Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Firecracker (2004)

I guess you can't accuse Steve Balderson of trying to phone it in. Firecracker, his sophomore effort, is stuffed to burst with heavy symbolism and mirror imagery and stylized color work. It seems like the kind of thing I'd go nuts for, but I dunno. It seems both too mannered and too muddled to be anything more than a curiosity. Example: Mike Patton, musician extraordinaire, plays dual roles as both the cruel overlord of a troupe of freaks and the brutish brother of Jimmy, the protagonist. His acting leaves something to be desired, especially in the former role, but that's not the issue -- there's something about the second role that begs to be touched upon. Through framing and dialogue ("You're just like me"), Balderson implies that David, the second Patton, may not exist at all, that he's merely an extension of the repressed id of Jimmy. This idea would fit in with the film's preoccupation with mirrors and schisms (in addition to Patton, Karen Black plays two roles, as Jimmy's mother and as a singer in the circus with whom Jimmy becomes obsessed); as soon as that angle is introduced, though, it's dropped as Balderson rather disturbingly makes concrete the physical reality of David. Things like this happen a lot in Firecracker (like the puzzling, late-breaking Christ symbolism that manifests in the film's closing twenty minutes), which bespeaks to a lack of rigor in Balderson's ethos. While the spectre of David Lynch hovers over the proceedings (no matter how much Balderson denies it), there's always a method to Lynch's seeming randomness; here, similar material and tactics just come off like a tour through various jejune film-school noodlings and thematics. You can have a character say something like, "Dirt doesn't sound like that anywhere else," but you're just dicking around if it doesn't mean anything.

Grade: C
Cold Water (1994)

Olivier Assayas's restless, bristling portrait of youthful disaffection is a real stunner, a 400 Blows for the teenage-angst generation. The key is Assayas's stance, which is empathetic and unusually understanding without lapsing into blind endorsement. Its protagonists are presented as they are without judgment, and they're allowed moments of beauty and grace (the famed party scene, a gorgeously languid setpiece where bodies drift through each other's orbits to the tune of "Knocking on Heaven's Door," exemplifies this), and the color palette is even muted to reflect the dour mindset of its characters. Yet Olivier doesn't let anyone off the hook -- he empathizes, but he also knows that these kids can be emotionally cruel and obnoxiously self-involved ("Few images of suffering move me like this"). The moment that really cinched this film's awesomeness, in my eyes, is a small yet indispensible moment: During a scene where Gilles has an argument with his well-meaning father, Gilles storms out of the room, and his father mumbles, "Little jerk" while his lip quivers ever so slightly. It's the acknowledgement of the parental figures being just as valid as their progeny, a refreshing stance in a genre choked with ineffectual and/or monstrous authorities. There is, of course, also the small matter of the incandescent Virginie Ledoyen. From her first scene (in which she freakin' leaps through a glass door) right down to her last (memorable for, um, other reasons), her presence is riveting. She exhibits talent to burn, and Assayas's distinctive actor-friendly style (somehow both fluid and jagged, filled with ellipses and caesuras without ever feeling incomplete) allows her to shine like a supernova. I'd say she's the best reason to watch Cold Water, but that would imply that most other elements were lacking, which is untrue. This will probably seem even stronger on a second viewing. The last scene is pretty damn close to perfect.

Grade: A-
Edvard Munch (1974)

"Here and now, a new phase begins in the history of art, and you can say that you witnessed it." I couldn't have put it better. The modus operandi of this eerily convincing faux-documentary by Peter Watkins about the title painter is to make history come to life by dropping the viewer in the middle of it, allowing context to grow from allusion and association. In doing so, Watkins neatly sidesteps a major pitfall of the average biopic; framing his film as a you-are-there true-life tale allows Watkins to move in a more-or-less freeform fashion, thereby negating the need to create forced narratives and character arcs. Though the film proceeds in general chronological order, skillful editing allows the film to pitch back and forth in time, often returning to significant moments (Munch sick as a child, for instance) or conceptually linking two pieces of history (a love scene intercut with a crying young Munch, suggesting the guilt that haunted the man through much of his life). There's also a sneaky sense of irony engrained into this portrait -- Munch, as depicted here, is an island of self-absorbment adrift in a mass of changes, and the changes he spurs in the art world are borne from his unwillingness to engage in the social changes of the day. As one character says of him, "He's more interested in painting light and shadow than in social conditions," yet Watkins is careful to delineate the specific texture and injustices of this world from which Munch retreats. The societal turmoil (religious, social, medical, and otherwise) that surround Munch informs and reflects the inner turmoil that bleeds out into his Expressionistic paintings even as his life story voluntarily stands apart from it. The immense length allows for a certain level of repetition and affirmation, and I think Watkins lets the film go a bit too slack at times; nevertheless, this is pretty impressive.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Clean (2006)

Given Olivier Assayas's love of music and its relation to the moving image (think of the party scene in Cold Water, or the harsh discordance of Sonic Youth's score matching the vicious corporate mileu in demonlover), it was inevitable that he'd eventually make a film like Clean, which is a series of striking tableaux concerned at least partially with the music industry. What's unexpected is that it's all pretty pictures and wispy tunes and not much else. It's an amorphous film of keen moments and inferred meaning, which can be said of the other two Assayas films I've seen; unlike those other two, though, Clean never coheres into anything beyond those moments. The acting is fine on all counts -- Maggie Cheung deserves the accolades, Nick Nolte plays recessive about as well as anyone these days and where the hell did this Laetitia Spigarelli chick come from? -- and the typically-free-roaming camerawork that comes with an Assayas film, jagged and tense as it is, fits the subject perfectly (a junkie musician trying to kick and get her life back together). That's just it, though: The banal conventionality of the subject matter, coupled with the observational, passive stylistics, ends up creating a film without a spark or a center. It's a character study without a character, style for the sake of itself. Intentional-Unintentional Echoes Dept: Whenever Maggie Cheung's musical stylings would appear within the film, I'd muse that it sounded like Mazzy Star, except not really that good. This was before the film introduced a record producer who wants to work with Cheung with the line, "He had a group called Mazzy Star." Also: Hey, lookit that unexpected shoutout to Maniac!

Grade: C+
The President's Last Bang (2005)

Maybe if I knew thing one about the recent political history of South Korea, this film might prove to be the blistering black satire its champions claim it to be. But I don't, so the appeal is lost on me. I wish I had something interesting or useful to say about why it didn't work for me beyond that simple, ugly fact or that I could at least bring something to the table regarding the film's thematics (such as its invoking the spectre of physical rot as a stand-in for moral rot), but I'm at a loss. Sorry. This review sucks.

Grade: C

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006)

Somehow, this isn't the funniest thing ever. I'm kinda disappointed by that, but I'll deal, as this is still amusing in a lowbrow slacker-com kind of way. (In that, it trumps Run Ronnie Run!, the film spawned from the show that led to the D.) Jokes about weed and rock abound, and though the film never quite tops its opening sequence (a rowdy rock opera starring Meat Loaf and Ronnie James Dio), it scores often enough to engage. Jokes referring to previous points in the life of the D are either cute in-references for fans or lazy writing, depending on the context, and whatever Tim Robbins thought he was doing is... um... not working. But then, there's also JB's 'mindblowing' vocals and Dave Grohl as Satan and "Use the cock!" So yeah. I liked it, whadaya want.

Grade: B
Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh (1991)

It's not enough that this is a very, very bad movie (as could easily be surmised from the title). What makes this low-budget fiasco even more painful than its hyuk-hyuk sense of humor and terrible acting is that its job has already been done twice over. Bloodsucking Pharaohs is a loose remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis's seminally silly gorefest Blood Feast, and it cops the plot but leaves behind the blissfully rude incompetence (not to mention the trailblazing timing) that makes Lewis's film such a charming endeavor, subsituting instead the kind of pushy, super-broad breed of plasticine incompetence that overwhelmed the B-world in the '80s. Not that remaking Blood Feast is necessarily a bad idea -- in fact, Jackie Kong made possibly the greatest B-movie ever when she used Lewis's template to make the insistently loopy slice of crazy called Blood Diner. Setting the anemic Pharaohs in relief next to those two films only points up how worthless the former is -- it's irritating instead of engaging, a firm example of unpretentiousness gone wrong and curdled into head-splitting idiocy. One twitch of Mal Arnold's eyebrows is more fun than this film in its entirety.

Grade: D-

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Phenomena (1985) [second viewing, first in approx. eight years]

I think this works better if you've seen it before -- if you're able via experience to ignore the tortured machinations of the plot, you're left freer to follow the threads of anti-logic that run through Dario Argento's screwy supernatural slasher and appreciate the free-floating bursts of madness (chimp with a straight razor!) that crop up every so often. When he's good, Argento's prodigious visual talents and straight-faced indulgence of the bizarre and outre make up for the idiocy that tends to infest his writing, and here he's very good, pushing the illogic so far that Phenomena comes off like a hallucination or a waking nightmare. (It's not for nothing that Jennifer Connelly's character is a sleepwalker.) Also, this is the most explicit Argento's ever allowed himself to get vis-a-vis the fairy-tale aspect that serves as a throughline for much of his non-giallo work -- the best way to describe this is 'Suspiria as retold by the Grimm Brothers.' Goofy as hell, but also quite intense and riveting, in a dreamy, eerie sort of way; also, Ms. Connelly is quite fetching even as an adolescent.

Grade: B+ [up from B]
Rituals (1977)

Drab, depressing Deliverance ripoff about a group of doctors who, during a fishing excursion, run afoul of something sinister in the woods of Canada. It's a genuinely grueling film, for which I give it credit, but the wholesale dourness draped over the entire thing saps it of energy. The opening scenes are just as devoid of mirth as the rest of it, and that's a miscalculation that dampens the punch of the ordeal we're shown. I admit that part of my apathy towards this stems from the picture quality of the second-generation bootleg (much of the tape appears to be threading through a muddy windshield). I also admit that this has parts that work like they should; director Peter Carter has a reasonably skilled directorial eye and mostly adheres to the classic Hitchcock definition of suspense. When these two tendencies mesh properly (as in the beartrap-in-the-river sequence), Rituals works better than its trash origins should allow; more often, though, one of the two elements is out of sync. The climactic immolation scene, in particular, would be disturbing if it weren't so chaotically cut together. Maybe I'll like this better if I ever see a cleaner print, but I'm not holding my breath.

Grade: C