Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ocean's Thirteen (2007)

* PT: The whole Ocean crew. Wadpaw: To punish Willie Bank for his uncharitable nature.

* Not as loathsome and self-satisfied as Ocean's Twelve, but if anything this third installment feels like even more of a cash grab. As grateful as I am that we're not stuck with another version of George and Brad's Vacation Snaps by Steven S., I'd much prefer something other than this lazy, weightless confection. It's slick and frictionless, designed to entertain in the moment yet evaporate on contact.

* One's disbelief had to be suspended during Ocean's Eleven. It had to be held in place with pulleys and winches during Twelve. Here, suspending one's disbelief is pretty much impossible because the series isn't pretending to shoot for believability any longer. No problem is insurmountable, no solution is too ludicrous or expensive. With all the money thrown at The Destruction of Willie Banks by Our Men in Vegas, they could just as easily have purchased the entire state of Nevada and have Banks thrown out of town on a racketeering charge or a kiddie-porn rap or whatever.

* As the elaborate plotting grows tiresome due to the lack of stakes, so does the endless cast parade and nods to the previous entries grow tiresome because doing so just dices the film up that much further and leaves little room for much of the cast to do anything besides fill a role in a Rube Goldberg machine. Eddie Izzard gets a good semi-monologue at the film's beginning then vanishes for pretty much the entire rest of it; meanwhile, there's a killer irony in Shaobo Qin finally rating trailer-cast status for the series entry in which he's most superfluous (he literally does absolutely nothing for the first hour of Thirteen).

* The lone bright spot is Casey Affleck in Mexico. His misadventures in infiltrating a dice factory carry the genuine surprise and amusement that have gone missing from the rest of the film. Even his fake mustache is funny. Guess it's a shame then that it caps off with a punchline that gets uglier the more you think about it.

* The closing fireworks consciously evoke the stirring go-team triumph that ends Eleven. Doing so only reminded me of how the sharp elegance of that first film has been swallowed by shagginess and in-jokery. Bleah in my opinion.

* Can we start a petition to get Vincent Cassel out of Hollywood, seeing as how it obviously has no idea what to do with him?

Grade: C
Andrei Rublev (1969)

* PT: Andrei Rublev. Wadpaw: To serve God as best he can.

* The opening scene shows a man briefly flying in a large balloon only to have the contraption collapse, descend into a river and sink into a quagmire of mud and water. Pretty pointed metaphor for the Russian state, that one.

* An absolute feast for the eyes; Andrei Tarkovsky uses crisp black-and-white cinematography and an unerring eye for composition to make this epic tale of the title character's journey through Russian history as he paints icons and wrestles to maintain his faith in a world which would conspire to do him harm never less than a sensory joy. Rublev swings from the shadowy, sinister timbre of the scene with the pagans to the brutal extravagance of the Tartan siege to the simple, chattering patience of the penultimate scenes involving the bellmaker's son without breaking a sweat. Even in a simple scene like the one where Kirill stalks off from the monastery, comparing the monks to moneychangers, there's an enormous wall of logs used as a backdrop that simply astonishes. Yet even at its most visually active, it never feels excessive; an early scene between Kirill and Theophanes the Greek establishes the sacred as being, "simplicity without gaudiness," and if this is a usable barometer, then the lack of gaudiness in Rublev mark it as sacred.

* Quite effectively paced, with contemplative scenes balanced out nicely by sequences of great activity and boisterous energy. What's more, the reflective tone maintains an unusual level of patience without ever tipping over into ponderousness. Worth every one of its 205 minutes.

* The central siege scene, with its cow on fire and falling horse is a thunderous example of cinematic brilliance, but it's also shattering in a way that few battle scenes are because of Andrei's eventual involvement in it. Tarkovsky lays out Rublev's faith and devotion, his need to live by the tenets of Christ, then shows him in a situation where he's forced to kill and thus violate those tenets. Rublev does it in the act of saving an idiot girl (read: innocence), but Tarkovsky doesn't gloss over the spiritual toll this takes -- the next section finds Rublev having taken a vow of silence and given up iconography in despair for a world that very well might have no use for the God in which he believes. Among other things, it's a cutting rebuke to that action-movie staple scene where the milquetoast peacenik finds his hidden savagery in the refuge of self-defense.

* Said toll seems even harsher in the wake of the idiot girl's ultimate fate, which she chooses (as much as an "idiot" can choose) while Rublev looks on. At first glance, this seems like a cold and cynical thing, a repudiation of the notion of useful sacrifice, yet I think it's something other than that. What Tarkovsky seems to be striving towards is a comment on the nature of sacrifice and faith, that living in imitation of Christ means doing what you can even in recognition that Christ's own sacrifices were at the time/still are unappreciated.

* The last segment of the film features a bellmaker's son who says that only he has the secret knowledge of perfect bellmaking, as this information was passed to him by his father while the latter was on his deathbed. In a lengthy, extraordinary examination of process, he defies conventional wisdom and crafts the bell his way, fighting naysayers all the time. This whole sequence makes a nifty simile for the faith of the truly devout, which makes its resolution impossibly moving.

* At point, a character says, "You're always lying, Foma." Think Kurt Vonnegut saw this film a couple of times?

Grade: A-
Raw Force (1982)

* PT: John Taylor. Wadpaw: To kick a whole mess of ass and keep his party from suffering casualties.

* The title makes Raw Force sound like just another red-meat '80s action flick. But here's what you get in the first five minutes alone: A German guy with a Hitler 'stache and bad combover. A bunch of naked chicks in a bamboo cage. A group of evil Filipino monks in medieval garb who laugh a lot. Gratuitous bush shots. Zombie samurai. I'll repeat that last one: ZOMBIE FUCKING SAMURAI. Does the rest of the film live up to this insane moodsetter? Oh yeah you betcha.

* Calms down a bit after the opening to introduce its characters (who might as well be interchangeable) and provide us with a soupcon of exposition via wonderfully awful dialogue. (Best line, bar none: "Go ahead, Cookie -- you don't have to tell him you're a member of the L.A. SWAT team." Which, besides being hilariously awkward, means that there's a SWAT cop named Cookie.) Once those pleasantries are handled, Raw Force settles into a comfortable groove where there is either asskicking or tits on screen at all times. Occasionally the film will find a way to get both in a once, as in the scene where two guys duke it out in a ship's cabin while a chick who's on the run after killing her Mafia boyfriend is tied to a bed naked and ass up. (It's even better if you reflect on the fact that the chick was tied up by the bad guy after attempting to beat him over the head with an empty gas can.) If only every B-movie brought the goods like this one.

* Three of the main characters identify themselves at the start as members of the Burbank Karate Club. I'll bet that's a real thriving organization there.

* At one point, director Edward D. Murphy splices in footage from Joe Dante's Piranha. I wouldn't dream of revealing the gut-busting circumstances under which that footage appears -- it's really just something you should experience for yourself.

* Obviously filmed on the cheap using actors who didn't really know much kung fu (aside from Rey King, channeling his inner Bruce Le); somehow, this just makes it more endearing as it blows past its own limitations to provide all sorts of trashy entertainment. It may be crap, but it's fast, loose and incredibly silly crap, unashamed of its own crapitude and dedicated to bringing the drive-in delight. I kinda think I love this movie.

* I wonder how drunk Cameron Mitchell was during the production. A whole lotta buncha drunk, I'd bet.

* The whole movie in a nutshell: The first major fight scene is set in a strip bar, and in between fisticuffs, Murphy will periodically cut to a glassy-eyed stripper half-heartedly shaking her tits and seemingly unaware of the chaos around her. It's so blinkered yet so unabashedly open about its desire to titillate its audience's every possible desire all at the same time that I can't help but be impressed. I really think I love this movie.

* Film fades out on a "To Be Continued" title card; sadly, that continuation never arrived. Damn.

Grade: B
Olga's Dance Hall Girls (1969)

* PT: Whichever housewife bimbo is doing the narration. Wadpaw: To shake off her housewife boredom and make some extra cash.

* The triple-feature curse of Something Weird strikes again: On their special-edition triple-feature DVDs, the third film will almost always be worthless. (Other examples of this phenomenon include The Brick Dollhouse and Zero in and Scream.)

* Um, hey, what the fuck? Where's Aubrey Campbell? Where's Joseph P. Mawra? How is this in any way a proper Olga film? I call shenanigans, goddammit.

* This seems to have been made by people with only a vague understanding of the Olga series. Olga and her brother Nick are in the film, but they're played by different actors and have different personalities. There's a voiceover, but it's generic rather than the half-cracked purplish insanity of previous entries, and there's far too many synch-sound scenes. Naked girls show up, but instead of being whipped, whored out and force-fed drugs, they're dancing spastically. The people who made this know the notes but not the music.

* Not only has Nick's personality changed from malevolently fey to unctuous, but his name might have changed too -- though the narration refers to him as Nick, dialogue scenes have him called Vince. What the fuck.

* There's a last-minute jump into Satanism (foreshadowed by the opening voiceover's promise of "a journey through modern supersitions"), which should be at least goofily entertaining but instead smells like a desperate attempt to salvage a story that had nothing going on in it save for lots of bad dancing.

* One bright side: It's short. Real short. Thank Christ.

Grade: D-
Cheerleader Autopsy (2003)

* PT: Blake. Wadpaw: To learn the family business, I guess.

* That title's supposed to be a warning, right? So why did I feel compelled to watch it? Maybe for the same reason I watched Hookers in a Haunted House: Because I'm stupid.

* What the hell is the film even about? There isn't a plot to speak of; instead, things happen until they stop happening. The things in question are loosely organized around a bus crash that kills a group of cheerleaders, but that doesn't mean that you couldn't rearrange all the scenes before the crash and all the scenes after the crash without losing coherence.

* One gets the impression watching the lowbrow yuks on display here that the people who made this fancy themselves clever and daring and dangerous or something. We get jokes about necrophilia, castration, abortion, cannibalism, fetus-eating, testicle-eating and so on and so on as director Stu Dodge tries his hardest to convince us that he'll go to any length to shock and entertain. But there's no panache or tonal control -- it's mere juvenile sniggering at an atrocity exhibition, a gross-out gag that rolls on with no end in sight. John Waters, this dude ain't.

* The first fart joke comes two minutes after the credits, if that gives you any idea of the level of wit on display.

* Makeup FX are atrocious, which is often true of no-budget productions. The problem is that we're allowed to stare at the rubber and paper-mache at length, so that the film stops being a gross-out horror comedy and starts being a study on bad actors manhandling latex. At least when Lloyd Kaufman uses a cranberry-sauce-filled melon to simulate a crushed head, he knows enough to cut away after the gag is done instead of letting us linger on it.

* There's precious little nudity for a cheerleader film, and most of what we get is male nudity. (Cocks are a preoccupation.) What bloody audience was this made for, anyway?

* So yeah, it's abysmal, but it's not even abysmal in a fun way or a way that allows a viewer to mock it. It's sad and pathetic in about equal measure, with great heaping dollops of misogyny to add flavor. If this accurately represents the sensibilities of Dodge & company, I'm pretty glad I don't know them.

* I admit I laughed once at a faux magazine headline that linked fetus consumption to a cure for Alzheimer's. I thought the wording was amusing, though I don't remember it anymore. I'm not proud of that laugh.

* The bottom line is, asking an audience to pay any amount of money to see this is the height of hubris. If I had somehow created this hopeless piece of shit, I wouldn't expect (or even really want) anyone who didn't know me to bother watching it. The fact that someone thought this was worth releasing into the public is more disturbing than anything actually in the film.

Grade: F

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Definitely, Maybe (2008)

* PT: Will. Wadpaw: To sort his shit.

* When Scott Tobias says that Definitely, Maybe "excels most at not being awful," he strikes at the heart of what makes it such undemanding entertainment yet so forgettable and annoying. Faced with an unconventional structure, a possibility to do something different within the confines of a shopworn drama (the rom-com) and a solid cast, writer/director Adam Brooks decides instead to aim for the middle. His film isn't bad enough to hate nor good enough to like. Despite some promise, it's coasting the whole way.

* The narrative structure could be challenging, but it's not. Brooks tries to muddy the waters, but it becomes patently obvious after about twenty minutes which of the three ladies in Ryan Reynolds' life is going to end up bearing his kids and which one is going to be his true love that he's going to spar with while never quite connecting on the same wavelength until the end of the film, because delaying gratification is dramatic and shit, yo. Also, if you want to be nitpicky, one of the actresses was clearly cast on her resemblance to Abigail Breslin, so there's that as well. But now I'm being whiny.

* Ryan Reynolds continues to surprise me. While what he does here isn't quite on the level of his rock-solid, deeply unappreciated work in the midst of the maelstrom that was Smokin' Aces, it's impressive enough that he can convincingly portray a romantic lead, given that about five years ago I wouldn't have thought him capable of exhibiting any human emotions other than overwhelming smugness. I think I'm really starting to like this guy.

* Isla Fisher, once again, proves she is incapable of any wrong. The film bolts to life whenever she's around, and I found myself wishing quite often that Brooks had forgone the labored, unsuccessful mystery-mom device and just made a movie about these two people finding out that they, y'know, love each other. More conventional, true, but probably also more interesting. But then, maybe not.

* Abigail Breslin is gonna grow up to be kinda hot, isn't she? Jesus, that's just going to make Little Miss Sunshine all the more awkward.

Grade: C+
Ikiru (1952)

* PT: Watanabe. Wadpaw: To do something meaningful before he dies.

* Akira Kurosawa's depiction of the unexamined life brims with patience and visual poetry, but what's really fascinating is how he uses the latter to cut through the former and keep the film moving even when nothing is happening. There's a lengthy party scene that stands out in that regard -- Kurosawa keeps foregrounding objects between us and Watanabe (trumpets, beads and whatnot) until we cut suddenly to an extreme closeup of the man's morose face. The visual strategy reflects the whirlwind evening's attempts to blot out and obscure the pain of the situation, and the closeup reveals that it's all for naught.

* Takashi Shimura's performance as Watanabe the dying bureaucrat is economical and physical in all the right ways. In particular, he uses his eyes as big liquid pools of expression, with dejection and determination swimming around chasing each other. He also gets some choice lines of dialogue, my favorite coming after yet another setback in his attempts to have a park built on a landfill: "I can't afford to hate people. I haven't got that kind of time."

* The opening sequence depicting the runaround a group of ladies get through the various departments of the government is a wonderfully exasperated and succinct depiction of government in inaction.

* Wasn't quite prepared for the shift in perspective that occurs at the ninety-minute mark -- right at the moment where Watanabe figures out what to do with his remaining days, the film suddenly careens from linear storytelling to Rashomon-style flashback pastiche, and the story similarly shifts from one about a man trying to cope with the news that he's going to die to one about a man who fights to leave a mark on the world before he dies.

* The whole of the film can be summed up in its final two images: an office worker who tried to stand up to the bureaucracy swallowed by paper as he dejectedly takes a seat, followed by the glorious shot of a joyful Watanabe sitting on a swing in the rain. The penultimate shot gets to the heart of the cynicism Kurosawa feels about postwar Japan, but that's washed away by the serene triumph of the closing shot. The legacy has been left.

* Sole demerit: The voiceover narration struck me as overly explanatory and superfluous. "He is passing time instead of living his life." Yeah, I got that, thanks anyway.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

* PT: Steve Wiebe. Wadpaw: For his best to be good enough.

* More proof that no sport or pastime is too esoteric for a documentary, Seth Gordon's account of the war for a Donkey Kong world record transcends its who-cares subject matter through crack pacing and a showman's sense of entertainment. Structured like a underdog-sportsman narrative -- it draws as much inspiration from, say, Major League as much as it does Spellbound. I admit I'm a sucker for underdog-sportsman movies, so I found this all pretty thrilling.

* Entertainment value is pretty close to unbeatable; however, worth as a documentary is suspect. Gordon never pretends to be objective. It's clear from the outset that he's siding with Steve Wiebe, which is understandable considering underdogs make for better drama. However, Gordon takes every opportunity to further force our identification with Wiebe by emphasizing his gumption, his hard luck in life, the odds against him and so forth. Furthermore, while I think Billy Mitchell is a slickster and a bit of a tool, that's not enough for Gordon -- he pushes and pushes until Mitchell comes off like a video-game Mephistopheles and a coward besides.

* One wonders what was left out to craft the narrative throughline Gordon sculpts from his footage. In particular, there's the question of Mitchell's magic videotape; as it's being viewed, Gordon cuts in a clip of Twin Galaxies chief judge Robert Mruczek saying something to the effect of videotapes being declared useless if there's so much of a hint of a question of their veracity, and it's later revealed that his left his post shortly after the incident. Thus, it's implied pretty heavily that Mruczek may have had an issue with the tape, yet we see no objections raised. Maybe he didn't raise them at the time, I dunno. But part of me can't help but shake the feeling that Gordon needs us to believe that Twin Galaxies is united for Billy Mitchell and against Steve Wiebe.

* Interesting counterpoint: While the obvious structuring makes the documentary's veracity questionable, it does bring out something basic about our perception of success and what it takes to succeed in American life. Wiebe is your basic nice-guy screwup, forever an outsider banging at the doors, while Mitchell is the prototypical confident go-getter who seemingly conquers everything he attempts without breaking a sweat. It's then natural that someone as charismatic and successful as Mitchell would attract an entourage, and it's just as natural that said entourage would circle the wagons whenever a stranger would try to challenge their de facto leader. We in the audience want to see Wiebe win, but what does that say about us and our desire to see the golden boy torn down? We value humility, but humility isn't what gets one ahead in the business world. The inadvertent message seems to be: Be successful but not TOO successful. Something to chew on, at any rate.

* Brian Kuh: saddest little remora in the world.

Grade: B

Monday, March 03, 2008

In Bruges (2008)

* PT: Ray. Wadpaw: To exorcise his guilt.

* Hitmen on holiday: What could have been a Guy Ritchie rip is instead a melancholic riff on guilt and flexible morality ("Insulting my fucking kids? That's going overboard!"). There are laughs, especially in the first half of the film, but I didn't leave the theater grinning. The kind of film that will probably improve on multiple viewings once it's understood how the two halfs (the lighter, funnier first half and the dark, grim second half) flow into each other.

* Acting pretty spectacular, which is a given from Ralph Fiennes, clearly enjoying his splenetic role, and Brendan Gleeson. (Has anyone in the last twenty years gotten more mileage out of the gentle-giant archetype than Gleeson?) The real surprise here is Colin Farrell; freed from the constrains of Hollywood emoting, he loosens up, lets the words flow naturally and gives a small reminder of why he was considered such a big screaming deal in the first place.

* The humor on display is far ruder than the advertisements would have you believe. Writer/director Martin McDonagh is nothing if not an equal-opportunity offender -- at one point, Farrell tells a disparaging joke about Belgians. I spent the better part of two days retelling this joke to anyone who would listen.

* Film is also quite a bit more violent than the trailer lets on, which should be no surprise to anyone familiar with McDonaugh's theater work, but the trick is that he doesn't use his violence merely as window-dressing or punchline fodder; when Farrell blinds a guy with a blank, it gets a laugh, but the point is that he's doing it in self-defense and it comes back to haunt him later in the film. Just because Gleeson and Farrell are doing the odd-couple thing in a scenic Belgian town doesn't mean they don't take their jobs as death-dealers seriously. The bell-tower death: early entry on my shortlist for Scenes of the Year.

* Films builds to an epiphany on the part of Farrell then wisely cuts off right at the moment of that epiphany. Good job Martin McDonagh.

Grade: B