Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Drama/Mex (2007)

It was around the time that director Gerardo Naranjo cut to an entirely random shot of two dogs fucking that I realized he was trying way too hard to get attention with this, his debut film. Which is a shame, because there's a lot of things that work here. Drama/Mex is yet another of those we-are-all-connected narratives that have metastasized since the late '90s, when Altman became an elder statesman and PT Anderson exploded out of nowhere. Naranjo, however, avoids the torturous machinations of Crash and Babel by having his dual strands run parallel instead of intertwining; occasionally, the two threads bounce off each other, but the cumulative effect is one of watching a genuine tapestry rather than a Rube Goldberg machine set up to arrive in one place and one place only. Of the two threads, one involves a runaway/teenage whore (Miriana Moro) making a tentative connection with a suicidal, dissolute office worker (Fernando Becerril). This particular plotline has some marvelous stuff in it, as what appears to be pointless button-pushing at first (the low point being when Moro, not knowing as we do that Becerril has an incestuous relationship with his daughter, asks if they should identify themselves to a waiter as father and daughter or lovers) eventually develops into something for more interesting: a subtle and observant portrait of two lost souls trying to find one another. This plot climaxes in a miracle of a scene, a long sequence at a dance club where I suddenly realized that I genuinely cared about what happened to these characters. The second plot, though, is the one that fouls everything up. It depicts a young woman (Diana Garcia) caught between her boyfriend (Juan Pablo Castaneda) and a lover from her past (Emilio Valdéz); it starts off with a rape scene uncomfortably reminiscent of the infamous scene with Susan George from Straw Dogs and despite some interesting bits never quite finds its footing. I did like how the expected violent confrontation between the two men gets played off and delayed in various ways, most notably in the bit where Castaneda shows up, drunken and raging, at Garcia's house not to challenge Valdéz but to have some traveling mariachis serenade her in a clumsy attempt to win her back, but I couldn't muster up enough sympathy for these hormonal fools for this thread to be anything but an anchor. Naranjo shows a lot of promise, and he conjures up some wonderful stretches of cinema. The final scene, in particular, hums with unassuming grace. Pity, then, that the banality of easy grotesquerie overwhelms the positive aspects of what Naranjo has achieved.

Grade: C
High and Low (1963)

The title of Akira Kurosawa's immersive kidnapping drama literally translates to Heaven and Hell, but for once I think the colloquial version actually works better. The malleability of the terms "high" and "low" lead into a number of possible allusions and interpretations. There's the literal meaning, in that Toshiro Mifune's beleaguered footwear executive lives on top of a hill and is preyed upon by a denizen of the valley below. There's the nod to class warfare. There's the foreshadowing of the drug material that shows up in the third act. There's the intimation of a humbling, with Mifune's confidence and best laid plans wrecked by a twist of random chance. And there's the staging of the narrative as a literal descent, starting as it does in Mifune's elevated castle and gradually sloping down to street level and then below, into the scummy underworld of murderers and junkies. The richness of the title, in other words, is a perfect reflection of the richness of the work and how many ways it satisfies (as a tense drama, as an early police procedural, as a sad reflection on evil and the cost of living in a dog-eat-dog economic world and simply as a ripping good yarn). It bogs down a bit at the halfway point when the police are stuck chasing phantom clues and hoping for miracles (which they get, in a stunning dollop of color), but the fascination of the film's elements and Kurosawa's impeccable mise-en-scene -- note how it's careful and distanced in the first half and gradually becomes more fevered, culminating in a trip to Junkie Alley that feels like it sprang from a German Expressionist horror film -- keep it clicking along nicely.

Grade: B+
General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974)

Or, an illustration of the dangers of blind hubris. This documentary about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had to meet with his approval before being released, so one wonders if the somber narration, clearly working at cross-purposes to much of the footage as it discusses persons disappeared and the illegitimacy of some of Amin's beliefs, was added after showing Amin a cut of which he would be more approving. After viewing the film, I don't think I'd be surprised either way -- narration aside, Amin does a pretty good job of hoisting himself by his own petard. It's clear he's micromanaged this project (even creating the music) in order to put up the best image possible of both himself and his country. As such, we're given glimpses of his private life (something it would be unheard of for any other dictator to reveal to the Western world at the time) as he engages in a swimming competition with some subordinates and spends time with his children; meanwhile, his country's unshakeable confidence and might is demonstrated through public dances, musical performances and many military displays. Yet there's always the unmistakable air of manipulation, which often manifests in unexpected ways. In particular, the scene where Amin lands in a small plane and is greeted by his garrison calls to mind the opening sequence of Triumph of the Will, another infamously stage-managed bit of film in support of an evil man. The multiple sequences with Amin speaking to the camera also betray him -- as he rambles on, he reveals his raging paranoia (manifested in his "prescient" dreams), his ruthless anger and his myriad prejudices. The last point creates the film's point in a nutshell -- Amin speaks of driving out the Asian population of Uganda so African business can prosper, but footage of the Ugandan capital shows anything but prosperity. It's indicative of the things, the horrors and injustices, that refuse to be hidden; the jovial, charismatic public face Amin puts up demonstrates why he won over the populace, but the darker demons underneath that can't be completely hidden demonstrate why he was eventually chased out of the country. Rare is the ability to see such a paradox walking and talking in front of you, and Barbet Schroeder captures it admirably. He came neither to bury nor praise, but simply to watch one man bury himself in trying to praise eveything he stands for.

Grade: B
Hellblock 13 (2000)

Low-budget horror omnibus in which a death-row prisoner (B-movie stalwart Debbie Rochon) regals her would-be executioner (erstwhile Leatherface Gunnar Hansen) with three tales of supernatural shenanigans. None of the tales are of any interest beyond some occasionally decent makeup effects (let's hear it for old-fashioned bladder effects), but I have to question the intent of the second story. The first story, about a woman haunted by the apparitions of her recently-vanished children, and the third story, about drug-running bikers participating in a strange ritual, are stock-issue plots treated as impersonably as possible -- they've been done before and will be done again, hopefully with more brio than has been exerted by director Paul Talbot. The middle story, though, about an abused trailer park denizen who attempts to free herself from her brutish husband through witchcraft, gives me pause. The last-minute reversal (clumsily telegraphed, but never mind that) might have seemed clever, but it comes off as ugly cruelty and sours the whole segment by revealing it all as pointless audience-baiting. In the teeth of that, I suppose it's comforting that the rest of Hellblock 13 settles for effortless mediocrity. Also: The framing segment is generally the most useless part of these multi-story films, but here it's notable for one thing -- it contains a remarkably uneven performance from Rochon. Normally, she's bang-on, and even in her worst films (i.e. the functionally retarded Nowhere Man) she can be counted on to be the ray of sunshine in the shitstorm, but here it seems her timing is off. Her broad psycho moments are properly overdone, but the quieter moments feel stilted. Compare this to her fierce work in American Nightmare, where she could shift from seductive to scary within the space of a breath, and you'll understand why the disappointment. I know she's capable of better than this. She's probably the only one involved in this film capable of better than what she gives, somaybe she was just trying not to make everyone look bad. But still.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Fountain (2006)

Darren Aronofsky's long-in-the-works romantic fantasy/sci-fi project confirms him as a unique talent and a visual stylist without compare; unfortunately, it also brings to light that the guy kind of needs a sense of humor. The heavy approach worked with Pi and Requiem for a Dream because it was necessary to set up thick atmospheres of dread and paranoia and inescapable ruin; the same approach applied here, though, merely makes the film feel oppressive. Furthermore, the unrelieved graveness opens up the film to some undeserved bad laughs related to its most outre images (a hairless man floating in space, a conquistador chugging creamy white sap from a tree). On that last bit: A good counterpoint would be The Holy Mountain, which has an even higher quantity of absurd and potentially guffaw-inducing imagery; the key difference is that Alejandro Jodorowsky recognizes -- and even has fun with -- the fact that his images and concepts can come off as very silly at best, cockeyed and half-baked at worst. Then there's the matter of casting: The crux of the film, the crucial romantic relationship that causes the determined Tommy (Hugh Jackman) to trip through time and space, doesn't convince because Rachel Weisz is fatally miscast. I generally like her, but she's stilted in the 16th century scenes and flighty and superficial in the 20th century scenes. Jackman is the film's soul, and he's very good. He damn near saves the film just from the force of his belief in the material, but he's playing up against a dead zone, and the film suffers because of it. At this point, one could make the auteurist assertation that Aronofsky's entire body of work is built around the expression and depiction of extreme states of compulsion and irrational behavior, yet it's more than mere show-and-tell. One gets the feeling from watching his films that Aronofsky truly understands what it is to be obsessed, to have an unquenchable hunger or drive (it takes more than mere gumption to make a film that looks as great as Pi on $60K), and that his films are merely a reflection of what he feels inside all the time. The Fountain is certainly as uncompromised as Darren could make it, and for that he deserves credit. But he may have obsessed over this one a bit too long, and the sterility of overthinking shines through.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Stardust (2007)

I guess it's appropriate that a movie about a falling star should seem so earthbound. The best fantasies give us fully realized worlds, and then they dance and skip through these worlds, drunk on their powers of invention, as though their feet were not touching the ground. Matthew Vaughn's Stardust, by comparison, trudges through its grubby shopworn world as though it were wearing lead-lined sneakers. The script, based on a novel by acclaimed fantasist Neil Gaiman (which, I would hope, lost a lot in translation), is sprinkled with whimsy and sly British wit, but it's missing the wonder and playfulness that are necessary to make a narrative of this ilk sail; lacking the requisite lightness of spirit (substituting low-grade snark and a boatload of CGI isn't cutting it), Vaughn's film buckles under the weight of its groaning, overstuffed plot. Casting the vapid Claire Danes didn't do the film any favors either -- though she's better than usual, she still hasn't the personality or talent to generate any chemistry with her enthusiastic-if-bland costar Charlie Cox. The only point in which the enterprise breaks free and soars is when Robert De Niro shows up, clearly having a blast, and shocks the film to life for about ten minutes with his hilarious and charming turn as a transvestite sky pirate. The rest of Stardust huffs and blusters to no avail trying to capture the spirit De Niro is able to capture without seeming to try.

Grade: D+

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Delightful bit of entertainment that also serves these days as a useful primer on how differences of tone and thought can change similar narratives into completely different animals. I now realize that Flightplan was a half-step away from being a full remake of this, but where that Jodie Foster-starring clunker was heavy-handed and smug, this takes its cues from Michael Redgrave's marvelously dry turn -- it's light and fizzy yet with enough suspense to give it heft. The suspense, true to its status as a first-rate Hitchcock film, is classically structured (i.e. the name on the window coming into camera view long before it's noticed by Margaret Lockwood) and terrifically effective. The plot structure, too, is pretty dynamic -- this is one of the great plant-and-payoff films, with small details revealed in passing becoming significant much later along in the narrative. Clever in both its construction and its sly playing-off the traditional British gentility (self-interest and the distaste for interference, for "making a scene," play a big part in the title occurance); also, there's a fantastic, physical fight scene that's all the more impressive for its gracelessness. It's kind of embarassing how easy Hitchcock makes all this look.

Grade: A-
Le Bonheur (1965)

Agnès Varda started out as a photographer, and if you didn't know that you'd have figured it out by the end of this fascinating film. Le Bonheur is, on the surface, possibly the most observational and non-judgemental infidelity narrative one could conceive -- happily married Francois (Jean-Claude Drouet) is driven to cheat on his wife primarily because he's so happy that he's got to spread his love around, and for a long blissful while it doesn't really affect his life or relationship with his wife. The characters speak to one another, couple and uncouple with little friction or emotional turmoil. What Varda keeps tamped down in her characters, though, gets expressed through her vibrant mise-en-scene, whether through placement of characters (such as the dance scene bisected by a foregrounded tree and expressed through several long back-and-forth pans across both sides of the tree, behind which characters drift together and apart) or careful use of color. The latter is especially noticeable -- from the wardrobe to the scenery right down the the colored fades used to break scenes, this is a film of color. The majority of it takes place across a single summer, and as such the pallete is bright and vivacious, serving thus as a reflection of Francois's joyful state of existence. The timeline necessarily shifts to fall after Varda's sole narrative event (this event signaling, as it were, the end of summer), and this isn't by accident: Despite the veneer of regained happy normality, there is something melancholic in the autumnal browns and yellows that dominate the last ten minutes of this; after so much lush green and blazing red, it's a reminder that something along the way was lost after all.

Grade: B

Friday, August 10, 2007

Second catch-up post of the year. I need to get on top of this stuff more frequently. Anyways, here's most of the films in the backlog pipe:

Alone with Her (2007): Stalker's-POV thriller is, for the most part, about as tedious as actually stalking someone. It's a hackneyed standard-issue woman-in-danger film with a voyeuristic first-person technique slathered atop it to make it seem fresh. Boredom, however, is preferable to the troubling sensation one gets upon viewing the last ten minutes. This is better overall than the ugly Chaos, but its essential worldview is the same. Yet, many people who thrashed David DeFalco's film have been far kinder to this. I think we need to ask ourselves: If this is how the film ends, what was it really about? Grade: C

Beauty and the Beast (1946): Visually sumptuous adaptation of the well-known story by stylist extraordinaire Jean Cocteau moves with the unhurried grace of a particularly poetic dream. Using Jean Marais to play both the gentle Beast and the brusque suitor Belle abandons when she takes up residence in the Beast's castle makes salient points about the duality of Man with far less fuss than something like Skin of Man, Heart of Beast, as does Cocteau's expressive use of mirror images; the latter also could be a nod to Lewis Carroll (a likely influence on Cocteau) as well as a conscious link back to the more overtly surreal through-the-looking-glass shenanigans of The Blood of a Poet. I think the film loses a bit off its game whenever it retreats back to the "real" world, but it's still pretty great. Grade: B+

Day Night Day Night (2007): Didn't realize it at first, but the crucial line of dialogue in this impressively minimal venture is when the lead character, an unnamed woman played with extraordinary physical subtlety by Luisa Williams, asks the men who are shepherding her towards her destiny as a suicide bomber, "Will you please eat with me? I don't want to be alone." Hers is a mission she will undertake on her own, yet the depths of her solitude (revealed at film's end) are unknown even to her. Writer/director Julia Loktev reflects this by making Williams not just the only major character but the only character at whose face we get a good, solid look. (Her instructors are hooded and/or masked, and the throngs of people in Times Square are treated merely as functions of a crowd.) Loktev's direction is potent and thoughtful at every turn; she shows, in agonizing detail, every step of Williams's journey towards her ultimate fate. (I especially appreciated the subtle foreshadowing involved in the opening half-hour's incidents of clumsiness on the part of Williams.) In the words of Gang of Four (via Joseph Conrad -- thanks Andy!), we live as we dream -- alone. Grade: B+

Old Joy (2006): A film of and about passive aggression. Bit of a heartbreaker, this one -- the interplay between Daniel London and Will Oldham feels natural and true, attuned wonderfully to the rhythms of friends who don't want to admit they've grown apart, yet Kelly Reichardt insists on making things real obvious for the slow people in the audience by bookending the film with snippets of talk radio that merely turn the unspoken into the spoken. The occasional bit of overexplanatory dialogue ("Mark, you really hold onto shit. Not that I should talk.") doesn't do the film any favors either. I'd probably appreciate this fragile, lovely little thing if I wasn't being reminded too often of how fragile and lovely it all is. Grade: B-

Paris Belongs to Us (1960): Jacques Rivette's first film may be a dry run for the expansive masterwork that is Out 1 (about which I should really finish writing my review some day), but that doesn't make it any less awesome -- it's still a seductive, intriguing work of art that imperceptibly moves from observational and slightly fizzy to sinister without so much as a stumble. A character describes Shakespeare's Pericles as "full of shreds and patches, yet it hangs together," yet Rivette's grand point seems to be nothing really hangs together in life, everything is in various states of chaos and the closer you get to something or someone, the less you really know about it or them. There's something mysterious within the small sampling of Rivette that I've seen -- a utilization of large canvases and deliberate pacing to get at something fundamental about human experience (the way the erosion of time clouds understanding, maybe?) -- that I really respond to. Grade: A-

The Simpsons Movie (2007): Seems pretty analogous to the double-digit-season episodes I've seen -- a fair amount of funny jokes, a larger amount of lame jokes, a strange obsession with the most dickheaded side of Homer and lots of convoluted plot. In short, it's 86 minutes of the same thing many disgruntled fans have spent the last ten years decrying at 22 minutes. Wherefore the acclaim? Grade: C+

Why Worry? (1923): I think I've finally figured out Harold Lloyd. His characters and situations often have the same sort of single-minded intent of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but where Chaplin seems to continuously skirt disaster and Keaton remains unflappable no matter what comes his way, Lloyd's approach is extreme tunnel vision. He focuses so intently on his goals that he becomes oblivious to everything else, and the humor often stems from this inability to understand what goes on outside his perseverance, whether he's inadvertently scaling a towering building in Safety Last! or drifting through a south-of-the-Equator revolution, as he does here. Funny stuff, if a bit retrograde in both its jokes and its politics; it remains, though, that I laughed a lot, especially during the knockabout finale in which Lloyd's hypochondriac rich boy finally discovers something that'll get his dander up. Also, John Aasen is awesome and that's all there is to it. Grade: B+

Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims (2006): It's a Japanese time-tripping gay samurai/biker road movie, and it's pretty fantastic -- a florid and hilarious camp phantasmagoria, earthy and rude yet with a dark edge and a real sense of poignant romanticism (the latter two aspects come from the volatile relationship between the title characters due to Kita's raging drug addiction). The entire film. in fact, could possibly be a metaphorical journey a la The Wizard of Oz (which gets stylistically checked in the opening minutes of Yaji); the number of times the dangerously zonked-out Kita says things like, "I can't make heads or tails of reality," or "That ain't my reality," certainly seems to support this. Consistently surprising, funny, sweet and generally just marvelous, plus it all ends on a raucous punk-rock number entitled "I Want to Be Your Fuck." A must-see for the adventurous. Grade: A-

Zardoz (1974): Wonderfully insane on the surface (flying stone heads! Sean Connery licking a guy! "The penis is evil"!), yet digging a little deeper reveals a surprising thematic lucidity. It's of a piece with director John Boorman's other, more acclaimed examinations of masculinity (particularly Deliverance) in which "man was born to hunt and kill" yet aspires still to transcend his violent origins (erections are linked to violence, yet the penis is evil, etc.). Moreover, it's a pretty classically structured path-to-enlightenment narrative; the difference is that this enlightenment involves our protagonist (Connery's red-jumpsuit-clad brute Zed) taking his first step towards true knowledge by killing his God. (No wonder Nietzsche gets invoked in the third act.) There's also a number of pointed swipes at the peace-n-love crowd, as the ageless utopian commune into which Connery stumbles is revealed as a ruthlessly exclusionary society devoted to crushing even the slightest notes of intellectual dissent. The reactionary crowd doesn't squirm away, though, since the ultimate lesson is that we as a species can only advance by surrendering our weapons (and ultimately our lives). The prevailing tone is one of a man who looked at his generation with a great sadness and concluded that all that can be done is eradicate it and hope the next generation does better by humanity. So there's a lot to chew on, but there's also a level on which this is just delirious, daffy entertainment (did I mention that Connery fucking licks a guy?). I think I love this film. Grade: B+

Zebraman (2004): Enjoyably silly superhero spoof from Takashi Miike, yet not without the twinges of melancholy and disillusionment found in much of his other work; if there's a throughline to many of his films, it's about the desire for peace and/or acceptance, as it is with this film about a hopeless shlub who assumes the mantle of the title superhero from an obscure '70s television show. (A radically downbeat reading could argue that this film truly ends after the scene at the river and that everything else in the film is hallucinated wish fulfillment.) Still lots of fun, with typical bits of Miike insanity ("Don't stand... behind me!") and a delightfully game performance from Sho Aikawa. Grade: B