Friday, June 20, 2008

Finnegan! Begin again!

So it seems we've come full circle here. After much deliberation (including thoughts of shutting down altogether), I've decided to go back to the digest format that worked so well for the first couple years of this site's existence. Short & sweet's what we're aiming for. Let's see how long this lasts.

The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971): Stunning opening sequence aside, this is pro forma giallo all the way. Even the stray moments of style seem forced or borne of necessity (example: the scene where Barbara Bach is killed is blocked inventively not because the director was inspired but because Bach apparently didn't want to do a nude scene). The method of murder is notably vicious: the killer paralyzes his victims with a poison-coated acupuncture needle to the neck, so that they will be conscious while he guts them. So there's that, but there's also a stretch of roughly forty-five very dull minutes in the middle (half the fucking film, in other words) where the filmmakers seem to forget that there's a murderer in the story. Giancarlo Giannini brings a world-weariness and a professionalism to his role that it doesn't really deserve, but I'm grateful all the same. Last note of interest: I saw this a day after seeing Divorce Italian Style, so it was a bit unexpected (pleasurably so) to catch that film's obscure object of desire Stefania Sandrelli here, all grown up and starring in a sex scene. Grade: C

Cruel Story of Youth (1960): Title can be read as both a cruel story about youthful persons and a story of the cruelty of youthful persons; either interpretation fits Nagisa Oshima's breakthrough film. Certain aspects reads very specifically to the post-war Japan in which it's set, yet the youthquake malaise it outlines is ultimately universal: parents and authority figures are ineffectual, teenagers are short-sighted vicious fuckers and everything's basically going to Hell. What saves it from being as jejune as all that is twofold: its acknowledgement of the exhilaration of youth as well as the angst and its use of the older sister & country doctor as a mirror of the teenaged protagonists. The former relieves the oppressive squalor, while the latter adds a touch of rueful melancholy in the form of defeated idealism/political activism. Oshima counters his ugly material with sharp, oft-lovely filmmaking, and his divided sympathies for his protagonists result in things like the most defiant apple-eating scene ever put on celluloid. Grade: B

The Fat Black Pussycat (1963): Holy christ is this film ever terrible. It started as a low-grade police thriller, but somewhere down the line somebody (the director? the distributor?) filmed a whole bunch of new material and cut it into the film, creating some sort of slasher/beatniksploitation hybrid. The thing is, the new footage appears to have been beamed in from some other planet. Thus, what could have been merely an acceptable time-waster was transformed into a painful, incompetent and damn near unendurable mishmash. One funny moment at a poetry reading and a hilariously brutal machine-gunning during the film's false climax provide slight entertainment, but mostly this is agony. Fucking A, do I ever hate beatnik movies. Grade: D

The Happening (2008): Not content with filming bedtime stories invented on the fly for his kids, M. Night Shyamalan has now filmed an idea that he had this one time. It's like he figured his work was done once he came up with the inciting incident. I can understand that it's gotta be tough for this guy trying to wriggle free of his reputation as Twistmaster Extraordinaire, but now he's gone from telling complex and obfuscatory stories to not telling one at all. I should be angry with this film and with Shyamalan -- this film is really awful, chock full of forced dramatics and bad acting yet minus any of the tension, dread or visual brio that the writer/director has previously been able to summon at will in even his worst works. Rarely have I witnessed such little return on my ten-dollar investment. But I can't get angry at it. I can't feel anything about The Happening, because directing some manner of emotion towards it would exert more effort on my part than went into making the damn thing. Grade: C

The Incredible Hulk (2008): Louis Leterrier was the right man for the job here. I say this because, in a way, he'd already made this movie. Maybe you saw it. It's called Unleashed, and it came out to little fanfare a couple of years ago. I didn't like it enough to recommend, but I thought there was something to it -- Leterrier's desire to mate morose melodrama with rock-em-sock-em pyrotechnics was an unusual approach, and under the right circumstances it could bear fruit. The Incredible Hulk bears that assessment out. Helped along by a typically unassuming Edward Norton performance, Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn have fashioned a film that walks a careful wire between emotion and motion, heart and muscle. It's a self-actualization tale masquerading as a comic-book feature, with Norton struggling to control/deny his inner demons (metaphorically represented by a physical symptom -- a racing pulse) before they destroy all he holds dear. It's that denial, though, that causes the bulk of Norton's problems, and only when he embraces his demons as an intrinsic part of himself can he emerge triumphant. (The last shot, with Norton finally making peace with himself and his solitude, is intensely satisfying in this regard.) What I'm trying to say, basically, is that this film is not dumb, merely direct. Also, the third act, starting with Tim Blake Nelson's entrance and climaxing in the slugfest between Norton's Hulk and the thing that, at one point in the film, is Tim Roth is glorious, goofy and entertaining as fuck. Liv Tyler, though, will hopefully be ditched for the sequel a la Katie Holmes. Grade: B

Standard Operating Procedure (2008): Leave it to Errol Morris to make an Iraq doc that moves beyond mere recap. While there's a fair share of this-is-how-it-went-down in relation to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Morris is more interested in why things happened as they did -- not just the decisions and actions but the mindset. He has his subjects review every single detail, every thought they had, every moment of rashness, every photo they took, until what emerges is a portrait of exactly how things generally considered beyond the pale become standard operating procedure under extraordinary circumstances. There's also some fascinating material about the meaning, intention and second life of photography, the most painful example of which is the gulf between Sabrina Harman's stated goal in taking her photos (to alert the world to the ugly stuff being done in the name of freedom) and her grinning visage as captured in these photos. (The summation is: A photo can capture a moment in time, but it can't explain it or give it context.) Shame about the Danny Elfman score, which is all wrong for this. Grade: B+

12 Angry Men (1957): Razor-sharp dialogue, keen performances carry the day in this classic, which pretty much set the gold standard for the courtroom thriller. Sidney Lumet overcomes the material's inherent staginess through stellar use of closeups and cross-cutting, creating an undeniable cinematic thrum for a script that takes place entirely within one room. To examine it is to realize that it's a bit contrived; to watch it is to not give a shit. There's not a weak link in the cast, but Henry Fonda is the clear MVP, showcasing a spine of steel and a forcefulness that generally gets belied by his folksy image. Grade: A-

Underworld U.S.A. (1961): Terrific opening half hour -- in painting the character of Tolly Devlin (Cliff Robertson, memorably brusque), the night that changes his life and his subsequent driving lust for vengeance, Samuel Fuller uses all his filmmaking skills as a blunt object. Hatchet-force editing compresses the timeline accordion-style, and Fuller expects you to be smart enough to keep track with the jumps in time; additionally, his camera setups, restless and tight, give the revenge narrative a propulsive energy. Then Fuller unaccountably herds this lean framework into a aimless, bloated overview of crime-syndicate politics and loses much of what was working. Still has a lot of striking moments, what with Fuller's tough-guy aesthetics -- particularly memorable is the staging of a suicide, cut so hard that it drifts into the realm of the avant-garde -- but this could have been so much more interesting. Dolores Dorn's performance is indefensibly bizarre even by the wide-eyed standards set by other films by this director. Grade: B-

5 Comments:

Blogger Scott W. Black said...

Now was that so hard. ;-)

7:34 AM  
Blogger Steve C. said...

Yes, it was. I am sweating from the effort. :-)

12:21 PM  
Blogger Jeff Duncanson said...

Good to have ya back amongst the living, Stevie... I'm real sorry that Underworld USA didn't do it for you. I would have thought that a nasty little brass-knuckler like that would be right up your alley.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Steve C. said...

The first and third acts are great. The middle bits, though, give me the impression that Fuller would have rather written a newspaper article and been done with it. I think it's interesting overall, but it's got flaws.

And thanks -- it's good to be back. :-)

11:43 AM  
Blogger Tom Sutpen said...

Welcome back!

4:43 PM  

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