Thursday, August 07, 2008

Week of July 14th:

Antibodies (2007): At this point, I'd say that the twin influences of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en have arguably been even more damaging to world cinema than that of Pulp Fiction. Truth be told, this German genre entry isn't as bad as most -- André Hennicke cuts a menacing figure as the perverted antagonist (give the guy a couple choice roles and he could turn into the next Ulrich Mühe), and young director Christian Alvart demonstrates a striking eye for composition, especially in regard to his city/country dichotomy (country mostly darker earth tones, city filled with swaths of red and sickly greens amid high-contrast light). Unlike many of his ilk, Alvart might have the chops to someday stop stealing from David Fincher and actually become the next David Fincher... but first, he's going to have to do something about that thick streak of thundering pretentiousness that would embarrass even the guy who tried to make an AIDS allegory out of the third Alien movie. It's one thing to try and turn your garden-variety serial-killer movie into a treatise on the nature of evil; it's quite another to make it all a grand, galumphing Biblical allegory featuring a killer named Gabriel Engel and a climactic half-hour that references the story of Abraham and Isaac three times just to ensure that everyone in the audience gets a good whack in the temple by the symbolism shillelagh. I'll be keeping tabs on this Alvart guy, but he needs to calm the fuck down a bit in my opinion. Grade: C

Cloverfield (2008): I'm glad to see I'm not the only one whose major reference point when viewing this first-person disaster flick was Miracle Mile rather than The Blair Witch Project. Beyond that, this movie is surprisingly good in my opinion. The first-person gimmick is well-utilized, revealing and withholding information (narrative and visual) as needed without feeling cheap; neither does it make a big deal out of it and drown itself in ouroborian self-referential douchery a la Diary of the Dead. The acting isn't Oscar-caliber, but it's as good as it needs to be to get across the character types. There's also a solid sense of place, which gets into what the film does best: By giving us believable group dynamics coupled with a sharply-detailed sense of panic and fear and parceling out information on a need-to-know basis, the filmmakers have (purposefully, I'd wager) crafted the potentially best metaphor-for-9/11 horror movie one could hope for. Grade: B+

The Dark Knight (2008): Why should I write anything about this when so much is already available on the great big World Wide Internets. Especially when one of those things is Kent Beeson's Watchman article, which is stellar to the point of being definitive. I should add that the emphasis is indeed on the human need for belief, much as it was with Christopher Nolan's previous film The Prestige, which opens the window towards a more spiritual-minded inquiry. Someone else more intelligent than I should unpack that thread some day, as I really need to see both this and The Prestige more than once before I attempt that. Short version: Awesome stuff, exciting and thought-provoking in equal measure. Losing David Goyer's phone number was the smartest thing Nolan ever did. Grade: A-

Earthquake 7.9 (1980): It's like Japan looked at Earthquake and said, "Like all American products, we can make that cheaper!" The problem is that films are not cars, and when you try to do Irwin Allen on a John Cassavetes budget, all you end up with is a shoddy, cruddy embarrassment. For those keeping tabs, there's about forty minutes of soap-opera plotting, then there's about ten to fifteen minutes of quake destruction, and then there's another forty minutes of melodrama and emoting and tears except now everyone's either wet or on fire. The quake effects are actually pretty cool and more savage than expected (a dude gets eaten by the earth!); everything else in the film stinks of sadness, shit and failure. Most dispiriting aspect: The screenplay was written by Kaneto Shindô, who in better times wrote Fighting Elegy and both wrote and directed Onibaba. How far the mighty have fallen, etc. Grade: D

Five (1951): Sometimes obscure films are obscure for a reason. Case in point: Arch Oboler's high-concept post-apocalypse allegory, in which the whole of humanity is reduced to five individuals living together in a mountain cabin and trying to restart humanity. The terrific opening five minutes promise a dynamic, chilling what-if narrative that never shows up; what we get instead is a flat, logy film that talks its ideas into concentric circles and makes its characters serve the lockstep narrative rather than letting a story arise from believable conflicts. Ending unexpectedly nasty, at least until it jumps at the first glimmer of false hope. (Not that I'm endorsing blind nihilism, but the sudden turnaround after the third act's hell descent rings hollow.) Oboler later gave the world a notoriously awful pair of stinkers in Bwana Devil and The Twonky, and somehow I'm not surprised. Grade: C

He Ran All the Way (1951): Sweaty, paranoid film noir, a potential precursor to The Desperate Hours, about a high-strung young man who commits a payroll robbery, watches it all go bad and holes up in the apartment of a young woman he meets at a public pool. John Garfield, in the lead, strikes a rather impressive balance between charming and frightening -- his mercurial squirminess captures the idea of a nice guy trying to act the big shot, his toughness a facade for loneliness and panic. Shelley Winters is also good. What with the film being crafted by several persons caught in the blacklist fervor, it's easy to read metaphorical intentions into the film's depiction of a man helplessly struggling against a situation until it seems all the world is united against him; even without that, though, it's solid stuff. Grade: B

The Horse's Mouth (1958): Alec Guinness is stellar in this British eccentric-artist flick, turning in a far better performance than the film really deserves. Not that there isn't the elements of a great film here -- oftentimes, it works quite memorably as a ruminative drama about creativity and self-destruction, a Portrait-of-the-Artist-as-Bastard work which nevertheless keeps a lighter touch that helps it from succumbing to the kind of wearying misanthropy that mars, say, Love Is the Devil. It's then a damn shame that director Ronald Neame confuses lightness and silliness, allowing the good parts of the film to be interrupted by a raft of far-too-broad comedy. Gets better as it goes, and thank God -- the first twenty minutes or so are enough to induce headaches. Grade: B-

The Lineup (1958): Tight, pulpy crime drama with an ace in its sleeve. Don Siegel starts the film as the kind of police procedural one would expect from a film based off a TV show that was created in the wake of "Dragnet," but the focus shifts for good once hired thugs Dancer and Julian get off a plane from Florida. The odd-couple contrast between the two (Dancer is a violent trigger man; Julian is a suave brains-type who likes to record people's dying words in a little notebook) seems straight from stock, but Eli Wallach and Robert Keith sell it uncommonly well. Wallach is the real MVP as the unhinged Dancer, and the film tends to follow his lead -- he starts as composed as his partner in crime, but as things get grittier his psychotic side becomes more prevalent, and as he gets more violent, so The Lineup gets tougher and more lurid. Siegel's talent for hard-hitting, punchy action is in full flower even at this early stage in his career, and like his adaptation of The Killers, he gets a lot of mileage out of the simple shock of carrying the violence a step further than expected. Were that all television adaptations this neat. Grade: B+

Rolling Thunder (1977): This movie would be terrific if it didn't want to be Death Wish. Like Bob Clark's Deathdream, this deals with the discussion about Vietnam-era post-traumatic stress disorder by framing it inside a genre film; unlike Clark's film, director John Flynn isn't much interested in using it beyond plot reasons. One wonders what the original screenplay by then-neophyte Paul Schrader looked like -- I imagine it would have borne closer resemblance to the excellent opening half hour, in which William Devane struggles to adapt to a home life he no longer fits into after returning from seven years in a POW camp. This section of the film is so compelling, with Devane turning in a lovely, quiet performance, that it's a major disappointment that the plot decides it would rather be about a merciless vigilante. What was a fine character study subsequently devolves into a mean, dumb and violent road-trip/revenge movie, with the added bonus of a completely useless shaggy-dog subplot involving policeman Lawrason Driscoll. To watch Devane and Tommy Lee Jones, fantastic as a fellow soldier for whom awkward, haunted silence has since become a way of life, is to pine for the movie that could have been. Grade: C+

Toys Are Not for Children (1972): In what dank, slimy fucking hole did Something Weird find this? And is tehre anything else in there? Stanley H. Brassloff's glorious grindhouse fable is several degrees more ambitiously crafted than the average sleazoid platter-burner. It's also several degrees more ill. The narrative is textbook Electra-complex stuff -- young Jamie Godard (Marcia Forbes, creepily convincing) gets stuck in arrested development after her parents split, eventually developing an unhealthy attachment to the dolls and stuffed animals her absentee father would send her as gifts. This bodes not well for Charlie (Harlan Cary Poe), the man she marries at film's outset, since our Jamie at this point knows nothing of the sex act; it bodes even worse for him (and everyone else) after she slides into a life of prostitution via Pearl (Evelyn Kingsley), a matriarchal friend and professional whore who might know where to find Jamie's daddy. The rest of the film should really be experienced as cold as possible; suffice to say, everyone's ugly, venal and out for their own gain, none more so than Jamie, who despite her naivete and lack of guile has a plan in mind the whole time. The depths this plumbs are really rather icky, yet there's a fascination about it all, not only from a how-low curiosity stance but from the fact that there's real technical and narrative accomplishment here. Especially surprising is Brasshoff's occasional use of achronology, skipping across time to show how events and mindsets connect to form Jamie's warped world (most effective instance: careful editing used to suggest both young Jamie and current Jamie watching a pivotal argument between Mom and Dad). We're given, in essence, a life refracted right before it shatters for good. Queasy, voyeuristic and wrong on every possible level, but unlike most skinflick fodder its trangressions pack a real gutter kick. Grade: B

The Tracey Fragments (2008): Bruce McDonald's quasi-experimental teenpocalypse is pretty fabulous from a technical standpoint, with the screen fragmentation providing both a sharp approximation of the average flighty teenage mindset and a better commentary on modern information overload than Southland Tales. I could watch this on mute all day if I had to. But the story... oh dear, the story. I'm not annoyed that this tale of a wayward girl named Tracey (the ubiquitous Ellen Page) indulges in cliches aplenty; no, the film truly falters when it strikes out for unexplored territory. With restless, compelling image splintering like we get here and imaginative detours like Tracey's tabloid reverie, I'd forgive this being just a film about the kind of volcanic teenage angst we get in films like thirteen. But when the narrative hinges on a young boy being hypnotized into believing he's a dog, or when the retarded rising action of the film climaxes with a conveniently-placed aluminum can lid, my generosity dries up pretty fucking quickly. Still worth watching in the literal sense anyway, and there's also Ms. Page, proving that her sardonicism remains appealing even stripped of wit and tilted towards toxic. Grade: B-


Blogger James said...

1. Right on about Goyer. I remember being excited when I read that he didn't actually work on the script itself, just the story. Yikes, that guy blows. How did he ever hook up with a talent like Nolan?

2. I've always wanted to see Rolling Thunder, but alas, yet another DVD not released.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Steve C. said...

Dude. Watch it now 'n' stuff.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Kza said...

"Stellar to the point of being definitive"? Wow. Damn. Thanks, man. That's really appreciated. I've never had anyone call something I've written "stellar", let alone "definitive".

In the interest of spreading good cheer, I thought Bryant Frazer's review was top notch:

4:12 PM  
Blogger James said...

Big thanks for the tip, Steve. I just posted a small review on my blog. Where you think it sorta fell apart I think it held up.

10:00 PM  

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