Saturday, April 29, 2006

Sometimes I don't know why I bother with this when I only have time to update once a week and by the time I update I have a huge backlog and this is a

test to see how long a title I can use. Guess I have my answer. Anyway...

- The Sci-Fi Marathon was awesome. I even almost managed to stay up the whole time (I nodded off for twenty minutes or so during BATMAN, which since I've seen it dozens of time was no big whoop). But aside from the asswipe behind me who thought was making with the less-than-witty snide remarks almost the entire 24 hours I had a blast. Can't expect perfection in a theatre full of nerds, I guess.

Moving on, the movies themselves. Highlights were, as expected, FORBIDDEN PLANET and THE CRAZIES, neither of which I'd seen previously. FORBIDDEN PLANET is pretty widely acknowledged as a classic of its kind, and the rep is justified. It lacks the cheesiness common to most sci-fi films of the period, in large part because genre trappings aside it's a psychological drama (that the monster is largely unseen helps). As a result, the subtext- that no matter how advanced man becomes, he's still a slave to his primal nature- is taken much more seriously than in most old-school Hollywood sci-fi movies, as well as being seen with much more complexity. And while the human performers are uniformly good without being show-offy, the real star is of course Robby the Robot, who also turned up at the marathon in the old TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Uncle Simon" and in a villainous role in the dopey, forgettable THE INVISIBLE BOY.

On the basis of George A. Romero's best work, I'd say that his pet theme is the ease with which the human race is thrown into chaos and turmoil, be it as a result of zombies or, in the case of THE CRAZIES, an outbreak of a disease in a small town. While the Army swiftly tries to impose order and various government departments bicker over ways to fight the disease, social order collapses and the townspeople are basically left to fend for themselves against not only the army who would round them up but also the disease itself, which they know little about. There are moments of human feeling in the film, but Romero is less interested in baiting the audience's emotions than examining the messiness emotions can cause when confronted by an unflinching terror. The film's final reel is at least as bleak as the climax of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with a deliberately hollow happy ending following a much more troubling one. THE CRAZIES definitely deserves to be ranked alongside Romero's best work.

Alas, I'd already seen quite a few films at the marathon, and of the ones that were new to me, not all of the films were good. One of the area premieres, the Russian mockumentary FIRST ON THE MOON, was pretty disastrous. An account of an abortive, apocryphal Soviet space mission back in the 30s, the film is ugly to look at and narratively incoherent. Not to mention un-funny- I wouldn't have pegged it for a comedy but for the presence of a little person on the flight crew, with resulting failed sight gags. I don't think this went over well with the crowd at all, and I gotta say I was with them.

Another unpopular choice was the inclusion of half a dozen entries from the 1943 serial THE BATMAN. The politically incorrect portrayal of the Japanese supervillain was good for a few chuckles, as well as the endless scenes of Batman and Robin getting the shit beat out of them, but the Batman here bears little to no resemblance to the modern incarnation, and I even found myself missing the campiness of the Adam West series.

And what Sci-Fi Marathon would be complete without a Japanese monster movie? This year's selection was GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, which was about half an awesome Godzilla movie. The problem is that director Ryuhei Kitamura, who previously dropped VERSUS on us, doesn't really care all that much about making the kickass Godzilla-movie-to-end-all-Godzilla-movies that this really ought to have been. In other words, he concentrates wayyyyyyyyyy too much on the damn PEOPLE. Come on dude, it's Godzilla. People don't come to see choppily edited kung fu or interplanetary warfare. They want guys in monster suits clumsily knocking each other around. And while the early scenes of this nature have a disappointing highlight-reel vibe (Big G is missing for the entire first half of the movie), once Godzilla joins the fray it's pretty fun. Glad to see Godzuki on the scene too, keeping his childlike sense of wonder even after (SPOILER) he grows to formidable size.

For ratings, see my screening log.

Other stuff of note:

- United 93 (2006, Paul Greengrass, seen in theatre)- this is pretty much a textbook definition of onscreen immediacy, as Greengrass places the audience squarely on 9/11, telling the story almost as though 9/12 has yet to arrive. Occasional lingering on grief aside the film is hardly exploitative, but this is nonetheless a horror film, and quite an effective one at that, and like most of the best it starts off fairly quietly, setting the scene and observing as the horror gradually unfolds. As the day transpires, we alternate between the military and civilian controls trying to make sense of the escalating chaos and the fateful flight itself. The scenes on the ground hold a certain fascination, as each of the control rooms operates professionally and to the best of their ability, but due to various factors- government red tape, procedures, lack of information, perhaps an offscreen reading of "My Pet Goat" in a Florida classroom- they find themselves powerless to stop the situation (so pervasive is the film's immediacy that it took me almost an hour to recognize DePalma stalwart Gregg Henry). But the film's final hour confines itself to the last minutes on United 93, as the passengers on the hijacked plane use the airphones to discover what has happened on the ground and eventually formulate a plan to take back the plane, less out of the need for survival than a fight-or-flight response to the knowledge that they'll die like the others regardless of their actions. To be honest I would need to see this again to properly rate it, mostly because I don't entirely trust my feelings when it comes to a film this visceral- it's hard to discount my immediate reaction, but it's this reaction that hampers my ability to distance myself from the film enough to judge it objectively. All the same, this is a work that demands to be seen, and more importantly, a very good film. Rating: ***.

- Friends With Money (2006, Nicole Holofcener, seen in theatres)- meh. Might have worked a little better with a lead actress other than Jennifer Aniston- yeah, her looks are distracting, but this is only really damaging because she's not a deep enough actress to convince us she's a single L.A. woman with a low-paying job and few prospects who would subject herself to multiple demeaning dates with a jerk who takes her money, as well as saying yes to a date with a schlubby slob without a job. Of course, I'm sure people like her exist in the world, but she didn't make me believe it. And the actresses around her do little except playing their usual types- McDormand and Keener have a veritable sass-and-smartass showdown throughout the movie, and Cusack gets so little screen time that she doesn't get much chance to be anything but quirky. It's entertaining enough in the moment, but as I said before I didn't buy what the film was selling. Rating: **.

- I compiled a top 10 Best Picture Winners list for Edward Copeland's poll tonight, with the intent of adding commentary sometime in the future. Okay guys, stop laughing. Anyhoo, the list.

1. Annie Hall
2. Lawrence of Arabia
3. Casablanca
4. West Side Story
5. On the Waterfront
6. The Apartment
7. The Godfather
8. It Happened One Night
9. Unforgiven
10. Rebecca

Comments to come, perhaps. The top 5 are in my top 100, so maybe I'll just do links with abbreviated remarks.

- I went to the doctor's office yesterday for some blood tests. I was pretty proud of myself, as for the first time I actually watch the blood being taken instead of closing my eyes like a wussy. But my tough-guy act was short lived, as I still had to deal with taking off the bandage last night before I showered. Sensitive skin plus copious arm hair plus adhesive bandage equals bad combination, folks. The mark from the needle had all but disappeared, but now I have two painful scars from the bandage. Maybe I'm wrong, but aren't bandages supposed to help wounds heal, not create new ones?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Been a while, I know. (some spoilers)

- I know I haven't posted it almost two weeks, but I have a good reason. Namely, my boss has been away at a conference so I have to work pretty much every day to hold down the fort until he comes back. If you read my screening log you may notice that I've watched exactly 5 (five) movies since April 9, the date of my last update. When I don't have time to watch movies, much less write about them, you know I'm busy.

- I'm sure you've all seen the Cannes competition slate, but here it is again (note: some translations are taken from articles I've read; others are mine and mine alone):

Pedro ALMODOVAR - Volver
Andrea ARNOLD - Red Road
Lucas BELVAUX - The Weakest Is Always Right
Rachid BOUCHAREB - Days of Glory
Nuri Bilge CEYLAN- Climates
Sofia COPPOLA - Marie-Antoinette
Pedro COSTA - Juventude Em Marcha
Guillermo DEL TORO - Pan’s Labyrinth
Bruno DUMONT - Flanders
Nicole GARCIA - Selon Charlie
Xavier GIANNOLI - When I Become a Singer
Aki KAURISMAKI - Lights in the Dusk
Richard KELLY - Southland Tales
Richard LINKLATER - Fast Food Nation
Ken LOACH - The Wind That Shakes the Barley
LOU Ye - Summer Palace
Nanni MORETTI - The Caiman
Paolo SORRENTINO - My Family’s Friend

Who will prez Wong Kar-Wai's jury award this year? Right now, sight unseen, I'm predicting Almodovar, whose romantic fatalism seems to be in Wong's wheelhouse. Although I wouldn't rule out someone like Coppola, whose approach to period material is unconventional and pop enough to get attention, provided the film doesn't blow, which I think it very well could (I'm not a LOST IN TRANSLATION fan either, so don't mind me).

With no Lynch or DePalma in competition, I'm rooting for Kaurismaki, who I don't think has much chance to win, as well as Dumont, who given Cannes' recent efforts to mainstream is a bit of surprise here, although this could mean that the movie is awesome. Also nice to see Linklater there, making a belated first appearance in the main event, although barring a strong second presence on the jury a la Tilda Swinton in '04 I don't see this year going too political (sorry Linklater, Loach and Moretti).

I'm hoping that SOUTHLAND TALES turns out awesome, although honestly it could go either way (I should have more faith in Kelly, given DONNIE DARKO and his work on the DOMINO screenplay). And it would be nice to see PAN'S LABYRINTH be a success, so that Del Toro can break out of the "pretty good" rut he's been in since MIMIC.

I wouldn't rule out any of the unknown (for me) quantities- Giannoli, Costa, Bouchareb, Arnold, Sorrentino- being a big contender. In short, there's really no world-beater here, which always makes for an interesting fest.

- Tomorrow I'm driving down to Columbus for the Sci-Fi Marathon. Should be a blast, as always. I actually haven't been down there since I moved last summer, so it'll be nice to be back, if only for a few days.

And now, some short short reviews:

Slither (2006, James Gunn, seen in theatre)- some kind of grossout classic, with Gunn clearly enjoying his chance to obliterate the envelope of good taste in the name of both ickyness and laughs (I almost typed "yucks and yuks" but decided against it lest I sound like a reject from Variety). Nathan Fillion, after this and SERENITY, has a knack for the playing an antihero who's quick with quips, but Michael Rooker (under layer after layer of creature makeup) and Gregg Henry (under nothing but street clothes and a heavy sheen of sleaze) rule every scene in which they appear. It's not respectable- heck, it's not even TREMORS- but fun while it lasts. Rating: **1/2.

The Edukators (2004, Hans Weingartner, seen on DVD)- a movie about so-called revolutionaries shouldn't go down this easy, should it? When one character bemoans the way the hippie culture was eventually co-opted by the commercial and fashion mainstreams, I couldn't help but think the same of our heroes here- a group of "pure" revolutionaries who are so un-alarming that they may as well be the inoffensive "edgy" hosts of a kids' talk show. Once they take a hostage- how lucky are they that they got THAT hostage, by the way?- the movie grinds to a standstill as they talk about the idea of revolution. Really, that's what this movie's philosophy of revolution is anyway- all talk. The film's final reel leans heavily on Jeff Buckley's recording of "Hallelujah"- how slow on the uptake does a film have to be to get scooped by the likes of SHREK? Rating: *1/2.

Vixen! (1968, Russ Meyer) and SuperVixens! (1975, Russ Meyer) (both seen on DVD)- I'm working my way through Meyer's catalog, and judging by these two films I'm gonna have lots of fun. Not much to say about Vixen!, a film that's almost review-proof. The sex in the film is pretty tame (hard to believe this once got an X), but Meyer's skill with the genre and his sick sense of humor ("we haven't done this since we were twelve" springs to mind) distinguishes this film from its imitators. Erica Gavin wasn't a great actress or anything, but as a found object she's perfect for the film, which succeeds largely due to her considerable charms. SuperVixens!, on the other hand, is pretty batshit, in the best of ways. More than any other director I can think of, Meyer wore his obsessions on his filmmaking sleeve, and SuperVixens! is chock full of Meyer goodness- over-the-top violence, lurid melodrama, back-roads Americana, and above all brassy, sex-crazed, hyper-endowed "voluptua". This is a film that must be taken in the right spirit to be enjoyed- most people of taste will check out during a graphic trampling-and-electrocution scene early on- but if you survive to the "third act" the film turns almost into Meyer's version of VERTIGO, as the film's hero meets the doppelganger of his lost love and is then forced to defend himself against, and save her from, a psychopathic cop who intends to kill them both. Charles Napier is pretty great as the cop, snarling vividly through his perma-sneer throughout the film until his final curtain call, when he momentarily breaks the fourth wall with a brilliant pantomimed aside into the camera. Also, tits, and lots of of 'em, if you like that sort of thing. Ratings- Vixen!: **1/2. SuperVixens: ***.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

When oh when will the Fundie movement jump the shark? Also, reviews.

Some reviews to come, but first a link...

Waaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!! They're being intolerant of my intolerance!!

See, I always thought that part of living in a civilized society was learning to accommodate people with different beliefs. I guess not. Do I think diversity and sensitivity courses should be 100% mandatory? Not really- you can't force your beliefs on people, even if you're right. But "I'll say whatever the hell I want and if you feel oppressed, tough shit" isn't a sensible policy either. OK, let me get this straight- you've known since you were little that everyone in the world isn't like you, you've had all this time to get used to it, and you still can't handle that not everyone believes as you do or acts as you would? Talk about your whiny babies. Maybe you could build a cute little Shyamalanesque Village and let the rest of us live in the 21st century.

Wait a sec, that sounded pretty intolerant. Sorry about that.

Having been raised in the Catholic faith, I have a good deal of respect for religion, despite not currently being a practicing member. As such, I can't help but feel like the Fundies are ruining it for everyone else. And that goes for all fundamentalist religions- just as not all Muslims are terrorists, not all Christians are rabid Bible-thumpers. Many find a place for God and his teachings in their lives without allowing their beliefs to impede on the peaceful lives of others. So when a certain subset of Christians feels the need to spread their bigotry in the guise of religious teaching, while it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, I refuse to extrapolate this relatively small group into the whole of Christian America.

What level-headed believers in a loving God need to do is to stand up to this vocal minority who pretends to speak for everyone. Call it the "Not In His Name" movement- a forceful reaction to those who would voice their hatred and closed-mindedness through the faith. I know there are plenty of faithful who don't feel the need to oppress others, but they don't seem to be heard above the shouts of the Fundies. Because as I've said before, when it comes to getting attention, it isn't about how much you're hurt, but how loudly you cry.

Wow, that was a lot longer than I'd originally planned. Wonder what I think of fundamentalists...

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005, Jason Reitman, seen in theatre)- while often very funny, the comedy here feels too easy in spots (Nick's visit to Hollywood, complete with a nattering Adam Brody and Rob Lowe's Asian fetish, seems most guilty of this) before setting into a kind of twisted-Capra groove which extols the virtues of thinking for oneself. Director Reitman, son of Ivan, works in his own daddy stuff through the storyline involving Nick and his kid, which goes down surprisingly well under the circumstances. I think it helps that the kid makes a good sounding board for Nick as well as an audience surrogate- we're with Nick when he is, but his objections by and large follow those of the audience. And of course the role of Nick fits star Aaron Eckhart like a glove- a smooth-talker with only the vaguest hint of smarm, which distracts from how intelligent and quick-thinking he really is. Everyone who sees this seems to have a favorite scene- mine's the one with Sam Elliott as the cancer-afflicted ex-Marlboro Man, in which Nick brilliantly levels with him and applies reverse psychology to convince him to accept a payoff from a tobacco company. Rating: **1/2.

THE BAXTER (2005, Michael Showalter, seen on DVD)- a film as unassuming and forgettable as the person described by the title (he's the safe alternative to the dashing romantic hero, not to be confused with a helper guy). Problem is, it can't quite navigate the thin line it attempts to walk- it wants to be clever and perceptive about the guy's predicament, to be funny, to be a stylish comment on the convention, and to get romantic at the end when the Baxter musters up the sand to take a chance on the girl he really loves (SPOILER!). And it wants to all all this without breaking a sweat. Sadly, as a filmmaker Showalter has neither the experience nor the chops to pull it off, although short of Lubitsch or maybe Cukor it's hard to imagine who might've been able to (Wes Anderson? Whit Stillman?). As for Showalter the actor, he's not quite deep enough to carry the film- he's convincing enough in the role, but he lacks the emotional specificity to play up the character's better points rather than just simply the ones that support the film's thesis. Showalter is a longtime sketch comedy star (The State, Stella, etc.), and this film bears this out, since it feels more like a series of scenes than a cohesive whole. Consider the seemingly endless array of single-scene performers- some of whom are funny (especially Peter Dinklage's flamboyantly gay wedding planner), but who feel like narrative detours. All the same, the film has a certain charm, and it's hard not to root for a movie about the underdog at least a little. And is it me or is Michelle Williams at least as good here as she was in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN? Maybe it's just my blind spot for long-suffering wives or reactive characters in general... Rating: **.

KEANE (2004, Lodge Kerrigan, seen on DVD)- I've seen this before, but since I didn't review it last time I felt I should at least say something. Watching the alternate "Soderbergh cut" (an extra on the DVD) as well as the director's cut only underline what made Kerrigan's version so effective- while Soderbergh had the idea to show the symptoms of Keane's psychological afflictions before moving on to his major tragedy, Kerrigan wisely puts the tragedy front and center. It's the disappearance of his daughter that drives him, and whether he was a drunk, a cokehead, or a schizophrenic before she disappeared, it's clear that one she was gone, he was left without a center, and that his search for her makes a poor substitute. Another element Soderbergh elides is the family drama of Lynn and Kyra- Kerrigan paints their relationship in brief but effective strokes, turning them into realistic people rather than the plot devices they might have been (in Soderbergh's cut, for example, after meeting Keane just once, Lynn entrusts him with their daughter- hardly realistic in my opinion). And of course Damian Lewis is so awesome in this movie- hard to believe this was the same overacting horrorshow in DREAMCATCHER. Although admittedly there wasn't much room there for GOOD acting... Rating: ***1/2.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sweeten, enhance, beautify!

THE INTRUDER (2004, Claire Denis, seen in theatre)- in a way, the film Denis has been building toward for years, in which her tendency elliptical narration becomes borderline incoherent, and the filmmaking is so rapturous that it hardly matters. THE INTRUDER is on the surface a globe-spanning odyssey of an elderly loner (Michel Subor), who journeys to Korea to receive a black-market heart transplant, then to the South Pacific to search for a long-lost son. However, it is also a study of a series of different sorts of intruders- e.g. the new heart "intrudes" on Subor’s body, he’s constantly tailed by an enigmatic figure (played by Katia Golubeva) who intrudes on his life, and he himself is out of place after taking up residence in Tahiti. Denis’ tendency toward narrative digression borders on maddening (what exactly is going on with Beatrice Dalle as "The Queen of the Northern Hemisphere"?), but this seems to be Denis’ desired reaction, resulting from her lack of a desire to distinguish the film’s "literal" aspects from the flights of fancy. As always, Denis is peerless at tapping into the physical possibilities of her actors- Subor’s weathered old-school masculinity (reminiscent of a Gallic, alternate-universe Hemingway), Golubeva’s enigmatic Slavic-ness, Dalle’s feral nature, Gregoire Colin’s poker-faced boyishness, and so on. And of course Agnes Godard’s cinematography is peerless- the seemingly a-propos-of-nothing christening of a ship becomes a kind of holy moment here, and Denis and Godard lavish the same attention on the South Pacific scenes as they did on Djibouti in BEAU TRAVAIL, turning it from a picture-postcard paradise into a real, tangible place. I doubt I’ll be able to tap into the film’s mysteries without at least a few more viewings, but even on the first viewing, THE INTRUDER’s power as a cinematic experience is undeniable. Rating: ***1/2.

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (2005, Rob Marshall, seen on DVD)- as it turns out, casting non-Japanese actresses in many of the key roles was the right choice for this movie, since it makes almost no effort to illuminate Japanese culture. The film is nothing if not visually handsome, but instead of making beauty integral to the style and tone of the film (a la Terrence Malick), MEMOIRS comes of as nothing so much as a fashion spread, showcasing exotic "Oriental" clothes and accessories, like a vintage magazine piece geared to the woman "with a taste for the exotic." As a result, the film's idea of what a geisha is feels muddled, and none of its contradictions are explored. For example, why insist throughout the story that geisha aren't sexual playthings and then show men bidding to take the virginity of young Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi)? Conundrums like this might support a more in-depth look at the geisha lifestyle, but are unremarked upon by the film. The decision to make the film in English proves disastrous for the actors as well, since of the principal performers only the ever-awesome Koji Yakusho seems to be fully aware of what his dialogue means. It also helps that he’s the only one who speaks in straightforward language, while those around him seem to be reading fortune cookies ("savor this moment; tonight the lights all burn for you"). Above all, the film is predicated on the idea that Zhang Ziyi’s Sayuri is the most desirable and sought-after beauty around, but frankly I didn’t buy it- not only does she lack the presence to carry the story, but has always struck me as being rather vanilla, particularly when she’s playing a scene with the incomparably more incandescent and talented Gong Li, who essays the role of the conniving Hatsumono. Given the production values, this would make a good DVD for electronics stores to demonstrate the color and picture quality of their new HD TV models, but as a movie it’s a snooze. To quote an old college instructor of mine, "Asians are people. Rugs and interior decorating is Oriental." As the characters in MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA feel less like people than furniture and mannequins, I have no problem calling the film Oriental. Rating: *.

FIND ME GUILTY (2006, Sidney Lumet, seen in theatre)- unlike fellow TV-director-turned-filmmaker John Frankenheimer, Lumet never came into a style of his own, and many of his films are so indifferently directed that the best one can say about him is that he stayed out of the way of the story. Thankfully, that’s the case here as well- I say "thankfully" because the story is good enough that it doesn’t need tricked up. Vin Diesel finally makes good on his hype from half a dozen years ago, turning in a loose and funny performance as Jackie DiNorscio, a mob functionary who defends himself in court. The trial portrayed in the film was the longest in U.S. history, and out of necessity the script glosses over most of it, largely boiling it down to Jackie’s big moments, making it feel like Jackie was primarily responsible for the outcome. However, there is still plenty of room for some rich supporting character work, especially from the great Peter Dinklage as another defense attorney. I especially liked how Dinklage (and the film) turn the unavoidable issue of his height into part of the character’s mystique- he’s not just the lawyer who has to stand on a podium to address the court, he’s the lawyer who has a guy working for him whose job it is to set up his podium. Not great filmmaking but pretty entertaining, as well as providing a fascinating examination of how a film can build audience sympathies with seemingly unsympathetic characters. Rating **1/2.

Well, I’m running a little short on time now, so I’ll breeze through the rest…

DUMA (2005, Carroll Ballard, seen in theatre)- Ballad is certainly in his element directing films about animals, and this story of a boy and his cheetah is no exception. There’s too much talking about the importance of finding a home (I would have preferred if the parallels between the boy’s coming of age and the cheetah adjusting to the wild had been keep subtextual), but the nature photography is as good as expected, and Eamonn Walker once again proves himself an estimable character actor. Rating: **1/2.

ELLIE PARKER (2005, Scott Coffey, seen in theatre)- Naomi Watts is the show here in the title role, an aspiring actress whose life is an endless string of auditions, parties, and above all driving around L.A. between auditions and parties. The film itself is deliberately slight, and the DIY style (how odd to see DV that doesn’t attempt to look like film these days) is right for it, taking the tarnish off the Hollywood lifestyle to follow a person for whom that dream has long since lost its lustre. Some of the film’s attempts at oddball humor fall flat (like the director as a man who sleeps with Ellie to test whether he’s gay), but there are also spot-on scenes as well (the horror-show audition with "the new producers," the meeting with an agent played by Chevy Chase), and an out-of-nowhere scene of beauty in which Ellie discovers a tree-lined street where the lilacs are abloom. Full disclosure department: I recently got rejected by every single film school I applied to, so it’s hard for me to be objective about this film since I empathized too much with the protagonist’s plight. I’m not sure that this is much of a movie, but I certainly felt Ellie’s pain. Ask me how I feel about this film in a few years. (Provisional) Rating: **1/2.

YOUR STUDIO AND YOU (1995, Trey Parker, , short film downloaded off the Internet)- hilarious. See for yourself (warning: LONG download). Stallone has never been better!