Saturday, August 26, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Will Ferrell makes some of the weirdest comedies ever to be embraced by mainstream America. There isn't a damn thing wrong with that. This monster hit, while not as consistent as Anchorman, still tickles me in all the right spots. It's got its share of inexplicable moments -- Ferrell running around 'on fire,' the various odes to Jesus, the cougar. Above all, there's the incomparable Sacha Baron Cohen, who steals every damn scene he's in as gay French driver Jean Girrard. Even the way he says "Ricky Bobby" is funny. You already know if this is your cup of tea. You don't need me to say anything else, and if I did it would probably just degenerate into a list of jokes anyway. I dug it. (If you do see it, stay through the end credits for possibly the funniest thing in the movie.)

Grade: B
Pulse (2006)

No wonder director Jim Sonzero wouldn't do press for this film -- if I'd done such a thorough botch job, I wouldn't want to talk to anyone either. To be fair, there's not much he could have done with the screenplay from which he was working. It has one terrific if familiar idea (technology is all around us; what if it turned on us?) and does absolutely nothing with it. The concept is window dressing for yet another J-horror-inspired booga-booga bore, and like most it snatches the incomprehensible plotting but forgets the well-honed sense for the uncanny that gives the incomprehensibility its force. (And I'm not even a fan of most J-horror.) But that doesn't let Sonzero off the hook. His visual scheme is leeched of any color save for metallic grey and steel blue; I understand the monochrome palate is intended to signify a dying world, but it's tough on the eyes and frankly dull. The film's major problem, though, is its capitulation to the American taste for loud jolts and jump scenes. It's bad enough that Sonzero telegraphs every single stinger, but tossing in the audience goosers indiscriminately destroys the atmosphere that the rest of the low-key narrative is attempting to build. Shock is easy; dread is hard.

Grade: C
BloodRayne (2006)

(Requested by Scott Black.)

I hate to admit it, but the quality of Uwe Boll's video-game adaptations has been incrementally increasing with each film he makes. That's how we get from the soul-destroying House of the Dead to the hilariously awful Alone in the Dark to this latest turd, which is merely silly in a vague sort of way. (At this rate, he might accidentally make a tolerable film sometime around the day the sun goes supernova.) BloodRayne is, unfortunately, also vaguely dull, which is not something that can be said for the previous entries in Dr. Boll's Hall of Shame. It still has some amusing bits -- the scene with Meat Loaf as the Marquis de Sade if the Marquis aspired to be David Crosby is Boll at his what-the-fuck 'best' -- and the action scenes, though generally incompetent, benefit from Boll's newfound penchant for hypergore. Mostly though, it just kinda sucks, and not in an interesting way. Interesting note: Dr. Boll is apparently the world's worst director of actors, as everyone in the film (even the actors who should know better) speaks with the Shatner Cadence. Michael Madsen: Worst! Performance! Ever!

Grade: D+

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Descent (2006)

Dog Soldiers was a promising debut, and Neil Marshall's latest film lives up to that promise. He's the real deal -- The Descent is the best pure spook show I've seen in a theater in at least a year. Anybody can put together a loud noise and a sudden visual jolt to goose the audience, and Marshall does indulge himself on that front. He is, however, far more accomplished in the setups and timing of his shock moments than most modern directors, many of whom telegraph their punches like glassjawed boxers, but that's not what makes the film stick. It's not boo scenes that make memorable horror movies (though the ones here are fantastically handled, especially the first major jump involving the infrared camera), and aside from the standard-issue jump scenes, Marshall has the good sense to build up a palpable sensation of foreboding. He also makes extraordinary use of his settings (the claustrophobic will have a tough time here) and runs all the way home with the low-level lighting, thus driving home the feel of the unseen and the eerie. It's almost a relief when the second half starts giving us the scares in earnest, as it allows some of the tension to blow off. Also, kudos are due for the asskicking-bitch characters. (Why is it so hard for modern horror directors to allow their walking Spam to be fierce, intelligent and self-reliant? Oh yeah, because then you'd actually have to know how to write.) Why this film isn't the biggest sleeper of the summer is beyond me, but it should have a healthy lifespan on video. It damn well better.

Grade: B+
Fearless (1993)

(Requested by Jenny Sekwa.)

I knew I liked this one when Jeff Bridges's strawberry allergy wasn't used for a cheap laugh. Mystical drama about a much-changed airplane crash survivor and his effect, both positive and negative, on those who surround him benefits from an astonishing performance from Bridges. Wavering between steely serenity and total psychosis, Max Klein could have been an excuse for histrionics from showier actors, but Bridges channels his natural confidence into a contradictory sort of inner peace; Max may not be right in the head, but he certainly acts like he knows something we don't, even as he uses his loss of fear to mask the turmoil within. In short, Max Klein is a fascinating character, and Bridges's essaying of him is equally fascinating. Thus, the film is fascinating. Peter Weir's direction is solid and surefooted, at times reminiscent of his creepily detached work on Picnic at Hanging Rock, another film about how a tragedy affects people. The Christian symbolism that pervades the work is interesting, given Max's defiance towards/rejection of God ("You wanna kill me, but you can't!"), as is the obvious messianic qualities of the character (his Jewishness has to be significant); it all feeds into Weir's vision of a world where strange, inexplicable things happen. The film's climax piles on the transcendence with a trowel, which should force the thing into a nosedive, but it instead works beautifully -- after the muted quality of much of the film, the over-the-top ending ties in with the film's running theme of sudden, violent epiphanies. It's a long and painful journey from "I'm not dead" to "I'm alive," but it's one worth making.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Drawing Restraint 9 (2006)

This is my first experience with the work of Matthew Barney, having not seen any of the Cremaster films. I think I'd like to change that as soon as possible. Stately, strange and hypnotic, this moody slab of avant-garde goodness holds the interest even as its intent remains elusive. The latter quality, I think, is rather the point. If anything, it's a film that is concerned foremost with the oddity of ritualism. The opening sequence shows a Japanese woman going through an elaborate process of wrapping a gift, to the point where the process is as important as the end result, and much of the stylized behavior in the film proper that follows adheres to that same concept. The whalers' painstaking machinations with the tub of Vaseline on deck or the preparations for the 'marriage' ceremony of Bjork and Barney seem inscrutable to the outside observer, movements with little discernable purpose, but by contrasting these faux rituals with a genuine Japanese tea ceremony, Barney gets at the larger idea that all rituals and ceremonies are bizarre at their core. The whole thing has the rigor of a Noh drama, which is pointed up by the use of hayashi instrumentation on the soundtrack. This is a very rhythmic film, attuned to the speed and sycopation of things, and the soundtrack does a fantastic job of bringing this out. The opening sequence involving a parade and a surfeit of foot-tapping gives the film a jolt of energy upon which it can coast for a while; similarly, the brilliantly frazzled Bjork song that plays on the soundtrack during the final sequence is a perfect complement to the outre imagery used to demonstrate Barney and Bjork, um, consumating the marriage in a very offbeat way. There's other stuff going on here as well (that final sequence is also textbook Hegel, if I remember Hegel correctly), enough that Barney's film never bores. Bring on Cremaster in my opinion.

Grade: B
Oporto of My Childhood (2001)

Memory piece by Portugese cinematic stalwart Manoel de Oliveira is lyrical in the most literal sense of the word: Much of de Oliveira's remembrances are expressed via songs, poems and other such examples of verse. (As if to drive home the point, the film opens with a backlit shot of an orchestra conductor doing his job.) It's a short and sweet thing, with some lovely filmmaking in evidence (there's a great shot which sees the young de Oliveira witnessing a nighttime drive by his chauffeur Lamas) and a graceful sense of the individual's place in the tides of history. It bogs down in the middle with de Oliveira's recounting of his entry into the Bohemian lifestyle, but it rallies at the end with some excellent recollections of the beginnings of Portugese cinema, which Manoel was around to witness. There's even a shoutout to the most famous of the Lumiere films, the origin of a nation's cinema thus being equated with the origin of all cinema. The voiceover narration, with the young de Oliveira occasionally correcting the current-day de Oliveira, also works quite well. It ultimately feels like a minor-key piece, an appetizer for a larger body of work; still, it has many nice moments, and I admit this has gotten me interested in the rest of Manoel's filmography.

Grade: B-
Pink Flamingos (1972)

The film that made John Waters a genuine force in underground filmmaking, and rightfully so -- this is the rare film with the temerity to follow its own diseased muse all the way down, and for that it's rather thrilling. It's more than just a tour of Waters's sick mind though; there's some radical pop reclamation (check the Angeresque re-queering of the film's oldies soundtrack) and social commentary hiding alongside the perversion. On the latter: The war between the proudly trailer-trash Babs Johnson (unforgettably essayed by Divine) and the haughty nouveau riche Mr. & Mrs. Marble is, at its core, a class war. The society Waters sees around him is diseased and rotten from top to bottom, with the upper class just as vicious as the lower. One of the most bracing parts of Waters's outlaw sympathies is his willingness to turn his celebration of filth into a revolutionary tract -- when the upper and lower classes clash, the ones with less to lose are the ones who come out on top. And yet, there's a slight conservative streak concealed in the same material; note that Babs and company are seen as sympathetic at least partially because they're, at heart, a traditional and loving family unit, while the villainous Marbles, with their insemination/white-slavery scheme, are doing their best to undermine/explode the idea of the nuclear family. The push-pull tension between traditionalism and nihilism makes the film a bracing experience and its sincerity and conviction make it credible, but it wouldn't mean a thing if it weren't also really funny. Which it is -- the dialogue is priceless ("No one sends you a turd and expects to live!"), the escalating situation is mesmerizing in its single-minded sickness and Divine's performance is riveting comic gold. He was a caustic force of nasty nature, and he deserves the old-Hollywood star's entrance Waters gives him. Offensive and entertaining in equal measure; finally seeing this give me all the more reason to regret the defanging of Waters in recent years.

Grade: A-
The Awful Truth (1937)

Delightful farce about a divorcing couple doing their best to sabotage each other's new relationships. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play off each other wonderfully; Grant in particular gets a lot of mileage out of his jolly sarcasm. The verbal repartee between the two flies like daggers on point, and much of it kills. At their core, though, the characters retain an essential likeability which keeps the film from tipping into an obnoxious slagfest (a la the monstrously overrated Twentieth Century). Aside from the verbal wit, there's also a healthy dollop of situational humor (i.e. the dog and the hat or Dunne's masquerade as Grant's sister) and even a touch of effective physical humor (Grant's unfortunate entrance into Dunne's musical recital). There's also an interesting dichotomy being milked here -- that of city life versus country life. While Grant and Dunne's urbanity is, for them, an asset, it's also significant that Ralph Bellamy's less-cultured oil baron isn't mocked -- rather, he's shown as a sweet and cheerful guy who ultimately showed up at the wrong time. Also of note is that the film's wrapup takes place in a cabin in the woods (something about stripping away the cynicism of the city, maybe?). Hilarity plus something to think about... what more do you need?

Grade: A-

Friday, August 11, 2006

Hey guys. I've started up a new site wherein I can post random thoughts, gripes and other such stuff that wouldn't really fit here. It can be found here. There will likely be nothing interesting there ever. But you might wanna give it a look-see anyway.
Scoop (2006)

Woody Allen follows up his best film in years with his best comedy in years; apparently, the air in England has recharged his muse. His timing, both as an actor and a director, haven't been this relaxed since the mid-'90s -- one of the worst things about his Dreamworks period was the sense, in films like Small Time Crooks and Hollywood Ending, he was forcing the funny. He was leaning on his trademark schtick and didn't want to admit that maybe he needed to take a break. One of the fun things about this film, then, isn't just that Allen's loosened up a bit; it's that part of the joke is indeed how, on some level, he's recycling all his old material. Take a look at the opening magic-act setpiece and watch Allen's mannerisms: The tricks he's performing are old hoary chestnuts and he knows it. He goes the entire distance of the scene wearing an expression halfway between a grimace and a smirk, like he can't believe he's still doing these old jokes and the audience still goes for it. He knows it's old, we know it's old, the point is do we laugh? The answer this time aroud at least is yes. There's a lot of solid laughs in this film, thanks to Woody and Scarlett Johannson, who demonstrates that she has the rare ability to deliver Woody-speak without it sounding like Woody-speak. Ian McShane isn't given enough to do, sadly, but it's nice to see his career resurgence continue apace -- he did some great work in the '70s in Britain, and I was always bummed that he faded away. Best line, and possible perfect epitaph for Woody: "I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but I coverted to narcissism sometime in the '40s."

Grade: B
The Bed Sitting Room (1969)

Richard Lester's post-apocalyptic comedy is hysterically funny and consistent in its capacity to surprise and astonish. It's also one of the few films I've seen that can legitimately be labeled as insane. But what else could it be? If nuclear destruction is the ultimate irrational act, the only way to respond is with irrationality; paradoxically, the brand of irrationality Lester gives us is that of total rational calm. It's all part of the British tradition of the stiff upper lip -- just keep muddling through no matter what life hands you and no matter how absurd it seems to do so. The question keeps coming up: Is it the situation or the characters who are crazy? It's a valid question. The negotiation of this dichotomy is the main business of the film, and it produces a wealth of unexpected hilarity, wheher borne from pure logic (the escalator to nowhere, the ascendence of Mrs. Ethel Shroake) or pure madness (the wandering BBC man, the various mutations, the meeting between Mother and Shelter Man). Lester's approach here recalls a hybrid between Monty Python and Salvador Dali -- in particular, the scene where Mother, in the process of turning into a wardrobe, opens a small drawer hat has formed in her breast is pure Dali -- but his hallucinatory vision of the blasted English countryside, with its cracked earth and broken buildings and piles of rubbish, is all his own. The ending doesn't quite work (after giving us the symbolic death of England's future, the smugly ironic wrapup feels kind of cheap), but that does little to lessen the mind-blowing effect of the nutzoid nightmare scenario. Unflappable decorum in the face of horror -- what could be funnier?

Grade: A-
The Five Venoms (1978)

Completely awesome when its characters are showing off their kung-fu prowess, not so much when its characters are standing around and talking to one another. Furthermore, it can't quite pin down the perfect balance between silly and supercool like, say, Master of the Flying Guillotine did. On the other hand, there is a scene where a guy gets stuck in an iron maiden and laughs it off (Toad Style!). There's also the final melee battle, which could be considered three-on-two or two-on-two-on-one, depending on when you walk in. In other words: who cares about incomprehensible plotting and bad dubbing when you have guys beating each other up while imitating snakes and lizards? I sure don't.

Grade: B-

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Blast of Silence (1961)

From the outset, writer/director/star Allen Baron's grim magnum opus makes clear its intention to be the bleakest, darkest, low-down-dirtiest mega-noir the world has ever seen. I mean, you have to respect a film that opens with the anti-hero's birth coupled with a voiceover narration saying how he was basically screwed from moment one. Baron's wonderfully moody tale of a hitman from Cleveland, born alone, who aligns himself with solitude as a big fuck-you to the rest of the world is hard-boiled and hyperbolic in all the right ways. The voiceover narration deserves mention as a separate character; rather than describing the action or setting the scene, it seemingly exists to taunt the misanthropic Cleveland into action, sneering at him and reaffirming his blistered hatred of everything he sees. It's somewhere between an inner monologue and a meta-commentary, and it works beautifully. Baron the director shows some awesome chops for a guy who worked in TV all his life -- the interplay of light and shadow are impressive, and he gets some fine mileage out of well-timed closeups (like the one given to Big Ralph in his last scene); there's even a touch of Casavettes in some of the more chaotic scenes (the Christmas party and the jazz club scenes in particular). Meanwhile Baron the writer has a trained ear for what sounds just noir enough without going over the top (best line: "He wears a mustache to hide the fact that he has lips like a woman"). And then there's Baron the actor. His lead turn is probably the weakest aspect of his cinematic hat trick, which says something about how accomplished his writing and direction are, since his performance, though a bit studied, is generally believable. (It helps that he's got a great mug.) Stuff like this is like manna for noir junkies.

Grade: A-
Fata Morgana (1971)

The more Werner Herzog I see, the more I like. This strange, surreal and gorgeous rumination on creation and creation myths opens with a fantastic series of shots -- a series of planes descend from the sky and land on a airstrip in foggy long shots, so that they appear almost as mirages. It's like seeing a literal deus ex machina, except that when the machine comes down, it delivers the beginning of the story instead of the end. The film that follows is divided into three parts ("Creation," "Paradise," and "The Golden Age"), and one can chart the progress of humanity as it slowly intrudes into the desolate landscapes that comprise much of the film's first two-thirds. There are almost no people to be seen in "Creation" (when they are seen, it's usually from a distance, like the people walking on the horizon), while little alcoves of humanity start to appear in "Paradise." (One of the most stunning shots in the whole film is in this second part, where we first get a glimpse of green after a mass of cracked and barren desert photography.) The encroaching irony, present in the segment title and self-conscious narration, that crops up in "Paradise" reaches full flower in "The Golden Age," where we go from the mystical and alien world of the uninhabited desert to the banal existence of those who've made it their home. Case in point: The man and woman (apparently a pimp and a brothel madam) who play bad keyboard music and sing tunelessly and tirelessly. The contrast is clear -- as odd as the world is, we as a species are even odder. Maybe those planes were bringing the end of the story after all.

Grade: B

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Clerks II (2006)

Dante and Randall return, and not much has changed except their ages. That's exactly the point of Kevin Smith's continuation of his slacker saga -- what can seem like a temporary rut can, if unchecked, become a lackadaisical way of life. As a filmmaker who has recently tried to extend himself beyond his traditional frames of reference, Smith seems a bit stymied at first by the return to that which he said he would leave behind; as a result, the rhythm and timing of his jokes is a bit off center. Around the time that nerdy newcomer Elias and a Mooby's customer get into a heated debate with Randall vis-a-vis the merits of The Lord of the Rings trilogy versus the merits of the Star Wars trilogy, though, Smith's groove has started returning; by the time the big centerpiece involving a man and a donkey rolls around, he's firing on all cylinders. The built-up momentum carries the film through some emotional soppiness and into the ending which it had to possess. Take another look at that ending, though: While it looks happy on the surface, the resigned look on Dante's face coupled with the fade to black-and-white make the point clear -- ambition gets sacrified for comfort and the lure of the familiar. We're not all destined for greatness, so the trick is to learn to be comfortable with where you are. Smith's amusingly morose new film demonstrates the difficulty of settling on such prospects.

Grade: B
The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2006)

If you cut the first two letters off of the second word in the title of Asia Argento's child-abuse opus, you'd get at the core of its failure. Heart is, for better and worse, a visually sumptuous film. Asia has clearly inherited her father Dario's extraordinary eye for composition, and for this film she's adopted a visual strategy akin to a Peter Greenaway film -- each stage in the long, ugly journey of young Jeremiah has a different look than anything that precedes or follows. Argento starts with low angles and natural light when Jeremiah is reunited with his mother Sarah (played by Argento, in a striking bit of anti-narcissism), then pushes into sickly florescence and angular shadows once they hit the road and Asia bounces from man to man. A narrative detour in which Jeremiah is sent to live with his hyper-religious grandparents (one of whom is played by Peter Fonda!) is full of clean whites and rich browns, warmer but no less menacing than the previous stops in Jeramiah's life; then there's the climactic bit in the supermarket, with both Sarah and Jeremiah strung out on drugs and wearing jet black that cuts through the harsh white market lighting. This is some fabulously seedy image-making, but there comes a point where it all begins to feel too determined, too overaesthetized. Rather than draw us deeper into the horrible world in which Jeremiah lives, Asia's artistic prowess overwhelms the material; the extreme stylization made sense in her previous Scarlet Diva, since her character in that lived in a world saturated by art, but here it merely serves to soften and tamp down the torment. There's intimations that Argento may be aiming for a super-fucked-up variety of black comedy (i.e. the scene with Michael Pitt and the huge pile of coal), and I kind of wish she'd gone whole hog with that approach -- that would be the only venue in which I could imagine the uber-stylization and the thick dollops of religious symbolism ("Who're you to be sitting in judgment of me?") working with, rather than against, the material. Also: Asia's performance is nothing if not fierce, but she should never attempt a Southern accent.

Grade: C

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

301/302 (1995)

Eminently forgettable Korean psychodrama sets up a conflict within its first ten minutes, then spends the rest of the film shuffling the chronology and obscuring motives, all the better to hide the fact that the reigning conflict would barely support an episode of "Night Gallery." By starting with the climactic scene, it's made blatantly obvious what the cooking-obsessed woman in 302 is going to do to the woman in 301 that can't eat any food at all, so all that any thinking person can do is hum to themselves while the leaden irony shuffles itself into view. Cleanly made, but dull as anything and includes way too many scenes of food preparation; if the Food Network tried to make a Lifetime thriller, the end result would probably look like this.

Grade: C