Friday, July 25, 2008

Week of June 30th:

The Toy Box (1971): A whacked-out mindbender of a sexploitation flick. This bizarre beaut involves a bunch of hedonists at a house where they put on sex shows for the notorious Uncle as part of a give-and-take game. The shows provide the softcore skin expected of the genre, but they also provide much of the entertaining derangement that makes director Ronald Victor Garcia's loopy opus stand apart from its ostensible bretheren. Whether the scenario involves a pastoral interlude gone horribly wrong (via fright mask and pitchfork), a butcher getting up close and personal with his human charnal or Uschi Digard being molested by a sentient bedsheet, the imaginative sex in this is far removed from your average '70s pasty-assed grind-n-moan. There's also some surprisingly competent acting (at times marred by the worst dub job ever -- in particular, the opening twenty minutes smell like Doris Wishman), a sci-fi/horror twist that anticipates Peter Jackson's Bad Taste and some quotably abysmal bedroom chatter. ("I feel like there's a tree trunk between my legs!") Halfway between hallucinatory and hilarious, terrific and terrible, The Toy Box is ultimately the kind of film that makes such distinctions meaningless. Grade: B-

Wanted (2008): I grow ever more weary of video-game aesthetics being applied to action films. The nadir of this was the loathsome-on-purpose Crank; while this film, apparently based off some terrible graphic novel, doesn't quite plumb that film's depths, its marriage of hyperactive flash and fire to art-film solemnity isn't effective in the slightest. I don't necessarily mind a lack of aspiration towards anything other than making fratboys yell, "DUDE! AWESOME!" but the success of such a venture is contingent on its Cool Moments coming off as cool and not desperate. There are two Cool Moments I liked here: the literal over-the-top culmination of the drive-by assassination and Angelina Jolie, at the story's climax, demonstrating just how well she can curve a bullet. The latter, with its perfect cut and slow-motion body falling out of focus in the background, is as close as director Timur Bekmambetov gets to gutter poetry; the rest of the time, he's too busy trying to demonstrate how many times he's seen The Matrix to be bothered with making his images mean something. Jolie continues to have the worst taste in scripts this side of Jeanne Tripplehorn. Grade: D+

West Side Story (1961): I don't have much to say about this one other than holy crap is it ever great. The music is terrific and gets complemented by some unusual, muscular choreography that makes grace look difficult and brutality look easy. Leads are a bit soft, but the rest of the ensemble reels in the slack nicely. Ridiculously entertaining, what with the singing and the fighting and the hostility and the love and the dancing, always dancing. Good job of adapting the eternally flexible Romeo and Juliet, too. Grade: A-

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Week of June 23rd:

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958): At first, I thought this would be leading into another thorny moral allegory on the level of Decision at Sundown, maybe something about the nature of mob justice. Certainly, Randolph Scott's unflappable affability seemed to be hiding something more sinister. So I can say I was blindsided when the film started taking cues from that sneaky bemusement and twisted itself into a sharp comedy of venality, as Scott attempts to keep a young Mexican from getting his neck stretched while letting a greedy clan of brothers and cousins lay each other out. The darker aspects of human nature so favored by the Boetticher/Scott Westerns gets a thorough siring-out while the tone gets lightened considerably; what emerges is a delectable black amusement with Scott as the steel-eyed jester in the center of the hurricane. The rare Western that could conceivably be called droll. Grade: B+

The Goddess (1934): Chinese silent feature moves through prostitute-based melodramatics that must have been creaky even back in 1934, but does so with a sense of genuine heartbreak and an unexpected level of bluntness that keep the film watchable. Ruan Lingyu does well by the title role; director Wu Yonggang mostly keeps the film moving but every now and then throws in a nice directorial flourish. More valuable for its peek into social mores of the time than as entertainment, but not bad really. Grade: B-

The Hottie and the Nottie (2008): While watching this reviled romcom, I had something of a revelation: Paris Hilton isn't bereft of talent. I'm not going to say that she's ready for Merchant-Ivory or anything, but she can do light fizzy entertainments -- she exhibits a fine sense of self-possession and demonstrates that she can sell a decent line of dialogue. (I'll admit to chuckling at a sweetness-and-light warning she hollers at a stalker.) She wouldn't even appear atop a list entitled Worst Young Blond Blue-Eyed Actresses Who Starred in the Remake of House of Wax, and in an alternate world (i.e. one where she wasn't Paris Bloody Hilton), she could easily slide into a career as a third-tier ingenue a la Emmanuelle Chriqui. Her problem, then, isn't one of acting but of interacting; Ms. Hilton generally seems to be emoting in a vacuum, playing to her costars instead of with them. This isn't something that really works for The Hottie and the Nottie -- the film is of course not a monologue piece, and the air of unattainability she projects at all times rubs against her character's accessible-goddess characterization -- but I fail to see what differentiates her turn as "hottie" Cristabel from, say, the average Parker Posey performance. The problem, at root, is that her baggage as America's foremost spoiled rich twat keeps people from looking at her without daggers, and as it goes for her performance so it goes for the film that contains it: To see so much hatred and venom slung at a harmless, silly '80s throwback seems like wasted energy. It's not a good film, but neither is it really distinct from any number of recent teen-oriented films currently rotting in the depths of HBO's library, and it's certainly not The End of Cinema. The gross-out factor is needlessly higher than the average genre entry, owing to the times in which it's made, and the filmmaking craft is... well, I'll say sloppy. But it's still pretty generic, worthy of a shrug and not much else. Calm the fuck down world. Grade: C

Lancelot of the Lake (1974): Robert Bresson takes on the Arthurian myth and comes up with the anti-Camelot, a film without Romantic heromaking or gallantry. Bresson picks up at the end of the quest for the Holy Grail when everything in the legend is crumbling to nothing, metaphorically expressing the increasing pessimism about modern life exhibited in the rest of his latter-day work. He also signifies an atrophied spiritual presence by concentrating on the bodily realities of everyday existence; blood runs freely, armor clanks, swords clang and people spend their time politicking, but there's no evidence of a guiding hand. There's some hinting that Lancelot may be a Jesus figure, but his resurrection and return offers no spiritual salvation, merely a dirty muddy end. An exhausted film of physical brutality and cosmic silence; some dry stretches, tough to take, but overall worthwhile. Grade: B

Mon Oncle (1958): Good-natured and wistful, Jacques Tati's hilarious comedy captures a moment in time where everything is irrevocably changing. Monsieur Hulot, Tati's befuddled Everyman, and Hulot's peripatetic young nephew stand on one side of a generational divide, with his pipe and overcoat and insistence on taking the stairs; on the other side is his sister and her husband, forever fascinated with the newest and shiniest electronic things. (Never mind that they get trapped in their garage from time to time.) Appropriately enough, the big, broad comedic setpieces see Tati hearkening back towards another old-fashioned format (silent slapstick) to take the piss out of modernity, yet the rhythms are gentle instead of frenetic, owing a lot to Tati's incredible formal dexterity and his willingness to sit and watch a situation unfold rather than prod it into unfolding. One only has to watch the delirious controlled chaos of the punctured fountain gag or the dazzling use of set construction and light in the bit where Hulot makes a nighttime excursion to fix a bit of wounded plant life to feel the puckish joy that beams from the film; one imagines Tati directing this with a lopsided grin on his face. Yet there's still a melancholy at its heart, an elegy for things lost and forgotten in the rampage towards modernity. There's a lot of laughs, yet the essential sadness in the message comes through: We will spend the rest of our lives running into poles and calling it convenience. Grade: A-

Story of a Prostitute (1965): Relatively straightforward for a Seijun Suzuki joint, which is to say it's still three measures more delirious than the average war flick. Suzuki keeps his more outré impulses in check for this tale of a woman who escapes a bad romantic situation by volunteering to be a whore to a company of soldiers during WWII, but he still lets his cynicism run wild and keeps the pace at a rolling boil. Anti-war message comes through pretty vituperatively even as the battle scenes are exquisitely crafted; that the ending comes off as both tragic and ironically triumphant is pretty keen. Grade: B+

WALL·E (2008): First off: Holy shit, is this ever gorgeous-looking. Even at its ugliest (i.e. the opening act on a garbage-choked Earth), there's a visual poetry in this that simply sings. By the time we get to something like the mid-space ballet for robot and fire extinguisher, enrapturement is nigh well impossible to avoid. The beauty coexists with the ugly, which is proper given the way the plot eventually develops. Even though this is ostensibly a kid's film from Pixar, the best kidfilm company in the business, there's an element of caustic social satire that mushrooms when WALL·E arrives at the Axiom and finds a human population fattened and made inactive by dozens of robots designed to cater to every function and need one could have. Cute though the film is, there's still something distressing about a future where humanity is depicted as inessential to its own survival, and it's not coincidental that the rising action and climax of the film sees one man casting aside the easy way and finally learning a measure of self-reliance. In that vein, the ending, which at first glance seems inappropriately rosy, speaks to the capability and ingenuity of man when working in tandem with machines as opposed to letting the machines do all the work. (This is summed up in a lovely credit coda showing the evolution of the new world through the evolution of art from primitive days to modernity.) Final note: The 2001 influence is obvious, but I see a lot of Tati in here too. Grade: A-

Friday, July 04, 2008

Week of June 16th:

Gate of Flesh (1964): Garish post-WWII madness from crazed auteur Seijun Suzuki. The reigning idea is that of the society of whores standing in for late-'40s Japan as an ugly expression of the free market, with everything and everyone for sale; yet, however predatory, it still functions as a society with carefully coded rules until true anarchic lawlessness shows up in the form of Jo Shishido. Film gets the full force of Suzuki's visual imagination, yet unlike a lot of the '60s-era color films I've seen of his, it never loses sight of the story. The sweaty ambiance and seedy fluorescence on display here hearken forward to the golden age of Japanese artsploitation -- films like Sex and Fury and Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 clearly owe Suzuki a debt of gratitude. Pair with The Marriage of Maria Braun for a joyfully decadent evening. Grade: B+

The Machine Girl (2008): Manufactured by the Asian-extreme fanboy crowd for the Asian-extreme fanboy crowd, which isn't as surefire an idea as you might think. I would have thought that a film with geysers of blood, ninjas, chainsaws, a killer brassiere and a psychotic Japanese schoolgirl with a Gatling gun for an arm as its heroine could at the very least exude a sense of fun. Instead, this would-be cult readymade exhibits all the wit and charm of a steel-gray Toledo office building. I envision the filmmakers as grim-faced types, ruefully checking off items on a list entitled "Things That Tokyo Shock DVD Buyers Seem to Like" as they stand ankle-deep in rubber limbs and crimson Karo syrup. Takashi Miike or the much-maligned Lloyd Kaufman might have made something of this, since they tend to work in thematic resonance and emotion with their cult-approved frameworks; the people responsible for this, on the other hand, don't appear to have any artistic purpose beyond filling a mythical audience niche that even they don't believe in. Grade: C-

Mamma Roma (1962): Heavy metaphor abound in this early feature from Pier Paolo Pasolini, which finds him splitting the difference between the neorealism that got him noticed and the allegorical narratives that he would explore further to great effect later in his career. Anna Magnani IS Mother Rome, both as a character and as a stand-in for the city, trying desperately to care for her offspring and adapt to a mercantile society after years and years of getting fucked (by johns, by Fascists, it's all the same). Unfortunately, while Anna's volcanic performance is a striking asset, Pasolini isn't so lucky with the younger members of his cast, most of whom slouch and mumble to little use. Furthermore, the craft of the film itself is ragged; while such looseness feels appropriate for, say, The Canterbury Tales, here it just feels sloppy. Uneven, full of great moments (Magnani and son quasi-incestuously dancing to a jazz record; Magnani and son ripping around on a motorcycle) without ever really cohering, yet possessed with enough vitality and thought to mark it as a promising move from a man who would later make better films than this. Also: Christ symbolism! Grade: B-

The Orphanage (2007): Lovely, lyrical opening shot, which promises something along the lines of Lucille Hadzihalilovic's gorgeous poison pellet Innocence. Shame about the rest of the film then. J.A. Bayona is a talented man with a solid visual sense and a way with mood. But if there's a point to this film beyond his need to show everyone just how much J-horror he's been watching lately, I must have missed it. Guess being a friend of Guillermo Del Toro helps get your half-assed horror project some respect from people who wouldn't give Infection or A Tale of Two Sisters the time of day. Grade: C

Regular Lovers (2007): Clearly a response film to The Dreamers, not only in the dig at that film's director but in intent. The Bertolucci film is a film about idealism, and if Michael Pitt eventually departs from Eva Green and Louis Garrel at film's end, it still ends on a tide of revolutionary fervor. Phillipe Garrel's film reads more like idealism curdled; it starts with the '68 riots and follows past that to a sense of aimlessness, the confusion that comes once you've revolted. When you've positioned yourself in opposition, where do you go from there? In particular, Garrel the director (as opposed to Louis, Phillipe's son, who stars here as the flipside to his character in The Dreamers) draws a clear contrast between the one or two genuine revolutionaries in the loose artistic collective that provides the film's central focus and the pretenders who bitch, smoke hash and generally use the revolt as a pretext to do nothing. When one disillusioned fellow splits, he leaves a note calling out the others on their inability to affect change; "They're losing the revolution indoors" is the key line in this note, and it catches the spirit of the film quite well. Rich black-and-white cinematography, convincing performances, stellar sense of time and atmosphere; a long sit but worth the numb cheeks. Grade: B