Wednesday, February 28, 2007

In the Bathtub of the World (2001)

Caveh Zahedi: Voyeur culture savant! The concept behind this film is simple -- it's a video diary that shows us, in a nutshell, a year in the life of Caveh. This is nothing new, of course; the portrait-of-the-artist genre has a long history about it. What appeals about Bathtub is its acknowledgement/indulgence of the relationship between viewer and subject (a.k.a. voyeur and exhibitionist). On the surface, Zahedi is aiming for complete openness -- he wants to show himself to us in full. As such, he's unafraid to look unsympathetic; note, for instance, his insistence on capturing on camera every instance of his girlfriend Amanda Field in tears. Furthermore, he allows us wide access to both his chemical experimentations (including a long scene of him tripping on acid on his birthday) and the obsessions to which he is in thrall, ranging from heedless purchase of books to masturbatory compulsions (the latter upon which he would expound in his subsequent I Am a Sex Addict). So we're given the impression of total honesty. Zahedi leaves enough space to wonder, though -- certainly his arrangement in front of his own camera, often times halfway hidden behind a plant or backlit in an unflattering way, speaks to a certain level of persona enhancement. Futhermore, if, as Godard claims, every cut is a lie, we have to wonder what's being hidden in between the "truths" revealed in Bathtub. It is, foremost, a skillfully edited piece of cinema, as sharp as one would hope given that an entire year is being condensed into under 90 minutes; even so, I can't help but wonder what's being left out of the days we don't see and the gaps we're handed. (Maybe it's lots of boredom, maybe it isn't.) This is especially intriguing in the latter stages of the project, where it becomes apparent that Zahedi has in fact fashioned a sort of makeshift narrative for his film -- it is, at the end of it all, a sweet love story and an expression of hope for and wonder about the future. If I sound like I'm accusing Zahedi of lying to us, I'm not; I merely think the contrast between the subject and the filmmaker, best expressed in the prelude to the aforementioned birthday-acid scene where Amanda uses Caveh's camera to film a friend of the two filming Caveh, so that Caveh-the-star appears twice and Caveh-the-director is apparently in absentia even though the orchestration of it all is clearly his doing, is fertile ground that Zahedi expects us to till with him. In watching this, I'm left to wonder where the division between the man in front of the camera and the man behind the camera exists, and I rather enjoy it all. Acceptance, of course, of Zahedi's work is predicated on acceptance of the persona -- I find the on-camera Caveh appealing in a smart, self-deprecating kind of way. If I may be allowed to unleash my inner Gene Shalit, I'd happily soak in this Bathtub again.

Grade: B

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Epic Movie (2007)

I was looking for one and one thing only from Epic Movie: that it be better than Date Movie. In that, I was not disappointed. The improvement is partially due to writer/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer's wiser choice of target this time around (i.e. they're mostly picking on films that aren't already comedies) and partially due to a more explicit aping of the ZAZ parodic template. Simply put, they've actually figured out that jokes need punchlines to be jokes, and they actually sprinkle a few throughout the bulk of Epic Movie. I'll admit that, to my surprise, I chuckled a few times -- there's a quick gag in the Nacho Libre parody that's arguably funnier than anything in Nacho Libre, and the line "The king wants a monobrow!" is a keeper. Plus, Jayma Mays does the enthusiastic dizziness of Anna Faris nearly as well as Faris herself. Despite these encouraging advances, it is still mostly crap. Now that Friedberg and Seltzer have figured out what it is to tell a joke, they need to work on quality control; the well of inspiration runs dry pretty quickly for these two guys, and for every decent joke there's twelve or thirteen that fall to the firmament with a thud. The ADD-scattershot desire to parody everything in sight results in some ill-advised attempts at tackling subjects that essentially resist parody, especially from two guys who are fundamentally lowest-common-denominator hacks (i.e. the brief but clumsy attempt to poke fun at Borat); furthermore, the two too often revert to the lazy slight-exaggeration stuff that made Date Movie a horror to behold. They really never get around to topping the early bit wherein Crispin Glover-playing-Johnny Depp-playing-Willy Wonka boogies down to "Fergalicious"; the mere fact that a sight that unexpected and surreal made it into the film, though, at least shows that this time around someone was trying to think. We take what we can get around here.

Grade: C
The Messengers (2007)

Okay, see if you can keep up with this. After introducing themselves to the world at large with the John-Woo-thieving Bangkok Dangerous, the Pang brothers (Danny and Oxide) hit pay dirt with their film The Eye, a well-constructed but generally uninspired amalgam of Ringu and Blink. Despite its mediocrity, The Eye arrived at precisely the right time to ride the crest of the J-horror boom. This gave the Pangs a bit of a reputation, enough to attract the attention of American eyes. Sam Raimi, being a pair of influential American eyes and a big horror cheerleader besides, imported the Pangs so that they could direct The Messengers, yet another Anglicized rendition of all the expected J-horror tropes familiarized by films like Ringu, Ju-On and... The Eye. I guess that the logic went that hiring individuals who are in part responsible for the calcification of the genre, with its blue ghosts and creepy dead kids, will somehow make the screenplay's wan compendium of cliches feel more authentic. This flawed logic is how we got The Ring Two, and The Messengers is even worse than that, maybe because the Pangs have always been second-hand hacks feeding off the ideas and successes of others. To steal a phrase from Edward Norton, this film is a copy of a copy of a copy. The only entertainment comes from Dylan McDermott and generally has nothing to do with either the ghosts or the cheap familial drama (i.e. his goofball pun about "the Farmer Sutra"); everything else is desperation time. Can someone please get Kristen Stewart her Buffalo '66 already?

Grade: D+

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

There's a pretty great movie that almost claws its way through the messy sprawl of The Last King of Scotland. This movie is about the phenomenon that was Idi Amin, as experienced and gradually realized by a cultural outsider. Rather than making a movie like Out of Africa, wherein a heroic white person signifies the oppression and hardship of Third World countries even as they fight for relief from these things, director Kevin Macdonald consciously keeps Dr. Nicolas Garrigan isolated and separate. He even has Forest Whitaker, as Idi Amin, spit out a last-minute rebuke to that sort of implicitly-racist filmmaking, accusing Garrigan of playing the crusading white man in a country that didn't ask for his help. (Also note that ultimately it's the white man who needs saving by a black man.) This movie is raw, creepy and queasily funny, and it's anchored by a justly-acclaimed performance by Whitaker; he gets a lot of big actorly moments playing the outsized Amin, the kind of moments that win Oscars, but I think the true measure of the performance is the handful of quiet moments he pulls off and how quickly his Amin can go from frightening to jovial in the space of a smile. Unfortunately, this film keeps getting interrupted by some other movie about all the stupid stuff that Garrigan does, especially in regards to his libido. The subplot involving the dangerous development of an attachment between him and Amin's third wife Kay (played, with typical panache undeserved by the role, by Kerry Washington) might be the dumbest thing I've seen in a "reputable" film from 2006. This obsession with following the foolish Garrigan, especially in a narrative that ultimately declares him a fool, cripples what could have been a fine dramatization of an ugly time in world history. Pity.

Grade: C+
Hollywood After Dark (1968)

This B-grade potboiler isn't terribly impressive, but it's also not terrible; what's surprising is that, for a while at least, it flirts with quality. It helps that I tend to respond favorably to films like this -- there's more accidental crude beauty in the clumsy poetry of these cheap noir glosses than just about any other disreputable genre you might care to name. Here, there's a nice moment where reluctant criminal Tony is chewing out depressive stripper Sandy over her choice of wardrobe, and as the dimestore monologue progresses it becomes clear that Tony is implicitly admitting via the I'll-throw-rocks-at-you technique that he's smitten. Sandy, by the by, is played by a very young and quite fetching Rue McClanahan, who shows a certain level of promise that is unfortunately let down by the film's second half -- she's marginalized and shunted off in favor of an increasingly familiar and threadbare heist-gone-wrong narrative. The filmmakers should have just ditched the heist stuff and concentrated on the cheesy charms of the romantic plot strand, but we can only judge what's in front of us, not what we wish was in front of us. Given that, I have to say that Hollywood After Dark falls apart after a promising setup, though it still finds time for the odd inspired shot (like the surprising reveal right before the film's climactic confrontation, made all the more surprising by its tossed-off quality). Oh well, what the hell, etc.

Grade: C+
Gabrielle (2006)

(Written for the Lovesick Blogathon.)


"Francis never loved anybody. That's why it's easy for him to be a saint."

Gabrielle is the latest in my line of perverse Valentine's Day viewing picks -- on a day set aside to celebrate love in all its forms, there's something delightful about taking a look at a film that orbits around the absence of love. The marriage between Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) and Jean (Pascal Greggory) is a marriage of status and convenience, not emotion. In his opening narration, Jean speaks of his love for Jean while at the same time claiming, "We have no need for intimacy." In this same initial passage, he speaks of his friends claiming that he has a face that looks like it was made to make money, to be a successful businessman; tying these two concepts together in the same breath makes a salient point -- Jean, despite his convictions to the contrary, conducts his personal life like his business life -- without becoming overbearing about it. His love is a lazy and dispassionate love, which is why the old cliche of the falling glassware as utilized here stings like it rarely ever does; the dropped decanter occurs after Jean discovers and reads the bold Dear John letter from Gabrielle, and the shattering coupled with the screen's explosion into white makes clear that, for possibly the first time in his life, Jean is feeling something.

"How do I compose the appropriate face?"

Jean's difficulty in expressing those feelings is from where the majority of the drama in Gabrielle stems. Jean says of his social circle that thy are "men and women who fear emotion and failure more than fire, war or disease," which is probably why Jean gets along with them; thus, it's something of a shock for him to have to navigate this unfamiliar territory, affairs of the heart being something that can't be mapped out and logically broken down like a business plan or a mathematic equation. The central sequence in this navigation is a long, painfully awkward dinner sequence wherein he and Gabrielle eat and glare, occasionally tossing verbal daggers in an attempt to break one another. Greggory and Huppert are at their peaks here, with their every phrase landing like a boxer's body blow; I've long been a fan of Huppert, but Greggory (who first came to my attention with one of the decade's best performances in Raja) is quickly becoming equally important to world cinema in my eyes. His work here as Jean is stellar -- his face exudes a haughty seediness at all times, yet his expressive features always keep you clued in to the roiling mass of confusion underneath Jean's exterior and how difficult it is for him to keep it together.

Patrice Chereau's direction, too, is elegant in its ability to bend time as a corrective to Jean's presumptiveness. His visual trickiness, dismissable as gimmickry at first, gains importance upon examination -- the shifts from black-and-white to color mirror the change in Jean's perspective on everything he thinks he knows, and the occasional superimposition of text onscreen points towards the lack of communication and assumption of everything's-fine stasis that proves to be factors in the relationship's breakdown. My favorite moment, though, is the fade to white at the end of the second act that mirrors the blistering white that occurs when the decanter falls; in the first instance, it's the glass that shatters, but it might as well be Jean's world, and the reoccurance of the white screen happens as Jean sits alone in the dark, surveying all that has crumbled around him. His pride sustained him for a long time, but we all know how pride and a fall are linked.

"What is it to know somebody?"

This is obviously a film about Jean, yet titling it after Gabrielle makes the same kind of sense that the title of Sansho the Bailiff makes -- Gabrielle is the engine that drives and inspires everything in the story. It's also significant that she comes to represent everything that Jean thought he could do but could not; she reconciles herself to the live that she had been leading, bereft of love as it was, while Jean becomes overwhelmed by the flood of emotions that addle his brain post-letter and demands something more in their wake. When Gabrielle lies on the bed and capitulates to convention by offering herself to Jean, what she's really offering is a repair of their marriage and social standing, but at the cost of Jean's re-killing of his heart. The control that Jean thought he had in life, he sees, belongs and always has belonged to Gabrielle -- he knows nothing of what he thinks he knows about her, their relationship, or the nature of what it is to love. His exit from the story and the life to which he can no longer relate seems the only natural response.

"He never returned."

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Freddy Got Fingered, or: Daddy, Would You Like Some Dada?

(Written for the Contrarian Blogathon.)

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and called it art. In 2001, Tom Green waggled a horse's penis and called it a movie. The line of separation between the two actions is a lot thinner than would seem apparent.

Here's the thing: If Dada was, as its proponents claimed, deliberately anti-art in that it opposed everything for which the art of the day stood, then Green's Freddy Got Fingered, as terrifically weird and terrifically funny as anything released this decade, is Dada to its very bones. It inhabits the skin of a popular genre -- the Hollywood teen-oriented comedy -- much like Green's character Gord climbs into the carcass of a skinned deer during the course of the film, and like Gord, it wears this skin only to flout its distaste for convention. It is, in short, an anti-film and should be respected as such.

Because of this, it's an easy film to hate, as it does everything it can to frustrate the usual responses to juvenile-minded comedy. Chief among these short-circuit strategies is Gord. Green takes the gauntlet tossed down by Adam Sandler and David Spade and David Arquette and a host of others and runs away with it -- aspiring animator Gord is emotionally undeveloped, maladroit, hostile, self-involved and literal-minded to the point of idiocy. The difference is that Sandler et al. want you to sympathize with their man-children despite their off-putting natures, while Green clearly couldn't give a fuck. He knows and is willing to acknowledge that the infantilized hero of these stereotypical scatcoms is a deeply weird individual. So he pushes that to the edge, thereby flummoxing any sort of identification.

This isn't to say that Gord isn't a fully realized character. Quite to the contrary, his actions are understandable given the perspective with which Green imbues him. Gord (much like his creator) uses anarchic public displays as his preferred mode of expression, with his animations serving as an offshoot of this notice-me tendency. What he's expressing with that is what's important. Gord uses his art to work through reams of rage and loathing, aimed both inward and outward; his drawings, mutterings and psycho-freakouts provide a buffer for/relief from his overwhelming self-inadequecy while also serving as a vent for his towering issues with Daddy (note the possible Oedipal complex in the scene where he tells his mother that, as revenge on her husband, she needs to go out and "satisfy her sexual urges"), McJobs and authority and propriety in general.

In his attempts to articulate his frustration with the modern world, Gord wears a cheese helmet, puts on a suit backwards and chants into the mirror, howls and screams at the slightest provocation, wears a severed umbilical cord and, in the film's most memorable scene, rigs up a bunch of raw meat on a pulley system so he can eat, draw and play music all at once. (If Damien Hirst had done that last bit rather than Green, a good portion of the art world would have creamed themselves.) Gord's creations are undeniably repulsive -- part of Green's modus operandi in undermining the scatcom template is intentionally going too far with his sick setpieces, especially in the infamous bit where Gord delivers a baby -- but they also have a mad invention about them; however, it's an insular kind of invention (the opening scene shows him cracking up alone in his room while playing with his drawings in the manner of a child). Animation exec Dave Davidson (Anthony Michael Hall) says during the film, "[This art] doesn't make sense, Gord," and what he means is that it doesn't make sense to anyone who isn't Gord. It's a rebellion of the personal kind.

Gord's small subversions are mirrored by Green's one massive subversion, and therein is where the poison-pen meta-prank at the core of Freddy Got Fingered exists. If Gord is venting spleen at a culture that stymies him, Green is blowing toxic raspberries at a culture that erroneously thought it could assimilate him. (This gets expressed in a big way in the third act, which I'll come back to in a minute.) The film has the shape and structure of a typical coming-of-age narrative, in which the protagonist overcomes the obstacles in his way to become older, wiser and hopefully a success; the words, however, bang uncomfortably against the music. The whole point of Freddy is that Gord succeeds not by coming to grips with the prevailing culture but by making the prevailing culture come to terms with him -- by the end of the film, he's a raging success without changing or compromising one bit. He's the same wigged-out freak he was at the film's beginning, but somewhere along the line everyone becomes okay with that.

Paradoxically, I think it's this frustration of convention that makes Freddy funny to me. One of my rules for comedy is that comedy is always funnier when it seems to come from within a character rather than happening to a character; Green, to his credit, stays true to the obnoxious oddball that is Gord from frame one to fade out. Actions that would seem inexplicable out of context (i.e. the "sausage" scene) make a little more sense once you understand Gord's mindset, yet they still retain the shock of the bizarre. Green also, to his credit, has a peculiar yet sharp sense of comedic timing -- study in particular the scene at the restaurant and watch how the chaos builds. The first time I saw Freddy, I laughed in disbelief and astonishment; the second time through, I laughed simply because I thought it was hilarious.

The biggest and darkest joke, and the closest the film gets to the nihilistic leveling spirit of Dada, comes at the point I alluded to earlier. It's what earns Gord his success that pulls back the curtain on Green's ultimate target. Gord's cartoon show "Zebras in America" becomes a monster hit after Davidson agrees to bankroll it. It's also, as we see from a clip of the show, breathtakingly inane. At this point, the joke turns around and eats itself -- Green, in essence, offers his career up for sacrifice so that he can ridicule on a massive scale both the studio heads who would blithely agree to bankroll his idiocy and the audiences who would eat it up.

And sacrifice his career he did -- the reviews were hateful and the box-office was nonexistent. Green hasn't been allowed to work with the same kind of autonomy since. But that's okay -- he got to say what he wanted to say. Duchamp's "Fountain" was roundly rejected when it came out, and I believe the time will come when the value of Green's film becomes apparent as well. Freddy Got Fingered is a doodled mustache on the face of gross-out comedy. Tom Green once humped a dead moose on TV, and with his phoenix-in-flames magnum opus, he humped the hot ass of Hollywood. It's all pretty goddamn funny, really.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Iron Island (2006)

Terminally vague allegory disguised as standard Iranian neorealism. The problem is that the allegory (Iranian society is a rusty sinking ship!) doesn't really go anywhere interesting or even achieve a measure of clarity until the last ten minutes or so, leaving the film to coast on atmosphere and ill-defined conflicts. There's a notable sequence near the end involving a punishment that's worth seeing (the dangers of pridefulness seem to be another concern of the director), but most of this is insubstantial. I'm busy forgetting it already.

Grade: C+
W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

Or, A Whole Lot of Density in Search of a Little Clarity. Dusan Makavejev's notorious freewheeling sociopolitical cluster bomb has a lot to say about political freedom, sexual freedom, Marxism, love, Wilhelm Reich and goodness knows what else, and there's nothing wrong with that. I just wish he wasn't trying to say it all in the same breath. Certainly the film is gregarious enough that watching it never feels like a chore or a civics lesson (unlike, say, Ecstasy of the Angels). Makavejev's approach to this material belies an ingrained prankster spirit and a jovial intellectual restlessness; because of this exuberance, the film is never boring and frequently quite funny. (The scene where the eternally thwarted Radmilovic crashes through a wall to interrupt the film's two lovers, in essence standing in for every societal condition that serves to frustrate simple desires, is some sort of deranged genius.) But I'm not convinced that the film's wealth of content gels into anything substantial. It's a barrage of images and ideas that spills out far past its framework, so that Makavejev just looks heedless and sloppy. Part of me thinks I'm being mean and that there's just too much here to parse on one viewing; another part thinks that there was too much for even Dusan himself to parse.

Grade: C+
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975)

Concise, well-constructed documentary on the title fellow, whose experiments with sequential photography can be construed as the first attempt at making movies. Director Thom Andersen fills us in with some brief biographical information at the outset; his main interest, though, is not in the man's life but in his work. Muybridge's photographs, though imperfect (analysis reveals that the photos would miss something like two-thirds of the actual movement), were groundbreaking in their study of musculature and action, and it's Muybridge's creation of a zoopraxoscope (a viewer to sequentially display recreations of said photographs) that may have in part led to the modern movie camera. Thus, it seems only natural when Andersen ends the film by putting Muybridge's photographs into balletic motion, thereby explicitizing the link between zoopraxography and cinema while simultaneously broadening his subject so that the film serves as an examination of the nature of film. It's painstaking, exhaustive and all pretty damn awesome; considering that those terms also describe the work which it's about and of which it is mainly comprised, Andersen would have to try pretty hard not to make something interesting out of them.

Grade: B+

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Babel (2006)

I can pinpoint the exact moment this film falls apart. It's in the scene where the Moroccan authorities are beating up the peasant who sells the gun in the first scene. When the main cop produces a photograph and asks the peasant if this is the man who gave him the gun, that's when Babel loses its right to be taken seriously. Before that, it's a modestly successful social-tapestry film, heavy on the angst but with some decent moments and a fierce performance by Rinko Kikuchi as a sexually frustrated deaf-mute teenager. That's not enough for director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, though -- their film has to be Significant! That's why we get the ludicrous "photo" scene because, you know, we're all connected or some shit like that. That the film goes from engaging to silly after that is no surprise; that it later descends further into mean and risible is less predictable and quite unfortunate. (When you really look at the films he's written, it's apparent that Arriaga has a vicious sadistic streak within him.) Some fine acting in each of the four threads can't save this overdetermined attempt at message-mongering; I think that I am now officially sick of this genre. Oh Magnolia, what hath thou wrought?

Grade: C-
A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Richard Linklater has long been fond of narcotic languor and druggy rambling (think Slacker, think Dazed and Confused, think Waking Life); with this trippy adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, he explores the dark side of said fascinations. The logorrheic insouciance that has been Linklater's stock in trade is in full flower, but there's ominous undertones to it all -- these are not people you'd want to become like. The visuals by the increasingly invaluable Bob Sabiston are unassailable (the creature from Freck's hallucination is a wow), and the cast is solid. On the latter: I expected such wired awesomeness from Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. (once again proving himself the master of the eccentric pause), but even Keanu and Winona Ryder, two actors of whom I'm generally less than fond, are worthy of mention. Despite a weak wrap-up, this manages the rare feat of being a cautionary tale minus the hectoring.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Goodbye CP (1972)

Kazuo Hara's controversial documentary about a group of Japanese people afflicted with cerebral palsy is as raw and disturbing as films come. Its intent becomes clear early, during a long sequence where the CP patients are on the street soliciting donations for the charity they've set up; overlaid on the sequence is a series of interviews where a man (presumably Hara) asks people in the crowd why they donated. More often than not, the answer is a variation on "I felt sorry for them," and the subsequent footage is a ragged roar of anger against that sort of guilty fake sympathy. Pity, the act of feeling sorry for someone, is in essence a belitting move, the idea being that it reduces the object of pity to less than human; Hara shows us what we're pitying and asks us if that is indeed what we feel. The CP patients in this film are complex beings just like any other human, their minds trapped in bodies that don't obey their wills and mouths that can't always express what they want, and Hara is willing to show them just as that -- as three-dimensional beings capable of hatred, anger, lust, vice and such. There's a scene where the group goes and picks fruit; this is then followed by an extended discussion of the males and their loss of virginity, including one fellow who admits to rape. Hara isn't letting anyone off the hook, not even himself; the centerpiece (and possibly the most scathing, troubling bit of the film) is also a bit of a self-reflexive bromide, as well as an implicit middle finger to the Wiseman-objective school of documentary thought: Yokoto Hiroshi, a poet and the default main character of the film, is presiding over a meeting of the group when the subject of his wife's disapproval of the film project comes up. His wife, who is in the house at the time and is also afflicted with CP, enters to voice her feelings, which then escalates into a screaming argument. Hara is at the ready filming the whole thing, even when Hiroshi's wife demands he stop. Goodbye CP is a brutal film, an uneasy and queasy film, but it's also necessary as possibly the most affecting and effective tirade against uncaring and/or ineffectual societial policies I've yet seen. When Hara brings the film full circle by getting Hiroshi on the street again, this time to perform his confrontational poetry, the indifference and rejection of the crowd says volumes; this then is followed by one of the bleakest endings in documentary history, wherein we learn the limits of art to effect change. The infamous nude shot says it all: Hara wants you to stop looking and truly see.

Grade: A
The Moving Finger (1963)

Wretched time capsule from the New York underground involving a bunch of beatniks who run across a wounded bank robber and then... well, not much happens after that. There's lots of pseudo-hip dialogue and obnoxious beatniks doing obnoxious beatnik-y things (crashing an art gallery to steal hors d'oevres, holding an impromptu and pointless cockroach race, etc.), but nothing in the way of anything remotely interesting or cinematic. Lionel Stander and his marvelous speaking voice attempt to class up the joint, but this is no Blast of Silence; although his turn as a venal coffee-shop owner (and terrible poet) is the only thing that approaches professionalism, it's not enough to keep this from feeling like 85 minutes of excrement. Never released theatrically for a good reason, this thing is a movie only in the loosest sense of the word.

Grade: D-

Monday, February 05, 2007

I've been trying to avoid doing this... but I can't let my backlog fester any longer. It's time for a catch-up post. Quick and dirty capsules is the name of the game here. Grease up, 'cause it's time to wrestle:

Children of Men (2006): Fully realized and convincing dystopic vision courtesy of Alfonso Cuarón, working from a PD James novella that is reportedly much different. It wins hearts for a while with its low-key drollery until it unexpectedly erupts into violence and topicality; gradually, it builds in force until the final sequence, which would play as hokey in lesser hands but here gains a touch of the divine. (This despite a fierce downplaying of the obvious Christian symbolism.) A towering, technically splendid achievement, all big-heartedness and terror and the tiniest gleam of triumphant, worn-out hope at the end (and a perfect final cutaway, too); one of the year's finest achievements in a walk. Peter Mullan steals every scene he's in, until Clive Owen rather decisively steals the movie back from him. Grade: A

The Court Jester (1955): Dizzying blend of slapstick and wordplay courtesy of limber live wire Danny Kaye. Its particular brand of frenetic anarchy takes a bit of time to rev up (a comedy that actually cares about its plot? heaven forbid!), and the derring-do climax seems a bit pro forma compared to what precedes it even with midgets using a catapult to launch soldiers into the ocean; other than those minor complaints, though, this is pretty unassailably funny. A thoroughly grand bit of entertainment. Grade: A-

4 (2006): For about forty-five minutes (up to and including the last line in the bar), this is one of the year's best films. Then it suddenly turns into some other, far less interesting film. Gorgeously realized but frustrating and ultimately a total muddle; I'm not sorry I saw it, but that second hour is just so much waste. Grade: C

The Good Shepherd (2006): Means well, but comes off as square, stolid and boring -- just like its protagonist. Also, why is Angelina Jolie in this film other than the annoyance factor? Seriously. Grade: C

I Am a Sex Addict (2006): Personable hybrid of real life and reel life that details director/star Caveh Zahedi's struggle with an unquenchable jones for prostitutes. Never quite tops the early-stage hall-of-mirrors mindfuck that centers around his casting of an actress to play his French ex-wife (I won't spoil it, but I'll admit I wouldn't have believed it except that I didn't recognize the actress myself), but Zahedi's willingness to show the destructive and unsympathetic aspects of his addiction-fueled behavior is admirable. Part of the fun, of course, is trying to find the line where the filmic persona ends and the real man begins, and it's to Zahedi's credit that his deliberate blurring of said line keeps the viewer off-balance. Is this a slyly satiric look at the reality/confessional culture in which we live, or is it merely symptomatic? You be the judge. Grade: B

Idiocracy (2006): I know this has been the main complaint of most people, but it still seems perverse to point out that a film that expends so much energy mocking laziness and shoddiness in humanity (i.e. the shots of skyscrapers literally held together with string and bubble gum) should be so haphazardly constructed. Fortunately, the first half is funny enough to compensate -- there's some sharp, dark satire hiding under all the ugly. Whether Mike Judge is taking down the entertainment industry with TV shows named "Ow! My Balls!" and films like Ass (90 minutes of a naked rear), fashioning jokes from corporate dominance gone awry ("Your children will be placed in the custody of Carl's Jr.") or merely tossing off the single funniest iteration of the time-travel paradox ever filmed, he's on his game. Then the plot kicks in, and aside from "It's what plants crave," Idiocracy falls apart. Still worth a look, and I don't know if Luke Wilson has ever been as funny as he is here, but it's not the squelched masterpiece we were all secretly hoping it would be. Maybe it was before Fox fucked with it. Maybe we'll see that film surface some day. Grade: B-

An Inconvenient Truth (2006): Sober, fact-laden documentary about global warming as presented in a lecture by Al Gore. I know it sounds like cinematic roughage, but it's pretty goddamn compelling actually. It helps that Gore is an engaging, personable and often quite funny speaker. ("And on the other side... THE ENTIRE WORLD. Hmmm....") Where was this guy when he was running for President? Gets docked a few points for the bio-bits that feel like campaign-commercial leftovers, but it makes a damn convincing argument. In the wake of the recent headline in the New York Times about this very same subject, one can't help but feel a bit freaked out. Grade: B+

Killer's Kiss (1955): Stanley Kubrick's first major film shows that, right off the bat, he had an extraordinary eye for detail. (The POV punch was a nice touch.) This film exudes the cocksure confidence of a young man who knows he's got the goods. Unfortunately, its stock-level noir plot is boring as ass. Consider this a rehearsal for the awesome full-flower of The Killing. Grade: C

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili (2006): Nice to know I was right -- Lu Chuan's sophomore effort is a visually striking tale, based on a true story, about a volunteer group of eco-defenders waging a battle against poachers determined to slaughter a rare species of Tibetan antelope for its skins; as the film progresses and the obstacles (environmental and otherwise) stack up, it becomes clear that this long-held fight is reaching its end. Has the feel of a late-period Western, with all the ambiguity and exhaustion that marked that genre post-Wild Bunch. Basically, this is stout, impressive filmmaking. Good job Lu. Grade: B+

Pan's Labyrinth (2006): Sumptuous and haunting fable from Guillermo del Toro, once again proving that his Spanish work is more interesting and careful than his Hollywood work. (Not that I dislike his Hollywood films -- on the contrary, for the most part -- but still.) Steals a bit too heavily from the Grimm Brothers in its early stages, but eventually it cuts loose with the force of its own untrammeled imagination, moving inexorably towards an ending that manages to be transcendent and horribly depressing in the same breath. Ivana Baquero, while no Jodelle Ferland, is very impressive in a difficult role; Sergi Lopez discombobulated me for a while, given that I've never seen him play full-tilt evil nor have I ever seen him speaking Spanish, but he's damn good as well, bringing a poisoned dignity to a cardboard-evil role. Grade: B+

The Rules of the Game (1939): Extraordinary social satire by Jean Renoir starts off as a fizzy bedroom farce, then gradually darkens until it positively drips venom from the screen. The first indication of the film's intent is the justly-famous hunting sequence; coming right in the middle of what had up to then been a jaunty comedy of manners, it connects with the force of a Louisville Slugger upside the dome. The extended, frantically funny climax, with a large group of rich people idling the night away as worlds fall apart around them, is something of a miracle; the last scene, where we learn the true extent of the upper class's callousness, is as crushing as anything ever committed to celluloid. This is one classic that in every way deserves its canonical status. Grade: A

The Seventh Continent (1989): Michael Haneke's debut film marries an exacting, rigorous technique to a rather jejune worldview built on depersonalization; the result is the film that holds the interest and keeps the mind whirring even as, deep down, you realize it's pretty much all bullshit. Haneke's extraordinary formal command is evident even in this nascent stage -- there's an exemplary sequence early on where the soul-eroding forces of capitalism are represented via a series of eyeline matches, and the third act is nothing if not technically extraordinary, like a less angry and more resigned hands-on version of the climax to Zabriskie Point. Still, what it's all saying is a bit simplistic, and I'm glad that Haneke's messages would get at least a little more nuanced from here. I'm used to his hectoring, but he at least throws in a little ambiguity these days. Grade: B-

Snakes on a Plane (2006): This film does so many things wrong, honestly. Everything prior to the release of the snakes is nigh well useless, most of the big attack scenes are edited into incoherence, the FX are terrible and why anyone would cast David Koechner in a campy, semi-comic movie and give him a role that requires him to do almost nothing funny is beyond me. Yet when it clicks, it's amusing low-grade junk, and the more ludicrous it gets (which it gradually does over the course of the film's second half), the more fun it becomes. No matter how many times the filmmakers go back to it, the Snake-O-Vision is never not hilarious, and I'll admit that I rewound Samuel L. Jackson's Big Monologue of Frustration three or four times. Besides, this movie has snakes biting off people's dicks, chomping on bare titties, eating a little rat-dog and knocking out a plane's avionics system. That right there should tell you what you'll think of this even before you see it. Me, I kinda liked it in a reptile-brain sort of way, even as I recognize that it's crud. Grade: C+

United 93 (2006): Effective but problematic. It's certainly respectful and tense as hell, and Paul Greengrass's economically hectic direction does wonders for the sense of claustrophobia and chaos. Yet there's occasional signs that he's trying too hard, attempting (and I know how grotesque this will sound) to process grief and tragedy by making an action film out of it. The script's sense of irony is leaden ("It'll be a good day on the East Coast"), the character moments waver between careful and klutzy and the score is a bombastic abomination. (This really should have been unscored.) Greengrass is walking a fine line between historical recreation and blatant emotional manipulation, and I honestly don't know which side of the line he's on most of the time. I can't fault it for what it does right -- and it does a lot right, including a crusher of a closing shot -- but it troubles me anyway. Grade: B-

Wordplay (2006): Hews so closely to the Eccentric Pastime/Eccentric People template (a documentary genre I first remember encountering with Hands on a Hard Body) that there might as well be molding lines around its edges; nevertheless, the entertainment and drama inherent in competition -- even the geekiest competition -- wins out. Of the interviewed celebrities, Ken Burns comes off best, and I have no idea why the Indigo Girls and Mike Mussina are here. Grade: B