Monday, April 30, 2007

Grindhouse (2007)

Honestly, there was only a very tiny chance that I wasn't going to dig this. Yet, I'm still surprised at how much fun it turned out to be. Robert Rodriguez gets first crack with the one-two punch of the Machete trailer and Planet Terror, both of which play to Rodriguez's filmmaking strengths. This is to say that both mostly forgo niceties like plot, dialogue, characterization, pacing -- in short, all the stuff that Rodriguez is crap at -- in favor of endless action and gross-out thrills. Surprisingly, Terror doesn't get wearying despite the near-endless application of sensation at the expense of all else; if anything, it feels like the Holy Grail of exploitation cinema -- the grindhouse feature that actually delivers all the sick trashy enjoyment it promises. It's an orgy of icky body fluids, gunfire, pain, dismemberment and pustule-ridden zombies exploding like meat-filled sacks of flesh, and I enjoyed it verily. The intermission trailers are fun too, with Edgar Wright's loving, impeccable Eurohorror pastiche being the standout. But if Planet Terror is more fun and more in the spirit of the project, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof is the better overall film. Solidly satisfying as drive-in motorporn and as Tarantino-style gabfest (for all his reputation as a poet of violence, the man makes the talkiest films this side of Rohmer), it's also quite effective as a deconstruction of the male-dominant ethos inherent in both the slasher and car-guy genres. (I'm sure the vast amount of buttfucking jokes made during the final chase scene is anything but coincidental.) Also, Death Proof has my single favorite exploitation-geek joke in the whole film, so that's gotta count for something. Sure, Grindhouse is nothing more than a readymade cult film (one factor in its financial failure, I'd wager), but it's made with enough energy and affection that it transcends that dubious label. And when was the last time deliberately pandering to an imaginary cult audience actually WORKED? People should be checking this thing out just for that.

Grade: B+
The Reaping (2007)

As a proselytization tool, this series of Biblical bitchslaps in horror garb is at least less unpleasant (and thus preferable) to The Passion of the Christ, holding out belief in the miraculous as it does. Otherwise, I don't think I can say anything about this other than: Stupid, stupid, stupid! Also, I kinda wish it had followed the ugliest part of its plot to its bitter resolution rather than pulling the cop-out twist. At least that would have been different and memorable. Hilary Swank seems determined to kill time between Oscar-winning roles by starring in the most retarded films available. (Remember The Core?)

Grade: C
For Your Height Only (1981)

I figured there was no way that this Filipino spy spoof, which stars a 2'9" fellow named Weng Weng as its James Bond surrogate, could live up to the general silliness of its concept. Jesus, was I ever wrong. This thing is the rare B-movie gift that keeps on giving -- no matter how crazy it gets, there's likely something equally crazy or crazier in the next reel. There's not so much a plot as a series of things that follow one another in a vague mockery of temporal order, all loosely organized around the psychotically violent Agent 00 and his efforts to bring down a crime syndicate by killing every last motherfucker in said syndicate. (Yes, I did make a "short temper" joke during the film.) Seriously, every other scene in this film involves Weng jumping around and kicking/shooting/exploding the crap out of anything that crosses his path. He's a spry little fella, too, which leads to no end of amusement (like the bit where he literally flips over an opponent and kicks him in the ass). Then there's the dubbing. While dubbing generally is wounding to your average film, here it only accentuates the mania, especially considering the number of inexplicable lines of dialogue that had to be intended as goofball tongue-in-cheek jokes. I mean, one of the women in the film calls Weng "petite, like a potato." I swear I'm not joking, and I've got Andrew Borntreger to prove it. I haven't even gotten into the bizarre interludes involving Weng's love life or the portly villain in the screaming red blazer who sounds like Robert De Niro after dental surgery. Clearly, this film is awesome. If you haven't seen it, I command you to remedy that.

Grade: B
Challenge of the Tiger (1980)

Wonderfully awful hybrid of the kung fu and espionage genres, with Bruce Le providing the majority of the fight muscle and Richard Harrison hogging all of the love muscle. Le is a quivering mass of rage whose first instinct whenever happening upon something unfamiliar is to try and kick the holy hell out of it, while Harrison shows little to no interest in things that he can't fuck. Together, they're out to stop a plot that will render the world's men infertile. It's about as goony as it sounds, and though it never quite tops the wondrous insanity of its opening twenty minutes (in which, among other things, Harrison engages in topless tennis with a extremely buxom lady and Le beats up a bull), it's B-level fun all the way. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that, in spite of the general incompetence of the filmmaking, the final duel between Le and kung-fu legend Hwang Jang Lee is quite solidly choreographed.

Grade: B-
The Toll of the Sea (1922)

Adequate adaptation of "Madame Butterfly" significant these days mainly for being the first film to be shot in two-strip Technicolor; like most films whose fame is based around technical innovation, this looks ravishing (the colors simply sing) but feels dramatically half-hearted, with the story being pushed through its paces as quickly and professionally as possible. The lone exception to this (and the true reason to see it) is Anna May Wong in the lead role of Lotus Flower, a young Chinese woman who falls in love with a traveling white man only to fall to pieces when he returns to America without her. This is the first time I've seen Wong in anything (it was her first lead role as well) and she's terrific, a luminous screen presence whose talent and charisma is undeniable even in the throes of rusty melodrama. The rest of the film isn't much -- Kenneth Harlan is a bland unfeeling lump, the story holds no surprises and the poorly "reconstructed" ending isn't any help -- but Ms. Wong makes this a relatively easy watch.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Blades of Glory (2007)

In which we find out what a Will Ferrell comedy would look like if it was made with minimal effort. Ferrell, predictably, is hilarious -- few comedians have explored the many facets of clueless narcissicm as effectively as he has, and the film's at its funniest when it allows him to spout non sequitors. (The scene where he leaves message after message on Jon Heder's answering machine is a highlight.) The rest of the film, though, is lazy and predictable. Will Arnett and Amy Poehler try, by sheer force of will, to turn their one-note villainous constructs into something worth laughing at and succeed a couple times, Nick Swardson gets some creepily funny dialogue, and the first demonstration of the "Iron Rose" is nothing short of gutbusting. But I can't shake the feeling that nobody was really trying to make anything other than a passable entertainment. At least Heder shows that he can do something that's not just Napoleon Dynamite under a different name.

Grade: C+
Where Eagles Dare (1968)

[Requested by Kent Beeson.]

I was won over by this robust WWII actioner before the credits were finished. The credit sequence is nothing more than an aerial view of the mountains that will later be traversed by Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and company as they attempt to infiltrate and destroy a Nazi castle atop an insurmountable peak. This series of dizzying shots, though, coupled with Ron Goodwin's triumphant score, results in the sense of something majestic and epic. This sort of decorum is rare in today's action/adventure climate, so I stood up and took notice. This starts off as a standard infiltration drama, but quickly it becomes clear that something is amiss. (One of the Allied team's members unexpectedly getting killed twelve minutes into the plot tends to give that sort of thing away.) In this vein, Alistair MacLean's screenplay turns into a riveting cat-and-mouse game, with the Nazis aware of the Allies' presence from a fairly early stage and Burton making some questionable moves only to have them pay off down the line. The espionage angle holds fast for a surprising amount of this film's running time, with Burton especially good as a cunning soldier who may be hiding secrets and appears willing to shift his story as it suits the occasion. He's matched by Eastwood as the sole American, whose status as the cultural outsider is mirrored by his inability to judge Burton even as he has to trust him and his desire to be cut into the loop. Eventually, all the pertinent loyalties on each side get sorted, and it's then that the film can get down to its main business of providing excitement and thrills. Clever as it is, Where Eagles Dare at heart is old-fashioned Saturday-matinee fisticuffs at its best, and it speaks quite loudly and clearly to the eight-year-old boy within me who secretly still likes to watch noble Allies stick it to evil Nazis while lots of stuff blows up real good.

Grade: B+
Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001)

Documentary in which David Friedman and Dan Sonney, two old hands at the exploitation-cinema game, expound on the films they created and the genres they birthed. Ted Bonnit's film is initially engaging and entertaining enough that it takes about half the film to realize that it isn't worth a tinker's damn as a documentary. Sonney and Friedman's recollections are amusing but too scattershot to function as anything resembling an oral history of grindhouse cinema, and for those of us who know thing one about this particular section of cinema history, there's far too many egregious omissions and whitewashes. I mean, it's one thing for the genesis of the nudie-cutie to come up without mention of Russ Meyer or Barry Mahon (not even from exploitation history maven Frank Henenlotter) -- neither Sonney nor Friedman really crossed paths with either of those fellows. But there's a five-minute overview of Blood Feast (which, incidentally, Sonney didn't have squat to do with, despite the insinuative editing here) and not only is there no mention of H.G. Lewis, but an onscreen poster for the film is framed so Lewis's name is partially obscured. I know he and Friedman had a falling-out, but that's just ridiculous. So Bonnit's film bills itself as a documentary on the golden age of the grindhouse, but in actuality it's a movie about two old coots gabbing and burnishing their accomplishments. It promises something it has no intention of delivering upon, which I guess puts it right in the tradition of the men it's profiling.

Grade: C+
Doctor of Doom (1963)

What is it about the combination of monsters and Mexican wrestlers that generally proves so appealing? While I think I liked this film a little better when director René Cardona remade it a few years later as Night of the Bloody Apes (the later film, for one, is a lot trashier), Doctor of Doom certainly uses its more innocent charms to its advantage. Aiming for cheese rather than sleaze, Cardona comes up with an appealingly cheapjack mishmash of beauties, beasties, brawling and brain surgery. Gloria Venus and her American partner Golden Rubi make for two strapping, confident heroines, with most of the comic relief provided by their incompetent policeman paramours. In particular, the shortish, enthusiastic cop who has a thing for Golden Rubi, unflappable and mock-tough as he is, is the MVP of this film and I wish he was in everything. On the side of evil, there's a masked mad scientist obsessed with the removal of young women's brain matter, a feral ape man who likes to hurt things and a number of anonymous thugs who are in the film mainly so Gloria and Golden Rubi can issue some pain. The goofy dubbing is merely the frosting on this absurdly delightful cupcake of crap.

Grade: B-
Dirty Ho (1979)

Enjoyable kung fu extravaganza involving an undercover prince, a bumbling thief and lots of intrigue and attempted assassinations. The plot is secondary to the fight choreography, so while it works from scene to scene, overall it's a bit incoherent; furthermore, the ending is abrupt and unsatisfactory. There is, however, a goodly amount of well-mounted asskicking to make up for any storytelling shortcomings, most of it handed out almost apologetically by Shaw Brothers mainstay Gordon Liu. The hook is that Liu's besieged prince, being in hiding, has to cover up the fact that he's an extraordinary martial artist; thus, all of his moves are carefully engineered to look like accidents or fortuitous flailings of the limbs. The high point comes early on, when he battles overeager would-be warrior Ho via proxy by manipulating a woman's limbs so that it appears she's doing the fighting, and much of the rest of the film follows in that puckish spirit. Whether it's the prince and an opponent covertly dueling while conducting a wine tasting, the prince and Ho battling dozens of arrow-firing ninjas or Ho beating up a group of faux crippled beggars, Dirty Ho keeps the breezy action coming quick. And really, what else can you ask of a good kung fu flick?

Grade: B

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Zodiac (2007)

Solid open-ended procedural, but at times like this I can't help but remember that "solid" and "stolid" are separated by only one letter. It's pretty terrific for the majority of its running time; once the focus shifts for good to Jake Gyllenhaal's intrepid, obsessed reporter, I think the film loses something. Much of this has to be hung on Gyllenhaal -- I generally like him, but here he lacks the necessary force of personality to make his all-consuming quest resonate like it should. His bashful recessiveness works when he's still part of the ensemble, but when he moves to the forefront, the recessiveness stays bashful instead of transforming into something uncomfortable and dangerous. Director David Fincher keeps his direction stylish without allowing it to overwhelm the material (there's no shots that call attention to themselves as much as the shot in Panic Room where Fincher zooms through a coffepot handle), and he gets some fine performances out of the majority of his cast, especially Mark Ruffalo; nevertheless, I don't see anything here that wasn't already done better by Memories of Murder.

Grade: B
Running with Scissors (2006)

I know this is supposedly based on a true story, but I have to wonder how much embellishment went into Augusten Burrough's (and subsequently, this film's) narrative. 'Cause I don't care how "true" it is, I don't believe a minute of it. Self-consciously wacky and "naughty," it suggests what would be left if Little Miss Sunshine preceded that kitschy cross-country trip with 90 minutes of smug ain't-this-family-weird hijinx. Even more aggravating is the final thirty minutes, in which the film does an about face; characters betray that which has been set out for them in the previous three-quarters and the cheap pathos flows like wine at a Dionysian orgy. This touchy-feely nonsense, only vaguely related to the quirky nonsense prior to it, is pure Hollywood cloth. It's awful all the way around, basically, with only a incandescently sleazy Evan Rachel Wood performance to keep it from total waste. Anyone who's ever longed to see a scene wherein Brian Cox tries to divine the future from his bowel movement, shot from the perspective of that bowel movement, is welcome to this crap. Everyone else should probably just read the book.

Grade: D+
Coup de Torchon (1981)

[Requested by Jeff Duncanson.]

The sun-stroked rhythms of provincial African life inform this colonialized spin on Jim Thompson's small-town-underbelly saga Pop. 1280. The pace of life is languid and lackadaisical -- it's a land of heat and veiled threats but little action, which is why police chief Lucien Cordier (played to perfection by Phillipe Noiret) initially seems like the proper non-authority. He's corrupt and lazy, doing as little as he can while enduring abuse from pimps, fellow officers, his harridan wife and her layabout so-called brother. All Cordier wants is to be left to his own devices, but his genial ineffectuality leaves him a doormat attracting bullies and thugs wherever he goes. Behind the gee-shucks smile, though, is a building rage coupled with a fiercely planning mind, and when he finally decides to bring about his own solitude, the cold-eyed cruelty Cordier unleashes is staggering and surprising. As he dispenses with his enemies and openly dallies with a young woman symbolically named Rose (a delightfully saucy Isabelle Huppert), the film bleeds a sort of sick fascination -- the everyday abuse of Cordier's tormentors pales in comparison to his terrifying, carefully applied turn towards evil. It's like watching a chess match wherein Black, after allowing his opponent to get confident and push him around for half the match, suddenly mates in two. (The blackmail gambit Cordier foists upon a cocksure fellow cop, in particular, is ingenious.)

Meanwhile, as Cordier rampages, the colonial system quietly crumbles around him. French West Africa, as seen through Tavernier's pitiless prism, is a land of scavengers, opportunists and assholes. The system is rotten from within, which Tavernier makes explicit via a termite infestation that's causing the local church's crosses to fall. (Bertrand's most poisonous metaphor, though, comes in the form of a dysentery epidemic that is often spoken about but not seen; the intimation, of course, is that everyone's full of shit but society keeps it out of sight.) The film isn't perfect (in particular, I think the damaged spiritual overtones are harmfully clumsy and vague -- is Cordier equating himself to Jesus, the Devil or what?), but the potency of its bilious take on colonialism sticks in the guts. Moral rot and systemic rot are one and the same in Coup de Torchon, with the former fueling the acceleration of the latter. There are no innocents (as Cordier says, "We all contribute to each other's crimes"), only varying degress of corrupt. By film's end, even the cosmos deserts Cordier in the form of an eclipse. The sun shines on his black soul and the black soul of French West Africa no longer.

Grade: B

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Good Morning... and Goodbye! (1967)

Typically seedy mid-period Russ Meyer body-swapper, with eleven losers (in the description of the opening narration) coupling and uncoupling at regular intervals, the flashpoint for all this being put-upon nebbish Burt (Meyer regular Stuart Lancaster) and his sexually ravenous wife Angel (Alaina Capri). The nudity is light in this one, but Jack Moran's script makes up for it by being fit to burst with nasty, quotable dialogue (i.e. Angel being referred to in the opening narration as "a lush cushion of evil perched on the throne of immorality"). The characters in this film use words as though they were spitting razorblades; Angel in particular provides an early example of the promiscuous, castigating bitch-goddess that would populate much of the Meyer that followed. Good Morning also includes the Meyer debut of Haji in the role of The Catalyst, a nature-bound nymph with magical powers that prefigures the naked sprinting Greek choruses played by Uschi Digard and Kitten Natividad. So it's not top Meyer, but it is an essential step in the development of the obsessive muse that would later lead to Up! and Vixen! Also, there's a scene where the Anvil Chorus is used to score the intertwining of rocks cascading at a quarry with two people getting their rocks off, which is one of the funniest things ever.

Grade: B