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+


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