybe it was that disconnect between my expectations and the film itself, or maybe it was just that this film seemed to follow a (somewhat) logical procession rather than meandering hither and thither, but this may be the funniest Fields film I've yet seen. The parking ticket bit in particular just kills.

Grade: B+