Saturday, September 30, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Dear Lord, I hope this will be the nadir of the Sundance-approved quirk-com. Codirectors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris try to differentiate themselves from the likes of Garden State by skewing the jokes darker and more cynical, which means there's attempts to find humor in suicide, failure and old people snorting heroin. But the cynicism doesn't spring from any sort of worldview or twisted outlook on life -- it's mere designer darkness, liberally applied like varnish to the gummy family-values humor at the center of the screenplay in a canny attempt to make the film sell better. (That, of course, is the only true cynical thing about this film.) You can tell that Dayton & Faris's hearts weren't into the blacker stuff -- despite the myriad clumsy attempts at jocularity in Little Miss Sunshine, the only moments that ring with any sort of life are the warm squishy moments, like the bit in the motel room with Alan Arkin assuaging the fears of Abigail Breslin. The lone comedic routine that does work is the "Super Freak" scene at the end, as it has both a proper satiric target upon which to drip its causticness and a heedless, infectious performance from Ms. Breslin; everything else clangs to Earth, reeking from the stench of sitcom predictability and faux-edginess.

Grade: D+
Brick (2006)

Writer/director Rian Johnson has crafted a debut film that gets your attention. I can't wait to see what kind of film he'll make once he figures out what to do with that attention. I admit I'm a sucker for genre pastiches, and as these things go Brick has a killer hook -- Dashiell Hammett transferred to the world of high school. The failing of Brick isn't in the concept but in the approach; try as I might, I can't find anything within Johnson's work that bespeaks to it being about anything other than what a clever boy he is. Pastiche, if I'm not mistaken, is at its most effective meant to draw out certain truths about the styles being mashed together, to bring our attention to tropes, cliches and other details that we generally take for granted. Save for the occasional witty aside (The Pin's mom dithering about in the kitchen, for example), Brick is sorely lacking in that sort of self-awareness. I appreciate Johnson taking his material seriously, but the high-school setting brings nothing to the party except a sense of absurdity he isn't willing to indulge. What's more, Johnson's dialogue is far too precious. Now, I love noir and I love noir dialogue. Moreover, I recognize that much of the tough-guy dialogue from the '40s is, analyzed rationally, just plum silly. But even Bogart couldn't sell a line as stilted as "I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you," and with the exception of Joseph Gordon-Levvitt none of the young actors here have the necessary chops to make Johnson's dialogue sound even remotely plausible. The artificiality of the dialogue points up the artificiality of the rest of it, and it's not like there's a point to all the artifice a la The Black Dahlia. (I suppose a case could be made that it's supposed to be representative of how high schoolers adopt personas and drift through cliques as a way of handling their crazy hormone-induced emotions, but there isn't much in the film to support that.) Johnson has a good eye for visuals, and he gets another in an ever-increasing series of fine performances from JGL; neither of those assets, sadly, is able to elevate Brick beyond its status as a hollow stunt.

Grade: C

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Jackass Number Two (2006)

In which the Jackass boys reveal themselves to be smarter than anyone was imaging. Naturally, this being a sequel, it's gotta have more of everything: more crazy stunts, more disgusting pranks, more latent homosexuality. And yeah, it's still damn funny in an oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-they-just-did-that kind of way. I'm convinced there's more to this than mere shock value, though. Here's the thing -- by advancing their aesthetic from one-step-beyond to twelve-steps-beyond, Johnny Knoxville and company, whether accidentally or by design align themselves with certain avant-garde fringe movements. (If they'd gotten Steve-O to eat his own vomit in the 'fart mask' scene, they'd be indistinguishable from the Vienna Actionists.) Furthermore, the ramping-up of the queer content shifts it from latent to baldly open. This is the biggest celebration of radical queer sexuality you'll ever see in a multiplex, gayer than a thousand pride parades. And it was somewhere between Bam Margera getting a golden dildo shot into his ass and Steve-O doing an anal beer bong, then having beer plungered out of his rectum, resulting in what can only be described as a really foamy money shot, that I began to suspect that this was by design. (And that's not even counting the John Waters cameo.) Still, it wasn't until the last sequence, which starts with Knoxville sticking his hand in a bear trap and turns into... well, something else (don't want to ruin the surprise, after all) that it all clicked: Yes, they're in on the joke, and everything that you think you're finding by accident is there on purpose. They're perfectly willing to acknowledge their place in both the history of slapstick (Knoxville goes as far as to recreate one of Buster Keaton's most famous stunts as a finale) and the Queer Cinema canon, and there's something indescribably thrilling about that -- it shows them to be genuine gonzo artists, using their own bodies as canvases to drive home their points. And what is that point? Undeniably, part of it is that it's fun to watch guys do dumb stuff; however, I'd also like to theorize that they're blowing open the frat-boy mentality and demonstrating to an unsuspecting audience that much of the dudeish male bonding on which current American culture is built is in fact heavily coded man-on-man fucking. And not only are they pointing it out, they're saying that it's not a bad thing -- if anything, the queer aspect of male bonding is something these guys are celebrating and shouting about from the hills. I left the theater, eyes assaulted and mind fully blown, astonished by the bleeding, screaming art-punk terrorism to which I'd just borne witness. Jackass: Redefining male sexuality for the new century.

Grade: A
The Illusionist (2006)

Handsomely mounted but completely blah dramatically. It's like watching a magician perform a trick where doves fly out of his sleeves and fireworks explode behind him while a bevy of women in one-piece bathing suits turn into lizards that cough up a dozen gold coins, each of which proceed to sing "Moon River" in Esperanto... and all of it leads up to "So is THIS your card?" All that effort expended on such a jejune and obvious tale seems like a waste. I can see how this ties into director Neil Burger's previous Interview with the Assassin, in that both films deal with trickery and that which is kept hidden, but where that was an intriguing run at the political-paranoia genre this is just another inert Indiewood bauble. Also: Jessica Biel, please stick to bad television shows and youth-oriented films where your lack of talent will not be so glaring, thanks muchly.

Grade: C
Key Largo (1948)

Terrific noir-inflected drama with Humphrey Bogart's ex-major and Edward G. Robinson's refugee mobster caught in a push-pull standoff when they and several others hole up in a hotel during a hurricane. Director John Huston uses this setting and tense situation to examine the meaning of cowardice, with Bogart as the smart-talking military man torn between self-preservation and what he knows is right and Edward G. as the snarling thug who uses his words like he uses his guns. (In this vein, the film's best moment is when Bogart, taunting a visibly nervous Robinson, tells him to intimidate the hurricane by shooting at it.) What impresses most, though, is that the cowardice stuff is all subtext -- it's possible to ignore all that and still have a good time grooving on the crackling action and the sharp dialogue. It's man at his manliest! I do wonder, though, between this and Fat City what Huston's thing for blowsy, overplayed drunken harridans is. (Not to say Claire Trevor isn't fine in her role -- she is, and she has a number of interesting bits, most notably the scene where she literally tries to sing for her supper -- but I just wonder wherefore the attraction.) Also, it seems not only appropriate but inexorable that Huston would have Bogart's character drawn to the hotel in part by events that took place at the Battle of San Pietro, no?

Grade: A-
Tamara (2006)

There must be something about the democratic nature of horror fandom that attracts more hopeless no-talents per capita than any other genre. Blame it on the supportive scene and the DIY ethic of the modern slasher film -- the message goes out as anyone can make these films, regardless of budget, and someone will like it if you do. Knowing that, I can hold out the teensiest bit of begrudged understanding for something like The Butcher, seeing as how the filmmakers were by all evidence working with fifteen dollars and a Kodak FunSaver. More befuddling to me is when the paucity of imagination evinced in films like The Butcher gets coupled with a healthy budget, thereby signifying to the intelligent viewer that this film was made not out of misguided love for the genre but because someone was looking to steal money out of the pockets of eternally gullible and optimistic horror fans. So goes the story with Tamara, as low-down and witless a freshly-polished turd as I've yet seen. The story is typical wallflower's-supernatural-revenge stuff (the title character, an aspiring teenage witch, is killed during a prank gone wrong but comes back from the dead as a lethal hottie) rendered with as little panache as possible, the acting is awful, the tension is nonexistent, blah blah blah. All the usual complaints apply. What makes this worse than the average DTV shitheap is that the filmmakers go out of their way to ruin any chances the film has at becoming rude, nasty entertainment. Whenever Tamara starts to use her powers in interesting ways, director Jeffrey Haft either cuts away before the going gets good (I'm thinking the queer sex scene in particular) or hasn't the wherewithal to push it far enough. On the latter, I'm thinking mainly of the black chick's curse -- compare her ravenous hunger, which results in her devouring a hors d'oevres plate and chewing on her fingers a bit, to a similar but far more grotesque bit in The Eternal Evil of Asia, then explain to me why Haft even bothered. There's nothing here in this crass commercial product for any but the most undiscerning horror fan. Tamara was made by mercenaries.

Grade: F

Monday, September 25, 2006

Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006)

Good music. Good comedy. Good Chappelle. Good Gondry. Good "You Got Me." Good Wyclef singing to kids about libraries. Good Mos Def the straight man. Good rooftops. Good altruism. Good neighborhood snapshot. Good atmosphere. Good, good, GOOD, good vibraaatiooons... (Oops. Wrong genre.)

Grade: B+
The Butcher (2006)

How is there still a market for low-grade body-count flicks like this one? And who still wants to make them? Checklist of pain: This film contains...

1) Characters who are both hatefully obnoxious and dumb as dirt,

2) Death scenes which are unimaginative and badly staged,

3) A dark creepy house which the dumb-as-dirt characters insist upon exploring despite the boarded-up windows and lack of evidence that anyone's lived there for years,

4) Terrible, terrible dialogue voiced by actors who couldn't get callbacks for stag loops,

5) Shameless thievery of scenes and elements from better films (mainly the original versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes), and

6) A hopeless attempt at a last-minute twist.

This, of course, does little to no justice to the idiocy contained within this film. But when filmmakers set their aspirations so low that this film (or any film like it) could be made, I see no reason to go on at length about its total lack of worth. It'd be flogging a very, very dead horse to criticize this film at length. There are one moment so retarded that it scrape genius, when a distraught lesbian drags the top half of her bisected partner into a hiding place so they can be together always; other than that, though, this is desperation time. Not even worth getting drunk to.

Grade: D-
Bad News Bears (2005) [second viewing]

A bit less amusing than the first time around, as some gags that seemingly worked before reveal themselves to be labored (i.e. the kid in the wheelchair), and the attempts at drama are just silly. Still, this is pretty funny -- Billy Bob Thornton is invaluable, and dazed Lucas the space cadet could be a soul mate to Thurman from Bad Santa. ("Sometimes bird poop tastes like candy.") A shaggy, weightless thing and a lesser entry on the resume of Richard Linklater (from whom I always expect too much), but that doesn't mean it's not amusing.

Grade: B (down from B+)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Date Movie (2006)

I know that, by now, taking this film to task is a total barrel-fish situation... but goddamn, if there were any fish begging to get a bullet in the brain, it's the two flounders who (dis)graced the world with this woebegone waste of celluloid. The situation is dire before we've even gotten past the credits, with a whole raft of awful fat jokes leading into a lengthy parody of some viral video that was spoofed better in twenty seconds at the end of Dodgeball, but it only take about seven minutes to descend into cinematic Hell, when it tries to satirize a comedy (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) that was terrible to begin with and in the effort manages to come out even worse. The successful parodies that have emerged in the wake of Airplane! were funny because they were poking fun at the ridiculousness of the cliches in serious genres; here, we have an unfunny movie making mockery of other unfunny movies. Seriously, how the fuck do you parody something like Meet the Fockers, a movie so desperately inane that it damn near turns into a parody of itself? Apparently, all you do is replace Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand with Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge. And if there's anything more unbearable than Barbra Streisand in Meet the Fockers, it's Jennifer Coolidge channeling Barbra Streisand in Meet the Fockers. Eventually, the filmmakers get so hard up for laughs that they attempt to parody films that the target audience likely hasn't seen (Rize? What the fuck?) and bust out with things that aren't even jokes in concept (i.e. the scene where Alysson Hannigan and that boring British guy, apropos of nothing, beat up a bum). So over all, this is a crass, lazy and depressing film that wastes the fetching Ms. Hannigan in ways that shouldn't be possible, not that you're surprised. I think the final word on this film's utter incompetence stems from, believe it or not, the soundtrack listing: I sat through the credits because I swore during an early scene that I was hearing the distinctive nasal flow of Mr. Lif, and I wasn't mistaken -- the songs listed at the end include "Party Hard" by Lif and Akrobatik's group The Perceptionists. Which is misspelled as 'Percetionists.'

Grade: F
For Heaven's Sake (1926)

Moderately funny Harold Lloyd feature finds him playing a super-rich fella (when he wrecks a car, he simply walks to a dealer and pays cash for another) who, pretty much by accident, transforms into a model of charity and goodness when he sponsors a mission house. Not up to the level of something like Safety Last!, but still quite a fine entertainment, and it boasts an incomparable centerpiece in which Lloyd convinces all the roghnecks and roustabouts in the poor neighborhood around the mission house by kicking their asses and daring them to chase him down. Also of note is the class subtext, as Lloyd explicitly posits an up-down dichotomy where the lower class, though comprised of thugs and thieves, is reformable while the upper class is comprised mainly of irredeemable jackoffs. Lloyd including himself among the upper class at the start, though, muddies the black-n-white nature of the argument a bit. I'll bet this somehow ties into how Lloyd's characters are always more interesting when they're flat broke...

Grade: B
Eve and the Handyman (1961)

Two years after more or less inventing the nudie-cutie genre with The Immoral Mr. Teas, Russ Meyer was already trying to blow it apart with this portrayal of sexual temptation as persistent force. More a series of vignettes centered around Anthony James Ryan's nameless handyman and the various guises of Eve Meyer than a traditional film, this starts out amusingly; as each successive vignette is a variation on one joke, though, the inspiration wears thin rapidly. It's most interesting as a joke on the raincoat crowd, as it's essentially an object lesson in frustrated desires (the female ones, oddly enough, as the whole shtick is that Ryan, wrapped up in work as he is, pays no attention to the various barely-clothed females he encounters through his day); also, the blase sauciness of Eve doesn't measure up to the ferocious alpha-female heroines of later Meyer. Early in the film, Eve says in voiceover, "I appeal to you, judge. Who is the cleverest of us?" I say the cleverest is Russ himself, and here he's gotten too clever by half. The last two minutes, though, are pure shining genius.

Grade: C+

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Crank (2006)

I'd like to think that this amped-up bit of Cro-Magnon crud is working on the same level as the average Paul Verhoeven product -- satire via overheated hyperbole. Even if it is, though (and I doubt it is), it's missing the slyly smart humor that characterizes the work of Verhoeven, instead going for an obnoxious lad-mag sense of joviality. (The sneaky intelligence is one of the reasons Verhoeven and no one else can make films like he does.) Then there's the psychotically flashy overdirection. It's meant to be a subjective experience, wherein Jason Statham's constant adrenalization leaks into the film itself; the two Clever Jeffs who've unleashed this bastard child, though, do their jobs too well in that respect. The effect is about the same one I get after drinking too much coffee: I'm jittery, my head hurts, I'm vaguely nauseous and I just want to go home and lie down for a bit. Also: definitely homophobic, likely racist, probably sexist, but that's all part of the fun... right?

Grade: D
Dead Poets Society (1989)

Phony and obvious from scene one, this boarding-school bore means well but never catches the kind of fire needed to transcend its morass of cliches. Individual scenes and performances work well -- Robert Sean Leonard does well by underplaying scenes that could become big'n'blowsy, particularly the first confrontation with his stock-issue tyrannical father, played with typical reserved menace by Clarence Boddicker himself, Kurtwood Smith, and Ethan Hawke's big poetry-slam scene is a nice bit of well-judged feelgood -- but the screenplay is a pathetic pile of inspiricrap, and thus suspect. Furthermore, because everything needs to be just so for its grand ending, where the audience is supposed to leave with tears in their eyes and swelling in their hearts, the characters are made to behave less like characters and more like clockwork trains. (If you look closely, you can even see the tracks.) I suppose there's an irony in a film that advocates individuality and 'doing your own thing' being so completely unoriginal.

Grade: C
Shame (1968)

I was with this film for about half its length (that is, up to the point where Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are taken in for questioning and torture). Then, I think, Ingmar Bergman loses his inspiration, and what was once a penetrating study of individuals trying to make sense of chaos descends into yet another war-makes-animals-of-us-all nihilistic narrative. It's (if you'll excuse the inadvertent wordplay) a damn shame, too, because the first half of the film has some great stuff in it. Ullmann and Von Sydow work well together, and their hapless attempts to maintain their normal existence while inside the teeth of an apocalyptic war, eventually shading into confusion and terror, are compelling and affecting (the latter most potently in a scene where they share a bottle of wine with a merchant who's been called away to service). The occasional flash of crazed gallows humor (i.e. the 'propaganda' film) helps as well. (I do so enjoy it when Bergman exercises his rarely-seen sense of humor.) But everything falls apart when things stop blowing up -- Bergman begins to run in circles around material he's already plumbed (this film, ultimately, isn't saying anything different from The Silence), the characters become irrational beings behaving randomly and the film stops cold. Maybe that's the point; if so, I'm not impressed by the self-sabotage. The last line, a conscious echoing of the film's first exchange, smacks of a desperate last-ditch attempt to lend a thematic throughline and a coherence to a film that long since lost its bearings.

Grade: C

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Beerfest (2006)

In which the Broken Lizard guys shake off the misfire of Club Dread and find their way back to what they do best -- make cheerful, good-time comedies which are perfect to get drunk to. Goes on a bit longer than it rightfully should, due mainly to an unexpected turn of the plot that sidetracks the film before being deus-ex-machinaed out of relevance; that said, it's still more consistent than any film centered around drunk-guy humor has any right to be. Too, the expected vulgar jokes are often given a strange enough spin or show up at odd enough angles (I'm thinking in particular of the frog-masturbation sequence or practically anything involving Cloris Leachman's Great Gam Gam) that the crudity doesn't become tiresome. You probably have to be on these guys' wavelength to really get into it, but having consumed more than my share of malted hops in my days, they're speakin' my language. Besides, I can't dislike a film with a footwear-shaped drinking vessel named Das Boot (especially when Jurgen Prochnow is standing next to it).

Grade: B+

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Louis Malle's feature debut is a total mood piece, a Gallic riff on the fatalism of noir complete with an atmospheric Miles Davis score. As such, it has trace elements of playfulness within its structure (the German couple who play a crucial role in the narrative are a blithe hoot, and Malle had to be grinning when he had a black cat cross the lead's path as he's climbing out a window to murder his boss), but for the most part Malle plays it straight. What he does bring to the table that distinguishes this from any number of B-movies with similar plots is a real wounded empathy for his foolish characters; they may be driven by base instincts, and they may have gotten themselves caught up in unsavory situations, but they are still human beings in Malle's eyes, and they deserve to be treated as such. Nowhere is this more evident than in what appears to be the last scene with Louis and Veronique. As the scene ends, Malle moves into a sorrowful fade to black that surprises because our sympathies haven't been aligned with these two until now. They're just a couple of stupid kids, and Louis's violent delinquencies are what ruins the lives of everyone in the film, but Malle shows them at their most denuded. Most noirs (including many I love) ratchet up the cynicism and paranoia; Malle knows that these people are going to be tripped up by their own vices, and that fills him with a great sadness. Aside from that, it's just a fine piece of noir in its own right -- the early bits with the kids grate, but the plight of Julien, trapped in an elevator and unable to retrieve damning evidence from the room where he killed his boss, is razor-sharp. The screenplay, too, is a wonderful example of plant-and-payoff plotting, with certain elements (i.e. the jacket) offhandedly set up long before they even begin to matter. There's also the small matter of Jeanne Moreau and her extraordinary, on-the-edge-of-collapse performance. I gotta see me some more Malle now...

Grade: B+
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

Early Michael Haneke film demonstrates that his obsession with violence (media, psychological, physical and otherwise) was fully formed from the get-go. It just took him a while to refine it into first-rate cinema. There's certainly nothing wrong with Haneke's mise-en-scene, which is as precise as I've come to expect from the man even at this early stage in his career. There's also plenty fodder for thought, as Haneke spins out a world in which, despite constant interaction, people are essentially on their own. And why not? With the world in the state it's in (newscasts occasionally interrupt the narrative, touching on Somalia and the IRA and Turks vs. Kurds and a dozen other conflicts), who wouldn't retreat into themselves? Faced with overwhelming horror, the characters in this film choose to not pay attention to anything outside their own head. (Note the scene with the refugee kid where he steals a comic book right in front of everyone and nobody says boo.) The dark irony of Haneke's setup is that most of the characters in this film have mirror images or dopplegangers -- for example, the couple looking to adopt is mirrored by the couple with the sick child. This trope is eventually literalized in a strking bit where the refugee child sees another kid across a subway line and they ape each other's movements. The problem is that all of this is a bit too carefully laid out, a bit too determined. This is especially true during the film's last act, and it's mainly a problem of chronology; at the outset, we're told of a shooting in a bank, then we leap back two months, thereby ensuring that the shooting will close out the film. After a while, it seems like we're only being shown chess pieces moved about a board instead of an organic narrative. Intelligent, beautifully made but something of a cold fish; it's best to appreciate this for what it is -- a dry run at thematic and stylistic avenues (right down to the blackout edits) that would later bring forth the superior Code Unknown.

Grade: B-