Monday, November 27, 2006

Hey, if I may step away from the reviews for a moment... Out 1. As a large portion of the cinephile blogosphere already knows, it's gonna be in Queens December 9th and 10th. I'm going, and I already know of one other dude who'll be there. Anyone else out there planning on attempting to scarf down Rivette's behemoth? Just so I know who to look for... :-)
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

This is pretty goddamn funny in my opinion. I know there's been a lot of ink spilled over the film's political slant and whether or not it works as social satire. Whether it does or not is almost beside the point -- while there is a certain strain of poker-faced satire in the film's DNA, Borat is foremost a comedy of embarassment. With his indecent assaults on humor coaches, driving instructors, frat boys and Southern high-society members, Sacha Baron Cohen could be considered something of a comedic bully if he also weren't just as willing to set himself up for ridicule (not just in the creation of the absurd Borat persona, but in scenes like the naked wrestling extravaganza or the bit where Borat learns what a homosexual is). Rather than poking fun at what he finds ridiculous, Cohen's operating logic seems to be that we're all ridiculous in our own ways. What's important is the answer to the question, "Is it funny?" And Jesus, it's funny. Really fucking funny.

Grade: A-
Me and My Brother (1969)

Between this and Cocksucker Blues, I don't think that Robert Frank and I are on the same wavelength. Given his background in photography, it makes sense that Frank would make films whose formal aspects reflect their subjects; the films I've seen of his, though, are all too effective in this aim. Me and My Brother, a kinda-sorta-documentary, has as its subject Julius Orlovsky, brother to poet Peter Orlovsky and diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. Frank starts off with a freeform, overtly impressionistic documentary portrait of Julius and the world around him -- this is a rare film in that it's defined more by the absence of its subject than his presence -- and it's here that the film maintains a modest level of interest. Then Frank splits the narrative apart by expanding the meta-cinematic strain used in the film's first scene, hiring an actor to 'play' Julius while someone else (a young Christopher Walken, no less) portrays Frank. This breaking-down of the line between the real and the fake, coupled with the overlapping sound design where the soundtrack often doesn't match the action, lagging behind or jumping forward as it needs to, feels appropriate given Julius's condition. However, it makes for a strange experience -- the film has no center and no drive, and there's nothing to which it seems to be building. It moseys around this way and that (what the hell's up with the extended sequence involving the actress?); there's a final scene where Julius, finally lucid, is interviewed that almost makes the journey worthwhile, but the volume of extraneous footage crushes the interesting intentions and the occasional stretch of brilliance. Frank's approach carries with it the implicit admittance that understanding Julius's mind is an impossibility. In accepting that he's shut out from his subject, he then shuts us out from his film.

Grade: C+
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Simple and poignant tale about the trials and tribulations of a brother and sister who are sold off into slavery when their governor father is exiled. Kenji Mizoguchi's camera is unblinking in the face of the horrors faced by the pair (and, in a crucial subplot, their mother), but he's also just as concerned with the few moments of generosity and grace they encounter, and in turn the sacrifices they make and actions they take to improve themselves and the world about them. Gorgeously filmed and emotionally disruptive (the death of a major character is probably the saddest yet most visually poetic in the film), this is the kind of film that grows more impressive the more you think about it. In fact, I've been thinking about this film a lot lately. What has stuck with me more than anything is the early conversation between the soon-to-be-exiled governor and his young son. The father advises the son, "Be hard on yourself if you must, but always be merciful with others." Sound advice, and I've been trying to change my outlook on life accordingly -- to be more patient and less quick to anger. What can one say about a film that inspires a change of ways, other than I hope this comes out on DVD real damn soon so I can confirm my suspicion that I've underrated it?

Grade: A-

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Wavelength (1967)

(Thrill to the sight of The Author attempting to grapple with avant-garde cinema! Marvel at how much it looks like a man trying to open a milk carton while wearing a pair of catcher's mitts!)

Hoo damn, where does one begin when tackling Michael Snow's well-covered shot across the bow of avant-garde cinema? (Especially when one saw it nearly two months ago and didn't take any damn notes?) I suppose everything needed to be said about the film, in strict terms of what it is and what it's 'about,' is contained right there in the title. The word 'wavelength' has multiple meanings, especially if we break the word into smaller pieces, and Snow seems hellbent on indulging every single possible interpretation during the length of his improbably exciting foray into minimalism. If you've heard anything about this film, you likely know it as 'that film with the really long zoom,' which is technically accurate but reductive. The zoom across the length of a room (which is subtler and not nearly as smooth as I was expecting) is only one piece of the larger picture, which as far as I can tell is Snow asking us to consider the act of perception -- how we perceive things, how our senses come into play, that sort of thing. To this end, Wavelength has been designed as an assault on/feast for the two senses most important when viewing films: the eyes and the ears. The soundtrack, initally ambient sound (the Beatles make a cameo appearance playing on a radio), drops out about ten minutes in and becomes the insistent, blaring tone of a sine wave while various filters and in-camera tricks are used to disrupt the image. By playing with both light and sound waves, Snow turns us into active viewers rather than passive ones -- the brain must be fully engaged to chart the progress of the zoom as well as handle the visual shifts, and the shriek of the sine wave works to keep a palpable sense of unease washing across the auditorium. In theory, it sounds a bit dull and studied; in practice, it's anything but. The soundtrack, slowly increasing in pitch as it does throughout the film, becomes an auditory representation of anxiety and energy, while every filter change or flash of light hits like an explosion in the brain. After a while, a mini-drama involving murder unfolds in the room (Funniest. Gunshot. Ever.), but the camera presses on, its single-minded goal not to be interrupted; there's something perversely wonderful, then, in the fact that this purity of intention and perception culminates in a cheeky visual pun (who says the avant-garde can't be funny?). It takes a minute to adjust and get onto Snow's (ahem) wavelength, but it's worth every frame. In its own special way, Wavelength is as much of a thrill ride as any Hollywood summer blockbuster. I can't bloody wait to see this again.

Grade: A-

Friday, November 24, 2006

Let's Go to Prison (2006)

Somehow both more than it looks and less than it should have been -- the dry absurd wit of Bob Odenkirk that fueled much of the late, great "Mr. Show" pops up every now and then here, but not enough to push the film into the weirdly great realms of Pootie Tang (another film made by HBO refugees). Still, the dissonance between the digressive sandpaper interludes and the low-farce main body of the plot provides a soupcon of merriment; it's the kind of film that will indulge dumb jokes about boat cleaner and guys named Lyshitsky for a while then unexpectedly bust out with a quick, clever reference to Bre'r Rabbit or Lucian Freud. The committed performers help; Chi McBride, in particular, deserves an MVP award for using a disarming gee-whiz menace to make the myriad gay-sex jokes seems funnier than they rightfully are. It's spotty as dengue fever and misses a chance to go with an unexpectedly brutal and dark climax in favor of a retarded upbeat test-audience ending, but it's also rather funnier than most people will give it credit for. Trust me -- it'll look a lot better on cable.

Grade: B-
Lunacy (2006)

I've been disappointed by filmmakers I like before, but I don't think I've ever been as crushed as I am with this, the latest from Czech animator extraordinaire Jan Svankmajer. He's made worse films (Faust), but never one that felt like such a waste of energy and promise. I think the problem is that Svankmajer's films, short and feature, are all built off one central conceit. When it's a good conceit, Jan burrows into it and exploits every feature and angle of said conceit; when it's a bad or shallow conceit, he gets stuck in ruts of repetition while trying to squeeze something useful out of the parched idea. What makes the stillborn Lunacy such a depressing experience is that, for possibly the first time, Svankmajer has fucked up a good idea. Svankmajer takes the decadent philosophy of the Marquis de Sade and infuses it into the paranoid world outlook of Edgar Allan Poe (mainly via a reconfiguring of "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether"); by doing so, he means to extrapolate metaphors about the soul-destroying effects of repressive societies and loss of individuality within systems of rule and other such things. The thing is, though, Jan hasn't actually worked out what he means to do with those metaphors. So he leans hard on old tricks (stop-motion meat as a stand-in for human 'meat,' discombobulating unexpected closeups, cacaphonic sound design) while he furiously pokes and prods the film to see what oozes out. And plenty comes out; trouble is, every promising or interesting thing that emerges (like the deliberate anachronisms that come with surreptitiously setting the story and characters in the modern day) is quickly skipped over and left to congeal while the dizzily distracted director pushes to stuff the scenario ever fuller with madness and noise. It's all just too much, and it collapses shortly after the midpoint where Sade and his bland traveling companion end up at an anarchic asylum; yet, like Svankmajer's meat, it continues to dance and flop about long after it's gone to rot. By the time the inevitable climax drags itself onstage, it can only seem that Svankmajer himself has succumbed to the aimless mania that infects his characters, and when he belatedly stumbles across a point in the film's final shot, he doesn't seem to know what to do with it. Lunacy is a puerile and ugly film (aesthetically as well as intellectually), but that wouldn't matter much if it were also thoughtful and important... if in other words, it were puerile and ugly for a good goddamn reason. It's not, though -- it's just a garish misfire from a veteran who should know better.

Grade: C
Tideland (2006)

Terry Gilliam's dark, terrifying sun-baked fairy tale -- a return to mind-blowing form after the windy noisemaker of The Brothers Grimm -- is a towering accomplishment of excess and mania. I need to see this again so I can fully wrap my head around it, and I'll have better, more interesting things to say about it when I do. Right now, though, about all I can say is I understand why most everybody hates this film, flummoxing and unpleasant as it is, but that doesn't make them any less wrong. I'll concede that it strays into questionable material during its last half-hour (questionable in its direction, not its content), and it can be too much often. But big deal -- Gilliam's firing on all cylinders, and the bleak beauty of the scene with the floating living room alone makes this worth watching. Jodelle Ferland: Performance of the Year.

Grade: B+
Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006)

Clumsy, crude and sweet (often in the same scene), this quickie feature from writer/director Bob Goldthwait benefits from a simple tenet: No matter how absurd, no matter how sick or rife for cheap-n-easy laffs, the situation is to be taken seriously and examined as though it were genuinely happening. This is an important consideration when you're making a film wherein the lead actress can be and at one point is referred to as "a dog-blowing cunt." Any trace of cruelty or mockery in Goldthwait's writing or direction would kill the film dead; fortunately, his sympathy for freaks and losers keeps the dirty-joke premise from overwhelming the proceedings, and it instead develops into a wry and rueful treatise on the concept of total honestly. There's also the winsome performance of Melinda Page Hamilton to contend with, as Ms. Hamilton's likeability helps the film's boat dodge some potential hull punctures. Lastly, the film is, lest I forget, really damn funny. Goldthwait allows his lead actress space to hew out a realistic character, but he also exploits his talented supporting cast to the fullest of their abilities. (Funniest line, bar none, is Brian Posehn's awkward attempt to commiserate with Hamilton's shattered life: "I once made out with a corpse. I never told anybody that...") Basically, this is better than you'd expect. It'd be even better if it didn't look like ass dipped in ass, but we take what we can get.

Grade: B
The Prestige (2006)

A pair of warring magicians each tear apart the other's life in the latest film from Christopher Nolan, quickly becoming as close to a Hollywood sure thing as one can be without losing the interest of the indie-cred kids. I think he's a better writer than director (he'll likely never be more than a solid craftsman), and the likelihood of him ever equalling the accomplishment of Memento gets less likely with each new project. I can't hold that against Nolan, though; rare is the director who gets to make a film as good as the marvelous Guy Pearce vehicle that got him noticed in the first place, and with The Prestige he at least demonstrates that his skillful juggling of chronology in that masterwork was no fluke. Unlike many practitioners of the form (Guillermo Arriga being the latest and most blatant offender), Nolan recognizes that there has to be a reason to tell a story out of order if you're going to try that gambit. Rather than shameless gimmickry, the narrative complexity in this film serves as an extension of the illusion-and-trickery world through which the two protagonists pass. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman convince as the entangled duo, Jackman because his ladykiller smile always seems to cover a sense of grim desperation and sweaty hucksterism and Bale because his strangely sculpted face and intense dedication have made him one of the most fascinatingly obtuse, impenetrable actors in the business; in other words, Jackman always appears to be on the verge of revealing too much while Bale could live forever without revealing anything, and the chronological futzery reflects a perfect compromise between these two poles. There are other characters in the film (including Scarlett Johannson in her thirty-fourth role of the year), but they're superfluous, useful only as symbols of the lives the two men sacrifice to one-up his rival. That the story eventually literalizes this notion of all-consuming self-sacrifice is unsurprising, but even if it can be seem coming (as Bale's biggest secret sacrifice can) it still exists in a framework of careful logic so that it never feels cheap. I think the plot spins its wheels a few too many times in the home stretch, and Rebecca Hall's plot strand is a bit cheap and nasty, even for me, but it's understandable if the film is framed as a two-character piece. The disruptive, poignant final image -- a literal depiction of Pyrric victory -- is thus wholly earned. Nolan may never cast off another masterpiece, but if solid, satisfying exercises as this are the tradeoff, I'll deal.

Grade: B

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Departed (2006)

Crime dramas don't get much more exhilarating than this, Martin Scorsese's loosest work in years. Of course it's sharp and compelling and formally impressive, all the stuff generally expected from Scorsese; what surprises is that this film, built around twin life-or-death situations and constructed from slickness and paranoia, is funny. Really funny. Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, in particular, tear into the delirious profanity of William Monahan's twin-barrel adaptation with gusto. (Best exchange, bar none: "How's your mother?" "Good. Still tired from fucking my father.") The premise, imported from the HK action winner Infernal Affairs, turns out to be as close to unfuckupable as most people suspected, and all Monahan and Scorsese really had to do was give the plot wheels a little push and everything would have turned out fine. Instead of that just-add-water approach that would have enticed lesser filmmakers into creating a mere punch-press modest entertainment, they aim big. Infernal Affairs is infused with a marvelous sense of local Boston color and enough close character work to propel the average novel; these inclusions transform the film from a crackerjack thriller into something more satisfying -- a gusting tapestry of human nature under pressure, at turns hilarious and heart-stopping. The jumbo canvas sounds daunting, but I can't think of a film this year that better utilizes every minute of screen time. Maybe it's a bit impersonal, a bit Hollywood for an iconoclast like Scorsese (and for the record, the thunderous Gangs of New York is still his best film of the decade), but The Departed is good enough to make you wonder why he doesn't do this more often.

[Bonus: Frequent correspondent Andy Nowicki has an interesting take regarding queer subtext and one of the film's major characters, which certainly seems to fit given the film's obsession with machismo. I reproduce it here with his permission. Beware of SPOILERS and all that:

"It's all surrounding the Matt Damon character. While training to be a cop, he calls the firemen and other people he doesn't like 'homos,' in such a manner than suggests he may be projecting. After he becomes a cop, he spends a lot of time ogling women in the office, in a way that seems calculated to prove to others and himself that he's into women. When he manages to charm the psychiatrist chick into bed, he can't perform sexually. He seems nervous around her whenever she tries to get intimate. At one point, he starts kissing her after the phone has already rung once, then he acts exasperated, as if he didn't want to be interrupted, but it's just for show. I think this also happens at another point, when the doorbell rings. When he goes to the porn movie, and Nicholson turns toward him holding a gigantic fake penis, this also seems like a moment when in some way he's being forced to see some aspect of himself for what he truly is. And when DiCaprio finds out that he's truly the mole within police force, he angrily calls him a 'faggot.' (This isn't to say that DiCaprio thinks he's actually gay; it's just an insult, but it's significant, I think, that the screenplay of the movie puts this word into his mouth at this point-- when he's found out the truth about Damon's real identity.) Finally, there is a lot of innuendo from Nicholson's character regarding Catholic priests in Boston all being homos who want to get it on with altar boys-- and guess who was an altar boy when he was young? Damon's character.

Also, a central theme in the movie is the notion of pretending to be something you aren't (a hoodlum pretending to be a cop, a cop masquerading as a hoodlum). It seems that being a repressed homosexual fits in with that theme very nicely. I think it's very subtly done, but it's there."]

Grade: A-
Calvaire (2006)

This latest entry in the France Hates Everything Europe-extreme sweepstakes works best when it's flaunting its freaky, sadistic black-comedy side (the inexplicable 'dance' scene is a highlight), less so when it's actively trying to freak us out. And who the fuck knows what's going on with that ending -- it didn't work with Belvaux's On the Run and it doesn't work here, as the proceedings have been far too silly to support any sort of mythic pretensions. Still, there's a kind of shamefaced enjoyment to be had when the film kicks on all cylinders -- I mean, who doesn't love the idea of a sniveling Laurent Lucas in a dress and nailed to a plank of wood? Jackie Berroyer's blithe performance keeps the film on a useful keel, and I'll admit that the closing home-invasion sequence is remarkably effective even if it's a bit too overtly lifted from Straw Dogs. I think I liked this more than I really should, but we can only be honest.

Grade: B-
Shadow: Dead Riot (2006)

Dude. This crazed B-flick is about a tough black chick, incredibly skilled at hand-to-hand combat, who gets sent to an experimental woman's prison and, while dodging butch bitches and the overzealous staff, becomes instrumental in the resurrection of a former inmate (played by Tony Todd with pointy dental appliances) who was big into voodoo and as such has the power to create zombies. Right there, you've got lesbians, boobies, zombies and kung-fu-fighting, and I haven't even gotten past the basic elements of the plot. There's also a Zombie Baby. There's also a small part for Erin Brown, a.k.a. Misty Mundae (whom I've met -- she was pretty cool). There's also the unexpected sound of Jean Grae playing over the end credits. There's also no less than three scenes in which Tony Todd fucking explodes. By now, you should already know whether or not you want to see this energetic muck monster. I can't say it's transcendent or revelatory or anything like that, but then neither are pizza and beer after a hard day's work, and that doesn't make them any less enjoyable.

Grade: B

Monday, November 06, 2006

Subject Two (2006)

The Arctic location of this serious-sided quasi-Frankenstein tale is appropriate, as the film moves as though it's encased in ice. Writer/director Philip Chidel deserves credit for attempting a novel approach to the genre; unfortunately, his dubious approach involves a total lack of incident. It takes the narrative about fifteen minutes to bring together rebellious med student Adam (Christian Oliver) and messianic doc Vick (Dean Stapleton), who is working on a serum that can regrant life to dead tissue, and it takes another five minutes for Vick to dispatch Adam so that he may become the titular test subject. After resurrection, Adam must eventually be re-killed so Vick can test the serum further, and the remaining hour-plus is comprised of minor variations on this pattern of events. Once you've seen the setup, you've more or less seen the entire film. True, there are endless swaths of dialogue wherein Adam and Vick debate what they've done, what they're doing and whether it should be done (or at least whether Adam wants it done to him), but it's all stillborn pseudo-philosophical clumsiness, poorly delivered by inexpressive actors. (Oliver can at least fall back on the excuse that English isn't his first language, but no such allowances can be made for Stapleton, the dullest megalomaniac in cinema history.) There's a twist at the end, but it's too dumb to make the journey worthwhile. Subject Two is about as stimulating as watching snow melt.

Grade: C-
Battle in Heaven (2006)

Quiet desperation abound in Carlos Reygadas's uber-art ode to/jeremiad for the lower-class unexamined life. Thing is, he almost makes it work; against my own trepidation (and with my philistine impulses hurling themselves against the ramparts of my reason), I rather liked the first two acts of this. The film is suffused with pompous gravitas in service to nothing in particular, but it seems appropriate given both the deliberateness of Reygadas's mise-en-scene and the atmosphere of nothing-muchness that he's taken pains to set up. And the mise-en-scene really is quite striking -- Reygadas has a sharp eye for detail and a marvelous sense of color contrast (like Ana's screaming red robe contrasted against the cool blue walls of the brothel), and his placements (both of camera and of actors within the camera's field of vision) are unerring. Furthermore, the editing on this film by Reygadas and three others is potent enough that every shot feels just as long as it has to be and every cut is exactly in the place that it needs to be for maximum impact. There's a story of sorts, involving chauffeur Marcos and his attempts to escape his increasingly unsatisfying home life (to which a horrific secret is tied) by dallying with Ana, daughter of a government official and whore; the film, though, is at its strongest when it's dealing with images and implications -- thematic material rather than concrete. To drive home the sense of desperation and aloneness, Reygadas makes parades a running trope, the idea being that you can be in a sea of people without ever connecting to any of them beyond a shared belief ("They're all sheep"); he then contrasts this and the desultory domestic life of Marcos with the increasing involvement of him and Ana. It culminates in a striking consummation scene wherein the camera starts on the rutting couple then circles around to show the rest of the apartment building, unconcerned as ever; the post-orgasmic chill is, if anything, even more fascinating, with Reygadas starting by concentrating on his characters' genitals, then shifting focus to their touching hands (from crudity to tenderness!). If you're willing to overlook the inadequate acting from Marcos Hernandez (as Marcos) and Berta Ruiz (as his wife), there's plenty to please in the first two-thirds of Battle in Heaven. (This forgiveness is easier than it sounds, since Anapola Mushkadiz, who plays Ana, has a natural carnal electricity about her that charges every scene she's in, thus negating the ponderousness of Hernandez.)

But then Carlos blows it by resorting to the traditional Violent Unexpected Ending that has, by this time, become a cliche in modern Slow-Moving Important International Cinema. The VUE, from where I stand, hasn't shown itself to me with such calculated desperation before; it literally feels like Reygadas ran out of ideas and grabbed for the wrap-up of least resistance. As much as I hated Sangre, I submit that its ending might have worked wonderfully had it been attached to the tail end of this film instead; in the context of Battle in Heaven, the idea of accidental states of grace might have seemed natural rather than confused and arbitrary, and Escalante's ending certainly would have fit Reygadas's film better than the cynically gruesome climax that Heaven possesses. I see where the ending loops back onto the notion of surrounded isolation, both figuratively and literally (there's another parade to contend with), but it's still cheap. I don't think this is quite the oppressive Slab o' Art that its detractors have branded it; for one thing, Reygadas has a sense of humor that can swing either towards the caustic, as evinced in the sequence with the marriage party, or the sly, as in the bit at the gas station where stereotypically overreaching classical music on the soundtrack turns out to be a part of the diegetic world. I do wish, though, that it hadn't swung so clumsily for some weird notion of transcendence when it was doing fine with the notions it already had.

Grade: C+

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Down Periscope (1996)

Undemanding, low-key 'rebellious slob' comedy. Staunchly in the tradition of the anti-authoritarian comedy pioneered in the mid-to-late '70s and with no real surprises, it still manages to offer minor entertainment due to its general geniality and the amusement value of its spectacularly weird cast. (What other movie has Kelsey Grammar, Bruce Dern, Rob Schneider, William H. Macy and Patton Oswalt in its credits?) Also: Though most gags are telegraphed, there's the occasional bit (i.e. Harlan Williams speaking whale) that points the way towards the bizarre randomness of the 21st Century Faux-Stupid/Surreal Comedy that I adore so much. Not great, but cute enough and, in my eyes, at least better than its ultimate progenitor (National Lampoon's Animal House).

Grade: C+
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) [second or third viewing, first in at least ten years]

Far be it from me to criticize a film from the creator of Apocalypse Now on grounds of mad overkill, but this film really is too much. As a teenager, the excess of excess indulged by Francis Ford Coppola made the film cool despite its various flaws; looking at it today, the older me sees exactly the opposite -- a film whose indulgences only serve to amplify the flaws. Everything is cranked up as high as it will go, which means its cast, made up primarily of bland young actors (Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Bill Campbell, et al), only seems the blander in contrast. Hopkins, Oldman and Frost get the truth of Coppola's ethos (that there is no top to go over, so shoot as high as possible); everyone else gets lost inside the maelstrom of activity. (By the time Reeves reappeared, sickly and pale, I'd forgotten he was in the damn film.) Furthermore, the fact that every single aspect of the film is pushed to its extreme is a fatal flaw in and of itself, as that means the soppy melodrama at the heart of the tale gets inflated to the point of exasperation. What we have, then, is the soggiest of Gothic romances mated to a psychotic gore-n-tits freakout, which doesn't work at all. It still has many moments that shock and impress, whether borne from Coppola's still-sharp savant-level filmmaking expertise or his complete disregard for rational forms of expression and willingness to give himself over to utter ludicrousness; as a whole, though, this Dracula exerts an extraordinary amount of energy for a surprisingly paltry payoff. Remember that "Saturday Night Live" sketch with Chris Kattan and Molly Shannon playing suburban Gothabees? Yeah. It's like that.

Grade: C+ (down from B)
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) [second viewing, first since theatrical release]

Now I know why I've been avoiding a rewatch. There was something wonderful in the air when I saw Episode I on its opening night -- an intoxicating melange of fanboy enthusiasm, anticipatory glee and the theatrical experience as group celebration -- that made the experience, and thus the film, a memorable cinematic time. The clearest way I could express it to people who asked was stating that, for two-and-a-quarter hours, I was a wide-eyed six-year-old again. The more I thought about the film to which the experience was attached, though, the more I started to think that I wasn't quite looking at it through clear eyes. My nonplussed reaction to the subsequent two installments of the Second Trilogy only amplified this unease, to the point where I was genuinely afraid to revisit Episode I -- I didn't want to invalidate my original happy feelings. But I knuckled down and finally gave the first portion of Lucas's Folly another spin, and it was everything I'd feared it was; divorced from the excitement of that confluence of influences, Episode I is indeed the paltry, stillborn mess that disappointed fanatics the world over have repeatedly decryed. I'd go into what all is wrong with the film (starchy, long-winded plotting; stilted, declamatory acting; plug-ugly dialogue; the general valuing of sensation at the expense of everything else; the shuckin' 'n' jivin' Sambo Binks), but, as Bill Hicks would say, you in your hearts all know the goddamn arguments. And that's depressing, having something you once loved denuded and revealed as a meager thing. But I realized something in the midst of my disappointment -- even though my opinion of the film in question has lowered significantly, that doesn't devalue my initial experience in the slightest. I may have been marveling in joy at a film that dries up like a crusty turd when removed from the inital shock of the new, but that doesn't mean the marvel wasn't genuine. We can't go home again, but we can at least remember and appreciate where we've been, no?

Grade: C (down from B+)