Monday, July 31, 2006

Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

Like the title suggests, this examination of the odd 86ing of the electric EV1 and other electric automobiles is structured like a murder mystery: we meet the victim, watch the crime and then are given a laundry list of possible guilty parties around whom the blame can be spread. And like most murder mysteries, the fun is in the follow-through, not the set-up. As director Chris Paine uses talking heads and consumer testimonials to explain why the electric car was such a societal boon, the film maintains a mere semblance of interest; once he gets to start slinging accusations at the automotive industry, the federal government, Big Oil and whomever else he feels has a hand in the car's demise, that's when the film really cooks. I think the problem with the first half of the film is that Paine's heart is dead set on uncovering the reasons for the discontinuation of the car, so he rushes through the obligatory introductions. We get a lot of fawning paeans to the EV1, some quick discussion of the drafting and later defeat of a crucial California emissions law and a general sense that there's a side we're not being shown. (The third paragraph of Mick LaSalle's San Francisco Chronicle review offers a credible explanation, borne from the nature of American consumerism, of why the car wasn't an out-of-the-box hit that Paine doesn't seem to want to acknowledge.) Once the cars start disappearing, though, Paine starts examining the issue rather than merely presenting a side of it; as a result, the film becomes far more compelling. What ultimately emerges is a rueful portrait of American industry's unwillingness to deal with its own wastefulness. The semi-happy ending, of course, is that Japan stuck with the concept and is now reaping the rewards with the increasingly popular hybrid vehicle while American companies stand around and wonder where the fuck all that came from.

Grade: B
Cowboy del Amor (2006)

Documentary about "Cowboy Cupid" Ivan Thompson, who takes lonely American men across the Mexican border and sets them up with Mexican women, with marriage as the goal. A lacerating documentary about this business being indicative of how modern globalization turns even people and love into a commodity could be made; this, though, is not the intent of director Michele Ohayon. She's not a hatcher-jobber -- while I sense that she doesn't generally agree with Ivan's choice of vocation, she nevertheless presents him as a likable, engaging man who only wants the best for his clients. There's a sense of hope in the arrangements we're shown, as though everyone benefits from Ivan's business -- the men get to meet nice women who are "different" (read: more subservient) than American women, the women get to come to America; Ohayon, though, is canny enough to include footage of Ivan and his ex-wife as proof that not all of his arrangements are surefire. Overall, this is an entertaining watch, with Ivan holding his own as an irascible stranger-than-fiction type; the film's structured a bit too obviously towards a Hollywood-type happy ending/validation, but since the ending isn't all sweetness and light (for every beginning, there's an ending), I'll let it slide.

Grade: B
Container (2006)

Lukas Moodysson follows up his underrated confrontational objet d'art A Hole in My Heart with a film that seems designed to alienate even further the crowd who once had him pegged as the Great White Hope of Humanism. This one's a strange bird -- a portly man and a woman wander through a ruined landscape while Jena Malone whispers a narration that has nothing to do with what we're seeing. The disconnect between the words and the images, between what the man is doing and (presumably) what he's thinking, is pretty fascinating for about forty minutes. But then Jena smashes the cinematic illusion by identifying herself as Jena Malone. Then the film runs out of ideas. Still, there's a lot of worthwhile stuff here. Malone's commentary is amusing and affecting in equal measure (at least until she breaks character), as she spins out a rambling discourse on starstruckness and confused sexuality. Pop-culture references are abound (such as when Malone intones, "If I were a boy, I would have sex with Paris Hilton all day long"), as are references to transgenderism and being a woman in a man's body. The ultimate message seems clear: Our bodies are in some way ourselves, but said bodies are all just containers for our consciousnesses, and we can only understand the world through the filter of our interests. It's this acknowledgment of the human capacity for self-involvement that provides for much of the best parts of this film, most notably the Sudan story; meanwhile, Moodysson's direction reinforces this through the use of inky black-and-white photography and limited light, showing us only what we need to see at the time. There is a vanishing point for this kind of thing, though, and the pretension does become overwhelming. Furthermore, the film's last half-hour is repetitious; there's still interesting stuff (i.e. the part where Malone talks about her favorite collectibles, with a pair of boots taking precedence over a letter from Auschwitz), but it mostly rehashes concepts that have been well-established. This probably would have worked better as a short film, but even so I'm happy to see it exist. Despite his radical shifts in material, Moodysson hasn't really changed much since Show Me Love -- he's still advocating empathy with the outcast and the downtrodden. He's just found different and more exciting ways to express himself. And if Container is ultimately a bit of a dead end, it still shows an artist who's willing to challenge himself.

Grade: C+

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Keane (2005)

Lodge Kerrigan has an uncanny talent for depicting some unpleasant neuroses in ways that force the audience into identifying stances. Here, he's reworked the materials of his debut Clean, Shaven and managed to improve upon it; the streamlining of the narrative (i.e. no cop-on-the-hunt subplot) works to the film's advantage. Damian Lewis's extraordinary performance is the whole show; all jitters and stumbling, rushing words, he perfectly captures the sensation of a man on the verge of a nervous collapse, his emotions ruled by forces he can't control or understand. Meanwhile, Kerrigan uses his mise-en-scene not just as a storytelling device but as an externalization of Lewis's mental instability, which means lots of shaky handheld photography and uncomfortably long takes (information overload and all that). The former tactic is something I find hit or miss, but here it works beautifully, creating a palpable nervous tension that keeps the film hurtling along even as very little actually happens; the latter, meanwhile, is responsible for some amazing scenes (including a brilliantly depicted sexual encounter in a bathroom stall). Kerrigan also keeps his framing tight and his close-ups myriad; as such we're forced into Lewis's frame of reference and have to wonder what we're not being shown. So, is this a human drama framed as a thriller, or is it a thriller that mutates into a human drama? Fuck it, it's both. And it's pretty great.

Grade: A-
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Ruggero Deodato's infamous geek-show gutmuncher is that rare thing: a dark, fucked-up film that, no matter what you've heard about it, is nastier than you would imagine. It's also a uniquely disturbing film, as the thoughtless level of atrocity (both real and fake) on display makes for a hateful film that deserves to be dismissed and thrown away. Yet it can't be denied that Deodato, in his clumsy and heedless way, is trying to say something important. It's the push-pull tension between Deodato's message and his methods that provides the most fascinating aspects of this film, yet this tension also eventually tears the film to pieces. The film was obviously made in a state of great anger, and I can see where Deodato is attempting to criticize media violence (specifically the "mondo" movie phenomenon). But he's decided to savage the genre by inhabiting it, and his penchant for overstatement leads him down some ill-advised roads. Most damagingly, there's the animal-cruelty aspect. I know it's supposed to be indicative of the barbarism of modern man and how he's not in touch with nature and destroys everything he sees or something like that. And that's great. The problem is that Deodato makes that point after the killing of the muskrat, but he keeps on killing monkeys and pigs and turtles, like their unfaked deaths are going to add something to his bilious little diatribe against the evils of humanity. The turtle-flaying, in particular, goes on for so long in such detail that I had to wonder that if, despite his protestations, Deodato wasn't disingenuously getting off on all this. Too, though, there's intimations that Deodato understands the sickness of what he's doing. ("The more you rape their senses, the happier they are.") It comes down to whether or not the self-questioning impulse Deodato has built into his argument is enough to defuse the bad faith at the heart of his work, and I don't see it as sufficient. I respect the intention, but I'm repulsed by the execution. The backfire cuts the film off at the legs; in attempting to set fire to another's hut, Deodato ends up burning down his own.

Grade: C

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Short Cuts (1993)

Robert Altman's cynical side gets to run amok in this extraordinary tapestry film set in Los Angeles. From the malathion-spraying helicopters that open the film to the natural event that closes it and everything in between, it's clear that Altman's view of L.A. is less than benign. Like a less insistent Crash, Altman draws links between the vast cast of characters, whether they've met or not. Generally, these links involve injury, cruelty or death; what keeps the film from descending to heavy-handedness (besides its pointed lack of any message-mongering) is Altman's profound gift for little touches. For a guy who's renowned for his misanthropy, he certainly gives his characters a lot of room to breathe, and even a character like Tim Robbins's asshole cop is allowed a measure of dimension by film's end. Amid a raft of fantastic ensemble performances, the high point of the film is Jack Lemmon's monologue, which starts as a self-serving lewd story and winds up as a regretful apology; the way the scene develops is indicative of the careful observational style Altman does so well. It's interesting to note, too, that the observational aspect manifests itself thematically -- among other things, this is a damning portrait of mass self-involvement, of seeing without acting. Avoidance of responsibility, intentional and otherwise, crops up a lot (the body in the river; the pedestrian accident), and Altman's signature overlapping dialogue is used here not just to give the sense of life outside of the plot but to point up that these people are all talking at and around one another, not to each other. A bracing and haunting experience; the three-hour length can be a bit wearying, but it's worth every minute. (Also fascinating is the remarkable frankness with which this film handles unclothed bodies. It's rare to see such matter-of-fact nudity in a Hollywood feature.)

Grade: A-

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Superman Returns (2006)

I find it interesting in hindsight that X Men 3 should have Brett Ratner doing a credible Bryan Singer imitation, since Singer abandoned the franchise he successfully kick-started just so he could do a Richard Donner imitation; in doing so, he confirms my suspicions of him as a bland hack who managed to defy the Peter Principle. The wind-up is decent, what with Kevin Spacey finally getting back to enjoying himself while acting and Parker Posey not only not annoying the crap out of me but actually stealing a few scenes. (Her halfway-concerned, halfway-distracted delivery of the line "Aren't there supposed to be two of those?" combined with a perfect cut makes for the year's best punchline.) The cracks in Bryan Singer's slavish continuation, though, start to show in the film's first action setpiece; as Superman rescued a free-falling airplane, the only thing I could think about was how Lois Lane should be dead after slamming hither and yon around the cabin. (And that, kids, is why you should always keep your safety belt fastened even after the captain has turned off the Fasten Seat Belt light!) Later on, the film's dewy-eyed angst and general lack of humor prove to be major liabilities; Singer's reverence for the established Superman mythos is such that it removes any sense of vitality. The wax dummy that plays Superman doesn't help matters either; neither does Kate Bosworth, who is all wrong as the tough, ambitious, Pulitzer-Prize-winning version of Lane we get here. (Seriously, Hollywood: Stop trying to foist Bosworth on us. When America said it didn't want Gretchen Mol, you made her disappear. Why then hasn't the box-office apathy towards this particular blond kewpie doll made her shrivel up and blow away like a turd in the desert?) Spacey as Lex Luthor is the only thing that keeps this film from collapsing into a black hole of self-importance; his sly, sociopathic take on Lex (essentially John Doe gone corporate) is the film's sole sop to the idea that superhero stories -- you know, movies about guys in brightly-colored costumes who possess strange magical powers -- are meant to be fun.

Grade: C
Kill Your Idols (2006)

Engrossing if formally clumsy documentary on the brief No-Wave scene in New York City during the late '70s and its aftereffects exemplifies everything that is wrong with low-budget documentaries. It's a crude, slapped together thing with filmmaking ranging from barely functional to downright incompetent. (The editing, which I guess is supposed to mirror the herky-jerky rhythms of much of the profiled music, is irritating.) If the subject matter weren't so fascinating, this might be unbearable. Hearing the music which the film is about, though, puts its amateurishness into context -- if the film is primitive, it's only as a reflection of the subject. S.A. Crary's goal is to provide an overview of what once was and how it differs with what is today; the lack of depth is an issue, but there's plenty of information here even for those who know something about the genre (as I do). Great musical performances, too (why the hell haven't I heard DNA before?). The modern-day interviews prove that all the wrong lessons were learned by those who were influenced by the movement, and the ones who were the influencers know it; Lydia Lunch, in particular, gets some vicious shots in against the modern NYC scene. Watching this, it's clear why both the original No Wave scene and the New-York hipster scene of a couple years back died out, though only the former was meant to. No Cop Shoot Cop though, what a gyp. Also: I will pay good money to anyone who can assure me that I'll never have to hear Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs interviewed ever again.

Grade: B-
Izo (2004)

It was inevitable, I guess. Eventually, the prolific Takashi Miike was going to make a film like this -- all ideas, no coherence. It has something to do with a samurai who can't be killed and his rampage through history as the spirit of vengeance, slaughtering everything he sees. In theory, I can appreciate what's going on here -- it attempts to be a statement on violence's role in shaping history and the effects of violent acts on the soul of a man. The thing is, though, Miike tries to get this message across by alternating lugubrious philosophical roundabouts with blood-spattering and endless scenes of Izo cutting through various enemies. Everything that can be said has been said by the forty-five minute mark, leaving an hour of repetitive tedium that is only occasionally enlivened by Miike's skill with imagery. Ambitious, but it does go on way past its rational breaking point. How often must we see Izo get slashed and then slash through his enemies? What point does it make beyond the obvious ones? There must be reasons. Anyone who cares to share them with me, have at it.

Grade: D+
Goodbye in the Mirror (1964)

Meandering portrait of a woman and her experiences in Rome. This is generally filed with the avant-garde features of the '60s, which I presume is due to the impressionistic approach to the narrative. (It certainly has nothing to do with any kind of formal experimentation, unless tossing away the tripod was a revolutionary concept in 1964.) Truth be told, I admire what director Storm de Hirsch is presumably doing here -- it could be a precursor to Lost in Translation, a travelogue from the vantage of someone who didn't bother to understand or appreciate what she was seeing. The problem with this approach is it risks (indeed, invites) the creation of a protagonist who could charitably be described as difficult. Which is what happens here -- the lead in this film is a sullen, flighty twit, and her dislikeability weighs down the whole enterprise. I think some manner of feminist message is being transmitted, but it's not getting through, unless the message is that feminism means that women can be just as intolerable as men.

Grade: C
Scream of the Butterfly (1965)

Cheesy, enjoyable potboiler about the murder of a slutty woman by her vapid lover, much to the consternation of her cuckolded husband; the film is told in flashback by a roomful of lawyers, making it a sort of low-rent Rashomon. The tale itself is modest sleazy fun, especially the further it goes and the kinkier it gets (there's some surprising reveals here for the time period), but I think the best parts are in the scenes without sex or violence, i.e. the current-day segments wherein the lawyers hash out what happened and whether the lover will go to jail or an asylum for it. The dialogue in these sequences is properly overripe and benefits from a willingness to not take itself seriously; this is, for instance, the only film in history in which a character is referred to as "Miss Slutsy-Wutsy." Furthermore, there's a level of craft here that elevates this above the average '60s B-trash. While I can't exactly call it visually inspired, it is crisp and confident - there's a terseness to the directorial style that fits the pacing and keeps things moving along at a nice clip. Also of note is the sound design -- director Eber Lobato, interestingly enough, beat both Altman and Cassavetes to the overlapping-dialogue punch! What this is, in essence, is a grindhouse-circuit film that, unlike much of its take-the-money-and-run brethren, aspires to be a real movie. Funny how that can make a difference.

Grade: B-

Monday, July 17, 2006

Nacho Libre (2006)

In which Jared Hess tries to forcibly recapture the dry humor that emanated so effortlessly from the crevices of Napoleon Dynamite. There's scattered laughs, mainly because Jack Black always gives 110%, but the problem is that the characters in Dynamite, no matter how quirky or offbeat their words and actions were, always felt like they could have been genuine people. It gave the film a credibility that eludes a lot of quirk-driven indie comedies (I wave my private parts at Garden State). Here, the characters are about as real as Demi Moore's breasts -- they're flagrant constructs, defined solely by their bizarreness, and the humor suffers for it. The comedic hit-miss ratio is devastating; for every laugh line or strange bit of business (most of which were included in the trailer), there's several that go nowhere or aren't nearly as funny as Hess seems to think. I laughed, I'll admit, but it's probably a bad sign that I can't remember a single thing at which I laughed. Hell, I remember at what I laughed in Bewitched. This film, though... like eggs on Teflon. Actual lucha libre films (i.e. Santo) are far funnier and more worth your time than this.

Grade: C
The Great Yokai War (2006)

Takashi Miike needs a better editor, or maybe he needs a friend off whom he can bounce ideas. The majority of his films would be fantastic if they weren't so overloaded with every crazy notion and fancy that pops into Miike's head. So it goes with this overextended fantasia, which alternates between the exciting and the puzzling; the character of Kawataro is especially irritating, as he's the designated Odious Comic Relief, and he drags down most every scene in which he appears. Having registered those complaints, there's still quite a bit of fun to be had here, as Miike processes the kiddie-adventure genre (think Krull or The Neverending Story) through his particularly warped sensibilities; surely this is the only children-oriented film wherein the preteen hero is menaced by giant robots with chainsaws for hands or wherein an adult character is able to see and relate with the title spirits by getting good and stinkin' drunk. On a thematic level, Miike is speaking about children as well as to them -- Yokai is a film about the progress from childhood into more advanced stages of life, and the things we lose and gain along the way. Interesting to note in this vein is the treatment of the female characters, both of whom are scantily clad and just on the edge of sexualization, yet they sit on that perch without the benefit of eroticization; somehow, both the good and bad female simultaneously are and aren't lust objects. (They're both hot, at any rate, especially the ever-moist Mai Takahashi.) So there's that, which may be why I'm probably underrating this -- it's obvious that, despite his prolificacy, he puts a lot of thought and consideration into every film he makes. Which is why it's so annoying when he gets tripped up by his own tendencies towards excess. Yokai is hilarious, bold, exciting but uneven and ultimately wearying and as such is yet another merely-decent-but-should-be-way-better entry in Miike's filmography.

Grade: B-
Beetle, the Horn King (2005)

Would it be cheesy of me to call this film bugfuck? It may be a cheap pun, but that's the only word that really captures the lunacy exemplified within Minoru Kawasaki's insect-happy wrestling romp. It's about Beetle, a sort of intergalactic half-man, half-beetle wrestling superhero, and it's also about his various enemies, all of whom also are part insect, and it's also about a young cub reporter who gets tangled up in the body-slam shenanigans... but mostly, it's about how much goofy, weird shit Kawasaki and Co. can cram into seventy minutes of psychosis. Bizarre humor abounds, both on the large scale (the plot has been set in motion by an alien worm who, essentially, has created the rival wrestlers as part of a universal toy-tie-in scheme) and the small (one guy shouts "Kafka!" when transforming). Dizzy, energetic and quotable for days (best in-context-only line: "These are nerds. I found them on the Internet."); if it's not exactly 'good' in an objective sense, it's still a blast. Nacho Libre wishes it was this film.

Grade: B
Red Desert (1964)

My streak of philistinism rears its shaggy head for Michelangelo Antonioni's study in environmental alienation. Red Desert was Antonioni's first color film, and it certainly looks fantastic -- the world Antonioni has built around Monica Vitti's character Giuliani is a cold and sick world, the kind of place people go to die. Industrial grays and steely blues are the dominant shades, and the majority of the splashier colors are leeched of life, bright without being vibrant. The pallid shades of yellow that belch from the factory where Giuliani's husband works are perfect examples of this; the yellow offers a contrast to the monochrome landscape, yet it doesn't provide relief from the overwhelming sense of malaise (if anything, the unnatural diseased shade Antonioni uses only enhances said malaise). Unfortunately, Antonioni's characters are also leeched of life. Of course, that's the point -- the oppressiveness of the sickly modern environment disconnects people from theirselves and all that. I understand the metaphor. But characters have to be something before they can stand for something, and Antonioni doesn't leave room to breathe. It's a film that has pieces of greatness -- certainly the extended sequence on the boat in the harbor, with six adults simultaneously trying to respect and violate each other's space and propriety, is a setpiece for the ages, and the ending is haunting ("They've learned not to fly through it."). But Antonioni is so obsessed with the Big Message that he squeezes the interest from his narrative. His heavy hand is as crushing and life-sapping as the world he shows us.

Grade: C+

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Minor Tod Browning film about a revenge-minded prison escapee (Lionel Barrymore) who uses a dead scientist's miniaturization technology (and the scientist's assistant) to exact just desserts on the people who framed him and wrongly sent him to jail. The effects are still pretty amazing, but the story never quite gels; for one, I was never sure whether Barrymore's blase attitude towards covering his tracks was intentional or not. Given the ending, I can see how the former can be a viable interpretation, but it's still kinda silly. (And yeah, I know complaining about credibility in a film about shrunken people, on some level, is missing the point. But there it is anyway.) Also, the actress playing Malita is capital-A awful, and her character's arc is frankly absurd. Fortunately, Barrymore is able to hold together a lot of the less impressive stuff, and Browning, as always, is able to create a couple nifty sequences (i.e. the hiding of the necklace, the last doll deployment). I think its reputation has become weirdly inflated over the last several years, but it's still a fair entertainment.

Grade: B-
Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975)

Any film with that title has a certain set of expectations that demand to be met, and on the basest level of things Andrea Bianchi's giallo fulfills its obligations. He delivers exactly what the title promises: There's women who get naked, and there's a maniac who kills those women. Anyone looking for anything beyond that, though, is bound to be disappointed -- this is a wan, bare-minimum effort whose fashion milieu clashes with the stylelessness at the film's core. For one thing, it's extraordinarily dumb, even by the loose standards of the giallo genre. The obligatory police-investigation subplot is the worst offender; I know the police never have any of the answers in this sort of film, but when your attending officers fail to recognize the fact that two suspects were killed in the same location, and that location happens to be the home of their primary suspect... well, you have to wonder what the hell they're doing in the film other than stopping it cold. Furthermore, while Bianchi delivers manfully on the first portion of the title's promise (titties everywhere!), his handling of the second requirement is disappointing; his crude, dull murder setpieces have little of the panache or tension of Dario Argento's or even Sergio Martino's. There's one memorably grody bit involving mutilated genitals, and I'll admit that a late-film stalking setpiece included a fantastic jump-scare, but otherwise this is pretty rote. Third strike: All the male characters are jackoffs (our intrepid chauvinist hero included) and almost all the female characters are cockteasing bitches. This last bit certainly makes the film feel seedy and ugly, as it properly should, and I'll be a liar if I don't admit to getting a certain level of entertainment out of this. (Edwige Fenech: sooo gorgeous.) Mostly, though, this isn't that great. It's leering, supersleazy (check that anal-rape blackout joke!) and very, very stupid. Some of you might consider that a recommendation. I almost do myself.

Grade: C
Snow White (1916)

Silent version of the classic fairy tale (or, more accurately, a stage adaptation of said tale) is most important for its influence: It's said that this film inspired Walt Disney to become a filmmaker. A place in history, however, is no guarantee of quality, and so it goes with this film. It's ornate and well-designed, but it makes no effort to hide its stage origins, thus robbing it of any measure of vitality it could conceivably have. A handsomely mounted yet completely dead thing, this may be cinema's first Mantlepiece Movie.

Grade: C+

Sunday, July 09, 2006

La Moustache (2006)

Ambiguity in a film can be a good thing, especially in a film like this one, where the situation (a man shaves off his mustache and inadvertently turns his entire life inside out) is borne of an absurdist logic Kafka would admire. However, there can come a point where a refusal to explain certain things or have characters take certain actions bespeak to a sort of covering-up on the part of the filmmakers. To put it another way, I think the makers of this film have kept things vague and open because they weren't sure where to take their premise once it had been devised, nor were they sure on how to deal with the obvious logical holes that were inadvertently introduced. Instead of thinking, "Wow, this is kinda creepy," I was more often thinking "Why doesn't Marc just show his co-workers his ID badge?" or "Why doesn't Marc wave the picture from Bali in front of his wife's face?" The performers (including the invaluable Emmanuelle Devos as Marc's wife Agnes) almost sell it, but when a good five minutes of the third act to an existential-crisis thriller is consumed by a guy riding the Hong-Kong-to-Kowloon ferry for a whole day, there had better be a damn good reason for it. There isn't one here, other than casting about and hoping some accidental meaning emerges from it (it's, like, ready-made ennui or something); sorry Vincent Lindon.

Grade: C+
The Neighbor No. 13 (2006)

Is accomplished artistry enough to triumph over trite material? In the case of Yasuo Inoue's debut entry in the overgrown serial-killer genre, the answer is just barely. Inoue has a sharp eye for camera placement and color (the strange pre-credit sequence is a grand demonstration of this), and he's skilled enough to build a convincingly grubby atmosphere while also creating a sense of ambiguity about what might be happening. (The latter is important; otherwise, the ending, which seems to be about the schism point between passivity and active resistance, thus offering a glimpse into another life, wouldn't work at all.) Inoue demonstrates that he knows the value of contrast - in a sea of grey-green visuals, Yumi Yoshimura's pink dress can't help but stand out - and also how to best exploit his armada of editing tricks; I especially liked the way the film's shifts between Juzo and No. 13 were done as an off-hand thing. As a purely visual director, Inoue convinces. His material, though, lets him down. The screenplay, based off a manga, is trying too hard to be ugly, and the flashback scenes feel as though they've been imported from some other, much shittier movie (Memento Mori, maybe?). Despite the pretty frills, it's just another movie about a guy with a deadly side, and as such it's the kind of film where Yoshimura (one half of J-pop group Puffy AmiYumi, by the way) can steal the film away from the lead just by standing in frame and being distractingly hot. Still, I'll keep an eye out for whatever Inoue does next.

Grade: B-
Faces (1968)

I don't think I can improve on this film's assessment of itself (in the meta-cinematic opening) as "an impressionistic document that shocks." The improvisatory acting is extraordinary on all counts, as one would expect given the reputation of writer/director John Cassavetes; what surprised me was the technical strides he made in between 1959's Shadows and this. Faces has the loose and shambling feel of Shadows but without the directorial roughness -- this film is beautiful to watch even if you're not into the characters. The camerawork, in particular, is so strong that it feels like an extra character through whose eyes we see the goings-on; the hazy, expressive lensing perfectly complements the boozy dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that Cassavetes is mining here. Too, the sound is just about perfect, as we see Cassavetes making the most of chaos and overlapping dialogue (he's definitely nailed the way drunks and emotional midgets communicate) a couple years before Robert Altman blew up large doing the same thing. On the story front... well, there isn't much of one (it's a film of incidents), but the characters are pathetic without being dull -- they're struggling to find their own happiness but too often settle for merely drowning their sorrows in cheap booze and cheaper sex. Somehow both really talky and completely cinematic, this immense study of ruined relationships and missed connections is great in all senses of the word.

Grade: A-
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

If you didn't know Sam Peckinpah was an alcoholic, you'd understand that by the end of this film. This is a film soaked in booze and dripping depression, and there are certain things it understands better than just about any other film. For one, it sees dynamics of power between men, women and other men and innately understands how it all works. The powerful men wield their power casually, like it was nothing (i.e. the nonchalant cruelty of El Jefe in the opening scenes), while the disenfranchised and those at the whim of said power flail and struggle against their burdens; the pistol, though, is the great equalizer. Women offer a respite from the dog-eat-dog world of manliness, but even there there's competition and power struggles -- Warren Oates, after all, is searching for the body of a man who fucked "his" woman, and among other things, Garcia's head can be seen as a symbolic revenge for a cuckolding. There's also the scene with the bikers, which is simultaneously the most fascinating and the most troubling of the film; Peckinpah's gender politics are as thorny here as they were in Straw Dogs, but at the heart of his strange misogyny is an understanding that rape is a crime of power and not sex, thus the off-putting but oddly credible shift from menace into tenderness once Isela Vega's Elita shows she's not going to put up a fight. "I've been here before, Benny, and you don't know the way," she shouts to Warren Oates (amazing as ever) as Kris Kristofferson's biker drags her away, and there's something heartbreaking about this rough and troublesome scene immediately following the clumsy beauty of the scene where Vega, with her wounded romanticism, gets Oates to ask her hand in marriage. Peckinpah's world here is a sad and besotted one, where ambitions towards escape end badly; the second half's descent into a string of violent acts makes more sense if this is viewed as a tragic love story, with Oates bonding with the only man who could understand his feelings towards a woman others would see as a common whore. (The film's most important and devastating line, from Oates to the head: "It wasn't worth her.") It's not a perfect film, as the second half does feel like a comedown from the perfectly lived-in feel of the first, no matter how you justify it. It is, however, a dark and compelling jolt of unfiltered Peckinpah; besides, there's Warren Oates, who can always be counted on to give one of the best performances you'll ever see no matter what he turns up in.

Grade: B