Thursday, June 22, 2006

Paul puts off posting. Devil throws snowball.

Well, I'm almost out of here. I'm scheduled to move back to Columbus on Monday, July 3, barring any unforseen complications. It'll be nice to live alone again, to say nothing of living within 10 minutes or so of an arthouse instead of an hour. So that's nice. Everything's set to be turned on the morning of the 3rd, so ideally there will be nothing keeping me from posting as soon as I'm all moved in. Although knowing me I'll put it off again.

I don't plan to work at another movie theatre after I move, which is probably for the best, since the nature of the job means I don't have much time for a social life. Having evenings and weekends for myself would certainly make this easier for me, or at least more convenient. And I won't miss the asswipe customers who treat me like crap when the technical shit hits the fan. Yeah, like I deliberately set out to sabotage the projector and ruin your day. Cut me some slack in my opinion.

Moving on...

THREE TIMES (2005, Hou Hsiao-hsien, seen in theatre)-

Dear Hou fanboys,

What exactly am I missing? I have yet to see a film of Hou's that really grabs me. Yes, the dude is obviously really talented, but something about his work has always left me a little cold. I hope it's not the distance Hou assumes from the action onscreen- lord knows I don't have a problem with distance per se (see my #4 movie ever). And that the images are impeccable goes without saying- dude can frame an image, and having Mark-li Ping-bin as your DP is never a bad choice. So what gives? Is Hou one of those either-you-get-it-or-you-don't dudes (like late Godard), or is he simply an acquired taste (like Hong)? And if it's the latter, how do I go about acquiring the taste for Hou? I don't want to feel like I'm out of the loop, guys. Help a fella out. Based on the nature of his work (lush-looking, narratively slow), I'm pretty sure that DVD wouldn't be the right place to catch up on him, but since I couldn't make it to every film in the Wexner Center retrospective five years ago, it seems that's my only option. So where should I start? A TIME TO LIVE AND A TIME TO DIE? THE PUPPET MASTER? Another viewing of FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI?


P.S.: It's kind of too bad he's only made the two films with Shu Qi, since I've already seen both of those and wouldn't mind sitting through more considering that she is so hot. Just sayin'.

P.P.S.: Rating: **1/2.

ZATHURA (2005, Jon Favreau, seen on DVD)- with ELF and now this, Favreau demonstrates that the suckiness of MADE was just first-time jitters and proves himself to be great at family-themed fantasy. Like ELF, this is lots of fun without being patronizing to the kids- Favreau doesn't engage in the tech tomfoolery that Rodriguez does in his kiddie pics, taking its cue from the structure of the game (one step at a time) and the trouble that results. There are a few moments of "brothers stick together" speechifying, but mostly the movie is content to be a ride and to let the relationship between the brothers play itself out through action. The role of the Astronaut might have worked better with, say, Nathan Fillion in the role- more square-jawed, yes, but also wittier. Best throwaway line: after her dad expresses his anxiety over her upcoming date, a girl (Kristen Stewart) blurts out, "we should never have rented THIRTEEN!" Not the kind of reference you expect in a movie like this, really. Rating: **1/2.

THE WAR WITHIN (2005, Joseph Castelo, seen on DVD)- I preferred this suicide-bomber story to last year's PARADISE NOW, but even so it's hardly a great movie. I can't help but feel like a lot of stories suffer from studios' insistence that movies run 90 minutes or more- while the final days of a Pakistani suicide bomber in the U.S. hold an inherent dramatic interest, the movie ends up spreading itself too thin, losing a lot of steam by the end of hour #1. The most compelling aspect of the movie ends up being the bomber's relationship with his Americanized friend, illuminating the gulf between the two men's experiences. However, a conversation between several Pakistani immigrants at a picnic feels to thematically on-the-nose, making explicit what was more interesting when it went unsaid. There is no doubt a great movie to be made on the subject of suicide bombing, but either it has yet to be made or I simply have yet to see it. Rating: **.

USHPIZIN [The Guests] (2004, Giddi Dar, seen on DVD)- fairly entertaining, and respectful of the traditions of Orthodox Judaism without rubbing them in the audiences' faces. I liked the sense of place the film displayed, courtesy of Dar as well as co-writer/star Shuli Rand. Feels slight but hardly innocuous, which in itself puts it a cut above most arthouse crowd-pleasers. Rating: **1/2.

UP! (1976, Russ Meyer, seen on DVD)- SPOILERS!!!! UP! is as batshit as I'd been led to believe, and even more awesome. But would one expect any less from Meyer? Consider that the film contains the following: (a) an elderly German named Adolf (with appropriate mustache) paying a young man to whip him, (b) an opening reel in which virtually every crosscut includes an update on what time it currently is, (c) murder by piranha, (d) a lumberjack who carries his axe wherever he goes, (e) a phone booth standing in the middle of an empty field, and (f) Kitten Natividad as a nude Greek chorus frolicking in the woods. Add to that the requisite Meyer assortment of buxom babes, notably Raven De La Croix as Margo Winchester, a mysterious man-eater who delivers her lines in a Mae West-ian purr and who is first introduced jogging in heels and a halter top. Benefits, I think, from brevity- whereas SUPERVIXENS, fun as it was, lagged a bit and began to repeat itself, UP! is leaner and meaner. Top-notch Meyer- neither as Hollywood as BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (a GREAT DVD by the way) or as propulsive as FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, but in its own way just as much fun. Rating: ***1/2.

Coming in the sorta-near future: my 2005 wrap-up article. Yes, I know. I don't think June is too soon to do one either.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Lotsa bang bang. Not so much kiss kiss.

L'ENFANT (2005, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, seen in theatre)- the Dardennes are not only so consistently awesome but also simply so consistent in their work that it's easy to undervalue how great they are. People like an auteurial stamp, sure, but the Dardennes' work is so of a piece (similar to, say, Ozu's) that the temptation is to scoff at them and say they're simply covering the same old ground. But for me the world they create is a lot like Faulkner's- in the brothers' case, a warts-and-all version of lower-class Belgium, but also one fraught with drama and the possibility of redemption. And so it is here, with the film taking on the Dardennes' most irredeemable protagonist to date, a twentysomething street punk named Bruno (played by Jeremie Renier). Much like Rosetta before him, Bruno is singleminded- in his case, his obsession is with money. "Work is for fuckers," he states, so he steals instead, and will sell damn near anything to make a buck (it's to the film's credit that it doesn't take the sordid route and have Bruno sell his body). When Bruno's girlfriend shows up with a newborn baby- presumably his- he takes the opportunity to sell the kid to a black-market adoption racket, saying "we can always have another one." What follows is Bruno's path toward redemption, and while we see that the film is headed in that direction, it nonetheless manages to surprise us along the way. Interestingly, Bruno is able to get the child back fairly quickly, which is a wise choice dramatically because the film isn't about the baby but rather about Bruno, and too much tot-related peril could have thrown it all out of whack. The film isn't quite at the level of the Dardennes' masterpiece THE SON, but it's still damn potent filmmaking, with numerous moments out of time lingering in my memory (particularly the scene where he sells the baby). Can't wait to see where the Dardennes will take me next. Rating: ***1/2.

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006, Robert Altman, seen in theatre)- Altman brings Garrison Keillor’s hip-to-be-square radio show to the big screen with his usual skill, although the end result isn’t without its flaws. Much has been made about the film’s focus on death, but I would have preferred the film made the theme of mortality less explicit. To manifest it in Virginia Madsen’s angel character feels too on-the-nose- better she had remained a spectral fringe player in the action, a la Jeff Goldblum in NASHVILLE or Alan Bates in GOSFORD PARK, letting her warm and gentle presence say everything that needed said. For me, the film is more of interest as a study in Americana, with family singing groups, advertising jingles, crooning cowboys, purple-prose-spouting gumshoes, and off-color jokes all represented here in the nostalgic context of an old-school radio show. Given both the narrative framework and Altman at the helm, the film is also a primo performance film, with Keillor’s bowtied folksiness, Streep and Tomlin’s sisterly double act, Harrelson and Reilly’s cowboy routine, and even Lindsay Lohan belting out her twist on "Frankie and Johnny" all making strong impressions. I just wish that the film as a whole felt less slight- as it is, it’s a genial crowd-pleaser, and little more. Rating: **1/2.

DOWN IN THE VALLEY (2005, David Jacobson, seen in theatre)- the first film in Saturday’s ten-gallon double feature didn’t quite work for me, although I had high hopes for it after the first half-hour or so. The problem is partly one of ambition- Jacobson clearly wants to contrast the Western mythos with modern-day Los Angeles, with Edward Norton’s Harlan clashing with messy modern life. However, Jacobson makes the mistake of explaining Harlan’s cowboy persona as a result of both mental illness AND a difficult past (think bad daddy), when there are undoubtedly cowboy types who have made L.A. their home without tragedy ensuing. A shame too, since the film begins so promisingly as a portrait of a few lives in southern California, and the cast (nice to see Norton actually putting forth some effort again) provides able support. Unfortunately, in order to direct the film toward a Western-style finish, Jacobson forces his characters to make numerous stupid decisions just to propel the plot, and when the big showdown happened, I didn’t care nearly as much as I should have. Rating: **.

THE PROPOSITION (2005, John Hillcoat, seen in theatre)- now this is more like it. While the film takes place in Australia, the differences between this and a Western are almost purely geographical. As with many great Westerns, this film deals with the struggle to "civilize" the land, with the civilizing influence personified most sharply by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) and his wife (Emily Watson). What they’re up against is a tough land occupied by hard men, including Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), who Stanley tasks to locate his notorious fugitive brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston). Hillcoat and screenwriter/score composer Nick Cave make this Australia a brutal and unforgiving place, and nearly every character has leathery skin covered in blood, dirt, and flies. The film is violent and even gruesome, but rarely gratuitous (exploding head scene aside), and the violence is appropriately upsetting, in particular a public beating that includes a shot of the whip-wielder wringing the blood out of his whip. The end result may not be pretty, but it’s nonetheless a vivid portrait of colonialism and its perils, with ample opportunities for the talented cast (which also includes an awesomely over-the-top John Hurt) to really tear up the screen. Rating: ***.

EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (2005, Liev Schreiber, seen on DVD)- what begins as most premium culture-clash comedy morphs into a meditation on the plight of Jews in the Ukraine. Elijah Wood plays Jonathan, a young man searching for his family’s roots in the Ukraine, but he’s less the film’s protagonist than the catalyst for the story. The real central journey of the film is taken by Alex, memorably played by Eugene Hutz, who through Jonathan discovers his family’s history, which he had never known about before. Schreiber, a quintessential actor, makes an assured directing debut here, resisting most temptations to goose the story stylistically while occasionally injecting bits of magical realism when necessary, most obviously the field of sunflowers. I missed EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED when it played in theatres, and I don’t think I missed much by waiting until DVD to see it- it’s hardly a world-beater, but it’s entertaining and finally poignant, and makes an ideal "sleeper" rental. Rating: **1/2.

THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG (2005, Im Sang-soo, seen on DVD)- I can’t help but feel like I missed something in this film, being largely unfamiliar with Korean history- the ad copy for the film labeled it a "dark comedy," but the darkly comic moments were no doubt predicated on familiarity with the story. As it was, the film was fairly interesting from a procedural standpoint, as the killing of Park Chun-hee is created in convincing detail, with some impressive stylistic touches (dig the DePalma-style overhead shot!). Rating: **1/2.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


GILLES’ WIFE (2004, Frederic Fonteyne, seen in theatre)- what struck me about this film from the get-go was how completely Fonteyne places us in the time and place in which the story is set-a provincial village in the 1930s- not only in terms of how it looks but also the actions and mindsets of his characters. This is key to how the film plays out, because given that the crux of the story is Elisa (Emmanuelle Devos) discovering that her husband is having an affair with her free-willed sister, it would certainly have played out much differently today. But during that time period, what was a good wife to do? According to the social mores, she had chosen her man, and was expected to stand by him regardless of his actions. Divorce was out of the question, and even if she could leave him she had no discernible source of income, having devoted all of her energies to being a devoted wife and mother. The only place she can go to even talk about her problem is church, where the priest advises her to wait it out (and cluelessly assigns her 10 rosaries). The film is unimaginable without Emmanuelle Devos. That she is one of the great actresses in world cinema aside, the film simply could not have worked with a more conventionally pretty leading lady. Devos is certainly beautiful, but in a sweet and off-kilter way- her high brow, upside-down mouth, and heavy-lidded eyes that never appear to look straight ahead give her a look that a man might grow accustomed to, not one that might lead men astray. It’s a face made for cinema, and what she does with it here is simply extraordinary. Even more so than his evocation of the period, Fonteyne’s greatest achievement here is utilizing Devos to her utmost potential, registering every small emotion and fluctuation that plays over her face (I even noticed a pair of beauty marks at the corner of her right eye resembling a tear, quite serendipitous in context). GILLES’ WIFE is a remarkable achievement, both a tragedy of a woman hemmed in by her time and a vehicle for one of the cinema’s great talents. Rating: ***1/2.

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006, Brett Ratner, seen in theatre)- now more than ever do I believe that the X-Men comics are better suited for a television series than a movie franchise- sure, the action is big-screen material, but the real draw of the comics seems to be the characters and the ways they work together. With so many important figures, it’s tough to delve too deeply into most of them, and so beloved mutants like Cyclops and Storm, among others, get lost in the shuffle. Nowhere in the series is this more apparent than in its third and allegedly final installment- with a heap of new mutants and nearly all the returning favorites from the previous films (I for one missed Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler), there just isn’t enough time to give everyone his or her due while building up to the big action setpiece at the end and resolving everything plot-wise. The result isn’t a disaster (like, say, THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS), but it doesn’t quite live up to what has come before either. None of the actors really make much of an impact either, although that has as much to do with the compressed running time of the movie as it does with anything else. The best thing I can say about Ratner’s direction is that he’s not really to blame for how the film turned out- it’s adequately directed (of course, Bryan Singer is hardly Hitchcock)- but in the end the film is too bland and reeking of studio commodification to be all that interesting. Rating: **.

THE DA VINCI CODE (2006, Ron Howard, seen in theatre)- I wasn’t really interested in seeing this, but I took my grandmother for her birthday (her choice). I stayed awake through the whole movie, but that could also be attributed to seeing a 12:30 PM show, so I was pretty well-rested. The film itself was too lukewarm to justify all the controversy that has arisen, although I suppose that’s what you get when you turn a story with hot-button elements into a blockbuster, directed by a workmanlike but hardly inspired filmmaker. What the film needed was someone more extreme- either a paranoiac like, say, Oliver Stone, who might have goosed up the conspiracy elements, or someone who might have taken a more spiritual tack with it. Anything to liven up the proceedings, really- Hanks gives his most vanilla performance since, well, ever, Tautou is as opaque as ever (at least Amelie had mischievous eyes), and the movie only springs to life when McKellen and/or Bettany are onscreen. Rating: *1/2.

And now, some short DVD reviews:

OLIVER TWIST (2005, Roman Polanski)- a serviceable Dickens adaptation but rarely more, although certainly of interest as a peek into the director’s own hardscrabble childhood. Wisely Polanski doesn’t attempt to make Oliver an active protagonist, which leaves the real heavy lifting to the supporting cast- particularly Ben Kingsley as Fagin, Jamie Forman as Sykes, and Leanne Rowe as the tart-with-a-heart Nancy. As in THE PIANIST, Allan Starski’s production design is impeccable, managing to work as a place where people live rather than simply a well-designed set. Rating: **1/2.

IN YOUR HANDS (2004, Annette K. Oleson)- (SPOILER WARNING) this Dogma 95 offering feels like a spiritual cousin to BREAKING THE WAVES, with both films focusing on protagonists who are forced to fend off tragedy through unorthodox expressions of faith. Pretty fascinating (and heavy) for most of the running time- I liked the film’s portrayal of the prison in general and the tentative, clandestine relationship between guard and convict in particular- but the final twenty minutes feels oddly truncated, as though Oleson and her co-writers left out some scenes between a key confrontation and a resulting tragedy. Dug the chilly finality of the ending, however. Rating: **1/2.

DOMINO (2005, Tony Scott)- surprisingly, this was even better the second time, with the endless plot twists taking on greater context when I knew where the movie was headed. Aside from the sheer kitchen-sink feel of the movie, the film was most successful for me as an exploration of the way Americans today define themselves through popular culture (Springer as a forum for working-class minorities, 2 Live Crew played at the Sex Addicts meeting, the concept of "Celebrity Hostages," etc.). Naturally, Scott’s hallucinatory style has elicited a lot of hate for the movie, but even if the direction doesn’t work for you there’s too much here to dismiss out of hand. One of the best, and certainly the most misunderstood, Hollywood release of 2005. Rating: ***1/2.

MATCH POINT (2005, Woody Allen)- this on the other hand suffered on second viewing, as the novelty of Allen working in a British setting has worn off. At its best, the film works as a sort of Ripley movie, with all the amorality that implies. However, this amorality requires Allen to stack the deck in favor of Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), and as a result the other characters are only seen in relation to him. The most obvious example is Scarlett Johansson’s Nola, who morphs from a femme fatale to a shrieking jilted lover almost overnight. By the time the film reaches its final half-hour she has become such an unpleasant character that the film almost seems to welcome her eventually fate. However, even more unfortunate is Allen’s treatment of Chris’ new wife Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who has the potential to be a classic Allen neurotic female but eventually becomes a one-note character, prattling on about wanting to get pregnant. The film is still of interest, but I can’t shake the feeling that the hype had a little something to do with the collective surprise that Allen had a film like this still in him after years of fogeyish Manhattan comedies. Rating: **1/2.