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


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