Monday, May 29, 2006

And one last thing: There's only three days left now in May, and my contest is still open. Which contest, you ask? (Don't deny it -- I see your lips moving. Never mind how.) This contest, foo'. Short version: I saw a film drunk. Then I wrote a review of it (not while drunk, mind you). Guess which film has that dirty little secret appended to it and you win it. It's that simple. "Brilliant!" as the Guinness-advert guys might say. Which reminds me, I could go for a beer right now...
I've received a spike in traffic recently because of two links. The disparity between these two sums up the diversity of the Internet:

Firstly, in the comments section of his recent post about Jean-Luc Godard's Every Man for Himself, popular (and extremely well-spoken... or is that well-written?) film blogger Girish was nice enough to mention that he'd found this site recently and enjoyed it. I expressed my appreciation on his site, and I'll do it again here. Thanks, dude! That was awesome.

And then there's the second link. There was a discussion on the Useless Junk message boards about favorite porn films. Someone cited Let My Puppets Come and, for whatever reason, linked to my review of it. Which seems counterproductive, as I consider that film one of the most unpleasant things I've been unfortunate enough to sit through, and I made my displeasure known. Um... thanks, I guess, Mr. Genitalien, whoever you are.

BTW, if I may... Let My Puppets Come is already the most popular review on this site. I get more Google hits on that than anything else I've written about in the four years I've been doing this. I guess I understand the fascination -- after all, I thought it sounded goofy enough to work. But it isn't. It's a horrible, horrible movie, one that makes me feel despondent about the potential of humanity. So all you curious porn fans out there... please, please, please stop looking for Let My Puppets Come. You DON'T want to see it. LET IT DIE.

-- The Mgmt.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

I guess it's appropriate that director Brett Ratner would eventually show up to do an X-Men movie, since he's the Mystique of modern filmmakers -- rather than create a style of his own, he inhabits the styles of others to the best of his abilities. In the past, he's morphed into such luminaries as James L. Brooks and Jonathan Demme; here, as respect to the man who made this series, he's trying on a Bryan Singer suit, which means this film has been directed by a mediocre Hollywood hack imitating another mediocre Hollywood hack. (No ruptures in the time-space continuum have been reported, though I've heard rumors of several auteurists suffering crippling migraines.) As could be imagined, the result isn't inspiring, but it's agreeable for a while. The dialogue seems taped together out of every soap-opera and moody-superhero cliche that could be scratched up (you can't give Halle Berry dialogue like this and not expect disaster), and the pacing is clunky due to the overwhelming number of characters old and new. The latter has been my main complaint over the length of this series -- there's too many heroes and villains being crammed into the narrative. This works with comic books, where you can go on for issue after issue and eventually everyone will get their turn in the spotlight; narrative cinema is another matter, though, and it creates characterizations that are scattered, listless and reductive. The greatest casualty of this is Ben Foster as Warren Worthington III. Reportedly, Singer kept trying to work this character into the previous two films but couldn't find a way to do it; it's a bit sad to note, then, that even though he's finally been shoehorned in, he's no more than an afterthought (a superfluous appendage, if you will). Furthermore, some fascinating characters (Rogue in particular) get short shrift so that other, less interesting mutants can be paraded onscreen. With all that, I was still with the movie most of the way -- Ratner's low-level panache and dedication to brevity keep the film moving, so that most of the flaws hurry by in a blur, gone before you can really pick at them. But then there's the horrid climax, which squanders some great opportunities just so [SPOILER ELIDED] can play hero and bring closure to the trilogy's most obnoxious recurring subplot. There's at least two superior ways that the film's Big Bad could have been dealt with. And on a related note, why have a character with the awesome nullifying power of Leech if you aren't going to do anything at all with him? As I have a brief versing in X-Men lore (I collected Marvel trading cards in the early '90s), there were a couple elements of this that surprised the hell out of me, and even a relative noob like me can appreciate the poignancy in the film's last shot. But we've still got to have standards, and despite some rousing action scenes, this isn't very good. (Also: Worst. Credit-Cookie. Ever.)

Grade: C+

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The 39 Steps (1935)

Entertaining diversion from Alfred Hitchcock about which I have nothing at all to say, aside from mentioning my appreciation for the beautifully handled climax and my giddy excitement at the brief moment where a scream is intercut with the shriek of a train whistle. I watched it and enjoyed it verily, but it just bounced off my brain. Don't know why. Maybe next time I'll get something out of it.

Grade: B+
Dolls (1987)

Leave it to Stuart Gordon to make a movie about the wondrous imagination and curiosity of children while also making a satisfying horror/meat movie. This macabre tale of a moral-minded doll maker and some nasty travellers who stumble upon his estate during a thunderstorm lacks the insanity of Gordon's previous films Re-Animator and From Beyond; instead, it looks forward to his more controlled later works while still maintaining a respectable level of gore and dry humor. (The revenge of the lost teddy bear is priceless.) Gordon also balances his sympathetic characters with his asshole characters, so that we can watch people get it in the neck without losing interest in the people we're supposed to like. A not-bad example of spit-polished '80s-horror-cheese; note that this film also led to producer Charles Band's inexhaustible fascination with killer puppets and other small things, but that's not Gordon's fault.

Grade: B
Memento Mori (1999)

You know how the average J-horror film generally starts from a foundation of rational reality but splinters into incoherent creepiness in its third act? Yeah. So apparently these two geniuses in Korea decided that the rationality was a hindrance. With that in mind, they went ahead and made a film comprised of vengeful ghosts, nonsensical plotting, vague supernatural overtones, superfluous characters and teenage lesbianism. Despite that summation, the resulting film is not the coolest thing ever made. Rather, it's a wretched piece of shit. Even its soulmate in senselessness Ju-On is superior to it, since Takashi Shimizu at least exhibits a modicum of filmmaking talent. There's some cute chick-flick-type stuff early on (as well as a couple of bad laughs), but if I want cutesy-poo I'll watch a Meg Ryan movie and not a supposed Korean horror film. In case I'm not being clear enough: This movie sucks the semen from a dead horse's ass.

Grade: D+
The New York Ripper (1982)

Lucio Fulci's notorious slasher flick, in a sense, is the rare movie that lives up to its vicious reputation. The murder setpieces in this film are mean and nasty, with the highlight (lowlight?) being the scene in which the title fiend bisects a woman's nipple in extreme closeup. There's things here that are guaranteed to make you flinch. That brief reaction, though, is about all that will happen to you, since Fulci allows so much dissonant material to creep into his work that the effect is stymying. How, for instance, am I as a viewer supposed to react to the killer's duck voice? There's a scene where a stripper is killed by having a broken bottle shoved into her naughty bits, and as she's screaming and crying and bleeding all over the place, the killer is quacking and giggling like he's Donald goddamn Duck. The cumulative effect is off-putting and weird -- I don't know whether to laugh, get offended or become horrified, so the only thoughts that cut through the mass of conflicting information is "I wonder if the menstrual symbolism is intended" and "Does it say something about my viewing habits that this isn't the first Italian horror film I've seen that has young women killed with sharp objects to their crotches?" If Fulci were a better filmmaker, I'd say that he intended this contrast to defuse the theoretical misogyny at his film's heart; however, my experience with Fulci's filmmaking style tells me he's just a lunatic who thinks these things really should go together. Beyond that mental-gymnastic fodder, this film's pretty worthless -- Fulci's zombie epics excuse their lack of logic and credibility via their hallucinatory nightmarishness, but this is just stupid. And not stupid in a mesmeric way like Argento's gialli, just garden-variety dumb.

Grade: C

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Down in the Valley (2006)

Seeing this the day after The Proposition was an interesting contrast. Both films take the idea of Western gentility and spin it on its head. But where the blood-and-thunder Proposition makes its intent clear from the outset, David Jacobson's paeon to the past and future Los Angeles is content to work on the sly for a while. The first half, detailing a strange May-December romance between high school student Evan Rachel Wood and ersatz cowboy Edward Norton, is a beguiling and carefully detailed portrait of teen rebellion and fantasy. Its effect (which is in no way harmed by its Lolita overtones) is subtle yet important -- it seduces us into accepting the world Jacobson's built so that we can be equipped to handle the gradual shifting of the character landscape. Imperceptibly at first, Jacobson's focus shifts from Wood to Norton, so that the fantasy becomes just that -- a fantasy that should (and must) be punctured. The friendly veneer of Norton hides a dark menace. What's extraordinary about the way Norton essays his character Harlan is that this darkness seems accidental; even through his impulse-control difficulties, Harlan genuinely believes his actions to be right and justifiable. The other actors are similarly inspired, with Ms. Wood in particular becoming more credible as a serious actress every time I see her; Rory Culkin is also excellent in a pivotal and difficult role as Wood's clingy younger brother, who desperately needs to believe in someone. The schism between the sensitive first half and the starker second half has turned off a lot of people, but I see it as an essential part of Jacobson's thesis. As the film moves further away from pure realism into the realm of metaphor, Jacobson's film bares itself as a treatise on myth. He means to show us the perils of believing in myths -- the myth of the cowboy gentleman, the myth of the runaway schoolgirl, the myth of frontier justice, and above all the myth of L.A. itself, the city where urbania conquered the desert sprall of the West.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fists in the Pocket (1965)

It took about half the movie for me to adjust to this film's wavelength, but it was worth it. The initial scenes (indeed, the first half-hour) is a strange affair, full of disconnected scenes and performances that seem to work an angle removed from where they should. In particular, the first dinner scene with the gathered family, with his fighting feet under the table and the cat who keeps jumping on it, is a miniature mental breakdown externalized as celluloid. Gradually, things started to make sense -- the discombobulation is important as an expression of Ale, the lead character, and his worldview. Afflicted with epilepsy and plagued by paranoid and homicidal fantasies, he's a classic sociopath; thus, much of the world doesn't make enough sense for him to process. His delusions lead him to rage against everything he knows; this rage is matched by director Marco Bellocchio's vicious attacks on Italian society. I see the matriarch of this dysfunctional family as representative of Bellocchio's perception of the Italian government, ancient and outdated and blind to the suffering of her children; as such, her death is followed by Ale and his sister Giulia pitching and burning furniture, clothing and other such accoutrements (destruction of the old ways!). Bellocchio's approach to Ale, though, is more complicated. At times, he sees him with sympathetic eyes; Ale's rages are often depicted as a struggle against being swallowed up by the shadows in which he's forced to grow up (parents, siblings, God, government) -- his attitudes and afflictions make him an eternal outsider, and at no time is Bellocchio's film more effective than when deliniating this. (The shadow-heavy party scene, in which Ale tries to assimilate into society only to find that society likes him on the margins, is a work of quiet brilliance.) At other times, though, Bellocchio seems aligned against Ale, his fits marking his anger as aimless and destructive. Is Bellocchio saying something about the nature of revolution (i.e. if you're going to overthrow the old system, you'd better have something to replace it with)? Whatever his intentions, they result in a film that, despite its roughness, feels alive and kicking like few films do; the last scene has Ale dancing like mad to opera music, which seems appropriate.

Grade: B
Bend of the River (1952)

Can a man change his nature? This is the key question posed by Anthony Mann's solid Western. Mann tests this query by contrasting James Stewart's dogged wagon-train guide and Arthur Kennedy's quick-draw cowboy. It's made clear that these two share some form of a common seedy history (when Mann parallels the noose around Kennedy's neck at an impromptu hanging with the handkerchief around Stewart's neck); the difference is in how they conduct themselves. They're both trying to transition into the straight life, and as they go their paths converge and diverge at various points. Ultimately, it comes down to what matters to each man, and that's where their true natures come out (and where the drama comes from). Also interesting is how Stewart and Kennedy's alliance holds fast as long as they dance around certain truths -- an arrangement presaged by Kennedy's assurement to a woman in the wagon train that the Indian whoops they hear are mere bird calls from 'red-winged orioles.' It's a fine oater that gets stronger as it goes, all the way through the tight and brutal climax, and one that also gives a rare glimpse of Stewart at his scariest (check out the seething intensity on his face when he hisses to Kennedy, "You'll be seein' me"). Mann's direction is as economical and effective as it had ever been, though not without some surprising stylistic flourishes, especially in the use of foreground/background space. (Note how two killings -- one of an Indian, one of a cowboy -- each have the victim's head filling the frame, effectively bringing the film's morality full circle.) The inclusion of a strong heroine seems a bit unusual for this time period (the Western still being a big ol' boy's club); the inclusion of grotesque racial stereotyping via Stepin Fetchit, though, is sadly not unusual.

Grade: B+
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Hayao Miyazaki's obsession with flight gets its most thorough airing-out in this film. Anything that can become airborne eventually does become airborne. Miyazaki clearly is enthralled by objects in flight and the accompanying sense of exhilarating freedom, and this exhilaration is mirrored by the wonderful film he's made here. It's a gorgeously animated and exciting paeon to all things aloft; my personal favorite is the pirate ships that look like giant flies. This also ties into the film's other concern, the strange relationship between man and nature. Here's it's suggested that while man and nature can coexist, and man can even harness nature to a degree, it's man's impermanence that will be his undoing. The message is clear: Nature is timeless and we are fleeting. It would be in our interest to enjoy ourselves and exist harmoniously with the world around us. With films like this around, that doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

Grade: A-

Monday, May 22, 2006

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

This film exemplifies why I enjoy comedy of the '30s -- it's got snappy verbal repartee (funniest line: "She called me Fuffy. I don't know why, but she called me Fuffy."), cheerfully game actors who play their types to the hilt and energetic direction that keeps things moving nicely. What else can you ask for in a comedy? How about the hallucinatory inventiveness of Busby Berkeley and his incomparable talent for choreography? The film grabbed me for good in the very first scene, when Ginger Rogers sings "We're in the Money" in Pig Latin while framed in extreme close-up; while the remainder of the film can't quite reach that level of lunacy, there's still plenty with which to fill the eyes. ("Pettin' in the Park" ranks among Busby's best work.) Also interesting to note is the film's straightforward acknowledgement of the Depression and art's power to charm in even the direst of straits, not to mention the artist's ability to transmute horror into creation; as Barney the director (the endearing and gruff Ned Sparks) tells Carol King (Joan Blondell), "I'll make 'em laugh at you starving to death." The timbre of the times also lends an interesting edge to the film's subsequent plot, which the title gestures towards -- how better to win over the average (and presumably broke) man in the street than showing two resourceful ladies humbling two rich patsies? That there's a happy ending is not to be discounted, but note that the necessary reconciliation comes after the rich men drop themselves to the ladies' level and fight back in the manner of the actors. Also of note: The surprising streak of ribald pre-Code humor that weaves itself through the film (including the most novel use of a can opener I've yet seen). Also of note: This is the first time I've seen Dick Powell playing something other than a shy rube.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Breaking News (2006)

It's inevitable that a Johnnie To film will open with an incredible feat of filmmaking, and this film is no exception. It's a typical depiction of a sting operation gone very wrong and devolving into a street shoot-out... or at least it is until you realize that the no-doubt-extremely complicated sequence has gone on for a good ten minutes without a single cut. It's also inevitable, though, that a Johnnie To film will never live up to its opening sequence. (A Hero Never Dies, which gets stronger as it goes, is the exception.) So it is with this film, which never quite makes the most out of its surefire premise (a standoff between cops and crooks waged not only on the battleground but also through the media). That it succeeds to the extent that it does is because the premise is enough; To may be coasting, but he's got an impressive wave upon which to coast. As the cops and crooks parry each other's salvos, we come to see that the manipulation of the image is just as important as the image proper (if you don't like the news, make it!). Everyone's desperate to keep up their appearance, and it's this desire that leads to the tangled interactions between both sides, mainly between Yuen (one of the lead crooks), Rebecca Fong (the police commissioner) and Cheung (a gung-ho inspector embedded in the building where the standoff takes place). Through it all, To returns time and again to one of his favorite themes, the commonality of human experience in seemingly opposite people; Yuen at one point tells Rebecca, "We just speak from different channels," and To means it. (Note, too, the role reversal that occurs in the film's climax/epilogue). Exciting and cynical in equal measures, though I'm not sure how certain aspects -- namely the hostage gambit near film's end -- are supposed to work.

Grade: B
Little Caesar (1931)

Another case of "influential, not good": The father of all crime dramas today appears a stodgy and creaky thing, an early talkie undone by its overarching staginess and its cardboard performances. The exception, naturally, is Edward G. Robinson in his starmaking lead performance as the title character -- his nasty, ambitious schemer feels alive and kicking in a way that transcends the tired framework around it. Faced with this lighting-in-a-bottle performance, all the other actors gave up and went through the motions, from the look of it. The worst offender is Stanley Fields as Sam Vettori; his hollow performance is a study in recitation. He couldn't be worse if there was a TelePrompter in front of him. Mervyn LeRoy's direction is unimpressive as well. There's a nice use of cross-fading in an early heist scene, but mostly LeRoy is content to plop the camera down and record the action as though he were filming a play. I'm glad this film was made, I'm glad other people improved on its formula, and now I'm glad I never have to see it again.

Grade: C
Intruder (1989)

Lively late-period slasher flick involving the overnight-shift crew at a supermarket and the brutally inventive psycho who bumps them all off. Scott Spiegel (a Friend of Raimi) directed, and his camerawork is hilariously inventive. It's as if each shot sets out to find a cooler, odder angle than the last. (Still, nothing here is as whacked as the moment in his From Dusk Till Dawn 2 which finds the camera inside someone's slashed throat.) The hyperactive camera hijinx are matched by the gore scenes, which are throughly ludicrous and thus thoroughly entertaining. There's the occasional run-of-the-mill stabbing, but there's also setpieces centered around trash compactors and table saws, if that tells you anything. The acting is mediocre, but them we don't come to these things for the acting, do we? (In the In-Joke Folder: Both Raimis, Ted and Sam, have small roles, plus Bruce Campbell and Lawrence Bender show up at film's end.) Cheap, cheesy and crazy, which makes it a minor classic by slasher standards.

Grade: B-

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mardi Gras: Made in China (2006)

Liberal-problem documentary hampered by ineffectual filmmaking. By ineffectual, I don't mean that the technical aspects of the film are incompetent -- it's pretty standard-issue stuff in that regard, with pallid DV photography that is a necessary evil these days in the world of low-budget documentary. What I refer to, rather, is the lack of balls on the part of director/interviewer David Redmon. His intentions are good, but he's not much for confrontation. I appreciate the fact that he'd rather let the images and words of his participants speak for themselves, and I also recognize that, on some level, this passive approach was necessary to get some of the footage he got. The fact remains, though, that this passivity leads to a couple points being made early on, after which the film has nothing left. It retreads over the same stuff (globalization is bad, Chinese labor is exploited, Americans don't really know or care) without any new insight or angle. Factory owner Raymond Wong, in particular, is a wasted opportunity: Sitting at his desk, all smiles as he explains that his factory is one of the finest and most humane in China and that his workers are happy and well-treated even as we see the opposite, this guy comes off as a muckraker's dream. Redmon could nail this motherfucker to the wall if he wanted, but, some late-film provocation aside, he prefers to let Wong hang himself. This, then, renders the film a bit toothless. At the end of it, what do we have? A couple drunken revelers on Bourbon Street have had their consciousnesses briefly raised. Good for you, I guess, Mr. Redmon, but I weep to imagine what Michael Moore or Robert Greenwald could have made of this.

Grade: C+
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

This is where hard-boiled was born, people. Humphrey Bogart is awesomely hard-assed as Sam Spade, the private dick you don't dick around with. I think what I liked most about this is that it anticipates the tangled morass of later noir and neo-noir (particularly The Big Sleep) by calling into question the entire idea of knowledge. Spade acts on instinct as a way to deal with the situation he's gotten into. Much talk of lies and trust sets up the notion of personal unknowability and deception (everyone's out for themselves and everyone's hiding something); it's pretty thrilling, then, when this theme seeps into the plot itself and Spade finds himself inside a hall of mirrors. The shifting ground of the plot reflects the shifting moralities and sympathies of its protagonists, and the only way for Spade to find the exit is to become the shiftiest of the shifty. It's all pretty awesome, especially when Bogart and Peter Lorre are one-upping each other -- Lorre's first scene is a wonderful example of dialogue as ping-pong game. Why have I not seen this before, what was I waiting for, etc. etc.

Grade: A-
The Muppet Movie (1979)

Benign and likeable children's feature starring everyone's favorite plush whatsits. (Like Homer Simpson says, "Well, it's not quite a mop, and it's not quite a puppet...") The pun-heavy antics of last year's Corpse Bride and Curse of the Were-Rabbit likely spoke to Henson's influence on those films, as this film (and, as I remember from my cloudy childhood viewings, the TV show) rides that punny impulse into head-spinning heights of humor. (My personal favorite: "Gone with the Schwinn.") This also likely marks the beginning of self-awareness in children's entertainment -- "Good grief, it's a running gag!" -- which has led to works both giddy ("SpongeBob SquarePants") and obnoxious (anything released by Dreamworks in the last five years). I'd wager the latter impulse was introduced into the mix not only as an extension of Henson's gently warped sense of humor but also as something to keep the adults just as entertained as the kids, which is fine by me. This would probably also explain the cameo parade from people like Richard Pryor (as an unscrupulous balloon vendor), Carol Kane (as a recurring gag) and Steve Martin, who nearly walks off with the film as a surly waiter. Underneath the veneer of child-safe entertainment, it is indeed a movie about starry-eyed movie-love amidst a cynical world. I do wonder, though, about the ending -- it feels a bit bleakly anti-Hollywood. I mean, look at it: The Muppets romp through America to get to Hollywood, and when they get there, they become stars only for us to see that the so-called Hollywood magic is all plywood and artifice? And what of the irony of Orson Welles, of all people, giving the Muppets "the standard 'rich and famous' contract"? I dunno, ignore me.

Grade: B

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Inside Man (2006)

It's a heist thriller in name, but it's a loose comedy about New York City in spirit. What's impressive is how director Spike Lee balances these two impulses so that one doesn't deflate the other; the tension inherent in the situation stays fresh even as Denzel Washington is joking around with Chiwetel Ejiofor or ogling a woman meant to help translate some Albanian dialogue. His racial conscience, too, shows up intact but moderated (i.e. the scene with the cops and the Sikh), so that it doesn't overwhelm the Hollywood-at-heart proceedings. The title hints at the places the story eventually goes (it's a three-way pun!), but the exact nature of said revelations is surprising. (It's what inside that counts, etc.) Spike's direction has the confidence of a grifter who knows he's gonna take all your money. The acting, headed up by Denzel's cocksure commander, is also stellar on all counts. I actually agree with most of Ebert's complaints vis-a-vis the plot, but I also don't really care -- this is some damn fine entertainment.

Grade: B+
David Holzman's Diary (1967)

"You're a voyeur, eh? What is that, something new?" Jim McBride's seminal treatise on cinematic obsession remains a vital and rich film nearly forty years after its debut. There's a lot of places to start in with this film, but I was particularly amused by the film's rejection of the concept of objective reality -- in the age of cinema verite, McBride laughs off the notion that any sort of reality can be captured by a camera. (One wonders what Frederick Wiseman thinks of this movie.) Holzman (played perfectly by L.M. Kit Carson) films and films, trying to get it all down, but at the end of his tale he's no closer to understanding anything or even closer to a sense of his own reality; ironically, the first image is that of Holzman bringing himself into focus. He starts with a goal, but his own biases and obsessions trip that up. Nowhere is this more evident than in the interview sequence in front of the mural. The words speak of spontaneity, but the monologue is clearly rehearsed, and Holzman directs the "performance" to the point where the interviewee calls him out on it. There's no truth in his narcissism, but neither is there much self-love -- the film's visual complexity is subtle but undeniable, and one of its best jokes is that Holzman is rarely in the center of the frame when he's on camera. He's not even the star of his own show; instead, the film-within-the-film itself becomes the star. This is a film about film in every sense of that phrase, and for film-drunk people like myself it's pretty thrilling. (Best scene: When our naturalistic drama is unexpectedly interrupted by an avant-garde film that's like a far smarter version of the opening to Skidoo.) Lest all this blather make it sound high-minded, I should also point out that its satiric evisceration of this self-involved young lad is often hysterical in a way that you don't have to be a film geek to get. (Holzman, struggling to say something complimentary about his girlfriend Penny on camera: "She's... vain... uh, that's not good...") It's a forward-thinking comic finger up the ass of voyeur culture, and it watches passively as the cinematic impulse eats itself whole. "Penny said... forget it."

Grade: A-
Sangre (2005)

See, people, this is what we get when we praise Tsai Ming-Liang and we praise Bruno Dumont and we praise Carlos Reygadas. This feature debut by Amat Escalante (who was, among other things, assistant director on Reygadas's Battle in Heaven) aligns itself so closely with the squalid-master-shot aesthetic that is all the rage in certain world-cinema circles that it can't help but invite comparison to the above listed filmmakers; such comparisons can only reveal how hollow Escalante's film is. He has a good eye for composition, but his depiction of one man's empty life has neither the mordant and playful wit of Tsai nor the disturbing tonal mastery of Dumont -- it's just a series of scenes with this cross-eyed dude and his boring marriage and his boring job and his junkie daughter. (Nor does it have the necessary craft of performance from its actors; Escalante can coax a striking image out of a heap of garbage, but he can't get anything out of his amateur actors.) It's so dogged and dull that I wonder if it's not intended as a parody of this arthouse genre, where dead-end lives are represented by dead air and passionless sex between unattracive people is shorthand for artistic truth. I've struggled with my reaction to this film, honestly. Is my disliking this representative of a streak of burgeoning philistinism within my sensibilities? Intellectually, I appreciate what it's doing. I see the alienation, the dead dreams and lost passions, the hopelessness and the sadness. But it does nothing for me. The ending, too, leaves me torn -- while it's interesting in the sense that steers away from the expected violence that often concludes films of this ilk, I think it's reaching for a sense of theological grace that it hasn't earned. Could that be the point, though? Is Escalante implicitly criticizing the wastefulness of the unexamined life by showing us a protagonist who's so wrapped up in his problems and his self-pity that he fails to understand the miraculous thing he's just done? There is part of me that insists that I'm missing something here, even as the rest of me holds my nose and resists the temptation to throw things (quiet desperation never seemed so desperate). Ultimately, I'm going with my gut (since it rarely steers me wrong), and I feel okay calling this a plodding exercise in ennui whose ambition curdles far too quickly into pretension. But feel free to prove me wrong.

Grade: D

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

And now for something completely different...

It's May, and the weather is warming up. I feel a bit giddy. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm proposing a contest. In the month of October, I posted reviews for twenty films. One of these twenty was viewed while, um, heavily intoxicated. Here's the contest:

Guess which of the twenty October films is the 'drunk' film.

What does the winner get? Well, the winner gets one of two things:

1) A DVD copy of said film, or

2) Barring unavailability of DVD (in other words, if it's not out on DVD yet, not if it's sold out at my local Borders), the cash equivalent thereof.

The first correct guess wins. Everyone who wishes to participate gets two guesses. Send all guesses to this address. Deadline is May 31st. Happy guessing, y'all...

Monday, May 01, 2006

Slither (2006)

James Gunn's directorial debut shows that Troma taught him well: It's an icky, sticky creature-feature with an astronomical splatter quotient, a sidelong sense of humor and a willingness to offend everyone it sees (or everyone that sees it). Basically, it's my kind of movie. It's stuffed to the gills with aliens, killer slugs, exploding heads, exploding bodies, mind control, Runnin' Zombies(TM), mucus, blood and muck. Complaints of excess are irrelevant -- this type of film thrives on being too much in every direction. That type of excess can be thrilling, but it can also be wearying; fortunately, the characters and Gunn's goofy sense of humor keep it grounded. Nathan Fillion does his usual thing as the square-jawed snark who has to suck up his courage and save the day; meanwhile, Gregg Henry seems to have been given his own corner of the film where he can rant and curse and generally take the piss out of everything. (Best comedic moment: when a frantic appraisal of the increasingly-dire situation devolves into a debate between Henry and Gregg about the semantics of the word "Martian.") Michael Rooker, though, is the linchpin. He's very good in a difficult role as Grant Grant, the shitkicker who becomes the flashpoint for the alien invasion/infection; he manages to wring emotion out of his conflicted character even under a ton of makeup that makes him look like a mass of pot roast. The makeup, augmented by CGI, is impressively sick-minded (is that a Society homage late in the film?), and Gunn tosses a couple unexpected wrinkles into his script. (The hive-mind zombies were pretty neat.) Even the horror-geek references that seem standard with films like this these days are well-handled: Instead of going the usual route by naming characters after George Romero and John Carpenter (which is so common that it's practically a cliche), Gunn name-checks Frank Henenlotter, visually quotes Shivers and names a gun store after James Woods's character in Videodrome. It's a big gift-wrapped valentine to sleaze fans from a sleaze fan who hit it big, and damned if it didn't tickle me fucking pink.

Grade: B+
Safety Last! (1923)

A silent comedy crafted almost entirely from astonishment. I wasn't impressed by my previous exposure to Harold Lloyd (The Freshman), but this... how could I dislike this wondrous thing? Like the best of Keaton or Chaplin, it proceeds according to its own unhinged internal logic, alternating silly sight gags with amazing feats of physical derring-do. I am a physical-comedy enthusiast at heart (pratfalls are stupid, but dammit, they're funny), so this is right up my alley -- it's dizzying slapstick on steroids. Lloyd's hustling bumbler is an appealing character, far more so than the rube he played in The Freshman, and the likeability helps. But the question remains, is it funny? Hell yeah. It's hilarious and hair-raising in equal measure, and the climactic building-climbing sequence is deservedly one of the most famous in all of silent comedy. The ingenuity of the sequence increases right alongside its intensity -- I was laughing and gasping at once. I need to see more Lloyd, methinks.

Grade: A