Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Final Destination 3 (2006)

I believe this is what is called "going to the well once too often." This film tries hard to duplicate the nasty black humor of Final Destination 2 (the queasy paranoia that infused the original is all but forgotten), but the writers try too hard to top themselves and the whole enterprise feels overly studied and mechanical. The problems start with the opening sequence, which is a blur of movement lacking either the menace of the first film or the crazed logistics of the second; the subsequent ledger-straightening skips so quickly from victim to victim that there's no time to actually give a shit about any of these people or their deaths. It's a brutish, cynical thing with demises that are absurdly overthought (the engine death? gruesome, but PLEASE) and payoffs that hardly seem worth the trouble. There's one perfect cut early on in the film that deserves to be seen, but otherwise this is a dead zone. If this film were a machine, its only function would be to turn itself on.

Grade: C
Capote (2005)

The key to this film is that we aren't supposed to sympathize with Truman Capote. Most of these modern-day portrait-of-a-bastard biopics (i.e. Ray, Walk the Line) want us to feel pity for their spiraling protagonists; Capote demands no such dissonant response. Capote's a rotter, and the film knows it. He's also a fine writer, at least until the shreds of his conscience start to catch up with him. Thus, we get a film about the struggle between what's socially right and what's personally beneficial, with director Bennett Miller and writer Dan Futterman capturing the exact moment when an artistic soul becomes irreversibly corrupted. Philip Seymour Hoffman is impressive in the title role, but I'm shocked that nobody's talking about Clifton Collins Jr., who plays Perry Smith. His grounded, low-key performance as an awestruck inmate balances Hoffman's extravagance beautifully, and it's a shame he's not getting the raves his more-famous costars are getting. Too, the specificity of the time frame avoids the then-this-happened antiflow of most biopics, which is a pet peeve of mine. A surprisingly strong biopic, if a bit obvious in its spelling out of its themes; also, Theo has the right attitude re: Catherine Keener.

Grade: B
Walk the Line (2005)

It's biopics like this that make the minor triumph of Capote seem all that more notable. This thing is pretty standard for the genre, with some good scenes (the Folsom County concert is a highlight) and lots of bad ones (any scene involving Robert Patrick should be slept through). The narrative lurches forward with little sense of time or pacing, James Mangold's direction is impersonal on the level of a television movie and Joaquin Phoenix is merely acceptable in the lead. (He's good enough to suggest the leader in a Johnny Cash cover band, but he's nowhere near the man himself.) The only reason to watch this is to catch Reese Witherspoon's steely performance as June Carter Cash; from her first scene, she strides in and lights this motherfucker up like a high school bonfire party. She's great and deserves the Oscar she's going to win, but generally, you're better off buying a couple Cash CDs. (Also, the arc of this film is so close to the similarly-mediocre Ray that you wonder why they just didn't wait a couple of years before making this.)

Grade: C

Friday, February 24, 2006

Bubble (2006)

It really looks like Steven Soderbergh can do anything he puts his mind to these days. Here he follows up a failed homage to a bygone filmic era (the French-New-Wave-inspired debacle of Ocean's Twelve) with another, far more successful homage. This film, a microbudget feature with no professional actors, is about as close to Italian neorealism as anyone's getting these days. It's also far more stylized than any neorealist feature ever was, though it's still miles away from the restless shenanigans of Twelve. Soderbergh appears to have been watching a lot of Tsai Ming-Liang lately; for this film, he chooses compositions that emphasize stillness and stasis. The camera moves maybe twice in the film's entirety. Most every cut, then serves as a way to get the camera into a different place, except that the cuts are so abrupt (there's a scene that cuts off in the middle of a sentence!) that I was kept off my balance. This, of course, is the exact effect intended -- it's about the calm everyday boredom of small-town life and what happens when that gets interrupted (bursting the bubble, in other words). So stylistically, I'm very much on this film's wavelength. (The way this film is shot is pretty much how I envision any film I would ever make.) More important than that, though, is the story being told -- it's a solid, carefully considered character piece with some of the best non-professional acting you've ever seen, especially from Debbie Doebereiner. The performances feel naturalistic and awkward without sliding into studiousness or incompetence, and the story has a surprising emotional arc to it. (I admit to shedding a few tears on first viewing.) The religious angle, too, is effective if underdeveloped, hinting towards a state of grace that proves elusive to the characters, and it lends an eerie quality to the closing credit sequence (we're all just flesh, etc.). There's a couple minor things that don't work (notably the painting of one character as a thief, which feels like standard Hollywood moralism, though a second viewing impressed upon me how subtly it was actually introduced into the storyline), but overall this is probably Soderbergh's best film. He even had the good sense to cut the alternate ending.

Grade: A-
The New World (2005)

I think loving Terrence Malick's new film means giving up entirely on the concept of narrative. Visually, it's an easy film to get into -- it's beautifully made and realized. As a film, though, it never feels whole. Granted, there are certainly great pieces within. The best scenes, in fact, are the wordless visual ballets between Colin Farrell and Q'Orianka Kilcher (who is impressive in her debut, projecting a genuine purity); these scenes, imposing in their easy grace, give the idea of two people forging a connection in the shadow of a utopia that will never be found. (When Christopher Plummer, midway through the film, intones, "Eden lies before us still," the only appropriate response is: No it doesn't.) But for all Malick's panache, he can't keep the film moving. What should be hypnotic instead feels abrupt and weightless. Character transitions, both physical and emotional, are similarly hard to pin down. (Did I miss something, or does David Thewlis actually disappear in the middle of a scene?) The early scenes are shot through with an overwhelming sense of awe, but this later gives way to confusion and disconnection. Maybe that's the point. Maybe I need to see this again.

Grade: B-
Multiple Maniacs (1970)

Early John Waters feature is a static, overly talky affair that goes nowhere after its opening sequence. That opener, however, is pretty great, and it serves as a beautiful summation of the entire grindhouse genre. It introduces Lady Divine's Cavalcade of Perversion, where there are attractions like puke-eaters, pornographers, murderous junkies and even homosexuals! Kissing!! Full-on tongue kissing!!! (The lumping-in of homosexuals with the other, less savory characters in the Cavalcade is as camp-confrontational as Waters ever got.) Respectable people (read: squares) are admitted into the show, complaining about the filth yet unable to look away. Waters knows that's really us up there: We come to see the show even though we know it will offend us -- deep down, we kinda want to be offended, to be made to feel something extreme. Then, after we've seen all the nasty, sick things that Waters can throw at us, Lady Divine walks in and steals our money. Who hasn't felt that way after a grindhouse fleecing? No matter how hard the film tried, it wouldn't be able to top that beginning, but it's like John didn't even try. The plot falls completely apart, and then the filmmakers lose track of what it was they were trying to say so fuck it, bring on the lobster. There's a good scene in a church wherein Mink Stole uses rosary (anal) beads to teach Divine about the double meanings inherent in the words "ecstasy" and "passion," but even that goes on too long. Interesting from a historical perspective, but Waters would make stronger, funnier and more coherent films. Female Trouble is miles beyond this.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Cradle of Fear (2001)

Any film that opens with a guy in white facepaint literally tearing apart the head of an unlucky hoodlum can't be all bad, and in the interest of charity the makers of Cradle of Fear put all the good stuff in the first thirty minutes. Ostensibly an omnibus feature, this film is just an excuse to string together bad gore effects while Dani Filth, lead singer of black-metal band Cradle of Filth, acts spooky and evil. The first tale, though, isn't half bad as far as these things go; in telling the tale of an unfortunate Gothette who picks up the wrong man for a one-night stand and becomes plagued by weird hallucinations, director Alex Chandon lets his imagination (as well as that of his makeup men) go wild. In particular, there's a computer-augmented effect involving a man with no lips and an inverted canal where his nose should be that warrants a rewind. Chandon's no Kubrick (he's not even H.G. Lewis), but he does show some basic filmmaking talent in this first bit. Once the insectoid-baby demon births itself, though, all the good ideas evaporate. What's left is a tedious slog through the lower echelons of no-budget gore. It'd be risible if it weren't so fucking silly. The fourth and final tale also provides a bit of interest, but it's only because, thematically and structurally, it anticipates Olivier Assayas's demonlover. If you can imagine that film made by a bunch of goofy, gore-obsessed Goths rather than a brilliant, elliptical French auteur, you can save yourself some time. Also, Dani Filth is not as spooky or as convincingly evil as he thinks he is. He's mostly just lame.

Grade: D+
Necromania (1971)

Apparently this is Ed Wood's last film. What a way to finish. Far from his days as the enthusiastic no-talent wunderkind of the '50s, Wood directs this with all the care and interest of a drunken uncle at a wedding. There's no plot and the sex is aggressively unerotic to the point of amusement (all performers go so far out of their way to avoid the hardcore stuff that it gives the idea that everyone's genitals are radioactive). Enough beer might make this funny, but you know what? I tried that, and it only seemed pathetic and sad. At least it's short.

Grade: D-

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Matador (2005)

Fitfully entertaining dark comedy coasts mainly on the unexpectedly hilarious lead turn by Pierce Brosnan. He takes his natural suavity and turns it inside out, crafting a portrait of the globe-trotting assassin as a seedy, nonchalantly scabrous lecher. He's clearly relishing the opportunity to play against type, as the delirious vulgarity of the dialogue ("margaritas and cock") erupts from his mouth. The first half of the film, then, is a rude kick in the trousers; in this light, the more-conventional second half is a bit of a disappointment. A lot of themes are set up in the Mexico section of the film (most intriguingly, an undeniable queer subtext) that don't follow through into the latter portion of the narrative. The film still feels like a success, though, mainly because the push-pull tension between Brosnan and Greg Kinnear's straight-laced businessman is consistently engaging. The second half does also allow Hope Davis to cut loose as Kinnear's surprisingly quirky wife, and the climax shows each man doing his best to help the other preserve his place in the world. (Maybe the queer subtext is there after all.)

Grade: B
City of the Living Dead (1980)

Lucio Fulci was, first and foremost, a prime visual stylist. He also wasn't much else, which left his films feeling dumb as dirt. What's impressive about this is that the idiocy doesn't much matter -- sense is at an ebb because this is a fever dream of a film, rife with shocking disconnected imagery that may not communicate much beyond "Ick!" but keeps the viewer properly off-balance. In my opinion, the nightmare atmosphere conjured up with this film is more effective than Fulci's similar, earlier The Beyond. Maybe it's because this film never attempts to make sense (unlike The Beyond, which I remember pretending to have some sort of plot). Or maybe's it's just because this movie has a scene wherein a girl literally pukes her guts out.

Grade: B-
Mondo Topless (1966)

This is an essential Russ Meyer film. By that I mean it's not one of his best or most important films (though it is fun); rather, what I mean is that it is the Meyer ethos boiled down to its base. This is an hour long, and it masquerades as a documentary, which means there's no annoying plot to get in the way of the mammalian appreciation. That's what this film is: big jigglin' boobies. There's also the traditional overbaked narration (here turned up to Extra-Emphatic), and there's the accomplished editing and the expert camerawork and the inexplicable fascination with naked girls near train tracks. But mostly this is boobies. Big, happy, jigglin', runnin', floppin' boobies. The movie comes in, does its thing and cuts out before it gets tiresome. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Grade: B
Samurai Spy (1965)

This is an interesting entry in the 1960s Samurai Sweepstakes that produced so many top-drawer Japanese films. It's about warring spy factions, and like many films of its ilk it takes its violence seriously. Most of the action is filmed obliquely, whether via camera angles or foregrounded set dressing. This properly defuses the violent content so that we can critically evaluate the worth of the story. The problem with this film, though, is in its byzantine story construction -- every time the film seems to find its point, the story jets off in a different direction. I think the ultimate idea of the film is about man divided against his enemies and himself and the price of blind loyalty. (There's an absolutely stunning shot about forty minutes in that literalizes the former idea, with light from a slighty-ajar door "dividing" the protagonist.) But maybe I'm wrong -- the exposition here is so dizzying that it could be about anything. By film's end, I had no idea who was killing whom or why. Don't get me wrong -- it's a good film. It's well-made, entertaining and a bit thought-provoking. It's also ridiculously labyrinthine. It's probably not necessary to possess a degree in Japanese history to appreciate this, but it might help.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Quick announcement: At 1:15 this past morning, The OCE of Me turned four years old. I've been doing this for four years. Jesus.

Also, hope everyone enjoys their Fuck You if You're Single Day.
Nowhere Man (2005)

Any film that quotes Detour, that blackest of black-hearted noir, ten minutes into its running time has some big cojones and some big shoes to fill. To extrapolate that metaphor, then, would be to paint this film as having large testicles and no feet of which to speak. The lurid premise has promise (it's the John Wayne Bobbit story, basically); said promise is then shat upon by a combination of incompetent screenwriting and incompetent direction. It's one thing to be low-budget and make it work for you, but it's quite another to attempt things that are beyond your grasp. The low-grade digital video camerawork chosen by writer/director Tim McCann flattens everything out, thus robbing this film of any atmosphere, and his setups are generally dull. What's worse, his time-tripping editing is flat-out awful -- not only does fracturing the chronology harm the film (it would have been best to open with the premise, grab the audience's attention and run from there), but the action scenes are laughably splintered, as if destroying the spatiality of the action could somehow hide the fact that you didn't bother to choreograph the fights. Apparently, McCann didn't bother to direct his actors either, since the acting is dismal and the lead is a hopeless unsympathetic rapist/meathead anyway; one wonders what the fuck McCann actually did on set. Debbie Rochon -- one of modern B-cinema's most talented actresses -- does manage to save a couple of scenes through her charisma alone (her delivery of the retarded line "I'll eat it!" is pretty heroic), but she's the only one who looks like she showed any effort. What's most troubling about this juvenile dung heap, though, is its thematic material -- what we have here is a repulsive rumination on white-man inadequacy. I would love to believe that McCann is being ironic or sarcastic or satiric or something and that the message of this film really isn't "White dudes, watch your ladies because they're probably whores who will emasculate you and run off with black men who have bigger dicks than you anyway!"... but I can't. On all evidence here, McCann sincerely believes in the Madonna/whore dichotomy and the myth of the virile black stud who wants to steal all the white women. If he questions his lead's behavior, he's keeping those questions to himself. Yecch.

Grade: F
The Same River Twice (2003)

Two things:

A) One of the saddest things I've seen is in the liner notes to the Eels album Electro-Shock Blues. It's a simple drawing of a tombstone with the epitaph "Everything Is Changing." Given the content of the album, that melancholy statement can't help but be enormously affecting.

B) The other day, I noticed that the gray hair on my temples is starting to become disconcertingly prominent.

These two facts probably informed my opinion of this documentary that contrasts footage of a group of hippies on a naked rafting trip with twenty-years-later footage of a handful of involved parties. It took me a while to warm up to it, maybe due to my aversion towards baby-boomer what-happened-to-my-life? whining. That it does eventually grow into a successful film is that it sidesteps the whiny aspects of said genre and becomes a sneaky treatise on the death of idealism in the modern world. There's much talk about maturity and what's "adult"; for instance, one interviewee mentions her reluctance to share her sex-n-drugs past with her children, then basically comes right out and says that entrance into the adult world means learning to lie and not feel bad about it. Meanwhile, the one participant who has held onto his hardcore ideals is also shown to be the one doing the least with his life, which is either the cheapest of shots (he does appear to be content, at least) or so harshly true that I would prefer not to think about it. Director Robb Moss, in essence, shows us the horrifying certainty of conformity (idealism is only possible as a long-term goal if you opt out of the system altogether). The rafting trip is shot on film while the modern-day segments are shot in flat digital video, which I think says everything.

Grade: B
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Werner Herzog's take on the Dracula story is a strange and stiff affair, with the useless Isabelle Adjani in a pivotal role (the girl's got all the range of a porcelain doll). So why do I find it so effective? The exquisite photography certainly helps (there's a couple shots where Klaus Kinski, as Nosferatu, is framed so that his white head is surrounded by blackness, giving it the appearance of disembodiment, that I thought stunning). Really, though, I think the stiffness is an asset rather than a debit. It gives the film an dank, eerie quality that eludes most other tellings of this tale. Kinski's melancholy rendition of the Count points the way towards the film as a whole (there's no romanticism in living forever). More interestingly, if you pay attention to people in the background, none of them move unless they have to. It's like this entire town is waiting for pestilence to overtake them; when the plague (usually metaphorical but made explicit here) does finally come for them, it seems less horrifying and more inevitable. Nosferatu the Vampyre is imperfect, but it's fascinating -- it's the rare horror film where it feels like Death has threaded itself through the projector.

Grade: B
Port of Shadows (1938)

This is one grim film. True, it's a seductive and easy watch, healthily leavened with mordant wit ("You have to kill someone." "That's life!"). Marcel Carne's direction is graceful and careful, and he almost makes us believe that the sucker-punch to the gut that we're expecting may not show up after all. But his story about a deserter who comes to town and runs afoul of the local toughs is infused with such a resigned fatalism that there's no way a happy ending could be at the end of the line. There's a lot of talk of dreams and hopes (one character repeats a constant desire to sleep on white sheets), but for the most part they remain just that -- dreams. Life here constantly gets in the way of dreams. Even being a generally good guy, which Jean Gabin is, won't protect you forever. Which brings me to the little dog. The little dog is not only the happiest (indeed, the only happy) character in the film, he's a reminder of karma. Note that Gabin (who is, by the way, completely fucking awesome) obtains the dog after saving it from being run over by a heartless truck driver. As long as the dog is in his presence, he's invincible. But good karma runs out eventually, and the (moral?) fog overtakes those who least suspect it. At one point a character asks, "Do you love life? Does life love you?" which is the essence of noir right there: It doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, if life has it in for you, you're done. Gabin's gruff kindness helps him out for a while, but he's walking in a dead man's shoes (literally). This, my friends, is the birth of noir. Love it.

Grade: B+

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)

I suppose the effectiveness of a film like this rests on whether or not you're sympathetic to its cause. Robert Greenwald, though, deserves a lot of credit for assembling his films for maximum potency. His talking-head documentaries are carefully constructed, include lots of pertinent information and yet keep moving at a good clip so as to avoid the homework-movie syndrome. There's a feeling that he's preaching to the choir, that he's telling us all things we should already know. But then, there's the worth: These are things we should know, and just because I know them doesn't mean that everyone does. (Plus, even if you do know most of these charges, it's still breathtaking to see them playing out right in front of you.) Greenwald's not on the level of Michael Moore in terms of filmmaking, but his films get the job done.

Grade: B
The Big Heat (1953)

Robust, exciting film noir wherein granite-jawed good cop Glenn Ford takes on an entire crime syndicate by himself, just because he can. (His wife's murder probably helped with the motivation.) Fritz Lang contributes some striking direction to this tale, which by this time must have seemed a bit familiar. The first half-hour is a bit rough, but once that car blows up the film cuts loose. Surprisingly strong violence for its time, too (the hot-coffee scene is justly infamous). Lee Marvin is one scary motherfucker.

Grade: B+
Zatoichi (1989)

In which Shintaro Katsu, after fifteen years, returns to the character that made him famous and finds there's nothing new to say or do with him. The violence is more amped-up, and there's even a bit of sex (which was a bad idea -- Ichi's a loner, fer crissakes). But there's nothing worthwhile here that you can't get in other, earlier entries. Considering how liberally this borrows from its predecessors, the previous statement has an air of literalness to it. The score is an atrocity.

Grade: C
Journey Into Fear (1943)

If anyone could tell me what exactly attracted talents like Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead and Orson Welles (ORSON WELLES!) to this stodgy, static WWII spy flick/propaganda piece, I would be grateful. Thanks in advance.

Grade: C

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Crash (2005)

Wow. Um... I respect this film for taking on a big issue and trying to show that racism isn't always a cut-and-dried affair, but Jesus this thing is a load of manipulative crap. All the good acting in the world can't redeem the cruddy screenplay, in which people pronounce statements rather than deliver dialogue and everyone's fate is decided via schoolboy irony. (Most reprehensibly manipulative subplot: The Hispanic locksmith and his daughter.) Godard can get away with declamatory stuff like this because he's doesn't pretend to work with naturalism. Writer/director Paul Haggis tries to cloak his messages inside the story, and as a result he just looks like a jackass who's trying too hard to impress guilty white liberals. The emperor's ass is hanging out on this one, people. You all should be ashamed for liking this.

Grade: C-
The Road Warrior (1982)

This film can be defined in one scene. Midway through the film, Mel Gibson is driving a Mack truck, and the main villain of the piece wants to stop him from reaching his destination. Instead of spraying him with a barrage of bullets, though, the guy aims his pistol and fires exactly one bullet, hitting his target with ruthless accuracy. It's this "one shot, one kill" mentality that spreads over the film like a quilt. The narrative economy on display here is amazing -- there's nothing in the film that doesn't need to be in the film. This is the action movie pared down to its bare bones, and given the post-apocalyptic setting, that feels all too appropriate. The paucity of dialogue no doubt contributes to this end as well, though when words are spoken it's often indicative of a gritty sense of humor that leavens the proceedings. (We wouldn't want a grim-fest, after all.) There's an existential bent to the plot, which is probably inescapable given the lean circumstances, but the message here seems to be as potent as the one in Two-Lane Blacktop: Either you keep moving or you cease to exist. That's just gravy, though. Even if you don't buy into that reading, you can still groove on this film as a ferocious study in velocity.

Grade: A-