Saturday, October 25, 2008

Week of September 8th:

The Bounty Man (1972): Bland TV-movie Western starring Clint Walker as a bounty hunter who goes to bring in John Ericson, a dangerous thief and murderer, while another group of unscrupulous bandits stick on his tail, intending to take the bounty for themselves. Does nothing unexpected or especially interesting; has the structure and psychological underpinnings of a Boetticher/Scott Western but lacks the lean, tough vigor. The ending is an abrupt pop-psych botch. Margot Kidder looks lost as Ericson's tenacious lady. Grade: C

Brand Upon the Brain! (2007): Who does alternate-universe perversity as well as Guy Maddin? Nobody, that's who. Even when he's wandering through ideas he's worked with before, he still manages to find new perspectives on them. Incestuous/Oedipal conflicts run through much of Maddin's work, as does gender fluidity; this time around, though, he's bundled said familiar thematics inside a memory piece framing a combination coming-of-age tale/Hardy Boys-type mystery that abruptly shifts into horror dynamics two-thirds of the way through. The genre-hopping craziness of the piece's main body reflects the emerging hormonal roil of the younger Maddin, on the cusp of puberty as he is; meanwhile, the framing device offers a rueful perspective on said flashback craziness, offering us a calmer time where the echoes of a painful childhood still resonate (both metaphorically and literally -- the present-day line sees elder Maddin refurbishing the family lighthouse, long since fallen into disrepair). Through all this, Maddin's dazzling formal abilities wane not a bit. Chews through ideas and images so quickly that it feels on the long side even at a mere 90-odd minutes, but when said running time includes the indelible bit where the narrator (I chose Crispin Glover) howls "RUMANIA!" ever more frantically while a dead man is shocked, Frankenstein-style, back into a grotesque simulacrum of life, it seems churlish to complain. Grade: B+

La Promesse (1997): Breakthrough film for the Dardenne brothers serves as a solid introduction to their neorealism-by-way-of-Bresson ethos. Luc and Jean-Pierre direct with confidence and force yet never seem overbearing or intrusive, important given the hand-wringing potential evident in their socially-engaged scenario. The film deals with the slow moral evolution of Igor, a young man who begins to rebel against his slumlord father and the treatment of the immigrants in Dad's thrall, yet the film doesn't hector or deal in shades of black and white -- Amidou, an African immigrant whose death touches off the boy's epiphany in the form of a promise to look after his wife, has a gambling addiction, and his wife is often adamantly unwilling to accept Igor's benign help. In lesser hands, this material could easily become breast-beating polemics, but the Dardennes, who favor human activity over human speech, keep it grounded in a particular sense of everyday existence and an awareness of physical being. (There's a scene where Igor's father gives him a whupping that's as quick, violent and brutal as anything I've seen.) It becomes less about the politics of the particular situation and more about simply Doing What's Right, and it's wonderfully engrossing. Also, aside from the film's value in itself, La Promesse also introduced the cinema world to a soulful, ridiculously talented kid named Jérémie Renier. And the cinema world is much richer for it. Grade: B+

Postal (2008): Big surprise time: Cinematic bugbear Uwe Boll, as it turns out, can be funny. And I don't mean accidentally funny like Christian Slater shouting, "Don't be insane!" in Alone in the Dark or the sudden appearance of medieval ninjas in In the Name of the King -- I mean in an on-purpose, joke-telling, setup-punchline kind of way. Postal is a teeth-bared tasteless satire in the vein of South Park, and seeing Dr. Boll's tendencies towards the inexplicable harnessed for comedic ends carries its own fascinating charge, as it's the bursts of slapstick weird that keep this from sliding into anti-everything drudgery. I expect a number of the biggest laughs are taken from the source videogame, but that doesn't change the fact that tone is everything and there's a million ways to fuck up, for instance, the cat-silencer gag. That it got a hearty laugh out of this avowed cat-lover is to Boll's credit. But it wouldn't be a Boll film if he didn't ultimately find a way to fuck it up, and Postal goes to shit in a hurry roughly halfway through after it presumably runs out of inspiration and becomes a dull, noisy shoot-em-up. Is it a coincidence that this shift comes right after its funniest and most surreal joke (the ultimate fate of Verne Troyer, playing "Verne Troyer")? I doubt it. Better than anyone had any right to expect, really, but it comes so close to scraping the edge of quality that its ultimate failure irks all the more. Grade: C

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Week of September 1:

Boarding Gate (2008): Another study of alienation disguised as a genre flick from Olivier Assayas, this could be seen as a companion piece to his awesome demonlover. Where demonlover was a tale of corporate espionage that linked spiritual/moral corruption with the ever-widening need to consume as a way to feel something (even something extreme and taboo), Boarding Gate goes the other way and gives us a cast of characters who already do and feel too much, with our heroine's ultimate goal being to unplug from the web in which she's caught and disappear into a more "normal" life. When Michael Madsen breaks out a pair of handcuffs, only to have Asia Argento proclaim, "I don't like them. They hurt."... well, there you go. The film would probably be even better if someone other than Argento was in the lead; though she's clearly been cast for her iconic value and not her acting range, the second half still feels like a letdown, if only because Asia can't really do anything other than feral animalism. Still, Assayas's eye is as sharp as ever, and if the film coasts on a terrific sense of dislocation that's still more than most other films have to their credit. Me like. Grade: B

Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2008): Strong documentary about Acrassicauda, Iraq's only heavy metal band, gets about as much mileage as would be possible out of its focus. By concentrating on the four members of the band, particularly thoughtful bassist Firas al Lateef, directors Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi manage to hit close to home and create the sense of a universal experience with a directness that isn't possible for an overview doc like No End in Sight. The members of Acrassicauda are engaging, angry fellows who remain verbose and realistic about their situation as the country spirals into chaos; when the film picks up with them after they've fled to Syria and documents their first show in four years, you're tempted to cheer in triumph even as their social conditions (no money, no practice space, generally treated like third-class citizens) mean that the film can in no possible way end on an up note. It doesn't matter what you think of heavy metal -- you should seek this one out. Grade: B+

Meet the Spartans (2008): This is what I get for thinking Epic Movie might be a step in the right direction, isn't it? Latest issue from the bowels of the Friedberg/Seltzer "creative" team appears to have slapped together in a fortnight using only the most obvious and glancing nods to its source and pop culture in general, so that the effect is like watching some smarmy douchebag heartily bombing at an open-mike stand-up night. (Hey, did you notice that 300 was really homoerotic? How about Britney Spears, is she crazy or what?) In retrospect, I think what I responded to in Epic Movie wasn't so much an improvement in the humor as an improvement in the casting -- somehow, actual funny people (Fred Willard, Jayma Mays, Kal Penn) thought it might be a lark to fashion a silk purse out of Friedberg & Seltzer's sow's ear, and while they didn't totally succeed, they did make the film seem more bearable than it should have been. Here we're relegated to Kevin Sorbo and a bunch of hacks from "Mad TV." The casting of Sorbo is meant in and of itself to be a joke, which is the ever-present problem with these things; at no time do the dynamic duo behind this try to turn it into anything other than a vast orgy of, "Hey, I understand that reference!" It's the kind of film where they have Paris Hilton in the role of Ephialtes the hunchback, and the fact that she says, "I'm not as dumb as I look," is an automatic punchline. Here's the thing, though: Paris Hilton is indeed smarter and cannier than she likes to appear, which gives her one up on these two self-satisfied assholes making fun of her. Grade: F

Momma's Man (2008): Note the titular irony of this wryly effective portrait of depressive stasis. Matt Boren plays Mikey, a middle-aged married man back East for a quick business trip who visits his parents and then doesn't leave, and his performance is solid, hinting at gulfs of self-loathing agony without compromising the character's dissembling reticence; furthermore, Boren is entirely unafraid to jump headlong into the unsympathetic. Director Azazel Jacobs gets the maximum mileage out of his major set (his parents' loft), with the extraordinary clutter becoming ever more imposing the closer Mikey slides to total regressive stagnation. Mikey's parents are played by Azazel's real-life parents Ken and Flo Jacobs, with several pieces of avant-garde cinematic titan Ken's work making appearances during the course of Momma's Man. Most notably, there's a small chunk of Spaghetti Aza cut in during a crucial late-film moment, which serves as a fine linchpin to the film's (presumably personal) thematic dichotomy between safety and maturity. Also not to be discounted: The film's finely tuned sense of awkward humor. The scene where Mikey buys beer for some teenagers in a park is a marvel. Grade: B+

Shotgun Stories (2008): David Gordon Green served as executive producer on Jeff Nichols's debut feature, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest -- the rural poetry of Nichols's film owes a lot to Green's George Washington and, by extension, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep. Here's the thing, though: Neither the Green nor the Burnett really had a narrative, being instead a collection of incidences that added up to the feel of a place and a time. Nichols, by contrast, does have a story he wants to tell, and there's nothing wrong with that in itself; unfortunately, the story he has in mind is shopworn and obvious, a simple iteration on how quests for vengeance can leads to endless vicious circles of violence. The mundanity of his narrative doesn't seem to fit the found-art quality of his visuals; if anything, the yearning for artistry present in his setups and cutting make the tired familiarity of the plot seem that much more glaring. It's not really a bad first film -- Nichols demonstrates a fine eye behind the camera, and he has the advantage of a solid performance by Michael Shannon as an anchor. I just hope his next time out doesn't feel so second-hand. Grade: B-