Tuesday, September 23, 2008

And my burgeoning empire of not-for-pay criticism rolls on...

Hey, didja know that the Encyclopedia Britannica has a blog? I didn't. But they do, and right now writer/film historian Raymond Benson is running a two-week series of posts about his favorite films of 1968. I have been tapped as an official film commentator. So, y'know, there's that. Take a look and follow along... should be fun, no?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Week of August 25th:

Any Gun Can Play (1967): From what I've seen, spaghetti Westerns seem to hit the same blind spot I have for Japanese yakuza films -- while the good ones are very good, the bad ones (which far outnumber the good ones) try my patience with dull, overthought plots involving lots of double and triple crosses by guys with guns who all vaguely look like each other. This one, about a wayward cache of gold and the various unsavory characters after it, settles into that aggravating template nicely. From what I've read, this is intended as a knowing parody of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, complete with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef lookalikes getting gunned down at the film's outset. All I can say is that if director Enzo G. Castellari demonstrated a tenth of the enthusiasm and invention of Leone's hyperbolic-to-the-point-of-mythic mise-en-scene, this might be worthwhile. Side note: I saw this in a bad video print under the title Go Kill and Come Back which featured quite possibly the worst pan & scan job I've ever seen. I'm not making that a factor in my opinion -- proper framing might make the film more visually pleasant, but it won't help the story, and the ridiculously drastic pans used to fix the framing carry their own unintended entertainment value -- but I thought it was worth mentioning. Grade: C-

A Chinese Torture Chamber Story 2: The first Chinese Torture Chamber Story was about the best possible movie one could make from the material: a sick-minded industrial strength black comedy that aimed for the gross-out and didn't take itself too seriously. This unrelated followup shows that the people who made it missed the point of the first; what we have is a sequel that keeps the grotesquerie but for some reason appears to have been made in all earnestness on a budget of seventeen bucks. Roughly half the film is over before we get any torture, and when it finally shows up in an ever-nastier series of setpieces, it's displayed dispassionately, like everyone on set knew they were making a cash-in sequel and thus decided not to invest any of the trash-fueled energy that made the first film memorable. (No exploding penises, in other words.) I probably think I hate this film more than I actually do -- my aggravation was increased by my recognition of it being the kind of thing I should like were it not so incompetent and lackadaisical. Still, fuck this film. Grade: D

Violence at Noon (1966): I don't feel qualified to talk much about this disorienting film after one viewing, especially a VHS viewing. It's obviously an incredible achievement, and it's even more obviously an elusive one that I haven't quite absorbed. A big-screen viewing would probably help, considering how much information there is to take in, but I'm going to miss its sole screening at the New York Film Festival's Oshima retrospective sidebar. So I'll just say for now that I liked it and hope to encounter it again in the future. Grade: B (a placeholder grade if there ever was one)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Week of August 18th:

Death Race 2000 (1975): Darkly funny rotgut satire masquerading as just another Corman-branded drive-in smash-em-up. The media-violence-as-pacifier isn't exactly new ground, but director Paul Bartel nails the balance between violence and commentary better than most, so that the film appears more trenchant than it probably is. What came as a genuine surprise to me was the post-script, which says in five minutes what it took Massacre at Central High half a film to say. Makes excellent use of Corman's notorious tight-fistedness -- the sparse, ramshackle art direction, everything pasted together as best as possible, truly gets across the premise of an America dancing on the edge of bankruptcy -- and though legend has it that Bartel intensely disliked directing car-chase films, you wouldn't know it from his sharp, economical eye. Plus it's entertaining as fuck. David Carradine, I'm starting to think, is not a person but a government experiment to isolate cool and give it human form. Grade: B+

Masculin Féminin (1966): "The children of Marx and Coca-Cola" is more than a cute pullquote, it's an unusually clear and handy summation of what Jean-Luc Godard is doing with this playfully knockabout concoction. As the famed phrase suggests, this captures a loose group of young people torn between increasing politicization/dissatisfaction with the Way Things Are and the constant desire for consumption of the capitalistic and ephemeral. The film Godard makes from this is at turns melancholic, hilarious, dull and droll, helped along by a typically winning performance by Jean-Pierre Leaud and the lightest touch Godard ever had and would never have again after his radicalism overwhelmed him. Full of sharp setpieces that may not be meant to add up to anything other than a cultural overview; most fascinating are occasional interludes where characters are peppered with a battery of question by an offscreen interviewer. Here, Godard all but stands up and shouts Do They Know What They Stand For? I Don't Think That They Do. Watching this, you can see how the '68 riots happened, and you can also see why that idealistic fervor collapsed so quickly. Grade: B

Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Mostly terrific Hawksian men-being-men drama about mail pilots in South America and the deadly lives they lead. The flight scenes are expertly rendered, crisp and tense (it was a great idea for Hawks to lead us off with a fatal crash, so that we understand that he just might kill any of these sympathetic characters at any time), but I do think the film loses something whenever it switches gears and goes for the push-pull romantic tension between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Arthur's character strikes me as too inconsistent, and the chemistry between the two never quite sparks. I kinda wish that Arthur and Rita Hayworth had switched roles, as Hayworth kills in her small handful of scenes. Still, this is at bottom adventure drama at its most solid. Grade: B+

Return of the Tiger (1979): I wonder where Bruce Li's reputation would be if a cynical producer hadn't rechristened him with that name after the death of Bruce Lee. Because, at least on the evidence of this film, Li doesn't deserve to be lumped in with Bruce Le or Bruce Liang. He has an athletic grace in his movements that is far removed from the clumsy thuggery of Li or the abruptly effective savagery of Sonny Chiba, but more importantly he also has a measure of charm that sets him apart from the other Bruce clones. My perception may also be clouded by the fact that, unlike most Lee cash-ins (i.e. The Dragon Lives Again), this is tantalizingly close to being a good movie. The fight scenes are sharp and well-choreographed, the villains are properly hissable and there's a sense that the filmmakers were, for once, in on the joke. (There's no other excuse for the scene where Li avoids taking on a huge henchman until he can oil himself up.) The problem is, then, is in the story -- it's both overly complex and completely unimportant, with a series of double-and-triple crosses that nobody seems terribly concerned about sorting out. Coulda been a minor classic, but I'll stay satisfied with a ferocious entertainment. Needed more Angela Mao, but the glorious heap of Paul L. Smith in Hulk-smash mode at the end compensates. Grade: B-

Rio Bravo (1959): It's iconic! One could criticize Howard Hawks's now-legendary Western for trading explicitly in well-worn Western tropes right down to its casting, but that would be missing the point. From the beginning, where we're introduced to most of the main characters without a word of dialogue, Hawks uses audience familiarity as an entry point to his project. We know these characters and situations. We know them inside and out, and Hawks does too. He's not interested in telling just another story here but a story within those stories. That's why the siege-narrative structure is necessary -- a whole heap of downtime is the aim, so that we can see what these guys do and how they react in relation to one another when they're not beholden to the average B-plot. Though it has some wonderfully choreographed gunplay (not just the opening and closing scenes but a marvelous bit where Dean Martin has to suss out a shooter in a bar) Rio Bravo is more or less the opposite of what we expect -- the Western as inaction movie. Terrific, at any rate, and helpful for me in that I now understand what the big screaming deal about John Wayne is. Grade: A-

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Week of August 11th:

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): With this and Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean forever ruined the epic for everyone else. Here he is, making this ginormous movie with tons of extras and elaborate sets and on-location shooting and he forgets to leave behind the obsessive eye for tiny detail and refined character work that defined the spate of quiet British dramas and literary adaptations he was doing prior to blowing his muse up large. What a complete bastard. I mean, how are people supposed to get away with lazy, slipshod "spectacle" like Around the World in 80 Days or The Greatest Story Ever Told when this guy is stuff that's both terrific eye candy and psychologically valid character drama? Stirring, dynamic war saga with a performance from Alec Guinness that's a miracle of reserve. Why, though, did nobody warn me that this film is also an incredible downer. Why. Grade: A-

The Hidden Fortress (1958): Rousing historical action spectacle by Akira Kurosawa, whose sense of assurance is kinda scary. The avaricious peasant leads grate at times, but they also provide a useful contrast to the nobility of Toshiro Mifune and Misa Uehara. Mifune is his reliable badass self, and his spear duel with Tadokoro is one for the ages. A movie for the 12-year-old in us all, and there's not a damn thing wrong with that. Grade: B+

It's a Wonderful Life (1946): I never expected this film to live up to its lofty reputation, but it's thoroughly great. People speak of "Capra-corn" this and "heartwarming" that and "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings;" what they don't warn you about is the nearly two hours of hardship and misery that have to be waded through to make that happy ending feel earned instead of cheap. Yet it's never a pessimistic wallow, either -- Frank Capra's touch is light but honest, and he grounds his can-do little-guy optimism against the realities of the economic times, somehow crafting a quintessential crowd-pleasing slice of Americana out of what's essentially a Socialist parable. Also: Hey, I can understand what attracted thorny auteurs like Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock to Jimmy Stewart. Underneath that aw-shucks folksy exterior, he's got a surprising reserve of piss and vinegar; the scene where, in a fit of misplaced rage, he tells off a well-meaning schoolteacher carries an unexpected brutality with it. Summation: In expertly showing both the ups and downs of small-town America circa the Depression on into WWII, Capra's film becomes the best kind of uplift: The kind where we can celebrate our commonality and (hopeful) essential decency while acknowledging that sometimes shit's gonna get rough. Grade: A

Mad Dog Time (1996): A little better than writer/director Larry Bishop's subsequent Hell Ride, if only because there's a larger complement of real actors desperately trying to render Bishop's terrible dialogue in a manner that could be termed deliverable. Still DOA, though, boiling down as it does to a lot of posturing and yakking with occasional gunfire. Maybe worth seeing once for Gabriel Byrne's mesmerisingly awful performance -- rarely does a talented actor go so completely wrong -- but then again maybe not. Grade: D

Mafioso (1962): Nearly gave up on this one halfway through, as it appeared to be mining the same broad, braying strain of Italian farce for which I've recently discovered a distaste, thanks to Big Deal on Madonna Street and Divorce Italian Style. I'm rather glad I didn't, though; director Alberto Lattuada eventually reveals his film as an inversion of these films. While the aforementioned use serious subject matter as fodder for comedy, Mafioso is a comedy that unexpectedly turns deadly serious when the culture-clash stuff falls away and genial hero Antonio (played well by Alberto Sordi) is forced to confront what his heritage truly entails. An acidic social satire with a Kafka edge. Grade: B

Mirrors (2008): What a piece of unreconstructed shit. Alexandre Aja spends much of the film's first half trying (poorly) to build some manner of creepy atmosphere, but shortly after Amy Smart has her jaw ripped off by an evil ghost, he gives up and just lets the increasingly-retarded plot play itself out to its moron end. (I know I've said it before, but I am so fucking sick of the J-horror discovery narrative.) A lot of bad laughs, a lot of dumb character moves and a waste of a premise fertile to bursting with potential for mind-bending, body-twisting balls-out horror. I no longer give a crap about whatever Aja's next project is. Kiefer Sutherland tries to grit his teeth and get through the film by pretending he's filming an episode of 24; maybe this is why he fell off the wagon. Grade: D

The Prodigal Boxer (1973): Stock-issue kung fu flick. Story feels far too distended to support even its slim running time (structure is essentially revenge-minded young upstart challenges bad guys, upstart gets whupped, upstart recuperates and trains more, repeat), though it does end strongly. More interesting to me than the film itself is its exhibition state; like so many others in its genre, it's been poorly dubbed, cut up and improperly framed. The downmarket treatment given these films, transforming potentially interesting work into fodder for drunken yahoos, is regrettable. Maybe this film works better when seen as intended -- there are still traces of themes that emphasize its plot as a progress towards maturity. Then again, maybe it would still seem repetitious. Grade: C+

Step Brothers (2008): More interesting to think about than to watch. There's a weirdly fascinating thread running through the heart of the latest issue of the Ferrell-McKay collaborative sweepstakes. In portraying the regressive mindsets shared by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, Step Brothers uses juvenilia as a blatant metaphor for the kind of unhinged adolescent creativity that is no doubt tapped into by all involved parties when crafting a film such as this. Thus, the effectively melancholic third act where the boys join the straight world -- where their fault through the majority of the film was an overindulgence of their ids, the denial of such is seen as an ever greater transgression. The problem is that Tom Green already made a film about this in Freddy Got Fingered, and Green's screaming anti-everything hostility is more bracing to me than the lumpy solipsism embraced here by Ferrell and company. Also, this film really needed to be funnier -- some of it works (Jenny Sekwa correctly cites Richard Jenkins' dinosaur monologue as a highlight, though the biggest laugh for me came during Ferrell's incongruous lumberjack burlesque), but a lot of it just kind of sits there, too impressed with its own vulgarity to make something out of it. Grade: C+

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Week of August 4th:

Mean Frank and Crazy Tony (1973): The 'and' in the title is more important than you'd expect, since this Italian crime flick is really two films grafted onto each other. The first film is a wacky caper comedy about small-time dreamer Tony, played with a notable lack of subtlety by Tony Lo Bianco, and his attempts to ingratiate himself with imprisoned hardass capo Frank, played by Lee Van Cleef. The second film is a gritty action drama about steel-spined Frank and his inexorable progress towards settling a score with French rival Jean Rochefort. Combining the two makes for a strangely schizo buddy movie, with the more serious aspects of the film proving significantly more compelling than the farcical elements; fortunately, the slapstick wanes the deeper we get into the plot, and the film ultimately emerges as a flawed but reasonably entertaining genre entry. Also, Edwige Fenech is here as Lo Bianco's long-suffering girlfriend; she's given almost nothing to do in the story, but she does hang around long enough to provide her contractually-obligated nude scene, so that's a plus. Grade: B-

Ninotchka (1939): Legendary director Ernst Lubitsch filmed this sparkling culture-clash romantic comedy while riding out a delay in the start of production on The Shop Around the Corner. That means that he tossed off one masterpiece while waiting to make another. Did this guy just will masterpieces into being or something? Would that all romantic comedies could feature chemistry as electric as that between Melvyn Douglas and Greta Garbo or comic relief as consistently amusing as the three stoogeniks who set the plot in motion when they become seduced by the allure of Western decadence. A fleet and nimble film, hugely enjoyable; the scene where the film earns its famed tagline ("Garbo Laughs!") trumps the entirety of most other films all on its own. Grade: A

Pineapple Express (2008): Slight, intermittently amusing stoner action flick is probably more valuable for its position in its creators' respective canons than it is as a standalone object. It's a melding of two kinds of humanism -- Judd Apatow's shaggy lovable-loser humanism and David Gordon Green's intentionally awkward poetic emo-humanism -- and the intersections and richochets between the two parallel yet different viewpoints is more interesting than the shrug of a plot. For Green watchers, this is valuable (more valuable than Undertow, anyway) as a demonstration that he can work within Hollywood constraints and genre frameworks without losing his very particular sense of the world. (The brief bit with Seth Rogen and James Franco blazed out of their skulls and playing leapfrog in the woods is as lovely and charming as anything in any studio offering this decade.) And for Apatow auteurists, this is twofold: It's proof that his way of thinking can come on strong and even exist symbiotically with another's distinctive outlook, meaning he doesn't necessarily have to hire the bland TV hacks with whom he's surrrounded himself, and it shows that his cockeyed idea of shlubby semi-realism, his can ground even the most ridiculous of premises. Now if only this thing were funnier, we might have something spectacular. Seth Rogen's screenplay, though, crosses the line at some point from being about slackers to merely being slack, leading to scenes that should work better than they do (i.e. the faux-gay escape attempt). Franco and Craig Robinson are the most consistently funny elements of the film; also, the car chase is some kind of loopy genius. Grade: B-

The Signal (2008): Low-budget triptych of linked tales centered around a mysterious frequency that drives people murderously nutty is passable in its begining and ending thirds, which tell the tale of an adulterous couple's dangerous attempt at a flight to safety from the vantage point of each of the involved parties, with the third segment holding together better than the first if only because Dan Bush seems a stronger director than David Bruckner and Justin Welborn's strong-jawed suitor makes for a more interesting protagonist than Anessa Ramsey's drippy adulteress. The second segment, though, is another beast. Directed by Jacob Gentry, it features Ramsey's cuckolded husband falling in with two neighbors trying to keep up appearances as they incongruousy prepare for a New Year's party, and it's marvelous -- a nervy high-wire black comedy that sees the imminent collapse of everything not as an excuse for angst but as a ghoulish chuckle of nihilism. It's a really rather bracing blast of quién-es-más-loco gallows humor, and it makes the film worth seeing all by itself while simultaneously pointing out how uninspired the other two segments are in comparison. This Gentry kid could really go places. Grade: B