Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

Having seen this and Read My Lips, I now think of Jacques Audiard as France's answer to Gary Fleder. He's a perfectly competent genre workhorse who nevertheless will likely never make a good film because he can't let his film work itself out. Nothing is subtle when it can be big, bold and obvious. I suspect Audiard is, on some level, aware of these tendencies within himself. Otherwise, why the opening monologue from a minor character that spells all the film's father issues right the fuck out? I never got the sense, watching this, that the characters in it exist when they aren't on camera -- everyone sort of drifts in when needed and then drifts out again to be forgotten until the next plot point. Roman Duris deserves a lot of credit for attempting an inward performance in a film that's all surface, but he's in over his head. Audiard also deserves to be slapped for two punishable-by-testicle-stomping offenses: Firstly, he sets an act of violence to an ironically sunny pop song (this time "The Locomotion"), which is so hoary that it's depressing to see people still doing it, and secondly he casts Emmanuelle Devos and wastes her in a dumb, pointless role -- you just don't waste the amazing Ms. Devos. What this film reminds me of most is a faux Grecian urn -- it's pretty on the outside, but if you look into it all you'll find is stale air and cobwebs. You can do better, France. We have enough hackwork like this here, thanks all the same.

Grade: C
The Driver (1978)

"I respect a man who's good at what he does." That line from Bruce Dern midway through this film defines the entire thing: You are what you do, and you do what you are. (Ryan O'Neal IS The Driver -- no other names are needed.) Walter Hill's thriller of a crime drama gets down to the bone in every way. Everything that's in the film is there because it needs to be, and every action in the film is done because that's what that person does. For example: When Isabelle Adjani is asked why she covered for O'Neal in a police lineup, she responds that she needed the money. That's so simple and easy, yet most other films wouldn't think to go that route. Hill's script remains true to his characters the whole way, resulting in an action film that transcends the limits of most. By getting down to the essence of things, Hill is able to stare machismo in the face and understand it. It's manly men and their manly pride going mano a mano (cowardice is punished time and again, like in the bookend games of chicken), and watching these heads butt is fraught with tension. Dern and O'Neal know what they want and know how to do it, yet the narrative is driven (excuse the pun) by them knowingly going against their natures; each of them says "I don't like it" when given a plan, yet they go along anyway because it's part of the game. The camera sits and watches them get involved in things they shouldn't -- Hill's directorial style is very plain and basic. There's no fancy camera moves or tricky editing; rather, it's all simplicity (the better to see you with). The exception to this, of course, is during the film's chase scenes, which are myriad and brilliant. There the camera goes crazy, whipping in and out of traffic and over cars and through windows and such. It's an expression of the two combatants in the film: they only feel alive and excited when they're chasing or being chased. That is, after all, what they do.

Grade: A-
School of the Holy Beast (1974)

Japanese nunsploitation! What else do you need to hear? That's a bit reductive, really -- while most examples of this genre exist only to show women of the cloth in various unsavory positions, this film has a point of view. The corruption of the nuns (and one priest) lays bare director Norifumi Suzuki's conviction that God may have indeed abandoned the modern world. (In case that's not clear enough, he all but has a character blame God for Nagasaki.) That this film has something to say beyond the usual exploitation fodder gives it a kick that others of its ilk are missing, but that's not to say that it doesn't also forgo the usual pleasures of this genre. Rather, it's awash in beautifully filmed perversion. Whereas an Italian production around this time period would usually be trotted out in cheap pastels, this film lays on the moody blacks and grays to make the splashes of color all the more striking. (There's a central setpiece involving rose petals that presages American Beauty, if Kevin Spacey had been flogging Mena Suvari with thorny stems.) Quizzically, the film's excitability and need to flaunt the taboo leads to its major weakness: In cramming all the nasty stuff he could imagine into the narrative (whether to bolster his atheistic convictions or just to sell more tickets), Suzuki also turned his film into a scattershot enterprise. There is a plot, but it doesn't kick in until the hour mark; prior to that, there's little more than flailing about in a puddle of muck. It's shamefully entertaining and surprising in the places it eventually goes, but more focus would have helped.

Grade: B-
Hell's Hinges (1916)

Stodgy silent Western with Christian overtones about a wayward preacher, his sister and the outlaw who falls for her. The ending is rousing (and surprising in its brutality), with an epic scope that is unusual for the time period and the genre. Elements of the ending look forward to Clint Eastwood's later films, namely Unforgiven. It's a long, long hour before we get to that ending, though. William S. Hart was, from what I've read, an experience stage actor, so why does he confuse constant scowling with an actual performance?

Grade: C

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Dumplings (2004)

Guess I was wrong about Three... Extremes being useless. The short version of Fruit Chan's film included in that omnibus seemed a bit abbreviated -- just as it looked ready to really cut loose, the timer ran out. The full-length version, one would think, would solve that problem. Alas, the only thing that got added to the full-length was dead air. The extra half-hour doesn't help the film at all; instead of fleshing out the story, Chan merely extends it, killing the pacing in the process. What once seemed elegant in its transgressive creepiness now feels vaguely ho-hum. Also, for whatever reason, Chan decided that, with the full-length treatment, it was no longer necessary to obscure the nature of the secret ingredient. What was mysterious in the short version is patently obvious here. This lack of secrecy about the big secret robs the film of a lot of its punch and makes Miriam Yeung's reaction to her discovery a tad bit naive. It's still well-made, but the short version's better.

Grade: C+
The Unknown (1927)

The great Lon Chaney got more mileage out of unobtainable and unrequited love than any other actor I can recall. In this convincingly seedy chiller, he gets one of his rare out-and-out villain roles; of the Chaney films I've seen, even the worst of his characters have a sympathetic side, but the armless knife thrower he plays here has no such qualities about him. He's a bastard through and through, using a faux deformity to hide a real one that could get him arrested or killed. Director Tod Browning knows his way around a circus milieu, which gives this an air of authenticity even as its phoniness is evident (what circus operates with only four people?). The film is a delirious and macabre affair, with sickly ironic touches that presage Browning's brilliant career-killer Freaks and yet another committed and mesmerizing performance from Chaney. If only the love subplot wasn't so limp and unconvincing -- Joan Crawford gets over her fear of men not because the strong man wins her heart but because the script tells her to get over it -- this might have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it's flawed but interesting enough; why the "strong man" is so goddamn skinny is beyond me...

Grade: B

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Silent Hill (2006)

And the final score is: Video Games 27, Movies 0. Christophe Gans's first film since breaking out with The Brotherhood of the Wolf displays none of that film's madcap lunacy -- it's closer in spirit to his lugubrious adaptation of Crying Freeman. It certainly looks impressive, and it's got atmosphere to burn, but that and a buck-fifty can get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks these days. In an era when even the most sad-sack Hollywood production can look spit-polished, it's not enough anymore to ladle on the atmosphere and the unusual visuals -- you have to fucking do something with them, and Gans has nothing. He's stuffed the film with shadowy demons and suffocating fogs and refugees from Chris Cunningham videos not because they're an organic part of the world he's set up but because he's trying to distract us from the fact that this is all surface. It's the lights-and-sounds hypothesis: throw enough weird shit at the audience in hopes that they won't notice that your film isn't about anything or that your third-act revelation/reversal negates the purpose of the first two acts. (If events are meant to play out as they do, why the hell is Radha Mitchell being menaced and nearly killed over and over?) The third act also includes something I'm finding increasingly distasteful, the hawkish justification and endorsement of horrific bloody revenge; as evil as the fanatic witch-hunter played by Alice Krige is, it's still disconcerting to see this film's Big Bad exact its vengeance by shoving sentient barbed wire up her nether regions. The actors are nothing to get impressed over, as can be said about any film that bothers casting Deborah Kara Unger; Radha Mitchell, normally a very good actress, is only asked to run, scream and sweat, and while she acquits herself well, it's still a thankless role. It's a thankless film, too.

Grade: D+
Thank You for Smoking (2006)

Just as it's unwise to fight fire with fire, it's similarly unwise to fight smugness with smugness, and that's why this film fails. The lead character, one Nick Naylor (portrayed by Aaron Eckhart as though his character from In the Company of Men had been reborn as a game-show host), is one of the smarmiest bastards on the face of the earth. He has good reason to be smarmy, too, since smugness rises out of a sense of superiority and Naylor is indeed a superior debater. The opening scene is an acrid example of that, as Naylor sways a studio audience by convincingly claiming that anti-smoking advocates want to see little kids with cancer die. The whole film needed to be on the level of that opening scene, bleak and nasty. But writer/director Jason Reitman, in a frenzied attempt to disassociate himself from Naylor's actions, allows himself to feel superior to Naylor, thus infusing the film with the kind of smug hypocrisy it's ostensibly against. Having done that, Reitman then cuts his own throat by not giving himself any characters with which to align himself against Naylor - every other character is a phony weasel. (Even William H. Macy's crusading Senator is depicted as a gladhanding publicity whore.) By not finding a side to choose, Reitman's superiority complex takes the teeth out of the material -- by constructing straw men on all sides, there's nothing he can do to keep his material from burning out. It has good moments, mostly courtesy of Eckhart, who's effective even though he's merely coasting on the fumes of his signature role (the scene where he talks a cancer-stricken Sam Elliot into accepting hush money is a refugee from some other, sharper film), but if Reitman wouldn't want to spend time in a room with these characters, why should we?

Grade: C

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Short Film About Love (1988)

The voyeurism inherent in the cinematic experience never seemed as human as it does in this, another great film from the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. In telling the tale of an introverted young man who spies on his attractive neighbor, it presents voyerism as a form of idealism -- the young man falls in love with this woman from watching her, never comprehending the complex foibles of actual human relations. He's a remote young man (he asks his mother why people cry), and this sense of isolation behind a lens is something that Kieslowski has explored to great effect prior to this; Camera Buff in particular expresses said theme about as well as it can be expressed. The reasons for treasuring this, then, are twofold. Firstly, this sees Kieslowski having formal fun with the idea of watching vs. watched -- there's an early shot with the young man behind a postal window speaking with the woman he covets, and it's framed so that the reflection of the woman overlays the face of the young man; the looker and the lookee occupy the same space, and voyeurism gets folded in upon itself. This presages the later shattering of the taboo, after the woman finds out she's being watched and starts watching right back. The second and more affecting reason this works (indeed, why it's a masterpiece, aside from the exacting formal perfection of it all) is Kieslowski's extraordinary understanding of what can be lost when idealism runs up against cynicism and cruelty. After the woman finds out she's being watched, the story develops in an unexpected way -- rather than being repulsed, she tries to engage with the young man and, in her cynical way, teach him something about love. The young man, however, doesn't take well to the lesson. The film, then, becomes a rumination on fantasy vs. reality and why we sometimes need the former. The transcendent ending crystalizes this in a rush of sadness and regret. (I actually prefer this ending to the one that Kieslowski used back when this was an episode of The Decalogue -- as strong as it is, the original ending felt a tad too moralistic.) All in all, this is one hell of a movie. It's not quite A Short Film About Killing, but it's almost there. (I can't think about this film, though, without also thinking of the Modest Mouse song "Paper Thin Walls.")

Grade: A

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

It's Angie Dickinson Day! For today's blog-a-thon, I've decided to take a look at the diversity of her talents as expressed through three significant roles -- call it the Three Faces of Ange.

The Femme Fatale: The Killers (1964)

For this loose remake of the 1946 film, Don Siegel directs the proceedings with a brutal efficiency that mirrors the conduct of the two leads. As Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager (in a loose, scene-stealing turn) attempt to find a missing million dollars in the most stone-cold, matter-of-fact ways they can, Siegel's careful cutting and preponderance of close-ups make this feel stark and no-nonsense, like a punch to the gut. This is appropriate for the world which he creates, in which the manliest of men is systematically humiliated by the people with the real power (macho man vs. money man, if you will). John Cassavetes's swaggering alpha-male race car driver may think he's in control of his life ("Slide over. Nobody drives me."), but it's this confidence and defiant attitude that prove to be his ruination -- he gets in over his head with Angie Dickinson's money-hungry moll, and his male ego won't allow him to see himself being played for a sucker. (It also won't allow him to see the protective affection of his pit man Claude Akins, who's about as heavily queer-coded as he could be in this era.) Dickinson's depiction of this woman, the only female in a sea of males, is pretty canny; I had the character pegged as an inadvertent femme fatale a la Simone Signoret in Casque d'Or. Dickinson flaunts the sweet face and girl-next-door features just enough to make her character desirable, but not so much that it all seems like an act -- she instead seems like she genuinely likes Cassavetes, which makes the ending reversals all the more surprising. A casually amoral film, devoid of sympathy or hope (there's a great small moment near the end, when Ronald Reagan looks at the money that won't save his hide and gives a little smirk and a shrug, as if to say, "Well, I tried"). It's the kind of film where Angie can get slugged twice and hung out a window, like it was nothing; in other words, it's my kind of noir.

Grade: B+

The Love Interest: Point Blank (1967)

Dickinson and Lee Marvin reunited for this oddball New Wave noir, in which Marvin destroys an entire crime syndicate while looking for some money he's owed. It's a film filled with intentional hyperbole and supernatural overtones (watch Marvin disappear into the shadows at film's end!); any resemblance between this film and reality is purely coincidental. If you wanted to get really hoity-toity, you could call this John Boorman's Inferno, with Lee Marvin as the single-minded traveler descending into an irrational world in an attempt to struggle towards his great reward. (I don't know how far you could run with that, but I'd like to see someone try.) Dickinson functions as Marvin's respite from the insanity of his quest; she looks great, but I'm not sure she's right for the role. The other two roles mentioned here suggest a confidence behind the classic beauty -- she's not a woman to be underestimated. Here, though, she's stuck in a fairly superfluous role where gets to model clothes and act concerned, and she seems to chafe against the role. Granted, Boorman gives her some of the film's best bits of business as compensation (the shot of her by the pool while Marvin turns on the lights in Carol O'Connor's house is an astonishing one, and the scene where she whales away in frustration on a motionless Marvin, who looks more annoyed than in any actual pain, is a marvel of dry wit), but I still get the feeling that, if her role of elided, the film wouldn't change. Otherwise, a strange but well-made and compelling film, with an offbeat sense of humor and a performance by Marvin that's a study in stoicism; also, it contains a surprising anti-corporate slant (The Organization's unwillingness to pay Marvin, justified as "just business"), but it does not contain the leering gratuitousness that marred the Mel Gibson remake Payback -- the violence here is of a more matter-of-fact stripe.

Grade: B

The Butt-Kicking Independent Woman: Big Bad Mama II (1987)

This, in my eyes, is a role that showcases Angie Dickinson at her best -- she's spirited and sassy, but behind the twinkle there's a spine of steel. She's strong, but not in an off-putting or male-coded way like Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films; rather, she looks like she's having the time of her life, whether it be firing a gun or taking a bubble bath. She's sexy even in her 50s. If only the rest of the film were as fun to watch as her. Take Dickinson out and all you're left with is a crappy '80s tits-n-guns extravaganza, as cheesy as it is cheap. Stating the latter is obvious, being that this is a Roger Corman production and a follow-up to a popular '70s vehicle for Dickinson (unseen by me), but blaming the budget is just a bad excuse. Corman rarely had large budgets, and neither did the budding auteurs who worked under him in the '70s, but their films came out polished and entertaining anyway because they had talent. Latter-day Corman protege Jim Wynorski has a lot of filmmaking assets (limitless access to stock footage; an uncanny ability to talk almost any actress out of their clothes; the support of Corman), but talent has never been one of them. He'll accidentally stumble across an evocative image every now and then (check the late long shot of Angie cast against a majestically dark Texas dusk), but he'll also ruin a perfectly amusing robbery scene with Komic scenes of Danielle Brisebois wildly firing a tommy gun. He can't even be bothered to match up his stock footage -- there's a midfilm montage of robberies and getaways that uses footage from the first Big Bad Mama, including conspicuous shots of Dickinson looking a whole lot younger. Brisebois and Julie McCullough, as Dickinson's nubile daughters, are also major demerits, as their sole talent is shamelessness; between the two of them, they couldn't act their way out of a hall closet with a flashlight and a GPS device. This still might be worth seeing because, as bad as the film is (and it gets painful whenever it tries to introduce social commentary, with Dickinson and daughters set up as Robin-Hood figures fighting the Haves on behalf of the Have-Nots), it still allows a look at the best side of Angie (and I don't mean nudity -- she's got a body double here). Then again, you could probably just watch the first Big Bad Mama for that. So fuck this film.

Grade: D

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

Robert Bresson's pared-down style fits this film best out of the three of his I've seen. His unyielding eye and stark sense of composition, combined with his use of court transcripts, leave this feeling less like any old movie and more like some long-lost documentary from the 1600s. Anachronisms notwithstanding, this must have been what it felt like to watch the wheels of justice grind Joan of Arc to dust. Bresson's sense for non-professional talent didn't let him down here, either -- Florence Carrez makes for a striking Joan. In contrast to Maria Falconetti's ecstatic famed turn as Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carrez's Joan is a steely, righteous saint-in-waiting. Her conviction is unwavering -- God and his angels do talk to her, she is doing the work of God and there's nothing you can say to change her mind. Her performance makes divine inspiration seem like a true gift, which only makes it all the more heartbreaking when she gets martyred anyway.

Grade: A-
Home Movie (2002)

They say that a house is not necessarily a home, and Chris Smith's film seems to endorse that. It's about five people who live in unusual domiciles, and what's interesting about it is that these people have taken basic structures (houses) and reconfigured them to fit their particular manias (homes). It takes a certain type of person to dedicate themselves to the kind of things that these people have done (refurbishing an old military bomb shelter, for instance, or building the world's coolest treehouse in the Amazon), and there's many opportunities to make fun of these people or to condescend to them. Smith, to his credit, takes these people at face value and doesn't use his camera to judge them... except for the couple who has remodeled their house for the comfort of their cats. Sorry, but these people are nuts, and no amount of objectivity on Smith's part can make them look less nuts or more interesting. Smith seems to realize this, as they show up the least out of any of the profiled people. Other than the cat people, this is a neat little film. Regarding the Cajun man living on the houseboat: Damn, he seems like the world's coolest drinking buddy.

Grade: B
Derrida (2002)

Fascinating documentary that follows famed philosopher Jacques Derrida as he gives lectures, sits for interviews and generally goes about his life. Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, is a strange and slippery subject who seems to enjoy messing with interviewers. Early in the film, he starts an interview by deconstructing the very idea of an interview, that anything can be found out objectively. Later, there's a great part when journalist asks him about "Seinfeld" as a deconstructionist object, and all he can do is stare at her and say he's never seen the show. The real value in this film, though, is the portrait of Derrida the guy as opposed to Derrida the thinker. When reading philosophy, it's tough to get a mental picture of these amazing thinkers, say, buttering their toast in the morning. Derrida wrestles with the man's philosophy, but in the end it's as much about showing that Derrida, despite his complex way of viewing the world, is human like the rest of us.

Grade: B+

Monday, April 17, 2006

13 Tzameti (2006)

Gela Babluani has crafted a real attention-getter for his debut film. It starts as an offbeat slice of naturalism, as a Georgian immigrant works on a roofing job for a drug-addicted old man. Intimations of odd things on the margins are abound, though (who's that in the car watching the old man's house? who's trying to intercept his mail, and why?). When the old man dies suddenly, the immigrant comes into possession of a train ticket and a hotel reservation, knowing only that these things were to help the old man make a lot of money. More, you should not know -- suffice to say that the young immigrant gets involved in something for which he could not have prepared. The observational style of the first half becomes necessarily grimy and sweaty in the second half; it observes things it should not be observing, and the high-contrast black & white cinematography catches every dirt smudge and bead of sweat. The high tension of the scenario is significant, but the human dimension remains thanks to some singular acting by all involved. The participants are believable in the situation, especially George Babluani, Gela's brother, as the unfortunate immigrant and Aurelien Recoing (unrecognizably bulked-up) as another, more gung-ho participant. There's obvious metaphorical material here -- the debasement of the immigrant class and doing whatever it takes to achieve a measure of success, as well as the idea of the ruling class exploiting those below them -- but it's left to simmer instead of being shoved in our faces. Though it does get docked points for taking the inevitable route to the downbeat ending, 13 Tzameti is a riveting first work.

Grade: B
Toi et Moi (2006)

Maybe seeing this after the unpleasant Texas and the idiotic Stay Alive colored my perception, but this film is pretty affable in its own cute way. It's about two sisters in France and their romantic failings. It's pretty chick-flick level stuff, and I know that if it were American, Meg Ryan would probably play the role of Ariane; that knowledge didn't keep me from enjoying the film on its own level. I mean, it's at least self-aware enough to know it's working with chick-flick material; it commits to that by making Ariane a writer of cheesy romance stories and having her fantasize about said stories as a kind of periodic narrative interruption. These kitschy, candy-colored interludes never cease to be amusing in their ripe hyperbole. Also, Marion Cotillard is extraordinarily cute. I don't remember her in Big Fish or A Very Long Engagement, and I wasn't able to finish watching Love Me if You Dare, so I guess that's why I never noticed it before. But she's damn cute. The whole movie could have been just her tremulous mug and I would have been happy.

Grade: B-
Texas (2005)

This movie is obnoxious, much like the characters within it. It's about a group of friends who party their days away, trying to ignore that finances and outside events are causing them to drift apart. It starts off in the middle of its big final setpiece, with everyone freaking out over offenses and slights we know nothing about, then it tracks back and shows us how we got to this point. It proceeds to become one of those what-hath-Amelie-wrought? movies with cutesy metafilm tinkering and characters defined solely by their quirks -- one character, for instance, is forever wandering around asking the other characters if they have any weed. These aren't characters, they're irritants, and if they were my friends I'd shoot myself for having a life so pathetic that I hang around these genetic wastes. But that's apparently not bad enough for neophyte director/lead actor Fausto Paravidino -- he gradually tries to get serious about these wispy constructs. This gradual darkening leads to an ending that is ugly and mean and entirely unfit for the movie that precedes it. Paravidino probably thinks this is profound. He probably thinks it says something about life, failure, repressed emotions, aimlessness and despair. All it says to me, though, is that Paravidino has a seriously fucked-up outlook on life. If this movie had a face, I would punch it as hard as possible.

Grade: D

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Stay Alive (2006)

Oh, Jesus. I could go on and tell you, in great detail, exactly why this lunkheaded lump of lame, so brazen in its idiocy, isn't worth a tin shit in a rusted bucket. For instance, I could tell you that the filmmakers, on all evidence, realize the major flaw in their premise. It's about a videogame that kills you if you die in the game. So the obvious solution is: DON'T PLAY THE GODDAMN GAME. But even that won't stop a pair of resourceful no-talents -- why adhere to rules (you know, like games do) when you can just change rules and make shit up as it suits you (you know, like a bad movie)? I could probably also point out that the climax is retarded, being that it hinges on a character saving the day while the audience scratches their head and wonder if they dreamed the fact that said character was offed fifteen minutes prior. (And the stinger epilogue is also retarded, for reasons which I will only elaborate upon request.) I could go through a long, sad list of everything that is wrong with this film. But that's unnecessary. You already know it sucks. I knew it was going to suck walking in. And how is that knowledge so common? It's because this film is about Elizabeth Bathory, a notorious Romanian historical figure who's often cited as one of the models for Dracula. You may be asking yourself, how does that make this film's suckhood obvious. First off, let's remember that you likely haven't seen Eternal. But here's the thing: Read the premise and pay attention to the setting. Stay Alive is set in Louisiana. Last time I checked, Louisiana was nowhere near Romania. So how the fuck did Elizabeth Bathory get there?

Grade: D
Kirikou and the Sorceress (2000)

Disarming African animated film (based on ancient West African legends) about a superhuman baby (so talented that he delivers himself from his own mother's womb) who uses his size and his wits to triumph over a cruel sorceress that has his village in thrall. The look of the film is jazzy and stylized, expressive without being flashy or showy. It comfortably inhabits its cultural niche as a throwback to days of myth while also retaining a certain rounded modernism; thus by keeping its feet in two different periods, the film's design approaches honest timelessness. The story is pretty basic hero's-quest stuff, but it's buoyed by the unflappable ingenuity and optimism of Kirikou. There's also a ready-made subtext, for those who care to dig into their kiddie-flick entertainment (impoverished and drought-stricken African villagers kept down by a ruthless, gold-hungry despot who uses threats, minions and propaganda to keep the populace in line? where do they get these kinds of ideas?) The major stumbling block to this already being a treasured children's classic is the cultural divide between Africa and America, but I'm not talking about race. I'm talking about the fact that there's more boobies and general nudity in this than most parents could probably handle. It's non-exploitative and culturally appropriate, but it's there anyway. So it instead get relegated to the sideline of the animation buff. More's the pity -- this here's pretty cool.

Grade: B+
Crimes of the Future (1970)

David Cronenberg's second feature is far superior to his debut Stereo. Cronenberg's stellar command over the filmed image is fully developed here, and his thematics are stronger as well. There's some interesting concepts being bandied about. The film centers around a disease called Rouge's Malady, and the particulars of the disease are stunning in their psychosexual implications. Cronenberg, one of cinema's most sex-phobic directors, shows us a future where sex is deadly yet irresistible, and its functions have perverted into unrecognizable forms. (Cronenberg prefigured AIDS! Who knew?) For instance, Rouge's Malady causes secretions from the ears that, while repulsive, are also alluring and apparently quite tasty. The characters in the film know that giving in to their impulses can be fatal, yet they do so anyway and in doing so take steps towards mankind's next evolution. What that is, Cronenberg can't say. There are many possibilities abound, most interesting of which is a gentleman who has developed extra organs in an expression of a 'helpful cancer'. This is pretty radical stuff, as you can see. It is then a crying shame that Cronenberg, at this point in his career, still hadn't managed to make any of this interesting to watch. The film lacks the urgency and the lurid punch of Shivers or Rabid; the impression given off is that of a staid university professor who buries his good ideas in an landslide of monotonous lecture. Worth seeing for completism's sake, but still obviously the work of a developing artist rather than an actual one.

Grade: C

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Look Both Ways (2006)

Movies like this piss me off because its rookie mistakes are so painful and avoidable. What we have here is a director trying her desperate best to sabotage her own material. Writer/director Sarah Watt has penned for herself a perfectly good tale of two damaged, frightened people trying to connect in a world fraught with peril, and then for reasons unbeknownst to all but herself, she ruins it by surrounding it with a soppy we-are-all-connected drama that puts me in mind of Magnolia, if Magnolia really sucked. The first act of this film, all pensive morose gazes and scattered character work, is abysmal. The third act of this film, chock full of dumb misunderstandings and a goddamn climactic rainstorm that expresses the sadness its emotionally remote characters keep inside, is abysmal. But the middle... ah, the middle. The second act of this film is the cream in the donut -- it's where this terminal slog through a river of sog metamorphosizes into a weird dark comedy. Watt minimizes the shifts between characters to focus on Meryl, a death-obsessed artist, and Nick, a photographer recently diagnosed with cancer. As these two navigate through a sea of bodies onto a path that will eventually unite them, their morbid imaginations run wild. Fantasies collide with the reality of the narrative, the most memorable of which are the hilarious animated interludes that illustrate Meryl's thoughts. This plot strand is the most valuable, as it cuts through the treacle to offer a blackly funny meditation on death hammered together out of paranoia and self-involvement. The contrasting strand with Nick's acerbic friend Andy also operates on this level, though not quite as successfully; everything else is desperation time, especially the one-note threads involving a woman grieving for her dead boyfriend and the shell-shocked train conductor who accidentally killed said boyfriend. Every time Watt cuts away from Meryl and Nick to focus on some other minor character or attempts to tie everyone together through a musical montage, the film suffers chest pains. (Watt should be brought to trial on charges of musical montage abuse -- there's at least six. And the music isn't even good.) Then she brings on the rain storm, and the film keels over and dies from a massive heart attack. With Look Both Ways, Watt shows she can tell a good story. She also shows that she, like so many others, can't tell seven at once without tripping herself up. It's alright -- not everyone can be P.T. Anderson.

Grade: C
Half Nelson (2006)

This reminds me a lot of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt screwed-up-kids film Manic. Both take premises that smack of Afterschool Special material and, through a combination of excellent acting, flavorful details and intense hand-held photography, make those premises work for the most part. The major difference is that Half Nelson, unlike Manic, doesn't completely fall the fuck apart in its third act, so we're moving forward in life and art. The story is a mash-up of two popular indie genres (The-Teacher-Who-Changes-Lives genre and The-Person-Who-Goes-to-Hell-on-Drugs genre), and it hits a lot of the expected marks along the way. What makes it worthwhile is the little details -- the character relationships are handled with a tact, subtlety and understanding that is genuine and increasingly rare. Ryan Gosling, as Dan, the teacher on crack, is both sympathetic and abhorrent, charming and dislikable; he's complemented by Shareeka Epps as Drey, the young student who befriends him (mature beyond her years yet still very much a child) and Anthony Mackie as Frank, the local drug dealer (far more complex than an out-and-out villain would be). Frank is also a father figure of sorts to Drey, which leads to no small amount of conflict as Dan tries to keep her from sliding into the kind of life he leads. It also leads to the film's best scene, where Dan confronts Frank in an attempt to protect Drey -- the way the scene develops feels sharp and honest while still being unexpected. The stellar performances deserve a lot of credit for getting these subtleties across. The film is held together by Gosling's extraordinary performance; he pulls off an amazing feat by delivering a performance as internalized as Heath Ledger's in Brokeback Mountain while at the same time affecting the extravagant outward tics and rapid speech patterns of the strung-out. Epps and Mackie are similarly impressive; Epps in particular suggests the kind of uncannily confident performances Dakota Fanning would be capable of turning out if Fanning were, you know, human. The big picture, alas, is as forced and obvious as the details are perfectly observed. Dan spends a lot of time trying to teach his students about dialectics, which leads to a lot of talk about change and turning points and the process by which things change. Not to fault director Ryan Fleck, but I understand that your film is about that. No need to shove it down my throat every twenty minutes or so, dude. Ditto the recurring device in which Dan's students break the narrative to recite famous historic turning points -- it's awkward and a bit pretentious. The glaring flaws drag down that which is capable of greatness, but they don't wound it mortally. Even with its faults, Half Nelson is a watchable and promising debut. It's the kind of film where the final confrontation is obvious from the moment the central conflict is introduced, yet when it gets there it's handled so carefully that you can't really complain.

Grade: B-

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Quinceañera (2006)

I hate you, Sundance Audience Award! This slop may have wowed them in the oxygen-deprived air of Colorado, but I don't buy it for a minute. I think this is intended as one of those films where we're supposed to excuse the cliches and contrivance because it offers a window into another culture, and if it it lived up to that it would be a mere tolerable annoyance on the level of something like Smoke Signals or Travellers and Magicians. Alas, nothing in this film convinces me that Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the two directors, actually know anything about the culture they're filming. Instead of creating art from within, they're standing outside of it like the white-boy tourists they are; consequently, their film is about as authentically "Hispanic" as a Choco Taco. The sitcom-level characterization and plotting, in the light of this fact, become somewhat less forgivable. The main plot thread is simple, predictable and burdened with bizarre, superfluous Virgin-Mary symbolism. Also unacceptable is Glatzer & Westmoreland's inability to coax naturalistic performances out of their (mostly) non-professional cast. The opening party setpiece has some of the worst amateur acting I've seen in a movie that doesn't involve tits and/or blood. Things improve a bit from there, and Jesse Garcia has a couple good scenes -- in fact, it's this film's homosexual-themed B plot that provides whatever shreds of interest kept me from bolting. It's not really written any better in terms of dialogue, but the directions in which it initially shoots off are refreshing and unpredictable. The early scenes are cannily set up so that we expect Garcia's character Carlos to have been ostracized as a violent gang-banger, which lends a tension to the house-party sequence later in the film. The subversion of said tension plays rather well. Glatzer and Westmoreland are clearly in their element with this subplot, and they probably should have gone ahead and made the film about Carlos instead. Except if they'd done that, then the film would be tagged as Queer Cinema and would never open anywhere other than the Strand, so I guess I can't blame them. I can, however, blame them for everything else that's wrong with this film: flat direction, flat writing, flat acting, just a general overwhelming flatness... just like its L.A. setting. If only they were smart enough to do that by design.

Grade: D+

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Ball of Fire (1941)

Oh, Barbara! Barbara Stanwyck plays a brassy mob moll named Sugarpuss O'Shea in this knockout comedy, but her name might as well be Walking Lust. I don't know if I've seen her look as gorgeous as she does here, and director Howard Hawks makes sure she's photographed to ensure maximum desirability at every turn of the plot. This is important, as acceptance of the plot and her character hinges on whether or not she's desirable in spite of the less-than-savory manipulations she's pulling. (This could describe most of Stanwyck's best roles, really.) The sharp writing is an asset, of course, as is the gregarious ensemble cast. (Gary Cooper is the exception: he's perfectly believable as a stuffed-shirt type, being that his performance here is stiff and bland like old oatmeal.) There's a hilarious climax, too, where our intrepid professors get to save the day by finally finding real-world applications for all the knowledge they've accrued. (Two words: tickle torture. Awesome.) Really, though, this is Barbara Stanwyck's movie, and everyone else hangs around and waits to react to her. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sky High (2005)

Harmless, silly family comedy about a superhero school suffers in its temporal proximity to The Incredibles but is certainly amiable enough. In fact, its opening act has so many oddball jokes and asides that it looks, for a while, like some cult classic in the making, the way the stunningly bizarre Disney Channel TV show "Even Stevens" no doubt will be in about ten years after Shia LaBeouf finally blows up large. But then the plot kicks in, and the film rolls downhill with its hurt feelings and its sitcom contrivances and its life lessons learned. Still has enough eyebrow-raising moments and offbeat casting to warrant a viewing on a slow night (shove it in the queue next to Stuart Little 2), and it's probably the only place outside of The Evil Dead where you're gonna see somebody attacked by trees. Possible best joke: The struggle with the car seats. Point of interest: Kurt Russell got his start playing super-powered teenagers in agreeably chintzy Disney comedies, and now he's come full circle -- he's played the super-powered dad of a super-powered teenager in an agreeably chintzy Disney comedy.

Grade: C+
Stereo (1969)

David Cronenberg's first feature is interesting from a historic standpoint. It shows that the cool, unflappable rigor that marks his filmmaking style was fully developed within him from the moment he started making movies. Also, the film's thematics anticipate a number of Cronenberg's later works -- plot strands and themes from Scanners, The Brood and Dead Ringers can be traced back to this film. (There's also an incident mentioned in the film's voiceover that shows this to be a stylistic and thematic influence on Darren Aronofsky's Pi.) History's about all this film has going for it, though -- it's a lot more interesting to think about and write about than it is to watch. Stereo is a ponderous, incoherent future-shock film in the guise of a documentary about sexual experimentation on telepaths, and it inhabits its faux genre all too well. If you've ever watched a goverment-issue documentary on... well, on anything (classroom filmstrips, anyone?), you'll know how boring this is when I say that Stereo is indistinguishable from the kind of film that gathers dust in a lonely corner of a government archive somewhere. What's more, the voiceover narration (there is no diegetic sound) is overburdened with unintelligible psychobabble to the point where, if there was any trace of humor in Cronenberg's setups, it could be considered parodic. It's only an hour long, but that's one long freakin' hour.

Grade: D

Monday, April 03, 2006

Nobody Knows (2005)

I'll have to file this one alongside Eureka in the Immense-Somber-Drama-That-Failed-to-Move-Me folder. It's not really the length that's the problem, it's the tone. Hirokazu Kore-eda adopts a stately, measured tone (the kind of tone you apparently have to adopt in Japan these days if you aren't making a film with a whole bunch of sex & gore) that certainly makes the film feel like life unfolding in front of your eyes, but this choice of tone also flattens the potential for emotional weight. As the story creeps towards its conclusion, it becomes clear that nothing is going to change and these kids are going to remain unflappable in the face of increasingly grim circumstances. Good for them, I guess, but the all-encompassing placidity nearly destroys this. Fortunately, it is beautifully made, and it has a hell of a performance from Yuya Yagira as the eldest child, who is forced to reach maturity much quicker than he should. It's a good film, all the better for avoiding the cheap-n-easy deus ex momina; I just wish it wasn't so wearying.

Grade: B-
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

First off, this is a wonderful movie to watch. I mean that in the literal sense -- the act of looking at this film is joyful. The Coen brothers, working with more money than they had ever worked with at that point, let their prodigious visual imaginations run berserk, giving us a film that, from a visual standpoint, is without compare. And it's precisely that visual dynamism that makes The Hudsucker Proxy a successful film -- that is to say, the Coens' visual creativity bleeds out and infects the other aspects of the film. The Coens are the rare filmmaker for whom heavy stylization feeds their imaginations rather than stifling it. Instead inventing a place and putting characters into it, they're truly inventing a world in which these characters have always lived and always will. The characters are thus defined by the environment instead of being swallowed up in it (a la V for Vendetta -- can you imagine the latter film tossing in something like Tim Robbins's incongruous ballet dream?), so that the meticulous craftsmanship feels organic even as it's obviously artifice. It helps, too, that the film is perfectly cast -- Tim Robbins makes for an appealingly unflappable sucker, and Jennifer Jason Leigh was born to be the hard-bitten fast-talker she plays here. Narratively, the film is a bit weak, which honestly isn't too surprising -- it moves so quickly that it more or less has burn itself out in the midstretch. It rallies at the end, though, for a ballsy and genuinely surprising leap into the spiritual, complete with a literal deus ex machina and a rumination on the divinity of forgiveness. (There's also some tantalizing class issues introduced near the beginning that go relatively unexplored, sadly.) It's not the Coens's best work, but it is probably their most underrated.

Grade: B